A Black Scarf

This is part of an ongoing writing project. Largely unedited, so please excuse inevitable typos. 

It’s Christmas morning. Esther is fourteen and Pudduck is twelve. If you ask her she’ll tell you very seriously that she is twelve and a half. The half is important to her. She will also tell you precisely how long it will be until the half becomes three quarters.

Esther is less painstaking about her age, though she is more painstaking in most other respects. She knows that she is older, and that she will always be older. This is a race she can’t lose. That doesn’t stop her getting mad at Pudduck though, for behaving like she might one day catch up.

Christmas morning in this household is all about the girls. Esther has always known that her parents care little for the holiday, but a lot for her, and so she makes a big deal about Santa and Christmas trees and Christmas lights, so that they will continue to use it as a reason to make a big deal out of her.

Honestly, if pressed, she wouldn’t be able to say what she likes about the holiday. She doesn’t like being given gifts, because she is so pedantic about what she likes to own, and so fearful of hurting anyone’s feelings with a less than convincing show of gratitude. As a general rule, her mother will give her make-up – her father has had a few things to say about this, the most oft repeated being that 14 is too young, and he said that 13 was too young, and 12 was too young, when this tradition started – which Esther already loves, her father will get her something whimsical and altogether unsuitable, like a rainbow striped dress or a dollhouse, and Pudduck will make her something.

These homemade gifts, a staple of Christmas and birthdays, are perhaps the thing that Esther looks forward to receiving most. Production on the items commences at least six weeks before the necessary date, and are carried out in utmost secrecy. Pudduck takes her projects seriously.

She began the tradition when she was six, and realized that ten pounds to spend on a family of three did not stretch to the jewels she envisions. That first Christmas, the family gifts were created around the theme of papier mache and Pudduck’s hair, the former being deliberate and the latter being an accidental but predictable result of leaving a six year old along with a bucket of paste.

The newly short-haired Pudduck presented these gifts with a sweet fanfare. Every member of the family knew how much work had gone into them, and reacted accordingly. Their Mother (whose name was Jenny) received a papier mache hat, fashioned in green and purple, with large bunches of green and purple grapes hanging from carefully chosen points around the rim. She exclaimed over the realness of the fruit and carefully donned the hat, taking care not to remove it for the duration of the day, not even when one bunch of grapes plopped loudly into the gravy during the main meal. When Christmas Day was drawing to a close, and Jenny was doing the dishes, she chose her apron with care, that it should match her hat. The picture that Dad (whose name was Keith) took that evening, of Jenny in full evening sunlight, sporting a hat the circumference of a hula hoop, elegant dress fully masked by an apron emblazoned with the message “Whine And Dine” and printed with glasses of chardonnay and merlot, is everyone’s favourite picture of Jenny. She has yellow gloves to her elbows and an unfortunate smear of not-quite-dry paste on her cheek, and the picture hung in the study for years afterwards, with the hat mounted on a hook beside.

This year, Esther is 14, wandering into adulthood. She’s wearing her Christmas make-up from last year. Esther’s make-up is, as it has been for the last two years, somewhat hit or miss. It’s not quite as bad as last year, when she mistook a vivid red blush for an eye-shadow and looked like she’d been weeping since November. But there’s a still a decided wobbliness to the application her eyeliner and a likelihood of teeth as pink as her lips.

She feels beautiful, though, if she puts her mind to it, and this is by far the most important thing. She’s very thin, and her clothes hang on her oddly, making her stand like a deflating balloon to avoid the fabric coming into contact with her unexpectedly. The whole effect is that of a very sad clown the night after an awful performance, and is not very festive. Esther isn’t ugly, not by any measure. But Esther at fourteen is different from any other fourteen year old she knows. Esther suffers, and she isn’t even sure why. She suffers when she wakes up in the morning, and she suffers when her feet hit the warm carpet. She showers, unsure of whether she likes them long and warm or short and hot, and then she suffers as she dresses herself in the clothes that her mother buys, that feel like they have been bought for someone else. She suffers at breakfast, lunch and dinner, and she couldn’t have told anyone exactly where is this suffering came from, or why she can’t make it go away.

