The winter sickness, p.1
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       The Winter Sickness, p.1
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           John Eider
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The Winter Sickness


  The Winter Sickness

  By

  John Eider

  Copyright 2015 John Eider

  Chapter 1 – His Last Day of Term

  Toby switched off his laptop. He folded down the screen then placed it in the top drawer of the lab workbench he was sitting at. He locked the drawer and took the key, to hand to the receptionist as he walked out. He wouldn’t be needing it again for three months. It was the Sixteenth of November; he was breaking up for the holidays.

  Toby was a Lab Assistant at Carvel Technical College. The semester wouldn’t end for at least another month. Yet Toby, Tobe as some called him, had a special dispensation. It was a clause without which he couldn’t have accepted his contract of employment: the freedom to leave his post for a twelve-week period each winter.

  His bags were packed and by his side. He’d brought them from his apartment that morning, which was now similarly locked up. That key had been left with the concierge of his condominium block, as for those three months he wouldn’t be back there either.

  Toby loved his job at Carvel Tech, and had been there almost ten years now, ever since his graduation from that same establishment. Carvel was a good sized town: modern, prosperous, open – everything Toby’s hometown hadn’t been. It was the hub of learning, culture, sports and shopping for miles around, a constant draw for the young people of the rural and mountain settlements that were scattered in a several-hundred-mile radius. You had to go a long way past Carvel, maybe even to the State Capital itself, to find better in most fields.

  Toby had been one such rural youngster himself, who had been drawn there to learn. Yet each year he had to leave again, leave the job he loved, and it was hardly through choice.

  ‘Why can’t it be summer when I have to go back?’ he asked himself quietly, as he did every year at this time. ‘Everyone else clears off for months in the summer. Why am I the only one to lose all their leave at winter?’ It had harmed his career, and it brought him regret.

  It was a bright day though, and Toby found it hard to stay blue. The lab had not been hosting any classes that morning, and so was free for Toby to work in. He had finished up his projects with the blinds drawn back. Now he was leaving early to make the most of the short-day light.

  ‘Off on your vacation, Tobe?’ asked Merrill, a fixture at the Faculty for as long as Toby had been working there. He must have come along the corridor without being heard.

  ‘Be thankful that your family don’t live up in the hills,’ responded Toby with forced joviality – it was an exchange they made every winter when he went away.

  ‘Snowed in for three months a year,’ said Merrill, shaking his head. ‘I don’t know how you manage it.’

  Toby’s colleague said these words more in pity than any other feeling. They had been Lab Assistants together at the start, a post Toby effectively still held, despite being made up to Senior Research Assistant by their leading Professor. Yet this title was little more than a sop to reward his efforts.

  In that time though Merrill had received his doctorate, had become a member of the Faculty Board, was on his way to being made an Associate of the College. Yet it was common knowledge that, were it not for his extended forced absences, then Toby might be doing just as well. Merrill had become in every way his colleague’s senior, not that it changed things between them. He only knew his friend could do better.

  Merrill also found that he hated Toby’s townsfolk – who of course he’d never met: hated them for holding back their children’s prospects; for demanding that they make these stupid yearly migrations to their snowed-in outpost in the mountains. Nice place to visit for a sight-seeing trip perhaps, but really..?

  Toby got down off his high stool. He took his bags in one hand, and held out the other to shake Merrill’s with.

  ‘Till February then.’

  ‘February,’ chimed his friend mechanically.

  And with that Toby was gone.

  Chapter 2 – Early-finish

  ‘You can tell he’s bitter about it,’ said Merrill in the bar a little later that day. He was sitting with others from the lab after Friday early-finish. With so many students from rural communities boarding in the town, they closed at lunchtime on Fridays to let them get back home for weekends. It meant the other workday evenings were packed with extra sessions, and left Friday lunchtime as the Faculty staff’s chance to blow off steam.

  Merrill went on, ‘He hates the last few days, you can see it in him.’

