FICTION: Deadhead by Victoria Briggs

After a morning spent calling piñata companies, and having her custom refused by every one, Rosalind was resigned to either constructing her own or doing without.

How hard could it be to make a piñata? She assumed there would be tissue paper and paste required. There would be paints. Paints she could always hustle from cousin Judith, the art enthusiast, whose dreary watercolours were given as gifts at Christmases and birthdays. There would be time needed to make the thing. Time Rosalind never seemed to have enough of on any day, but especially now, with a funeral to organise. With the casket to be chosen, the flowers ordered, an inventory completed, a circling of vultures to be kept at bay – and now, this damn piñata.

‘Very amusing, Gerald,’ said Rosalind to the empty room, to the silent space, to the listening dead whose shoulders shook with mirth behind the mortal veil. ‘You might at least have given me some warning.’

Rosalind’s eyes began to sting—an unwelcome sensation that she fought against. Ordinarily, she was not a crier. Nor was anyone in the family, the whole sorry lot of them came from inexpressive stock. Theirs was not a family that kissed and hugged in greeting or departure. There were no ‘I love yous’ to signal the termination of phone calls. There were no phone calls—not usually. Not unless one of them had left this life in a sudden whoosh and now the calls were coming in a long and steady stream.

‘Vultures,’ said Rosalind out loud, the nettle-sting behind her eyes intensifying, partly in sympathy for Gerald, but partly, also, for herself.

The phone rang: the funeral directors’ number again. Their patience with her indecision was no doubt wearing thin. What could she tell them? That she still didn’t have an answer about whether to opt for an oak box over the rosewood. With brass handles or a silver finish. And panelled sides or contoured corners; the lining white or beige. Death brought with it a dizzying amount of aesthetic considerations that were impossible to make in a single sitting. She let the phone ring out.

When news of Gerald’s death came through, Rosalind had been eyeing up a little silver Corsa. A second-hand car in the garage down the road whose price was much the same as the fee the funeral directors were quoting to bury her only brother. The police had called her to identify the body. Gerald had her listed as his next of kin.

He also had her down as the executor of his will, a position that involved the fulfilment of various legal obligations and instructions. Instructions that included an inventory and a piñata, but which gave no indication as to the type of flowers he might like or whether the casket’s lining should be made of satin or crêpe de chine. Neither was there guidance about what direction the service should take. A pointer from Gerald as to whether he intended to be reconciled with the Catholic Church at the threshold of eternity would have been useful information for those tasked with dispatching him into its embrace.

As the administrator of his will, Rosalind was expected to know where Gerald’s religious persuasions lay. The funeral directors had made that plain. They could make all the arrangements she wanted but first they needed her to nail Gerald’s colours to the mast.

But Gerald had been a man of many colours and several masts. There had been Gerald the choir boy and Gerald the Marxist student. There was Gerald who spent an ascetic gap year in an ashram and Gerald the Roman Catholic bridegroom who had charged the altar in a headlong haste. A messy split—a schism—followed by Gerald the raging nihilist and Gerald the mostly drunk. Then came the epiphany, a conversion, to Gerald the out and proud. Most recently, there was Gerald the freewheeling Figaro with a barber’s shop in Greek Street, only recently superseded by the kind of everlasting permanence that Gerald was sure to find a bore.

There were so many factors to take into consideration that Rosalind felt hamstrung with indecision. Adding to her lack of resolve was the fact that this was the first funeral she had been solely charged with. Her mother having taken care of her father’s before organising her own, in advance, so that all Gerald and Rosalind had to do was turn up on the day in pressed black suits, their pockets stuffed with tissues.

What she had discovered from the front pew of her parents’ funerals, amid the holy water and absolution, the De Profundis and the Eucharist, was that the requiem masses were family affairs and, much the same as weddings, were undertaken largely for their benefit.

Rosalind decided to call Uncle Charlie at his nursing home. As her mother’s last surviving brother, she was hoping for some advice—wisdom, even—if not on funeral practicalities then at least on the issue of religion, which, chief among her various dilemmas, was causing half her wits to split.

