For the Loved One of Fire

For the Loved One of Fire
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I

It seemed insignificant at the time. Just another story that Grace’s mother had invented to trick her daughter into sleeping. She had a wicked imagination, Grace’s mother. In another life she might have been a writer, but books were scarce in this house, as was the time to read them, and so she had only her voice with which to weave her stories. In some ways that was what made them so special. Each one unique, ephemeral; like a shooting star it would seize your sense of wonder for an instant and then be gone, leaving only a lingering shadow of excitement and the longing for another. Every evening Grace would lie back against her pillow in childish anticipation, waiting for Mother to sneak into the dimly lit room and take her place at the foot of the bed. ‘What shall I tell y’ bout tonight my dear?’ she would ask. Each time the same rehearsed voice.

‘Pirates!’

‘Trains!’

‘Monkeys!’

The ritual always excited Grace. She would shout the first thing that came into her head, her mother soaking it in with a smile. Then when silence prevailed, she began to craft her tale.

‘A long way from ’ere, in a place called London, there lives a trickster…’

Wide eyes watch every word that drops from her lips, each sparking of adventure. In that window before sleep those stories carried Grace to the edge of the oceans and beyond. Stolen by intimate whispers mother and daughter left the island each night, explored the world, met spirits disguised as snakes, men who flew on carpets. What wonders lie outside the island.

*

One night, however, the process was interrupted. Grace was nearly nine. Mother came in to find her sitting upright against the wall, eyes fixed on her tiny feet. Her brow hung forwards, bottom lip stuck out uneasily. Mother found her seat, gazed at her little one, asked the same question she always did, the same softness in her voice. Grace did not answer. She sat silent for a while. Stubborn. Again, her mother asked, was met with the same unsettling quiet as before. There was none of the usual delight in Grace’s eyes. Nor was there sadness. It was a deep curiosity that troubled her, not yet ready to express itself in words. Finally, she spoke.

‘Tell me a story about daddy,’ she said.

Her mother smiled. The weak smile a mother gives a child when she has no words to replace it with. A deep breath flooded her lungs, her gaze drifted away from her daughter, who looked up with expectant eyes. She stared blankly towards the window opposite, hypnotized momentarily by the stars. Only the sound of the crickets resisted the silence.

‘Your daddy, my dear…’ she said, reclaiming her composure as her imagination began to whirl once more, ‘…your daddy is an astronaut.’

*

That was how it began. Unknowingly her mother had planted the seed of obsession. Every evening from then on, after Mother had finished her story, Grace would sneak out to the nearby field, gaze up at the cosmos and look for her father amongst the stars. At first she would concentrate only on the black space between them – for that was where a man was most likely to be hiding – but with time she was drawn more and more to the little specks of light themselves. She began to ask her teachers questions about them, until their unsatisfactory answers led her to seek the knowledge elsewhere. Mostly she found it in the library. In the confines of its crumbling walls Grace discovered a new world. Stars were born and died before her eyes, nameless planets stretched out against her gaze. At night she would go back to the field and watch it all again with fresh amazement. How beautiful are the heavens. As the night sky consumed her Grace thought less about her father, her mind now occupied by the treasures of the universe. One night, which apart from being slightly cooler than normal was like any other, she stopped looking for him entirely. It was sudden. She was scanning the sky as she always did; she blinked, heavily, and when her eyes opened they were no longer looking for him. It was not intentional. It was simply that lying below the eternal elegance of the stars from which she was made, the whereabouts of a man she’d never met seemed pitifully insignificant.

*

Grace was different after that. Idle and untidy before, she acquired a new energy, along with the unprecedented discipline to control it. The chaos of her room was replaced by meticulous order and cleanliness and her efforts at school surprised her classmates as much as her teachers. In the years that followed she outgrew the mischievous grin that characterized her childhood, replaced it with the modest smile of a ‘respectable’ young lady. She learnt to call men ‘sir’ and women ‘ma’am’, to clean her shoes before church and always sit at the front of the classroom. Her fire never died though. That curious streak which would make her sneak out the window as a child still resided in her bones. Time had merely tamed it. She kept that desire to explore, simmering just below the surface of her newly polished manners. Mother watched on with nostalgic pride, as little Grace became not-so-little. So mature now. Soon too old for their secretive stories. The two stayed close but increasingly Grace looked inwards to escape the monotony of island life, her daydreams and fantasies usurping the role those stories once took, stealing her away from the sameness of reality. She longed for more. Her body ached for the adventure promised her in childhood. Mother noticed, as mothers do, but knew there was no more she could give. This was a restlessness the island could not satisfy.

*

It was two weeks before her seventeenth birthday. Grace tiptoed into the kitchen where her mother sat, her face illuminated by streams of Caribbean sun that cut through the open window. She was chopping onions, in the robotic way her mother used to.

‘I want to leave the island.’

There was strength in Grace’s voice. It was calm, confident, the voice of someone who had thought through that exact sentence a thousand times until she was certain it was true. Mother did not flinch. For a moment she stared blankly at her daughter, then nodded, sympathetically, as if deep down she had known already and this was only confirming what she felt to be true. A thin smile crept across her face. She admired her daughter standing boldly before her – the perfect image of herself at that age. Hungry for the flavours of life, untainted by responsibility. She was smarter than her mother though. Even as a child Grace would often correct her, when in her stories she would name New York as the capital of America or Antarctica as the home of the white bear. She spoke of far-off lands as if she knew them intimately, in the same authoritative voice with which she spoke of her own home. Maybe if I were so smart at her age I would hav’ made it off the island too, her mother thought.

