Friday 31 October 2014

The Day Off

In the bedroom of a cottage, on the edge of a village in the heart of the English countryside, an alarm clock was 'beep-beep-beeping'.  The sound got louder the longer it went on, until – suddenly – it stopped.  From beneath the warmth of the quilt an arm had surfaced, its hand fumbling around on the bedside cupboard in search of the alarm clock that had once again rudely interrupted his slumber.  The forefinger and middle finger of the searching hand finally found the snooze button, and silence fell upon the room again. 

In fact, the silence was deafening. And he knew instantly that there had been snowfall during the night.  There was a gleam to the room through the open curtains, and it was eerily quiet outside.  Even the distant hum from the motorway that he was so used to hearing in the background could not be heard.  ‘Ah well,’ he thought.  ‘Britain has come to a standstill again because of the weather.’  And then he smiled as the next thought beamed through. ‘Hey, I may get a day off work if there are no buses running.’

Peeking his head out from under the covers, he looked across at his bedside cupboard. The time was 5.38 am. He had nearly an hour.  He always set the alarm for an hour before he had to get up. He liked the fact that he could wake up gently, and snuggle in the quilts, snooze and then repeat this exercise a couple of times, before it was time to ease out first one leg, and then the other, before facing the world for another day.   

Today, though, he couldn’t resist the temptation to take a look outside to see exactly how much snow had laid overnight.  He may be in his mid-fifties, but the thrill of snow still affected him and filled him with boyish excitement. 

He flung out his legs and once in a sitting position he could see that it was, in fact, still snowing.  Great flakes of the stuff were silently drifting down from the pregnant clouds above.  Thankful for the wonders of central heating, he made his way to the window and lent on his elbows as he perused the world outside.  Yep.  It was deep out there.  The lane outside was completely covered in, as yet, untouched, clean, white virgin snow.  The dry stone wall opposite was almost two thirds buried, and it being at nearly a metre tall, it had definitely been what one could describe as a substantial snowfall.

Now he had to make a quick decision.  Would he attempt the half-mile walk to the B-road to get the bus?  If so, he would clearly have to leave earlier than normal to wade his way through.  There was that prick of conscience at the back of his mind that he should attempt it; after all the main road may have been gritted and be suitable for public transport.  But then again, he knew from past experience that the local council was not known for its pre-emptive measures at this time of year.

He glanced at his front gate.  No way was he going to be able to open that.  Nope, there was nothing for it – he was snowed in.  He smiled again.  He had enough milk, bread and other basics to keep him going for the day.  He would make the phone call later at around 8.30 to let them know he wouldn’t be showing up for work today; if anyone had actually made it in to pick up the phone that is.  But he would try – he could leave a message if needs be, and then at least he would be covered.  He always made sure that he was covered for all eventualities.

So, with that decision made, he considered whether to go back to bed or whether to make the most of his early morning start and get some chores done inside the cottage.  Although he had lived in the same county, he hadn’t been living in the cottage long, having only moved in four months previously.  Work commitments had restricted his DIY attempts, as well as work on his hobby, and there was a lot to be done to make the place more habitable or, rather, more habitable to his taste.  The décor was good on the whole, but there were lots of little jobs to be sorted. And, of course, there was always the spare third bedroom to be organised.  His remaining unpacked boxes and an old leather chest were stored in that room and he really needed to go through them and disseminate the contents before the boxes became too much part of the scenery. Once he had bought a ladder and could gain access to the loft, some of them would need to go up there. In fact, at least one of them would, without him even opening it. The leather chest labelled ‘Jane’.

He had lived with Jane for eleven years before she has disappeared.  The police had been informed obviously, but after seven years of her not being found, she had officially been declared dead in absentia. The police, of course, had emphasised to him that this was just a matter of formality and that she could still be alive, maybe just having taken on a new identity. This happened apparently, and quite often to ladies of a certain age who had suddenly decided that the life they were living was not what they had wished for. But, deep down he knew that his wife was no longer alive.  Their relationship had been one of those where couples are so emotionally and spiritually involved that they could feel such things.  They had become apt at knowing what each other was thinking, and often said the same things out loud at exactly the same time.  They basically shared the same special relationship as do twins. 

The chest contained some of her possessions that he had wanted to keep.  There were a couple of paintings that she had completed that had been his favourites, together with a box of her jewellery, a couple of articles of clothing that he loved seeing her wear and some other odd knick-knacks to remember her by.     

So, deciding on the latter choice, he went into the bathroom and had a pee. Then, as he cleaned his teeth he stared at himself in the mirror over the basin.  The long, pointy-nosed, lean face looked back him.  He didn’t look too bad for his age, but the encroaching grey that speckled the black hair around the side of his head always acted as a reminder that his time on this earth was in the downward spiral rather than the ascending.  He flossed, returned his toothbrush to its holder, and washed his face before one more glance at his reflection.  He grinned at himself, and said, ‘Okay, let’s make the most of it, mate,’ and returned to the bedroom to get dressed.

