Dad looked like a great big bear, his shoulders hunched up around his ears as he struggled with the steering wheel and smoked cigarettes one after the other. Sometimes the bare branches of small trees scratched and dragged along the outside of the car and the lane seemed to get narrower. The car bumped and skipped over the frozen mire and we could hear the thin ice crack as the wheels pressed it down into the ruts. Mum looked really concerned and held on to the dash with one hand, but she said nothing. Dad was sure the lake was just around the next bend, but there was always another twist or at best, a pair of mossy stone pillars through which we could see derelict overgrown farmyards. Sometimes we would get a glimpse of the lake through the bushes-an unwelcoming cold grey, then it would be lost from view behind walls and trees. Dad had the theory that the lane circled the lake and only emerged at Grey Abbey, which was ok because that's what we came to see. Sure enough, we arrived at a clearing in front of the monastery--a towering, tumbling monolith clad in ivy, caught in the act of submitting to the centuries.
He turned off the motor, mum relaxed, and my sister burst out of the car letting in the frigid air and the oily smell of the hot engine. She ran off joyfully free, with mum shouting after her to stay in sight. I stepped out rather more slowly and leaned with elbows on the roof and puffed on an inhaler where no one would notice. I hated using it in front of people and mum was always concerned that I was using it too much. I envied how my sister could run without effort- skipping around the walls and through ancient doorways with boundless energy and happily oblivious of the hundreds of years the place had been standing (or falling). I walked after her looking upwards at the tall winter trees which surrounded three sides of the monastery. Harsh crows, charcoaled onto the sombre sky circled above.
Joan jumped out of a doorway laughing and beckoning me to follow with excited hands. "James c'mon, it's brill'." "What is?" I replied. "The stairs-you can see forever, c'mon." I took a quick blast on the inhaler while she led me by the hand through the entrance. The upstairs floors and the roof had long since fallen in and a stunted tree had bent itself through a window as if trying to get in. On one wall there was a narrow stone staircase which ascended forever towards a high arched window. It had no banister and I felt dizzy just looking up. Joan, to my horror, was already climbing them taking two steps at a time and steadying herself by dragging her right hand over the wall. She stood at the top surrounded by a halo of light, her toes hanging over the sheer drop. I could see her breath hanging in chilled wreaths as she spoke. "You can see right across the lake..." Joan be careful" I shouted. I was aware of the fear in my voice. She laughed and turned towards the window. With quiet terror, I climbed very slowly stopping for air every few feet. Joan was leaning out the window talking to herself, her top half invisible...
Don and Kathleen wandered through the overgrown and staggered cemetery, reading the faded headstones and talking quietly as if the dead might hear them. Kathleen picked wildflowers and Don smoked and stared absently across the lake at the pastel green hills in the distance. Snowflakes started to descend and there was a perceivable change in the atmosphere-a cottonwooled silence. Kathleen felt uneasy. "Don, it's getting dark, I think we should be getting home. I'll call the kids' There was a scream-short, distant and unreal-shocking because they knew the sound of the voice. From the monastery ran a small white figure, crying. Kathleen ran towards her, the wildflowers strewn behind, forgotten. "It's James" Joan bubbled. He's up there. I think he's stopped....breathing." "Oh God" Kathleen whispered as she ran past her daughter into the dark door way, her husband following....
Thick snow swirled and charged into the headlights, and the Vee Dub skewed wildly as Don wrestled to keep it on the track. The sound of branches snapping and tearing along the outside was almost unbearable. In the back, Joan clung to her mother who was holding James and silently praying, her heart beating wildly. She looked at her husband, his face bathed in the green lights from the dash. "What hospital Don...? "Glengormley" he said. "About twenty miles give or take...." The car skidded and hit something which tumbled and clattered off into the blackness. Joan jumped, her small fists came up to her face in terror. "It's ok" said Don, over his shoulder but he didn't feel the confidence he managed to get into his voice. In fact he was scared. It was almost impossible to see through the narrow space the wipers afforded, not to mention the fact that the lane twisted crazily off to the right or left every few yards. Without warning, two gate posts appeared in the headlights. Don had no choice but to steer between them, standing hard on the brakes. The car skated to a halt in a deserted farmyard-the snow filled headlights shining on an insane array of rusted farm machinery. He swore and quickly slammed the Vee Dub into reverse and the tyres spun wildly before they lurched backwards and onto the lane. "Don" Kathleen said, I think we passed this place not long after we left the main road today." "Do you think so?" he answered, unsure. "Yes," Joan shouted, her voice excited, we did, I know we did!" Don pushed on through the curtains of snow, hoping they were right. To think of being stuck in this place was nothing less than terrifying. Soon after, the lane started to widen and the branches no longer touched the sides. Through the trees they could see the distant foggy circles of orange lights-the main road.
The chronicler took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. He had been reading these fragmented journals for weeks now, gradually re-constructing the lives of this fairly unremarkable family. There is a great interest these days in unremarkable families, especially those who lived last century. People want to know what they ate, what they talked about, everything. People are astounded that everybody back then took so many risks. They drove those death machines called cars and climbed up into high places just for the hell of it. They even touched each other's food. Worse still, they even touched each other! Mmm, hard to imagine, indeed it is. Well, these days with all these viruses-it's different. The chronicler thought about James and rubbed his hands at how interesting this unremarkable kid is going to be to his readers. A marvel of mediocrity-dependent on that strange little 'inhaler'. Yes he got to the hospital and lived. Yes, the readers would like that. He lived. .