Short Story: Cold and Dry

“Cold And Dry” by Nick Alexander © 2007 – All rights reserved
Kelly lowers the final bag of shopping into the boot of the car and stretches her back which – at the mere thought of unloading at the other end – is starting to ache. She turns to the caddy for the wine. The shopping is heavy, but it is the wine – four bottles in each mini-crate – that she hates carrying the most. And she’s sick of shopping which is unusual for her, but Christmas, well, the list just goes on and on. She’ll return for a final shop next Saturday – Christmas Eve, but until then, she promises herself, this will have to do. A week without the kids – just her mates popping in. A week where she can let the house go to pot, forget about shopping and school runs, have a drink and let her hair down. Yes, she thinks, as she loads the third crate into the car, this break will be just what she needs.
She’s forever running out of wine; wine and tea bags, but definitely wine… She used to think that it was Neil and his mates who secretly depleted her wine stocks whilst she slept, but then Neil left and she was forced to admit that it was her own friends who did the most damage. Oh to live in France where wine is a fifty pence a bottle!
As she sits in the driver’s seat and waits for the ready-light to come on, she wonders if she can find a way of saying something to Anita without upsetting her, some way to get her to bring her own god-damned booze. Because twelve bottles a week is starting to represent a serious chunk of her housekeeping budget, especially now she’s a single mother. But they have such a laugh together… She smiles thinking about her.
As she swings out of Sainsburys’ car park, she glances at the price of diesel and sees that it has gone up another ten pence, and then she notices a snowflake drifting down in front of the sign – the only reason she regrets the kids being away this week. For if it really does snow as planned… She sighs. She loves to play with the kids in the snow. She’ll just have to have a snow-ball fight with Anita instead. At least this way she gets the kids for Christmas. Her first Christmas without them – now that would have been hard!

Back at the Farm House (the house is still called the Farm House, even though it ceased to be a farm many years before) she mentally swears at the state of the pitted drive. Neil used to fill in the holes with gravel – one of the very few things he ever did do around the place, but though she is perfectly capable of doing this herself, the truth is that she isn’t sure where the gravel came from, and asking him would be admitting that he used to do something, however small – best avoided considering the raw and angry arguments of the last few weeks. But the car exhaust is grating on the peaks, the wheels catching in the troughs – she will have to do something soon.
She parks the car south of the worst series of bumps – she really can’t afford to wreck the exhaust – and steps out. The air is colder than when she left – it smells different too, it has strange metallic taste to it; it tastes like snow – if such a thing is possible.
In about ten trips across the forecourt – less muddy than this morning because now slowly freezing into solid ruts – she carries in the kids’ gifts, the wrapping paper, the Christmas lights, the bags of frozen food. When it comes to the wine, she carries the first eight bottles in and then reaches some kind of threshold of irritation – her motivation suddenly gone. The final four can stay there. The final four can just chill nicely in the car.

She dumps the bottles in the kitchen amidst the heaps of shopping and reaches for a corkscrew. There’s no one here to have a go at her today; no one here to get all judgmental and holier- than-thou because she chooses to have a glass of wine before she unpacks the shopping; no one to call her an alcoholic again. As if…
She’s a trained psychologist so she knows all about alcohol dependency – she’s the one with the self-knowledge. So typical of a man who knows nothing about a subject to start banding around accusations! So she likes a drink… Who doesn’t in Britain these days? So the pamphlets say that a bottle a day is maybe too much. So is six pints on a Friday night, but it’s still the staple diet of the entire population of the UK.
No, Kelly likes a drink, but the very definition of an alcohol problem – she remembers it now from her coursework, remembers even the typeface on the page – is whether it is a problem. And Kelly’s drinking – she sips at the glass of Bordeaux; God that’s good! And really good for the price – is pure pleasure.
Actually Kelly does admit to one problem with alcohol – the cost of the stuff. But she’ll sort that out. She’ll have a word with Anita. She can budget for a bottle a day – what, 120 quid a month – shit, even that’s a lot when you think about it, but when she gets to the end of the weekend and realises that she and Anita have drunk twelve bottles, well,… Times have changed and she can’t go on subbing her anymore. She’ll have a word.

