She didn’t just miss Jack, it felt more like most of her had died when he did. It felt as if some of his cancer had spread into her body too, especially all the feeling parts. And it had killed them, stone dead, all the cells and sensations. Mary hadn’t been able to feel anything since that never-ending night that started mid-December six years ago when Jack finally lost his grip on what had become an unbearably painful life.
She didn’t feel numb or paralysed, as if she’d had a stroke. She could still function. Sewing, cooking, washing up, all the normal, everyday things were no more difficult than they have ever been. It was how she felt about everything that had changed. She didn’t.
Not a thing. Sunshine brought her no joy and tragedy brought no pain.
She doesn’t cry, but then neither does she smile except when she has to and then it’s just a facial exercise.
The first few weeks after Jack died, she was actually in shock and heavily sedated. It was an existence that felt midway between waking and sleep.
When the doctor decided to reduce the sedation, the spaces left by Jack’s absence became impossible to bear. They tried counselling and anti-depressants. She even tried moving in with a friend for a few days. But she couldn’t stay away from the house for long. All Jack’s things were still there, where he’d left them. So Mary went home and tried to confront the spaces.
Sitting by the fire facing an empty chair and eating at the table with no Jack to smile at was appalling. Waking alone in their bed turned out to be quite unbearable.
So, she couldn’t leave and she couldn’t stay. A practical solution was required and her mind, unencumbered by too much sensibility, soon came up with a near perfect solution.
A dummy dressed and treated to look just like Jack.
It didn’t take long to track down a sophisticated shop window dummy. Padding it out where necessary and dressing it in Jack’s clothing proved equally straightforward. The head and face presented a somewhat stiffer challenge. Eventually she had a full-face colour portrait photograph of Jack blown up to life size and wallpaper pasted it onto the front of the dummy’s head. All she then needed was a wig, suitably thinned and trimmed and, she had to confess, the finished result was quite startlingly effective.
Sitting in his favourite fireside chair, with the Daily Telegraph open across his lap, or lying, dressed in his pyjamas in their bed, Mary’s substitute Jack almost perfectly filled the aching gaps in her waking life.
Of course, no matter how much she rattled on about her day and the things that were troubling her de-sensitised mind, she knew she would never get an answer. But her substitute Jack somehow took away the despair and allowed her to carry on with her life.
Her friends were marvellous of course, as proper friends should be. They rallied round and, after a respectful interval, started to invite her to dinner and to cocktail parties. And, after a while there started to be an extra male guest, either divorced or widowed or – far worse – just plain single.
And those men always seemed to have photographs, tucked away in an inside pocket or a wallet.
Mostly they were pictures of children or grandchildren. Sometimes it was pets. On one memorable occasion, the photos were of a part restored aeroplane. He was divorced.
Mary managed to be polite and distant, and always managed to go home alone at the end of the evening to her dear, faithful Jack.
She always made sure that his face was turned towards her pillow so that the first thing she would see on waking would be his face.
She was neither happy nor sad. Jack was dead, his body long since cremated, and not even the most carefully constructed dummy could ever take his place. But the dummy did keep the dreadful loneliness away just enough for her to live, to all intents and purposes, an apparently normal life.
Until Christmas eve. The seventh without Jack. It was another dinner party and there was yet another single man there.
That one, however, looked different from all the ones that had come and gone before. All the rest had been well groomed, well off, middle class safe bets. That one was altogether more rough and ready. As they sat down to eat, Mary wondered if he too would produce photographs and what especially sordid secrets they might reveal.
His name turned out to be Malcolm. He was unmarried and lived in Oxford. He had a PHD, a slight stutter and kind eyes. He worked for Oxfam, arranging the shipment of aid all over the world, particularly Africa.
He did have photographs. Though this time they were of tiny Somali children, pot bellied and stick limbed with fly-full eyes and sundried skin that stretched across their skulls like hot cling film. Mary was told that they were all from the village of Luuq, that Malcolm had visited two months before. He commented on the ironic name. Luck was something those kids knew nothing about, most of them would not survive to see another Christmas.
He spoke about the civil war that took their parents and the drought that took their food. Calmly and carefully, he explained and illustrated their unbelievable suffering and their laughter and joy at simple acts of kindness. He spoke of how it felt to help.
The tears that filled and eventually overflowed Mary’s eyes came as a complete shock to her, but seemed to cause Malcolm no surprise. He produced a packet of tissues and a handful of truly pathetic anecdotes that only made the tears flow more.
And then he showed her a picture of a dummy, a crude representation consisting of tied up bundles of dried grass covered with an Oxfam T shirt and a pair of cotton shorts. It’s head wore a crudely crayoned caricature of a face below a white sun hat.
It was supposed to be him, Malcolm said. Apparently the children had said that they kept it under a tree to remind them of the white man who brought the laughter back to their village.
They both laughed at the enormity of the joke.
Mary had laughed and cried, all in one evening.
All over a bunch of children from a hot, dusty, war torn place many thousands of miles away from her pathetic existence.
“I’ve got some clothes you can send”, she said, “Lots of them. They were my husband’s, but he died seven years ago. Please come round and collect them after Christmas.”
She even suggested dinner.
© David Hermelin 2016