Aran Rafferty has had 10 short stories published and one broadcast on the radio. He was twice nominated for Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards plus a Francis McManus Award.
He works as a research scientist living in Dublin. In his spare time, he likes to play soccer and sing (as tenor) with his local choir.
By Aran Rafferty
I get the fire going and count sixteen remaining briquettes. Fifteen-and-two-thirds really but I round it up. Our landlord dropped them off when we moved in; an act of kindness, borne out of guilt. The house is an icebox. And now a snowstorm is upon us. The city is shutting down. There’s talk of panic buying. The chair of the National Emergency Coordination Group has spoken gravely to the nation as if we’re about to be wiped off the map. I like it – the feeling that anything could happen. I need something big to disrupt the status quo.
Angela pulls a blanket around her, then pulls a face, as she tries to stretch out on the hard, two-seater.
“I don’t think the heating came on,” she says, blowing out forcefully through her lips. She’s six months pregnant with our twins.
I go to check on the central heating and get a shock. The plastic controller box has parted company with the wall. Wires everywhere. I don’t know what to do, and even if I did, my fingers are too big. And too cold. I call our landlord’s 083 number. It goes to voicemail.
Back in the sitting room, I plug in the expensive bar heater and step up on an armchair to see out the window. I can make out long lines of bumper to bumper traffic, every eejit trying out their fog lights.
“Crazy weather. But perfect for building snowmen,” I say, loudly.
Our daughter Tess doesn’t look up. Too busy playing with her marbles. Or mar-balls as she calls them.
“You can’t bring her outside in that,” Angela says, fog on her breath.
“Did you not hear your man on the radio? Life threatening conditions?”
It isn’t confined to Ireland. Large swathes of Europe are colder than the Arctic Circle. They’ve deployed the army in Rome, with Saint Peter’s Square and Piazza Navona overrun with excited snowballers.
“You’re forever nagging me to spend time with her,” I say.
“Brendan, Tess is three. The heating’s broken. I’m expecting twins.”
I get out of there and trudge upstairs. Tess’s bedroom is filled with the sounds of wind whistling through the vent and dry snow pattering against the window. The scene outside puts me in mind of somewhere like Lithuania or Belarus, not that I’ve been to either. The Royal Canal which runs nearby is frozen over. Sticks and bottles protrude incongruously from the ice. The normally busy ducks are conspicuous by their absence. On the street, our neighbour’s car is covered in a smooth blanket of snow; it’s draped up over the bonnet and wing mirrors, as if the car has grown a beard. I open the window and reach outside. The effect on my bare skin is immediate and intense. The blind flies into a frenzy, as if the wind wants to come inside and eat me.
My eyes travel over the cheap carpet and mould-specked ceiling in Tess’s bedroom. I think about my laboratory job – ‘Brendan’s job,’ as it’s whispered about in family circles. When I mention the twins to work colleagues, some suggest, quite innocently, that I take a career-break. What career? I don’t have healthcare or pension rights. After six years, my ID card still reads ‘Visitor.’
Tess’s shiny pink snowsuit is stashed away in her wardrobe. I proceed downstairs to the living room with it.
“Remember this, young lady?” I say.
No answer. Tess is standing with her nose practically touching the television screen, engrossed in Peppa Pig.
We paid a small fortune for this snowsuit,” I say.
“Poo-poo snowsuit,” she mutters.
“What was that?” I say.
“Brendan…” Angela’s still lying on the sofa, entwined, mermaid-like, in her pregnancy pillow
“We’re in the throes of a major weather event,” I say.
“Yes we are, and our heating’s broken, our landlord’s on mute, and the government-”
“The government? What is this, the nanny-state?”
“This storm’s a Status RED,” she says, waving her phone.
“We’ll be in the front garden Angela, not the Alps.”
“What garden Brendan?”
I stomp out to the kitchen – it’s vying with the bathroom for Coldest Room In The House – and select a large carrot from the fridge. I think about hiding the carrot, then lay it out dead centre on the worktop. A glance at the window proves Angela right. I can barely see the garden and what I can see is shrouded in a weird snow-glow.
During the night, the storm builds to its treacherous climax. Hearing the roof groaning, I get out of bed and stand at the window. The world outside is a bleak and treacherous place, painted all black or white, no in-between. A car is submerged in a snow drift and jutting out onto the roadway, seemingly abandoned by its owner. There’s a sadness about the canal, rendered dormant by the storm. Off in the distance, the Skylon Hotel’s neon rooftop sign is partially obscured by yet another band of precipitation.
I pull on my woollen hat and slip back into bed. It doesn’t take long for our landlord’s round, well-fed face to appear in my mind’s eye. I’ve begun taking lumps out of that man, in ways that both gratify and disturb me. Such thoughts have become all too common; they incubate during the daytime and came alive at night. As a family, we live a nomadic existence, traipsing from one temporary accommodation to the next, spending the guts of my modest income on rent. We go without a car and have little by way of savings. A number of our friends – successful professionals and homeowners – have stopped inviting us over. I’m beginning to wonder if they’ve moved on and out of our lives. Not wilfully. Anyone can see they’re just part of life’s fast-paced traffic, going route one.
