I am four years old and we live with my Mum’s mum now. I don’t know why we no longer stay in London with my Dad’s mum. My finger no longer hurts though, which is good. The scar is bright red.
Five of us live in a one-bedroom flat within a tenement made from grey granite. We live on the floor second from the top (the fourth). We have to go down one flight of stairs to use the shared toilet on the landing. There is no bathroom or shower in the flat. One room acts as the kitchen, living room and my Nana’s bedroom. There is a small cupboard sized room off of it that houses a sink. A tiny hall by the front door leads into the back room where the four in our family sleep. My brother and I sleep on the bunk beds that stand along the same wall as the door. He has the top bunk with me on the bottom. If the bedroom door opens too far it bumps against our beds. Mum and Dad’s double bed takes up most of the space on the cold side of the room near the window.
Our first winter in Aberdeen was a kind of long, cold shock. It didn’t matter that our beds were as far from the window as possible. My feet still felt like frozen icicles under the thin blankets. I could hear the deep breathing of my brother above me. Why didn’t he feel the cold? I tossed and turned and then lay on my side, holding the blankets as tightly as I could around my neck so as not to let any draughts in or any heat out. I faced the window. The thin curtains produced a dim orange glow from the reflected street lights below.
Cars drove by on the Viaduct. I watched the beams of their headlights sweep across the room in time with the hum and tyre noise of their passing. It lulled me. The discomfort of my cold feet faded. The cars headlights shone through the folds in the curtains to cast sinuous shadows over the swirly patterns of the carpet and the repeated floral shapes of the wallpaper. The shadows merged these shapes and patterns together until they lost their distinct and separate nature and became combined into something else.
I tried to imagine what that something else could be. My breathing had slowed and my feet were almost warm. The next set of headlights were higher and brighter than the others. I followed the projected shadows across the wallpaper with my eyes. I propped myself up on an elbow to look down the length of my bed at the shape there. The shadows had passed, but the shape remained.
I looked at a woman standing there by the door.
She wore a cloth hat and a dress that flared out at her waist and dropped down out of sight past my mattress. The peak of her bonnet made her face a shadow within a shadow. Even though I couldn’t see her eyes, I knew that she watched me as I watched her.
She did not move. And neither did I.
We stared at each other. For how long? No cars passed by because the moving light and shadows would have erased her.
The bedroom door opened. One moment the woman was there, and the next, all I could see were door panels. I felt a gentle bump as the door hit the frame of the bunk beds. I heard the click of a switch and the big light in the ceiling came on. Dad poked his head around the door. I squinted up at him. He saw me half-sitting up and asked if I was all right. I said I was. He frowned. He asked me if I was sure. I said I was. He nodded once, looked around the room, still with the frown on his forehead, and wished me good night. He switched off the light and closed the door.
Above me, my brother made a little sound and then went back to sleep.
I stayed propped up as I waited for my eyes to readjust to the gloom. I spent a while staring at the same spot at the foot of the bed as I tried to find the right combination of light, shadow and imagination to account for what I had seen. But no matter how hard I stared, the wallpaper and shadows would not resolve themselves into the woman with the bonnet and the long dress.
I allowed myself to fall down onto my pillow. I was warm at last. My eyes refused to stay open. I turned to face the wall, my back to the window. I reached out and touched one of the raised petal shapes on the wallpaper and fell asleep.