In ‘Igloo’, sixteen-year-old Nirvana relates her own story, which begins on Christmas Eve.
But here’s what happens three days earlier, in Niv’s ‘ordinary world’, when all her plans and Christmas expectations are first up-ended in a way which will change her life.
Christmas is the frost that’s turned the square of grass white in our front garden, clouding my breath as I crunch to the front gate; Christmas is the pine tree, dark with promise in our bay window as I look back over the hedge from the pavement. The holidays will start finally start when I get home again at dusk and now it’s the solstice, the fir’s all lit up like ... a Christmas tree! Then it’s over to Claude and me to decorate it while Mum makes us her hot chocolate de luxe. When we start to put the presents under it, even Rova’ll start to get excited.
Somewhere in and amongst, I’ll find the right moment to tell Mum my plan.
Right now, I’m in no hurry, so by the time I get to the crossroads, most of the others going to Presdale Girls’ are already in front of me. Straight ahead, navy figures stream in the same direction. I’m wearing the same uniform, but I cross over a different road. Turn left. Down a quieter lane.
After a couple of minutes, the terraced houses peter out and yes! an amber glow as the sun puts in its first appearance above the birches of Pendle Grove.
I cross over again and pass a red sign shouting DANGER, KEEP OUT! Then the reason why: DEEP PITS
My space is right in the heart of the woods. So dangerous it’s safe.
The bell pits appear as dimples carpeted with mossy grass but underneath, the shafts can be ten metres deep. But I navigate my route by the familiar spacings between the silver birches. Our nearest countryside, Grandad started bringing me and Rova here on walks when I was no more than three, showing me where his dad used to mine coal before it was all closed down and saplings planted.
I pause on the curve of the semi-circle of my clearing. Since I was here eight days ago, golden medallions of leaves, lightly frosted now, have multiplied below the audience of pewter trunks. I stride across the space to my stash, lying between two tall birches. The length, breadth and height of a low single bed, it’s still snugly covered by its tarpaulin. I drag out my make-shift workbench from just in front of the stack, drop my backpack by it and pull on my blue overalls.
Just when I’m ready for action, long, tangerine rays slant across the trees’ topmost branches. I can’t deny the extra kick out of not squandering this gorgeous, Christmassy day in school.
As I uncover my gold-flecked oak boards, a warm, aromatic scent greets me. I rest the back of hand on the top plank, as if taking its temperature. Cool but dry. Ready for prepping. Three boards to finish today, then I’m done. For now. Grasping the first of the un-worked planks in its middle, I swing it up and round and lean it gently against the smooth trunk of one of the birches. The same with the second. The third I heave onto my work bench, one end at a time.
As if from nowhere, a robin, the spirit of oak trees, it’s said, alights on a low branch opposite me. He sometimes turns up to supervise.
Where’ve you bin, Nirvana? he seems to say, cocking his head.
School, home, I think. You don’t know how lucky you are, coming and going in these woods as you choose.
Pendle Grove’s my escape when school and home get too suffocating. Sometimes they seem to squeeze me so hard I’m like the curl of toothpaste that oozes out the side-seam of the tube if you leave the top on.
I turn away to extract the planing tool from my pack. And, tucking my hair behind my ears, I’m off, sliding it along the board to shave off its surface, arm out and in along the plank, a bit like ironing, only the metal plane’s a lot heavier than any iron, so soon my bicep’s aching.
A blackbird starts up a thrilling song high above us. The robin tilts his head again.
I know how he feels, from all those times I’m talking to Mum or Dominique and get upstaged by one of Claude’s “Guess what I can do’s.” It’s usually something flashy like counting up to a hundred in English then down again in French. I get confused by the quatre-vingts, but my little brother’s not even started school yet.
But at least I’ve finally found what I want to do instead of school. Something that fits me. And I’m gonna tell Mum as soon as I can get her on her own, before Dominique gets in.
“Blackie might have the voice,” I tell the robin, his orangy chest glowing amid the grey of the birches, “but you’re the one all over the Christmas cards.”
As I shave off the top, greyish layer, scattering leafy sawdust, the buttery flesh of the wood starts to emerge. I’ll keep at it till it’s all gold, darker towards the middle, the heart wood
“What’s going on ere then?” a mock gruff voice asks from behind me.
My shoulders jump, even though I know who it is. Sab’ll have come via what used to be the train track, the way her brother Alz got my timber here in September in their Fit Feet Fast van.
I turn and smile at the silver reindeer scooting in various directions across the dark sky of her hijab. Otherwise she too’s in our navy uniform.
