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I look back. “What are those red marks mummy? Those red marks on the snow?”
My mother does not look down. She grips my hand tighter and pulls me forward staggering through the blizzard. “They are nothing darling. Try not to look. There’s a good girl.” She is not wearing her gloves and her long frozen fingers squeeze mine as though she is frightened that if she were to let go our hands will be lost to each other forever.
It is the middle of the night and the streets are deserted. Even the taxi drivers have given up because of the weather. All of the buildings are in darkness and the city is smothered in a deep soft silence. Snow streams into our faces making us cry.
I look back. The drops of red are following us, falling between the marks left by our shoes, turning black under the streetlights. I think of how, in that fairy tale, the children leave a trail of stones so they can find their way home.[private]
We arrive at a brownstone house on 39th Street. The lights are on. “This is my friend’s house – Georgia Benton. She is very kind and we are going to be staying here for a while.” My mother falls against the bell and rings it urgently.
The door opens letting a flood of light onto the steps. Mrs Benton hugs my mother without saying a word. They stand like two ruins that have collapsed together.
Mrs Benton gathers herself. “My dear come in, come in. What has that brute done to you?” She turns and shouts up the stairs. “Oscar, it’s Joan. She has made it. Thank God she made it.” Then she looks down at me. “And you must be Jessica my dear.”
Mrs Benton takes my mother into the kitchen and gives her some tablets. “The taxi is on its way,” she says. “It’s been a devil getting one tonight it truly has. They say this is the worst blizzard in the past twenty years and the roads are a nightmare. Anyhow it’s on its way now so you will be fine.”
Mrs Benton is small and nervous but she exudes both warmth and efficiency. “Now we must do something about this poor little thing.” She smiles at me and opens out her arms. “If you come with me, I’ll put you to bed. You must be completely exhausted.” She sees me look at my mother. “Now don’t you worry about her. The best thing will be to let her rest here for a bit whilst we go off and get some sleep.”
Mrs Benton takes me up the stairs to a room with heavy floral curtains and a huge bed. “I have the heater on so you should be nice and warm. You can put your wet clothes over there,” she says pointing at the radiator. “They will be dry in the morning. I expect you’ll want to keep the light on tonight. Look there’s a lamp next to the bed that you can turn on and off as you please.”
I stand with my hand on the bed cover. It is thick and silky. I thank her but do not move.
“Now there is nothing to worry about. Not now.” She hesitates. “The bathroom is next door if you need it… Well, I’ll leave you to it and go and see how your mother is doing. I’ll see you tomorrow.
And with that she leaves and I am left standing there feeling utterly alone. I get undressed and climb into bed. I am naked and the sheets are cold. The bed is so big that when I stretch out my arms they do not reach the sides. Strange shadows fall from the walls. All the things that help me to sleep – my pyjamas, my favourite blanket, my furry pink bunny rabbit with one floppy ear – are somewhere else.
My mother once told me that if you stay quiet for long enough to hear the snow falling, the snow will repay you by letting you hear whatever it is you desire most in your heart. I close my ears to the sounds coming from downstairs. I lie as still as I can. Then I hear a car turn into the road and stop in front of the house. The bell rings and I know the taxi has arrived.
The bedroom is dark except for a gap between the curtains that lets in a long triangle of dusty light that expands across the floor, climbs up onto the bed and falls across my face. It is as if someone has been searching for me in my dreams and is now shining a torch in my face – “we’ve found her!”
Then I remember the night before and it all comes back to me. I am jangling with the memory of it all. I push back the covers and get out of bed, feel the fur of the rug next to the bed grow through my toes. I untie the curtains from their embroidered sashes and pull them open.
It must be gone ten o’clock and the street below is busy with people. I take my clothes from the radiator, get dressed and go next door to the bathroom. I splash my face with cold water and rinse my mouth under the running tap. Everything is strange, the translucent soap that smells of cinnamon and apples, the sunlight after the snow, the girl that stares back at me from the mirror.
For a brief moment I wonder if I have been left alone in the house but then I hear the wheeze of a vacuum cleaner starting up downstairs and Mrs Benton begins to hum a song over it. I pluck up the courage and go barefoot down to the kitchen.
