When Your Name Means Snow
We are the season we are born in. Mine excluded that red glow of gifts and family dinners in December. It was the season in the fringes, the crisp frosts, the slush of old snow, the damp that crept into your bones and settled, displacing memories of spring.
I’d picked up the keys earlier, settled my suitcase on the cheap chest of drawers, which, like the matching wardrobe, walls and ceiling, was painted sterile white. The single bed didn’t have a mattress, the wooden slats on its base made it look like a sledge. The laminate floor had the appearance of warm oak floorboards but felt like cold plastic. There was another room, a combined kitchen area in glossy stone and living space that had a sandy-coloured carpet. The curtains were dark brown, thick enough to hide the streetlights and make it dark.
It felt as empty as I did, which made it perfect.
I sank onto the floor. Currently the fridge had nothing to keep chilled and soon I’d have to go and get some milk, coffee, kettle, food. Trouble was, I didn’t know what I wanted.
I could have been three, old enough for nursery and not yet at school. I said I liked a girl’s dress. My mother laughed and told me I was stupid. On its own, it sounds like a silly childhood memory, everyone has said something a parent has laughed at. But it began a pattern. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s saying’. ‘She’s being silly’. Throwaway signals from a parent showing another that her child is still learning words or has misunderstood a situation. These signals became direct contradictions, ‘She doesn’t understand,’ ‘she got the wrong end of the stick,’ ‘that didn’t happen.’
When I spoke about my mother, I was told, ‘she didn’t say that,’ even when I repeated what my mother had said word for word and the person I was speaking to hadn’t even witnessed the original conversation. I had no idea how someone could be so confident about something they’d never seen. ‘She didn’t mean that.’ Dismissive. ‘She’s doing it because she loves you.’ How do you keep hurting the ones you’re supposed to love?
I stopped talking, it seemed safer. What these non-witnesses definitely didn’t see was the ‘don’t wash our dirty laundry in public’. The slap for saying the wrong thing. The being sent to my room without dinner. Locked in for saying the grass was green when my mother had decided it was as blue as the bruised colouring where I’d been hit for contradicting her. Not speaking was wrong too. But it was better than the humiliating public put down.
Robbed of a voice, it seemed I was going to have to learn to speak again.
The café had a warm buzz and gave me a meal a day. Customers talked. I listened, took orders, delivered orders, mentioned the weather and nothing more was demanded of me, providing my uniform was clean and hair tied back. A few stock phrases got me through the day. I was too busy to stop and think, a bonus.
But every day, I was a scared. Scared I’d say the wrong thing, scared I’d drop an order, scared a colleague would try to trap me into conversation, scared I’d be found an imposter. The emptiness at the heart of me would be revealed.
I was clearing a table. A customer had left a magazine behind. The open page had too much text on it, so it wasn’t a celebrity-gossip magazine. A featured paragraph caught my eye.
I read, ‘If your earliest memory is of being told you were wrong, you were stupid, have no opinion, make the wrong choices and look ugly, you start to believe. If a domineering mother does not let her child grow up to be an individual, independent being, that’s abuse.’
I wanted to read on, but Cole nudged me.
‘Hey Olwen, there’s a party tomorrow. Starts 8 o’clock at mine. You’ll be there.’ Cole thrust a scrap of paper into my pocket.
‘We’ll make it hell if you don’t.’ Neve’s smile took the sting out of her threat.
‘I’m not sure I’ve got anything to wear.’ I knew they were being friendly.
‘That’s no excuse.’
The scrap of paper had Cole’s address. I knew roughly where it was. I nudged Neve as she wiped down the coffee machine, ‘What do people normally wear?’
‘Jeans and a sparkly top’s fine. The boys sometimes dress up. Just bring a few beers and no one will notice what you’re wearing by nine.’
I collected my jacket from my locker before heading home. I had managed to unpack my suitcase, but the contents barely filled half the wardrobe and a drawer in the chest. Jeans I could do. My long-sleeved tees in variations of blacks and greys plus hoodies in similar shades came nowhere near the description ‘sparkly’.
I wondered about asking Neve for help.
I opened a shopping website on my phone and typed in ‘sparkly tops’. It returned over eight thousand results, even when I narrowed it down to my size. I didn’t like the first few: sequins that might fall off or prickly-looking glitter. I ruled out metallics: too flashy. I scrolled, then kept scrolling. I got to the end and went back to the beginning. I got about half-way through again and gave up.
It was the same as the feeling I had in the supermarket. I had a list of basic foods, bread, eggs, coffee, milk, vegetables, but when I got to the vegetable aisle, I froze. I didn’t know there were that many varieties of potato, well, I did, but seeing an array of them, I couldn’t decide which I wanted. I read the descriptions, ‘good for roasting’, ‘good for mashing’. What did I want potatoes for? How did I like them?