“Wasn’t sure you’d want to miss the sixth form panto,” I say, as she plants herself opposite me.
Right, yeah! her raised eyebrow says, as she gives me one of her sharp looks. Most of Sab is hard and sharp – eyes, nose, mouth.
“S’nothing like a table,” she says of my wood, twisting her mouth in doubt.
“After today, the boards’ll be ready for cutting and constructing,” I explain. “But for this next stage, I’ve gotta have an indoor space where I can leave it all laid out, wherever I’m up to. That’s my mission, starting tomorrow – gonna recce for… I don’t know – a guide hut, outhouse at the cricket club or bowling green …”
Cos I’m resurrecting Querky, Grandad and my beloved oak tree and it’s got to be ready to go in his new place on February first. Querky was murdered when our local council compulsory purchased Grandad and Nana’s garden for a friggin access road to the new housing estate just beyond their house. No respect for this ancient tree that’d stood firm for three hundred years while life changed all around it, a tree I’d lived with for the first nine years of my life. Six months later, Nana died too. Having lost the heart of his home, Grandad’s going back to his roots, a tiny mining cottage his father grew up in.
“Your parents are gonna ask, you know, where and when you built the table,” Sab warns me, in full pull-Niv’s-head-out-of-the-sand mode.
“They can ask all they want - once it’s made. Once I’ve dazzled them with it! Otherwise, you know what Dominique’ll say – but it is your GCSE year, Nirvan-ah.”
I impersonate Dominique’s French accent, complete with wrong emphasis on the final –a of my name.
Sab snorts. “Like we could ever forget!”
Exams are why Mum pulled the plug on my time at Hackspace back in June – straight after my rubbish end-of-year-10 exams. I’d been spending all my Saturdays there for a year, ever since I told Ms Grafton, my Design and Tech teacher about the plight of our very special, veteran tree and she suggested donating him to the the creator-place for woodworkers in Manchester. A year that at least mean I learnt the basics of my craft.
But the ban meant I had to find myself my own mini Hackspace for me and Querky - in the Grove! And now, he’s seasoned – dried - and ready for building.
“Help me flip this’n over, would you?” I ask Sab..
She gives my lovely board a suspicious look, like it might bite.
“Splinter-free now,” I tell her.
Warily, she goes to the other end and we turn the plank over. By the time I’ve done the other side, it’s all but lunch time. Sab helps me put the first board on the stack and replace it on the bench with one of the two still needing planing. Then she settles into the comfy concave part of one of the twin birches, whiles I sit opposite and swap a cheese butty for one of her chocolate bars.
When I go back to my planing, Sab starts to thumb her phone, probably some marketing for their family business – she’s a natural at it. Wish she could be free of it for a bit only her parents expect it of her – as well as doing well at school. Which neither of is a natural at. I know she often feels like squished toothpaste too That’s why I invited her to the Grove in the first place. Now it’s becoming her happy place too: with bird song instead of changeover bells, natural colours and curves instead of the straight lines of everything at school, our brains can start to calm down; we can find the space to be our real selves.
The quiet resettles; the gentle sun finally hauls itself into full view, warming my cheeks as I lose myself back into the smoothing rhythm. There’s nowhere I’d rather be, nothing I’d rather be doing than enabling Grandad to take part of Oak Vista with him when he moves. In each sweep of my arm, I’m aware this is the body of the precious tree we both knew and loved so well; in each sweep, I put in the care; the thought for the user which Ruskin says is the vital ingredient of hand crafting. Bit like people say food tastes better if made with love.
Finally, I straighten up, arching my back against the ache.
“What you reading?” I say, surprised to see Sab’s swapped her phone for a book. It’s so hard for us humans to do nothing; to sit and observe our beautiful world, like the robin.
She holds up her copy of Romeo and Juliet.
“First exam in Jan, innit? I know we’re supposed to have studied it in year 10, but it feels like I’m reading it for the first time.”
“That’s cos you are,” I say, going back to my planing. “You were working on the branding for your dad’s company at that point.”
She winces and sticks her nose back into the book.
“What’s Juliet mean here,” she says in a bit, “‘You kiss by the book’? Sounds like Romeo’s clutching Kissing for Dummies in one hand – glancing at it over her shoulder!”
“I think Miss said that could mean he kisses really well. But how can that be when it’s not got any .... feeling behind it? I mean, they’ve only just met, hardly spoken, how could it be anything but ... I don’t know, technical expertise?”
She sniggers. “I’d settle for a bit of technical expertise!”
