The apartment was small. It lay in the basement of one of the new giant chalets that were going up around the edge of the village, six-storey structures fancifully clad in varnished yellow pine that stood at angles to one another in the dirty snow like oversized doll’s-houses. Their apartment was supposed to sleep five people. They could hardly fit into it with their rucksacks. They stood around waiting for the tour guide to come and sort it out but when she arrived, a tanned German girl in tight white clothes, she opened her eyes very wide and said no, there has been no mistake, this is for five people. She opened a cupboard and a bed fell out of it. They had to crowd into the kitchenette so that she could demonstrate how the sofa also unfolded. When she had gone, Thomas and Jane moved in unison to the only bedroom, where there was a double bed. Christian and Lucy placed their coats on the sofa. Christian and Lucy had been together longer, but Thomas and Jane were married and talked about having a baby. Martin was married with a child but he had come alone. He took the bed in the cupboard, which necessitated that he sleep with his head directly below the boot rack.
Later they walked up and down the main street looking for a bar. The centre of the little town was lined with boutique windows showing well-lit tableaux of leather and gold. One or two couples, stout and richly dressed, their heads wreathed in steam, stood on the frozen pavements looking in. Now that it was dark the cold was almost airless. Great black walls of night stood just beyond the small illuminations of shops and street lights, thick and impenetrable, so that although they were outside they seemed to be contained within an annex of their claustrophobic apartment. Usually when he came here Martin stayed at a small hotel where men with mournful eyes and drooping moustaches breakfasted silently in the windowless dining room. Twice they passed this hotel: he walked past its modest entrance without saying anything to the others. Looking up he saw the window of the room on the top floor that he and Serena had stayed in last year. The lights were on; there were people in there, and in some strange way it seemed to Martin that it was himself, that he and Serena were in there, eternally living moments of their past. They found a bar that was cladded with pine from floor to ceiling. It was crowded with people speaking German and French. Thomas overheard someone saying that more snow was forecast.
‘That’s great,’ said Jane. She set her mouth in a line and folded her arms on the table, as though she had arranged the snow previously and was glad, but not surprised, to hear that it had arrived.
‘Can you ski when it’s snowing?’ said Lucy.
‘Of course you can,’ said Christian.
‘I’ve only been skiing once,’ said Lucy to Martin. ‘Years ago.’
‘It comes back,’ said Martin.
‘I fell over,’ said Lucy, ‘and skidded all the way down the hill into one of those tow lifts. Somebody’s ski went right into my head. I’ve still got the scar.’
She lifted back her heavy brown hair and searched among the roots with her fingers. Martin saw the dead whiteness of her scalp, speared with swarming dark wires of hair. Thomas was arranging matchsticks on the table top around his bottle of beer.
‘Two moves,’ he said, ‘to get the bottle inside the box without touching the bottle.’
‘Without touching the bottle,’ said Christian.
‘I’m terrible at these,’ said Lucy.
‘It’s pretty difficult actually,’ said Jane. She surveyed the bar with a benevolent gaze. Presently she got up and went to look at some framed black-and-white photographs hanging on the wall.
‘Come on,’ said Thomas.
‘Wait,’ said Christian. He was leaning forward with his face close to the matchsticks. A vein stood out on his forehead. ‘Hang on, I’m going to get it.’
‘The way you do it,’ said Thomas, ‘is like this.’
He moved the matchsticks.
‘You didn’t say we could do that,’ said Christian.
‘Okay, okay, I’ve got one for you,’ said Lucy. ‘A man is driving along one night with his son and they have a crash. The father dies but the son is still alive and they take him to hospital.’
‘What’s this?’ said Jane, coming back to the table.
‘It’s a riddle,’ said Lucy. ‘So the father’s dead and they take the son to hospital. They rush him into the operating theatre for surgery. The surgeon takes one look at the boy and says, stop, I can’t do the operation, that’s my son lying there.’ She looked around the table. ‘So what’s happened?’
‘Are you not allowed to operate on your own child?’ said Jane. ‘Tom, are you not allowed to operate on your own child?’
‘So the man in the car thinks the child is his son,’ said Thomas. ‘And the surgeon also thinks he’s his son.’
Christian and Lucy nodded together.
‘Are they a gay couple?’ said Jane.
Lucy shook her head, her lips pursed.
‘The surgeon’s a woman,’ said Martin. ‘She’s his mother.’
‘Right!’ Lucy pointed a finger at him exultantly.
‘But you said “he”,’ said Jane.
‘No I didn’t,’ said Lucy.
‘No she didn’t,’ said Christian.
Thomas got up to get more beers.
‘Have you spoken to Serena yet?’ asked Lucy.
‘No,’ said Martin. ‘She’s probably in bed by now. I’ll phone her in the morning.’
‘She must have wanted to come,’ said Lucy, her faced screwed up in sympathy as though watching someone in pain.
