THE JOLLIES by Gary Budgen
The twins, Marco and Larissa, were watching the Jollies again. Clive, from his makeshift office at the kitchen table could hear the gleeful giggling of the jack-in-the-box characters from the TV and the children’s laughter blending with it. For a moment he tried to hold his concentration on his monitor, on the design for the logo he’d been working on, but then gave up.
“Guys,” he called, “Don’t you have schoolwork to do?”
There were supposedly online lessons and Sarah had told him to make sure the twins were doing them. But he had his own work to do even if it wasn’t as important as what Sarah did at the hospital.
He looked at his screen again. The logo was for a new franchise of coffee shops. The design just wasn’t working and the deadline was fast approaching. Even though all the coffee shops were closed across the country, the client had promised to honour the contract. If he could just manage to get on with it.
The laughter from the Jollies continued, then suddenly rose in a raucous outburst of maniacal glee forcing Clive out of his chair and into the living room.
The children sat cross-legged before the flat screen, too close and staring up at it. On the screen the huge head of Jake Jolly, bright scarlet, wobbled back and forth on his metal spring neck, keeping rhythm with his laughter.
Clive looked around for the control, but as usual in was not where it should be in the heavy wooden bowl on the coffee table.
The volume increased of its own accord and Clive realized it wasn’t just laughter. There were words in it. Jake Jolly saying his own name over and over as his head nodded on its spring. Were there other words, too?
“Guys, where’s the control? I need you to turn it down.”
He spotted the control sticking out from under Marco’s behind.
“And you need to get out of your pyjamas you two. You need to get dressed and do some school work.”
Because if Sarah came home and found it all like this he might never hear the end of it.
He stooped down and picked up the control. Marco didn’t flinch, still intent on the screen, on Jake Jolly, Jolly Jake.
Clive pressed the off button but there was no response so he flipped open the battery case, pulled out one of the batteries and then put it back in. That usually did the trick.
Jake Jolly. Jake Jolly. Jolly Jake.
And as he pressed again, forcing his thumb hard into the control, the mess of words and laugher seemed to shift…Jake Jolly. Jolly Jake. Just you wait.
The moment of silence was blissful. Then Marco and Larissa turned on him. He expected them to shout but Marco spoke quite calmly.
“It’s the Jollies, Daddy. You should watch them, you know.”
Upstairs in their rooms, he hassled them into dressing and logging onto their laptops to do some schoolwork. Then he sat down again at his own screen and stared at the steaming coffee cup logo, the steam forming the brand name. The idea wasn’t really working and he couldn’t concentrate, thought pushed out by some heavy presence.
Just you wait.
The voice from before. Or what he’d thought he’d heard before. Popping into his head.
He went to the fridge and poured himself a glass of white wine left over from the night before. It was only ten past three but there were no rules these days, were there? He found the book he’d been reading and lay on the sofa in the living room. At some point he must have drifted off because he woke suddenly to the familiar din, bolting upright and spilling the book that lay on his chest.
The TV was on and Jake Jolly’s red head was nodding in time to an accelerating music-box tune. Next to Jake was another of the Jollies, head of rubber-duck yellow, and grin like the flourish of a knife wound.
We’re the Jollies. We’re the Jollies.
Just you wait.
“Daddy’s watching the Jollies.”
Marco stood at the living room door, Larissa’s smaller figure slightly behind him. They were both in their pyjamas again.
“That’s good,” said Larissa, “He must watch it.”
“What are you doing?” said Clive, “I said no more TV until you did some work. Where’s the control? Why have you got changed again?”
They both took a step into the living room.
“But you never did,” said Larissa.
“She’s right,” said Marco, “that was yesterday.”
“No, no, I…”
He found the TV control. It was where it should be after all, in the wooden bowl. Mercifully the off-switch worked the first time.
“Well,” said Clive, running a clammy hand across his forehead, “you need to get dressed.”
“You like it, don’t you, Daddy?” said Larissa, “You like the Jollies.”
“He doesn’t really know about them,” said Marco, “not properly. Not like he has to.”
“No,” Larissa agreed.
“You must understand, Daddy,” said Marco, “There’s lots of world and the Jollies have come to help. They have come to where it’s…”
He frowned, searching for a word.
“Where it’s all sad,” said Larissa.
Then Marco spoke again, his voice a flat tone unlike anything Clive had heard before.
“When desolation has afflicted the soul of a world.”
Could that be really something the boy had gotten from a kids’ show?
