Counting the Clouds

There were no clouds that day. No way to remember it. Alone in the sky, the winter sun had melted ice from the treetops and everywhere was dripping. Snow had become slush and, walking home for the last time, I’d just seen a waiter slip over with a full bottle of wine. The ground had turned pink, which made a change from grey, and I’d helped him up while people around, people still with jobs, had stacked their skis and ignored us both. Then I’d swept the glass into a prickly heap while he fetched another.

It was warm as well, too warm. Children were complaining, throwing hats on the ground and losing their gloves while parents wiped their brows and tried to ignore them. But the kids were winning: there were ice creams everywhere. And more early beers than usual. The bars were crowded already, which meant the pistes would be quiet and I’d wondered about putting my own skis on. But in the end I couldn’t be bothered. I just went home.

That sun got everywhere. Alone now in my tiny room, with the buzz of the street below, I watched the dust dance in the gap between the curtains and wondered where it all went. Did it reach the floor in the end, to be swept up by someone like me, or did some float forever on the currents of air?

I wished I could float on air. It was cramped under the table and if I sat up I bumped my head. If I lay down, propped up on one elbow, I couldn’t see my photographs. But I was safe here. The table stood in a corner of my room and I’d put all the broken furniture against the sides, leaving only a gap at one corner. Then I’d switched off the light and crawled in with my torn-up pictures.

I wriggled round. There was some dust on the floor, mixed with the odd grain of coffee, and heaped up where the table legs met the ground like tiny, grey snowdrifts. I ran my finger along one and felt useless again. I’d been paid not to miss any dust. I pushed it slowly into a corner, watching how the fluff held it all together and then wiped my finger on my handkerchief. It was already spoilt; I’d used it to clean some of the photographs before joining up the pieces and colour had peeled off at the corners. Bits of my twelfth birthday were just a smear on my hankie now.

That day was fixed in my head now. The rain had never stopped and in the end I’d photographed the clouds from my window rather than going outside. Black and aimless, they had matched my mood and I’d taken so many pictures it was difficult to sort the pieces now. But they were important so I lined them all up between the table legs, not minding how long the jigsaw would take. I had nothing else to do.

And then, I decided, I would wipe round the table legs. The room went with the job and when I was kicked out on Saturday it should at least be clean. But I knew now that it hadn’t been a burglary; my room had been smashed up deliberately. So I sat under the table with the shreds of my life and wondered what I’d done wrong. Like I was twelve years old again.

–0–

I’d been quite happy just cleaning toilets. I knew when I’d finished and there wasn’t much to get wrong. I just had to make it look like the picture on the clipboard again. Even the smell didn’t bother me; I’d grown up with a shed and a tin bucket which I had to empty every Sunday. But I was a chalet attendant now, so I had to tidy the bedrooms as well and then make the beds. That was more difficult and Monsieur Parvoise, who was in charge, had shouted quite a lot while I was learning. He’d even said I might have to leave but then Nicki had printed out the instructions for folding the sheets and arranging the pillows so that I could read them slowly. I’d taken them back to my room and learnt them off by heart. Now I hadn’t made any mistakes for a whole month and Mum was going to be proud when I went back home.

I still preferred just cleaning things though and I didn’t want to get yelled at again, so when Nicki asked if I’d give some woman a skiing lesson I said, ‘No, thank you.’ A lesson? All on my own? No way! Skiing was just something I did on my own after work, sliding down the mountain, usually a bit out of control, trying to copy what other people did. I’d got the hang of it now and it was fun, but I had no idea how to teach someone else and I didn’t want to try.

But it was hard to say no to Nicki after the way she’d helped me out over making the beds. And she’d got into a real mess this time:

‘Please, Neil. I put her down for Maurice but he’s busy. I was on the wrong “tab” apparently. Bloody computer.’

‘Can’t you phone up and change it?’

‘No. It was her husband who booked it. Paid cash and didn’t leave a number, so I’m really stuck. You don’t need to be a pro,’ Nicki had wheedled, head on one side at her untidy desk, ‘Just encouraging and kind. Which you are.’

I didn’t know what to say to that but she carried on talking anyway, hardly stopping to breathe. ‘You see he tried to teach her himself but it went all wrong and she ended up in tears, so he came rushing in here to sort something out for tomorrow. He’s really nice and I can’t let him down.’

‘Why didn’t you get his phone number?’

‘I tried to, but he was cagy about it.’ She hesitated then and glanced down as though she was about to tell me a secret. ‘He’s an actor. Does movies. Wouldn’t even tell me his name.’

