by Zoe Smith
Holly sat at the kitchen table, swinging her legs back and forth under the chair. A pile of newspapers sat before her on the counter and she was busy shredding them into thin strips.
Olivia looked down at her daughter, her tiny hands fumbling to unfold a broadsheet. “Yes?”
“When’s Daddy coming home?”
“Soon, honey, soon.”
Holly scrunched up her nose, unimpressed. Olivia poured the papier-mâché paste into a bowl and clapped her hands loudly. “I think we’re ready.”
Her enthusiasm was forced but Holly didn’t seem to notice. She gave a squeal of delight and hopped down from her chair. Olivia took out the instructions and scanned the page: How to Make a Papier Mâché Mask. She sighed. Artistic creations had never been her strong point. It was Jack who did the creative stuff. He was the one who prepared Holly’s show-and-tell items and accessorized party costumes. Where was he when she needed him? It had been his idea to send her to a private school where stay-at-home Mum’s lavished their children with designer dresses and spent an average days wages on baked goods for the Mother-Daughter fairs.
She stroked Holly’s hair back from her face. “Ready?”
Taking a sheet of tin foil from the counter, she shaped it awkwardly around Holly’s face. Holly giggled beneath the silver sheet, fluttering her eyelids until the foil crackled like popping-candy.
She removed the foil mould, padding the back with newspaper to hold its shape.
“O-k! Papier mâché time!”
Holly yelped with excitement and began to dunk the strips of paper into the goo, flinching as the cold mixture trickled down her arm. Olivia steadied her wrists and together they layered the paper onto the foil. Slowly, the face began to take shape; the apples of the cheeks protruding in squidgy mounds, then the nose, a sausage-shaped roll that dripped, sloppily, down the mask. Olivia pierced the eyes with a barbecue skewer so that Holly could see and stood back to survey their work.
Holly squinted at the mask. “It doesn’t look like me.”
Olivia looked at the lumpy, misshapen face with its jutting jaw and lopsided brow.
“Its ugly.” Holly said, matter-of-factly.
“We’ll have to paint it all pretty colours.”
“Can’t we get Daddy to make it?”
“He won’t be back from Grandmas in time. The fair’s tomorrow.”
“Can’t we make another one?” said Holly, twisting a tuft of hair around her finger.
Olivia sighed. “Holly. The parade is tomorrow. We don’t have time to re-make it.”
The instructions advised leaving the mask to dry overnight but there was no time. Olivia waited a few hours, then attacked the surface with a hair-dryer until it felt dry enough. She set out the art kit they’d bought from the market – little pots of poster paint, tubes of glitter, sticky embellishments and coloured felt strips. Holly doused the face with pink paint, adding rosy red cheeks whilst Olivia fashioned a yellow wig out of twisted pipe cleaners. An hour later and the two of them were covered in shards of tinsel, their hands encrusted with paint. Olivia threaded ribbon through the sides and measured it around Holly’s head, deciding, finally, that it was finished.
“Ok, Hols, time for bed.”
She followed her up the stairs, Holly clambering and giggling up each step then collapsing on the landing in faux exhaustion. Olivia hovered over her, tickling her ribs until she crawled, squealing into the bathroom.
“Teeth,” Olivia said, tying Holly’s fine blonde hair back with a pink glittery bobble. Holly drew a purple toothbrush from the bowl and shakily squeezed a strip of milky white paste onto the bristles. Olivia heard her running the tap and spitting the paste back into the bowl, as she made up her bed.
Once Holly was tucked in, she shuffled across the landing to her own room, propping the mask carefully on the dresser. The bed was cold and empty without Jack, his scent still lingering on the pillows. She reached for the phone to call him, edging her foot over to his side of the bed and feeling out the shape of his absent body.
He picked up on the second ring.
“Livy, we can’t do this now.” His voice was groggy and sleep-laden. There was the sound of a woman being shushed in the background.
“I need to talk to you.”
He sighed, frustrated. The woman’s footsteps faded into the background. “I’ll talk to you when you are ready to be reasonable.”
“Reasonable?” Her voice was scathing. “I’m the one at home looking after our child. Our beautiful daughter who keeps asking when daddy’s coming home.”
“Please, Olivia, don’t do this.”
Olivia. He only used her full name when he was annoyed at her. She wondered how he reversed the right to be annoyed at her. Wasn’t that her right?
