Pass The Parcel
Dave was bemused. It wasn’t his birthday, it was nowhere near Christmas, so why had someone left him a wrapped gift? Looking out from his doorway he checked all directions, but there was no trace of who might have delivered the parcel.
It was all rather suspicious, Dave thought. Gift wrapped parcels generally had good associations in Dave’s memory but there was something sinister about this one. A parcel out of time and out of place.
Hunkering down, Dave engaged his powers of deduction as he looked the parcel over, but lacking even a fraction of the skill of Sherlock Holmes he deduced very little. The parcel was neatly wrapped for all its lumpy shape, the tape pieces were all of equal length as though they had come out of a dispenser. The address label was hand written, in biro if Dave was any judge, but he didn’t recognise the script. Mind you, he reasoned, who writes anything by hand these days?
He gave the parcel a tentative poke, and found that there was a certain amount of squishiness over something solid in the centre. Dave hmmmed, looked up and down the street once more and then carried the parcel carefully inside to put it on his kitchen table.
It was quite heavy, he noted, as he lowered it down and sat at the chair to stare at it.
Loneliness rose up from his core like bile, he wanted to discuss this oddity with someone but he lived alone. Cheryl had left three years ago and he hadn’t found anyone else, hadn’t really tried. He went to work, came home and watched TV and it wasn’t the most exciting life but it was better than walking in on your best mate shagging your Mrs on Christmas Eve.
Dave’s hands had curled into fists, and he consciously relaxed them. Taking a deep breath, he reached for the nearest piece of tape and carefully tugged it off.
The breath left him in a huff when he found underneath the paper was another layer. His brow became etched with his confusion as he pulled off the wrapping to discover two things; a comb and a label. The label had the instruction to ‘Pass the Parcel’ and an address for Siobhan Murphy. Consulting a street map, Dave learned this was a cul-de-sac just a few streets over from his own.
Cheryl’s recriminating words echoed in his head as he stared at the parcel ‘You’re boring, Dave. You never do anything out of the ordinary!’
Well, he’d show Cheryl! He stood up, used the comb to scrape his unruly hair into line, then grabbed the parcel and with great strength of purpose set out to find Siobhan Murphy.
It didn’t take long to get to the address, Dave was soon standing outside Siobhan’s door having second thoughts. He had been planning on knocking, explaining, but now the moment was upon him Dave felt that perhaps leaving the parcel on the doorstep was a better move. It was how it had been left with him, after all, and saved him an uncomfortable social interaction into the bargain.
He was saved from making a decision by the front door opening to reveal a woman of about his age, dark hair scraped back into a pony tail and wearing exercise gear. The gym bag she carried completed the picture.
‘Oh! Hello?’ the woman’s face was a picture of confusion as she viewed the gift bearing stranger on her doorstep.
‘Siobhan Murphy?’ Dave asked.
‘This is for you. Erm. I think. I found it on my doorstep. Well, it was addressed to me then but…’ Words failed him.
Fortunately for Dave, Siobhan was good at asking questions. It only took a few before she understood what had happened. Right there on the doorstep, she took off a layer of paper to reveal a small silver brooch and another address label. ‘Ron Hamilton,’ she read, ‘Go together.’
The sparkle in her eye told Dave that Siobhan was more adept at going with the flow than he was, and any resistance he had to the idea melted in the face of her certainty. Once she’d affixed the silver shamrock to her top and put the parcel back in Dave’s arms she declared ‘Let’s go and find Ron!’
Ron lived in a bungalow just a few streets away from Siobhan’s. Siobhan pressed the doorbell and they waited. And waited.
Dave was overcome with reluctance to give up, which surprised him. This whole incident wasn’t his sort of thing at all, but now he’d started it, he wanted to see it through. The seconds dragged on though, and just as he’d turned to Siobhan and their eyes had met with mirrored disappointment they heard a shuffling and clanking noise from inside.
Through the glass door a figure was getting closer, painfully slowly, shuffle by shuffle, clank by clank. As the door swung back, it revealed a frail old man with walking frame, who blinked like a pit pony led outdoors for the first time.
‘Are you Ron Hamilton?’
Siobhan did the talking, Dave was happy to let her. Ron invited them in, made them a cup of tea and they all sat around talking about the puzzling parcel.
‘Do you live alone?’ Siobhan asked Ron, who said he did.
‘Me too,’ said Dave and Siobhan together.
The three looked at each other in bemusement, and then Ron removed a layer of paper. Inside were three AAA batteries and another address label; Amit Patel and again ‘Go together.’
‘Batteries!’ Ron exclaimed, ‘Needed them, for me scooter!’
All became clear when, with some help from Dave, Ron was on board his motability scooter and putting the batteries into the horn.
