Bobtail Five

Bobtail Five

In Issue 76 by Mark Wagstaff

Bobtail Five
Photo by Kirsty Nadine on Adobe Stock

Snow, but not yet. Clouds built across the sky, ahead of a raw east wind like smoke from encroaching fires. Pavements and walls, brick and stone, scornful of fragile bodies. He moved quickly, thinking a day ahead when streets would freeze, when snow would lay and, bound with anxiety, each careless step invited damage.

He walked opposite to the way home. South across Euston Road, by the spot where the hospital Christmas tree stood just a week ago. A few decorations still pinned in the emergency room. A half-deflated balloon. He cut through the muffled crowd at Warren Street station. Cut across their flow, fixed straight ahead, walking fast to make people falter. A small pleasure.

By a cess of dark, where beggars piled cardboard into a doorway while men in black watch caps smoked and talked an East European language. Doing nothing, they had latent purpose.

Took a left into Whitfield Street past a soccer game on the caged pitch, young men lunging through clouds of breath to shoot, to miss, to wheel back, heads shaking. Tall lights made false daytime. From open windows of student apartments, negligent heat and music leaked, a buoyant fog cut free of the ground. Below their lives, he held no interest for them.

Each pub along the street spilled a blockage of sensation, overflowing chattering people lagged with booze against the cold. Awkward to move past them, uninvolved and pushing. A virus, he thought. An unwelcome transition. People stared, as though he was the obstacle. They stepped aside unwillingly. They gave him minimal space.

Crowds thinned toward college buildings adrift with empty light. Glancing down, the window of a basement room framed an interview. At a table by the window, three spines tense with interest, as a woman talked with her hands. The three figures watched her eager answers. From behind and above, he saw papers laid in front of them – resumes with the woman’s picture, forms, manuscript notes. The woman made a gesture that seemed to include the whole world. He saw the fifth person in the room. Away to the side, a woman at an upright piano, music tidily clipped, her fingers at rest on the wood. Her body the shape of a lightning bolt, sloped forward by the narrow stool. Perhaps flexing her toes en pointe to stave cramp or boredom. An interview with piano accompaniment.

The interviewed woman made speedy, circling gestures. Catherine wheel hands,  animated eyes driving answers towards the appreciative panel straining forward across their papers. She had them. She was acing it. At the piano, the other woman arched her back, a supple stretch bowing her spine. Light bounced from her glasses. An interview with music.

He walked to be part, for now, of streets where once he belonged. When wasted time was just that. Through cluttered Goodge Street into the station, to jog down the spiral stairs. Remembering once he could run so fast, trusting only to where his feet fell. Now pain bit his knees. Now he felt solid, no longer subject to change.

His apartment was cold and the evening short as he liked it. Impending snow a sound reason for early bed. Through the week, he had noticed the stairs of his block were dirtier than usual. Speckled with stiff, brittle scraps. Boot prints tracked the hallways, dust eddied with disturbance. The next morning, which was a holiday, he realized the cause. Sleeping late, unwilling to face the cold, he was woken by heavy boots. A voice shouted, “Ben, my friend,” someone greeting the upstairs neighbor. Someone busy-sounding and foreign.

Talk outside his door brought him, naked, to listen. The man’s Spanish accent and his colleague who, with less English, spoke emphatically to sound agreeable. Ben and Jocelyn, the upstairs neighbors, were explaining things to these men, reviewing progress, establishing plans. Motionless, his ear to the door, he understood the debris on the carpet, the lumpy sacks by the recycling bins. On a holiday, his neighbors had hired decorators. So like them not to consult anyone nor give warning. So like them to believe what was good for them was good. Noiselessly, he formed a fist, knuckles whitening at each burst of the Spanish men’s laughter.

Of course, Ben and Jocelyn took vacation. They had friends, a network, relatives with undisclosed income. Of course, the decorators left the upstairs apartment door open, played the radio, whistled and sang. The scraping of walls, the smell of paint invasive. He didn’t intervene. He tried to ignore their sounds of repetitive work, their heavy footsteps chasing upstairs. It was daytime and a holiday. No ground for complaint.

The men worked until late afternoon, leaving miasmic air and gritty silence. After they’d gone, the rest of his day went on trivial pleasure. To bed early again as night froze, glad Ben and Jocelyn weren’t home. They couldn’t help but make noise.

Next day, more clamor but no talk. One painter, working alone. Perhaps making up time lost to laughter.

When he opened his door a little, that singing, carelessly masculine, spread from upstairs the way a breeze ruffles party dresses. He couldn’t imagine what made the painter so happy.

Rapid, tumbling footsteps had him quickly slam the door. An admission of presence. Still, he jumped as the confident fist drew rhythm from the wood. His door, that no one should touch. Pretending not to hear, to be absent, cloistered, was futile. The man already knew he was there. Straightening his spine, he turned the latch.

Plaid cotton over a Barça shirt, its stripes like parting drapes. Paint-crusted trainers and jeans, a dark face, thick mustache, wind-knotted black hair. Luxurious brown eyes. A solid figure with a round head, a generous, downy hand clutching a phone. “Excuse me.” The painter spoke deliberately, striving for courtesy. “You have a charger for this? My colleague, he is…”

He followed the painter’s gesture to the window, to a world bleached by snow. It fell thick and silent, transforming the street to a tableau of huddled mounds and silky plains. Closing the view, diminishing his resistance.

“I need to tell Ben,” said the painter. “I can’t do so much, just me.”

Suddenly cold, the man crossed to the window, dumbfounded. “I didn’t notice the snow.” His voice diminished by immense silence outside.

Upstairs the radio played. A tinny, portable sound. “You see?” The painter held out his phone. “The battery is gone. You have a charger? I need to call Ben.”

Powdery flakes bricked the window corners, dense as storm blossom. Where the frame sat loose from the sill, a lick of cold striped his skin. “You know where they’ve gone? Ben and Jocelyn?”

“Family, I think. Outside London.”

“You work on a holiday?”

The painter looked amused as though humoring the dull Englishman. Spreading his arms, the parallel bars of his soccer shirt inflating. “It’s money.” Slowly, he wagged the phone side to side.

“I don’t have a charger for that.” An old phone, cracked and paint-stained. “Use mine. Ben knows my number.” An uncharacteristic decision.

The painter took the man’s phone, a smile arranging his face with effortless warmth.

“Ben’s number is in my contacts.”

“Show me.” He smelled of paint. Of sweat. A manly, muscle-worn chemistry.

As the man dabbed the screen, the painter’s warmth engaged the thin hairs of his hand. “It’s easy,” said the man. “Press that icon.”

“Gracias.”

The man returned to the window. It fogged readily with his breath. The place was cold. He should switch on the heat.

“Ben, my friend.” The voice filled the room. “Much snow here. There too? My colleague, he cannot come. It is too far and the roads are stopped. I can paint woodwork, yes. But not the large tasks, just me. Hopefully a day or two, the snow may be over.” More descriptions of things he could do when his colleague returned. “Thank you,” he said to the man, handing back the phone.

Warm and slippy, it snuggled his fingers. “I suppose this is different from home.”

The painter looked puzzled.

“This snow.”

“Ah,” he grinned uneven teeth. “My mother brought me to England when I was twelve. It snows in Spain too.” He settled into a steady smile. “Would you like to see what we’re doing upstairs?”

The man followed, drawn by a string.

The once tidy staircase was stripped, carpet prized away, wallpaper shredded. Everything rendered to its base level. “We were going fast,” the painter said proudly. “But I need my colleague.”

In the bedroom the mattress was tipped to the wall, the bedframe dismantled, everything taped and covered. Their feet crackled across plastic shrouding the floor. “It’s quite a refit,” said the man.

“Ben may be selling, I think. I don’t know. If I can tell you,” the painter dipped his voice, “he is not very focused.”

The man felt a smile struggle through his cheekbones. “I think that. But they’re both young.”

“Being young is no illness, my friend.” With quick force, the painter clapped his shoulder. “I am Andres. Like Andrew.”

“Peter.”

“Ah, the man of the rock. Look at this.”

Peter followed Andres to the kitchen. The kitchen was new when Ben and Jocelyn moved in, a gift from their generous parents. Now its white goods were sealed in plastic and countertops lay split.

“This got old for them.” Andres’ silky laugh slid over the wreckage. “We tried,” he clutched his heart, “but it had to be smashed.” Again, his fingers touched Peter’s shoulder. “They don’t care for money as we do.”

It angered Peter that his young neighbors could afford whatever they wanted. Rich families, no debts, jobs that paid well for nothing. For things he didn’t understand. “I suppose it’s their money.” His hesitant voice barely travelled.

Andres’ laughter softened. “Yes, we are poor and free. Hey.”

Peter followed Andres’ gesture to the window. “It wasn’t forecast to snow this hard.” Gobbets of white slathered the cold glass.

“I am never tired how the English love weather. It keeps your face, yes? Safe talk, not hurtful. Don’t look cross, my friend.” Again, that touch. “In Spain people talk all the time. Always complaining. The football,” he tugged his shirt. “Their team is never good, even when they win. Religion, enough to burst your stomach. Politics. The decay of Spain, how it’s gone to shit. How everyone hates each other. So much talk. But not about weather.” He slapped Peter’s arm.

It stung. “We do talk about weather.”

“Why not?” Andres raised his hands. “Always pissing or snowing.”

Stepping away, Peter said, “I’ll let you get back to work.”

