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That Other Cold Feeling


Acclaim:2nd prize in the "Scribble" magazine Winter Tale Competition (2004)


That Other Cold Feeling

"You're early, aren't you?"

A chill wind blew around the hillside, picking up little drifts of snow and casting them across the path in front of Harold. He pulled his coat tighter around him and just stared at the woman as a few flakes of snow settled on his beard. The woman stared back, a good-natured smile on her face, a black suit of jacket and skirt her only protection from the elements.

Harold's breath clouded in front of him.

It was a bitterly cold day - the sky was clear and brilliant blue, but did nothing to stop the heat taking flight on the chill winter's wind. The distant sea thrashed with the turbulent winter currents. The landscape shone with reflected light, all the warmth of the sun thrown back by the snow.

Still, Harold had left the warmth of his house gladly. He hadn't dared look round as he hurried down the path, for he knew Annabelle would be watching from the front window, and seeing her would make him feel guilty for stepping out. She would stay there all day, of course, until Harold or his wife turned Annabelle's wheel chair away from the cold when night came.

Harold had set off down the road, thick snow crunching underfoot. Despite the cold, he took comfort in the stillness of the outdoors and the brief moments to himself. He knew Sarah wouldn't begrudge him the time, but he felt bad leaving her tend to Annabelle alone.

A short distance on led him to a narrow footpath, and the familiar trail up the hill to the rocky cliff tops. It was a barren walk, the snow bleaching the Scottish hills of colour, and flattening hills and rises into rolling white. But for all that, for a while Harold had enjoyed the moment.

Then, as he approached the simple wooden bench at the top of the hill, Harold realised that he was not alone.

The woman in the black suit looked up as he approached, her face forming a wide but puzzled smile. She raised an eyebrow.

"You're early, aren't you?" she said, looking at Harold.

Harold trudged further, snow crunching until he stopped just short of the bench. He surmised that the woman was talking to him, but didn't understand the question. Instead he thrust his hands deeper into his pockets and said to the woman, "Aren't you cold?"

"Oh no," said the woman. "I've got gloves." She held up one hand to reveal a woolly, black fingerless glove.

"But you must be cold," said Harold. He gestured through his pockets. "You don't have a coat or anything."

The woman frowned in contemplation, staring at the ground. When she looked back at Harold, the frown was replaced by a smile again. "I will be cold if you insist, but it's not very pleasant. Is that really what you want?"

Bemused, Harold shook his head, watching a cloud of his own breath pass his face again. "I wouldn't wish cold like this on anyone."

"Excellent! I just knew we'd get along famously!" The woman's smiled beamed white like the snow, in sharp contrast to the darkness of her hair. She shuffled along the bench, gesturing to the empty spot beside her. "Won't you join me? The sea is wild today; incredible."

Harold considered for a moment, then sat gingerly on the bench. It felt as unstable as it looked, barely more than a plank of wood on two up-ended logs, but it accommodated his broad shape as readily as the woman's slender figure.

The view from the bench was familiar to Harold. Many times he had let his gaze slide down the hillside, past where the land dropped away into the cliff, to the swells and eddies of the sea. He had seen the view through sun, wind and rain, through good times and bad times. Sadly, he reflected, mostly bad.

He let the thought go, turning away from the sea and removing his hands from his pockets. One hand held a small cellophane-wrapped bar. He opened the wrapping clumsily, fingers awkward with the cold.

"What's that?" said the woman.

Harold glanced at her, breaking a piece off the bar. "It's Kendal Mint Cake." He popped the piece in his mouth and chewed it slowly.

"Is it good?"

Harold shrugged. "It's supposed to be good if you're climbing or walking. Try some."

Harold offered the bar across and the woman broke a piece off. She turned it around in her fingers slowly. "What's in it?"

"Mostly sugar." Harold paused, then added, "I'm Harold, by the way."

"Yeah, I know," said the woman, then bit down on the mint cake.

A frown formed above Harold's eyes. "You know? What do you mean, you know?"

The woman stopped mid-chew, looking at Harold. One hand went to her mouth in a faintly embarrassed gesture. "'m Dth," she mumbled. She chewed and swallowed quickly.

"You're who?" asked Harold.

"I'm Death," said the woman again. "How remiss of me. Here's my card." She suddenly produced a white business card from a concealed pocket in her jacket, and passed it to Harold.

He took the card slowly and glanced at it. Plain text proclaimed, Death, Inc., and underneath that, Leading Souls to the Next Life and Beyond.

"You're joking, right?" said Harold. "Death isn't a business."

The woman stared at him earnestly. "Everything has its costs; everything's a business. I'm Death, Harold. The end of it all. The end of happiness, misery, laughter, tears, hope, and everything else that makes living special." She paused. "You mind if I have some more of that?" She pointed at the mint cake.

Harold looked at her dubiously, but held out the mint cake anyway. The woman reached out to break a piece off the bar, her hand brushing Harold's fingers as she did so.