‘Gerald was never one to be pigeon holed,’ she said to Charlie, raising her voice above the background chatter of the day room so that she might explain to him about the masts and the colours and the inadequacy intrinsic to all definitions.

‘You mean he was a poof,’ roared Charlie, half deaf.

‘I mean he was agnostic. In all things. Probably.’

‘You’re asking me what to do?’ said Charlie. ‘Gerald didn’t know his own mind most of the time, what makes you think I’ve got a bloody clue? I know he broke your mother’s heart, Rosalind. I do know that much.’

‘That’s not very helpful. None of this is helpful.’

‘I’ll tell you something else: when my time comes, I don’t want any of this fuss making. Just tell them to throw me off a cliff and have done with it.’

A knock at the door, the florist, brought their conversation to a close. A young woman wearing a tattoo of a rose on her wrist had called round to drop in a catalogue of floral displays and arrangements that Rosalind could peruse from the comfort of her sofa.

‘No rush. Just call us when you’re ready,’ said the woman, whose kindness after Charlie made Rosalind’s throat constrict so that she couldn’t reply for fear of releasing an involuntary yelp.

Rosalind nodded and backed her away inside the house. Poor Gerald, she thought, still a pariah even in death. Still castigated for that in which he had no say in its selection. She felt she owed it to him to make good on his last wishes. If only she knew what they might be: whether he would prefer a classic wreath or a casket spray. A floral basket or his name spelt out in an alphabet of blooms. Then there were the flowers themselves, would he like the purity of lilies or the complexity of the rose? The panache of gladioli or the absurdity of chrysanthemums? Perhaps he would want her to ditch the funereal altogether and opt instead for the phallic, for a church-full of anthuriums. Or scatter petals down the aisle as if it were a wedding.

The landline ringing this time, the funeral directors again, broke her concentration. As she was still no nearer with the casket, she decided not to answer, although she did feel she was making headway with the flavour of the day. Her conversation with Charlie had clarified that for her, at least. If forgiveness could not be relied upon then perhaps it might be negotiated, she thought, leaning towards a Catholic service over a humanist by way of furnishing Gerald with some kind of insurance policy. A get-out-of-jail card, just in case Saint Peter, guardian of the Pearly Gates, was anything like Charlie.

Buoyed by her own internal momentum, Rosalind looked about the house and decided she really must start on the inventory. There were shelves full of trinkets that were begging to be catalogued, drawers full of knick-knacks and cupboards she hadn’t yet summoned up the courage to take a look inside.

And then there was the piñata. The infuriating, illuminating, incendiary piñata. How to begin on Gerald’s morbid tombola? Where to begin? Rosalind thought perhaps the watercolours were a good a place to start as any and went to retrieve her mobile phone.

It had been a while since she had spoken to cousin Judith. She thought perhaps a year or more had passed since they’d had anything that resembled a proper conversation.

‘It’s Roz,’ she said when the phone was answered and in lieu of a hello. ‘I’m staying at Gerald’s while I take care of his things. I’m afraid there’s something I’m going to need your help with.’

*

Gerald had been married to Lella for less than two years – six months of them in a state of separation – when his epiphany had occurred.

He was working in an outdoor supplies shop at the time and, as unlikely a place as that seemed for a Damascene conversion, one had nevertheless occurred there. Somewhere in between the racks of hiking boots and walking poles, among the rucksacks and the thermal socks. In the changing rooms, most likely, where the rustle of waterproofs and the rip of Velcro fasteners had preceded the frantic exertions of an unplanned lust.

Brad was his name. An American, a student at the university, with a quarterback’s shoulders and strong, irradiant teeth. Arse cheeks like slabs of alabaster, too, according to Gerald, who had broken the news over Sunday lunch, as their father had carved the bird with an electric knife, its pale flesh falling to the plate in tender strips.

