He had a binder clip holding his hat together. It was one of the first things people noticed when they met him, though most were too polite to say so. The tweed hat was old and frayed and obviously had run into some kind of mishap somewhere causing it to rip, and it seemed the clip had been applied, and that had been that. The metal arms of the clip were rusted and there were orange stains in their shape pressed into the wool so that even if you took it away, it would still be there.
He didn’t eat very well, as evidenced by his teeth and gauntness about the face, but he made up for it in his own way with supplements. When people saw him tucked into the corner of a cheap diner, that might be the second thing they noticed – that alongside fried potato skins and fried onions and fried fries, he washed down a handful of colourful pills and a sachet of powder with a swig of full-fat milk. Nice, kind, well-meaning people had tried to explain proper nutrition to him in the past, but all been given the same mulish response: Gerty said I need to take my supplements.
Something very few noticed, a very, very few, was that the supplements for the day came out of a grubby metal box. It was probably a pretty metal box at some point before it spent many years in his ancient pockets, but despite its current appearance it still produced a certain reverence in him. Those very, very few might see him pull out the box, turn it over in his hands, rub a dirty thumb over the dirty lid, while the other hand reached up to tip his rusted hat. A little touch, a ‘doff’ as they used to say, long ago, when he had Gerty. His fingers might meet the binder clip and cause a rueful smile to twist his lips, but then he’d take his vitamins and supplements from inside his little box, because she’d said he needed them.
The day after she’d clipped his hat together as a ‘temporary solution’, she’d slipped out of his life in a screech of tires and smash of glass. The box held his vitamins and supplements, and the clip held him. A small thing to do such heavy-lifting; but these things often are.
She used her spit to clean my face.
Yours probably did too.
A pre-recital ritual, this spit-and-rub.
No thought to her saliva,
it was the rubbing that was best avoided:
blunt fingertips dragged over cheeks and chins so
hard that the bones felt their passing.
The rosy glow of throbbing skin was the aim, I assume.
It wasn’t to clean anything anyway because
there was never anything there:
faces were washed and primed and
ready to go before we even left the house.
Mothers and spit and daughters.
Saliva rubbed into pores,
marked as mine.
This one is mine - watch how it shines.
You can see how I care in those red rubbed smiles.
She might not be the best ballet dancer but
do you see how polished she is?
How well-combed her hair?
Hear how the ribbons squeak as they are pulled just that tight
so blue lines remain blooming on ankles?
She would beam with pride at her creation while
other mothers nodded knowingly.
They all knew what kept this show going,
what they were really looking at.
The daughters may be dancing,
but they held it all together.
Mothers cleaning their daughters: pretty
ribbons and hairpins and spit.
The mortician rubbed the brush over the brick of rouge. She made sure to get enough on there so it could be ground in properly: dead skin is far more resistant to creams and powders than that of the living. She made sure to move it back and forth rather than in circles in order to prevent the loss of bristles. The last thing anyone wanted to see was an extra-long animal hair on the face of their dearly departed.
The mortician rubbed the brush over the brick of rouge. There was enough on there now for her purpose, but she kept going. Forward and backward the brush travelled on, blush-red powder creeping further into the hairs. A fine dusting of red began to settle on the table on either side, and over the other cakes and compacts of concealers and colours. She supposed if she kept on rubbing, eventually it would coat her in red as well.
The mortician rubbed the brush over the brick of rouge. With a great sigh that sent the excess floating away to one day fall on other cheeks, she swivelled on her stool to face her mother. The mild and meek mousy woman would never have dreamed of wearing make-up in real life. What they were doing together here was all a sham; an injustice somehow. The mortician’s art: to enliven the dead. The others had argued that she shouldn’t be the one to do it for her own mother. She had argued that she was the only one it could be.
The mortician rubbed the brush over the brick of rouge. Her mother’s face was finished – creams and contours applied just-so, to give the illusion not of someone off to take on the town, but of someone merely sleeping. A filmstar of old who woke up already bedewed with gloss and shimmer. When she had enough rouge on the brush, she swivelled again to look in the mirror. The brush was pleasantly soft as she drew it over her cheeks, leaving the suggestion of life in its wake.