Sofia Due Books

Snow Day

Sofia Due

Snow Day

Even if he could drive, he’d never get a van up that hill. Not in weather like this. Richie stood at the window of his flat and for the first time in months, didn’t feel like a loser. Today, walking was the smart choice. He sipped his coffee and watched his neighbours dig their cars out of the snow, swapping bits of cardboard to help those with rear wheel drive get a bit of traction. Take more than that to stop them slithering into someone’s garden; it had been below freezing for days.

He clocked the time, exhaled sharply and grabbed his tool bag, dumping his mug in the sink on the way out. There was no real rush. If the buses were running, they wouldn’t be to schedule - but old habits and so on. If he was late, he certainly wouldn’t be the only one.

‘You okay in there, Gail?’ he called as he reached the bottom of the stairs. He knocked on his landlady’s door. ‘I’ll clear the path this evening.’

‘Don’t worry, love,’ she shouted back. ‘I won’t be going anywhere. Not ‘til Spring, at this rate.’

Richie opened the front door, and the cold air caught his breath. The front path was white perfection, pristine and unmarked, all the cracks and broken tiles covered. It was a shame to spoil it with his dirty great boots.

There were more people outside than was usual at this hour, four or five at least. At this end of the street, that counted as a crowd. Much as he’d like to, Richie could hardly walk on by.

‘Hang on.’ He rested his bag on the garden wall and crossed over to join a couple of his neighbours, whose efforts to shove a car away from the kerb were having no effect, feet in office shoes sliding all over the surface of the road.

‘On the count of three,’ said Greg-from-across-the-way as his wife, gripping the steering wheel as if her life depended on it, revved the engine. Richie placed his hands on the boot of the BMW and leaned forward. The three men groaned and growled as they pushed the car out of the snow and heaved it off on its way, wheels skidding until they got purchase. The group stood for a moment, watching its progress, wincing.

Richie wouldn’t stay to chat. He shouldered his bag again and muttered a goodbye.

‘Yeah, thanks. Mind how you go,’ said Greg, shaking his hand and squeezing his shoulder with his free hand.

Richie sought out the fresh snow as he tramped up the hill and onto the main road, preferring to make his own tracks rather than walk in anyone else’s. The usually bustling high street was virtually empty, two grey lines down the centre marking the path of the brave few who’d taken a vehicle out. Cars still lay at the side of the road, silent and sleeping, smothered by giant pillows. More snow was forecast - but where would it go? There didn’t look to be anywhere left to put it.

Enough people were gathered at the bus stop to suggest there was transport running but almost without realising it, Richie walked on by. It was comforting, the crump of his boots in the snow, the stillness all around, everything muted and softened by thick layers of white.

‘Where is everyone?’ he asked when he made it through the office door. The small car park was usually rammed, five cars and vans squeezed into a space big enough for three. Today, Selina’s Mini had the place to itself.

‘Snow day,’ she said, smiling as she glanced up from the pile of invoices. ‘School’s closed so Nick’s taken the kids tobogganing.’

‘You didn’t fancy it?’

‘Someone’s got to answer the phones. Keep this show on the road.’

Richie nodded. Without his wife running the back office, Nick’s business would fall apart. Certainly, no-one would ever get paid. On which note…

‘Any of the jobs still on?’

Any in walking distance, that is. He wouldn’t be getting a lift in anyone’s van today.

‘I’ll make some calls, try and bring something forward. One of the lighting fixes.’ She knew what was on his mind. ‘I’ll sort it somehow. You won’t lose out.’

He left her to it and went to make coffee.

‘No luck yet,’ she said as he put a mug in front of her. ‘The world’s come to a standstill.’

Richie took the large diary from his bag and sat at the desk opposite, studying his job list for the next week. Ordering in the sockets and consumer units would only kill an hour or so but he might as well do something useful.

His phone rang. He didn’t recognise the number but that wasn’t unusual. His contacts were often passed on. It wasn’t something he discouraged. One day he might be in a position to turn down work, but it was a long way off.

‘Is that Riccardo?’ asked a female voice.

‘Yes?’ He drew out the syllable. ‘Riccardo’ usually signalled trouble.

‘Hello there, it’s Green End Primary. Can you come get Connor?’

His heart ripped at the name.

‘Hello? Riccardo?’

‘What’s happened?’ He could barely get the words out, his throat suddenly dry and tight. ‘Is everything all right?’

‘Not enough teachers have made it in so, we have to send the children home.’

Only snow. Nothing serious.

‘Look, you’d better call his mum. I’m not – ‘. He moved his thumb across the screen to end the call.

‘We tried, Riccardo. We’ve left messages. We even called the fire station. They said they can’t spare her. They’re too busy themselves today.’

‘That’s ridiculous. Isn’t there anyone else you can call? What about her sister? I mean…’ He lowered his voice. ‘We’re not together anymore.’

