Tag Archives: childhood


I wrote the story below during a round of SPARK in response to this painting by Sukia, entitled ‘Agave’.

Rose awoke to a gentle jolt, a pneumatic whoosh, and a rush of hot, dry air. She opened her eyes and looked out of the window.

This was the place from her dream. Not just similar, but exactly identical in every detail: the undulating smudge of hills in the distance, the rocky outcrop whose outline looked like the profile of a human face, and the cluster of agaves in the foreground.

In her dream it was night-time; the agaves’ grey-green foliage shone silvery blue in the moonlight, and the distant hills were backlit by the glow of an unidentified city. Rose would hear the unfamiliar sounds of the desert at night: the chirping of crickets, and numerous unidentified hoots, barks and howls. Then she’d become aware of another noise: the sound of a vehicle’s engine. She’d turn, and see a pair of headlights approaching. She’d walk out onto the side of the road, and stand with her thumb out.

And then she’d wake up.

‘Fifteen-minute break,’ said the coach driver, taking a packet of cigarettes from the chest pocket of his short-sleeved shirt and disappearing down the steps.


Rose had been brought up by her grandmother. Her grandmother’s interest in alternative therapies, her eclectic dress sense and her love of cats (she had eight of them), led to whispers among the local children that she was witch.

When a five-year-old Rose asked, ‘Nana, are you a witch?’ her grandmother answered, ‘Everyone has magic in them, Rosie. I’m one of the lucky ones; I was born knowing it. Most people don’t recognise the magic inside them until life cuts them open, but then the magic flows out, like blood from a wound.’

They say the first cut is the deepest. But not with Max. With him the cuts just got deeper and deeper. And then one day, while giving Rose a particularly violent beating, he collapsed and died. The doctors said he’d had a massive heart attack.

It was then that the dreams started. Or rather the dream – it was the same dream repeated over and over.


Rose stepped off the coach, her rucksack slung over her shoulder. This was definitely the place from her dream. She wouldn’t be getting back on the coach when the fifteen-minute break was up. All she needed now was a distraction – something to grab the driver’s attention, and make him forget to take a head count before leaving.

There was a sudden squeal of tyres and a brown station wagon slewed into the car park. A teenage boy leapt out of the driver’s seat, yelling, ‘Is anybody here a doctor? My brother’s been bitten by a rattlesnake!’

‘I used to be a paramedic,’ shouted the coach driver, running towards the station wagon.

Rose slipped around the back of the toilet block and leant against the wall, enjoying the coolness of the shade. Within a quarter of an hour she heard an ambulance siren, and five minutes later, she heard the coach pull off.

One of the agaves behind the toilet block was in flower. The flower stalk was at least five times as tall as the plant itself, with green florets branching off the top half. It looked as if a giant had been throwing trees around, and had speared one of the agaves with a gangly pine tree.

Rose’s grandmother had grown agaves in her sprawling back garden. They’d never grown this big, though, and Rose had never seen one in flower before. Her grandmother had explained that an agave flowers just once, and then dies. Or rather, the old growth dies back, but the plant lives on in the form of suckers that sprout from the base of its stem.

Rose sat in the shade and waited for nightfall.


Rose woke up shivering. It was dark. She opened her rucksack, put on a jumper, and then hoisted the rucksack onto her back. She emerged from behind the toilet block.

The car park was empty. Beyond the low wooden railing the landscape looked exactly as it had in her dream, and the night noises were in full swing. She wondered which city was lighting up the horizon behind the hills, and thought perhaps it was Phoenix. When Rose was growing up her grandmother had had a fire screen in the shape of a phoenix rising from the flames. Whenever Rose had suffered losses and setbacks as a child, her grandmother had urged her to remember the phoenix. ‘Don’t forget, Rosie,’ she’d said, ‘whenever our lives are consumed by fire, it’s an opportunity for us to start again; to build an even better life out of the ashes of the old one. All you have to do is be open to the possibilities that present themselves.’

Rose didn’t have to wait for long before she heard the engine and saw the headlights on the horizon. The vehicle was heading west. Rose took up her position by the side of the road.

The vehicle was a van. It pulled up beside her.

The lettering on the side of the van read, ‘Back to the Fuchsia – floral arrangements for every occasion’.

