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The Trouble with Goats and Sheep blog tour: Joanna Cannon short story

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep blog tour: Joanna Cannon short story

We are delighted to host the last stop on the Trouble With Goats And Sheep Blog Tour. Here, for the first time all in one piece, is Joanna Cannon's short story The Greatest Of These.

Posted on 25th January 2016 by Joanna Cannon

THE GREATEST OF THESE

JANUARY 1976

When I opened my curtains, it was there. Waiting for me.

            Whilst we all slept it had appeared, pressing itself into the lawn and stretching along the branches of the trees. It gripped the washing line and pushed its way through the gaps in our fence, and when it reached the rooftops, it crawled across the chimney pots and the television aerials, and forced everything to wear a disguise. I peered below and watched Remington try to make his way across the patio. Each time he put a paw down, half a Labrador disappeared. He gave up and went back inside.

            When I walked into the kitchen, my mother was staring out of the window with a tea towel over her arm and saying ‘Well that’s put the tin lid on it.’

            Even my father looked up from his newspaper. ‘It might melt,’ he said. ‘It could be gone by lunchtime.’

            ‘The sky’s full of it, Derek.’ My mother pointed, to show him where the sky was. ‘Full of it.’

            I stared at the sky. It looked no different.

I decided not to say anything about going to school. I had discovered that it’s always best to see what the general feeling is, before you go ahead and make your thoughts public.

‘Well, I’m going to try to get into work.’ My father folded his newspaper.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t,’ I said, from behind the cornflakes. ‘You might break a leg, or perhaps both arms. It’s far too dangerous.’ I dug around in the cereal box for the toy. ‘It’s even more dangerous for school children,’ I said.

My mother frowned at me.

‘I would imagine,’ I said.

My mother turned to my father. ‘If you’re going to try and get anywhere, you should try to get to the Co-op so we can stock up on bread.’

‘I expect the Co-op isn’t even open,’ I said. ‘I expect nowhere is. Especially the schools. It’s far too dangerous.’

My father frowned at me.

‘I would imagine,’ I said.

My mother opened the pantry door and began lifting things up and putting them down very loudly. ‘Well someone has to go. We need provisions.’

‘What are provisions?’ I said.

My mother re-emerged from the pantry. ‘Food, Grace. We’re going to run out of Angel Delight, for a start.’

I looked at my father. ‘Thinking about it, it’s probably not that dangerous after all.’

 

In the end, my mother decided not to send me to school, without me even needing to do any hinting. She wasn’t going to let me out of the house, until I promised to stick to the pavements and wear my gloves at all times.

            The Avenue was very bright. When I looked up from closing the door, the street glared back at me in white silence. We were surrounded, walled in by drifts of winter, and trapped in a place that seemed as mysterious and uncharted as a foreign land.

            Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb were in the middle of the street, trying to dig a way out for everyone. Mr Lamb was shovelling and swearing, and Mr Forbes was leaning on his spade and explaining the best way to do it. Eric Lamb looked up and waved, and I took my gloves off and waved back.

            ‘Be careful, Grace,’ he shouted, ‘the drifts are quite deep.’

            ‘I’ll be fine, Mr Lamb,’ I said. ‘I’m nine and I’m sticking to the pavements.’

            (Although, to be fair, everything was so well disguised, it was impossible to see where the pavements ended, and the rest of the world began).

            I walked in a corridor of quiet, along a narrow channel the drifts hadn’t managed to reach, past rows of houses made blank and indifferent by a covering of weather. Everything was identical. The colours, the sounds, the shapes – all the things that make us what we are – had disappeared, and there was nothing left to tell us apart. It felt like the teacher cleaning the blackboard, so we could all start again from scratch. When I reached the end of The Avenue, my feet were so cold I couldn’t feel my toes anymore. I had to stamp my wellingtons out to find them again, and by the time I’d finished stamping, Tilly had appeared from around the corner. She was buttoned into a duffel coat right up to her neck, and wore two scarves and a straw Panama.

            ‘It was the only hat I could find,’ she said.

 

***

 

Tilly and I stood on the corner together, kicking our feet and sending sprays of white into the air.

            ‘Has your dad gone to work?’ she said.

             ‘No.’ I did an especially big kick. ‘He’s gone to get provisions.’

            Tilly stopped kicking. ‘What are provisions?’

