In the grip of winter. Winter’s grip. That’s how some people describe it. Perhaps the radio weatherman might mention it when he lists the roll call of the shipping forecast in clear poetic tones that sooth in the dead of night, or the fishermen who stamp their rubber boots on the dock. They might say it. They might discuss it lazily from behind wet mouthed scarves that freeze hard if they stay out too long. Those whose boats no longer bob. Boats stuck in the fastness of ice that slid into the harbour unannounced overnight, like a creeping solid fog, heavy and parched with ice so cold it’s dry. Ice that slides as easily as a silk slip on a freshly waxed leg, turning the grey of sea to perfect still whiteness. Ice so thick their boots can walk over it in that careful way as if on precious glass. Walking on ice in slippy boots to pack their stiffened nets and check their hulls. Ice that sticks to fingers so you have to gingerly peel the skin away like it’s stuck together with heavy duty glue. It’s no joke to touch metal by mistake when you know your skin could peel off lightly and with ease, like the skin off a boiled tomato. Don’t forget your gloves.
Winter’s grip. When cold has snapped its jaws unexpectedly early. A cold snap where Jack Frost’s itchy mischievous fingers find their slim way down into your lungs and breathing becomes less of the automatic robotic thing we do unnoticed, and more of an attention grabbing activity where miniscule shards of ice punctuate the short breaths you can see floating before your face and prick the walls of your lungs. Tiny pains that say ‘look at me, I am winter, feel me, feel my grip.’
Malcolm, however, will describe it as bracing and delightful and declare thanks to the crispness of winter. He might say he loves the first snows and stuttering pad of quiet it brings to the cobbled streets. He might sit on the bench outside the pub with his pipe and ask the village children if naughty Jack Frost had scratched mischievous fingernail patterns on their bedroom glass. Would Santa see a white Christmas this year? Perhaps.
“Lovely crisp day isn’t it?” he might say to passers-by; Old Ma Jessop struggling with her wicker trolley, wheels frozen solid. The Vicar and Postman Smithers passing like twins, gloved fingers pressing scarves to faces. Fat Mr Maltby on his way to fire up the fryers in the chip shop. All who pass by grunt or nod acknowledgments. All wishing to be back inside. Back inside with fires and radiators and warming cups of tea. None wondering how Malcolm can linger so on such a bitter morn.
“Lovely crisp day,” he might say to you. He said it to me once, and I felt it too. The crispness that arcs through the clean air with a feeling you can’t touch. The crispness that dulls all sound into feigned gentleness; the lapping of the sea pushed back as if the land had breathed in and expanded itself beyond its normal reach. A cleanliness in the air as if the dirt and smoke has been wiped from the surface of the earth by the whiteness of snow and ice. No soot to clog your breath in such clear cold air, as the shapely village chimney pots of orange and grey disgorge their dusty coal smoke straight up into the morning skies, to fall who knows where. But certainly not here.
The villagers potter and preen and go about their normal business as best they can, perhaps quicker than normal as if the breath they can see in front of their faces is a reminder that they shouldn’t stay out too long, or perhaps they simply linger indoors adding to the quiet of the streets. When they do pass Malcolm they pass him as if he were part of the fabric of the village. To them he is an expected small punctuation to their day, as obvious as the tinkling of the school bell and the traffic lights that pass from amber to red with no traffic to stop.
But they all know that Malcolm’s cheeriness at this new grip of winter is a false lightness that hangs from his words. For if there is anyone who really knows the true natural force of cold it is a man such as he. They all know he bears the scars of winter’s grip. Real scars. Does he thank the bite of winter to appease its unthinking brutality? To thank the snow and wind and sky that he still lives?
Malcolm tells the tale rarely and only when he is struck by drunken melancholy. He is drunk often it is true, but he never tells the tale to those familiar with the tidal ebb and flow of life in the village by the sea. Perhaps he tells it to an unsuspecting stranger who by chance occupies the next bar stool. Perhaps he might tell it to you if you perchance to visit this picturesque northern backwater in the more forgiving months of summer.
