Pale Siren - By C.J. Jessop
Sarah started the engine and eased off the clutch. She eased down on the gas and the back wheels began to whine, spinning ineffectually as they failed to grip in the drifting snow.
“Crap.” She switched off, groaning in frustration. It was no use: the car was stuck fast and the only way out would be with a shovel, which she of course did not have. She gave a wistful sigh as an SUV passed by, climbing the steep, snow-covered hill with obscene ease. If only she had thought of hiring one of those.
Still cursing, she decided to get out and take a look, shivering as a blast of chill air caught her and made her wish she had thought to pack a coat. The back wheels of the saloon had cut a deep trench in the bank of snow near the kerb, and she shook her head, knowing she had been right about the shovel. She kicked viciously at a wheel, which only served to hurt her foot instead of making her feel better, and stumbled back into the car, slamming the door as she wondered how she was going to get out of this one.
The weather forecast had no mention of snow when she landed at Heathrow that morning: all it had promised was rain. Rain, ha! It had been snowing steadily for the last three hours and the sky was still heavy. It looked as though it could snow all night.
She restarted the engine, switching on the heater to warm herself, hoping that someone would eventually come and help to dig her out, or at least offer to give her a ride to the nearest pub.
She switched on the wipers, clearing the film of snow that had settled since her back wheels gave up. Cars were slowly passing by, and some were all over the place, but each one in the long queue somehow managed to keep going. It wasn't fair. Why her? That it had been her own fault for trying to undertake a slow-moving lorry served only to deepen her misery.
She switched off her engine, not wishing to waste precious fuel. Her wait could be a long one and it would be a tragedy if she finally managed to dig the car out, only to find she had run out of petrol. It was cold without the heater, especially since her body was conditioned to a warmer climate. She could always switch it back on if it became unbearable, just long enough to warm herself again. If only she had taken into account the sheer contrariness of the British weather when packing for her trip and brought a coat.
Staring out of the window, she watched in utter dejection as car after car passed by. Why didn't one of them stop to help her? Could they not see she was stuck? Surely one of them could at least stop and offer the loan of a shovel. It was the hill, she decided miserably: they were all afraid to stop in case they too became stranded.
Chance made her glance out of the side window, and she caught a glimmer of light in the distance. She squinted, and smiled to herself as she recognised the outline of a row of houses across the fields. Of course! One of those quaint little cottages belonged to James. It was four miles along the bypass and through town to her parents’ house, but those cottages were less than a mile away. All she had to do was cross a field and climb a couple of dry stone walls and she could be there.
She thought of James, a wistful smile tugging at the comers of her mouth. It had been two years since she last saw him. Two years! She wondered if he hated her still. She could hardly blame him if he did, but hoped that enough time had passed to heal his wounds. And even if he did still despise her for leaving him, surely James would not turn her away on such a night. He would answer the door and stare at her with those smoky blue eyes as if he had seen a ghost. Then he would sigh and shake his head as he told her to come in and warm herself.
She had never been able to get those eyes out of her mind, despite the men she had met on her travels. They had been so expressive, James’ eyes, so full of angry grief when she left him that she had almost caved in and stayed. But she had needed to go, to seek her dreams and get the yearning out of her system, or she would have come to resent him. Surely he would understand that now.
If she started out now, across the field, she could be warming herself before James’ fire in half an hour, and she could tell him why she had come back. That decided her: the thought of seeing him again and explaining how she had finally realised where her dreams really lay, was enough to spur her into action. She opened the car door, wrapping the thin fabric of her jacket round her and turning up the collar to keep the snow from the back of her neck.
Looking down at her feet, she stepped out into the snow and grimaced at her flimsy shoes. They were hardly appropriate for walking through deep snowdrifts, but she would have to manage.
She locked the car and set out towards James’ house, her mood of despondency lifting as she pictured their joyful reunion. He would be angry with her at first, but he would come round. She would see to it. They were meant to be together. It had taken her two years of wandering the world to make her realise just how much he meant to her, and if she had to spend as long again trying to persuade him to give her another chance then she would.
Somehow she knew it would not be difficult. Why else would she have become stranded so near to his house? It was a sign. Everything was going to work out.
