Christmas lights brightened January until twelfth night, the day after my father’s birthday. My birthday a week later was then and almost always has since taken place in a damp, grey gloom. The cheer of Christmas was over and now we faced just the long, muddy, dismal slog to Spring.
But that year, for my seventh birthday, Dad took me and my cousin to see a new live action version of “Alice in Wonderland” in Leicester Square. It is a long time ago now. I think I was a little disappointed in the film. Alice was, after all, supposed to be my age, but the actress was clearly a teenager and some of the magic was lost. There is nothing magical about teenagers, especially when you’re seven. However, London, coming as I did from a small country village, did not disappoint. The buildings were immense and grey, the sky in mid afternoon was darkening; but while my little village would be battening down the hatches and preparing to shut its curtains and doors dead on five p.m., London was still bustling.
You could feel its heart still racing, wired for a night on the tiles, rather than starting to doze towards an early bedtime. Holding Dad’s hand, tripping along in my best dress, I wondered if anyone ever slept. When we came out of the cinema, Leicester Square was a mass of bright lights. The Christmas ones may have been turned off, but that didn’t stop Leicester Square from blaring out its enticements: “watch watch watch”. And he took us to see Piccadilly Circus too, with adverts flashing in technicolor neon: “buy buy buy”. And I remember men in the gloom roasting chestnuts over barrels, the glow of the coals lighting their chins and mouths but throwing their eyes and hair into darkness.
That year, I remember walking to school in February and picking up a perfect, perfect piece of ice crystal. I thought it was a huge snowflake and carried it carefully to show my teacher on my mitten. I held it out to show her but it had started to melt, the geometric pattern blurred. She thought I was crying because my hands were cold and I couldn’t explain that I didn’t care about the cold, I was just heartbroken because the perfection was gone.
We had moved to that village only the September before. It was my third moved and my second school and I’d struggled to make friends. It had been hard enough at my first school but this time had been a terrible, lonely, miserable battle to find my place and shake off the bullies.
Somehow, despite everything, I’d made a good friend who understood about unicorns and Pegasuses and imagination. And somehow or other I had fallen in love with a boy who had fallen in love with me, instead of with Charlotte with the beautiful curls and lovely blue eyes. Sometimes I played with my friend, making up stories about winged unicorns in my room which looked out over rolling fields of ripening barley. Sometimes I watched TV with my boyfriend and I wondered if he would ever hold my hand or kiss me.
That summer, my family went to Cornwall and I looked for dragons in the caves at St Austell and Dad read to us in the caravan while we sipped Nesquik and listened to the hiss of the gas mantles.
That autumn, I read the last book on the primary school reading plan and the last book in the school library and was told to bring my own from now on.
That Christmas we went to my great aunt’s house as usual and nineteen or so ate a wonderful dinner and my sister and I chased round with our five cousins and I saw that my girl cousin had lost a shoe and spotted it on top of an empty crystal vase on the dining table and got it for her. Then my uncle chased me because he’d been sketching it as part of a composition.
That winter, my father said that we might be moving again. He said he was applying for jobs somewhere else entirely. Maybe we would go right round the world to the Solomon Islands. Maybe we would move to Wales. He said he’d applied for a job in Mold and a job in Neath. I didn’t want to live anywhere called Mold. I sort of fancied living in a Pacific Island, always sunny. I wondered if there would be palm trees and castaways.
But under under Christmas lights, in the last days of December, my father spread out a map of a village in South Wales, nestling on the edge of a mountain, with the word “FFOREST” in Welsh drawn across it just behind the house where we were going to live.
I wondered if it was a magic forest. But even if it was, that meant nothing without my grandparents or my friends.
I didn’t want to move again.
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission