The Woman Who Loved Winter
by J.M. Rowe
“I love winter,” she told me.
The Cumbrian heights were already bristling with frost. A keen wind tugged blonde curls from her headscarf. She was slim – too slim, thin – and pale and lovely as winter hellebore petals.
I thought to myself: Watch out, Tom Hetherington, or you’ll fall in love with her. Ruthie remarked, “By the time a man thinks that about a woman, it’s already too late.”
“I love the waiting,” the young woman continued. “When the first frost bites and the air is bright and chill and the north wind is holding back, but soon, soon he’ll be at your door, banging on the shutters.” She laughed, “Like a man, arriving in the night. That’s a little crazy isn’t it?”
We watched the clouds broil over Cross Fell.
She said, “Do I sound crazy to you, Mr Hetherington?”
I smiled and shook my head.
“Yes,” I said and she laughed again. “I’m afraid you’re crazy, Mrs Annis.”
“Miss,” she corrected me and I thrilled to hear it.
“You see?” said Ruthie. “Head over heels!”
Hoarwell Cottage, perched on the gloomy scarp of Lichmor Pike, didn’t attract holiday makers. There had been no tenant for over a year. The Cottage had become a shed full of tractor parts and sacks of winter sheep feed but I spent a weekend clearing it all out when Miss Annis took up the lease – for six months, right through till spring. There was a new stove in there now, some upholstered chairs and a little oil-burning generator, though she assured me she wouldn’t need them.
“I don’t feel the cold.”
“On Lichmor Pike, I think you will,” I replied. “Winter strikes pretty hard up here.” “Good,” she said and blushed – two spots of pleasure in her milk-white cheeks. “It’s lonely here,” I warned her.
“Not any more. Not now we’re neighbours.”
I helped Miss Annis with her garden: onions, spinach and white-stemmed chard. On the south wall of the house, a quince tree clutched the limestone soil.
“Ruthie expects that tree to die every year,” I said, “but look: it’s produced some fruit for you, Miss Annis.”
“Please, call me Mallory,” she said, snipping the golden fruit from the branch with her pruning knife. It felt good to say: “And I’m Tom.”
Mallory poached the bitter quinces in wine with cinnamon and ginger.
I sat at her table, drinking tea, watching her, like I’d never watched a woman before. How straight her back was, how poised her gestures: every motion seems to hang in the air, frozen, as if to say, ‘See, one stands like this: this is how one lifts a spoon, tastes syrup, stirs with a wooden spoon: like this and no other way.’
I was entranced.
“You’re in love,” said Ruthie and I didn’t argue.
“When I’ve unpacked,” Mallory said, “you must come over.”
She had drawn a woollen shawl around her arms, but it revealed her bare shoulders and the thin linen dress she wore on this raw December afternoon. She leaned against the door frame, watching me leave.
“You must come for dinner,” she called. “You and Ruthie.”
She waited for a reply while I stood stricken and silent.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered. “Did I misunderstand? I thought…”
“No,” I said firmly. “It’s my fault. I talk as if Ruthie is … as if she was…” I drew a deep breath. “Ruthie is dead.”
She covered her mouth with her slim white fingers.
“I’m so sorry. I had no idea. I …”
“Please. Don’t. It’s my fault. I should have said something.”
She intertwined her knuckles and rested her chin on them, looking up at me from under her stray curls. Her eyes were very blue but very pale. Even her eyelashes were pale, almost white, like silver. She was clean and bright as porcelain.
“Let me make amends,” she said. “Come to dinner. I insist.”
I let her persuade me.
“That went well,” Ruthie told me later.
She sat on the worktop, smoking, which I don’t allow indoors, but Ruthie never paid no mind to that. She was wearing her fingerless mittens and her fingers were blue where they pinched the cigarette. There was frost on her lip and a violent bruise across her cheek and jaw.
“It’s a mess in here,” she said. “You’re not looking after the place.”
