Secrets in the Snow - Emma Heatherington


‘Please talk to me, Ben. Say something. This silence is driving me crazy.’

I turn on the TV and flick through the channels as the fire snaps and crackles in the hearth, the only thing to break the silence of our smothering grief on this dark, cold November day.

Ben doesn’t answer me. Instead he just wraps his favourite tartan blanket tighter around his ten-year-old body and continues to suck his thumb, a habit that has raised its head again just this week, after four years of going cold turkey.

‘Do you want to talk about her?’ I suggest, feeling my heart tug when I look at the dark rings under his eyes, his pale face, and the way he grips onto an old childhood comfort once more. ‘Is that a good idea? We can talk about Mabel and some of the good times we shared?’

He rubs his eyes and snuggles deeper into the safety of his cocoon, and I frown with despair. The din from the corner where the TV flashes jolly colours and real-time images, reminding us that life, even after the death of someone you love, does go on, while for the moment it seems all in our world is frozen in time as we contemplate our next move.

I curl up on the armchair by the window and stare out to the evening’s midnight-blue sky, then I pick up my phone and Google everything I can find on how to deal with bereavement through a child’s eyes, an action that gives me a feeling of déjà vu, taking me back to a time before now, a time before our new life here began.

My boss and good friend, Camille, texts me just as I’m searching.

‘How’s the little guy?’ she asks. ‘And you? Keep your chin up, Ro. You’re a fighter and so is Ben. You’ve got this.’

A familiar gnawing sensation clenches my insides, bringing back old fears, and my skin crawls with old anxieties rekindled by my child’s inner pain.

I want to take it all away from him. I want him to laugh again like he used to, I want him to prank me with silly practical jokes or to make me smile when I hear him singing in the shower or in front of a mirror as he plays air guitar. I want him to irritate me with his insistence on convincing me to do something he wants and that I don’t, or to make me swell with pride when his magical outlook on life wows me like only a child’s can. His ongoing silence is quite literally breaking my heart, and I’ve no idea what to do or who to turn to.

It’s been two days since Ben mumbled a reminder of how we were out of breakfast cereal, and he hasn’t spoken a word since.

No demands, no requests, no tantrums and no tears. Nothing.

For a ten-year-old boy, managing to be quiet for so long when there’s just the two of us in our little cottage on the outskirts of a tiny Irish village is no mean feat.

He hasn’t responded to suggestions of a day trip to the new outdoor ice-skating rink in town, or shown any excitement over the winter football camp he’d spent the last few weeks looking forward to, and he never even flinched when I suggested a walk by the sea in nearby Dunfanaghy, which is always a popular pastime on the weekend here, whatever the weather.

My normally hapless, clumsy, chatty and often hilarious son has gone totally silent, but at least I can completely understand why.

The breakfast cereal reminder from Ben was on Thursday which was the same day we said our final farewell to our next-door neighbour, seventy-nine-year-old Mabel Murphy, beneath a heavy, grey winter sky in a cold Irish graveyard.

But Mabel Murphy was so much more than the little old lady who lived next door. She was our saviour and our best friend in the whole world when no one else was watching us, or noticed us, or even cared about us. She pushed her way in to fill a gap in both of our lives that we didn’t even know existed when we first arrived here four years ago, numb with grief and fear and not knowing what on earth was around the corner.

‘Of all the places in the world, what the hell brings a pretty girl like you here to Ballybray?’ Mabel had called to me in her thick New York accent from across the garden fence when Ben and I made