Waited two hours at the bus station but Denny didn’t show. Got very cold because I only had my black jacket on, the one without a lining, and I forgot to take gloves, and sitting on the bench outside the locked-up waiting room isn’t the warmest place in the world, what with the wind whipping through from fucking Siberia. Smoke from the buses’ exhausts made me cough. Probably get emphysema as an old man, thanks to Denny. I could have been at the football match instead of waiting around for him.

A dog came up to smell my crotch, growling low in its gullet without showing its teeth. It was one of those dogs the homeless have: stocky and brindled, with a filthy red spotted handkerchief around its neck. I tried to ignore it, crossing my legs and looking off into the distance. The dog went away, but kept coming back every few minutes to sniff me again, as if I had something dead tucked inside my underpants. It made me nervous. Anyway, like I said, Denny didn’t show.

Walking home, the sky threw down hailstones that stung my face like gravel. It’s a fair stretch back along the dual carriageway to the block of flats where I live but I went that way instead of cutting through the shopping precinct, which is a shorter route, because I wanted to put off seeing Dolores. I knew she’d be in a mood with me when I got back because Denny hadn’t turned up. Maybe, if I took my time, she’d be out or asleep or dead or something.

When I finally got home, the telly was blaring from the sitting room. Not a good sign. Dolores only watches TV when she’s in a bad way. Otherwise she reads. When she’s awake, that is.

I went straight into the kitchen and dried my face on the tea towel. Let the cat out. Put the breakfast bowls into the washing-up bowl to soak for a while, emptied the ashtray, threw away the cartons from Friday night’s takeaway. Dolores isn’t much of a homemaker. She thinks it’s funny when the cat shits in my shoes because the litter tray’s full.

Our sitting room is a state too. The floor’s covered with carrier bags filled with stuff about Antarctica that you have to climb across to get to the sofa. Books, mainly, some of them pretty old, with gold lettering and hardback covers and marbled endpages, but other items, too: plastic penguins and toy seals; white rubber balls with snowflakes printed on them; leaflets from eco-groups who want to save whales and dolphins and god-knows-what. Dolores doesn’t need any of this, but she’s keen on snow. When I said I thought the sitting room looked a mess with all the carrier bags, she pointed out that they were Marks and Spencer’s carriers, as if that excused it.

Any cleaning I want done, I do myself, but working full-time at the firework factory doesn’t leave me a lot of time so the place is a bit grubby. There’s been talk of redundancies, and I’ll be in a big fucking pickle if that happens. I haven’t told Dolores because she’d kick off if she thought I might lose my job. In the summer, I want to redecorate the bedroom – I want Barley Field Beige on the walls, something calm and warm, but Dolores saw children’s wallpaper in Homebase that has Emperor penguins climbing endlessly up an ice-cliff, so I guess we’ll have that.

Dolores called from the sitting room. ‘Did you get the stuff, honey?’

I hate it when she calls me that. Watched too many American soaps in her formative years.

‘Denny didn’t show.’


She couldn’t hear me because of the telly. I walked through to see her lying on the sofa, all the cushions behind her, propping her up like she didn’t have a backbone. Dolores is pretty in a ghostly sort of way; she always looks like she’s caught in the middle of a fog. Recently she’s been showing her age, and whenever she wears make-up she looks like Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? She used to have nice eyes, sparkly and turquoise, but now they’re sort of drowned. And she’s become very thin. Her hair’s as straggly as seaweed, and there are some things, lice and stuff, living in it. I’ve asked her to do something about it. She doesn’t listen. Still, I like it when she’s in a good temper and touches me with her cold fingers and whispers stories in my ear that I don’t understand.

‘Did you get the stuff?’

‘Denny didn’t show.’

‘But I need it.’

‘I waited two hours.’

‘I need it.’

‘What can I do?’

‘I need it, you fucking idiot. I need it.’ Dolores has a loud voice when she’s riled. We’ve had complaints from the neighbours.

‘Okay, calm down. I’ll see Satan down the pub tonight.’

Of course, his name’s not really Satan, it’s Godfrey, but everyone calls him Satan because it’d be silly to call him God.

Dolores pouted. Her eyes filled with water and the tip of her nose went pink. I love it when she looks like that.

‘I need it, honey. My eyes are bad. I wouldn’t ask if my eyes weren’t bad.’

Dolores suffers from snow-blindness. She’s diagnosed herself from a book, and that’s what it is. But don’t you need snow for snow-blindness? I’d asked her. Not necessarily, she’d said. You can get it from staring at anything white, like bed sheets or paper or, oh, that wall over there. Well, I’m pretty sure you need snow for snow-blindness, I’d replied tentatively. Well I’m telling you that you don’t, Dolores had said, getting angry. So I let it go, and now I play along. Anyway, it’s true that her eyelids swell up sometimes and she’s says it’s painful to move her eyeballs: the slightest movement, a flicker, hurts. The stuff from Denny helps. Helps get rid of the feeling, that is.

