by Mike Fox
‘Please can I come too?’ Josh said. The snow was freshly fallen and he could visualise the pristine hill clearly.
‘One ride and you’ll want to go home.’ Andy replied, without bothering to look round. ‘You always do. Anyway I fancy going on my own.’
‘I won’t, I promise,’ Josh pleaded. ‘It’s just that I got tired last time.’ It was nearly eight months since the glandular fever lifted, but he still remembered long weeks in bed, missing out.
And any thought of Andy’s sledge filled him with wonder. It had runners shaped like skis, curving side rails that held you in however fast or bumpy the ride, and a sleek mat to lie on, upholstered in blue vinyl and secured with Velcro. The idea that such a creation had emerged, apparently casually, from the shed Andy’s dad used as a workshop, lived in his mind like magic.
‘How did he do this?’ he asked when he first saw it. He stroked the smooth, varnished wood in reverie.
‘Oh, he’s always making things,’ Andy said. ‘Sometimes we hardly see him for days.’
Josh said nothing but continued to stroke the wood. He lived with his mother and had never met his father.
The hill was the steepest in the area, with a one in ten drop, but locally it was known as ‘The Slope’. It was secluded, being half a mile from the village, and fell away suddenly from the dirt path that led to it. At the bottom it tapered into a small wood of alder and beech trees. The previous summer Andy had flown his amazing box kite there, another project from his dad’s shed, while Josh sat watching in the early days of his recovery. He remembered how the red linen sails flashed in swooping patterns high in the warm air, and the easy strength in his friend’s arms as he guided it in and out of invisible thermal currents.
‘If you come,’ Andy said, ‘you have to take as many rides as me. I do one – you do one. And you have to bring the sledge back yourself after every ride.’
‘’Course I will,’ Josh said. Some of the parity had gone from their friendship since his illness, and he was keen to restore it to how it had been before.
It was early January, and this was the fourth snow since November. Josh’s legs still felt heavy as he trudged the path to The Slope, but he remembered the sublime freedom of the hurtling, chaotic descent, as the sledge beat into his belly, following channels hidden in the snow.
When they reached the brow of the hill, Andy aligned the sledge carefully, aiming it towards a central point in the trees. It was their unspoken protocol that he would always go first. He gripped the side rails and kicked powerfully, thrusting himself into a prone position in the same movement.
Josh, the skin of his cheeks almost translucent against the background of snow, watched his friend sliding, somehow both controlled and reckless, down the hill. The sledge bumped and slithered as it accelerated, then gradually slowed into an arc as Andy shifted his weight to one side, before it came to rest on the level ground just before the wood.
Josh clapped his hands involuntarily, and shifted from one foot to the other. He was wearing gloves, a quilted windcheater, and a scarf his mother had knitted. Andy began to drag the sledge back up the hill. He wore only jeans and a thick Fair Isle sweater, and leaned forward purposefully as his feet dug into the snow.
‘It’s quite fast,’ he said, slightly out of breath, as he drew near.
‘It looked brilliant,’ Josh said, immediately wishing that the words had come out more steadily.
‘Feels like there’s some ice underneath,’ Andy said, matter-of-factly. ‘Ideal.’ He turned the sledge around and gestured with his hand: ‘All yours.’
Josh aligned the sledge, squinting casually in an attempt to conceal the fact that his own breathing had become audible. It was the same when they swam in the river, or swung out across it on rope strung from a branch. He could never quite match Andy’s nerve. He gazed down the hill. The snow was luminous beneath the dove-grey sky, and for a moment he felt as though he was somewhere else, looking at a picture.
Then, gathering himself, he gripped the rails and, replicating Andy’s method, kicked back as hard as he could. The sledge lurched unevenly, and for an uneasy second he feared it might stick in the snow, but to his relief it kept going and gradually gained momentum as it yielded to the slanting landscape.
He tucked his lower legs back and allowed the weight of his chest and stomach to sink into the mat, surrendering himself as his impetus increased. Then suddenly, in the moments that followed, the cloying inertia of his illness and recovery slipped away, and he was free. It was a feeling of release, rather than excitement: the transcendence of fast, effortless movement.
Copying Andy, he adjusted his position as the sledge drew near to the level ground, bringing it to a gradual, easy halt. He lay still for a moment, holding the experience inside him, then rose and turned the sledge. He gripped the guide rope purposefully, and began to tug it up the gradient. The quality of light was different at the bottom of the hill, and the pallor of the landscape lent it a quietness that matched the unexpected calm he now felt. He looked up at Andy, who was standing with legs astride, and raised his left hand with thumb aloft. Andy echoed the gesture cursorily then jogged up and down, looking away.
Josh was breathing hard by the time he reached his friend. He bent to turn the sledge round, and said, ‘I could feel ice there too. Half way down it really seemed to take off.’
He looked appealingly at Andy, who just said, ‘It was alright for a first go,’ then set the sledge in a new position to avoid the tracks they had left in the hill.
