‘THE SITUATION is now hopeless. We have no choice but to…’
Lily grabbed the remote and switched off the television.
‘Hey,’ said her daughter. She swung round, lit up by the Christmas tree lights, dressed as an angel. The outfit consisted of Lily’s once best red shoes – heels now worn down, buckles scuffed – a broken wand, held aloft, a pair of threadbare wings and a halo dangling from a sharp wire wrapped around her head.
Too close, thought Lily. Don’t mess this up, not now when we’re so close. She rolled the batteries out of the battered, sellotape-wrapped box and stuffed them in her pocket.
‘Mummy said the TV was broken,’ said Lily, gripping the disabled remote to her jumper. ‘Didn’t she?’
‘But it’s not,’ said her daughter, frowning. She put her hands on her hips, wobbling on the treacherous heels. ‘There was a lady on it. She was talking.’
Lily turned and walked to the shelf in the corner. There was only so long she could stand her daughter’s attempts at reproach.
‘She said my name, Mummy. But she said it wrong. She said…Ass-ter-oid.’
Lily closed her eyes and placed the remote and batteries on top of some books – the only free space in the cluttered room.
‘What’s an asteroid?’
Lily held her shaking hands together. She had to compose herself. It didn’t take her long to do this now; she had practiced the routine many times in the past weeks. A few breaths, relax the shoulders, loosen her tummy…there.
Once she had found stillness, she turned. Smiled. Took a breath.
‘A star, Sweetheart. An asteroid is a star.’
Astrid looked down at the carpet, thinking. Her mouth bent down in a twitch of sadness.
‘Sophie Hughes is the star,’ she said. Her eyes glazed. ‘I wanted to be the star but she got it. She didn’t even want to be the star. She wanted to be Mary, but Eva got Mary and she wanted to be the donkey. So nobody’s what they want to be. I think we should be able to choose.’
She looked up at her mother. Her wand fell.
‘Mummy, why are we not doing the nativity anymore?’
Lily knelt and stroked her daughter’s brow.
‘Because school broke up early this year, remember? It was a treat.’
Astrid played with the thread on her wand.
‘Didn’t seem like a treat. I liked the nativity. Even though I was only an angel, I was looking forward to it.’
‘Maybe you’ll be the star next year.’
Astrid smiled, a big, wide, lippy smile.
‘So there’s a star tonight?’ she said.
Lily faltered. She caught her breath.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘On Christmas Eve?’
‘Yes, that’s right.’
‘Like in Bethlehem?’
Lily’s heart shuddered again. It had been threatening to ram itself into her throat at any moment for the last week.
Not long now, she thought. Surely only, what…an hour? Two?
‘A bit like that, yes, Sweetheart.’
Astrid’s eyes shone.
‘So we do have a nativity!’
Too much. Too much.
‘Mummy…why are your eyes wet?’
Lily wiped her face, sniffing.
‘Nothing. It’s OK. Mummy’s just proud of you, that’s all.’
She pulled her close, closed her eyes…a few breaths, relax the shoulders, loosen the tummy…there.
Astrid spoke from her shoulder.
‘Why did the lady say it was hopeless?’
Lily shut her eyes.
‘Because it’s cloudy,’ she said. ‘It’s too cloudy to see it.’
‘Oh,’ said Astrid. ‘Daddy said there’s no such thing as hopeless.’
Lily’s tears dried at the mention of her husband. She pulled back from the hug and forced a smile.
‘Never say never,’ Astrid went on.
‘Pull your socks up.’
‘Keep on keepin’ aawwnn…’
‘Yes, well Daddy’s not here,’ said Lily, standing. She felt a churn of guilt at her choice of words, but it didn’t last long; of all the things she was keeping from her daughter, the integrity of her father’s character was not high on the list of priorities.
‘Mummy, what about the special fireworks?’ said Astrid, jumping. ‘Will we be able to see them?’
‘Yes,’ said Lily. ‘We will. We’ll see all of those. Speaking of which, young lady, we should get ready. We’ll have dinner first. What would you like? You can have anything you want.’
Astrid beamed. Her gums yawned with gaps.
‘You know what I want,’ she said.
