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The Next Best Thing

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She has a little moment of worry as she pushes open the door to the spare room her room: it’s a bit smaller than her old room, which means it’s a lot smaller than Anne’s room, and what if they can’t play properly. 


(What if Anne regrets coming over?)


(Anna probably has a huge bedroom).


It turns out though that Inca Princess Burial can be played just as well in Cathy’s new bedroom as her old bedroom- although Anne does look at her strangely for a second when she suggests it.


It takes Cathy a moment to understand- because Inca Princess Burial is their BEST game, and since it can’t be played properly in the playground, they don’t even try, which means they haven’t played it for ages.


First, she’s scared that Anne just doesn’t want to play- perhaps she’s grown out of it since then, perhaps she’d rather be playing something else (something cool and german and grown-up) with Anna.


But then Anne says they don’t have to if she doesn’t want, and then she understands, and immediately wishes she didn’t.


Of course. Anne thinks she might not want to play Inca Princess Burial now that she’s played ‘Real Life Burial’ (except it wasn’t playing, it wasn’t a game.)


Her new black dress was too tight around her arms and she was glad because it gave her something else to think about, even though the red marks stayed on her skin until bedtime. 


She scuffed her shoes drawing a pattern in the dust outside the church and Catalina looked but she didn’t tell her off, didn’t even tell her to stop, and no one else did either, even when she did it harder, on purpose.

 It made her want to cry, the horrible difference in everything, the reminder that she was different now, an orphan, with an orphan’s privilege of no one caring if she messed up her things or not. 


Catalina stood very straight, as if she was afraid of falling off balance, and smiled a tight smile at all the people who came to shake their hands and say they were ‘so sorry….such a tragic loss….so very sad’.


She watched Catalina’s expression all day, so she could copy- she wasn’t sure how her face was meant to look on a day like this.


A woman with sprayed-stiff silvery-blonde hair leant in close and asked if Catalina hadn’t thought about getting Cathy ‘smartened up’ for the funeral, which made no sense because she was already wearing a new dress and new shoes- it made her wonder if she’d spilled something on herself, except she couldn’t have done- she’d pushed away her breakfast that morning and Catalina hadn’t pushed it. She hadn’t understood what the woman meant- but Catalina seemed like she did. 


(‘I really hope you’re not saying what I think you’re saying, Margot.’ 

‘Just….you can get some really wonderful hair-straightening treatments nowadays-’

 Catalina squeezed Cathy’s fingers so tightly it hurt. ‘If you think I’m going to damage my goddaughters beautiful natural hair for some ridiculous standards of-’ 

She broke off. ‘Cathy’s hair comes from her mother. The mother she is having to say goodbye to. Do you really think she needs to be made to think that’s something she should be ashamed of?’ 


The woman huffed something about ‘only trying to help’, her high heels making cross clicky sounds on the wooden floor as she walked away and Catalina leant down. 


‘She’s an idiot, mija. Promise me not to listen to people like her.’ She’s not quite sure what she’s meant to be not-listening to but she nods anyway and Catalina pulls her into a fierce hug.)


She hadn’t cried when the wooden boxes disappeared behind the curtain, even though everyone else was. She knew mum and dad were meant to be inside the boxes but somehow, she couldn’t believe it. The boxes were too small.


She hadn’t even cried when the third person whisper-asked Catalina if she was ‘really sure about taking it all on’, even though she knew that she was the it. 


She didn’t cry and she didn’t even shout or kick out at the people asking, although she wanted to (she wanted to ask them why they were asking Catalina these scary sort of questions now, she wanted to ask what would happen to her if Catalina decided to answer in the negative…. But she didn’t.) 


 Catalina just smiled a not-real smile at all of them and cut most of them off before they’d finished talking. 


‘Really ready for the burden of-’

‘Of course Cathy is staying with me.’ The questioner- a stooped man with egg mayonnaise from the buffet table staining his tie- winced a bit at her loud tone, as if he’d rather Catalina match his hushed tones.

‘And you’re-’

‘She’s my goddaughter.’ Catalina squeezed Cathy’s hand tight- she hadn’t let go all day and it made Cathy feel a tiny bit less lost, a bit less like she might disappear altogether. 

‘Of course she stays with me.’ 

She nods, like the conversation is finished, and starts tugging Cathy quickly away, although there’s nowhere in particular they need to be. 


Outside, the wind whips at their skirts. The sky is cold iron grey but Catalina's hands over hers are warm. 


‘It’s going to be ok, mija. It’s going to get easier. I know it doesn’t feel like that now but it will.’


She doesn’t answer but Catalina doesn’t seem to mind- not then, and not when she doesn’t answer anyone else either, all the people who tell her that they’re very sorry, that she’s gotten so big now, even the stupid woman with the too-bright lipstick who tells her that she’s a lucky girl to have such a nice new dress. 


