P A U L   A T T M E R E

He breaks the slushy lake surface with a yelp, bloodless fingers flailing, searching the cold-steel air for something to grab. Nothing. Swallows his daughter’s name like a mouthful of broken glass, the memory of ice-skating—a birthday treat—playing out behind a furious rush of bubbles. He fell over so many times. She couldn’t stop laughing. Ruth was eight.

The sound of something losing purchase—trying to cling on—before a man in a wheelchair appears, hurtling towards him across the frozen lake, studded wheels propelling fragments of ice high into the air behind him. Close now, the man’s mouth and nose covered by a bright red scarf, he secures a fishing rod between the right wheel and seat and manoeuvres the chair as close to him as the fragile ice allows. The thin end of the rod touches his cheek. He feels nothing. Grabs at it but cannot grip—all strength drained from him. There are muffled yells beneath the scarf before the man rips the scarf from his mouth. ‘Kick!’ He kicks.

#

A plume of smoke rises from a pan on a wood burning stove, drawing a line through the warm air. He pulls his body up using a wooden bar on the stove the man in the wheelchair rolls out from the shadows. Lights a cigarette, and inhales—blows nothing. Grabs a ladle and stirs the contents of a ceramic jug: ‘Name?’

Out on the ice, so close to death, he remembers the same barking voice. He parts his dry lips. Wonders what will come: a croak or a squeak? Nothing at first, then a hoarse, ‘Charles,’ carried on a cool draft from his lung. The man pours a thick yellow liquid into a pan. It sizzles. Thumps his chest. ‘Hurts?  Charles looks beneath a thick, red woollen dressing gown smelling of onions and finds bandages wrapped around his chest, stained with a mixture of iodine and blood. He fills his lungs with air and winces.

  ‘Broken ice cuts like edge of herring tin,’ says the man Charles keeps breathing shallow. Drops his voice. ‘What happened?’ he asks. You kick like seal then pass out,’ says the man. ‘We just manage to drag your ass out of there.’ The muscles around the man’s mouth twitch, the first impulse of what might develop into a smile, interrupted by several knocks at the door.

 ‘Spausk! Spausk!’ yells the man and throws the frying pan onto the hot grill, turns his chair ninety degrees, and rolls towards a stout outside door. ‘We?’ says Charles.              The man ignores him and pushes open the outside door revealing Daiva, standing on the threshold with Charles’ butler uniform. The old woman shuffles towards him, shaking her head, tutting with a rhythm that is almost musical. He drove Daiva here this morning. A peach-winter sun battling the still-dark sky, across flat farm fields sheeted in crisp snow, so deep the road almost completely disappeared. Her in the back seat, wrinkled cheek pushed against the window as they neared her village. After lunch, he left her curled-up under a pile of blankets in the rickety old farmhouse where she was born. Then, abandoning his uniform under an apple tree—one black, shrivelled apple clinging to the highest branch—he walked naked onto the frozen lake. Death wouldn’t come quickly. He didn’t think he’d fail.

Daiva cranes her head forward, a wrinkled neck jutting from a fur coat, shouting Lithuanian words at the man and cradling the butler’s uniform to her chest like a feeding baby. She seems very different from the old lady in milk-stained joggers he fetched and carried for back in Kaunas. She looks almost glamorous:  ‘You two know each other?’ Charles asks. The man slams the outside door shut.  ‘She’s saying you are English butler.’ The man gestures towards Daiva with a spatula, grunts and slides a pancake out of the pan and onto a plate. ‘How you communicate with her—sign language?’

Daiva cannot understand a word of English. After his employer Laima—Daiva’s daughter—left on a business trip to Madrid, she attempted speaking in Lithuanian, then Russian, then Polish. When words failed, she resorted to staring blankly at Charles from her high backed chair, whilst he performed duties that felt out of place in a two-bedroom flat. The man thrusts a plate under Charles’ nose. ‘Take! Jam’s made with summer strawberries from the garden. It is good shit.’ Charles rolls the pancake like a huge cigar and crams it, sweet and hot, into his mouth. He tries to remember when he last felt hungry. He can’t.  ‘Thanks,’ he says.  ‘For nothing,’ says the man and tosses the spatula into the pan. ‘It is great day to be hungry, eh? Užgavėnės. Pancake Day for you English, yes?’

Charles remembers Ruth covering one of his thick, greasy pancakes in sugar and lemon, tearing into it with her hands and chasing him around the kitchen with her sticky fingers:   ‘My daughter’s birthday always falls around Lent,’ Charles says. ‘I remember … ‘You should rest and not talk, Englishman. The English like to talk.’

