Christian Landon upended the coal scuttle. He watched as the black nuggets fell noisily into the grate where blazing orange embers already lay. The new coal immediately began to hiss and billow out grey smoke, which got sucked straight up the chimney.
It would take a while to get going, but once it did, the sitting room would become toasty warm and the flames would illuminate it nicely as dusk settled.
It’d been an enjoyable two days. Jack hadn’t long left; after spending the entire weekend with Christian at his remote cottage in the Midlands. On Saturday they’d headed into the woods nearby – wading through knee-deep snow to explore the wonderfully silent expanse of trees. They’d taken Christian’s field-glasses along and watched robins and larks hopping through the white drifts; hunting for what scant food there was. They’d had a snowball fight, both of them laughing hysterically each time freezing-cold ice found its way under their collars and dripped down their backs. Afterwards, they’d sat on compacted snow near the bole of a silver birch and drank delicious hot soup from a thermos flask, watching the winter light gradually fade from the iron-grey sky. Today had been somewhat more subdued, each aware they would soon be parted. So, in a bid to enjoy each other’s company a while longer, they’d built a huge snowman on the front lawn. It’d taken nearly two hours to complete; a dirty-white monolith that was almost six feet tall, with a thick barrel chest and an elliptical head that Christian had struggled and puffed to attach atop the wide shoulders. They’d used two irregular lumps of coal for eyes, pushing them hard into the ‘face’ of the snowman so that they wouldn’t fall out. Instead of a carrot for a nose, Christian had found a joke plastic one that he’d used at a fancy-dress party several years ago. It was big and hooked, with red-painted veins that threaded down towards the gaping nostrils. On Jack’s insistence, Christian had carefully carved out a grinning mouth with his gloved finger, then they’d dug around until they found some large stones that they’d set in place as teeth. An old bowler hat with a crumpled rim – an item Christian had found in the attic years before – was wedged at a jovial angle on the snowman’s head, giving it the look of a sly Victorian pick-pocket. As arms, Jack had snapped two limbs from a tree that had spindly twigs at the ends that resembled grasping triple-jointed fingers. Christian then had the job of attaching them firmly into the snowman’s sides, making sure they went deep inside the ‘body’ and wouldn’t fall out; leastways until Jack had gone home.
As a final gesture, Christian had removed his own thick black scarf and wound it carefully round the snowman’s neck, leaving the long end to flap and billow as an icy-cold wind picked up momentum.
‘We need a name,’ Jack said, as they both stood back to admire their handiwork.
'How about – Snowman,’ Christian suggested, smiling lopsidedly.
'Dad! That’s a tragic name. We need something original. Give it a name from one of your horror stories!’
Christian’s smile had faded somewhat. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Jack. I don’t think he suits a horror story name. How about Nigel? Or Kevin?’
Jack had given his dad a deeply incredulous look. 'OMG, Dad!’
Christian had laughed softly. His boy was growing up too fast. Eight years old and going on twenty-eight. He was a smart boy with Christian’s firm jaw and his mother’s soft blue eyes. Since the divorce, he’d been living with Helen over in Ludlow – a good twenty miles away from Christian’s cottage that sat – secluded – on a stretch of road nicknamed Turpin’s Way
Christian wrote horror stories, and managed – somehow – to survive on the income they produced. It was a struggle, because writing scary fiction was becoming a very niche market these days, and he often needed to reel in the want to live beyond his means. But sell they did. Each book overtaking the last in popularity, to the point where his publisher was demanding a new manuscript twice a year. It was a job that he enjoyed. One he’d dreamed about for years, but as for the seclusion of the cottage – and the fact he lived alone – that spoilt any explosive joy he should have felt.
Helen and Christian had divorced three years ago. It hadn’t been messy, but it hadn’t been pleasant, either. Nor was it anything either party could lay blame to. They simply fell out of love. No longer regarded each other as husband and wife, but merely close friends; which they still remained to this day. And that was good for Jack. It meant he didn’t have to witness any bitter words or door-slamming rows.
‘Well?’ prompted Jack.
‘Think of a name, Dad!’
