In our house, her name was a dirty word. If a Campbell muttered that someone was like Amelia, you’d better take note. If you were told you were acting up, like Amelia, you stopped. Mum’s mouth set in a hard, disapproving line if we spoke of her, which was rarely. Dad collapsed in on himself like shadows in the darkness. Amelia to him meant pain. They never told us that, I should hasten to add. Jodie used to give me a big sister punch to the arm if I slipped and mentioned her, so I stopped because Jodie was mean. When I became a teenager and finally understood the world, I saw why I shouldn’t mention her.
I locked my memories of her into a box in my mind. I would wait until I was comfortable in bed and the house was silent and dark, and the only light in my room was from the far-flung stars who always bore witness as I examined my memory for fragments of the late Amelia Campbell.
She’d been my favourite aunt when I was a child. She would visit in a flurry of presents and hugs and kisses; her unearthly beauty mesmerised us. I was fascinated with her red hair which gave her a fiery look. She had the greenest eyes I’d ever seen, not hazel or flecked with other colours, but pure green. It hurt to look at her sometimes, she was so delicate and beautiful and aflame. She didn’t talk down to us, ever. She didn’t change the subject when we entered the room, which annoyed mum to no end. She listened to my stories about my dolls and Jodie’s horrid pony collection in earnest. She’d nod sagely as I served Teddy Ruxpin high tea, and solicitiously ask him if he wouldn’t fancy a sandwich. When I introduced her to my imaginary friend Stanley, she didn’t frown the way the other adults did. She asked him if he liked chocolate ice-cream, as if it were the most normal thing in the world. She seemed just as enchanted with the world as I was.
Nan said she’d known Amelia was enchanted, no, cursed. People with true green eyes were beloved of the fairies, she said. They weren’t of this world; they had to return to the twilight world from which they came. You should never look a jade in the eyes if they were trying to convince you of something: they’d cast a spell on you.
Mum didn’t like that. Stop telling the kids silly old wives’ stories, she’d snap. John, tell her.
Dad wouldn’t answer. He’d look sad, fiercely remote. Amelia had been his favourite sister and he didn’t believe in fairies or good things much anymore. He believed in murder and savage, cruel people who took advantage of silly, capricious women whose only crime was to be too love in with the world.
That’s what mum and dad called her. Capricious. It was the first big word I learned. I remember writing a story in school and the teacher said to me, ‘Julia, that’s a very big word for such a small girl. Tell me what it means.’
I hadn’t precisely asked mum what it meant, so I guessed that it meant good. Ms. Perry had laughed. She said not many people thought capricious was good.
It upset me. but I never talked to anyone about it, not even Jodie. The world didn’t agree with my love for her. Amelia was Not Good.
‘She played with people’s hearts,’ said aunt Audrey brusquely (she was never dad’s favourite sister). ‘It doesn’t bode well to speak of the dead, I know, but she may not even be dead and let’s face it, it’s not like she hasn’t run off before.’
‘That was for two days. She was sixteen,’ said dad. ‘It’s been ten years now. She’d be 36. Even Amelia would have– would have grown–‘
Jodie gave aunt Audrey the evil eye, and that was the end of that conversation.
I don’t tell stories now, not about my dolls, or Jodie, or what happened that evening. There was so much trouble when I arrived home that night. Mum had wanted to tear Amelia apart, leaving a six-year-old out in the woods like that, in the dark. She wanted to call the police. They did call the police, for Dad was pale: where was she? Had some man taken her? They asked me, mum, dad, Jodie, Audrey, the police, the social workers, the children at school. On and on and on it went, and I was happy and excited at first. She went with the fairy, they disappeared together, they’d come back for me. The man with the laughing eyes had told her he’d been waiting. And then came the disapproving frowns and the disappointment, the slap from my exhausted, terrified mother.
Tell the truth!
So I said she’d just disappeared. Evil, terrible, capricious Amelia!
At the end of our village, the road gave way to a dead-end. You could climb over the rotten wooden fence there and into overgrown meadows, a wild place untouched by developers, fringed by woodland. Jodie and I were forbidden from playing there; they said a little boy had been murdered in the woods there. That had been many years ago, in the 1950s, and we argued with dad incessantly about it. The rule stayed: never go near those woods without an adult.
Dreamy, beautiful, capricious Amelia.
She would ask me, ‘want to go on an adventure?’
We’d saunter down to the meadow, and no matter that she wasn’t the right kind of adult, she was an adult and the woods were ours. Her favourite time was sunset, and her hair was copper red in the golden light of the dying day. The sun sets very late in summer here, and it was already nearly 11pm when the light began to fade and she pointed out Sirius blazing white in the summer sky above us. She told me that the Romans believed the star meant great evil.
‘I think it’s beautiful,’ I said.
‘You know how to look at things the right way,’ she said tenderly. My little chest swelled with pride.
A little farther in, where the moss was greener, the woods more complete And that was where he stood, the most handsome man I have ever seen. He was tall (I suppose: everyone is tall to a six-year-old), wiry, with olive skin and quicksilver eyes. His clothes looked like they were made of the woodland around us; neutral, mossy.
‘You,’ said Amelia softly.
He smiled at her. ‘You expected me, surely?’
‘Amelia, I wanna go home,’ I whined.
She caressed my head. ‘Hush, child.’
The man regarded her for the longest time. ‘What are you searching for?’ he asked her finally.
‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not searching for anything,’ she snapped.
‘Sure you are. You won’t find it, you know. Not amongst them,’ he sneeered.
‘You wound me.’
His face softened. ‘you know I never would,’ he muttered. ‘I’ve always told you that, always. But won’t you come back?’
‘Right now?’ she laughed. It was not a kind laugh. ‘You want me to just, what? To forget 26 years? What’s the imperative, my love?’
‘I’ve asked you for 20 years. Each time, the gaps grow wider. Each time, it’s harder to return to you. And one day, Amelia, one day I won’t able to. Maybe this is the last time. Are you prepared for that? Are you ready to settle down and play bingo and hunt for bargains in Tesco?’
‘If you knew how much I–‘
‘Amelia. Come back.’
Her grip tightened on my hand. ‘But the child.’
He looked at me then, as if seeing me for the first time. I froze, lost in his tempestuous, beautiful gaze. His expression softened; his eyes appeared to laugh at me. He smiled. ‘She’ll be all right,’ he said. ‘She’ll find her way back.’
‘Amelia!’ I said, alarmed.
She crouched low and took me by the shoulders. ‘Listen to me, Julia, just listen. Do you trust me?’
‘Yes,’ I said, meaning it.
‘You go on home now, I promise you’ll be safe. I promise I’ll come back for you.’
‘Come with me now!’
She shook her head. ‘No, you come to me. Do you understand? You come back to me, when you’re ready.’ She kissed me smartly on the mouth, ran her long fingers through my hair. ‘It’s an ugly place’ she said. ‘I know you understand, even now.’
And I do understand, Amelia. I do. I’m seventeen and I understand as much as I did back then. You showed me something more infinitely light and dark than I’ve ever known and here I am, still waiting for the meaning of it all. Am I to hold my breath forever? Won’t you come back?
Stay tuned for Anne’s answer to this prompt on Wednesday. Follow us on Twitter to get updates and news.