The paper lantern was more difficult to light than Nina and her daughter had anticipated. The wind kept catching it and moving it away from the flame of the windproof lighter. It was just her and Maddie this year. Zach was away at uni but with them on Maddie’s screen.
Twelve years, and Nina still ached for those arms around her. The soft touch of his fingers on her face. The smile that could melt an iceberg… It wasn’t fair. He should be with them now celebrating his forty-ninth birthday. With them, doing all the things that normal families did. Showing Zach what it meant to be a man and showing Maddie what it felt like to be loved by one.
Nina had never liked autumn with its melancholic and decaying air. Now it was worse, a season she had come to dread. Between September and October she had to navigate the emotional rollercoaster of her late husband’s anniversary, their wedding anniversary just three day later, the funeral six days later, and then finally his birthday midway through October. The autumn quartet as she thought of it. Twenty one days of nightmares to be relived, memories to be rekindled, all the time fighting to hold on to the good times.
‘So, who’s going first?’ Nina asked.
‘You, of course. I don’t know why we have to go through this every year.’ Maddie moaned. ‘You, then Zach, then me’.
Nina smiled. She’d never really thought about family as having an order. This was one of the many things Maddie had inexplicably picked up from her father. In Singapore, family order was clearly defined and adhered to. But Maddie was only two when they moved back to England and just three when he died…
‘You’re right Maddie, very logical. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me.’
As Nina’s lantern rose to the sky, Maddie held up her phone so Zach could watch it with them. Six eyes followed it dreamily up and then, almost immediately, back down again as it plumped itself back on the wet grass. Nina tried again. And again.
‘Oh great. Now what?’
‘How about running round with it first, like a kite?’ suggested Maddie. ‘Can I try?’
Nina handed her the lantern warning her to be careful. Her daughter had it up and away no problem. Funny she’d thought of kites. Could she possibly remember her father flying kites? She was sure she hadn’t ever told Maddie how much he’d loved them. Or had she?
The lantern was climbing higher but still shone brightly. Good thing his birthday was the last of the autumn quartet. Such a great idea, the lanterns. She couldn’t be sure if it was hers or someone else’s. They'd tried it for the first time a year after he died, on his birthday rather than the anniversary. They wanted to spend time with him on his birthday, at least in their thoughts. It was a way of keeping him in their lives.
Some years they had parties with lots of people. Others, it was just the three of them. Whichever, at eight o’clock, rain or no rain, they would attach their letters to lanterns and then send them up to him.
‘I love you darling’ Nina shouted as she watched her lantern rise up to the velvet sky. It weaved this way and that on the wind, now softened to a breeze.
‘Lucky it missed the tree,’ Zach commented, ‘I thought it was going to crash into it at one point’.
‘Yes, it did get a bit close, didn’t it?’ Nina replied. ‘So, Zach, your turn. I’ll throw it up for you, and Maddie, you make sure Zach can see, okay?’
Zach’s lantern went straight up without any problems. It drifted gracefully upwards and at one point, Nina could swear it turned into a white swan as it flew effortlessly towards the moon. Zach’s message had been short and sweet but even so he’d managed to include both love and familiarity. It wasn’t a greeting card message. It was the kind of thing Zach would have said to his dad had he still been alive, sitting in front of him in the Italian restaurant, the one they went to for all their birthdays.
Yes, things were definitely getting easier. The first birthday without him had been really hard. Much as they’d tried to make it a joyful event, they just couldn’t manage it. No, that one was definitely not a party. It came way too soon after his death. Just twenty-one days. It would have been his favourite too, because of the film, To Gillian on her 37th Birthday. It was a film he watched again and again, not just because he loved the story but probably even more for Michelle Pfeiffer. He’d often said how much he was looking forward to his thirty-seventh. He’d even joked about how ironic it would be if he missed it.