“What am I supposed to say to her?” she hissed, a spray of saliva hitting the mouthpiece.
“Why don’t you tell her the truth?”
“The truth?” She mustered a bitter laugh. “That you’ve run away and you’re threatening to leave us both? I’m sure she’ll be thrilled!”
His tone was patronizing. The kind of tone they used with Holly when she stuck her finger in the peanut butter or glugged juice straight from the carton. She didn’t know how to react.
“Olivia, I’m sorry, I’m not coming back. I know you’re angry at me. I understand…”
“You do not understand,” she cut him off. “You have no idea.”
“I just want us to try to sort this out amicably. There is no reason why we can’t support each other. Do the best for Holly.”
“The best for Holly would be if you stopped messing around and came home.”
There was a long pause. Finally, he whispered: “I can’t do that.”
Olivia slammed the phone down. She couldn’t hear it. How could this be happening? Her perfect marriage dissolving before her eyes. She looked at the parade mask lying on the dresser, it’s eyes two empty black slits. Everything was a disaster. Her marriage. This stupid mask – a mangled crescent of glitter and finger-paint that was to be presented as a beacon of her successful motherhood.
The May Day Parade took place on a Monday, a key event in the community calendar, although Olivia had never understood its appeal. It’s about building a sense of community, Jack would say. All the schools were involved, the masked parade marching through the village whilst the junior school band offered up a squeaky ensemble of recorders and ocarinas and their families set off ripples of enthusiastic applause.
Olivia stood with the other Mums at the edge of the village green, her navy wool dress feeling suddenly drab against the mass of brightly printed tea-dresses and deftly highlighted hair. She hated the way she felt around these women, acutely aware of her pale skin against their orangey tans. She wondered if they could see the pink paint embedded in her fingernails or the smears of concealer bleeding into the dark creases of her eyes.
She shuffled into position beside Sarah – the friendliest of the bunch – as the parade started. Sarah’s daughter, Evie, marched out first, a bejeweled spectacle atop her head with glass-bead trains shimmering from the headdress. Olivia gasped, half in shock, half in amazement. “How the hell did you make that?”
Sarah glanced sheepishly at her. “I didn’t. I got the nanny to do it. She’s really good at art. She’s Brazilian. She made it from an old Carnival costume.”
“I thought the point was to let the kids make the mask?”
“Yeah but if you let them actually make it, it’s hardly going to look good!”
Olivia tried to conjure up an image of their finished mask with its pink paint splotches and gooey trails of glitter-glue.
“Does it have to look good?”
Sarah shrugged. “Well, you don’t want Holly to look bad, do you?”
“She’s six years old, she doesn’t care what she looks like!”
Sarah looked unconvinced. “I’m sure it’s not that bad. How long did it take you to make?”
“I don’t know, an hour or so.”
“Really?” Sarah pulled a face.
“I made the nanny stay home all bank holiday weekend.”
Olivia scowled at her. “Some of us have jobs.”
Sarah laughed good-heartedly, “That’s your fault for being such a damn feminist!”
The girls traipsed out behind Evie, some holding tambourines and maracas, others carrying sparkling flags proclaiming “Valerie Girl’s School.” They filed past in a convoy of gummy smiles and ruffled pin-tuck dresses. Olivia scanned the crowds but she couldn’t find Holly.
“That’s the headmistress. Ask her.” Sarah nodded towards a scrawny woman with a clipboard.
Olivia was already marching over before she had finished speaking. She tapped the woman on the shoulder. “Excuse me, I’m Holly Hayward’s Mother.”
The woman’s face crinkled into a thin smile, the pink folds of her lips forced upwards. “Is there something I can help you with?”
“Yeah, where is she? Why isn’t she in the parade?”
The woman sucked her teeth decisively, her brow furrowing as if chewing over the thoughts in her brain. Finally, she spoke, throwing her eyes dismissively back to the entertainment as she did. “We decided that it wouldn’t really be suitable for Holly to be in the parade today. We discussed it and she agreed that she would prefer to sit this one out.”
“Why on earth would she want to sit out?”
The headmistress, by now visibly aggravated, peered at Olivia quizzically. “Well, you see, the local paper has come down to support the event and they’ll be taking photos.” She paused, waiting for a reaction as if that was explanation enough. Olivia felt her jaw drooping in shock, the realisation of what had been said taking roots and growing inside her.
“Where is she?” she demanded.
Olivia headed over to the bench where her daughter sat, perched on her hands. Holly looked miserable. She was grinding the heels of her Mary Jane’s together like she did when she was bored or embarrassed. When she saw her Mother she scowled and crossed her arms across the chest. “Mummy, they said I couldn’t walk because the mask is ugly.”
“Did they really say that?”
Holly didn’t reply but her bottom lip hung limply from her jaw and began to quiver. Olivia knelt beside her, her face crumpling in sympathy. “Sweetie, I’m so sorry. Next time I’ll make sure you have the best mask, ok? And tonight, I’ll cook your favourite dinner and we can have strawberry ice cream. Ok? Honey?”
Holly squeezed her arms to her chest and shook her head. “I don’t want ice cream.”
“Even with chocolate sprinkles?”
Holly scowled, resolute, “Evie said I could go to her house for tea.”
Olivia sighed, defeated, “Ok honey, are you sure?”
She nodded. Olivia bent down to kiss her on the cheek but her body stiffened in her arms. She walked back to Sarah, feeling her heart flip inside her chest.
Without Holly the house felt empty and void of life. Olivia unlocked the door behind her and shuffled inside. In the freezer she found a frozen lasagne and slid it from its plastic sleeve. It tasted dry and rubbery but it seemed pointless to chop vegetables and grill meat just for one. After she finished she lay down on the sofa flipping through the channels. Eastenders was on. She was exhausted. The TV screen flickered behind her eyelids as she drifted off to sleep.
The doorbell woke her. Her watch said 9pm. Shit. She was meant to pick up Holly over an hour ago. The doorbell rang again. She swung open the door to see Jack stood on the doorstep looking concerned, Holly gripping his hand.
“What’s going on? Why are you here?”
“You forgot to pick her up.”
Holly pushed past her into the hall and scurried up to her room. Olivia couldn’t help feeling that she had avoided her gaze on purpose.
“I know. I was just coming. I fell asleep,” she mumbled, embarrassed. “Why didn’t someone call me?”
“Your phone was off. Sarah didn’t know what to do so she called me.” He paused. “Apparently you haven’t told her that we’ve separated?”
Olivia felt her face flush red. She rummaged in her bag for her phone and sure enough, the battery was dead. “I don’t want to talk about this now. Please –“
Jack rested his hand on her shoulder. “We need to talk about this Olivia.”
“I know,” she whispered.
“Olivia, I want a divorce.”
He reached for her hand. Olivia felt her tongue dry in her mouth, the taste of bile at the back of her throat. She was speechless; her mind was fuzzy with shock. She had never thought it would come to this. An affair was one thing. She understood his guilt, his need for space, the time to explore his feelings and work out the way forward. But divorce? It was so final.
“Olivia?” he repeated, squeezing her arm. Her eyes met his. “I’m sorry, I really am. But you knew this was coming. It’s been long enough. I can’t…” He looked down at his shoes, struggling for the words. “I can’t put my life on hold any more…”
She nodded numbly, still speechless.
He tried one last time, “Look, why don’t I call you tomorrow and we can talk about it?”
Olivia felt herself nodding. She watched him leave, her eyes welling up, the door clicking shut behind him. She heard Holly tiptoe up behind her.
“Daddy’s not coming back is he?”
“Why do you think that, sweetie?”
“He told me.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He said that he was going to live in another house and that we had to look after each other. He said that you don’t love each other anymore.”
The truth hit her like the wind being sucked out of her. The tears fell so easily she felt they were out of her control. It was as if her eyelids had burst open and flooded all their years of restraint into one solid stream.
Olivia didn’t answer, her face smothered in the damp sleeves of her cardigan.
Olivia felt Holly’s tiny arms reach up around her neck and her face press against hers. She reached out a hand and felt around until she found her hair. Holly hugged her tighter.
“Mummy,” she whispered softly, “I don’t mind that the mask wasn’t very good. I didn’t want to be in the stupid parade anyway.”
Zoe Smith has spent the past 3 years travelling, writing and teaching English as a second language.
Currently studying at the London School of Journalism, she has written for several online travel publications including Matador Travel and published a guide to Buenos Aires on Guide Gekko.
Her fiction work is still unpublished although has received highly commended awards in writing contests including the Tom Howard Short Story Award.