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Winter – The Winter of Discontent

The silent-falling snow flurries are gone, merely the prelude to the blizzard now driven in by a howling east wind and bringing down a maelstrom of swirling snow and ice. The lane to the cottage is completely blocked and the car trapped in a huge drift across the lane.  It is a complete white-out.  The road, the walls, the fields, the sky itself have merged into blinding brilliance.  Sharp spicules of ice cut my face and the shrieking wind deafens me.  I push, stomp and crawl the half mile to reach the cottage, carrying a precious bundle of supplies on my back.  Sheer stubbornness and bad-temper keep me going until I stumble into the warmth of the kitchen.  Jet, my Labrador is curled up in front of the range. She looks enquiringly as I fall through the doorway.  Warmth envelops me, steaming up my specs and melting the snow and ice from my clothes.  I stagger to the nearest chair, dripping pools of water but too exhausted to care.

Everything is held in this winter’s painful icy grip.  The hens keep to their hut or pick miserably on a small square of iron-hard ground where the snow has blown off.  The few eggs that come usually crack in the cold.  Even the geese, Gulliver and Mrs G, the hardiest of creatures, seek shelter.  In the metallic half-light of morning, they waddle out from under a gorse bush and follow me to the feed store.  He taps impatiently at the door and hisses at me.

“Hello ugly” I greet him

“Shiss, shiss” is the invariable reply. Then he spits rudely at me and rattles his feathers, coated with ice droplets like a thousand tiny sequins.

In the garden all the winter cabbages and broccoli have disappeared under the snow.  I netted them against the rabbits but times are so hard for them that they tunnel under the snow, nibble a neat hole in the net and then chew their way through the frozen leaves.  

Perversely perhaps I still take Jet for a walk around the quarry every day.  We stagger, push and flounder through, round and over towering drifts of snow.  Often the surface of the drifts is frozen so hard by the biting east winds that I can walk easily on the top of them.  But every now and then, the crust breaks and I am plunged waist-deep into the drift.  

One afternoon, Jet begins to “set” something in a drift.  She whines and scratches furiously until she makes a small hole through which she thrusts her nose, blowing gustily, flanks heaving like bellows.  I push her away and squint down the hole.  A beady blue eye stares, unwinking, up at me from within a hollow snow cavern.  Between us, Jet and I dig out an entrance to this snowy prison and one sheep, rather wobbly on her feet hobbles out, followed by and second, third and fourth.  The quartet sniff the fresh air and I drive them, apparently none the worse for the experience, to join the rest of the flock.  They had taken shelter beneath one of the many huge overhanging rocks in the quarry during the blizzard and become overblown by the snow.

There is a stark beauty in the surroundings…”picture postcard stuff” a neighbour calls it, rather bitterly.  He has a point.  For those who have to get to work and earn a living it is a very difficult time indeed.  I am accustomed now to floundering through the snow and ice, carting supplies, cutting logs, carrying water to the stock and on occasions helping neighbours to dig sheep out of drifts or foddering outlying cattle.  My sledge is invaluable and plastic fertiliser sacks, with stout baler band attached make wonderful vehicles for sliding hay or straw bales on.  Anyone foolhardy enough to visit is press-ganged into carrying small parcels of vital supplies such as chocolate or ciggies.

The weather brings out a sort of community spirit and rallying round of neighbours.  One neighbour whose smallholding is located at the road side takes in my deliveries.  Then, at intervals I struggle along the narrow ribbon of road that the snow-ploughs make, load up my sledge, swig hot coffee and chat, before setting off home again.

The question everyone asks is when will the thaw come? This winter of discontent has lingered long enough; time for it to move over and allow spring to step forward.

(First published as The Winter of Discontent by the Darlington and Stockton Times)