Posted: 07 March 2004
Word Count: 2995
The snow shimmers by the light of the moon. The covering is light, like icing sugar rubbed through a sieve, like confetti left, abandoned after a week of weddings. A sparrow hops onto a bird bath, chirps and flies away.
Susanna watches the sun rise above the chimney pots, one already smoking, the fire lit by early risers. She breathes hard on the cold window pane, and with her finger draws a large smile in the condensation. She adds two round eyes and dimples. She steps back and watches it disintegrate. She hasn’t slept a wink all night, the duvet lies crumpled in the middle of her bed.
The click of the radiator, the gurgling of the pipes, brings warmth to the smallest bedroom in the whitewashed house. It was built over the garage in 1962, a year after Marianne’s unplanned birth, twenty two months after the arrival of her sister with her gentle temperament and Marilyn Monroe curls.
The light from the kitchen comes on, a chair scrapes on the black and white quarry tiles and the silence of the dawn is broken. The moon, not quite full, is hidden for a while behind a cloud, before a veil of mist moves across. Snow starts to fall again.
‘Unseasonably cold weather’ the weatherman had said, a broad smirk
spreading across his waxen face.
‘A weather front from Siberia’ he’d added, and he’d clicked his pointer to a
swirling mass of cloud on a satellite picture.
Susanna takes her wedding dress out of the wardrobe and holds it against herself in front of the mirror. She moves closer to her reflection. Her brown eyes stare back at her, red rimmed from last night’s celebrating, but nevertheless, her best feature; almond shaped with thick eyebrows. Her hair is already turning grey, her nose is small and her teeth are whiter than white. She thinks of her sister with her creamy skin and rose tinted lips. Susanna used to watch her sleeping, a princess waiting to be woken and kissed by a prince; or one of the boys who hung around the village youth club, panting adolescent hormones, acne cream painted on their faces. They would ask Susanna where Marianne was, her beautiful sister with the come-hither eyes.
A clock chimes six o’ clock, a cock crows. Her wedding dress is lacy like the patterns drawn by Jack Frost in the Yorkshire winters, or in this week’s ill-timed freeze. She tries on her veil; silk snowdrops have been woven through the band, white netting cascades down her back. She lifts her face up, rubs her cheeks. Strange coincidence that the week she met Tom there had been a similar cold snap in Turkey. The Arctic gales had frozen lakes and fish that swam near the surface; they lay on the shores, their eyes glassy, and their gills still. Susanna had been preparing for her finals. She’d studied archaeology at a Scottish university where the cold winds blew hard from the North Sea. Her underwear, hanging on the clothes line, would stiffen, the blocks of ice in her sock toes like the bulge of tangerines in a Christmas stocking.
She doesn’t think they’ll accept her on the dig in search of a Roman
citadel, the dig where all the recognised archaeologists go to discuss their research projects, to whistle in the amphitheatre, or strike matches and wonder as the sound travels around, like echoes in a vault. But Susanna’s application is accepted, her dissertation outline applauded.
In the mountains of eastern Turkey, Susanna shivers and blows on her reddened fingers. She’d expected it to be warm.
‘It’s heading south from the snowy mountains of Bulgaria’ a young man says
to her as he offers a steaming cup of coffee in a metal mug. ‘It’s usually reasonably warm, but you can never tell.’
Susanna blushes when he winks at her.
‘I didn’t come prepared for this icy weather.’ She hugs herself in her thin grey anorak.
‘You can borrow my sweater if you like.’ He strips off his jacket, pulls his
sweater over his head and hands it to her folded, a package, an offering.
She hesitates, runs her fingers through her fringe.
‘Take take’ he says and studies her carefully. ‘Where’s your tent?’
She points to her father’s green one-man tent, caved in and leaning; he glances at her
and nods towards a tent shaped like an igloo.
