Tony peered out of the window. The bright, sharp sky suggested more bad weather was on the way. As he contemplated a reluctant expedition to the shops, his attention was caught by the radio announcer.
‘...it’s another night for staying in, we’re almost at freezing point! Unless you’re in labour or cardiac arrest, stay indoors and wait for the thaw! Meanwhile, here’s a hot tune...’
Tony rolled his eyes as he reluctantly shrugged his parka on. Marie was sitting at the kitchen table, watching him. She turned down the radio and turned to look at Tony. He gulped.
“Are you sure...?”
“The cravings haven’t passed yet then, because...”
“...you just heard the radio...”
“Tony! If I was in labour now, what would you do? Ask me if it was about to pass because it was too cold to go out right now?”
“Er, no my sweet, obviously. We’d call the ambulance; they’re probably better equipped for this sort of weather but...”
“No buts, Tony! Anyway, it’s not for me, it’s for the baby.” Marie smiled sweetly. “Are you going to deny your first born before it’s even arrived? You know I hate olives, but I just have to have the Turkish ones from the supermarket on Hale Street.”
Tony raised his right eyebrow a centimetre. That was all he allowed himself when he felt he wanted to disagree with Marie, but daren’t. The last time he’d got those olives, Marie had howled until Julie next door had called over the garden fence to ask if she was having the baby on the kitchen floor. It seemed she’d gone off the Turkish ones and preferred the Greek ones, instead. Not that Tony knew any different. He thought all olives came from Greece. But who was he to argue with an eight-month pregnant, highly-sensitive, olive-craving wife?
“Where’s my hat, Marie?” he asked, instead.
“Oh, er, I’m afraid Maisie’s had a go at it. She’s seemed a bit off recently. Here, why don’t you put my earmuffs on? They’re just as warm.”
Tony’s right eyebrow went up a further centimetre; he loved that hat, threadbare, though it was, and he CERTAINLY did not want to look RIDICULOUS in a pair of furry earmuffs, for goodness sake! However, one look at Marie’s fixed expression, and Tony obediently stuck out his hand to accept her proffered headgear. He adjusted what he thought looked like a dead cat over his ears. Hopefully, no one he knew would be out tonight.
As he let go of the muffs, he felt slightly dizzy. ‘Must be the tightness,’ he thought. They were rather small. ‘But better than frozen lobes, I suppose’. He didn’t notice the slight fluttering and glowing of the black fur. Maisie, their white pet Terrier, seemed particularly agitated, and Tony heard a soft growling at his ankles.
“Doesn’t look like Maisie wants me to go out!” he remarked.
“I don’t think she likes those ear muffs,” Marie replied. “The one and only time I wore them, she yapped and yapped at my ankles until I took them off.”
‘Dead cat, that’s why,’ Tony thought. He hunched up his shoulders, pulled down the muffs, patted Marie on the shoulder and ventured out. Hale Supermarket was a ten-minute walk away. Tony estimated it would take as long in the car because of the icy roads, but at least he’d be warm. Several minutes later, and he’d only reached the edge of the driveway before the car decided it would go no further on such a night. As he reluctantly clambered out, he made towards the front door, hoping the cravings had passed.
“Deny your only child, would you...?” a voice close to his ears said.
Startled, Tony glanced up to see Marie looking down at him from the bedroom window. ‘How on earth had he heard her?’ he wondered. Still, better not hang about. Trudging down the path, Tony heard the voice again.
‘The supermarket closed early. Best go to the one on Downs Street, that’s open all night’. Tony shook his head. Frostbite had gone into his brain! Or Marie had bought some hi-tech muffs that had a microphone attached or something. He’d seen a story on the news about ‘technology wear’: skirts with led lights attached, jumpers that could film their wearer’s movements, that sort of thing. Earmuffs, though? What was the point of that?
‘Downs Street, Tony.’ The voice seemed to interrupt his thoughts. Without thinking, Tony automatically turned in that direction. However, that meant a walk across the field opposite their road. Tony called a cab.
“No chance, mate, not for an hour, at least. Every journey’s taking twice as long in this weather,” the operator told him.
“Come on, Tony! You’ve done that walk hundreds of times. You know that field better than your own back garden...”
‘Yes, I do,’ Tony agreed. Once again, he set off, a determined air about him. By now, small snowflakes were tentatively falling into his eyes, foot soldiers before the mighty attack of an oncoming blizzard. The walk across the field was taking much longer than he had anticipated. He could see the lights of Downs Street in the distance, but they never seemed to get any closer.
“Not long now, Tony. Just a few more steps this way...” The voice in his head was leading him away from the main road.
The snow was heavier now. Tony was getting colder. His parka wasn’t much use in zero temperatures. He couldn’t see a lot, either, but somehow, the voice led him on. Suddenly, he came across a lone caravan behind a clump of bushes. “That’s strange,” Tony mused. “I didn’t think any travellers would be back after...”
Tony shuddered as he remembered that terrible incident last year. A group of travellers had pitched up on the field. Just a handful of caravans, not as many as had come before. And to be honest, unless you walked across that part of the field, you wouldn’t know they were there. But Tony recalled how, a week after their arrival, he and Marie had been woken up by a deafening bang. Some of the caravans had gone up in flames. They could see the swirling, smoking red shapes from their bedroom window. It had been a particularly windy night, and, horrifyingly, the wind had carried the smell of the fire and the sounds of the screams to their front door.
No one really knew who had started the blaze, but the emergency services said the wind had helped the arsonists (or murderers as some people said). Just two caravans had escaped the furnace. They were gone by the morning.
“This way, Tony.” The voice seemed to be charming him.
He noticed a dim light through a window. The door invitingly swung open. The air was still, only the snowflakes floated softly to the ground, and the traffic sounds in the distance dulled to a hum that could barely be heard.
“Come in, Tony, come in,” the voice urged.
Tony stepped towards the door. A scent of stale musk, sweet bergamot and – was that olive?? – enticed him forward.
“I must get the olives,” Tony muttered.
Blackness was before him – and hints of another smell: smoky, charred, suffocating. Spurred on by his quest, Tony marched forward, undeterred. Suddenly, a giant snowball hit him like a fur-edged rock, pushing his muffs askew, and pushing him to the ground. As he fell, Tony could hear a clash of sounds exploding in his brain – the sound of crackling flames that he could not see but seemed to melt the snow where it fell; and ripping, growling, voices screaming: “nooooo, Tony, nooooo!! Save us!”.
Just as quickly, the sounds faded into the darkness. Rubbing his head, Tony hauled himself up and looked down to see that the snowball had, in fact, been Maisie. She was chewing the remnants of the muffs which seemed to shimmer faintly, before disappearing into the snow. Satisfied, Maisie turned towards the caravan, a menacing growl gurgling to the surface. Tony looked up. The caravan was an empty shell – a burnt-out frame.
In the distance, the lights of Downs Street appeared closer, the bulbs a row of golden globes that shed light and warmth into the dark night. It had stopped snowing, and the moon showed a clear path to the street. Tony gulped. He shook his head, shivered and stroked Maisie.
“C’mon, girl, let’s get those olives,” he said, hurrying towards the comfort of the welcoming lights.