My Little Witchbypast_perfect©
"Mummy, let's go."
The kids were getting restless. As much as they had enjoyed the party at Sharon's house, they were looking forward to the trick or treat bit. Sharon smiled somewhat exasperated. I suppose she was happy that her contribution to the day was coming to a close now also.
It had been a long day already, a long week for that matter. Halloween was an imported holiday I still couldn't relate to properly, but of course the kids loved it. It had been not been easy to make a proper costume for Darlene, my five-year-old daughter, out of nothing. Now she was sporting the witch costume with pride, although she kept ignoring my explanations as to what the broom was for and started sweeping surreptitiously whenever she felt unwatched. I didn't know where she got that from, I am certainly not houseproud and her father is anything but that.
Her father ... Robert. It had been two years since we split up, half a year now that the divorce was through. I had learned from my solicitor that he was in prison two weeks earlier. As if my life hadn't been difficult enough already. I got laid off from my part-time office job half a year ago, when they started restructuring the company I had worked for during the past three years, so the sole source of income was gone. Back on unemployment benefit I had only the intermittent alimony payments from Robert to make a difference.
It wasn't that he didn't want to pay, but he could never hold on to a job for longer than a few months. Not that he wasn't a good worker, he just couldn't keep his big mouth shut; he never could. He was a good man, really, and he loved Darlene as much as I did. I was getting suspicious when he started increasing the payments out of his own volition and had hoped he could hold on to that obviously well-paid job for once -- just to learn that he had been fired and on top been imprisoned for embezzlement.
I was still trying to make up my mind whether I should visit him in prison. After all we had been through together, after all the heart-break, the financial disaster we had created together, the pain, the anger, the agony of separation and the certainty that we would not get back together again ever, I still loved him.
I escorted the bunch of effervescent kids to the first houses, where they said their piece in exchange for their first sweets. Looking at those bright starry eyes of my little angel, I could forget all the trouble for a few moments, her exuberance was infectious. For a few precious moments I could forget the debts, the sleepless nights; the rejection letters from countless job applications. The sad little eyes when we passed something in the supermarket that she liked, but I couldn't afford.
She was a great kid though, never complained about that; was very mature for her age. However, her sadness was getting to me, eating me from the inside. At least she would get some sweets, even that I couldn't afford lately.
I felt exhausted. If it wasn't for her, I would probably not even get out of bed in the morning. Sharon and a few of my other friends tried to get me out of the house and occasionally attempted to set me up with someone, but I squirmed out of dates and appointments, incapable of focusing on myself, of allowing myself to escape that shambles of a life I desperately tried to keep together.
The kids were getting tired too, after all it had been a long and exciting afternoon for them already -- Sharon had outdone herself for that Halloween party and walking about in the neighbourhood, was taking its toll also. I didn't get any protest when I suggested that we make our next target the last for the evening. My little witch rang the doorbell and took her place in the line-up, expecting their last victim for the day.
The door opened and a somewhat bewildered man in his thirties stood there, his face unshaven, his hair standing on end, dark rings under the eyes, strangely magnified by his spectacles.
"Trick or treat?"
The man's bewilderment seemed to deepen and he appeared to be at a loss altogether. I tried very hard to remember who he was, he looked familiar and I recalled vaguely that there was some sad story attached to him, but I couldn't come up with any details.
"Um ... oh ... I see ... Halloween, is it?"
"I told you."
The voice of the sulking boy in the background prompted my memory. His nephew: Jack. Of course. He must have been a few years older than Darlene, as he was in school already. I had heard that the man's sister had died half a year earlier and that he was taking care of her only son now, though his name still eluded me. He glanced over his shoulder and distorted his face into a pained grimace.
"Darn ... Um ... we don't have any sweets I am afraid..."
His eyes wandered helplessly and met mine.
"Um ... Will cash do? Can I give the kids some cash instead?"
Little Peter in his skeleton costume answered the question for me.
"Oh ... ok. Back in a sec."
He disappeared and returned with his wallet, counted the five kids and then looked at me for confirmation.
