[ Many thanks to the Creswick Critique group, especially David, Frank and Christine, whose earnest commentary on former versions of this story, got me out of the hotchpotch this story was, and into the weird version I truly wanted. You got me thinking…
Happy Writing Friends ! ]
I chose that title because I was sick of being an entity without agency, and I wanted to tell my story. I want you to imagine you are me. Afterwards forget, May my dear, that you’ve been unfortunate enough to see me. When these brief Christmas moments ripped from eternity are gone, forget that you thought that this was real. Go on thinking it was a strange dream. That you found your own freedom to celebrate Christmas, no longer working yourself to exhaustion. That’s a lot of freedom for you. Why did you struggle so much? Your freedom to this Skeleton who’s done the bidding of your ancestors for two hundred years, seems infinite. Since I’ve had a chance to meet you I understand more about choices, and about surprises. For these brief minutes indulge me as I imagine you are me, and you imagine too.
The ghosts wake your bones from the deepest sleep you’ve had in the past fifty years. It doesn’t matter if you think their reason does not approach the urgent. The head ancestor calls you from your grave deep beneath Devonport. The earth trembles and opens as if it were put into a sifter, and it shakes away from you as you rise. Reaching the surface, you roll in the refuse of what feels and smells like mature bottlebrush. You don’t have flesh to wobble, tremble or bruise but your mandible rattles along with your knees. Like an amputee you experience some sensory stimulus where your failing flesh used to be. Your senses of smell, touch and hearing remain; your sight is ,you believe, controlled utterly by what the ancestors want you to see. Most of the time they lead you blind. You experience continual surprise when you are vertical and moving. You smell and touch things without smashing into them. Vegetation parts around you. A weighty substance drips from your jaws and rolls down your stout bones. It smells like hot metal and murderous mercury. You shudder. When it reaches your knees, you feel the stickiness of webs and the wriggling of avid arachnids. You stand erect, brushing the drooping leaves with your vertebrae. You know that this job is another payback for some Turner descendant’s resented mendacity about the practice of Christmas tradition; briefly summed up with the prosaic words, “someone’s not doing it right”.
These words were uttered by the ghost of the two generations’ past Matriarch. You wish that these ancient ghosts were unaware of the attitudes of their descendants. Alas they are, and you are the suffering servant of whims.Lately, you have learned that May Turner (who is she?) the great granddaughter of the Matriarch is enjoying developing her considerable artistic talent. She is failing in her duty to personally prepare every Christmas delicacy anticipated by her three adult children and their partners.
Egads! she is enjoying selfish pursuits in no other space than her privileged husband’s shed. She has converted it to a painting studio, with the help of a skylight, some shelving, and reorganisation. While arising from your deep clay grave you were shown in the crystal skull, nothing to do with your own, the indifference shown by May. This indifference was displayed when her husband came home from a business trip to discover his shed had become unrecognisable.
Now remember you are taking my point of view, don’t look smug. It’s irrelevant now that you got a fantastical deal on that skylight.
You consider the rumour that has reached you: this past July May did not make Christmas pudding herself. You welcome your remaining sense of smell as the warmth of plump raisins and brown sugar saturated in brandy reaches you. She called Chef Jenny, a local caterer, to make the puddings she would present to her family. You are here to contaminate those heavenly scented creations. A strange sensation like a tic in the middle of your spine starts while molten drops pour from your eye sockets. Words like shame and regret nudge you. You try to control this process, but it does no good; the more you think about those words the more the molten drops pour. Webs and spiders appear up to what used to be your waist.
You approach Chef Jenny’s restaurant pantry, sensing you are close, you find an unlocked door, besides which you smell cigarette smoke. Someone must be standing there. In imagination the morning sun is turning all the melted frost to prisms on the nearby grass. There is a vague recollection the sight might be called beautiful though you are blind to it now. Your joints are stiff, and your phalanges seem to rattle as you approach the door. The smoker is heedless. You remind yourself that no one can hear you unless they have previously seen you. They cannot see you by sun: sufficient LED light can expose you to someone with 20/20 vision. Perhaps this will make you useless to the ancestors in the 21st century, and they will let you sleep in peace.
