“O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley
“I don’t think it’s coming, do you?”
The snow was falling slowly, but so thickly that it almost obscured the view. Stamping our feet and rubbing our hands together to try and keep the blood circulating in our extremities, Helen, my mother and I, muffled up in duffel coats, woolly hats and scarves, were standing at the rear entrance of Manchester Exchange Station, waiting anxiously for the Sheffield bus to arrive.
The paved area outside the station looked like an unfinished painting, with much of the canvas still perfectly white, as if waiting for the artist to take up his paintbrush again. The snow on the paving stones glittered like white crystals in the murky morning light. Whenever I looked up I felt almost as though I were flying upward to the sky rather than watching the flakes fall, like oversized confetti, towards me.
We had set off from Blackpool earlier that morning in high spirits. I honestly can’t remember which university vacation it was, but it must have been early 1966 as I had already left my miserable digs on the outskirts of the city, and joined Helen in her freezing loft rooms, a stone’s throw from the University campus, and, what was even more important in our eyes, just a couple of streets away from the flat shared by T and S.
We had been back in Blackpool a week or so and were already bored. We were young enough and selfish enough to think only of ourselves and not of our parents’ pleasure in having us home. Blackpool seemed so tacky and down-at-heel, with its Kiss Me Quick hats and end-of-pier shows. No serious theatrical tradition, just variety shows. No intellectual life at all, we would pontificate to anyone willing to listen. We were increasingly impatient to return to our exciting and challenging life in Sheffield in general, and in particular, to the intoxicating company of two foreign students.
So we had concocted an excuse to go back for a day or two, under the guise of a guided tour of the city for my mother, who had never been to Sheffield. Mum, always up for any kind of adventure, readily agreed. My mother had even been known to hop on a bus to Preston at the end of the road, indulge in an afternoon’s window-shopping there, and then catch the bus back — with my father being none the wiser. He would simply remark that her walk had taken longer than expected.
That morning we had woken up to a light dusting of snow, but that was not going to put us off our mission — and our hidden agenda. We caught a red Ribble double-decker bus going to Manchester and arrived there without any mishap, but that was the easy part of the journey. We then plodded through the snow to Exchange Station, just opposite the bus station.
It may seem strange now to think of the terminus of the bus link between two major northern cities being a simple bus stop in a railway station back yard, but it did not seem unusual to us at the time. But it was always with a certain amount of apprehension that we would climb on board the shabby fifties-vintage blue and cream single-decker buses, which would then set off in the direction of Sheffield, wheezing and groaning their way over Snake Pass.
The stop for refreshments on this teeth-rattling journey had been an isolated inn somewhere on the top of Snake Pass, with nothing around for miles but clumps of scree and rocky outcrops; nothing to see but the fog creeping in, shrouding everything in a thick white veil, and nothing to hear but the wind whistling mournfully around the dripping eaves of the pub.
But now, we would have given anything to have seen the snub nose of the Sheffield bus, with its old–fashioned radiator grill, coming in through the gates of the station. There was no notice pinned to the post of the bus stop — no information at all. We waited and waited. We began to lose all track of time— had we been waiting for minutes or for hours?
The biting cold had chilled our fingers into clumsy numbness, seeped into our toes and spread painfully, as if it were our bare feet on the icy white ground instead of our boots. Our lips turned blue and our teeth chattered like castanets, the wind poking us with icy fingers and wrapping itself around us like a shawl woven from the snow itself.
Finally, we were forced to admit that the Sheffield bus was not coming. Snake Pass had obviously been blocked by snow, as it often was during the winter months. The only route eastwards to Sheffield was by rail. Making our way to the main road, ankle-deep in snow, we found a taxi rank and a driver willing to brave the blizzard and take us across Manchester to Piccadilly Station, where, luckily, we found the trains for Sheffield still running.
We climbed on board the next train with a sigh of relief, not least because the heating was on full blast. When the speeding train emerged from Woodhead Tunnel with a strident blast of its whistle, our mouths dropped open with astonishment. It seemed as though we were no longer in the West Riding of Yorkshire, but had been magically transported to Switzerland. A thick blanket of snow lay on the branches of every tree and the hills, their peaks wreathed in cloud, rolled away from us in wintry grandeur.
One thought, however, preoccupied us. We had sent a telegram the day before announcing our arrival at Pond Street bus station. Would our boyfriends realise that the buses weren’t running and second-guess our decision to take the train instead? Would they know at which one of Sheffield’s stations the Manchester trains arrived?
We emerged from Sheffield Victoria station into a chaos of whirling snow. Sliding down the slope and crossing the main road, we saw two muffled figures trudging towards us. S’s wide grin could be seen above his faculty scarf, and T’s half-smile was the only indication of his relief at finding us. They took charge of Mum, shepherding her along the pavement, with T’s arm solicitously around her in case she slipped on the ice. She looked back at me, her eyes wide with delighted surprise — she was already succumbing to their charm. I had had no worries on that score — Algerians, at least at that time, were naturally respectful to their elders.
A quick tour of the Union, lunch there and an afternoon spent at their flat in front of the gas fire saw the hours slip quickly by. How could we manage to have some time alone? Helen and I ushered Mum back to our loft rooms, installing her in my bed — the more comfortable of the two — made her a cup of tea, switched the electric fire on and made sure she had a plentiful supply of magazines. Then, trying to keep our faces straight, we told her we were just slipping out for a while and we’d be back soon. Mum gave me what can only be described as an “old-fashioned” look, but nodded her head resignedly. My mother was nobody’s fool.
We returned to our digs around midnight and crept into Helen’s bed, trying not to make too much noise and wake Mum. Nudging each other in glee at the success of our plan, we were overcome by a fit of the giggles. Suddenly we heard a small voice coming from the direction of the other bed, saying plaintively, “I feel exactly like a child being sent to bed early, while the grown-ups go out gallivanting!”
She had never spoken a truer word.