I huff. “Yeah well, much as I don’t like to be the one to break this to you, the closest we’re gonna get to kissing any time soon, expert or otherwise, is reading about one in plays written four centuries ago!”
She flicks a glance at me. “Yeah, thanks for that, Niv.”
I shrug. “Spoiler alert but if it’s any consolation, that first kiss leads to a pretty painful ending!”
Rolling her eyes, she helps herself to my Parka as an extra layer against the cold and goes back to the book.
I wrap some sandpaper round my block. What I don’t like to say to Sab is, I think, given my plans for after the summer, I’ve loads more chance of meeting lads than her. But the ones I’ve met so far, at Hackspace and my Saturday jobs, just talk to my chest, if they talk to me at all.
I’d need a whole new model of lad. One I can talk to properly, who gets the real me.
The birds of the Grove start a last calling out before the light fades - tragically, time goes twice as fast here than at school, I swear. And today is the shortest of the year. I’ve just about finished sanding the final plank anyway when Sab declares home-time. As she helps me put my boards back to bed, replacing the airing slats between them, the glade’s lost all its colour now the sun’s slunk away.
“Don’t know how I’m gonna get out now term’s finished,” I sigh, crouching down to tuck my boards in, the tarpaulin their duvet.
“Say you’re coming to mine. For revision.” She pauses. “And better still, Niv, actually do it sometimes.”
My heart warms. So far, apart from the few days we’ve met at the Grove, we’ve only hung out at school, where we’ve bonded over being bottom in the subjects the rest of the world thinks important.
“Sunday?” I ask. “At yours, I mean, not here.”
“Yep, any time afternoon,” she says,
“S’gonna rain before long,” I tell her, sensing the drop in temperature in my shoulders as I shake the r shavings off my overalls and stuff them in my pack.
“Sunday!” she says, handing me my Parka back, warmed.
And we set off in our opposite directions.
Neither of us suggests what we could revise.
Just as I emerge from the trees onto the lane, the first splodge of rain hits me on the cheek. But nothing could spoil my mood right now: no school for two weeks; an invite to Sab’s, plus an on-going revision-with-Sab alibi for getting this table built.
All I need now is to talk to Mum about my plan.
On the way home, I rehearse the conversation, over and over, in my head.
I’ve got some good news, Mum ...
Some great news?
And I have. I’ve done my research, found my future. Though I’d be waiting till I’d finished the table before I told her, if it weren’t for a looming deadline.
Proper rain now, slattering against me at an angle on this open stretch of road. I hutch down into my Parka. On Castle View, other Christmas trees, real and artificial, all shapes and sizes, cheer me on my way. Ours’ll be the best though, obviously! I bet Claude’s got all the decorations lined up on the settee ready. He’ll be squeezed in next to the tree looking out for me by now.
Oh! That’s Dominique’s car outside our house. My heart shrinks. I s’pose it is the last day of term, but how am I gonna talk to Mum now?
And when I look at our window, the tree’s not even lit! That’s Dominique for you – soooo un-Christmassy.
I do a double-take. It’s not Claude at all standing by the tree looking out for me. But Dominique.
My heart constricts, sharp. Not bad news? Not my Grandad.
Rova? At sixteen-and-a-half, she’s old, even for a sheepdog.
I stop at the garden gate to breathe. More likely, they’ve had a call from school – unauthorised absence. That’d be ... painful but infinitely preferable, obviously.
Dominique’s at the front door now.
But smiling. Beaming even.
“Nirvan-ah! Why are you standing out in the rain?” she calls down the path to me. “Come in quick!”
Claude appears beside her, his black curls quivering with excitement. “Hurry up, Niv - Maman’s got a big surprise and she won’t tell till we’re all here!”
Scarcely letting me get out of my soggy coat and shoes, he tugs me into the living room, where Rova’s asleep on the rug by the gas fire. The decorations are dumped in their boxes by the tree.
“Niv, love,” Mum says, bustling in with our hot chocolate in reindeer mugs. She’s all springy too. “School’s out!”
“Yeah,” I say, “So why’s the tree not lit? What’s going on?”
“Aha!” she says, mysteriously, putting her tray on the coffee table.
I pick up a mug to warm my hands and sink onto the settee, gazing at Dominique who’s almost bouncing on the armchair in the corner, waiting for us to be ready. But for what?
“Alors,” she says, once the three of us are sitting down, all in a row, “As you know, I was made head of department in September.”
I breathe again. So that’s what this is about – another promotion. Deputy head already?
“That means we have a little extra money. So. When I saw the snow forecast for the French Alps ...”
