Outside the kitchen window, an alarm call alerts me to an unexpected presence. Glancing out, the movement catches my eye. It seems I have a new neighbour. Russet brown against white snow. A weasel pops out of a hole formed between snow and wall. A hastily run out and then back in again. Then again. Head pokes out first, trembling. A quick dart to the side, out of sight, under the snow. Then a return, running low, grey mouse in mouth. It shimmers up the snow bank, and then down under the oil tank. At least under there it will be dry, and sheltered from the worst of the elements.
Outside is cold, a monochrome world. Grey skies laden with more snow above. The community has rallied round, paths are being cleared, roads kept open. The bird feeders have almost descended to ground level, the bush in which they hang is so weighted down by the snow. Getting to the feeders requires an athletic feat, plunging thigh deep in snow. Still the birds come, desperate for food in this freezing land.
The sideroad and track are no longer passable by car. It is two days since I’ve been up on the hill. The tractor ploughs ahead, between white walls two feet high. In front of the porch the drifts have gathered, three feet tall, scuplted by the wind. I wade through to the door. While I collect what is needed, and pack a bag, the men dig a wider path. All this will need the box on the tractor to take it down to the cars, parked near the main road. The men load and we head back down. A quick unload and reload, and we are off in convoy, back to Ballater. The snow continues to fall. Snow shovels out and my drive is quickly cleared, then a quick wave and off they go. This is community.
We walk across the field, snow up to the top of our boots. The setting sun paints the scenery pale gold red, glowing in the later afternoon. Mountains are silhouetted against winter blue sky. Between the beech trees, the snow has drifted into fantastical sculptures, curved by the wind.
Ahead lie only faint marks of passing traffic. All day long the snow has fallen. It whirls in my headlights, a dizzying spin of white. Slowly onwards I go, watching for the turning. The road is a narrow channel between white walls. A flash from the reflector on the fence warns me that I’m here. Slowly swing into the opening, then chug up the hill. I have arrived.
First time in a while to walk alongside the river. The constant cold this month means that it has almost frozen over, only a narrow channel left where the water rushes through. The fresh snow lies on top of the ice, creating the illusion of solid ground. If you listen carefully, you can hear the water shushing beneath. Step gently here.
Up the hill today ‘the rock of the oak trees’. A steep winding path heads upwards. Patches of snow and ice lay in the open spaces. Elsewhere, the lea of the hill gives shelter from the worst of the ice wind. The winter sunlight shines down, filtered through the bare branches. Last year’s leaves bury the path, a slippery trap for the unwary. Slowly I pick my way along, until the view opens out. The snow dusted foothills loom across the rooftops in the valley. Up above, a bird of prey circles, searching for movement below.
A miserable day. The sleet hammers down, lashing the windows. Grey light filters through dark clouds. The cold seems to get inside my bones, aching and weeping. I huddle under the blanket, hot water bottle at my feet, fingers frozen as I type. I must head out soon, but I put it off as long as I can. The sleet turns to snow. Hat, gloves, scarf and mask. Thermal trousers and walking boots. Outside the snow lands on sleet puddles, forming a thin layer of ice, a trap for the unaware. I scurry along as quickly as I can, anxious to return to the warmth of home.
The snow came again last night. Waking, I sense the hush outside, sound absorbed by the white coating. The morning blue light reflects from the ground. I head out to clear the car. The grass is covered with bird prints, from pigeons who hang about under the feeders, to the blackbird that hops along. A rustle comes from the ivy-covered wall, and out pops the robin to say hello.
Trying to avoid the frozen path, I head home across the golf course. The hoar frost is sticking out on the bushes, spikes in all directions. Autumn’s last leaves are outlined in white, and the blades of grass each have their own decoration. Each step has a soft crunch of accompaniment. A skating rink has overtaken the greens, melted snow now frizen solid. No way round. I slide my feet over the ice, one by one, carefully placing my stick ahead of me. Skating along until I reach the rough with a sigh of relief. Up now, through the birch trees, silver black in their winter dress. Then homewards bound for lunch.