I could hear the tinkly music as I mounted the stairs, Ellie’s little-girl voice bouncing above it, colliding intermittently with the tune. Passing her brother’s door with the Lord of the Rings poster peeling away at the corners, I stepped into her room. Ellie stood at a pinewood desk, tapping out a rhythm on a purple CD player with a sparkly fairy wand. My voice was hardly better than hers as I joined in the refrain: “Today’s the day the teddy bears have their pic-nic!”
Ellie beamed. “Di, did you go to the teddy bears’ picnic with my mummy?”
I laughed: “Come on, get yourself into bed and I’ll read you your story.”
Ellie snapped off the music and jumped into bed. I surveyed her bookshelves while she arranged the teddies and dolls around her. “Which one would you like?”
“I don’t need one of those stories.” Ellie danced a furry orange rabbit across the duvet. “I don’t need a made-up story.”
“What do you mean?” I pulled out a book with a ragged spine. The cover showed a boy and girl snuggled up under a weeping willow. “All stories are made-up.”
Ellie pushed her tongue against her loose tooth. “I need a real story. About when you were a little girl.”
“When I was a little girl?”
“When you were a little girl going on adventures with my mummy.” Ellie shuffled herself and the ginger-haired rabbit towards the wall to make space for me on the bed. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Venus, and another little girl called Diana…”
I hovered by the bookcase. “I’m sorry, Ellie, I didn’t meet your mummy until we were eighteen.” We might have been geriatrics as far as a seven-year-old was concerned. Ellie bit her lip, as if I’d told her Father Christmas didn’t exist. Or the Tooth Fairy. “How about Babes in the Wood? Or should we get your mummy to come up and tell you about riding to school on a camel?”
Ellie sniffed: “It’s all right, Di. You can tell me about when you were a little girl going on adventures with another friend.”
“You expect an old lady like me to remember her childhood? It’s practically ancient history.”
“You’re not as old as Granny, and she’s got millions of stories about when she was a little girl.”
I skimmed my fingers along the ranks of day-glo coloured hardbacks. I could’ve insisted it was Babes in the Wood or nothing, but I didn’t want to let her down.
“Please, Di? Once upon a time there was a little girl called Diana …”
As she spoke, a girl burst into life in my mind, bounding down the street in a green seersucker dress with puffed sleeves and smocking on the bodice, curly red hair flopping against her shoulders as she hopped through the looping skipping rope. A scene from Bessemer Terrace almost forty years before: Geraldine Finch, the girl who ruled my childhood.
Ellie wobbled her tooth with her tongue as she patted the space on the bed beside her.
My thigh nudged her elbow as I took my seat. “Once upon a time, there was a little girl called Geraldine …”
Ellie giggled. “Gelatine?”
“Geraldine. She was my best friend when I was your age.”
“Like my mummy’s your best friend now?”
“So …” Ellie wriggled closer. Her hair smelled of lemonade. “Once upon a time there was a little girl called Geraldine, and another little girl called Diana.”
I hesitated, but only momentarily. “Geraldine and Diana went everywhere together.”
Ellie pushed her warm hand into mine. “Did they go to school together? And the park and Brownies?”
“They spent as much time together as they could.” Surely even I could fashion enough drama from my scraps of childhood memories to entertain her. “Although their parents tried to keep them apart.”
“That’s not fair.”
I squeezed her hand: “Now, the two friends loved dressing up in their finery.” In my mind’s eye, Geraldine dragged the dressing-up box out from the cupboard under the stairs. I could almost smell the musty skirts and dresses, but I didn’t yet know where to send my two characters to parade in their glad rags.
I glanced at the bookshelves. Geraldine hadn’t been much of a reader, but she loved performing. I’d find the stories and together we’d act them out. Snow White, Babes in the Wood and, later, Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. Purely for our own entertainment; we had an implicit understanding to ensure our antics wouldn’t get back to my dad. “But as I said, their parents didn’t like them hanging around together. They threatened to keep them locked up in their bedrooms unless they promised never to meet again.”
Giggling, Ellie kicked at the duvet. “That’s cruel!”
“Diana couldn’t bear to be parted from Geraldine so, one day, she concocted a plan. She’d read in an encyclopaedia about a magic potion …” I paused, breathless, as if I’d been cycling up a particularly steep hill. I was a child again, with total faith in the power of wanting. Believing in the magic that made dreams come true.
Or the fairy tale ending that would carry a little girl to sleep. “A magic potion that could mimic death. And Diana thought, if she drank it, and her parents were convinced she was dead, they’d feel really sorry for how they’d neglected her. They’d wail over her coffin saying, If only by some miracle our child would be resurrected, we’d give her everything she’d ever wanted. We’d let her eat chocolate for every meal and play with Geraldine from dawn to dusk.”
“Di, Di, my tooth’s really really wobbly now…”
“Shh, Sweetheart, and listen to the story!”
“But Di …”
“The idea was that, while they were weeping and gnashing their teeth, the drug would wear off and Diana would leap from the coffin to find Geraldine waiting for her in the graveyard. And the two of them would run away to live happily…”
An insistent digging at my ribs. Looking down at the little girl in the bed, I was startled to see her hair was not red, but black, her skin not freckled cream but deep caramel.
“Look, Di, look!” Inches from my nose, Ellie held out her baby tooth between thumb and forefinger. “I said it would come out tonight.”
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