“Why did you say that, Marco?”
But Marco had turned away.
“Come on, Lar,” he said, taking his sister’s hand, “let’s get dressed so Daddy doesn’t get in trouble.”
“Log on to your classes,” Clive called after them. “And no Jollies.”
He had pasta and pesto ready for when Sarah got back. She took it from him and slumped in the armchair and they both watched the TV news. In the distance Clive could hear the music from the Jollies.
The news was awful. Cases rising. Deaths in their hundreds. He had stopped asking Sarah how her day had been. It was a meaningless question and he doubted he could ever comprehend what it was like on her ward at the moment.
“Are you okay?” he ventured after taking away her plate and coming back with wine for them both.
She shot him a glance.
“The school texted me,” she said.
“You should know why. Neither of them have been logging into the live sessions or doing the worksheets that have been set.”
“But I told them, I—”
“You have to make sure. You are the one who’s here.”
“I do work.” He regretted that as soon as he said it.
She said nothing but took a gulp of wine and began flicking through the TV channels. He could suggest that maybe the kids should go to school, taking a place because she was a key worker but he suspected that wouldn’t go down too well.
“Look,” he said, “I’ll go talk to them.”
They were both in Marco’s room, tummies down on the bed staring at his laptop. The Jollies of course. Another grotesque jack-in-the-box figure was nodding its orange head back and forth as the music played.
Right now, Clive couldn’t be bothered.
“They’re still watching that show,” he said when he got back to Sarah.
“The bloody Jollies.”
“Not heard of it.”
She wasn’t interested. She was watching a documentary about the mounting deaths in care homes.
“Lucky you,” said Clive, “It’s all I ever hear about.”
“Well,” she said, “you should take them out. Get them to do some school work in the morning, do the live session and get out at lunch time.”
“The playgrounds are shut.”
“The parks are open... “ she raised her eyebrows, “Just do something with them, will you?”
They carried on drinking wine and the documentary bled into a film about someone lost in a frozen landscape. Clive could hardly follow the plot but the colourless, endless landscape was soothing. An hour after they’d gone to bed he was back in the living room because his snoring was keeping Sarah awake.
On the sofa he couldn’t get back to sleep. The play of light from the street-lighting was filtering through the curtain making shapes on the TV screen. The sway of a tree flowed in graduations of black. Even when it was off, it seemed, the screen wouldn’t leave him alone. He tried turning the other way, thinking about something real, concrete. But there was only Sarah’s moods, the daily death rate, the children... Perhaps if he tried to do some work. Yes, even though it was the middle of the night he would get up and finish the logo.
He turned around again, tried to get comfortable, kept his eyes shut. Yes. He would get up in a minute.
Sleep came and the nodding shadow began to speak to him.
“All this unhappiness,” said Jake, “there must be something we can do about it.”
Their heads moving in time to a missing beat. Voices sweet, becoming off key.
“We’re the Jollies, we’re the Jollies. Just you wait.”
“Well,” Sarah said, looming over him, “nice to see someone gets to lie in.”
Half asleep he couldn’t immediately decipher her tone. Was she about to launch into another of her attacks?
“I’m off,” she said, and bent down and kissed him on the forehead.
A few moments later the front door slammed and then Marco rushed in, snatching up the remote control.
“No TV,” Clive said, getting up and trying to take the control back.
“But Daddy,” said Marco, holding the control tightly to his chest, “We don’t want to wait.”
Larissa came in and stood beside him.
“All right, all right,” said Clive, “Just for a few minutes while I make breakfast then we’ll go to the park. You can do your school work later.”
In the kitchen as he boiled eggs and cut up toast, the music began. Too loud. The Jollies tune, always too loud.
“Come and have breakfast,” he called, “Boiled egg and soldiers.”
He could take it in but Sarah hated them eating anywhere but the kitchen. When he went to fetch them the familiar bright nodding heads filled the room.
“Guys, breakfast is ready.”
In the iridescent glare the children watched the TV. Clive began looking around for the remote but his eyes kept shifting back to the screen. And for a moment there was something beguiling about those smiling faces, and the brightness, not just of the Jollies themselves but of the landscape with its primary colours and simple shapes. Those hills that were soft archetypal mounds as all hills should be, trees that were cookie-cutter reproductions of the one tree out of an innocent imagination.
He shook his head, screwing his eyes closed. He made it back to the kitchen and bundled the eggs, toast soldiers all onto a tray and went back determinedly not looking at the screen. He dumped the lot onto the coffee table.