The man couldn’t be more wrong. Only when Charles went looking for Ruth in busy bus stations and nightclubs with beer-sticky floors—armed with a photo of his missing daughter when she was thirteen—would he engage in conversation, using words outside the obsequious vernacular of a butler. He always returned with more questions than answers: ‘You should have let me drown,’ mumbles Charles.  ‘Perhaps,’ he says.

When death was close he fought to stay alive, he couldn’t deny that. Did that make him a coward? He became a butler because duty was something to cling on to after Ruth went missing. His wife declared him a coward then. Was reaching towards the icy edge, refusing to let the lake take him, an extension of this crippling fear?  The man selects a piece of silver birch, opens the stove door and places it onto the hot coals. Above them Daiva arranges his butler’s uniform—striped trousers and morning coat, black tie and shirt and white gloves—on a hanger above the stove. She picks a long line of white cotton from the black jacket. They’re united for a moment—all three—staring up at the butler’s uniform hung as if waiting for a new body to inhabit the shirt, to animate the arms and legs.

Charles remembers those long, dark, winter months back in England. Mornings, he would stand in front of the bedroom mirror, slip on the jacket, pull on the trousers— make those final adjustments. The uniform was a buffer from the usual feelings of regret and guilt and a desperate desire to get Ruth back. To undo what could not be undone. These were emotions he battled every day, and his uniform had offered some protection for his fragile, battle-weary body. Now these damp clothes offered him nothing. He rolls to the edge of the bed, reaching towards Daiva’s outstretched han. When he pulls on her long, cool fingers she almost falls on top of him.  ‘Atsargiai!’ says the man, holding up the palms of his hands as Daiva lets go of Charles’ hand and staggers back towards the hot stove. She recovers her balance and sits down on a stool next to the fire:   ‘Šiltas,’ she says and smiles. ‘Warm,’ translates the man irritably. ‘You live here alone? Charles asks. ‘You think a man in a wheelchair and an old lady drags your naked ass here by ourselves?’  ‘No, I mean … then who?’ he asks. ‘My daughter returns from America—few weeks in winter, few weeks in summer. She’s nurse and used to naked asses.’

Charles pictures them hauling his naked body across the ice.  ‘Don’t worry my daughter wrapped you up in a blanket like Christmas present. She will be back soon. You look the part by the way—real English butler.’ He puts his hands together in prayer. ‘Either this or—how you call in English—a monk?’ Charles tried to cover it up at first, sweeping his greying fringe over a balding crown but recently he’s let it grow around his bald patch like clumps of weeds around a milky pond. Daiva begins to hum a tune as the fire takes hold, popping and crackling under the huge iron grill. When she removes her coat and breaks into song, her voice is surprisingly robust. The man leans towards him and explains that she’s singing in Russian about a country girl who moves to the city. ‘She is actress. Brilliant, so they are saying, in her time.’

“You know Daiva then?’ says Charles. The man stares into the fire and drops his chin onto his chest. ‘Growing up, Daiva Ribelyte is a legend in our village. Never seen her, all theatre and one Russian film. Daiva finishes her song with an awkward curtsy. The man opens a small cupboard beneath the kitchen sink and produces a plastic bottle of clear liquid, fills a small glass and passes it to her. ‘I drove here last night from Kaunas from her flat,’ says Charles.  ‘Į sveikatą!’ Daiva throws her head back and recovers with a gasp—holding up her empty glass. Charles sees her for a moment—the flickering light from the stove wiping her face clean of lines—as the young, ambitious actress she must once have been.

 ‘When we were children, she visits sometimes—‘

 ‘Who?’

‘Her daughter.’

‘I work for her.’

‘Yes. A real beauty and feast for dirty minds of village boys. She makes a fortune selling cosmetics or some such garbage in your country. I know this.’

He remembers Laima assuring him the village wasn’t far from Kaunas. In the centre of the country or, as she put it: “Dead in the heart of Lithuania”. When Laima asked him to take her mother to the village of her birth she smiled cruelly, but it only became clear why after she unbuckled his belt, put her lips to his, and guided his shaking hand between her legs. ‘My mother is dying,’ she whispered.  The man offers Charles a large shot of spirit but he shakes his head. He hasn’t touched alcohol for almost a year. The man pushes the glass into his hand. ‘Take,’ he says.

‘Cheers!’ The spirit runs like a line of quicksilver into Charles’ stomach. When the man, fills the glass again, Charles offers it back.   ‘I cannot,’ says the man, and produces a bag of pills from between his legs. ‘Mix and I never feel pain again.’

‘How did you end up in a wheelchair?’ asks Charles.

 ‘Maybe I am born like this?’

  ‘Were you?’

 ‘Accident in your country.’ He stares at Charles as if he is in some way responsible. ‘Take one too many risks cleaning windows. Slip and fall three—how you say—storeys?

‘I’m sorry,’ says Charles.

‘You push me?’

 ‘No, I mean…‘

There’s a long silence before the man asks: ‘How long you are a butler?’ Charles wonders why such a question has come before asking him why he was walking naked, out on the ice? If he had just saved a man’s life, wouldn’t this be the burning question?

‘I wasn’t always a butler,’ says Charles.

Before leaving his wife he’d responded to an advert in a magazine found in some well-to-do café in Kensington. He’d been sipping lukewarm, milky coffee, watching Ruth’s favourite museum—The Natural History—hoping to catch her coming or going. He’d seen neither.  ‘Why butlering?’ asks Mindaugas.

 ‘You immerse yourself in tasks and pretended to give a damn. Easier than serving yourself,’ says Charles.  “Intense” was the way his roommate Trevor described the training. Trevor was young and hopelessly in love with a girl who’d married his best friend. Men escaping pain by throwing themselves into professional service seemed to populate Europe’s premier butler academy.

‘What then you do before?’

‘I was a comedian.’

‘You don’t look funny.’

‘I’m not.  He smiles. ‘Tell me a joke, funny man.’

‘I don’t do jokes. They’re more … stories.’

The man seems excited by this fresh information. ‘I cannot never remember jokes. My father, he was master joke teller. There’s one about a … there’s a Russian policeman—no—a fireman. Hell, I don’t know.’ He extends his hand for him to shake. ‘Mindaugas.’‘Mindooguz,’ repeats Charles.

‘Min-DAUG-aahs,’ the man corrects. ‘Lifuania’s first king—and our last. Mindaugas squeezes Charles’ hand firmly and shakes it. Speaks to Daiva and laughs.  ‘You can call me Charlie,’ he says. ‘Charlie Chaplin,’ says Daiva. She then proceeds to talk excitedly in Lithuanian, directing her words at Charles but turning to Mindaugas every other sentence as if she wants him to translate. Mindaugas keeps opening his mouth as if to say something but she doesn’t give him a chance. When Daiva turns to walk back to her stool, Charles sees in her tottering body an accurate impersonation of the English clown.

‘Story about going to illegal cinemas as child in Soviet times, watching Charlie Chaplin films,’ says Mindaugas wearily. He rolls his chair over to a little door in the stove, reaches in, pulls out a pair of light grey woollen socks and tosses them to Charles. ‘So Charlie, why you are walking about in nothing but socks on a frozen lake in February?’

Charles slips one warm, dry sock onto his foot. ‘My wife, Elizabeth, knitted them for my fortieth birthday.’ He recalls walking onto the ice, plucking a black frozen apple from a tree and throwing it onto the frozen lake—watching it roll across the ice like a full stop on a blank sheet of paper.

‘You were you trying to …’ Mindaugas pauses and rubs his eyes then takes a breath. ‘You try to kill yourself, Charlie?’

‘To drown myself in a fisherman’s hole,’ Charles says.

 Mindaugas laughs and shakes his head.

 ‘When I realised fisherman’s holes aren’t big enough to put a foot, let alone a human body, I stumbled back towards the bank of the lake, didn’t hear the running water where the ice was thinner.’

 Mindaugas translates his story to Daiva who puts the shot glass to her lips. ‘Tears,’ she says and drinks half the glass.

‘Why you are trying to drown yourself?’

            ‘My daughter … Ruth.’ Says Charles. ‘I don’t know if she’s dead or alive.’

            Mindaugas bites his lip and groans as if squeezing something dry and hard out of his bowels. For a moment, Charles wonders if the wheelchair doubles as a toilet.

            ‘You alright?’

            ‘No,’ says the man. Beads of sweat glisten on his furrowed brow. ‘When it comes, pain takes away breath.’ Mindaugas settles back into his seat, breathing heavily then takes a mouthful of spirit from the bottle.

            ‘I thought you couldn’t drink.’

            ‘Rules to be broken.’ He smiles and takes another slug of spirit from the bottle.

            ‘What happened to your daughter?’

            ‘Ran away from home.’

            ‘So you have enough of the not-knowing-pain, yes?’

            ‘I couldn’t escape the it. I needed to feel a different pain in my muscles, in my bones—something tangible. I thought sex might help but when that failed….’

            ‘Sex?’

            ‘It doesn’t matter … sex was the beginning of this mess and the end,’ Charles says.

            ‘Get it off your chest,’ says Mindaugas.

            ‘A one-night stand after a gig,’ Charles says abruptly. ‘Meant nothing, changed everything.’

            ‘Shit happens,’ says Mindaugas. ‘So this is the beginning: you go behind your wife’s back, yes?’ He hesitates as if waiting for some salacious details, but when none come he says, ‘How about the end?’

            Charles doesn’t want to tell Mindaugas about betraying his wife by sleeping with a twenty-year old woman after a gig, anymore than sleeping with Laima. It was after ‘too-quick sex’—as Laima had called it—that he decided to kill himself. Perhaps it was those careless words about her mother’s village being dead in the heart of Lithuania that prompted him to take an opportunity. But he keeps this all to himself, plus the nagging doubt that all of this, from his infidelity to leaving Daiva alone in a house in the middle if winter while he tried to drown himself, was him serving himself. Never thinking of others: forever bound to his own fragile feelings. Instead, he tells Mindaugas about the body’s struggle to survive in freezing water. How the blood leaves non-essential muscles and travels to vital organs like the heart. He picks up a blanket and wraps it around his shoulders. He’s quoting from a copy of a National Geographic magazine read on the flight from London. One of Ruth’s copies dated October 2015. Elizabeth, kept every one, stacked neatly on the bookshelf next to Harry Potter. When they stopped coming through the door, four months after Ruth disappeared and a month before her fifteenth birthday, they didn’t renew the subscription.

            ‘When you see your daughter last?’ asks Mindaugas.

            ‘The fifth of November, 2016.’

            Mindaugas pauses. ‘I like this tradition: burning the Geezer.’

            ‘Burning the Guy,’ corrects Charles.

            Bonfire Night, he remembers they watched his old jacket, which he’d donated to the local bonfire society, burning on the grinning guy. Ruth ate a hot jacket potato, dripping with salty butter, while he sipped lukewarm tea.

            ‘I told Ruth about sleeping with the girl after the gig. How I planned to leave her mother.’

            ‘How old the girl?’

            ‘The next morning Ruth was gone: her bed unmade, dolls scattered across the floor,’ says Charles. Pauses then adds: ‘I guess the girl was old enough to be called a woman. Young enough to be my daughter.’

            ‘You check this Facebook the kids love?’ asks Mindaugas.

            ‘Of course!’

            ‘Then you tell the wife you sleep with this girl?’

            ‘I couldn’t carry on living with Elizabeth as if nothing happened!’ snaps Charles.

            ‘The English reserve, it breaks like thin ice,’ says Mindaugas. He seems satisfied with his observation and his choice of words and sits nodding his head. ‘Why you screw the girl?’

            ‘Because I could; because she was there; because …’

            ‘… you was losing your hair,’ finishes Mindaugas. Then before Charles can respond with anything more than an open mouth. ‘What she says, your wife?’

            Charles remains silent.

            ‘She says nothing?’

            ‘She wanted a divorce.’

            ‘So you are thrown out?’

            ‘I left.’

            ‘Not leave.’

            ‘What do you mean?’

            ‘You don’t leave your wife, she throws you out like the rubbish … and then your daughter, she leaves.’

            ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about!’ yells Charles.

            ‘Love is like glass—you protect it, no? You smashed it.’ Mindaugas brings his knuckles down hard on the armrest of his wheelchair and sits rubbing them in the palm of his hand. ‘Why you do this?’

            ‘I could have lied, carried on as normal—no one would have known. I was honest. At least that.’ Charles slumps onto the bed close to Daiva who is sitting on a stool staring into the corner of the kitchen where, next to a collection of fishing rods and the wheelchair from earlier, hangs a shotgun.

            ‘Honesty counts for nothing,’ says Mindaugas turning to gaze out the window; he drops his voice. ‘Not that! Suiciding out there.’

            Charles wonders if after the window cleaning accident Mindaugas considered ending his life. It would be understandable if he had. He notices how the wheelchair, sitting in the corner of the kitchen, has carpets tacks driven through the wheels, explaining how they were able to grip the ice during his rescue. ‘Are you married?’ asks Charles.

            ‘No!’ says Mindaugas and turns to watch Daiva, who has begun moving unsteadily around the kitchen, her arms held out as if dancing with a partner. ‘Why you bring Daiva here without the daughter?’

            ‘Laima returns next week from Madrid to be with her mother. I return to London…that was the plan.’ Then Charles adds: ‘Daiva’s got cancer.’

