Rosie liked to climb into bed beside her mother for the short time after her Daddy left for work and before she had to get up for school. But this little luxury was rudely cut short this morning. The phone rang. Her mother sat up, slid her feet onto the floor and picked up the phone.
‘Oh hello, Mum – oh, wha… – oh! – but – but – they’ll get her ba… – ‘
She broke off and a silence followed. Then Rosie’s mother broke into violent sobs. She stood up and started pacing from room to room.
‘What is it Mummy?’ Rosie called, but her mother paid her no attention. She hurried through to the living room where her mother had now collapsed onto the sofa.
‘Mummy! What’s wrong?’
‘Oh Rosie! Helen’s committed suicide!’ she answered between sobs.
Rosie stared at her mother. It was horrible to see her so sad. ‘Never mind, Mummy,’ she said. She ran into her own room to fetch her teddy bear. She pushed it onto her mother’s lap. ‘Don’t worry, Mummy.’
‘Oh Rosie! You don’t understand!’ Her mother grasped the teddy bear, but she kept on crying.
It was true, Rosie didn’t understand. Her mother talked a lot about meetings and committees and people taking sides. Helen was her aunt and she assumed Sue was someone at her mother’s work. She was always arguing about work things with Daddy, but she had never been upset like this before. Her teddy bear didn’t seem to be helping much. If only her mother had agreed to get the dog that Rosie had been begging her for; it would have comforted her better, she felt sure.
Rosie sat with her mother for a long time. She didn’t like her crying like this and she wondered what to do. She looked at the clock. The big hand had gone past the top and the little hand was at eight. ‘Mummy, aren’t we going to school?’
‘What? – School? – Oh – yes – get your clothes on, darling.’
Rosie did as she was told while her mother talked on the phone to someone else. She showed no signs of hanging up so Rosie got her own breakfast.
Karen drove her daughter to school in a daze. Why, Helen? Why? Why had she left them like this? And her parents! They would be absolutely devastated. She was going to them now instead of work. She had called a friend to pick up Rosie and look after her for the time being. She had no idea how long she would need. Everything had to stop for things like this.
‘I’m sorry we’re late,’ said Karen to Rosie’s teacher. ‘I’ve just heard that my sister has committed suicide.’ Then to fill the ensuing silence she added, ‘So I expect Rosie won’t be feeling her normal self, today.’
‘Oh! I’m sorry! How Awful! – Well, we’ll look after Rosie. Come along Rosie.’
The teacher’s response seemed abrupt to Karen. Perhaps she shouldn’t have told her. Perhaps it was too personal, or too alarming, too uncomfortable, too rude even. Suicide didn’t have a place in normal civilized life. Perhaps that had been Helen’s point.
‘My auntie’s got a new puppy,’ said Penny, as the children worked together at the modelling-clay table.
Rosie stared at her classmate in envy. ‘My auntie’s committeed Sue’s side,’ she ventured. Penny wouldn’t know what that meant either but it would sound impressive.
Penny glared at her. ‘So’s mine,’ she retaliated.
Marcus looked up from his work. ‘That’s very bad,’ he said. ‘My big brother says you go to Hell if you do that.’
‘Karen, you’re not becoming anorexic, are you?’ John looked anxiously at his wife across the table. She had served herself a very small portion of pasta and was poking it half-heartedly with her fork. She had hardly eaten at all in the three weeks since Helen’s death.
‘Of course not,’ Karen replied. ‘I just haven’t been hungry recently.’ She wanted to add It stands to reason! But she decided not to. It wasn’t worth bringing up the reason. No one liked to talk about it, she had discovered, and that was the hardest thing. It was as if it was shameful; as if people thought, she’s dead now, so let’s forget the whole sorry business.
It wasn’t that they didn’t care, or didn’t feel it. She knew they did. The days following the discovery of Helen’s death had been awful. The first day at her parents’ had been filled with so much weeping and hand-wringing, burying of faces in hands and asking why and how could she? Then came the soul searching, self-blaming, and analysis of what went wrong. Then came the logistics of the funeral, and afterwards they were faced with the fact that the world would go on, regardless.