            ‘It’s what people call food when it snows,’ I said. ‘Fancy not knowing that.’

            Tilly shrugged her whole duffel coat.

            ‘I’m bored with this already.’ I kicked again.

            ‘It’s a day off school,’ said Tilly. ‘Aren’t you pleased, Gracie?’

            ‘Oh yes,’ I said, ‘very much. But what’s the point in a day off school when there’s nothing interesting to do?’

Tilly pushed her hands further into her pockets. ‘At least we have each other. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to find you. Nothing looks the same. Everything’s disappeared.’

            ‘I know. But just because we can’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Look.’

            I walked across what used to be chippings and grass, towards the two empty garages in the far corner. They didn’t have doors anymore, and the weather had swept itself inside, turning them into wintery shells. I pointed to a bank of snow.

            ‘This, for example.’ I pointed it to it with the tip of my wellington. ‘Is that old rubber tyre.’

            ‘Is it?’ said Tilly.

            I brushed the snow away with the edge of my sleeve.

            ‘Oh, so it is,’ she said. ‘I wonder where everything else is.’

            She spun around. Tilly wasn’t the best spinner on an ordinary day. When she’d heaved herself back up, she pointed to another mound of snow next to the fence. ‘What’s that, then?’ she said.

            I couldn’t work it out at first, and then it came to me.

            ‘It’s that old plastic chair Mr Lamb uses, when he fishes leaves out of the drainpipe,’ I said.

            Tilly turned back to the garages. ‘Then where’s the drainpipe?’

            We both stared at the wall.

            ‘It’s there somewhere,’ I said.

            We put on our gloves, and brushed at the drift with our coat sleeves, but no matter how much we brushed, and how deep our coat sleeves went, we couldn’t find the pipe. It seemed to have vanished from where it was supposed to be.

            ‘Shall we give up?’ said Tilly.

            (Tilly gave up far too easily, in my opinion.)

            I dug harder into the snow and Tilly joined in, and it powdered our hair and our faces and stole away our breath. I was just thinking Tilly might be right after all (although it doesn’t do to admit that too often) when the button on my coat sleeve hit against metal.

            ‘It’s here,’ I said, and the drift broke away and the drainpipe appeared, dirty and chipped, and covered in old paint.

            We fell back into the snow. It felt like a pile of cushions. The air filled with clouds of breathing and laughter, and it was only when I lifted myself up onto my elbows that I spotted it, pushing its way out of the snow near the drainpipe. Afterwards, Tilly said she was surprised we saw it at all, but it was impossible to miss – scarlets and emeralds and turquoise, dancing and twisting around our heads.

            ‘It’s a butterfly!’ said Tilly.

            ‘In January?’ The butterfly rested on a brush of white, and we stared at it. ‘You don’t get butterflies in January.’

            ‘You get this one.’ Tilly held out her hand and it landed on the edge of her finger. ‘No one will believe us.’

            I studied the butterfly. It was fragile, almost translucent, and it trembled on Tilly’s hand, as if it were worried we might think it had just been imagined. But its colours were vivid and certain, and bright. The whole of summer had been painted upon its wings.

            ‘Perhaps we could catch it. They’d believe us then,’ I said.

            The butterfly seemed to hear, because it flew from Tilly’s finger and danced in the space above our heads.

            We stood, and it danced a little further away.

            ‘I think it wants us to follow,’ said Tilly.

            ‘I think you’ve been watching too much Jackanory,’ I said.

            But we started walking anyway, arm in arm, holding each other up in the snow.

            The butterfly beat its wings and waited.

            ‘I wonder where it’s taking us?’ said Tilly.

            And I decided the day was going to be far more interesting than I had originally thought.

 

***

 

The butterfly led us back into The Avenue.

            I was quite disappointed at first. I was hoping it would take us into town, more towards Woolworth’s, and perhaps the Pick-and-Mix counter. Tilly was worried we’d lose it, but it was easy to spot – a shout of colour on a blank canvas, a flicker of possibility on a landscape of nothing.

            It was quick, too. So quick we had to hurry to keep up, and the more we hurried, the more the snow fought against us, pulling at our wellingtons and drawing us backwards. Halfway up the road Tilly sank into a drift and had to be uprooted, but the butterfly seemed to wait for us. It was never far away, forever in our sight, but always just a fingertip out of reach.

