Ruth Dugdall is back with a short story. I hope you enjoy it. Don’t forget to help yourselves to food!
Victimes de la Route
It was the snow that did it. Beautiful, soft feathery flakes that fell and settled on the path around the lake, so perfect to the eye but such a problem for the two children, both wearing roller skates.
“We should have brought the sledge,” said the girl, wiping her hair free of the white icy dusting, and then pushing her hands into her pockets as the snow turned to ice on her fingers.
“Maybe,” said her mother, looking at the sky. “I don’t know why it wasn’t forecast. It looks like it’s going to last.”
It was the last day of half-term, the last chance to spend time as a family before school and work kicked back in to being, and this brief moment of calm was broken. The family walked, skated, and hunched their way back to the car. The boy, struggling on his skates, tried to grab a handful of snow from the top of a hedge and threw it as his sister so it melted and ran down her neck, she yelled at him, hit him on the arm, and the boy fell into a pile of snow, perfect white now marred by the dirt from his skates, the shape of his body.
They began the drive home. “It’s only three,” complained the mother, already regretting leaving the lake. They would be home in half an hour and then what? Television and i-pads and that would be the week over. She would start to put in the washing, potter around the kitchen. Her husband, in the passenger seat, was already talking on his phone to colleagues, as if to signify that the holiday was done.
The tyres ran dark routes through the icy gravel, and the car was a sanctuary of warmth while the outside world became all new, pristine with its speck-less blanket of fresh snow. It was as though they were travelling through a dream world, there were no people around, no other cars.
The mother sighed, taking the turn to the main road that led to their home, in the heart of Bastogne. They were sure to hit traffic then, this lull couldn’t last. Already the children were bickering in the back seat as they always did when they were minutes from home. One hit the other and they became louder, her husband raised his voice on his phone.
She saw the sign: Victimes de la Route.
She’d seen it before, every time they drove home from the lake, and didn’t think much about it. This was a part of Belgium where there had been a lot of fighting in the Second World War, the bulge had swollen and shrunk as towns had been won then lost then won again. Since the move to Belgium they had done the museums, seen monuments, and the kids moaned endlessly about it. Other families, they said, went to Aquariums. Or zoos.
So, because she always saw the sign after a trip to the lake, where they had picnicked and swam on warmer days, she had never taken the turn. But today, with the trip cut short and just a few hours left of their week holiday, she took it. Suddenly, without indication, so the kids slid together and her daughter called, “Mum! What are you doing?”
Though the tyres slipped, it was okay, there was no other traffic, and she took the hill steadily, pressing the snow button so the tread increased as the road rose and curved around the rise in the land, a small mountain, beautifully exposed to the weather that fell on the windscreen in white tears the size of hearts, winning despite the windscreen wipers, so the mother had to lower her window to see properly.
It couldn’t be far, though.
The father turned of his phone and gazed out of the window at the snow. He wiped his fist in circles on the mist on the window, as if to see a way through the blizzard.
The daughter asked, tension in her voice. “This isn’t the road home. Where are we going, Mum?”
“Just to see what it is. Victimes de la Route.”
A protest from the back seat, the boy this time, “I want to go home. I’m so tired.”
“You can rest soon. Just let’s have a look.”
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “A war monument of some sort, probably.”
It loomed suddenly, she had to swerve so as to make the turn, and the car slid on the icy road, out of her control.
They took a moment before leaving the car. The kids still had their skates on and the monument was down the side of the mountain, a hundred yards through a white field. A square structure, pillars in grey stone. Large, structural, modern.
The mother felt disappointed, she had hoped for a statue of a soldier, or a small information area. But they were here now, so she led the way, opening the car door that was buffered back by wind, her face hit by snow which was no longer light and feathery but now a steel force.
“Come on!” she commanded, leading the way like a General with tired and weary troops. But for a moment it was just her, out there, with the elements. Swirling snow and wind, cutting into her. This mountain was the end of the world, a place untouched, and yet there was a house that she spied now, beautiful and ancient, turreted with a wooden wraparound porch. Windows were broken and the door was boarded up, but the beauty was still undeniable.
The car door opened, and she called, “Look at that house.”
Her husband glanced to where she pointed, but didn’t speak. It annoyed her, his silence. She knew what he would be thinking: that the house had been abandoned for a reason. That it would cost a lot to do it up.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, trying again to get her husband’s attention. “Look at the little tower at the top. It’s huge too, we could run a bed and breakfast.”
He was walking away from her, ignoring her.
Maybe he was right; she would hate being out here without him, and he was often away on business. She abandoned the fantasy, and turned back to the white-swaddled slope, swan-feather flakes stroked her cheeks, as she walked down to the monument. She saw now that there was some information just a few yards away, a simple plaque, but it would be in French so she didn’t stop. Her husband walked over, he would read it, but she would see the monument.
A movement behind, a scattering of snow. Her daughter, valiantly making the trip on her skates. “Careful,” the mother said, as the skates sunk deep into the snow. “You’re going to struggle on the way up. It will be impossible.”
The boy, not wanting to be left behind by his sister, was coming down the slope, his wheels halting then booling, so he arrived, both hands on his mother’s back.
Mother daughter and son approached the monument.
Inside the protection of the concrete structure, between the three grey pillars, was a place for flowers and, remarkably, three candles burned in red plastic votives.
“Wow, they must have just been lit. You’d think the snow would have burned them out.” The son, with a boy’s natural love of flames, knelt down, his hands round the glass.
“Don’t blow it out!” ordered his sister, and the boy protested, “I’m not,” though this looked unlikely. All three looked up, to where the pillars touched over them, and looked out onto the mountain, the valley below. The snow was fierce, a white blanket across the world, but within the pillars of the monument they felt warm and protected from such elements. The mother looked up, back to the abandoned house, and saw no longer the broken glass and boarded door, instead she saw the perfect symmetry of the beautiful home, and imagined lights in the rooms, a fire in the grate. No longer isolated and bereft, it looked cosy and inviting, a family home. She would tell her husband this, when he joined them. She looked back, up to where the car was parked, but couldn’t see him. She called his name, but the word was drowned by the snow and lost. He must be still reading that damned sign. Maybe he’d gone back to wait in the car. He was missing this, she would tell him later. He should have joined them, it was worth the journey. They had found a special place.
Up by his parked car the husband who was no longer a husband read the plaque that he had commissioned. He could no longer see the three candles he had lit in remembrance. He could hardly stand to look at the house, which would be auctioned in a sale next month.
He got back in the car, a new car, with four-wheeled drive, and drove back to an empty house in Bastogne.
Copyright © Ruth Dugdall, 2015