Personally, I think it has to do with her reading too many polar books.

‘Do you know,’ she said, ‘That Antarctica is higher, drier and colder than any other continent on Earth?

‘Do you know that Amundsen, using dog-sleds, reached the South Pole only five weeks ahead of Scott, who hauled his own gear?

‘Do you know that the rate at which glaciers flow helps scientists determine the extent of global warming?’

Do you know I don’t give a shit? I wanted to yell, but didn’t.

I think she makes up half of these so-called facts. One time, she told me an iceberg as big as Wales had calved off the Filchner Ice Shelf and was heading for Europe. Pity Wales doesn’t calve off and head for the Antarctic, I said. You’re a moron, Dolores said, but it made her laugh.

Snow-blindness isn’t the only thing: she gets frostbite too, on her toes. She really does, I’ve seen it. Her toes go white and then purply-blue and hard like ice-cubes and then, when they begin to warm up again, they go fat and red and she’s in agony with them. In the last stage, they peel, layers of flesh coming off like sausage-skins, and then her toes go back to normal. This flat has always been much too cold.

‘Why not turn the heating up?’ I suggested, when her toes were really bad.

‘No use, no use,’ she said, and she was Bette Davis again. ‘I am a creature of ice and snow.’

I want to slap her when she gets like that, but I don’t.

When I first met her, she was younger and plumper. Well, not plump exactly, but curvy. She was keen on snow even then. She was never what you could call a nice girl. We went out together once or twice. She moved in with me when her dad died and she had nowhere else to go. I didn’t have the guts to turn her away. Every time I moved house, she moved with me, like a bit of furniture. She became like family, though my mum never liked her, said she was a fat cat inside a thin bitch’s body. My mum’s gone now. She’s buried out near Wheathampstead, and I’ve been there a few times to lay flowers and show respect, that sort of thing. Once, I asked Dolores if she’d like to come and visit Mum’s grave with me but she said she might be tempted to dance on it, so I went alone.

Dolores doesn’t go out much anymore and when she does it’s generally after dark. She’ll walk through the park and sit on the bench and have a smoke. She gets up so late in the day that by the time she’s dressed and has eaten a bit of toast, time’s getting on. Sometimes she’s still in bed asleep when I get home from work. I don’t know what’s up with her. My mate at the factory says I should speak to the doctor about her, but what would I say?

Anyway, Dolores needed stuff, so that evening I went down to the pub and saw Satan.

‘Here’s the man,’ he said, drawing up a stool for me and offering me his pork scratchings. I gave him a batch of Catherine Wheels last year because he’s got eight kids, two ex-wives, no job and a lot of grief, and now, it seems, that makes us blood brothers. He’s a bit dodgy, but all right. Dolores doesn’t like him. He told me I should get her knocked up and that’d set her right. What he doesn’t understand is that she’d love a baby when it first came out all soft and sleek and seal-like, but she’d go off it when it grew to be a bit more human. And, anyway, she isn’t that young anymore.

‘Dolores needs stuff,’ I said.

‘No problemo,’ said Satan.

So I paid him, took the stuff and got home in time for the F.A. Cup highlights.

‘You’re a sweetie,’ said Dolores. ‘A real honey.’

There’s a spider scuttling about under the telly. A biggie. Normally, Dolores would be standing on the arm of the sofa by now, shrieking at me to kill it, but she hasn’t even noticed it’s there.

She’s on her knees by the coffee table, cutting up the stuff and concentrating hard. Her face is serene, serious, maybe a little waxy. She looks kind of like a little angel praying or something because she’s in her white cotton nightie and she’s washed her hair, and her eyes will soon be bright again. From where I’m sitting, I can see the verucca-pocked soles of her feet, and they make me want to cry.

Wolverhampton Wanderers versus Coventry. Eighty minutes gone. A free kick that should’ve been a goal. No, half the crowd cries. Things aren’t going our way. A foul, a blind referee, a sip or two of bitter and next time I look at Dolores, she’s skating along the white line with her nose to the ground. The spider’s on top of the dvd recorder now, feeling the edge of the machine with one hairy foreleg. Makes me want to thwack it for being so fucking confident, sitting there in full view.

More fancy footwork. I’ve lost sight of the ball. The odds are against us now. A cross and an interception that hits the pole, and it’s all over. Oh, half the crowd sighs, and me with them. Dolores doesn’t notice. She’s sniffing snow and is happy with her penguins and her glaciers and her ice grottos. I lean forward, nudge her.

‘Wolves won,’ I say.

She doesn’t respond. Her eyes are fixed to where she sees Amundsen beckoning along the snowline. She skates a bit further and when she comes up for air, there’s frosting around her nostrils.





















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