My night sky is scattered with heart glow – a bunch of flowers, just because; a birthday card with both sides filled; a glow-in-the-dark keyring from a long ago trip; a scribbled post-it in mother-tongue handwriting.
Over time, a light might fade alongside memory, a dull white dwarf then nothing. But another always arises in that same patch of sky, burning fierce with love.
One day, I’m scared that those dark patches will stay dark, as every note and card and piece of kitsch crumbles to dust, and she’s not there anymore to set the sky alight anew.
I will not live beneath a dark sky: I will seek someone who sows stars and together we will strew galaxies.
My younger self roamed wild over these moss sprung hillocks, feet incautious until one would sink calf deep into a hidden burrow beneath a troublesome root. It was here we found blunt badger skulls, dragonflies the size of a grown up’s hand, and an endless supply of scratches and stings.
Today wavers between sunshine and shade, shifting from dappled scenes of teddy bears’ picnics to the gloomy hollows of a Forbidden Forest. The wild scabious has hung glowing violet lanterns to light the way, painting a purple haze onto retinas. Willowherb withers and dries, then casts itself to the winds in curls of fluffed seeds.
The other floral efforts have retired now and the bees have moved on to less green pastures. This year, the blackberries never made it past livery pink before mummifying on the bramble. An early autumnal transformation signals stress amongst the deciduous.
My younger self delights in the feel of hollow thumps beneath scrabbling hands and feet, she wields lichened stick-swords that are longer than she is, and stares up at a sliver of sky that snakes impossibly far above.
She’s quite a while away from thoughts of climate change, invasive species, dieback, ticks, or sustainable woodland management. But it’s comforting to know that her uncomplicated delight can now wander hand-in-hand with the concerns of adulthood.
There are heaving queues of sweaty people outside ticket booths, long snakes made of shouting and shoving.
She moves along them. Short, thin to the point of brittle, with old apple skin and grey hair pulled tightly back.
Her voice cuts through the shouts, an endless lament of need that sends eyes to the floor or the ceiling with unerring aim.
She has him on her back. He must have at least two feet on her, his limp legs drag the floor behind her, while his head lolls above her shoulder with a vacancy that suggested he is spared the wail of her voice. He is thin too, but his body is soft, cheeks hanging down and jolting with each of her steps. His arms hang loose across her front, strapped to bony shoulders with frayed blue cord.
She moves steadily, for all his apparent weight, up and down each queue. Her calls part the crowd effortlessly but she draws no coin from any hand.
And when she moves on, the shouting picks up again in her wake, snapping back to fill the void.
She never really left that train station in my memory. She just keeps walking through those queues over and over again, steps never faltering.
It might be a better fate than the one that reality actually holds for an aging mother dragging her adult son on her back in a country without a welfare state.
Rationally, I accept that most kids go through a phase of being selfish, whiny, demanding bastards.
Somewhat irrationally, I find it really hard not to hate them for it – quite possibly because it’s like looking Past Isla in the eye.
Past Isla was what polite company might call, ‘head-strong’, and what people behind closed doors might call, ‘a pig-headed, smart-mouthed, amoral princess.’ She was determinedly unwilling to accept that she might not be the centre-point of the universe’s orbit (she was, after all, much more right than anyone else), and she made sure to correct anyone who failed to recognise her supremacy.
Backing down was for lesser beings. Lies would escalate, piling on top of one another like teetering blocks held only in place by steely belligerence. The universe fell into line with a whimper when she demanded that it be just so. And when something failed to align with her plan, her wrath was terrible to behold. Eardrums shuddered at her rage, skin burned under laser stares, and smoke crept from beneath doors as she smouldered.
It didn’t take her long to learn that there were other ways to force the universe into line. Sweetness and light was a new one, all wide eyes and shy smiles, obedience that went beyond the letter of instruction, liberally slathered in butter that made it all the more likely that she’d win. She continued to smoulder underneath, of course, but learned to tuck the smoke inside and stop it from pouring down her nostrils.
The sheer humiliation of being told off sent rolling waves of scorch down her face and along her arms, blew deafening white noise into her ears. This was unacceptable. She adapted, it was imperative that no-one find out things that would lead to a bollocking. Instead, she hid those infringements, honed her lies, and began to work in earnest on her outward facade. She needed to appear perfect from every angle, no gap to reveal the complex calculations and mechanisms that clicked and clunked beneath.
Eventually, the facade was perfected and the smouldering child lived wholly within its walls. As that facade grew more familiar and those actions and reactions became second nature, her fires banked and her hackles gradually lay smooth against her spine.
I remember her when I watch another child give the world a hard kick in groin, reptilian eyes showing only satisfaction and menace. And I wonder if Past Isla’s still in here somewhere, if I’m unwittingly carrying Versuvius within my skin.