Last December, and the December before that, and all of the Decembers I can really remember, there has been only hail. No snow, never any snow, but always relentless hail. Without snow, I think you lose something of Christmas - for me, building snowmen, making angels, family snowball fights - they're all dim remembrances, things that could have happened but that equally I could have made up in my head. We used to follow footprints, bird prints in the snow, things from the past that we wanted to trace - nothing was ever too small. I have this image in my head of my mum smiling, really smiling (and it was rare that she did that) as she watched me with my red mittens and shock of soot black hair on my third Christmas, placing my hands in the marks that my brothers hollowed out with their pounding feet on the ground. But it was a heavy smile, a reminder of what could have been for her, but what never was. It reminds me, thinking of that, of lucky I am to have her, this mother who has had a life marked with loneliness, who never had a path to follow.
I've gone off track. I'm meant to be talking about the rain at Christmas. So, every winter, as we didn't have the snow to play in, we would go out into town, drenched but smiling, convinced that we were endowed with the 'festive spirit', then we would go and sit in a coffee shop where we found we had nothing to say. We lasted a few minutes, maybe, then a phone would come out, then a book, and my mum would hear the faint 'ting' of her messages, desperate for attention. Beneath every warmed eyelid there were a million work emails hollering, in each clenched fist there was a yearning for essay-writing, for studying itching to be done. Then me, the young one, trying to make eye contact. It always happened like that, me sitting there, searching for familiarity, for comfort, and finding none.
On the way home, I would look at each house and imagine each of them splitting open, white lightning wounds straight through their centres, fissures a thousand miles deep into the fabric of reality. Inside these cracks the rain would pour in and soak them all too. Drip. Drip. Drip.
When we got home about three Decembers ago from this annual family excursion, my dad decided he needed some cash off his card, so he set out again and I watched him walking down the street, his figure becoming more blurred with every step until finally I could not recognise him.
He walked to the cashpoint and he looked up and it began to snow, not for us at home, but just for him, one little patch of cloud dropping white caresses onto his weathered face. He thought of taking it back to us, but whenever he tried to pick it up and carry it it went brown, like sludge, like the earth's decay. He reached the doorway of the bank and tapped his pin into the machine. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Then he bent over and placed his palm against the white surface of the ground beneath his feet, felt its smooth kiss on his skin like white wine on his lips.
He straightened up, caught sight of the Polish shop on the corner, the only one open on Christmas day, and he took the cash out of the machine. The air stank around him, the sickly stench of a corrupt city, a corrupt world - they felt like lead on his eyelids. His footprints made marks in the snow like tar. He didn't remember himself walking there but suddenly he was through the glass doors and into the warmth, the bell singing softly behind him: ding. Ding. Ding.
He noted the vulgar brashness of the sign: 'ALCOHOL' emblazoned in bold black, hanging from the screed ceiling. His hand brushed against the disarray of colours, the cold aluminium holding liquid gold he could imagine pouring down his throat like honey, like forbidden fruit, and he picked up one, or two, or three. Refreshment for the journey home, or so he thought. At the counter, he noted the price ('£9.50 please, sir') but did not object - the world had always charged him too much. He didn't see the point in making a fuss. It never made a difference.
Outside, he looked around in every direction, trying to find his way home. The footprints he had made in the snow melted away into the millions of layers of the earth. He started walking, tentatively at first, one foot at a time, into the winter evening, the darkness that conceals everything that wants to be concealed.
We went out looking for him in the car. The condensation made a thin mist on my window, and I wrote his name in it a thousand times: dad. Dad. Dad. It felt like a game to me, spotting men and shouting, only to realise they weren't him. It was only when we pulled back into our drive, felt the gravel crunching a hundred miles beneath us, that it struck me that it was real. He was Gone.
For every Christmas since, we've sat in our sitting room and watched the hail. As I've grown older, I've started to take annual trips: to the cashpoint, to the Polish shop, feeling my knuckles against the silver, then away in any direction that takes my fancy, as though I could travel through the years and bring my dad back to us. I always end up walking home empty-handed. A failure.
Just like Christmas, some events are supposed to bring you together, but somehow we ended up further apart. Night after night, I dream of the snow falling again, so I can open the hatch and bring noise into my silent home, then crawl out, heart first, and be cleansed.