:: Article


By Mira Mattar.

It was designed to look like, inspired by Alexander Pope, a sweet old lady in a fit of humanity, with lovely floral thimbles, kind blue eyes and a place in her heart for you had embroidered it: Hope Springs Eternal, in muscular navy blue hanging on the wall behind the doctor’s desk.

He told me in his fat round voice: ‘the flames have burnt the epidermis, the dermis and through to the underlying structural tissue including the muscular, nervous and vascular tissue,’ he moved his hands around and said, ‘third degree burns are usually pale with no blood supply and almost no exudations, but in children wounds are often red and black because younger people have more water in the tissue and their skin is thinner’. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of asking him what exudations meant. I waited until I got home and looked it up. ‘Because flame burns leave a carbonized epidermis under which the necrotic tissue begins to liquefy slowly,’ he continued, ‘after about three weeks some new granulation tissue will appear in the wound and your daughter will,’ he said, ‘therefore first need skin grafting because the deep layers of dermis have been destroyed by thermal injury’. I thought thermal was the wrong word. It made it seem like a cosy, old-fashioned sort of accident. I clasped my hands together to seem composed and concentrated my facial muscles on not laughing, which no doubt made it seem like I was struggling to hold back tears. I imagined changing the bandages on her face and neck at home, trying to be gentle but irritating her as I pulled them off because they’d stick to her face and smart and make her round green eyes wince angrily, involuntarily up at me with a spark of hate. Then I wondered if this would be the procedure at all and whether I had perhaps reconstructed this vintage remedy from a memory stained with too many old movies. ‘Sweat glands,’ he went on, ‘in the subcutaneous fatty layer can regenerate to cover the wounds because,’ he chuckled here to lighten the mood and prove the glib sentiment behind him true, ‘wounds that reach the fatty layer are capable of spontaneous healing.’

The door opened, light fell on the embroidery making it disappear and be momentarily replaced by the reflection of a blonde nurse telling him with studied sympathy (she is an expert interrupter) that he is needed. I knew it would stick in my mind as an irritating moment that would probably haunt me forever and be wrongly associated with her prim, apologetic face.

He called these procedures ‘the healing process’. The blue and grey stripes in his expensive looking shirt boggled my eyes. He smiled just enough to transmit some hope but not enough to undermine the severity of the incident and showed me out of the room.


The twins had been sitting on the low brick wall they called their headquarters, drawing on each other’s arms and kicking their feet so that their heels smacked against the wall and came flying out again. They grinned with the smugness and joy of having nothing to do on a hot day.

My son wore his red t-shirt, blue jeans shorts and the green baseball cap his grandfather had gotten free from some glazier supply store or other. It said Offering a pane free service since 1973 on it (which didn’t promise effective work) and sat loose on his head making him look suspiciously adorable, like a baby wolf. From here he looked like an illustrated ‘boy’ from a foreign language text book. My daughter wore her favourite yellow summer dress, green sandals and her fair hair in two long bunches which she wasn’t allowed to wear to school anymore because she constantly chewed on the ends. She had to wear it in a bun which made her feel old or have it chopped off which would make her feel like a boy. We were thinking of switching schools. It was liberating for her to have days upon days where she could leave her hair in its wild state.

Still, I’m not the type to be blinded by maternal affection. I could see they, like other children, were charming and mischievous but I was under no illusions regarding their innocence, purity or potentialities for genius. I could see that other children were not jealous or even curious that they were twins, they didn’t seem to envy their secret and special power. Perhaps this was because they were a boy and a girl, there is often something disappointing about fraternal twins. You are promised identity and you see difference. What kind of freak show is this? I want my money back. But what other people didn’t see I did; they were versions of each other which, by virtue of being different sexes meant that they could cover all possibilities. We are the same but one is a boy and one is a girl so we can do everything. I had overheard a ritual between them where this was chanted in unison over the Velvet Underground’s I’ll Be Your Mirror which they had found amongst my records and, deeming it the perfect track for such a rite, pricked their index fingers with pins and rubbed them together to mix their blood. I’m also not the type to find this disturbing, my childhood friends and I were constantly invoking some spirit or other, besides I’m pleased they have good taste from an early age.

