For the last couple of years, I’ve tried to do a Christmas ghost story. This is my third attempt. Originally, I had in mind something more complex but it didn’t take. This started as a back-up idea, but it grew. I’ll share my thoughts on it at the end.
This is the first of four chapters which will be appearing over the next few days.
“But what is it, Dad?” Olly was saying as he struggled to guide his fingers into his gloves. He paused, gave the wrist another yank and said, “Snow, I mean.”
Gilbert gave his son what he imagined was an indulgent, fatherly smile as he wondered what on earth it was they were teaching him in that school Tanya and Ralf had enrolled him in, “It’s water, son,” he said.
“I know,” Olly replied, “But why’s it look like that?”
“It’s frozen,” said Gilbert.
“Like ice?” Olly asked, itching at his face with his gloved hand.
“But why doesn’t it look like ice?”
Gilbert shrugged. This, he presumed was what came from the lack of a father figure in his son’s home life; whatever Tanya said, Ralf didn’t count. “Ice is what you get when water freezes on the ground. When it comes from the sky, it’s snow.”
Olly looked dissatisfied, “But what about hail?”
Gilbert looked at the ground. It was a pristine white now but it would soon give way to sludge. After a moment, he answered, “Hail’s what you get when ice comes from the sky,”
“But why doesn’t it come down as snow?”
If Gilbert had ever known the answer to this, he’d forgotten it now. He frowned, wondered if he could make something up before deciding against it, “C’mon, lad,” he said, “Best get out there before it melts.”
Gilbert watched his son run out into the garden and reflected how he’d felt he’d opened the curtains that morning to see that, unexpectedly, it had started snowing. It never normally snowed here; even in late December, the most you’d get was a sort of half-hearted frosting; something to do with the gulf stream, the estate agent had said. His first response on seeing the blanket of reflective white covering had been that if he couldn’t make it into work on Monday, Jonson would dock his wages. It had only been later that he’d realised it would give him something to do with the boy. Ever since he and Tanya had separated, Gilbert had done what he could to sustain his relationship with his son but, separated as they were by a distance of several hundred miles and meeting on alternate weekends, it had been difficult and now, as he watched Olly grow older, he had found himself preoccupied by the fact their bond was weakening. It didn’t help that the two of them had little in common. He loved Olly, but he was a strange boy, small for his age and sensitive, with little interest in the activities that had excited Gilbert as a youth. There’d been no prospect of their connecting over football, for example, or Science Fiction films and the type of activities which interested Olly were largely incomprehensible to his father. Still, Gilbert had thought, what 10 year old wouldn’t delight in the prospect of a morning of sledge rides and snowballs? Olly, predictably, had moaned when the idea had been mooted and the look on his face when Gilbert had dug the wooden sled out from the garage should have served as a warning but in the end he’d responded to his father’s enthusiasm and the prospect of hot chocolate.
Stepping out into his back garden, Gilbert was struck by the scene. It could have taken place at any time in the last century. Snow coated the ground, compacted where his son’s feet had left prints but otherwise undisturbed. Overhead, pillows of white clung to the tops of the conifers, giving them the look of a Scots Guard in negative; it would only take the slightest of shakes to set off a miniature avalanche. The air was cold, but the effect was invigorating, rather than stifling. The conditions seemed to be having an effect on Olly, too. Whilst he’d have never described the boy as sullen in temperament, a rather morose aspect had been creeping into his character of late. Now, frolicking in the snow, he was transformed into the child his father had always imagined he’d have grown to be if it hadn’t been for the separation.
“Watch out, Dad,” he called, squeezing a fistful of snow into a vaguely spherical shape and throwing it direct into his face. For a moment, Gilbert was stunned into motionlessness and he watched as a look of fear played out on his son’s face, before the pair of them burst into laughter and a snowball fight broke out.
Standing there, in the bracing cold, playing with his son, Gilbert felt alive for the first time in months. It was as though he’d been transported back to childhood. It was not, he realised, his own childhood that was being recaptured. His memories of that we’re characterised by sepias and greys, harmless enough, but with little to distinguish one day from another. Rather, he felt he’d been taken back to an earlier stage in his son’s life, before the split with Tanya, before Ralf’s appearance.
