Founder of TheBlueSpace Guides Co-operative, Nepal and a consultant to Child Space Foundation, Nepal. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Published Books: The World Peace Journals (Garuda Books 2013), No Place Like Home (Garuda Books 2013) and Mumbo Jumbo (Garuda Books 2015) and The Scallops of Rye Bay (eBook, coming 2022), and has numerous fiction and non-fiction stories published in US and Canadian literary journals.
Submissions Reader: The Masters Review, Bend, Oregon, USA.
Finland, January 1940 Moves like a cat, silent and slow, creeps in the shadows, body hung low. In the dark hall, having crossed a huge and ancient threadbare rug, she arrives at the grand staircase. Lying on her belly, listening to the old house creak, she looks up at the sweeping steps, half-hidden in the gloom. Gripping the banister rails and pushing with her feet, she slowly hoists herself up the staircase. The sound of a door opening above stops her ascent. Hooking her feet between rails to stop a slide back down to the hall, she stretches out and invisibly waits. Dressed in black, she merges with the shadows. Soft steps slide across the wooden landing. Moments later, she hears the sound of pee falling into porcelain. The steps return back to the opened door. It clicks shut again. Slightly out of breath, she arrives at the top of the long wide staircase. Standing, she takes a step, squeezing herself into an empty alcove. With breath calmed, she moves out of the alcove, her back silently sliding along the landing wall. She stops outside the closed door. In the pitch black, she listens to the sounds coming from the room. Gently tracing the outlines of the door, her finger finds the hole. Squatting, she looks through the large keyhole. Inside, a candle flickers, illuminating the room just enough for her to see. Hunched over, her twin sister and Niko move with desperate urge, until their two bodies shudder, slumping on the bed. It’s over for now and her sister turns and looks towards the keyhole before blowing the candle out. The voyeur stands upright, quietly slipping away, down the stairs across the dark hall into the kitchen at the far end of the house. A wood stove burns bright. The clock above tells her: it’s time. From a peg by the back door, she unhooks a woollen coat. From its pockets she takes a pair of gloves and a woollen hat. Outside it’s snowing, the breeze immediately chilling her to the bone. She’ll have to be quick to survive a night like this intact. Even in the freezing cold her excited heart beats hard. Stopping by a gnarly tree, she leans against a horizontal low hung branch, her feet half-frozen, buried in the snow. The familiar shuffling scrape of skis approaches. He soon stands before her, a shadow in the night, a large dog by his side. Same time, same tree, it’s almost a routine. Pulling herself up onto the low branch, she pulls down her slacks and opens up her coat. With her back against the trunk, the shadow comes towards her. Intense cold burns her skin: the bark crusted thick with ice. He stays on his skis. The dog looks on. Freezing and numbing fast, she pulls him to her, crying out, beside herself; agony and ecstasy. Once finished, he quickly leaves. Pulling up her clothes, she stumbles back to the house, just making it to the kitchen before her legs give way. Collapsing in front the stove, she uncontrollably shakes with cold, and burns with the remains of intense pleasure. A little later, when she’s warm and able to function, she feeds the fire and strips off her wet cold clothes. Kate wakes to the sound of her sister’s voice. ‘You’ll get frostbite down there.’ She indicates to the pile of discarded clothing. In Kate’s slacks are pieces of lichen, bark and small crystals of melting ice showing traces of blood. ‘I know you played your game last night, sensed you looking through the keyhole. If that’s your thing, what it takes to get you going, fine by me, but at least ask him in, don’t do it out there in the freezing night. Do you even know his name?’ Kate shakes her head. ‘Have you ever had a proper conversation?’ Kate shakes her head again. ‘The Red Army will be here in a few days, we need to get away. They’ll shoot every Finn they see, that’s after we’ve all been raped. Get packed, Niko’s picking us up tomorrow night, need to ski down to the village, he’ll meet us there.’ ‘Niko, your favourite dog.’ ‘And you a howling wolf at night. We hear you. Maybe you should go further out.’ ‘I’d never make it back alive, Sofia.’ The twins laugh together. ‘So who is he, might never see him again? ‘A stranger in the woods I met one very dark cold night,’ Kate shrugs. Sofia screws up her face and holds her nose. ‘Have a wash, I’ll make breakfast.’ In the late afternoon, the sisters dress in the grand hall, studying their reflections in an ornate, full-length mirror. It’s strategically placed as the only light comes from stained glass windows that cover half the wall. Both petite and deathly pale, Sofia twists her long red hair into a plait, letting it dangle over her bare left shoulder before dressing in light coloured heavy winter clothes. Kate wears black to match her hair, which she hides under a dark brown sheep-skin hat. Sharing lipstick, they turn their lips bright red. Satisfied, they stare into the mirror, green eyes glinting with the setting sun. They talk to their reflections. ‘We may never see this house again.’ ‘Or our brothers and our Papa, fighting on the front, we haven’t heard from them in weeks. Anyway, I’m staying ‘til morning, then I’ll meet you in the village.’ ‘Without my keyhole and a frozen tree in the dead of night, he’s just an apparition. Don’t be a fool, the Russians are coming.’ ‘I can’t, I need to know.’ ‘I sometimes wonder if he’s even real, Kate.’ ‘Real! I’ve never felt so alive in all my life.’ In the winter twilight, Kate watches Sofia ski down the track towards the village, pack on her back, pulling a sledge loaded with her precious things. It will take more than an hour to get to Niko’s house; by then, it will be completely dark. As Sofia disappears among the trees, Kate returns to the kitchen. The clock reads three. She feeds the stove: it’s going to be a long cold night, minus forty six, Niko said. The winter war killing droves by frost, many more than combat does. Under the last of the light, Kate pulls her jam-packed sledge a few hundred metres across new snow to the recess of an open barn. She drops her backpack and leaves her skis and poles on the frozen ground. As the barn is near the track and sheltered from the driving snow, it’s the perfect spot to launch her getaway, if it comes to that. Sinking into deep soft snow, she’s out of breath by the time she gets back to the house. Before opening the kitchen door, she looks up at the evening sky, clear and full of stars. Niko’s right: a terrible freeze is on the way, and she pushes the door to feel warmth coming from the stove. Recalling what Sofia said, that this may be the last time they would ever see their home, she wonders if she can find a feeling hidden in the house: something to take with her when she skis to the village in the morning light. Taking time, she explores, walking from room to room, examining small details under candle light, hot wax dribbling on her finger tips. In the attics, full of discarded toys and things unknown from times gone by, she doesn’t discover anything that tugs her sensibilities. Even through the keyhole, there’s only silent black. Finding nothing, just the familiar company of shadows, she eventually stands on the landing looking down into darkness: their great hall, where last summer she and Sofia had had a ball; hilariously drunk, they danced the night away with farcical suitors. It had been their eighteenth birthday party. A week later, Sofia met Niko. Kate had to wait for the frosts of winter war for her first love. Realising it’s not the house she’s going to miss but something else, she hurries down the stairs to the kitchen. The clock tells her: it’s that time again. Outside the kitchen window, fallen snow blows wildly in the wind. On any other night she wouldn’t dare to venture in such conditions, but tonight she needs to know: is he too, prepared to take the risk? She’ll perish if she removes her clothes on the icy low hung branch, so she dresses up in double wool, thick fur boots, an oil skin wrapped around her coat. For ease and speed, she wishes for her skis, but they are in the barn; besides, she never takes them to the tree: it’s a struggle without them on and probably impossible with them hanging off her feet. An arctic wind whistles through the trees. Kate shivers, grimacing as she takes her first sinking step towards the tree. It’s not so far: within earshot, as Sofia pointed out. It’s not every night she comes to rendezvous at the frozen tree. When she does, often he’s not there. But his footprints are, showing Kate he’s tried to seek her out. Once a week their shadows meet, she’s not sure she could take it more than that. The irresistible lure of shadows moving in the dark had been near impossible to explain. She’d come across deranged. But Sofia soon accepted Kate’s divergence, even helping to invent the keyhole game. The tree is sheeted thick with ice. Freezing fast, Kate knows she can’t stay long. Before returning to the house, she touches the gnarly frosted bark, remembering the first time she saw the low hung branch. The war had just begun, the winter not yet harsh. Searching for a pair of noisy owls that had hooted near the house, she jumped up on the snowy branch. Sitting quietly, hoping an owl would fly between the trees, her attention was soon taken by silhouettes of man and dog moving slowly on the moonlit path. Strange feelings came to her. Her heart beat fast. The dog sensed her first. Barking loudly once, it startled the two owls which swooped before her, landing on a nearby branch. She caught a glint of yellow in their gazing eyes. Memories of that first time have become a blur. They briefly spoke, but what about she no longer knows. She does remember pain: the rough bark like ice against her skin and soft flesh open like a wound. With both hands she’d grabbed his