It’s late afternoon.
Pa brings her in, wrapped in a blanket as though she might catch cold.
We prop her in the velvet chair, polished black bootees dangling unnaturally from beneath her white cotton frock. The head brace holds her straight, but a blonde curl falls forward over her face. Mama tucks it back.
“It’s for my locket,” she says quietly. “I have nothing else.”
“Perhaps a garden?” I say, pulling down a canvas. “A rose arbour.”
Mama’s white kerchief dabs, in sharp relief against the black.
“What was her name?” I ask.
“She’s beautiful.” But already the beauty is beginning to fade, the rictus to set in. The forced eyes, staring out at me, are too unsettling. The rag doll pose all wrong, so wrong.
I have something else in mind. A prop rock, a painted background of cliffs with a waterfall. One of my own artistic endeavours. Pa lays her on her side on the rock, a small pale hand under her chin. I position a live fern by her shoulder as though it is springing naturally from the craggy stone. She is transfigured. An exhausted woodland fairy who has fallen asleep to the sound of the cascade.
I take the picture.
“Thank you,” says Mama. “We’ll come back, after the funeral.”
“What was it?” I ask.
Pa swoops up the little girl’s body into his arms as though to swing her around, twirl her into frantic giggles.
“The scarlet fever. She’s our last. We never got a chance, with the others. We couldn’t afford it anyway.”
I show them out, into the diseased streets.
In the back room, Arthur is playing on the rag rug with his toy soldiers and Mary feeds the baby at her breast.
“How much?” she says. She’s hungry. The baby is hungry. Despite the outbreak, business has been slow.