‘I’ve got a tent with thermal lining.’ He sips his coffee. ‘I’ve had three other
people sleeping in there before now, four including me. ’
He laughs. ‘Was a bit tight but you’re welcome to share it. I heard it’ll get colder, even colder than now.’ He blows his nose then pushes some hair out of his eyes.
Susanna starts to gnaw at a fingernail, then pulls on his sweater.
‘That’s better.’ She straightens the turtle neck.
‘Your eyes change to green’ he says ‘when you wear blue.’ He looks up at the
sky. ‘You should wear it more often.’
Tom is a lecturer at a southern university situated on sloping downs,
with squares of green and bright yellow; the landscape of the Normans. But he has years of experience, he tells Susanna, of how to prepare himself for the sand storms of the Gobi desert, the sweltering Mexico plains or the mosquito coast of the tropics where sand dunes, with patches of scrub and grass, resemble snow capped hills. He has it all, he continues, all the equipment, even for the unseasonably biting winds of eastern Turkey. He tells her of a dig in Cyprus. The dig, he said was in the mountains where that particular Spring, the temperature dropped to fifteen degrees below at night. With whom had he shared his tent with on that occasion? But Susanna doesn’t ask.
‘This is my first dig outside Europe’ she says.
‘I’ll show you a sight you won’t forget. A wonder of the ancient world’ he
says. ‘I’ll come and find you at five’o clock.’ He picks up his bag of tools and
lopes off towards a group of bearded men. Susanna watches him pick up the conversation, and point to a site where a group of men in woolly hats crouch or kneel, marking out an area with white chalk.
There’s a knock at Susanna’s bedroom door; she’s quite forgotten where she is. The
sun is higher, the icicles hanging from the eves start to thaw, the postman closes the
gate behind him, his footsteps crunch up the path. There’s a knock on the door again
and her sister Marianne floats in. Her nightie is white and frilly. Her breasts are
visible through the sheer fabric.
‘Darling’ she says.’ It’s your big day. Well done sis’ she whispers. ‘You look fresh as a daisy.’
There’s scent of nectar from Alpine flowers, mixed with a deep musk; the aroma
fills the room.
Susanna sniffs. ‘That’s a nice smell.’ She sniffs again. ‘It’s really familiar.’
‘Oh it’s a sample I picked up the other day.’ Marianne’s eyes glisten. ‘You can have it if you like.’
Susanna isn’t listening She stares at her refection. ‘Do I look OK?’ She frowns. ‘Do you know, something’s not quite right, not the same, can’t put my finger on it…and..’
‘You look fabulous.’
‘No, no not what I’m wearing, I’m just not quite…’
‘What? Sure about getting married? Marianne’s eyes widen. She moves closer to her sister, her scent moves with her. ‘Tom’s a good man, a good catch; you’ll maker him very happy.’ She fingers the veil, her nails, painted the colour of strawberry ice cream, shine like stars. ‘And he’ll make you very happy too.’
Susanna frowns.‘ It’s too bad..’ She glances down at her bedside table, at a letter received yesterday.’ If only…’
‘Bad timing.’ She sits on the bed, cups her face in her hand. ‘Anyway, they should have contacted me before.’ She stands. ‘Had long enough.’ She picks up a towel. ‘Just pre-wedding nerves.’
Marianne had followed her gaze, seen the open letter, the top of a crest on the letter heading, a foreign postmark on the envelope. She starts to ask, then checks herself.
‘I’ll help you put your dress on when you’re ready.’ She gives Susanna
a kiss on the cheek. ‘You’re so cold’ she says. ‘Not for much longer though.’
Her laughter is like silver bells on snow maidens.
At five ‘o clock, on the day Susanna had met Tom, he’d found her digging in the
barren soil, a blue cap pulled down over her ears.
She’s so engrossed in her task that she doesn’t hear Tom call her name. He smiles to
himself. She’s found a large pot fragment; it lies on its side, desolate in its
‘Let me show you something’ he says. ‘I promised earlier.’
