“You know none of this is real? It’s all just polystyrene.” These are the last words my father ever said to me. It’s the only clear memory I have of him that isn’t stolen from a photograph. It’s funny that isn’t it? How over the years memories lose their sharpness, their clarity. As though someone has pulled a veil over them, so that all you’re left with is a dull sense of a time and a place. The details blur but their meaning stays the same. Much of what I do remember during those weeks comes from my sister Katy, for years after she wouldn’t talk about it, every time I asked all she would ever say is that Dad was an asshole. It wasn’t until we were both in our twenties that she finally told me what had happened. I look back at those weeks with a different perspective now that I’m older; more of it makes sense to me. It was early December and there had already been a thick layer of snowfall. We were spending the holidays at my Grandparents cabin in New Hampshire, not far from Bean Pond. We usually only went up there for a couple of weeks each summer, but Mum had insisted on getting away for a while. I had always enjoyed the cabin during the summer, but in winter it had taken on an alien and hostile appearance. It was like the place I remembered from the summer had died. The trees that I had been so use to seeing full of life had disappeared; all that was left were damp and fragile branches that seemed almost black against the snow.
The cabin wasn’t big; it only had two bedrooms both of which opened from the main living area. Whenever we stayed there Katy and I had to share the smaller bedroom. At night it was hard to get to sleep, the wood burner kept the main room warm but at that time of year the bedrooms were still cold even under the covers. I found it hard to get proper sleep most nights. Outside stimuli would encroach upon my half conscious thoughts. My mind seemed perpetually stuck in the place before imagination ends and dreams begin. Rattling windows would occasionally bring me back to the room and to the familiar sound of Tracy Chapmen playing on Katy’s Walkman. Muffled voices from behind the wall would have discussions I couldn’t possibly understand at that age. Fragments stay with me even now, my mother asking, “Do you love her?” and my father saying “no.” In my half sleeping state the fear that hit me after hearing that resounding “no” was absolute. At that age it seemed natural to me that the only people you could love were the ones in your family. It would be several years before I realised he was talking about another women and not my sister. Even now I still feel a twang of guilt that my concern didn’t go to Katy, but to myself. That if he didn’t love my sister what then, did that mean for me? In the morning all that remained was the nagging sense that something wasn’t right. Whenever I was in the same room as our parents the silence would hang thick like warm breath on a bitter breeze, fogging whatever mood I was in. I know now that the silence was meant as a protection against their fighting but at the time it only created confusion for me. Making me doubt if what I had heard during the night was a cruel trick of slumber or a real conversation.
I spent most of the first week there in the clearing at the front of the cabin building snow forts and throwing snowballs into the forest during a make-believe war with the trees. It was one morning while I was doing this that Katy came running out of the cabin with the door slamming behind her, she headed straight along the lane towards the pond. Shortly after my parents came running out too. Mum was in the lead and carrying Katy’s coat. When dad started to follow she shouted at him, “For God sake I’ll go get her, you just stay with him.”
Dad spent the afternoon helping me to expand and reinforce the snow fort. I would start by making a snowball and rolling it along the ground until it got too heavy for me to push, then dad would take over until we both thought it was big enough to be lifted to the top of the fort. We would then pack snow around the latest ball to be added, pushing it into the gaps like cement surrounding a brick. Dad had had to lift me so I could reach the higher points in the wall. We made a good team, he would instinctively swoop me down like a plane coming into land whenever I needed more snow. More times than none we would miss the snow all together and would have to try the landing again, but this was part of the fun. It was starting to get dark by the time Katy and mum got back. Katy was in the lead and, like she did so much of the time back then, had her earphones on her head. Dad was in the middle of lifting a new snowball on to the fort when she waked past. Perhaps it was something that she was listening to, or just the sound of dad’s voice, but what happen next is one of the few times I have ever genuinely been afraid of my sister. Mid stride she turned, started screaming and ran towards my father. He was able to catch her and contain the violent swings of her arms as she tried to connect her fists with his chest. From what I remember he tried to calm her as best he could, but she struggled against every effort he made, kicking wildly in protest. It was the snow fort that took the physical burden of her out lash. With each kick a new hole or crack would appear in the wall, until eventually the whole side crumbled. I know now that it was my own anger and confusion that made me say what I said next. I didn’t understand why she was destroying something I had spent so much time building. I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong. The fact that she could damage something I had built left me feeling hurt and betrayed. So with the intention of hurting her I said the one thing in my life I’ve never really been able to take back. “It’s not my fault he doesn’t love you.” I hated myself the moment I said it. It was only after the words had escaped my lips, and Dad was dragging her towards the cabin that I realised she was crying, and that it wasn’t so much her anger that had scared me, but her fear. Later that night in our bedroom I tried to talk to her, but I was drown out the sound of Fast Car. I don’t think anyone in the cabin got much sleep that night; most of it was spent with my Mum shouting at my Dad until the sun came up.
After a long period of silence I made my way out to the main living area. Dad was lying on the couch as I tried to sneak past. I was worried that he’s going to shout at me like I heard during the night. Instead he just looked up, smiled and told me not to wonder far, and that he’d come keep me company soon. It was several hours before he came out. It was lightly snowing and a slight breeze carried the flurry gently along the ground. He was wearing his yellow winter coat and had the cuffs of his navy ski gloves tucked inside the sleeves. His bomber hat was pulled tightly over his head with the earflaps unbuttoned; the fur lining clinging to the hairs of his beard like worn Velcro. I had spent most of the morning rebuilding my snow fort and remember thinking that he was coming to help, but instead he just knelt down beside me and ran the edge of his hand back and forth along the surface of the snow. Right then I could tell he was searching for the words to say, lost in his own thoughts trying to find a way to explain or even justify what it was he was about to do. In reality we were probably only sat there for about a minute, but in my memory it feels like an eternity. It wasn’t until the taxi reached the top of the drive that he finally raised his head to look at me. He had a slight smile on his face that was meant to be reassuring and half jokingly he said, “you know none of this is real? It’s all just polystyrene.” With a sigh he pushed his hands deep into the snow and rose. I wasn’t able to look at him as he walked to the taxi all I could do was stare at the beads of snow that swirled in the prints left by his hands.