            When we arrived in The Avenue, Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb were still standing with their shovels, arguing, and Thin Brian was there too, holding a sweeping brush and half a slice of toast. The butterfly had landed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder, but people were so busy shouting, none of them had noticed.

            ‘Look!’ I said.

            We had appeared in front of them in a tangle of arms and breathing, and everyone stopped and stared at us.

            ‘Look,’ I said again. ‘On your shoulder.’ And I pointed and everyone looked.

            ‘A butterfly,’ said Eric Lamb.

            ‘In January?’ Mr Forbes anchored his shovel in the snow and took a step forwards. ‘You don’t get butterflies in January.’

            ‘You get this one,’ said Tilly. ‘We found it by the drainpipe.’

             Mr Forbes narrowed his eyes. ‘I wonder what it means?’

            Everyone moved in a little closer, except Thin Brian, who bit into his toast.

            ‘It probably means we’re going to have a hot summer,’ he said, in between chewing.

            Mr Forbes leaned back and put his hands on his hips, and laughed. And Eric Lamb laughed as well, and Tilly and I put our hands on our hips and laughed too, even though we didn’t really know what we were laughing at. I actually thought it was quite a sensible suggestion, but sometimes copying what everyone else is doing is just easier.

            ‘Don’t be daft, lad,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘It’ll be as wet and cold as it always is.’

            We all did agreeing noises, and Thin Brian’s chewing was very slow and quiet.

            I think the butterfly might have stayed on Eric Lamb’s shoulder all day, had Thin Brian’s mother not appeared at that very moment and slammed her front door so hard, an avalanche of snow fell from the porch roof and smacked itself onto the lawn. She was wrapped in an enormous blanket, and fur sprouted from the tops of her boots. She looked quite grumpy.

            ‘If you’re all standing around doing nothing,’ she said, ‘one of you can get up there are brush off my television aerial. I can only get the test card, and even that’s haphazard.’

            Mr Forbes and Eric Lamb became very busy. Thin Brian stared over at his mother. He still had crumbs on his chin. ‘I’m not very good with ladders,’ he said.

            ‘I’ll miss Crossroads at this rate.’ She started crunching her way over the lawn. ‘And you’re forty-two, Brian.’

            The butterfly stopped Mrs Roper in her tracks. It darted around her face, and the colours faltered on a backcloth of silence.

            ‘Well, I’ll be,’ she said. ‘In January.’

            We all nodded.

            ‘What do you think it means, Mrs Roper?’ I said.

            Mrs Roper drew the blanket around her shoulders. ‘Well,’ she said, and took a very large breath. ‘Of course, no one knows The Bible better than I do, but I don’t recall any mention of butterflies. However, it’s clearly a symbol.’

            ‘A cymbal?’ said Tilly.

            ‘A sign.’ Mrs Roper crossed herself, although with the blanket there, it was a bit hit and miss. ‘I’ve just not decided what of.’

            Eric Lamb’s spade found the pavement, and it scraped against the concrete. It was strange how the snow made all the sounds wait their turn.

            ‘A butterfly is a symbol of hope,’ he said, when the scraping noise had disappeared. ‘The caterpillar dies, but it turns into a butterfly, so just when you think everything is done for, you discover there’s hope after all. A fresh start.’

            ‘Like the snow,’ I said. ‘Like cleaning the blackboard.’

            I didn’t think anyone knew what I meant, but then I saw Tilly nod. Tilly always understood the inside of my head. It was one of the best things about her.

Mr Forbes swung his arms about and stamped his feet. ‘I think we should spend a little less time worrying about butterflies, and a little more time clearing this snow. We’ll run out of food.’

            ‘And television,’ said Mrs Roper.

            ‘We need more man power.’ Eric Lamb stared at Mr Forbes’ shovel, where it rested in a bank of snow, and then he stared at Thin Brian, and Thin Brian stared at the sky, as though it was the most interesting thing he’d ever seen in his entire life.

            ‘Don’t look at me,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘My knee’s given me a lot of gyp since I did that sponsored walk for orphaned children.’

            ‘That was in 1967, Harold,’ said Mrs Roper.

            ‘Exactly.’ Mr Forbes sniffed the air, and his knees did an awkward bounce, to prove their point. ‘I need to restrict myself to giving directions.’