The driver of the van was a woman in her fifties. She had a friendly-looking face and an unruly mop of dark, curly hair streaked with grey. She leant across and opened the passenger-side door.

‘I’m going to Phoenix,’ she said.

‘Me too,’ said Rose.

‘Hop in, then.’

Rose got into the passenger seat.

The air in the van was filled with the scent of freesias and carnations.

Rose was on her way to Phoenix. She had a feeling it was her time to bloom.

(C) Helen Lewis,  2012

Pocket money, December 1972

Tom stands on tiptoe

his forearms resting on the counter.

He slides one sweaty palm aside to reveal

the full moon of a ten pence piece

against a black Formica sky.

On the shelves in front of him

constellations of sweets twinkle invitingly:

gobstoppers as big as Jupiter,

liquorice Catherine wheels that suck in light like a black hole,

sherbet fountains shaped like rockets,

a swarm of asteroids masquerading as chocolate raisins,

and coconut mushrooms, modelled on life forms

that float in the syrupy seas of planet Zyx.

‘The usual?’ asks Mr. Bradshaw

pushing his Joe 90 glasses up his nose.

Tom nods.

With a magician’s flourish Mr. Bradshaw produces a bulging paper bag

twirled over at the corners

and palms the coin.

Tom mumbles his thanks and scuffs out,

the door shutting with a clunk

and a clang of the bell.

Outside Tom opens the bag and peeps inside:

a packet of space dust

and two dozen flying saucers.

Tom pops a pink flying saucer in his mouth

and lets it dissolve on his tongue.

A quarter of a million miles above his head

two men get ready to leave the Moon.


© Helen Lewis 2011

The trouble with Adam

From the series 'It's a Girl' By Edite Haberman

From the series ‘It’s a Girl’
By Edite Haberman

I’m waiting in the reception area at Happy Bunnies day care. In one corner of the room child-sized sun hats hang on low pegs, and dusty sandals poke out from underneath a wooden bench strewn with empty lunch boxes. On the wall opposite there’s a notice board plastered with photos of young children riding tricycles, petting farm animals and building towers out of wooden blocks. The air smells of baby soap, sunscreen and play dough. Through the open window I can hear the shouts of children playing outside, and an enthusiastic rendition of ‘Heads and shoulders’ is coming from the toddlers’ room next door. I listen for Adam’s voice, but I can’t make it out.

A bitter taste fills my mouth. I’m biting my nails. I really ought to have kicked the habit by now, especially with the wedding coming up in a couple of months. But I guess the events of the past few weeks have made me more anxious than usual.

The door to the toddlers’ room opens and Mrs Johnson, the manager of the day care centre, bursts through. She’s a middle-aged woman with greying hair and a face brimming with good humour. When she sees me she smiles.

‘Hello Ms Harris,’ she says, ‘Thanks for coming in.’

‘Please, call me Natalie,’ I say, standing up and offering my hand to shake, but she holds her palms out towards me. They’re covered in glitter.

‘Occupational hazard, I’m afraid,’ she says, with a laugh. She pushes open the door of her office with an elbow, and ushers me in.

There’s a trio of matching chairs in different sizes in front of Mrs Johnson’s desk. I feel like Goldilocks. I sit down on the medium-sized chair.

‘Is there a problem?’ I ask.

Mrs Johnson opens a large container of baby wipes on her desk, pulls out a couple of sheets, and begins wiping her hands.

‘Well, Natalie,’ she says, ‘we’re worried about Adam.’

‘Me too,’ I say. ‘He’s so clingy in the mornings when I drop him off. It’s been nearly two weeks; I thought he’d be getting used to it by now.’

‘Don’t worry about that,’ says Mrs Johnson. ‘Adam’s been at home up until now, hasn’t he? It’s bound to take him a while to settle in at day care.’

‘There’s another problem?’ My hands are itching to find my mouth. I shove them under my thighs instead.

Mrs Johnson leans forward in her seat. ‘Adam’s behaviour is giving us cause for concern,’ she says quietly.

‘In what way?’

‘Every day, after lunch, he collects all the plastic dolls and pulls their heads off. Then he puts the heads in a pushchair and walks around with it. If anyone touches the pushchair he has a screaming fit.’

‘Oh,’ I say, swallowing hard. My eyes start welling up with tears, but I manage to fight them back. I feel like I ought to say something else, but I have no idea what. Thankfully, Mrs Johnson breaks the silence.

