Monday, June 16, 2008

Widow's Weeds

Published 'Beyond The Boundaries' 1997

A pity the war was so short, having represented the best part of his life.

His wife Emily was now dead, last heard singing folk songs along with her favourite long-play of Kathleen Ferrier. The place still echoed in fact with her murmurs of housework. Even the old wireless, still sitting in the corner of the parlour, its taut tuning-wire long since bereft of any power to differentiate between stations, seemed to break out into fitful life, re-broadcasting seasoned Home Service and Light Programme favourites. It was peculiar, though, the wireless having been unplugged for all this time. You would think it would know better.

Eric plumped down in the armchair. Soon, this very house, to which he had been wedded, child, chap and chairbound, for so long, would become more a burden than a home.

His eyes shone in the late afternoon, its sunlight studiously maintaining the integrity of its shafting beams with the complicity of the net curtains.

It turned too quickly from day to night. Conveniently forgetting to switch on the flashing strip, Eric had ample time to ferment the memories. The people he had once known passed by his inner gaze like the bowed strangers who would one day follow his funeral cort├Ęge. But most were long dead themselves, moved by busy-body worms into more than a corpse's area, buried deeper than the dungeons he had forgotten to dust: the hoover seemed to clog up on bones, anyway.

Years before, he had come out into the garden, expecting the sunshine to jolly him up with its contrast to the gloomy parlour—the birdsong airiness, the perfectly green lawn, the clean-living sheets gently sailing upon the washing-line, the near unbroken ceiling of blue sparsely sown with tufts of angel's breath. Then, the sudden spluttering into life of a lawn-mower ... curse it, this country could not boast of many such peaceful days, and one of Eric's clownish neighbours had decided to crop his grass-blades. Eric mentally threatened to go round and barber the clown's green fingers for him. Indeed, Eric had escaped outside, there being a decided atmosphere within the house...

Yes, congregated in the various rooms were all the relations who had arrived for next day's funeral. Ensconced in the kitchen were the culinary busy-bodies, the various aunts who had taken upon themselves the catering. The whole place teetered with stacked plates interleaved with serviettes. Darting from bedroom to bedroom were the hide-and-seek gang, some too old to be imprisoned in prams and others too young to sit quietly whilst practising the novelty act of balancing a cup-and-saucer on the knee and nibbling a manicured cucumber sandwich. In the dining-room, were the loud faced uncles launching jokes in various shades of blue upon the surface of their beers. In the parlour, were Emily and her mother hatching plots with heroines but no heroes.

There goes that lawn mower again. Eric had failed to notice that it had stopped momentarily, so the resumption was a double blow. Funerals were usually sad affairs at the best of times, but burying one's own child (who had just been old enough to call Eric "Daddy") was so sad, it actually ceased to be a real emotion. It was grief multiplied by no known human factor. He could not allow himself the normal outlet of crying because, if he started, he knew he would never be able to stop till he died himself.

Returning to the present day of old age, the sun had just given up its ghost to the moon. Emily appeared to sit in the corner, where the wireless had once glowed. She spoke with static in her throat and mis-tuning in her luminous eyes: bearing old news to her widowed husband who thought he was hearing it for the first time.

"Churchill says the war will end in two weeks...", the speaker by the wireless crackled.

Many old people usually did hold conversations with the media, complaining volubly at the newspapers, answering back the soap operas, debating turns of phrase with the politicians who would one day know better how to stutter. But Eric was talking to his dead wife. She to him. Belief is everything, if nothing else.

"It'll go on till you think it'll never end," was his studied response, "and then it'll surely end."

Memories of that day in the garden seeped back. He was much younger then, of course. He tried to concentrate on the birdsong rather than the backfiring of the underhauled lawn mower engine. It was like trying to remember only the good things in life: the love he once felt for his mother, the arrival of the Beano Comic every Thursday when he was endlessly five years old and his eventual success at riding a two-wheeler. Such things were to expunge his last memory of his small daughter: holding her tiny feet as he playfully cart-wheeled her around in this very garden. She liked nothing better than mucking about in the tool shed, so none of it was perhaps surprising...

Eric entered the dim and dusty shed, grabbed the old shears and looked for the large garden fork—but suddenly realised that the latter had now been removed from where it had been carelessly left standing on its handle in the shed's darkest corner.

Without telling anybody where he was going, he walked into the street and towards the sound of the mower. The blades would drink the gardener's blood, he vowed.

Meanwhile, the blades of Eric's own expanse of grass grew patches as tall as a toddler's knees.

After his wife had died, Eric fell in love with a niece.

One day, he looked at her sitting in the kitchen, mixing tea. Emily's sister's girl, Isabel. She had only come to absolve her guilt of not coming. She had brought her best friend with her to blunt the atmosphere. Tentative glances. Angles of blame. Misgiven glitter from the pots and pans. Talk that meant very little to Eric. About a person whose name sounded like Cankerous Mildeyes. Whose brother went under the name Odgod. Was his niece or her friend going to marry Odgod? It seemed so. If it were to be his niece's friend, Eric would not mind. She might as well marry somebody as anybody. But as to his niece (whose face spoke of nun's weeds), he could not bear the thought. She was too innocent, reminded him of his daughter who had not lasted beyond a half decade. He wanted to take his niece's hand and kiss it, tell her not to marry. Especially not to someone called Odgod.

The two girls, the niece and her friend, giggled. Made the gas stove turn itself on. He did not notice anyone turning the knobs. All four burners, like spirits, spirted. The only way to heat the kitchen. How many times had his niece urged him to have central heating fitted to this old house, and how many times had he refused, knowing the open fire made the parlour snugger than any damn radiators? The snow splattered the window, as if someone had had a cold time of it crying. No sun today: one day less without God's naked light.

Cankerous Mildeyes was apparently known to both girls from her relationship with one of their teachers. A scandal had brought things to light. The Head had said Mr Van Chrome was leaving on a personal matter. The assembly of girls, in their straw hats, had nodded rhythmically to the hymn that ensued, as the day wore its course towards first lesson: embroidery with Miss Esther: then Preparation For Adult Life with Mr Urgle-Wett: Biology was always just before lunch, for a reason too obvious to fathom. And why they always studied weeds in Botany, rather than beautiful flowers, was quite beyond them. Until Scripture and Scruples made it clear. The girls' nonsense almost made sense.

Eric's kitchen was emptier following their gabbled departure. He'd never understand what they were going on about. Tears filled his head. He heard the distant self-tuning of the wireless as a picture ghosted across the screen of its wicker speaker. He would have wished he were Odgod, if he had not told his niece not to marry Odgod.

The ancient memories now flooded back, having broken the gates of misery: the senseless clatter from the kitchen, the secret voices in the unlit hall, the unrecognisable faces on the landing, the acrimonious whispers at the back of the parlour's darkness, the jolly screams in the top attic ... it was too nice a day to be indoors.

Eric discovered his tiny daughter in the tool shed leaning quite peacefully upon the upside-down garden fork.

The neighbour's lawn-mower started up, as if its blades were thirsty: jealous at the fork's spokes.

It was an odd God who allowed such things to happen.

No comments: