They lived like the only customers at a funfair; time seemed to lose its way and spin from their hands while the pageant horses that bore them forgot to gallop in circles. They had their own world of haunted houses and helter-skelters but the stalls were all out of candyfloss and, as they slotted coins into cork-rifles, they shot themselves to pieces without winning any prizes.
When Dad remembered that the food supply was now a Co-operative bag he ploughed through it like he’d not eaten for weeks. Emma sat on the stairs because the chair that had been agreed as hers was still caged between careless boxes and swamped in paper work.
She’d taken to eating precisely at certain times, just to give her days some sort of structure as they billowed endlessly. Each hour sickened her with the kind of emptiness that was born from having too much to do and not enough willpower to tackle it. She broke crackers and chewed them like they were made of felt which, she decided, they might as well have been. Each mouthful was assigned thirty two inadequate seconds of her time. She would have stretched them further if she’d been able. Nothing seemed to last long enough to fill the gaps. Eating was the only thing that padded out her day and so she attempted to stretch it as wide as possible. It was as if she believed that, if she just drew it out a little further, then she might be able to patch over some of the other, deeper holes in her life.
Dad removed several packets from the shopping bag and arranged then rearranged them on the sideboard.
“Ahh, England, I’m home,” he said, cutting himself a slice of cheese with hands that wanted to tremble. He lifted it purposefully to his lips but could not quite make it reach that far. The slice collapsed between his fingers – or perhaps his fingers collapsed around the slice – and his whole face imploded like damp cardboard.
“Why doesn’t it feel like home? WHY DOESN’T IT FEEL LIKE MY OWN BLOODY HOME?”
He ground the cheddar into the surface that was pretending to be granite and then started beating it under his fists like crushing it was simply not enough.
“This is home, Emma, why can’t it feel like it?” He sank into a chair and swayed on it. “I feel frencher than I ever did in France.”
“More French,” she corrected and hated herself for it.
“I DON’T GIVE A DAMN, EMMA, JUST TELL ME WHY I CAN’T GO HOME.” The Dad she knew didn’t speak like that. He hardly raised his voice. But the man who stood opposite her was scarcely recognisable as her father. He was stricken and begging her like a petulant child; she wanted to blot him out but hold him together at the same time. “Emma, is that so hard?”
He reached into his pocket for his cigarettes and drew the mug he was using as an ashtray in close, as though it was an only friend. The packet was empty. His face imploded a second time.
“Home,” he said, beginning to cry and then turned to Emma, his face grey and drizzly. “I just want a cigarette – No – what I really want is to have them back but I can’t have that so I’m asking for one damn cigarette. I’m begging.”
“Dad. Those things are more trouble than they’re worth, remember?" she paused. "I get it, OK? I get it that it feels like everything’s wrong and empty and out-of-control but please, Dad, I’m begging, you can’t kill yourself on a cigarette.”
“I know, Emma, give me a break – I’m such a bloody wreck that one more problem won’t change much.”
“Can’t we just…” she cast around for inspiration and found it in the streaked marshmallow clouds, “Look at the pictures in the sky? We used to do that, remember?” She knew that she was speaking pointlessly and childishly and that recapturing that old life was like trying to hook water in a butterfly net but she couldn’t help herself asking.
“Yes Emma – used to – it’s all the past tense now.”
“Frenchy! We meet again!” the boy who had spoken to her last time exclaimed. He looked positively jubilant as he broke off from his shelf-stacking. “How’s the cheddar?”
She decided to lie because the truth was that she hadn’t eaten any; the one slice that had been cut was still pressed into the kitchen surface by the sink. “Monotonous.”
“I thought you might say that… Anyway, good news! We are broadening our cheese selection; today we can offer you some limited edition Greek-style soft cheese-”
“Greek style?” She asked sceptically and wandered over to the dairy products.
“Yeah, well, it’s made in Salisbury but that’s not the point…”
She laughed like the cold, sharpened gust of wind that she was and he smiled, startlingly. She supposed he must have enjoyed the fact that he thought he’d made a joke and drawn some expression from her. Her lips twitched but, while the token offering they bore was fleeting, his grin clung to his face like he didn’t have the time to lick it clear.