“So English.” Andres sucked breath as though braced on a windy clifftop. “This job, it is weeks. A month. An hour here, an hour there, no matter.” From a grazed leather tool bag came two bottled beers. “Surely you don’t work on a holiday?”

Peter had interests, his time well-ordered. He rarely drank. Maybe wine with a meal, never beer. “I wouldn’t want to take it from you.” Rushed words that sounded wrong.

“I wouldn’t want to give it you,” Andres grinned. “But trouble comes when a man drinks alone. This is payment for your time.”

Once the crowns were snapped from the bottles, it became impolite not to toast this vivid man of furred hands and tangled hair. As beer sluiced his throat, Peter wondered how to make this sharing important. “Is it just the two of you working on this?”

“Just one of me,” Andres grinned, “and my colleague. We work together often.”

Peter swallowed the joke with a smile. Already, dangerous mist percolated his head. “Have you always been a decorator?”

“I’ve always had to work. And you? You are not much here.”

“I go out early.”

“You are busy?”

“Most days.”

The window dripped with their breath, the outer glass crusted with snow. The sky closed over, wrapping them in chalk.

Silence pricked by the bottle rim tapping Andres’ front teeth. “I learned to be busy. When I was little, time hadn’t been thought of. Time was foggy. Everything here,” his arm described the room, “needs fixings, bolts. It stays fixed and works in a solid way. You and me the same. We stay fixed and work.”

Unbound by the beer, Peter skimmed condensation from the window with wet, aching fingers. “I feel achievement from work. I like that.”

“Why not? When I paint a room, I take pictures. See.” Andres held out his phone, sliding images round the screen with a brown, flattened thumb. Pictures of rooms. Rooms in places Peter could never live. Airy, tall-windowed lounges. Gadgeted kitchens. Rooms as long as tunnels. A mezzanine balcony birthing a delicate iron stair. Cozy lofts. Stripped bathrooms, their pipes exposed as though caught in embarrassed disorder. Rooms painted pleasing grays, sly greens, savage, cheerful gold, blinding white and dense, tangible violet. Empty stages, cleansed of living. “Every room,” Andres spoke softly. “I paint and take a picture. My portfolio.” He tapped the phone against Peter’s chest. “You have such a thing?”

“I have a CV. A resume.”

“Why not? If that is all anyone needs of you.”

At the western rim of the sky, winter light dwindled. Night bathed the room in black mist. Every surface became indeterminate. Shadows shook free of the walls to spread unhindered. Surprising himself, Peter said, “Will you get home okay?”

“This is nothing, some snow.” Andres buttoned his shirt.

“Why not stay here?” Dark had enveloped the flat. “I’m sure they won’t mind. I could call for some food.”

“You do not think I have a wife at home and little children with mouths like birds?”

“Sorry.” Peter turned away.

“I don’t.”

Peter’s flat wasn’t suited to guests or arrangements. Everything small and half-done. An afterthought tucked beneath Ben and Jocelyn’s needfully wasteful rooms. Andres was amused. “You are like their basement,” he said.

Peter made tea and Andres scrolled radio stations until he found Sibelius’s Symphony Number Two. Landing around the twenty-third minute, the orchestra like a quarrelsome glance flung over a frozen street.

“My mother liked this,” Andres nodded. “She would sit on deck with Sibelius half the night.”

The stained cups were embarrassing. They made Peter a slatternly host. “My mother liked the radio.” She had and there was nothing else to say about it. “Your mother would sit outside?”

“Of course.”

“I suppose Spanish nights are warmer.”

The cup, the drink it contained, ridiculous in Andres’ hand. “I told you, my friend. My mother brought me to England. You don’t take sugar?”

“I have troublesome teeth.”

“Then you may as well.” Andres finished the tea with a visible gulp. “My mother didn’t care about English cold. She had music and thoughts. She had warmth.” Andres rubbed his chest. “Here was her fire. She could walk through that door and this room would be summer.”

Peter’s mother read romances and drank coffee. She made cakes and never ate them. “What take-out should I call?”

Andres tapped his lips. “Please. This is her music.”

They heard out the symphony, its finale striving for height sustained by strings in a flourish of longing. A pause beyond the echo. Then the wild release of applause in some distant city, tension and kinship surging through beaten skin.

Andres sat back, loose and open. “I would hear that as I lay in bed. But after those final notes only silence and water. She would weep, but… I cannot think of the word. Estoico.” He stretched flat, his arms deadweight.

Peter’s breath thickened, clogging his chest. “Water?”

“Of course. On a boat you hear water.”

Something opened around his feet, its pressure drew him down. He had no serious words, no credible phrases. “A boat? That must be something.” Thinly, his voice limped through the room. “I mean, was it fun? Life at sea?”

Often, as Peter had learned, Andres’ face had some amused or gratified expression. Now, sternness became him. “Not the sea, my friend. I did not say so. I am not sure how a person would live on the sea. We had a canal boat, yes? We lived with familiar water, with trees and sky. With her music and silence. With the smell of her skin, the taste of her hair. That I remember.”

Beneath him, the gulf of his own ignorance. His mother, by turns, was angry and sullen. She smelled only of cleaning.

The radio program moved on. A sprightly reading of Johann Strauss gavotted around them. Andres’ fingers twitched, tempted to dance. “Hunger and tiredness should be faced in that order.”

“What take-out should I call?”

“Anything.”

Andres didn’t sleep upstairs in the dismantled, paint-filled apartment. After a functional Chinese meal, he fell asleep in Peter’s armchair. His heavy lids wilted, that thicketed chin met his chest. Peter left the radio playing softly and passed the night drifting and waking, disturbed by his rapid heart.

As icy light bleached the curtain, a festive rustic sound nudged Peter awake. He stumbled to the sitting room, where a harpsichord and strings backed away from a mezzo declaring ‘Va tacito e nascosto.’ A messy bass from the kitchen sang, “How silently, how slyly,” in richly accented English. When the aria concluded, a dove-voiced announcer reminded listeners it was from Handel’s ‘Julius Caesar’. His tone suggested no one should need reminding.

Andres jigged from the kitchen with two cups of tea. “You keep no coffee, Peter? Of course. You are English.” Grinning, he offered the cup.

“You slept well?” The cup was hotly awkward to take by the rim and Peter fumbled.

“I do not remember. So, yes.”

Through the window, clouded and streaming, it seemed the snow had slackened. A stiletto of air jabbed Peter’s feet. The building was old, its walls breathed. “I should get to work.”

“It’s not a holiday?”

“That was yesterday.”

Eclectically, the morning radio spilled a jaunty Messager operetta, gilding the tired walls with fin de siècle gaiety. Andres pointed to the sound then slapped his leg. “We should dance, you think?” His eyes gleamed.

“I have work. I should get ready.” Peter reminded himself it was impolite to tell Andres that he had work too. Andres knew his own business.

“Maybe your work is closed.” Andres wiped the window. “My colleague won’t come.”

Late-fallen snow, hardened all night, touched by morning sunshine, transformed from powdery, playful confections to peaks of glinting menace. Deceitful danger blanketed the street. Yet Peter was a man, and a man endures. Persistence was his weakness. “It won’t be closed. It’s in the city. The roads will be cleared.”

“My colleague will be with his wife. His children, their school will be closed. He won’t come. This job will take weeks. It’s no matter.”

“Perhaps I could call a cab.”

“Would you like to see where I lived with my mother?” Andres grinned. “A visit out. It will do good.”

Plush Parisian melodies quivered and faded. The announcer made an arch comment about listeners ruffling their petticoats around the breakfast table. He didn’t sound like a man at work but joking with serious friends of frivolous interests. Inevitably, he said to prepare for something completely different, as a Brahms piano concerto commenced.

“Call a cab,” said Andres, “we get a train from Euston.”

“Euston?” The familiar name made no sense.

“To go to the canal.”

The dense, freezing world seemed immense, insoluble. “I don’t use taxi apps. ‘Call a cab,’ it’s just a thing people say.”

Soreness in Peter’s gut worsened when he called his office. Of course, it was open. Of course, people had got there. Others worked from home. He should do one or the other. His manager’s tone made that clear. One or the other. Peter agreed, he should.

The street was utterly baffling in its change from orderly blacktop to complex, unstable ice shoals. Andres’ broad, paint-spattered trainers moved easily through crusted snow. Peter’s work shoes slid, jolting his heart with each step. He wanted to pause, make minute, steady progress. But Andres strode, slipping and making it a game. Peter couldn’t keep pace, the white, glinting gap between them taunted him.

“These shoes aren’t good,” he lied. “Not snowshoes.”

Andres was surprised how far Peter lagged behind. The distance a cube of sharp air and ice. “It’s not hard. You will slip, of course. You may fall if you walk slow or fast. But don’t expect you will fall.” He waited till Peter caught up. “Bad luck grows teeth if we expect it.”

Slow-moving traffic had swept the main road, its curbs banked with gray and pink slush like remnants of a meal. Deceptively, the sidewalk promised open movement, but mixed snow and slush made it harder to judge where to step. Robustly, Peter said, “Shall we take the Tube?”

“We are embarked.” Andres was grave. “This is important.” He waved down a cab. “We should stay in sight of the sky.”

Around Euston, snow retreated from the tenacity of everyday business. People wanted to walk, to drive, to feel uninterruptible. As the cab idled between intersections, the driver told them of winters when he was a child. Proper winters, when ice formed inside his bedroom window and his mother filled a hot water bottle to clutch beneath thin blankets. Peter sympathized. Andres watched traffic.

