Broken Doll by Georgina Hutchinson

My father is a whisper. A passing cloud. He is there but always receding. A swimmer across the far side of a lake. A bus pulling away. The ground getting smaller as the plane takes off. And so when we go to Mexico City to see him, we do not see him that much after all. And even when he is there he is always also somewhere else. 

My mother does not like that very much. She cries a lot in the hotel room. She cries at breakfast, and on the way to the anthropology museum. She cries when we are changing our money at the bank. My mother is an umbrella, opened inside the house and dripping with rain on the doormat.

My sister and I have our own bathroom in the hotel with tiles the colour of salmon steaks. There’s a glass where I can put my toothbrush, and my sister can put her toothbrush and if my brother were still alive, he’d have put his there too. My sister says it has been four months and 18 days. My sister says grief is a wet rag, it can really scrub the life out of things. 

This is the March that I am eight, and I like words that begin with L. Laughter, love, lace, lilac, leaf, lollipop, lazy, lickety split, luscious, life. In the evenings we often end up at this Chinese place that throbs with the same harsh quality of light as the hospital where my brother died. The hospital with the young nurses and the yellow waiting room where all we did was wait and look at the TV bolted to the wall. 

My father is in Mexico City because he is working. That means he is often on the telephone and leaving early in the morning and coming back late at night. He is working so he is distracted and jotting things down in his notebook and thinking about very important things that have a lot of money riding on them. 

My mother is not working, so she has plenty of time to dedicate to her sadness. Plenty of time to wallow in her grief. My father is fond of telling her this: You have too much time on your hands. He says it to my mother again, one night in the Chinese place. A pair of chopsticks tapping the side of the plate, worms of chow mein suspended in the air.

“You’re bound to feel worse, Melissa, you must keep busy.” And I can hear the space that is my mother thinking and her thoughts say, “I will never be too busy for all this sadness.”

I hope that I always have time on my hands — the too much of it. I want it there. Staining the inside of my palms, or frozen into ice cubes and plopped into my drink. Swallow the past. Bottoms up. Every time I need to remember how things were before.

When they told us my brother wasn’t coming home again, my sister immediately started to cry but I did not. I asked where he was going to go instead. And my sister slapped me and said: You’re too old for that question. His death was a row of legs in black tights and sensible shoes and a perfumed cloud of lilies. A trio of stiff-limbed teddies with red bow ties which he really wouldn’t have liked at all, but I didn’t know who to tell so I told nobody and nobody asked. Instead, I thought about the things he liked — cake icing and He-Man, and riding his bicycle, and shooting me with his water pistol. 

After his funeral my sister and I sat in the upstairs bedroom watching a film about a horse that we had already seen, with a platter of ham sandwiches cut into little white triangles. It seemed like one of those wide, unfilled days after Christmas, only I had an endless, aching feeling in my stomach like my head was falling through it. 

My father announces that we are leaving Mexico City for the weekend. In the little white rental car, they have a big fight about directions. The map stretched out across the middle, my mother’s jabbing fingers. I stare out of the window. Outside there are cacti and small flat mustard houses. There are gas stations and open-air bars with fluttering strings of paper hanging in rows. There are people gathered around TVs watching football, and girls hanging out washing and an old man sitting beside an enormous pile of bananas. 

I imagine my brother, a passenger perhaps in a different car. Somewhere between the sky and the earth, in some space where things are not seen. A road of clouds unrolling before him. His forearm on the sill, his eyes flickering with the landscape.

When we arrive at our hotel for the weekend my parents are no longer speaking. My mother’s face has cracked and sunken in on itself like a trodden snail. My father is on the phone again as soon as we check-in. His back to the room, coiled phone wire around the door. My sister and I slip our bodies into the icy turquoise oval of the pool. We stay there all weekend and by the second night our backs are burned bright red. My mother is furious. She is enraged. The world itself has left its anger inside her and it is a clenched fist, a red balloon, a kicking foot. 

During the entire trip I take steady and careful photos with my first ever camera. My unmade bed, a palm tree dead in the centre of frame, a glass bottle of Fanta Naranja on the table. These pictures are purposefully mundane. A catalogue of ordinary things that I would like to file away for future remembering. 

Grief is not a wet rag it is a swallowed rock. But there is also this: a deep blue Mexican spring. An emerald sheen to things. Morning sunlight stroking on all sides, making oblongs on the wall and halos on the pillow. A feeling inside me that being somewhere else, in a different part of the planet means that I can also be a different person. 

On our last day we go to the market and I am allowed to choose something. I pick out a mournful Mariachi doll with a guitar and a big sombrero. The woman in the market stall tells my mother that this doll is broken. She lifts it up and shows it to us.

“Está rotá,” she says. 

The strings are coming unglued from the guitar. 

“Pick another,” my mother snaps. 

I look at the doll’s black, fruit pit eyes.

“But that’s the one I want,” I say. My mother just stares at me with disappointment. 

The market woman doesn’t care. She wraps the doll in tissue and hands it to me. 

When we walk back to the hotel I can hear what the doll wants to say — it wants to say thank you. It knew, I knew. We’d already made a deal. I had given it hope, a home to go to. I couldn’t go back on my word. You can’t do that to things just because you find out they are broken. When I am older I will have a garden in my house where everything is allowed to grow, tangled and weed-like, wild and messy and nothing will ever be cut back and tidied up. The dolls will be there, all of the broken dolls. The ones nobody wanted, and the ones people put back, and my brother will be there too, and everything in the world that needs another chance.

Georgina Hutchinson is a writer living in Andalucia, Spain. A native Londoner, she studied Social Anthropology and Spanish at Sussex University and Screenwriting at UCLA. Her writing has been published as part of the Los Angeles Poets & Writers Collective. She is working on her second feature film as well as a collection of short stories and poems. 

You can find her on Instagram @georginahutch