The sky is full of snow. I stand by the Aga hugging its heat and watch the white flakes dance and swirl, dusting the ground like icing sugar on a cake. By three o’clock the snow has taken on a frenzied pace, blanketing the skylight in the kitchen so that the room is cast in a flat, grey light.
My older son phones to ask if he should take the train or the bus back from school as the roads could be bad. Mindful that the train station is a ten minute walk I suggest sticking with the bus and to call me when he’s close to home. I hear from him again half an hour later to say that the school bus doesn’t want to attempt the hill that drops steeply into our nearest village but will wait at the top in the lay-by until I pick him up.
I abandon the start I’ve made on supper and leave the house, wet wind biting my cheeks as I rush, head bowed, to the car. The white-laced landscape rushes by as I navigate empty country lanes but I quickly hit traffic and grind to a halt. It doesn’t take long to realise this is not normal Monday evening rush hour but traffic made up of drivers panicking about getting home. My son calls to find out where I am and I warn him that the main A road which I have to cross is gridlocked. He suddenly breaks off from our conversation and for a moment all I can hear are muffled voices and fumbling. Then my son’s voice returns abruptly to say that a car has ploughed into the side of the school bus. No one is hurt, thankfully, and the car has taken the brunt of the impact but I can tell he’s shaken and this stays in my mind when, ten minutes later he calls again to say that the bus driver couldn’t wait any longer and has left him alone in the lay-by which is in the middle of nowhere. It is minus four, snowing heavily and my son has no coat. I cannot believe that the driver could be so irresponsible. With traffic stacked up every which way, however, I am powerless to reach him.
My progress is agonisingly slow but at least I am moving, pedestrians wearing ill-fitting shoes tripping down the icy pavements as I inch along the high street. There is a bend at the bottom of the road and it is here that I finally break free of the jam and reach the start of the hill. At its steepest it has an eighteen degree gradient and runs half a mile long. Traffic coming towards me is stacking up and I mentally plot an alternative route home. My side of the road, however, is empty. In icy conditions the hill can be lethal and the road is frequently closed. The only reason I’m attempting it is because I have a 4 x 4.
I am halfway up when a Mercedes ahead starts to swerve drunkenly from side to side, then slides back towards me in an alarming manner before coming to a stop facing uphill on the wrong side of the road. I give the car a wide birth, mindful that it could, at any moment, lose control again and take me with it. I catch the driver’s gaze, wide with fear, as I pass. Much as I’d like to help this is not a place to stop.
Most of the light has drained from the sky so that when I reach the lay-by I don’t immediately spot my son. His tall, slender frame appears from the entrance of a wood where he has waited, safely shielded from the road. He throws his heavy school bags in the boot and slides gratefully into the front seat. He is shivering and I give him my coat which he wraps around him like a blanket.
Texts from the other boys on the bus warn us that the alternative route I’d considered taking home is causing chaos and so I turn the car back the way I’ve come, joining the queue of red lights snaking down the hill. For long periods we don’t move. We sit in the warm dark car watching the snow fly at the windscreen and listen to the Archers. The road is starting to resemble a war zone with cars abandoned at odd angles and the incongruous sight of people trekking doggedly up the hill. Cars in front of me inch forward with utmost caution, pausing frequently despite there being ample space between them and the car beyond. I ease the 4×4 into first gear, trusting the hill descent control to do its job, but even I am unsettled by the sound of the breaks groaning and shuddering from the strain.
After what seems like an eternity, we near the bottom of the hill. My husband calls to say that he too has had to abandon his car in town and is walking home with our younger son. We agree on a meeting place and I find them fifteen minutes later, two hunched forms pulling my younger son’s enormous cricket bag behind them.
When we finally reach home, my abandoned supper is where I left it three and a half hours ago and it will be another hour before we can eat. I peer out of the kitchen window at the falling snow, no longer threatening, but now resembling the tranquil scene of a Christmas card and I remind myself that this time last year it was so warm we were eating outside. It has been a long hard slog of a winter and this Siberian spell currently sinking its teeth into our shores shows not signs of letting go, but for now I don’t care. Right now, being together, safe and warm in our little home is all that matters.