  ‘Well, we don’t come from the mountains,’ added one of the others around the table, a Biology Master called Harris. ‘We don’t know how they live there.’

  ‘And anyway,’ asked another, ‘aren’t they all religious maniacs?‘

  That last speaker hadn’t been at Carvel Tech too long. And his ignorance brought a sharp look from Merrill.

  Yet they were interrupted by the Professor, looking for Merrill and finding him where he expected him to be at half-past-two on a Friday afternoon. The grand old man made his way past the pool players and liberated factorymen, toward the table.

  ‘So,’ summarised the Professor in response to his young colleague, and sitting down with a beer himself. ‘You’ve been here long enough to hear the talk around the department? About what Toby gets up to in his hometown in the mountains?’

  ‘Sounding his mouth off is what he’s doing,’ said Merrill.

  ‘Look, I meant no offence...’

  ‘Well, you know what?’ said the Professor to the young staffer. ‘I’m not going to disagree with you. It could well be seen as cranky that they’re up there in the mountains all those months. He goes up every November, doesn’t come down till February. With the roads closed it’s the only way to spend Christmas with his family.’

  The Professor went on, ‘And yes, their town is famous locally for their religious festival. But there’s nothing odd about the celebration of Candlemas, which is known all over Europe and is as old as Christmas or Easter.’

  ‘But...’ the newest member of staff stuttered, ‘isn’t all that hymn-singing and candle-lighting a bit... contrary to everything we’re trying to achieve at a research lab?’

  ‘You mean anti-scientific?’ The Professor pondered, before answering, ‘Toby came to study with us because he was bright. He came a long way, and left a lot behind. We let him take his courses over extra terms to make up for the months he missed. After graduation, I was glad to have him join us at the lab. At no time have I ever noticed any heavy religiosity about him.’

  He continued, ‘And anyway, I dare say the residents of that town have a lot to want to celebrate come February Second, what with the kind of winter they’ll be having.’ (The Professor couldn’t have known how close he was to the mark.) ‘Have you seen the long-term forecasts?’ he asked rhetorically.

  Merrill hunched over his Bud,

  ‘Well, it’s killing his career.’

  To which the Faculty Head’s silence said it all. Before agreeing,

  ‘I can make him Senior Research Assistant all day long. But with him not being here for such important times of the year...’

  ‘He misses the end of one semester and the start of the next.’

  ‘...it means he’s never going to get his own classes.’

  The conversation was becoming maudlin – not what any of them wanted on a Friday blow-out. Around them people whooped and shot pool and sung along to country-rock. Yet at their table all anybody said was,

  ‘He’s secretive though, isn’t he.’

  This was Harris, the biologist. The Professor was called upon again to explain,

  ‘I daresay growing up in a place like that makes you so – he won’t have known many people from outside.’

  ‘Well, he’s neve
r kept any secrets from me,’ struck Merrill in further defence.

  ‘But what do you know of any wife, or girlfriend?’ asked Harris.

  ‘A girl,’ said one of the group. ‘He used to have a photo.’

  ‘Yes, he did!’ recalled anther. ‘But not lately.’

  ‘Perhaps she broke his heart?’ asked Harris.

  ‘And how would you know?’ Merrill was getting grumpy now.

  ‘I’m only saying that he doesn’t give away a whole bunch about his personal life.’

  ‘He tells me,’ shot Merrill, almost tearful. ‘Her name’s Janey. She’s from his home town.’

  ‘Well, there we go then,’ concluded Harris as if settling an argument.

  Before another of them asked,

  ‘So, where’s Jake today?’

  Chapter 3 – At the Station

  As it was such a bright day, Toby ditched the cab he’d sometimes take, and instead walked across town from the College to the railway station. As he walked along wide sidewalks of wider roads, he found it was one of those walks where he paid extra attention to everything he saw as he passed.

