“All right, my lovely. Just one more.”
The man pulled the thin blanket up to his daughter’s chin. Her short breaths came in tiny wisps of vapour. The cold air whistling in through the broken windows made the man shudder.
“It was a freezing winter and —”
“Once upon a time, daddy.” The girl’s voice was a whisper.
The man laughed, which set him coughing. When he’d recovered, he started again.
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a little girl called Iris.” In the flickering candlelight he could just make out his daughter’s smile.
“It was a freezing winter, and Iris’s house was very, very cold. Her daddy wasn’t very well, so it was Iris that had to go out and find firewood.”
“Where was her mummy?”
“Well, her mummy was …” — something caught in the man’s throat — “… visiting … her parents, that’s it, Iris’s grandparents, who lived on a lovely warm island in the south, with sunshine, white beaches, warm, blue water — oh it was paradise! She sent Iris and her daddy postcards, and they put them on the wall.”
“I wish I … had postcards.”
“You don’t need postcards, my lovely. Daddy’s going to take you to an island just like that one, very soon.”
“Will mummy be there?”
“Oh, I’m sure she will be, yes.” The man turned his head away from his daughter and swallowed.
“What about Iris, daddy?”
“Of course! Iris,” said the man gratefully.
“As I was saying, Iris had to go out and get firewood because the house was so cold. And that’s what she did. But before she went, her daddy made her wrap up warm, with two coats, fur boots, gloves and a lovely thick woollen scarf that kept her throat nice and snug.”
The blanket had slipped; the man pulled it up to his daughter’s chin again.
“So Iris went off looking for firewood, but all the good stuff that was close by had already been found, so she had to walk a long way.”
“Did she meet anyone?”
“Funny you should ask that, sausage. She didn’t meet any people, no, because they were all in their houses keeping warm. But you’ll never guess what she did meet!”
“A horse? I love horses.”
“I know you do, and it was indeed a horse! Standing in a frosty field, looking very sorry for herself.”
“Was she cold?”
“She was very cold, my darling. So cold her nose had turned bright blue!”
The little girl laughed, and like her father before, this set her coughing — dry, hacking coughs that made her body shake.
“There, there, lovely. Maybe I’ll finish the story later.”
“No, daddy. More.”
The man peered at the dim form of his daughter and knew that, yes, he needed to continue.
“So the little girl got talking to this horse, whose name was …”
“Exactly. And she found out that the poor old thing was aching so much with the cold. Maisie asked Iris to help her, but what could she do?”
“That’s exactly right. You’re so clever, sweetie. Iris took her scarf off and wrapped it around Maisie’s neck. And you’ll never guess what happened then!”
He paused to involve his daughter in the story, but she said nothing. He pushed on, putting as much wonder as he could into his voice.
“Maisie changed into a fairy! A beautiful, bright, pink and white fairy with shiny wings. And do you know what the fairy said? She said: ‘For your kindness, dear Iris, I grant you one wish. You can wish for anything.’ ”
He paused again. He could still see the wisps of vapour, but they were very rapid now. He began to rush.
“And so Iris wished to be on the sunny island with her mummy and daddy and grandparents, playing on the white sand and diving into the warm, blue water. Then whoosh! There was a flash and Iris found herself flying, hand in hand with her daddy, flying through the air at an incredible speed. But she wasn’t frightened because she knew that she was going to a happy place, and sure enough, after a little while, they landed on the beach, and there was her mummy waiting, and all three of them danced and laughed and hugged. And they lived happily, so happily ever after.”
The man stopped. The little wisps of vapour had stopped, too, and all he could hear now was the sound of his own rasping breaths, in chorus with the whistling wind. He slipped his hands under his daughter’s limp body, lifting her from the floor and into his arms, kissing her poor, blistered face.
“Oh, Iris, Iris.”
Outside, the black, ash-laden sleet started falling again.