‘Have there been any changes at home lately?’

‘Yes. Our live-in nanny, Sophie, left us a few weeks ago. That’s why I enrolled Adam at Happy Bunnies.’

‘Was Adam fond of Sophie?’

‘Very,’ I say. ‘Sophie came to live with us when Adam was six weeks old. She was like a second mother to him.’

‘Does Adam have any other important adults in his life?’

‘Well, there’s my fiancé, Bob. He moved in about six months ago, just after Adam’s second birthday.’

‘And how do Bob and Adam get on?’

‘Oh, well enough,’ I say. ‘They don’t see each other that often. Bob’s a surgeon and he works long hours. When Bob’s at home, Adam’s usually asleep. And I hate to wake him up once he’s got off to sleep, because he’s such a poor sleeper.’

‘Did he start having problems sleeping after Sophie left, or before?’ asks Mrs Johnson.

‘Definitely before. But there are other things that started after she left. He’s afraid of the dark now, when he never used to be. And he always used to be such a confident and outgoing little boy. Now he clings to me all the time and he never wants to let me out of his sight. I’m really worried about him.’

The tears come again, and this time I can’t stop them. Mrs Johnson offers me a tissue. It smells of glue sticks.


As I’m opening the front door the phone starts ringing. I chivvy Adam inside. The old Adam would have run off to play in the garden. The new Adam sits at the bottom of the stairs. Keeping an eye on me. I take the business card Mrs Johnson gave me out of my pocket and put it on the hall table, next to the phone. It reads, ‘Raj Prasad, child psychologist’.

I pick up the phone. It’s Sophie’s dad.

‘I’m sorry to bother you, Natalie,’ he says, ‘only we can’t reach Sophie on her mobile.’

‘Sophie’s not with us any more,’ I say. ‘Didn’t she tell you?’

‘No. What happened?’

‘I don’t really know. She just went. She left us a letter, saying she had some personal problems and was going back home. I assumed she was with you.’

‘We’ve not seen or heard from her in weeks.’

For the second time today I have no idea what to say.

‘Hello, Natalie? Are you still there?’

I need to feel like I’m doing something useful, so I give Sophie’s dad the name of the boy Sophie was seeing while she was with us. I ask him to call me again in the morning, but I know I’ll end up calling him first. I hang up.

I put on my best breezy smile for Adam.

‘Would you like an ice lolly?’ I ask.

Adam nods.

‘Come on then,’ I say, holding out my hand. ‘Let’s go and choose one.’

Adam puts his hand in mine, and follows me down the hall, but as soon as I open the door to the basement, he pulls his hand out of mine, and wraps his arms around my legs.

‘No, Mummy, no!’

I extricate myself from his grasp, and get down to his eye level. ‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘You don’t have to go. I’ll get the lolly.’

I make my way down the stairs to the basement, humming a cheery tune.

Half way down the stairs I turn round and check on Adam. He’s watching me intently, his bottom lip quivering.

The chest freezer is right at the bottom of the stairs.

‘You like raspberry ones, don’t you?’ I call up to him.

The ice lolly box is not where I expect it to be. I’m rummaging around, trying to find it, when my hand touches something unfamiliar. It’s heavy and irregularly shaped, and it feels like it’s wrapped in cling film. I pull it out to take a look.

It’s Sophie’s head. Beneath the hazy glaze of the cling film her pale skin is tinged blue and frosted with ice crystals. Her green eyes are open and staring, and her mouth is horribly contorted. Her blonde hair is streaked with blood. Her neck is cut off neatly and precisely, in a perfectly horizontal line, like the line where a doll’s head joins her body.

There’s a thump. I look down to see Sophie’s head rolling along the basement floor, towards the bottom of the stairs.

It’s only when Adam lets out an ear-splitting scream that I remember he’s there. I jump over the still-rolling head and run up the stairs. By the time I reach Adam his scream has become a wail. I kneel down and hold him tightly, rocking gently back and forth, whispering into his ear, ‘It’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right.’ Eventually his wailing gives way to sobbing, and I pull away from him, holding his shoulder with one hand and gently smoothing his hair with the other. ‘What did you see, Adam?’ I ask. ‘What did you see?’

Between sobs, Adam repeats a single syllable: ‘Bob.’


© Helen Lewis, 2010

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