Karori was dead quiet. Perfect, really, for talking to a small girl about The End.
It was an unsettled night. Maddy was running a temperature but didn’t want the Pamol. After persistent coaxing she took it at 2am, after she’d ordered her Daddy dramatically out of the room. Later, she came into bed with me.
What can you do when a child is bright with fever, giddy on medicine and wants to talk? Karori was dead quiet and underlit, its far-between street lights letting off a weak, fuzzy kind of orange. The mood, time and place were all perfect, really, for talking to a small girl about The End.
“Tell me about skeletons,” she said, abruptly. “What happens when you’re dead? What happens to your hair?”
“Well, if you were a mummy, you kept it,” I said, skating gaily over the facts. “The Ancient Egyptians wrapped you up in bandages and put you in a painted, uh, sort of box-” “A coffin,” Maddy confirmed. “Yes, but it was painted to look like you with beautiful eyes and a headdress,” I said, ‘‘and then they felt you were on your way to a new place, and you’d need all your things. So they put all your favourite things around you, like gold and jewels, and if you liked dogs, a statue of a dog, and the things you liked to eat, and they believed you took it all with you to the next world.”
I tried to distract her with more talk about jewels, pyramids, and museums, but she wouldn’t be put off. “Tell me about people who have died,” she said. “People I know?” I asked, startled. I smacked my pillow; my head was beginning to thump.
“Well, they were all very old, very tired, fell to sleep and didn’t want to wake up,” I hedged, although I can tell you right now this is strictly untrue. I told her about my grandparents, who each died too soon. But in my retelling they were ready to go, went painlessly, and did nice things in the aftermath. Not the afterlife, mind you; in their wills.
“Your great grandmother loved birds,” I said to Maddy’s shadow, “and she liked to give money to a sanctuary that helped hurt and lonely birds. So, after she died, we sponsored an injured owl for her.” I hadn’t remembered we did this until I said it.
“Some people think there’s a heaven,” Maddy announced. She hadn’t learned this from us; it must have been a kid at school.
“They do,” I agreed. And some people think you come back as something else and if you’ve been bad, something not very nice, like a stink bug.” “Ew,” she said. “Or if you were lovely, you might come back as someone else, but you won’t remember who you were before.” I was freestyling now, to be honest, being no expert in comparative religion. “We don’t really know though because nobody has been able to tell us.”
Maddy wanted the bedside light on; it was too bright. I kept talking. “Maybe we don’t go anywhere at all, but we don’t need our bodies any more, so it doesn’t hurt us or bother us if we get buried or something.”
I explained that some people are buried in Westminster Abbey, like kings and queens, and some people have their name under a rose bush, like my granddad. Other people were set off down a river.
There was a pause. I draped a long black sock over my eyes to block out the light.
“I want to keep talking about skeletons,” she said, but I said: “Maddy. I need to look after you tomorrow. It’s time to sleep.”
“When are you going to die?” she asked next. This is always the kicker, as anyone who loves a child knows.
“Well, I think I’m going to beat the Queen Mother,” I said, with certainty. “She was 101, and she was so old all she did was sit around and drink bubbly wine and wear feathery hats. So how does that sound?”
Soporific, I guess. Maddy fell asleep, curls sticking to her skin. All the unsaid words (cancer, cremation, putrefaction) floated above the bed, out of the window and dissolved into the black night; a night that was holding its breath.
“Eee, she’s only 6,” clucked my Geordie nan. “It’s too soon for this, our Leah.”
“The owl was a nice touch,” conceded Nana. “What else did I save up to tell you…? That’s it: you looked a terrible mess at your graduation. All that hair. You should have taken off your sunglasses for the picture.”
“It’s all in the past,” interrupts Granddad. “What are you driving these days, lass? One of them Mooby Tissues?”
“Mitsubishi,” I say, possibly out loud. Maddy grunts in her sleep, 95 years of life ahead of her, and it feels right.
“Tell me about skeletons,” Maddy said, abruptly. “What happens when you’re dead? What happens to your hair?”