They shuffled forward on their skis and waited for the thump on the back of their knees as the chair came around to scoop them up. They had made it down that final run just in time. The running engine of the attendant’s snow buggy indicated that they would be the last passengers of the day and Susan couldn’t see anybody on the chairs that were already rising up the mountainside.
As Jack lowered the restraining bar, she shivered and tugged her collar up in front of her mouth. This chairlift would put them at the top of the main run back into the village. Fifteen minutes up; another ten to ski down and they would be back at the chalet in time for tea and cake with the others. Dusk was close and the temperature was already falling fast.
“Do you have to work again tonight?” she asked, as the chair swung high above the treetops.
“A conference call with Chicago at nine. And there’s a contract I’ve got to look at. They’re emailing it later.”
Susan sighed. “So, will we see you at all this evening? We are meant to be on holiday.”
Jack was silent for a moment. He could feel his phone vibrating again, as it had several times on their final descent, but ignored it.
The chair moved slowly over a deep gulley; snow obscured the ground, falling in chilling blobs that slithered past their collars and dribbled down their necks. The empty chairs ahead and coming down the other side were barely visible, like ghost ships floating on air. The rumble of the motor through the cable and the juddering rattle as their chair crossed the pylons were the only sounds. Without warning, the chair shuddered to a halt, swinging gently as its momentum subsided.
“I hate it when it does this,” said Susan. “Some idiot’s probably fallen over getting off at the top.
“How are we doing for time?”
Jack pulled off one of his mittens with his teeth, unzipped his jacket pocket and took out his phone.
“Almost five,” he said. “We’ll miss the cake at this rate.”
“Maybe we should phone and let them know we’ll be a bit late,” suggested Susan.
“Not much juice left,” Jack commented, scrolling through his contacts. He found the chalet’s number and pressed “dial”. The screen lit up, flickered, then went blank.
“Dead,” he said. “It’s been buzzing at me all afternoon. They’ll get us moving again soon. I don’t think I’ve ever been stuck for more than two minutes.
“Although, do you remember that time in Austria when I got my poles tangled and couldn’t get off the chair?”
Susan laughed. “I remember the attendant shouting at you when he had to stop the lift. I was thinking it was a good job you couldn’t understand German.”
Jack smiled at the thought. “Well, at least he was awake enough to see what had happened. I don’t think that guy down the bottom even registered that we were getting on the lift.”
“Probably thinking about his own tea and cake when he got home,” Susan chuckled, then asked: “What should we do tomorrow?”
“How about we go skiing?” laughed Jack. For brief interludes he found something calming about being in a place for one reason only. No decisions were required, other than which run to tackle next and when to have lunch. Flying down the slopes he felt weightless, his mind focused only on reading the ever-shifting surface and the almost instinctive rebalancing that kept him upright. Then the insistent buzzing in his pocket would pull him back to earth.
Ten minutes had passed. Nothing had happened. Susan became agitated.
“Jack, they’ve stopped the chairlift. They don’t know we’re here. Are you sure your phone’s completely dead? I should have brought mine.”
He looked again. Nothing. “Don’t worry,” he cautioned. “Once the others realise we’re not back they’ll raise the alarm. I’m sure they have a system for checking all the lifts at the end of the day.”
Susan knew, as did he, that wasn’t true. She nodded, but then started to shout, desperate to alert someone, anyone, to their presence. It was futile. Even had there been anyone to hear, her shouts were smothered by the persistently falling snow. After a few minutes she stopped and began to cry. He put his arm around her shoulder. There was nothing he could say.
The last of the daylight disappeared. It was already below zero and rapidly getting colder. They shivered, despite their thermal suits, and huddled close. Keep her awake, Jack told himself. Keep her talking.
“This reminds me of that beach in Scotland,” he ventured. “You remember? It was so quiet that we pretended we could hear each other’s heartbeats.”
Susan smiled through her tears. “A whole weekend without a signal,” she murmured. “You were so relaxed.
“Let’s go somewhere with no phones for our summer holiday.”
“Sounds good,” said Jack. He began enthusiastically reeling off suggestions, of increasing implausibility: The Maldives; Cuba; Easter Island; Tristan de Cunha. Susan’s responses became shorter, shrinking to a mumbled “yes” or “maybe”. Only Antarctica was ruled out. “Snow more snow,” she slurred. Her breathing had slowed and, no longer shivering, she leaned in to him, staying very still. Jack fancied that he could hear the dwindling thumping in her chest, but realised that it was his own heart he could sense.
The snow had stopped and the stars were out. Jack couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so many. The heavens seemed to be descending around them, as if those flecks of ancient light would soon start to land on their shoulders. The silence was enveloping and the cold gradually embraced them.
Jack leaned back on the frozen seat and closed his eyes. “It’s so lovely, so peaceful,” he said softly. “Wouldn’t it be lovely if it was always quiet, like this?”
Rob McIvor lives in Blackheath, London, with his family, several bicycles and two unruly cats. He is currently attempting to tame the first draft of an over-ambitious novel.
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