It is spring when the wizard moves into the house opposite Emily. Crisp and bright, after a drowned March when rain had closed the sky with soggy grey cloud and done its best to turn Willingham into a drowned village. Yesterday was a solid iron sky and the air more water than oxygen. Today all is sunlight and late frost. The eggshell blue sky seems simultaneously high and just overhead; almost painfully bright after the depressive storms of the past weeks. Emily feels unready for the sun. Her mood has matched the weather for so long that this sunny day seems to mock her. The bright fresh world makes Emily feel as if an irritated deity is telling her to pull herself together, and get over Andrew’s betrayal.
Stupid sun, Emily thinks as she watches the wizard carrying boxes from a white van into number 109. Perhaps he has brought the sun with him. Wizards can probably do that. They’re magic, after all. They can probably do just about anything.
She can’t see his face, though she looks hard at him as she walks to her car. She’s never seen a wizard before, and even from this distance and with only his back visible to her, he’s already confounded her expectations of magicians.
He’s a man of average height and build, she can see, with short dark hair. She would have told you, if you’d asked her before today, that wizards were bent old men with wispy white hair and long beards. And that they wore robes. Blue robes with gold stars and moons on. Hats, too. Long pointed conical hats.
Her source for this knowledge is her mother, who shocked her neighbours by going all the way to London to consult a magician. He’d been old and worn the robes and hat, and had sold her mum an attractive garden gate that was hexed to repel salesmen. It repels the milkman and postman too, and her mum now has to walk to the gate every morning to collect her pints of full cream and her post, but overall she claims it’s the best two hundred pounds she’s ever spent.
This wizard doesn’t seem to have any garden gates with him that Emily can see, and he’s wearing jeans and a white t-shirt. In fact, if it wasn’t for the photocopied letter some scandalised busybody distributed last week informing everyone in the street a wizard was moving in, she’d be none the wiser. (”Dear Covent Garden Neighbour!” it began. “It has come to my attention that a WIZARD will be moving into our street. His profession is an affront to God and I urge you to write a letter of Protest…”)
Emily doesn’t believe that magic is ungodly – if pressed she’d admit she doesn’t believe in a god at all – and despite her unhappiness, she feels a stirring of excitement at the prospect of having a wizard for a neighbour.
I wonder what he’s doing here in Willingham, she thinks. He won’t get much business. Perhaps he’s going to open a shop in Cambridge.
The news is almost finished when Emily turns the TV on, flopping onto the sofa and kicking off her shoes. She has ignored the news most of the time since Andrew left, finding it too depressing. It reminds her too much of him, and his insistence on watching it every day. Tonight though, she wants to hear the headlines and watch the weather. She’s hoping today’s sun is a one-off. She is disappointed: tomorrow will be fine again.
In the kitchen, Emily makes herself beans on toast, and a cup of tea. Not the most nutritious meal, perhaps, but it’s comfort food and she feels the need for some comforting.
She’s getting over Andrew, although the pain she feels at his absence is still raw and cutting. But she’s alone every evening, and the day to day routine of working, then coming home and watching television until bed is lonely. Worse than that, it’s boring, and Emily is becoming more and more convinced that she is boring too.
Emily takes her plate into the kitchen. As she’s washing up, she looks out of her window. Across the street, the wizard’s lights are on in the gathering dark and through the drawn curtains she can see someone moving.
Unable to stomach another night in front of the TV, Emily makes a snap decision. Without stopping to think about what she’s doing – if she thinks about it too much, she knows she won’t do it at all – she grabs a bottle of wine from the counter and sets off across the street.
The man who opens the door isn’t what Emily has been expecting. Although she saw him that morning, she is still surprised to find that he does not have long white hair and a beard to match, that his eyes don’t flash fire at her and there is no ominous rumble of thunder adding atmosphere to the moment. Instead, he looks… normal. Somewhere in his mid thirties, perhaps. His dark hair is neat, his eyes are blue and there is a slight shadow of stubble on his cheeks and jaw. He looks like he should work in an office, Emily thinks, not messing with the fabric of reality.
Then he speaks, and his voice is low, melodious, compelling. It has richness and weight to it, stirring primal, ancestral memories deep inside Emily, evoking a time when gods bestrode the land, when people of extraordinary power harnessed the very essence of the universe and bent it to their wills.
“Hello” he says, smiling.
Emily stares dumbstruck for a long moment, completely unable to form a coherent thought.
