It is Rebecca who convinces Sarah that pushing their paralysed father across the frozen lake will work out absolutely fine. Rebecca tells Sarah to be logical, going around would mean over an hour of walking to get back to their parent’s home. Their morning has been spent on a trip to the Chemist for their father’s medicine, they brought him with them in an attempt to get him out of his mood.
Their first steps onto the ice let out tenuous chinking noises, stopping them in their tracks. But then the thought of their elderly mother waiting for them back at the house makes them edge further out. Soon their steps are more confident, they can see they are only leaving small, surface level cracks and the wheels of their father’s wheelchair glide along smoothly. They look up at the arch of pearl sky above. Squinting, Rebecca takes her sunglasses out of her coat’s top pocket and puts them on before she says: “I read somewhere it’s been so cold for so long that the lake is frozen right to the bottom.”
“Well just know if he wakes up I’m blaming you.”
“God he’ll probably have a heart attack, won’t he?”
The sisters both laugh, then their father lets out a wheezy cough which makes them quiet again. He seems to crumple in his wheelchair, the collar to his coat roughly turned up like a fence patrolling his neck. The side of his mouth is slightly open and lets out a trail of steam into the crisp air. Watching him, Rebecca snorts and says: “Remember when he used to have that pipe?”
“Yeah, Mum would find the ash in little piles around the house.”
Rebecca sighs and adjusts her sunglasses. “Why did she ever put up with him?”
Sarah smiles, squeezing her gloved fingers round the metal handles of the wheelchair. “I suppose she loves him.”
“No I don’t think that’s it. Otherwise she’d have been more bothered by it all. She just never had another option.”
“She still looks after him now so maybe she loves him a little.”
“Perhaps.” Rebecca pauses and rubs her hands together. “Poor fool.”
The sisters walk on in silence for a while, both dreaming their separate dreams. Sarah thinks of her little boy back at the cottage with her mum, maybe sitting up close to the fire, warming his hands, waiting for her to come home. She looks over at her sister who is staring off at the frosted green hills that cut the sky. Sarah doesn’t know what Rebecca is dreaming of but it is probably something more important, maybe world peace. Then Rebecca starts fumbling in her pockets again; she looks over at Sarah: “Do you mind if I have a cigarette?”
“Course not. Your hands are going to get cold though.”
Rebecca shrugs and takes one out, cupping her shaky fingers around the end to light it. She takes a long drag then frowns at the smoke appearing from her mouth like she doesn’t know where it is coming from. “I thought I’d tell you before I tell the others. I was thinking I could announce it over dinner, chink my wine glass with a fork or whatever.” With her cigarette between two fingers, she holds up a pretend glass and wriggles it about. “I’ve been offered this job in Colombia, I’d be reporting right from where all the action is.” She brings down her pretend wine glass to her lips and takes another drag of her cigarette. Her eyes flit to Sarah. “Well, what do you think?”
Sarah frowns down at her father’s bald head: they should have brought him a hat. “Oh that’s wonderful, Rebecca.” She blows her lips together. “It’s just I was thinking of Mum, she’ll be so worried about you.”
Flicking the end of her cigarette, Rebecca watches the ember melt into the ice. “Damn it, just be excited for me.” She says, coughing into her fist. “Besides, Mum’s always worrying about us, whatever we’re up to.”
Raising her eyebrows, Sarah says: “You’re only ever as happy as your unhappiest child.”
“I suppose you understand all about that now, with little Charlie.” Rebecca blinks and makes a half smile.
“I suppose so.” Sarah straightens her back a little. She hopes that her mum hasn’t given Charlie too many biscuits, otherwise he won’t he hungry for dinner. Mum is always doing that, letting Sarah be the baddy. “Do you think you’ll ever want children, Rebecca?”
“Don’t ask like that’s a new subject.” Finished with her cigarette, Rebecca flips it over her shoulder. “When me and Matt were still together we would discuss it.”
“Well what about now?”
“My work is quite rewarding enough, thanks.”
“I don’t mean it like that, I think what you do is important too.”
“Yeah, I know.” Sarah stretches out her fingers and then grips them back into their dutiful position. “Dad seems to be getting heavier somehow.” She glances over at her sister who doesn’t look back. “He’s quite sweet these days, you could try getting on better with him.”
“I have to remind myself that you’re younger than me when you say things like that. Look, you didn’t know him at his worst.”
“Well he’s a good grandfather now.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
They walk on in a silence that is only interrupted by the slick of their father’s wheels. Ahead more mountains rise over the slate of ice; they are getting closer to safe ground. Then Sarah stops in her tracks, staring down to the right side of the wheelchair she says: “Look at this.”
Rebecca moves closer and then goes down on her haunches to see the shadows darting about beneath the ice. “I suppose it’s not fully frozen then.” With her finger hovered over the ice, she follows one of the fish’s movements. The chill that hums off the surface just reaches her fingertip.
Sarah tries to imagine life down there in the murky darkness. “It must be so strange for the fish to look up at the world through all that ice, like glimpsing a parallel universe.”
