19 December 2018
Melmoth is full of snow: snow stamped from workmen’s boots, or banked against a familiar door; falling in the Old Town Square or being brushed against by a long skirt. We’ve chosen one of our favourite snowy passages to share with you here.
It is a white evening, with snow drifted up against bicycles and litter bins. None presently falls, but all the same the air contains, you might almost think, the dust of opals ground against a stone. Music both sacred and profane meets above the awnings where valiant men sit on sheepskin-covered chairs and shiver delightedly. ‘This is it!’ say the English: ‘Real winter, like when we were young, and on the doorstep birds pecked right through the foil milk-bottle tops.’ They pay over the odds for bad beer, and think it cheap.
Karel and Thea live just beyond the Old Town Square, where Helen slips through unseen and largely unseeing. She is more or less immune to the effect of the façades, which have a quality of impermanence, as though they might at any moment be drawn back like a curtain. She reaches her friends’ apartment out of breath, discovering that she has walked a little faster than she generally does, as though she heard against the cobblestones the rapping of a follower’s feet. Down an alley, beneath an arch – stooping, though the curved stones clear her head by inches – and there is the yard onto which four apartment buildings look out, and there the familiar door, much snow banked against it. She pauses, and puts her thumb beneath the satchel strap, which has begun to press against the bones of her shoulder. She makes a swift calculation. Either they have remained indoors for – let’s say, twelve hours? More? – or have left, and not returned. She steps forward, and at that moment the single light set beneath the arch goes out, and the yard and all around it is dark. Each of the thirty identical windows set above their identical sills is merely a pane of black in the blackness, and the effect is of a total emptiness, as though no lamps were ever lit there. The sole light is that which comes weakly in under the arch from the distant Old Town Square – weakly, as if very distant indeed; as if Helen has gone twenty miles from there, and not twenty paces. She stands very still. She listens, and it is her whole body that strains within the silence. What does she listen for – the drag of long skirts against the snow, the tread of boots – or of bare feet, perhaps: feet which have walked over continents and are indifferent to pain? She listens, and of course there is nothing, save for the distant skirl of Bohemian bock piping away in the dark. Then the arch light returns, some loose wire finding its fitting perhaps; and Helen blinks against it, and sees now what she did not see before: that the familiar door is open by barely the width of a forefinger.