“Hi!” she blurts, and winces inwardly at how jarringly strident her own voice sounds in comparison. Her scattered thoughts slowly reassemble themselves. The wizard’s smile widens a little.
“I…” she falters, tries again. “Hi! I’m Emily. I, um, I live across the road. I saw you moving in this morning and wanted to welcome you to the street!” She holds out the wine to him, her hand trembling slightly, still thrilling from the raw power she felt in his voice.
He takes the bottle and reads the label.
“Thank you,” he says, the power in his voice hidden now, constrained inside a safe, pleasant tone. “Would you like to come in for a glass? I’m afraid the house is still messy, but the living room’s more or less unpacked.”
He stands aside to give Emily room to enter, and she walks into the wizard’s house. The hallway is an irregular pentagon, with doors set into each angled wall. Currently they are all closed, and with the packing boxes making the space cluttered, the hallway seems very small to Emily, who is suddenly aware of the wizard’s proximity.
“I’m Martin.” He holds his hand out for Emily to shake.
“Emily” she says, then mentally kicks herself. He knows, you dolt. You already introduced yourself!
The wizard – Martin – just smiles and shakes her hand.
He opens one of the doors and shows Emily through into a long room with patio doors opening onto the small rear garden. One end of the room is full of boxes, but the other end has a couple of sofas around a coffee table, and a television on a wooden stand with a video player underneath.
“Have a seat.” He gestures to the sofas. “I’ll just open the wine and get a couple of glasses.” Emily sits, and he leaves the room. Looking around, she is surprised at how un-magical the room looks. Then she notices a book on the coffee table, placed carelessly on top of a magazine, open but face down, so that both the front and back covers are visible. The book is featureless royal blue except for the title, which is written in silver on the cover. When magic meets music: thaumaturgic harmonics in the shamanistic traditions reads Emily. She picks it up and is just glancing inside it when Martin comes back into the room. She puts it back hurriedly, feeling herself blush.
He sits on the other sofa, and begins to fill the two glasses. “I’m a wizard”, he tells her, nodding at the book,”and these days that mostly seems to involve reading dull books on magic theory. The way technology’s advancing, it’s difficult to stay ahead of the curve.”
He sounds very tired when he says that, and a little bitter, which surprises her. “Do you enjoy it?” She asked. “The wizarding?”
He considers the question for a few seconds, and Emily, looking at his face, sees his presence diminish as his attention vanishes from the room and goes somewhere else. He looks, Emily notes with interest, mundane again.
“It’s not really a question of enjoying it,” he says eventually, his presence filling the room once more. “It’s who I am. A part of me. I can’t do anything else. It’s like breathing, really. You’d probably say you enjoyed breathing if I asked you, but only because it keeps you alive. It’s not something you choose to do, or do for pleasure.”
“No-one makes appointments to come and watch me breathe for them.” Emily points out with a smile, and Martin laughs.
“True. I’m cashing in on my talents, and I do love my work. But it’s getting harder every year. No-one really knows why. One theory blames quantum waveforms. Magic is an intangible thing: a potentiality all around us, and magic users are able to turn that potentiality into reality. And back in the old days, when no-one knew anything about how the universe works, that potentiality was nearly unlimited.”
His voice has become ungentled again, powerful, and something inside Emily is caught by it; transfixed. Then he sighs.
“Now, it’s diminishing. As science advances and we observe more and more of the fundamental rules of the universe, we set them in stone, and the potential for magic users to tap into shrinks, because magic largely ignores those rules. It’s easy to ignore something no-one knows exists, but much more difficult when everyone knows about it.”
“What will you do if it runs out altogether?” Emily asks, curious, then immediately regrets the question. If magic is like breathing for Martin, she’s just asked him what he’ll do when he can’t breathe any more. He smiles, but there is a darkness behind his eyes.
“I shall go and live in a cave,” he says, grandly, then lapses into silence, and looks out of the window. As he does so, Emily is surprised to see naked terror flash over his face for the briefest of moments, gone so quickly she isn’t sure she really saw it. Then he turns back to her and grins again. “Or maybe,” he says in a playful tone, “I’ll charge people to watch me breathe.”
A thought strikes Emily then. “I’ve never seen any magic before,” she says. “How do I know it really exists? Could you do some for me?”
He looks at her for a moment, thinking. Then he grins and nods. Leans forward, reaches for her face. Emily sits very still as his hand brushes her cheek, and withdraws. He holds his hand up so she can see it, and she laughs in surprise. A gold coin shines from between his fingers.
