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Night Skating by Lene MacLeod

Updated: Feb 9



Glistening banks line the roadside and I navigate the snowy sidewalk, my figure skates slung over one shoulder, my toque pulled down over my ears. Someone might have stopped me from going out this frosty night had they noticed, but the television set held my family’s attention.

Layers of shirts, including my sweatshirt emblazoned with the Olympic logo, are bulky under my short wool jacket. The past summer had seen the 1976 Olympic games take place in Montreal, and many Christmas gifts bore the emblem.

Cars rumble past on the frozen slush roads and the shops are closed except for a couple of corner milk stores. After four long blocks, I reach the park. I head up a steep winding path, which has been cleared of snow but is slippery.

A woman sits on one of the long benches, the only other person in the clubhouse. She is rough-looking, wearing an overcoat, her long grey hair topped with a floppy knitted hat. She is counting coins in her palm. She shoots me a look and mumbles, “Spare change.”

I’m not sure if she is asking me for money or stating what is in her hand, so I shake my head. I do have some coins in my jeans pocket, but they are to get a bag of fries at the restaurant a block east of the park. Always the best after-skating snack.

I’m tying the skate laces when she says, “Nice boots. Trade?”

Her feet are covered by old brown galoshes, buckles hanging open on the sides. I stare at her, and she laughs. Then she walks out of the building, mumbling, “Cuppa coffee.”

I consider taking my boots outside with me in case she returns to steal them. The only others I see are two big pairs of Ski-Doo boots, and tucked below a bench, a white pair that might belong to Tracy.

Do you really want to carry them around while we’re skating?  Or dump them in the snow so they’ll be wet and freezing cold? I think I hear Tracy’s voice saying that, and I look to my left as if she is right there. Instead, I spot the locked cabinet in the clubhouse corner.

I grab my boots and reach behind the sports locker, stashing the footwear out of sight. “There. Safe and sound.”

Two rinks had been raised, as they are every winter; one has a tall board fence surrounding the hockey ice where a couple of teenage boys are chasing a puck around. My friend sits on a low board at the edge of the skating rink.

“Chrissie! What happened to your parka?” Tracy is wrapped up in her blue snowsuit.

“This is better for skating.” I yank my scarf up, the Arctic bite in the air stinging my chin.

We are the only skaters and soon the two hockey players call it a night, prompting Tracy to suggest we head to the big rink. We trek across the snow between the rinks. I rest, leaning on the inside of the board fence.

“Come, on! Don’t just stand there,” Tracy says. “The weather in Canada can kill you! That’s what my grandfather used to say, and I say this night is so cold it will freeze your eyeballs until they crack or suck the living breath out of your lungs if you don’t keep moving.”

I push off the boards and join her. “Don’t say that.”

“What might kill you is wearing those jeans. Got something against snow pants?"

I’m wearing long johns under my jeans, but the cold night air seeps in through the layers. I say, “They might close the rink if the temperature dips below a certain point.” Still, we skate laps until Tracy bends down by the board, directing me to duck.

“It’s the old lady McTavish,” she whispers. “If she sees me, I’ll have to leave!”

I peer over the boards and see the old woman with the floppy hat. I think of how she eyed my boots but don’t believe we’ll have to leave if she spots us. Long after she passes by, we stay down; Tracy sits on the ice, and I crouch. We chat about boys and school and returning to class after the break. We talk about gifts we received, and I lift my jacket to show her my sweatshirt. She reaches inside the top of her snowsuit and pulls out a gold-plated Olympic emblem necklace. Feeling colder, I want to head home. Just as I stand up, the rink lights go dark.

 

I pull on the metal handle, discovering the caretaker has locked the clubhouse. “Hey!” I shout, banging on the door.  “He’s not supposed to lock up until everyone has gathered their belongings.”

I knock again, simply to pound out my frustration. “I hid my boots.” My voice shakes. “I thought that McTavish lady might steal them.”

Tracy laughs until tears leak from her eyes, threatening to freeze right on her face, but she manages to wipe the wetness with the inside of one mitten.

I turn toward the winding path that leads down the hill.

“Where are you going? You expect to walk home like that?”

I whip around and shout at her, “Why were you laughing at me? And what about you? How will you walk home on your—”

Her skates are tied together and hang around her neck. On her feet are her white boots.

“Ahh, the moment of recognition. You always get lost in our night skates, Chrissie. You forget.”

I turn away again, inching down the path.

“I laughed because you said you hid your boots. Which is ridiculous …”

I stop listening. The hill is treacherous. I once saw a girl try to swerve her toboggan around a group of kids while she zoomed down the slope, and she crashed, face first into a tree. I feared I would fly off the path and meet the same fate, so I step onto the snowy slope instead.

