A decade or so ago I began to feel a craving for winter so deep I wanted to howl for the lack of it. I yearned for monochromatic landscapes, blizzards, and air so cold it hurt to breathe. And then for reasons bleak, I found myself thrice returning to a European winter. Two of those were among the coldest on record. Deep snow that didn’t melt – just added to itself, layer upon layer. For the most part, ground and sky were indistinguishable. On the few occasions the thin sun appeared it dissolved only enough snow to lengthen the icicles that hung from the gutters.
I still love the winter. I feel invigorated by it. Snow is an essential element for me. But the craving is no longer so painful. At least it hadn’t been until earlier this week.
The second of those very cold winters was four years ago. I had been in Switzerland for several months, winding up the parental home, but was not yet ready to leave this country of my growing. A dear and enduring friend, a fellow hermit, gave me sanctuary. She, along with her dog, two cats and a tortoise, lived on the edge of a small farming village. Her house was a Stöckli, a tiny, three storey wooden house with external steps up to the entrance on the first floor – so that it could be reached even when the snow was deep.
We were comfortable together. She had known me from when I was eight or nine, cut adrift from my moorings, at sea in a foreign country. She recognised me then as a fellow solitude, a being whose heart beat out of time with the rest. An only child, her life criss-crossed countries, too. Her stories, whether about the days doings or the deep past, were vivid, details and emotions remembered, and told always with dry humour: the grandfather, bigger than life itself, training horses at Chantilly; a big lemon car with my friend, always tiny – tinier still when young, lost in the upholstery of the backseat. The fortunes of English family rose and sank – at one time owners of London pubs with Russian names. She told tales of her indomitable mother, and of her small son, so enchanted by trains he would clamber onto them at the village station, trains that reloaded at this small Swiss town and were heading for Moscow.
That winter we entered a daily rhythm. We breakfasted together, each with our preferred pot of tea. Then I struck out into the morning dark, crossing snowy fields, striding through beech and pine woods and across the railway tracks to catch a train into Berne. I’d spend the day burrowing through archives, pausing briefly for lunch in the canteen.
I had found a pile of coupons in a desk drawer whilst clearing out the parental home. Some were still valid. These I cashed in for punnets of gourmet soups which I brought back to the Stöckli each night. And so in one fell swoop we managed to avoid money and cooking, those pitfalls of mutual obligation, and thanked my dear late Papa for his hoarding.
I heard at the beginning of this week that my friend had died and I could feel myself longing for that intense cold again. This morning, on my walk, I looked up at our local mountain. It was coated with thick snow. So deep and only May. More snow than I have seen on Mount Wellington for years.