Material Without Being Real
by H.G. Parry
"A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted
fortuitously about. . . like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous
--F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Her brother died while she drew him. She wasn't sure when. The drawing had taken an hour
or so, and she had been absorbed. She had traced the outline of his sleeping face, shading in the
hollows of his cheekbones and the curve of his eyelashes. He had fine curls that fell over a high
forehead, and she sketched them in lightly, darkening them near the hairline. It was only when she
put it aside that she noticed he was no longer breathing. When she had started, she had been
drawing a warm, living face. By the time she had finished, she had been drawing a corpse. Two
very different things. And yet they looked the same on paper.
The worst of it was, the picture wasn't even very good.
The garden party was in full swing when she went downstairs. Edith had heard the sounds
of it wafting in through the half-open window as she sat drawing her brother: strains of laughter,
bursts of music, the sound of a tennis ball hitting a racket. It had seemed a long way away. Up
close, it was a swirl of colour and glitz and movement, and she felt conspicuous in her white cotton
dress as she threaded her way towards her mother.
"Jamie's dead," she told her mother as she helped herself to a cocktail. She thought she saw
her mother's face--flushed with gaiety and the sun overhead--falter a little before her smile came.
"Oh dear. Poor boy. Put that back, Edith--you're far too young."
Edith obeyed without protest. She was too young--she was twelve--but at times like this
she felt very old, older and wiser than the women who clustered around her mother. And yet she
felt young too, in the way her limbs in the hot sunshine pulsed with life and her heart seemed to
throb with possibilities. Being young meant possibilities now, she thought, and had since the end of
the war two years ago. It had nothing to do with not drinking.
"Influenza, you were saying earlier, Sue?" Mrs Mansfield said sympathetically. "The
Bakers lost their daughter to that last month--and their sons both dead in the war, too. And your
boy came through the war so nicely."
"He did get shot once," Edith informed Mrs Mansfield. "In the arm. We thought they might
send him home, but he mended awfully fast. May I have a cake, Mummy?"
"Oh, do, darling. We'll never finish them on our own. I don't know what your father was
Edith took a cream puff. When she bit it, the cream oozed out the sides and on to her
A shrill laugh rose above the rest of the noise, and turned their heads. Edith's second cousin
Margaret was doubled over at something one of her friends had said. Her laugh sounded false.
"I suppose he will come back?" her mother said hesitantly, with a little laugh of her own.
She sounded almost embarrassed.
"Of course he will, Mummy," Edith said with a sigh, putting the last of her cream puff in
her mouth. "Everyone does."
"I'm not used to it yet," she confided. "But of course he will. I'd better tell your father--do
excuse me, Mrs Mansfield."
Edith licked the cream off her knuckles, delicately. She still held her drawing in one hand.
James came down about an hour later. His curls were tousled, and there were still lines
around his eyes where his illness had marked them. But he was smiling, and his eyes were bright
with boyish good humour. There was colour in his cheeks again.
"Oh, Jamie, darling!" Edith's mother exclaimed cheerfully. "I was so worried, even though I
was told how silly that was. How are you?"
"Fit for anything," he said, crossing the lawn to give her a swift one-armed hug. "I thought I
heard a party out here!"
He seemed to notice Edith for the first time, and winked at her.
"All right, old girl?" he asked, as he had a scant few hours ago when she had come to take
her turn at his bedside. His voice had been weak and cracked then; now it was the way she
"Rather," Edith returned, trying to hit the careless tone of the girls clustered about the
garden in their party frocks. She couldn't explain the sudden uneasiness that had crept upon her at
her brother's reappearance. It wasn't that he had been dead; couldn't be. Half her friends' brothers
were returned servicemen, or returned from the flu epidemic that seemed to have been going on
forever. It was nothing to be unnerved by. It was how it happened now--had been for three years.
Old people, like her mother, found it unsettling, of course. But she shouldn't.
"Fancy a dance?" James was saying to her. "I'm stiff as anything after all that time in bed.
How long was it?"
"Three weeks," Edith said. "Then you died."
"Edith!" her mother warned, with a quick anxious glance at James.
"I'd love to dance," Edith said.
It caused a sensation when James swept her out on to the lawn where the band was playing
and the young couples were dancing boisterously. Rumours swept across the party and stirred it up
before the truth that James had indeed returned, not merely recovered, settled like sediment at the
bottom of a river bed. Edith enjoyed the reflected glory, and she always loved dancing with her
brother, who was so grown-up and good-looking. But despite the sunlight, as she sat watching him
dance with Margaret and then with her friend, she couldn't shake the coldness at the pit of her