The white room was completely dark when my dad killed my granny. I was there. Carl was there too, but they never noticed him. It was the morning of Christmas Eve and it had started snowing, but we didn’t get a proper white Christmas that year.
Back then everything was different. It was before Dad’s stuff started taking up so much space that we couldn’t get into the living room. And before Mum grew so big that she couldn’t get out of the bedroom, but it was after they had reported me dead, which got me out of going to school.
Or maybe it was earlier? I’m not very good at remembering when things happen, I get them muddled up. The first few years of your life feel like they’ll never end. The lady tells me it’s because when you try something for the first time, it makes a big impression on you, and those impressions take up a lot of space, she says.
There was definitely a lot going on in my life back then, and I was doing a lot of things for the first time. Like watching my granny die.
So anyway, our Christmas tree was hanging from the ceiling. There was nothing new about that. Dad used to hang stuff from the ceiling so he could cram as much into the living room as possibe. He’d stack our presents underneath it, so we always hoped he’d bring home a small tree.
That year the tree must have been quite small because there was room for very big presents underneath it. One of them was an amazing go-kart which Dad had built in his workshop. Mum had made red cushions for the seats. Mum and Dad always made our presents. Back then I didn’t know that other people’s children got presents bought from shops. I barely knew that other people had children or that they got presents. It never bothered us. Carl and I were just pleased to get something, and we loved Mum and Dad. It’s true there were times when Carl got a bit annoyed with them, but he could never say why.
So what was new about this Christmas was that my granny had just died. We hadn’t tried that before, and neither had she, obviously. She certainly looked a bit shell-shocked, sitting there in the green armchair, staring up at the tree, not blinking. I think she was looking at a brown paper heart I made all on my own. She taught me to weave paper hearts before she said all those things to Dad, those things which she probably shouldn’t have said.
We thought she should be with us round the tree that evening before her send-off, and she had to have her present, of course. OK, so only me and Dad thought that. And mostly me. Mum only gave in because I kept pestering her.
My granny’s feet were on the footstool, I remember, probably because I was sitting on the floor right opposite her. Her purple tights were so thin I could see her knickers through them, and her brown lace-up shoes smelled sort of sweet, like some kind of waterproofing. They were brand new and she had bought them in a shop on the mainland, she told me. She was also wearing a grey skirt, a red blouse and a scarf with white seagulls on it, clothes I found at the bottom of her case. It was me who had insisted on dressing her up nicely for Christmas. Her sitting there in her nightie would have been all wrong.
After that Christmas, no one ever sat in the green armchair again. Soon, we simply couldn’t.
It was covered in too much stuff.
As my granny couldn’t take the newspaper wrapping off her present, I was allowed to do it. At first I thought Dad had made her a go-kart too, because her present was another long wooden box on wheels, but it turned out he’d made her a coffin. With no steering wheel or red cushions. And no lid. It didn’t need a lid, he said. The only thing inside it was the pillow she’d been smothered with that morning.
When we’d put my granny in her coffin – with her head on top of the pillow this time rather than underneath it – Dad wheeled her out of the back door, around the house, past the log pile and out to the field behind the barn. Carl and I followed in the go-kart. I did the pushing, as usual, or we would have got nowhere. Mum followed behind. She always was a slowcoach.
It was pitch black, but we were used to moving about in the darkness out where we lived. The sky must have been thick with clouds that Christmas Eve because I couldn’t see a single star; we could barely make out the forest that surrounded the house and the fields. It had been windy that morning, but nothing stirred now and the earlier snow had melted. Christmas seemed to have made up its mind to be quiet and dark.
We set my granny alight using firelighters, newspaper and the extra-long matches we’d been told never to play with but Carl did anyway. We took off her shoes first, of course. They were brand new and waterproofed.
It wasn’t long before the heat forced us to step away. Soon the flames were so bright the water trough at the back of the yard emerged from the darkness and we could make out the low scrub at the edge of the wood. When I looked around, I saw my own shadow dancing on the barn wall behind me, and I could see Mum and Dad very clearly in the glow from the fire. They were holding hands.
I looked again at my burning granny with her white hair and my stomach did a somersault.
‘Does it really not hurt her?’ I asked.
‘No, don’t you worry,’ Dad said. ‘She doesn’t feel a thing. She’s not here any more.’
I was standing up in the go-kart and could still see my granny in her coffin, so his answer seemed a bit strange. Then again, I always believed whatever Dad said with all my heart. He knew everything. It was him who told me that you don’t feel pain in the dark. The fish at the bottom of the sea, say, they didn’t feel it when they bit on our hooks, and the rabbits didn’t feel a thing when they got caught in our traps at night. ‘Darkness takes the pain away,’ Dad always said. ‘And we only ever take the rabbits we need.’ Which was why good people like us only went hunting at night.
Besides, the fact that my granny didn’t utter a sound as she burned was all the proof I needed. She was always one to cry foul if she got hurt or if something didn’t go her way. I’ve never heard anyone scream as loud as her that morning when a crate of tinned tuna came down on her head. She could get really cross.
She was still smouldering when we checked on her the next morning. Or checked on what was left of her, I guess I should say, because there wasn’t a lot. A part of me was sad that she was gone because living with her was nice sometimes. Her pancakes were yummy.
When I popped by later that day there was nothing left but a bit of dark soil and singed grass. Dad said he’d cleared up and buried her. He never told me where.
Later, I often wondered if Dad did the right thing when he smothered her with that pillow. But he insisted that he had. Otherwise, things would have got much worse.
