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November 2008
THE ONE WITH THE DYING DOG

Jennifer Moore
At times the whiteness threatens to overwhelm him. Snow as far as the eye can see, from the great slalom slopes in the north to the sweeping winter safari plains in the south, complete with polar bears, arctic hares and Emperor Penguins.

And the cold, the terrible mind-crushing coldness of it all, pumping out from the giant snow-clad air conditioning units, freezing the sultry Californian summer into wintry submission.

As he traipses along the crisp snow-crunched paths with a fresh gaggle of tourists Royd does his best to block out the senseless noise of their chatter, the tanned sheen of their summered faces, their colour, their warmth. All that belongs to another time, another life.

Elizabeth would have loved all this, of course.

‘If you’re buried in an avalanche,’ she once told him as she sat poring over a fat wad of glossy ski brochures for holidays they would never go on, ‘spit into the snow. Whichever way the saliva drains down, the opposite way must be up. Then all you need to do is start digging. And don’t forget to piss yourself either’, she said. ‘So the dogs can find you.’ And she’d laughed her sunny Californian laugh and he’d smiled his tight English smile as if nothing had changed between them.

‘What if you don’t want to dig?’ he felt like asking. ‘What if you’re just too tired to go on digging any longer?’ But instead he had patted her hand like she was some kind of invalid and tried his best not to shudder at the touch of shrinking skin beneath his fingers. And now here he is, all alone in the whiteness, spitting in the wind.

‘Excuse me.’ A fat flobbery-fleshed man in an over-sized gold ski-suit taps him on the shoulder.

‘I was just wondering,’ drawls the man, ‘if you could settle a little dispute for us. My wife,’ he tilts his head towards the rounded blonde in matching gold, ‘says that a wild penguin colony will peck a fully grown polar bear to death if they run out of fish. I told her she’s talking a load of crap.’

Royd drags his eyes away from the never-ending whiteness to the tumbled bronze flesh of the woman’s face. ‘With the greatest of respect,’ he says quietly, ‘their beaks aren’t really long enough.’

Two blue eyes blink back stupidly.

‘Different poles,’ he whispers.

‘See, I told you,’ says the man. ‘Didn’t I tell you? You’re being ridiculous, Sassy, I says to her. Penguins and polar bears. I ask you.’

Sassy’s face shrinks back into the gold folds of her hood and Royd flashes her a pitying wink.

‘They’ve never killed a polar bear,’ he whispers, ‘but woe betide the tourist who strays into their colony in the middle of a fish shortage.’ He sucks the spiky cold air in through his teeth and shakes his head. ‘It’s not pretty.’

‘You don’t say,’ says the man. ‘Fancy that. Did you hear that, Sassy? Of course polar bears, that’s plain ridiculous, any idiot could tell you that – different poles an’ all – but a man? Well. I thought as much. Sharp beaks, those penguins.’

They move on through the ice sculpture garden with its crystalled goddesses and shimmering tight-buttocked young heroes and down to the great frozen lake where the skaters are circling the perimeter with varying degrees of grace.

‘Lake Winter,’ announces Royd, gesturing out across the polished glass expanse. ‘I’d like to take this opportunity to remind you that all of our skating-related arenas are constructed using shatterproof materials and conform fully to the latest agency standards in water-free ice entertainment. I would however like to draw your attention to the personal liability disclaimer on page 34 of your complimentary park guide and to remind you that we also stock a full range of safety skates that can be hired on an hourly basis from any one of the park’s vending cabins.’

A fizz of excitement ripples through the group.

‘Tell me,’ says Gold Suit. ‘Is this where they filmed that Yasmin Horovitz movie? The one with the dying dog?’

‘No.’ Royd sighs. ‘That was our sister park in Florida.’

‘I thought as much. See, Sassy, I said it was Florida. Didn’t I say it was Florida?’

‘I’ve been to the Florida park,’ says a small lady with close-set eyes. ‘They’ve got a real life yeti.’

‘Get out of here,’ says Gold Suit. ‘A yeti? Did you hear that Sassy?’

‘Yeah! Yeti!’ shrieks a small boy. ‘I want the yeti!’

‘I’m sorry,’ Royd says slowly. ‘We don’t have a yeti. As I said, he lives in Florida.’

‘You ain’t got a yeti?’ pipes up the boy’s father. ‘Man, what kind of a dump is this? What’s a Winter Wonderland with no frickin’ yeti?’

Royd sighs and stares out across the white horizon.

‘What about an abominable snowman?’ asks Gold Suit. ‘Place like this there must be loads of snowmen.’

Royd gestures across towards the eastern play arena with his gloved hands.

‘We have a designated snow construction area,’ he says, ‘where we encourage our visitors to realise their creative visions.’

‘Do I look like I wanna build a snowman?’ shouts the boy’s father. ‘I wanna see one of those urbominabable things. You got one or not?’

‘You might say that,’ says Royd. His voice drops to little more than a whisper. He has turned from the group now – for a moment it looks as if he has forgotten them altogether. ‘But that’s another story.’

‘You hear that, Sassy? He’s gonna tell us a Snowman story. Didn’t I say there’d be snowmen?’

‘No. You don’t want to hear about the snowman. I told you, he’s abominable.’

It’s been four years now. Four long years of ice and snow and a deep, deep coldness that seeps into his very bones. Four years since he slipped out of the stark whiteness of the hospital ward and fled into the white emptiness beyond. When the call came to say she’d died he lay himself down in the snow and waited for the cold to take him. If only it was that easy. When they found him they had to peel the frozen tears from his cheeks.

