Wendy flicked the switch on the kettle for her second cup of tea of the day as she drew on her third cigarette. Exhaling the smoke in a long stream, she wrapped her arm around her waist and shivered as she surveyed the whiteout through the small kitchen window.
From the fields adjoining the garden to the hills beyond, there was nothing but snow. Half closing her eyes against the glare, she searched the distant slopes for signs the farmer had brought his sheep in for shelter. There had been little warning of a bad weather system enveloping the area.
An eery silence fell along with the fat, fluffy flakes. Wendy thought they would settle, and they had. Not like the light snow that is here and gone in a day. The kind she preferred. These flakes and surrounding white countryside made for a handsome picture, but it was not welcome.
Nothing stirred among the bushes that lined the icicle clad garden fence. No birds. She hadn’t seen the brave little squirrel for at least two days and even the neighbour’s cat had left no evidence it had walked across her patio.
Wendy opened the door of the cupboard above the steaming kettle. This time of year, she made sure there were ample provisions. At least a week’s supply of tinned soups and baked beans stared back at her. Their labels facing forward, like a row of soldiers, waiting, ready to spring into action as soon as the command was given. A full cupboard and a full fridge helped Wendy feel secure should the snowstorm linger. She poured some milk from a large carton over her tea bag.
Cup and cigarette in hand, Wendy ambled through to the lounge. She looked at the grey cushion on the chair at the dining table. The exposed stuffing at each corner did little to awaken her enthusiasm. But she sank onto it. A blank sheet of paper sat in her vintage Remington typewriter. It had been there for over twenty-four hours. She lifted her hands. Fingers hovering over the keys. She began typing.
It was a cold and windy day.
Wendy leaned forward on her elbows, placed her head in her hands and rubbed her forehead. “This is impossible.”
Sighing, she began again…
The clouds hung heavily in the dark sky.
“It just won’t work.”
Wendy yanked the paper from the typewriter, screwed it into a ball and threw it across the room at the pile of scrunched up sheets in the corner. She mumbled to herself as she rubbed her palms over her eyes.
Leaning an arm on the desk, she dragged a ream of thin white typewriting paper toward her and pulled out a single sheet. With precision, she fed the paper between the black rubber rollers of the typewriter, straightened it up and let out a long breath. She lit another cigarette, blew smoke up toward the ceiling, sighed, and walked over to the window. The snow was still falling.
Sauntering back into the kitchen, she made herself a hot chocolate drink in her favourite mug. The yellow one with the smiley face. At least that might cheer her up a bit, she thought, and give her some inspiration for her latest novel.
Hugging the cup of soothing liquid, she strolled over to the bay window at the front of the cottage and peered out. The blizzard they recently forecast on the tv had begun. She could barely see across the road to the row of cottages that lined Main Street.
Cupping her hands around the smiley face, she sipped the soothing hot chocolate.
Suddenly Wendy noticed something dark in the gutter near her garden gate. She thought it was a large, black plastic sack the gale had blown down the street. It writhed in the strong wind.
Wendy’s face flushed, and she gasped as she realized it was a person out there in the cold.
They must have fallen over in the snow.
Wendy stumbled in her oversized fluffy slippers as she raced to the front door. She almost spilled the liquid as she set the cup down on the side table and quickly stubbed out her cigarette in the ashtray.
Groaning through gritted teeth, she pushed her feet into her rubber boots, rammed her woollen jumper clad arms into her quilted coat and fumbled for the zip.
A powerful gust of wind blew some feathery snowflakes into the hallway as she opened the front door and then fought to slam it up behind her. Tapping her pocket to make sure she had her house keys, she cautiously stomped through the snow to the motionless figure lying in the gutter.
Wendy turned her back to the gale force wind, straddled her legs to steady herself, and bent over the figure, trying to get a glimpse of the face that lay in the deep snow. She hoped the person wasn’t dead. Frozen stiff from the arctic conditions.