Esther feels, though she couldn’t say it in so many words, that she got born with a little piece missing, an important piece like an eyeball or a big toe, vision and balance, important things. Her house is right and her family is right and her world is right, and she is wrong. She looks as over-dramatic as that sounds, with her over-large clothes and paint-box make-up, but it’s manufactured, a part she plays, the grumpy, flawed teenager. Because if this wrongness could be blamed on errant teenage behavior then everything would be easier. All teenagers stomp. But Esther stomps round like a sad clown for only one reason: to stop people from noticing her looking for her missing piece.

It is not the job of 14 year olds to be or to look festive, and perhaps it is for that reason that Jenny has dressed Pudduck up as a Christmas fairy. Pudduck at 12 is still as pliant and as sweet as she was at six. She seems aware that this is her role in the family.

Jenny is glamorous, Keith is irascible, Esther both worried and worrying, and Pudduck is lovely.

Today, her long blonde hair is brushed out like spun sugar and she is wearing a pink tutu. She has white tights on her skinny legs and, incongruously, one black gumboot, having just spent half an hour sweeping the driveway and pretending to be Cinderella, and having been in rather too much of a hurry to get inside. Pudduck at twelve really doesn’t look all that much different to Pudduck at six. She is a little taller, and carries herself with a little more self-awareness, but she still looks like the kind of child who might be excused for failing to notice that she is wearing only one boot.

She’s beautiful, really quite lovely, though she isn’t told so often. This is because of Esther, and even though Pudduck has never heard this said explicitly, she understands it to be true. People have trouble looking at Esther. They tend to be distracted anyway, by Pudduck, who looks far lovelier in one gumboot than most people do in two, who looks like sun shining through a clean glass pane.

Pudduck adores Christmas unashamedly. This Christmas, she has knit everyone scarves, a marathon task that required starting in July, and meant that neither her father nor her mother received birthday presents that year. She’s pretty sure everyone knows about the scarves, though they’ve pretended not to notice when she sneaks the balls of wool into her room in her backpack, and ignored the sounds of knitting needles clacking from beneath the door.

Esther is growing ever more doubtful of the Christmas trees and Christmas lights, just as even the stupidest fourteen year olds are wont to do. She can’t fake joy the way she used to, and she’s certain she’s not convincing her parents any more. She suspects that somewhere beneath the pantomime lurks something that means something, but she hasn’t been able to find it for a while.

Keith, Keith is sick of Christmas. He doesn’t like buying and carrying the tree, he doesn’t like the needles that drop on to the carpet, he doesn’t like the smell that reminds him of office toilets. He doesn’t complain about it though, he keeps up his own Christmas pantomime for his little family. He loves his girls, though he doesn’t even pretend to understand what goes on in Esther’s head anymore. He loves making them happy, but carrying them round on his back doesn’t work as well as it used to. Keith has had a number of jobs in his life, and suspects that he has performed better at all of them than he has at being a father. Currently, Keith works in construction. If anyone asks about it (they don’t often) he has taken to saying that he “deals in nails”, which makes things sound, if not exciting, then at least enigmatic. He’s starting to anticipate a life after fatherhood; and perhaps a life after being a husband. He loves Jenny, he always has, but he loves himself a little more these days. He feels that the perfect Keith, a Keith with tartan shirts and dark blue jeans and thick books and an encyclopedic knowledge of politics lurks just beyond his reach, distracted as he is by Christmas trees and teenagers. Jenny doesn’t understand him, he thinks, has never understood him, though she started to put more effort into trying a few years ago.

Jenny is just as glamorous as she always was, with her hair a little thinner and her make-up a touch thicker. Now that the girls are old enough to take themselves to and from school, and to make their lunches, and to organize their own play-dates, she has gone back to volunteering at the local information centre. She sits behind a desk for most of the day, three days a week, handing out leaflets, and imaging herself falling in love with the bearded, backpacked tourists who saunter in through the sliding doors. She’d never do anything about these imaginings, she’s devoted to Keith, who appreciates the devotion even if he’s not always entirely sure what to do with it, or how much longer he’ll need it for. Sometimes, Jenny spends a fourth day working. She calls it working, though what she really does is pick three things that tourists have asked about that week, and go to do them herself. She calls it research as she rides rollercoasters and walks through coastal and bush paths and drinks the best lattes in the city. It’s certainly research, it’s sort of work, though if she loves an activity or a latte enough she’ll neglect to mention them to any enquiring foreigners, to save them for herself.