Their mother had pleaded with Gerald for Lella’s sake, for the family’s, and her Sicilian parents already struggling with the news that the pair were living apart this last half year. Weren’t the two of them still paying off their honeymoon loan? Wasn’t the top tier of their wedding cake still residing in the dresser drawer? Their mother had showed Gerald the tiny bootees she had started to knit because, as she pointed out to him, one could never have enough.

At the sight of the bootees, their father had left the table in search of a peppermint for his indigestion and hadn’t returned until sometime after Slattery’s had closed.

‘You might have warmed them up a bit,’ Rosalind had said to Gerald when their mother had left the table too, in search of a darkened room. ‘You could have got them used to the idea first, dropped a few hints.’

‘I’ve been dropping hints for years,’ said Gerald, picking at the abandoned chicken meat and sucking the fat from his fingers in such a way as to leave Rosalind in no doubt that this was more than just a phase.

With Gerald still technically married to Lella—neither had pursued a divorce—the division of his estate was not to be an easy one. Lella had a rightful claim. Rosalind assumed that so too had Enrique, Gerald’s current beau, who lived there in the house half the time, and the other half in Spain. Then there was Martin, Gerald’s ex, with whom he owned the barber’s shop in Soho. There were cousins and second cousins, various in-laws, a couple of aunts-by-marriage, the belligerent Charlie, and one shared question between them all: don’t you think the money should be kept within the family?

Judith, to her credit, made no mention of the will. She asked instead how Rosalind was bearing up.

‘I haven’t had chance to think about it,’ said Rosalind. ‘I shall need a holiday by the time it’s done.’

‘The Caribbean,’ suggested Judith before advising Rosalind that she should dispense with the idea of watercolours and use poster paints instead. They would need a balloon, too, and newspapers to make the papier mâché, some cardboard, and a little flour for the glue. ‘Leave Gerald’s effigy to me,’ she said, and Rosalind, aware her throat was starting to constrict again, was just about able to squeak her thanks before it closed on her completely.

With Judith dispatched to the craft shop, Rosalind felt able to tackle the inventory. She started with the big items: the house, the car, Gerald’s share of the business, his apartment in Sitges, the contents of his bank account, which were not vast – Gerald liked to spend – and all the big electricals.

Next she moved on to the furniture and ordered it by room. Then she went back and did the same with the lesser items, stopping at the wardrobe, her eyes falling on the clothes. Oh God, the clothes! Rosalind had to sit down on the bed and steady herself at the sight of them. She couldn’t remember if she’d had anything to eat that day or not.

From downstairs she heard her mobile start to ring again. Rosalind stared down from the bedroom window, at the garden furniture beneath that she’d forgotten to account for, until eventually the phone stopped its ringing and beeped instead with another message left.

Catholic or humanist. Matt finish or veneer? Sleek black hearse or horse drawn carriage? Lace decoupage pillow or a taffeta frill?

‘You look done in,’ said Judith when she arrived at the front door with a take-away pizza and a bottle of fizz.

Rosalind stepped aside to let her in. ‘What is it we’re celebrating?’

‘Life. Art. Death. And all their glorious intersections,’ said Judith, sweeping into the kitchen as if she owned the place, which she very well might, soon enough, thought Rosalind. Though she’d have to fight Enrique for the deeds. And Lella too, she shouldn’t wonder. Both possessed a Latin fire and neither was a fool.

‘I’d better get some glasses then,’ said Rosalind as Judith went back to the car to fetch her craft shop haul.

While Rosalind had been at work on the inventory, she’d happened on a few of Judith’s watercolours slung into a corner of Gerald’s garage where their tumultuous skies of purple-grey could presumably cause the least offence. She’d added them to the list before planting one of the paintings on the mantel piece in Gerald’s spare room. If Judith was planning to stay the night, it was only polite she find one of her own creations somewhere on display.

‘Here we are,’ said Judith, dropping the bags of paints, balloons and party tricks on the floor at Rosalind’s feet. She could see a pack of pipe cleaners in there and a shock of chestnut hair that she suspected was a wig.

‘You’ve done this before,’ said Rosalind.

Judith shook her head. ‘First time.’

