Just as her eyes started to feel gritty, she could feel the heat begin to flush across her chest, her neck and forehead. She usually woke with a fever these days, but this was the first time she had got one before she actually went to sleep. The beads of sweat started to gather on her temples and her upper lip and as she reached up to pull the duvet down to her waist she could feel the little moisture droplets between her breasts and on her arms. She rolled onto her side away from Ricky and the unwelcome heat of his body and as her head tilted sideways it felt as though a giant weight had moved from her frontal lobe to her brain stem and she was frozen in that position.
After a few panic breaths sleep touched and teased her but didn’t envelope her in refreshing slumber. She dreamt never the less, of grandma’s house, but in the winter, as she had never seen it. The wind was howling under the heavy, wooden doors, doors that had always felt so solid and safe before rattled with a wind that promised nothing but menace.
The rain hit the single glazed, old windows in sheets and Christina could hear frantic music not far outside, full of discord and tambourines that seemed to laugh and mock. There was a fire in the distance, beyond the edge of the garden that burned strong even in the torrential rain, occasionally belching plumes of black smoke. Figures seemed to move in the smoke and firelight, half real half shadow, dancing and whirling in and out of sight in a tangle of long dark hair and dirty bare arms.
The fire was getting closer and closer, Christina was not walking towards it but it was approaching her, creeping barely perceptible closer each moment until suddenly she could feel the flames licking her skin and the shadows danced around her catching and pulling her hair and clothes. They pushed her face towards the fire until she couldn’t tear her eyes away even though he heat and the smoke stung them. Deep within the fire she could see the eyes of something twisted and horrible staring back at her.
She woke up in the motion of bolting upright into a sitting position and the first few gasping breaths burnt her lungs on the way out. The sheets stuck to her clammy skin and gradually as he eyes grew accustomed to the gloom she made out the stirring figure of Ricky. Slowly she started to calm down until she realised that she could still smell smoke and singed hair, it seemed to be clinging to her body in the way that cigarette smoke clung to people who smoked in the rain. She scrambled out of bed and turned the lights on in the bathroom, only harsh fluorescent reality could banish that sort of dream-induced fear. Stepping under the hot water in the shower she glanced over at her watch on the shelf, half past five. No point going back to bed now, she’d have to get up for work soon anyway.
As the water soothed and cleansed her flushed skin and the stale sweat was washed away, Christina recollected how once her mother had mentioned the howling wind at grandma’s house. One year on the way there in the summer, up front in the car while her mother drove she’d asked ‘Why don’t you stay at grandma’s mama?’
‘That damn wind screeches around the whole place and drives me crazy’
And that was that, the rest of the journey passed in silence, as did most of their time together. Her mother was married at that point, to a rich man who wasn’t at all an evil stepfather, but simply had no time for children, least of all his trophy wife’s bastard. She mainly remembered her mother draped in fine fabrics and jewellery, the comment about the wind was notable because it was one of the rare occasions where her mother had spoken to her as a child. The rest of her childhood was a succession of nannies right up until she was twelve and Bob died.
She only knew his name was Bob, because on dying he had not changed his will to include her mother and he was ever after referred to as ‘Bob the idiot.’ That was when things changed, they moved into a one bed flat where Christina slept on the sofa until she was fourteen before graduating to a mattress on the floor in her mother’s room. Privacy was never an issue, her mother stayed at the flat around one night a week at most. Christina did the neighbours ironing for money, under the guise of picking it up and dropping it off for her mother. The fact that for six weeks she would not be earning any money had been the only reason to avoid going to grandmas, that, her friends and the futile attempt to get a reaction out of her mother.
She wasn’t sad or happy with her mother as far back as she could remember, only a sort of cold indifference nested in her chest where love should have been. She didn’t talk about her to anyone because there was very little to remember and even less to tell. The only time she ever truly felt hate towards her mother was when she was sixteen and school broke off for the summer, Christina was packing her bags to go to grandmas. Well repacking them to be precise, as she had been for the five days since the last day of school, waiting for her mother to stumble home and take her there.
‘Where the hell are you going?’ Asked her mother eyeing up the open backpack.
‘Grandma’s?’ She answered, but unsure posing it as an enquiry
‘She’s dead.’ Her mother had answered, casually slipping her change of shoes over her stockinged feet.
Christina was reeling and barely managed to murmur ‘When?’
‘Some time ago’ her mother had replied slipping back through the front door leaving the tiny flat as if she had never entered apart from the churning, broken, empty feeling taking root inside Christina’s chest.
After that day, life went on much as before, which was what hurt Christina more than anything. To ignore her grandmothers death in such a callous way was to refuse to acknowledge that she has existed at all. By not acknowledging the loss, her mother was suggesting there had been nothing to lose.
When term started again and she was in sixth form, Christina applied herself more than ever before. Her mother came home less and less as time passed and the flat became a cell for studying. She applied to university; she didn’t even care what the course was, so she had chosen archiving thinking it would satisfy her love of old, interesting things.
The independence she had learned as a child helped her to excel at living alone, and she often cooked for all her housemates, the smells and comforts of the food kept her close to grandma, it was almost as if grandma’s love resided in the aromas and vapours of the cooking.
She often thought of going to the house in the countryside, but realised that as her mother never talked in the car she didn’t really ever know where it was. She had passed the hours reading in the passengers seat and remembered only that it was at the other end of a long stretch of motorway.
Shortly after moving to university, Christina had written a letter home, including her new address but weeks later it was returned marked ‘Not Known at This Address.’ And that closed the chapter of Christina’s past and family. She learned to loosen up, had fun, smiled and studied with the vitality of a young woman growing into herself. When her housemates and friends asked her about her past, she just smiled and said it was water under the bridge, or a closed book, or some equally cliché veiled warning that the subject was off limits. Just as it would remain to Ricky or anyone else.
After uni she had accepted the first trainee archivist job that she was offered and moved into a flat in a no-where town with one nightclub and a smattering of shops. What did it matter where she was? She had grown accustomed to the ghostown atmosphere around campus during the holidays but nevertheless she welcomed the change. And that brought her right up to here, in this shower, with the addition of Ricky who she’d met on the bus to work and who had been smitten with her from day one. Maybe that was all this was, his constant questioning, he was bored and looking for a reason to leave. She turned off the taps and grabbed the still damp towel off the radiator before she lost herself in that train of thought, more doubt was not what she needed right now.