At ‘Alps’ my heart gives a leap. Mountains. In my mind’s eye, saw-like mountains rise like jagged waves till the biggest one of all breaks – Mont Blanc itself in its glorious, irregular pyramid. White of course.
Claude’s edged to the front of the settee.
“....and found a last-minute bargain, I thought...”
“Yes!” he yells, jumping to his feet and punching the air. “Skiing!”
Dominique throws up her hands. “Yes, a ski holiday - my Christmas present to you all!”
Claude’s flat on his back now, gazing at the ceiling in stunned ecstasy. But in my head, ‘skiing’ replacest my grand, calm mountains with metal slicing up their smooth snow, wrecking the silence.
“We leave for Geneva the day after tomorrow,” Dominique tells me.
“Sunday!” I squeak.
“But ...Grandad,” I stutter. I turn to Mum. “You know about this? I thought Dominique meant after Christmas.”
Grandad’s first without Nana. Possibly Rova’s last.
Mum smiles but only after a shadow’s passed across her face.
“I talked to your grandad this morning, love, as soon as Dominique rang with her amazing plan. Don’t you worry, he’s more than happy to go to your uncle Graham’s this year.”
I doubt that very much - Grandad’s never even just happy anymore, however good a face he puts on it. And couldn’t you have run it past me too? I’m not a four-year-old ski-mad kid – I’m sixteen now, with thoughts and feelings of my own that aren’t replicas of the three of yours.
Dominique crouches to scrape Claude off the floor and pull him onto her knee. Over his head, she fixes me with her ice-blue eyes from under her straight black fringe. “And you don’t need to worry about fitting in your mock revision either, Nirvan-ah - I have only booked ski school for the afternoons.”
More school? I slump down into the settee. And skiing. I’ve never liked sport for the sake of it. Walking to enjoy your surroundings, get somewhere, yes. But zooming pointlessly downhill over and over again without savouring the mountain you’re on, that’s the very last thing I want to do.
It’s Claude who’s been natter canning about when he’ll be old enough to start ski lessons and Dominique who’s missed it since he was born. Mum’s often joined in with them, reminiscing about her annual uni trips to various ski resorts.
“The lessons will help with your French speaking and listening exam too,” Dominique’s telling me.
I sink down still further.
“We’ll need to get all the gear,” Mum says.
Dominique nods, her eyes shining like glass. “Of course. There is ski hire in the little village we are going to, near Morzine, but first thing tomorrow, we are off to the Presdale Centre for ski wear!”
Shopping? Uggh! And after failing with guides and karate, yet another attempt to get me into a uniform in my free time! And how am I meant to find a place for Grandad’s table now, let alone start building it over the holidays?
“Moment ...” Dominique says, shrugging Claude off and leaving the room. What now? Claude trails after the pied piper of all his dreams.
This lump’s formed in my throat.
”Will Grandad really be all right without us?”
She reaches between us for my hand Smiling at our closeness.“If he says so, Niv. You know your Grandad – he doesn’t say things he doesn’t mean.”
I twist my mouth. No, but he does say things he knows will make Mum happy.
“And Rova will be great company for him,” she adds.
Dominique reappears with a bottle of fizzy wine and three of our best glasses, Claude with a can of pop, a rare treat in our house.
“Donc, joyeux Noël!” she says, popping the cork.
Rova glances up, blissfully unaware we’re going to be forced apart.
“Joyeux skiing!” Claude says, cracking his mini-can of lemonade.
“Here’s to our first white Christmas,” Dominique says, handing a half glass to me. “Our chalet’s even got wooden-shutters and a wood-burner- très mignon, Nirvan-ah.”
I give a little smile: it does sound cute. And I have been campaigning for a log-burner at home, especially now we’ll no longer have Grandad’s one. But all that doesn’t make it right to split up our family at Christmas.
“Santé!” Mum says, “And thank you, for this huge surprise.”
“Mais notre sapin de Noël?” Claude says, now finally clocking our tree, still dark and unloved.
“There will be a tree already decorated for us,” Dominique says.
As ever, she’s thought of everything.
Knocking back the last of my fizz, I shove the decorations into a corner with my foot and put my glass down on the coffee table.
“I’ll replant ours in the garden then,” I say, putting my arms round the big bucket I potted it in only yesterday.
As I waddle the tree outside, leaving the three of them to their lists of ski gear, I’m having to rethink not only our entire family Christmas, but seeing Sab and sorting my boards too.
That doesn’t mean I’m giving up all my plans, though.