Rosalind’s job was easy enough. She was to tear newspaper sheets into long, narrow strips while Judith made the glue, mixing flour and water, before emptying her lungs into a large balloon.

When the preparations were done, they each took turns at dipping the paper strips into the floury gloop and plastering them across the balloon in bandages of newsprint. The champagne slipped down quickly as they worked. Before long a second bottle was required, with Judith having to break off bandaging to pop to the off-licence on the corner because, after days of numbness, Rosalind said she was only just beginning to find her thirst.

‘Have you chosen the songs for the funeral?’ Judith said when she returned.

‘The songs?’ Rosalind’s shoulders slumped. So her list of decisions extended into the melodic. ‘I haven’t even thought about that. I can’t even decide on the God part, never mind the tunes.’

My Way,’ suggested Judith.

Rosalind shook her head. Gerald and Frank Sinatra were a universe apart.

Tainted Love.’

‘Better. But what about the priest? He’d never allow it.’

‘Then choose whoever will. Let music be your guide, Roz.’

Rosalind paused for a moment as she considered a service without the same ritual and paraphernalia that had accompanied her parents’ funerals. ‘He did so love his music,’ she said.

‘Well that’s decided then. Now what about the casket?’ said Judith.

‘Oak, rosewood, beech, bamboo.’

‘You can get cardboard now, you know.’

‘He’s not a pair of shoes.’

‘I favour a sky burial myself. Just stick me on Ben Nevis and let the birds peck away.’

‘What is it with this family?’ said Rosalind, suddenly furious with everyone, Gerald especially, who’d been the one to leave her in this mess. ‘Why can’t everyone just have an ordinary funeral? Why does everyone think it’s ok to cook up these ridiculous plans and give someone else the problem of trying to sort them out?’

She kicked the leg of the kitchen table so that the burgeoning piñata threatened to roll off.

‘Oh, come on Roz,’ said Judith, punching her lightly on the shoulder. ‘I’m sure Gerald wouldn’t have wanted you being a big girl about it all.’

*

Rosalind slept in Gerald’s bed that night, between Egyptian cotton sheets, with the curtains wide open so that she could see the moon.

Judith was asleep next door in the spare room. The watercolour that Rosalind had propped against the mantel piece had been turned to face the wall. ‘Not one of my best,’ Judith had said before hitting the pillow and falling asleep fully clothed. Her snores came through the adjoining wall now with a persistent regularity. The piñata was downstairs in the kitchen, where it had been left to harden overnight, its sphere nowhere near resembling the head it needed to become.

In the morning, Judith started banging about at first light, all trace of a hangover absent as she hammered on the bedroom door to say she was going home to walk the dog.

Rosalind hid her head beneath the pillow, waiting for the noise to stop. She would have happily stayed that way too, encased in goose down, were it not for the hundred and one things that needed to be done. Her plan was to have the inventory finished by the time Judith returned, that way they could be done with the whole piñata business today and she could turn her mind to other matters. To Gerald’s order of service, to his outfit and her own. She thought she might call Enrique later to consult with him on Gerald’s suits. He was staying in their Sitges hideaway, he said, to give her space.

Downstairs, Rosalind found some eggs in the fridge that she fried and ate while trying to fathom the coffee maker with its vast array of plastic pods. Gerald’s kitchen was a temple to high-end gadgetry and stainless steel. The job of indexing all its gleaming particulars was not to be an easy one. Rosalind decided to individually log all the items that had a plug, but would draw the line at pots and pans, at the cutlery and the Le Creuset, bundling them altogether instead under one inventorial entry named Kitchen, miscellaneous (non-electrical). Anything already affixed to the wall would stay affixed, for the purposes of categorisation, and be labelled under the umbrella term House. A label that was likely to bring the roof down on the funeral gathering when they were all made aware what Gerald had in store.

Rosalind had almost finished the list when Judith returned with sandwiches and a carton of milk. ‘Sustenance,’ she said thrusting the items towards Rosalind before prodding the piñata to see if it was done.