‘Well, I’m sorry to hear that, but we only have two numbers on record, hers and yours. We’re not allowed to call anyone else. So, can you come get him, please? Poor little lad, he’s the last one here. He’s quite distressed.’

Richie took a deep breath. ‘I’m …I’m not his real dad.’

The worst five words he’d ever uttered but lately, it seemed, the only ones he got to say. Two swabs, three days and a couple of hundred pounds to be 99.9% certain. Small numbers really, insignificant, to tear a life apart.

‘What’s that got to do with it?’ The woman was becoming impatient. ‘You’re the only dad we’ve got listed here.’

‘Michelle doesn’t want me to see him.’

There. It was out. Whispered but he’d said it aloud.

‘What d’you mean? Aren’t you allowed to see him? Is there a court order or something? There’s nothing in his file.’

‘No! Of course not. I haven’t done anything. It’s just… she didn’t want him getting confused.’

The voice on the other end sighed.

‘Okay. In that case, I’ll have to contact Social Services.’

‘Social Services?’ Richie looked up, conscious that Selina had stopped what she was doing to listen.

‘That’s the procedure.’

‘Okay, I’m coming.’ He stood and lifted his coat from the back of the chair. ‘Sorry, Selina.’

‘No problem.’ She grimaced in what he took to be sympathy. He was getting a lot of that recently. ‘I didn’t realise it was so bad, Richie.’

He hid his face as he re-fastened the straps on his bag.

‘Leave your stuff here,’ she said. ‘It’ll be fine ‘til tomorrow.’


‘You could take him to Caldon Hill. My boys are heading up there.’

It was more than a year since Richie had been to the school. The railings had been painted but nothing else had changed. He pressed the intercom and was buzzed into a playground which had been gritted and swept by a zealous caretaker, a square of grey in a world of white. He hadn’t made it to the other side before the door to the school office opened and Connor emerged, followed by Ms Millon, the deputy head, picking her way carefully across the wet surface in her heels.

‘Hey,’ Richie said to the little boy, holding out his hand for his lunch box and book bag. What he wanted to do was scoop him up in a hug, but he was scared of how it would feel. ‘You okay?’

‘Can we go to McDonalds?’ asked Connor.

Richie laughed, despite it all. He turned to the teacher. ‘Does Michelle know I’ve got him? I don’t want any trouble. Really, I can’t - ’

‘We let her know,’ she said. She looked down at Connor. ‘Right then, off you go and enjoy your chips and I’ll head home. It took me two hours to get here. Hopefully, it’ll be better now.’

‘Where’s the van?’ asked Connor, looking up and down the street.

‘I’m not allowed to drive just now,’ Richie told him. ‘I’ve been banned.’

Funny how much easier it was to tell an eight-year-old than anyone else. Richie hoped he’d tell his mother, though he doubted she’d feel any remorse. She hadn’t before. Not when he came back from Spain and they met up again and she let him believe her little lad was his, let the lie grow in so deep that when she uprooted it, she dragged his guts out with it. She hadn’t when she locked him out of the house and he was forced to sleep in the van. He, one too many to drive, hoping she’d relent and let him back in so they could talk it through; she, standing in the street in her nightdress, banging on the van windows and yelling so loudly, the police were called.

He’d been right to be angry; anyone would have been. But he hadn’t touched her, hadn’t so much as smacked a palm against a wall. Instead, he sat with a bottle and his head in his hands as she went on at him. How could he have thought Connor was his? Couldn’t he count? He had himself to blame. He should’ve known, really, because Connor never called him ‘dad’, Michelle wouldn’t let him. Always Richie, only Richie.

Drunk in charge of a vehicle. What a joke. Crashed out in the back wrapped in his coat, he wasn’t in charge of anything. It should have been her under caution; she was the one scratched up his van.

He couldn’t think about that now, though. Not when the world was so bright and clean, all blemishes hidden.

‘Anyway, the roads are a mess,’ he told Connor. ‘Shall we have a bite to eat and then get a bus up the hill? Build a snowman?’

‘Yes, yes, yes!’

The boy pumped the air, and then grabbed Richie’s hand. Like he used to.

While they waited for their burgers, Richie messaged Nick.

Bit weird but I’m minding Connor for the day. You still up Caldon Hill? Will you be there a while?

Yh we just got here. Come join us. Turn left out of the car park

A second later another message.

Agh sorry Rich. Forgot again

Richie looked down at Connor. ‘Will you be warm enough? The boy’s anorak looked cosy, but he was still in his school shoes. Richie racked his brains. Wasn’t there was a shoe shop in that row by the bus stop? He’d have to get him some wellies.

‘Here,’ he said, pulling his fingerless gloves from his pockets, the ones he wore for all those frozen mornings trying to restore power to blacked-out households. ‘Will these fit you?’

