Wrapping Paper

Ellen in Joyce's garden (1)Ellen in Joyce's garden (2)Ellen in Joyce's garden (3)

I’ve gotten into the habit of doing it, of pouring anxiety into that space, that gap that is this holiday. My back tenses. The muscles grow rigid, immoveable. They feel like fashioned iron. Boxing Day. A nothing day, really. An anti-climax, Christmas gone. What else is there to say?

We had to shop. We needed fresh. The shelves were empty. Everything is topsy-turvy. Neither of us do well under such conditions. We like the tracks, the well-worn directions.

I sew, teaching myself cross-stitch. Idle hands. And I listen to Clive James talking to John Wilson. His father, a soldier in the Second World War, was taken prisoner by the Japanese. He died on his way home from being released. I had to be the man of the house, James said, I was scared stiff. I’m still scared. James is dying. I’m at the terminus, he says. He is open about it and without self-pity. He talks about his work. I wanted to be good so much that I didn’t enjoy anything. He lives in Cambridge. We would pass his house on our way into town. There was an Euan Uglow painting visible from the window. It was of a lemon.

We go for coffee. Is your name Mark? he asks. Mark is cheerful. Yes, he says. You may know me from the Post Office at the SPAR. I work here now, he says, collecting our empty cups. Everyone is cheerful. Sam and Emma have had good Christmas Days. Though Emma’s oven broke. We cooked the turkey the day before, she says, thank God, every thing else had to be mashed. On Christmas Eve all the staff dressed up. I love Christmas, Emma said. I’m going to dress up as a Christmas Tree. Sam had on a bowler hat and sequins stuck onto her face. Ta-da!, she said standing before us, her arms outstretched and looking like Liza Minelli in Cabaret, I’m Jack Frost. Toby was an elf.

Is it morbidity? This obsession, or let’s say curiosity, about death. Surely it would have an ia at the end, like other anxieties, he says. Maybe, I say. Morbidia? he suggests. I noticed it last night as we watched Call the Midwife. Sister Monica Joan was lying on a makeshift couch, nearing her end. I wanted to be her. I felt it. I wanted to be near my end. All that stuff sloughed off. That minutiae, that background noise of care and worry, that is really nothing at all. I wanted to be in a state of recognition, of paying attention to what is important. I wanted the focus of death. Of course, I have a romantic view of it. Was it Camile? Or Candide? Or the Lady of the Camelias? Lying on her chaise-longue looking ‘interesting’ in her state of near death from consumption. In reality there is pain, loss, fear. We cannot ever know how another truly feels. I watched my mother-in-law and my father, both twitching with it, their bodies not knowing how to be peaceful with the process, not, that is, until the very end. How can the living know? But how I seek it’s calm. That final succumbing.

She had her arms full. Five rolls of it. Wrapping paper with Seasons Greetings printed all over it. It’s Boxing Day. Is it a cost saving exercise? Stock up for next year? Her husband looked like a farmer. There was another man. Hi, he says, as we get into the car. How’s it going? I went to school with him, he says, shutting the door. The woman is small in stature. Her mouth is open staring at the two men talking. She grapples with the rolls of paper. Her mouth is open and in her bottom row she has only one tooth.

He stops the car and bounds out. Is a fiver OK do you think? he asks. He’s sitting in the doorway just beyond Smiths, a paper cup outstretched. He re-enters the car. I think he’s a bit drugged-up. Not that I can blame him, I’d do the same if I was sleeping on the streets. I think I saw him this morning sleeping in the shelter. I wish I’d brought the biscuits. I’ll take them tomorrow, wrapped in a red bow. Merry Christmas. Someone thinks of you. He always looks so sad, he says.

No sun today. The sky is a grey-white. A seagull flies high above the roofs, circling.


It’s all about words, James says, all about words.

By Ellen Bell

Artist and writer currently living in Aberystwyth.