The ground was soft and the small hole was easy to dig. She had chosen a spot under the old Elm tree at the bottom of the garden. It was her fairy tree and she only played with her best friends here.
Amanda looked inside the small velveteen bag one last time. She’d tried to count the little pieces of shiny glass in it but she could only count to 20. Aunty could count higher. She’d ask her later.
She placed the bag into the shallow hollow and covered it up. Like a leaf going to sleep. She liked that the tree’s roots formed a little wall around their special secret.
Amanda sat back on her haunches to admire her handiwork. Aunty Frannie would like where she’d buried their treasure. Aunty had given her the little bag yesterday to look after.
Yesterday, before the fire.
A shout then.
The woman’s loud voice hurt her ears. It was coming down the path. Her eyes stung suddenly and the smell of smoke clawed its way back into her brain. She wanted to cry.
Then she was there, hard like rock.
‘For fuck’s sake, I told you to stay with us Amanda! Jesus. I can’t actually…’ The woman’s hand was around her arm, clutching, dragging her back up the pathway. ‘Your father told you to listen to me. Fuck! Can’t you just fucking listen for once in your short fucked-up life!’
The grassy pathway became flat stones as her Wellingtons scuffed and bumped their way behind the woman’s marching slippers. Out of the forest and into the garden, an emerald carpet spread up to a mess of red uniforms and the black shell that used to be their house. The jungle gym and swing were still standing bright at the other end of the garden. Aunty’s little cottage safe next to them.
The woman’s grip loosened as some faces turned to watch their approach. There was Aunty Frannie in purple and grey standing and talking. There was the fireman that found her outside the house. There was the policeman that spoke to her. And there was her father on the bed with wheels.
Amanda used her free hand to rub her eyes. The morning dew was cold on her ears and she wished she’d remembered her furry hat. The woman stopped walking suddenly and Amanda bumped into the back of her legs.
Then the woman was on her haunches, her face very close. The faces by the house watched them. The woman adjusted her Princess Ariel coat. The woman looked tired and scared. This made Amanda feel happy, but she didn’t smile.
‘Look. I’m sorry. Just, please, Mands, please just listen today, okay?’
Amanda nodded because she knew she should. Then Aunty was there, sweeping her up and kissing her face. Hugging her tight. Lavender mixed with ash. Amanda rested her head on the knitted shoulder and stuck two fingers in her mouth. The woman couldn’t touch her while Aunty Frannie was there.
Around her they spoke of her, distant voices like giants in a faraway place.
‘Nicola, I still think we should get her to school. There’s nothing more to be done here and the child needs the routine. Besides, we don’t want her missing her lessons.’
‘It’s Grade 2, Francis. A day off due to a family tragedy of major fucking proportions is hardly going to affect her chances at Oxford.’
Aunty tightened. It made her shoulder bone pokier.
‘Even with a child around, your language remains in the gutter where my brother found you.’
‘Jesus Francis, your spinster aunt routine is such fucking cliché. And stop treating her like a baby for godsakes.’
Amanda felt bone hands grip her under her armpits from behind and then she was pulled aunty’s warm body and set on her feet.
‘I’m taking her to the hospital. To be with her dad. If you have a problem with that you’re welcome to take that up with our attorney.’
Aunty Frannie said nothing so she said nothing. Just followed the woman who bundled her into the back of the car and slammed the door closed. She watched as the woman spoke to the fireman and the policeman. She watched the ambulance start driving away and the woman rushing back to the car. Everything was hard and loud as the woman opened and slammed the front car door and then off they went following the silent, flashing lights.
She looked out the window, trying to be far away. But the woman spoke to her.
‘Mands, are you ok back there?’
She caught the woman’s eye in the mirror and looked away again.
At the hospital she was ushered down long, white corridors. The floor was shiny, like her boots. The woman still had her slippers on. Amanda hoped her feet were cold.
Then a white room. Daddy very still on a bed in the middle of a room with a big window. There was a nurse and the woman started talking to her about air and smoke.
She climbed onto a nearby chair to see daddy’s face. His eyes were closed and his face looked grey. A plastic cup covered his head and tubes came out of his mouth. A strange TV next to him made lights and beeps. Another doctor came in and the woman spoke to her as well.
There were too many big people words so she didn’t listen but some words she knew.
‘Bad,’ the doctor said. ‘Lungs,’ he said. And then they were mumbling again, the way grownups do when then don’t want you to hear them.
Then they were alone and the woman was now talking to her.
‘Amanda, your daddy’s going to be okay.’ The woman was now on the other side of the bed looking at her. ‘He’s just going to sleep a bit while they give him some clean air, okay? He breathed in too much smoke, honey. But…’
Amanda waited, but the women didn’t finish her sentence.
Then there was a clip clop clip and Aunty Frannie was back. She clipped-clopped straight up to the bed and picked her up off the chair she was standing on. Aunty was angry. She felt hot.
‘She shouldn’t be here. A hospital is no place for a child.’ Aunty Frannie was using her big voice. Amanda turned her head away from the bed and rested it back on Aunty’s shoulder, closing her eyes. She was tired. Was her treasure sleeping? She slipped her fingers back into her mouth and started sucking.
‘She is not your child, Francis,’ the woman said.
‘And she’s not yours.’
‘Yes. You make sure I don’t forget that. She makes sure I don’t forget that.’
Amanda felt herself jostled into a cradle position as Aunty Frannie set herself into the chair. She was too big for this, but she liked feeling like a baby. She closed her eyes and curled herself deeper into the curve of aunty’s arm and body. It was safe here.
There was silence and then Aunty Frannie said: ‘Has she said anything?’
Amanda closed her eyes tighter.
‘Did the police find anything?’
‘Well, I suppose there’s nothing to investigate.’
‘They said something about a candle.’ The woman sounded like she did when she and daddy used to talk. ‘Probably from the dinner you arranged.’ There was nothing for a bit and then: ‘They’ve ruled out arson.’
Aunty Frannie’s arms went tight. Somewhere deep inside her, Amanda knew what that word meant. She tried to make herself sleep like she would do when she was in playschool, make everything black in your head and make the buzz in your ears bigger. Her treasure deep and dark in the hole. Safe. In a ball.
Aunty Frannie’s voice boomed through her chest.
‘Well of course that’s just ridiculous. Arson. Who would ever? To what aim? We don’t need the money.’
‘“We?” Francis?’ The woman’s voice was ugly like this. ‘There is no “we”. There is us and there is you living on the property, sponging off Chris the way you have been since your fucking parents died.’
‘I wish you’d watch your language, Nicola.’
‘And I wish you’d fuck off, but neither of us seems to get what we want. Anyway. Why would you think they assumed one of us started it?’
Aunty Frannie didn’t say anything; just started rocking her gently. She liked when Aunty did that.
The woman’s voice again: ‘Is she sleeping?’
Close eyes tight.
Aunty Frannie’s heartbeat doof-doofed like a soft drum in her ear.
The woman was quiet when she spoke. ‘He’s not going to make it. They say his lungs are too badly burnt. Did you know cyanide is released from fires like this? There’s cell damage. They don’t know how long he’ll last.’
Was the woman crying? Close eyes tighter. She was a sleeping girl. Sleeping girls closed their eyes even if they wanted to look.
Then a phone rang. The woman answered it. Aunty Frannie hugged Amanda closer and nuzzled into her neck.
‘It’s almost over, darling,’ she whispered. ‘Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green…’
Then the woman again: ‘I see… Yes… How the fuck?… Jesus Christ… Yes… Tomorrow… Bye…’
She couldn’t stop herself now. Small peep through her eyes. The women on the other side of the bed, head bowed, her hands in her hair. Daddy looked like a snowy white blanket hill between them.
The woman made a sob sound. ‘Fuck.’
Close eyes again.
‘Nicola please. Your language! You’ll wake the child.’
‘That was the money guy. About the insurance.’
‘His name is David.’
‘Yeah, him. I called him earlier. He says the house wasn’t fucking covered. Chris missed the last few months’ payment. I don’t even know how that’s possible.’
‘Don’t you think that’s more than just a little mercenary at a time like this, Nicola? While my brother lies on his deathbed, his darling child facing the prospects of losing another parent, and the family home up in smoke, you think about money. Not surprising, I suppose.’
‘Jesus Francis, where the fuck do you get off? It’s called following fucking procedure. What the fuck would you have me do? I’ve been the one running around like a crazy person trying to keep it together. Where the fuck were you this morning?’