“Fairy gold,” he says, holding the coin out to her. “Freely given.”
“It’s heavy.” Emily says, surprised, when she takes it from him.
They drink their wine, then, and talk. Martin explains that he’s not opening a shop, as Emily had guessed. Instead he’ll work from home, from a spare room decorated to look theatrically magical. “You know,” he says, dismissively, “a cauldron, candles, occult symbols and so on. Customers expect it. They like to feel they’ve had the authentic experience. It’s half the reason they visit me. I can do most things by post. It’s usually just charms to ward off illness and so on.” Emily nods. Martin asks about her job, so she tells him she is the manager of an art supply shop.
“I used to buy art supplies there and I got to know the owner. He gave me a part time job, and then when I finished school, he took me on full time. When he retired a couple of years ago, he made me manager. It’s not a large shop, and I knew how to do the job, since I’d been helping him out for years anyway.”
Martin nods. “Do you enjoy it?”
Emily thinks. “I used to. Now it’s just normal, you know? Just part of life. Something I do every day. It’s a good job though – it pays enough to cover all my bills, and there’s nothing else I’d rather do for a job, so…” she shrugs, and the conversation moves onto other things.
Two hours later, Emily walks home. So much for boring! She thinks. Met a genuine wizard and got some fairy gold too! She rubs her finger over the coin in her pocket. How many people can say that? For the first time in weeks, she feels a genuine smile on her face.
Spring swells and buds and grows, late but insistent, and the world turns a tentative green. The sky is more often blue than grey, and Emily is kept busy in the shop, dispensing pastels and watercolours, brushes and palettes, inks, dyes, sugar paper and all the hundred other various supplies Cambridge’s artists – free now from the dreary confines of winter – desire.
Sales are good, and Emily is finding that she can take satisfaction in her work again, despite the pervasive sadness she’s felt since Andrew left. She has unexpected visions of herself transforming her small garden (though she’s never grown anything in her life) from a scruffy mix of weeds and overgrown grass into a sun-drenched haven where she can lie on a small green lawn amid riotous colours with a drink by her side, gaining an attractive tan.
She sees Martin only a few more times before the end of May. He has one or two customers a day, she judges, based on what she’s observed (not, of course, that she’s keeping a close watch on what happens at number 109. That would be rude. She just happens to glance across every now and then, in a neighbourly way). The first time is a Saturday afternoon. Emily is washing up the dishes she used for lunch, and from the window she sees Martin ushering a customer into his house. He is wearing black robes, long ones with sleeves that hide his hands. A hood shadows his face, and he holds a gnarled staff. Emily grins, remembering the amused way he had dismissed robes, wands, cauldrons and so on as unnecessary but expected by his customers. The woman standing in the doorway of Martin’s house passes him. Before he closes the door, he waves at Emily’s house, as though he’d known she was there the whole time. Emily waves back, uncertainly, but the door to Martin’s house is already shut.
The second and third times, they meet each other in the local Co-Op. He is buying fruit, vegetables, fresh chicken. Healthy food. She is buying Persil and tins of beans. They are both buying wine, and laugh (especially the second time this happens) about drinking alone. The first time, Emily says Martin should pop round when he’s not too busy. The second time they meet, Martin says the same thing.
June comes, and Emily’s garden is starting to look cared for. She has bought a book on gardening and has spent long hours weeding the lawn, then sowing new grass seeds in the bare spots. The borders – previously a tangled mess of bindweed, goosegrass, thistles and dandelions – are now dark, turned earth; awaiting the colourful flowers Emily wants to plant there.
She is washing her hands at the kitchen sink, trying unsuccessfully to remove all the dirt from around her fingernails, when she sees Martin leave his house, cross the road and walk over to her garden gate. He waves at her, and begins to make his way up the path.
“It’s summer, at last.” he says, smiling, when she opens the door to him. “And far too nice an evening to spend it inside, reading about advances in the field of gris-gris and jujus, don’t you think?”
Emily nods, confused. The field of what? she thinks. “Hi Martin,” she says instead so as not to show her ignorance. “How are you?”
“Thirsty.” He says, with feeling. “I was wondering if you’d like to come to the pub and get a drink? I’m told there’s a nice garden we can sit in.”