Royd sets off at a smart pace towards the steep slopes of the ludicrously named Mount Snowflake and the group follow, moaning, behind.

‘Now I must remind you all that while the management take every care to guarantee the safety of our visitors, authenticity dictates that there is still a risk at certain altitudes…’

It’s the same old spiel as always. As if anyone’s actually listening.

‘Story! Story!’ shrieks the boy. ‘I want the snowman story!’
Royd turns to look back at them. He says nothing.

‘Come on then,’ says the boy’s father. ‘If you can’t give us a yeti you can damn well give my son a story.’

‘As you wish,’ says Royd, glancing down at his trembling blue-gloved fingers. ‘As you wish.’

He herds them into the waiting cable car and they begin their ascent.

‘A long time ago, not so very far away, there lived a man. No, let’s call him a prince. But this was no ordinary prince. He had no money, no fine clothes, no castle, no gleaming golden carriage, and yet he was the happiest man in the whole world because he had something far better than any of these.’

‘A funfair?’ The small boy hops from foot to foot.

‘No, not a funfair.’

‘A yeti?’

‘No. Not a yeti. The prince had a beautiful girl who loved him. A princess.’

‘Yuck! What was her name?’

‘Elizabeth.’

‘Elizabeth’s a dumb name. This is a dumb story.’

The boy turns away in disgust but Royd doesn’t miss a beat. He stands staring right through him, through the whole sorry lot of them, to the windows and the whiteness beyond.

‘When the prince was with Elizabeth it was always summer. She had a wonderful warm laugh and a smile like pure sunshine. But the prince didn’t realise she was under a wicked spell. However happy she and the prince were, the day would come when she would prick her finger on a needle and die.’

‘She doesn’t die,’ pipes up the boy. ‘She falls asleep for a hundred years. Everyone knows that.’

Royd eyes him coldly for a moment. The rest of the party are growing fidgety – they are almost at the top. With a final lurch the cable car swings into its final position and Royd helps them out onto the waiting platform. From there he leads them in single file up along the steep Sherpa path.

‘Say, is this safe?’ asks a spectacularly obese woman at the back.

‘Of course it’s safe,’ mutters her husband. ‘It’s frickin’ Disneyworld. Only colder. And crapper.’

Higher and higher they go. Royd can sense them slowing behind him, can hear them panting, gasping for breath.

‘So what happened?’ asks Gold Suit.

‘Well the day came, sooner than anyone could have guessed. And the poor princess grew ill, so ill that the prince could no longer bear to watch. He ran away, thinking if he could only stop himself from loving her he might find a way to save himself.’

‘What a jerk,’ mutters one of the women at the back.

‘And did he?’ asks another. ‘Did he stop loving her?’

‘The princess grew very ill,’ Royd tells them, his cracked voice barely audible above the noise of the high-altitude wind machine. ‘And as her smile began to fade away, so the summer gave way to autumn. She called for the prince but he wouldn’t come. It was better that way, he thought, kinder to them both. And as her laughter drained away so the autumn gave way to winter. She called for him again but still he wouldn’t come. He was far away by now – too far to come back even if he’d wanted to. The winter deepened. But as the first snowflakes fell outside his window, the prince realised just how cruel and foolish he had been. He hadn’t saved himself. He could never be happy again. His princess was dead.’

Higher and higher. Royd’s breath clouds before him; a smoke signal – a distress call.

‘The prince was left to wander the kingdom alone. To this day you can find him trudging through the snow and ice, looking for forgiveness. An abominable snowman.’

They are nearly at the top now. The air is thinner here, colder, drier.

‘I don’t get it,’ says Gold Suit. ‘You telling me this princess had power over the weather? She turned this guy into a snowman? Is that it?’

Royd sighs wearily, gazing out over the endless white. He opens his mouth to explain, to change the subject, to forget, but Sassy turns to her husband, eyes blazing.

‘It’s an allegory, dumbass,’ she shouts. The air trembles.

‘It’s a what?’

Royd pales.

‘The management would like to remind you that at this altitude noise levels must be kept to a —’

‘I SAID IT’S AN ALL-E-GOR-Y DUMB-ASS!’

For a split second nothing happens. And then the ground beneath them starts to shake. The very air around them shakes.

‘Swim, people, swim. Try and keep yourself afloat,’ Royd imagines he is shouting but all that he can hear is a muffled scream from somewhere behind. ‘Don’t forget to spit,’ he needs to tell them. ‘Don’t forget to piss yourself.’ Too late, Royd remembers the avalanche backpacks with the emergency airbags strapped to their backs. Too late. There is a twisting of limbs, a tumbling of bodies and a flash of gold under the great roar of whiteness. And then nothing.

If you’re buried in an avalanche, thinks Royd, spit into the snow. Whichever way the saliva drains down, the opposite way must be up. He spits and watches in detached wonder as it dribbles sideways away from him. Start digging, he thinks, blinking in the darkness, drinking it in with his snow-scorched eyes.

Or then again, maybe not. Maybe he’s too tired to dig. Maybe, if this is dying, it’s not so bad really. Easier than he thought. Easier than he deserves. Maybe he will spend these last few moments as his brain grows increasingly starved of oxygen, thinking of Elizabeth instead, with her sunny Californian smile and her laugh and her warmth, and hoping against hope he hasn’t already pissed himself.




© Jenny Moore 2006
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