The woman’s voice made Amanda’s tummy twist. Snuggle deeper into Aunty’s warm chest. Like a treasure. Deep. Deep. Safe. Like Aunty’s arms around her. Like the tree roots.
‘Isn’t the question rather, Nicola, where were you last night?’
‘After dinner. Where did you go again? I mean, I hate to point out the obvious crassness of it, but should you not have been by your husband’s side when the house went down in flames? Or lying here next to him.’
‘Dead you mean. You’d like that wouldn’t you.’
‘I just thought you kept your “excursions” for Thursdays. And yet here you are. Fit as a fiddle.’
‘What I do with my time has sweet fuck-all to do with you. And your insinuations can go straight to hell.’
She wanted to see the woman’s face at that moment. Wanted to look at it as she answered Aunty’s question. She opened her eyes to see, carefully. Only a tiny peep. But the woman’s angry eyes saw her.
She wanted to stick her tongue out, but didn’t. Aunty had told her to behave until it was all over. She opened her eyes. They would go back to pretending. Grown ups were good at that. Pretending that everything is fine. It didn’t matter. She needed the potty.
Amanda took her fingers out her mouth and slid off aunty’s lap. There was the man lying on the bed with the angry woman. She turned and skipped to the toilet room. While she tinkled she could hear Aunty Frannie and the woman talk some more. Then there was a lot of noise. She waited for it stop. But it didn’t stop. There was almost shouting. A man’s voice. And another woman. She wiped front to back like aunty had taught her, washed her hands and opened the door.
There were more people now and lots of sounds in the room. There was the doctor with metal blocks in his hands putting them on the body that jumped. There was a nurse holding more tubes and another with an injection. There was the woman crying in the corner.
Then Aunty Frannie had her up in her arms again. ‘It’s alright darling. We’ll go wait outside, shall we?’
She clip-clopped down the hall with her aunty, away from a long beep and then the women yelling. She yelled so much. She was glad she wouldn’t have to hear her yelling anymore. Aunty Frannie had promised her. Everything would be okay now.
Later that night, Aunty was making dinner. She had to help and her task was to wash potatoes. She could see the big broken house from the kitchen window. It was like it was still smoking a bit. But it was far away from their little home and the jungle gym, so it was okay. Aunty Frannie said it was okay because the weatherman told her it would rain later tonight. She had checked a few days ago.
Amanda looked around the kitchen and at aunty who was singing ‘lavender’s blue dilly and dilly’. Their cottage was warm and pretty. There was still soot in some places, but aunty had made sure that the cleaners had done their job properly. Aunty was right; everything was better without the woman.
After dinner, Mr Forsberg came to visit. Aunty told her he was the man in charge of everything. Amanda sat on aunty’s lap as they spoke. She was sleepy after a long day and she was wrapped up in her favourite blankie. The one Aunty Frannie had knitted for her mommy. She was snug as a bug in a rug, Aunty Frannie told her.
‘Well the papers are in order,’ said Mr Forsberg from a faraway place. ‘As next of kin, the child goes to you. Poor thing has had a ride of it, hasn’t she?’
‘Yes, but it’ll be fine now,’ she heard Aunty Frannie say.
‘Fine? That’s a strange way to see the death of your brother and the loss of your family home. Especially in such a … strange … fire.’
‘A strange fire? Mr Forsberg. Fires happen all the time and frankly my brother was lost the moment he got involved with that rubbish.’
‘Yes, of course.’
There was a long pause. Why did grown-ups always stop talking when there were words everywhere.
Mr Forsberg coughed. ‘And there was no insurance anyway, so…’
Her aunt sighed. It sounded like a wave in her head.
‘Exactly. Nothing to be gained’
‘I have money, Mr Forsberg. I didn’t need the house and, frankly, the only thing of value I need is here.’
Amanda felt Aunty squeeze her tight. ‘At least that woman has nothing now.’
Mr Forsberg grunted. He sounded like a frog. ‘But you’ve also lost most of your heirlooms, you do realise that?’
‘Most of them, yes. Not all of them. Isn’t that right, my darling? We’ve got our little treasure.’
She nodded. Even though she didn’t know why her Aunty liked little pieces of glass, she knew she’d been a good girl by doing as she was told. ‘Sleeping by my fairy tree.’
‘Good,’ Aunty Frannie smiled. ‘Very good. Now it’s just you and me and everything is going to be okay.’