The bedside clock reads 4.07 am. My head is hot and itchy, the rest of my body inordinately cold. Angela is snoring loudly, the firm bulk of her pregnancy pillow like a big fat snake down the centre of the bed between us. I try to blank my mind, can’t. My thoughts turn to Tess. The looks that child gives me; I’m not sure if she considers me a complete asshole. That morning she’d asked me if I was a boy or a girl. When I told her I was a man – her Daddy, she laughed and said, “Poo poo Daddy.” 4.25 am. I pull the duvet up tight to my chin and visualise a snowman to beat all snowmen. Ten feet tall. Important. Invincible.
The following morning brings even more blizzards, the likes of which I’ve never witnessed before.
“The Skylon’s gone,” I announce.
“Sky long gone,” Tess says, which is true too.
We’re holed up in the living room with the fire lit and bar heater running. None of us know what to do with ourselves. Cabin-fever, Angela calls it, and I run with that lazy catchphrase, as if it might explain away the long silences between us.
Tess is stretched out full length on the floor, colouring. Angela’s scrunched up on the sofa, scrolling through her phone. Then, the minute Angela goes upstairs to take her afternoon nap, I grab Tess. “Snowman,” I say. She’s up for it. “His nose. Let me get his nose,” she squeals, running into the kitchen and snatching the carrot off the worktop. “Ssshhh,” I say, pointing upstairs. I dress her in her snowsuit and, giggling, we tip-toe into the porch. The cold is shocking. Snow is piled high against the door. I have to work hard but eventually the door opens with a sucking sound, like a fridge.
The storm’s ferocious, in a way I find exhilarating. Snow dust is being blown off roofs and trees, adding to the whiteout. Tess immerses her gloved hands in the white stuff. Her first time to touch real snow; she seems unsure what to do. I set about rolling a snowball; really put my back into it. The small powdery flakes get into my eyes and I have to squint. Visibility is down to a few feet. “Go on, knock yourself out,” I shout up at the sky.
I keep going until I’ve created an enormous body. I make the head and use my knees to lift it up. It breaks. I begin again, pummelling the snow with my fists, like a boxer taking it all out on the bag. The air is exceptionally dry. I’m shallow-breathing. Fit to kill. I look around and see Tess kneeling in the snow. She has her back to the wind and is protecting her face with her hands.
“Eyes… and buttons, Tess. We need buttons,” I roar into the savage arctic whiteness. I tramp through the house, leaving a trail of dirty wet snow. I’ve previously scoured the coal bunker out back and know it contains a smattering of small, unwanted lumps.
By the time I get back, Tess is curled up into a foetal position. “Look, I got eyes,” I shout, adding the coal-eyes to the snowman. I re-build the head and let out a roar as I hoist it up onto the body. I add the carrot, a scarf, and the last few bits of coal as buttons, then run across the street and rip two twiggy branches off a tree. They work well as arms, reaching skywards as if pleading with the storm for mercy.
“What do you think?” I shout. The bitter wind catches in my throat and takes my breath away.
No response from Tess. Zero movement. Just a luminescent pink lump.
“Tess?” I say.
I grab her by the ankles and drag her onto the path, where the snow is less deep. Her face and lips are tinted blue, beneath a filigree of ice crystals.
“Jesus, Tess,” I shout, shaking her.
She opens her deep blue eyes – pierces me with them.
“Daddy…” she says.
I go to pick her up and land on my backside. Get her on the second attempt and make my way up the path and into the house. She buries her face in my shoulder. Her teeth are chattering, her frosted eyelids flickering.
“You’re fine,” I say, not really believing it, but hoping to convince myself.
Tess clings to me, limpet-like. She’s strong. I strip off her wet snowsuit and lift her up to see our snowman through the window.
“Poo poo snowman,” she says.
“Come on now,” I say.
“Hot chocolate. Cinderella,” she replies.
“Don’t you know Mammy’s sleeping and can’t come down,” I say, wrapping her in Angela’s lambswool blanket and pushing the sofa closer to the fire.
“You and me, you and me,” she says, in her giddy voice. She means it; the light in her eyes tells me so.
I go out to the kitchen and make the hot chocolate.
Back in the living room, I set down our steaming mugs. I add a briquette to the fire and start up Cinderella. The disc keeps skipping and Tess begins to cry. I clean the disc on the leg of my pants. It fixes the problem.
One of the snowman’s stick-arms had fallen off. Even as I watch through the window, the left eye slides down and drops off. Our first snowman. A half-man. A half-life.
“Poo poo snowman,” I mutter.
“Funny Daddy,” Tess says.
We wiggle our stockinged feet at the flames and sip our hot chocolates. Outside, the storm rages on. I go to throw another briquette on the fire and realise there’s no need to. We’re roasting.