Vincent closed his laptop and stared at the wall. The afterglow of an Excel spreadsheet burned across his retina. He waited for it to fade away to black and realised that he couldn’t hear Violet, hadn’t heard her for over an hour. The TV was silent and that gave him pause. The TV was always on. It was the other parent in the family.
The lights were off in the hall, in the kitchen… God, he hoped she’d fed herself. The first flicker of panic danced across his chest. Everything was dark and then an enormous bang made him jump. It was followed by a long, descending fizz. The room filled with pale, white and blue light. His chest heaved and he clutched at the door frame for a moment, and then he remembered the date. Remember Remember. He’d been so wrapped up in work, it hadn’t registered. Had Halloween been and gone already?
He saw the small bulge behind the curtain in the front room and relaxed, even if she was lurking there like a Victorian ghost child. She was standing on her Peppa Pig stool, looking out of the window.
“Ooooh.” He heard her sigh.
“Violet? Time for bed,” he said, although he wasn’t even sure what time it was, only that it was much, much too late.
“Have you finished working, Daddy?”
“Did you have any dinner?
“Yes sweets,” he lied. “Did you?”
“Weetabix,” she said and Vincent promised himself that he would cook her some vegetables tomorrow. Definitely tomorrow.
“Come on, time for bed.”
“The fireworks are pretty. Can we go out and see them?”
“It’s bedtime sweets.”
He told himself he was a terrible father. And because he knew he was a terrible father who forget to cook his daughter a proper meal and left her to fend for herself between the hours of four and seven, he folded.
Vincent hoisted Violet onto his shoulders and walked into the night. The rows and rows of scruffy little terraced houses were more alive than he’d expected. Cordite hung heavy in the air and stray patches of smoke drifted along the pavement. People came and went, through open doors and into backyards. He was relieved to see there were other kids out. It was hard to know what was appropriate, there was no one giving him pointers. Who knew his neighbourhood had such a sense of community? Six years he had lived there and he hadn’t made an effort. He was apart, an outsider. And that made Violet an outsider, too. But she could talk to anyone about anything: fossils, earthworms, Maisie from school who was both her best friend and mortal enemy. And people listened. They didn’t really have a choice. Once they were pined by those dimples and her earnestness, they had to stay and listen.
The cancer came and the cancer went and came and went and the last time, it nearly took his wife with it. But she’d pulled through, she’d gone into remission, she’d been given the all-clear, and then like an earthquake opening up a chasm in the centre of his world, she’d said it had given her clarity, life was too short. And she’d left them. Just like that.
Violet barely seemed to register. It made no impression. But he was certain that it had done a number on her. It would manifest, sooner or later. He watched out for warning signs, little moments. A full-blown tantrum every now and then would have been reassuring. Instead, she would fuss over him. Five years old and she would fuss and ask him if he had his lunch for work and if his shirt was clean. It gave her pleasure, he could see, so he let her care for him in small ways. Let her fix him cereal at breakfast time and fetch his shoes.
The extra work he’d taken on was more than the salary was worth, but he didn’t really have a choice. His wife had left them nothing. Vincent didn’t know how he would pay the mortgage and he didn’t know how he would raise his daughter. When he had first dropped her at nursery, he felt an intense loss greater than anything he’d felt the afternoon his wife walked out. All day at work, he had been useless, existing only for that moment when he could take her back into his arms. Her absence pulled at his heart, tightening a coiled line around it.
“I don’t hear any,” Violet said, fidgeting on Vincent’s shoulders. With every little shuffle Vincent wavered and he gripped her ankles to keep her from falling. Violet was oblivious. No matter how erratically she jiggled or how much Vincent lurched to keep their balance, she never seemed concerned with falling.
“Hold still, Sweets. I don’t want to drop you.”
“You’ve got me… look!” Violet pointed up the road and Vincent nearly pitched them both head-first into a white van parked on the kerb. Ahead, a group of twenty or so people leaned against a low wall. Someone was unloading a square box of cardboard onto the pavement.
