By now the house was almost empty. Only a few cardboard boxes remained in the living room and, in the interest of economy, the carpets had been packed into the removal truck too. Little trace remained of the Swifts or their home: only the imperfections in the wallpaper and the choice of wallpaper itself suggested the house had ever been lived in.
Oliver Swift sat on the stairs leading down into the living room. His eyes were fixed on a faint mark on the opposite wall. It looked like a grubby, muddy smudge, but he remembered with perfect clarity how it had been created, nearly two decades ago.
There was a little cry from the top stair, followed by a series of increasingly-loud thumps. Oliver turned away from the picture he'd been admiring to see Amber hurtling toward him, squealing. Before he had time to react, her little body had slammed into him, winding him. He clumsily caught her in a hug, but the force of the impact pushed him back a step or two. Amber's chubby little hands, outstretched to break her fall, rested against the wall. They were caked with dirt – she'd been playing outside and had gone upstairs to wash her hand.
His wife would be furious when she saw the muck on the cream wallpaper. For now, though, that didn't matter. All that mattered was comforting his daughter. The warmth of the toddler's body and the dampness of her tears as they soaked through his shirt seemed to meld them together for an endless minute. Oliver started laughing, and Amber giggled along. When he put her down, she was still laughing; she laughed until all her tears were gone, wiped her eyes, and toddled off into the kitchen to look for lunch.
He smiled as he remembered how she'd eaten at that age, cramming sandwiches greedily into her mouth and covering herself with soggy breadcrumbs, then realised he'd wandered into the kitchen. The counter-tops of smooth black plastic reminded him how Amber had reacted when the kitchen had just been installed. She'd been away at a musical summer camp and his wife, perhaps on purpose, had a new kitchen put in while she was gone.
“Oh my god. Mum, what did you do to the kitchen?”
“You don't like it? I am sorry, but it was time for a new one, after all.”
“It's not the newness of it I mind, it's the – gloss.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“This modern stuff. The sliding drawers and automatic hinges. The smoothness. It's so robotic!” Amber pushed in a cupboard door and scowled as it opened.
“But Amber, this is so much nicer than that old wooden kitchen, don't you think so?”
“Maybe you think so, but some of us don't want everything to run like a factory line!” She stomped out, trying to hide her tears.
A little later he went up to talk to Amber at his wife's request. He sat on the edge of her bed and listened to her.
“Mum thinks she can make me into some perfect little robotic girl. She sends me to violin lessons and summer camps and youth meetings whether I want to go or not. She just wants me to make her look good.”
“Would you rather not learn the violin?” he said, “There are plenty of other things you could do instead.”
“You don't understand, Dad. It's not whether I want to learn that's the problem-”
“Then what is the problem?”
“I don't want to have to do everything Mum's way. I want to do it my way.”
“Your mother loves you very much. She just wants the best for you.”
“Yeah, the best by her standards,” Amber sneered, “Why can't I have my own standards?”
Then he was staring out the window into the garden. His wife loved tending the flowerbeds and the bushes – she was fantastic at keeping the weeds away, the flowers blooming in perfect coordination, and generally preventing any sort of disorder. But the neatly-arrayed petunias and the sculpted hedges weren't the focus of his attention. Instead he was gazing at the end of the garden, where a ragged, rotten oak tree stood.
The roar of a chainsaw disturbed Amber's reading. She ran out the back door to see her mother hacking gleefully at the oak tree Amber liked to sit under. She stared at her mother, not for the first time, with a mixture of confusion and disgust.
“What on earth are you doing?” she shouted.
Her mother didn't hear her – the sound of the chainsaw blocked out anything else. Amber raised her voice and shouted again. Still nothing. Her mother didn't notice until Amber jumped up and down, waved her arms and shouted at the same time, by which time the oak tree looked like a dismembered corpse. Its branches were either sawn clean through or ripped off by other branches that had fallen from above. Her mother took off her goggles and earphones, came down from the tree, put down the chainsaw, and walked over to Amber. She closed one eye and gazed blearily at her.
