August Short Story Competition Winner

Papier Mache Doll

Amanda Bowden

I pull my long black woollen coat around me. Lennon lies quietly at my feet, the cold air teasing his fur. My sister tells me it’s disrespectful to take a dog to a funeral. I don’t see why. It’s a woodland funeral. Dad’s in a wicker coffin. She doesn’t like that either, Jasmine. God only knows how she turned out so conventionally; so staid, so normal.

Twanged notes play with the still air – Evan on the five-stringed banjo. Dad’s banjo. He finishes the song, pauses then throws the banjo into the grave. It thuds and gives off a final note. Jasmine pulls a face like she’s tasted something nasty.

The grave is starting to look like a white elephant stall. So far it contains – as well as dad – a flat cap, a scarf, a necklace, a coin, a crystal, a belt buckle, several CDs and photos, football programmes, a CND badge and the banjo.

I finger my offering in my deep pocket. My sister steps forward and throws in a long-stemmed white lily. Very traditional. Very her.  From my pocket I pull my doll that looks like it’s been made and painted by a child. I’d stayed up until 3am trying to perfect one. Then I’d stopped. Dad wasn’t flawless, neither am I. Nor is dear Jasmine, much as she likes to think she is. So I picked the first one I’d made; the most imperfect. Dad would like that one best.

We used to make them as kids. It’s my first recollection of childhood; sitting in the tiny kitchen in our council flat on stools making those dolls. We would take them, with whatever else we could muster, to Greenham Common. I didn’t really understand the relevance of the place then. To me it was just like a big picnic on a huge campsite. We’d rock up in our VW van held together with rust and proudly displaying large CND symbols either side – which always reminded me of a bird’s foot.

1981. I was eight years old when the protest march was organised. I didn’t witness it but I imagine it was a phenomenal sight. I can’t think of something like that happening nowadays; the march maybe, but not the peace camp. I loved it there. It got bigger each time we visited. It was such a unique atmosphere; more than community spirit. People gathered for a common cause. It was family. Jasmine hated it. She would’ve been twelve going on twenty; too old to play and too young to be taken seriously. Not that she was interested in campaigning. Heaven forbid she should get her manicured hands dirty. I often thought she was adopted. She should’ve been. She split our family more than unified it.

Mine is the last memento in the grave. For the wake I’d arranged a picnic in the woods. Jasmine decides not to stay, mumbles something about work commitments. Doesn’t want to risk getting a speck of dirt on her Karen Millen or Jane Norman, more like.  When she first spoke so fondly of Karen and Jane, I actually thought they were friends. I don’t do designer. All my clothes are from charity shops. The coat she wore today probably totals the cost of my entire wardrobe. I’m not jealous. I just don’t get it. If I had that kind of money I’d buy a piece of art from a local artist. Like me.

We move away from the grave, Lennon at my heels, and settle in a beautiful spot. The bright green grass is short and spotted with daisies. Tall trees surround the glade, their bronzing leaves rustle in the autumnal breeze. The odd acorn and conker lay on the floor. A low seasonal sun bleeds through branches, comfortingly warm.

People unroll blankets and unwrap food. Bags and boxes of rolls, scones, cakes, samosas, cold pizza and stuff I don’t recognise are passed around. Beer is opened, wine uncorked, thermos flasks circulated.  Stories are swapped and memories shared accompanied by laughter. It’s not a jovial atmosphere, but it’s not sad either. As the sun sinks, the chill air increases and people begin packing up and hugging goodbye. Lennon is sated and sleepy from copious titbits. His Dennis Healey Westie eyebrows lift as movement disturbs him. I’m asked countless times if I will be okay, do I want a bed for the night, company, a lift home? I thank them all and politely decline.

Lennon and I trail back to the car park with the last of the mourners and friends. I unlock my bike, take my gloves, lights and helmet from the pannier then scoop up Lennon. Wrapping his fleecy blanket around him, I clip him into the dog carrier on the handlebars.

It doesn’t bother me going back to the empty house. I’d moved back in with dad when mum died of breast cancer. I’d had over a week to get used to it being without him now. I had contemplated moving the furniture or getting rid of dad’s chair; the tatty armchair that he always sat in by the fire with Lennon at his feet on the rug. The chair I had found him in ten days ago. Dead.  A peaceful death, they said. Massive brain haemorrhage in his sleep. He was always nodding off reading Private Eye. I got used to leaving him there. He’d wake when the fire died down and he got cold, and take himself off to bed.

Apparently they are more common than you think – aneurysms. Loads of people wake up next to dead people. That must be awful. That morning was bad enough. I remember seeing him as I got to the bottom of the stairs and chastising him for being there all night. I remember having a cold feeling him my stomach, thinking the dog was dead because initially he didn’t respond to my voice, didn’t lift his head. ‘Come on, sleepy head.’ I nudged dad. I remember simultaneously feeling relief and horror – is that possible? – as Lennon lifted his head and dad slumped forward, his lips blue. He was so cold. I sat on the floor with Lennon and held dad’s stiffening fingers. Eventually, through streaming tears I got up and unfolded a blanket from the back of the chair and tucked it round him. Stupid really.

