Love & Comets: A Brother’s Re-Leaving.
My brother and his family came home for Christmas. And by home, I mean where our parents are. He lives in Australia. My nieces have not seen (nor the eldest remember) an English winter.
We want snow for them or at least, a lasting, Narnian hoar frost; but instead, we have bone-damp weather and mud to the doorstep.
My city-living eldest niece loves horses and this we can give her. But we worry ours are not the sun-glossed animals of Australia as they come schlocking through mud past their fetlocks, with burrs tangled in manes stiff with mud. We groom them, and wear their mud.
We ride into a swirly, vanishing mist that mingles with steam from the horses’ flanks and nostrils. The sun strobes through freshly smashed hedges that smell of Christmas, but look like hell: especially to the birds that have come (like Waitrose’s robin) from Scandinavia to find them.
My brother talks of exotic wildlife the other side of the world: flying foxes big as kites, possums, parakeets and light too bright to look at. His clothes’ labels read ‘dry in the shade’, which makes us fall about. Our trees are bare, our colours a mud palette; a patina of wood-browns and dead grasses, long folklore and the subtle, cryptic colours of tawny owl’s wings. But shafts from a weak winter sun are mirrored by wet holly leaves and the wood glimmers with a billion tiny suns.
This is no pastoral, but I’m bound to it all the same. I trespass a frost-cornered field to avoid the indiscriminate flail’s deepest, unkindest cuts. At night, poachers leave the entrails of a field-gutted deer, and a cairn of dead hares piled like mockery. Worse, a barn owl is found shot with a .22 rifle, off a fence post. It is a bird I know.
We walk. On the edge of my brother’s hearing, blackbirds shrill a ‘pink, pink’ with voices like knapped flints. There is a predator, I say, an aerial one, from their alarm, chipped out like flint flakes. I expect blue sparks. There is the scent of fox, the sugar beet smell of decaying sycamore leaves, and the particular crunch of chestnut leaves, frosting up. If I were led here blindfold, I tell him, I’d know where I was, and that it was January.
The Narnian frost comes after all and is breathtaking. My brother runs for miles over the hills. On his last evening here, my youngest daughter and I spot a solitary figure on the hill, silhouetted next to the gibbet on its high long barrow – and I know it is him. I am driving the two miles from Mum’s and flash my lights. He knows it is me. Above him, the pink comet of a contrail makes an arc and becomes a black javelin as it clears the down’s shoulder. The sky, cobalt at its height, fades to snow-blue, then lemon.
On Twelfth Night, it hurts to take the tree and all its decorations down after such a wonderful, memorable Christmas. Through the short days, we leave a few lights for the dark.
On the morning he is gone, the vapour trails of his and other journeys are rose-gold in the sunrise. And a little snow is forecast.