Downstairs in the kitchen, he filled up the kettle, plugged it in and flicked the switch.  Whilst it boiled he looked out of the kitchen window into his back garden.  The bird table looked as if it was covered in a giant marshmallow, and the spindly winter boughs of the trees were bent over with the weight of snow clinging to them. He shrugged slightly.  By the look of it, there would be no chance of him being able to finish the job he had started a few weeks ago down at the bottom of the garden either.  Like the boxes in the bedroom, it may just have to wait until he got around to it.  It was of no consequence, and like with them, there was no rush, although he had to admit that he would feel better if he could get it completed.  Maybe he would just brush away the snow so that he could carry on.  He could always build a snowman afterwards with all the brushed aside snow, just as a childish treat. 

Yes, that is what he would do. 

After breakfast, he grabbed his overalls, wellies, gloves, bobble hat and scarf from the under stair cupboard and unlocked the back door.  Like most back doors, opening inwards made it easy to open in even the most extreme weather conditions.  The shed, opening outwards, was a little more difficult, and he had to kick away as much snow as possible before removing the rest with his hands so that he could gain entrance to his gardening tools.  First the yard broom, then the shovel and the gardening fork, and finally the pick-axe.

He set to work; he had made great headway the time before a few weeks ago, but there were still a few more feet to go.  Soon he had a pyramid of snow next to the hole.  The ground was hard, and he worked at it with the pick axe to break up the frozen clods of earth as best he could. Not only was the ground hard work, this kind of manual work was extremely tiring. 

It was lucky he had no immediate neighbours who could nose out of their bedroom windows upstairs.  He was merely digging a hole for a pond, but he knew that it would more than likely look very odd to watch someone do that at this time of year. But he was a man of the moment.  If he wanted to dig a pond at this time of year, then why shouldn’t he? It was his garden, his time, and nothing at all to do with the neighbours, even if he did have any.  He wanted to get it in for spring, so that he could plant as many bulbs and shrubs around it as possible in order for it to be settled and to look its best in the summer months. 

By noon he had not got very much further, but at least the snow had stopped.  Only a few more hours and it would be dark.  But he had got so far he couldn’t possibly just stop now.  He was that kind of person.  Once something was set in his mind that was it.  Jane had known that and had accepted it. And everyone else would have to as well. 

She had had to accept many things in her relationship with him.  She had never really ‘got’ his hobby, but she had given up questioning it, and the smell of the chemicals that oozed from beneath the door of the spare bedroom in their old house.  No matter how hard she tried, she just could not rid the thought that her partner being an undertaker by day, and a taxidermist in what spare time he had was weird.  But then again, he could never see the attraction of her hobby – flower arranging – as being the most interesting and absorbing thing to do in one’s spare time.

It was now 5.15 pm, and it was dark, and what had become something to complete as an idea to fill in the day had become an obsession that had to be finished before he went to bed.  Then that would be it. One of his outstanding jobs completed.  The matter would be closed.  Done and dusted.

There was just one more thing to do before he could set in the fibreglass pond, which he had bought in the end of season sale at the garden centre. He made his way to the shed, and switched on the light inside.  There in the corner sat the large leather chest. This had been Jane’s also, and it was only fitting in his mind that this is where she should hide after her ‘disappearance’.  He dragged it out of the shed and down towards the hole.  The snow made it tough going, so he had to brush some of it out of the way with the broom before he could go any further. 

He was somewhat relieved that the chest’s dimensions fitted the hole perfectly and that the fibreglass pond shell slipped in on top as he had hoped.     


As he had breakfast the next morning he gazed out at the snowman that he had built in the empty pond shell and smiled.  ‘Dearest Jane,’ he thought to himself. ‘Such a clever hiding place. You were always good at playing hide-and-seek.’

He went upstairs to get dressed into his work gear, and before going back downstairs to leave for his walk to the bus, he had a peek around the door into the second bedroom.  His current work was nearly finished, but he needed to check his supplies to see if he needed to pinch anything important from work.  

“Good morning, Gemma,” he said cheerily to the chubby receptionist. 

“Good morning, Matty,” she replied, “How are you today?  I am glad you managed to get in – it was terrible yesterday wasn’t it?  I wish I could get snowed in.  Did you manage to do anything nice at home as you couldn’t get here?”

“Indeed it was,” he replied, “And yes I did, thank you.  I got a job done that had been lying around for ages.” As he replied, he looked directly at her and contemplated how challenging it would be to embalm such a rotund figure.

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