“Are you all right?” She called above the howling wind.
Barely audible groans rumbled up from the black bundle as it began moving, exposing a white and grey face with sunken steel grey eyes and purple lips.
Wendy stood aghast. She judged the woman to be in her early fifties. A stranger she’d not seen before in these parts. What on earth was she doing out in this weather? Surely, she wasn’t a walker, not today of all days.
Wendy bent down, grabbed the woman’s elbow and heaved her up.
“Let me help you. You must come inside. Are you hurt? I’ll make you a cup of tea and get you warm and dry.”
Wendy kept her arm around the back of the woman as they trudged through the deep snow back to the house. They did not speak. They needed all their energy to battle against the wind.
Once inside, Wendy shook off her boots and hurried to the kitchen in her stockinged feet. She brought back some old newspapers and lay them on the floor inside the door. Then helped the shivering woman take off her shoes.
Nurse’s shoes, Wendy thought as she placed them side by side on the newspaper next to the radiator. Wendy’s jaw dropped open as she helped the woman take off her black woollen coat, revealing a navy-blue nurse’s uniform.
What on earth was a nurse doing in the village in this weather?
Wendy waved her arm toward the open door in the hallway.
“Come and sit down in the lounge. You’ll be warm in there.”
With faltering steps, the woman edged toward the fireside seat. She paused for a moment hunched over, clutching one hand to her chest, her other hand resting its fingertips on the chair’s arm. Then she collapsed into the deep cushions.
“I’ll fetch you some towels to dry yourself with and a blanket.”
Wendy scurried off upstairs and brought back two white bath towels and a red tartan blanket.
“Here, dry your hair and wrap this blanket around your legs.”
The woman spoke between chattering teeth. “Thank you. I’m so cold.”
“Pardon me for asking, but you’re a nurse, aren’t you?” Wendy pointed to her uniform.
“That I am.”
“I thought the doctor’s surgery at the far end of the village had closed and moved to Epperton a couple of miles away.”
“I don’t work at the surgery. I work at The Priory. Nights only.”
“But surely that’s been closed for years, and the back half is almost derelict.”
“They’ll never close it as long as I work there.” Said the woman as she slumped back in the chair and wrapped the tartan blanket tightly around her legs.
“Ah well, I could have sworn it was closed and abandoned. I’ve never seen anyone going in or out whenever I’ve walked down that end of the village. Mind you, I mostly go in the other direction these days.”
Wendy shrugged as she headed for the kitchen. “I’ll make us both a cup of tea. How do you like yours?”
”Black, no sugar, thank you.”
Wendy flicked the kettle switch and took a second cup and two tea bags from the cupboard. Her brow furrowed as she turned her head to watch the stranger in her lounge. The woman was dabbing her long black curls with the towel.
Wendy shook her head, trying to picture people going in and out of the priory. Admittedly, her daily walks rarely took her to that end of the village, so she could be mistaken.
A glance out the kitchen window showed the snow to be falling even heavier now and the trees in the field beyond were bent sideways.
Lost in thought, Wendy made two cups of tea. The sound of the downstairs toilet flushing made her look up. She peeped around the door of the lounge; the armchair was empty. The two towels and blanket neatly stacked on the arm of the chair.
Wendy shuffled down the hallway in her oversized fluffy slippers and noticed the toilet door was open and the woman not in there. One toilet roll balanced precariously on the edge of the washbasin. Wendy put it back in the small wicker basket on the shelf. The hand towel hung limply over the rail. She ran her fingers down the edges and straightened it out.
Confused at what was going on, she turned and looked up the hall. There was only one pair of boots on the newspaper. Hers. No black shoes.
What on earth does she think she’s doing going back out in this weather? She hasn’t even waited for her cup of tea and it’s getting dark now.
Wendy let out a long sigh as she rammed her feet back into her boots, put on her coat, pulled up the zip and checked that her front door keys were in her pocket.
Has the woman got no sense? She must be mad to venture out in this weather. I’ll have to make sure she’s safe.