            Mr Forbes gave a lot of directions. Eric Lamb needed to dig a little more to the left, and then a little more to the right. He needed to stack the snow a little higher, then a little lower, and he was too diagonal and then not diagonal enough. Mrs Forbes appeared half way through the directions, with a mug of tea and a selection of Fondant Fancies on a doily, because Mr Forbes said he found giving directions quite taxing. We all stared as the last cake disappeared into Mr Forbes’ mouth, and Eric Lamb grew very red in the face.

            We were all so busy, we didn’t see the man straight away.

Eric Lamb’s digging had become very loud and interesting, so Mr Forbes was having to shout, May Roper was explaining religious symbols to no one in particular, and Mrs Forbes was having a conversation with the butterfly, which had landed on the doily and stared up at her from a handful of crumbs.

            It was Tilly who noticed him first.

            ‘Look,’ she said. ‘Someone’s waving to us.’

            We all stared at the bottom of The Avenue, where the man stood in snow up to his knees.  He wore a brightly coloured scarf and a brightly coloured jacket, and a hat which seemed to wind itself around his head. As we watched, the man lifted his legs out of the drift and started to walk towards us.

            Tilly put up her hand to wave back.

            ‘He’s not from around here.’ Mrs Roper grabbed an edge of the duffel coat and pulled Tilly’s arm back down again. ‘What could he possibly want from us?’

            ‘We’ll never know if we don’t wave back,’ said Tilly, but the man kept walking anyway, and I watched everyone tighten their lips and their eyes, and Mr Forbes fold his arms around his waist.

            And the butterfly left Mrs Forbes’ plate, and it danced around in the air, and we all waited for the man to tell us.

 

His name was Mr Dhillon and the hat he wore was called a turban. You couldn’t tell where it started from, and Tilly and I walked around him several times to get a proper look, although we were very subtle about it, so I doubt anyone even noticed.

            He said he was stuck.

            ‘It’s my car.’ He pointed across the estate, beyond the snow-packaged roof tops. Except you couldn’t tell where the roof tops ended and the sky began. It was as if they’d been welded together by the weather. ‘It’s on Rowan Tree Croft. In a drift,’ he said. ‘I wondered if you’d help me push it free?’

            Mr Forbes did a knee bounce and Thin Brian stared at the sky, and Mrs Forbes made a big fuss of rearranging her doily.

            ‘Can’t you ask the people on your own street?’ said Mrs Roper, from behind her blanket.

            Mr Dhillon said the people on his own street were all elderly. He said there was no one from his own street who could help.

            ‘We’re all in the same boat,’ he said, and he smiled.

            Mr Forbes’ hands found their way around his back, where they linked together and made him look even more stout than before, and even less interested in what anyone else had to say. ‘The thing is,’ he bounced, ‘we have enough on our plate here, without digging other people out of their problems as well.’

            ‘Then perhaps I could help you in return?’ said Mr Dhillon, and he picked up Mr Forbes’ spade (which was still asleep in the snow), and he started to dig.

As I watched, tiny flakes began twisting through the air. At first, I thought it was just spray from the digging, a powdery mist that seemed to appear whenever the snow was disturbed, but when I looked up, I realised they were beginning in the sky. Far above anything I could see, floating down on us from nowhere. My father always said that the big, shouty flakes were harmless and melted easily, that it was the small, silent ones you had to watch out for. The ones that seemed quiet and innocent. Because, before you realised it, they had taken over everything.

            ‘It’s snowing again,’ I said to Tilly.

            ‘I know. Perhaps it will never stop. Perhaps we’ll never have to go to school again.’

            And we laughed and held our mouths open, and trapped winter on the tips of our tongues.

 

The butterfly seemed to like Mr Dhillon. Perhaps it was his brightly coloured jacket, or the way he never stopped smiling, or perhaps it was because he spoke to it in a language only the butterfly could understand.

            ‘Maybe it’s because Mr Dhillon doesn’t question it?’ said Tilly.

            I thought Tilly was right (although I try not to agree with Tilly too often, because it doesn’t do for a person to become too big-headed). Mr Dhillon didn’t tell the butterfly it didn’t belong in January, or ask where it had come from, he just accepted that it was there. He did, however, agree with Eric Lamb. It was a symbol of new beginnings. Of hope.

            ‘What kind of butterfly do you think it is?’ I shouted.