The wall was an obstacle. It was slippery with snow and hard to find a foothold amongst the tightly packed stones, but she managed to get over on her third attempt. The field was even worse. The snow was deeper than at the roadside and every time she took a step it filled her shoes. She tucked her jeans into her socks, but it made little difference and soon her toes were so cold they hurt. As she stumbled forward she kept the lights of the row of houses in view, using them as a beacon to keep her from wandering off course.
The wind blew stronger, and Sarah likened it to a wolf, howling in her ears and tearing at her thin clothes to rake her flesh with fangs of ice. The snow came thicker too, whipped up by the wind until all she could see was an angry swarm of white flecks that harried her and stung her eyes. She could not even see the lights any more, but she kept going, struggling against the wind, closing her eyes against the snow. She would be all right. If she kept walking forward and did not veer off course she would make it.
She caught her foot on something hidden under the blanket of snow and tripped, sprawling headlong as her ankle twisted. For a moment she lay still, winded by the fall. Although her ankle was numb with cold it began to swell almost immediately, her shoe rapidly becoming painfully tight. She hoped it was just a sprain. She could walk on a sprain without causing too much damage, but if it was broken she would have no chance.
She struggled to her feet to test the injury. White hot pain seared her right leg as she let it take her weight and she was almost physically sick with its intensity. She tried again, almost fainting with the torment, but she forced herself to take a step, knowing that if she gave in she would die there, perhaps yards from the warmth of James’ smile.
Her progress was dismally slow, and she was sure she was bearing right, but she was past caring. If she could just make it to the road that ran by James’ house she could shout for help. She stumbled repeatedly, until she was forced to continue on hands and knees, but still she kept going, her mental picture of James’ face her only spur. She had to make it, for his sake. She had to make amends for hurting him so badly. Why had she been so selfish, so wrapped up in her own needs and wants that she had lost sight of what really mattered? Travelling was supposed to have filled the hole in her life, and yet now, as she struggled against the pain and exhaustion, she could see that without James the hole had become a yawning chasm. She needed him.
Soon she could hardly feel her hands or feet, or even the injured ankle, and she was so cold that her spine ached from constant shivering. She stopped for a moment, to catch her breath. Weeping now, fear and helplessness draining her will, she almost gave in, almost lay down to wait for the inevitable. But as she raised her head she saw a dark shape looming against the swirl of white. She blinked, thinking it to be a trick of the blizzard, but the image remained and she cried out in joy as her stinging eyes made out the outline of a house.
With one last burst of energy she dragged herself to the door, hammering with both fists. Then she collapsed, laughing and weeping in the snow as the door swung open to bathe her in light. When she lifted her head a man stood before her. He was pale, his skin white as... white as, no, she would not even think the wretched word. His hair was silver blonde and his eyes clear and palest grey, their gaze impassive.
"Help me," was all she could say, then she burst into tears, the last of her control dissolving as she realised how close she had come to death. The man did not answer, nor did he attempt to help her. He just turned and walked down the hallway, beckoning her to follow. Sarah did not think she had the strength to follow him, but she tried all the same. She crawled after him, then dragged herself along with her hands, gripping the plush white carpet with cold-numbed fingers.
The man entered a room and stopped, and as Sarah pulled herself in after him he gestured towards the bed. It struck her tired mind as incongruous to find a bed on the ground floor, but she was too far gone to care. Perhaps she should have asked to use the telephone first, to let her parents know she was okay. They would have received the telegram by now, the first word she had sent since leaving England two years earlier. If she did not contact them and let them know she was all right they would worry, but she was so cold, and the bed looked so inviting. She wouldn't sleep long, just enough to get her strength back.
The man still did not speak, but kept on looking at her with those clear grey eyes, their expression aloof, indifferent. She did not know where she found the strength, but somehow she managed to get to her feet, her injured ankle no longer paining her. She guessed it was due to the cold, and that when she warmed through the pain would return with a vengeance, but at that moment she did not care. She stripped off her wet jacket and blouse, the shivering growing more violent as the cold air hit her naked skin.