That was true. Bags of cement, broken shears, a tractor tyre, a coil of wire fencing: farming supplies mixed with tins of condensed soup, powdered milk, eggs and Pot Noodles in cardboard boxes. Outside, the drystone wall, still unfinished, and the heavy slates, dropped carelessly around the yard.
I said, “This is how I live now.”
“You need a woman about the place.”
Blood trickled from under her fringe, gathering in dark ruby droplets on her chin. I said, “I had a woman about the place. I had you, Ruthie.”
But she didn’t answer. The kitchen was empty, except for the smell of her cigarette and my egg burning in the pan.
I went over to the Cottage that weekend, wearing an ironed shirt and carrying a bottle of wine: Rioja, screw-top, picture of a medieval castle on the label, very classy.
Hoarwell Cottage had been transformed with thick rugs on the tile floors, an overstuffed sofa with an ethnic throw over it, fat scented candles in pastel colours, copper pans hanging from hooks.
“Does it look like a farm cottage now, Mr Hetherington?” she asked.
I thought of my house, with the fertiliser stacked against the walls and a dismantled rotavator on the kitchen table. I thought of the unfinished drystone wall and the slates, left where they dropped in the mud.
“Pretty much,” I told her. “And it’s Tom,” I reminded her.
The windows were open and the wind blew in from Cross Fell. Mallory wore a cotton dress, bare armed except for oversized oven gloves, but I felt reluctant to take off my jacket.
“I like the winter air,” she said. “I can close the windows if you prefer ..?”
We ate in the kitchen: chimney pot pie with Herdwick mutton that was too good to be from my farm. I talked about the farm, about the village. I told her that Jack Graham was our nearest neighbour: an old friend and a policeman too, just in case she had trespassers.
Mallory picked at her food. She smiled and nodded, but her attention was elsewhere. Again and again, she would glance out of the window, where dusk was stealing across the Fells.
“I love it here,” she said. Then: “Tom, I’m so sorry about your wife.”
“We weren’t married.” I drained my wine glass, then refilled it. She hadn’t touched hers. “But we had plans. Or I had plans.” The evening seemed to be meandering. I decided to bare my soul. “She died up on Lichmor Pike. On a winter night. She went out walking and the snows came down. They think, perhaps, she took a fall.”
Mallory’s blue eyes widened.
“It’s a terrible mountain,” I said, with sudden venom. “It’s heartless and greedy. It haunts us, I think. It haunts us and it won’t let us go. And if we try to escape, it … it …”
But I couldn’t say what it would do and Ruthie never told me what it was like for her, out there on the mountain, dying, with the snow settling on her lips, the flakes turning pink then ruby red from the blood trickling over her cheeks.
Mallory drank deeply from her glass. Then she rose, closed the window and laid her cold fingers on mine.
“Come and sit.”
We sat together on the sofa, nursing our wine and still holding hands.
“I know what it’s like,” she said, “to be haunted.”
I set down my glass and pulled her to me. Her lips were chill, but they warmed. At first, she sat rigid, receiving my kiss, her fingers intertwined with mine. Then her lips sought mine in return and, in her throat, I heard the small noises of desire.
There was one time, before Ruthie moved in with me, I found a small bird, a thrush, with a broken wing. I took it in my hands and carried it from the barn, to show to her, to appeal for her love. I felt its tiny heartbeat hammer against my palms.
I felt Mallory’s heartbeat now, thrumming under her breast, warming her cheeks and her throat. I lifted her in my arms – it felt she weighed no more than the wounded thrush – and she held my face in her palms and nodded.
I carried her to the bedroom. We snatched kisses now, hungry for them, while our fingers tugged: at my belt and shirt, at the buttons on her dress, our bare skin revealed to the candlelight.
I laid Mallory beneath me and her warm arms circled my shoulders.
Then the window burst open. The pane shattered. The wind screamed at the guttering and roared across the roof.
Mallory sat bolt upright, clutching her dress together.
“I’m sorry!” she shouted.
I tried to soothe her, telling her not to be sorry, that there was nothing to be sorry about, it was just the Helm Wind that blows across the Fells. She sat beside me, quivering and unresponsive, so I ran to the window to fix it shut.
