Jo is 9, and it’s Christmas morning.
It’s cold and she can see her breath as she pokes her head out of the covers into the silence. When Mum is in a good mood, she tells Jo it’s like she’s a dragon, like she’s breathing fire out to warm them both up, to melt the ice that forms on the inside of the tenement windows. Mum is never in a good mood at Christmas though, and Jo knows there won’t be jokes today. Mum does her best but there’s never quite enough money for everything, and certainly not for Christmas dinner, for decorations, for a tree or for real presents and it makes Mum sad. When Mum is sad, she doesn’t get out of bed, doesn’t come to snuggle on the sofa under the blankets with Jo while they watch TV together.
Jo has spent every Christmas Day she can remember alone, watching the other children play outside. They get bikes for Christmas, pogo sticks and roller skates, and she watches them from her windowsill. When she was younger, she used to wonder if she hadn’t been a good enough girl for Santa but last year her Mum told her the truth.
You’re the best girl, Jojo. My best girl. Santa isn’t real, sweetheart. The parents buy the gifts, and we don’t have any money.
She still wrote a letter to Santa this year, making the same wish she’s made every since she can remember. “I just want Mum to get out of bed.”
She slowly pads into the living room, trying to be quiet. When Mum is in bed, in a bad mood, Jo has to be quiet or sometimes she screams at her and Jo really doesn’t want her to be angry on Christmas Day.
This year though, Jo’s wish has come true.
“Merry Christmas, darling.” Her mum is sat waiting for her on the sofa, something hidden behind her back. Jo pinches herself, making sure she’s not dreaming, before running and jumping at her mum, throwing her arms round her neck and gripping onto her as tightly as she can. “Merry Christmas, Mum!” She clings to her, barely able to believe it’s real, that her Mum is smiling, on Christmas Day. She can hear her mum giggle even as she clings to her.
“Don’t you want to see your present, Jojo?” Her mum’s tone is light, teasing and Jo isn’t sure if she means it until she pulls a carrier bag out from behind her back. “I couldn’t get paper, Jojo, but it’s inside.”
Jo gently opens the carrier bag as if it’s the most precious item in the world, gasping as she takes in the contents. It’s a new book, Jo loves reading, and it’s by Roald Dahl who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Jo’s favourite book. “Matilda.” She reads the cover.
“It’s brand new, Jo. The library won’t have it for a while.” Her mum is beaming at her astounded reaction.
“I love it.” Jo almost feels like she wants to cry, she’s so happy. She wants to start reading it straight away, but Mum is telling her to come for breakfast and then she really wants to cry because on the counter Mum has a box of Readybrek, the cereal Jo has seen adverts for on TV, that the other children in her class rave about but they’ve never been able to afford. It’s the best thing Jo has ever tasted, she’s sure, on that cold Christmas morning and she feels like she really is glowing from the inside, just like the children on the advert.
Mum is in a great mood all morning, letting Jo watch Motormouth and the Bullseye Christmas special, before they settle on the sofa together to watch Back to the Future, another thing the children in Jo’s class have raved about. They eat beans on toast for tea, with cheese and black pepper sprinkled on the top, Jo’s favourite.
There’s only one moment when Mum looks sad, after they’ve watched Only Fools and Horses and Jo asks quietly. “Where did you get the money for my book, for the readybrek? Did Tommy send it?”
Mum shakes her head gently. “They’re not from him Jojo, only from me. You don’t need to worry where I got the money from.” She kisses Jo’s forehead, and for a moment it looks like she’s going to cry, before she smiles at Jo again. “There should be enough money on the gas meter for your bath, Jojo. To make it really deep and warm.” Mum is right, and she helps Jo wash her hair and Jo lets her, even though she’s really big enough to do that by herself now. After her bath, she gets into her pyjamas and they snuggle together under the blankets on the sofa.
“You can read your book now, Jo.” Mum prompts her gently, but that’s not quite what Jo wants.