I phoned my sister. She was a big help. Cold, I mean calm – Freudian slip. I said, ‘Jas, dad’s dead.’ She said, ‘Call an ambulance, they’ll deal with it.’ I said, ‘It?’ she sighed and said, ‘Take him away.’ I said, ‘I don’t want him taken away.’ She said, ‘Oh for God’s sake, P. Grow up.’ Then she went quiet for a bit and I tried not to sob audibly. Eventually, she told me she would ring later, when I had calmed down, and check how I was doing. Perhaps she did her crying when she hung up. I stood staring at the ‘phone for a bit. Then Lennon nudged my leg. I had to think hard to remember the number for the ambulance; funny that 999 can be difficult to recall.  She was nice, the lady on the other end. She’d woken up next to her dead husband. See what I mean?

Jasmine rang later to check on me. I was sat in the dark on the rug by the fire with Lennon. Couldn’t bring myself to sit in dad’s chair.  She didn’t ask how I was or if it had been dealt with. She said something about assuming I would know of his funeral arrangements as he’d not discussed them with her, and to tell her when and where, she’d be there.

I still can’t sit in that chair. It smells of him. Which is odd because I can’t say I noticed him smelling of anything specific when he was alive, expect maybe Imperial Leather soap. The chair doesn’t smell of that though. It smells of comfort, love and tenderness and deep rooted principles and bucking the system. And contentment. It smells mostly of that; a life well lived.

I’m sat on the grey-white sheepskin rug with Lennon when she arrives. I’ve just finished making paper knots and laying the kindle.

It’s oddly therapeutic, almost creative. Haven’t been creative since I found him. Didn’t open my stall this week. All I’ve done are those bloody papier mache dolls and I cocked that up.

She gives her usual cursory distasteful glance of the place when I let her in.

‘Do you want a drink? I’ve no milk. There’s rum, and wine.’

‘I’m not stopping. Can you put a decent light on?’

‘Sit down,’ I offer, switching on the standard lamp.

She purses her lips into a pencil thin line as she takes in the debris of pottery and papier mache on the kitchen table.  It’s never been used for eating; we always ate off our laps. She almost sits in dad’s chair, but doesn’t. Clipping open her, doubtless, designer bag, she pulls out an envelope.

‘I’m to show you this,’ she clears her throat as she speaks and proffers the envelope, watches me tear it open.

As I pull out the contents, I see the words Adoption and Birth Certificate.

‘So, you are adopted?’ I speak before looking properly.

‘No,’ she snorts. ‘You are.’

I yank out the rest of the paperwork and skim it.

She’s by the front door when she turns and concedes, ‘I can see why you’d think that.’

Then I notice it, dad’s name on my birth certificate.

‘But…’ I can’t find the words.

Dad had a fling. Your mum died after having you, some sort of complication,’ she waves her hand dismissively. ‘My mum adopted you. Christ knows why.’

You really hate me, don’t you?’ I whisper.

She pauses, front door ajar, ‘No, Peony. I resent you. I hate him, and as for her…’

‘Hate is so harsh. You don’t come to the funeral of someone you hate.’

Jasmine turns to face me, her expression hidden in the shadow of the doorway.

‘I’m angry. I’ve been angry since the day you arrived. They doted on you. They were so protective of you.’

‘They would’ve doted on you, given half a chance. You were always so… unapproachable.’

‘I was pushed out. Maybe I’m jealous, if I’m honest. There – happy? Look, I’ve kept my promise and the stupid secret. I’ve done what I said I would. That’s an end to it.’

‘You’ve known all this time and didn’t say anything? I can’t imagine how hard that must have been for you, and painful.’

‘Shut up, P. Don’t pretend you know me,’ her voice falters. Then with renewed vigour, Jasmine flings the door open and cold air rushes in.

‘Jasmine, wait. Maybe we can…’

She cuts me dead with a hollow laugh, ‘Oh, please don’t say start again.’

‘But we’re family. That’s got to matter.’

My family are dead. Keep the house, I want no part of it and have no reason to visit it.’ She slams the door behind her. I listen to her heels clip up the garden path then she’s gone. Silence engulfs me.

In a trance, I lay and light the fire; watch the flames dance and tease their way up the chimney. The fire cracks, jolting me back to reality. I get up to make a coffee. On the kitchen table lay four papier mache dolls. Scooping them up, I carry them to the fire. I lean over Lennon, catatonic on the rug, and line them up on the mantelpiece. Mum, Dad, Peony, Jasmine. Must make one for Lennon.

Tearing the adoption papers up, I throw them on the fire. We are family, whatever Jas says. So she’s angry. So she resents me. But she never said a word in all that time. We had some humdinger fights as kids. She’d had this ammo against me all that time and not used it. Surely that must count for something. One day I’ll find out.