HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

The First Snow

The First Snow of Winter by Alex Cox

As the electronic bell sounded the sixth year class rose, then meandered to the door. Mr Donaldson stayed in his seat, opened his newspaper and began to read, ignoring the only other person still in the room.

Vogel Laing sighed, got up and went to the fourth floor window to watch the school’s students spill into the playground and surrounding streets. He was briefly irritated by the marks their footprints made on the perfect shawl of January snow which had mummified the city in the past couple of hours. He saw Emma, his sister waiting at the furthest gate for him, as she ignored the snowball fights and tried to catch sight of him in the throng.
‘Six or seven inches deep down there’ he said.
‘Hmm’ said Donaldson, engrossed in his newspaper. Vogel made a rhythmic clicking noise with his tongue, sighed again and sat down not at his usual desk at the back of the classroom but at the front, directly before his teacher.
‘Do you mind if I listen to my Walkman, sir?’
‘Yes, I do. Do your homework or read a book. There’s plenty up back;’
Vogel stayed seated. He surveyed the room and its contents: a blank blackboard. A crucifix above the door. Walls decorated with maps of the Roman Empire. Some felt-tipped first year project in which everyone wrote the meaning of their first name in Latin; a poster of Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian; illustrations from Ovid’s Metamorphoses; a hand written copy of Catullus’ poem for Licinius. He checked his watch; almost an hour left of his detention.

‘What paper are you reading? I can’t see from here…’ Vogel said. Donaldson ignored him. ‘It’s the Guardian, isn’t it?’ Donaldson turned the page. ‘They must give it out free to teachers…nothing like having your Weltanschauung confirmed in print, is there?’ said Vogel, his eyes wandering, his voice trailing. When his gaze returned forward Donaldson was staring back, his eyes ablaze. He lifted his paper up from the desk and noisily turned the page, hiding his face behind it.
‘Knew it was The Guardian…’ Donaldson folded it on the desk and made to speak, but Vogel got there first.
‘Can I just apologise sir? I realise in the heat of debate I often get carried away and religious education provokes a particular reaction on my part. I hold my hands up, Mea culpa. I should have expressed myself in a more acceptable manner;’
‘I’m not letting you off Laing. Homework, book or boredom. Your choice’
‘I’m not trying to get out of detention sir, really I’m not;’
‘Good, because…’
There was a knock on the door, followed by Mr Harvey from the English department. ‘Pub, Harry? Christ, sorry…never saw your DT.’ Donaldson shrugged. ‘Vogel? Haven’t seen you in DT before? What did he do?’
‘You don’t want to know.’
‘During RE I said the Pope was a cu…’
‘Jesus, Vogel, can you please stop making it worse?’ said Donaldson.
‘Sorry sir, it’s only Mr Harvey’
‘Did he really say that?’ said Harvey. Donaldson nodded. ‘Maybe you should have given him lines. I Must Not Call The Pope A Country Farmer two hundred times or something’
‘You are not helping’ said Donaldson, smiling. ‘I’ll try and make it for a quick one after this’ Harvey nodded and left.

Vogel returned to the window. The playground was deserted save for his sister, still stood at the furthest gate. He waved her to come up. There were only two cars left in the car park; his own Alfa Sud and Donaldson’s new Toyota Celica.
‘Your Celica’s rear wheel drive sir, isn’t it?’
‘I’ve no idea.’
‘It’s just…if you’re not used to rear wheel drive it can be dangerous on snow or ice. Have you driven it in snow, sir?’
‘You had a Civic before, didn’t you? A Celica will be tricky in this weather sir. If you’re not used to it, that is…’ Donaldson looked up from The Guardian. He thought about saying something, but it was true, the car was a handful compared to anything he’d driven before. He decided to miss the pub and go straight home.

‘Can I wait here, sir?’ Vogel’s sister stood at the door. ‘I’m his sister’
‘No, you can’t. This is detention, not an after school club.’
‘But we have to visit our grandma tonight. He’s driving and she’s in East Kilbride so…’
Donaldson rolled his eyes. ‘Sit at the back. No talking’
‘Thanks, sir,’ she said as she chose a desk at the back of the room where she began to read Smash Hits and listen to her Walkman.
‘You can’t listen to that here. Miss…miss, you can’t.’ She didn’t respond. Donaldson gave up and began reading the same article for the third time on how perestroika was the new glasnost.
‘I can give you a lift, sir. My Alfa’s front wheel drive, so…’ said Vogel.
‘I don’t need a lift, Laing. I have a brand new car which I will drive home, perfectly well’
‘Sorry sir. I just don’t want an accident to happen’
‘There will be no accidents. Thank you for your concern. Now, shut up.’
The room fell quiet, punctuated by the Walkman’s tinny jingle-jangle and the occasional drone of a slow moving car from the street below.