"Um ... is a fiver each all right? I haven't got the faintest idea what is appropriate here ..."
"No ... that is far too much. Give them a few coins, maybe a quid each max, something like that."
"Ah ... ok ... thanks ... sorry, I'm in a bit of a state today. Here you go."
He gave a shiny coin to little Peter who received the treasure with big, sparkling eyes. Darlene was the last to get some coins.
"Here you go ... oh, you are a witch are you? Very scary costume ..."
Darlene smiled and tilted her head to the left, fixing the man before she drew her wand from her little leather belt. She tried to put on a mysterious face and pointed the wand at him.
"I spell you ... that you fall in love with my mum."
The second phone call of the day I really didn't need. The first was from my customer, who was getting more and more shirty about the number of bugs that were still in the program, although I had told him that he would have to expect just that when asking for the implementation long before the agreed deadline. Truth be told, it would probably have been equally buggy tomorrow, since that was the original deadline. I just couldn't concentrate properly, and my work suffered. A lot.
The second phone call was from Jack's teacher, alerting me to anti-social behaviour and severe disciplinary problems she was having with him. I wasn't at all surprised. Ever since his mother died, he was angry and sometimes downright rude. Maybe I was too lenient with him. Maybe it was because I understood him all too well. He had every reason to be angry. I would have been if my mother bailed out on me like that.
That was not a rational thing. On that level, we were very similar I suppose. I felt the same way.
Of course Chris hadn't bailed out on us. Two years ago, she had asked me if she and Jack could stay at my place for a while. I knew she was in trouble, but she refused to tell me what it was. At least not in the beginning. She had been a single parent from day one, the guy who had knocked her up died in a freak accident at the factory he was jobbing at when she was four months pregnant.
Chris had been anything but responsible before Jack was born, a girl who liked to party and enjoy life to the fullest, starting lots of different things she never finished, trying out countless jobs in the hope of finding something that really gave her what she desired. No luck there, but I was amazed how she changed after Jack was born.
I have never seen anyone so dedicated to her child, how lovingly and caringly she tended to him, how she grew as a person with him. We had never been particularly close after our childhood, as our lifestyles didn't agree that much, but I had loved her as a sister, and for me it was absolutely natural to take her in, especially since the three of us were the last surviving family members. My parents had passed on a few years back.
In fact it was great to have these two living with me. My life had been a solitary one, dominated by my work and my music. My music, how long had it been since I had had time for that?
It was half a year after they had moved in that she dropped the bomb. She had headaches often, sometimes even migraine attacks; then she started vomiting without feeling sick beforehand. She downplayed the episodes for a while, but when I confronted her and told her to see a doctor, she suddenly cracked open and spilled her guts. There was no need for her to see a doctor, as she already had the diagnosis: A large, lethal brain tumour, inoperable, unlikely to be affected by chemo or radiation treatment, which she had refused up to that day.
I was shocked, helpless and a little bit angry that she hadn't told me before, also that she had refused treatment. I couldn't understand why she didn't, even when she said that it would probably buy her another half year at the most. No one who has not lived through this agony with a family member can understand what I went through in the following year. The attacks got more frequent, she started to have double vision, and when she finally relented and did start the chemo it only got worse.
She lost her hair completely, was often incapable of getting out of bed, became really depressed first and then occasionally very mean and vicious. Her doctor had explained to me that personality changes weren't uncommon for that particular type of tumour, but it is one thing knowing that and quite another experiencing it. That wasn't the worst though. The worst was seeing her fade away.
I did my best to shelter Jack from all this, but you can only do so much. During her illness I didn't even think about what would become of him after she died. It was only during her final weeks in the hospital that we actually spoke about that. Everything was too overwhelming already anyway, but when she asked me if I would look after him, not as a plea or a wish, but merely inquiring about her son's future, I immediately said yes.
