Alice stared numbly at the TV as the closing titles brought the ten o’clock news to an end. The graphic transitions were as smooth as ever, the beeping of the outro music perfectly regular. It was a strangely calm end to what had been a deeply troubling broadcast. Alice couldn’t help but feel that strobe lighting and blaring sirens would have been more fitting. But that would only serve to sow more panic, and her anxiety levels were off the chart as it was.
Her mind racing, Alice did what she always did when she needed to cheer herself up. Treading softly so as not to wake anyone, she headed upstairs to the main bedroom and eased open the wardrobe door. The box she was looking for was tucked in the bottom right corner. Alice lifted it as gently as a newborn baby and laid it on the bed, careful to avoid her sleeping husband’s feet. Richard had come upstairs half an hour ago in order to avoid what he called ‘the nightly doom and gloom show.’ Part of Alice wished she had followed suit, but a larger part felt it was better to be informed.
The faux leather lid had gathered a thin layer of dust since it was last opened. Alice wiped it off with her sleeve before lifting it up. Inside was a thin patchwork quilt, neatly folded. She took it out, and holding it to her chest, bowed her head in order to inhale the scent. It smelled of woodsmoke and cherry blossom, of mulled cider and sun cream on warm skin. Each inhalation brought out a different note. Alice savoured all of them, before wrapping the quilt around herself and heading back downstairs.
Seated once more in her favourite armchair, she spread the quilt over her lap and began checking for alterations. There were usually one or two-a new addition here, a disappearance there. Alice didn’t understand exactly how it worked. No one did. What she did know was that the quilt was as old as she was, that it had grown along with her, and that the patches changed automatically to reflect the things she loved the most.
There were no changes this time, which perhaps wasn’t surprising. Alice was in here mid-sixties now, and pretty set in her ways. Plus it hadn’t been long since the last time she checked. The state of the world being what it was, she had been taking the quilt out of its box more often that usual lately. Not since Richard’s heart attack a few years back had she felt such a strong compulsion to wrap herself up in it, to take refuge among the multicoloured patches. It was her haven, her safe place, her means of self-comfort. The thing that kept her anchored to her sanity when everything else in the world seemed to be trying to prise her off.
‘Nanny, what are you doing?’
Alice looked up. Her granddaughter, Grace, was standing in the doorway, her large blue eyes fixed on the quilt. Alice had been so absorbed in checking for alterations that she hadn’t heard her get up.
‘What are you doing out of bed?’ she asked gently, hoping it wasn’t her trip upstairs that had woken her.
‘I can’t sleep,’ Grace replied. It was clear from the way she was rubbing her bleary eyes that she had in fact been sleeping just fine. Alice knew she was merely angling for more time by feigning insomnia. She knew because it was a trick Grace pulled every time she stayed over, and one Alice herself had pulled many times as a child. Not that she minded. Every minute she got to spend with her granddaughter was a gift more precious than all her possessions combined.
‘What are you doing?’ Grace repeated, eyes still on the blanket.
‘This is my special quilt,’ said Alice, ‘Do you want to see?’
Grace nodded enthusiastically, sending her messy brown plait swinging.
‘Come here then.’
The little girl toddled forwards and Alice moved the quilt aside, allowing her to clamber up onto her lap.
‘Did you make this, Nanny?’
‘No, I didn’t.’
‘Erm…I don’t know. I don’t think anyone made it.’
‘Someone must have made it, Nanny.’
Alice smiled and tucked a wispy curl behind Grace’s ear, only for it immediately spring free again.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘when a baby is born, they get a blanket like this, only it’s much smaller.’
‘A little blanket for a little baby.’
‘Yes, exactly. To begin with it’s just plain, but as the baby grows, so does the blanket, and eventually these patches start to appear.’
‘Is it magic?’
‘I suppose it must be.’
As soon as she said it, Alice wondered how she could have gone six and a half decades without realising this very simple fact. Perhaps it was because the quilt had been part of her life for as long as she could remember. To her, it was just another facet of normality. She had never stopped to think about the mechanics of it. When she had her own children, the nurses at the hospital had presented her with a blanket for each of them. She hadn’t thought to ask where they came from or who made them. Her brain was too fogged from the drugs and exhaustion, not to mention the enormity of her new responsibilities.
‘So magic is real?’
‘Yes. Yes, it is.’
