Monday, 7 May 2012

Novel: No Such Thing as Snow

By the time we boarded the train it was already dark. It felt wrong to be going to university at this hour instead of coming from it. I was used to the train being full of undergraduates with dyed hair and Oxfam-shop coats. Now it was largely empty except for a few returning commuters and middle-aged county women going home to the tame countryside north of Fulmar. Rob and I sat opposite each other, each holding a bottle of red Piat d'Or. 'Anyone will let you in,' he had told me, 'so long as you have a bottle of this stuff with you. No, I don't know where we're going, and it doesn't matter. Have faith, Daniel, have faith.'
     The non-sequiturs of the afternoon had faded, leaving behind a dull continuous unpleasantness behind my eyes that was either a mild headache or just the rubbing my thoughts made going through my brain. I probably felt this all the time without being aware of it. I had tried telling Rob I didn't feel up to going, but he said a party would take me out of myself, and I had to agree that that was what I needed. Now, as the train moved off, he continued to talk cheerfully about literary theory, ignoring my sullenness. I would rather have gone to sleep, but it was probably just as well he didn't let me, as the journey was only about twenty minutes.
     'I thought I was ignorant,' Rob said, 'but you take the biscuit. And you're supposed to be doing a PhD. Personally I'd kill to do one of those.' He picked up the copy of The Maximus Poems from the seat beside him and leafed through it again. 'It all comes down to language, doesn't it?'
     'Well, of course,' I said, 'I know that .'
     'It's not just the unconscious that's structured like a language, it's the whole bloody universe. And when I say structured like a language, I mean it is a language, because when you come to think of it, Daniel, there isn't any difference between being structured like something and being something, is there? Not that being is the right word, I suppose. Not that something is the right word either. I'm just trying to make it simpler for you.'
     'Don't bother,' I said. We had reached the first stop, Blackburn Circus. A startled looking man in a grey suit squeezed out between Rob's legs and mine, banging me on the knee with the corner of one of those hard plastic briefcases. He had to open the window to get at the door handle on the outside, and it remained open thereafter. He was the only passenger to get out, but the train was in no hurry to move off, and I stared at the Illuminated stretch of concrete with lights dotted behind it like stars. My walks had never taken me as far as Blackburn Circus, and I didn't know anyone who lived there. I had a sudden sense of vertigo, perhaps triggered by the fact that Rob had just been talking about the universe. We moved off again.
     '...because the fact that they have a hundred words for snow,' Rob was saying, 'means that there is, ultimately, no such thing as snow at all.'
     'I thought it was fifty words for snow.'
     'Fifty words, a hundred words, who's counting? Who can count, come to that? The point is that there is no automatic correspondence between the number of words they use and the thing, whatever it is, that the words are supposed to signify. The word tree is not a tree.'
     'I never thought it was.'
     'And colours, as well. If you were Welsh, for example, you would think the tree was blue instead of green. Or rather you'd think it was blue as well as green, because they only have one word for what we think of as two colours. I can't believe I'm having to tell you all this, Daniel. So if you were Welsh a tree would be the same colour as the sky.'
     I shook my head, which was still feeling uncomfortable. 'About this snow thing...'
     'Yes?'
     'Do you think I should put it into my thesis in some way? Snow comes into Polar texts, and I think, on the whole they just call it snow. Scott and Shackleton, and so on. Some of them went north, and came into contact with the Inuit, but I haven't read much about them yet. I don't know whether they said anything about Inuit words for it.'
     'You are so literal minded,' Rob said. 'It could be fifty words for anything, any number of words for anything. Who cares about snow, anyway? This is Helmston. It hardly ever snows here.'
     At that moment, as if to contradict him, a sign slid past the open window bearing the word FULMAR. A kind of seabird, I remembered - I'd never really thought about the oddity of naming a village after a bird. If you could call it a village - there was nothing there, except the station, the underpass, the university and the sign that unified them all under the unlikely emblem of a creature best known for its habit of spitting a foul-smelling oil over anyone that came too close. There were little dancing flecks under the station lights that looked at first like insects. It was not until I got out and they started to flick at my face and the backs of my hands that I realized it actually was snowing.