Jack was incredibly brave throughout all this. Of course, there is only so much a six year old can comprehend, but Chris really made an effort to explain the situation to him when she was still able to. During her last weeks she was rarely lucid and I retreated into a strange emotional detachment, saying my good-byes long before she was actually gone and trying to be there for Jack as best as I could.
The last night at her bed, the funeral, dealing with the authorities to convince them that I could care for him all went down in a haze. Last month, I finally got custody.
However, as easy as it had been to deal with Jack when Chris was still around, now it was getting more and more difficult. Our lives had been on hold during all that, but now they were back in full swing, he went to school and I had to take on more work, as I had mostly lived on savings during that time.
When I am working on larger projects, I am living in another world. That is my gift actually, to be able to shut out everything else and focus completely on what I am doing. Before, it had been perfectly normal for me to work up to twenty hours per day, living of pizza, coffee and cigarettes. That routine was broken now; I had to get up earlier than I used to, to bring Jack to school and had only those precious hours in the mornings and late in the evenings to focus on what I had to do. In the afternoons I attempted to spend time with him, or at least be there for him, as he hadn't managed to bond with any of the children in the neighbourhood and spent hours alone in his room -- not even playing, as I occasionally noticed, just sitting there, brooding and sometimes crying.
As I got more and more involved in my current project, I failed him more and more often. I forgot to buy his favourite cornflakes three days in a row. I repeatedly promised to help him with his homework and then forgot all about it.
In the afternoon, he had been withdrawn and somewhat edgy again. I surmised that I had forgotten something important once again, but I really had to figure out the problems with my software. As a matter of fact, I had not slept more than two or three hours during the previous nights, nor shaved, showered or even put in my contact lenses for that matter.
The door bell rang. Jack was watching one of his favourite shows on telly and refused to answer the door. Grudgingly I got up and answered it. A blonde woman in her late twenties and five little children, all dressed up in odd costumes, carrying shopping bags and looking at me expectantly.
"Trick or treat?"
I was really at a loss what that was supposed to mean. After all Halloween was one of those imported holidays I had no connection to from my own childhood experiences.
"I told you."
True, Jack had told me all about it. True, I had forgotten to buy sweets. I tried to salvage the situation as best as I could and offered the kids some money. The blonde woman was kind enough to help me figuring out how much to give them. One kid caught my eye, dressed up like a witch, with a shock of blonde curly hair, probably the lady's daughter. When I complimented her on her costume, she took her "magic wand" out of her belt, pointed it at me and said:
"I spell you ... that you fall in love with my mum."
As cute as Darlene's histrionics and slightly offish grammar had been, it was a mortifying experience for both the man, whose jaw dropped, and me, when he gazed at me for assistance. The little boy, who had been in the house before, now joined his uncle at the door, first glancing at Darlene and then me with an indefinable expression. After what seemed like an eternity, he started grinning, thus breaking the state of suspended animation we all had been in.
I tried to smile as well, but I am pretty sure that all I managed was a freaked out grimace that resembled the one on the poor guy's face closely.
"Sorry about that, don't know what's got into her ... and thank you for your indulgence ..."
He cleared his throat.
"Um ... ha, not at all, not at all ..."
"I had better take the kids home now, they are really tired; it has been a long day for them."
"Certainly ... certainly."
I got Darlene to stop pointing her wand at him and took her hand, getting my little platoon ready to leave the scene. However, I couldn't help but taking a closer look at the poor chap before he closed the door, wondering what had prompted Darlene to that weird outburst. Despite his rather scruffy look, he was good looking, not really my type, but not unpleasant to the eye nevertheless. His eyes, magnified by the thick glasses, were probably his most striking feature, beautiful, deep and somehow very sad.
I didn't ask Darlene what had prompted her that evening. She was so tired that she almost fell asleep at the supper table. I had a strange dream that night, of me lying on a beach watching Darlene building a sand castle with that boy Jack. They were completely engrossed in their play and looked both very happy. I felt someone putting his arm around me and snuggled up to him. That was when the alarm went off.
A week after this, I had forgotten all about this episode. Robert's mum had given me fifty pounds for Darlene -- it was Darlene's sixth birthday in a couple of days. I still couldn't make up my mind whether I should visit him or not.