The station was crowded, trains were delayed, people stared at the departure screens or hunched on the floor gripping phones. The ticket office echoed with voices changing arrangements, calculating journey times, calling loved ones in snowed-over cities. “We will be fine,” Andres asserted. “We are not going far.” He hadn’t money nor plastic. He was paid week-to-week, he said, as explanation.

Peter bought two singles to Rugby, the cost denting his hopes for the month. Andres said they must take a fast train. “The light goes too soon.”

They got table seats on the right-hand side of the train. “We must be this side,” Andres said, “for the canal.”

Some people worked at devices. Others sat amid too much luggage like ousted chieftains. Most seemed to have indeterminate purpose. Sleeping, listening to music that leaked from their earbuds. Staring from the window, unclear how the remnant day brought them this journey. Subdued, they watched tumbling suburbs without interest in truncated streets, gantries and cranes, partial insights to others’ lives.

Through London snow had retreated, but north of the Watford tunnel, the stasis of winter endured. Fields and lanes lay melded indifferent white. Hedges made mountain chains across glacier meadows. Sunlight dimmed, swallowed by mist and sullen cloud. Lone houses huddled into themselves, listless and unreachable. On every slow road, traffic crawled, disconcerted.

Andres’ talk grew sparse as the landscape absorbed him. Together, they watched a smothered world scroll by. Close to the train, fences and gravel, hedges and sudden embankments flashed from oblivion to oblivion, fast as a predawn dream. When the view opened out, distant hills slowly uncurled, pinkish light streaking their patchworked snow.

Every few miles a flurry gathered and faded, briefly closing the world with a hustle of snow. The country seemed slated to winter, a realm of iron and white. “Narnia.” Peter cleared his throat, aware of words after long silence. “I loved that book because the character, Peter, I thought he was named for me.”

“Narnia?” Andres didn’t turn from the window.

“The land of endless winter.”

“I do not know it. Winter for me is confinement.”

Peter searched the hurrying fields. “Spring will come.”

But Andres’ absorption grew total, his finger describing a line on the glass like a streamer flung to the wind.

The canal reached so near the tracks it seemed to rise above them. Andres half-stood, his stomach pleated across the table edge. “There.” His finger tore across a patch of woodland. “We must be there.” The trees already miles behind.

“What’s there?” Peter searched, confused.

Andres was silent.

At Rugby, bleary sunlight jagged the clouds. The station whipped by caustic wind that herded the few passengers into shelters. Peter followed Andres to the parking lot, where a line of snow-spattered cars grumbled into the tunnel beneath the station. A dismal hotel hunched against the sharp air. Terraced streets flaked and shivered.

Peter was hungry and wanted the toilet. He knew these were small things. This empty town without obvious pivot was his companion’s terrain. They had passed to Andres’ competence.

Andres eyed the parking lot. “There should be taxis here. Where are they?”

“We could take a bus.” Peter indicated a plastic shelter along the road.

“You think buses are in the countryside in this weather?”

Andres’ sharpness chafed him. “I don’t know where you think you’re going.”

“I showed you. From the train.”

“A flash of country at a hundred miles an hour? It all looked the same.” Peter checked his fretful voice. “Filthy snow.”

Andres was astounded. “You saw the boats.”

“I do not know why we’re here or what you’re talking about.”

Bleak, graceless silence swilled around them. “Of course.” Andres turned back to the station. “This is the closest place for the railway. We must go into the country. We need a taxi.” Inside the station, a sign listed local cab firms. “You have a phone?”

Peter hadn’t checked his phone since London. It caught only bad temper from his boss and debt collectors. However he scrimped, he could never quite manage. “You have money for a taxi? The train ticket cost a lot.”

Andres scowled. “I won’t eat tonight anyway.”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what? Call them.”

“Where are we going?” At Andres’ look, Peter held out his phone. “For the taxi. I can’t just tell them to drive to the country.”

“Tell them Nether Heyford.” He stumbled the name and repeated it slowly. “I have not said that for a while. Taxi to the village and then we will walk.”

The first number Peter called was unsure the road was open. The second was blunt about the state of the A5, recounting his own perilous journey that morning, adding – as afterthought – that he had no drivers anyway. They were snowed-in, no doubt sledding with their children.

“Not at work? What are these people? French?” Andres laughed mirthlessly. “Try the next number.”

Peter couldn’t recall how much credit remained on his phone. Everything was always touch and go, curbed by lack of money.

A woman apologized for answering the phone. Their dispatcher was snowed in. “My mum’s in Northampton.” Her hesitation suggested she was considering Northampton and her mother. “I can drive you to Heyford myself, then go and see her.” She shouted to someone to mind the phones. A female voice shouted angrily back.

“She’ll be fifteen minutes,” Peter told Andres. “She’s got to come from Lutterworth.”

Thirsty, they walked to the grim hotel where a convenience store occupied one corner of the structure.  Its staff were bored. One walked the aisles, straightening packets and cans. Another moved price tickets a minimal distance. Peter wanted a hot drink, but reluctantly got orange juice. Andres seemed content with still water. He paid for both drinks with a creased note unpicked from the folds of his pocket.

As they walked back to the station, a car horn sounded behind them. A canary-yellow hatchback with sports tires pulled into the curb. “Sorry.” The woman leaned across to open the rear door. “This isn’t one of our cabs. My mum gets confused if she sees something different.”

Andres smiled, though his charm seemed effortful. “We are glad to see you. I think we have seen the sights.”

“Rugby you mean?” The woman glanced around. “Not much, is it?”

Andres folded into the back seat, his knees jammed awkwardly behind the driver. Peter bunched next to him, intensely aware their legs touched.

“I’m Tracey.” She opened the steamed-over window to check for traffic. “It’s a bit mad today. You think the roads’d be empty but there’s,” raising her voice, “idiots like that,” as a car shot past. “Some people, no sense. I don’t really drive much, myself.” She watched a van swerve round them. “This is my Kaylee’s car. Sorry about the mess.”

The floor had a thin litter of candy wrappers. Lids from throwaway coffee cups skimmed the rear shelf.

Snow crystallized on the sunroof, filling the car with gray, fickle light. Tracey piloted through the tunnel beneath the railway, breathing audibly and wiping the windscreen with her sleeve. “I did tell her to get the heater fixed. We’ll try the M1.”

“You know Nether Heyford?” Andres struggled not to sound irritable.

“It’s pretty down there, with the canal.”

They passed low-rise housing, half-smothered, roof tiles glaring like bare hide. A few turns took them to semirural wastes on the rim of town, scrub fields of wilted snow and boxy warehouse units, their optimistic banners cracked by the wind.

“You come far?” Tracey cautiously broke the silence.

Andres didn’t stir to reply, so Peter said, “From London. My friend here,” he wondered, as he said it, if that was true, “is visiting.”

“Well, it can’t hurt.” Tracey squinted at the icy road. “Might as well come in winter as anytime.”

Painfully English, Peter felt impelled to conversation. “You’re from Lutterworth?” His voice brightly synthetic.

“Not originally.” She wiped the windscreen, teetering over the steering column. “It’s pretty in parts, but the traffic’s bad. Frank Whittle made jet engines there. There’s stuff in the museum.”

“Frank Whittle.” Peter could think of nothing. “Very important.”

“No jet, no Costa del Sol.” Andres wedged his elbow to the wall, mounting his chin on his fist.

The sullen sheds, boxy stores and empty car parks gave way to a managed countryside of small trees and planed fields, bisected by an undulating road. A sense of mystery freshened the journey. Peter couldn’t tell where they were, for the snow and steamed-over windows. Tracey seemed puzzled too. She didn’t use a GPS. Only Andres had no interest in their immediate surroundings, perhaps thinking about where they were going.

They crossed back over the railway. “It’s a bit tricky here,” Tracey offered. “I don’t normally come this way.” Prosperous, half-timbered houses flicked by, lit and cozy against midafternoon gloom. “My Kaylee goes fast. I tell her she won’t make a cab driver.”

Having seemingly driven a long, charmless loop, Tracey perked in her seat as they slowed for a mushy-edged roundabout with a sign for the M1. “Now we’re sucking diesel.” She spun onto the barren A428, its skeletal trees and orderly buildings a pastiche of urban life.

“Yes, this is the way,” Andres mumbled to his knuckles.

That angered Peter, who had adopted Tracey as a flustered acquaintance doing a favor for down-at-heel neighbors. A pleasingly trite diversion that made Peter protective of her. He’d rarely experienced the need to be protective.

Rugby proved remarkably unrelenting. Its suburbs stretched for miles with a uniform tidiness that winter made all the more deathly. Small trees, black railings, houses with bloated bay windows. A hunkering sense of insulation from sudden movement. Along Crick Road they passed a pub, the canal pieced into reflections below the bridge. “Could just do a G&T.” Tracey’s hands agitated the wheel. “I mean I don’t, not when I’m driving.”

“In Spain is harsh. No drink driving.”

“Is that where you’re from? Spain?”

“Once.” Andres drew his hand across the window, circling droplets between his fingers. “I have been here longer.”

“You never lost the accent.” Tracey leaned forward to read a road sign.

“My mother was a strict Englishwoman. She liked to preserve things.”

“S’pose I never lost mine neither. My Kaylee says I talk northern.”