‘I’m just slightly paranoid about accidents what with it being nearly a year since Kevin’s…’ Donaldson gripped his pages a little tighter.
‘Kevin?’ he said.
‘Yeah, my cousin. You know, last year’
‘Your cousin?’
‘Our dads are cousins, but I always called his mum and dad auntie and uncle, you know. So Kevin was my sort-of cousin, though we weren’t very close’
‘Yes…that was very sad’ said Donaldson. ‘Terrible misfortune’ He pulled The Guardian up to cover his face again.
‘You could say that was a winter accident…’ said Vogel.
Donaldson peered over his newspaper. ‘A winter accident? How so?’
‘Well, he caught a heavy cold, and took Night Nurse, Lemsip and paracetomol. In summer, the cold wouldn’t have affected him so badly, he would have been able to shrug it off. Dark evenings, heavy skies…it all adds to the foreboding of…I don’t know…’

‘Took him five days to die,’ Donaldson was still unable to get past the third paragraph of his perestroika article. ‘He started vomiting, feeling sick. His mum and dad just thought it was flu. Then his nose bled and when it wouldn't stop they took him to hospital. By then his liver had failed. We visited him every day, and each time we all hoped he would be dead when we got there. He was in so much pain, it was...horrible,’ Vogel seemed genuinely upset, so Donaldson let him talk. ‘I've never told anyone this before, but...’
‘Doesn't matter sir.’ He slumped back, his mind elsewhere.
‘You can tell me. Or someone else, if you would prefer’
‘It wasn't an accident...’ He was leaning forward in his chair, conspiratorially, staring straight at Donaldson, searching for a response.
‘It was an accident, there was an inquiry;’
‘A good Catholic couple aren’t going to admit their son committed suicide, are they? If they did, apart from the eternal damnation his soul would suffer, apart from the shame, there would be questions, wouldn't there? Why did a fifteen year old boy kill himself? What was so terrible about his life he couldn't face another day of it?’ Donaldson looked at Vogel, then at the sister, deep in her magazine, deaf to everything except her Walkman.
‘Is this just you running off at the mouth or...’
‘I can prove it,’ he said, then seemed bothered by doubt. ‘Well, not prove it, but Kevin told me something before he died, why it was no accident…’
‘What did he say?’
‘I don't know if I should say, sir’
‘What did he say?’
‘When I repeat it, it won't have the same tone, the same inflection...I can't impart to you the look in his eyes, the meaning, the weight of what he was saying’
‘Vogel...What did he say?’
‘He said...’
‘This won't go any further, will it sir? I don't want to...’
‘Just...’ Donaldson said, impatient, before composing himself. ‘Just tell me what...’
‘He said after you came in his mouth you forced him to swallow’, said Vogel leaning forward, imprisoning the teacher's eyes with his own. He pulled an Emery board from his pocket and began filing his fingernails, the small act becoming the epicentre of the room. By the time Donaldson wrenched his gaze from Vogel's hands, his sister had removed her headphones and sat in the seat beside her brother, aping his curious stare as they both watched him as if he were a mould in a petri dish.

‘Bit of an awkward moment this, isn't it Harry? I apologise but you did push me to tell you’, said Vogel, leaning back in his chair, his hands pillowing the back of his head. ‘You're a master interrogator Harry. I couldn't keep it in any longer...’
‘It's mister Donaldson to...’
‘I think we're past that Harry, don't you? Now, well...we've entered something of a new paradigm in our relationship’
‘It's not true. What you're saying, what you said, it's...evil’
‘Ya think?’ said Vogel, laughing. ‘Even if I can't prove what he said before he died, the allegation alone should be enough to flush out a few uncomfortable little truths. Like Dan Holloway. Raymond McGuinness. Eddie Clark. Your reputation is legendary Harry. I used to wonder how you found all these docile boys and then I remembered,’ Vogel turned to his sister. ‘He tried to touch me up once you know’
‘Really?’ she mocked surprise, never shifting her gaze from Donaldson. ‘Do tell Vogel, do tell...’
‘Well sis’ he said, jumping to his feet and moving stand alongside the teacher. ‘He asked me to stay behind one day, to ahem, review my homework. So I was standing here at his shoulder, and he's giving it Amo, Amas, Amat as he read my jotter, and without looking he knocked my cock with his knuckle. Just two or three times, right on the bell-end. Now...I jumped back, he waited a second or two, before going on with Amamus, Amatis, Amant, closing my book and telling me to get lost. Remember Harry?’
‘That's...not true’, he replied, shaking, his voice wilting.
‘Course it is Harry. That's how you do it, isn't it? If they jump back they won't say anything, and even if they do, all you say is, For goodness sake, wee accident, you dirty little sod, I go to mass twice on Sunday, I coach the football team, how dare you? Of course, if they don't jump back, if they're not repelled, well, the door's open, isn't it? I'm moving some furniture on Saturday; maybe you could help me...If it's too much trouble...Oh it's not? Well, come before lunch, I'll feed you, build those muscles up. Best wear shorts, the forecast's sunny and it'll be sweaty work...’
‘That's terrible Vogel, you poor thing. Were you traumatised?’ asked Emma.
‘Can't say I was, sis. Matter of fact, I was the last in class he tried. I used to think, What's wrong with me? Am I repulsive? Why is he going for all these losers? Why doesn't he notice me? With my blond hair, my perfect skin, my sharp mind...Afterwards, I regretted pulling away. You see Harry, if you'd been persistent...could've been the start of something beautiful.’
‘Stop teasing him Vogel, it's not nice. Can't you see the poor man's distraught?’
‘Of course he is, but it's just us three here. What if everyone knows..?’ Vogel bent down to bring his head level, though Harry kept staring at some distant point beyond the back of the classroom. ‘...and I do mean everyone. Colleagues, priests, neighbours, your poor mother, angry parents’
‘Oh, the angry parents, Vogel’, said Emma. ‘Just think of the angry parents. No Guardian readers among them. All those Record and Sun readers. Think what they’ll call him...’ she said as she got up and stood at Donaldson's other shoulder.
‘What sort of names do you think they'll call him, sis?’
‘Do you really think I should speculate, brother?’
‘I really think you should speculate, sis’
She bent down, like her brother, until her face was drawn level with the side of Donaldson's head. Donaldson stared ahead, his eyes moist.
‘Deviant,’ she whispered in his ear, making him shudder.
‘Degenerate,’ said Vogel, muttering.
‘Poof,’ said Emma firmly.
‘Pollutant,’ said Vogel loudly.
‘Predator.’ Shouting.
‘Pervert.’ Yelling.
‘No, please...’
‘Pederast.’ Roaring.
‘Paedophile.’ Screaming.
‘No! Stop..! Please, just...stop,’ said Harry. The siblings returned to their seats and the room fell quiet, save for Harry's heavy breathing amplified by his hands, cupped and covering his face.

‘He's hoping when he looks up we won't be here,’ said Emma.
Harry dropped his hands, defeated. ‘What do you want me to do?’ They exchanged puzzled looks.
‘What do you mean by do?’ said Vogel.
‘Just that...’ said Harry. ‘Whatever you want me to do, I'll do;’
‘Well…I am going on holiday next month. Some spending money would be nice,’ said Vogel.
‘I'm a teacher, Maggie Thatcher's PM. I have no money...’
‘Lovely car that. Eight thousand wasn’t it? Couple of thousand and you're off the hook. You can tell yourself that whatever you come up with is the truth. I don't care. We don't care’
‘I can't get raise that at…’
‘Venice, if you're asking. It’s most evocative in winter, and I’m keen to experience the Carnival,’ said Vogel. He and his sister both stood. ‘You should go sometime, you'd like it. Provided you left the guy you pretend to be at home. I'll give you a week,’ He handed the car keys to his sister and said he would catch her up.
‘You know, Harry, you shouldn’t beat yourself up over Kevin. He didn't do it over you. In fact, you probably kept him going longer than he wanted to. Being a council house queer with a macho father...well, it has difficulties. You're not a good man, Harry, but I don't think you're a bad man either...Take care.’

When Vogel reached the car his sister was already in the passenger seat.
‘Money? Money?’ she demanded. ‘I never knew you were so fucking banal...’
‘I'm sorry, have I disappointed God's little gift? And on the subject of banal, you sat there reading Smash Hits and listening to Madonna.’ He started the engine.
‘We don't even need the stupid money,’ she said as she looked out the side window.
‘No. We don't,’ he said as he edged the Alfa onto the road.

Donaldson’s tears caused his driving-glasses to steam. He locked the classroom as the cleaners were arriving, and avoided them by taking the lift. The snow startled him. He reconsidered driving, and even though he was a long way from home, he began to walk.