According to his mother, it was unlikely that he would get bail before his trial, as he stubbornly refused to co-operate and a sizeable amount of money was still missing. She cried a lot when we met. The divorce hadn't changed the fact that we were close. The money she gave me was a life-saver.
I had tried to save some money for this birthday. But then our washing machine died on me and I had to use all of my savings to buy a second-hand replacement. I could probably use twenty pounds or so for some small presents, the rest we would need to live on. A party was out of the question altogether.
The prices in this toy shop were outrageous. I sighed and put the doll back into the shelf. So far all I had got her were colouring pencils and books. That stuffed horse looked cute, but twenty-five quid was definitely out of order.
"Difficult to find something for them, isn't it?"
The voice startled me out of my frustrated daze. I turned around and saw a man wearing a suit and carrying a laptop case. He looked only faintly familiar.
"David Mingay ... We met at Halloween. Your daughter was dressed up as a witch and ..."
"Of course, sorry, I didn't recognise you."
He wasn't wearing any glasses; that had probably thrown me. I noticed that I started blushing.
"I am Claudia Phillips, Darlene's mum. Again, I am sorry for her little performance. I don't know what got into her."
He smiled sheepishly into the awkward silence that ensued.
"So ... that horse no good? It looks cute."
"Yeah, it is, but it is much too expensive. It's Darlene's birthday on Thursday and I am trying very hard to find something that I can afford."
"Thursday? Jack's birthday is on Sunday. I really don't know what to get him. I got this lorry and a jig-saw puzzle, but I don't even know what he is playing with these days. He rarely seems to play at all."
"I must be difficult for you ... I mean raising him all by yourself ... I heard about your sister."
"You have no idea ... Oh, well, what am I saying? ... You are a single parent yourself, aren't you?"
Another awkward silence. He looked at his wrist-watch.
"Listen, I have a couple of hours left before I have to pick him up from school. Can I invite you for a cup of tea or something, after we're done shopping here? Maybe we can help each other out."
'Blast, I should have invited her into a café or something.'
The place was a mess, I hadn't done any dishes for the last four days, nor any other cleaning for that matter. As if the whole thing wasn't awkward enough already. I wasn't exactly in the habit of inviting strangers into my home. Especially not women.
I had spotted her in the toy shop quite a while before I approached her, but she hadn't noticed me. She looked distraught, close to tears on several occasions. Apparently she was in financial difficulties and having trouble finding something for her daughter's birthday.
The meeting I had with my customer earlier that morning went better than expected, but he wanted more features that weren't included in the original specs. All manageable, but that would mean I had to work non-stop for at least another month. I needed to figure something out for Jack, not just birthday presents.
During my conversation with Claudia I saw a possible solution for both our problems. If she would agree to come around during the afternoons with her daughter and look after Jack for a while, I would have more time to focus on my work, and she would get some money for it that helped her out too. I had enough money and work coming in to make her a generous offer.
"Oh ... That is very kind of you, but this would be way too much ... Unless ..."
She looked around demonstratively.
"Unless I help you out with your chores here also. What do you think about that?"
"That would be even better. Again, sorry about the mess ..."
"Don't be silly, I can see how this happened."
We talked for another hour and I learned about her admittedly similarly complicated circumstances. It was strange, I felt really comfortable around her. Maybe it was because we both felt the need to open up to somebody. She was crying a lot when she told me her sad story. I sincerely hoped our arrangement would work out and the kids played along with it.
We decided to spend this afternoon together and confronted the kids with our plans. Jack put on a poker face.
Darlene seemed positively chuffed, looked at me with her big blue eyes and grinned like a honey-melon. Claudia started busying herself with the chores, while Darlene went up in Jack's room, tugging him behind her. It was amazing to see how docile he was; how little he seemed to mind being bossed around by her, considering what his teacher had told me about his behaviour in school. When I checked up on them a little later, they were building something together, both completely immersed in their play.