Anita Shepherd stood conspicuously by the ski-waxing sign at the prearranged meeting point. Her bilious yellow hat with its oversized pom-pom was her prize for committing yesterday’s “boob of the day”—walking into a window display at the hotel instead of out of the door. She had made sure the other staff voted for her to show the youngsters how to accept a joke against yourself graciously. She was a good teacher. The hat, she realized on this murky afternoon with snow falling and wind rising, was a useful beacon for the ski classes as they clattered up to be checked.
“Miss! Miss! Did you see me on the jumps? I went miles!”
“Yes, Gary, I saw you. I also saw you land. That is what is known as a ‘head-plant’. Candidate for ‘boob of the day’ I think?”
“Ah, you wouldn’t, would you, miss?”
“What’s it worth, Gary?”
“I can tell you some worse ones, miss.”
“OK. Save them for dinner-time.” She turned to one of her colleagues. “How’s it going, Paul?”
“All except Marco’s group. Again.”
“I shall have to have a word with him. It’s not good enough. Would you and the other staff get this lot onto the cable-car and into the bus? I’ll wait and bring the rest down.”
“Yep. No problem.”
She turned her gaze towards the pistes which converged here. The mountain was emptying rapidly. Nursery groups plodded in from their safe meadow, ski-schools trailed noisily down and independent skiers hurtled to spectacular, snow spraying stops. The temperature was plummeting and clouds of breath and cigarette smoke hung over the crowds as they queued to be winched down into the valley. Anita pushed her way through the crush towards the ski-school hut, searching for a string of fifteen year olds behind their red-clad leader. She was tugged from behind.
“Miss! It’s bin great! Marco took us right to the top! I can nearly do a parallel turn now! He says we can try snowboarding later!”
“Thank God you’re back, Julie! I was beginning to get worried. Where are the rest?”
“They’re just comin’, Miss, except for them what fell off the T-bar.”
“Dean and that lot.”
“You didn’t ski down on your own?”
“Has Marco gone back up?”
“No, Miss, he’s gone ’ome.”
By now more youngsters were gathered, bubbling with excitement.
“I’n’t it great! I’m comin’ back next year, can I , Miss?”
“Miss, what we doin’ tonight, miss?”
Anita felt a twist of fear in her stomach. She asked herself, not for the first time, what she was doing here, away from Tom, looking after other people’s children during her own half-term. Was it worth it for the two or three runs she managed each day, to be on duty for the rest of the twenty-four hours? She was a skilled, experienced skier but spent most of her time counting youngsters out and in, organizing every evening’s activities, being first out of and last into bed, dealing with alcohol-induced quarrelling and vomiting, comforting the home-sick, medicating the bruised, the sprained, the ill. And worrying.
The ski-school hut, with its unhelpful, indecipherable notices, was shut and deserted. The cable-car had arrived and would soon be filling. She raised her voice.
“Shush, shush, shush, you lot, and let me think! Julie, which T-bar did they fall off?”
“That one, Miss,” she said, pointing. “They were right near the top.”
It was closed.
“Miss, the chair-lift goes to the same place. That’s still running.”
“You’re right. Thanks, David. Now what I want you all to do is to go to the cable-car where you can see Mr Williams and Mrs Thompson. Tell them what’s happened and that I’m going up to collect them. Then you go down and wait in the bus for me, OK?”
The chair-lift was disgorging but no-one was ascending. Those being helped off, muffled to the eyes, looked pinched and stiff. They were dusted with snow. The air was thick and freezing, making it difficult to breathe. Anita stepped into her ski-bindings and slid along the empty channels to the turnstile. As she operated her ski-pass she heard a guttural voice calling something unintelligible. The ancient lift-attendant, leathery face hidden deep within a black hood, was looking in her direction. He spoke again and she shrugged. He pointed to a clock face pinned to the wall. Anita smiled grimly, nodded and skied into position for the next chair. As it scooped her up and she pulled down the safety bar she could feel eyes watching her.
The chair swung out into swirling whiteness, the rumble of the winch motor suddenly fading. She knew it to be hopeless but her eyes still tried to pierce the opacity. The chair bumped and jogged over the guide-wheels and she gripped her poles tighter. The down cable was weighted with holidaymakers looking forward to a drink, thinking of dinner. She felt very alone. Numbered pylons loomed and passed, loomed and passed. Cold stung her face like acid.