            Mindaugas sighs and once again drops his chin onto his chest—a much-practised habit Charles thinks. After a short pause, Mindaugas begins moving his shoulders from side to side. When he lifts his chin, he comes up whistling in the unmistakable rhythm of a waltz. Charles rolls to the edge of the bed, drops to the floor and uses the headboard to pull his body up to standing. Legs still shaky but the feeling back in the toes, he hobbles towards Daiva holding out one hand, inviting her to dance.

            Mindaugas takes a breath then resumes his whistling—more wind behind it this time—sending Daiva and Charles a little quicker across the kitchen floor. Charles wonders who Daiva’s dancing with: some beau from her past, but not him. There is a distance in her eyes but an engagement with her body, a surprising vitality that reminds him of taking Elizabeth in his arms at their wedding for their first dance. Her warm body pressed against his; her smell buttery like a warm biscuit. They would often repeat this dance in the kitchen on Sunday nights: her sipping from a cold glass of white wine, him from a red, as the potatoes boiled on the electric hob.

            Charles finishes their dance with a bow, but Daiva looks up with sad eyes. He reaches an appeasing hand towards her but she brushes it away laughing playfully. Kicks her heels up then lowers herself slowly onto the stool, returning to her old body, once more, after memories of youth put life into her feet.

            Charles turns to look out of the window. The mist that engulfed the landscape earlier has lifted and it’s clear they’re on an island in the middle of a lake, a few fishermen scattered like hungry birds over holes in the ice. The muffled notes of a melody take his attention. He turns to find Mindaugas pulling a small black phone from his trouser pocket. He flips the cover, releasing the opening bars of the theme tune to 2001: A Space Odyssey, looped into a ring tone. Mindaugas puts a hand over the mouthpiece and whispers: ‘I love Strauss,’ then shouts into the phone and points in the direction of a larger window on the other side of the kitchen.

            Coming towards them across the frozen lake, a man leads a procession of masked figures bearing long flaming-torches dragging, what looks like, a large doll on a sledge. The man is short and fat; he bends his knees, jerks his body, and stamps his feet as he plays a cheery tune on an accordion, whilst the rest of the group hit pots and pans with wooden spoons, blow whistles and ring bells. Occasionally, the man runs to the front of the troupe and serenades the doll. The music slows as two masked figures transfer it from the sledge to a pile of branches arranged close to the house. Now that the crowd is closer to the house, Charles can see that many of the masks have coarse hair sprouting from huge warts on their cheeks. The doll has one eye bigger than the other, red-painted lips too wide for its face, and a shock of yellow straw for hair. The way the mouth goes down reminds him of one of Ruth’s dolls stitched roughly together the night her first boyfriend broke up with her when she was fourteen. It had the same dark brown hair and green eyes as his daughter, but an unsmiling almost cruel mouth. She kept it on her dressing table next to a jewellery box and called it Ruthless. The night before she disappeared, Charles remembers creeping into her bedroom, lifting her hand and finding Ruthless, pulled tightly to her chest. The next morning Ruth and the doll were gone.

            Charles swings around. ‘Who made that doll?’

            Mindaugas isn’t looking out the window but at a black-and-white photo, hung on the wall, of a young man and woman drinking beer on a beach. A tear rolls down his cheek. He gestures towards his withered legs. ‘Shit happens, Charlie.’

            Daiva pulls a tissue from under her sleeve and hands it to Mindaugas. He snatches it, blows his nose then folds the tissue into a square and gives it back to her. She glares at him like a cross mother and knocks it from his hands.

            ‘Who made it?’ says Charles.

            ‘Morė?’

            ‘Who’s Mory?’ asks Charles.

            ‘We are driving out evil spirits, my friend.’ Mindaugas’ arms are outstretched, palms turned up. ‘Morė has normally bigger tits, but they ran out of straw.’

            Charles hurries over to the outside door and slips trembling legs into a large pair of leather boots. When he pushes at the door, it won’t budge. He kicks it several times until it flies open.

            ‘Charlie!’ says Daiva. She hugs herself and shivers. He pulls a woollen hat, normally worn into a sauna, from a hook and walks outside into the half-light.

            Outside, all attention is on the orange flames snaking around the burning doll. The music has stopped. Only the sound of the fire crackling like rapid gun shot and the sound of bells, jangled by half-masked children staring up, their mouths wide like dogs waiting for scraps.

            The fat man sets down his accordion, picks up a hessian sack and tosses it towards Charles, who catches it and stumbles backwards. A woman’s voice behind him whispers in English: ‘you are strong enough for this?’

            When Charles turns around he meets the pointed nose of a wolf mask, the end of a red tie dangling like a tongue from its snarling mouth.

