Throughout my life, I have written. At times, to simply make sense of the world, but mainly because I love to weave stories. Not that my writing was going anywhere. Until that is, I started a part-time course at Bristol University and under the inspirational tutelage of Rachel Bennett, I became braver, more attentive, with ideas bursting to be written.
Then last autumn, I won my first ever competition with the Telegraph’s Just Back travel writing competition. Not only was this super-exciting, but it helped me believe ‘I can write’. I’m now about to embark on a new adventure, to study an MA in Creative Writing at Bristol University.
It’s a strange job looking after you lot. Never sleeping, never a day off, always on duty. It’s not something you sign up to, I don’t even remember anyone asking if I wanted to do it, it’s just something I do.
I love it mind you, what with the freedom to go wherever I want and helping out where I can. I like to think of myself as a conductor, helping my little orchestra of humans. Not that I really notice you most of the time. I do hear you though, especially your calls for help. But there was one that I noticed.
It was just getting dark and I was ambling about in my own world, zoning between the peaceful silence of my world and the din of yours. I don’t know how you cope with all that noise; shouting, cars, birds, TV … there never seems to be a quiet moment and if there is, you fill it, like you have this weird fear of silence. Even when you’re born, what’s the first thing you do? Yell at the top of your lungs. How can such a small person make such a racket? But you do. Just to let the world know you’re there.
It was a scream that grabbed my attention that night. Not a baby’s. It was a girl with a piercing shriek that could shatter a soul into a thousand tiny pieces. I saw her standing there in the greyness, shaking from head to toe so I reached out a hand and rested it on her shoulder. That’s usually enough to help humans calm down a bit. Well, actually, most get spooked and run home.
This one though stopped mid-scream and span round. Her deep brown eyes seemed to look directly into mine and hold my gaze. Just for a moment. But there was something about that gaze that seared into me like a branding iron. She was only young. I guess about 12 or 13 and all wrapped up against the cold. But there was something about those eyes. A sadness that made my heart turn inside out.
I wasn’t here for the girl though. She dropped her gaze to the ground and started to cry and it was then I saw the dog collapsed at her feet. Blood made its dark fur slick under the streetlight and I knelt down beside it. With my hand on its side, I could feel its weak pulse and see the thread of life starting to swirl from the body. The dog opened its eyes, just a little, and seeing it was me, wagged its tail and gulped its last breath. Once free of its body, the dog’s spirit shook itself and came and stood beside me.
By now of course, the girl was on her knees, her face tucked into the still warm fur, her arms wrapped tightly around the limp body, sobbing. We stood for a moment watching the girl. I hated these moments. I was powerless to make her feel better.
“Time to go,” I told the dog spirit.
The girl slowly lifted her head and buried her face in her hands. I’m not supposed to feel, but those sobs really started to get to me. It was definitely time for us to leave, but just as I was about to go, I heard her calling, “Help me. Please help me.”
I’d done this a thousand times and didn’t know why this time it got to me so much. Maybe it was that she was asking for help, maybe it was that she’d seen me, maybe it was … oh I don’t know. It just was, that’s all.
I leaned into her and blew into her face; a long, gentle breath. She blinked and her crying slowed.
“Go home. Your dad will know what to do,” I whispered.
Like a robot, she stiffly wrapped her jacket round the body and lifting it gently, got to her feet. Before she had time to change her mind, I repeated, “Go home.”
I watched her walk briskly down the street, almost tripping over her own feet as she went and thought that would be the last I saw of Mathilde.
“Dad!” I kicked the door. “Dad!”
The front door flew open and my dad appeared. “Are you alright? What’s wrong?”
My arms shook as I held out Rosie and started crying again. It was like being stuck in the worst nightmare ever. “Rosie’s dead.”
Dad took Rosie off me and patted my shoulder. “Come inside. What happened girl?”
He usually called me girl. He called Rosie girl as well. I guess it’s easier than remembering our names, but it did get confusing, not knowing if he was calling me or the dog. It didn’t matter now and as that thought came to me, I made a strange choking sound as a fresh sob mixed with an old one.
“Sshhh. Come and sit down.”
He took me into the sitting room and turned the TV down. He was still holding my crumpled coat, like he’d forgotten Rosie was tucked inside. I noticed blood seeping through the material and even though I didn’t want to look, I couldn’t stop staring.
“What happened?” His deep voice sounded like he had a cold and he took a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose.