Gerald, it was decided, had set nicely overnight and was ready for adornment. While Rosalind attended to their lunch, Judith mixed paints, searching for just the right skin tone.

‘Too peachy,’ Rosalind would say at intervals and then, ‘too pale.’

Eventually they reached agreement on a light biscuit hue, although Rosalind wanted to heighten the colour in Gerald’s cheeks to reflect his hypertension.

‘What about the eyes?’ said Judith. ‘And don’t just tell me blue.’

‘Aquamarine,’ said Rosalind after a moment. ‘The brightest of the blues.’

They struggled with the hair at first, the chestnut wig refusing to stick until they tried it with some stronger glue they found beneath the stairs. For his eyebrows they snipped off strands from the back of the wig, then snipped off some more, sticking them around his mouth and chin to approximate a beard. Finally, Judith twisted pipe cleaners together into a pair of glasses and propped them on his nose.

‘A nice touch,’ Rosalind managed before her throat concertinaed from the inside.

Judith stepped back to assess her work. ‘I feel like Salome when John’s head was served upon the silver platter.’

Rosalind nodded at speed and then shook her head quickly because Judith was not remotely like a dancing girl and Gerald was no prophet.

‘I don’t know what to say, except I don’t think I could have done any of this without you,’ said Rosalind, her voice high-pitched and a sudden awkwardness taking possession of her arms so that she was forced to swing them around in an attempt to shake off the feeling of discomfort.

‘Now don’t go getting all gushy on me. This piñata still needs stuffing, remember?’

Rosalind nodded in agreement. Everything Gerald possessed had been itemised and allocated a number on a corresponding raffle ticket. His legacy—a smash and grab followed by tea and sandwiches in a hired hall—would be overseen by lawyers, checking off the numbers and dressed in sombre mourning suits.

‘There will be a riot,’ said Rosalind. ‘I can see it now.’

‘Then I suppose we ought to tell the waiting staff to serve the drinks in plastic cups’.

‘Who will take the first swing at him, I wonder.’

‘Lella, without a doubt. Her long years of abandonment finally bearing fruit.’

‘Will you…?’ Rosalind hesitated.

‘Roll around on the floor with Lella and Charlie’s clan, grabbing handfuls of tickets in some raffle book orgy? I certainly will not,’ said Judith.

‘Nor me.’

‘Dignity cannot be inherited or bequeathed.’

‘Perhaps it was Gerald’s way of making sure he was remembered.’

‘Well,’ said Judith, using a pair of scissors to pop the balloon inside the piñata, leaving a perfectly formed cavity inside. ‘It’s over to you now for the finale.’

After Judith had left, Rosalind wiped the kitchen clean of fingerprints, then wiped it over once again until the granite gleamed and the steel shone. Then she tore the raffle tickets out along their perforated edges, pushing them up through the piñata’s neck as if it were a Christmas goose. She added sweets for the children and some glitter for the hell of it. If Gerald was going to be remembered for causing a rugby scrum in a hired hall then she may as well contribute a little sparkle of her own.

After Rosalind had finished stuffing the piñata, she stoppered up the end and switched the lights off in the kitchen.

She turned into the hallway and started to head for the staircase. It had been such a long day, as tomorrow would be and the day after that – there was still so much to be done and decided. Half way up the stairs Rosalind paused, turned around and retraced her steps back into the kitchen.

Gerald’s head, large and round and lit up by the moonlight pouring in through the window, stood on top of the kitchen table, his eyes as placid as rock pools, his mouth painted into a lop-sided crimson grin.

‘Goodnight Gerald,’ she said, leaning forward to kiss him on the forehead. His chestnut-snippet eyebrows tickling her on the chin.

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Victoria Briggs

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Victoria Briggs is an award-winning writer with short fiction published in Structo, Unthology, The Stockholm Review, The Nottingham Review, The Honest Ulsterman, Litro and Prole. She lives in London and tweets @vicbriggs.
If you enjoyed ‘Deadhead’ leave a comment and let Victoria know.
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Feature image b Mistie House
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