This Christmas is the last one that Uncle Jonathan will attend, though no one knows it yet, least of all Jonathan.

Jonathan is Jenny’s brother, six years older and a lot less kind. He’s less good-looking too. He has a face that looks like memory foam, like you might be able to squeeze or mold it into any shape you like. He very rarely chooses to mold this expressive face into a smile, with the notable exception of when he’s making someone uncomfortable.

His usual victims within the family are Pudduck and Jenny; Pudduck because she’s easy, and Jenny because he’s had a lot of practice. Keith he avoids out of some kind of male fellow-feeling, and also because he has easy access to a lot of nails. Esther is different kettle of fish – as he likes to say – and he acts like he generally dislikes her, but actually he’s a little afraid of her. He doesn’t know how to act around a girl who paints herself like she does. He knows all about make-up on women. He approaches women in bars and can judge the likelihood of a positive response on the application of their make up. Red lipstick means a vamp, pale pink a prude. Any kind of lip liner means a dominatrix and smoky eye shadow demarcates a sure thing. He knows that women apply make-up so he’ll notice them, so he’ll pick them, so they’ll be the chosen one. And he doesn’t know how to act around a woman, even a young woman, who is so obviously trying to paint herself out.

He’s currently grinning, because he’s got his mouth to Pudduck’s soft cheek, her little legs caught up in his right elbow, and he’s suckling at the dimples Esther covets so.

“I’m so thirsty, I’m so thirsty”, he mutters around her soft skin.

Pudduck is stiff and silent in her arms. Pudduck is used to being grabbed and fondled, but she stopped finding Uncle Jonathan funny at eight years old, or maybe younger. She’s too polite to struggle or complain, which is just as well, because he’d enjoy it more if she did.

Fun had, Jonathan sets Pudduck back lightly on her feet, where she wipes his saliva from her cheek and goes to stand by Esther, who takes Pudduck’s hand in hers. Esther might be jealous of Pudduck on occasion, but her first instinct is always to guard her little sister.

“Well, well, well”, laughs Jonathan loudly. “What’s next?”

They’ve done the same thing for Christmas, every year, since Esther was born, so he knows very well what stage of the day they’re at. It’s mid-morning, meaning that stockings have already been opened. They will settle down under the tree now, to unwrap gifts from each other, and from the rest of the family. After that is Christmas lunch, for which Jenny always cooks a side of salmon (she doesn’t eat meat).

Jonathan knows as well as anyone how this day pans out, but he always does his best to rush his way through. For Jenny, Keith, Pudduck and Esther, the day will end in naps, explorations with new toys, the consumption of leftovers and a long night’s sleep. Jenny and Keith will have sex at midnight, after packing up the Christmas tree, and Pudduck, whose bedroom shares a wall with the sitting room, will listen, though she simply believes that packing up the tree is an alarmingly arduous task, and is glad that she doesn’t have to help. Esther will lock her bedroom door (an event frequent enough that it no longer worries any one in the family) and stand in front of the mirror, experimenting with her new products. This is her second favourite part of Christmas.

For Jonathan, however, his release from the house signals only the beginning of his celebration. He will make his way across town to the pub nearest to his house, where he knows all the locals. He will eat a full Christmas dinner. To his mind, the consumption of salmon for Christmas lunch is nothing short of non-Christian, and there is something religious about the way he washes down his ham with pint after pint. He will position himself at the darkest corner table in the pub and wait for the loneliest woman. It doesn’t always work. He doesn’t always land his Christmas prey. But that’s part of the fun.

But the meantime he delights in playing with his prettiest niece.

It makes Jenny grind her teeth, watching her older brother sigh and frown and look at his watch, and it makes her want to bite something when she sees the way his face changes when he sees Pudduck.

