cold hearted


Marthe was born in the snow. Her mama often told it; how for 9 long months she’d predicted her firstborn would come with the snowfall, & awoken suddenly, waters leaking warm in the bed, to the first flakes of December.
We’ve got winter in our blood,” she would say, and Marthe could tell that it mattered to her. She liked to think they shared this, just the two of them.
For her part, Marthe wasn’t so sure. The house seemed to grow colder to her with every day, though the mercury in the thermometer stayed resolute. Perhaps it had frozen, too, like her water by the bed, like the bones inside her little toes, like in the pipes in the hall. She hated the ice. She hated the frost that would form on the inside of the bathroom window in January & February, lacy doilies woven with threads of ice that could tie themselves to you while you sat to pee, & then trail behind you into the night.

Sometimes after Mama or Dadda had said goodnight, she’d sneak to the cupboard and pull the rainbow blanket over her duvet to block it all out. Dadda had given her a pair of his thick winter socks to wear with her wellies  – forest green, soft & scratchy – and she could pull them up all the way past her knees on those cold nights of winter, under the blankets where Mama couldn’t see.

But then there was snow; & here, Marthe and Mama were the same. When the weather forecaster’s tone turned apologetic, they both would bounce with anticipation. Sometimes Marthe would be too excited to sleep, and Dadda would say, ‘it’s far too mild’ or ‘you’ve still got school in the morning’, and the giddy rhythm of Marthe’s heartbeat would dip, just a little.

But later, maybe, Mama would wake her while the night was still thick & black, and speak to her in special whispered tones. Maybe they would both wrap up inside the rainbow blanket and sit together by the window, watching the flakes fall, fat and silent, into the black mouth of the valley below.
It snows harder if you sing, Mama used to say, and though Marthe was too big to believe it now, sometimes she’d start up a tune anyway when the flurries seemed to slow. Mama knew all the words to every song, ever, & could spin new ones so fast that Marthe was never sure which was which.
Then Mama would hug her tight and talk into her hair; ‘Are you happy, my little one? Are you a happy child?’

So Marthe knew that it mattered to Mama.

It doesn’t snow the same in the city. Marthe knows this because of the trips to see Grandma and Grandad every month. The house they left was buried to its ankles in drifts, but driving downhill the white patches shrink back to the edges of fields, until just puddles and wet pavement remained. Everything is stark and damp on these visits, and Marthe struggles to picture Mama and Dadda ever living in such an orderly place. She wonders what Mama’s hair was like when the wind didn’t throw it about. She wonders what Dadda wore before his big, muddy boots.

Driving home, she feels the milder air ride along behind them, clinging to their car as it twists into the valley. She pictures it rushing ahead to thaw the winter they left behind, but then she sees the bright amber glow in the darkness and it is there, just as they left it. If they’re lucky it will be cold enough to refreeze overnight, and Marthe’s snowman will last a few days longer. Maybe even until the holidays.

A knock on the downstairs door coughs through the cold of the house. Nobody ever knocks on the downstairs door – not even the postmen, who know to bring Mama’s parcels around to the kitchen’s stable door. It’s so unusual that for a moment, Marthe and Dadda just look at each other, blinking. They’d been playing with the big old atlas together, testing each other on names & rivers & cities. It was a game they often played, & Marthe was finding that she knew the answers more often than Dadda did now. It felt nice, but strange, to know things her father did not. She wondered what else he didn’t know.

A second knock, louder this time. Dadda pulls himself to his feet and moves quickly down the staircase to the door. Marthe follows more slowly, lingers on the second step down.
In the doorway are two policemen. “Officers“, Mama would correct her, but both of these Police Officers are men, in dark uniforms and one is wearing a hat and calling Dadda ‘sir’. He is saying something that makes Dadda take a sudden, big breath; ‘I see’ he is replying, and then, ‘we’ve been away for the weekend’.
The police officer speaks quietly, and Marthe drifts down a few more steps, so that both officers raise their eyes to her, and everyone stops talking.

“Marthe, these men are the police”, says Dadda, hestitant, sounding like somebody else. “They’re telling me some very sad news about a boy from your school.”

Davy Cooper. Marthe knows his name and his face and his red cartoon rucksack. He’s in Mrs Taylor’s class, two years above. He plays football on the junior playground and sometimes wears the same muddy trousers all week long.
And now he is dead. Found in the snow by a man walking his dog – not even a man from the village, but a day tripper, a tourist. “Just a tragic accident“, Dadda is telling Mama later, and Marthe wonders how anyone can accidentally die whilst trying to live.
Mama’s face is white and she is holding a mug of tea with two hands and shaking her head slowly from side to side. Marthe is colouring at the table, pretending not to notice.
Come here, Squidge” Mama says suddenly, and she reaches her arms out for Marthe’s embrace. She holds her too tight and Marthe laughs and squirms and feels a strange, familiar tugging inside her stomach, like sitting on her sledge at the very top of the big hill by the playground.
Then Dadda says ‘now, what’ll we do for tea?’, and the feeling moves up her throat and out, like a moth escaping through the window at dawn.