Emily nods, surprised. She hasn’t done any socialising since she invited herself over to Martin’s house, months ago. Her friends have vanished since Andrew left. She has no proof, but Emily suspects most of them knew about him and Gillian, as they were a fairly tight-knit group. As a consequence, her feelings of betrayal aren’t limited to Andrew and Gillian. They’ve bled into the rest of the group of friends, and Emily hasn’t been able to face seeing them since. At first, some of her friends phoned and tried to arrange to meet up, but her unconvincing excuses and cold manner towards them stopped the phone calls quickly. Realising how lonely she has become, she grabs her bag from where it hangs next to the door and steps out of the house.
“Let’s go.” She says, smiling.
As they chat over a drink (which turns into two drinks, then three), Emily relaxes. Martin is funny, and interesting, and easy company; and she finds herself responding in kind. By the time they head their separate ways, they are friends.
Their friendship grows throughout the summer. Always uncomplicated, undemanding. Easy but genuine. They tend to see each other once or twice a week, relaxed in each other’s company. Both of them are clearly nursing painful secrets, and grateful for the other’s restraint, neither wants to pry. Emily worries for a while about possible romantic complications, as she doesn’t want anything more than friendship, but nothing of that sort develops. There’s an unspoken platonic agreement between them, and Emily’s depression lightens slowly but surely.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” he says one sun-drenched afternoon, as they sit on Emily’s garden bench, wine in hand, admiring the new flowers. “You said you first got your job because you used to buy art supplies from your shop?” Emily nods. “What sort of art do you do?”
“Nothing, now.” She replies. “That was years ago, when I was at school.”
“But you were an art student? You must have enjoyed it.” She nods again, remembering. “Why did you stop?”
She shrugs, suddenly uncomfortable. “Well,” she says, then stops, sighs. “Andrew.” She says, simply, and feels her shoulders slump and a weight settle onto her again.
Martin stays silent, waiting for her to continue, but she doesn’t. “Who’s Andrew?” He asks, gently.
“My boyfriend.” She tells him, then corrects herself quickly. “Ex-boyfriend, I mean. He thinks art is stupid, unless it’s expensive. And mine was never going to be. He’s an accountant, and isn’t really interested in anything other than cars and sports and money. When we first got together, we were together so much that I didn’t have time to do any art. And then we moved in together, and…” she shrugs again. “I just stopped.” She hears regret in her voice as she says this.
Martin hears it too. “You miss it.”
“I was never much good really,” she tells him quickly. “I could never have made a career out of it.” Remembering, she pauses for a while, and Martin lets the silence stretch. “I did enjoy it though.” Emily finally admits. “It made me happy.”
“You should take it up again” Martin tells her. “Andrew’s not around any more?” He makes this into a question, even though it’s obvious she doesn’t have a boyfriend. Emily shakes her head, sudden tears springing to her eyes. “Bad breakup?” He asks. She nods, and takes a large gulp of wine.
She nods again, and suddenly the whole tale spills out of her as Martin listens. How she came home from work one day in January, happy and unsuspecting, to find Andrew sitting at the table looking solemn. How he told her, simply, without guilt or regret, that he had been sleeping with Gillian for a over a year, and how they were going to move in together.
“And that was it,” she says, quietly. “He left. I came home from work two days later to find all this stuff gone. The flat was mostly empty. I couldn’t bear to stay there any more, so I gave my notice and moved here.”
“I’m sorry,” Martin says. Emily shrugs, gulping down the last of her wine.
“I should get over it, I suppose.” She says as he refills her glass. “It’s been months. But I still love him.”
Martin puts his arm around her, and they stare silently at the garden, each lost in their own thoughts.
Emily has been to a garden centre, and is carrying her purchases from her car into her house, when Martin’s door is flung open and a woman storms out, slamming it hard behind her. Emily stops and stares in surprise. The woman is tall, and strikingly attractive. Her long limbs move fluidly, but with a visibly crackling, vicious anger. Her sinuous black plait whips over her shoulder as she turns her head to glare at Emily, and her lips pull back from her teeth in a snarl of fury.
Emily feels as though she’s been physically struck by the woman’s wrath, and is suddenly terrified. This woman is clearly another magician. The power in her glare is blazing bright and murderous, and focused all on her. Emily turns away and walks fast towards her house, letting out a small squeak of fear when she hears a loud bang, and almost breaking into a run before she realises it’s a car door slamming. Reaching her door, she opens it and steps inside, risking a looks backwards. A black BMW speeds away down the street, the woman gripping the wheel tightly. Emily closes her front door, puts the plants she’s carrying on the coffee table, and collapses shaking onto the sofa.