He couldn’t be sure if he’d been happier then, or if it only seemed that way with hindsight, but things had been simpler. It had been possible, then, to have a conversation with his wife which didn’t end in snarled invective. His relationship with his son had been easier too, unencumbered by the feelings of awkwardness and guilt which had come when his wife had told him to leave. Back then, they’d been able to talk naturally, without the protracted pauses which came when one of them tried to work out what to say. He wondered if it was the same with Ralf now. Somehow, he doubted it. His son’s new stepfather was everything Gilbert was not: confident, charming, good company; little wonder the boy was unable to contain his excitement of the prospect of returning to London that afternoon, ready to spend Christmas with his mother and Ralf. By the time he came back for Boxing Day, thought Gilbert, no doubt they’d be getting back to their usual, distanced conversation about school friends and television. The snow would presumably have melted by then and, with it, he presumed, their new camaraderie would ebb away.
“Dad,” Olly said, a little urgently.
Gilbert realised his hand had gone numb and the snowball he’d been holding had been compacted to ice, “Yes, son?”
“Let’s make a snowman?”
“A snowman?” asked Gilbert, trying to keep the discomfort out of his voice
He had always made a point of avoiding feats of technical prowess in front of Olly for fear of drawing attention to his fallibility too early. A snowman oughtn’t present too much of a challenge, he supposed, but he’d been caught out before. The photographs of the lopsided sandcastle they’d built on the day trip to Torquay attested to that.
“C’mon, Dad,” insisted Olly, “It’ll be fun,”
Gilbert hesitated, “What about the hot chocolate?”
When he spoke again, Olly’s tone was wheedling. If they’d still be living together, Gilbert thought, he might even have found it annoying. “I made one with Ralf last year.”
“You did?”asked Gilbert. Whether or not he wanted to build the snowman, the prospect of ceding a paternal duty to his replacement filled him with anguish.
“It was rubbish,” replied Olly.
“It was?” asked Gilbert, warming up in spite of the December cold.
The boy nodded, “I started out but he took over. Said it needed a grown up’s touch.” In the break in the conversation which followed, Gilbert found himself wrestling with the temptation to observe that, at a full fifteen years younger than his new wife, his son’s stepfather hardly counted as a grown up. He managed to resist in the end, as Olly went on, “He made a right mess of it. By the time we’d finished, it looked more like a hippo or something.”
Gilbert smiled, “I think we can manage better than that.”
“Really?” asked Olly, sounding a little too in need of convincing.
“Definitely,” said Gilbert, packing the snow into a ball and pushing it along the ground, “Let’s get started.”
In all, it took them around an hour to build the snowman. They’d worked collaboratively, the inspiration coming from Olly and the muscle from Gilbert the muscle. By the time they were done, they’d used up most of the snow in the garden, to create a towering, three-tiered figure. In the absence of coals, he’d used a pair of pebbles to make the eyes. With the nose, however, Olly had insisted they stick to tradition and they’d used a carrot. To set the effect off, and to supply the requisite amount of anthropomorphism, Gilbert had sent his son into the house to fetch a scarf.
Standing back to admire their handiwork, Gilbert and Olly took satisfaction in their achievement. The structure, a large sphere of grubby brown-white snow, surmounted by two progressively smaller and mottled spheres, might have been conventional, but there was a presence to it. Looking at his creation, with its military bearing, those cold, gimlet eyes and the arrogant, retroussé nose, it was possible to imagine what sort of personality it might have had it been alive: priggish, punctilious, smug, a bad sort to be around altogether.
“Hey, Dad?” said Olly, after deciding they’d been standing back and admiring their work long enough. “He looks like Ralf, doesn’t he?”
Gilbert looked again. It only took him a second to see that, having spent the best part of the weekend trying to convince his son to forget his stepfather’s existence, he’d ended up creating an oversized effigy of him in his back garden.