I was about to tell him when we heard the front door open and close.
“In here,” dad called out. “Hello son, I didn’t know you were coming round.”
Joe stopped and looked from dad to me, then to the heap on dad’s lap. “What’s wrong?”
They both stared at me, waiting for me to speak but the words were all jumbled up in my tears. I breathed out and sniffed. “I was walking Rosie, the same as always, when these girls started being horrible. They were calling me names and they came up really close like they were going to hit me.”
Joe clenched his fists, “Who were they? Did they hurt you? What names?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. Just girls.”
“Sit down Joe and let her finish. Then what happened?”
“Rosie went mad and started barking at them. She was running around trying to get them and the lead got twisted round my legs and I couldn’t hold on.” More tears ran down my cheek and I wiped them away.
Joe sat down and put an arm around me. “Don’t cry.”
I sniffed loudly. “She escaped and chased the girls. But then a car came out of nowhere and …” I swallowed hard.
“Sshh, it’s ok.” Joe pulled me closer and stroked my arm.
“It hit her.”
“Did the driver stop?” Dad asked.
“It drove off. No-one came to help.” I thought of the strange ghost. “It was just me and Rosie and she was looking at me and crying. Then she closed her eyes and was gone. Rosie’s gone.” I looked at my coat with Rosie inside. There was even more blood on it. “It’s not fair! Why did she have to die?”
“I know it’s not,” Joe said softly. “What did the girls do?”
“They ran away.”
I looked over at dad but he was staring down at his lap. “Poor girl,” he said and gently touched her through the coat. I didn’t know if he was talking about me or Rosie.
He stood up. “We need to give her a proper send off.”
“What do you mean?” I didn’t want to send her anywhere.
“We need to bury her,” Joe said.
I followed them to the bottom of the garden and watched as dad lay Rosie on the grass, then he got a spade and starting digging a hole by the rose bush. Joe went and found an old towel and a box. He crouched down to take my coat off Rosie. “Poor old thing.” He stroked the top of her head.
I knelt beside him. Rosie looked as if she was sleeping. I kissed her head and helped him wrap the towel around her, making sure she was tucked up nice and warm.
“Hold on.” I ran into the house and found her favourite rubber chicken and put it inside the towel for her.
Dad lifted the box and put it into the hole. “Joe, could you do the honours of saying a few words? I expect our girl would like that.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the box as Joe spoke.
“Rosie was a good dog and friend to all of us and we’ll miss you Rosie.”
I crouched down and touched the top of the box. “I love you,” I whispered.
“Don’t worry, girl. Rosie’s in a safe place now.” Dad washed his hands at the kitchen sink. “Go and sit down and I’ll make a hot chocolate to warm you up.”
I wrapped myself in a fleecy blanket and curled up on the sofa. “Joe?”
“Hmmm?” He answered, staring at the TV.
“Have you ever seen a ghost?”
“There’s no such thing,” he laughed.
“I think I saw one tonight when Rosie...”
Dad came in and gave me a mug of hot chocolate. “It was probably the mind playing tricks. It does strange things when you’ve had a shock.”
“Has your mind played tricks like that?” I asked.
He touched my shoulder with his hand then without answering, sat down and took a sip of his tea. “Come on, drink up and get some sleep. You’ve had a tough day.”
Joe suddenly jumped up. “Wait a minute. I know it’s not the best time, but I came round to tell you some news. Guess what?”
I wasn’t in the mood to make a guess. “What?”
“Me and Lily are getting married!” He gave a broad grin, showing his large white teeth.
I wasn’t expecting that. I thought he was going to say something like I’ve got a new bike. Joe loves motorbikes more than anything.
Dad stared at the TV and ignored Joe, but I could see his face wrinkling like he was thinking lots of angry words. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. His voice was deep and slow and he fixed a cross look on Joe. “You can’t get married, you’re too young.”
The smile fell from Joe’s face and his cheeks turned bright red. “I can and I am. Anyway, you and mum got married at my age.”
“And look how that turned out.” Dad put his mug on the floor. “What do you want to get married for? You should be out enjoying life.”
“Like you?” Joe said angrily.
Dad flinched and shrugged his shoulders. “It’s your life. Do what you want.”
I thought he was going to give my brother one of his lectures, but he just looked back at the snooker on TV.
“Can I be a bridesmaid?” I whispered in Joe’s ear.