Mrs Benton comes yawning and smiling into the warmth of the kitchen from a back room. She is wearing a green apron with a mermaid on the front and is carrying a bundle of washing. “Well good morning Jessica Baldwin.” The way she says my name in full makes me feel completely welcome. I sit at the wooden table and she gets me a tumbler of orange juice. There is a sense of calm in the way she glides from one task to another that I have never seen in my own mother who spends her life in a state of agitation and haste. “Now what would you like for breakfast? I doubt if I have the sort of cereal you girls like but I have cornflakes – or eggs if you’d prefer.”
“Cornflakes would be great.” There is a clock on the wall. It is ten thirty. “Shouldn’t I be at school?” I ask.
“Not today dear. They say we had sixteen inches of snow yesterday. All the schools in New York are closed and I doubt if they will open again now before Christmas. The holidays are only a few days away.”
Mrs Benton puts a bowl of cornflakes down on the table. “The milk is there,” she says pointing to a blue and white jug. “Would you like some toast as well?”
I nod. “Mrs Benton, where is my mother?” I ask.
“She’s has had to go to the hospital. Just to be looked at. It is nothing serious. She will be back later.”
“These cornflakes are delicious,” I say. She turns round from the sink and smiles. The toast pops out of the toaster. She puts in on the plate with a pat of shining butter and brings it over to me.
“I guess you are looking forward to Christmas,” says Mrs Benton.
“Maybe,” I say as I spread the butter on my toast. “This is very kind of you. Letting us stay here and everything.”
“It is good to have some life in the house,” replies Mrs Benton. “Now you eat up and I’ll see if I can’t find some things to make you feel more at home.”
All that morning and late into the afternoon, I move around the strange house as Mrs Benton goes about her chores. She is with me constantly but not quite with me, like someone who you know is watching you from behind.
By four o’clock I have read everything there is to read in the house and I am looking out of the bedroom window at the empty street below. The sky is turning from pinkish-grey to an inky purple.
“Mummy!” I tumble down the stairs and out of the front door. My mother shakes the snow from her hair and opens her arms. “Where have you been?” I stutter on the verge of tears. “I wanted you!” The snow on her coat and shoes reminds me of our separation.
My mother holds me tight. “I am back now darling and I will never leave you again.”
That winter it snowed for four weeks straight – right through Christmas and into the New Year. My mother was not well and Mrs Benton said she needed a lot of rest. So she stayed in the house all day sitting on the sofa in the drawing room with a blanket across her lap. She and Mrs Benton talked constantly from the first coffee of the morning until Mr Benton came home from work at six. I think my mother was happy then. I was too, for each night we would curl up together in the big bed in the guest room and listen to the storm as it raged outside in the darkness.
We stayed with Mrs Benton until the end of January then moved into a new apartment in Queens. It was smaller than our old house but it was neat and new and big enough for my mother and me. Just my mother and me. For I never saw my father again.
My mother is nearly sixty now. She has speckled grey hair which she keeps well cut and she has retained the high cheekbones and cornflower blue eyes she had as a young woman. Fine lines crackle at the corners of her mouth and her delicate hands are spotted and yellow but she is still beautiful. She dresses elegantly. But she has arthritis and angina and all manner of other ailments that make her frail. She despises her body now, as if it is a lover that has cruelly abandoned her. She is often tired and even on good days she can only walk with slow, tentative, steps. As she never remarried or had any more children (“I couldn’t have darling, even if the opportunity had arisen”) I am the only relative she has left in the world. She has come to depend on me and I am OK with that, I really am.
I see my mother every week. We talk openly about most things but we have never spoken about what happened on that night all those years ago. We both know that it has been the defining event of our lives and that we are still living with the consequences. In some ways it is what has held us together. It is the great secret that my mother and I share.
I suggest to my mother that we go to see an exhibition at the Met, of Northern Renaissance painting. I had read a review of it in the New York Review of Books that had said it was the exhibition of the decade – a “must see” – full of masterpieces that had never been to America before and were unlikely ever to come back again.
I have always been keen on art and studied it for a while at university. I am not an expert but I know enough to understand what I am looking at, to appreciate the technique involved and to place the picture in its historical context. I can ‘read’ a painting. I also like the quiet of galleries, the atmosphere of contemplation, the slow way in which people move. Sometimes I just sit and watch others as they look at the paintings and it is like watching someone sleep.