  He saw the bright green football fields; noticed the lights and noises of the games arcade; drew on memories of avenues he’d caroused down on nights out, or had walked local girls home along. Girls he’d known, but had always let go without a fight.

  ‘Goodbye to all that,’ he said. ‘Farewell happy fields.’

  A little later, Toby stood beneath the early-afternoon sun on the east platform of Carvel Central Station. He could scarcely believe it was already mid-November again. With the weather still this good, he wondered if he could have given himself another fortnight before travelling. But that would only have been putting-off the inevitable.

  He had a bag in hand, others resting around him, and was inches away from leaving for another three-month stint. He imagined himself a ward-of-court: and if Carvel was the kind family who had adopted him, then Stove (for that was the name of his hometown) was the cranky unsafe birth-parent who he could never quite fall out of love with. If love was the right word.

  ‘So, off home for the holidays?’

  Toby recognised the voice before he’d turned to meet it. It was that of Jake, from the Faculty.

  ‘What... are you leaving too?’ he asked ridiculously, it being over a month before the rest of the world moved for the season.

  ‘No, I catch this train every Friday,’ explained Jake. ‘You wouldn’t know, as you only catch it once a year, right? My family are... well, not as far along the line as yours are, I’ll wager.’

  ‘Right,’ said Toby looking back along the rail line. In his mind he had left the Faculty behind, and wasn’t ready to be known again.

  ‘You’ll be celebrating Candlemas then?’ continued Jake. ‘A fascinating festival. Amazing we’ve forgotten it in the modern world. But then you don’t get any presents for it, do you.’ He chuckled loudly in the open air of the railroad platform.

  ‘Right,’ repeated Toby, wishing he could leave, in any direction and on any form of transport.

  ‘I wonder if I wouldn’t like to see your town celebrate it one year.’

  ‘But the roads are snowed in,’ snapped back Toby, far too quickly and defensively.

  ‘So I’ve heard,’ was all Jake answered. ‘Hard weather you have up there.’

  ‘It can be,’ answered Toby, with the distinct feeling that he was being questioned.

  ‘Must be tough?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘No getting in or out.’

  ‘No,’ he answered tersely.

  ‘You don’t know what might happen.’

  Silence.

  ‘An emergency, a crisis.’

  Glaring silence.

  ‘Something going wrong.’

  Breathless silence.

  ‘You don’t know how it could end up.’

  And then the Tannoy rang, ding dong, ‘The train now approaching...’ to draw out those sitting on benches or drinking coffee in the rest areas.

  Toby reached down for his bags like someone grabbing for a life-raft. He hadn’t breathed for ten seconds.

  ‘Well, I see a friend along the way there who I think I’ll ride with,’ said Jake in his infuriating ease.

  ‘Right,’ answered Toby with comparative rictus smile.

  ‘So, I’ll see you next spring. Or even sooner.’ And with a smile, Jake was gone along the platform to be lost among the gathering crowd.

  Back at the bar, the Professor found Merrill alone at a one-armed bandit.

  ‘I didn’t know you played these.’

  ‘I don’t. I just wanted to get away from that table.’

  ‘You’re upset, but don’t be. They don’t know Toby like we do. I suppose his yearly disappearance must seem odd.’

  ‘Maybe, if it was any of their business.’

  The Professor paused, before saying, ‘His leaving has got me remembering though.’

  ‘Oh?’

  ‘Well, for a couple of years he didn’t go back, did he.’

  Merrill’s eyes widened. ‘No. You’re right.’

  ‘It might even have been three years straight. Had I remembered before coming here I’d have checked the registers. He stayed in Carvel right through the season, had his Christmas dinner at the Marriot Hotel. I know, as one of the students saw him there while waitressing.’

  ‘You know, I’d forgotten that,’ said Merrill.

  ‘I remember thinking how we might get his career back on track. But then he started leaving again.’ The Professor asked Merrill then, ‘He’s never told you what happened those three years?’