She reaches behind and cranks the central heating thermostat up a notch, hears the sub-sonic boom of the boiler firing up. She can sense it getting colder outside – she can feel it coming through the walls.
She sighs at the thought of the frozen food sitting on the kitchen table and slops a refill from the bottle into her glass. Still, it can wait another five minutes. The kitchen is a bloody freezer anyway.

When she awakens – it seems she dozed off – Eastenders is on the TV and the daylight has vanished. She rubs her eyes, scratches her head, and reaches for the phone. Anita answers immediately.
“Hi babe, it’s Kelly. Just wondering what time you’re coming over?”
Anita snorts into the phone. “Erm, Not!” she laughs.
Kelly frowns. “What?”
“Not coming over more like it,” Anita laughs. “Have you seen the weather?”
Kelly frowns. “No… I mean…” she twists and kneels on the sofa and peers out into the dim light of the garden but she can’t make anything out. Everything looks rounded and vague. It takes a while for her to realise what she’s seeing. “Jesus! When did that happen?”
“It’s been snowing all afternoon. The kids are ecstatic,” Anita says. “The TV’s full of it too… Where have you been?”
Kelly fumbles for the remote and when she changes channels the screen fills with images of trucks stuck in snowdrifts and policeman directing people to leave motorways. “God,” she mumbles. “So you’re not coming at all?”
Anita laughs. “Kelly darling – open your front door and look outside will you? I can’t get to the letterbox, let alone out to Little Whittington.”
Kelly sighs. “Damn, I was looking forward to this,” she says. “It’s Saturday night for god’s sake.”
“Yeah,” Anita says vaguely. “Look, Bob’s watching the match anyway, so once the kids have gone to bed I’ll break open a bottle and call you back. We can have a good natter anyway.”

By the time Kelly has put away the shopping, hidden the kids’ Christmas gifts and re-frozen the now-un-frozen food (despite all the warnings on the packets, refreezing never killed her yet) it’s time to make herself a sandwich and watch the news. And by the time Anita calls she’s feeling pleasantly tipsy. Spending the evening on the phone is almost like spending the time together anyway. At any rate, it’s as close as she’s going to get today.
When she opens the curtains in the morning Kelly fully expects the snow to be gone. She really can’t remember the last time they had proper snow, and it certainly never lasts. But the light from the white landscape is blinding. “Global warming my arse,” she mutters.
She makes herself a cooked breakfast – she’s starving for some reason, and a little shaky, a little febrile – she probably didn’t eat enough yesterday. Then she tidies the kitchen, puts the five full bottles of wine in the refrigerator and pours the dregs into a glass for later. No point cluttering the place up with near-empty bottles.

The news is full of “Arctic conditions,” and she watches transfixed by the drama of it all. “You’d think in a country like England we’d be better prepared,” she thinks, sipping at the wine as the news presenter reels off the planes and trains that won’t be moving today.

Slightly puzzled that she bothered to hide them yesterday, she pulls the gifts from the cupboard – and settles next to a radiator to do the wrapping. So maybe she’s going to be trapped in the house all day, but she can still make a party of it. She loves wrapping gifts – it makes her feel joyful and at-one with the world. She wanders through to the kitchen for that last glass of wine, and then realises that she actually drank it whilst she was watching the news, so she breaks open a fresh bottle and returns to her gift-wrapping party.
Neil used to say her Christmas gift-mountain was obscene. What did he say? An obscene orgy of consumerism. Honestly, that man has so little understanding of psychology. It’s not complicated to work out why she likes gifts so much. She got virtually nothing as a kid herself. What’s obscene isn’t lavishing piles of junk on your kids. It’s leaving them languishing in the back garden with a jamboree-bag and a water pistol on Christmas day.
After an hour or so, she’s bored with the wrapping process – and anyway, she’s run out of gift tags, so she settles in front of the TV with her drink, ready for a fresh batch of catastrophic weather news. Wine is magical really, she thinks, a true friend. For what would she possibly do instead, trapped inside the house alone on a shitty December evening? Some people take anti-depressants, others illegal drugs, she just likes a glass of wine. Hum, she wishes she had some dope to smoke…
By Monday morning she’s truly fed-up with the winter adventure. She even has to dig a channel out to the car. But the air is crisp and dry, and it makes her think of snow games – she even makes a snowball and lobs it at the apple-tree to the right of the house. She quite enjoys it really. She wishes the kids were here.
She keeps thinking that the snow will melt, that she will suddenly glance outside and see that it has gone, but it just sits there, pretty and shiny and inert. Digging the channel is a lot of work for a few bottles of booze, but she’s worried that it will freeze, a worry confirmed as valid when she finally gets the frozen door-lock to open. One bottle has burst – the remaining three have almost entirely frozen and have pushed their corks from the necks. She curses herself for having been too lazy to bring them in straight away – they’re probably ruined. But then who could have predicted this?
But back indoors the thawed wine seems fine. She just worries that the freezing process has done something to the alcohol content – as it doesn’t seem to have much effect.