Lily smiled and pinched her daughter’s nose.
‘Red soup it is,’ she said.
She watched her daughter eat. Bulging cheeks. Lips smacking through mouthful after mouthful of cheap tomato soup. It didn’t seem that long ago that she had been pushing dribbles of egg or cheese into that mouth, only to have her face splattered with the ejected spoonful soon after. Astrid had not been a good eater. It baffled Lily how she had even grown at all. Muscle and fat and bone – it had to come from somewhere, right? But in those days, it seemed that she could count the calories that made it down her daughter’s gullet on one hand.
Those days. Days spent in a different place, a different time.
She hadn’t wanted to move here, to this dark, two-bed high-rise with its thin, yellow walls and a carpet that never seemed clean no matter how much she vacuumed it. She didn’t suppose he had either – her husband – and times had been hard, she knew that. But that place had been their home. Leaving it had not just felt sad, but somehow visceral. Like something tearing apart.
She had made the most of it – getting to know the neighbours, attempting various tessellations of furniture in the smaller space, locating a half-decent patch of parkland for Astrid to play in. The trick, she had found, was to spend as much time as possible away from the flat. There was a shared drying room on the ground floor of the block that nobody else seemed to use. When they had first arrived, she took to sitting down there with Astrid in the mornings – her with a magazine, Astrid with her toys laid out. Sometimes they played hide and seek between the tables.
But one morning Lily had seen the reason why the rest of the block avoided the place – the smell of urine hit her before her fingers found the light switch. Then she saw the man, hooded and slumped in the corner in a puddle of his own making, a shot needle on the ground next to him.
After that, they took to sitting on the roof. She had found a padlock for the door to keep them alone and on warm days she would sunbathe while Astrid drew chalks on the concrete. It became their space – a flat roof beneath the sky. No people to scare them. No buildings to close in on them.
She had wished for more than this life. But it didn’t seem to matter to Astrid, with her angel wings and battered toys and love of cheap, own-brand tomato soup.
Perhaps, thought Lily, perhaps, in the end, that’s really all that…
She jumped in her chair. There were noises from the street – loud bangs and shouts. The police sirens had stopped a few days ago; she guessed after any hope of order had been abandoned. She walked to the window and closed the blinds. She didn’t know why – even if Astrid had been able to reach, there was no way she could see what was happening from five floors up. But she didn’t want to risk it. Not this close to the end.
How long, exactly? She thought. She checked her watch. An hour? No. Less.
‘Eat up, Sweetheart,’ she said. ‘We don’t want to miss the fireworks.’
‘Mummy why are there fireworks again?’
‘Because it’s Christmas Eve, Sweetheart. Now eat up.’
The doorbell rang. It was Mrs Keita from next door. She had bags full of tins, books and bottles. Her two sons stood on either side of her. They were a little older than Astrid.
Mrs Keita was shaking.
‘Lily,’ she said. She was whispering, the way people do when there is no need for whispering. Her eyes were wide and white. Her fierce hands gripped her sons’ shoulders. ‘They’ve opened the underground station. You and Astrid come with us. Take some food. It will be crowded but safe. At least, safer than up here, I think. Come, come.’
Astrid appeared from behind Lily’s leg. She was eating a yoghurt with a yellow spoon.
‘Hi Troy, Hi David,’ she sang. ‘Are you coming to see the fireworks?’
Mrs Keita looked confused. Then horrified.
‘You have not told her,’ she said. ‘She does not know?’
Lily cleared her throat. She turned to Astrid.
‘Go and put your pyjamas on, Sweetheart,’ she said.
‘Doooohhhh?’ whined Astrid. ‘Can’t I play with Troy and David?’
‘No, Sweetheart. You’ll see them later. Go and get changed now.’
Astrid made another noise and stomped off to her bedroom. Lily stepped out and pulled the door to.
‘We’re staying,’ said Lily.
Mrs Keita’s jaw opened and closed.
‘But…but…surely you know? What they are saying? There is nothing to be done. They cannot stop it. There is no hope, Lily. No hope.’
‘I know. But we’re not coming with you.’
‘But it’s suicide, Lily. Suicide. For you and your daughter.’