Was there no heating? It was just as cold in there as outside. She almost tore her trousers in her haste to get them off and claim the sanctuary of the bed, but when at last she collapsed against the soft, white pillows and drew the pristine duvet around herself she was colder than ever.
She looked to the man, unable to speak now because her teeth were chattering so violently. Her eyes pleaded for him to help her. Cold, she willed him to understand. She was so cold. She reached out to him in a gesture of desperation and he seemed to understand, his eyes softening a little as he pulled his soft white shirt over his head. His body was as pale as his face, his skin so white that it was hard to distinguish the shape of him from the white duvet as he pulled it back to climb in beside her.
Sarah flinched from the shock of his touch as he wrapped his arms around her shuddering body. His skin was like ice, colder than the wind, colder than the snow, and his breath, as it fanned her cheek, was like a draught from a tomb. She shuddered as he pressed his body closer, his embrace so tight she felt almost suffocated, and suddenly she did not feel cold any more. Warmth flooded her body as she slowly drifted into sleep.
"Heater's on the blink again," WPC Harris grumbled, rubbing her hands together as she watched her breath mist on the side window of the patrol car. "It's just like being in a sodding fridge! Trust us to get stuck with the crap car on a day like this."
"Trust us to get stuck with rescue duty," Stevens, her colleague, remarked dryly.
"There's another one up ahead," Harris gestured to a half-buried saloon. "Looks like that one tried to drive onto the kerb. You'd think they'd have the sense to stay away from the drifts."
"You'd be surprised at the lack of sense in your average British motorist," Stevens grimaced, bringing the patrol car to a halt just behind the stranded saloon. "
"Oh well, I suppose we should see if the daft bugger's still in there," Harris sighed. "Come on, we'll make this the last, at least until we've had breakfast."
Stevens followed as Harris stumbled towards the saloon. The snow was at least eight inches deep, and the wind was still up to gale-force but at least it had stopped snowing. The weather forecast earlier had said it was going to thaw later in the afternoon, but Harris would believe that when it happened, especially after they had only forecast rain the day before.
She spotted the jacket first. They had circled the car, but found no signs of life and were about to return to the patrol car when she caught sight of the jacket from the corner of her eye. A few feet away lay a pale crumpled object, possibly a shirt or blouse. She called Stevens over, pointing into the field as she scrambled over the wall. After the shirt they found a pair of shoes, then jeans. Their strangest discovery was a set of footprints. They were in a large circle, at least fifty yards in diameter, and at first glance there appeared to be several sets, as if a group had walked in a perfect circle. On closer inspection Harris saw that the footprints had all been made by the same pair of shoes, and when she tried one of those she had found it was an exact match. After the jeans she found socks, then briefs and when she found the woman she was not surprised, just saddened. She turned to Stevens, pointing to the corpse.
"It's as if she wanted to speed things up. Suicide?"
"Possibly," Stevens shrugged, scratching his head, "although I can think of better ways to end it all than by freezing to death. I mean, if you were set on suicide you'd want to do it as quick as possible. This would take hours. No, she was probably drunk, or stoned or something. Or maybe she was just some poor nutter they sent back for care in the community. Whatever she was she died happy, look."
Harris leant over the body, noting the way the snow was draped around the woman. It seemed to hold a familiar shape, and as she looked at the dead woman's face she saw the reason for Stevens' remark. She was smiling. It was a calm, serene smile, and the corpse appeared to be embracing the snow, her arms outstretched.
"Does anything strike you as strange about this?" she asked.
Stevens gave her an arch look. "You mean besides the fact that some woman got out of her car and wandered around in circles before stripping off in the middle of a blizzard?"
"I mean the shape of the snow around her, does it remind you of anything?"
Stevens cocked his head, staring intently. For a brief instant a flicker of recognition crossed his features, then it was gone.
"Looks like snow to me," he said with a shrug and headed back towards the patrol car.
Harris continued to stare, her eyes sweeping the dead woman's form over and over as she listened to Stevens reporting their find on the radio. She could see nothing unusual now, but earlier, when they first found her, she could have sworn that the mound of snow around which the corpse's arms were draped, held the shape of a pale, sinewed man.