            ‘You are to be the thin man that is summer. You need to kick out the fat man that is winter,’ says the wolf mask.

             The fat man swings his sack at Charles but he misses and spins on the ice like a drunk uncle at a wedding. Just visible behind the flames, the head of the giant Ruthless doll topples to one side. Charles scans the masked figures for one about the same size as his daughter. A terrible thought: he’s found Ruth then lost her, once again. Knees buckle beneath him and he collapses onto the ice then, on all fours, flings his head upwards unleashing a high-crackling voice, carrying his daughter’s name across the ice. A few revellers who’ve begun winding their way back towards the village, turn and shout something back. Charles grabs the straw-filled sack and flings it towards the fat man, using the momentum of the action to help him up to standing. The sack strikes the fat man on the side of his head, but he remains upright like a rotten plank frozen into the lake, his hands open to the crowd as if to say: I’m sorry people but it’s going to be a long winter.’ Charles charges him but the fat man jumps nimbly backwards and Charles crashes to the ground next to the accordion. A few members of the crowd remove their masks.  Concerned, surprisingly youthful faces look down on him. He wonders, if Ruth were here, would she look different—her long brown hair cut short, perhaps dyed some garish colour like green or pink. He grabs the fat man’s accordion.

            ‘Where is she?’ he says.

            The fat man freezes—one arm reaching desperately towards his instrument. ‘Ne!’ he yells as Charles tosses the accordion onto the fire. The instrument screeches like a cat before bursting into flames.

            From the side of the house, a bright light comes suddenly on revealing a woman fanning her arms in the air.

            ‘Ruth?’ Charles peers into the blinding light.

            When she steps properly out of the glare he sees one of her hands holds the wolf mask. She has long, dark brown hair similar to Ruth but her face is slender not round like his daughter.

            ‘Where’s Ruth?’

            ‘Who?’

            ‘My daughter —’

            ‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘I don’t think she’s here.’

            ‘You’re…?’ He points back to the house. The silhouette of Mindaugas is in the window, backlit by the faint orange glow from the stove.

            She tilts her head to one side and says, ‘At least this time you are dressed.’

            He is suddenly aware he’s dressed only in a red gown and sauna hat. ‘Not really,’ he says. ‘My clothes … I don’t have any.’

            She extends her hand. ‘My name is Jovita.’

            ‘Charles.’ He doesn’t take her hand. Charles had connected the dots, wrongly convincing himself Ruth was here. The same desperation that bullied him naked onto the lake pulls his thoughts to cartoonish images of giving up his life: smoking guns and exploding cigarettes—his body jerking on a noose. Laughter tenses his stomach muscles but his face remains a neutral mask.

            Jovita grabs his hands then rubs them vigorously between her leather-gloved palms. When she lets them go he finds them pushed together as if in prayer. Mindaugas’ earlier comments about him looking like a monk let loose the damned up laughter.

            ‘What’s funny?’ she says and smiles.

            ‘Nothing. Thanks… for rescuing me on the ice.’

            When she smiles, faint lines appear around her eyes like the splayed feet of a sparrow. ‘I should apologise, you see our thin man got drunk so when you appeared in your dressing gown and hat, everyone thought you were a perfect replacement. I tried to stop everyone but they were so excited, wouldn’t listen to me when I said you’d had an accident.’

            The red face of the musician comes into the light. ‘Akordinas mano seniele,’ he says in a deep voice.

            ‘The accordion was his grandfather’s,’ Jovita translates and continues speaking to the fat man. He shakes his head and looks at Charles with damp eyes.

            ‘He feels pretty bad about losing his temper.’

.’

            The fat man pulls out a coat stuffed under his tunic to make him look fatter, kicks the remains of the accordion into the pile of ash and throws the coat on top of it. The coat bursts into flames as he leads the remains of the now unmasked crowd onto the frozen lake. He turns back, puts one hand up but doesn’t smile.

            In the silence that follows, a warmer breeze blows across the lake, rustling the branches of a few birch trees surrounding the house. A chunk of snow drops from the branches, lands on Charles’ head, rolls down his neck and melts against warm skin. He shivers as water streams down his back. The light goes out.

            ‘It’s a security light,’ Jovita says. ‘A mind of it’s own.’ She irritably punches the air until the light comes on then crouches close to the orange embers of the fire next to Charles.

            ‘Who’s this Mory?’ he asks.

            ‘Morė is the name for the burning doll.’

            ‘Oh, right.’ He pauses. ‘It looked like something my daughter made.’

            Jovita furrows her brow. ‘Your daughter made a Morė?’

