Tag Archives: using image prompts in writing

Wednesday Writing – The ‘It’ Girls

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: OrangeCounty_Girl via Compfight cc

The ‘It’ Girls

‘Why is the box just plain white, Mum?’ She twists in her seat and frowns at it. ‘Did they change the packaging, or something?’

‘Must have,’ I say, swallowing a yawn. ‘Eyes front, Marie. You’ll get sick, otherwise.’

‘Whatever. I haven’t been carsick since I was a kid.’ She twists further, and I’m terrified she’ll lift the lid.

‘Wow. That long?’ I mutter as I flick the indicator.

‘Ha ha,’ she mutters, rolling her eyes, but she settles back into her seat. ‘Hey, I hope they didn’t, like, cost loads, or whatever.’

I wait for the throb in my heart to subside before I’m able to answer. ‘Why would you say that?’

‘No reason,’ she sing-songs. Sometimes she sounds just like the TV. ‘It’s just – thanks, you know. For getting them.’

‘Yeah,’ I say, pretending to be distracted by a passing car.

‘Georgia’ll have made such an effort, you know? To have the perfect party?’ I cut a glance across at her. She’s staring out the side window, chewing the inside of her mouth. Her hands are hidden in her sleeves, but I can tell she’s picking at her nails.

‘It’s just going to be a few of the girls from class, isn’t it?’ I say, looking back at the road. The turn for Georgia’s house is less than a hundred metres away, and the base of my skull begins to throb, slowly.

‘Well, yeah. But they’re the important girls,’ Marie sighs. ‘And don’t give me this ‘you’re all equally important’ stuff,’ she interrupts, loudly, right before I’m about to say those exact words. ‘You know what I mean.’

‘All right, darling.’ The turning light changes to red, and I fight the urge to swing the car into a U-turn and zoom back into town, but I know the shop is shut. Christabel’s Cupcakes, even though the woman who runs it was baptised Tracey and God knows where she got her notions about ‘cupcakes’ from, because they were simply called ‘buns’ when I was growing up. Christabel’s sell their wares in light pink boxes, not plain white ones, and they wrap them like Christmas presents, and there’s always a queue out the door. I should have just found the money from somewhere and slid it across the counter in return for twenty identically perfect cakes, buttercream with silver sugar accents in silver paper cases, delicate vanilla sponge, light as a dream.

I should have. But instead I stayed up till 2 a.m. trying to bake quietly enough not to wake my sleeping child upstairs, and I found a plain cake box from somewhere, and that’s what’s waiting on the floor of the car. I’m not even sure if any two of the buns I made would pass for the same in a bad light, from a distance, and this is what I’m sending my girl into a party with.

‘So, like – are they pretty? The cupcakes?’ Marie asks, and for a second I don’t know what to say. The light turns green, and she doesn’t press me for an answer as we wait for a break in traffic. We turn off up the hill towards Georgia’s, and I press the pedal too hard.

‘Whoa, mum,’ laughs Marie over the roaring engine. ‘Cool it with the F1 stuff!’

‘Sorry, love,’ I say, looking for a space to pull in. Georgia’s driveway is full, and the grass verges and pathway are crowded with 4x4s and Land Rovers. I double-park beside a Jag and something I don’t recognise and flick on my hazard lights, and Marie leans over to kiss me goodbye. She flings herself out of the passenger door, and she leans in to pick up the box of cakes, touching it like it contains a sleeping baby. I want to tell her then, but I don’t. My heart thrums as I stare at her, clutching the tiny white rectangle with its battered corners and its grease stains, gazing fearfully up at the house, and I know I have to leave. Lights spill through open doors and windows, and I see crowds of people who all look perfectly the same, and I have to concentrate on not throwing up. I haven’t even washed my hair.

‘Aren’t you coming in?’ calls Marie to me. I gesture at the traffic.

‘I’ve got to get home, love!’ I shout. ‘I’ll be back at ten, okay?’

She tries to smile. ‘Okay, mum,’ she says, and blows me a kiss.

I catch the kiss she blows me, and I indicate to pull out, and I drive away and leave her there.