‘Y’always were too much for country life,’ she said. She laughed, though a tear conspired in the corner of her eye. Grace smiled too, her mother’s smile. For a moment they were again accomplices in adventure, both enraptured by the idea of life beyond the island’s edge. Grace would go for the both of them. Her mother’s eyes began to redden, she turned back towards the chopping board to hide nascent tears. In sixteen years she’d never let her daughter see her cry, a record she would hold even into death.

 

II

There’s not a cloud in the sky tonight. Faded, starless darkness looks down on the city. Always the last to leave, Grace glides down the deserted stairs that run from the theatre’s exit. A black cab awaits her at the bottom, and as the soles of her silver shoes reach the roadside the driver gets out to open the door.

‘You sit down. I can do it,’ she snaps, slipping into the back seat unassisted. The door slams, a sigh escapes her lips. The driver is quiet for a while, afraid to act in case he does something else wrong. Eventually he summons the courage to ask: ‘Where to?’

‘South. Head towards Camberwell, I’ll give you directions when we get closer.’

With an obedient nod he pulls out from the curb and speeds off towards the river. Grace watches West-End lights blur past. In the eleven years she’s lived here it is the night that she has come to love most. It has new meaning here, night. No longer is it just the darkness that follows day, as it was in the country. It’s a world unto itself, fascinating, entirely different in character. The rules of reality freeze with the moon’s ascent, thawing only with the return of sun at dawn. It is among the electric lights and gentle buzz of the night that Grace first found wonder in this city. The move had been hard for her. Met by dirty streets and cold-faced commuters she found little of the magic she had expected. This was not the London of her mother’s stories. This city was hostile, unforgiving. Its roads draped in colourless concrete, drowned by endless rain ploughing through polluted air – thick with noise. If not for her pride she would have left within the first year. Only stubbornness kept her. The silent determination that had brought her here would not let her leave so easily. So she adapted. With time she learnt to imitate the city, learnt the formalities, gestures, idioms and idiosyncrasies. Learnt that conversations with strangers must be preceded by a comment on the weather; that only a firm wave will stop a taxi, and the darker you are the firmer you wave. She began to blend into the madness. The vibrant fabrics of her dress changed their shade to match their new environment. Soon she shed even her accent. Her Caribbean song replaced by the strange medley that is typical of newcomers – British, but with a slight aftertaste of unidentifiable otherness. Grace glances at her watch. Almost one thirty. It’ll be about nine in Jamaica by time she’s home, her mother should be up. The Thames shimmers under the glow of city lights as the cab floats over Westminster Bridge, hurtling south towards Grace’s home.

*

‘Hello’, the voice of her mother crackles through the headset.

‘Hi, Mum.’

‘Grace, my dear.’ Her mother’s voice comes suddenly alive. ‘Me thought it funny y’ hadn’t called yet, you know was jus’ about to go to bed when me heard the phone ringin’ and thought, Who dat?’

‘I told you I had a thing on tonight,’ Grace replies, with a touch of guilt.

‘That’s no worry, no worry, jus’ glad to hear y’ voice.’

Though the edges of her words are distorted by distance their warmth is carried through intact, each melodic tone reminiscent of Caribbean sunshine. They talk about nothing in particular. Anecdotes and minor dramas, peppered with the local news of each end.

‘There’s a new police man in town, y’ know. Talks proper but me nah trust him. He always lurking round Jenni’s house like he up to somethin’. Got an eye on her daughter if y’ ask me, know she’s almost nineteen now. You remember Jenni’s daughter?’

She was barely waist-height when Grace left, but she remembers. In fact, through Mother’s weekly updates she feels as though she’s watched her grow up herself, for she’s constantly cropping up at the edge of Mother’s stories. A bridesmaid at uncle Derrek’s wedding (the second one), a witness in the case of the missing mail. She saw glimpses of her always. It was in this way that Grace kept up with island life. She caught glances of old friends living new lives, saw the library she loved flake under the neglectful sun, and dirt roads she once walked replaced by glistening tarmac. Most of all, she saw how little had changed. The rhythms of the town had not altered. The baking sun still rose and fell as she remembered. The same headmaster still taught the same lessons to children from the same families, who left home only when marriage caught up with them, but never went farther than two streets down. It’s strangely reassuring. The inertia of the town was what drove her out, but now it comforts her to know that world is still there, perfectly preserved. Simple and serene, full of gentle warmth and friendly faces. Mother laughs as Grace complains of the cold again.

‘You shouldn’t hav left then,’ she jokes.

Grace smiles, her mother’s smile. She craves these conversations with the island, however mundane. They are her constant, the certainty that keeps her rooted in a city never still.

*

And so an old tradition resettles. Despite the ocean that separates them, mother and daughter find themselves once again curled up in a dimly lit room, buried beneath blankets. The chatter of insects streams in with the moonlight and crowds the silent Caribbean air. Bound by whispers of home and adventure they fill the house with hushed laughter, all the while knowing they are safe beneath the watchful eye of island stars.

About Samuel Usayd Ilyas

Samuel Usayd Ilyas is from many places. Born in London to a Jamaican father and a Pakistani mother, he moved to Paris at the age of fourteen and has since divided his time between a variety of countries and continents. His writing is a reflection of this upbringing, diverse in its content yet always able to transcend cultural difference. He is a recent winner of the Oxford Festival of the Arts Prize for Poetry and a founding member of The Radiant Collective. He currently reads History at the University of Oxford.

Samuel Usayd Ilyas is from many places. Born in London to a Jamaican father and a Pakistani mother, he moved to Paris at the age of fourteen and has since divided his time between a variety of countries and continents. His writing is a reflection of this upbringing, diverse in its content yet always able to transcend cultural difference. He is a recent winner of the Oxford Festival of the Arts Prize for Poetry and a founding member of The Radiant Collective. He currently reads History at the University of Oxford.

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