The snow fell in fat flakes onto the ground, obscuring all that lay beneath. A dog nosed in the undergrowth near a mound of earth cloaked in white, digging up wet leaves with its paws, trampling what little grass had managed to poke through the thick covering above. The dog sniffed, its nostrils flaring as it seemed to catch a scent of something that excited it, but a distant whistle from its owner bid it come, so it turned on its heel and ran off.
Mary had never been fond of dogs, but as she watched it leave she felt a pang of sadness. It was so bitterly cold even the thought of sharing body heat with an animal was an appealing prospect. A flash of red caught her attention. She squinted through the falling snow and saw a tiny figure in the distance, weaving its unsteady way across the vast expanse of field between them.
It took Mary several moments to realise the figure was a small child, and by that time it was almost upon her. She grimaced. Her dislike of dogs was on a par with her dislike of children, and in her current situation she was not disposed to tolerance.
As the figure drew near Mary saw it was a little girl, not more than three years old, four at most. Her red duffel coat had a fur-lined hood and matching red mittens that hung from her sleeves on lengths of elastic. They bounced up and down as she ran, dancing in the air as if marionettes on a stage. Her blue plastic wellington boots, too big for her small frame, made her progress ungainly.
Breathless, the girl stopped. Up close Mary could see she had a cherubic face, with rosy cheeks, pink bow lips and porcelain skin. A lock of curly blond hair had escaped from her hood and was dangling in front of her nose, which twitched in irritation. She blew it away with a concerted snort and looked at Mary. “Hello,” she said, unblinking.
“Hello,” Mary replied. “What are you doing out here all by yourself?”
The girl shrugged. “I ran away.”
“And why would you do a silly thing like that?” Mary scolded the girl. “She’s probably very worried about you.”
The girl frowned as she considered the implication of her older companion’s words. “But she was horrible to me,” she said at length, her jaw set in defiance.
Mary sighed and patted the bench. The little girl obligingly climbed up beside her. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to be horrible. Sometimes people say things that they don’t mean in the heat of the moment.” A memory came to her then; a heated exchange, doors slamming, raised voices. She felt a lump form in her throat but carried on. “I’m sure your mummy loves you very much.”
“She doesn’t,” said the girl, folding her arms across her chest. “I’m not going back.”
“Oh?” said Mary, raising an eyebrow. “And what will you do instead, exactly?”
The girl shrugged. “I don’t know. Find a new family, probably.” She chewed on one of her mittens.
“Do you think new families are easy to find?” Another pang, another memory of issues unresolved, words spoken that could never now be taken back.
The girl shrugged again.
“Well I can tell you from my own experience that they’re not.”
The girl looked up at Mary. “Did you run away?” she asked, her brown eyes searching.
“Yes, in a sense, I suppose I did.”
Mary took a deep breath. Was she really about to tell a child what she had never been able to tell an adult?
“I had an argument with someone very close to me, a long, long time ago. We never spoke again. I think it was the biggest mistake I ever made, but it’s too late to go back and change it.”
“Why too late?” The little girl shivered and nestled into Mary’s side. Without thinking she wrapped a protective arm around her, catching herself in surprise.
“Because that person – my mother – died.”
The girl’s eyes widened. “How?”
“In a terrible accident, the day after our argument. So you see, you really must go back and find your mother. You don’t want to have the same regrets as me do you?” The girl shook her head, her face solemn.
The sound of frantic cries sliced through the air like a knife, distant at first, then louder, more insistent. Mary turned to see a woman running towards them. “Alicia!” she screamed upon seeing her daughter, and flung herself down onto her knees in front of the bench to scoop her into a tight embrace. “Where have you been? I’ve been looking everywhere.” She examined her daughter’s face, smothered her in kisses. “You must be freezing.”
“I’m not freezing, mummy,” Alicia said. “The nice lady was keeping me warm.”
Alicia’s mother looked around. “What lady?”
The girl turned and pointed to the bench beside her. A look of incomprehension crossed her face. “She was just here…” Her little voice trailed off.
The woman’s laugh was pure relief. “Of course she was darling.” She kissed her daughter on the top of her head and stood up. “Come on darling, let’s go home.”
“But…” Alicia stared into the space where the old lady had been, her mouth open. She cast her eyes about her one last time before turning to leave.
Mary watched them walk away. She looked down at the white-topped mound before her and wondered how long it would be before someone found her body, lifeless beneath the snow, exactly as she had fallen. Her life for so long had been solitary, it seemed ironic that in death she had, for the briefest of moments, found companionship. It was time to go.