Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Cold Stories

Never in my life have I ever felt so deeply and solidly frozen as in the castle where I grew up. I remember walking down the long upstairs landing on winter mornings and pausing to scrape a finger over the thick furry frost that lay in wads upon all the window panes, testing to see if it had formed on the inside or the outside of the glass, discovering that the answer must be "both". Then there was the time my father sauntered into the bathroom one fine morning, in his checked dressing gown and his hard brown leather slippers, and did a backward flip on the black ice that habitually lacquered the bathroom floor in months with an R. He split his head open on the corner of the bathtub and had to get stitches.

The castle was huge, but in the depths of winter, we all used to sleep in one rather poky room at the end of a long landing, which my mother was permitted to attempt to "heat" for half an hour before bedtime with the aid of a small, blisteringly hot electric bar fire. The three vicious-looking orange bars of this remarkably ineffectual device would hum ominously as it singed the 2 feet of air directly in front of it, relieving none of the damp, tomb-like chill from the remainder of the room but somehow creating an illusion of warmth by radiating a strong odour of scorched hair into the atmosphere. One by one, we'd stand and defrost our rigid pyjamas and bed socks in front of the glowing bars. Despite the shivering, the ritual had a cosy, ceremonious feel to it, as if we were gathering around to toast chestnuts. Then we'd shed single articles of daytime clothing and precipitously cram the thus disrobed body parts into our pre-softened garments before the heat could disperse into the air; then it was time to make way for the next family member to repeat the ritual. My parents would take up their nightly quarters in a double bed and my brother and I went top-to-tail in a single one that was positioned crosswise at the foot of theirs.

At night, we all wore more layers of clothing than we did during the day. My own nightwear ensemble comprised a thermal vest, a t-shirt, a pair of fluffy Snoopy pyjamas, a wollen jumper, a dressing gown, two to three pairs of socks and fingerless gloves with mittens over the top. One of the main problems I remember encountering - apart from the impossibility of keeping the tip of one's nose warm while still eliciting a sufficient supply of oxygen - was knowing that once I was ready for bed, I'd be so densely trussed in overlapping layers that if I got an itch, there'd be no chance of scratching myself until morning.

During the daytime, my brother and I used like to snuggle down in the dogs' beanbag beds in front of the Aga. We'd lure them out with enticing toys, rustling bags and playful bouncing. Then, as soon as they were up and looking about themselves expectantly, we'd dive into their pre-warmed imprints and attempt to persuade the still joyfully confused creatures to lie on top of us. Under the dogs was the snuggest place we ever found in the building.

So many of my memories of the castle are associated with the cold, even though there must have been an equal proportion of summer days then as there has ever been. It is as though a whole volume of my reminiscences has been retrospectively frosted.

Here comes another: I remember my father walking into the kitchen and seeing me sitting at the table, doing my middle-school homework in fingerless gloves, a woolly hat and a scarf. He looked at me and said, "Zora, child, what are you wearing all that for? That's ridiculous! It's boiling in here!"

I looked up at him and replied, quite dreamily, "When you talk, I can see steam coming out of your mouth."

And I remember that when he replied, he spoke while breathing in instead of breathing out. He said, "You're exaggerating," and left the room on tiptoe, still holding in his breath.

Another occasion I remember clearly was a Sunday in church. My brother and I were in the choir (in fact, it would be more accurate to say that we were the choir, there being no further members). Being the choir, we were required to take communion before the rest of the congregation. On the day in question, the vicar took us aside in the vestry, just after the service, and instructed us to the effect that we should remove our gloves to take communion. To illustrate his point, he said, "You wouldn't eat a meal at home with your gloves on."

I laughed out loud, no doubt quite bitterly for one so young in years, and said, "Oh but I do - and with a hat and a scarf as well!"

He stared aghast, not at our faces, but at our starched white neck ruffles, in a state of dumbstruck disbelief. Then my brother piped up and said, "It's true. I wear mine to eat as well."

The vicar's face remained rigid. He now seemed to be glaring in abstracted reproval at a thread that dangled from a button half-way down my brother's cassock. Feeling unsure of the exact nature and severity of the sin I was rebutting, I tried nonetheless to clarify matters with the emphatic protest, "You have to at our house or the forks would freeze your fingers!"

He continued to glower at the black thread for several mute seconds during which my brother and I shrugged at each other in bemusement, and then, coming to himself with a lurch of concentration, said, rather gruffly, "Yes. Well. All the same... you cannot partake of glory with your gloves on, you know. It just won't do."

Amen to that.