Nina wondered if Zach and Maddie missed him as much as she did, and hoped for their sakes they didn’t. She knew they’d never forget him, even without her constant reminders about how similar they were to their dad. She smiled as she remembered them begging for more and more stories and details when they were younger. Now they were more interested in what his opinions and feelings about them might be, if he were still with them.
Zach would have probably have spent his late teens in constant conflict with him, their strong minds and wills clashing like eastern warriors. But they would have had plenty of fun too. Disappearing for days and nights at a time whenever a new game came out. Or, savouring the delights of high class buffets. Unlike his mum, his dad would at least have understood American football and might even have played with him.
‘I’m glad it went straight up’, Zach's disembodied voice announced.
‘What did you think about as it went up?’ Maddie asked.
‘Nothing really, just that it was good it went up so well.’
Nina handed Maddie the last lantern and took hold of her phone so she could light it and set it aloft. The flat white disc quickly filled with air as Maddie whirled around with it. As soon as it was full, she released it into the night. It went up more slowly than the other two and was headed straight for a tree.
‘Oh no!’ Maddie cried, ‘it’s gonna hit the tree.’
‘No it won’t, look, it’s going up again’.
Nina didn’t feel half as confident as she hoped she sounded, and only exhaled once she was sure it really was going up. Maddie grabbed her phone and filmed it, but soon stopped to watch it for real. A light golden circle rising up and up, carrying with it all her love and longing. She didn’t look sad though. She was so calm and relaxed, a kind of dream-walking as opposed to sleep-walking state.
How he would have adored his little girl, his little princess to be bathed in his loving eyes and smiles. Smiles big enough to cover the world. What would he make of her now? He’d definitely be proud of her, so much so that she’d have to beg him to stop singing her praises to everyone and anyone. Nina barely managed to suppress a snort at the thought of him scaring the crap out of any boys brave enough to ask his daughter out. She wouldn’t mind though, he was easy to get around when you knew how. Oh yes, Maddie would have him tightly wrapped around her little finger, and he’d love it that way.
A wild gust of wind blew Nina’s hair across her face. She watched in horror as the lantern tossed first up and down, then round and round, a swirling dervish of a dance. Maddie stepped onto the patio to see where it was headed.
‘What’s happening?’ Zach’s voice broke the silence.
‘It’s heading for the tree again. It’s definitely gonna hit this time.’
‘Stop panicking, Maddie,’ Nina moved forward, ‘it might not’.
‘Well blowing’s not gonna work, is it?’
‘Maddie, hold up the phone. Let me see. Is Mum seriously blowing at it?’
Nina stopped. She didn’t even realise she’d been doing it till she heard them both laughing.
‘Will someone tell me what’s happening!’
The golden circle glimmered ominously behind the high branches.
‘Oh God, what if it catches fire?’ Maddie pointed her phone at the tree. ‘Can you see it Zach? Mum, we need to call the fire brigade.’
‘No, it should be okay. The trees are wet, they won’t catch fire.’
Nina held her breath as she watched the lantern continue to burn. Please, please, please go out. Was it getting feinter? She couldn’t be sure.
‘Oh look, it’s getting weaker’ Maddie said with relief, ‘it’s going out.’
‘Speak up. I can’t hear you.’
‘It’s okay Zach. It’s gone out. We’re heading back in soon, so goodnight darling and sleep well.’
‘Not yet Mum, aren’t you forgetting something?’
‘Oh God, yes, you’re right. On the count of three? One’
‘Two’ Zach continued.
‘Three’ Maddie finished.
‘Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you,’ three voices sang, ‘happy birthday dear Darling/Dad/Daddy, happy birthday to you.’
‘Night night, sleep well’
‘Night Mum, night Maddie. I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
‘So do I.’
Nina and Maddie stood a while with their separate thoughts, then slowly made their way back to the house.
‘Don’t be sad it got stuck.’ Nina said as she closed the door.
’It’s okay Mum, I’m not. Maybe it didn't get stuck. It's like maybe he just wanted to stay that bit closer to us.’
‘It is, isn’t it?’