“Is that man going to do a firework?” Violet asked.
The inside of the box was divided into squares, each one containing a round tube. A man had set it on the pavement, only feet away from parked cars. Was it even legal to just let them off in the street like that?
There were families, but Vincent only saw the men gathered together, drinking from beer cans. There were four of them and they blocked the pavement with their combined bulk. They were big, scruffy men, covered in dabs of paint or splashes of mud. Fresh from work, just like him. But the similarity ended there. Vincent subconsciously made to adjust his glasses as he approached the blockade, but his hands were still griping Violet’s ankles.
“About ten minutes,” one of the men said as they stood aside to let him pass. It may have been directed at him, he wasn’t sure. He turned, said something vague and non-committal but everyone was already waving at him: men, women, children. There was something unnerving about it. He couldn’t remember ever exchanging a word with any of them, and here they were, waving and smiling happily. He could feel Violet fidgeting again and it took him a moment to realise they were not waving at him, they were waving back at her.
“Hello!” Violet giggled.
“Hello!” They replied. Vincent laughed.
“Hello!” He said as cheerily as he could muster and then walked on. “We’ll go down to the Rec. then come back shall we?”
“Will there be a bonfire?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it,” Vincent said. He thought of hedgehogs and piles of unattended wood and a penny for the guy and considered that all things being equal, the Council had probably decided it wasn’t worth the risk.
Back when he was a child living in a small village out in the Kent countryside they started to build the bonfires weeks before. It would get higher and wider with every day. Undercover of night, his dad would sneak garden waste into its heart. One year, he remembered some of the older boys hiding fireworks inside. He supposed they would always be ‘older boys’ in his mind. He couldn’t recall now if the older boys had told him before or if he found out with the rest of the crowd as the bonfire caught and they heard the muffled bangs of the fireworks igniting inside. Did it matter? Most were burned up quickly, but a couple shot out in skittering, drunken parabolas. Like startled pheasants, nine-parts sound and fury. He remembered one zipping a barefoot from the ground straight at his father, who casually stepped to one side and let it pass between them. Vincent had frozen, watching with wide-eyed wonder as it passed his ankles and detonated in a hedge thirty feet back.
“Bloody idiots,” his father said, but there was no great malice in it. He imagined the same scenario now, he taking his father’s place, Violet taking his. He wondered if he would have stayed quite so calm. His school had shown a Public Safety Announcement at assembly the following week that had scarred Vincent for years. There were probably rules against traumatising kids like that now.
Vincent deposited Violet on the grass when they reached the Rec. She was getting heavy and his shoulders began to ache. How much longer would he be able to carry her? There was no bonfire and no crowd at the Rec. Just a group of eight teenagers on electric scooters haring around the cycle path that circuited the playing fields.
Vincent turned to go, grumbling. He wondered whether he should call someone about it. Was there a Park Warden?
“Come on,” he said trying to pull Violet away, but she remained rooted as the boys came past zip zip zip with synchronised regularity. And then the jagged white bloom of sparklers igniting seared across his vision, morphing into long tangerine streaks
“Wow.” Violet’s mouth was an ‘O’. Vincent didn’t know if there had been some secret signal, but it seemed choreographed. At one moment, they had been zipping past one after the other with the little prrrup-prrrup of their engines, the next there was a thin circle of living fire weaving its way around the Rec. Eight thin little fire worms chased each other as each rider held a lit sparkler high above their heads.
“Wow,” Violet repeated.
“Dangerous,” Vincent muttered and put a hand on Violet’s shoulder, but he couldn’t take his eyes off them. And then one of the kids toppled head-first over his handlebars and the fireworms all zip zipped over to the same spot in a laughing, broiling pile of limbs and dying flames. Vincent fumbled for the phone in his pocket, waiting to see if the laughs turned to screams. But the rider was soon up and on his feet.
“Come on,” he repeated. Violet broke into a round of applause and let out a heartfelt yeaaaahhh that across the playing field. One of the boys raised his hands in the air and smiled.