A wind turbine swatted the ashy sky, its needles churning against rangy clouds. The car pitched beneath a bridge and climbed a sliproad. They’d reached the M1. Frantically, Tracey lowered her window, twisting her head outside then retracting with a yelp as a pair of trucks pummeled the car with their slipstream. Tracey yanked the wheel, accelerating sideways to the fast lane in a squall of surprised horns and flashed headlamps. “It’s quick from here.” Her voice flew over the din.

“You are an astonishing driver.”

Again, Peter thought that Andres smiled unwillingly. “How far is it from here?”

“About fifteen mile to Northampton. Much the same to Heyford, I guess.”

The motorway was clear of snow, smeared with trucks chasing delivery schedules. Cars, their headlamps already lit, ploughed the gaps between trailers, their drivers locked into the shape defined by seat and steering wheel. Perfectly canted for their task, informed every inch by screens on the dashboard. Driving, with no need to think about driving.

In fragments, the land surprised him. Peter was aware of water, buried fields, the possibility of houses swamped by cold and distance. In the unheated car, his legs stiff from the discipline of not touching Andres’ legs, the country’s frigid essence, its tones and strictures, became a tangible presence. Its incantation of emptiness in the roar that sucked through the vents.

He glanced at Andres. All afternoon, Andres’ attention returned to the light. To the sky, muddying from the west. The featureless road held daylight, but in hedgerow roots, soft shadows harbored dusk. We’ve come a long way, Peter thought, to miss our intention.

Andres stirred, scrubbed away the condensation. “We should turn here.”

“Oh shit.” Tracey, with a grace that belied her agitation, pulled the car across all three lanes and a chorus of indignant horns, to the A45 slip they so nearly missed, gliding up to the roundabout without taking a breath. “I get gone with it sometimes.”

“Gone?” Andres opened his window. Freezing air slapped Peter’s face.

“The motorway. I get dazzled. My Kaylee says I go round in a dream.”

“Do you see things no one else does?”

Her shoulders tensed. “I daydream. There’s no harm to it.”

They approached a stringy village of sad pebbledash houses stranded too close to the road. A signpost to a pub stood at the head of a darkening lane. “That’s it.” Excited, Andres gripped the driver’s seat.

“Stop shaking me round.”

Able only to make turns that were brutally tight, Tracey jerked the car at the narrow corner without changing gear, the engine’s outraged howl momentarily deafening.

“This is it.” Andres gripped Peter’s shoulder, mashing the bone.

“Nether Heyford?”

“Of course Nether Heyford. What else?”

Incipient gloom from avid willows tightened against them, the lane’s hedges a womb of night. The road’s punishing angles took their tires to the ditch. Baffling turns, born from past events, endured in the road’s insoluble course. A scar among the snow bridged the river.

“That is the River Nene,” Andres declared. “It is all around here. The river splinters. We are confined by it.”

“Mucky,” Tracey echoed. “Fens and sunk ground.”

The village was larger than Peter expected. Neatly pegged with bungalows and trim, icy lawns. A businesslike place, its discomforts stitched with smooth pavements and clean walls. Houses spilled warm light. The few people out had waxed jackets and large, practical dogs. They turned to watch the quick yellow car. One man pointed a stick.

“Alright if you got money.” Tracey’s voice warmed.

“Take us to the canal please Tracey. Heyford Lane.”

They skimmed a village green strewn with children and snowmen. A blur of rainbow scarves and churning breath. Passed a large house, its double windows bronzed with firelight. In its cinder yard, a woman unloading a van stopped to watch the car scorch the gray air.

Now Peter’s window was down. A moist, curdled breeze swilled his face, tasting of mulched leaves in undrained culverts. A rhythm tilted the air. A figure of water.

Andres leaned across, gesturing at a deadlock of new-looking houses. His weight compacted Peter’s chest. “These were not here before.” Andres twisted closer. “They sicken me.”

“We need houses in Lutterworth. My Kaylee can’t get a place.”

“Then maybe they put these in Lutterworth.” Andres stayed pressing Peter’s chest, with the houses that offended him already gone by.

Wintry air chilled Peter’s face, but heat from Andres’ body, the man’s weight, his gingered breath, assured Peter that, wherever they went, Andres’ blood, his lively humors, would make the unknown familiar. Peter exhaled, for the pleasure of watching their breath combine.

Then Andres pitched across the car, to see a thin, slanted turnoff, mislaid from the rearview mirror. “St. Peter and St. Paul. The church. It has such light. The east window holds a curious figure in green at the feet of the Christ. My mother would climb to the ledge and stay for hours. It captured her.”

“Was she religious?”

Tracey’s question brought an astonished cry. “Why not?” Andres was excited. “She was particular in all things.”

“Perhaps we might look at the church.” Peter’s chest grew cold, the sensation of Andres so close, a memory unsafe to revisit.

“Not now.” Andres coarsened, his voice scoured with anxiety. “We must not lose the light.”

“Where do you want?” Tracey turned, her face reddening. “I’ve got to see my mother. I don’t want to be out here all night.”

“A little further, please Tracey. To the canal.”

“Watch the road.” Childishly, Peter flung his arms against the seatback.

Tracey yanked the wheels to the ditch as the oncoming car surged by, horn screeching, lights blazing. She shot a look back at Peter. “Don’t fucking tell me to watch the road.”

Andres wound his shoulders, their tension cracking like twigs. “Don’t fucking tell her, Peter.”

Through naked hedges, the canal was a bluish scar, quarantined by fenced lawns, by private property. Well-groomed houses, gaunt branches hung over their walls, the hibernating pleached avenues of summer.

Andres pulsed and crackled. “Leave us at the bridge, please Tracey. You can recover the main road from there.”

“Heyford Lane bridge? There’s no steps down. The drop’s the height of a house.”

“I have no fear of hard landings.”

Brittle with cold, Peter knew his bones would shatter.

Andres grimaced as though Peter’s pain had an ineluctable scent. “Before the bridge, please Tracey. There are ways to the canal.”

When Peter climbed from the car, the sickness of a diver emptied his lungs. His legs quivered. Bitter air cut his lips. A gross, sensual pain.

Andres knelt to the driver-side window. “You are marvelous,” he told Tracey. “No one else could do this.”

“I said I knew where I was going.”

“Of course.”

“What people think isn’t always right.”

“You are remarkable.”

“I won’t charge. I was coming this way any case. To see my mum.”

“No.” Peter, shocked with decision, stood over Andres forcing the man to look up, frigid light contorting his face. “We’ve taken your time. You can’t leave with nothing from this.” The little left in his wallet he needed for food, the Tube, the regular slim calculations of his days. Avoiding somber eyes staring up at him, he offered the money he should have kept. To soften its loss, Peter said, “I’d be obliged if you would take this.”

Tracey reached for the notes. “It hasn’t been so bad, has it?” A muted smile creased her face.

Peter and Andres waved, with slow, steady actions, until the car sank beyond the hump of the bridge. “I wish she stayed with us.”

“She would have been happier you think?”

“Perhaps less regretful.”

“So, she would not have been herself.”

That tone angered Peter. “You seem very sure of who she is.”

Andres started walking. “My mother had sadness not so different.”

Tracey left them by a bridge, the narrow redbrick house on the fall of the road a sentinel or crossing point, a moment, in wearisome journeys.

“Now, we want no one to see us.”

The verge crackled with frost. Slender trees whipped back at them with hollow automation. A muddy pathway slithered to a bed of thorns. There seemed no way ahead without damage. Each moment was an action. Time and the act were the same. Andres went ahead, hesitant now. Perhaps striving to recall this place before thorns had grown so dense and trees so tall. Trying to evoke a young man’s endeavors bodily. To master the writing of the present as well as the redaction of the past.

When Andres lost hold and slithered, he’d grab a birch or willow, curling around it with forced, skater’s insouciance. Peter hobbled, hesitating each step, filling the woods with rank fear. Every frightened animal, frightened in its own way, smells scared as any other. He knew predators would scent that fear, consider it in their study of prey, determine what pressure to apply. Sleek hunters, unmeshed from disquiet. He watched how Andres moved, how his mistakes looked deliberate. The ice, the mud, the cold of every surface seemed trivial to Andres. He vanished among the cluttered young trees, grown close and pliant in the eager years before a dominant tree would choke them. Peter tried to hurry, but ice bound his feet, the flimsy woodland frost made intractable by his anxiety.

A different day waited at the foot of the drop. The towpath was free of snow, streaked with light that sliced the gathered trees. Sturdy grass crept across the cement to fringe the water. Andres turned as Peter emerged from the woods. “It is this way,” he said.

The canal lay through a cutting. Snow lapped its rim but below, looking up, Peter saw grays and browns, the mulch and litter of autumn. The moist air beneath neighboring fields benign enough to resist freezing.

“It is here.” Andres’ strong hips, his muscular shoulders, the tense fluidity that impelled him owned this moment. Peter was subordinate to this decisive man. A witness to enticing miracles.

Around the next curve, Peter knew Andres had stopped, though he was gone from sight. The air was less propulsive. They’d taken hours to travel a short distance, really, in crow flight. To arrive at the bend of an empty canal. The vegetable life around him, the trailed bubbles of fish in the water, the potential of navigation, made this the pattern of a moment that other moments, in dull days, would yearn to. His breath ahead of him, Peter took the next step.

