She grimaced as she caught her reflection in the shop window. She knew from bitter experience that no one would notice her, and it came as no surprise when she saw herself. The greyness of her clothes melded her into the slush filled background. Her pallid skin lost in the wintry backdrop of the drab city street. Just this morning the whiteness of the snow had turned even this dreary main road into a beautiful winter tableau. The snow still falling; the Christmas decorations glinting through the white, peaceful expanse that lay as soon as it hit the ground. It was New Year’s eve, Christmas gone, but more festivities now planned to put this year to bed.
Houses with their happy families with glowing fires and central heating mocked her with their flickering fairy lights and spray snow designs. Bright tinsel hanging in windows like wide laughing mouths. Laughing at her. She knew they weren’t; that it was just her frame of mind, but sometimes, she just felt as though she should have had a whole different life story. A one that ended up with her being in one of those houses. Instead of trawling the streets, scavenging for food and lucky if she could find shelter. In the harsh winter weather the difficulties faced in this life were intensified tenfold.
As the rest of the city had started to wake up and the houses spewed their inhabitants onto the streets, children’s laughter filtered into her existence. The flashes of their hats and scarves creating a blizzard of primary colours around her. A blur of blues and reds against the backdrop of the white snow highlighting the festive atmosphere, and underlining her own greyness. She found her way to a corner between a back street and the main road. She slid down the wall to sit on the floor almost oblivious to the seeping wetness that spread through her jeans as the slush melted into them. She watched children’s excitement turned into squeals of delight as they threw snowballs at each other and created snow figures. The chatter of the presents they’d been given by Santa becoming a white noise as she thought back to her own childhood.
Her Mother was beautiful. Long red, wavy hair and emerald green eyes set in an alabaster pale face. Her lips as naturally red as her hair. She smiled always and hummed little tunes as she did housework. It had always been just her and her Mammy as long as she could remember. They didn’t have a lot but she’d wanted for nothing. She had love. She had cuddles and she remembered the warmth that had radiated around their home. She could never remember asking about her Father. She’d never missed a male presence in the house whilst she was growing up. And then things changed.
Her Mammy had started to get paler, and weaker. The housework had become neglected and her Mammy started to sleep a lot. Her Mammy’s hair started to lose its beautiful sheen and the smiles became less frequent. She’d still given cuddles, but they seemed to have a much deeper meaning. She was only ten, and they’d never had anyone except each other. It began to dawn on her that her Mammy was poorly. She’d asked questions but she’d been told that everything was fine. That no matter what happened her Mammy would always be with her. One night, when they were sat watching the stars in the sky through her bedroom window, her Mammy had pointed to a star that was falling through the sky with a trail of fire following it: “Look, a shooting star!! Quick, make a wish!!” She’d wished that her Mammy would be well, and that she would smile again.
One morning she woke up and went into her Mammy’s room. She knew something was wrong. Her Mammy was laid on the bed, her eyes closed and when she’d held her Mammy’s hand it was stone cold. She shook her, but couldn’t wake her up. She’d ran to the lady next door as she’d been told to do if ever she thought anything was wrong and soon, her house was full of people. Some of those people took her Mammy away on a bed with wheels and they’d put the cover over her head. Even though she was screaming to them to stop, they just kept on wheeling her away. The kind lady next door kept hold of her. Kept talking to her, but she and the lady were crying and she didn’t know what was going on.
They had no one else. She’d been taken to a big building with lots of children in it. She hadn’t liked it one bit. She’d learnt more in there than she ever thought it was possible to know: and none of it was good. She’d been punched and kicked for things she hadn’t done. She’d been picked on for being a “Goody”, whatever that meant, and all she wanted to do was leave. She was told she’d be there until she was at least sixteen. She wasn’t. She took what she’d learnt from the other kids and ran away at fourteen. She’d been running for a few months now, but it felt like years. She’d slept where she could and eaten when she could, but this wasn’t the kind of world that a fourteen year old girl should live in alone and on the streets. She recalled innocence and knew she’d lost all of it that she’d once had. She’d never resorted to drinking or drugs like some of the runaways she’d met. She knew her Mammy was still watching her somewhere and she’d have been so disappointed.
She could feel the tears sliding down her face and could feel the cold freezing them as the fell. She felt weak, she thought back to when she’d last eaten and couldn’t remember when or what it was. She could feel the emptiness inside her that made her think it was more than a few days. She’d long ago stopped noticing that she only had a sock on one foot and a worn through plimsoll on the other. The cold was just a constant to her. She hadn’t noticed that the darkness had begun to descend. She must have dozed off while she’d been slumped here. She looked around for somewhere to sleep. There were no empty bins in this alley. That was ok. She had matches, if she could just find something that she could burn to create some warmth for through the night she could maybe make it through. She tried to get up, but just couldn’t muster the energy. There were some cardboard boxes piled up at the back of a shop just a few doors down. She knew the top ones would be sodden and wouldn’t burn, but she hoped that the snow hadn’t melted through. She tried to stand again, but it was almost as though her body had given up.
She took the matches from her pocket, she’d stolen them the day before, but she’d hoped that if the shopkeeper had known her circumstances he’d have thought it was ok for her to do that. She lit one and cupped her hand round it. The heat was so comforting. She let it burn down til it nearly burnt her fingers. The feeling of loss when she blew it out was almost painful. She lit another quickly. Repeated the process. It was getting really dark now. She lit another one, resolving that this would be the last. She needed to keep some for later when she might need them again. When that one went out she couldn’t keep her promise to herself. Another was lit. As she looked up to the sky she saw a shooting star. “Quick, make a wish!!” Her Mammy’s voice urged… She made a wish. She wished to be with her Mammy. As she lit another match she could see her Mammy’s face, as it was before everything went bad, smiling. “I want to come with you Mammy!!” And as the last match went out a new warmth went through her as her Mammy gathered her up in her arms and whispered, “I told you, Mammy will always be with you!”
When the morning came around, there she lay, still against the wall. She’d been frozen on the last day of the year and the New Year’s sun rose and shone on her. She still held the box of matches and a handful of burnt ones. “She tried to warm herself,” said the shopkeeper who’d came out of his back door to find her there. No one knew how much more beautiful it was for her to be again, finally, with her Mammy.