“That was fun Dad. But why weren’t there any fireworks?”
“I don’t know,” Vincent replied. He was going to say something about Council cutbacks and Health and Safety but checked himself. “They’ll be some around the next corner, I’m sure. Come on, back up on shoulders then.”
They walked on. There was a lull as they circled back home, and then they began to hear the thin crackle of Roman Candles, Fountains, Catherine Wheels kicking into life. Back in the maze of terraces, the first rockets began shooting into the air. But every whoosh into the sky was hidden from view.
The terraces had no front yards, they abutted right up against the pavement, which was a narrow strip cluttered with wheelie bins and cars haphazardly parked half in the road half out. The streets made long tunnels that opened out briefly where they crossed each other. All around, the fireworks began to pop and crash from back gardens as people came out after their evening meal. But Vincent only ever saw the last flash of light, the briefly illuminated smoke. An echo. An afterthought. If they walked on the left of the street, then sure enough the fireworks would shoot from the backyards on their side. There would be a quick pfft-pfft-pfft sound, like miniature scuds. There would be the successive bangs and crackles, but it would all be hidden by a chimney breast. If they crossed the street to get a better look, there would be a long gap, and just when they turned to try another street, it would start up again behind them and they would turn just in time to see the last failing embers of a rocket.
Back on their street, the group leaning against the wall had gone. All that remained were four abandoned cardboard firework cubes and three empty cans of extra-strength lager. Vincent had an urge to lean down and put his hand to the cubes, to see if they were still warm. There were light scorch marks around the rim, the gaudy blue and yellow lettering along the sides had been ripped, showing the brown card beneath. On his shoulders, Violet sighed. He waited for a sob, a sulk, but there was no further sound. It was getting late. The fireworks dropped to a distant crackle again. Vincent had no doubt they would peak again around ten-thirty when he was trying to sleep. He had no doubt they would wake Violet and she would creep into his bedroom, hovering over him until he woke and let her climb into the side her mother had once occupied.
“Hometime,” Vincent said.
“Aw. OK, daddy.
“I’m sorry we kept missing them, sweets.”
“I saw loads, daddy. It was the best.”
“You saw… loads? But we kept missing them, or we were on the wrong side of the street, or there was a tree. I’m sorry. We should have come out earlier, we would have seen more.”
“No daddy, I saw loads. It was the best.”
Vincent frowned. She had been on his shoulders after all. Perhaps she had got a better view? Perhaps the angles worked better a foot or so higher?
“Are you sure? We didn’t see a thing.”
“My favourite was the pink one that went whoosh, pa-chow!” Violet made a soaring motion with her arm and then exploded her little fist into a star. She wobbled on Vincent’s shoulders and he clung hard to her ankles again.
“Yeah? You saw that? That sounds awesome, I’m sad I missed it. Come on, down.” He put his hands under Violet’s armpits and hauled her over his head and to the floor.
“Then there was the rainbow one, it went vrrp-vrrp-vrrp.” Violet made pinwheeling circles in the air in front of her.
“Really? But-” Vincent began, but then Violet hugged his legs while he was trying to get the front door open and he dropped his keys. He cursed under his breath.
“Sorry, daddy,” Violet said and this time Vincent cursed himself.
“Not your fault, sweets. Now come on, let’s get your teeth brushed.”
“Can I have a hot chocolate first?”
Vincent stood with the door half-open. Violet looked up at him with guileless, doe-eyes. He didn’t even pretend to himself that he wasn’t going to break.
“Sure, why not?”
“Best daddy in the world.”
Vincent lifted her into his arms and carried her indoors.
On November sixth, he closed his laptop at five-thirty on the dot and cooked Violet carrots, peas, and pasta. She only ate the pasta.
T. K. Howell is a writer living on the banks of the Thames. When not writing, he manages ancient oak woodlands and tends to trees that are older than most countries. His writing is often inspired by mythology and folklore and can be found at various genre and literary spaces including Lucent Dreaming, Bag of Bones, Evoke and Indie Bites.