It became awkward to bring up the subject of Helen. ‘Look, it’s quite simple,’ her father would say. ‘She lost her job. It’s the financial crisis. The system’s to blame.’ Then he would divert the topic away from the personal pain. Everybody was suffering because of the crisis.
Then her mother became subdued and reluctant to talk about it. Now, whenever Karen phoned, she would talk about the weather, her arthritis, the neighbours who had been broken into, the price of food, anything but Helen.
Karen knew it was not as simple as her father made out. Only a very few of those who lost their jobs were so devastated. Karen herself was partially to blame. She had ignored her sister in recent years, so much so that she only now realised the extent of her negligence. They had been very close. Less than two years older, she had grown up with her sister. They had gone to school together, played together, shared friends and toys, then clothes and secrets, and excitement about first dates. Then they had commiserated over split-ups with early boyfriends. And Helen had been her bridesmaid. Through all those years she had been her closest friend.
Then Karen had become simply too busy for Helen. She had a new husband and a new home, then she had a baby, then she had gone back to work, and recently she had been promoted. She had been totally self-absorbed and had hardly even noticed that her sister was experiencing one disappointment after another, in both work and love. She felt terribly guilty.
Rosie could tell that her mother wasn’t happy. They used to enjoy the late afternoons together; she would pick her up from school and until her Daddy came home they would play together, or read stories or go to the park. But ever since the day her aunt died, her mother had been very quiet; she hardly ever talked to Rosie any more; she would just sit and stare out the window.
Rosie decided to give the doll’s house people new names. One would be Sue, another Anne, another Exic. But the nicest one she decided to name Helen. She took them to her mother.
‘All right, Mummy, you can have one of the doll’s house people. This one’s Helen, and this one’s Sue, or you can have Anne or Exic. Which one do you want?’
Karen laughed as she took the dolls. ‘Oh, is this one Helen? Then I think I want her. She’s the best.’ Then she put her arm around Rosie and kissed her.
Rosie recalled that her mother hadn’t done that for a long time. And she had laughed, even if she was crying at the same time.
She had another idea. ‘Just a minute,’ she said, and ran back to the doll’s house. She looked inside. Yes, there was the doll’s shopping basket on the kitchen floor. Careful not to knock anything over she put her hand in and picked it up. Then she cast her eyes around the little room. There was a tiny loaf of bread stuck to a breadboard on the sideboard, and a bowl of fruit and a vase of yellow flowers on the miniature table. She picked up the bread and fruit, put them into the dolls’ basket, and hooked it onto Helen’s arm.
Then she looked again at the yellow flowers and remembered something else. She put her hand into the kitchen again and pulled on a tiny knob to open a cupboard. Yes, it was there: the birthday cake. She pulled it out and wedged it into the basket.
Now, she wasn’t sure why, but she felt that yellow flowers and birthday cake went together, so she took those from the doll’s house kitchen table and stuck them under the doll’s other arm. She brought it back to her mother.
‘Helen’s brought you these. It’s her birthday. She wants you to come to her party.’
Karen gasped. How did Rosie know? Helen always had daffodils on her birthday; they were always by her cake on the table. On the first of March, and that was tomorrow! ‘Oh, Rosie, that’s lovely!’
Her daughter set the cake on a makeshift table, then she pretended to give her mother a piece. Karen pretended to nibble it. ‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘It’s delicious.’
‘Can we have some real food, now,’ asked Rosie.
‘Of course.’ Her mother got up and fetched an apple. She cut it into quarters, gave one to Rosie, put one in front of the doll and started to nibble one herself.
Rosie looked happy. She must have been pleased that her mother was playing along. In her misery Karen had been neglecting her child.
‘I know,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow is Helen’s birthday. Let’s bake a real cake, and we’ll invite Granny and Grandad. And we’ll have real daffodils too.’
Rosie jumped in excitement at the prospect. Then she looked puzzled. ‘But will Helen be there?’
‘No. Helen is gone…’ She trailed off.
‘Mummy, did Helen go to Hell?’
‘No! No, she didn’t! Where did you hear that?’
Rosie shrugged her shoulders.
Karen put her arm around her child. ‘Rosie, Helen is dead, but we still have her here in our hearts and in our memories. And that’s why we can still celebrate her birthday.’