 

Wednesday Writing – The Empty Vessel

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: irene gr via Compfight cc

The Empty Vessel

It was one of his little classmates, dusty and sweat-stained and wide-eyed with urgent excitement, who brought word that Rudi was gone. Papi was in the orange grove. Mama was pounding the bread. And I, I was standing by the window playing with my hair, hoping Nico would walk by.

But instead of wild-eyed, black-eyed Nico, I got a child whose mouth barely closed around the words he carried. It was far from a fair exchange.

‘He did not come to class, Senora!’ babbled the child, before he’d even come fully to a halt. ‘He did not come! The master sent me to fetch him, Senora, for a whipping! And you are to come too so that you may learn, he said, how to keep your pups in line!’

The words spilled across the sunlit floor. Spent, the child panted in the doorway, his eyes bright. My mother said nothing, and simply threw the nearest thing she had to hand, which happened to be the smallest of the scale weights. It smacked the unwelcome messenger smartly on the ear, and she nodded, satisfied. She always had a good arm, and a sharp eye.

‘Ow!’ wailed the child, rubbing his wound. ‘What was that for?’

‘You have upset my yeast, with all your yelling,’ declared Mama. ‘It will be flatter than a crone’s bosom at this rate.’

‘So what? Aren’t you going to fetch Rudi? I am to bring him back for afternoon lessons.’

‘Be off! Tell the master Rudi is unwell.’ Mama’d found her kneading rhythm again, and her words wobbled in time to the beat. ‘Tell him he has not left the outhouse all morning. Tell him even the pigs cannot stand to be downwind of him. Say that -‘

‘Oh! Can I see him?’ crowed the child, dancing from leg to leg with excitement. ‘Can I smell him, Senora?’

Mama picked up the next-heaviest scale weight, and the child whipped away from the door. He was gone, whooping, down the path before I could blink.

I sighed. ‘Aren’t you going to look for him?’

‘He’ll be with Papi, or your uncle.’ (Uncle had the farm next door). ‘I have better things to do than try to understand a seven-year-old.’ She flicked a glance at me. ‘As do you, Mariela. Nico will want more in a wife than hair. Go and find some work to do, and start to learn your trade.’

I felt my cheeks burn blotchy red as I stepped outside.

I didn’t want to feed the chickens, or the pigs, or bring water to the flowers, or sweep the steps. None of those jobs involved grace, and all of them involved sweat. When Nico rode by I wanted to be fragrant and flushed pink, hair shining and sweet, not covered in stench.

So I walked down to the harbour, hoping maybe that the wind would pinch my cheeks and make something beguiling out of my hair. Perhaps I would see Miguel among the boats and perhaps, this time, I might permit him to take the kiss he’d wanted from me for at least six months. Perhaps word of it might reach Nico’s ears.

I smiled at the thought, and walked faster.

But the harbour was deserted. The boats were in, and empty, the catch long gone. I scuffed my way to the water’s edge and sat, the tang of the ocean scrubbing at my lungs.

Far offshore – almost too far for me to see – a boat lay drifting. It looked unmanned. I could make out no trailing mooring rope, nor any oars nor movement, and the current carried it far out as I watched, too far for rescue, and almost too fast to believe.

There was nobody to tell, no alarm to raise. Someone’s livelihood would suffer, but what could I do? I was merely me, Mariela, and nobody was there to help me.

I walked home, unwatched and unwanted.

Dinner sang in the oven, and still no Rudi came. Papi returned from the grove, and no small shadow haunted his. Mama went to Uncle’s house but came home alone.

Then Mama packed some food for Papi and he went out from house to house, asking for his son. Mama ran to the square to search each face, to ask ‘have you seen him?’, and to spread the word. I stayed at home. I thought only of Rudi, but I brushed my hair until it shone like silk, just in case.

It was not until the night was at its thickest that I thought to remember the drifting boat, the one which had been deliberately untied and left to the mercy of the sea, the one which had looked empty – maybe because the person inside it had been smaller than a bundle of sticks, and hiding because the whole thing was a great adventure, like the ones in the comics he saw for sale outside the drogueria. Papi slapped me when I told him, but I kept my weeping inside.

We stumbled to the shoreline in the dark but all we saw was empty, open water, and one boat missing from the dock. We sat until the morning came, but all trace of boat and boy were gone.