When she awakens from her afternoon nap the house feels cold, and she knows immediately that something is wrong. The second she tries to relight the pilot light on the boiler – and fails – she realises that they are out of heating oil. Damn him. That was something else – the other thing – let’s say, that Neil dealt with. She can phone and get some delivered, but she’s not sure where he gets it from.
After a search on the internet she finds a company – Mobile Home Oil – which sounds familiar, and she phones and books a delivery. It’s all surprisingly easy. Only of course the guy can’t deliver until the weather gets back to normal. She wonders where that electric heater went, and then remembers giving it to Anita.
She sits and watches the TV, only now the misery of the outside world is a mirror of her own plight. She pulls a quilt around her, and then fetches the kid’s quilts from upstairs too. A desperate attempt at relighting the boiler fails again – as if it wouldn’t! If Neil was here, he’d do something, but she’s not sure quite what. Maybe dig a channel out to the main road. Actually he probably wouldn’t. He’d probably just complain. In the old days he might have given her a cuddle, they could have huddled together for warmth like arctic survivors. But that seems a long time ago now – it seems like a different life.

She sleeps on the sofa – the bedroom seems colder, though without any heating she figures that the whole house must be the same temperature – probably pretty much the same temperature as outside. She ventures from the nest of quilts and checks the thermometer in the kitchen. Eleven below freezing outside! Twelve degrees inside. It could be worse.
She makes herself a cup of tea, wrapping her hands around the kettle as it warms, keeping them there until the last possible minute. But she’s out of milk, so she dumps the tea down the sink and pours herself a glass from the final bottle of wine. The final bottle of wine? Could that be possible? How many did she buy? But of course it was ages ago, she starts to count how many days it’s been but then she can’t be bothered. Anyway, for days that she has been trapped in this hell-hole with nothing else to do but drink. She did well to make them last this long. And of course one bottle burst with cold.

On Tuesday she awakens feeling feverish. A dose of the flu is all she needs. She makes herself a sandwich but she isn’t really hungry and barely touches it. She decides to tidy the kitchen cupboards, only once she has emptied them out and not found the bottle of brandy she thought was lurking in the depths – a bottle of brandy that would have warmed her up nicely – she loses interest in the project. She can tidy it all away tomorrow.