‘Didn’t like to go out without ‘em,’ Ron explained, ‘and couldn’t get any without going out. Catch 22!’
The group of three became four when Amit Patel, a middle aged gentleman who lived alone in a bungalow three doors down from Ron joined them. The two elderly gents had never met, but soon discovered a shared passion for gardening when Amit’s layer contained a packet of seeds.
As they walked to their next destination, Maureen Ryan, Dave felt a sense of camaraderie that he hadn’t even realised he had missed in his years of isolation. Like a snow man, melting from the inside, the warmth increasing significantly when he looked at Siobhan.
Maureen Ryan lived in a big house on the main road. Dave noticed how everyone was unconsciously pulling their clothes straight or adjusting their hair as they stood before the intimidating front door. Whoever Maureen was, she was a cut above everyone else, Ron noted.
The door swung open to reveal a middle aged woman in a quilted house coat. She blinked myopically at the gathering, snapping, ‘I don’t accept cold callers, didn’t you see the sign?’
Dave admired the smooth way in which Siobhan responded, giving Maureen her assurance that they weren’t cold callers but were just on an adventure of sorts. Maureen peered suspiciously at the label, made them all repeat their part of the story and then shrugged as if admitting defeat.
Her layer was the final one. Inside was a large tin of biscuits, chocolate as Ron noted gleefully and a note that read ‘Invite them in.’
You could see it, Dave thought, not just a reluctance from Maureen which would have been natural but a resentment at being told what to do. A desire to rebel. Then she noticed the silver brooch on Siobhan’s top and asked ‘You’re Irish?’
‘My parents were. From County Clare.’
The two had family in the same town, it transpired and that was enough to persuade Maureen to invite them all in.
Dave peered around the big house, looking for signs of occupation. Somehow it didn’t seem sensible to arrive mob handed and ask the refined Maureen if she lived alone. Dave worried she’d think they were distraction burglars or something.
There were only two coats on the pegs in the hallway, one umbrella in the stand. The house was empty, most of the doors closed. Not a family home any more, Dave thought as he looked at graduation and wedding pictures of Maureen and what must be her children: Not a trace of a husband in any of them.
‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ Maureen said, gesturing to the kitchen table.
Amit made himself at home finding side plates under Maureen’s direction, and soon the group was sat around the table drinking tea, eating biscuits and discussing the things they had in common.
It all started with the parcel of course, but, like taking off layers of wrapping, they soon discovered more and more things that they had in common.
Dave looked over the table to Siobhan, she felt him watching and looked up and smiled. Dave’s lips twitched up into an unfamiliar grin in response.
He didn’t know who had sent the parcel. He didn’t want to know. Dave was ready to accept a little chaos into his life.
I remember when I was a prize. Revered.
Carefully passed around the room from one pair of warm loving arms to the next to the tune of soft cooing voices.
Doting eyes stared down at me as I kicked my chubby legs to free them from the blanket. I grasped at intriguing golden strands of hair that came within reach of my fat fists, and the heads they were attached to bowed closer in laughing indulgence at my innocent exploration.
Now as I sit on a stiff leather couch in a different, yet ultimately familiar office, I wonder once more when exactly it had all changed for me. When did my original shiny polish start to peel and crack? Why had the lights in those adoring eyes faded?
Another grey professional asks me the usual questions.
"So Mr Radly...James. May I call you James? You've been referred to me by Velma Johnston. And before that you were a patient of Dr Greg Salemter, is that correct?"
I nod almost imperceptibly as my attention is drawn to the wall behind him. Another slightly tilted dusty degree hangs there, the knowledge it stood for so far in the distant past that he might as well have his grade three school report framed beside it.
"And the files they have sent indicate you have a long history of anger and depression, but also that you are unwilling to take medication?"
I feel the rising lava swell and turn look into his watery eyes. "It's always about the drugs for you people isn't it? Are you all on some sort of incentive scheme? Sign up ten sad losers to the latest chemical shitstorm and you get a free golfing weekend or something?"
He raises his eyebrows slightly and a small knot of lines appears between them. Clearly he does not take kindly to having his motives questioned – either that or he fears I'm not going to assist him in reaching his quota. He works with practiced care to resume a neutral expression and I soften and remember why I am here. I need to unwrap the layers of fear and grief and I can't manage it alone.
"Look, I don't want a synthesised lobotomy. I just want help. Can you help me or not?"
He writes a note in the file and then looks at me. A cocky smile, far more suited to a younger face appears.
"I think so James. After all that's what you are paying me for."
Over time a trust builds. Through endless reflection another sheet of my wrapping slowly peels away in this room, as it has in every other before it until they changed their minds and decided they'd rather wrap me up again, even tighter than before, in diagnostic labels and foil blister packaging.