  ‘No, I don’t think he has.’

  ‘Harris is right though, isn’t he. Toby doesn’t talk about himself.’

  ‘He talks to me.’

  The Professor spoke as quietly as possible in the noisy bar, ‘He talks to you about baseball and beer, Merrill. If only you interrogated your workmates like you do your specimens in Petri dishes.’

  To which Merrill pondered, raising his bottle almost to his lips,

  ‘I get more sense from the specimens.’

  Chapter 4 – Riding on Trains

  What the hell had Jake meant by those final words? thought Toby an hour later, sat at his empty table seat. He watched the rolling fields whistle past his window as the train left the city behind. It was a modern coach, with high bright windows that let in the sky. It was one of those late-autumn afternoons that until two or three o’clock was as bright as summer, but would have started feeling cold to have been out in. Yet, insulated in the carriage, with that landscape flowing past him like a moving masterpiece, Toby could almost forget that it was the winter he was heading into. And how he longed to forget...

  The train ran along the main line that led west from the city; firstly to the edge of the mountains, where it met the stop closest to Stove. After that it buckled north to find an easier path through those snowy peaks toward the isolated coast.

  Toby had wanted to sit facing backwards, so as to better forget the towering mountains approaching. Yet he was a pragmatist, and so he made himself sit facing forwards. That way he could judge the rate of their approach and the weather they might meet there.

  For now, the snowcapped mountaintops were only glistening diamonds in the distance, hovering over the endless agricultural plains. They glinted vivid blue through the haze of the atmosphere. Toby recalled that the curvature of the Earth meant that to see anything more than twenty miles away meant that it must be very tall. And those mountains were very much more than twenty miles away – the train wouldn’t even reach the foothills for another hour.

  Yet no one needed to tell Toby of the power of those peaks, of how they held the lives of those who lived among them in peril. His own life had been unalterably shaped by the mountains – deformed by them, some might say. And at that point, hurtling toward the glimmering monoliths for another wretched winter season, Toby wouldn’t have disagreed with them.

  How od
d, it occurred to him then, to be moving in so modern and bright a vehicle so quickly toward somewhere so dark and old and unchanging?

  Toby had seen a picture once, a picture in two halves. In fact it was the same picture twice over. It was of a steam train, about to leave a crowded station. One side of the picture showed the locomotive surrounded by families, parting couples, rushing porters. Everyone was dressed gaily, off on their holidays or wishing loved-ones a safe journey.

  The other side of the picture was near identical in setting, the train and everyone around it in the same positions. Only now the coaches were painted drab olive, with the men boarding them in khaki and carrying kitbags off to war. Their wives and girlfriends hugged them through open windows, not knowing if they’d meet again. The skill of the artist had been palpable, and Toby had not forgotten it.

  Now Toby felt as though he alone had somehow gotten on the wrong train, had slipped into the opposite side of the painting. He was off to war, while all around him were people off on their weekend jollies. In the carriage children laughed, young couples necked; old ladies did their knitting, needles clicking. Was he the only one miserable, while all around him were carefree?

  Or maybe not everyone...

  The train would make a dozen stops, and would serve all manner of communities – rural, mountain, coastal. Yet Toby would not be the only one getting off at his station. And he fancied he would sense who the others were if he saw them.

  It was something in the eyes, a horror hidden by a lifetime of effort, but a horror longing to be shared. And only someone who shared that feeling would know to look for it in another. And once spotted, it couldn’t be ignored. A contact would be made, a silent pact, each knowing the other’s nightmare and knowing it could only be discussed with someone from their home town.

  The train had a canteen car, which Toby half-considered visiting. Yet he knew that Jake was on board somewhere, and didn’t fancy bumping into him again. Jake had been weird on the platform, and had had Toby half-believing he might even know the secret. Yet though this couldn’t possibly be so, Toby still didn’t want to meet him again and have to deal with whatever was making him that way.

 
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