“Come on girls”, she says. “Men, it’s time for presents”.

Pudduck’s distress is easily shaken in the face of presents. She loves receiving them, but she particularly loves giving them, and she’s never been proud of anything the way she’s proud of these scarves.

They settle around the base of the tree, Pudduck and Esther on the floor, and the adults on various chairs drawn close to the pile of presents. It is tradition that Pudduck gives her gifts first, and she already has the soft parcels in her lap.

Order of gift reception, according to Pudduck’s rules, is youngest to eldest, and so it is always Esther who receives hers first. Secretly, Pudduck knows that the scarf she has knitted for Esther is her best, and it delights her to watch the quiet pleasure on Esther’s face as she unwraps the thick black scarf, so wide it’s almost a blanket.

“It’s perfect” says Esther, and she means it. She feels the cold, and has no real concept of how to dress herself. She wraps the scarf around her neck. It goes round twice, so all that peeps out is the tip her nose and the top of her head.

“Bit somber isn’t it, P?”, asks Keith, who doesn’t notice much.

“Say thank you, Esther”, intones Jenny.

Esther doesn’t say anything, but she flicks her almost-hidden eyes at her younger sister, and enough is said with that.

The next parcel goes to Keith, who is exactly 46 days younger than his wife. His scarf is a striped gold and black thing, thin and long, the colours of the team he supports. Despite himself, he is pleased, and he mimics Esther, wrapping the scarf around his neck up to his chin.

“Thank you P”, he laughs, catching his youngest daughter by the hand, and pulling her into his lap for a hug. Jenny clicks a photo of them like that.

Her scarf is a dusty pink in a fine wool, more of a soft square of knit than a scarf. It sets off her hair and softens the tightness in her face. As she puts it on, she’s already planning to wear it to next week’s fourth day of work, a day she’s booked to spend out on a boat watching for whales. Pudduck twinkles up at her as she exclaims with joy over the softness of the wool and she is suddenly reminded of herself at Pudduck’s age, not as she was, but as she longed to be.

Jonathan’s is handed over last, as always. He tears at the wrapping paper, scattering small shreds to the floor, and unearths a dark brown scarf in a coarse wool.

Pudduck doesn’t have a vicious bone in her body, not yet. She chose that colour in that wool because it looked warm, and solid and strong, and those are the things she feels in her Uncle when he lifts her into the air. She isn’t to know how aware Jonathan is of his farmer’s features and his thick middle; his yellowed fingers and thinning hair. She isn’t to know that he equates brown with age and death – he wears black because it’s enigmatic, and blue because it catches his eyes. Stripes because they make him look thinner and denim because it makes him feel young. But he never wears brown.

He’s had a few too many beers, obviously. Jenny has been keeping count, as she does every time she spends time with him, as they both did with their father, and she reckons he’s had seven or eight already. She doesn’t know about the bottles that he’s drained completely, knocked sideways, and kicked with a heel under the couch.

He’s had more than a few too many beers, but it’s not really the beer that makes him lash out.

He stands up, the offending scarf held loosely in one hand. He makes his way over, not to Pudduck, but to Esther.

“Swap?” he says.

Esther shakes her head.

“Come on,” he growls. “It’s more your colour, isn’t it?”

Esther shakes her head.

He turns to Pudduck. “Come on girl. This was a mistake, yeah? I want the black one, you made it for me didn’t you? You know I like black.”

Pudduck can’t even shake her head, torn between the fear butterflying in her stomach, and anger that anyone would think she’d put anything less than everything into her homemade Christmas presents. She’s not scared of Jonathan, though, she’s scared for Esther, who’s clutching at the scarf around her neck like a rosary.

Keith is growing uncomfortable. He’s not above monstering his children on occasion, but it’s quite another thing to watch another man doing it. “Come on Jonathan”, he says lightly. “The brown one’s lovely. Looks lovely and warm, doesn’t it Jenny?”

He passes the burden onto his wife, who should, he thinks, be controlling her beery brother.

Jenny opens her mouth to talk, but Jonathan beats her to it.