Susanna gets up, brushes the mud from her jeans, and wipes her hands on his sweater.
He smiles again.
‘This site has so much potential.’ She glistens with excitement. ‘What’s this wonderful sight you want me to see?’
Tom beckons and she follows. His strides are long, purposeful, he moves from the
whole pelvis, unlike her short steps grounded in her hips. But she keeps up with
him, her two paces to his one. They reach the remains of a structure which reminds
her of a Greek Temple. He moves to the middle of the ruin, between two columns and
looks up towards the mountain as it darkens in the dying light. He stands close, his
chin reaches the top of her head, and they watch the sun set over the peak. The snow
on the pinnacle turns red; the sky changes from pink to purple. She turns to him.
‘They knew a thing or two didn’t they, the Romans?’
He doesn’t reply at first, keeps on looking towards the setting sun. She takes the opportunity to study his features, his unshaven face, the sweat on his upper lip. He turns to face her.
‘I thought you’d like it’ he says.
Susanna sits at her mother’s kitchen table. She doesn’t eat her second piece of toast; the finely shredded marmalade has congealed, the bleached toast is cold. She hadn’t wanted a hen night. It had meant she’d had to stay away from home, to return to her parent’s matching curtains, cushions and place mats, the piano, never played, but polished to a high gloss every Saturday, and the flying geese which adorn the wall behind it. Susanna warms the coffee pot and looks out through the net curtains.
Susanna and Tom didn’t have sex on the first night in his tent, with the fire embers glowing, the snow on the mountains just visible through the tent’s opening flap. They didn’t on the second or third either, and Susanna’s mind ploughed through the possibilities. Did he find her unattractive? (Who could blame him if he did?) Or was she too greedy when she ate, or too stupid? Too slow? Was he gay? Impotent? But on the fourth night while the ground was hard with frost, they rocked all night, panting and straining in the sub zero temperatures while eagles soared overhead, flying across the silver moon.
Afterwards, they talk of the Roman Empire. Her knowledge excites him, her verbose intellect, her widely read mind turns him on, arouses him. In turn, she loves him as an elder, as the father she never really had, absent as he usually was, to escape her mother, her lists of tasks, her disapproval, her disappointment.
Susanna’s father shuffles into the kitchen. He grunts, then mumbles
‘Sod’s law. If you’d chosen to get married in June, it’d probably 'ave rained.’
He bends down and kisses his daughter on the cheek, puts his hand on the small of her back.
‘Want a cup of tea?’
‘No, no I’m OK.’
‘Big day then’ he says.
‘Yup, it’s my big day.’
‘I’ll have to grit the path, there’s black ice on the roads, so they say.’
There is the sound of water filling the bath. Susanna fiddles with the petal of a white carnation fallen from the bouquet sent from her aunt, who can’t come today ‘due to the attention required by seven Persian cats.’
‘Suppose you know him pretty well, you know, after living with him for a year, or is it two?’
‘Oh Dad. I’ve been living with him for twice that long. And we met five years ago today.’ She pours her coffee out, sighs.
Her father continues. ‘Always thought your sister would be first to wed.’ He puts a biscuit on a plate. ‘George was putting up streamers and balloons in The White Lion yesterday. ’
He pats her on the head and leaves the room. Susanna remembers the look her mother had given her when she’d told her the reception would be in the local pub, with a cold buffet.
Susanna shivers. She spills some coffee. The door opens again.
‘It’s time to put on your bridal gown, little sis.’
Susanna gets a whiff of her sister’s perfume. She cries out. Why has it taken her so long to realise? Her fingers loosen, the porcelain coffee cup drops, pink and white roses shatter. The smash of china resounds around the kitchen, the contents spread out across the floor.
In the barren valley Susanna had dug with a new vigour although her search was well outside the marked area. The snow was thick were she dug, a solitary figure against a white blanket. But she’d spotted a mark, a hillock, she was sure.