Alice made another fruitless attempt to tuck the errant wisp behind Grace’s ear, and when that didn’t work, she planted a kiss on her head instead.
‘Do I have a blanket like this?’ Grace asked, running her little hands over the patches closest to her.
‘Yes. Everyone does.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Mommy has it, because you’re still very little. When you’re a bit older, she’ll give it to you. But for now she’s keeping it safe.’
‘And does mine have patches like these?’
‘Yes. Yours will be different to mine though. And the colours will be different.’
‘Well, the material changes to match your favourite colours, so yours will be-’
‘Pink and purple!’
‘Yes, whereas mine is red and dark blue, see?’
‘What about the patches?’ she asked.
‘The patches are the most special part, because each one represents a different part of your soul.’
‘What’s a soul?’
Alice hesitated, wondering how best to explain the concept of a soul to a six-year-old.
‘Well…there are three things that make you you. One is your body. That’s the skin you live in. Another is your mind. That’s your brain and how it works. And the other is your soul. Now your soul is very special because you can’t see or touch it, but it gives life to your body, and without it, you wouldn’t be you. Does that make sense?’
Alice knew she had done a poor job of explaining, so she wasn’t really surprised when Grace frowned and said, ‘Not really.’
‘No, I don’t suppose it does,’ she murmured, racking her brains for a better way. Perhaps it would make more sense to show her.
Pointing to each of the patches in turn, she said, ‘Each one of these things is something that is really, really important to me. So important that it changed my life forever. Something I love so deeply that it became a part of me, but not a part you can touch like my face or my hair.’
‘So they’re invisible?’ Grace surmised, her little fingers tracing over the square nearest to her.
‘Is that why you have to put them on a blanket? So you can see them?’
‘Yes, that’s right,’ said Alice, smiling. Child-logic was so beautiful, so wonderfully uncomplicated. It allowed them to make connections that adults could never make.
‘So these are your favourite things?’
My absolute favourites. My favourite favourites.’
Grace giggled at that.
‘Can you show me?’
‘Of course. Let’s see. This one here is my first doggy from when I was a little girl.’
Alice pointed to an embroidered image of a German Shepherd with his tongue hanging out and huge, bat-like ears.
‘He was called Benji, and he was as big as you.’
‘He’s lovely,’ said Grace, stroking Benji’s image as if it was real.
‘Yes, he was.’
There was a moment’s silence, during which Alice stared wistfully at Benji’s square. She still remembered the way he used to charge around the fields after sticks and steal people’s food when they weren’t looking. He’d been so loyal and loving, and brilliant with children. Grace would have loved him, had their lifetimes coincided.
‘And this one is the dress I wore when I married your Grandad.’
Grace’s eyes widened when she saw the miniature rendering of Alice’s real-life dress. An off-the-shoulder ballgown with long lace sleeves, it looked to her-
‘Like something Cinderella would wear!’
‘It does, doesn’t it? Do you like it?’
Grace nodded so vigorously that it looked like she was trying to rattler her own head off her shoulders.
‘I’m going to have one just like it,’ she declared, ‘and I’m going to wear clip-clop shoes as well.’
Clip-clop shoes were what she called high heels, because the noise they made reminded her of a horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the ground.
‘I’m sure you will, and I’m sure you’ll look just beautiful.’
Grandmother and granddaughter beamed at each other, and then Grace asked, ‘What’s this one here?’
She was pointing to a patch that showed a large green and white building on the bank of a river.
‘Ah, that’s a place called Saint Petersburg,’ Alice informed her. ‘I went to school there for a little while when I was younger.’
By school she actually meant university, and by younger she meant twenty, but for Grace’s sake she kept her explanations simple. Having already tried and failed to explain the concept of souls to her, she figured the Higher Education System could wait.
‘Do you know where Saint Petersburg is?’
Grace shook her head, causing several more wisps of hair to break free.
‘It’s in a country called Russia. This building is called the Winter Palace.’
‘Do princesses live there?’
‘They used to,’ Alice replied after a brief hesitation. She was a staunch believer in not lying to children, but the tale of what happened to the Russian royal family was definitely not one for six- year-olds.
‘It’s a museum now,’ she continued, hoping to head off any further questions about princesses. ‘Full of paintings and statues and all sorts of other interesting things.’