‘Yeah.’ Martin nodded.
‘Did she mind you coming?’
‘I don’t think so. She’s got her mother staying for the week.’
‘I think it’s really good the way you two are so independent,’ said Lucy.
The bar was too hot. Its sealed pine interior seemed to erase the memory of proportion. Suddenly Martin could no longer remember the size of anything, the mountain on which they were perched, the infinity of space and darkness above and below them, nor how far he was from his city, his house and the rooms in which he lived.
‘It’s snowing,’ announced Jane.
They walked back to the apartment. Snow fell on their hair and coats like the soft touches of a thousand ghostly fingers. They walked with muffled footsteps. Thomas ran ahead and lobbed a snowball back at them and the women shrieked. In the apartment Martin waited in the cramped bathroom while Christian and Lucy got undressed. When he came out the room was in darkness. He could see the mound of their bodies in the bed.
‘Goodnight,’ he said. He got into the narrow camp bed and eased his head back into the cupboard. He woke later to an angled, unfamiliar darkness. His mind inhabited it with its rudimentary life. When he thought of his wife and child he felt like something that had been discarded from his own existence, a component, like a wheel, that had come loose and spun away. He wondered whether Serena had the baby in bed with her. He felt amputated and yet strangely continuing to exist, to grow into the new grooves of minutes and hours like some kind of botanical experiment involving the plotted torture of sunlight.
In the morning he got up and dressed before the others were awake. He manoeuvred himself through the cramped maze of furniture. As he opened the apartment door Lucy’s arm flailed up from beneath the bedclothes. He surfaced into the freezing, sunless glare of the street. The sky was white. The air was thin and coldly drenching. It seemed to form crystals in his mouth as he breathed. He bought a croissant from a bakery and ate it as he walked to the lifts. The streets were already full of skiers, streaming in from the tributaries of side streets. Their heavy boots thundered on the pavements. He fed himself into the crowd and was borne through the barriers and into a lift. As they ascended he looked around. The sight of the mountain in daylight was like waking from the futility of a dream. It began to show its peaks and crevices, its colossal flanks, as the lift rose higher. Blue green waterfalls hung in frozen cascades down rock faces. Trees smoky with frost stood in clouds above the snow. There were children on the lifts ahead of him. Their parents sat to either side of them, as erect as sentries. His own daughter was three weeks old. He imagined them skiing together, when she was older. He had the feeling that this was the correct thing to imagine under the circumstances. These were privileged people. They were rich and safe; they were together. They didn’t mean anything to him—they were merely a part of the retraction he must make to get back to where he had been. The thought of his daughter filled him with spurts of nervous warmth, and with the alarm of someone who has dropped a plate and is watching it in the last seconds of its wholeness, before it hits the floor.
The snow was good. Martin knew it through the first contact of his skis. The cloud had cleared and the sky was visibly deepening with blue. He could see the massive, sculpted peaks of other mountains. Their forms seemed to recall the world in a primitive state, in the swirl of creation. Other skiers shot by him, their bodies straight and graceful, swaying from side to side with the precision of metronomes and then vanishing in a spray of powder. He skied at first cautiously and then fast as the rhythm returned to him. By the end of the first run he felt his head cleared of thought. It was like the gauze of illness lifting from the body. He took the lift back up to the top. Suspended above the piste in the sun he was vacantly happy. Other people hung around him in the air, huddled, anonymous, like machines in a state of pause. He skied down again and came back up on the lift. The third time, halfway down, he forked off to the left where the piste divided. The slope faced a different way here. Large, bald blisters of ice shone through the snow. He went down a gully and skidded out the other end to find himself at the top of a broad, icy wall. People were going down it in big curves, slipping metres at a time. He stopped to consider what route he would take through them. Just below him a woman had stalled with her skis facing the wrong way, towards the edge. She was bent over, as though she were looking for something. Her legs were far apart and she clawed the air with her hands. While Martin watched, one of her skis slipped and she shrieked, frantically trying to flatten herself against the slope. A man was peering up at her from a few metres below, shielding his eyes from the sun. Martin recognized Christian.
‘Come on!’ Christian shouted. ‘You’ve just got to turn.’
‘I can’t!’ Lucy shouted.
‘Just turn! Just put your skis down the slope and turn!’
Lucy started to cry. She made a whooping noise that travelled in echoing chimes down the valley.
‘Come on!’ shouted Christian. He lifted his poles and drove them straight down again into the snow. Then he shook his head and looked up into the air. Lucy roared. A moment later she went sliding and shrieking down another few metres. Christian didn’t watch her. He turned and faced out towards the valley in a posture of contemplation.
Martin skied down to Lucy. She was still crying loudly. Close up her face was a wreck of emotion. Deep grooves of anger striated the skin. Tears and mucus were smeared over her red cheeks. Threads of saliva hung from her mouth.
