None of us had been snowed in before, and we weren’t expecting it this time. Nobody would have come to the party on Stefan’s farm, had the weather forecast been more explicit. We had obligations of our own – our homes, our families, our work. And we were stuck at Applecross Farm. Jess, an almost-out-of-control diabetic had only enough insulin supplies to last her till that evening. She lived down in the village but was small and delicate and had recently undergone an appendectomy. She was more than usually vulnerable and needed a mercy mission, so Stefan had searched out the key to the large living room windows. It was now possible to jump, or drop, just a foot or so from the window into the crispy soft snow. Who was to do it, and how?
Stefan himself volunteered. There was no real question of anyone else doing it. This was his house. It was his window. His driveway. His set of waders. He waddled into the kitchen, causing somewhat of a giggle from the rest of us: five sniggering partiers, still a little drunk from the night before. We’d turned up the previous night for Stefan’s bi-monthly dinner party and stopped over, as was usual. Applecross Farm had plenty of room and was convenient for work, but when I’d woken chilled and shocked into life by the unaccustomed atmosphere in the farmhouse at around 5am, it didn’t take long to work out what was causing both. I’d sat staring out of the window till the rest of the house began to rise to oohs and aahs and comments of ‘Bloody hell, have you seen outside?’. The snow had taken us all by surprise by its appearance and by its tenacity and depth.
We’d all experimented at the back and front doors but the task of budging the snow was enormous. It left us with one option – that Stefan would dress in his angling gear in an attempt to get to Jess’s house and pick up her medical supplies. And Jess was getting anxious.
We shouldn’t really have been that worried. Certainly Applecross was a farm in a rural area, but was situated only about a quarter of a mile from the nearest village accessible via a rocky lane which led directly to an A road. All Stefan had to do was to tramp through the snow for a few hundred yards from his living room window to the main road. Our pathway to medical supplies would be gritted and clear and the village shops would be even be open. Jess’s house wasn’t far off and Stefan had her key. Even if that didn’t work, Stefan was somewhat of a celebrity in the village. He was friends with Hugh Whittington, a local author. Hugh was bound to be home, snug and warm. Smug and warm with a medicine cupboard full of spare insulin– enough to keep Jess going for a short while.
Still, I thought Stefan was brave. He’d always been the alpha male – the one who kept this disparate group of forty-somethings in touch, more than 25 years after we first met at Manchester University. Friends till we die, we’d predicted. None of us could believe that our first death would come about so speedily. Emma, a 19 year old undergraduate, had taken her own life by throwing herself from a landing window at the halls of residence. Nobody had known she was even unhappy.
Perhaps I was the only one amongst the remaining six of us who was thinking such sad thoughts as Stefan lowered himself carefully out of the window like a huge black rubber duck. He landed in the snow with a gentle crunch.
‘How deep is it?’ Jess called out.
‘Up to my thighs,’ he said.
‘Top or bottom thighs?’
That was deep. But Stefan was well dressed for the weather and was a hardy, outdoorsy soul. Not a one of us was anxious that he’d not be back.
So, the five of us settled on the corner sofa. There was me – I’m Irena – sat next to my best friend Jess, and then there was the third female of our group – Issy. The men were Stefan (outside) and remaining on the sofa deliberating whether to add to the central heating by setting a fire in the wood burner, were Mark and Janesh. None of us were in relationships, either with each other or elsewhere. I was kind of surprised our strong friendships hadn’t ever blossomed into something more, but was relieved too. The prospect of things going wrong between us was more disturbing than I cared to admit.
Janesh was tall and still retained strong traces of his Indian accent, despite having lived in Manchester for thirty years. ‘I suppose we just wait?’ he said, hovering on the edge of the sofa. Would he get up? Wouldn’t he? Everyone shrugged or nodded and basically ignored what seemed to be a potential call to action. We were warm and safe and knew Stefan wouldn’t let us down. Janesh pushed his body further back on the sofa and flopped.
It hadn’t struck me to try my phone. I pressed the screen, swiped, held it above my head, wiggled it round, but there was no signal. ‘Has anyone else got a signal?’ I asked. It appeared that everyone else had tried as all shook their heads.
‘What about the landline?’ asked Issy. What about the landline indeed. Where was the phone? We all set about looking and it took us a good five minutes. Janesh shouted us into the kitchen. The cordless phone was in the pantry on a shelf next to an unopened tin of olives and a bottle of vermouth. I pressed the phone’s green button. Nothing. That meant the broadband would be out too. How were we all going to let our employers know where we were? It was already 7:30am. I’d have been on my way to work already.
Issy shrugged and sat at the kitchen table. ‘He won’t be long anyway. I think we should have all gone together and got the bus in the village.’
The remainder of us looked towards our fallen comrade who had gamely struggled between rooms with us but who could definitely not be expected to tramp through snow so deep we couldn’t even make out the shapes of our cars outside. Issy and Jess had been a little on edge with each other since we all arrived the previous night. It showed.
A sudden loud noise came from the cellar: a growling, mechanical yet organic sound. The cellar was where Stefan kept wine, preserves, tinned goods and the like, to see him through the winter. It seemed the logical thing to investigate. As I got up to look, Mark held my arm. ‘Irena, don’t…’ Then he stopped and let his arm drop. ‘What the…?’ His gaze was directed to the outside through the kitchen window. ‘What is it, Mark?’ I asked. When he didn’t answer we all flocked around him.
The body of Stefan was crumpled in the snow at the bottom of the hedge, only 100 yards or so away. He was unmoving and the sky’s colour was no longer the shade of bright blue-grey snowy days. It was instead a deep, dark, purple-red: the colour of congealed blood. The same colour that was haloing around the body of Stefan and, as we watched, ourselves unable to move, we saw our friend lifted by light and then we saw him no more.