Read by Tony Bell
It’s still snowing, but a thaw has set in sometime during the night. Sometimes it’s hard to know when things change; that precise moment when the tide turns, or the season passes from autumn into winter; when the slope you are on tips from being in your favour to against it.
We weren’t used to snow; not that amount of it. The cold froze our bones. The air scoured our throats, like neat whisky, all the way down. Sometimes I thought I’d lost the feeling in my legs, but that was not knowing better. They’d told us not to bring him back alive. He’s an animal they said; vermin. That’s how he thought of us as well. In those days it seemed normal, to think of them that way, to know that’s how they thought of us.
Danny needed no persuading. God knew how many generations had passed down, with glacial deliberation, that unquestioned belief. God must have known. We were icebound in our certainties. Danny giggled like a big kid and pointed down at the tracks.
There’s no way he can give us the slip, he said.
A white sun was like the moon through grey cloud. The glare made us screw up our eyes. We were tracking him along a country lane. There were tyre tracks in the snow, and in the untouched drift between them, his footprints. Danny must have been playing with himself, or touching something else in his pocket. I didn’t plan on getting close enough to use anything so small that you could carry it in your pocket, so I kept the rifle unslung. The footprints were so clear you could almost read the maker’s label on his boots. Danny said, he’s never going to get away.
I thought, that’s true. We’ve got him cold, and I was just making a joke to myself about not cold, but freezing, and I was thinking of dead meat, of frozen meat, swinging from meat-hooks in a refrigerated meat store.
That’s when his prints stopped. They just stopped: left, right, left, right. Then nothing. Danny said, Jesus! But that wasn’t it. We stopped too and just stood there, looking down at the virgin snow. That’s what you call it, virgin, when it hasn’t been fucked about with yet. I remember Danny’s baby face with its big round astonished eyes.
Where did he go? He said.
Then it struck me what had happened. I said, he’s stepped off into the tyre tracks. I even laughed. I even let him have the benefit of some respect, for a moment. Danny was still standing dumbstruck. Let’s face it. Danny was a couple of coals short of a snowman.
I said, he’s stepped into the tyre tracks, and Danny said, which side? I thought, you stupid kid, who cares which side? I should have thought better. I should have been thinking. It’s no use asking questions unless you ask the right questions.
It felt cold all of a sudden up there on the hillside. Maybe it was us standing still. I thought, none of us is going to survive if we don’t get a move on and catch up to him soon. That was the winter of sixty-three. There have been worse since, not just for snow.
I said, come on, and for some crazy reason we stepped into the tyre tracks too; me in front, Danny behind.
I couldn’t see his tracks at all, not on either side. I was trying to work out, was it because the snow was compacted? Or did it mean a vehicle had passed over since he came this way? I kept telling myself, surely we’d have seen it? There were no tracks to show one having turned around. Could they have reversed back away from us?
They were good questions, but they weren’t the right questions. Then Danny said, and I often wondered if he got the idea from one of those comic books he was always reading, what if he turned back?
I said, what? And that cold seemed to sweep in again, though there was no breeze whatsoever, and the whole place was as silent as the grave. There wasn’t even the sound of distant traffic. Snow does that to the world.
I said, what? And Danny said again, what if he turned around, and then he turned around and started to look back down the lane.
And I thought, Jesus! Yes. That’s what he did. He turned around and walked back a little way toward us, and then he took off across the fields, which we, following his easy footprints with our noses to the ground, entirely failed to notice. Then I got that feeling that I told you about: about not knowing the precise moment when things changed, but only knowing that they had.
And I thought, the bastard’s behind us now. We were the ones being followed, and I looked around, and it seemed to me that this wasn’t the sort of place you’d go to if you were trying to get away. It seemed to me that this was the sort of place you might lead somebody to if you needed to get them out into the open.
And I remembered a dead bird I found once in the snow when I was a kid, and the woods were entirely without colour, but only black and white, and even the bird was that dark shade of brown that seems to have no colour in it, and yet, there, right next to it on the pure white snow, without explanation, for the body seemed perfect, was the most beautiful splash of crimson you ever saw.
And I was remembering that when Danny said, oh! And I heard a crack like someone stepping on a brittle twig. And he slid down onto his knees, as if he were about to begin gathering snow with which to make a snowman. Then I felt a blow, as if someone had hit my legs with a heavy hammer, and then it was silent.
The cold got into my bones that day, and stayed, but Danny was stone cold, and the one we were tracking, he’s long cold too, and thousands after him.
That’s why I keep on looking out at the snow. It’s falling heavy now, in big soft flakes, like pieces of wet tissue. I like to see it fall. I like the way it turns the world so silent. I watch from my window, every winter, and think back to that day. It’s settling fast, but it won’t last long. You could track anyone through snow like this, and for a long time that was what I planned to do, even in this chair, but somewhere, sometime, another thaw set in.
Wheel ruts in the snow was read by Tony Bell at the Liars' League Wine, Women & Song event at The Phoenix, Cavendish Square on Tuesday 13 April 2010
Brindley Hallam Dennis has lived in Cumbria for over 30 years. He has been writing fiction for about 10. Under a variety of names, he has won prizes for both fiction and poetry, had a (short) play performed, and works at times as a garden labourer, university Creative Writing tutor, and bookseller.
Tony Bell was born in Nottingham and trained at Lancaster University and Webber Douglas. His work has included travelling to Japan to be in Red Demon for Hiclkenoda theatre company, and a number of roles, including Autolycus and Bottom, for all-male Shakespeare company Propeller. This is his Liars' League debut.