My husband Mike, the foreman, was in an accident at work. His body was reduced to pick-up-sticks in a bag of punctured skin. We survived, eventually. At the hospital, when they said, ‘Give it time,’ I thought they meant his legs, which were useless for months: two stockings of meat he slapped about in frustration. But now I think they meant us, rebooting, finding a way to exist within our changed world view.
Early evening shoppers, people buying books and wooden toys, are pausing in the dusk outside the church on Exmouth Market. A woman is handing out mince pies with flyers for next week’s midnight mass. Against the orange of the streetlights the rain comes down in slender pins and for the sake of my frizzy hair I decide to head to the restaurant early. Kerry is already there, reading intently, twiddling her own dark hair, the thick wavy tresses, around her fingers. I bundle myself in through the narrow gaps between tables, heavy with coat, briefcase and shopping bags. Still heavy with baby weight. She doesn’t see me until I reach her, and she waits until I’m unburdened before air kissing my cheeks.
‘I’m sorry’ she says ‘that I didn’t get in touch for a while after the accident.’
‘It’s OK. You’re here now.’ She once passed me a note during a French lesson that said mes parents sont brisés, ‘my parents are broken’, and I held her hand under the desk while she cried. The next day I sent her a note in biology; ‘Let’s always be friends’ and she gave me a thumbs-up from across the bench. It comes to me in this moment as the waitress lays tapas across this wooden bench. She puts down petri dishes of sausage swimming in a dark red liquid and tumblers of thick, yellow sherry. I consider passing a note to Kerry for old times’ sake. A hunch makes me think she won’t remember. Steam on the windows obscures our view of the last of the shoppers trudging over wet cobbles outside. Only Christmas lights, blinking and swaying in the wind, remind us there is a world to be attended to when dinner ends.
‘How are the kids?’ She asks and I am not sure if she is laying a trap, so I can trigger a tirade of her opinions about motherhood.
‘Growing, fast!’ I show her a photo and she makes appropriate noises.
‘They would love to meet you again now they’re getting older. That photo of us is still up in the hallway and they ask about you.’ It is a photo of us at a fancy dress party taken the day before we leave to go to different universities. We are both wearing top hats and monocles, bushy moustaches and black tie. Back-to-back with our arms folded, only Kerry is in character, po-faced. I am laughing hard because we’ve been drinking and one of the blokes out of shot of the camera has taken off his trousers and his underpants and is running around threatening to touch his toes. It’s not the kind of thing that Kerry finds funny. She likes improv, comedy theatre and it was around that time that she was into political satire. Or, the satire may have come later, I can’t remember now.
‘Oh that’s sweet of them.’ She says, and that’s where any talk of a visit, or the children, is left. Her relationship with her boyfriend has ended.
‘It was a relief, she says, ‘I had to break free. It was too claustrophobic’. As she is telling me about his emotional demands, she pushes her hair behind her ear and I see that the little finger on her left hand is absent. There is no stump, just an empty plot at the end of her knuckle. She sees me looking and smiles and says.
‘I wondered if you’d notice.’
My children write their letters to Father Christmas earlier that week. The big one, proud and chatty, rejects my help and goes wild with demands for frisbees, dogs, helicopters and an old tree with a treehouse. I mark out the lines for the little one to trace, hold the pencil in her chubby hand and together we scrawl, ‘Dear Father Christmas, I have been good this year.’ She’s too young to be bad, she doesn’t know how. But she believes being kind to mummy means you get gifts from Santa. One of my favourite photographs is of Mike and the children. The kids are on the bed with him, the big one reading him a story by describing the pictures. The little one has her head tilted to the side and is smiling directly at the camera. Mike is fresh from hospital, propped up on sofa cushions, surrounded by the debris of his welcome home. I called them the Nappy Club in the first few weeks and he called me Nurse Mildred. He had to stop himself laughing because his ribs were still broken. The kids would read him a story after their bath and I used to eat my dinner in bed next to him and then curl down against the warmth of his torso and fall asleep. It was before the relief he was alive gave way to the reality of his care, and before those that had rallied in the immediate aftermath lost interest.
‘What happened?’ I say, reticent. I had been angry with her for keeping her distance when I needed her. I feel guilty for not having known that bits of her were dropping off too, when I was hunkered down in the dark pit of the accident.
‘I’m so sorry,’ I add, but she says,
‘It’s OK. I donated it to a charity. A surgeon removed it so he could use it for his research.’ Even though she explains the medical procedure I can’t shake an image my mind makes up of the donation of her beautiful human finger. In my imagination she stops in front of an elderly man who’s shaking a bucket of change outside a supermarket. She rips the finger from its hinge and drops it into the bucket and, as she stands blowing on the sinewy chasm that’s left behind in her hand, the man says,
‘Thank you dear, god bless’ and gives her a small round sticker to wear on her lapel for the rest of the day.