‘It’s my choice. And I’ve decided.’
Mrs Keita frowned, searching for something to say. Eventually her shoulders slumped.
‘She will know. Before the end, I mean. She will know you have been lying to her.’
‘I’m not lying to her, I’m protecting her. And she won’t know the truth. I’ll make sure of it. It’s my choice, Mrs Keita.’
Mrs Keita placed a hand on Lily’s cheek.
A door slammed and Mrs Keita’s husband appeared, sweating, with more bags.
‘We have to go!’ he shouted. He looked between his wife and Lily. ‘Lily, you are coming?’
Lily smiled and squeezed Mrs Keita’s hand, lifting it from her face.
‘Good luck, Mrs Keita,’ she said, and went inside.
When she got to Astrid’s room she found her already dressed in her pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. Now she was sitting in the halo of her bedside light, arranging plastic creatures around a snow globe. Lily stood at the door. She loved watching her do this. She loved this perfect shell around her daughter made of magical things. It kept her safe from the world. Those stories full of unicorns, fairies, elves and flying reindeer – they protected her from the truth.
She often lay awake, afraid of when this shell would finally break apart. Because everything broke apart eventually – childhoods, hopes, hearts, marriages…
‘Will Daddy be at the fireworks?’ asked Astrid from her game.
Lily jumped. She hadn’t realised Astrid had seen her.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Daddy’s afraid of fireworks.’
‘Is that why he went away in the car?’
‘And who was the lady in the car?’
‘She’s afraid of fireworks too.’
Lily stood up and took a scraggy-looking bear from the bed. She sighed.
‘I’m not afraid of fireworks, Mummy.’
‘I know, Sweetheart.’
‘Will I see Daddy after the fireworks?’
‘What do you think?’
Astrid looked down at her bear, as if consulting with him on this problem.
‘I think we will,’ she said.
‘Then I think so too.’
‘But not the lady.’
‘No. Not the lady.’
Everything always breaks apart, thought Lily. But not for her. Not this time. I’ve protected her. I’ve kept her shell intact. Astrid will die believing in all things I don’t.
She tried to draw comfort from the words. But the only ones that stuck were: Astrid will die.
‘It’s cold up here, Mummy,’ said Astrid. She burrowed into Lily’s arm. Lily took another blanket and wrapped it around them both. Odd how the weather still bothers, she thought, with everything that’s about to happen. December’s grey, wet murk had fallen as mist upon the estate. The roof was twenty floors up, and from this high it looked like deep ash covering everything. Lily saw lights and flashes beneath it. Cars, torches, fires.
‘I thought you said it was cloudy,’ said Astrid.
The mist had left the sky clear, still and freezing.
‘I did, but Mummy was wrong. It looks like we’re in luck,’ said Lily.
Astrid gasped at a sudden thought.
‘So will we get to see the star and the fireworks?’
‘Yes,’ said Lily. A shiver ran down her neck. ‘Yes, I think we might, Sweetheart.’
Astrid pulled the blanket around her face.
‘Yaaayyyy,’ she said Astrid. Her voice was muffled. ‘See, Daddy was right. It’s not hopeless.’
They sat for a while. Lily found her hand straying towards her daughter’s ear in an instinct to shield her from the noises of violence and panic below. She noticed her heart rate creeping up too. Though she had kept her thoughts relatively calm, her body seemed to be making its own decisions – ancient mechanisms clicking into place to deal with whatever was about to happen to it.
How long now? Less than half an hour. Twenty minutes? Fifteen? Ten?
‘When will the fireworks start, Mummy?’
‘Can I have a story while I wait?’
Lily tried to think of one. Made-up stories had been his domain.
‘Once upon a time,’ she began.
Suddenly there was a bright flash and bang from the street. They both jumped and Lily pulled Astrid close, expecting pain. A flume of smoke rose up through the mist, and a car alarm whooped in the distance, above shouts and screams.
‘What was that?’ said Astrid.
‘Are they having a party?’
‘Yes,’ said Lily. ‘A fireworks party.’
‘It sounds like they’re angry.’
‘Sometimes people sound angry when they’re not. Once upon a time…once upon a time…’
‘Will it hurt, Mummy?’
Lily froze. She turned to Astrid. She was looking up at the night sky, rubbing the ears of her bear, her lips pulled into a brave pout. For a moment Lily felt a kind of crushing relief – she was free of the lie. She closed her eyes. She wondered how long she had known.
‘The sound of the fireworks,’ said Astrid. ‘Will it hurt my ears?’
But no, the lie was intact. The shell was intact. Astrid would still die believing.
Astrid would still die.
‘No,’ said Lily. ‘I promise you, it won’t hurt.’
How long now?
‘Once upon a time…’
‘Mummy, why are you shaking?’
They only had minutes now, and Lily’s body knew this very well.
‘Mummy’s just cold, Sweetheart. Now, once upon a time…’
She tried to concentrate. Just one story, just one little made-up story, anything. But her mind had finally caught up with her body. Panic now flashed through every thought. What would it be like? Too big, she had read in the news. Just too big. Anything smaller and they might have had a chance at survival. But not this.
What would it feel like? Would it be quick? Would they see it first? What would it look like? She had barely had time to think about it in the week since that first broadcast. She had turned all of her attention to Astrid. But now all those questions had bubbled up, demanding answers. This is how it ends, she thought. With questions.
Astrid gasped and shook off the blanket.
She threw a finger at the sky.
‘There, Mummy! The star! There it is!’
Lily’s heart dive-bombed. She followed Astrid’s wiggling finger. There was a light blossoming on the horizon. Deep within the corona was what looked like a bright, white, fist streaming with coloured tendrils. The light crept up in an arc from the city skyline.
‘It’s beautiful, Mummy! Like a flower!’
‘You’re right, Sweetheart. It is, it is, it is, it is, it’s like…once upon…’
‘Mummy, your teeth are chattering.’
Will it be enough? Enough to kill without feeling?
Lily’s lungs seemed to be working on their own, sucking in huge gasps and pushing them out before she was ready.
‘Once upon a time…’
‘Look! It’s getting higher!’
They could see it clearly now. The halo had softened and left the fierce glow alone in the sky. Behind it was a thin trail. Lily realised that she could no longer hear any noise from the street.
‘Should we wish upon it, Mummy?’
‘Yes…yes I think we should…once upon a time…’
‘Don’t tell me yours and I won’t tell you mine.’
Astrid buried her head in her hands and began to mumble. Lily felt her insides twist and heave.
‘OK, I won’t. I promise. Once upon a…’
A few breaths, relax the shoulders, loosen the tummy…no, not working, not this time.
‘Once upon a…’
A few breaths, relax the shoulders, come on, you stupid bitch, just one story…
Lily stopped and sat up straight. She frowned at the trailing arc.
‘There,’ said Astrid, reappearing. ‘Done. Have you done yours, Mummy?’
Lily shook of her blanket and stood up. She walked to the edge of the roof and peered at the sky.
Two lights. There were definitely two lights now, each on separate trajectories. How odd. One was going upwards. The other seemed to be falling, its trail tracing a lazy spiral above. Lily watched them inch apart. They were each much smaller than the one they had been.
It had broken apart.
It looks like a decision. The thought came from nowhere. Like hope. Hope is a decision.
She felt Astrid at her side, tugging her coat.
‘Yes,’ mumbled Lily.
‘Mummy, are you crying?’
Lily looked down. She sniffed and wiped her face.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Mummy’s not crying.’
And she wasn’t, not any longer. Her eyes were dry, her thoughts were still, her body was calm. She held her daughter close and they looked out at the brightening sky.
‘Will the fireworks be long, Mummy?’ yawned Astrid.
‘We’re not going to see the fireworks.’
‘No. We’re going inside.’
She turned and quickly gathered the blankets, then made for the door.
‘Mummy’s going to pick up some things. Then we’re going to our drying room.’
‘We’re going to sleep there tonight. And have a picnic. And Mummy’s going to tell you some stories.’
‘What kind of stories?’
‘Real ones, Sweetheart. Lots of them. Keep close.’
Lily unlocked the door and held it open for her daughter. She took one last look at the lights, then let the door close, taking the padlock with her.