Mother is not enthusiastic. “I’m not a great one for exhibitions darling, you know that. All those pictures just hanging on a wall. I’ve never quite seen the point.” The truth is she doesn’t like to go out in winter and will often spend whole weeks without leaving her apartment. She worries about the crowds and ice and wet sidewalks and falling over. The winter makes her feel fragile. In the summer the sun warms her bones and colours her cheeks and she is more like her old self. Then we often go out for lunch or to the park or shopping and it is like watching a flower come back into bloom.
I tell her that the exhibition is a birthday treat to myself and that I really want to share it with her. “Then of course I must come,” she says. “If anyone can teach me how to appreciate these things it will be you.”
We walk to the museum from my mother’s apartment on 13th Street but it takes us almost an hour to get there. By the time we arrive my mother is exhausted and she steadies herself on her walking stick before we go inside. It is cold and the sky is a thick, milky, white. All around tiny lights flash and sparkle and the windows of the shops are filled with fake snow, crimson twirls and gold baubles. Christmas songs trickle and hiss from every doorway. Crowds push and shove their way along the sidewalk. “I had forgotten how awful it is at this time of the year,” my mother says.
“This booklet covers all the main exhibits.” The receptionist is holding out a glossy pamphlet. “The Durers are in room 2.” She is young with translucent skin and a long, thin nose. Her blonde hair is tied back into a high pony tail. “At least it’s warm in here,” she says smiling. “The forecasters say there is a major snowstorm on its way.”
I take the booklet and my mother and I go into the gallery. We walk slowly around the rooms full of paintings and drawings by Durer and Cranach and Holbein. It really is a magnificent exhibition but I can tell that my mother isn’t interested. When I stand and look at a painting I can feel her eyes on my back urging me to hurry up. I try to think of interesting facts about some of the paintings to get her attention but all she does is sigh and gaze into space. In the end I give up and we walk through the galleries without stopping. I resent her for having taken away my enjoyment and she must sense this. “Do you not want to look at these darling? You can just leave me to sit here if you want to go off on your own.”
Just over an hour later and we are at the end of the exhibition. We sit down in front of the final picture, a large painting of a village in winter by Brueghel which is teeming with figures. “It’s called The Massacre of the Innocents,” I say looking at the booklet. “It says here that it originally depicted the murder of the children by Herod’s soldiers. You know, after the wise men told him the king of Jews had been born but not where so he orders all the boys under two in Bethlehem to be killed.”
“I know the story,” mother says sharply.
“Well, when the Holy Roman Emperor bought the picture he didn’t like the look of all those dead babies so he asked Brueghel to paint them out. See that old woman crying over some loaves of bread in the snow? The loaves were originally dead babies. Same with the calf having its throat slit and the dead swan being carried by the soldier. All the bundles being hugged by the women were once their children.”
My mother stands up and moves closer to the painting. She grips the top of the walking stick to hold herself steady – grips it so hard her hand shakes. I wonder what she can see, what it is that is holding her transfixed. I want her to share it with me.
“And the snow,” I say, pushing for her to let me in, “Brueghel covered the village in snow, covered everything, to hide all the blood.” I remember that night thirty two years ago and my mother’s blood on the snow. I stop talking.
“In real life darling the snow melts,” says my mother quietly. “You can’t hide anything with snow.” Then she turns to me and says briskly, “I’d like to go now if you don’t mind.”
By the time we leave the gallery it is snowing heavily. I stick out my tongue and catch a flake. I feel it melt. I have always loved the snow. We hail a cab and drive through the streets of New York. They are white and pure but we know it won’t last – already the cars are churning up a brown sludge and the ploughs are scraping it into heaps on the kerb. “The last great blizzard we had was in…” My mother’s voice trails off. “How silly of me,” she sighs. “It was so long ago and for the life of me I can’t remember now.”
I feel her fingers searching for mine on the sticky seat of the cab. Her hand folds gently over the back of mine and curls my fingers into a ball. “I have enjoyed today,” she says without looking at me. “We should go out more often.” I stare forward, concentrating on the feel of her hand. How light it is!
My mother sits with her face pressed against the window of the car. We drive down 5th Avenue and past Central Park. Get stuck in a rush hour jam. The park is already a sea of white and the trees are strung with cotton. There are young couples walking arm in arm, some boys throwing snowballs and a woman with a toddler in a buggy pointing at the falling snow. The child’s face is pink with wonder. This is happiness I think, true happiness, just the two of us in the middle of a storm. Then the cab jerks forward and when I look back the child and its mother are gone.[/private]