And my granny didn’t protest when he did it. She just flopped about on the bed a bit until she was completely dead – a bit like a fish choking on air in the bottom of our dinghy. That was why we bashed them on their heads – so they wouldn’t suffer. After all, none of us is meant to suffer.
Luckily, it was completely dark in my granny’s bedroom early that morning on Christmas Eve, so being killed couldn’t possibly have hurt her – or that was what I thought at the time. Anyway, it was quick because Dad pushed down hard. Selling Christmas trees, carrying planks, lugging things around and making furniture makes you strong. Perhaps even I could have done it; he always said that I was really strong for my age, especially for a girl.
We lived on the Head, a small island beyond a bigger one. We were the only people living there, and we managed all on our own.
The Head was connected to the main island by a narrow strip of land known as the Neck. Like I said, I’m not good with times and dates, but Dad used to say it took just under half an hour if you walked fast to get from our house and across the Neck to the nearest clump of houses, and then fifteen minutes to reach Korsted, the biggest town on the island. I thought Korsted was huge, but my granny told me it was very small compared to the towns on the mainland. The thought of so many people in one place frightened me. I didn’t feel safe around strangers. You never could tell with them, Dad always said. And you should never let yourself be taken in by their smiles.
The one good thing about the people down on the main island was that they had everything we needed.
Seeing as Dad didn’t like leaving the Head at night very much now, it was mostly me who fetched things for us. Dad taught me how to do it a long time ago. But I preferred it before, when we went out together.
The two of us used to set off in the pickup truck, usually in the middle of the night when other people were fast asleep. We always found a good place to hide the truck, then we would sneak around and find things in barns and outhouses and sometimes in living rooms and kitchens and other places. Once, we crept into the bedroom of a woman who was so drunk we were able to take her duvet. Afterwards I wondered what she thought when she woke up and found it was gone. Dad told me he saw her in Korsted high street the next day. She looked a bit confused, but who could blame her? It was a goose-down duvet; she’d been left a lot of money, he said. Perhaps she thought it just flew away?
Mum got the goose-down duvet and I took her old duvet – one Dad had traded for a very fine meat press earlier that year. It was filled with duck down. A few months later we got the meat press back from the barber; he was never meant to keep it. The barber and his wife were asleep on the second floor, and the kitchen, where the meat press was, was on the ground floor. They hadn’t even locked the back door. It was easy peasy lemon squeezy. Back then I believed that the barber was completely OK with us turning up and taking our things – or his things, or whoever’s they were. His wife always reeked something awful; you could smell her all the way down in the kitchen. If I was the barber, I’d have wanted someone to take her rather than the meat press. Dad said the smell was perfume.
Mum’s duck-down duvet reeked of the barber’s wife for a long time, but when it was handed down to me it smelled mostly of Mum, thank God, not really of perfume any more and definitely not of duck. But Mum’s new goose-down duvet stank of alcohol. Mum never drank anything stronger than coffee with cream, and at the end she drank only water from the pump; but I’ll get to that part later.
Dad was brilliant at easing open doors and windows. His dad had taught him, he told me. I never met Grandad, but I know that his name was Silas. Dad taught me too and I practised like mad in his workshop on some of the doors and windows we found. There were plenty at the junkyard down on the main island, and we piled up as many as we could on the back of the pickup truck. I can’t understand why people would throw out things like that. You can always repair them – and you can open and close them and play with them.
We avoided houses that had new doors because they were difficult to open if people decided to lock them. Luckily there weren’t many of them around. And if we couldn’t get inside the house, there was usually a barn or an outhouse, and we’d find something to take there. Once we took a pig. We were short of a pig, and the farmer had so many he couldn’t possibly eat all of them himself. I remember wondering why it didn’t squeal; it wasn’t even scared when Dad picked it up. But then again, he did have a way with animals. All animals. He was also very good at killing them so they didn’t feel a thing. It was just another way of being kind to animals, he said.
When the time came for me to go off on my own, I didn’t feel very confident to begin with. Especially because it very nearly went wrong on my last trip with Dad. We found a couple of long, rusty iron girders on the roadside and slid them up on the bed of the pickup truck, but when we drove around a corner in some village one of them hit a wall and made a huge racket. The lights came on in a few houses, but at the last minute Dad turned down a dirt track and we hid behind a hedge so no one saw us. The next day we lugged the iron girders upstairs; we could just about fit them along the corridor. You needed to watch your step after that, or you’d stub your toe on them.
There was another time where we were nearly caught, but that was my fault. I stepped on a hubcap in the plumber’s garage by accident. I hid in a corner and held my breath when I heard the plumber open the door. If his cat hadn’t jumped on him right then, he’d have turned on the light and spotted me. Instead he snapped at the cat: ‘Is that you making all that noise? Get in here.’
When I came out of the garage, Dad was ashen-faced. He was waiting round the back and heard everything, but he didn’t know about the cat.
But I soon found out there were some advantages to going off without Dad. I was smaller and faster, and I’d learned to move as quiet as a mouse. I walked or ran because I wasn’t big enough to drive the pickup truck and I didn’t like riding my bike. And I was much better at seeing in the dark than Dad. ‘You need to be like the owl,’ he often said, and I was, though I couldn’t fly or turn my head round the back of my neck, even though I practised really hard, till I realized I’d never be any good at it. Carl tried as well, of course he did. He had a little more success.
Mum didn’t say very much. I don’t think she really wanted us to go out at night, but she liked the things we came back with. Especially the food from the pub kitchen.