He’d always had a bit of a reputation, Alex. As a joker. You know, one of those people at parties who wore silly hats and did magic tricks.
Hey, Alex is here. Now the party is starting.
He couldn’t remember when what had begun as a way of relieving the inevitable boredom of family gatherings, office parties and summer barbecues had suddenly become a bit of a chore. Expected.
As the plane landed he glanced at his reflection in the window. He had a nice mouth, with a disproportionate lower lip that gave him a slight pout – an air of sensuality to complement his dark and serious eyes. Like a sad clown.
When he finally showed up that Christmas and presented his niece with “the joke”, he found it difficult to muster his usual twinkle. It was all too expected.
It had been a couple of years since he’d seen little Alice. He’d vaguely remember how much she’d liked the doll he’d given her last time he’d visited. He was sure she’d like the weird plaster effigy of Marie Curie he’d found in a thrift shop.
It nods, see? Like one of those dogs. In cars.
He felt an affinity with her. She was dark like him. He could sense a fellow traveller and with no children of his own his humour was like a baton he felt compelled to pass on to her. But she seemed to have grown quite considerably as he did so. Her leather jacket rustled slightly as she took the strange object from his hands.
Is this Edith Cavell?
The woman who did X-rays?
Why is she smiling like that?
Alice’s father passed by holding a kettle.
Perhaps she’s just discovered how to cure cancer darling.
Oh. Said Alice.
Something seemed out of kilter as she held the effigy out at arm’s length.
Alex put down his bag with a sigh.
Why’s everyone being so serious? I thought you’d find it amusing.
Her friend’s mother died last month.
Alec sipped his English tea and watched his brother gently padding about the kitchen. He’d forgotten how much he missed the drizzle.
Alice looked at Marie Curie’s smiling face and wondered if the poor woman had surely looked anything like that in real life. Her head was way too large; like the Queen of Hearts in that Alice in Wonderland film with Helena Bonham Carter.
She hadn’t heard from Caitlin since it’d happened. Apart from that one text on Christmas day – wishing her well in a round robin type way. Nothing. Ok, she’d lost her mother. How could she lose her mother?She thought people lost their parents when they were, you know, parents themselves – with kids of their own to take some of the force of the blow like some kind of DNA buffer. But Caitlin had no-one. She could have had Alice. But she didn’t want Alice. And this was what was making Alice feel like throwing that smiling, nodding, harmless bit of American junk-shop fun straight at the wall.
Why was she in such a bad mood?
Her father knocked on the door. He always did that. Crept rather than strode, about his own house as if he was afraid of waking something up. Her mother maybe.
At least she had a mother I suppose. Unlike Caitlin. She didn’t like the unkindness of her own thoughts. That bloody doll was making it worse.
We’ve got to get rid of this thing.
Her father gently took the figure from the shelf.
The time of unwarranted gift-giving and unwanted gatherings with unnecessary partaking of calories and alcohol. And drinks parties with neighbours you’d normally only nod to while bringing out the recycling. And recycling unwanted and upsetting presents from smart-arsed brothers with their sexy lips and fabulous American success and ridiculous jokes that always fell flat. He hadn’t missed his brother’s brashness that’s for sure. He’d be glad to watch him fly away again. The very thought of it cheered him up. And it made him feel like having some fun.
Let’s take it to the drinks party this afternoon. Your mother isn’t feeling up to it. Come with me.
Alice nodded and found herself smiling. Parents; buffers against the world.
Carole found herself picking at the prawns again. It was usually about now, five minutes before the start, that she’d begin to seriously regret inviting anyone over. She’d try unsuccessfully to recapture the excitement of the initial idea. Good excuse to get the baubles out. What’s the point otherwise of decorating when it’s just you and me. It’ll be good to get rid of the leftovers. Etc. And then when the time came it would be another fifty quid at Tescos and she’d realise she hadn’t cleaned the loo since the day before Christmas Eve and suddenly look around her small terraced house and see the opposite of those beautiful interiors she loved so much. The ones with the white floors and white walls and white tables and a great big blue pouffe in the middle.
And if she could only make her house like that then everyone would love her.
Is that what she wanted?
She realised she was becoming distracted. She ate another prawn. Yeah, right that’ll help. That voice again. Talk about supportive. And now she’d made herself laugh. Thank God for schizophrenic inner humour. She looked over at Keith. He was lighting some candles like she’d asked him too. She did love him. It was all her fault. Two hours max and they’d all go and she and Keith could get back to the Being Human box set that Santa had bought them. She loved Santa. She realised the sherry was kicking in. The doorbell went. Carole wiped her hands and checked out the mirror. Not too bad for late forties and it looked like that bloke from up the road with his strange Gothy daughter. Designer or something. Like someone you’d want to prop up against the bay window.