            Charles tells her how his daughter disappeared but leaves out the infidelity.

            ‘It was a doll called “Ruthless”—It was a joke. When I saw the Morė I lost my head for a bit … I thought she’d made it. That she was here.’

            ‘You saw what you wanted to see,’ Jovita says. She pinches snow between her fingers and flicks ice pellets into the fire. The small balls of ice hiss as they hit hot embers reminding him of Mindaugas’ pancake batter popping and spitting in the frying pan. The security light flickers and goes out.

            ‘My father got some alcoholic from the village to put that light up,’

            ‘The light sensor’s faulty,’ says Charles then, after a slight pause: ‘I don’t think I’ll ever stop looking for Ruth.’

            ‘Why would you?’ Jovita stands up and waves her arms in the air. When the light finally comes on Daiva’s standing outside the house with Charles’ uniform slung over one arm. She trudges towards them through the snow.

            ‘We found your clothes on the bank of the lake. You work for her daughter, yes?’

            ‘Yes,’ Charles says.

            Daiva exchanges a few remarks with Jovita and gives her the uniform then extends her hand to help Charles up. He takes it but when he stands puts all the effort into his legs, careful not to pull on her fragile fingers as he did earlier in the kitchen. Then he takes off the sauna hat and gives it to the old woman, takes the neatly folded jacket from Jovita, and unfurls it against his body.

            He remembers Laima’s fingers slowly undoing the first silver buttons then tearing the jacket off—the remaining buttons flying across the room—before pushing him roughly onto the bed. Her lips were warm and dry, her tongue cool and snaking.

            ‘Putting on this uniform would be like a reptile crawling into an old skin,’ says Charles.

            Daiva says something to Jovita. He understands nothing, but there is a precision in the gentle rhythm of words that flow like poetry. He feels loved.

            ‘Daiva wants you to burn your uniform,’ says Jovita. He recalls the musician pulling the clothes from his fake stomach, dumping them on the fire. Charles drops the butler’s jacket onto the hot coals. He steps forward, some unregulated part of him that cannot let go of past things following an impulse to rescue the clothes from the flames.

A hand grabs him by the elbow and pulls him back. ‘You need to do this,’ says Jovita.

            As the jacket begins smoking on the hot coals he feels a shiver, not from the cold, but a fizzling inside his bones as if a rogue nerve ending has burrowed its way into the marrow.

            Jovita places the shirt and trousers on top as the security light goes out. Charles waves his arms in the air but the light stays off then a short explosion—like a gunshot—from the direction of the house. Charles sprints a few paces away from the fire on the bank of the island, halts and looks back—an afterthought to check on Jovita and Daiva—just in time to see the uniform burst into flames. Jovita runs past him, repeating over and over the same unknown Lithuanian words leaving Daiva, her face a Greek mask of horror, behind the fire’s roaring flames.

            When Charles gets to the house he places his hand over Jovita’s tense fingers on the door handle.

            ‘I… I can’t go in,’ she says.

            Charles wants to press her tense forehead into his chest. ‘I’ll go.’ He releases her hand. When he turns the door handle Jovita’s voice is behind him. ‘I lost my mother when I was six,’ she says. ‘Out there in the lake.’

            He turns to her before going in.

            ‘She drowned.’

#

            Mindaugas is slumped in his wheelchair, a rifle jammed where the fishing rod was when he hurtled across the ice. But no blood, no crown of head smeared across the ceiling, as Charles expected when he opened the door.

            The photo of the young couple on the beach lies on the floor amongst shards of glass. A neat hole—edge blackened where a bullet entered—in the centre of the picture. When Charles slams shut the outside door, Mindaugas lifts his head and pushes his body upright in the wheelchair.

            ‘You all right?’ asks Charles.

            Mindaugas takes the photograph from the floor and holds it up. ‘My wife,’ he says.

            ‘Your daughter told me…?’

            ‘Tells what?’

            ‘That she drowned … I’m sorry.’

            ‘You drown her?’

            ‘I mean…’ Charles hesitates. ‘Jovita, she thought—we thought—you’d shot yourself.’

            ‘My daughter tells why her mother drowns?’ says Mindaugas.

            ‘No.’

            ‘She tell how her father knows even more than you about betrayal, Charlie?’

            Charles looks back out the window where he first saw the Morė dragged across the ice. Reflected in the glass his long, pale face. But he’s spent too long dwelling on that wan expression. Instead he focuses on the image of Mindaugas shifting uncomfortably in his wheelchair behind him. He watches him reload the rifle, roll back towards the far wall and take a steady aim at his head. He feels his heart like a fist, the fingers pulled under—knuckles white—thumping furiously at his rib cage. Outside, he can see Jovita pacing the bank of the lake, a line of birch defining the frozen edge. Her arms folded, perhaps, against the cold, perhaps reigning in painful memories of her dead mother.