My mother would tell her friends I liked boiled potatoes but would eat anything she dished up. What she didn’t tell them was how I was punished if I didn’t eat what was dished up. If I dared express a preference, I was told that I was being awkward or ungrateful, didn’t I know what an effort it was to feed me and look after me. I was a burden to her. She’d sacrificed so much for me. I’d never dared ask what those sacrifices were, and it wasn’t as if I’d asked to be born. I’d learnt not to have favourites, not to like anything, because it was safer.
Clothes had been second hand or charity shop finds so nothing fashionable and, again, I didn’t get to choose them. My mother would dump a bag on my bed or I’d find a mysterious second load in the laundry basket as I filled the washing machine. It was simpler to accept and not comment.
Now I was stuck. My clothes allowed me to fade into the background, not be a party girl. Tomorrow night was late night shopping and there’d be time to buy something on my way home, but what? What turned out to be a black sweater with a silvery thread.
Cole lived in a shared house with a large lounge area and a small kitchen. People were already gathering in groups. A few were even dancing to an iPod precariously balanced on the mantelpiece. Lava lamps were stuck in corners.
I took the beers I’d brought to the kitchen.
‘Hey, I could lend you a scarf, then I might be able to see you!’
Cole was grinning so his comment didn’t seem to be meant negatively.
‘Have a drink, loosen up. You’re not one of those boring people who stay in the kitchen are you? I won’t allow it.’
I picked up a beer bottle. He introduced to me everyone, although I didn’t bother remembering names. I didn’t think I’d see them again. He danced off so I slunk back to the kitchen.
Neve showed up in a sequined swing dress. ‘You made it! I think I’m gonna stand next to you all night. I’ll stand out then.’ She promptly drifted off to dance with Cole.
I sipped my beer and watched, amazed at the flow of conversations, the ease which people just danced or stopped to swig a beer or smoked. I wasn’t naïve enough to imagine that everything being smoked were regular cigarettes. But I felt the tension in my shoulders ease. All I had to do was occasionally wave at Cole or Neve and it was accepted I was OK.
It was gone midnight when I stumbled out to walk home. Some were going on to night clubs. A few who seemed closest to Cole stayed behind. I was chilly so I walked briskly. Damp pavements glittered under streetlights. I thought the night had a been a success. I’d managed a party and survived. No one embarrassed me or demanded anything from me.
When I got home my place felt bigger, as if it had expanded its emptiness. I didn’t bother switching on a light. I knew precisely where everything was, and it wasn’t as if there was any furniture to fall over. I washed my make-up off, brushed my teeth and changed into pyjamas. I decided to hang my sweater over the wardrobe door. The silvery threads like faint starlight in the gloom. I slid into my sleeping bag.
Tomorrow, I’d make a list. I should have a sofa, a table with a couple of chairs so I could sit and eat in the living space rather than using the bed as a seat. Maybe I’d get a mattress and some bedding and have a proper bed. And some crockery, or at least more than the white plate and few bits and pieces I’d taken from my mother’s house.
Tomorrow I knew I’d also tear up that list. I wouldn’t be able to choose a sofa and, if I couldn’t select the sofa, I couldn’t pick a chair and table combination that would match. If I didn’t know what colour scheme I wanted, how could I get crockery to fit? I needed to pick a colour. What colour? I’d only retreat into the security of monochrome and feel like a failure.
My eyelids drooped. My breath fogged.
The cold hadn’t bothered me until tonight. It had been welcome, the chill of shivers and then numb acceptance. It felt like the absence that gnawed inside me. The habit of muteness. The blank sheet of winter finishing the year, like an erasure of snow. I wondered how long it would be before Neve and Cole would discover I was just a phoney shell, someone who was empty, someone who’d not been allowed to form any idea of who she could be.
The silvery-threaded sweater seemed distant. Silver was the light of ice and frost.
Emma Lee's short stories have been published in anthologies and magazines including Fairlight Books, ‘Gentle Footprints’ (Bridgehouse Publishing, UK) and ‘Extended Play’ (Elastic Press, UK). She was runner-up in Writing Magazine’s Annual Ghost Story Competition. Her most recent poetry collection is ‘The Significance of a Dress’ (Arachne Press, UK, 2020). She was Reviews Editor for The Blue Nib, co-edited ‘Over Land, Over Sea: poems for those seeking refuge’ (Five Leaves, 2015) and blogs at http://emmalee1.wordpress.com
Of the short story featured here, Emma states:
‘My short story, When Your Name Means Snow, explores how a mother's constant put-downs and humiliating criticisms leave her daughter, Olwen, wary of social interaction and in fear that she will do or say the wrong thing. Olwen, whose name translates as white footprint, has the natural instinct to withdraw from an invitation to a party, but she pushes herself to go, wanting to try and free herself from her past. However, back in her sparse apartment she experiences a heightened sense of emptiness and loneliness, the recent interaction accentuating her feeling of withdrawal.’