Each session I start to feel closer to the lost child who lies beneath the layers. Maybe one day this game of Pass The Parcel will end and I will finally be free. Maybe one day soon the last piece of stiff paper will fall and the tiny boy will feel warm arms holding him once more.
I can feel myself getting closer, the end of the game draws nearer, and I am worthy. I can win. I am a prize.
The watery eyes which have begun to represent a warm bath to me, take on a look of serious concern and I feel an unexpected urge to run.
"James, I can see we've made a great deal of progress these last few months, but given that you are still unable to function effectively in society, I think it's time we revisited the idea of medication."
The layers return and the music starts up again.
A woman's head looked into his eyes. Checked they weren't blinking. She reached into the man's trouser pocket. Pulled out a donor card. Handed it to the woman next to her
Then she turned to those standing around her. "Pass the parcel please," she said. A figure next to her, another woman, picked a small, beautifully in-laid, wooden box, held it in the palm of her hands, and carefully passed it to the woman.
"Actually, leave it there on the side for a moment. I'll just remove the other one first," she said. Then she turned, lifted her arm, and thrust a knife deep into the man's chest.
He felt nothing.
He could see the woman carving now, thrusting her arm up and down, creating a hole in his chest. There was no pain. No blood.
Then accompanied by a deep slurping sound the female surgeon removed the man's heart and placed it on a cream-coloured muslin on the side.
"One heart, one careful owner, unused, good as new," she said, holding up the still-beating organ like some prized trophy. "That can go to someone more deserving now this old geezer has reached 50 and obviously has no use for it.
"Pass me the other parcel now please," she said. The same woman as before opened up the lid of the box, and clasped the jumping, jerking, metal contraption in her hands.
It was all springs, and coils, leaping about in all shapes and all directions. The man on the operating table instantly thought of playing with a Slinky on the stairs at his parents' home. He could remember the feel of the carpet beneath his legs, see its green and black pattern as vividly as if it was yesterday, rolling the Slinky all the way down the steps to the giant Christmas tree in the hall.
"Keep your hands firmly clasped around it," the surgeon said, "it's very delicate, intricate Swiss workings, this is pioneering work we're doing here folks."
When the woman unwrapped it fully the man on the slab could make out it was a compass. Only it had just the one symbol on it, a giant 'N', and a big red arrow.
Again the surgeon turned with a swivel and shoved the compass deep into the hole where the man's heart had been. She pushed down hard, while the other female medic bent over to stitch it up.
Suddenly the man was aware of it pulsing, clicking, flickering to one side, then the other, before settling down and gently clicking from side to side like a metronome.
The surgeon dimmed the lights. "Over to you, now Ailis".
The female medic moved to the man's side, bent down over him revealing deep blue eyes, the colour of the warmest ocean. She pulled out a huge syringe. Then she dragged over a silver trolley with seven enormous vials of colour.
Each one was different. Red, yellow, green, blue, violet, orange and indigo.
She plunged the point of the syringe into the red, and drew back as much of the liquid as she could, then jabbed the needle straight into the man's arm.
He could feel the warmth as the liquid started to flow around his body.
She repeated the process, with each of the seven colours. By the end he was drowsy, brimful of colour which was bursting out of every blood vessel, and seeing stars as he closed his eyes.
When he woke up, a third medic was kneeling by his hands. She was wearing a full headscarf, and all he could see was a single ginger curl creeping out by the back of her neck, and below her scarf piercing green eyes.
She was rubbing his hands with a white cloth stained with the blackest of ink. She massaged each of his fingers one by one. And rubbed the palms and backs of his hands with the ink until it faded into his skin, traces just about visible along the rivers of lines across his hands. Finally she leant over him and painstakingly painted the first nail on his right hand.
"That's all folks. We're all done," said the surgeon. "Let's give him a good send off."
On cue about a dozen medics gathered around the bed, the surgeon grabbed the scalpel as if she was holding a microphone and they all burst into Queen's "Find Me Somebody to Love."
Jack woke up in a cold sweat.
He turned in the bed. No-one was next to him.
December 24, 2015. Exactly a year since his wife died.
A year since he'd seen the world in black and white, mostly black,
A year since he'd got writer's block. Not able to write a word.
A year since all the music he heard was flat.
A year since he was completely lost.
Christmas Morning, 2015.
Jack staggered downstairs.
He saw the record sleeves scattered on the floor.
"Queen's Greatest Hits," "Mama, Genesis," "This Is The Sea, The Waterboys."
