Blinded by the Light By Dianne Bown-Wilson
‘Anything you want,’ she says. Mummy’s voice, while always gentle, is husky from that cough. The boy looks to his father, anticipating disagreement, but finds that he too is smiling, warm as melty cheese. ‘You can buy a lot with thirty pounds,’ he chuckles. ’Just make sure it’s not all sweets.’
Mummy holds out his coat, and reluctantly, he pulls it on. He ought to be euphoric; birthday money usually gets funnelled into a savings account for unfathomable ‘future needs’. But fear has obliterated excitement. All he wants now is to lose himself in building Lego castles in the safety of his room.
Of course, he knows why they’re doing it.
Two days ago, on the night before his birthday, his father announced they were cancelling their trip to the waterpark, and he’d be spending the day with a rarely-mentioned stranger, Auntie Liliane.
‘Your mother and I have an appointment,’ he said, ‘And unfortunately, we can’t change it. So for once, you’ll have to be a big boy.’
In the morning, on their way to the city, his parents detour to the coastal town where Auntie Liliane lives. He’s been here before with his mother and remembers having liked it - but now, abandoned here on his birthday? He sees it in a different light.
Half witch, half scarecrow, Auntie Liliane lives in a decomposing cottage festooned with cacti and crocheted knick-knacks and odd items reclaimed from the sea. His parents say little, staying mere seconds and once they leave, he realises he’s entered a parallel universe where minutes pass as slowly as years.
After an initial hard stare, Auntie Liliane barely acknowledges his presence, spending the morning polishing brassware, muttering as she buffs. When finally he finds the courage to whisper that he’s hungry, her sigh is as deep as the wind. ‘Wait!’ she hisses.
He stands for an eternity while she crams her gnarled feet into walking boots and checks each lock on the windows and doors. Outside, when he dares to enquire where they’re going, she doesn’t bother to reply (but her little dog, Coochee, ugly as a gargoyle, is coming along with them, riding royally in a baby-sized pram).
Twenty minutes later, with no comment or consultation, they’re eating dry sandwiches in silence at a rundown beachside café. Without warning, Auntie Liliane speaks, her voice rumbling up like an unblocking drain. ‘You look a lot like your mother did at your age. She’s going to need you - and your father - though I doubt either of you will be much use.’
He’s baffled. ‘Why? What do I have to do?’
‘Nothing,’ she snaps. ‘Just make sure you don’t cause her grief. She’s got enough on her plate.’
He waits, but Auntie Liliane says nothing more, although she seems to be thinking hard. ‘Ice-cream,’ she says finally, looking straight at him. ‘I suppose you deserve a treat.’
Without waiting for a response, she calls across to a waitress and orders him a Sundae Royale, multi-coloured and besprinkled; the ice-cream stuff of dreams.
Later, lunch over, Auntie Liliane sprawls on a bench on the promenade, rhythmically jiggling the pram.
‘May I go and paddle?’ the boy asks, half-expecting a knockback but wondering if somehow she’s thawed.
‘Don’t drown,’ she tells him curtly, not bothering to look his way.
Today, out with his mother on his spending spree, the boy tries to ignore how slowly she’s walking and that when they stand in front of shop windows, her reflection floats like a ghost.
‘Do you want to go in?’ she asks repeatedly.
He shakes his head, swallowing the panic that rises in his throat. His hands are rammed in his pockets, one gripping the purse, the other caressing an ovoid pebble that he stole from yesterday’s beach.
‘You should have told me!’ he wants to yell at his mother. But of course, it’s too late now.
She keeps peering at him anxiously, matching every glance with a smile.
Finally, after an hour, sensing his mother’s exhaustion, he forces himself to make a decision – a pair of heavy-framed, reflective-lensed sunglasses, fifty pence from the charity shop.
He doesn’t try them on.
‘Really? Nothing more?’ His mother queries.
He shakes his head. Inside himself, the boy hears her voice as if she’s already left him. Anything you want, it says.
Out on the street, he pulls the purse from his pocket and places it in her hand.