‘Wow. Did you recognise him?’

She shook her head. ‘Still had his facemask on, and shades. All I could see were very white teeth and some stubble, but he had an American accent and kept hinting about doing his own stunts. Anyway, he’s here incognito.’

Nicky used strange words sometimes. I didn’t like asking her to explain all the time and decided to look that one up later.

‘With a wife who can’t ski?’

‘Exactly. But she used to dance apparently, has a good sense of balance, and he thought she’d just pick it up.’

‘And then she didn’t?’

‘Nope.’

We looked at each other.

‘So…please, can you help? Pretty please?’

She put her head on one side and I pretended not to notice. Nicki was small, round and pretty and I liked her. But in the two months I’d known her she’d already talked me into several things I’d rather not have done, “just to help out”, and I was starting to get cautious.

‘I’ve never taught anyone in my life.’

‘You helped out with those kids last week. Maurice said you were really good.’

‘All I did was ski along with them and stop them going too fast.’

‘He said you showed one of them how to carve. Whatever that is.’

I was getting sucked in again. ‘Well, yes I did, but I’ve never taught anyone on my own. I wouldn’t know where to start. I just ski on my own after work.’

‘You can do it, Neil, I’m sure you can. You’re really good at explaining things and not getting cross. You stopped me getting in a tiz over the computer.’

‘I told you to turn it off and come for a drink.’

‘Exactly. You’re good with people. Better than you think.’

I still didn’t like this; I’d learnt to ski by trial and error and I had no idea if I was doing it right. ‘What went wrong then, with her husband showing her? Did she hurt herself?’

‘No, I don’t think so, but she did end up crying. Remember how cold it was yesterday? Well apparently she felt stiff and clumsy in all the layers and couldn’t stand the helmet and goggles, let alone the face mask. She couldn’t hear properly and just felt stupid, in her own little goldfish bowl, while he shouted away at her from the other side of the slope.’ She stopped. ‘Are you ok, Neil? You’ve gone really red.’

‘Yes, I’m fine. It’s hot in here.’ Suddenly I could feel my own heartbeat.

She looked at me strangely. ‘No, it’s not, it’s cold, like it always is.’

‘In spite of your secret fan heater?’ I said it automatically, turning away to the window and trying to breathe evenly, like the doctor had told me to. But without letting Nicki see.

‘How d’you know about that?’

‘I saw you switch it off when Monsieur Parvoise came in. You pushed it under the desk with your foot. And you nearly melted the end of your shoe.’

She grinned. ‘D’you think he noticed?

‘He was too busy worrying about the muddle with the bookings.’

Nicki pulled a face. ‘I hate that computer. I said to him last week, what’s wrong with a chart on the wall? We don’t need anything fancy; it’s not rocket science. And now it’s got me into this mess, which you’re going to get me out of?’

She put her head on one side again. Tight, black curls fell over her face and I tried to ignore them, still working on my breathing but knowing now that I would help this woman if I could. What she’d said was too close to home. So I looked round the bright little office, with its posters and adverts and stacks of forms and wondered if I really could teach her anything about skiing.

Nicki tried again. ‘You’ll make lots of money, even for an hour. Much more than you got for the kids and if it works out she might have lessons all week.’

I sat on the edge of her desk and jumped as papers slid off the top of a huge pile. She caught them as though it happened often and patted the stack square, her eyes still on me.

‘Well?’

‘Ok. I’ll do it. But I don’t want any money unless she feels she’s really learnt something.’ I stood up again, still uncomfortable with the idea and remembering my mother’s words as I’d left home two months ago. I’d found a dictionary at the airport, looked up “impetuous” and thought it then not a bad thing to be. Now I wasn’t so sure.

Nicki’s eyebrows disappeared into her hair. ‘Brilliant! What changed your mind?’

‘You, as usual. But don’t get cocky.’

She handed me a slip of paper. ‘Tomorrow morning then. Ten o’clock, but not at the assembly point. You’re to meet her at that little wooden hut next to the magic carpet, where they keep all the tools.’

‘Why not the assembly point?’

‘He said no, for some reason, and the hut was the only other place I could think of.’

‘What’s her name?’

Nicki grinned. ‘I asked him that. His wife is French and you’re just to call her “Madame”. But try to sound foreign, sweetie.’

‘How will I know her?’

‘She’s a film star’s wife, Neil. You’ll work it out.’

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