Fully engrossed in each other, as some types of loves make their victims, they were isolated from their peers. While this was a little troubling I assumed once puberty hit, their interests would change and they would need to be parts of little circles of friends. But they would always have their mirror in each other. This was the only thing I ever envied because I am an only child, (the twin lineage is from their long gone father’s side of the family).

I was calling them in for lunch and I could tell they were waiting for my voice to coarsen or until I went out and got them. These little cruelties were no surprise. It made them closer to each other to enjoy the pain or irritation of others. When they eventually came in they stared at each other over their lunch and met eyes over their juice glasses as they chugged. I pulled the full rubbish bag out of the bin after lunch and asked them to take it out if they went back outside and told them I was going for a nap. To them, afternoon naps were the proof of old age and old age meant no one wanted you anymore. Through my half sleep I could sense them exploring the house and making up new mythologies for unknown items, I liked opening drawers and finding things in disarray, dishevelled out of curiosity and lust for adventure, I could hear them in the so called fancy room discussing why there was no TV in there and why they mustn’t sit on the sofas. Sitting on the sofas in the fancy room instantly made you adult and then before you know it you would be napping in the afternoon and groaning when you have to pick something up. This fate must not befall them. I was drifting to sleep, charmed and affectionate and slept so deeply it wasn’t until I heard my girl screaming that I woke up.

What I didn’t know was that my boy had taken a matchbox from my (impressive) collection. I made sure to get a match box or book from any bar, restaurant or hotel I went to. I liked to look at them occasionally and try and remember when I had been to Berlin, or Larnaca or Lisbon or New York, and with who and why. A ship on one spelling Odyssey with it’s ropes from Berlin where I’d been with an ex-boyfriend and we had excitedly gorged ourselves on meat and cheese breakfasts which were perfectly legitimate and even encouraged. A sexy redhead pinup on one in a red catsuit asking Frigid? A girl straddling a hot dog crying Eat me! in yellow letters. Neat squiggles of ketchup and American mustard.

What I didn’t know was as the matches thumped gently against his thigh through his shorts’ pockets he was having his first genuine spiritual revelation. I didn’t know that as he carried the rubbish bag outside he was overcome with the deluded idea of sealing a destiny. I didn’t know that as he put the bag down he turned and promised his sister that they would never grow old inside, only outside, if they performed this ancient rite, which he had just created. She was intrigued. The only remarkable thing about them was that they, like other children, knew they were different to grown ups, but they, unlike other children realised the importance of this difference. They knew that if they were never grown up they would not have to decide one path over another for all eternity. They could sit at the crossroads and thrown stones at the people with their decisions and briefcases and play in the dust and live off red berries and cactus flowers and coconut milk forever in a land of their own making.

I would have to reconstruct the event for myself after much questioning and imagining: I suppose he might have, instead of putting the rubbish in the big metal bin affected with Americanism, decisively pulled the bin out of its place onto the patch of concrete under the stairs. He probably did it with a furrowed brow so that his sister would think he was concentrating on something other than her, thereby making himself seem independent and aloof in order to draw her in. This would’ve worked on her and she might’ve casually asked what are you doing? and scratched her right calf with the toe of her left sandal and checked to see what kind of red mark it left.

He might have opened the rubbish bag and pulled the matches out of his pocket and shook them at her three times inviting her to observe the ceremony, the act of bravery that was about to proceed for her. He was obsessed with the number three, I was trying to wean him off it but then he’d defiantly say how about thirty three? And I’d let him have three back and nothing would change. A light smell of sulphur would’ve popped into the air as he lit the piece of oily paper that had been used to wrap salami in (we’d eaten it the previous night so it was near the top of the bin). It had a picture of a fat, smiling Italian-looking man cradling meats and cheeses in his arms. It would’ve curled up slowly in the flame distorting the face and the fatty residue would react vigorously with the flame upon which he’d have tossed it into the bin.

She’d be chewing the ends of her hair with gusto and grinning. They’d relish with a tourist’s one dimensional delight the sight of each novelty transforming before them and at their command. They would, I think, enjoy the different colours and flames and toxicities that came from the different morsels of waste. They would delight in each thing changing so rapidly before their eyes that they couldn’t look away without the thing becoming unrecognisable. They’d want verisimilitude or absolute difference, nothing in-between.

