She sits in the armchair smoothing the worn fabric. There is an old key on the table. She focuses on the key, clears her mind of grief and allows the happiness to surface and grow like a flame. On this special anniversary, she is weaving magic in the moonlight, plaiting strands of memory to bring them back to her.
“I’ll see you tomorrow, my darling. Don’t be late!” He smiles, play growls, and kisses her enthusiastically.
She watches him walk to the car and waves as he drives off. After she has locked the front door and put the key back on the table, she makes a fuss of Jed, tops up his water and climbs the stairs to bed.
Beyond the kissing gate, the gravestones are rimed with frost, glinting in the sunlight. Her dog looks handsome this morning, sporting a red kerchief and making the best of it. He would rather be about other business, but he keeps pace with her careful steps along the silver path, towards the church door.
Her bridegroom whispers, “You look beautiful, Mary, just like a snow queen.”
They are walking on the moor, hand in hand, looking for a suitable picnic spot. Alex thinks it is strange to eat sitting on a blanket in the snow, but it’s a beautiful calm day and he is used to Mary’s eccentricities; she never seems to feel the cold. Their eyes follow the black and white shape in the distance, running mad circles, dodging and weaving, chasing phantoms.
Alex is here. The flame leaps and steadies. She must be careful not frighten him.
“My darling, you’ve come home to me. I’m so very glad.”
Mary? Is it really you?”
“Yes of course, Alex.”
“I was lost”, he says, looking dazed and forlorn like a small child.
“I know, but you are safe home now. Sit down, darling. We will wait together.”
“Wait for what?”
She sits next to him on the sofa and takes his hand. “For Jed, darling, he is lost too.”
His eyes settle on the wedding photo on the mantelpiece. Their faces are close together, smiling for the camera. He has brown eyes, fringed with lashes that girls envy, olive skin and dark hair, sleek as an otter’s pelt. She is as pale as milk, a winter child.
Above the fireplace hangs a water colour of a collie, locked in a battle of wills with a ewe. He is a splendid dog, the best she has ever worked with. Alex painted the picture. He knows little about working sheep, but he is a wonderful artist and he loves the dog.
A miniature football, scuffed and deflated, lied abandoned in the corner of the room. It is Jed’s favourite toy.
She watches the play of emotions on his face. Alexander is returning to himself.
“I was driving, wasn’t I? “
“Yes, darling, but it wasn’t your fault.”
His face crumples. “I’m so sorry, Mary. I didn’t see the sheep until it was in front of the car, but I shouldn’t have swerved. Please forgive me.”
“Oh, Alex, there is nothing to forgive. Don’t blame yourself, it was just an accident. We are here now, that’s all that matters, and we will be together always. Please be calm, darling. Look at the painting and think of Jed.”
He is close now. She needs to bring him home.
“Come Jed, good boy!”
Jed is searching; driven, obsessed, true to his breed. Instinct has brought him here to find his pack. He smells the herd, some sleeping, some watchful in the moonlight, but he doesn’t give chase; it isn’t allowed and he is a good dog. He stops briefly, pricks his ears and cocks his head when he hears her voice … “Come Jed, good boy!” He whines with excitement. He is deep in sheep country and running home.
The estate agent is running late and feeling rather flustered. The cottage is miles from the village and although she knows this road like the back of her hand, it’s starting to snow again and she is worried about getting home safely.
The couple’s’ car is parked some way from the house with the rear door ajar, letting in flurries of snow. She will let them know about it when she finds them. As she walks up the path, rummaging in her handbag for the key, she sees that the front door is open. How very odd. A further search of her bag fails to produce the key.
She jumps in fright when the couple appear suddenly in the doorway.
“Miss Appleby? I do hope you don’t mind, but the door was open and we thought we’d look around while we were waiting.” He smiles with such rare charm that the agent forgets the inconvenience of the last minute appointment, the snow, the open car and front door, the key, the fright, and beams back at him.
“It’s a beautiful cottage, isn’t it? I don’t know if you managed to see everything, but I could take you through again if you like. I expect you have some questions.”
“Thank you”, says the young woman, “but there’s nothing we need to ask. We’ll just take another look by ourselves, if that’s all right. We just love the cottage, it feels like home.”
The agent feels considerably cheered by the woman’s words. She hopes, if they decide to buy, that they will be happy here and stay rather longer than the others. There has been the usual gossip in the village about ghosts, which is nonsense of course; a far more likely explanation is the remote location and harsh winters. People often have an idealised view of country life and the reality can be a shock. She hopes they haven’t heard about the ghost stories or the tragic accident. No-one has actually died in the house, as far as she knows, but people sometimes shy away from even vague connections to death. She holds a picture in her mind, conjured from old newspapers and local gossip, which is uncannily accurate.
A car skids off a snowy road, hits a large rock and rolls over twice. The man has head injuries but he has left the car and collapsed after fifty feet or so. The woman’s left hip and leg are fractured. Despite her injuries she drags herself through the snow to reach him. The collie has no obvious injuries, but he is bleeding internally.
A sheep farmer finds them next morning. They are huddled close together. The woman’s right hand is cradling her husband’s head and her cheek is resting on his shoulder. Her left hand is entwined in the Collie’s black ruff. Later that day in the Red Lion, with a pint in his hand and a few more under his belt, the farmer weeps unashamedly at the bar. “Collie were wedged between ‘em, poor bugger. I’ve known Mary since she were a young’un. It were their Wedding Anniversary, for God’s sake!”
She didn’t know the couple, being an ‘outsider’, but the story has stuck in her mind. The young woman lies in the graveyard beside her mother and father, but her husband’s body is buried overseas, claimed by a family member. It makes her sad to think that they are parted in death.
She doesn’t see the dog standing in the doorway as she has just spotted the ‘lost’ key on the table. He glances at her and finding nothing of interest turns and trots into the kitchen. He probably shouldn’t have left the car, but he can’t remember hearing “stay” and the car door was open after all. It’s nice here, he likes it. More importantly, from his point of view, there are lots of sheep.
He hears his people moving around upstairs but he isn’t allowed on staircases. The old bed by the Aga looks inviting and he doesn’t think the other dog will mind if he uses it for a while. He sighs, turns around three times and curls up, nose to tail.
Good dog, Jed.
In the bleak midwinter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone:
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter,