So I accidentally a story over the weekend. Didn’t entirely mean to, but did.
I’ve been working on another Arfa story. It started out as a story for St. Piran’s Day, which was back on March 5th AS YOU ALL KNOW. Also International Women’s Day, which was March 8th, because all the main characters turned out to be women. But what I thought was going to be another 500-750 word flash thing hit 3000 and kept going, so it’s not done yet.
Main takeaway so far: I am SO BAD at long-form writing now. I mean sweet holy Jesus. If ‘bad’ was measured in rocks I’d have at least half an Alp. Also kinda depressing that what I now consider ‘long-form’ most people would still think of as flash. What I need to do is keep writing despite the crapness, and then fix it later. But it will be fixed, and you will get it. Hopefully before St. Piran’s Day next year.
And then I thought up the first line of the story below, so I wrote that. It also turned out a bit longer than I thought it would. It’s about 1400 words, so I’d guess a 5-10 minute read. I’ve got my own thoughts on it, but I’d rather not prejudice you. Because now, DEAR READER, is where you come in
All thoughts appreciated. Especially ones that make it into the comment box below.
The Boy Who Didn’t Believe In Summer
When I was 14, I lived next to a boy who didn’t believe in summer.
His name was… Jamie, I think? We called him Snowman, because even in the middle of June he was wrapped up in a duffel coat, gloves and a red woollen hat. It never occurred to us that ‘Snowman’ didn’t make sense; any snowmen in June would be sat huddled in the freezer, terrified that a stray power cut would melt them away. Snowman himself clung to heat like it was all that kept him breathing.
If he’d arrived in January, when the puddles iced over and the air was crisp as a waterfall, maybe it would have been different. Then, we would all have been wearing duffel coats and gloves, and we’d become used to Snowman as normal before discovering he was strange.
But his family moved in on the third weekend of a balmy May, and the first I saw of Snowman was him waddling around the garden, peering at the blooming flowers like he’d never seen colour before.
He was, to put it mildly, something of a disappointment. When the ‘Let’ sign had been stuck on the neighbours’ front fence, I’d imagined living next to an athlete. He was a couple of years older than me, my imaginary neighbour, with a smile that suggested he might be related to Crispin Hunt. He had stomach muscles that were defined without being ridiculous, and when it was sunny he’d sit in the garden with his shirt off and listen to King Adora.
Instead, I got Snowman. A bubble of wool and knitting, terrified he was about to burst. And worse, he looked about my age. Certainly close enough for my mother to insist we should be friends.
We discovered they were a family who moved around a lot, following the father’s job. They came round a few days after they moved in for an awkward cup of tea, one of those get-to-know-you events which my mother didn’t really want to offer but felt compelled to do, and which they didn’t really want to attend, but did for the same reasons.
So we spent an afternoon sat in the living room, Snowman’s mother sitting battle-armoured in blue chiffon and with a string of pearls draped around her neck like the heads of enemies slain. My mother, not to be intimidated in her own fortress, deployed the Good Tableware and tipped the blades of her small-talk with poison.
My dad quickly sussed the situation, decided to play up to his own gender cliché, cracked a couple of beers and went into the garden to talk sport with Snowman’s father.
This left me with Snowman, who stood in the doorway and clutched a cup of tea, still wearing the duffel coat.
“Honey,” Mum said, “why don’t you show Jamie your room?”
I thought, because I’m not seven, but sullenly I led him upstairs. “You’re allowed to take that off,” I said.
“It’s cold,” he replied.
I muttered something my mother wouldn’t have appreciated hearing, and told him not to touch anything. I sat on my bed and pulled out a magazine. It was an old one I’d already read, but it was shorthand that I wasn’t to be disturbed.
As I flicked through month-old gig listings, I heard, “I’ve got that one,” and found him looking at a King Adora album.
“They’re rubbish,” I said.
I saw Snowman less often than you’d expect, and more often than I wanted. We shared a couple of classes in which he’d sit still wrapped up in his coat whenever the teacher would let him. More often, though, he’d be told to take it off and he’d spend the whole lesson clutching hands under armpits. Occasionally he’d glance at the open windows, which let in the warm breeze and the smell of chamomile from the park across the road.
At home, he rarely came out. We were studying To Kill A Mockingbird and I began to imagine him as a Boo Radley in training, but then we finished the book and that felt too heroic. This sounds harsh, so many years on, but in truth I rarely imagined him at all. There wasn’t any active malice – I didn’t pay him anywhere near enough attention for that.
We only came into anything like conflict if I was in town with a group of my friends and we happened to meet.
This happened once during August, a high summer day where even the drifts of fag-smoke clouds were sluggish, and heat rolled off the buildings and roadways like waves at a seashore. There were three of us: myself, Samira and Alice. Alice was wearing heart-shaped sunglasses, because she’d seen that Lolita poster and had judged it the right level of provocative. She was eating a cherry ice, curling her tongue around the red, sticky mass and crunching it slowly, when she swallowed with a gulp and said:
“Oh, God. Is that him?”
It was Snowman, just ahead of us. As well as his duffel coat, today he carried a small black umbrella, providing a flimsy barrier between him and the sun.
“Ugh. Let’s go the other way.”
“Nah.” Alice smiled at me over her black plastic hearts. “I think it’s time for an intervention. Hey, Snowman! Snowman!”
Snowman turned to see Alice hurrying toward him. “Um, yes?”
“What’s with the brolly, Snowman?”
Snowman looked at her, trying to work out what to say. “It’s raining for me.”
Alice rolled her eyes. “Of course it’s raining. I mean look at it. It’s so damp out here. Why on Earth didn’t I think to bring one out?”
“I… I know it’s not raining for you. It’s raining for me. That’s why I’ve got an umbrella.”
“Oh I know, I know.” Alice spoke like a bad actor. “In fact, it’s raining for me too. I’m getting really wet here. Can I borrow your umbrella?”
Snowman looked pained, knowing there wasn’t really any way out of this. But eventually, he handed Alice his umbrella. She immediately closed it and tossed it to one side. “It’s August, dumbass. Just look up.” Snowman just stared at her. Alice shook her head. “Prat.”
She walked on, Samira in tow. I hesitated briefly; we were neighbours, and that meant there was some chance his mother would speak to my mother. If that happened, I wasn’t leaving the house for a week. But Snowman didn’t acknowledge me, he just bent down to pick up his umbrella.
As he did, I saw the water drip from his hair and run in streaks down the back of his coat.
Snowman and his family never saw our real winter. They left just before Hallowe’en. I don’t know if it was because of how we treated Snowman or because of his father’s job.
Eventually, we all left too, though it took us several years longer. Samira went to study architecture. Alice skipped university to become an accountant, and now speaks a language I don’t understand in a skyscraper near Canary Wharf.
I did go to university, swapping the high street and parks of my hometown for the grey skies of Manchester. The streets were full of people I didn’t know and buildings I didn’t recognise, shabby neo-Gothic hotels opposite newsagents and kebab houses, like the city had been made by aliens in an attempt to blend in.
You find friends at university, so I’m told. I never did. There were people I spoke to, sometimes, but mostly I stayed in my room, venturing out for occasional fixes of studying and more occasional fixes of sex. I put up posters, bought ornaments, and a rug. I found a picture identical to one my mother hung on our living room wall and put it up. It came down a week later, because I felt like it was mocking me. None of the rooms I took in those years felt like home.
I graduated, took a longer-term let and found some work as a freelance graphic designer. I specialise in holiday brochures. I enjoy looking at pictures of anywhere in the sun, because it’s been so long since I’ve seen it myself.
Even now, in this slate-grey, sleet-flecked June, I don’t understand how the people I see in shorts and thin, strappy tops think it’s summer.
I shiver, and pull my coat tighter. It’s cold out there.