Hours later, Emily is still feeling shaken and skittish, and jumps when there is a sudden knock at her door. She stands still for a moment, unable to decide whether to answer it or hide somewhere, until she reasons that The Woman (who has gained capital letters in lieu of a name in Emily’s mind) wouldn’t knock so politely. If she wanted to come into Emily’s house, she’d just blast the door in with a fireball or something. And me with it, Emily thinks with a shudder.
She walks to the door, takes a deep breath and opens it.
Martin is standing there, a bottle of wine in his hand and a smile on his face that nearly, but not quite, looks carefree.
“Hi,” he says, holding out the bottle to her.
She takes it quickly. I need a drink, she thinks, after The Woman nearly blasted me to bits.
“Do you mind if I open this now?” She asks. Without waiting for a reply, she walks to the kitchen. Martin steps into the house, closing the door behind him, and goes into the living room. Emily finds him sat on the sofa, staring at his hands. She hands him a glass of wine and sits next to him.
Martin is unhappy, and though he tries to hide the fact, he fails miserably. Emily tries to engage him in conversation, but it is desultory at best. They talk about his business, and he says it’s going well, with a steady stream of mail order work and enough appointments to keep him in business. She in turn tells him about the shop, and how business is booming for her, too. Safe, inconsequential topics of conversation. Then Martin asks her, out of nowhere, if she has a hawthorn tree in her garden.
“No,” she says, puzzled. “There aren’t any trees at all. You know that.”
“Good,” he says vehemently, then shudders. He takes a large gulp of wine and doesn’t say anything more.
“Martin,” she says, and he turns to face her. He looks completely, utterly lost. As though everything he values in the entire world has suddenly vanished. She knows that look all too well. She saw it every time she looked in the mirror after Andrew left.
“Is everything alright?” She asks him.
He laughs, ruefully. “My carefree act isn’t really working very well, is it?” She smiles and shakes her head.
“Well, to be honest, everything is not alright.” He says. “I had a visit from someone this afternoon, and it didn’t go well.”
“I saw her leave.” Emily admits. “She seemed angry. I thought she was going to turn me into a frog or something.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” he assures her. “No matter how angry she is. She can’t use magic to harm people. There are rules, and they’re very strictly policed.”
Emily’s not so sure about that, but doesn’t say so. “Who is she?” she asks, instead.
“Vivian.” Martin says the name, and Emily can hear the same hopeless love she hears in her own voice whenever she says Andrew’s name.
“Your girlfriend?” She asks.
Martin shakes his head. “My ex. Ex-girlfriend and ex-pupil. There are spells she doesn’t know – isn’t ready to know – and might never be ready to know – but she’s desperate to learn them. I refused to teach her, so she broke up with me and left. That’s actually why I came to Willingham,” he admits, “for a fresh start. Like you. But she tracked me down, and this afternoon she came to see me, demanding I teach her, and saying we can go back to how we were before if I would. I refused, and, well. You saw the results.”
They drink wine, and think their own thoughts, and the evening sun sinks, making the room dimmer.
“I’ll give in, in the end.” Martin blurts suddenly. Emily looks at him, and that same naked terror she’s seen on his face occasionally is back. “I’ve seen it in a premonition. Read it in the cards, tea leaves, bones. Eventually, she’ll persuade me. I’ll teach her everything. Everything. We’ll have one amazing night together, and then…”
“What?” Emily regrets asking as soon as the word has left her mouth – Martin’s fear is palpable – but she’s caught up in the story and asks without thinking.
“hawthorn, cave and crystal.” He shudders.
“I don’t understand.” Emily tells him.
“Nor do I,” he admits. “But that’s what I’ve seen in my future, and it scares me.”
“You can tell the future?” She asks.
“Yes, sort of. Some of us have visions of the future. But it’s never exactly clear. I couldn’t say something like ‘next Wednesday you’ll discover you’ve got a leaky roof’. The best I could say would be ‘you should prepare for an unexpected shower’. It’s the same with Vivian. I know I’ll eventually teach her what she wants to know, and that it’ll be a disaster, because of the hawthorn, the cave and the crystal. But I’ve no idea what they refer to.”
Emily doesn’t know what to say. He smiles sadly at her, and drinks more wine. Refilling his glass, she suggests they take his mind off his troubles by watching TV, and he agrees. There’s a light, slapstick comedy film on, and they settle for that. By the end of the movie, Martin’s mood is improved, but she can still see a shadow in his eyes as they say goodnight and he goes to his own house.