Harold gasped. Ice seemed to flow up his hand and arm, scorching his fingertips with freezing cold. For a moment he couldn't move as the chill went into his chest, settling into aching and emptiness. He felt alone; so terribly alone. The world went dark.

Then suddenly the feeling passed. He found himself staring at the woman as she ate the new piece of mint cake.

"It's kind of odd," said the woman, "Dry and sweet, yet strangely moreish."

Harold put his hands back in his pockets, newly aware of the cold. He shivered. "You're really Death."

"Yes. And you're really Harold." Death smiled broadly at him.

"Am I dead?"

"Oh no. You're early, remember? I'm not expecting you to die for a while yet."

Harold didn't respond. Instead he gave his attention to the sea, watching it undulating.

Death laced her fingers together and leaned on them. She stared intently at Harold. "People are usually more pleased to not be dead."

Harold's eyes flicked sideways at Death, then away again. "I am. I'm pleased." Death continued to stare at him, a friendly smile set on her face. Harold sighed.

"It's difficult at home," he said, "with Sarah and Annabelle. I'm so very tired."

"Ah," said Death, suddenly disinterested. She looked out to sea as well. "I see tired people all the time. It's the step before dying, you know? When you really can't carry on any longer."

They sat in silence for a moment, then Harold looked at Death. He thought for a moment he was looking to address the woman, but then realised he was checking she was still there. He frowned grimly. "I thought about what it would be like to end it. On the rocks, you know? Down there."

Death shrugged. "Rocks do that to people."

"I couldn't do it of course. I couldn't leave the family. I just... wondered. What would it be like if it stopped?"

Death raised an eyebrow again. "But why, when you have so much to live for? There's so much great stuff around - snow, benches, sea..."

"Kendal mint cake," Harold interjected. He tried to make it sound funny, but failed.


"They're just little things. I had dreams."

"Nothing's little in the course of a lifetime," said Death earnestly. "Nothing at all."

They sat in silence for a moment more, then Harold said, "My feet are cold." He got up slowly and started walking along the path, following a curve in the headland. Death swiftly dropped into step beside him.

"I could have been a musician, you know?" said Harold.

"I could have been a painter and decorator," said Death. Then she added, "I get to meet more people this way."

Harold chuckled once. "I got a family instead."

"Worthy things, families."

"Yeah. I just..." Harold went quiet, then shrugged. "I really thought I would be a musician. I was pretty good. I could have got somewhere. But I met Sarah and we wanted to settle down, have kids, buy a house. Somewhere money and a job came into it."

"Children!" Death skipped on a few paces ahead, then waited for Harold to catch up. "Ah, the joys of childhood. Swings and kites and snowballs..."

Harold sighed. "Yeah. I thought that. For a while I thought maybe I could be a musician by day and a father by night. All swings and violins. But you can't raise a family when you're touring." He snorted. "You can't pay to look after them either."

"So you gave up music for fatherhood."

"Yes. But I thought, maybe I'll go back to it, one day. When Anabelle's grown up."

They stopped walking while Harold did up his shoelace. He paused, still crouched, and said, "When you find out your child is handicapped, you feel guilty at first. It must be your fault, right? Something you did. Then you realise it was nothing to do with you - it was just the luck of the draw. And the doctors tell you that you'll be looking after your child the rest of your life." Harold sighed and stood up. "I traded concerts and orchestras for kites and swings. And then this doctor says Annabelle will never play like normal children. She'll never be able to look after herself. Never be able to speak. It was the single most selfish moment of my life, but suddenly I felt like I'd given up everything for nothing."

"You must have been upset."

Harold nodded. "Aggravated brain damage, they said, before she was even born." He paused. "Sarah cried for days. We had always wanted the best for Annabelle, and she wouldn't have a chance. And looking after her was difficult. At first she was like any other baby, but later..." Harold swallowed awkwardly. "That was twenty years ago."

"You resent them, don't you?" said Death as they started walking again.

There was a moment's silence, then Harold said, "Yes. Yes, I do. I don't mean to. I know it's not their fault, but you can't give up on your family. And then you see your whole life before your eyes, going to work while your wife stays at home, both looking after Annabelle in the evening. It's a huge job. And..." He stopped, suddenly aware he was talking to a stranger. "Well, I had dreams," he finished clumsily.

Death nodded and removed one glove carefully. She scooped up a handful of snow, running her thumb across it. Small ice crystals fell from between her fingers.

"Everyone has dreams," she said. "Some people liken them to snowflakes. Hold them in your hand and they melt, change form, disappear. There's nothing you can do to hold onto them."

"What do you think?" asked Harold.

Death shrugged, replacing her glove. "I think dreams are rarely that cold and snow rarely hurts that much. Do you have any more Kendal Mint Cake?"