“Eat up, eat up. Then we’ll go out. Yes.”
In the kitchen he found that he was pouring himself a glass of wine rather than making coffee. It didn’t matter. He’d walk it off. Get out of here and walk it all off.
In the end he had to turn the TV off and hide the remote, shoo the twins upstairs and yell at them to make sure they got dressed. The living room was a mess with pieces of toast on the carpet and plates smeared with bright yellow yolk.
When at last the children were back downstairs they both stood in the corridor unmoving.
“Come on then,” said Clive, opening the front door.
They did not move.
“No, Daddy,” said Larissa, “It’s not safe.”
“It’s okay, darling,” he said, “We’ll keep away from other people. We’ll be outside and the virus doesn’t spread so easily outside.”
Something in him threatened to give way. That he should have to be talking to a child about it all. That she had become so concerned.
“It’s not a happy world,” said Marco in that flat voice again.
“Look,” said Clive, “it will be nice to be out.”
He grabbed their hands and pulled them, almost yanking their arms. As he tugged them out onto the street Marco was speaking.
“The increasing encroachment on the natural world is destroying the planet’s biodiversity… Intrusion into previously untouched habitats... risk of infection…”
“Daddy, we don’t want to go,” said Larissa.
He kept his grip on their hands and trod deliberately, trying to ignore the voice. The voice that could not really be Marco’s voice.
“This is the house where that girl was murdered. There was a break in and she was raped and her throat slit. And over there a man became so agoraphobic he starved to death…”
He needed to get to somewhere where there would be people around, but everyone was staying home, trying to stay safe.
“…continues to pile up waste production of untrammelled consumerism…”
“Stop it.” He turned, thrusting his face into Marco’s. “Where are you getting all this from?”
“Sorry, Daddy,” the boy said. “I just said I wanted to watch TV.”
“He wants to watch the Jollies,” said Larissa, “You should, too.”
They both looked at him hopefully. He took a breath. He wanted the fog inside his head to clear, wished he’d slept better, that he hadn’t had those two or three glasses of wine earlier.
“We’ll go to the park,” he said, “It’ll be nice.”
It was a few streets away. Empty streets. The ground was scattered with discarded surgical masks and latex gloves. Only as he neared the main road they had to cross to get to the park was there any semblance of life. Cars passed and coming down the street was a supermarket delivery truck.
“Don’t,” said Larissa.
“Mutations of the virus pose an increasing risk,” said the Marco voice.
Clive looked at them both, still clinging to his hands. The truck was getting closer. Yet it would be so easy. To thrust them out into its path. To be free of them, to rid himself of their constant need. To stop the voice.
“We want to go home,” said Larissa, “we want to watch the Jollies.”
The truck came on, picking up speed. Clive was shaking.
“Daddy?” said Larissa.
The truck passed, rumbling on its way.
Clive gave out a brittle laugh, panic not far away.
“Come on,” he managed to say, “the park. Just for a little while.”
“Okay, Daddy,” said Larissa, “Just think of the Jollies.”
And for a moment he wanted to turn back and sit and watch TV with them. Instead, waiting until there was not a vehicle in sight, they crossed the road.
In the park there were more people than he expected, joggers and mothers with kids. Only the children came anywhere near each other. Everyone else kept their distance.
He let go of Marco and Larissa, hoping they’d run off, out onto the wide green expanse like they used to do. Instead the three of them trudged together towards the area with the play equipment. It was all wrapped in yellow tape like a crime scene.
“Terrible, isn’t it?”
He turned to the voice. She stood at a suitable distance, a woman he vaguely recognized. She had her mask pulled down over her chin. Pretty, smiling. Her eyes darted off to where her kids were, climbing on the rocks of a little area of shrubs and flowers.
“Yes,” Clive said, wanting to think of something else to say, realizing this was the first adult apart from Sarah he’d been with for ages.
“Still, it’s nice to get out,” she said, then looked at the twins, “My boys are playing over there. Why don’t you go and join them?”
When neither child responded Clive felt compelled to say something.
“Think they’ve got used to being on their own too much. Obsessed with that damn TV show. The Jollies.”
“Oh I don’t know that one,” she said, “Is it good?”
“Well, you certainly can’t ignore it.”
When she laughed Clive thought something might unlock inside him. What would it be like to touch her? Then the impossibility of it made being here suddenly pointless.
“Daddy,” said Marco, “we want to go home now.”