First, he saw she was dark maroon above. Dense yet lustrous in scant winter light. Glossy black below, any rough decay craftily sealed over. On the cabin in gold and white, shaded and swirled, ‘Bobtail Five, Birmingham, 1936’. A stenciled garland for a frame. The windows curtained. The doors padlocked with a bright chain.

Andres reached but his fingers hung in space. His foot stopped at the instant of stepping. Bewildered discomfort drained his strength, as though he had made a decision that negated all others. Peter understood there was no help he could give. Once that thought crystalized, he hated himself. Burnished with fine sweat, Andres stared at the boat. Burnt with cold in city clothes, Peter gazed at the man he couldn’t comfort. Shamed by knowing his companion suffered while he could only spectate. If nothing had broken the spell, they might have remained through the night.

The steady beat of running shoes and a spatter of color along the towpath, absorbed in itself, a figure of simple motion. Two runners, not quite meshed. One’s feet hit the ground a fraction after the other’s, creating a wet echo, exaggerated by smooth air. Their arms worked forward and back, their ponytails switched, their breath a barrage of exertion. The two women drew level, jogged on the spot to keep their muscles warm.

“Excuse me.” A slight breathlessness. “Excuse me.”

Peter stared, unable to grasp a thing about them. Andres looked at the boat.

The second runner gave a whinny, her mouth a steampipe of breath. “We need to get by.”

“You’re blocking the path.” The first runner slackened, the angle of her knees less defined with each step. “Just move.”

“You speak English?” The second runner jacked her knees like a drill sergeant. “Can you speak?”

Peter had nothing. He travelled miles and hours to stand at this water’s edge. The sky uncoiled on shifting air. Birds warned with complex cries. Water sucked the iron hull. These women in synthetic colors were busywork slung across the salient world.

The two women jogged on the spot, fast and slow, scrutinizing him. One shouldered forward. “Excuse me.”

“Who has this boat?” Tall and stocky, that accented drawl made the women stop. Their arms fell to their sides. Andres squinted, as though trying to find context for these people. His hand slowly described the boat. “This. Who has it?”

The angry runner winged her arms. “I don’t know. There’s a ton of barges along here.”

“Narrowboat.” Andres corrected. “This is a narrowboat. Not a barge. They are not the same.”

“I have no idea.”

“I need to finish my run.” The more distracted woman checked a device taped to her arm. “I haven’t achieved my distance.”

“Perhaps,” Peter touched Andres’ arm, just lightly, “someone has a list. There must be a file.”

“A file?” The angry woman stared at Peter. “I’m sure there’s nothing like that.”

“I need my distance.” The other held her hips. “I have dinner tonight.”

“Come on.” Her friend bustled forward. “We have things to do if no one else does.”

“My mother had this boat.” Andres’ voice bounced from the iron hull. “Who has it now?”

“How rude.” The woman made a coarse sound in her throat.

“Not someone here.” The anxious woman struggled against some insidious fervor. “I’ve seen a young girl. Not local. She isn’t here often. She plays classical music. I hear it.”

“Come on.” Grasping her friend’s elbow, the angry runner sprinted away, her friend hop-skipping to keep up.

“So.” Andres sounded satisfied. “There is music.”

What should or shouldn’t be done was the least-troubling aspect. An act that is precise need not be proper. No consequence followed from stepping on deck, beside the vague and mechanical yaw of the boat as it nudged the bank. The boat, Andres explained, was not quite traditional. Its rear deck was slightly enlarged, perhaps for family comfort. Enough space for Andres and Peter to stand either side of the tiller. Peter fingered the grain of painted ash. Andres weighed the chain that bound the cabin doors.

“So.” Andres rattled the chain. “A woman. She listens to music. That is natural. Bobtail Five makes it so.”

Peter imagined the woods flowing by, the sky emptying out tonight, distance in his lungs. “You lived here with your mother?”

Astonished, Andres stooped to examine Peter’s face. “You understand, that is why we came? Of course, with my mother. She would play music at night. Liszt and Bizet. Dvořák, long strands of Sibelius through the night. She would sit on deck or beneath a willow. Climb the willow, sometimes. The second symphony of Sibelius, she would climb high in the willow. I would see sad branches embrace her. She would leave her shoes, so, on the bank. Take off her long skirt and set it, so, among branches. Then she would climb.” The man’s face glistened. “I was a boy. I would tire and sleep. Music on the roof drifting over the water. The sigh of the tree. Her compulsion of music.”

Peter’s mouth was dry.

“At church she climbed to the window of the green figure.”

“Did anyone tell her not to?” His shoulders stung where Andres gripped.

“Who would tell her? Her, a strict Englishwoman. Proper and devout. Who would tell her what to do? My mother went everywhere, glorifying God.”

Peter relaxed into Andres’ arms. “Your mother was beautiful.” He knew it.

“In Spain she rode horses.” Andres clutched Peter, soothing him. “With her hair loose, the wild queen. By noon and starlight across the Sierra. To my father, she was a saint. His worship in every touch.”

“What happened to your father?”

The fingers tightened, their strength commanding. “Politics. Small wars.”

Desolation, as Andres released him. “My mother came back to England. Worried for me. Worried for consequence.”

“She had family here?” Peter moved closer, seeking warmth.

“Perhaps. She never said. We came to this place. This boat. She had my father’s money. The money he liberated.”

“She had music.”

“All night.” Andres regarded Peter, as though unsure what he was seeing. “She mourned from that day forward.”

They couldn’t evade how light departed the sky. How abatement drew the clouds low, smudging their edges. The outskirts of night slicked the woods. That quality, sensed at dusk, of furrowed, empty water. Its grazed loneliness. Soft edges of ice reforming. The steady bleed of thawing snow diminished and stopped. The bleak, insistent call of a crow that orbited the frozen trees, deadening Peter’s blood. Nightfall and nowhere.

“Where shall we go?” The question formed like ice.

Andres shook the chain that locked the boat, its sound obscenely loud. “Go where? This is my mother’s boat.”

“We can’t. Someone has it now.”

“What someone? What is this entity?” Andres squawked the chain. “You speak as though they are something and we are nothing. Aren’t we here? Don’t we have the life our mothers made from their own life? You speak as though one time is split from the next. This is my mother’s boat. From then to now is no fracture.”

It could, Peter thought, be easy. The chain was new, but the doors were old, their panels scarcely met. Planks could be splintered. Windows were just glass. The boat was no more permanent than the concrete of the canal, than the trees or the church’s great window. Nothing was endless and nothing remained. It was easy.

He waited while Andres cursed the chain, while he cast around for decision. Walking the boat, end to end, sunk in the clustering dark. A man fallen from height.

Clearing his throat, unsure he’d be heard, Peter said, “We can try the village. Find somewhere to stay.” His voice whipped by the wind.

A step was hard. Another, less so. Each step, he looked back. Then every second step. Then every third. In fractions, the boat grew small and the man smaller. Grainy twilight filled the space, a cluttered haze slung between them. Carelessly splitting Peter from what he desired. He looked back to the dark, hunched man, squatting on the path. Staring not at Peter, but the boat, always the boat.

Savage jealousy made him want to run back, grasp Andres, haul the man to his feet. Hold him till dawn displayed them dressed with snow. He wanted to tell Andres that the boat was wood and paint and iron, rotting beneath, persisting in stillness and solitude, but Peter, Peter was warm and alive. Not done yet. Not old yet. Not resigned. He took a half step, but the wind cut thick, the sky groaned, the boat and the man were dark shapes against darkness. He wanted to run back. He needed to. But water hissed and the crow called and tears froze to his face.

A fire burned in the hearth, its braided flames yearning beyond their edges like dancers. Its light enthralled him. A voice shouted to shut the door.

A weeknight and cold, snow falling again, a sparse few men in waterproofs, each holding a pint of dark beer. Hardy couples in tweeds sat near the fire. A black Labrador raised its head long enough to see Peter, then slumped back onto its paws.

As Peter moved to the bar, his legs awkward with cramp, the landlady crossed to meet him. A busy-framed woman in a woolen jumper and slacks, her black-dyed curls tinged with firelight. “Bitter evening, love.” She stepped back from his lack of response. “What can I get you?”

He didn’t know if he had money. “Beer. Please. Just a half.”

Knowing that eyes searched his outline for clues to what he was, Peter gripped the bar where varnish dissolved with the sweat of a thousand hands before his. Farmers and boatmen, road menders, the men who strung the first telegraph wires. The splintered boards, scuffed chairs, the blackened coats of arms on the chimney made ongoing conversation with those men. Silent figures were no doubt grandsons and great-grandsons of the village. They had stories, memories, embroidered with dreams and country heroics, of fathers, cousins, some long-distant name whose exploits, unknown to historians, were enlarged through each retelling. Not that the old men need repeat the stories. They could say a name: “Tom Miller”, a navigation: “Fred’s dad,” an event: “That harvest tea,” to capture the whole of what happened.

“Excuse me,” Peter said, before the landlady could ask him to pay for his beer. “Do you know of a woman who came here from Spain? Perhaps twenty years ago. She had a young son. They lived on the Bobtail Five.”

In her silence, he understood how he must sound. Babbling, eager to unlock secrets. A sudden, outsider interest.

“I don’t follow who has the boats.” She laid her hand on the counter.

Peter scavenged his pockets. Found just enough coins. “My friend is her son.” He knew that, without ownership, he was flotsam. A pointless gossip, a boast without purpose. A lie, because Andres wasn’t his friend. A friend wasn’t left to the dark.