Wendy opened the front door as a blast of freezing cold air scattered more snowflakes down the hallway. There was nothing for it but to fight the wind.
Wendy followed the set of footprints that pointed in The Priory’s direction. It was getting darker by the minute, but the snow sparkled beneath the lights dotted along Main Street.
Wendy wanted to do her best and make sure the woman had got to work safely. She trudged on, but it was hard going. The icy flakes almost blinded her as they stung her eyes.
Even though it was sub-zero temperatures, the mere effort of traipsing through the deep snow made Wendy hot beneath her padded coat and she pulled her zip down a quarter of an inch so that she could breathe more easily. She calculated it to be about one hundred metres from her little cottage to The Priory, but it seemed to take forever in the biting wind.
Breathless, she reached The Priory. The footprints stopped in front of the tall wrought-iron gates.
Maybe the nurse could not get in. Maybe the gates were frozen shut because of the blizzard.
Wendy grabbed the gates with her mittened hands and shook them. The sound of metal on metal echoed around her. The gates did not surrender.
No lights shone from the windows of the building. The only illumination was the old lamppost shining its ghostly yellow glow over the sparkling snow.
The trees bending in the wind cast weird shadows on the grey walls of The Priory.
Wendy peered through the slits her eyes had made against the stinging snowflakes. She tried walking toward the right of the building, clinging close to the high stone wall, but a blast of snow filled wind pushed her back. Either the woman had not gone that way, or the snow had covered her prints.
Wendy decided it was too much trying to battle against the storm. The place looked as deserted as she thought it was. There was no way the nurse or anyone could be working in there tonight.
Wendy stood over the one set of prints before the gate. There were no others to her right and none to her left. Cold and confused, she turned and headed for home.
She had not been trudging for more than two minutes when she realised hers was the only set of footprints in the snow. There was only one set leading from her cottage to The Priory and she was putting each heavy foot in those same prints on the way back home.
Breathing heavily, Wendy put her key in the lock and the door blew open, followed by a small blast of snow that danced around the hallway. She pulled off her boots and placed them on the newspaper alongside what was now two small puddles of melting snow. She poked her head around the door of the lounge. The two towels and blankets were still there, neatly piled on the arm of the chair.
The toilet door was closed. Wendy tapped on it. “Are you in there?” Only half expecting a reply she opened it. The tap was running. Wendy turned it off. Her frozen face looked back at her from the square mirror above the basin. Today’s events made no sense.
She hung her coat up by the front door, put on her floppy slippers, and sauntered into the kitchen, where she flicked the switch of the kettle and lit a cigarette. Blowing the smoke through rounded lips, she leaned her back against the counter and gazed out the window. The light from the kitchen shone on the glittery white wilderness outside. The wind was still bending the trees. Nothing had changed.
Wendy put her cigarette on the side of the ashtray and hurried to the lounge. She opened her laptop and typed in
The Priory, Ullerton Village.
A page came up that clearly stated The Priory had closed in 1968 - the same date on the maker’s mark of her Remington typewriter. Furrows appeared on her brow. How many times had she stared at that date when wracking her brains for something to write about?
Wendy flicked off her fluffy slippers and ran into the kitchen, picked up her cup of tea and cigarette and hurried back to her typewriter.
She glanced at the date 1968, that had been staring back at her all these years. She lined up the sheet of thin typewriting paper with the side margins. Her fingers hovered above the black keys with silver lettering.
It was as if they were too frightened to begin typing. As if they weren’t sure what words would appear on the paper.
Then suddenly, as her fingers touched the keys, they seemed to take on a life of their own. Effortlessly, she typed away. A familiar clickety-click sound as the keys bounced back and forth.
Wendy’s fingertips plonked away.
There was a blizzard blowing outside. Mary sipped her tea and smoked her cigarette as she looked out the window. In the distance, a small dark figure emerged from the mist that surrounded The Priory……….