This story was shortlisted in the 2020 International Bath Flash Fiction Prize and was first published in the 2020, Bath Flash Fiction Anthology, Restore To Factory Settings.
Coal is hard to work with when you didn’t grow up with it. It’s like trying to burn stone. And the fire’s out. Again. I kneel in the early morning remnants of my last effort and begin a silent routine. The grate must be clean, so first the ash-pan is emptied and swept. I take more than my allotted ration of firelighters from their box, at least six, and arrange them in a small circle. Then construct a tower of pine-chip kindling leaving plenty of gaps for air flow.
I stop to check on you. Asleep, thank god, a tiny bird in a pillow nest to help you breathe. The air’s thick with morphine. Your hand is raised and slightly bent, as though you still grip a cigarette and all my failures are scattered down the front of your red robe like grim black polka dots on a party dress. I make my way quietly back to the fireside, listening for the chink of your lighter to tell me you’re awake. I’m always listening.
I take small lumps of coal from the bucket, lay them carefully among the fire bed then find the matches hidden from you earlier and strike one. The noise makes me wince. Three more tries, then at last it catches.
Later, you shuffle in to check on my work on your way to the couch. How many firelighters – you ask. Just one – I lie. A statue of Mary on the mantlepiece forgives me, with rapt expression and arms benevolently outstretched. When your brothers arrive for breakfast, they kiss you gently so as not to hurt you and you hold court in your crimson gown, your face glowing from the warmth of my coal fire.