Later that same day, I cut my hair up to my skull, like a small child’s. Nico never looked at me again. And Miguel? He found his kisses elsewhere, after that.

 

 

 

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Good Things Come’

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Leonrw via Compfight cc

Good Things Come

Leave the ‘ouse at seven-twelve; all good. Hop the train at seven-forty; all good. The gatherin’ crowd means I get shoved into someone’s armpit – not so good, but it could be worse. I feel like a slab of meat in an abattoir, my fingers goin’ numb around the bar suspended from the carriage ceiling, swayin’ gently with the clack-clack, just like every other poor sod.

But it’s all good.

We screech into her station, and I watch as she elbows her way on, knockin’ folk left and right. I hide behind some bloke’s newspaper, FTSE-this and NASDAQ-that lickin’ my eyeballs, but when I stick my ‘ead back out again I see ‘er, like she’s got an ‘oming beacon stuck to her forehead. She jus’ draws the eye, y’know? Face like one o’ them statues. Angled. Perfect.

She looks tired this morning, though. Can ‘ardly blame ‘er. You ‘ad a late night, eh? Oblivious, she flicks her finger up and down ‘er phone screen, swipin’ this way an’ that. Workin’? Sendin’ a very important email? I grin. Or checkin’ your dating profile, are we, love? Leanne6Herts, that’s you. Tweetin’ about your night on the tiles, yeah?

I look away before I want to. Any longer an’ she’d have felt it, like a weight. Any longer, an’ I might as well have screamed her name. I bite my lip and breathe, staring in the direction of the window, gettin’ an eyeful of some woman’s ear’ole, and beyond that, a spaced-out looking dropout with a nose-ring. Scum.

The ping as we reach the next station causes a handy bit of kerfuffle in the carriage, just enough to give me the chance to catch another glimpse. She’s leanin’ against the wall, her ‘andbag held tight, water bottle clutched like a baby. Still on the blinkin’ phone. In ‘er own world, this one. In ‘er own bloody world. Don’t I know it.

Eight-nineteen. We reach our destination right on time.

She’s ever so polite, stoppin’ to let folk off in front of her, smilin’ at some bint with a kid. Gives me a chance to slip out past her as she’s helpin’ to get the pram down from the carriage to the platform, all laughter and jollity. You can turn it on when you want to, eh?

The river of people bashes past me, umbrellas and briefcase-edges and cleared throats and mumbled conversations and excuse mes and muttered curses. I ‘ang about by the barrier, cradlin’ my ticket, ready to slip through. Just got to time it right.

‘Ere she is.

I slide up to the validator, an’ out I go. Carried along by the flow, we make our way up to the bridge like we’re all one tribe, y’know, all fightin’ the same fight. Suits and jeans alike, skin’eads and barbershop jobs. Nobody looks at anybody else. Nobody speaks. Nobody even notices me.

I make it across the bridge, no problem. Timin’, I warn myself, chancin’ a look back. I stop, ignorin’ the shakin’ heads and the clickin’ tongues all around me. Time it right, man!

She’s over halfway across – no goin’ back now, sunshine. She’s still clutchin’ that stupid water bottle, bags under ‘er eyes, face pale. I can barely keep it in long enough to let ‘er look up, in ‘er own time, an’ just when I think she won’t, she does. She finally does.

She looks up an’ sees me there, the press of people at ‘er back and the flow urgin’ her on. I smile my widest smile an’ hold out my arms, welcomin’-like, an’ she tries to stop walkin’ but someone bashes into her. Come on, darlin’. You ain’t got no choice. I tried it the nice way, and you weren’t ‘aving it. I’ve waited long enough.

She drops the water bottle, an’ it gets kicked away, quick as quick, as the press of people carries her to me like a reward, like a prize. Like nothin’ more than I deserve.

 

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Hotel Finisterre’

Photo Credit: David Kracht via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: David Kracht via Compfight cc

Hotel Finisterre

I was alone in the hotel room when it happened.

It wasn’t even a nice hotel; it was one of those with chipped paintwork and a faint whiff of mould everywhere and a TV tuned to no known station. The shower-head dripped – bop, bop, bop – like the tapping finger of Death himself, and the door wouldn’t lock unless I bashed it with my shoulder. Eloïse – my wife, or former wife I suppose I should say – would’ve hated it on sight.