The summer lingers, fighting a valiant rearguard action against autumn, which arrives late and remains mild. But by the last week of October, the days feel cool and light fogs are common, catching in Emily’s throat and making her think of burning leaves and bonfire toffee. The sunlight is old and dusty. Leaves fade, and rich reds, ochres and golden yellows dominate the landscape. Rain comes, closing the sky and drenching the village. Children huddle in their coats, splashing through the streets and hurrying after school to the warmth and light of their homes.
Emily and Martin are sat in Martin’s living room, watching a drama programme on television and eating a delicious stew Martin had made. It’s called cawl, Martin says, explaining that it is a dish his grandmother made him often when he was a child. Leeks, potatoes and lamb swim in a rich sauce, and they are mopping the sauce up with thick slices of crusty bread.
On television, children are playing in thick, powdery banks of snow, throwing balls of it at each other and making snowmen, red-cheeked, laughing and shouting. Emily sighs wistfully.
“I remember, when I was a child, one winter the weather was like that.” She says. “The days were bright, but it snowed every day. Or at least, it seemed as though it did. We got snowed under in our house for a week, the schools all closed and the roads were so full of snow you couldn’t drive anywhere. Everyone played all day – adults and children – and the whole world felt… magical.”
Martin smiles at this, and nods. “I remember a winter like that, too. Maybe everyone had one, when they were children.”
“Winters aren’t like that any more,” Emily says. “It hardly snows at all. I can’t remember the last time there were snowmen in front gardens.”
“You’re living in the wrong country.” Martin tells her. “It snows plenty in other countries. It’s just England that seems slushy.”
She shakes her head. “I can’t see myself living in a different country. I complain, but I do like England. I just wish I could have a winter like that again. A magical one, like out of a fairy tale.”
Martin smiles. “You never know. Magic does exist, after all. Wish hard enough and you might get your heart’s desire.”
Emily sobers, melancholy filling her. “That’s not my heart’s desire, Martin,” she admits. “I would love a fairytale winter, but my heart’s desire is to have Andrew back.” She blushes, ashamed. “I know he cheated on me. And not just once – for a whole year. But I can’t help it. I know he’s shallow and self-centred, yet I still love him. I’m just so…” she sighs. “I feel empty. I feel like half a person without him. I know I should be angry; and I am. But at the same time, I miss him so much. I’d give anything to have him back, and have things how they were before.” She’s crying now, silently, tears running down her cheeks. “Even if he was cheating on me, I was happy. I -” she can’t continue, and puts her head into her hands, silent sobs wracking her body.
Emily is dreaming. She’s not sure how she knows this – her dream is so mundane that it could easily be the waking world – but somehow she is aware that she is sleeping and this is all happening in her head. She and Martin are sat at her kitchen table, with steaming mugs of tea in front of them. A ravaged plate of biscuits sits between them, scattered crumbs bearing mute witness to the devoured pile. She takes a gulp of her tea and looks at Martin.
Emily dreams that Martin is apologising to her. She doesn’t know why, but he seems full of regret.
“I don’t want to,” he is saying, “but I’ve got no choice. There’s a sort of ruling body of magic, and they’re ordering it.”
Emily finds herself nodding, without knowing why.
“I think,” he begins, then stops. Sighs. “I think Vivian has done something. I don’t know what, but there have been whispers among other magicians about something, and they stop whenever I’m around. I know I’ve done nothing wrong, so it must be Vivian. I am – was – her teacher, so I’m sort of responsible for her. I think I’m being called to account.”
“Is it to do with those spells you won’t teach her?” Emily asks.
“Probably,” Martin says glumly. “It seems like her entire life is to do with those spells now.”
Emily drinks more tea. “When?” She asks, though again she doesn’t know what it is she’s asking. It seems this dream is out of her control, and she’s just playing a part.
“Now. I’m sorry Emily.” Martin looks down at his mug. Then he looks up again. “Listen, I’ve arranged something. I don’t know if it was the right thing to do, but I wanted to help. I hope it’s everything you wished for.”
He stands, suddenly wearing a long wool coat, buttoned all the way to the chin.
“I’ve got to hurry.” He says. “I’ll be as quick as I can, and then we can have dinner, okay?”
She nods again, still with no control over her actions. “I’ll set a place for you.”
Emily wakes, confused, with a vague sense of loss. She must have had a bad dream, but she can’t remember it.
She gets up, wanders downstairs to the kitchen. Picks up the kettle and takes it to the sink, begins to fill it. Looking out of the window, she freezes.
Martin’s house is empty.
