The Sloth Diaries: Les traces dans la niege. (Footprints in the Snow)

The Sloth Diaries: Les Traces dans la niege.
(Footprints in the Snow)

25th December 2008

Somewhere in the early hours of Christmas morning my sleep pattern took a dive and dipped down to zero. I awoke to the sound of a howling, banshee of a blizzard screaming its fury from the Russian Steppes. The wind wailed round the house like a lost soul demanding entrance but the Sloth, under the influence of the copious amounts of Pisse-Dru consumed the night before, remained impervious and simply burrowed deeper under the duvet.

I got out of bed and crept to the window. The glass was cold and completely covered with snow making visibility impossible. I turned the radiator up and got back into bed. As I settled back into a doze I became aware of a rustling and thumping sound from above. I turned over and buried my nose in the Sloth’s warm back. If the rats had come out to play in the attic that was fine by me as long as they stayed there.

Christmas day dawned in monochrome. The black trees stood stiffly against a slate grey sky almost absorbed by the dull white landscape. In my attempts to be organised for once, I had started cooking Le Dinde quite early on and now it sat on its oval platter, gleaming with honey and marinating in its own juices inside the oven. The Sloth had lit the wood burner and the flames roared up the chimney. The kitchen was filled with the aroma of the roasting turkey and the shining copper pots hanging above, glittered with the reflections from the fire. I glanced out of the French windows at the silver birch trees. Mistletoe clung to the highest branches. For some reason we hadn’t got round to getting any mistletoe this time. Then, as I looked at the trees I noticed a large bunch of mistletoe hanging down at what seemed a reachable level. Perhaps the Sloth could reach it. I could steady the ladder of course. It couldn’t be simpler. I smiled over at him.
‘What are you thinking about?’ he asked.
‘Oh, nothing really’
‘You’ve got that funny look on your face. In my experience, my little turtle dove, when I see that smile, I know you’re up to no good.’
‘We..ll’ I began hesitantly, ‘Actually, there is something.’

‘I knew it!’ Sloth said triumphantly
‘Well, I’ve just realised we haven’t got any mistletoe. It doesn’t seem the same without it somehow,’ I sighed.
‘We’ve got the holly though, I mean not having mistletoe is hardly a life or death situation is it?’ said Sloth, nothing daunted.
‘Well of course it isn’t but I just noticed a huge sprig of mistletoe hanging down from that tree over there. Look!’
He followed the direction of my pointing finger.
‘ Where? Oh yes! I can see it. It does look quite low down doesn’t it. I bet I could reach that. We’d have to get the ladder to it, mind.’

The wind had whipped the snow up into deep drifts and peaks. The silver birches looked like lollipops bedded in a fluffy white meringue. A couple of crows sitting on a branch, hunched up against the bitterly cold east wind, looked down interestedly as the Sloth placed the ladder against the tree.
‘Steady as she goes!’ he called out cheerily as he clambered unsteadily up the ladder. In no time at all he had grasped the branch firmly ‘See, what did I tell you? There’s nothing to it!’ Then just as he was breaking off the mistletoe there was an ominous crack. The branch snapped off, the Sloth’s feet slipped from the rungs and he slithered down the ladder in a hurried and undignified manner. He landed on his back in the snow, clutching the mistletoe to his chest. He lay there like a landed pike, his mouth opening and closing, gasping for breath and unable to speak. Poor old Sloth! The two crows, sensing disaster, had fled to another tree and from there they cawed their amusement from a safe distance. After a few moments he got his breath back and we staggered around in the snow as I tried to help him to his feet.
‘How do you feel?’ I enquired, trying not to sound anxious. The Sloth was never one to make a fuss.
‘I’ll live. Come on, let’s get inside. It’s bloody freezing out here’. We struggled through the snow and down the steps to the back door.

‘Hey! Look at that! Do you see what I see?’
‘See what’
‘Those footprints in the snow.’
‘Where?’
‘Over there, leading towards the garage. You can’t miss them, they’re huge.’
‘Oh yes! They must be yours from when you were putting out the poubelle’, I said.
He bent down to examine them more closely.
‘No way, lambkin! I take size 9s. They’re a lot bigger than that. Look!’ He placed his feet into the prints and there was room to spare. We stared at each other in silence until the trill of the phone ringing from inside the house sent us indoors.

The Sloth answered the phone. It was Mathilde. I went into the kitchen and began peeling the potatoes for the roasting tin. It had started snowing again and the trees at the bottom of the garden had disappeared behind a veil of mist.
I put the turkey, now surrounded with potatoes, back into the oven and lit the gas under the vegetables. I went into the living room and poured two glasses of St Emilion. The Sloth took his glass and had a grateful gulp.
‘That was Mathilde.’
‘I gathered.’
‘She was angling for an invite. Her niece has the flu and they’re not doing anything for Christmas. She doesn’t want Mathilde to get infected’
‘Seems sensible. You invited her round here I assume’
‘Well yes, of course. I thought you’d be pleased ‘
‘You thought right’ I said and poured out a tiny glass of sherry in Mathilde’s favourite glass.
Sloth pulled on his boots and his sheepskin jacket. ‘I’ll go and get her’

