The winter that Dad left, taking Dougie with him, we all built an igloo. That morning, the garden was covered in a thick white glaze. Mum couldn’t sit still. When she wants something, Mum makes it pretty clear. She does this movement with her fingers where they flex and close, flex and close, as if she’ll burst at any moment.
‘Relax, will you?’ said Dad, from behind his newspaper. I could tell he was stuck on a crossword clue, his mind in some other place.
‘Ade, we promised,’ said Mum, ‘both of us.’ She put a hand on his shoulder – as if anchoring him – and poured more coffee. ‘Salvage,’ she said. ‘S-A-L-V-A-G-E. Ten down.’
‘Alright,’ said Dad.
‘What’s salvage?’ asked Dougie.
‘It’s when you save something,’ said Mum.
‘Like cargo from a sinking ship,’ added Dad.
‘What’s cargo?’ Dougie looked from Mum to Dad.
‘Stuff worth saving,’ I said. Then, hoping to catch Dad’s attention: ‘You promised we’d build an igloo when the snow was right.’ He was pencilling in the answer. Dad only used ink when he was absolutely certain.
Mum wiped a clear patch in the kitchen window. She peered out towards the field where Dougie and I were allowed to play. ‘We might be in business,’ she said, and we bolted down our breakfast.
That winter was one of the coldest on record. Dougie and I pretended that the icicles hanging from the cottage’s sloping roof were lollipops – when we licked them, they tasted of metal. Our woollen gloves barely left the radiator. They dried into hardened ridges at the fingers.
But until that morning, the snow had been all wrong. First, it came down too powdery, like spilled sugar. Then, when it settled into the perfect texture and we scooped it into snowballs for Mum, she said it was too thin for building. She explained how it fell as crystals, clumped together, how the temperature, amount, moisture levels – even how it settled – all played their part in creating the perfect snow for igloo building. ‘Snow is delicate,’ she said. ‘It changes the moment you touch it, the moment you step outside and press down with your boots.’ This time, we could tell by Mum’s face, by the way she’d already put on her tea-cosy hat: the snow was just right.
The Inuit build igloos in half an hour. At school, I’d seen a video of a man carving huge bricks of snow while his child looked on. That’s how it all began. But even with Dad helping, our igloo took all day. The snow couldn’t be carved into huge bricks, not like it could for the Inuit man.
‘We’ve bitten off more than we can chew,’ said Dad.
‘That’s a matter of opinion,’ said Mum.
Dougie tried scooping snow into ice-cream tubs. Then I tried rolling it, and slowly we assembled a circle of icy pillars, huddled close. Dougie and I packed the gaps with more snow and Mum used the ice-cream tubs to make bricks for the roof.
When it was done, Dougie and I crawled inside. There was a special quality to the sound that’s hard to describe – like when you put a shell to your ear and hear the sea. Everything within the igloo’s snowy walls was muted, softened. Even the sound of Dad outside, telling Mum maybe it was just him but didn’t the whole thing lean a little?
‘It’s the same as the cottage,’ Mum said. ‘Just look at its sloping roof. Nothing about this place is straight or true.’ Every wall of our old house was uneven. That’s how the cold crept into the gaps.
Perhaps it was that night, while Dougie and I slept, that Mum and Dad planned on splitting our lives down the middle. Dad would take Dougie, Mum would take me. The cottage would sell quickly, they decided, because people see what they want to see.
The next day, a new sprinkling of snow covered everything. Dougie and I rushed to the window to check on the igloo. The domed roof sparkled in the morning light, but it had collapsed on one side. There was now an enormous, gaping hole.
‘We can save it,’ said Dougie, ‘like salvage?’
‘We’ll try,’ I said. I held his small hand in mine and we walked across the field towards the ruined igloo, the broken part now softened by a fresh, white coating. It’s strange how snow makes everything more beautiful than it really is.
Emily Devane is a writer, editor and teacher from Ilkley, West Yorkshire. Her stories have been nominated for Best of the Net (finalist), Best Small Fictions (finalist) and The Pushcart Prize. She has won The Bath Flash Fiction Prize, a Word Factory Apprenticeship and a Northern Writers’ Award. Emily is an editor at FlashBack Fiction and teaches creative writing at Moor Words.