Le Brouillard by Sarah Dale

Anna knew something was different as soon as she opened her eyes. What meagre light there was had a muted quality to it as it entered her room through the gap in the curtains. Passing cars sounded isolated, muffled.

Her excitement motivated her to get up and look outside. The fog was thicker than any she could remember. She couldn’t see as far as the hedge, and could barely make out the trees and bushes in the garden itself. The fuzzy streetlight hovered apparently unaided. She squinted at it, imagining it was a UFO. No birds sang. Nothing – except the hesitant cars – moved.

She dressed quickly, throwing her school uniform on from the chair where it lay. She found her father in the kitchen, fiddling with the portable radio dial.

‘What are you doing?’ Anna asked.

There was no answer.

‘I’ve made you some porridge,’ Anna’s mother said, ‘You can’t go out in this cold without a good breakfast inside you.’

The radio suddenly picked up a clear signal and was playing a song Anna liked. The change from Radio Four this morning was thrilling.

‘What is this bloody rubbish?’ Anna’s father said, turning the volume down. Anna knew that he didn’t expect an answer, wasn’t interested. But because she knew the answer, she told him.

‘It’s Ian Dury and the Blockheads. Hit me with your rhythm stick.’

‘Do what?’ He grunted dismissively.

Anna and her mother exchanged glances. Neither of them spoke.

The song finished. Anna’s father turned the volume up, realising he had found the local station he was looking for. The announcer said, ‘And now for an update on the weather. Freezing fog has settled across the county making driving conditions treacherous. The police have advised drivers only to make necessary journeys. The following schools have phoned in to say they will be closed today.’

Anna listened closely. At last her school’s name was read out. ‘Yes,’ she said triumphantly, leaping up, ‘I’m going to get changed.’

‘Finish your breakfast first,’ her mother said, smiling. She took a breath and then asked carefully, ‘Are you staying here too, David? They said not to make a journey unless you have to.’

‘Oh no, I’ll be fine. I’ve driven in fog plenty of times before. The weather people always get so hysterical.’

‘But I thought you were concerned. You’ve been trying to find the local news for the past couple of hours.’

‘I was just interested, ok?’

Anna’s mother said nothing. Anna noticed how her parents didn’t look at each other. Anna’s mother carried on piling the dishes in the sink and running hot water over the empty porridge bowls.

‘Bye then,’ she said over her shoulder to David, ‘Don’t forget to put the fog lights on.’

‘I can see perfectly well without them,’ he said, ‘you worry too much. I’ll see you later.’

The front door slammed. Anna’s mother sighed, and Anna barely registered the familiar sound. She turned the radio volume up. It was Rose Royce. Love don’t live here anymore.

‘Have you got homework?’

‘Yes,’ Anna said, ‘if I get on with it, I can finish by lunchtime.’

‘I’ll make some soup. Leave you in peace until then.’

Anna sat at the kitchen table and wrote up a physics experiment. She read two chapters of Persuasion and learnt ten words for a French vocabulary test. By coincidence the list included le brouillard. Her teacher was big on the origin of words. Anna learnt that it was a derivation of the verb brouiller, meaning to mix up, confuse. To set at odds. She liked the word, mentally added it to her favourites, the ones that beat their English equivalent hands down – chou-fleur, pamplemousse. She secretly enjoyed homework.

Outside, the fog had not lifted. Anna and her mother ate the soup – leek and potato – and her mother suggested they go for a walk. Anna’s face felt damp and cold, reminding her unpleasantly of raw meat. Droplets of water condensed on the fringes of her hair that were exposed to the air.

‘When we get home, can you light the fire?’ Anna’s mother said, ‘I think there’s enough coal in.’

Whilst Anna laid the newspaper and kindling, her mother busied herself in the kitchen. Later, emerging from the living room, Anna stopped suddenly. The hallway was shrouded in fog. She couldn’t see the kitchen door. Maybe it was steam, or smoke, she thought. She groped her way to the kitchen. There was nothing unusual there.

‘Mum, look in the hall. The brouillard’s come indoors.’ Anna kept her tone light.

Her mother frowned at her, followed her back out to the hall.

‘What do you mean? It can’t come indoors. I don’t know what you mean, I can’t see anything.’

‘You must be able to. I can hardly see you from here.’ Anna stood by the front door and waved wildly.

‘Wave all you like,’ Anna could hear the anxiety in her mother’s voice, ‘there’s nothing there. It must be a trick of the light for you. Are you sure you’re not getting a migraine? Perhaps you should take an aspirin?’

‘I’m fine.’

Anna felt herself stiffen, brace. She wished she hadn’t said anything.

‘Well, if you’re sure,’ her mother said. Anna heard the kitchen door close as her mother retreated.

The rest of the afternoon passed quietly. Anna warmed herself by the fire, and watched some children’s television. At fourteen, she already felt nostalgic. The smell of beef casserole and baking potatoes slowly filled the house. She tried not to think about the fog but it was still there when she went through to the kitchen when her mother called her for tea. The fog was at room temperature, a shock somehow. Gently swirling, lapping at the doorways.

Anna turned on the black and white portable kitchen television, ready to watch the Waltons.

‘What time do you think Dad’ll be home?’

‘I don’t know. It might take him a while in this weather.’

‘I hope he doesn’t get home before this finishes.’

‘Oh, don’t be like that. He gets tired, that’s all. He doesn’t mean to be like he is. He’ll be home when he’s home, you know what he’s like.’