A breathy laugh resounds from Rebecca. “I wonder if this means the ice is thinner here.”
They scan each other’s faces and then Rebecca gets up, shoving her hands deep into her pockets. Walking again, Sarah says, “Look will you have a go at pushing Dad, my arms are getting tired.”
Rebecca pulls a face but takes the wheelchair. She strides along and pushes with force.
Sarah watches her sister and notes the fine lines across her forehead. Rebecca stares straight ahead with the dark concentration she’s had since they were children. She’s as lean as ever too and her elbows point out at right angles from the wheel chair. Around her throat a silk scarf is neatly looped and she has a small gold ring through one side of her nose that she didn’t have when Sarah saw her last. Come to think of it the last time they were all together was Christmas a year ago. Maybe that’s how it is with them nowadays; they are just a Christmas family.
Sarah clears her throat and softly says: “You know I was watching a documentary the other day, on all the cuts to legal aid and they showed this debate about mercy and justice- it was between these two defence lawyers.”
Rebecca purses her lips. “What made you think of that now?”
“I don’t know, I thought it might be the kind of thing you’d watch.”
“Yeah I suppose.”
The breeze pinching them, Sarah rubs her cheeks. “I’m trying to ask you which you think is the most important: mercy or justice?”
Rebecca starts chewing the left side of her lip and her walking speeds up. “Well mercy is important of course but justice comes first, it’s what makes things fair.”
Sarah looks up at Rebecca, who is quite a few steps ahead of her now, and sighs; she is sure the ice is too slippery to walk at that pace. “You’d be the first to say that life’s not fair.”
Rebecca glances back at Sarah but then turns to the front again. “No it isn’t, that’s why its people’s job to try and force some justice into it.” In the distance a pair of birds circle part of the lake as if they’re getting ready to pounce on something, their wings beating heavily. Rebecca says: “Look I’m amicable enough to dad, don’t ask me to forgive him.”
Sarah stares at her feet as she walks, watching the way they bob in and out of the white frame and searches for a way to speak her indignation. She was also at the dinner table when the plates were thrown against the wall. She too had been on that staircase when the shouting went on. But then there’d been the policeman at the door and their mum had listened with her hand against her cheek; a motorbike accident meant their father was in hospital for four months before he came home. Their mum brought his soup to his bed and fed him with a teaspoon.
Rebecca was old enough by then to make Sarah her dinner and take her to and from school. Sarah saw her once standing in the doorway to his room, just standing there, staring at him; laid out broken in his bed. When Rebecca turned round and saw Sarah, she walked straight off. It’s strange, she still flinches from his touch today.
There’s a clatter and Sarah’s eyes snap up and skim over her surroundings. She takes in the trees only metres away. Her father in his wheelchair stands as an anomaly in the mass of white. There’s no Rebecca. Sarah starts running but her feet slip so she stops and forces herself to walk slowly, dragging her legs wide apart. The crack lies centimetres behind her father as an aphotic gash trying to lick at his wheels. From it Rebecca’s hand momentarily appears before being gulped back down. Sarah counts her breaths and gets down on her knees. Shaking, she drags herself along. At an arm’s length away from the laceration and with shins soaking she calls: “Rebecca.”
Crawling nearer, Sarah watches the fissures spread like veins beneath her. She reaches out and her fingers graze the water. Rebecca’s head floats beneath, her short hair rippling the surface. “Rebecca!” Rebecca’s arm waves up but like an ephemeral plant; fleeting, it falls, slapping the water.
“What the hell is going on?”, their father calls out. Sarah stays silent and waits for Rebecca’s arm to appear again. “Is this the hospital?”. Trembling fingers fracture the surface. “I demand the answers!”. Rebecca’s arm swings up and Sarah grabs it and yanks. Rebecca floats towards her. “It’s too damn cold in here”. Sarah pulls harder but Rebecca is heavy and her body hits the edge. The ground quivering, Sarah lies still with her fingers wrapped around Rebecca’s wrist, she caresses the bones through her skin. The shaking subsides and Sarah pulls again, managing to lift half of Rebecca onto the ice. “I’d like my dinner now.”, their father continues to shout into the silent air.
Her hands gripped around Rebecca’s waist, Sarah inches them back across the ice which lies underneath them as fragmented as a satellite image. “I asked for roast potatoes and turkey!”. Sarah gets them a few metres away from the rupture before sitting back on her legs and wrapping her arms around Rebecca’s stomach. “I don’t want those damn potato faces again”.
With Rebecca’s hair splayed like seaweed against her cheek, Sarah squeezes until there is a cough. A stream of black water tumbles from Rebecca’s mouth and her body shudders in Sarah’s arms. Then Rebecca is still again, her head lulling against her chest and her arms stroking the ground. Sarah touches her cheek and rubs her arms and legs. She kisses the top of her head again and again: “Rebecca?”
‘The Frozen Lake’ was published in 2016 in the UEA Undergraduate Creative Writing Anthology, Undertow.