First Snow – short fiction by Lyle Bateman

Given the blast of bad weather around my part of the world recently, I was reminded of a short story I wrote a decade ago while I was working in Lagos, Nigeria in the 90’s. One of the things I missed the most while I was there was the changing of the seasons, and I remember writing this story specifically as an homage to how our perceptions of the seasons change over the years. Given the recent spate of bad weather, I thought it might be an appropriate reminder that much depends on your perspective on things. The story is below the fold … click to continue.

First Snow
by Lyle Bateman
~1500 Words


It came without warning. When Neil went out for lunch, the sky was blue, there was a healthy Chinook wind blowing and everything was right with the world. Now, five hours later, he stepped out of his downtown office building into a blinding blizzard. Already several inches of snow crammed up against the building’s glass walls trying to get inside, and the viscous north wind was just getting up head of steam. He pulled his suit coat close around his shoulders and dashed up the street.

Looking through the flurry of swirling white was like looking through a bowl of cream of mushroom soup. Neil could clearly make out only a few cars on the road less than ten feet from him, but the cacophony of horns and engines told him the whole street was gridlock. He pushed his way up the street, the wind biting and chewing his flesh the whole way.

By the time he got to his car two and a half blocks away, the wind had nearly won as his face and dark blue business suit were covered in a layer of ice and snow. He fumbled his keys with frozen fingers and finally managed to unlock the door. He slipped inside and slammed the door, sinking into the BMW’s soft, black leather seats. He didn’t care about the snow and ice dripping onto the seats as long as the wind was outside. In protest, it ripped and tore at the windows of the car, trying to get in and finish the job.

For a few seconds he just sat there, shivering. It wasn’t any warmer inside the car than out, but at least he was away from the damn wind. He smiled slightly as he listened to it roar in anger all around him. Sliding his keys into the ignition, he closed his eyes and prayed. He was not, by nature, a religious man, but when you park a car facing north, unplugged, in a freak Calgary blizzard, you can use all the help you can get. He slowly turned the key and heard the familiar, sick cough of a cold engine. Fortunately, Germans know all about snow and blizzards, and after a few hacks and sneezes, the car found its breath and roared to life.

Neil quickly reached over and turned the heater on full blast. Of course, with a frozen engine, there would be no heat for a few minutes, but psychologically it warmed him. He brushed some of the snow and ice from his suit, then leaned over, began rifling through the glove compartment and pulled out a pair of old knit mittens. “I may be dumb enough not to have a jacket with me in Calgary in October,” he thought, “but at least I’ve got the brains to keep a pair of gloves in the glove compartment.” He reached behind the seat and pulled out the ever-present snowbrush and ice scraper. Taking a deep breath, he prepared himself for his expedition, and pushed himself through the door.

The wind was thrilled to have a second chance at him. It roared and howled with laughter as he hurriedly brushed the two inches of snow from the car’s front window, smashed at his back as he moved around the side, and bit chunks from his face and arms as he cleaned the back. Neil was a native Calgarian, however, and he knew how to deal with the wind — take it on in short, three minute rounds, and you can always go the distance; try to do it all at once and it’ll bring you down for sure. Neil rushed back to the driver’s door and practically threw himself in.

The heater began to work a little now, and without the wind the inside of the car had warmed to a right toasty five below zero. The wind tried to get in, any way it could. Whirling around the side windows, it threw itself against the windshield, coating it once more with snow. Neil turned on the windshield wipers, and was just barely able to keep up. He turned on the radio.

“… nasty Monday out there folks. Environment Canada just reported that they expect temperatures to dip to 20 below. There should be 12 centimetres of snow by tomorrow morning. The good news, though, is that the nasty north wind is on its way out. In an hour, it should be down to 15 km/h. But for right now folks, stay inside if you can, or bundle up if you can’t cause its throwing everything it has at us. Gusts have been reported to 80 km/h, and the wind chill is so bad that exposed flesh freezes in 5 seconds. So, curl up by the fire and get a cup of hot cocoa and let the Boomtown Rats tell us why they don’t like Mondays. … There’s a silicon chip inside her head …”

“That’s easy for you to say,” Neil said to the radio. “You don’t have to drive home for another two hours.” He backed the car slowly out of his parking stall and eased his way into traffic.

The roads were, as expected, hell. Blizzards and snow are a common occurrence in Calgary, and Calgarians generally treat them the same way they treat unwelcome relatives who drop by unexpectedly – with seething acceptance. Yet the first snow of the year always comes as a complete and utter shock to them. Calgarians, who live for six or seven months of the year with snow, look at the first batch of white stuff and say “What the hell is this white stuff falling from the sky?!” Then they get into their cars and drive like it’s July.

Neil saw the results of this amnesia strewn about the road as he made his way home. The trip normally took about three quarters of an hour, but today it would take at least twice that. Where there weren’t fender benders that blocked traffic entirely (the count on the radio was up to 57, and rush hour was only just getting into full gear), cars slipped and slid up and down normally insignificant hills, and around normally paltry corners. In some places, traffic was at a standstill as cars with bald summer tires on them tried in vain to push their way up a hill.

Even Neil was not immune to the blizzards effects. He always kept all-season radials on his car, and he recognized snow when he saw it, but it still took him some time to adjust to the slippery conditions. He nearly slid through two intersections downtown and several out of control vehicles barely missed sideswiping him when he did manage to stop.

Finally, he pulled off the main street and onto the friendly turf of his home crescent. Exhaling a small sigh, his shoulders unclenched, and he loosened his two-handed grip on the steering wheel. Of course the snow was far worse here than the main road – it wouldn’t be plowed or sanded for another 24 to 36 hours – but at least he was the only driver. He crept along the road, and slowly nosed the car into his driveway.

When he got out of the car, he found that he had outlasted the wind. The snow still fell, but with the fury removed. He looked across into the yellow glow of the streetlight and watched the giant white flakes flutter to the ground. From behind his average, yellow three-bedroom bungalow, he heard the sound of voices and laughter. As he rounded the edge of the house he saw them rolling around in the snow and throwing snowballs at each other shrieking with laughter.

Eric, his son, spotted him. “Isn’t it great dad – the first snow!” He picked up a snowball, and hurled it at his father. Neil easily ducked out of the way, dropped his briefcase, grabbed a snowball of his own, tossed it lightly toward Eric and got nailed in the back of the head with one from his daughter, Susan.

“Hey, no fair. Two against one. He laughed and staggered backward as they both advanced on him. His back against the fence, he protected himself with his arm and waited as Eric and Susan approached. When they were near enough, he lunged forward with his arms outstretched and tackled them both into the snow. Laughing gleefully, they wriggled free and scooped mounds of soft, white snow over his head.

Two hours, a snowman, and several snow angels later, the trio headed inside for some warmth and cocoa. Eric rushed on ahead while Susan wrapped her arms around her father’s right leg and announced gleefully she was ‘riding it home.’

“Hi mom!” Eric called as he dashed into the house. Like lightning, his mother snagged him under her arm.

“You take those wet clothes off before you take one more step into this house, young man!”

“Okay, mom.” He slunk off to the corner to obey.

Janet stood up and greeted her husband with a small smile as he walked in the door, Susan still latched to his leg. “And the same to you. You’ve been out there for two hours, and your suit is ruined. What have you been doing?”

Neil looked down into Susan’s sparkling eyes and smiled. “Just playing in the snow, honey.”


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