Anna focused on the television. Before long she was lost in a story of Jim-Bob falling in love. She felt she’d die if anyone found out how she felt about the Walton family. How she savoured their highs and lows, the way they helped each other. The way they talked, and listened. Fought and made up. She held it in tightly, taking it to her bedroom to be unpacked later in her mind, rolled around at her leisure. Like a parched person in the desert making the most of a small glass of water.

At 6.25pm, they heard David’s key in the door. He picked his dinner up from the oven where it had been kept warm. He sat down and peered at the television, looked at his watch and said, ‘Good, just in time for the headlines.’ He switched the television over to the news.

Anna’s mother looked down at her plate. Anna said, heart beating fast, ‘Oh, we were watching that, please can we see the rest of it?’

‘I need to see the news.’

‘But – the news is always the same anyway. Always strikes. Boring.’

Anna looked at her mother for back up. There was none forthcoming. Anna’s mother got up and started preparing pudding. Cake and custard, a depressing dish in Anna’s mind. A thrifty way of using up slightly stale cake in her mother’s.

‘Rubbish. It’s important to know what’s going on, one of your calibre should know that. Whose television is it anyway? I’m not sure you’re old enough to have opinions – we never expected that, did we?’ David smiled, raised his voice over towards his wife. It was delivered as a joke. Hearty joshing. If she didn’t smile, Anna knew she’d be accused of not having a sense of humour. Or be told off for showing off.

‘Oh, David,’ Anna’s mother said, reproving, tired.

‘What?’ David’s eyebrows raised, his eyes widened with his smile. His jolly tone was one of arch innocence, ‘She knows I don’t mean it. It’s a joke.’

Anna stayed silent, seething with rage and disappointment. The television continued to screen the news. She didn’t say more. It was always better not to turn it into a point of principle that could jeopardise future opportunities to watch programmes she liked. Arguing could also mean her father was tipped into a migraine, when he wouldn’t be able to work for a day or two. His health was precarious. She understood well the ultimate importance for all of them of her dad being in good shape to earn a living. The living that paid for the television for instance.

She looked down at her plate to control her emotions. When she lifted her eyes, she couldn’t see across the kitchen for fog.

‘Can you see that?’ she asked.

‘What?’ both her parents spoke simultaneously. There was a note of anxiety in her mother’s voice, of impatience in her father’s.

‘The fog. It’s indoors.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ David addressed Anna’s mother, ‘Do you know what she means?’

‘No, she said the hallway was foggy earlier. I thought it might be a migraine, or smoke from the fire. Her eyes playing tricks. I think you should take an aspirin, Anna. Lie down for a bit.’

As her mother spoke, the fog intensified around her parents. Anna couldn’t see them at all for a moment, but then it cleared slightly as they moved on to talking about David’s uneventful journey home.

David’s attention went back to the television, where news reporters in thick coats with their hoods were talking about a pile up on one of the motorways further north, and interviewing police about drivers who had been going too fast, and hadn’t been using their fog lights.

‘It wasn’t that bad, really.’ David seemed cheerful, bright, ‘I could see perfectly well.’

Anna’s mother put the bowls of pudding on the table, and a glass of water with two dissolvable aspirin fizzing in it in front of Anna.

‘Are you sure you’re ok, Anna?’ she said, concern swirling with the vapour, ‘I can get you a doctor’s appointment if you think there’s something wrong.’

‘I’m fine Mum,’ Anna suddenly felt exhausted. She could only see her parents vaguely, across the table from her. The fog swirled and settled, bringing their faces in and out of view.

After the dinner was cleared away, they all moved into the living room, to watch the colour television. The fire was warm, burning well. But Anna could only make out a haze of blurry light through the fog that was now everywhere downstairs. Her parents occasionally made a comment to each other, about the documentary they were watching, or at one point to go and fetch some fruit. Their voices sounded disconnected from their bodies.

At around 9pm, Anna said that she was off to bed.

‘Ok, good idea to get a good night’s sleep,’ her mother said, ‘Don’t read too long. We’ll watch out for the forecast to see what tomorrow will bring.’

The news headlines were being announced. Her father was paying close attention. ‘Don’t know what the country’s coming to,’ he remarked, as the news of the rail workers’ strike was discussed. David didn’t acknowledge Anna leaving the room.

As Anna went upstairs, the fog continued to be all around her. It was on the landing, in the bathroom. She rubbed her eyes, unable to stop herself straining to see through it. She looked in her parents’ room, the spare room. Everywhere was blanketed in thick fog except her room. She shut the door behind her, leaning on it in relief, and breathed deeply.

She burrowed into her bed and her book. Later, when she turned the light out, she allowed herself at last to wallow in the Waltons’ storyline and to imagine a good ending to it. Imagine that John-Boy was her big brother, looking out for her. Night, John-Boy. Night, Mary Ellen.

The next morning, Anna went straight to the window on waking. She felt her spirit sink at the colourless vegetation and bare trees, the leaden January sky. It was clear. No fog. The cars were rushing by in a steady stream as usual. The streetlights were shining their familiar unpleasant orange. A normal day beckoned.

Anna dressed for school. As she left her room, she plunged into the fog on the landing. In the bathroom, on the stairs, in the hallway, in the kitchen. Her body and voice seemed to float away from her.

She didn’t comment on it when she joined her parents for breakfast, or ever again. Her parents never asked about it. It never lifted from the house, and eventually Anna left home.

Sarah Dale is a postgraduate student on the creative writing MA at Birkbeck University. She lives in Nottingham (a UNESCO City of Literature), runs her own occupational psychology practice, and is the author of Bolder and Wiser. Her Facebook page is here and she tweets here.


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