‘Follow me down,’ he said. ‘Just look at my skis and don’t look at anything else. Turn where I turn.’
He had no idea whether this would work. He merely desired to unpick her from the snag of what seemed vaguely to him to be her femininity. He wanted to comb it out, the whole tangle of women, until it was straight and clear. He set off slowly. When he looked back he expected not to see her there, but her dark form was looming just behind him. They passed Christian, who seconds later passed them and skied on down to the bottom without stopping. He was waiting for them at the cafe near the lifts. Lucy behaved towards Martin as though some intimacy had passed between them. She was flushed and excited and kept gripping his arm. They had coffee at an outside table. Christian was directly in the sun and his face was screwed up into a piggish mask. Martin felt burdened by their company. He wished he hadn’t chosen to come to this part of the resort; he wished he had stayed where he was happy. Thinking this made him realize that happiness was for him an act of subterfuge. The whole flow of his life was towards becoming embroiled. In the hospital, after the baby was born and Serena had fallen asleep, he had sat holding his daughter in a chair beside the bed and she had looked at him with unfocused, empty eyes; and he had felt in that moment oppressed by her need and by his sense that an onerous job had fallen to him by virtue of his being there awake while her mother slept. His daughter was corresponding with him, assuming that he was the first thing in the world; she was already building herself on his foundations and it was too late to stop her. After that it was he who rose, who walked the silty floor of the night with her while her limitless cries unspooled. Serena, always tired or in pain or somehow unhappy, always in the end victimized by the things she had created, seemed to exist more and more in a state of unconstrained emotion. The world of doing lay beneath it all like a settlement beneath the waters of a flood, tragic, unavailing. The baby got on her nerves. She said things like that much as Lucy had stalled on the slope, because it felt true. That was why Martin was here, to see if it really was.
In the evening they went to a different bar, that rocked like the hull of a ship with the loud voices and ruddy faces of skiers. Martin and Lucy and Christian ate dense, oleaginous plates of potatoes and sausage and cheese. Jane and Thomas had cooked for themselves earlier in the tiny kitchen. Jane talked of their day, in which the two of them had travelled by bus to a different part of the resort to ski. Thomas was Martin’s oldest friend, but these days he never saw him alone. Jane kept Thomas away from his old life, as though he were an addict and it a source of temptation. Jane annoyed Martin. Chewing his food, he felt as though his mouth were full of her. She looked at him sharply, head cocked, sensing his distaste.
‘How’s Serena coping?’ she asked.
‘I haven’t spoken to her yet.’
‘How’s the breastfeeding going?’
‘Fine,’ said Martin untruthfully. ‘Great.’
Jane didn’t believe that you could just do it, have a baby. Her manner towards Martin was that of a person delegated to visit a criminal suburb, offering rehabilitation. Jane and Thomas were ironing out their lives in preparation for parenthood, starching and folding and putting away their youth, their excitement, their spontaneity.
‘Has she started expressing her milk?’
Martin was seized by the desire to slap her, to exhort her violently to think about something else. Get out of here, he wanted to shout, go and get drunk, go dancing, make love in a cable car!
‘No,’ he said. ‘Not yet.’
He stopped at a hotel on the way home to telephone. Serena’s mother answered. Serena was asleep. The baby was fine, she was right there on her lap. Martin asked her if she was getting any sleep and she said not much. I’ve got the rest of my life to sleep, she said. She’s a party animal, your daughter. He guessed from that that Serena wasn’t getting up at night. A stone of worry lodged itself in his chest. She had become distraught almost straight away about being woken. She would lie on her back in the dark and cry while the baby cried in her cot next to their bed. Martin always got up quickly now and got the baby out of the room before she could wake Serena up. Sometimes they fell asleep together on the sofa downstairs. He gave her bottles of formula milk that he mixed and stood in a row before he went to bed. The midwife had said Serena would never establish breastfeeding that way, but he didn’t see what else he could do. When he got back to the apartment the others were asleep.
They had two more days of good weather and then clouds closed in around the mountain, swaddling the pistes and lifts in fog. Martin hung around the village alone while the others went ice skating. He had become, somehow, detached from the group. His heroics with Lucy seemed to have created a rift between himself and Christian. They had joined forces with Jane and Thomas, travelling about on buses together to distant pistes and even spending one afternoon when the weather was good sightseeing in the local town. Thomas was a good skier; Martin didn’t know how he could stand it, the confinement, the wasted time. Martin’s presence on the holiday began to seem more and more brutal. All around him people were giving in to each other, denying themselves. Staring through gift-shop windows with his wife and baby hundreds of miles away, he felt ridiculous. He had finally spoken to Serena. She had an infection in her breasts, so breastfeeding had been abandoned. He was silently aggrieved by this, by the fact she had just stopped without asking him. He felt conspired against in his absence. He felt too that he had failed to protect his daughter. It had been gestating in him, this feeling, and now his hours of inactivity had brought it to life. The baby was his. As a child, he had been for a period fixated by the realization that he was bound to existence by a series of tethers. His shadow, his heartbeat, the ceaseless work of breathing had all, for a while, fascinated and oppressed him. Sometimes he tried not to breathe. Sometimes he would climb a wall or a tree to see if his shadow followed him. He had in his mind a narrow, high place where he would be sufficient to himself.
