Sophie had always been sunny. Born in June with sunlight locks and seared cheeks. Like those old Italian paintings, she was the female cupid – all cherub-like and delightful, whacking great smiles on the stiff, oil lips of the heroines. She sang single lines of nursery rhymes with greater warmth than any heavenly choir could muster.
“Fetch the engines! Fetch the engines!”
Ever curious and on the hunt for anything new, Sophie would take things without me knowing, just to discover them herself. She didn’t like being told what was the wrong way or what was the right way: she had confidence in HER way, and nothing else could matter. She’d tell me sometimes how to do things “properly”, with the imagined wisdom of someone ten times her age.
“You can’t make tea like that”.
“Mummy, put the milk in the pot before you warm it”.
“I can warm the milk better”.
I am nothing like Sophie. Quiet and safe, I don’t explore or discover or try anything new. She was adventure enough for me, my little girl. A supernova. When I tried to explain action and consequence she couldn’t listen to me, and it grew more difficult as her audaciousness increased.
It’s a strange thing, to see the snow of Winter and think of her. The way she tramped about the garden in her boots in Summer – chasing the frogs and the damselflies – made her stand vibrant, even against the blue sky. Snow seemed to restrict her from her adventures, the clouds dulling her buttery curls with the sky.
The heating broke last month. I hadn’t the money to replace it, having spent it all on hosting the family for Christmas. We were surviving on hot milk and multiple blankets.
Sophie had grown entirely contrary. I was never right, always to be questioned, always doubted. I held my quiet patience until two weeks ago, when I was heating our milk before our bedtime.
She had reached to touch the pan, and I warned her to be careful because of the heat. She asked me why, indignantly, and I explained carefully that she could burn her fingers on the fire, because it was very hot. She was insistent. Fire wasn’t hot, it was cold. I bickered with her, against usual practice, but she wouldn’t give in to my gentle reasoning. And though I knew she was fully aware that fire wasn’t cold at all, I broke.
I screamed at her, hysterical with frustration. Frustration at having my family for Christmas, at being a single parent, at not having any bloody heating in January, at having to constantly, constantly battle with a child telling me left was right. I don’t know how much I let out at her, only that it was too much. She cried and apologised and looked so heart-breakingly beautiful I could hardly summon words to address her. I managed to tell her everything was fine – that there was nothing to be sorry for, but despite my efforts, we both went through the motions of her bedtime routine in guilty silence.
For Sophie, having to sleep with three extra mismatched blankets was a fantastic game. Warm milk and soups and cuddling was something special to her, she couldn’t have known how unhappy the boiler was making me as I emptied kettles and pans of hot water into the bathtub for us.
I can imagine her making the connections. Mummy was suddenly angry, and it had something to do with her, something to do with the cold and something to do with the fire.
Sophie always had to figure it out for herself, I thought, stood in the icy presence of my black-clad family. The police had asked me why I hadn’t heard her before the alarm, as I slept in the room beside her. I could feel the scrutiny and suspicion through my own guilt like a salted wound. They found my matches hidden under her bed like a secret diary. She wouldn’t have cried for me: quiet and safe, I had taught her that when Mummy was right, she was scarier than anything she had ever seen before.
And for once, my little girl had proved me right. Fire was hot.
What were your prompts?: “Bitter cold leaves site of Philadelphia fire encased in ice”