"Yeah." Harold pulled the mint cake out of his pocket. "It's strange. I imagined you diffe..." He stopped suddenly, tripping over a stone and falling onto the verge. His outstretched hand slid across the uneven surface and he felt himself tumble and slide. He grabbed for purchase but quickly slid down the slope, the path racing away into the distance. His scrabbling fingers found nothing but snow as he raced downwards, his feet disappearing into nothingness as he tipped over the edge, body starting to fall towards the rocks below.

And suddenly he caught himself. Suspended between a jagged rock and a stubby growth of vegetation, he willed his hands to hold on. The waves below crashed louder into the rocks as the grey stone reached out to catch him.

Harold struggled to pull himself up, reaching out in a quick movement to the ledge he had just fallen from. His breathing was heavy, muscles straining, his chest cold from a tear in his coat. He pulled himself a little higher, then dropped back as his muscles failed him. He knew he would tire soon if he couldn't get up now.

A cold grip suddenly took Harold's wrist, and even as the feeling of ice ran up his arm he felt himself being pulled sharply upwards. He kicked with his feet against the rocks until he was standing at the bottom of the slope, arms aching, a great chill reaching through him. The rolling water hissed its disapproval below as Death, smiling, released his wrist.

Harold slowly nursed warmth back into his limbs.

"You saved my life," he said.

Death shook her head.

"I died?"

"You saved yourself," Death said, "I just saved you a bit of time." She bent down and picked something up. "Here, you dropped this."

Harold looked at the offered mint cake and then waved it away. "It's alright. You keep it."

Death looked surprised. "Well, if you insist." She broke a piece off and ate it.

"I thought of them," said Harold. "When I fell. I thought, I can't die. Who'd take care of Sarah and Annabelle? They're all I thought of." He paused, then added, "What happens now?"

Death shrugged non-committedly. "That's up to you, really. I fully intend to finish eating this."

Harold thought for a moment. "I think I'd better go home."

"Maybe you should." Death winked. "Try to be more careful on the way up."

Harold returned home carefully as the evening drew in.

The next day Harold returned to the bench. The bitter wind had gone but left grey clouds in the sky. The snow on the path up the hillside was forming into ice, and Harold struggled on the treacherous surface, but gradually he made it to the top of the hill.

Death was sitting on the bench again, looking at the gathering clouds.

Harold walked up and sat on the bench beside her. She looked round, smiled broadly, then looked at the sky again. "Impressive, no? I should think there'll be snow."

"You do weather forecasts too?" said Harold.

Death grinned. "You're surrounded by snow, it's freezing cold, and you need me to tell you if these clouds will bring more snow?" Death raised an eyebrow in soft humour. "Kendal Mint Cake?"

Harold considered the offered bar a moment, then took a piece. "Couldn't finish it then?"

"I figured that since you started it, you would want to finish it."

They ate in silence a moment, then Harold said, "It didn't make any difference."

"We can get more if you're hungry."

"I meant almost dying yesterday."

Death looked weary suddenly. She screwed up the now empty wrapper and secreted it in an unseen pocket. "I don't know what you expected."

"I thought I'd feel different when I got home. I said I thought about them when I went over the edge. I saw how important they are."

"But at the end of the day, you've still lost your dreams."


Death sighed. "No-one ever gets it. Death isn't a life-changing event. Life-stopping, certainly. But change is your problem."

"I just thought it would mean more."

"I told you there's nothing little in a lifetime. It doesn't matter whether it's snowflakes, kites or swings. Conversely, there's nothing big either. Death is worth no more or less than anything else."

"But what about you? You are Death."

Death smiled again. "I know more than some people and less than others, exactly the same as everyone else." She paused. "I can't tell you how to find value in your life. I won't tell you to give up your dreams. But look at what you've got. Look at what's around you. Things change. Dreams change. Everyone has dreams."


Death made an expansive gesture with her arms. "Everyone. Even when you think they've nothing left to dream for."

"I suppose even Annabelle must have a dream. And Sarah."


Harold stood up. "When I go back, can I make it better?"

Death shrugged. "You can make it different. Better requires more work."

"I guess that'll be dream enough."

"You'll be surprised how far that gets you."

Harold made to go, then stopped. "Why did you help me?"

"Why not?" said Death after a moment. "Mostly I admire the scenery and tend the dead. Sometimes it's nice to live a little, with the living." She paused, then added, "Mostly, the living have to help themselves."

Harold nodded. "Yes, absolutely." He walked gingerly down the path, treading carefully on the ice. Just as he was about to pass out of sight of the bench, he looked back over his shoulder.

A snowball caught him on the side of the face, sending ice falling down his collar. A cold feeling traced down his chest as the snow melted.

"You should watch where you're going," called Death, laughing. Then she stepped back, out of view, and the laughter faded.

Harold turned away again, looking down the hillside to his house. Yellow light shone at the windows and smoke came from the chimney. Between the grey clouds and the snow-covered landscape, it looked like the most inviting place on Earth.

A cold breeze started up, but Harold ignored it. He took a step forward, with hope.

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