They spent the next forty minutes examining each of the patches in turn. Grace was particularly delighted by those on the bottom left-hand corner, which bore images relating to Alice’s favourite songs. They were also musical. As soon as Grace touched one, the song in question began to play, and she cocked her head to one side to listen. Being six, patience was not one of her virtues, and she often decided within the first few bars whether she liked a song or not.
‘No, I don’t like that one,’ she announced just seconds into Prince’s When Doves Cry. She did the same with Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics and David Bowie’s Heroes, wrinkling her button nose to signal her dislike. She did like the melancholic piano intro to Bruce Hornsby’s The Way It Is, much to Alice’s surprise, and she insisted on playing Defying Gravity three times back to back before Alice was able to distract her.
‘Do you know who this is?’ she asked, pointing to an image of a tiny baby with a tuft of black hair and big blue eyes. Grace shook her head.
‘That’s your daddy. And this,’ she indicated another baby, fairer and with much less hair, ‘is Auntie Ava. And this-’
‘That’s me!’ Grace cried, her face splitting into a wide, gap-toothed grin. ‘I’m on your blanket!’
‘Of course you are. And so are your cousins, look.’
Alice’s twin grandsons, Archie and Max, grinned up at them from their respective patches. They were two years younger than Grace and twice as mischievous, despite their angelic appearances. Grace, whose tolerance for her boisterous cousins was limited at the best of times, merely glanced at their squares before promptly moving on. As her gaze fell on the patch next to Archie’s, she cried,
‘Hang on, that’s not Grandad!’
Alice had been hoping that Grace wouldn’t spot this particular section of the quilt, but sure enough her inquisitive eyes had.
‘And that’s not Grandad, and that’s not Grandad!’
Alice had rarely seen her granddaughter so indignant. Triangular pink patches had appeared on Grace’s cheeks, just as they did on her father’s when he was flustered. She was staring at Alice as if to say, ‘Explain yourself.’
‘These are people I knew before I met your Grandad,’ Alice said, feeling unaccountably sheepish.
‘Did you love them?’
Alice blinked. As an adult, it wasn’t often she was asked such a direct question.
‘Some of them,’ she admitted, gazing down at the decades-old images.
Grace pointed to a picture of a handsome man with angular features, wiry black hair and green eyes.
‘And this one?’
This time the patch showed a man with mid-length blond curls and glasses.
‘No, not him.’
‘What about this one?’
Another blond-haired man, with warm hazel eyes and a bewitching smile. This was a tough one. Alice had to think about it for a moment.
‘I thought I did, once upon a time. Now I’m not so sure.’
If Grace found this confusing, she gave no indication of it. Instead she asked, ‘If you didn’t love them, then why are they on your blanket, Nanny?’
This one Alice didn’t need to think about.
‘Because you don’t have to love someone for them to change your life. They can still be very important to you without you loving them.’
The truth was, there had once been more patches on this particular section of quilt. Other men who Alice was convinced would always mean a lot to her. Then one day she lifted the quilt out of its box to find their patches gone, replaced by something else entirely. Even now it struck her as strange, that people who once meant everything to you could come to mean nothing at all. That their influence on your life could dwindle away until it was non-existent, their imprint dissolving like a chalk drawing in the rain.
‘Ah, there’s Grandad!’
Grace seemed positively relieved at having spotted her grandfather’s image. Her shoulders relaxed and she smiled broadly, as if the world had been set to rights.
‘Yes, he was much younger then,’ Alice said, gazing down at the embroidered face of her husband as he had been when they first met.
Time had been kind to Richard. His black hair was now slate grey, but at least it was still there, and his green eyes were as lively as ever. In the forty years Alice had known him, he has always looked younger than he was.
Now they came to the final section, and Alice’s personal favourite. The bottom right corner of the quilt was reserved for stories, and specifically those that had shaped her above all others. A voracious reader from a young age, Alice had learned long ago that books fell into one of three categories.
Some were so tedious they left no impression at all. You read them, but only in the sense that you looked at all the words in order; you didn’t take any of them in. There were books you enjoyed at the time, but which again left no lasting impression. They were good enough in the same way that beans on toast was good enough, or inoffensive romantic comedies were good enough. You could let them wash over you, but a few years down the line, they had all but erased themselves from your memory.