The landlady’s puzzled annoyance, as though she found an unopened letter long abandoned on undusted shelves. “Your friend? Is that why you’re here?”

“The boat, it’s still there.”

“You’ve been on the canal?”

“The towpath was clear. No snow.”

The woman swilled his money between her palms. “People who worked the canal had the boats. Long back, when I wasn’t born. They had business from here to London. The lime kilns at Welford. The Birmingham works. Now people come here to live, where the place is that pretty. It was purgatory, life on the boats.”

“The boat’s along by some woods.”

“I don’t remember a woman from Spain, nor her son.”

“Have you always lived here?”

She turned away.

Peter eked out the beer as, piece by piece, the place emptied. The couples went home, tying scarves, pulling leather gloves tight. In ones and twos the old men straightened up, stretched caps on their heads, took their leave. Reminding each other to do this or that, or wordlessly hauling away like old coasters breaking from the shore. The night held no terror for men raised on its desolate air.

As the clock crept towards closing, he knew it was too late for the train home. His fear of unsheltered night returned with vigor. At no other time had he nowhere to stay. There was no romance to it. A singular, absolute fear.

The last of the captains tottered with musty, antique deliberation through the icy lane. The landlady had a ring of keys, an old set, like a castle jailor. She struck the bell. “Time.” Only Peter remained, clutching a long-empty glass.

“Time,” she repeated. Her dog stretched and yawned, sniffing table legs, licking spilt beer.

Peter stood, feeling caved in. “I’m from London.”

The woman grimaced.

“I missed the train. Every train. I have nowhere.”

“There’s places in Weedon. Bed and breakfast. It’s not far along the canal.”

“I’ve no money. Nothing.”

The dog scratched the door, nosing a crack where air spiked through.

“I got to walk my dog.” At the woman’s approach, the dog nodded, prancing its front paws.

“Can I stay until you get back?”

“You can go out.” She pulled the door. The dog padded by. The landlady shushed Peter into the night and followed, locking the door.

“Are you going like that?”

She had no coat nor gloves. “This isn’t cold.” She walked and the dog slotted beside her, snapping at its own breath.

Peter sat at a table outside the pub, the wooden bench set with frost. Ice formed around him. He tasted its sourness scraping his lungs. His skin parched with cold. No one else to be seen.

One by one, lights were doused. People settling to bed in houses around him. Stilling their thoughts. Calming their breath. Some, perhaps, made love. Briskly, an eye to the clock, feet bent away from the cold rim of the mattress. Their practiced intimacy a necessary admitting of vigor. A key technicality of the marriage machine.

He should go back, find Andres. At least keep each other warm. But he lost his chance, forsook it. Andres cared for the boat, nothing else. Peter’s failure with Andres wouldn’t stay in this one night. It would go on and on. He wrote the man’s name in frost on the table. The cold that froze his hand was the paralysis of his heart.

If Peter was found next morning, lumpen, crystalized, if his granular blood showed a pattern of death, he’d be an occurrence, tracked by urban police to this country spot. His journey revealed, piece by piece. A flustered, distracted Tracey describing him inopportunely. A villager interviewed by the local blogger, saying, “I can’t remember something like this in Nether Heyford.”

Unable to tell time, no stars just milky clouds. Pain so constant it meant nothing. Cold so endless it bored him. A trance of agony and stupor. An absence he dwelt within, understanding pain as his own skin. Ice could hold no fear when it became the entire world. When cold, through entirety, became warmth.

Perhaps ten minutes or an hour later, the landlady returned. Her dog loped ahead, its eagerness to get inside made it forgetful of Peter. As the dog bounded past, he saw it had been eating snow, a few crystals fringing its mouth.

Nothing about the woman said cold concerned her. That lazy walk, thumbs hooked into her jeans. Whistling the dog, she gave Peter the barest glance.

Awkwardly, he unfolded his spine, staggering from the table like one of the old men. Long asleep now, he guessed, with the girls and grievance of youth. “Please.”

Abruptly, the dog stopped winding around the woman’s legs, its snout towards Peter, belligerent breath shifting the air.

“How do I get to London?”

The woman shook her keys, the only sound for miles. “You wait till morning.”

“Do you have a room?”

Her black curls sparkled. Breath curtained her face.

“I have no money.”

She faced Peter. “If I say no and leave you here. And you die, as well you might. When the police ask what happened, I’ll lie.”

“Of course.”

“You’ll grow colder and colder. You’ll shiver, convulse. You’re pale now but you’ll go frost white. You’ll lose control of your bladder. That’s started, hasn’t it? You’ll be paralyzed, confused. See angels. Pass out. Each after the other, your organs will fail. And I’ll say I never saw you. Because me surviving matters more than you surviving. You understand that.”

“Completely.”

“So you know who you’re talking to.” She whipped the keyring against her leg and the dog walked slowly into the pub, looking back at Peter. “Get in.”

He lurched, a scarecrow.

“You share with the dog. Do one thing he doesn’t like, he’ll rip you apart.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank me when you wake up alive.”

Though the fire burned low, the pub felt clammy. Peter stood humbly while she set logs on the dwindling flames, raising sparks, resurrecting embers. She went to a back room, returned with a plate of meat which she laid on the floor. The dog ate quickly then slumped by the grate. She gave Peter a fist of dry bread and rind-end cheese. “Don’t say I’m no Christian.”

“My friend’s mother, from the boat, went to church. Devout, he told me.”

By firelight, her curls were tar-black. “Maybe her music twined through the woods. Strings and brass, hung between trees. Ghost songs over the water. Contagious, till no one went near her. Music none could accept nor let go. Or maybe she wasn’t that. Or never was.”

“You remember her?”

“Did you come for her bones? Did you think our home could be your little adventure? From my window I see more than you can imagine. Sleep here with the dog. Leave when I unlock that door. Don’t think you can learn anything from whatever your friend did here.” She went into the backroom. A door slammed and bolted. Creaking footsteps on the stairs. Then another door slammed.

The toilet was cold. Water dripped from worn valves. Fly-crusted lights gleamed against powdery, mildewed tiles. His skin flaked.

The dog lay by the fire. Peter curled on a bench, bending the cushions double for a rough blanket. For a second, he thought he might steal a drink. But she would know. The old building mumbled to itself. Snow scurried the windows. The fire dimmed. He smelled wood steeped with spilt beer. The dog’s damp fur. Decay. The sweet desertion of years in timbers and plaster. A mouse crossed the floor and was still. The grazed screech of an owl recoiled from the rooftops. Its squall lingered deep through the night.

The boat cut hushed water. Drove waves that returned to collide in its wake. No one steered. The boat had its instinct. He was lookout, the ahoy man. Ahead, old willows pierced the surface, near-touching across the canal. He flinched from their troublesome fingers along the boards. Light was gone behind the forest roof. Acrid density pressed in.

The cabin doors were shut. The curtained windows aglow. Talk had long ceased. Only sporadic cries, a stifled amazement. He faced the forest, its muddy twilight round him. Strings evolved. Among the trees a lush, regretful cadence. The Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth, close and far away. Within and at distance. Its shock-stifled willows stilled the leaves. Overtopped the steady hum of earth. He gripped the rim of the bow. Its waterlogged wood splintered like fly agaric.

Bubbles rose and burst. Ponderous within seamy water. Music attended his journey. A cold figurehead, he rode the night. No path but dark water.

Cramp created him as a twisted bough, hot with pain and frozen. His eyes smeared with greasy light. The dog padded, grumbling in its throat.

Piece by piece Peter retrieved himself, deaf to the noise he made, neglecting his surroundings. Absorbed with the notion to regain a shape neither supplicant nor helpless. Only when he got to his feet, as the dog butted the door and showed its gums, then concern for Andres crept back like an unwilling lover. Andres was unharmed, Peter knew. Robust and resourceful, enmeshed with this place, Andres could come to no harm close by his mother’s boat. Peter’s dream gave certainty. Andres’ voice had spilled from the cabin, fused with a woman’s hurried Spanish. Peter tried to grasp the boat again, to absorb its momentum. But the vision dissolved in sick-tasting morning, gray as ruined snow.

Abruptly, the dog went growling behind the bar, fretting the door which led upstairs. The dog’s claws grazed the boards as it allowed itself to be pushed aside.

The woman was tall in black. Dim light made her clothes a single fabric. Her damp hair glistened. Her face, bloated with restiveness, was a waning moon. “You dreamt.”

He tried to shake the buzzing from his ears.

“You filled the place with dreams.” She worked the coffee machine. It started to hum dully.

“I should leave for London.”

She unlocked the door. “You must.”

“How will I get there?”

“Same way you left.” Needling air curled through the open door, tasting of hard ground and stony water. “Get to Northampton. Get a train.”

“I have no money.” He sagged, aching. “I’m cold.”

At the door the dog tested itself against the morning breeze. The woman poured two black coffees, topped off with whisky. “Breakfast.” She set the mug on the bar so he had to fetch it, watching his arthritic walk with cool distaste. “This place. I need to arrange it. You go to Northampton. Be cunning. Tell lies. Make a promise you don’t keep. Just get the train.” Another slick of scotch hit her coffee. “Today’s not so cold.”

He glanced to the door where the dog licked ice. “It’s freezing.”