Not that any of that matters, now.

I’d just taken off my watch, absent-mindedly rubbing my wrist (I’m not sure why I ever did that. It’s not like my watch was too tight, or uncomfortable. It just seemed like the thing to do, you know, like get married or get a dog or buy a new car because Next Door bought one) when I thought to look out the window. It was going for dark, the sky faintly pink on the far horizon, and the lights popping into life all the way up the driveway, like eyes opening. It had been a nice day – just as well, really – so the sky was still that hazy blue you sometimes get in late summer.

Then, it all changed.

The best way I can describe it is this: it was like the sky was made of celluloid film – remember that stuff? I do – and someone had taken a naked flame to it. The light blue started to blacken and bubble overhead, and then it ripped and began to melt away like a wormhole opening. There was nothing behind it. I don’t mean ‘nothing’ as in ‘blackness’ – I mean nothing, the kind of nothing that means you’re sure someone has made a huge mistake which will need sorting, and the kind of nothing that drives you to your bed-side telephone and that makes your shaking fingers dial ‘0’ for Reception.

‘Good evening, sir. May I help you?’

‘Yes. This is Jeremy Evans, room 353.’

‘Thank you, sir – yes, I see that. What may I help you with this evening?’

‘It’s just – I mean, have you looked outside? At the sky?’

‘A lovely evening, sir, I do agree.’

‘No! I mean, I’m sorry. Look. I mean, look. At the sky! It’s melting!’

‘Yes, sir. Is everything all right, sir? Do you require assistance?’

‘Just look, man, will you? Am I the only one seeing this?’

‘I’m just alerting our medical team, sir, and someone will be with you shortly. All right? You just sit tight, now, and hold the line.’

‘I don’t need a doctor, you imbecile! Something has exploded, or something, in the sky. Shouldn’t we phone someone? The government? MI6? Or MI5? What’s the difference between MI5 and MI6 anyway?’

‘I’m sure I wouldn’t know, sir. Now, have you taken anything today? Drugs or medications, sir?’

‘Look, I’m hanging up. This is stupid. The sky is melting, and all you can do is ask me if I’m on something? Goodbye.’

‘But sir -‘

I cut him off and wandered back to the window, barely daring to blink. The sky was blackening now, its edges on fire. The hole of nothing was sucking at me. I felt my eyes bulge out of my skull and my lungs start to deflate. Distantly I heard screaming as people began to fly upwards, sucked into this terrible maw of death. Trees uprooted. A coach – double decker, too – flipped end over end and slid right into the hole. The blackened circle grew wider as the world began to smell of burning and ash, and everything began to wrinkle and decay.

A knock on the door.

‘Sir? Mr Evans, sir? It’s George the porter ‘ere, and Elsie, th’staff nurse. Sir?’

‘Mr Evans, this is Elsie. All right, love? You’ll open the door, won’t you?’

I didn’t answer. My eyes were shaking with the effort of keeping them focused. The blackened bite in the sky was now bigger than my field of vision. I had to turn my head to see the edges of it, and it was growing fast.

‘All right. Use the master, yeah? He’s not answerin’.’ I barely heard the mumbles and the clatterings as they entered the room. The nurse was a strong-looking woman of at least fifty, her uniform crisp as a snowflake. She seemed kind.

‘Mr Evans, love. Let’s get you into bed, all right? I’ll give you a little something to ease you through, okay? Just a little something.’

I blinked my red-hot eyes and closed my desert-dry mouth for long enough to look at her properly.

‘Ease?’ I croaked. ‘Ease me through?’

‘The end of the world, silly,’ she smiled, preparing a syringe. It gleamed in the reddish light from outside. ‘You haven’t taken any other drugs or medications today, have you, love? Only they can make this jab hurt just a little.’

‘What?’ My voice sounded like it had been through a sieve. How had it grown so hot in here? ‘End of the world?’

‘Happens reg’lar round here, love,’ she said, flicking at the needle. Satisfied, she lowered it to my arm. ‘Hasn’t been one now for, ooh – what would you say, George? Hundred million years, something like that?’

