I tell him I’m fetching the decorations. The attic is one of the few places he won’t follow. He hates the fold-down ladder, hates spiders even more. I sit in the dust and nurse my jaw. He’s always sorry, although never enough to stop.
The children have been here half an hour and are already wondering why they do this to themselves every Christmas. One of the grandchildren – Charlotte, I think – squeezes out an experimental wail.
There are fewer decorations to store each year: glass angels stamped underfoot, hurled against a wall. I flip open a box at random and incandescence sends me sprawling backwards.
I’d forgotten about the star. The family clubbed together for his birthday, back when we still believed he could change. Just think, Dad! Your name in lights, for real! The cardboard is ragged with scraps of wrapping paper from where he didn’t bother to open it properly before shoving it aside.
‘You poor thing,’ I say.
The star hoists itself on spindly filaments, blinking feebly, and flicks out a small yellow tongue. My knuckles blister. I’m surprised when there’s no pain. The gift certificate is still attached to the lid. Singed around the edges, but I can read the name: Andrew Michael Walford.
‘Well, now, Andrew.’
It flashes me an irritated look. I rub my eyes until the dazzle fades. No reason why a star should relish a name foisted onto it by carbon-based lifeforms of the sort that spark and extinguish in less than a blink of its eye.
‘I’m sorry,’ I say.
‘Of course that’s not what you’re called.’
It nods forgiveness. I wonder what its true name is, and how impossible to pronounce.
‘Marian!’ screams Andrew, from the foot of the ladder. ‘What in hell are you doing?’
‘Mum?’ calls John, hopefully. ‘Dad’s ever so sorry. It was a silly mistake.’
That boy always was a fool.
The star glances at the skylight, with an encouraging expression. I open the window wide enough for escape, grab hold of the box.‘
It won’t be dark for a couple of hours.’
The star vibrates gently, and I realise it’s giggling. A bizarre sensation, holding a happy star in your arms. It was a daft thing to say. The stars are always there. It’s only us who can’t see them in daylight. It clambers out, creaking from its imprisonment. When it turns and looks back, I think it’s to say thank you; but this is a long way from gratitude. Downstairs, the thunder of raised voices and squalling infants. In a while, there’ll be a slammed door, a car gunning its engine.
I reach up, grasp a fiery hand.
‘Only five minutes,’ I gasp. ‘Then I’ll have to get back.’
We are past Jupiter before I remember what counts for five minutes in the mind of a star.
Rosie Garland’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Under the Radar, Casket of Fictional Delights, Bath Flash Fiction Award, Butcher’s Dog, New Welsh Review, Bare Fiction, The Rialto, The North and elsewhere. She is author of three novels: The Palace of Curiosities, Vixen, & The Night Brother. The Times has described her writing as “a delight: playful and exuberant.” http://www.rosiegarland.com/
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