There was that tone in his voice. It might set off a torrent of words. Words that tore down the world.
“Well,” said the woman, “I’d better go and round mine up.”
Clive watched her walk away.
At the main road again he froze. The memory of the thought that had come before, of his children beneath the wheels of the truck. Of them dead at last.
“It’s okay, Daddy,” said Larissa, “It’s this world. And when this world gets too much for you, you have to think of the Jollies.”
“Yes,” said Marco, “Just you wait. You’ll see.”
“When there’s no traffic,” said Clive, “we’ll run across. We’ll run across quick and run all the way home. It’ll be a game. Come on, guys.”
“That’s it,” said Larissa, “That’s it.”
They ran, he pulling the children along and laughing and they joining in as they all laughed together so that it became a sound that could blot out any words that might come into his head.
The house was a mess but he couldn’t deal with that now. He retreated to the kitchen, to his laptop and a glass of wine. The Jollies sang out loud, their glee filling the house.
He typed it into a search engine. Lots of odd results but nothing about the program.
Then he heard Sarah at the door and realized that the day was done.
She looked him over. The glass, the empty bottle on the kitchen counter.
“Jesus, Clive. Is that what you’ve been doing all day, sitting around and drinking?”
“Is there anything to eat?”
“I thought we could get a take-away delivered,” he said, “Restaurants are still doing take-away.”
He got up and went to the living room, picking up plates, pieces of toast. The twins weren’t in sight, the TV was off. He could hear, though, the familiar tune from upstairs.
Sarah didn’t really speak to him while he tidied up, ordered a Chinese meal and they ate in front of the news. Then she went upstairs and gave the children a bath. He heard them chatting away, sounding like they once had not so long ago.
“So you took them to the park,” she said after he’d stacked the dishes in the washer.
“Yes, but they weren’t really up for it.”
“They said they had a great time.”
“Look,” she said, “I know you’re finding it hard but you’ve got to look after things a bit better.”
He thought she might be concerned for him but then she went on.
“I need you to be here for me, Clive. You really haven’t got a clue how hard it is. Today we lost a man in his twenties. And staff are coming down with it so there’s more work to do... “
They drank too much as she went on with her endless litany of misery, broken only when she went upstairs to settle the children. This gave Clive a chance to down an extra glass of wine.
“Do you want to watch a film or something?” he asked.
“No, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate. I think I need to just talk it all through.”
He hardly spoke. Her voice went on and on.
“Am I boring you?”
“You’re staring at the TV.”
At the blank screen, at the dark reflections of himself and her, of the objects in the version of the room in there.
“I don’t know how you do it, all you people at the hospital,” he said, hoping it was something that would console her.
“Well, somebody has to.”
On the sofa again. He knew he wouldn’t sleep. He wandered the house. Sarah, drunk, snorted. The children were still, their breathing when he leant over each of their beds in turn was so calm and faint that it might not have been there at all. They might have died in their sleep.
He made himself go back downstairs and opened another bottle of wine, sitting in the cold at the door which he opened out onto the garden. He studied the backs of houses. All those lives boxed away.
Tomorrow he would go out again. Even as he finally went back to the sofa and lay down he told himself this. Even as he looked across the darkness of the room at the greater darkness inside the dead television screen.
When he woke Sarah had gone and the TV was already on, the twins in their places. As he sat up the children glanced around at him for a moment.
“You know,” he said to them, “nobody’s ever heard of this show.”
“Of course not,” said Marco.
“Don’t be silly,” said Larissa.
“Of course nobody’s heard of it,” said Marco, “this is the Jollies. It’s for you. This is your show, Daddy.”
The twins faced him in front of the screen, they were nodding and smiling. The bright glow surrounded them like an aura.
“It’s all right, Daddy,” said Larissa, “everything’s going to be all right.”
They nodded over and over, whole bodies taking up the motion, a spring running down forever. Behind them the music played, the colourful land beckoned.
Clive’s hands had tightened into fists, his whole body tense, any moment now he would leap at them. The heavy bowl on the coffee table. His hand gripping it. Swinging it.
In front of him they parted, making the screen fully visible, all the while their motion quickening.
He was going to make them stop, spring up at them, and make them stop.
The music was playing, all the room filled with colour as though blooming with plastic flowers. The Jollies smiled. Their nodding heads beamed their welcome. As Clive stood up to act all the will drained out of him.
“Everything will be all right.”
He nodded back. The wait was over. Yes, everything would be fine.