She gives them all the same blank stare until they get uncomfortable and look away- the stare of someone who can’t be hurt, who doesn’t need anyone or anything, who can’t feel anything at all.


Catalina doesn’t seem to mind- and when she can’t keep it up and bursts into stupid tears later that evening (after spilling the cocoa Catalina made her on her favourite pajamas), Catalina doesn’t seem to mind that either, just scoops her into her arms and rocks her back and forth without a word, which is good, becasue she can’t think of any words that would make her feel better.


It makes her feel a bit shaky for a moment- she wonders if it’s wrong to want to play a game about burying someone when she’s seen people buried for real…. But then she remembers what catalina told her when she asked if it was still ok to read and watch tv and do other normal things when mum and dad were gone.


(‘They want you to be happy, querida. It’s alright to be sad but it’s alright to be happy- to do things that make you happy too. It’s what they would want.’)


Catalina’s voice is so strong in her head that it actually drowns out some of the shaky-anxious thoughts- she’s able to smile at Anne.


‘Are you sure you want to play that?’


‘Yeah. I'm sure.’


She does still wonder if they’ll be able to play the same in her new bedroom but it’s ok, it’s just as good- perhaps even better, because when Catalina knocks on the door with chocolate biscuits, she says they can use the sheets from Cathy’s bed AND her bed as embalming bandages, and that means she can entomb Anne really authentically .


(They have to promise to put fresh sheets on both the beds when they’re done but, as anyone who has played Ince Princess Burial will know, it’s completely worth it.)


She entombs Anne as thoroughly as she can, until Anne starts whining that she can’t breathe- and then they have the excellent idea to include the things Mrs James taught them about Egyptian burial last week.


(They decide it doesn’t matter that the Inca’s didn’t use the Egyptian mummification methods. Anne reckons they probably would have done if they’d known about them. Or maybe they wouldn’t, but still, it makes the game even better, which for a game as good as Inca Princess Burial, is quite an achievement.)


They don’t have a proper hook, or even anything that can be used as a hook, but it’s still lots of fun doing the brain-through-the-nose bit (even if she keeps telling Anne that the real mummies were dead and wouldn’t have screamed quite so dramatically.)


Catalina and Jane come in when they’ve only just started, both holding half drunk cups of coffee and looking a bit panicked, but they calm down once they explain it’s part of the game.


Jane murmurs something to Catalina about ‘sugar and spice and all things nice’ that makes Catalina give a very un-Catalina-like snort of laughter, and then tells them they can have an ice lolly if they promise to move onto the next part of the game right now.


The idea of an ice lolly is tempting BUT they decide in favour of continuing the mummification process to the letter, as much as they can. 


Jane laughs when they tell her what they’ve decided and tells Catalina it was ‘worth a try’, and Cathy decides she likes Jane more than Anne’s real mum or dad. 


(She doesn’t like the way Anne’s mum will ask a question and then look around like she’s bored when she’s answering, and although she wouldn’t admit it to anyone, she’s still a tiny bit scared of Anne’s dad after he shouted at them for playing snakes and ladders with the ladder the house painters had left propped against the wall. 


She hadn’t even been on the ladder- just the snake at the bottom, hissing and trying to catch and devour Anne’s kicking feet- but she’d still wanted to run away and hide when he roared at them and she’d been glad when her parents had come to pick her up soon after.)


At least, they try to follow the mummification process to the letter: Cathy really doesn’t want to use up all of her strawberry flavoured lip balm which is what will happen if they use it as embalming ointment. Anne asks if she wants the Inca Princess to just be buried un-embalmed and rot and rain down curses on them all, so she asks Anne if she wants to be left without a pretend-lipstick next time they want to play Business Woman Detective? 


Anne says she’ll just borrow some from Mary or from her mum, even though even Cathy knows Mary doesn’t wear lipstick anymore and that Anne isn’t allowed in her mum’s bedroom ever ever and no exceptions...but she doesn’t sound like she really means it, so they just skip the embalming part. (The Inca Princess will probably understand.)


(She sometimes wants to ask Anne how the no-going-into-the-bedroom actually works- what does Anne do if she doesn’t feel well? What if she has a bad dream? What if there’s a powercut? What if robbers break in? She can think of a thousand what-if’s but she doesn’t ever ask Anne. Perhaps she doesn’t really want to hear the answer.)


(She’s very, very, very glad Catalina doesn’t have the same rule though, especially when it thunders.)


They’re half way through gathering up things to use as Offerings and Sacrifices (the coveted sparkly shoes, and Cathy’s favourite stuffed otter, and the specially-nice books Catalina sent her last Christmas with the covers made of cloth and the titles stamped in gold) when Catalina calls them for tea.


They’re both starving.


(Burials are SUCH hard work.)