Dreamtime by Julie Hayman

Woke abruptly to discover I’d been hauling a sledge alone across the Antarctic Plateau again. Cramp in my leg from sleeping too still, but my body’s fizzes like lemonade’s in my veins. I get up, go downstairs, pour myself a glass of water, hold it to my forehead which is surprisingly hot. The dog is curled like a comma on the sofa. He doesn’t shift; he’s used to my rituals.
     I think how early I must be up in the morning and how many more miles of sledge-hauling I must do before then. I swallow a pill in the hope it will make me drowsy enough to sleep, then go stealthily back upstairs and climb into my side of the bed. Lawrence never wakes in the night; he sleeps like the pious dead. I lie with eyes wide open. Outside, something tries the lid of the dustbin as an owl hoots.

I am in a house made of wood. Its walls, floors, roof are all rough planks, unvarnished and ill-fitting. Outside, a gale screams. I hear it – feel it – make a rush at the hut: it thumps the walls and rattles the window. It is trying to get in. The window is right in front of me – three, four yards – there is no curtain and the glass square is black. The sill is the only part of the bare room that is painted. The paint is white and peeling. It is questionable how long the building can withstand such battering by the wind. Each time the gale throws itself against the hut and fails to break it, it retreats and makes a run-up for the next try. I believe I have done all I can to strengthen the house. Perhaps the wind will blow itself out soon. But I feel its freezing fingers prising up through the cracks between the floorboards, groping around for a way inside. I’m alone on the Antarctic coast in the dark winter and there’s no-one around for thousands of miles in any direction. This would be all right were it not for the wind. I’m frightened it will get me, though my rational side, even in sleep, argues: What could it do? 
Little pig, little pig, let me come in.

Downstairs again. The dog is chasing something, twitching and woofing in his sleep when I put on the light. He yawns, stretches, peers up and me. Bowser likes snow, and he’d gladly walk beside me to the Pole. It wouldn’t matter to him that we would never get there. But he wouldn’t like the katabatic winds that whistle down the glacier and make your eyes stream and squint, so perhaps he should stay where he is, chasing his rats and rabbits.
     Snuggled on the sofa with my legs tucked under me, I write a story about a girl with anorexia who eats only snow. She gets thinner and thinner and fainter and fainter until, flake by flake, she drifts away. As I write, Bowser decides that I have appropriated the best seat in the house and tries to settle on my lap. His body is all sharp elbows, soft muzzle and warm, doggy smell. My story is relegated to the coffee table so that Bowser can get comfortable. He pushes his face under my arm, between my breast and armpit, and inhales deeply. This position makes him feel secure and he will sleep this way for an hour. I pick up the complete and unabridged, ‘Tales of Ancient Egypt’ that my daughter has left on the arm of the sofa, and read about hot sands and Amun-Ra and The Girl With The Rose Red Slippers until I hear the traffic begin to growl outside and Lawrence resurrecting upstairs.

You’ve got to get over this, Lawrence says. There was no reason that bastard picked on you; you could have been anyone. You can’t barricade yourself in the house – you have to go out. Do a bit of shopping – anything that makes you feel better. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, is all. You can’t let it make you feel like this; you can’t allow it to make you suspicious of everyone.
     Dr Lewis says writing may help. What should I write? I ask. Anything you like, she says. Write your wishes, your fears, your dreams; anything. Get it out of you. Write it all down.
     I watch through the letterbox as Lawrence leaves for work. His legs scissor. They could be anyone’s as he turns the corner out of sight.

I re-read the story I wrote of the thin flake-drift girl.
     The word ‘bland’ sounds in my head, in Lawrence’s voice.
     Bland, Lawrence says. He finds my writing bland. I think he means me to take this as a criticism.
     Bland like white? I think.
     Bland like nothing happening?
     Bland like predictable and unexciting and unfeeling blankness?
     Blandness is what some people want, I want to shriek as the heat seeps back into my eyes so that even others can see it.
     You been crying? asks Caroline, the receptionist.
     You look tired, says Dr Lewis.

Pranged a vehicle in Sainsbury’s car park. Not a car, but one of those vans that have foam-cushioned sofas and tiny gas cookers in the back and are always painted tangerine. I scraped against its bumper, leaving a smear of red paint. Stopped the car, got out. My car had a great gash in her side but the van, apart from the red smudge, was unaffected. 

     Must get more sleep.
     There are only seven types of snowflake. All the many hundreds of designs are only variations on these basic models. That’s what I read. But I also read that no two snowflakes are ever the same, so now I don’t know what to believe. I do know, though, because I’ve tried this myself in what I think is the real world, that if you look close enough at a snowflake, the heat from your eye will make the crystal explode. You have to get your iris really close, though. And snowflakes can be bad back, making you go blind.
     It’s always surprising that snow is cold. You expect it to be soft and warm like eider down, and instead it’s wet and freezing. I think about this, the deceitfulness of snow.

Lawrence says he’s tired because he didn’t sleep well last night. He says he kept having dreams. His dreams involve him getting to work and having to catch his boss for a word who keeps disappearing round the next corner. The word or the boss, I ask. He thinks I’m joking.
     As always, I lie with my back to Lawrence and wiggle my cold feet between his calves to warm them up. Why he lets me torture him like this, I don’t know.
     Why are your feet always cold? he asks.
     Bad circulation, I reply. I don’t really know why they’re always cold but Lawrence likes explanations for everything so I make it up.
     He begins by rubbing my feet. We make love and I fall asleep riding the waves, swimming towards lights through the cold water which has plates and pancakes of thick ice floating above it and I have legs where I need fins and hooves where I need flippers and I’m a white horse swimming for shore trying to get up onto the land and I can see the men, the expeditioners there waving, encouraging me, trying to get me up on to the ice however slippery, out away from the killer whales that are cutting slickly through the black water to get me. My eyes roll white as my muscles seize up. I am almost safe. Captain Oates is poised above me with an ice-pick ready to administer the coup de grace as an orca brushes past my belly.
     Lawrence shifts in his sleep, throws a heavy arm across me.
     And now I’m not a horse at all but a person. I’m a person standing in the middle of the Antarctic Plateau and I’ve no idea how I got here and there’s nothing around me for miles but flat whiteness and drifting snow stinging my face and there’s no fear that anyone will approach or sneak up to grab me. I have buried something here in the deep snow but I can’t remember what and I don’t want to dig it up because it might be anything – a name, or a car key, or a stained handkerchief. My feet are numb and I have hope that this sensation will increase.
     Already my fingers are white and without feeling. Off in the distance I see Bowser leaping across the glacier in pursuit of a rabbit. My sledge and harness are here and the runners scratch indecipherable lines in the snow as I trudge towards the Pole, thousands of sparkling snowflakes exploding all around me under the sun’s hot eye.

Julie Hayman’s short stories have appeared online, in magazines and on radio, and have received recognition in national competitions including the Bridport Prize, the Costa Short Story Award and The Times/Chicken House Fiction Writing for Children Award. She has worked as both a dog trainer and a university lecturer in creative writing in the south of England. Her areas of interest include polar writing and animal studies.

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