By afternoon the lifts were open and he went up. People had given up on the day and the mountain was more or less empty. He skied under the ropes at the edge of the piste and headed off into wilderness. This was what he liked best, skiing in the trees. Today he skied dangerously, wildly dodging rocks, hurtling down unmarked valleys. It was still cloudy and he could only see a few feet in front of him. He felt a vicious carelessness of himself. He revelled in his skill and in his right to expend himself. He wound down a long tree-studded slope and came out fast the other end, going over the next incline without stopping. It was bare and very steep; at the bottom he could see the village lights. He turned his skis straight down the hill, wondering if he could make the village in one run. He was going so fast that he nearly closed his eyes, like someone falling asleep at the wheel of a car. Just then his skis abruptly levelled out, and by the time he realized he had hit a path he had nearly crossed it. He skidded sideways but the momentum of the hill threw him over the path and into empty space on the other side. He didn’t know what had happened. There was a thick crust of snow overhanging the sheer drop below the path and somehow he was splayed on it, clinging, with nothing beneath him. Someone was speaking to him in French. A ski pole nosed against his face and he grabbed it and felt himself dragged back on to the path. He had lost his skis. When he stood up he fell over straight away. The man helped him up. It was a ski monitor. He was shaking his head and shouting. Martin couldn’t speak. The man began to speak in English. You are very lucky, he said. I follow you, you are very lucky. Martin said that he was sorry. Mad, said the man, fou. He offered to walk with Martin back to the village but Martin waved him on. The mountain was turning blue with dusk. His legs twitched violently as he walked slowly down the path towards the village. It was dark by the time he got back to the apartment. The others were out. He got into bed and lay curled on his side.
The next day was the last day. Martin rented new skis and went up with Lucy and Christian. Christian had spent most of the week waiting for Lucy as she crawled and skidded and cried her way down the mountain. Martin offered to ski with her somewhere easy so that Christian could have some time off. He said he didn’t feel up to much else, after yesterday. Christian was visibly grateful. He was all right, Martin thought. He took Lucy down to the nursery slopes, where blindingly white expanses of snow rolled out mildly to all sides. It was a pillowy, sensationless landscape that seemed to have been manufactured by his own consciousness. Lucy ploughed sturdily through it, crouched over.
‘You see, I can do it when it’s like this,’ she said at the bottom.
He was filled with the desire to be tender. The top of the mountain, its steep faces, its spikes, stood embedded in his heart like a claw. By lunch time he felt bored and detached. They met up with Christian and he handed Lucy over. The fact of his return was with him now. It was like a wall in front of him. He skied some difficult runs and found that his accident hadn’t changed anything. The reality of Serena and the baby was beginning to show through the veil of his absence, coming in glaring flashes as if through rents in his dreams. He tried to set the afternoon afloat, but the thought of what awaited him brought him down from the mountain early. He packed his things back at the apartment and lay on the bed reading a book. He fell into a grey sleep and was woken by Thomas throwing a towel at his head.
‘Coming up?’ he said. His face was sardonic and excited, conversational, as though two people lived in it.
The others had gone to see a film. The resort was floodlighting one of the pistes. Thomas and Martin went up on the lifts in the dark. Martin told him a bit about Serena, their conversation, the problems with the baby, and to his surprise Thomas was unstoppered and his essence, what he used to be and what Martin realized he must be still, flowed out. Martin wondered how he could keep the secret of himself all through his days and nights with Jane. Or maybe it wasn’t like that, maybe Thomas had already accepted what he, Martin, could not seem to. Martin talked on, and Thomas began to seem more and more to him like a point of contact both earthly and divine, a hieratic being, a robed father to whom Martin, the vagrant, the unquiet soul, had returned to seek counsel. They got off the lifts. Hardly anyone else was there. Floodlights had been placed in the snow, forming a yellow river that meandered out of sight. The mountain looked ethereal with the prohibition of its darkness lifted. Martin felt himself connected to a series of moments in his life, which seemed to disclose themselves deeper and deeper in himself one after the other, like a chain of lights. Thomas set off ahead of him, hooting and waving his arm as he snaked down the ghostly piste. Martin watched him until he disappeared. The sky was a dome of stars. He would never, he thought, be here again. He hesitated like a diver over the still surface of water, and launched himself.
Photograph by Michael Gleave