The wind shrieked around the cottage.
Mallory stood up. She buttoned her dress, her face hidden behind her disordered curls. “Leave it open. I’m sorry Tom. I’m so sorry.”
I told her it wasn’t her fault, that we could try again.
“No, Tom. You see –“ she was fully dressed now and walked to the window, where the wind whistled in the broken pane and tugged insistently at her hair “- I’ve not been honest with you Tom. You see –“ She searched the darkness outside then said: “There’s someone else.”
She turned to look at me and her face, pinched by the cold wind, was radiantly beautiful. “I’m waiting for him here. He’s coming soon. I should have told you. I’m so sorry.”
I didn’t believe her. A moment ago, I had held her in my arms and her passion had been real. Now, everything had changed and it felt unreal. It felt wrong.
“You have to go now, Tom.” She added: “He’ll be here soon.”
“He’s a lucky man,” I said before I left, but she didn’t answer. She stayed at the window, letting the wind sting tears on her white cheeks, and so I left, with a fool’s hope burning in my breast.
“That didn’t go so well,” said Ruthie.
She was waiting for me at the farm, sitting on the staircase, smoking, surrounded by the unopened mail, the bills, the Christmas cards crisscrossed by boot marks.
“That will make you happy, I suppose,” I replied, opening and closing cupboards till I found the half bottle of Scotch from last New Year.
“Why would it make me happy, Tom?”
“Because you didn’t get to meet with your fancy man!” I snapped. “Was it that young doctor, Ruthie? Was he going to take you away from this mountain? Well, look at us. We’re both stuck here with each other, and I’m as lonely as you, and, yes, I think that makes you happy.” I spat the words out. “I really think it does.”
Ruthie didn’t answer. Blood gushed down the side of her face, across her neck, soaking into her sweater. She moved her lips, as if trying to say my name, but her eyes rolled into white. Her knees toppled. She fell into the snow.
I drew deeply on the Scotch and, when I set the bottle down, I was alone in the house.
I was angry, so I hurt myself. I hurt myself every day. I hurt myself by working on the wall, then throwing the slates against the barn, where they exploded with satisfying cracks that launched protesting rooks into the air. I hurt myself by visiting Mallory. I took a wheelbarrow of fuel out to Hoarwell Cottage, an old family quilt, a space heater.
She received my gifts with smiles and thanks. But there was never an invitation to dinner. “Your gentleman’s not arrived yet,” I observed.
“He’s coming,” she said. “It’s not long now. He’s drawing near.”
“Who is he, Mallory? Who are you waiting for?”
But she wouldn’t answer me.
Winter settled on the summit of Lichmor Pike. It gilded the Fells with ice. Mallory grew more slender, paler, more lovely, even as the north wind took the Cottage in its fist.
“You need to warm this place,” I said, seeing the windows still open and the first flakes of snow floating into the room. They settled on Mallory’s eyelashes, her pale-gold hair, the hem of her thin dress.
“This is how I like it,” she replied, never turning her head to me, but always looking through the window to the north, across Cross Fell, where the rolling clouds of the Helm Bar shadowed the sky, marshalling their snows. It was as if winter drew a great breath before releasing his mighty wind.
The snow was falling heavily by the time I got home.
“She’s not for you, Tom,” said Ruthie. “Can’t you see that?”
She was right. I knew she was right. But the truth of it cut me and made me snap and bare my teeth, like a dog in a trap.
Ruthie was wearing her knitted coat, the one she’d worn when we met at the market fair, with the bobble hat and the Afghan scarf. I remembered her smile as she sat on a hay bale, underneath the ‘No Smoking’ sign, puffing away.
“Let her be, Tom,” she said. “Let her love her jealous winter and let winter love her. There are some wrongs you can’t make right by loving someone.”
But that was what she’d said to me, on the night she left. It had been snowing then, as it was now: big fat flakes, clutching the path and the walls and the lane, sticking to her hat and her scarf, dancing between us when she stopped at the gate.