Emily doesn’t know how she knows this, but she’s certain it’s so. Martin has gone. Not merely to the shops, or away for the day. He’s left, and taken all his things with him. Somehow, as she slept, he has emptied his entire house, and moved out. Without saying goodbye.
She doesn’t even bother checking, she’s so sure. Woodenly, she makes tea, and sits at her kitchen table.
She stares blankly into her mug, and reaches for a biscuit. Only when her hand comes into contact with the wooden surface of the table does she look up. There’s no plate of biscuits there. Suddenly, the details of her dream come flooding back. He did say goodbye!
The shock of his leaving is lessened somewhat by the newly-remembered details of the dream, but she still feels desolate. Emotionless. Hollow.
Numbly, she showers and dresses. Walks back downstairs and sits at the kitchen table again. Distantly, she can feel a tidal wave of depression approaching. The same all-engulfing melancholy she’s lived with for months, and has only recently begun to recede. Her only friend has gone. He had to go, it seems, but the fact that he’s taken all of his belongings suggests he’s not coming back any time soon.
She remembers what he said in the dream: “I’ll be as quick as I can.” It isn’t just going to be a day or a week though, she feels sure.
She decides to check, although she has no hope that she’s wrong about Martin leaving.
Leaving her front door unlocked, and not bothering to take her coat with her, Emily walks to Martin’s house. All the curtains are drawn, so she can’t see in. She knocks on the door for a while, but no-one answers. She walks around to the rear of his house, and opens the gate to his back garden. She looks into the kitchen windows – the only ones in the house without curtains – and finds, as expected, an empty room. All the cupboards are open, empty. The washing machine and fridge are gone.
Emily walks slowly back to the front of the street. Looking across at her house, she sees a man standing at her front door. Her heart leaps. Andrew! It takes all her will to stop herself from shouting his name. She’s sure it’s him, but refuses to believe her eyes. She can’t take any more disappointment today.
Then he turns and smiles, and she begins to run towards him.
It begins to snow on the first of December.
It is just past midnight. Emily is lying in bed, listening to Andrew snore and feeling peevish. The weeks since Andrew returned have flown by. He is renting a flat in Cambridge, but most nights they stay together in Willingham. They see each other every day, and have slipped easily into their old routines and habits together.
A little too easily, Emily feels. She’s forgiven him for Gillian (”It’s over,” he assures her. “It was exciting, but I realised I don’t love her. I love you.”), surprised at how easy she’s found it to forget the hurt he caused her; the embarrassment and shame and grief she’s suffered these last endless months. They’ve slotted back into each other’s lives as if nothing had ever happened. But Emily is feeling more and more dissatisfied.
Why am I unhappy? She thinks. I’ve got Andrew back. I should be ecstatic. After all, I’ve gained my heart’s desire.
She remembers her conversation with Martin, telling him that she’d give anything to have Andrew back, and have everything the way it was before. And then she recalls what Martin told her in her dream, that he had arranged something and he hoped it was everything she wished.
It isn’t, Martin. I don’t know why, but it just isn’t.
She gets up, careful not to wake Andrew, and goes downstairs to the kitchen, thinking that a glass of water and a snack might help her sleep. Out of the window, she sees fat white flakes falling softly. Hundreds of them. Thousands. She stands at the kitchen counter and watches them fall.
It continues to snow for the next week. It begins to snow in the evenings, and continues through the nights. During the day, the snow clouds vanish and the sun streams down from a clear sky. The temperature rises to just above freezing. Not enough to melt all the snow, but enough to make the outside world a delight to be in.
Every day, the weather forecasters predict more snow, in tones of pleased bafflement. By the seventh, the world is a real winter wonderland.
Snowmen stand proudly in front gardens everywhere, and children spend the short days outside, playing in the thick, powdery banks of snow, throwing balls of it at each other, red-cheeked, laughing and shouting.
Emily stands at the kitchen sink, staring out of the window, as she has done all week. Her dissatisfaction is growing, though she still can’t understand why, and she’s growing snappish. Andrew enters the kitchen and stands behind her. He puts his arms around her and sighs happily.
“It’s magical, isn’t it?” He asks.
Emily jumps slightly, startled. “What is?”
He gestures out of the window. “All that. The snow. The children playing. It’s like something out of a movie. A fairytale winter.”
She stiffens, and turns to him. “What was that?” she says, urgently.
“What’s wrong?” Andrew asks.
Emily pulls away from him. “What did you say?” she insists. “Just then?”