            I had to shout, because we’d formed a production line. Mr Dhillon and Eric Lamb were at the front doing digging, then Thin Brian followed behind them with his sweeping brush. Tilly and I held up the rear, sprinkling salt and being supervised by Mrs Roper. Mrs Forbes had been sent back inside to make us all a cup of tea, and track down more cakes. The only person who didn’t have a job was Mr Forbes, whose hands had relocated from behind his back and into his coat pockets, because it appeared that Mr Dhillon didn’t need any directing after all.

            I shouted again, because I didn’t think anyone had heard.

            Mr Dhillon stopped digging, and the production line faltered and paused. We looked at the butterfly, and the butterfly looked back at us and waited to find out what it would be called.

            ‘I think it’s a Painted Lady,’ said Mrs Roper, and she smoothed down her blanket.

            ‘A Tortoiseshell,’ said Thin Brian.

            ‘It’s not even tortoiseshell coloured,’ said Mrs Roper.

            ‘It’s not even painted,’ said Thin Brian, but Mrs Roper ignored him and sprinkled a bit more salt.

            ‘Don’t be ridiculous, it’s a Red Admiral,’ said Mr Forbes, and his hands returned to the small of his back. ‘Or a Purple Emperor.’

            ‘Perhaps it’s a Dingy Skipper,’ said Mrs Forbes. And she smiled from behind a tray of Fondant Fancies.

            Mr Forbes coughed.

            Mr Dhillon cupped his hands together and blew into his gloves. ‘What do you think it’s called, Tilly?’ he said.

            Tilly peered at the butterfly, and we all waited.

            ‘I don’t think it matters, does it?’ she said eventually. ‘Least of all to the butterfly.’

            ‘Of course it matters.’ Mr Forbes paced up and down at the edge of a drift. ‘Everything has to have a name.’

            ‘Why?’ said Tilly.

            ‘Because otherwise, we can’t call it anything.’ Mr Forbes stopped pacing. ‘We don’t know what it is.’

            ‘The butterfly is still a butterfly though, isn’t it?’ said Tilly. ‘No matter what we call it.’

            I saw Thin Brian frown all the way down to his chin.

            Mr Forbes did a little more pacing.

            ‘What I mean,’ said Tilly, ‘is it’s like animals and people and countries. We only think something is different, because we’ve decided to call it something different in our own heads. France could be England, for all we know. And apples could be bananas.’

            Everyone frowned. Except Mr Dhillon, who smiled so widely, it took up his whole face.

            ‘I think you’ve earned yourself a Fondant Fancy,’ he said.

            Tilly took the pink one, and I was sure that somewhere behind me, I heard Mrs Roper say bugger it.

 

***

 

We hadn’t been digging very long when Eric Lamb held something up and showed Mr Dhillon. They made curious noises, and Thin Brian pushed his head in between their heads and he made curious noises as well.

            Everyone stopped. Even Mr Forbes, who had been kicking snow around in the far corner of The Avenue by himself.

            Mrs Roper pushed herself to the front, and Tilly and I ducked underneath her blanket, so we could see properly.

            It was a gold chain.

            Eric Lamb held it up for everyone to look at, and it shone and sparkled against the white.

            ‘I wonder who it belongs to?’ he said.

            Mr Dhillon brushed the snow away from the gold. ‘There’s something hanging from it,’ he said.

            It was a crucifix.

            ‘Well I’ll be blessed,’ said Mrs Roper. And she blessed herself just to be certain.

            We all peered in.

            ‘It’s much nicer than mine,’ said Mrs Roper, and her hand wandered to her neck. ‘I wonder what the rules are with lost property.’

            The crucifix was simple in itself, but all around it were leaves and branches, and flowers which threaded themselves around the cross and made a nice pattern. There was no sign of Jesus though.

            ‘Perhaps they made it before he got on,’ said Tilly.

            It was passed around and everyone had a good look, especially Mrs Roper, who looked for a lot longer than anybody else.

            No one had seen it before.

            Eric Lamb decided Tilly and I should knock on all the other doors, to see if anyone recognised it, and Tilly wandered ahead, kicking the snow away with her wellingtons.

            ‘Except number eleven,’ said Mrs Roper. ‘There’s no need to ask there.’

            ‘There isn’t?’ I put the cross into my coat pocket, to keep it safe.

            ‘No, there isn’t,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘Because there’s definitely no one connected with Jesus living in that house.’

            I looked at number eleven as we walked past. Snow had wrapped itself around the building, creeping up the front door and across the windows, like the icing on a cake.