“You can’t make wrong into right by loving me, Tom.”
And I said, “I don’t want wrong to be right. I don’t want love. I just want to know his name!”
I stormed out into the snow and snatched up a slate from the ground. It nestled comfortably into my palm.
“If you got to the Cottage,” said Ruthie, echoing my last words to her, “you won’t be coming back.”
We stared at each other through the dancing flakes. One of us was going to the Cottage to meet with a mysterious lover, but this time it was me.
A thread of blood crept from her temple and traced a scarlet line across her cheek, to swell on her chin.
I said, “Goodbye Ruthie.”
She called after me: “You can’t fight him, Tom. You don’t even know his name!”
I walked away from the house, across the field, over the shoulder of Lichmor Pike, towards the Cottage.
I formed a thousand resolutions. I would tell Mallory my feelings. I would get down on my knees. I would curse her for a slut for leading me on. I would save her, from a dreadful fate: from being snowed in by the blizzard, from starvation, from exposure.
I would demand to know his name. She owed me that.
The wind whipped the snow against my cheeks and tugged the breath from my lips. I gripped the slate so fiercely it cut into my fingers, but they were too numb to feel it.
Outside the Cottage, deep footsteps dented the snow. His footsteps. He was here.
But the footsteps did not come up from the valley, from the road into town. No, these came down from Lichmor Pike, from the summit, where winter brooded in shadow and majesty.
The footsteps went to the cottage door, which stood open, and entered in.
I hesitated on the threshold. Snow had drifted into the kitchen and blew in through the open windows but, other than the copper pots clanking on their hooks, a deep solstice silence lay over the Cottage.
I called, “Mallory!”
The footsteps trudged through the ice, across the tiles, through the kitchen, to the bedroom door. I gripped the heavy slate.
They were in there, together, in bed, entwined. Her white limbs were open to receive him, her lips curved in a sigh of delight.
I called out, “Ruthie!” then shook my head. That wasn’t right. Not Ruthie. Not tonight. I raised the stone with one hand. The other hand I placed on the bedroom door. I would see them together, in bed. I would see my rival’s face.
The Helm Wind screamed across the Fells, circling the mountain, and roared into the room, flinging the door wide open.
* * *
Later that night, the wind died down and the snow turned to a faint sleet. The air ambulance lit up the field with its lights. The paramedics carried the stretcher out of the Cottage.
“What did you find in the bedroom, Tom?” said PC Jack Graham.
I stood with my back to the cottage wall, my hands thrust into my pockets. It calmed me to hear Jack’s familiar voice.
“Mallory,” I said, then: “Miss Annis. Mallory Annis.”
“Was she dead when you found her?”
I nodded. We stood together in silence. It had been Jack who brought me the news when they found Ruthie’s body, up on Lichmor Pike.
“She was naked,” I said. “Naked on her bed. As you saw her. That wasn’t me, Jack. I wouldn’t have…” Jack nodded. He patted my shoulder.
I said, “Her lips, they were blue as harebells, Jack. All her skin, her skin kissed by snowflakes. And her face…”
“What about her face, Tom?”
“She was happy,” I said recalling the ecstasy in her sightless eyes.
“Was she injured, Tom?”
“Had someone hurt her?”
I thought of the blood, a thin ruby line, swelling under a woman’s hair, edging over a bruised cheek and gathering on her chin.
“Oh no. She was happy. She was happy to see him.”
“Her lover.” I gestured to the snowy ground. “You can see his footsteps …”
But the only prints to see were mine and the paramedics who now loaded the body into the helicopter.
Jack sighed deeply. “Let’s go with the ambulance, Tom. Let’s go to Penrith. You can go over it again there. At the station.” He squeezed my arm reassuringly. “The whole story, Tom. Your story.”
He led me away towards the helicopter. I looked behind me. Hoarwell Cottage stood secret and still, but above it towered the height of Lichmor Pike, where winter, his passions all spent, hid himself in ice and shadow, and the north wind keened its lonely song.
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