Tanya was waiting for them when Gilbert pulled outside his former marital home that evening, flashing a disdainful smile which he remembered well from the years he’d spent living here.
“Traffic okay?” she asked. Gilbert nodded, readied himself to make a passive-aggressive enquiry about Ralf but his ex-wife went on, “Only we were expecting you an hour ago.”
The journey back had been easier than it had been in a long time, the conversation freer, the silences companionable rather than awkward. Olly hadn’t even found it necessary to stare embarrassedly out of the window when Gilbert sang along to the radio. With most of the workers already on leave, the roads had been clear and, once they’d pulled onto the motorway, free of snow.
Gilbert tried to give her the self-effacing grin that he’d convinced her to find appealing when they were married, “We lost track of time…,”
Excitedly, Olly blurted out, “We were building a snow man,”
“A snowman?” said Tanya, unimpressed and, looking directly at Gilbert, adding, “He’s ten.”
It was a look with which he’d grown familiar over the course of his marriage, equal parts incomprehension and resentment; it had greeted him every time he’d lost a client or been denied a bonus. When they’d been married, there’d been disappointment there, too, but this was no longer apparent. More than the cold eyes and the thin-lipped sneer on the face of the woman he still loved, it was this that hurt.
“He was having fun, Tan,” he said, “You must remember that.” Looking at the sombre facade of the house, decorated for show, rather than festive cheer, he rather doubted that she did.
Tanya shook her head, and her hair followed, just a beat or so behind, “I’ve been frantic.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gilbert, bowing his head, adopting a closed posture, muscle memory setting in, “We just track of time.”
“We’re supposed to be going to Ralf’s mother’s.”
In spite of himself, Gilbert found himself responding to the note of accusation in Tanya’s voice. “Jesus, Tan? Your bloke’s mother?”
“It’s got nothing to do with you,” said Tanya.
“I’m Olly’s father. It should matter.” Gilbert was aware he was shouting.
“Dad,” said Olly, something in his voice that sounded awfully like resignation.
A moment later, Ralf emerged and gave the man he’d supplanted a curt nod, “Gilbert.”
“Ralf,” said Gilbert.
“Gilbert was just leaving,” said Tania.
This hadn’t been true. On the journey back, Gilbert had promised Olly he’d stay and look at the new treehouse his stepfather had installed. Ralf ignored his wife’s comment, “I heard shouting.”
Tanya frowned, “Like I said, Gilbert was just leaving.”
Ralf looked over at Gilbert. “Best you did, Gil.” Looking at him, Gilbert was struck at how complete the resemblance with the snowman was. Ralf was a large man, his bulk mainly, though not entirely, comprised of muscle. His complexion was as colourless as his frozen analogue and his dark eyes equally cold.
Gilbert had always been slightly afraid of Ralf and it was an effort to keep his voice even, “I need to say goodbye to my son,”
Tanya ignored him and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, “You go in and get cleaned up, Oliver.” Gilbert looked over as Olly complied, their shared endeavours that morning forgotten. Tanya folded her arms and looked significantly at her ex-husband’s Volvo. Her current husband imitated the posture.
“See you next week, Olly,” Gilbert called out after his vanishing son, “Boxing day?”
“Gilbert…,” said Ralf, relaxing his stance in a cruel gesture of sympathy, “Didn’t he tell you?”
Tanya, Gilbert had noticed, remained resolute. Keeping her face hard and her posture closed, she said, “He’s not coming.”
“We agreed…,” protested Gilbert.
“I’m taking him to the footie,” said Ralf, apologetically.
“He doesn’t like football,” said Gilbert. “He never wants to go with me.” As he said this, he realised his tone was uncertain.
Ralf snorted, “Bloody Torquay? I’m not surprised. I’m taking him to see the Arsenal.”
“But it’s my weekend,” protested Gilbert, recognising how pathetic his words sounded.
“You could always Skype him,” suggested Ralf.
“Skype?” said Gilbert, “He’s my son. He should be with me on Boxing Day if I can’t see him at Christmas.”
It was Tanya who spoke next, “He’s ten. Why don’t you ask him where he wants to be?”
Gilbert would never be sure why he agreed, but his son’s uncomfortable manner as he explained would stay with him for ever. Driving back, he realised how juvenile and unfair it had been to ask his ten-year-old son to make the choice and how he’d deserved the rejection when it had come. Still, Ralf could have made more effort to conceal his pleasure as he placed one paw-like hand on Olly’s shoulder and the other on Tanya’s as they watched him drive away.
Half-way back, it started snowing again and the return journey took twice as long. When he returned home, cold and tired, the snowman was waiting, ready to greet him silently. Moonlight reflected from its pebble eyes, giving the look of a mocking smile. In the half life, the creation was almost indistinguishable from its real-life equivalent. As he passed, Gilbert found himself landing a perfect roundhouse kick on the figure’s torso and felt a slim wave of consolation as he saw its head roll off under the conifers.
At first, he thought he was dreaming when he got the call from Tanya telling him that Ralf had been decapitated in a car crash at approximately the same time Gilbert had been taking out his aggression on the snowman.