She would join in and toss an egg carton in, a safe choice, it’d burn predictably, naturally and slowly. Compare it to a can burning with more melting but longer narrower flames, more like chemicals or the bright green of copper burning in chemistry lessons. They’d have got closer and thought more about what they might like to see next. Some bacon fat sizzling in a hunk, smelling wholesome, teabags, juice boxes, bread crusts; a scavenger’s breakfast. I imagined used cotton buds melting in the middle letting each yellowed waxy cotton side droop into the mess. I suppose the smell was sometimes viscous and unreal and other times it stunk of the familiar and shameful forcing itself out again. Singed wisps of too-long hair tenderly trimmed in the bathroom mirror and disposed of frying up with the rest.

What I do know is that as the flames throbbed and glowed, emitted smoke and excitingly climbed to the open mouth of the bin my son thought do to something spectacular to burn away the ugliness of other people, of decay and age, and time passing in a straight unavoidable line. So he threw an aerosol can in. When I close my eyes this is what I see:

A huge flash erupting out of bin. It catching her hair which had fallen out of her mouth amidst the excitement. Flames rapidly climbing up to her head. Fair bunches sizzling and melting into plasticy looking balls which chase each other up each strand of hair increasing in size and speed like a backwards firework. Her instinctively patting the fire with her hands, burning them and going back for more like a stupid greedy mouse racing back and forth across an electrified floor in pursuit of a lump of cheese. Refusing to develop instincts. Trying to escape the flames by whirling around and this only stoking the fire. My dervish. Whirling far from God’s meditative promise.

By the time her screams had woken me up and I was staring down from the balcony – all I recognised as human were the darting whites of her eyes flashing in her face. For an instant, standing above her, I saw sparks like diagrams of neurons from biology textbooks reaching up towards me. The very edges of the flames flickering electrically. The capillaries and tiny blood carrying veins rising to the surface of her skin wanting to climb out, making her white for a moment and I thought I saw every level of her facial structure: the fat under the skin, muscles and sinews that work happily together to make her face smile and smirk and frown and moan, delicate bones and finally a skull reeling at me from my daughter’s face. The possibility of all expressions showing themselves at once and simultaneously being burnt away.

The smell as I approached overwhelmed me. Skin burning, It stunk like plastic and eggs, surprisingly toxic mixed up with the strange fresh smell of the aerosol whose job was to inspire youth and invigoration. She hopped from foot to foot and fierce little embers landed on her green sandals leaving round black marks. I couldn’t stop noticing details that I knew I’d never be rid of. I knew they’d pop up unexpectedly when I was driving to work or peeling a tangerine. I wasn’t safe.

By the time I eventually reacted, put the fire out, called an ambulance and found my son cowering in fear crying into his trainers something cold had spread out inside me. There was no longer a gap between me and the world. Inevitability swarmed around me like locusts to a fruit tree, leaving it instantly ravaged and bare.

Waiting in the hospital my son and I sat opposite each other on identical hard green chairs secured in rows. The vending machine behind him hummed and buzzed and leaked strange bright coloured lights around his head, a confused halo. I think he wished she had been burnt away completely into a pile of sad harmless ashes to remember occasionally. Instead there would be this thing beside him, eating, sleeping and breathing with him, sharing schools and birthdays and photographs; trying to invoke old games that would not come. And it was not just guilt which I saw holding on inside him with tough old fingers and gnarled knuckles, but something worse, something I feared, as his pupils shrank into tight angry fists in the neon hospital light, was hate.

Then – softness uncoiled around a hard nugget of hope in the middle of my body leaving it exposed, flailing for a minute, gasping for air and then settling into an unhealthy but steady rattle, a breath severe but still alive, uncushioned and hard with new power.


Mira Mattar is a tutor, freelance writer and reviewer for the TLS and other publications. Her fiction has been published in Spilt Milk Magazine and Melusine and is forthcoming from Dog Horn Publishing. She is also one third of Monster Emporium Press. She lives in South London where she is currently working on her first collection of short stories. You can read her at here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, November 19th, 2010.