“Shut up, Jenny” he slurs, and he suddenly has his hands on Esther, one big hand pulling at her little clutching white ones, and the other yanking free her scarf. She’s wound it tight, and he pulls it off her with difficulty, jerking her head to the side. He tosses the brown one at her, where it drapes from her shoulder like an old Christmas decoration.

Now that he has the scarf, he’s feeling lighter, and he’s also starting to sense the possible ramifications of his behavior. He curls the hard-won black scarf around his neck and laughs.

“Alright then”, he says. “Now that that’s fixed, how about the rest of the presents?”

Arguing would make it worse, they all think, almost in perfect unison, except for Esther, the inside of whose mind is blank and cool and still.

They open the rest of the gifts. There are beautiful things among the last minute purchases. Keith has, quite by accident, given Jenny a present she has wanted for many years – a pearl necklace. He bought it only because he was running out of ideas, but not money, and because the route from where he parked his car to his office building takes him past a jewellery store with a particularly lovely attendant. But Jenny is stunned by his prescience and generosity, and by the time the jewels are looped around her neck, she has quite forgotten the unpleasantness of earlier. Jonathan is starting to feel loose and bleary, and could not, if pressed, recount a single one of the presents he has received in the last hour – with the exception, of course, of the black scarf. Pudduck holds new blue rollerskates in her lap, a present for which she could almost have forgiven Uncle Jonathan, were it not for the expression that lingers on Esther’s face. Esther’s presents remain wrapped beside her, neatly piled on top of a folded brown scarf.

There is a pause while Jenny rustles around, collecting discarded wrapping paper and tying it into a plastic bag, and then the family rises and moves as one to the dinner table.

As always, Jenny serves. Keith used to resent this somewhat, but is terrible at serving up an aesthetically pleasing piece of salmon. The plates are passed around the table, which is covered in a dark red cloth, upon which two heavy silver candlesticks rest. Although it is midday, and bright, the candles are lit, and the wax drips down the silver and cakes onto the cloth.

When everyone is served, Jenny sits and fills her glass with red wine. She raises it and intones “To Christmas!” Everyone joins in, Esther and Pudduck saluting Santa with wine glasses filled with lemonade.

Jonathan is quiet. His head is spinning. He can normally hold his alcohol well, but he has managed to overdo it this time. He shovels potatoes and beans and pink fish into his mouth at speed, thinking to soak up the liquid contents of his stomach. He’s still wearing the black scarf. He’s thinking about tonight, about sobering up enough that can he make it across town, and then settling down in his corner in the pub with a pint. Maybe a half-pint. Loading his fork high, he lifts it to his mouth, but he tilts it a little, and a wet combination of fish and tomato and potato slides down his chin and into the soft folds of the dark scarf.

Pudduck and Esther are both looking at him. He manages a big grin as he uses his fork to scrape up the food as best he can, and puts it in his mouth.

“Lucky that was there to catch it, huh?” he winks through a full mouth, but suddenly something is wrong, the food in his mouth, is hot, and getting hotter, burning and blistering. He tries to spit it out but it has adhered to the insides of his cheeks and to his tongue in a horrifying heated paste that’s starting to force its way down his throat. He grabs his bottle of beer but it’s empty. Jenny, thinking that he’s choking, whacks him on the back, and he vomits easily and suddenly, a burning torrent of brown that rushes from his throat with force and projects onto the table.

He thinks he’s dying, he’s sure he’s dying.

Just as soon as it started, it stops. The food falls away from the surfaces of his mouth and he’s able to spit it out onto his plate. He puts his fingers to his mouth, runs his tongue tentatively across his cheeks and palate but there’s nothing there, just smooth skin.

“What the fuck was that?” asks Keith, who was convinced he was witnessing the passing of his brother-in-law. He’s not exactly disappointed, not precisely.

“Manners, Keith” says Jenny, who has herself recovered rather fast, and is inwardly congratulating herself on her life-saving actions, even as she faces the repulsive clean-up.

Pudduck is pink cheeked and breathing fast and not a little splashed with vomit.

Only Esther is unmoved and silent, glowing with something that isn’t make-up, her hair standing out around her face, burning.

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