Then there was the other kind. The stories you consumed in one great gulp. These very same stories then proceeded to consume you from the inside. They found their way into your blood, entwining themselves around your heart and searing themselves onto your soul. This category was by far the smallest, but those that did make the cut were depicted here on the corner of Alice’s blanket.
Grace was curious about the images and the stories behind them.
‘What’s this one about?’ she asked, pointing to a picture of a bespectacled mouse sitting atop a cotton reel.
‘That’s a story called The Tailor of Gloucester,’ Alice said. ‘It’s by a lady called Beatrix Potter, and she wrote the most beautiful children’s stories about animals.’
‘What happens in this story?’
‘Well, there’s a tailor who has to make a coat for the mayor’s wedding, but he gets sick, so the little mice finish the coat for him. They have little secret passages behind the skirting boards that lets them run between houses without having to go outside.’
It was clear from Grace’s rapt expression that she found the idea of tiny mouse passageways just as enchanting as Alice did.
‘Can you read it to me, Nanny?’
‘Of course, but not now because it’s very late. I’ll read it to you tomorrow, OK?’
‘OK. What’s this?’
Her fingers had found a patch bearing a picture of a gold ring engraved with swirling calligraphic script.
‘Ah, this is a story called The Lord of the Rings,’ Alice said. ‘It’s one of my absolute favourites. There’s an evil magic ring that has to be destroyed, and the main character has to go on a big long journey to get rid of it.’
‘That sounds exciting.’
‘It is, but you’re a little bit young for it at the moment. When you’re bigger we can watch the films together. Do you know what this is?’
Alice pointed to an image of a lightening bolt above a pair of round glasses, thinking that Grace must surely recognise it. She did not. That needed rectifying immediately.
‘This patch is for the Harry Potter stories,’ she said. ‘They’re about a young boy who is a wizard, and he gets to go to school in a castle and learn how to do magic.’
It was the briefest, most basic of plot summaries, but it had the desired effect. Grace’s eyes grew wide with wonder, all traces of sleepiness gone.
‘I want to read it,’ she declared. A little crease had appeared between her brows, a sure-fire sign that she was determined to do something.
‘We can read it tomorrow if you like, after we’ve read The Tailor of Gloucester.’
Alice wished it wasn’t so late. She would have loved nothing more than to crack open one of those books and start reading, but it would have to wait. It was well past Grace’s bedtime, and reading Harry Potter was not conducive to sleep, as she well knew.
Sensing that the conversation was drawing to a close, Grace ran her hands over the quilt one last time and said, ‘I wonder what’s on my blanket.’
‘Well, there won’t be much on it yet, because you’re still only little. But there will be some things. Maybe your favourite toys or your favourite bedtime stories. Whatever is really important to you, that’s what’s on your blanket.’
‘Why are those things on my blanket?’
Alice hadn’t been prepared for this question, but she knew the answer without even having to think about it.
‘Well, they’re there to remind you of what’s important in life. They’re to remind of the good times, and the things that made you who you are, because those are the things you need to cling to when life gets tough.’
And it will get tough, little one.
Alice thought it but didn’t say it. To do so would have punctured the intimacy of the moment, and that was the last thing she wanted. Besides, there were ways to prepare a child for the hardships of life without negativity or scaremongering. Alice knew because she had done it with her own children, and was doing it with Grace right now.
‘So if you ever feel sad or worried or scared, wrap yourself up in your blanket, and you will feel better. Look at your patches, because they will show you all the things that can help. Read your favourite books. Listen to your favourite songs. Think about the good times-the places you’ve been, the friends you’ve made, the people who changed you for the better. Even if it’s just a distant memory, hold on to it, and use it to get you through. You can do that for me, can’t you.’
She looked so serious, so determined, like a fierce little warrior about to do battle. She would need that fighting spirit, if she was going to successfully navigate the minefield that was life. Alice knew that, and knowing made her worry to the point of near-madness. And yet there was something in the set of Grace’s chin, the steeliness in those big blue eyes, that helped set Alice’s mind at ease. It was strange, this dual state of worrying and not worrying at the same time. The paradox of parents and grandparents everywhere. Grace may have been small, but she was already in possession of an exceptionally beautiful, vibrant soul. Alice didn’t need to inspect her quilt to know that. It may not protect her from the world, but it would certainly help her survive it, and that was all Alice could ask for.