            ‘When I tell her the truth, Gileta, she killed herself.’

            ‘Why?’

            ‘I slept with my wife’s sister. Thirty years ago—summer,’ says Mindaugas then raising his voice: ‘not like you Charlie. You failed. What you say I fill your head with lead and do what you couldn’t.’

            Charles puts his weight forward so his mouth is close to the glass. His breath mists the cold surface obliterating Mindaugas’ reflection. He is back in the mist, out on the ice surprised, then as now, to find a furious impulse to live so that when Mindaugas asks him if he wants to die, he says firmly, ‘no’.

            ‘Louder Englishman,’ yells Mindaugas.

            Charles turns—moving slowly, aware a sudden movement may startle Mindaugas’ trigger finger—but the gun has been lowered and Mindaugaus is staring once again at the photograph.

            ‘You know, we just had argument before this photo was taken. She was really hating me. After, we went back to our apartment and made our Jovita—I like to think. ’ He tosses the photo back on the floor and lifts the gun once more so it is aimed at Charles. ‘You wanna die Englishman?’

            Charles drops to his haunches, springs right and rolls into the corner of the kitchen as a bullet shatters the glass pane. Outside Charles hears Jovita’s distant voice calling her father. Charles rests his head against sharp nails on Mindaugas’ wheelchair: prickly as a crown of thorns.

            ‘Run mouse run!’ yells Mindaugas but when he pulls the trigger, a short click—no explosive crack—launches, not a bullet, but a chesty guffaw that appears to travel to every part of Mindaugas’ body—ending up as gentle, trumpeting whoops through his nose.

            ‘You’re a lunatic,’ yells Charlie.

            ‘Think I’m such bad shot I cannot blow hole in you if I like?’

            In the silence that follows, only the steady drip as melting ice hits something metal outside the window.

            ‘Leaking gutter needs to be fix-id,’ says Mindaugas.

            Charles pushes the crown of his head firmly into a nail. It breaks the skin so he rolls his scalp to the right until he encounters another…and another.

            ‘The ice it is melting,’ says Mindaugas. ‘You are the thin man who kicks-out the winter, yes?’

            Charles closes his eyes and imagines sailing a boat through the slushy lake water, blinded by spring sunshine, following a river until it spills into the Baltic Sea. With one steadying hand upon the rudder, he would fix his gaze forward, letting invisible currents carry him into warmer waters. But then what? When he thinks about going home to England, returning to his work as a butler or getting back on the comedy circuit, he again pushes the crown of his head against two of the nails in the wheelchair. Feels a little heat—pictures beads of blood flowing from broken skin. His thoughts drift into numerous tomorrows: perhaps he could stay with Daiva a little longer; fix Mindaugas’ security light and the leaking gutter—some other stuff around the house. Perhaps it’s time to stop searching, light a torch and let it burn in one place?

            ‘Mindaugas, would you take me out on the lake tomorrow? Teach me how to fish on the ice?’ says Charles.

            ‘The ice is thick enough—safe for few days,’ says Mingaugas. ‘We catch carp, drink vodka, yes?’

            Charles gets up and walks over to the door, slips off the dressing gown and puts on a black puffy jacket. He pushes at the door.

            ‘Kick!’ says Mindaugas.

            When Charles kicks, the wind doesn’t wrestle the door from him as before. It opens just a crack. All is calm outside. The moon slips out from behind a cloud, throwing down its silver light onto the lone figure of Daiva gazing out across the dark, blue-tinged ice. Charles runs his tongue over his dry lips. The metal taste of blood from where they’ve cracked—the same blood, he thinks, that fled to his heart in the freezing water now flows warm into his body, softening brittle tissue, forging new pathways between old cells and new.

            ‘You ok?’ Jovita’s voice behind him—always behind him—her words like thoughts. She tells him she saw everything through the window. Knew her father wouldn’t harm him. Assures him she trusts her father—at last, after all these years. Then she’s walking back from the house towards the lake, stopping once to glance back, before—standing next to Daiva now—she extends her arms and pulls the old woman’s hunched body close. But Daiva pulls away and stumbles forward, almost an awkward jog out onto the lake. The old woman doesn’t look back when Jovita calls her name but continues determinedly trudging forward, her warm breath trailing behind her leaving a fragile mist like a departing steam-train chugging into the night, bound for somewhere else.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.