With difficulty you open the screen door and find yourself in what must be a food storage. There you smell bicarbonate of soda, spices, dried fruit, and odours you don’t recognise. As you clank your bones against stainless steel drums, a voice shouts, “Is that you Roy? I’m going into the suppliers to get some fresh stuff. They sent me something I can’t use.”
You wonder about the powers of what you presume is Chef Jenny. It seems no one told her that she couldn’t hear you. Your whole slavery is a mystery, if the ancestors are being mendacious with you, who will stop them?
You stand stiffly by the shelving as Roy’s voice answers the voice within. “I’m still outside. Maybe something has collapsed in the pantry. I’ll check.”
You hear the door bang, heavy footsteps, the smell of sweat and cigarette smoke.
He walks away from you, and then you hear, “I’ll start the stock for the casseroles, and peel the potatoes.”
“Thanks. You should be able to make the sweet and the savoury pastry before I get back too.”
You hear another door slam, and water running. The sound of metal surfaces contacting one another. The thud of a heavy door closing.
You move forward until you feel the straight side of a stainless-steel bin. You reach past it and feel a long expanse of the same stainless steel. You climb onto the bench, and opening the lid of the bin, dangle your phalanges in. There are six bins containing various types of flour and sugar. All of them get the treatment. Your right shoulder twitches as you scent delicious brandy again. Following your senses, you get closer until you extend your forearm, and your finger bones touch glass. You are surprised. Surely you shouldn’t be able to smell through glass. Perhaps there is residue on the outside. You enjoy smelling for a while.
When you leave by the door you entered through, you hear footsteps and Roy’s voice calls, “Who’s there?”
What’s happening? Is there something about this place that causes people to hear you?
You hear a crunching sound and the smell of petrol fumes meets you.
You see a bright red automobile pull up beside you. Later you learn via the ancestors’ report that she wore blue, a grey wool hat on her curly black hair and a multi-coloured scarf around her neck. The person walks around the building you just came out of. The perfume of roses and sharpness of oil paint, tempt you to follow the small person you think must be a woman.
She (you decide) returns a minute later with a box containing what smells like raisins and brandy, warm spices, with brown sugar and butter. You realise something could be awry with the plan. Is this May? You sense the answer is yes. You realise you must go with her and determine her identity. Because if it is May, your mission is uncompleted. The puddings she has were already prepared when you arrived and will not be affected by your treatment.
She stares when the back door of her car opens and shuts. What could you do? A word ‘panic’ seems to take form and shimmer around you. Instead, you sit tall and silent in the back seat amongst her jumble consisting of a coat, books, a paint smock, and dog-eared exercise books. She stands quietly staring at her car. She shakes her head and gets in.
You hear her say, “Must have something to do with giving free reign to the imagination. I’ll get used to it.”
The car begins to move, and you struggle to keep your knees from knocking together.
After a while the car stops, you hear a car door open and shut. You hear another door open and you smell the gorgeous scent of the rich pudding again. You hear a beep and a thunk. The footsteps retreat, and the smell gets less and less. The chirping of birds seems louder and louder in the silence. A chill breeze brushes your knuckles.
You think, how will I get out of this car?
Despite the breeze you are feeling very warm, when you hear a beep and the sound of the locks on the car thudding into place, you jump. The back door of the car opens, and the woman leans across you feeling for something in the mess. Remember she cannot experience you with the senses you have – smell, touch and hearing, and in sunlight she cannot see you. The explanations of the Matriarch seem to echo in your rib cage.
She doesn’t know I’m here.
You feel the woman pull out two flat papery things from under your thigh bones. You feel a stronger breeze and take the chance the door is open. Quickly, with a reptilian glide you slip out the door and behind her, she leans over and slams the door. You hear the beep again. You follow. You smell damp bark chips, musty wood, then feel stuffy warmth, and smell oil paint and musk roses. You brush against a wooden bench and sit. You feel the woman right next to you. Pages rustle, you feel the brush of an elbow. You lean away and shuffle until air meets you and you drop to the hard-concrete floor. The woman gasps. You wait for a long time in the silence. Pages rustle again. The woman says aloud, “I am May Turner. I am an artist now and always.”