‘Couldn’t say for sure, Else,’ shrugged the porter. ‘Hunnerd mill sounds ’bout right, though.’

‘Call it a hundred million years, then,’ she said, sliding the needle home. Its sting felt like a spider-bite, and my heart instantly began to slow.

They laid me out on the bed and I let my head slump to one side, allowing me to watch them as they walked to the window. They stood either side of it like angels at the doorway to Eden, their faces glowing as the world burned.

‘Be a long wait now till next time, Else,’ murmured George.

‘Right you are, sunshine,’ she sighed. ‘Right you are.’

‘Wonder how it’ll all shake out?’ George mused. ‘Where we’ll be, what we’ll be doin’.’

‘Don’t you mind,’ said Elsie, reaching across to chuck him under the chin. ‘I’m sure it’ll be you an’ me against the world, Georgie-pie, same as always.’

‘Business as usual in the ‘Otel Finisterre, eh?’ chuckled George.

‘You’ve said it now, my duck. You’ve said it now. Ooh – look! Here we go. Right, Mr Evans – take a deep breath, love. Soon be over! Won’t hurt a bit.’

She lied about the ‘won’t hurt a bit’ part, but about everything else, she was right on the money.

Speaking of which, the annoying thing is I won’t even be able to get a refund for the room. I should’ve known it was too cheap for its own good. At least I won’t have to be annoyed for very long, though; one takes one’s comforts where one can.

My eyes slide shut and eternity closes over me like a fist.

 

The Charon Café

Image: unsplash.com

Image: unsplash.com

The Charon Café

Sometimes, I wonder why I bother.

The couple who came in last week, for instance. They ordered two flat whites and left them sitting, cold; they never even touched the mugs. They just sat clutching one another’s hands, white-faced and silent, for almost an hour. His thumb stroked the back of her hand, really gently, and her tears rolled, but they said not a single word.

I hate throwing away good coffee. They didn’t even leave a tip. If you’re not going to drink it, why order it, y’know?

Then, there’s the regulars – Rocket Man, we call one of ’em, because he’s always on his way to the moon, or something. Never looks anyone in the eye, hands over a scribbled card with his order on it – a large mocha with extra syrup, always, and usually a muffin to go with it – and he mumbles, mumble-umble, all the time, but only to himself. Usually gives no trouble, but there was that one day he looked through the window and started screaming; we got him out before anyone complained, though. We thought he wouldn’t come back, but he did, and he didn’t want to talk about the bruises on his face.

Or maybe we didn’t ask. I’m not sure anymore.

And Anjelica. Always, it’s a green tea. No sweeteners, no syrups, nada. Just the tea. She’s so slight the light goes through her, and her hair’s like fine wire. Some days, she’s too tired even to smile, but we love her. Good tipper, never leaves a mess behind. Such a neat girl, you know what I’m sayin’? It’s been a while since we’ve seen her, now that I think about it, but I’m sure she’ll be back. Girls like Anjelica will always come back here.

It’s the younger ones I feel sorry for. I always try to fancy-up their orders, y’know, putting flowers or hearts or something on the top of their drink. Slipping on an extra cookie when the boss isn’t looking. Sometimes they notice, and sometimes not. I like it when they pay a passing visit only, a stop-off on the way to somewhere better, but sometimes I look at them and know they’re going to be occupying a corner booth here for the rest of forever. That makes me sad, man. Real sad.

But – wow. Sorry, man. I don’t know what came over me. I’m sure the last thing you care about is the stresses of some barista, right?

Welcome to the Charon Café, friend. Now, what’ll it be?

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘Reflections’

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Magdalena Roeseler via Compfight cc

Reflections

It was Friday, and that meant Mama would be working late. When the last bell rang and school let out, I had to be careful to remember to turn left instead of right outside the gate and go to Grandma’s house instead of home. I knew there’d be dinner waiting which always tasted okay even if it smelled funny, and then – if Grandma’s feet weren’t too bad – we’d go for a slow stroll to the corner of the block. She’d buy me a grainy, too-sweet hot chocolate from the stand there, counting out the coins slowly with her nubbled fingers, and she’d hold my hand as we walked home, rubbing her thumb against mine as we went.

But today, the streets were strange. Everything seemed bigger than before. There was smoke on the horizon, black like bad weather coming, and I wondered what was burning. Far away I heard the shrieking of a siren and, without thinking, I crossed myself like Mama used to, before, and then I threw a look around to make sure nobody’d seen me. But there was nobody there to see, and that was lucky. My heart took a while to calm down, though. Stupid, I thought as I hurried on. Mama would whip you, if she knew. I kept forgetting what was allowed, and what wasn’t. It changed all the time.

I saw someone coming towards me while I was still a long way from Grandma’s, and it looked so like her that I squinted, staring. I wanted to run, but I wasn’t sure – this lady was walking fast, in a strange up-and-down way, her head like a bird’s, never still. She had a patterned headscarf on, and large glasses just like Grandma’s, but I’d never seen Grandma move that fast in all my life, and I’d lived for nearly nine years, which was a long time.

‘Jacqueline!’ she called, and then I knew it was her. I ran, but I dropped my smile as I got close, and it smashed on the ground like a slippery plate.

‘Grandma?’ I asked, but she didn’t answer. Her hand shot out and grabbed my arm, and I felt every one of her fingers. They weren’t shaking now, but strong. ‘Ow!’ I said, but she said sssh! and so I stopped.

‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We have to get inside.’

‘What’s happening?’ I asked, but she turned away and hurried on. I felt a bit like our old pet dog on his lead, and I got sad, but then I swallowed it away because that wasn’t allowed. We’d had to give him up, and then we had to forget all about him. Citizens will not claim ownership of that which is not State-sanctioned was the law, and Mama’d had to explain it to me. So, I just tried to keep up.

At the next corner, Grandma muttered something under her breath and dragged me into the shadows of a doorway. I felt her trembling.

‘What’s -‘ I started to say, but her hand, soft and rough all together, slapped down over my mouth.

‘Just keep quiet, treasure,’ she whispered. ‘Come in here, and don’t look.’ She pulled me towards her and I leaned in.

‘You smell funny, Grandma,’ I whispered, pulling away. I turned a bit, trying to see, but she slapped me, hard, and I got too big a fright to even cry.

‘I said don’t look, Jacqueline,’ she muttered, digging her fingers into my shoulder. ‘And stay quiet!’

Ages went by. I listened to Grandma’s stomach gurgling and felt her breaths getting tangled and her fingers, shaking again now, stroking my head, and then I heard her praying, in whispers, using the old words. It made me feel mixed-up to hear them, like how it used to feel to have my birthday on the same day as a test at school, and I looked up at her face. She was crying, big fat tears, and her mouth bit back the words of her prayer as she stared, away from me, down the street. I saw shapes moving in the lenses of her glasses, and they looked like people running, and other people chasing, and sticks falling, falling.

And then the world exploded into screaming. I grabbed Grandma and she grabbed me, and I scrunched my eyes tight up.

‘Remember thou art a reflection of thy Creator,’ Grandma whispered into my ear, her breath hot against my cheek. I felt a warm droplet running down my face, splashing onto my chest, and I wasn’t sure whether it was her tear or mine. ‘His glory is reflected in you as your destiny is reflected in Him.’ I held my breath and let the old words wash over me, thinking of Mama. I wondered where she was, and if she was okay. ‘Remember this as you gaze upon one another; honour this reflection as you would honour the Lord.’ She kissed me, and her breath sounded like it had been bitten in half, and she dug her fingers into my shoulders.

‘Run, Jacqueline,’ she said. Her voice was hoarse. ‘Run now, and don’t look back!’

I did as I was told, telling myself Grandma was right behind me, even though I knew she wasn’t, and I only stopped to cry when I passed the crumpled hot chocolate stand. It lay on its side, still smoking from the fire that had burned it up, and the man who had poured the chocolate every week for all my whole life was flat on the ground, and in his eyes the sky was mirrored, blue and clear and perfect.

 

Wednesday Writing – ‘The Year of Alison’

Image: unsplash.com. Photographer: Kelly Bozarth

Image: unsplash.com. Photographer: Kelly Bozarth

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.

‘But –’

‘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.