            ‘Aren’t we going in?’ Tilly pointed over the wall.

            ‘Not at the moment,’ I said. ‘I think we might have to save it for some other time.’

 

The cross didn’t belong to anyone. My mother thought it looked vaguely familiar, but she couldn’t be certain, and my father was too busy making a list of provisions to take very much notice at all.

            I handed the crucifix back to Eric Lamb. He said he’d take it to the police station once the snow had cleared, and I heard a lot of air escape from Mrs Roper’s nose.

            ‘It’s strange, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘First we find the butterfly, and then we find the cross, and we wouldn’t have noticed either of them if it wasn’t for the snow wiping the board clean.’

            ‘That’s it!’ shouted Mrs Roper. She shouted so loudly, it made everyone flinch, and Tilly did a little jump. ‘Now it makes sense!’

            ‘It does?’ said Thin Brian.

            ‘The butterfly,’ said Mrs Roper, ‘is hope, isn’t it?’ She pointed to the butterfly, which waited on a nearby gatepost. ‘And the cross is faith. It’s so obvious.’

            ‘Faith and hope,’ said Mr Forbes.

            ‘Eureka!’

            We all turned around. Mr Dhillon was at the bottom of the avenue, waving to us with his spade. Whilst nobody was looking, he had dug us all out.

 

 ‘Now we just need the third thing,’ said Mrs Roper.

            ‘We do?’ said Tilly.

            ‘Oh yes.’ Mrs Roper started looking around, peering into the hedge and around the gatepost. ‘It’s got to be here somewhere.’

            Tilly and I started peering as well.

            ‘What are we looking for?’ said Tilly, from inside the hedge.

            ‘I don’t know,’ I said, from the other side.

            Mrs Roper heard us. ‘Well, what do you think we’re looking for? We have faith and hope, what’s the third thing?’

            ‘Charity,’ said Mr Forbes.

            Mrs Roper stopped peering. ‘Oh no, it’s definitely love.’

            ‘It’s definitely charity.’ Mr Forbes and his arms seemed quite positive.

            Everyone stopped peering and sprinkling salt, and had a big argument. They were all very certain of what it was, except for Thin Brian, who changed his mind depending on who was looking at him at the time.

            ‘Aren’t they the same thing?’ said Tilly, but her voice was too small, and it disappeared under everybody else’s opinions.

            Mr Dhillon walked back along the tunnel he’d made in the snow. ‘I’ve always thought it was charity,’ he said.

            Mr Forbes smiled and nodded at Mrs Roper.

            ‘The only thing I know about charity,’ said Mrs Roper, ‘is that it begins at home.’

            And she looked up at her television aerial and passed Mr Dhillon a sweeping brush, and smiled so widely, it was almost hypnotic.

 

***

 

‘Left a bit,’ said Mr Forbes from the bottom of the ladder. ‘No, not that much left. More to the right. No my right.’

            Mr Dhillon wobbled at the top of the ladder and waved the sweeping brush about. Tilly and I watched from a safe distance, which I decided was far away enough not to be covered in snow, but near enough not to miss any of the action, although Thin Brian’s idea of a safe distance seemed to be the other side of the street, behind Mrs Forbes’ dustbins.

            ‘No, more left,’ shouted Mr Forbes. ‘Much more left.’

            Mr Dhillon reached as far to the left as he could. In fact, he reached so far, the ladder began to tremble and Eric Lamb had to hold onto it with all his weight, and everyone did a very big Ooohhhhh!. I really thought he was going to fall, and I held Tilly’s hand, just in case she was scared. But Mr Dhillon managed to save himself by snatching at the roof tiles and leaning into the snow, and I heard Mrs Roper begin to clap because Nicholas Parsons had reappeared inside her living room.

            When Mr Dhillon climbed down the ladder, his lips had turned an interesting shade of blue and his turban had begun to shiver.

            ‘Here.’ Mrs Roper appeared at her front door. ‘You look frozen to death. Take this.’

            She handed him the blanket, and from behind Mrs Forbes’ dustbins, I heard Thin Brian say Bloody Nora.

            When Mr Dhillon had been given a hot chocolate and lots of back slapping, Eric Lamb said it was about time we all went to Rowan Tree Croft and helped Mr Dhillon get his car out. Everyone agreed, even Thin Brian, who had extracted himself from behind the dustbins and had shaken Mr Dhillon’s hand, although the blanket got in the way and made everything a bit awkward.