You nod though no one can see you. You are in the right place.
A long time passes during which you hear the woman talking softly to herself, and the scratch of pencils on paper and canvas. She pauses once, and you hear the grind of a pencil in a large sharpener. You are surprised when you hear quick movements and feel her right next to you. The clatter of wood, the smell of paint, the swish of liquid, the tap of wood against glass, the warmth of roses and oil moves past you again. The canvas is being daubed with paint. You find the sounds and smells soothing.
Your skull is ringing. The air is cold, and you hear footsteps. There is silence all around, and as the nagging of the matriarch is remembered: you long for oblivion. Realisation brings the knowledge that you are in the same space, but May is not. Banging your head again, you realise you are lying with your skull under the bench where May stores her paints. Giving a serpentine wriggle you move away from the bench and towards the sound of a metal door tapping in the cool breeze.
Erect, you walk out onto the path. The air now carries wafts of the scent of beef and onion. You walk one direction, and the savoury odour grows faint, you turn the opposite way: it grows stronger and so do your steps. A doorway opens before you.
The rumble of a male voice, answering another male, and breaking into loud guffaws tells you that May is not alone. A steel blade taps against wood. You hear the bubbling of the savoury stew you smelled.
“Evan set the table please”, May’s voice sounds chirpy instead of soft and tremulous. A heavy tread brings a six-foot source of body warmth right up next to you, and the rattle of metal cutlery sounds to your left. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. Thunk. The heavy tread gets further away,
May’s voice is low and insistent now. “Evan what about glasses and spoons.”
Footsteps again. The draw is open and the stainless-steel clangs now. He opens an overhead cupboard, and you hear the tap of glass against glass. Three pairs of feet moving around now. Crockery, a waft of beef and onions, the scraping of chairs.
“How was your day?”
No reply except the sound of forks on plates, slurps and chewing.
You can hardly believe it when you lean your tired skull forward, then look up. A blurry image rises in front of you: three torsos floating on a rectangular cloud, two are big, and one is smaller. The black curls you hear about later in the Matriarch’s report appear as a cloud of their own, just for a moment. You nod your skull, and when you turn your facial bones towards the domestic noise again, the image is gone.
Chairs move back from the table, and you hear heavy footsteps move away. A loud sound of cheering, and muted voices talking in the background. Right by you the sound of metal scraping ceramic. A sigh. Softer steps on the move are May’s. You follow. She moves into a narrow space, stops at a door. Creaking sounds and you feel a draft making your vertebrae rattle.
The tap, tap and echo tells you she is descending into the drafty space. You stumble on the first step and feel yourself mess up. Shaking and crashing you descend, landing on cold concrete at the bottom. May almost steps on you as she reaches the bottom of the stairs. You roll away from the faint warmth emitted by her presence. She stops, a cupboard door creaks. The fragrance, the warm spicy fragrance of Christmas pudding is both a pleasure, and the welcome sign that your mission could soon be completed. Muffled thuds, and the snap of doors closing. Footsteps ascend the stairs, as you lie coffin still. You go to the cupboard and find it empty. The fragrance lingers. You haul yourself up the stairs by both rails, hopping onto every second step. The door is ajar, and you find yourself in the hall.
Where is May?
In the kitchen eating uncontaminated pudding?
You feel disorientated but find your way back to the living area. Muffled roaring and cheering, excited voices none of which sounds like May. You return through the door by which you entered and listen for the sound of the shed door. You hear it shut.
A gladness that you have no voice is sensed. In frustration you would use it now.
The shed door opens to you and you are back in the concrete space, with pungent oil and softer rose. Too late you realise you stand in the glare of an LED lamp.
Insistent words from May, “Who are you? Who are you?”
Turning, you rattle and stumble away. Lurching from side to side, staggering back along the gravelly driveway, down the rough verges of the country lane. Wearily, you huddle under the bottlebrush that marks your entry into the nether realm of the ancestors. Stuck, you feel you cannot return without finishing the mission, and you cannot risk the exposure of LED. A night, that seems as if it is a century, passes.