She phones Anita but gets her answer phone. She phones Neil. She hates to do it, but she can’t remember when he’s bringing the kids back, and she needs him to pick up some milk and stuff on the way. Only she gets his voicemail too. She tries to remember where he said he was going – his dad’s place? To Justin and Becky’s? She phones them all – recorded messages all round. It’s like a bloody conspiracy – a great big party that everyone is invited to except her. God she could do with a drink! She returns to the kitchen – rechecks the empty cupboards, rechecks the bottles on the table. Only now she can vaguely remember finishing the brandy on one of the (many) days when Neil had upset her.
She’s trembling now, and sweating freely. It really is the flu, hardly surprising with the house at ten degrees.
She puts on an extra jumper but it makes her sweat, so she takes both jumpers off. She can’t decide which is worse – feeling cold or sweating like a pig. She feels anxious. She wonders why she can’t contact Neil. She wonders if the kids are OK. What with all this bad weather, they could have had an accident. She phones him again and this time leaves a message to call her – that she’s trapped inside – that she needs some shopping – that she’s worried about them. She tries Anita’s number. Hurrah! She answers.
“Where have you been? Everyone’s gone missing!” she tells her.
“Missing?” Anita laughs. “You sound all agitated love. Sit down and pour yourself a drink. We’re outside clearing the drive. The snow plough cleared the road here today and we need to go down the road for some shopping.”
“Anita, I can’t get out… Can you get me some stuff while you’re there.”
There’s a silence on the end of the line, muffled conversations in the distance, then Anita’s voice returns. “Rob says there’s no way we can get out to your place – you’ll just have to hang on. Anyway, it’s supposed to thaw tonight. Gotta go love – Rob’s getting all grumpy. Call you later.”
Kelly stares at the phone. Friends! She drums her hand on the kitchen table and peers out over the fields searching for signs of the thaw. “Jesus, this is stressing me out,” she thinks. “I feel like bloody Tom Hanks, stranded on some island.”

If the evening drags by, then the night seems endless. The sofa seems to be giving her backache, but even up in the bed she can’t seem to get comfortable, can’t seem to sleep. She takes aspirin for the fever, and then takes a second dose an hour later when it fails to have any impact. What she could really do with is a Valium. She feels like she’s been here for weeks, trapped in a snowdrift without food or water. No, that’s being dramatic. She has food and water. But what she really wants is a drink. And who wouldn’t under these circumstances?
At five thirty am she realises that Neil is missing from the bed. She actually gets as far as the kitchen before she remembers that they’re divorced. She enters Timmy’s bedroom and frowns and calls for him before she starts to recall that they have all gone away. She sits on his bed and thinks about crying. She could do with a good cry, but the tears don’t come.
She phones Neil’s mobile, but of course it’s switched off. It’s only seven am. She feels overcome by her swirling emotions. She’s angry, furious at them all for leaving her alone, furious at the council for not clearing the road, at the oil company for not delivering, at the boiler for running out of fuel, at the bottle for bursting, at life for being… for being just so damned difficult. And so damned disappointing.
She tries to stand, but her legs fold beneath her. She must have a high fever – that must be it. She really needs to see the doctor. Maybe it’s not flu. Maybe it’s food poisoning from the frozen/unfrozen tuna steak.
She manages unsteadily to stand and goes downstairs to the phone. An over-bright secretary answers and tells her the doctors are over-run, and what with the weather and the home visits taking forever… But things are getting back to normal so…
Kelly drops the phone in the middle of the phrase and moves to the window. Drips. Sunrise. Thaw.
She pulls a thick grey coat over her pyjamas, pulls on a pair of shoes, grabs her purse and pushes from the front door. Her heart is pounding, she feels like she might be dying. She needs a doctor. And not tomorrow – right now.
The snow has diminished to a six-inch pile of slush. It’s just about drivable – if she’s careful.
She brushes the melting snow from the windscreen with her sleeve, and climbs inside. The interior feels icy and damp; her breath hovers in the air and mists the windscreen. She shivers as the engine hesitates momentarily, just enough to make her heart miss a beat, and then starts. As she bumps down the track, trying to remember where the ruts are beneath the snow, she becomes aware that she’s going to look weird once she gets to the doctors’, or the hospital – pyjamas and Neil’s old coat – not exactly a fashion parade. She hesitates. The hospital, then – no one expects you to put on an evening dress for emergencies.
At the end of the track she’s relieved to see the traffic flowing freely. The hospital is to the right. She can be there in ten minutes. Or the doctor’s surgery is to the left, maybe twenty minutes, just after the little hamlet with the post office and the corner-shop – the corner-shop that sells everything; the corner shop with an off-licence.
As she swings to the left, a tiny feeble voice, deep down, way down in the depths of her soul informs her that these choices aren’t normal, that these choices indicate the possibility of a real problem, and mentally, consciously she answers the voice.
“Yeah yeah,” she mutters. “I’ll deal with it. I just need a drink first. And then I’ll deal with it all.”

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