She takes her hat off and digs and digs. After a while two men, one with a grey moustache and a voice that booms, stop their discussion and come over. They drop to their knees and dig alongside her. Susanna uses her bare hands; she scrapes and burrows, heaves, and gasps. She doesn’t eat all day, forgets the cold, Tom fades, the passionate nights a distant memory. Four more men join her, another woman dressed in plaid trousers and Aran sweater stands back and stares, her hands on her hips.
‘Stick with it’ she says to Susanna. ‘Don’t let the buggers take over.’
Susanna barely hears her.
Soon there are twenty people with trowels and picks; excitement and expectation is in the air. Tom is confined to his tent, delirious with the stickiness of dysentery, his knees clasped to his chest like a foetus. He loves Susanna the more for not nursing him, for preferring the offerings of history hidden in cold soil to the confines of mopping his brow, changing the sodden sheets.
The dig is extended a week, until learned men from Ankara University can
come to confirm the find. Their journey takes two days, the trucks bump and grind over arid mountains, high winds blow grit and snow into their eyes. The drivers wear
chequered scarves around their frozen faces like the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire,
or the freedom fighters of today.
The man with the moustache is from Oxford, and has bushy eyebrows which
cross at the bridge of his nose.
‘It’s a marvellous find’ he says to the Turkish academics. ‘Professor Martin’s the name. Just happened to be having a look in the area.’
Susanna opens her mouth. ‘Actually.’ She coughs. ‘Actually, it was me.’
Professor Martin takes his glasses off, squints at her. ‘ Oh yes, Miss erm, Miss…?’
‘Ms Susanna McCloud.’
‘Yes yes, well you did a fair bit of digging.’ He puts an arm round the two Turkish men. ‘Shall we have a beer, a little celebration? My tent?’
Susanna pulls at the professor’s arm. ‘It was my find, not yours.’ But her voice is soft, plaintive, like the seventeen year old who complained when she washed dishes, her arms covered in suds, while her sister replenished her beauty sleep.
The woman in the Aran sweater turns away.
The clock strikes nine in the Yorkshire house. Susanna’s in her room. She packs slowly, folds her wedding dress and stuffs it into an Asda carrier bag. Outside, the birds are singing, fox tracks cross the garden, a car revs again and again. Susana listens to the raised voices from downstairs, sees a shadow rising beside her, smells White Musk.
Her sister’s eyes shine like newly formed ice ‘It was only physical. It didn’t
mean anything’. Her face is stained with tears.
Susanna sniffs her sister’s scent again, like a skunk on newly laid snow; she’d left her calling card on Tom’s shirts, in his car, on his pillow, on the crisp white sheets he’d shared with Susanna.
Marianne starts to wail.
‘You can’t pull out now.’ Her ivory dress is creased, her makeup smudged, her face pale. ‘I didn’t mean this to happen.’ She hiccups and sobs.
Her mother rushes up the stairs.
‘Keep the noise down, you two, what will the neighbours think?’ She notices
the packed case, the veil discarded on the floor. ‘Now come on Susanna, there’s no need for this.’ She removes the wedding dress from the bag, hangs it up on the hook behind the door and smoothes out the lace.
But Susanna is half way down the stairs. She searches for the phone book. It appears
that Professor Martin was mistaken, the letter had read. She takes the phone into the
kitchen. In honour of your historical find. Who cares that there was no apology,
no explanation? Susanna finds the international code for Turkey. She re-reads the last
sentence of the letter twice. We would like to offer you a Professorship with full
research facilities, a team of well qualified student archaeologists and……She dials
the Ankara University number.
The front door bell chimes, Susanna feels the rush of cold air, hears
Tom’s voice, the frosty tone of her mother, the murmurs in response. A chill runs down her spine, she watches a black and white cat pad through the snow as she waits for the switchboard to put her through to the Dean.
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