coat, pulling him to her and pushing him away. This seesaw motion ripped a button off. Back in the kitchen, horrified and somewhat disbelieving, Sofia listened to Kate’s strange tale. Kate opened her clenched fist, the button falling to the floor. She had found her shadow in the woods. To escape the dreadful winter chill, Kate traces her footsteps back to the house. She’s travelled less than fifty metres from the tree, and now badly shivers from the cold. As the nearest house is in the village, an hour away, wherever he lives, on a night like this, he would never make it to the tree. He’d freeze and perish on the path. What had she been thinking? She doesn’t want him dead. Forlorn and cold, she eats directly from a pot sitting on the stove. With her free hand she plays with the button, hanging round her neck. Kate wakes in the chair by the stove. The room is black and freezing cold. Reaching out to touch the stove, she realises the fire’s nearly out. Not being able to read the clock, she looks through the window at the sky. It’s still night, and she stands to fetch a log from a box nearby. Before she moves, she hears a noise: a loud thud followed by a crack. They’re here, breaking down the door. The front door gives way, crashing to the floor. Foreign voices echo through the hall. She’s quick, outside and heading to the barn. With luck, they’ll think the house abandoned. Inside the barn, she turns around and sees a flashlight shining out the open kitchen door. She hadn’t closed it, and a figure soon steps out. Horrified, she sees the silhouette of an armed soldier start following her footsteps. Kate panics. There’s only one way out, and he’ll soon be blocking that. Desperately scrabbling around the barn, she tries to remember where her Papa keeps the gun. Smelling smoke, she stops her search and stares out across snow. Behind the soldier, her home’s in flames; unbearable to her. Distracted by the sudden glare, the soldier loses Kate’s tracks and is forced to make his own footsteps in the snow. She sees him clearly: struggling, sinking deep with every gruelling step. Letting out a painful cry, he stops, the rifle falling from his bare and frozen hands. Slumped across the snow, he scowls at her before shouting for his friends. But his yells for help are lost among the din of roaring flames. No longer needing Papa’s gun, Kate fits her skis, connects the sledge and lifts the pack onto her back. Passing the soldier, she hears him gasp for breath. Unable to stand or use his hands, he lies face down, trying to worm his way to the barn. If his friends don’t find him soon, he’ll be gone, frozen through. The snow’s lit up in front of her; behind, the dreadful noise of the house collapse. Don’t look back, she tells herself, get to cover, the shadow of the wood. As she disappears among the trees, the way’s confusing, the path unclear. Intense cold, and the fear of being caught, forces her on. Keep moving, she repeats, don’t despair, die of cold or get captured by a Russian bear. The loaded sledge saps her energy. Exhausted, she stops and stares ahead. The shadow’s unmistakable. There’s no dog, and the barrel of a gun points up behind his back. He’s come for her, she’s sure of that. No words, just a clumsy ski embrace. She guides his hand to feel the button hanging around her neck. They shudder, as an icy wind blows its hiss between the trees. Taking her sledge, he guides them through the pines and birch. Following behind, Kate focuses on snow collecting on his coat. Her feet are numb, her knees are tight, the feeling in her fingers gone. The trees thin out as twilight shows his long grey coat, rifle hung across his back. Her brain is fog, her vision blurred but she recognises a large white field, beyond which the village starts. At the far end of the field, outside the first hut, a fire burns. They push towards its heat. Feeling warmth on her face, Kate crumples in the snow. Hands release her boots and pack and drag her to the hut. Propped up against the outside wall, she stares across the flames. Fierce blue eyes meet her gaze, her shadow in the day. ‘Kate!’ Sofia shakes her and passes her a steaming metal cup. With difficulty, Kate takes it, feeling the heat penetrate her gloves. Still staring through the haze of heat, she listens to her sister speak. ‘He’s Niko’s friend. Had no idea he’s your shadow in the woods at night. What happened? Kate!’ Kate turns from the fire and looks up at Sofia, Niko standing by her side. ‘They burnt the house down, to the ground. Miracle I got away.’ All three look across the flames. ‘He’s joining the fight, we can’t stay here. Niko’s car’s not so far.’ Kate wobbles as she rises. Walking around the fire, she stops in front of him and turns, shouting over the cracking flames. ‘What’s Mama’s address?’ Sofia yells it out. Looking in his eyes, Kate says it one more time. Before their last embrace, she rips a button from her coat and plants it in his palm. Back with her skis and sledge, about to leave, Kate turns. He’s still looking. After a moment, he finally speaks. ‘Are there trees?’ ‘A frozen forest full.’