His story always begins the same way. He might tell you of his years on the herring boats, and how February is usually the cruellest month. Of how the sea can raise the toughest of skiffs to the heights of a mountain and how to be a fisherman means to have the strongest of stomachs and most weathered of faces. Fish guts and roller-coaster waves can wreak havoc for those of weak disposition and the wind shrivels and wrinkles and burns faces adding ’character’ by the bucket load.
He told his story to me once, for I was that stranger, that naïve tourist on the bar stool next to him.
“The North Sea is no place for women,” he said in an old fashioned way, unlit pipe clamped between his teeth, fingers cupping the dappled glass of his pint,
“No place for women at all, and yet…and yet,”
“And yet what?” I said, lured in like a cod to the hook by his mysterious tone,
“You won’t be a fella that believes in the sirens or the mermaids will ya?” he replied, and at that point, if he were telling it to you, you may laugh and together you and he might perhaps clink your glasses in the way that strangers do to toast a shared bonhomie. And Malcolm would ask if you would consider furnishing an old man with a shot of rum.
And then, moving swiftly on, once drinks are bought, he talks in serious tone as he begins the tale, safe in the knowledge that you are one who will politely listen, despite any unease you may feel at Malcolm’s pallid demeanour. Was I polite enough when I listened?
He tells of pushing north, beyond Iceland and the Arctic circle in search of bigger shoals, where the sea is steely grey, it’s hardness cutting finer than metal and the waves unpredictable mistresses that can toss and throw a boat like a spinning top. Where ice flows drift at the mercy of the wind, their bluish white stillness implying a calm they cannot bring as the dust of snow sweeps their surfaces. And of course the iceberg tips that reflect winking moonlight as if to say ’watch out, for the giants of winter are here’.
The captain’s name was Isbjörn, an Icelander with the salt wind of the north in his veins and the steady feet of a man born for the sea. And yet, as Malcolm will tell you, even he, the stoutest of men, was drawn to the plaintive song of the sirens; the fateful whispering song of the sea ice creaking and shuddering. For Isbjörn was a lonely man; a man for whom the vagaries of women remained a mystery. As lonely as a man such as Malcolm. As lonely as you or I.
It was night when they became stuck fast and the ice pulled its grip firmly like a drifting skirt that cloaked every curve of the hull. Something that shouldn’t have happened in these fish rich seas. They weren’t that far north surely? And yet when they woke the sea was solid for as far as the eye could perceive. Pack ice jagged and lumpen; waves stilled like time had stopped. And when the short sun edged warily over the horizon they saw the mountain of an iceberg climbing skywards, casting long eerie shadows on the deck.
And despite the stillness all around the unearthly sound remained. That rasping, whispering song hanging in the air, born by arctic wind. Isbjörn was inevitably drawn to it, like the lonely often are. The crew tried to dissuade him, but his determination to climb the iceberg and see the source of the song for himself was fierce. So the crew drew lots to decide which of their hardy number would accompany him on such a foolish venture, the rest to remain, gently coaxing the engines in the hope of breaking free of the ice when the sun reached its zenith in a few short hours. It was, of course, Malcolm who drew the short straw.
They plodded cautiously across the snowfield, two splashes of colour against the white, dressed in smocks; yellow, blue and black, rubber and wool. They had no snow shoes or crampons, each armed with the long pole of a fish gaff to steady their progress and use as protection in the unlikely event of an encounter with a stray bear or a seal fearful for its cubs.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” exclaimed Isbjörn as they neared the mountain of ice and Malcolm will tell you how he agreed and of how the nearer they came to the sound the more it felt like a woman’s mournful singing. A song so plain and full of stinging loneliness he couldn’t help but feel its pull upon his empty heart.
They reached the base of the iceberg, where sunlight refracted blue and gold through the many faceted diamond walls of ice. Cathedrals of frozen water arched and spiked above them like the finest of heavenly creations. The movement of water frozen in time.