            We walked in a line, together with the butterfly, along an alleyway Mr Dhillon’s spade had cut into the snow. Even my father joined us. He had a shopping basket on wheels and a list of provisions my mother had written for him. I know this, because I checked the list, just to make sure none of the provisions were worryingly missed out.

            Everyone kept their eyes open for the third thing, looking over garden walls and down alleyways, and wondering when it might appear.

            ‘What do you think it will be?’ Tilly heaved herself up to look over a fence.

            ‘I don’t know.’ I helped her back down. ‘Maybe something heart-shaped.’

            ‘Or a coin,’ said Tilly.

            ‘It could be a fish,’ said Thin Brian.

            We all stared at him.

            ‘Jesus fed people fish, didn’t he?’ He pushed his hands into his pockets. ‘You never know.’

            ‘I do hope we find it on the way,’ said Tilly. ‘The third thing.’

            ‘Love,’ said Mrs Roper.

            ‘Charity,’ shouted Mr Forbes, from the front of the line.

            Mrs Roper smiled and shook her head.

 

As it happened, we didn’t find anything on the way there, but on the plus side, it didn’t take very long at all to get Mr Dhillon’s car out, because there were so many of us. Everyone only had to push a little bit and he was on his way. The engine skipped and spluttered at first, but then it gave a big cough and sprang to life, and Mr Dhillon waved from the window as he drove off.

            ‘Where did he say he lived again?’ said Eric Lamb.

            ‘I don’t think he did,’ said Mrs Roper, ‘and I can’t say as I’ve seen him before, now you come to mention it.’

            ‘Strange,’ said Mr Forbes. ‘I thought I knew everyone around here.’

 

Tilly and I dusted the snow from our coats and started to walk back to The Avenue. My father made a big list of what everyone needed from the shop and Mr Forbes decided to help him carry it all back, because he said a bit of exercise might actually do his gyp some good after all. Only Mrs Roper hurried on ahead, because she didn’t want to miss any more Sale of the Century.

            ‘Why are people so nice to each other when it snows? said Tilly.

            ‘I’m not sure.’ I did Tilly’s top button up, because she was always catching things. ‘Perhaps because it feels like someone’s wiped the blackboard and we can all start again.’

            ‘Perhaps,’ said Tilly. ‘Or perhaps it just makes it easier for us all to see everything.’

            ‘Like the butterfly and the necklace.’

            ‘Exactly,’ she said. ‘Although I think the butterfly has disappeared. Perhaps it was too cold for it after all.’

            She was right. The butterfly had gone.

            ‘What a shame we didn’t find the third thing,’ I said.

            We turned the corner into The Avenue and Tilly stopped. She picked up one of Mrs Forbes’ doilies, which someone had left on top of a snow drift.

            ‘Actually …’ she said.

            I looked up. You could see Mrs Roper’s television, lighting up her front window with blues and greys and whites. It reflected all our footprints, along the tunnel we had dug, and at the far end of it, there was a packet of salt, propped up in the snow. Even Thin Brian’s sweeping brush was still there, leaning against the garden wall. As I listened, I’m sure I could hear Mr Dhillon’s car, disappearing into the distance.

            ‘The third thing?’ I said.

            ‘I think …’ Tilly looked up at me. ‘I think …’

            ‘I think you might be right,’ I said. I smiled at her. ‘But don’t go getting any big ideas about yourself, Tilly Albert.’

            ‘I won’t, Gracie,’ she said, and she smiled back.

            We carried on walking. It didn’t feel so cold any more. The snow was soft under my boots and I could hear the slow, steady drip of a thaw somewhere beyond the rooftops.

            ‘I expect we’ll have to go to school tomorrow,’ said Tilly.

            ‘I expect we will,’ I said.

            The snow began to disappear. It was leaving as quickly as it had arrived, and as it did, all the things it had hidden began to re-emerge. The old tyre, the blue plastic chair, even the drainpipe.

And I knew that when I woke up the next morning, everything would be back to the way it had always been. 

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Joanna Cannon




13 Reviews

'Like Mark Haddon in the Curious Incident of the dog in the night time, Cannon represents the world through the eyes of a child, sensitively and intelligently, and highlights the everyday absurdity of grown-ups.' - The Independent

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