She drew her hands over her eyes. When her fingers parted, her blotched face held a weary shrewdness. “It’s not freezing. It’s summer. Late June. It’s thirty degrees, blue sky, no wind. At the school, kids in sun hats with slick, oiled faces run to the summer fair. Dive onto the bouncy castle. Throw sponges of water at patient teachers. Women wear flowers and thin dresses, lithe bodies shifting inside gauzy cotton. Their husbands and lovers in shorts and linen. In cricket whites, for the afternoon match at Bugbrooke. A strong hit for six and the ball’s in the river. Furnace Lane is well-named. Not a patch of shade. Houses gape open like importunate girls. Kids in swimming trunks jump around as mom plays a hosepipe on them. Dads lay caved with heat on the couch, drinking cans of export. At the canal, genteel old couples serve tea on deck, their tanned, crimped faces sparked silver from the water. Two women jog along the towpath, soaked ponytails streaking their backs. The woods hoard heat, their famished, stifling greenery thronged with delinquent wasps and drowsy swallows. Beneath greedy willows, earth cracks and shifts. Ants emerge, tumbling armies roused by sunlight. Their lives subsumed in the will of their queen. Earth crumbles. A small collapse. A cracked footing. Slight, sunny damage that, years from today, will break the house down. There’s not a trace of cold. It’s summer.”

The police found him on the A45. He was lucky to keep his toes. Casualty doctors at Northampton General had seen elevated hypothermia alongside seasonal sprains. Straightforward, avoidable medicine which, at training, seemed grunt work to keen-eyed students dazzled with sly disease. Peter’s uneven drivel about summer and the canal prompted the doctors to check for head wounds. Then a car wreck brought in some interesting trauma and, as Peter continued to shout about London, a busy registrar left alone discharged him.

The security guard at the entrance watched Peter fail to navigate the sliding door three times and alerted police.

“I have to get to London.” Peter’s annoyance at these people blocking his way forced on him the clarity to wonder where he was and why it was cold.

The policeman tried to look forgiving. “Are you well enough to make that journey, sir? Is there someone we should contact? A partner or relative?”

“The man decorating upstairs.”

“Upstairs?”

Anguish bloated Peter’s brain. “Where I live. The painter upstairs.”

“In London, is that?”

Pain pierced his eyes. “I have no money.”

“Can you prove who you say you are?”

Peter put a hand to his pocket. “I usually have my work ID. I don’t have it today.”

The policeman spoke with someone while Peter stood, alternately scraped by jaunty cold and – when the door slid to – doused with meager warmth from the heater above. He was placid, recognizing that these featureless figures took decisions about him, the same way vibrant Andres had. It comforted Peter to know that Andres helped him endure this, as the police stared and made their calls.

Hollowed by hunger, he was light enough to float frictionless against cracked ceiling tiles. To track air currents through hematology, through eyes and hands and cancer. Above rows of ticking, fretful bodies, that would remain as he returned to the water.

Police approached him again, uneasy, checking their watches. “Do you have anyone who could lodge money at a local police station?”

Peter stared.

The policeman breathed noisily. “We can pay your train fare if a friend or relative lodges an equivalent amount of money at their local police station.”

But there was someone to drive him to London. Someone who loved the motorway. As the police spoke code to their radios, Peter took out his phone. Calls from work, the voicemail icon glaring. Text messages he deleted unread. His most recent call, the number for Tracey’s cab firm. He clicked redial. A metal voice said to add credit.

He told the police, “This woman can help. I’ve no credit.”

Again, skeptical impatience. An officer tapped the number into his phone. He listened, squinting. Held the phone against Peter’s ear as a parent would with a child.

A young woman’s petulant recorded voice thanked him for his call, but owing to unforeseen circumstances the office was closed today. It apologized, barely, for the inconvenience and hoped he’d call again. The message ended with an intake of breath, as though the voice would say something else.

“It doesn’t appear that number helps us.” The policeman seemed satisfied.

People arguing by the door kept it from closing, its timid attempts to slide shut halted as they weaved across its sensor. Their strained voices snared on treatment, endurance, frailty and contempt. Their impotent repetition something to pity. Cold embraced Peter like a friend. “Can you take me to the station? I’ll manage from there.”

Along the fringe of town in a fast car stripped of urgency. The officer in the passenger seat took calls, made comments to the driver, who grunted and shook his head. No more snow had fallen, the blacktop slushy, pinky-gray with road salt. A young woman in school uniform overtook them on a bike, her trouser legs spattered with mud.

“Truant,” said the officer. “Someone’ll get her.”

They left Peter at a glass box labelled Northampton Station in silver letters, each horizontal capped with a string of snow. They told him he’d be, “Alright from here,” and eased back onto the ring road.

The station concourse was fogged with melted footprints, as though people had quarreled or danced. He joined the line at the ticket window.

Behind ribbed glass, the man wore fingerless gloves of wiry blue and gray wool. His flattened nose hung daggers of hair from each nostril.

Peter said, “I need to get to London. Soon as possible.”

“You coming back?”

“Never.”

The man nodded. Printing the ticket, he told Peter the price.

“I have no money.”

The man studied the ticket, smoothing his thumb along its clean edge. “You need a ticket to travel. The ticket costs.” He faced it at Peter. “It costs that. You give me that, you get the ticket. Or walk down the Towcester Road and keep on till the M1. If you’re hitching.”

“Could I pay later?”

“Not really.”

“It’s important I get there.”

The man flexed the card, testing its give. “All kinds of things are important. For me, it’s important this gets paid. You getting to London? That’s not so important.”

“Is there some other process?”

The man spread his hands. “Okay. You call someone. Get them to buy a ticket online. You collect it at that machine. Why don’t you do that?”

“I don’t know anyone.” Shoes scraped through puddles. Muttering swamped him.

“We don’t live in a world where you can pay on some other occasion. That might be nice. It’s not where we are.” The man folded the ticket like a losing hand. “There’s customers behind you.”

The arrival of a train to London formed bodies into a crowd, drawn through the barrier line, hoods down, collars raised at a sudden, timely squall. People leaving the train hustled to enter the station, pressing against the mass agitating to reach the train doors. In a paralysis of shoving, Peter swam the crowd, buoyed by its tussling rhythms. Bruised and warmed from the aggregate creature around him. No time to check tickets. The surge too great, the air too frigid. Entangled with dynamic shapes, he gave up decision and was on the train. Nowhere to sit, so he leaned on the wall, a damp and dirty shadow.

In every way this departure opposed his arrival with Andres. Together they had watched from the window, Andres guiding Peter’s eyes through subtle country. Alone, he could barely see outside, the view eclipsed by bodies. Yesterday he traveled fast. Today he stopped at snow-blind towns. Milton Keynes, Hemel Hempstead. Names where bodies released and others pressed forward. Where the crowd reconfigured tightening its mass at each stop. Awkwardly twisted, Peter held onto the wall, hunger and thirst distancing him from the pressure of flesh.

When the train reached Euston, his vertigo grew so absolute the crowd seemed miles distant, a sketch of heightened color and muted sound. Giddiness skated his feet across the frosty platform. He faltered, shallow breath strangling his lungs. Skirting the concourse, mumbled apologies at each collision, he marveled these people had such control, to arrive and depart, to drag children and luggage, resolute as flat-fronted barges.

Outside, a fug of breath waited in early darkness, replacement passengers drinking coffee and making calls. Some were worried, mortally so. Peter thought they hid it well, disguised it completely from themselves. Where fear ticked within, they made noise not to hear.

He had just enough on his card for the bus home, its windows streaming with words, information pooling the floor. More overheard calls. Arrangements and assurance. Confidence that spring would come and they’d live to see it. Through a briefly cleared window, already tinted again with steam, heavily wrapped figures gratefully arrived home, their heads lifting as they unlocked street doors, as they hustled to welcoming light.

The roads where he lived were icy, too small time for salting. Beneath deceptive streetlamps, snow remained fresh and solid. Gleaming concrete was black ice. Dizzy, unable to lift his feet, the risk of falling barely disturbed him. He floundered and slogged, sweat streaked his back, stony beads that sharpened the cold. At the least he had to get home, not die in the wasteland, unmourned by warm houses and good honest neighbors.

After thirty-six hours away, his place felt dead. Creviced with cold, his few possessions brittle and ungiving. Bare light showed spongy walls, cracked plaster, dunes of dust. Too petty and contingent to support life.

He ate bread dipped in water to cement his gut. Played the radio loud. Flamboyant Haydn, its cadenzas mocking Peter’s stupor. Its rondo demanding the movement of supple bodies through seamy summer forests. The twirl of skaters on winter’s pure ice. The necessity of music struck across the city skyline and beyond, to the spavined hedgerows and castoff piers of the canal. This was the open door where Andres pursued his starlit mother through each cadenza and nocturne. Music flowed from her, it was her scent. Peter never knew that compulsion. His perceptions too blunt and hygienic.

Waking in the chair where Andres had slept, Peter thought he heard the man’s voice comically aiming to miss an impossible high note. His head clattered with noise and light, with the lateness of morning. Peter struggled, a body released, unsure where to fall. But there was no man’s song. Just Peter’s phone. Ben, the upstairs neighbor. Ben calling him. Bleary, he clicked accept.

The young man had been up for hours. He’d run and swam, cleaned house and dealt with business. The more sickening was his generous concern for Peter’s well-being, when he hardly knew him.

“It’s cold here,” Peter said, sensing that Ben would be somewhere warm. “Snow. And ice.”

Ben grunted a brisk solidarity. “Yeah, I saw London got hit. Long winter, huh? How the guys doing upstairs?”

Pretending ignorance was pointless. “The decorators?”