When Mathe was younger, Mama got sad. Marthe remembers only bits of it; Mama’s face fat and red from crying, and lots of afternoons spent in the big bed together with the curtains half-shut. It must have been autumn-time because Marthe can remember seeing the colours change in the valley through the gap.

Marthe thinks about this time when she sees Davey’s Mum in the Co-Op a few weeks after the police came by.  She sees how her face looks red and puffy like Mama’s did, and how her hands are shaky as she picks up some bread. It’s sliced white bread, and for a moment Marthe feels a stab of envy; Mama only buys heavy brown bread with bits in, never the fluffy white stuff in bright plastic bags. She imagines Davey eating white toast with butter in the mornings before school. Chocolate spread sandwiches in his red cartoon rucksack.
Marthe tries to picture breakfasttime at home without her in it; would Dadda still buy the chocolate muesli if she wasn’t there to share? Would Mama make pancakes on a Sunday without her there to ask?
A memory of Mama crying and banging her fists flashes through Marthe’s mind, and suddenly that moth is trapped again and trying to get out. And now Davey’s sad, red mother is walking towards her and opening her mouth to say something, something sad, and Marthe’s feet are starting to run. Before she knows it she is nearly at the canal and when she stops she sees she is still holding the milk in one hand, and the money mama gave her to pay with in the other. She drops the money off the bridge into the canal like a wishing well and runs home so fast that Dadda laughs that milk must be nearly churned to butter. She doesn’t tell anyone about seeing Mrs Cooper, about stealing the milk. The next time Mama goes into the Co-op on the way home from school, Marthe makes an excuse and waits quietly in the car.

At school, there’s a special assembly for Davey. Mr Greggs, the Headteacher, stands at the front and shows photographs of Davey on the big screen; digging in the vegetable beds, holding a worm aloft, with his friends on the summer football field.

Lots of her classmates cry but Marthe does not. Marthe rarely cries – Mama says she never has, not even as a baby. ‘My sunshine child’ mama would say, so Marthe would think of this if she ever felt the ache of tears beginning to form behind her eyes. The sunshine girl with the winter blood. Mama’s child.
The story of what happened to Davey spreads slowly through the classes, changing shape and growing fat like a snowball rolled over the ground. It takes Marthe a little while to piece together the truth- he’d been playing on the moors, on his own, and had fallen on the gritstones. Katie Kingston in Year 4 insists he broke his leg and then froze to death, but Marthe hears later that he hit his head and was found shortly after that.
Still, in bed at night, she pictures Davey cold and blue, alone on the dark moor. Then she can’t get warm, until even the rainbow blanket and the socks aren’t enough, and she ends up squashing into Mama in the big bed instead. Mama, always so warm, always in t-shirts, never bringing a coat. ‘Exothermic!’, Dadda always laughed; a pretty word, that Marthe liked to feel the shape of in her mouth. A word that blew out and then in, like a breath.
If Mama felt the cold like everyone else, she’d probably wrap Marthe up like the other kids at school. They huddled in the playground, wound round with scarves and stuffed with gillets and mittens and puffa jackets.
If they all fell on the moors, Marthe, in her plain woollen coat, knew she’d definitely freeze first.

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  • graliontorile

  • January 13, 2023

I enjoy the efforts you have put in this, thankyou for all the great blog posts.

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  • Rebecca Harrison

  • March 28, 2016

Reading this again cos it’s very beautiful and I wish you’d post more of your stories.

  • Jo Navin

  • February 15, 2016

Oh yes Sara please do as I’d love to read it! X

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thank you Julia. For reading, and for commenting! x

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thank you Jo! Maybe some day I’ll write the rest of this one… x

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thank you Erin! Comments like this are what makes me brave enough to occasionally share this stuff here, even though its way outside my comfort zone! ?

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Such lovely praise, Charlotte. It means a lot!

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thanks Anna! That means a lot 🙂 x

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thank you. This is the kindest thing anyone could possibly say! There is more for this one – some of it written, some just in my head. I need to find the time to revisit it… x

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thank you! This is such wonderful feedback. It’s a funny thing, putting creative writing online. I’m fine sharing the mundane and the factual, but this stuff feels incredibly raw…

  • Sara Tasker

  • February 14, 2016

Thanks N. I had this whole little novella drafted out, at one point. Maybe one day there’ll be the time & inclination to finish it!

  • Sheepskins Fairylights

  • November 19, 2015

Oh, I didn’t want that to end. Beautifully written, I could picture the scenes so clearly. Thank you Sara, Xx

  • Shrads

  • November 18, 2015

Aaaggggggh! and Ohh! This is heart-wrenching, lyrical writing Sara. You are a bona fide wordsmith and I for one am totally envious of your talent. Please can we have some more??? xx

  • Charlotte Wise

  • November 16, 2015

Wow. This has left me shaken. In a good way. What an artist you are with words xx

  • Jo Navin

  • November 15, 2015

Such a beautiful story, I was sad when it ended.. Thank you for sharing x

  • Julia Kendal

  • November 15, 2015

Beautiful! I was gripped. Xx

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