The song was strong now; a familiar resonance I’m sure we’re all aware of. No doubt you’ve heard it yourselves on those coldest and darkest of nights. It calls to the loneliness packed away, hidden in all our hearts. It is a song of promise. Or, should I say, false hope?
The hypnotic tones drew Isbjörn and Malcolm as if the very beating heart of life was signalling to them; ‘come to me, come to me’. Except threaded through the beauty of the song was a dread harmony that seemed to call to the very soul of the cold that bit into the two men’s bearded faces.
A convenient path pulled them up, as if it had been sculpted deliberately to bring them closer and it wound its shiny way around the berg to the far side, out of sight of the trawler and the crew. It was then, Malcolm will tell you, that he began to feel the creeping dread and cold sweat slide beneath his oilskins and wool, but before he could warn Isbjörn or drag him back they saw her.
Her pearly skin white and clear, eyes blue and beckoning as you would imagine an angel calling you to the gates of heaven. She lay naked on a bed of sparkling frost, arms outstretched, impossible platinum hair waving in the cold breeze as if she were floating beneath the waves. White lips of promise open in kiss-filled song. Isbjörn, naturally, went to her, unable to resist, pulling off his hat and gloves, his jacket, heaving the wool of his sweater over his head.
And Malcolm will tell you, like he told me, that he did the same, shedding his clothes foolishly, exposing his skin to the arctic wind. Unaware of the cutting cold, such was the draw of her song and the heat of lust. He will tell you of the jealousy he felt as Isbjörn took the first and only kiss.
The kiss that summoned Jack Frost from the sky.
Jack Frost himself in all his deathly glory towering above the scene. Jack Frost with anger in his ice blue eyes. Anger and satisfaction twinned as the lure of one of his sirens had pulled them in and hooked their floundering souls.
Now some tales tell that Jack Frost is a mischievous imp but this does not do him justice, for his heart is made of the purest of black ice. Ice filled with hate and anger. Hate for the summer months when the ice recedes and hate for the breath of humans that wafts across the ocean, warming the air and melting the snows. Of course, deep down, Malcolm knows that hate too, but still he rejoices at the secret he keeps, for his heart also has a little of that black ice buried deep within.
Malcolm told me of how he watched in awe as Jack Frost placed his spiny fingers upon Captain Isbjörn’s face, dragging long fingernails over his skin. And he told me of the look of true horror Isbjörn had as Frost took him. Tiny snowflake patterns as the salt filled tears froze in his eyes. His skin turned plaster white and his body rigid in an everlasting instant as he froze. Frozen in a kiss forever; a sculpture of ice to amuse Mr Frost until the end of time.
And Malcolm told me of how he himself narrowly escaped with his life. Of how Jack Frost cruelly gripped his naked torso and flung him like a doll from the iceberg and of how Captain Isbjörn was never to be seen again. Of how his ship-mates found him, half-naked, lying comatose in the snow. Of how the frost bite had affected his lungs and snipped his fingers and toes. And of how he couldn’t go to sea again such was the fearsome nature of his experience.
He will tell you, like he told me, of how he relies on the generosity of charity and the generosity of strangers. At this point you may feel obliged to buy him another rum; after all his tall tale was an amusing distraction in a quaint sort of way. Adding colour to your visit to the village by the sea.
But sometimes, just sometimes, there will be one who doesn’t take so kindly to Malcolm’s intrusive ministrations. One who will question Malcolm’s story, refuse to ply him with drink and laugh at the suggestion that Jack Frost himself could be real.
That one, who foolishly doubted, was me.
It is then that the true nature of winter is shown. Malcolm’s weary blue eyes reveal it, for there you can see, as I saw, the anger and mischief of Jack Frost reflected back at you and he will show you the real horror.
For then a smiling Malcolm will lift his ragged fisherman’s jumper over his head. And then you will see, as I saw, the true mark of winter’s grip on his skin. The plain sight of Jack Frost’s hand-prints burnt painfully across his ribs, where the long spiny icicle fingers had gripped his body.
Winter’s grip for all to see.