“We haven’t even thought that far,” he laughed. “Come on, you’d better get to bed. You’ve had a rough day. And anyway, you’ll need all the beauty sleep you can get ready for the wedding.” He glanced at dad, but he wasn’t listening. Joe followed me to the bottom of the stairs. “See you soon ok?”
I nodded and watched as Joe left. He didn’t even say bye to dad.
I tried to listen to the teacher going on about punctuation, but I was yawning so much I couldn’t make out what she was writing on the whiteboard. Rubbing my eyes didn’t help either, it just made everything even blurrier. I lay my head on my arm and stared at Miss Adler’s mouth opening and closing like a fish.
“Sit up Mathilde, you’re not in bed!”
The class giggled as I jumped. “Sorry Miss.”
“Right, now you’re all awake, I want you to write a paragraph entitled ‘what I like best about my mum’. I don’t want lots of ands. You’re Year 8s; you should’ve learned capital letters and full stops in primary school. Any questions?”
With a yawn, I picked up my pen and scratched the words ‘My mum’ at the top of the page. I chewed the end of the pen and stared at the blank piece of paper. Isla and Poppy turned round and pulled a face at me. They always seemed to pick on me, ever since junior school when they used to make up stupid songs about my frizzy fair. My hair’s not that bad when it’s just been washed, but when it dries it looks like I’ve rubbed it with a towel and left it like that.
“Have you finished already girls?” Miss Adler asked, making Isla and Poppy spin back round and start scribbling, no doubt writing how wonderful their mums are at baking cakes, dancing and tucking them in at night.
Nadiya nudged me with her elbow. “Take no notice of them,” she whispered.
“I don’t know what to write,” I whispered back.
“Tell Miss you don’t have …”
Before she could finish speaking, I told her, “I do have a mum.”
Nadiya watched me for a moment, her round brown eyes staring softly at me as if I was a puppy.
“I do,” I said crossly.
I sat there thinking what to write when I felt a hand on my shoulder and someone whisper “Rosie”. I turned my head but there was no-one there. I started to write, forming each letter slowly as I tried to remember photos and what I’d been told about my mum.
‘My mum is beautiful with long fair hair and blue eyes’
I wish I had hair like my mum’s, but Steph says my hair looks like my dad’s used to.
‘My mum liked to paint and before I was born she painted dolphins, penguins and whales on my bedroom walls’
My bedroom doesn’t look like that anymore. Now, I have snails wearing different hats on one wall, which Joe helped me do with stencils. But behind my bed, I left a bit of the wall so I can still see a tiny bit of the blue sea and a dolphin smiling at me.
I started to think about Rosie, her pretty face and soft fur and the way she would try to curl in my arms like a big baby. I opened my eyes wide to stop the tears falling out and wrote:
‘She loves to play catch and go for long walks, especially by the sea so she can chase seagulls. She nearly fell off a cliff once. It was the seagull’s fault. It teased her and made her chase it too close to the edge but I stopped her just in time. The best thing though is how much she loves me.’
I put my pen down on the table and wiped the tears away. Everyone else seemed to still be writing, some had even turned the page over. I looked at the few words I’d written. Maybe if I wrote really big, I could make it look like I’d written lots too.
At the sound of the bell, the room filled with the sound of chairs scraping on the tiled floor. I pushed mine back too and stood up.
“Wait a minute,” Miss Adler boomed. “When you’ve finished, bring your work up to my desk.”
I picked up the piece of paper and put it on her desk as I left the classroom.
“Wait for me.” Nadiya said as she caught up with me.
“What did you write?”
Nadiya wrapped her hand around my arm. “I said the best thing was when my mum was asleep then she can’t tell me off,” she laughed. “What did you say?”
“I wrote about Rosie.” Nadiya had been late this morning so I hadn’t been able to tell her what happened. “Nad, Rosie’s dead.” I said quietly so the others wouldn’t hear.
“No!” She stopped in the middle of the corridor, pulling me against her and squeezing. “How?”
“She got run over last night. Some stupid girls made her run out in the road.” I bit my lip to stop myself crying.
“Who?” She looked from side to side as if they might be here.
“I don’t know.”
Nadiya was squeezing me so tight that I stumbled. “We’ll find out who did it and get them,” she breathed fiercely into my face.
We went to the canteen to have our sandwiches. I wasn’t hungry and Nadiya kept asking me questions about Rosie which was making me feel even sadder.
“Joe’s getting married,” I said to shut her up.