At first she thought it was a bottle of novelty liqueur. They were fashionable again weren’t they? A bit “Abigail’s party”. It looked like something her grandparents would take out of the veneered drinks cabinet they’d won at Bingo that time. She could almost taste the Warninks Advocaat. It was clearly something retro and vintage. She smiled.
Does the head come off or something? You know. Screw?
No. It just nods. It’s Marie Curie – the woman who discovered X-rays.
Oh, was she the one that got irradiated or something? And died from her own experiment?
Thanks. Come in and have a prawn. I’m afraid they’re still a bit frozen.
She held Marie Curie by the neck. She was lighter than she looked; like one of those plastic miniature dolls she would lust after at twelve years old; they were perfumed. She could hear Keith offering wine. He was looking paunchy. They were laughing about something. Maybe they weren’t as frightening as they looked. Definitely a postmodern joke. Something this ugly had to be ironic. She would have to appear to laugh at it and yet get it. The joke. What would Jane Austen do? What would Marie Curie do? She would’ve been too busy in the lab. Did they wear lab coats in those days? She decided to have another sherry. The doorbell went again. She put the figure on the mantelpiece by the Father Christmas. Sod it.
If she had known that this was the last Christmas she would spend with Keith she might have stood by him a little more. If only standing next to someone would give you more comfort when they were gone. Like a bank you could withdraw from. If only having an effigy of Marie Curie would offer some protection. If only she were Catholic and had treated it like something to pray to. Or light.
Visiting him that final time in the hospital she was suddenly moved to take Marie with her. It might make her feel less alone in the car. They’d laughed about it the day of the drinks party. That was what made them work so well. Them. Back then. Him gently mocking her about her interior pretentions and deliberately wearing one of his cuddly jumpers that did nothing for him. Except remind her why she needed him. Now he was going.
But the Marie effigy had gone.
Her legs felt wobbly as she got out the car and walked into the hospital. They’d warned her that they might have to put him onto morphine. It had happened so quickly, the aneurism.
As she walked to his room she could hear it. She’d seen the same device pinned onto her grandparents’ chests when it came to the end. She felt her stomach turn over. That terrible, regular “beeping” sound as she entered. She was vaguely aware of people sitting by the window; her sister and her nephew. Had they been here all night?
Typical. She’d be doing some of her Bhuddist chanting next. Why did she have to be here to watch this. Sudden, unreasonable rage.
Carole. Are you alright? We meant to call. We were just passing. The nurse said…
She realised she was falling, in some kind of weird slow motion. As her head hit the floor she thought she could see Marie Curie’s head nodding.
Her sister talked quietly to the nurse as Carole held Keith’s hand. Keith’s eyes opened and she saw a glimmer of the humour behind the clouds. His eyes darted towards his bedside.
He wants water.
It’s best not at the moment. The morphine means he’ll have difficulty swallowing.
Did someone bring that hideous statue in to cheer him up?
It must’ve fallen into the night bag she’d hastily packed for him the night he collapsed.
It was a gift from someone we both loved. Perhaps you could put it next to your Gohonzon for us both?
Helen felt stunned yet pleased. She’d make a Buddhist of her little sister yet.
Of course. Of course, I’ll place it next to the fruit I laid out this morning.
She picked up the doll. Carole felt Keith grip her hand very faintly.
He’s gone. It’s over.
And for a few days for Helen at least, the doll was a sweet reminder of her cuddly, kind brother-in-law. She found the nodding movement gave her a focus as she kneeled by the bowl of oranges and the large orchid on the altar she’d created in the dining room.
It’s like one of those Chinese money cats. You know the ones that bring good luck.
Josh idled by the door.
Yes. Maybe. Look I’ve told you before it’s Japanese not Chinese, the scroll. Haven’t you got some revision to do?
Marie just smiled.
Look – take her will you? I know it was Uncle Keith’s and everything but she’s getting up my nose a bit. Actually.
I thought chanting was supposed to chillax you?
That’s enough of your lip. Take her to your room and get on with your Physics.
I’ll take her to Caitlin’s. She needs cheering up.
Josh could hear his mother’s bumble bee chanting almost to the end of the road. He’d tried it once but felt too conscious of his mother’s pleasure as she sat next to him, one eye half open. He wanted to be a good person. He wanted to be a sustainable human citizen. Ready for the inevitable destruction of society as it ate itself up from the inside. At least that’s what he’d argued in his latest Philosophy essay.
Caitlin looked. Normal. Is this how you looked when your mother had died? He’d expected ashen but she just pulled him in and pushed him against the wall.
Is that my Christmas present?
As Josh's insides did their usual little strictly come dance routine Alex glanced down from his seat, over the glittering London skyline.
Happy New Year sir.
She was smiling and nodding at the same time.
Yes, thanks. Maybe it will be.