“Will you read it to me please, Mum?” Mum beams at her again, and Jo shifts onto her lap so they can hold the book together and both see the illustrations.
It's a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
Mum reads until Jo falls asleep in her arms, then gently tucks her in under all the blankets on the sofa.
It’s the best Christmas Jo has ever had, the best present she’s ever had. They finish Matilda together over the next few nights, then start it over again.
The next time mum is sad, Jo takes the book in with her when she goes to beg her to please eat the toast she’s made, then sits next to her bed, reading Matilda to her mum. She keeps reading it herself too, so much that the pages begin to wear, and the cover starts to fold over.
Jo knows she’s far too old for wishes now, she’s just turned 10, but when Uncle Tommy calls on her birthday and Mum takes to her bed again, she can’t help but wish she had powers like Matilda so that she could make Tommy go away like Matilda made Mrs Trunchbull go away.
Mum is like Miss Honey, when she’s happy, but sometimes Jo wishes that she could be like that all the time. She knows she’s a big girl now, Mum keeps telling her, but it’s still scary when Mum is sad and the electric meter runs out and Jo is sat there all alone in the dark.
Jo is 16 now, and she’s definitely too old to believe in Matilda’s powers. She’s sat alone in an interview room at the police station, waiting for them to manage to contact Uncle Tommy. She traces her fingers along the pattern of the wood of the desk in front of her, as if touching it is the only thing keeping her from floating off, outside her body, retreating into shock.
Mum died this morning, and as if that wasn’t bad enough, Jo has lied to the police. They’d asked her if she knew what happened, if she knew why, and she’d shaken her head. She told them about how sometimes Mum got sad but claimed she didn’t know why. That was a lie. Jo does know why, she knows it’s all to do with Uncle Tommy but something deep inside her reminded her of what he’d said and told her it would be a very bad idea to mention him like that to the police. I want her for the police, Samantha. She can do what I want. She’ll have a good career… I’ll look after her. All she has to do is what I tell her. She’d only mentioned him when they’d asked if she had any other relatives, someone who could come and get her.
It doesn’t quite feel real yet, to Jo. It had felt real when she found her, when she’d screamed so loudly all the neighbours had come running and then there had been so many sirens. When she’d been pulled away by her neighbour, who’d shielded her head, sat her on their sofa as if she hadn’t already seen, as if the image wasn’t permanently burnt into her brain. Not now though, not sat in the police station alone.
The door opens, and the kind policewoman who’d let her cry in her arms in the back of the police car on the way to the station is back. “He’s on his way hen, but it will take a few hours from England. We’re going to get you something to eat, would you like something to do? Take your mind off it? Maybe a puzzle, or a book to read?”
“Do you have Matilda?”
She doesn’t really think they’ll have it, but it doesn’t seem to take too long before the policewoman is back, holding both Matilda and some toast that Jo ignores, instead reading the book she almost knows from memory by now.
Miss Honey was still hugging the tiny girl in her arms and neither of them said a word as they stood there watching the big black car tearing round the corner at the end of the road and disappearing for ever into the distance.
As Jo finishes it, the words seem to blur in front of her as her tears drop onto the page. If her mum was Miss Honey, then she knows her story is going to go the opposite way to Matilda’s. Tommy drives a big black car, and she’s going to have to sit in the back of it as they disappear forever into the distance, leaving everything she knows behind her.
I want her to do my bidding, Samantha. It’s not a choice. I’m taking her.
And it's not like Mum can stop him, not now she's gone. Not now she's left Jo all alone, so he can just take her. Jo knows she's too old to be scared, but she can't help it, sat there alone while Tommy gets ever closer, like a storm coming over the horizon, heading straight for her. She doesn't know what's going to happen, but Mum told her "You have no idea what he's capable of, Jo" so she's pretty sure that it's going to be bad.
She'll go through the academy, she'll be a police officer. She'll be mine from now on, Samantha. She's not your little Jojo any more.