Jolly Good: A Short Story
‘Jolly, where are you?’
Jolly is hiding, like the sun behind a cloud. She does not want to put her hat on and come out to play. She does not want to perform like a poodle on hind legs. She does not want to listen, until her ears bleed, about other people’s problems. But when your name is Jolly, no one asks you how you are. They think they already know.
‘What are you doing?’ her mother asks, not waiting for an answer. Jolly is dragged from the wardrobe she is hiding in and led down the stairs. The light is bright. Jolly liked the wardrobe. The smell of old wood, the echo of her hot little breath on the door and nothing and no one else. ‘I’ll make the drinks,’ her mother hisses, pushing Jolly into the living room.
‘Jolly!’ the room cries as one when she enters. Everyone is so pleased to see her; their energy makes all the lamps surge briefly. Jolly twists her toes into the carpet. The woollen fibres are itchy. Later, she will itch until she bleeds. ‘Thank God you are here, Jolly.’ ‘Come and sit with me.’ ‘No, sit with me.’ Jolly is argued over. Haggled, bagsied. ‘Me first.’ ‘Fine, but me next.’
Jolly’s aunts, none of whom are her actual aunts, decorate her small living room like soft furnishings. Debbie is draped over the chaise longue which is fun to say and sounds posh but was found at the dump, and underneath the brightly coloured throw, the horsehair stuffing pokes out like cacti needles. ‘Free acupuncture,’ Debbie says, a determined smile on her face.
Tessa is leaning against the wall like a standing mirror. Her current diet promises if she doesn’t sit down for two weeks, she’ll lose six pounds.
‘What about at night?’ Debbie asks. ‘What do you do then?’ ‘I prop myself up, like the sailors did, over a rope. Where do you think the word hangover comes from?’ Tess says.
Jolly finds it odd that Tess knows so much about everything except herself. None of her diets ever work because she has nothing left to shift. She is not trying to lose weight; she is trying to lose feelings.
Gina is looking out of the window, the folds of her skirt blending in with the faded curtains. Clever, Jolly thinks.
Jolly’s mother walks back in, clutching a tray laden with drinks. Her face is tight, knuckles white. Jolly hands out mugs. Debbie likes to drink from a thin-lipped one. ‘The opposite of how I like my men,’ she always says.
Gina has a green tea, which she doesn’t like and always leaves. Jolly gives it to the yucca plant. The plant is thriving on it. Tess asked for a hot cordial, without the cordial. Jolly hands her a mug of boiled water. Her mother doesn’t have a mug. Jolly wonders if she forgot herself again. She forgot Jolly too, it seems. Jolly goes into the kitchen, flicks on the kettle, stands on one leg as she waits for it to boil. When she goes to get the milk, she makes sure her feet are inside a floor tile, neatly. Hops her way over to the sink for a spoon, drinks her carton of juice noisily as she stares out into the garden. If she sucks at the straw hard enough, it is all she can hear.
‘Jolly!’ the room cries again when she re-enters with her mother’s tea. The light bulbs flicker.
‘Now then, you sit down here next to me and let me look at you,’ Debbie says. Debbie has blue eyes that always look damp. Jolly imagines they make a wet sound when she blinks. Her nose has a bump in it. The clefts of her jowls, like two streams, running to her mouth. Her mouth is too small for all her teeth. She is prettier when she doesn’t smile but her hair is always clean and soft. Jolly can’t picture Debbie washing it. Conditioning, brushing and grooming it. It doesn’t seem like something Debbie would do, being the sort of person who likes things being done for her.
‘Jolly love, get at the dry skin on my heels, would you?’ she says. ‘Give my feet a little squeeze.’ Debbie has bad circulation. She also has diabetes but like Tess’s ex-husband, no one is allowed to mention it. When Debbie bites into a biscuit, an awkward silence falls over the room. All you can hear is her crunching away on her custard cream with all those teeth. ‘Whaat’ she says, spitting crumbs, eyes squinted, as she peers round at them. ‘… are you all lookin’ at?’ ‘Nothing,’ the group intones as one, ‘nothing.’
Someone nibbles the edge of almond thin in polite alliance. Never Tessa, of course.
Jolly gets the peeler from the kitchen, and the brush used for buffing up her school shoes. ‘Magic hands’ Debbie says, when Jolly takes hold of her big toe. ‘Bloody magic.’
When Jolly was born, so legend goes, the radiator in the hospital room gurgled back into life at her first cry. At her second, all the mothers on the ward fell silent for a moment ‘as if an angel had spoken,’ Tessa remarked. She’d recently been on a pilgrimage to Camino de Santiago. A week of hiking twenty-five kilometres a day in the punishing heat, surviving on nothing but water and fruit. ‘And did I lose any weight for doing it?’ she asked when she got back. ‘Did I?’
She glared at the rest of them accusingly, as if it were their fault. ‘No?’ Debbie said.
‘Correct. Not a bloody ounce. Not one. Utter waste of time.’
‘But what about Christ?’ Gina asked.
‘What about him?’ Tess snapped.
‘What about the cathedral, and the remains of James the Apostle and…’ Gina trailed off seeing Tess’s face.
Legend goes that Tessa lost three pounds the day Jolly was born, however. ‘They put you in my arms and I felt a shifting, a movement… I felt things rearranging themselves inside.’
‘Very beautiful way to describe needing a giant poo’ Debbie said. But then, didn’t her glucose levels even out on the day Jolly was born? Only briefly, but still.
‘Jolly Jesus herself you are,’ Tessa says as Jolly grinds at the skin on Debbie’s foot, the debris falling like dust into the washing up bowl. Jolly tries not to imagine it, coating her cereal bowl, or in the bottom of her mug.
‘Healing hands’ Debbie says, ‘like that Elton John song.’
Jolly’s touch can heal. It can soothe. It can replenish. The aunts gather round Jolly, close in on her like the witches in Macbeth.
‘All hail, Jolly! Shalt be queen hereafter!’ Mostly, Jolly is just tired afterwards and wants a bath.
Jolly finishes Debbie’s heels, lets Tessa clutch hold of her hand while she listens to the weight loss hypnosis tape that Gina found in a charity shop.
Gina is the only one who doesn’t demand to be held or fixed. She helps Jolly with her schoolwork. She recommends books, takes Jolly to the museum, quizzes her on current affairs.
‘You were not born for anyone other than yourself,’ she tells Jolly quietly, fiercely, and Jolly nods before being called away again.