‘I heard about these people in West Papua,’ she is outdrinking me, making me feel dowdy. ‘Who are genetically predisposed to a common but life threatening fungal infection. I went to see them for myself them and it was deeply shocking. My god, the pain these people are in. Their growths become so large and inflamed that they are completely immobilised. You can cut them back, which has its own risks, but they re-grow,’ she took her phone from her pocket and began to scroll as she talked. ‘So, a colleague is in a small lab out there leading some research, and they need tissue. But it has to be intact – bone to skin – so it can be kept alive.’ She is, pensive, staring at her screen as she looks for the picture. The light from her phone illuminates new lines in her forehead and around her eyes that are at odds with her teenage jeans and smudgy eyeliner. I’m relieved I’m not the only one unravelling at the hands of time. She hands me her phone, showing me a photo. In it, her left hand is bandaged and her right hand rests on the shoulder of a small, sheepish man wearing just a pair of red shorts. He’s sitting on the floor in front of a hut surrounded by glossy foliage. Kerry looks flushed and tired but she is grinning. The man stares out of the frame, accusing me of either not caring enough or for gawping at him for too long. The whole of his right foot is engulfed by a dark brown growth, his toes are dripping off its edge. I can’t eat any more after seeing it.
‘You gave them your finger?’ It’s the only thing I can say. And she says – and I wonder if she knows that it is not true,
‘You would have done the same.’
I decide Kerry is trying to get drunk and that I can’t keep up with her. She tells me she is spending Christmas at a soup kitchen.
‘I should be doing that too,’ I say, ‘But someone has to be Father Christmas.’ She has hardly eaten anything and the cold meat in front of her is starting to congeal.
‘Have you heard from your parents?’ I ask.
‘Not for a while. Dad had an op last year and it went well. A nurse went to look after him at the house. I couldn’t do it because I was still recovering from this’ She holds up her hand. ‘We would have made a right pair!’ She laughs. ‘They’re both doing OK, I think. Mum’s still with her husband’
‘Do they know about your finger?’
‘I don’t think they’d understand.’
‘Does your Dad have somewhere to go on Christmas day?’ I ask.
‘What do you mean by that?’ she says.
‘I wondered if he was spending it with you, that’s all.’
‘I just told you, I’m going to a soup kitchen’. A man is approaching our table, I can see him rehearsing what he’s going to say in his head. He wears a leather necklace and I deduce he is coming to talk to Kerry.
‘Christmas is a nightmare. Really, you have no idea,’ she says.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.’ I try to claw it back. The man is up close, he leans on our table and says,
‘I was just thinking, and I had to ask, are you two sisters?’ Kerry starts to rummage for money in her handbag. She throws some notes on the table and gets down from her stool.
‘You’re leaving?’ I ask.
‘I only wanted to have a chat,’ the man thinks she is leaving because of him.
‘You’re so short sighted.’ She says and she is through the door and into the night, leaving me to chit-chat and excuse her odd behaviour with this stranger who neither of us care about.
On Christmas eve we have a party at the house and Mike stays up until 11pm which makes me tearful with pride. He works the room of our relatives, friends and neighbours with dignity and grace and I know that after standing for hours his weight will be crushing his wasted muscles. At the end of the night when I have carried my two babies to bed and tucked them in, shutting the bedroom door to allow Father Christmas the necessary privacy, he holds his head in his hands and cries. He tells me he is sorry for the months that I had to spend looking after us all. He says he wishes it had never been that way and I tell him that I would do it all over again, as many times as I needed to, in exchange for him being here with us on Christmas day. I stand in the kitchen with him weeping into my shoulder and in the end I lead him up to bed, exhausted. While I finish the last of the wrapping and fill the stockings for the morning I cry too. I consider ringing Kerry because I think she might be up, but I remember that she chose not to come to the party, or RSVP, and I resolve to draw a line underneath her in the new year. She is lost, I decide, and the tears keep coming.
By spring, Mike has turned a corner. He is back at work and as a family we return to exploring the world and its delights. We lounge in the long grasses of Regents Park one afternoon eating sandwiches and trying to name all the animals in the Zoo. I am laying on my front picking at the ground, listening to the hum of the city in the distance and the babble of my family on top of it. The path up in the distance is thick with people, and amongst them I catch a glimpse of someone I know. Walking with a man, arms linked, I am sure that I see Kerry. He is helping her make her way slowly down the tarmac towards Camden Town. Her hair is tumbling over her shoulders in the way that I remember. He holds her elbow to steer her through a throng of tourists taking pictures of the fountain. He does this, I realise, because she is on crutches. She stops behind the tall gothic points of the fountain and the swarm tourists make it difficult to catch sight of her again. I sit up and squint, fearing I have missed her, but once more she comes into view, just long enough for me to watch her hobble away into the crowds.
The counterpart to this story, Three Photographs, was published in issue 15 of Popshot magazine. You can buy a copy here.