‘I’m going to try to hit that dip,’ he said, pointing. ‘You can pick up extra speed there.’
‘Good luck,’ Josh said, but Andy was concentrating and seemed not to hear.
He pushed off, and after about twenty metres leaned hard to his right. The dip was almost imperceptible from the brow of the hill, but for seconds after he reached it only his head remained visible, and when the sledge came back into view it had clearly gained velocity. This time it travelled further, and came to a halt just before the nearest tree. Josh observed the bravura performance with mixed feelings. It wasn’t something he could hope to emulate. But he gave his loudest whistle to show he was impressed, then beat his cold hands together as he waited for his friend to return.
‘Really neat,’ he said, as Andy approached the brow of the hill.
‘Give it a go,’ Andy said.
Josh suddenly felt his energy seeping away.
‘I’ll try,’ he said quietly.
‘It’s easy enough,’ Andy said.
Josh made a show of aligning the sledge to hit the dip, gazing down his thumb like an artist, but instead aimed it just to the left.
‘That should do it,’ he said.
He pushed off more fluently than he had managed before, and the sledge moved easily, gaining speed. As he hoped, it passed to the left of the dip and he blew out a breath as it continued smoothly, making new tracks in the snow.
As he pulled the sledge back for a second time, he felt his calf and thigh muscles begin to tighten uncomfortably half way up the hill, and his throat started to burn as he forced deep gulps of cold air into his lungs.
‘Just missed it,’ he said to Andy when he reached the crest.
‘Sure you didn’t chicken out?’ Andy said. He busied himself with the sledge and didn’t wait for an answer.
‘I got the line wrong and couldn’t pull it back,’ Josh replied, but Andy had already moved into position. He kicked forcefully once again, spraying snow behind him.
Josh stood watching, hands on hips as his friend sped away, seemingly even faster than before. The sledge reached the dip quickly, then plunged completely out of sight, as though it had entered an abyss. When Andy’s head and back reappeared he was moving very rapidly, and had to trail a foot to slow his momentum as the sledge drew near to the trees.
Josh, emerging from absorption in the spectacle, whistled and shouted once again. As he watched Andy climbing back, he felt the sweat that had formed inside his jacket grow cold, and began to shiver.
‘That was the best one yet,’ he said, as Andy drew near.
Andy finished climbing, then said, ‘I’ll aim the sledge for you this time. The dip’s amazing and there’s nothing to be frightened of.’
‘I wasn’t frightened,’ Josh said, but couldn’t prevent his breath rasping in his chest. He looked down The Slope, which was now scarred and punctured with tracks and footprints. The light was already beginning to close in, and the trees below gathered in shadows. Suddenly he felt a strong impulse to cry, but fought it back.
Andy was positioning the sledge carefully. He looked up at Josh and paused momentarily when he saw his face. ‘It’s nothing really,’ he said. ‘It’ll be the best one you’ve done.’
Josh nodded but remained silent. He positioned himself behind the sledge and reached down into position. Bracing himself, he kicked, but the power had gone from his legs. The sledge skidded a few feet then stuck in the snow. Immediately he felt Andy almost on top of him holding the rails, his legs pumping hard. Just as the incline steepened he shoved fiercely before releasing his grip, and the sledge shot forward, as though imbued with his force.
Josh held on as tightly as he could. This ride felt different, more like something scary at a fairground that you just had to submit to once you’d started. He tensed hard as the dip approached and gasped at the sudden plummet, as for a moment the sledge threatened to lift from the snow. It was still going fast when it hit level ground, and he had to drag the toes of both his boots to bring it to a halt. Once it was motionless, he lay still again as though trying to regain a sense of himself, and realised that his feet were cold and soaking. Looking up, the shadows in the trees before him had grown very dark.
He lifted himself slowly, turned the sledge, and setting the rope over his right shoulder began to haul it slowly forward. He saw Andy watching from the brow of the hill, standing in a halo of fading light, and wondered if the tremor in his legs was apparent from that distance.
Taking clusters of steps, and pausing frequently to adjust the rope, he began to climb in the crushed footprints that had amassed. The sledge, a living thing in descent, now seemed leaden and inanimate. As the incline grew steeper, he realised there was no way he could conceal his failing strength, and put all his effort into an ungainly struggle to get back. He fought to draw the icy air into his heaving chest, and the exertion of breathing made him dizzy. By the time he had drawn level with the dip, he was only aware of the white ground immediately before him. He thought he heard Andy shout, and then was briefly conscious of falling forward before his eyes lost focus.
At some other point in time he found himself looking upwards, as the darkened sky moved above in slow jolts. His back felt warm, but his heels trailed and bumped behind as though they were hardly part of him. He heard the uneven stamp of sliding feet above his head, and something that could have been sobbing.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, The Nottingham Review, Structo, and Footnote, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. Contact Mike at: wwwpolyscribe.co.uk.