I put the drinks and a dish of stuffed olives and Feta cheese on the low table in front of the fire. The logs snapped and crackled in the burner and the scent of the pine cones I’d thrown on the fire earlier permeated the room. My eye fell on the Christmas tree, the red and gold baubles gleaming in the firelight and the little pile of presents sat waiting underneath. I’d bought a couple of gifts for Mathilde. Some English lavender toilet water and soap, and a box of English chocolates. We’d also got her a beautifully illustrated book about the Royal family. She was an avid fan of ‘Elizabeth’ La Reine d’ Angleterre. I stretched lazily and yawned. The fire was making me sleepy. Suddenly, my reverie was interrupted by a loud thump and a dragging sound that came from above which made me jump. I leapt up from the sofa and stood listening, my heart thudding against my ribs. I held my breath, waiting for the next sound but none came. Instead the back door flew open bringing Mathilde and the Sloth in a flurry of snowflakes. They stamped their boots on the step before stumbling into the kitchen. Mathilde hung her jacket over the radiator then smiled over at me, but her expression changed and she immediately registered that something was wrong. ‘Qu’est-ce qui se passe?’ She asked. I didn’t answer, but pointed my finger upwards toward the ceiling. The Sloth looked up and was about to speak when the noise began again, louder this time. We all three stood there looking up as if we were expecting the Second Coming any minute. The Sloth was the first to speak.
‘ That’s it! I’m going up in the loft. We’re going to settle this once and for all. I think the entrance to the loft is through the garage.’ I made towards the door. ‘No, don’t come outside with me. You two wait here’

Mathilde and I moved over to the Sofa in front of the fire and sat down. We didn’t have long to wait before we heard the definite sound of footsteps walking across the loft. The thumping and scraping began again. This time it sounded as though there was a scuffle going on and angry muffled voices could be heard. Then it went quiet. Mathilde and I strained our ears but could hear nothing. Then, without warning the door crashed open and two male figures almost fell into the kitchen. One of them was clearly the Sloth but the other was a tall, dark figure. He was hardly more than a boy. Both men were breathing heavily from their exertions in the loft. Poor old Sloth! He’s very unfit. Mathilde and I stared at the boy who stood before us. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen. He stared brazenly at us but his large dark eyes were full of fear and resignation as he stood there trembling.

The Sloth spoke quietly, ‘How long have you been hiding up there in the loft?’ The boy looked straight at the Sloth and spoke rapidly in flawless French.

‘I have been in hiding here for 7 months. I survived by working on the land for the local farmers. They paid me in cash, no questions asked. I earned enough money to buy food. This house is often empty for months. The owners only spend short periods of time here. I think they have another home far from here. They must be very rich to have two houses. I don’t even have one home ’

‘You mean they were living here while you were hiding in the loft and they didn’t know you were there?’ Sloth shook his head incredulously.

‘Yes, but it was easy to hide from them.’
‘How did you get to France?’
‘My father was killed in front of me and my sisters by the soldiers. They said they would come back for me, so my uncle paid my passage on a boat with hundreds of others. It was terrible. There was very little fresh water and no sanitation. The people on the Italian shore said they could smell the boat coming. We had almost reached the shores of Italy when the boat capsized and we were thrown into the water. Hardly anyone could swim and many drowned. I clung onto a piece of driftwood, a live human being floating among the bloated bodies of the dead. I was picked up by the immigration officers. They took me to a detention centre but I escaped and hid on a lorry bound for Calais. The lorry driver found me and let me out in the countryside and I found this village. There were only a handful of houses. Some of them with the shutters closed and deserted. I chose this one after I found there was an entrance to the attic through the garage. I have been very lucky. No one ever knew I was here.’

Then he suddenly burst out ‘I hope to call this country my home one day. But I am illegal! I only want what you have had all your life. Freedom and security for my family; education, a house and a job. Recently I suffered a loss in my native land. I could not go home to say farewell to them for fear that I would not get back! I am a law-abiding person, I have never been in trouble and want to live here for the rest of my life. I don’t exist in my homeland or in this land. I have no voice, and I am living in the shadows! And I don’t want to live like this anymore! I am tired of running and hiding.’

The Sloth nodded, ‘What is your name?’
‘My name is Patrice Beauregard. I’m from the Ivory Coast’.
The Sloth put out his hand and the boy clasped it.
Mathilde, who had been listening intently to the boy’s story, moved forward and took his hand and led him in silence to the table, groaning with food. She pulled out two chairs and sat down on one of them. Then she leaned over and patted the chair next to hers.
He cast a puzzled glance in our direction. ‘You will get the police?’
Sloth slowly shook his head. ‘No, of course not’
A violent shudder shook his thin body and he sighed with relief. Mathilde repeated her gesture and we all took our places at the table.

Outside the leaden sky was already darkening as
the snow began to fall again. Then, without
warning, a magpie was flushed clattering out
of the silver birch trees and soared upwards,
clearing the tree tops. We all watched in
wonder as it disappeared from view.

This story is a work of fiction and any resemblance to people living or dead is purely coincidental.

The right of Rusty Gladdish to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

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