When you finally feel the warmth of the sun, every bone is dripping with wetness. Standing you find your joints clogged with thick sacks of spider silk that make it cumbersome to move. The arachnids have insulated their progeny from the frost at your expense. May cannot see you by sunlight. The mission must be fulfilled.
You stumble into a large mud puddle at the entry to May’s driveway. A film of mud now sullies everything about you. The contact of rough granite that forms the entrance posts tells you that you’re entering the driveway. The path to the shed is before you and you retrace your bumbling steps.
Silence in the shed. You move around the whole space. Meditating on each smell, a trance of sensation you have not felt in a hundred years bubbles around you. Let this be the last moment before oblivion. Please.
Does the matriarch laugh, or is that some vividly remembered sound?
You stand. You move to the bench where you heard May’s voice. You sit. For seconds your vision exists: the canvas in front of you is haloed. A skull of silver in a bed of magenta roses. A tiny blue-winged bird with a black head, and fan-shaped tail sits on the skull. The skull is yours. You without the weight of your body. You objectified.
Macabre and natural beauty together for a transcendent moment.
A flash and it is gone.
Your spider bugged cage of being crashes back to your present hell.
Search for the puddings. Search for the puddings. A rhythm of vibrations that you sense as words, as if a heart still beat beneath your rib cage.On a whim, isn’t it all about whims, you return to the cellar discovered the night before. The cupboard when opened contains the strong smell of pudding.
Why were the puddings taken away the night before?
You place your bony digits inside and shuffle them until Arachnidom is awakened. The glistening glowing eggs descend like dew, and the puddings are cursed.
Returning to the place from which you came, you sleep the deepest sleep of regret found in two hundred years. The ancestors awaken you too soon – five months later to the day in fact. They restore your sight, so you can join them in watching their practical pettiness in the crystal skull.
May and the two men, plus another man whom you’ve never seen before, along with two women, sit around a table decorated with red candles and golden tinsel. In front of each one is an empty, gravy smeared plate. The cheeky blonde woman gets up, and turns to Evan. “Now you can eat the traditional pudding you been trying to steal for months.”
Everyone at the table laughs. The man next to Evan fills their smeared glasses with champagne. The blonde comes back with one of the puddings. Golden custard, white ice-cream, brown pudding in deep crystal bowls is placed before them all. The blonde gets the rest of the pudding, in case second helpings can be stuffed into swollen bellies. The Matriarch snickers in anticipation.
In the skull you can see May’s family eat, and sigh with satisfaction. They are discussing putting on a DVD of The Grinch to nap by when it happens.
The one called Evan vomits wriggling arachnids across the already destroyed repast, and the remains of a writhing pudding. There is screaming. There is running. Your spine aches with regret. The ugly pointlessness of spite.
The warm intent of May’s painting: the curves of Skull amongst velvety roses is the imagining you choose. It is your first choice for ages. The painting of you was a gift, and you responded out of not only duress, but habit. You literally have no heart left. You are surprised to see, in your big toe, a twitch that used to accompany the feeling of shame. Released from the viewing, you stumble back to your coffin for another long, deep sleep in your shady career.
A sweet dream visits you there in the blackness. In it you find the key to the vision box, and the escape hatch. You return to May’s shed studio. You enjoy watching her paint for what seems like forever. The memory of avid arachnids is obliterated by the artist’s canvases infused with awakened imagination and forgiving acceptance.
You dream the one you visit sees you and hears the story with rapt attention. Your apology is accepted. It will be a secret between the two of you, this weird family secret that relieves her from the duty of making pudding when she could be making art.
She laughs saying, “Though you made puddings artful to say the least.”
You both admit to being glad that Evan has learned again to accept the very existence of Christmas pudding made by Chef Jenny.
The tiny bit of agency inspired in you by another’s boldness is spent, but the romancing of the skull in oil paints remains.
Did you really see me? Will you tell my story?
© D. E. Rebbechi – O’Donnell
25 April 2018 – V.12