folder Filed in Fiction
The Snowman
A disappearing act, a mysterious message, and, yes, a snowman...
Bernard Steeds comment One Comment access_time 5 min read

A little over three years ago my dear friend Tobias disappeared while he was walking his dog Lucy by the Paddington canal. It was a dull afternoon in June and not many people were about: just a few walkers and cyclists, a skateboarder or two. No-one saw anyone fitting Tobias’s description, either near the canal or along the route he usually took from his flat in West Kilburn. His absence was discovered only when a woman who was passing saw the dog lying beside the canal staring intently into the water. Tobias’s navy blue Marylebone Cricket Club scarf was tied around the dog’s lead. Tobias’s name and number were handwritten on the label. So this passer-by called and left a message on Tobias’s answerphone, and two days later the message was heard by Tobias’s girlfriend, Yasuko, when she arrived to find out why Tobias had not been calling, letting herself in with the key he had given her only weeks before. It was Yasuko who called the Police. She knew there was no way Tobias would have left that dog alone.

There was an investigation. Police divers searched the canal from Harrow Road to Kensal, but found nothing. Drowning was ruled out: Tobias had been a high school swimming champion. Two young constables asked me a series of questions. Had Tobias ever gone missing before? (No, he had not.) Was he in any kind of trouble? (No.) Had he been behaving unusally? (No more than usual.) Was he mixed up with any suspicious characters? (Yes.) Was he employed? (Yes, as an archivist at the V&A.) Was he depressed? (No.) Had he recently experienced a breakup, the death of anyone close to him, a sudden loss of confidence or change in dietary habits? (No, no, and no.) Had he suddenly come in to a lot of money? (No.)

I answered these questions as patiently and honestly as I could. There was nothing out of the ordinary, I said, except that he seemed happier than usual, and had begun to hang around with a guy named Mukhta. Who was this Mukhta, asked the younger of the two officers, the one who did not yet have a moustache. What was his role in Tobias’s life, and where would the officers find him? I did not know. I had never met Mukhta, but had gathered that he was some kind of spiritual teacher, or poet, or yoga instructor―something of that sort. Tobias had been visiting him on Sunday afternoons, and always―if I saw him later―seemed to be in a mellow kind of mood. There was something unexpected going on, for sure, but it had never struck me as dangerous. For all I knew they spent the afternoon reading comic books, or drinking coffee and discussing Camus. ‘He might have some rooms in Camden,’ I said, though I had no idea where that thought had come from. The officers thanked me and left. Three weeks later they called with the news that they had been unable to locate anyone fitting Mukhta’s description in the Camden area, nor any other place. He was, it was implied, someone I might have imagined.

Tobias’s disappearance was difficult for Yasuko. In the first few days she had seemed remarkably calm. Not that she was pleased that he had gone, not at all. It was more like she had fallen into that state that people experience when their car is about to crash: time stops, everything seems still, perhaps their life flashes before their eyes, but above all they are calm. That was the state that Yasuko fell into. She spent those first few days at Tobias’s flat, not really doing anything―just waiting. Sometimes she would sit on the sofa beneath the window out onto Drayford Close, with her legs crossed and her eyes closed. I asked her what she was doing and she said ‘meditating’, in a slightly impatient voice, as if I was some kind of moron. She and Tobias were into that sort of thing. That and yoga and eating detox salads from Mildreds. I wondered perhaps if she should do something, like go through his things and look for clues, but she seemed content just to wait, just to ‘be there for him’ if he walked through the door.

She waited a week like that, maybe two; then she went through a phase of doing. She tidied the flat, washing everything―his clothes, his dishes, his sheets and towels, his curtains. She dusted. She went through his things―even his computer, which had some documents from his work, a few fragments of poems, some downloaded essays about obscure topics (relativity and time, cognitive biases, symbolism in Eliot, the philosophy of the Bhagavad Gita), and a couple of films (Bruce Almighty and My Life as a Dog). None of it, Yasuko said, seemed to offer much of a clue. We were sitting together on the sofa in the front room as she told me this. Her eyes were hot with tears, her face pink and puffy. She kept rubbing her hands together hard as if she expected to peel away the skin and find him there. ‘Oh God,’ she kept saying. ‘Oh God, I’m sorry.’ As if somehow it was all her fault. I leaned over and took her in my arms and held her, just for a moment, and let some of her grief run into me―it was too much for her to carry alone. ‘You were good for him,’ I whispered. And then regretted saying ‘were’.

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