The Year of Alison
Then, there came the year you started to call me ‘Alison’, instead of ‘Allie’ or ‘Al’ or ‘sweetheart’, when you wanted to call me in for tea or attempt to tell me off. It hadn’t come out of the blue – you’d already started gently removing me from your lap or unwinding my arm from yours as we walked, tapping me awkwardly on the shoulder instead. When I’d frown, you’d say something, quick and irrelevant, as I drew breath to ask you why. Your words were a wedge between my old life, and this new one I wasn’t so sure about.
You’d raised me. You were my only family. But you were getting old, and so was I.
It was hard to do everything by myself. Dressing, bathing, dealing with my own nightmares. I’d had you for all that, before. I wondered, sometimes, whether you missed our bedtime stories as much as I did or whether you were relieved not to have to think about this half-crazy kid who’d been dumped on you, a bundle of warm blankets barely moving, more than eight years before. I was your daughter’s daughter, the child of your beautiful lightning-bolt child, and you loved me like you loved her. Maybe you feared I’d leave you, too. Maybe you feared I wouldn’t.
Hallowe’en was our favourite time of year. You’d bake a cake and make it look like a pumpkin, and we’d play games long after I’d come home, pinch-cheeked, from my rounds of the neighbours’ houses. I knew you’d be watching from the end of our garden as I trudged from one to the next, collecting coins and sweets and chocolate from the kind people who shared our tiny cul-de-sac; I’d pretend to ignore you even as I stole reassuring glances, my mind already half-full of home.
I’d been looking forward to our Hallowe’en for months, this year of Alison, wondering if it would set you back on track. Hoping it would fix things.
‘Go on out, now,’ you said, when it came to the right time. ‘Enjoy yourself, love.’ I stood, witch-bedecked, face-painted, in the kitchen, and stared at you.
‘But aren’t you going to watch for me?’ I asked, wondering why the thought made my heart pound harder than the thought of any shadow-dwelling demon.
‘You’re big enough to bring yourself around now, surely?’ You bent, slowly, to peer through the oven door. The pumpkin cake was baking, unconcerned.
‘Go on, Alison,’ you said, straightening. You smiled, clutching the dishtowel, from across the room. ‘I’ll be here when you get back. I promise.’
And you were. We ate, and shared my spoils. Our laughter held notes of awkward relief.
‘Let’s go out in the garden,’ I suggested, on a sugar high. ‘We have sparklers left from last year, right?’ I loved to watch them dancing in the darkness, held between your steady fingers, far out of my reach. All I could do was look, but that was enough. I didn’t want that power. Not yet.
You grunted and got up, and we wrapped ourselves in coats and scarves. You reached down the box of tiny fireworks and the matches from over the stove, and out we went. The garden was dark and still and quiet, the stars overhead like shimmering dreams. I wanted to spin on the spot until it all blended into one.
The flare of the match drew my eye back to you just in time to watch you set it to the sparkler’s tip. It exploded into life, spitting and hissing like something enraged, a flower of the gods. Your hands were starkly shadowed and your face like a hollowed skull, squinting against the glow. Your eyes were hidden in the light.
Then, you handed the sparkler to me.
‘Here,’ you said. ‘I think it’s time for you to hold this, now.’
I stood and stared at you as it fizzed between my fingers, not even caring that it burned, until all that was left in the garden was its dying red end and the faint starlight, bleached out by its dancing afterglow.
Every year was the year of Alison, after that.