‘Hey,’ said Nick, when they tracked the group down, poised at the top of the hill. Nick ruffled Connor’s hair. ‘Fancy a turn on the toboggan?’

He pointed out the blue plastic sled being carried by his sons as they trudged back up the hill towards them, cheeks pink from the cold and the exertion.

Richie looked around. It was like a scene from Wacky Races. So many families, all competing to try out the maddest contraption. Rickety wooden sledges, tea trays, plastic shovels, every type of toboggan. Even a couple of old doors. Nick grabbed his sleeve to get his attention.

‘What the hell?’ he asked, eyes wide.

‘I know. I mean, I dunno.’ Richie shook his head, just as confused. ‘It’s nice to see him, though.’

‘Can we have a go?’ asked Connor, jumping from one foot to another in the new boots.

‘Sure,’ said Richie. ‘We better go together the first time, though.’

He settled himself on the sled and pulled Connor down to sit between his legs. He inched his way towards the edge of the slope, digging the heels of his boots in as he went until he felt the weight of the sled tip forward and lifted his feet to tuck them inside the plastic rim.

‘Hold on tight. Here we go!’ he said, grabbing the reins of the sled with one hand and Connor with the other. He didn’t need to ask for a push off, his weight would be enough to propel them down the slope.

‘Yeaaah,’ yelled the boy as the air whizzed past them.

Richie laughed too as they sped down the slope, bouncing on every bump. So good to feel the wind against his face. He only hoped they’d stop before they reached the bottom and the ditch marking the path of the stream which bisected the park. He threw himself into the final turn, tipping them both sideways.

‘That was fun!’ yelled Connor, rolling off the sled and jumping up and down once more. ‘Come on, let’s go again!’ He set off at a run as Richie followed more sedately, trailing the sled behind him.

Richie was breathless, chest hurting, when he reached the top, returning Nick’s cheers with a grin of his own.

‘Faster than I thought,’ he panted.

‘Great to see that bulk coming in handy,’ said his boss, slapping him on the shoulder. ‘And good to see you smiling for a change.’

‘Why don’t you come ‘round anymore?’ Connor asked as they waited at the top for another turn.

‘Ah, you know,’ said Richie. ‘Your mum and I aren’t friends nowadays.’

‘But we are, aren’t we?’

‘Definitely. Friends is what we’ll always be.’

‘D’you want to come for tea?’

‘I’d better not. But thanks for the invite.’ He sent another message to Michelle offering a pick-up time. Message undelivered said his phone.

‘Miss Millon says we got to be friends with everyone.’

Not if you hate them, thought Richie but he said, ‘That’s her job, making sure everyone plays nice.’

‘Can I come to your house then?’

‘Maybe.’ He laughed. ‘Let’s see how it goes.’

‘We can have egg and chips.’

Like when he picked him up from After School club.

‘No more chips. What about mac and cheese? I haven’t done that for a while.’

‘And watch Power Rangers?’

‘Goes without saying.’

This was cruel to them both, planning an impossible future.

Nick crammed them into his 4x4 with his sons and dropped them at the top of Richie’s road. The promised snow had arrived and obliterated everything once again. Connor skipped around the pavement in the gathering darkness, examining his footprints in the fresh fall as they made their way down to Richie’s flat.

It wasn’t only the streetlights illuminating the picture postcard scene. Blue lights flashed at the end of the street. Richie picked up his pace. The police Land Rover was parked at an angle outside his house, doors open. Greg was leaning into the vehicle, talking to the officer who remained behind the wheel.

‘Has something happened? Is Michelle okay?’ said Richie, throat tight.

‘That’s him,’ said a familiar voice and Michelle appeared from the other side of the vehicle, face twisted with rage. ‘I told you to stay away from him.’ She grabbed her son and pulled him to her. ‘Are you all right, Connor? What did he do?’

Richie pressed his hands to his face, pushing his fingers into his eyes. It was happening all over again.

‘I picked him up from school, that’s what I did. They asked me to. I was doing you a favour.’

‘It’s child abduction, that’s what it is.’

Her voice was so loud; neighbours were emerging from their houses. The officer made calming gestures.

‘The school called you. I called you. I left you so many messages.’

‘I changed my number,’ she spat, still clutching Connor to her.

Richie raised his hands in surrender. Greg moved to stand at his side. He patted Richie’s shoulder.

‘Looks like there’s no harm done,’ said the officer. ‘I’ll check it out with the school but for the time being…’

‘Yeah, I get it.’ Richie nodded, head bowed, eyes shut. He needed no warning to keep his distance. It was easier that way. He had no rights. He’d checked it out before.

The officer ushered Connor and Michelle towards the Land Rover. Connor broke free and rushed back to Richie.

‘If school’s shut tomorrow, can we go there again? Can we build a snowman?’

Richie couldn’t help himself. He opened his arms for the hug.

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