by Josephine Howard
Mary Josephine twists her hair around the forefinger of her left hand. The fingers of her right hand are in her mouth with crooked teeth chewing hard at stubby nails barely left on the end of her fingers. She’s listening to the grown-ups in the kitchen. They have put her in front of the television to watch Mr Magoo. They slide the kitchen door across, shut, like a barrier to keep her out.
It’s cold. No-one has lit the fire today. Usually Mummy or Daddy do it with bits of newspaper rolled up and a sheet of paper across the front, which always frightens her when it catches fire and makes Daddy say dang it.
The Mr Magoo cartoon has finished. Mary Josephine turns down the volume on the TV dial to listen at the kitchen door. She hears them weeping and blowing their noses. They’re talking about Mummy going to Heaven last night. Since she went, aunties and uncles keep arriving. Mary Josephine has never seen so many of them all at once in their tiny back kitchen. As each knocks on the front door Daddy shuffles and snuffles to the front door to let more and more of them in. They all grip him in a tight hug, and snuffle too. They do the same to Mary Josephine but with higher wails that sound like Felix the cat when he’s fighting.
‘Our poor, Nel,’ Mary Josephine can hear Aunty Kathleen nearest to the door. ‘She’ll never get to Butlins again.’
Three other aunties sob louder and an uncle coughs. She hears them sucking up their cigarettes, puffing smoke out and slurping tea. The kettle on the gas keeps whistling to say it’s boiled again.
Mary Josephine is puzzled why Auntie Kathleen said that about Mummy and Butlins. Daddy definitely told her last night when he carried her back home in the dark, from Mary Manuel’s next door, that Mummy had gone to Heaven.
‘Is Heaven like Butlins?’ Mary Josephine asks Daddy snuggling into him against the dark cold. His strong arms are wrapped around her. He smells of Daddy: strongly of smoke and vaguely of Old Spice. She wipes salty tears from his rough unshaven face with her hand.
‘Yes, love. P’raps it is.’
Someone opens the front door; she is too sleepy to see who. Daddy carries her up the stairs and tucks her into bed, without telling her to clean her teeth.
‘It’s cold. Can I have my bed warmer on? Read me a story?’
Daddy plugs the electric bed warmer in and settles on the yellow eiderdown. ‘Just for five minutes. One page. It’s morning you know. Time to go to sleep.’
Mary Josephine doesn’t hear him reach the end of page 43 of Black Beauty. She’s asleep without hearing him put the book back on the bedside cupboard or feels his hand ruffle her hair. She doesn’t know he turns the light out but leaves the bedroom door ajar.
All night Mary Josephine cuddles up to her old Rupert Bear and dreams of Mummy. She’s at Butlins. The sun is shinning. It’s lovely and warm. She’s wearing her white dress with red spots. She’s playing Bingo. Smoke from her cigarette is swirling around. She’s laughing that laugh where her eyes crinkle up.
Josephine Howard is nearly divorced and lives with her 13 year-old son close enough to the sea to hear the seagulls.