He saw the empty bottle of red wine. Chateauneuf, Mont Redon, 1971. He'd bought that with his dad when they visited the vineyard one summer holiday. It had laid untouched for all that time. But his dad was dead. Jack had obviously decided there was no point standing on ceremony, no-one to share it with, to hell with it, he might as well open it. He couldn't remember having a single sip.
New Year's Day 2016.
Jack sat at the kitchen table. He stretched his shoulders, his arms, his legs. He could feel his body clanking into action. It felt almost mechanical. Like he'd got a Meccano body for Christmas.
Suddenly he had itchy feet.
He wanted to go somewhere. He walked out of the house. His mind wanted to head south. But the breeze wouldn't let him. Pushed his body back. Took his breath away. He gave in to the weather, and his heart, and headed north instead, he was being pushed along now, almost running, it brought a smile to his face.
That night Jack White logged on to the internet and booked a trip to the most northerly music festival he could find.
May 1, 2016. Jack's plane touched down at Sumburgh on the Shetland Isles.
He'd hired a car and headed up the coast road to Cunningsburgh.
The sea crashed into the rocks on the right as he drove.
This was spectacular scenery. He'd driven the Amalfi Coast, caught a train across Europe, Canada and America, but this was every bit as amazing a landscape. Starkly different. No trees. No gentle rolling fields. Just sea and rock. Nature in the raw.
Jack swung his car into the rough gravel car park next to the Cunningsburgh store and petrol station, which doubled up as the community hub for everything from supermarket to post office.
"Over for the folk festival are you Jack?" said Linda, from behind the till.
"Er, yes," he replied, his concentration doubly distracted by both emptying his shopping basket, and the postcard he had noticed on the noticeboard.
"Surround yourselves with those who want you to progress. Positive thinking art classes, Gord, Cunningsburgh, Tel 2235."
"Someone new to the village?" said Jack.
"Aye," replied Linda. "An artist from the mainland. Been here almost a year now. In her early 50s I'd say. People seem to like her. She's fitted in well with the locals."
Jack made a mental note of the number and headed for the door.
"That's some view," said Jack.
He was standing in front of a giant picture window.
He was in the home of artist Violet Green.
Her lounge was upstairs, with a floor to ceiling window, to take advantage of the incredible panorama, looking south over the crofts to Aithsetter harbour, across to the island of Mousa, and out to the wild ocean beyond.
The incredible vista all set beneath a dramatic big sky, bursting with showers, alternating between blinding sunlight and dark, thunderous downpours.
"If I lived here I'd spend all my time standing here, staring out of this window. I'd never tire of that view," said Jack.
"Well I'll let you into a secret Jack White, you'd be wasting your time. You'd be spending the rest of your life looking in the wrong direction," said Violet who was busy preparing her canvas.
She continued. "Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?"
"No, fire away," said Jack.
"Have you ever looked into someone's eyes. I mean really looked into them. So you can see their heart, their soul."
Jack looked down. Paused. He didn't know how to reply. "Er...no. Not really."
"Can I ask you why not?"
Again he hesitated. "Well, er, I'd be afraid I'd open myself up to pain. I prefer to be distracted, keep looking away," and he looked again out of the big window.
"Well let me tell you Jack White that if you keep looking at the landscape you'll only ever find loneliness and solitude. You need to pluck up the courage to pick up your paintbrush, or your pen, whichever you prefer, and start painting or describing people. You might be surprised what you find."
"Jack looked at Violet now, as she sat behind the canvas, all the colours of paint on her palette, and he looked into her eyes. He felt like he'd dived into a brilliant blue ocean.
Then he noticed all around the room, coming from the sky over Mousa, the reflections of a dazzling rainbow.
Jack picked up his pen. He sat at the back of the hall in the music festival's HQ at Isleburgh in Lerwick.
It was 4.49am. Sunrise. He'd just heard the best music session in his life, and he needed to get the words down before the moment was lost. The club was just about to close for the night.
"You'll have to do that outside Jack. We close at 5am," said the doorman.
"Ok, just give me a minute," he replied. In that sixty seconds he wrote down the first words that came into his mind. His pen was on fire. He'd use that to build his story later.
The doorman gave him his final prompt.
Jack headed for the door and the dawn light.
Just as he got to the exit, a woman on the door with long, curly ginger hair and beautiful green eyes called him back.
"Mr White," she said. "A woman left this parcel for you at the door earlier." It was addressed to Mr J.White, author, Isleburgh Centre, King Harald Street, Lerwick, Shetland, ZE1 0EQ.
"I promised I'd pass it on to you."
He hurriedly ripped it open to find a compass, and a street map of the very spot on which he stood.
Written in jet black ink, a simple message.
"You've finally found your place, found the way to your soul, now pass it on..."