Did I ever tell you about Madeline Hill? She was cursed by adults and enamoured by fire.
She was eight years-old the first time she saw her father clean-shaven. He always had a beard, as long as she could remember. He looked studious with it and when he laughed he lit up a room. She always thought he looked part naked after he shaved it off. Not fully dressed. When he laughed then it looked wrong. His face seemed smaller. His grin was full of gums that bristles once hid. He lost age and wisdom. She started to hate him for no reason at all.
She was pretty, little eight year-old Maddie. She skipped along with her curly hair kept in pigtails. She had a summer dress on. It was blue with yellow flowers. She skipped beside the river at the bottom of the garden. It was a scene as pure and delicate as a painting by Hanslow Hill (the aforementioned bald-faced father. He was an artist you see. A renowned one. He painted portraits that involved afternoon tea and flowing white dresses and bonnets tied up in bows. Those paintings made Madeline’s skin crawl).
Skipping along that river, humming a tune with a made-up melody, why don’t we peek into her basket and see what has made her so happy on this summer morning?
‘Stop skipping, Maddie, we want to see inside.’ Ah, good, she has stopped. Look at those wide blue eyes and that perfect smile. ‘What do you have there?’ Look with me, Reader. What is that? She must have been picking blackberries, I see splashes of something dark and red on the handle. But what’s that inside, something with fur?
Oh, don’t recoil. She wants you to see. ‘What is it Maddie?’
‘It’s the head of my cat. I took it with my daddy’s razor.’
‘That’s a mighty queer thing to do Maddie, why don’t you run along inside and get some rest. I think we need to go and talk to your mother about this.’
Come with me. We’ll follow Maddie back into the house. Oh come on, don’t throw up in the river, the fish will get sick. It’s only a dead cat. You know what kids are like.
Now would you look at that, she’s gotten away from us. It’s a beautiful house isn’t it? Would you call it a manor, or a mansion? I’m not quite sure. Ah, but what’s this? Is that Maddie at the window up there?
‘Maddie, what are you doing?’
I don’t think she can hear me, will you try and get her attention? No, why not? Well don’t just point what good does that do? Fine, I’ll look. Oh dear.
‘Maddie, what is that in your hands?’
‘It’s my mother’s head. I took it off too. It was fun, you should come and try.’
‘I don’t think so, Maddie, you shouldn’t be doing that sort of thing.’
‘I’ll throw it down to you.’
And she does. It hits the ground with a dull thud and rolls forward a few feet. Look at it, staring at you. One eye half closed.
‘Maddie, I really think you should put a halt to all this. Maddie? Oh, where has she gone now?’ We better go inside.’
We find her standing beside her father’s bed. A five o’clock shadow on his face.
‘I’m pouring petrol on him, do you mind?’ said sweet Maddie.
‘Actually I do, rather.’
‘Would you light a match?’
‘No I would not!’
‘I’ll do it,’ you say.
I turn to you. ‘Reader, you can’t! You’re just a spectator, what gives you the right?’
But there was no stopping you. You lit a match. Her father went up and Maddie went up too.
Look at her. Clutching her face. Screaming through the flames. The white of her eyes bubbling in the heat. She inhales and fire fills her lungs.
‘Now why would you go and do that, Reader?’
You look at me and shrug. ‘It’s just imaginary, Andy, none of it matters. All of fiction is just a well organised dream. And who wants to hear about your dreams?’