The pristine, white blanket lies undisturbed in front of her. The air bites her face with sharp, razor-like teeth as she tentatively feels her way forward. She makes her way slowly to the edge of the lake. Her deliberate and exaggerated footsteps are comical as she wades through the deep, powdery snow but she doesn’t laugh.
The lake is magnificent. Ice crystals glisten in the morning light. The sky is striated with delicate blues, pinks and lilacs that reflect in the transparent illusion that is the earth and water surrounding her.
She has never seen such beauty yet she feels untouched by it, unfeeling, numb.
This morning she awoke to Fay’s lifeless body lying next to her in the bed. The tiny paws were stretched towards her as if in supplication. Thinking of that moment once more she can’t breathe. Tears prick her eyes and her throat aches. Fay has been with her for over twenty years. Her life has been good. That changes nothing. The pain is all consuming. Another memory surfaces of pain and loss. She pushes it away as she has been doing for thirty-one years. Some years ago she tried talking about it. She saw a therapist. She thought if she could talk about it, make it real, then maybe the pain would ease. It didn’t work. It was too heart-breaking. Until that moment she didn’t realise that heartbreak was a genuine, physical entity. She could feel the sharp slicing pain as, like an iceberg, part of her heart broke off. It was too much. She called the therapist to say she wouldn’t be coming any more.
The past eleven months have been a journey. The first lockdown was quite nice really. She’s been working solidly for thirty-four years and never really made much money. Enough to afford this house though. That’s a comfort. At least she doesn’t have to find the money for rent each month so when the work started drying up she wasn’t too worried. She never goes to restaurants or bars. She doesn't hang out with friends or go on holiday. So really, apart from the lack of income, lockdown hasn’t changed her life much. She had friends once but she left that all behind when she moved. She has been thinking of her old life a lot recently.
For the first month she was too nervous to go to the shops but she had enough canned goods in the house so there was really no need. The first few times she ventured into town for provisions she was wary, but she wore her mask, washed her hands, did everything she was told. Now it’s become the new normal.
The first time around everyone was scared. For at least a month there wasn’t a single car on the road. She went for long walks, marvelling at the quiet stillness. She walked carelessly along the middle of the road, drinking it in.
It didn’t last. Gradually people became complacent. If they didn’t know anyone who had died they started to doubt the existence of the virus. Even if they believed in it they didn’t believe it would kill them.
“It only kills the really old and vulnerable,” they said.
As if that made it all right. Empathy became a forgotten attribute. Something from years gone by, like courtly love or the chivalry of the fabled knights of the round table. People talked about baking banana bread as if it were an accomplishment that would define them in this time of crisis. They frantically asked online where they could order take-aways. They became obsessed with ordering afternoon teas to be delivered to their home. They really couldn’t live without these things.
The first time around they sang from balconies, which initially seemed a soulful reminder of the human condition. It soon became a self-congratulatory, ego-driven, empty demonstration of false empathy.
They stood on doorsteps and clapped. It made them feel connected for a minute, part of something greater than just themselves but it meant nothing.
It wasn’t all like this. All over the world, in the shadows, there was genuine kindness and genuine empathy carried out in the anonymity of pure selflessness.
She is reminded of H.G Wells and his Time Machine. She watches the world from afar, on social media and news outlets and thinks,
"We are truly two tribes."
There is very little middle ground any more. It scares her.
Most of what she has seen has made her feel disenfranchised from the rest of society and depressed at the state of humanity.
When people began to venture out again they came to this secluded beauty spot where she has chosen to live. Through the summer they came in large, noisy groups. They barbecued, flew kites and played ball. They urinated, defecated and left trash behind. She was sure that people had never been this unpleasant in previous years. What spurred this anarchic, heedless behaviour? As the summer faded away so too did the visitors and it became quiet once more. A second lockdown was ordered but people were paying no heed. The numbers rose, the deaths piled up. A new, stricter lockdown was ordered. There was never another like the first one as people were now accepting the new normal and finding ways of circumventing the rules.
Her life, such as it was, went on. She felt loneliness, homesickness for the home she had left and confusion, alternated with moments of hope and elation. She traversed deserts where she felt inert. Passively unreactive, she watched the seconds, minutes and hours tick by. Reaching an oasis, she felt a sudden surge of creativity. She painted for weeks at a time, forgetting to eat and drink. The canvases revealed themselves to her in a blaze of vibrant colours. Then, spent, she looked at them dispassionately in the cold light of day. For whom was she painting? Half of the canvases she destroyed. Some spoke to her and she kept them piled up against the walls. She rode this roller-coaster and grew tired.
Sometimes she spent the night awake, unable to create, unable to sleep. Her mind went back to that day, that time in her life. She pushed it away. She would not allow it in. It fought at the edges of her mind, shoving and kicking. Each time she pushed it away again. The tiny shards that penetrated her conscious mind cut like a razor. It felt raw, like exposed flesh and she was terrified to touch it.
She hasn’t spoken for months. She completes her transactions in town with monosyllables. She’s been speaking less and less to Fay and now she’ll never speak to her again. Fay's hearing had been failing for years so possibly she didn't notice the lack of conversation. They were companionable in their silence.
Time marches on inexorably.
She cries sometimes for hours and can’t stop. Then she will have a moment of calm.
Standing by the lake in the frozen dawn she puts one foot forward as she nervously walks out onto the ice. It looks brittle. The ice is bewitching. Crystals of remarkable beauty make up this stark, fragile surface. She is hypnotised by them as she walks out slowly into the centre of the lake. She sits quietly and remembers childhood tales of snow and ice. The Snow Queen, Jack Frost, Narnia, The Snow Goose. There is always a threatening undercurrent running through these tales. She sits for a long time. She was sure the ice would have given her up by now. Her back is aching and her hips are stiff as she tries to stand up. She pushes herself up and feels the frozen lake creak underfoot. She walks further across the ice towards the opposite shore. She is still waiting for the frozen sheet to split beneath her weight and send her plunging into the gelid depths.
It doesn’t happen and she begins to believe that it is not meant to be. She is happy for the universe to make this call.