“I think I’ll stick to cheddar,” she said and left him propped up against the wall of Greek-style cheese with his snaggletooth grin and his sagging uniform.
She shuffled the pages of one of her old science books; she hadn’t picked it up since taking her Brevet and re-reading it was like glancing back at a photograph of someone she used to know. All that swirly, embellished handwriting had stripped back at some point between writing the notes and re-reading them. She traced the marks she’d left with her biro with her finger nails and wondered why she hadn’t thrown them out after the exam and why she had even picked them out to read and whether it was possible to be homesick for an old language.
Dad knocked on her door; fast, brusque, desperate.
“Emma, Emma, this is important.”
“Come in,” she said it cordially as though gesturing a visitor into a museum. Like their whole relationship was a falsity built for some sort of stage which was too big to be seen as such.
“What dress was Anastasie wearing? Please. I have to know. How did she have her hair?”
Emma clenched her hands around the sleeves of her hoody. Was that what Dad called important? For her it had been the day when she had realised that she had no memory of her sister’s voice that had driven her insane. It had only been a couple of months and to forget something like that felt closer to a sin than a mistake.
“What dress, Emma, you were there; what dress?”
“I don’t know,” she lied although she could still see Anastasie spinning and spinning on the pavement near the car and the way that her dress had little giraffes sown around the bottom. She lied because she didn’t feel like dresses were meant to be remembered, not the way voices were. She could still remember the words Anastasie had said but she remembered them like dialogue from a novel she’d once read; as words with no sound. Anastasie was bright, colourful, vain but how did that translate into her voice?
“Please. Emma. Which dress? And was her hair in plaits?”
It had been a new dress, Emma remembered, and its only other outing had been to the Mardi Gras parade where a boy dressed as a clown had thrown them a paper flower. Anastasie had insisted that it was meant for her and had kept it in a glass jar. Emma supposed that the flower must have been removed shortly after this because she couldn’t remember ever seeing it again.
For some reason she hated the fact that the dress was new, unworn, unlived. It was not the fact that Anastasie was supposed to have died wearing an old dress, something frayed and meaningful, because the truth was that she was not supposed to die at all. Little girls were not meant to become ashes because they begged for ballet pumps. No, it was the obscurely shallow idea that a brand new dress burnt to pieces was a complete waste of money and fabric and effort. All the meaning and purpose had become pointless.
Emma was fond of finding pointlessness but in this particular case it upset her. She could not for the life of her explain why exactly a dress with giraffes around the bottom would be such a difficult loss to accept but it was, somehow.
“Dad, you were the one who emptied her wardrobe afterwards. Which one was missing?”
“I don’t know. I can’t remember. The harder I try to remember, the harder it becomes to even find a memory of her at all. I’m terrible.”
“No Dad. You’re not.” She let him come and sink down on the bed beside her and he wrapped around her like a blanket.
“I’m so sorry, Emma. I just can’t deal with the way that I’m forgetting her.”
“We all forget. I can remember each piece of her but can’t stick the bits together. I’m no better.” She paused and let out breaths as though they’d been hurting her. “She took her hair out of the plaits when we were eating lunch. Her hair was wavy and the sunshine got caught on each crest. She said she was going to have her hair like that…” she trailed off and tried to bind the pieces of herself back together. “She said she’d have her hair like that every – sorry… every day. She thought she looked like a princess. She did look like a princess.” Emma turned her head and imagined a princess blown full of smoke, suffocating on her crimped, sun-tanned hair and being washed down with some chunks of shop ceiling.
“Princess,” Dad said. “Once upon a time I had three of them. Now I have one.”
When he left, much later, Emma opened the curtains to observe the way that the sun was still refusing to slide out of sight although the moon was contesting it for sky space. She used to think that the sunset was something like a fire. Now she knew that fires and sunsets were entirely different. It was like comparing apple trees to families, Emma thought with an emotional exhaustion she had only just noticed, as if branches of families could grow back when someone hacked them off.
She went out to the Co-op early the next morning to buy a cheap padlock.