“There should be two guys. Spanish. They been at work since the snow came?”

“Yes, they’ve been here.”

“I can’t raise this guy. Andres. His phone just rings out. I don’t know the other dude’s number.” Ben made an impatient noise. “Can you check upstairs? I need an update.”

Peter glanced around his dingy flat. “I’m not at home just now. When I get back tonight, I’ll see.”

“I need an update.” Ben made it immutable. “It’s got to be finished next week. Listen.”

Dutifully, Peter stood straight.

“I’ll text you his number. Andres. Keep trying him for me will you?”

Peter nodded. “Sure.”

“I mean, what can I do?” A sharp silence. “We can’t exactly stay there while they’re painting.”

Peter tried the number but it rang out. Andres wouldn’t use voicemail. There was a reason Andres didn’t answer. Peter had left, selfishly seeking comfort, running indoors like a nervous child. Of the two of them, Andres was the man. He stayed with the boat. He was there now, in elated exhaustion. Waiting with the patience of years for music to play. Perhaps the woman from the pub had found him, as her black dog snarled and lunged at the figure frozen to the boards of Bobtail Five. Walking without a coat in sub-zero air, perhaps the woman brought Andres food to reward his devotion. Admiration came from admirable acts, not the embarrassed thrash of self-preservation.

Messages from his office suggested Peter was in trouble. His inconvenient absence already a pattern. There would be conversations, a weighing of options. A responsible return to good order.

Peter showered as Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on Thomas Tallis strung around him, an embrace of sparse, ornate pearls. He dressed with care, white shirt, plain tie, dark suit. Cleaned the mud from his shoes. Beat the debris of travel from his coat.

He walked in tire tracks to the main road, scrambling for the curb when traffic passed. He boarded the bus at the rear door, made a show of tapping his empty card on the reader. Scurried upstairs, another unpaid shape on the blurry cameras. Daylight already dwindling when the bus reached Tottenham Court Road.

Andres would tell him commit to the imminent action. Yet the atmosphere beguiled him. The noise, the taste of satisfied striving. Young people, their mothers’ milk laced with understanding of risk and impact hardly known when he was young. That back then, was embraced only by gamblers and jet-setting assassins.

He filtered through laughing, smoking bodies pushing noise and nicotine at the sky, planning, always planning. Temporary warmth as he passed them, yet nothing of theirs could permeate him.

Every place was a destination for the most natural and stylized tastes. Where food became cargo. A fetish. An act in itself. Lay the runway and cargo will come.

At the corner of Whitfield Street, men in black watch caps unfolded in twos and threes, deeper into Fitzrovia. Their solid forms relayed a purpose distinct from the frenzy around them. They looked equipped to locate and dismantle, clean and simple. Peter moved out of their sight.

College buildings clattered with ersatz busyness as students pooled into groups, delaying going into the cold. Knowing the security guards would stop him, Peter walked directly at them to own their attention. “Excuse me.”

The guards saw an uneventful man, dressed with cheap smartness. A functionary of some sort. A representative on an errand.

“Excuse me, I need the music department. I was told the basement?” He smiled thinly. His hands made vague gestures.

“Rehearsal spaces are in the basement.” The guard spoke slowly, as though revealing some intimacy. His ritual scars, faded to shallow gullies, gave him a look of erosion. “Perhaps you want the office? I don’t think anyone’s there now.”

His colleague grunted agreement.

“Rehearsal spaces.” Peter tried for confidence he didn’t feel. “That’s it. That’s where I need.”

The scarified man tapped a screen. “You have an appointment? Who are you seeing?”

“It’s about the piano.” Peter listened, distraught, as words scuttled like ants. “The piano in the rehearsal room. The room you see from the street. I’m here to appraise it for possible replacement. It’s the relation of the keys to the frame.” He layered one hand over the other. “It may not meet modern standards.”

The other guard ran a hand through his springy red hair. The first spread scarred fingers, describing some imagined scene. “You’re from asset maintenance?”

“Freelance. I just need ten minutes with it.”

Students in the lobby had gathered sufficient numbers to face the cold. They clumped past, a convulsive mix of grades and upset.

“Ten minutes.” Peter raised both hands, placatory.

“I need your name. And where you’re from.” Cautiously, the guard tapped Peter’s fraudulent status into the visitor software and printed a badge. His colleague delicately inserted the badge in a plastic wallet.

“Bring that back when you leave. Ten minutes?”

“Not more. The basement?”

“Stairs. That way.”

The basement walls were institutional yellow. Between large pipes, green at the joints and thrumming softly, brown water stains looked antique. Doors built in different eras lined the hallway, some old with decorated frames, some new and cheap. Peter tried each door on the street side, finding stacks of chairs, rails of fusty costumes, wooden blocks that were maybe components of a stage. Conscious of cameras and the men behind them, he moved with as much decision as his body could mimic, opening and closing doors, squaring his shoulders, clenching his hands, until he found the room he’d seen from outside, flickering into shape as he pressed the light switch.

The long table where the interview panel had sat was broken into its clip-together parts, piled with photocopied pages from music textbooks, the print streaked and words vanishing slantwise from the page. Introductions to orchestral concepts for absolute beginners.

The piano angled against the corner, a creased copy of Scarlatti’s Sonatas sagged from the wire holder. Peter struck a note, horrified at its resonance. He glanced up through the windows. Iron railings speared the pavement. A vague hustle of shoes and legs passed in darkness. He pressed the key more softly, experiencing its agitation through his finger. The tremble of the momentary note, its diminishing pulse. The critical silence after.

The alien language of notation beguiled him, the staves and stops, the melody’s flowing black river. He tried two keys in sequence, a simple pattern. A kindergarten charm for delighted children. He was so delayed in becoming a man, in mastery of these things. Wasted years without music. Peter pressed both hands on the keys, dissonance like heavy horses.

“Bass in the place.” The pianist tied her hair in a rough tail, drawing light to her sharp cheeks. Dressed as before in monochrome plaid and jeans. “Don’t mind me. I’m a big fan of the lower register.”

“I was just…” Peter stopped. “I couldn’t resist.”

The pianist was maybe a grad student, older than the kids upstairs. Or this was her job after graduation. In the seconds it took her to cross the room, Peter conjured her frugal, fulfilled life. The radio at breakfast, a free lunchtime concert in a local church, standing at the back at the Royal Opera House – two hours on tiptoe to see over the ledge. Practicing, always practicing. Expansive with music.

“I’m sorry I intruded.” He backed away from the piano.

“I doubt you could harm that old thing.” She fussed at the printouts, shuffling each pile of papers an inch to the right. “Are you here for some actual reason or shall I call security?”

His palms were clammy. That lightness again. That reeling nausea. “I’m looking for someone.”

Reflections flecked her glasses. “Rather arbitrary approach, isn’t it?”

“No, I mean, do you know the Grand Union Canal?”

“The Regent’s Canal?”

“It’s joined from that. The Grand Union goes up to Birmingham. I was… yesterday or the day before, I forget… I was on the canal at Nether Heyford. It’s pretty. Even in this weather.”

“What were you doing there?”

Her frank tone encouraged him. Surely she knew of these things. The room was large, barely heated, yet he was sweating. Gobs of sweat clogged his shirt. Rivulets trickled among the folds of his stomach. “I went with someone. To see a boat. Bobtail Five, do you know it?”

“Should I?” Smiling, but her eyes were shrewd.

“The boat holds an enchantment of music. A woman lived there, some time ago. She climbed the tallest trees and uncoiled such strands of music. She entranced everyone who met her. I felt, when I was there, her music in the woods, along the water.”

Her smile broadened to show uneven teeth. “You talk like me on special K.”

“What?” He tried shaking the sweat from his eyes. She was bleary, liquid.

“Big fish, little fish, cardboard box.” Agile fingers described it. “When I’m dancing, I drop a K and tell all kinds of stories. When the amps grow legs and the walls melt and there’s music, only music. No debts, no deadlines. Music.”

“At raves?” He stumbled the word.

“Well, there’s not much here to dance to. Though I was leaping around to Haydn on the radio last night. Keyboard concerto No. 11 in D major. I play that pretty well. It’s on my concert program. Strictly notional, as yet.”

A pulsing cadence bent Peter forward. Abruptly, intractably weary, his eyes guttered till the pianist’s walk had the fitful moves of an old film. He tasted bile.

Her expression was pitying. “Did you want to tell me about this music boat?”

“It’s there,” he choked, the recoil kicking his lungs. “On the canal. I saw it.”

“With your friend who is… where now?”

“I left him.” Peter clutched the piano. “I’m so sorry. I thought I could help. I left him.”

“Shall I,” she gestured behind, “get security to help you leave?”

“It’s okay.” He pushed up, pain twisting his spine. “I’ll just…” Peter fell forward, sprawling a bellyful of raucous notes. An untidy, improvised coda.

The pianist waited for the sound to diminish. She held Peter’s head, surprised how its fever slicked her skin. “If you don’t mind,” she said, “I must practice.”

About the Author

Mark Wagstaff

Mark Wagstaff’s work has appeared in The Write Launch, Book of Matches, The Meadow and The Piltdown Review. He won the 39th Annual 3-Day Novel Contest with off-kilter romcom 'Attack of the Lonely Hearts' published by Anvil Press. Mark’s latest novel ‘On the Level’ was published in 2022 through Leaf by Leaf, an imprint of Cinnamon Press.

Read more work by Mark Wagstaff .