Christian had stared hard at the snowman in the dying light. The freezing easterly wind blew hard and sent spindrift crackling around their legs. The scarf flapped. The bowler hat rocked a little.
‘OK. How about – Saumen Kar?’ he suggested, shivering inside his thick Superdry jacket. All he wanted to do was get back inside and put the kettle on.
‘Depends,’ Jack replied, off-handed. ‘What does it mean?’
Christian hunched his shoulders as the wind gusted harder. Judging by the feel of the air the temperature would soon plummet well below zero. In less than an hour, Helen would arrive to fetch Jack and they’d have to face a twenty-mile drive home on dangerous roads. He wished he could take Jack home instead, but Christian had lost his driving licence last year. Driving under the influence of alcohol. Instant ban.
He sniffed. Wiped his nose. ‘Saumen Kar is a monster. A snow monster, just like our friend here. It’s quite a fitting moniker, actually. Saumen Kar was huge and white, with a ferocious rage. Although it is said that story tellers can calm that rage down – story tellers like me. What do you reckon?’
Jack had thought for a moment, and then shrugged. Nodded. ‘Guess so, yeah.’
Christian hooked an arm around Jack’s small shoulders and hugged the boy close to him. ‘Good. Saumen Kar it is.’ He glanced at the snowman once more before turning away. In the fading winter light, its bulk became framed against a bitterly cold plum-coloured sky. Branch arms and twig fingers rattled in the wind. The scarf flapped.
‘Will you send me a photo of him tomorrow, Dad? And if parts fall off him, put them back on. Look after him, until he melts.’
‘It’s me that needs looking after,’ Christian remarked. ‘Think Saumen Kar will oblige? Think he’ll run me a bath and make me a cup of tea in the mornings?’
Jack laughed merrily. It was a sound that thrilled him They trudged back towards the cottage with their heads low against the wind; flecks of driven snow clicking and tapping off their waterproofs. Inside, Christian rounded up all of Jack’s toys and gadgets that he’d brought along for the weekend and crammed them into an impossibly small rucksack. Helen arrived early; parking her brand-new Range Rover Evoque at the foot of the long driveway. She walked up to the cottage swaddled in a thick faux-fur coat and knee-length leather boots. Christian met her at the threshold and quickly ushered her inside, out of the cold.
He’d gestured at the coffee-pot that sat, steaming, on the table in the sitting room. ‘Drink?’
‘Thanks, but no. The roads are getting pretty bad.’ She’d met his eye and smiled tightly. And he knew what that smile meant. Your fault for getting banned, prick. You could have driven him back!
He’d returned the smile and nodded. Nobody felt more abashed about the whole thing than he did. ‘I know. I’m sorry.’ To distract his thoughts, he cleared his throat and gave Jack’s golden hair an affectionate ruffle. ‘It’s been a pleasure, champ! Let’s do it again – soon.’
‘Remember to look after – uh, what’s his name again?’
‘Saumen Kar,’ Christian told him. ‘And you know I will.’
Helen glanced at them both, manicured eyebrows raised high. ‘Who?’
Jack giggled and picked up his rucksack. ‘Our snowman,’ he explained, ‘we built him on the front lawn . . .’
‘Oh, yes,’ Helen said, ‘I think I saw him on the way in. He’s, uh, quite impressive isn’t he.’
She met Christian’s eye for a second time and held her gaze. Despite their problems, he still found her highly attractive. Her soft blue eyes and heart-shaped face caused a stirring in his loins that he hadn’t felt in a long time. He wondered if she was experiencing the same yearnings . . .
‘Anyway,’ she said softly, breaking the connection. ‘We best head off. I’ll drop you a text when we’re home.’
Christian hunkered down and gave Jack a long, tight squeeze, breathing in his familiar scent and not wanting the embrace to end. Once it did, he’d stood in the doorway and watched his son and ex-wife hurry down the snow-covered driveway towards her Range Rover. Jack turned just before they clambered in and shot his dad a wave. Christian kissed his hand and returned it; already feeling hot behind the eyes and tight in the chest. He’d remained there until the Range Rover dwindled from sight and the freezing evening air forced him back inside.