The descent is slow-going. Tracy is sometimes gone, but whenever I grab onto a tree to take a break, she’s present. I gaze up through the snow-covered branches at the clear night sky. A few stars twinkle in the blackness, a beautiful sky giving the illusion of a beautiful night. My feet feel frozen inside the tight skates. I know I’ll never make the walk home and decide to go to the restaurant. I can buy my fries and use their telephone. One of my siblings can bring me my old rubber boots, then I’ll be able to walk home.

Tracy pokes my arm. “Are you still mad at me?”

“How did you get your boots?”

“You always forget, Chrissie. After skating that night, I rushed to the clubhouse and grabbed my boots. But you didn’t make it inside before he locked the door and left.”

I had a flicker of memory: the caretaker walking towards the road where his truck was parked. How can it have happened like that? What did Tracy mean that night, wasn’t it this night?

We are finally steps away from the street that borders the park on the east side, and spotting the telephone booth on the south corner, I think I’ll skip my snack and just call home.

She grabs my arm. I spin around to confront her. Standing there, with gnarled fingers around my elbow is old lady McTavish. I try to run but fall.

“Wait, Chrissie!”

She knows my name? I stare up as she bends toward me. She pulls something from her overcoat, and with frost-covered tendrils of hair waving in my face, she reveals the Olympic emblem necklace.

“That’s Tracy’s. You stole it from her!”

“All I took from young Tracy are her memories. But is it really stealing? Is it if they are my memories?”

She dons a pair of gloves that she found in her pocket and helps me up. Numb from the cold and confusion I stand.

“This is my necklace, a Christmas gift, I’ve kept it all these years.”

I head for the telephone booth. I reach into my pocket and pull out a dime, but it turns to dust in my hand. No, not dust, snow. The flakes blow away.

“I’m going to call home!”

She points to the corner. The telephone booth has disappeared. “I don’t have a cellphone. I haven’t been doing so well the past…few years.”

Cell phone? I picture a telephone on a jail cell wall. Is she trying to tell me she has done time?

“Leave me alone!”

“No, I won’t leave you alone. Not again.” Something about her words hold me there.

“We did argue that night, like you think we did just now. But this…has been a memory.”

My friend’s surname was McTavish – why did I forget that? Her eyes are the same. Even the way she twists her mouth when she speaks. She takes my arm and guides me along the sidewalk, to the long row of hedges at the park’s northern boundary.

“We fought, and I left. When I was a block away, I felt guilty and came back.”

“I hid my boots because I thought you’d steal them. The now you? How is that possible?”

“I said I felt guilty. Not just for leaving you. I’m the one who hid your boots, Chrissie, when I dashed inside. Your memory this time around must be filling in the gaps, making you remember hiding the boots yourself. It was a joke. I didn’t know they’d lock the clubhouse.”

We approach the hedgerows, and I have another flicker of memory—seeing Tracy heading back to the park, and I didn’t want to talk to her. I was angry, so I headed north. There was another route home that way. It would take longer but was easier than trying to go downhill. I hid in those hedges. They were a double row of bushes with a narrow path running between them. Leafless branches in the winter, yet dense enough to hide me in the dark night. I laid on the narrow path curling in on myself because I was so cold.

“When I came back, I called out for you. Over and over, I called your name.”

Chrissie! I’m sorry, where are you? I remembered now.

Later, when it was quiet, I tried to stand. I couldn’t move my legs. They were twisted and frozen.

“All these years, I felt the guilt, Chrissie. When I went home that night, I figured you had done the same. Somehow, passing by me, or maybe the man came back and opened the clubhouse? What did I know.”

We reach the winter-barren bushes. The path in the middle looks inviting.

“I didn’t mention anything to anybody. I didn’t want to be in trouble for sneaking out. It’s only…the next evening I heard the awful truth, that they’d found you. Found you had frozen to death.” Old lady Tracy McTavish stifles a cry. “I’m so, so sorry. I always am. The least I can do is come visit you.”

“I don’t remember. When did you grow up? Get old? I don’t remember seeing you…”

“I moved away for many years, but I had to return. Every year on this date I come to see you. Our memories enjoy that last night skate again. But you always forget.”

I walk into the bushes and lay down. No matter where they’d taken my body, this is my true resting spot. When my memory awakens, I’ll restart the journey of that night, beginning with walking up my block with my figure skates hanging over my shoulder….

“See you next year?” I ask, repressing my rising anger.

“You can count on it.”

My body feels light. It tingles and I know it will soon disperse and fly away in the form of snowflakes. My consciousness will fall once more into a deep slumber.

I will remember. Next time I wake I will remember, and Tracy McTavish, you will pay...

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