He looks confused. “I said the weather is like something out of a movie. You know, the way it’s all snowy and the children are playing and everything. It reminds me of one winter when I was a kid.”
Emily stares at him, in shock.
“What’s wrong?” Andrew asks again.
“Nothing.” Emily tells him. “I’ve got to go to work.” She walks out of the kitchen, leaving him staring after her.
Emily opens the door, and the crisp, cold air hits her immediately. Andrew is standing on the path outside in the fading blue light of early evening. He begins to take a step forward, to come into the warmth and light of the house, but Emily doesn’t move aside for him, and he’s forced to stop.
“What’s going on?” He asks, looking at her face. His breath clouds in the winter air, and he shoves his hands deep into his pockets. He is shivering and shifting from foot to foot, trying to keep warm in the snowy evening.
“We’re finished,” Emily tells him simply, and bends down to lift the black holdall by her feet. “It’s over, Andrew. I’m breaking up with you.”
She holds out the bag, feeling a strange mix of feelings – fear, sadness, guilt, determination and hope – as she looks at Andrew. If he had never come back, she’d always have longed for him. This way is better. She’s wasted the last few weeks, she realises, spending them trying to pretend the rift between them didn’t exist. She should never have leapt into his arms (and bed) when he turned up on her doorstep. Should instead have been strong enough to accept the loneliness and feelings of abandonment and betrayal, realising that they would eventually pass. But what’s done is done, and she isn’t going to let her life continue stagnating in her past mistakes. It’s time to start moving forward, as painful as that might be.
Andrew just looks at the bag, and then up at Emily’s face. “What?” he says, voice full of disbelief.
“It’s your stuff. The things you’ve left here. Take it.” She extends her arm even further, offering the bag to him again.
He shakes his head. “No.” he says, with a hint of anger. He takes a breath, obviously preparing to say something else. Emily shrugs and opens her hand. The bag falls to the floor with the sound of breaking glass. He stares at her open-mouthed.
“Your aftershave, I expect.” Emily is gaining strength from Andrew’s astounded reaction to her decision. She’s always been the one at a disadvantage in their relationship, and although it’s a shame that the only time she’s the dominant one is when she’s ending the relationship, at least she’s had her turn. She feels a cruel urge to be more vindictive, but quashes it. “I can’t be around you any more, Andrew.” She tells him. “You’re… well, you’re just not what I want any more. I thought you were my heart’s desire, but once I had you back, I realised you’re not. I should have realised it sooner, and I’m sorry I didn’t. It wasn’t fair on you. But then, after what you did to me, perhaps you deserve it. I don’t want to be mean about this, but I just can’t spend another day with you. I don’t want to see you again, okay?”
Then she takes a step back, inside the warm house, and closes the door. She hesitates for a half-second, and then locks it. Andrew’s never been a violent man, but there’s no sense in taking chances.
She walks into the kitchen and opens the storage closet there, dodging the wrapping paper and empty cardboard boxes that spill out when she does so. Andrew begins hammering on the door and yelling, but she ignores him and wades into the clutter, pulling out what she needs.
By the time she’s finished her preparations, Andrew has given up and left, taking the bag with him. Emily stands in the living room, in front of the French doors. She looks out into her garden, studying the mid-December afternoon. The snow falls lazily; large, silent flakes drifting this way and that before landing on the white hillocks of the bushes and the flat plain of the lawn. Her garden bench is a ghostly, indistinct shape in the gathering dusk, the snow on it reflecting the weak violet light that remains of the day.
The sort of winter you read about in fairy tales, and see in films, she thinks. Well, she’d asked for it, and now she’s got it, she’s going to make it count. It’ll be a bittersweet Christmas, she supposes. Her mum and dad are visiting her sister in Ireland, and so with Andrew gone, she’ll have to spend it on her own. She will set a place for Martin, she decides, but doesn’t think he will come. And it will be good for her to spend some time learning how to be herself again, she’s sure of it. A sort of hibernation, she decides. Spend this fairytale winter at home, quiet and healing; and emerge a new person in spring. It sounds appealing. There are worse chrysalises than this house. And I’ll need the time, to practice and build up my skills again.
She turns away from the garden, and picks up one of the newly-excavated canvases she’s leaned against the wall. Putting it on the easel she’s placed in the living room, she studies its blankness, trying to see, as she’d once been able to, the painting waiting to be revealed.
After several long, unmoving minutes, Emily smiles, picks up a brush, and begins.
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you did, and you want to have a copy for your Kindle, you can purchase it here.