It was probably not well-made or particularly fool-proof but Emma decided that the statement it made was still clear enough. It was more what having a lock on her bedroom door represented that she sought rather than the ability to imprison herself.
“You Frenchies are pretty weird,” The Shop Boy told her. He was on the checkout tills so she wasn’t able to avoid conversation with him or the tail-end of all his incomplete smiles. “Cheese and padlocks – I’d probably better not ask.”
When he talked, everything about him was a boast, Emma reflected, but when he was silent his wrists twitched slightly in the sleeves of the uniform that he had yet to grow into.
“Mind you, I’ve yet to see you in a beret. Do you save them for Sundays?”
“I’ve yet to see you drinking tea in a bowler hat and a pin-striped suit. Then again, perhaps that’s just an ignorant caricature that some presumptive, arrogant person thought up and taught the rest of the world to believe in.”
He nodded slowly with a look of dawning comprehension on his face.
“Ahh,” he breathed, “I see, you’re one of those types…”
“I am? That’s nice. Personally I’ve always thought that people couldn’t be classified by types but clearly you’ve been granted access to some hitherto unsuspected higher source of knowledge,” in her tense frustration she somehow managed to force out words she hadn’t realised she had stored, she no longer had the patience to feel self-conscious of them.
“One of those ‘I-am-always-going-to-be-smarter-than-you-even-in-my-second-language-so-don’t-even-bother-opening-your-mouth-buddy’ types.”
“Well next time I have to sum up my personality in one word, that’s the one I’ll use,” she said sardonically. She made sure that she gave him the exact money so that there was no further opportunity for him to talk as he counted out change.
“See you, Frenchy!” he called as she walked off, doggedly refusing to let herself look back. She realised then that neither of them knew each other’s names, although he presumably wore some sort of name badge on his uniform. She found that quite a relieving thought and decided to cling onto it, especially as the corners of a new conversation found their way to her ears:
“You seriously need to work on your chat-up lines.”
“I wasn’t trying to chat her up; I was trying to... I don't know – annoy her.”
“Same thing, mate.”
“Hey!” he objected, “I just mean she’s so blank all the time-”
“Just keep telling yourself th…”
Emma managed to find the exit and engulf herself in the sounds of the car park. She absolutely outright refused to be ‘chatted-up’ whether genuinely or for someone’s amusement. She was not exactly opposed to the company of humans but simply resented their attention and scrutiny, specifically when they were teenage boys. She could not exactly explain her aversion to them, perhaps it was rooted in the terror that she would fall prey to the washed-out disintegration that teenage love affairs seemed to entail. She had enough potential for that sort of melodrama as she was and was keen to avoid amassing anymore; she’d subconsciously scribbled ‘Boyfriend’ out of her agenda on the evening of the fire and had then proceeded to eradicate possibilities of ‘Friend’ or even ‘Acquaintance’.
After the fire she couldn’t help noticing how much hard work it was being a friend and how much of yourself you were expected to share – that hadn’t been a problem before but when the majority of who she was had been burnt to the ground, it was exhausting to try to divide up the remainder. It had all become a showy pretence and she plugged away at because she felt like it was a requirement. She’d once been told that friendship was something to be valued no matter what but, for her, having friends was like reading a script.
Her friends had all read scripts as well, taking care not to forget their pre-prepared lines. They always kept in mind the myriad of idiotic rules that surrounded death and illness. Rules that seemed to have been written by people who didn’t understand how it felt to be human.
You have to walk around them like you’re on eggshells, don’t you dare laugh, keep checking they’re OK – they’re obviously not but perhaps need you to point it out – and you must practise this ‘sensitivity’ with the reverence and enforced compassion of a sermon.
The rule book was outdated, or perhaps it had simply never been right, but everyone seemed to follow it all the same.
“Hey! Wait! Frenchy!” She turned around at the sound of the voice she’d become far more accustomed to than she realised. The Shop Boy was standing just outside the sliding doors gesturing to her. She turned back reluctantly.
“I forgot to tell you,” he said breathlessly. “We do sell French tomatoes if you’re interested. You know; a taste of home, or some sort of crap.”
“Thanks, but we always bought South African tomatoes anyway.”