“Is there a problem, dear?”
Amber repeated her question.
“It just needed trimming. It's nothing to worry about. If you don't trim them now and then, they get out of control.”
“Mum, you're butchering it, not trimming it.”
“It might look that way to you, but it's just tough love. Trust me, it'll be fine.”
A few weeks later the oak tree's leaves dropped off and it died. Amber had cried for hours. Oliver, as an apology, bought her a bonsai tree. His wife was always nagging amber to trim it; Amber refused to do so, even when it outgrew the pot and tried to take root in her desk.
He was back where he had started, at the foot of the stairs. As he ascended them, his legs felt numb and his mind became leaden and unaware. If it had been a struggle to reach the second floor, forcing himself across the landing to reach Amber's bedroom was a monumental effort. He felt physically and mentally fatigued by the time he opened the door.
Amber sat huddled over her desk, with the lamp illuminating a sheet of paper coloured in bright and unearthly shades. There were no obvious objects in the picture, just a swirl of colours. Dozens of similar pictures hung all over the room: they were everywhere, the floor was half an inch deep in them. The walls were so thick with artwork that they seemed papered with it. Oliver squinted at one of the strange swirling patterns until it seemed almost coherent, then shook the strange visions that resulted out of his mind. It was easy to get sucked into Amber's world if you weren't careful.
“Amber...” he said quietly. There was no response.
“Amber, can you look at me, at least?”
She grunted something that might have been “Busy.”
“You haven't left your room all day. It's dinnertime, won't you come eat with us?”
She turned around and flared at him: “Not hungry, Dad.”
“Come on, Amber. We used to be able to talk.”
“Whassa point,” she giggled, “when neither of you really get it?”
He couldn't reply to this, so he went back down to the dining room instead of trying. His wife raised her eyebrows at him.
“She says she's not hungry.”
“How can she not be hungry? She hasn't eaten all day.”
“Don't ask me, I'm just the messenger.”
“It's that bloody art again, isn't it?”
“Apparently she's busy.”
“She's always busy, Oliver! She doesn't talk to us, she doesn't eat with us, she doesn't even practise violin any more!”
“It's just a phase.”
“Well, I'm going to end it.”
A minute later there was a scream from upstairs, followed by a shouting argument. Oliver tuned out and ate his dinner.
The next day they burned the torn-up pieces of paper that had caused so much conflict between Amber and her mother. Under her mother's supervision, Amber started attending violin lessons again, and began working in one of the local shops. She even went out with her friends at the weekends and obliterated herself with music and alcohol. “She's finally acting like a normal teenager.” her mother had said proudly to him. Oliver wasn't so sure if this was any better than before, but he kept quiet. After her victory with Amber, his wife had decided their lives would be run her way.
He stumbled, dazed, down the stairs and out the front door of the house. He got into the car and waved the truck driver to go, then kissed his wife on the cheek. The last thing he saw of the house that he'd raised his daughter in was a row of neatly-groomed petunias in the front garden.
Amber knew it was pointless arguing with her mother. Once she became determined things would go her way, it was impossible to stop her. Everything had to be done as she said, and nobody else mattered – all that she cared about was her own authority. Her father was better, less controlling, but he didn't grasp the importance of her art to her. Art was just another hobby in his view, another skill set for her to acquire. He couldn't fathom the connection between her violent tempers and the flame-like pieces of art she produced. Neither of them had realised that the same fires, the same elemental passions, rocked her soul even when she appeared most docile. All they'd done was take away her means of expressing them. And so the passions built up in her, like a thunderstorm, now without any form of release. The rolling black clouds of depression loomed overhead, then broke in a great shower of private tears and self-hatred, until finally a lightning bolt of inspiration had struck. A way to alleviate her suffering and be free of her mother's tyrannical rule.
She tightened the noose around her neck and kicked away the chair.