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It all started last winter. After nearly half a century of marriage, Margery passed away following a long illness. Her bronchogenic carcinoma is terminal, the doctor had told George. It was some kind of lung cancer. But he preferred to say she’d passed away from a long illness. That’s what he wrote in her obituary notice for the local paper. They’d both been English teachers, and he felt that those ugly, alien medical terms would dehumanise Margery.
On some days, the hospital staff had given assurances she’d pull through. On others, they’d advised George to start contacting the funeral home and making arrangements. It was like watching a bulb flicker on and off, bright more often than it was dim. Just as the light began to hold out, the bulb shattered.
George had brought Margery her familiar tray of strong tea and marmalade on toast one morning. She was too weak to carry it herself. His wife was still asleep when he came into the bedroom. George saw her eyes were closed and she was lying down. But no amount of gently speaking to her or nudging her shoulders woke Margery up this time.
Though their cottage was small and they’d never been ones for having many guests around, he was surprised how empty it felt with Margery gone. How much each room echoed, sounding her absence. The days that followed were spent sleeping on the sofa, drinking too much of that brandy she’d left in a drawer, and eating too little food. George felt afraid to go upstairs, as he couldn’t face seeing the empty bed. Then he’d have to accept she was gone.
Eventually, he found the courage to venture up. George knew that Margery would tease him for being so silly. It was only an empty bedroom, after all. His first thought when he walked in was how strange it was to see the bed made so neatly, with floral pillows propped up perfectly against the headboard. George swore he’d left them in a state, after the medical people arrived that day… No, he must’ve kept it tidy after all, in the hope that everything would be all right and she’d be back soon. Perhaps he’d wiped it from his mind in shock. He cursed his memory for not being what it used to be. George was often finding doors open in the house which he thought he’d shut, or forgetting where he’d left the garage keys. He ran his hand down his wife’s side of the bed. It felt cool on his palm.
Life slowly began to return to normal. As normal as it could be, now that Margery had slipped away from him. He felt exposed now, like a cliff-face after a rock fall. Part of him was lost forever. Would he still be able to remember what she looked like by this time next year? Or even next week? But only a part of him had disappeared. Something remained, at least. He was coping. He was.
One afternoon, George heard a familiar thumping against the wall. The children from Number 64 were playing football against the side of his house again. His hand moved to the empty space on the three-seater sofa, where the little one they’d never had would’ve sat. This longing remained a gap, a void, unspoken. As if by not uttering this lack, it somehow wasn’t real. Margery and George were not of the generation who researched baby names and compared top ten lists. They were not the sort of people who decorated the spare room of a house as a nursery the moment they moved in. And they had not, at the time, been able to even conceive of the idea of IVF. So the gap remained, but the abundance of love they had for each other spread widely enough to seep into the cracks.
George’s head pounded with these thoughts and the thumping of the football against the wall. He needed to do something to take his mind off this, to drown out the noises which threatened to engulf everything. Then he remembered that while Margery was still here, there was something she’d always wanted him to do, but he’d never got around to it. Life had got in the way. Another hospital appointment, or the difficulty helping her dress. Not to mention having to do all the shopping, cooking and ironing himself for the first time. George struggled to recall what they needed from the supermarket, and often had to go back again for something important. He’d forget the shopping list. Just like he’d forgotten that Margery had always wanted him to clear out their attic before she passed away. He never kept the promise while she was alive, but it wasn’t too late to do it now.
The loft space wasn’t large, but every inch was crammed. There were years’ worth of artificial Christmas trees; most Decembers they’d bought a new one when they couldn’t be bothered fetch the old one back down. All the videos that had become redundant when a well-meaning neighbour bought them a shiny new DVD player and threw out their old recorder. Margery also liked a different set of bedding every year, but couldn’t bear to throw the old ones away.
When George had finished, he surveyed the contents of his attic piled up by the bins outside with pride. It would make Margery so happy to see this finally done, he thought, and allowed a smile to creep onto his face for the first time he could remember. Thirsty and weak from the efforts, George dragged himself into the kitchen for a cup of tea.
That’s when he saw it. A piece of paper on the table. From the notepad with the floral motifs that Margery always used. What was it doing there? His memory might not be what it once was, but he felt sure he’d remember if it had been there earlier. George edged towards the paper cautiously, as if it were a stray cat with claws out. He snatched it up.
THANK YOU. M.
Nothing else was written on the note. Who had cause to thank him? Some people had done him favours since Margery passed away, not the other way around. A thought pounced. The kids next door. The ones at Number 64. It must be some sort of sick prank. Kicking a football at his wall was one thing. Breaking into an old man’s house and leaving a note around to frighten him was quite another.
But then he noticed it. The handwriting. It was Margery’s. The way she flicked her ‘y’ and made it dance beneath the other letters. The children couldn’t possibly know that. The note was from his wife alright. She was thanking him for clearing the attic! How was it possible? She’d been gone for over six months. Or perhaps the paper had blown onto the table from somewhere else. He must’ve left it there and forgotten. George laughed momentarily at his own foolishness. Margery would’ve chuckled at this sort of thing too. At that, he tucked the note away between the sleeves of a book he rarely read.
One balmy July morning, George was sitting down for breakfast with the TV on. The eggshell blue sky, without a wisp of cloud, peeked through the window. As the news rolled into the weather forecast, a map of the UK appeared dotted with yellow blobs of sunshine. What a perfect day to stroll along the seafront and pick up the paper, he thought. George was about to switch it off, when the weather forecaster tuned around slowly, and looked him right in the eyes. She opened her mouth, and Margery’s voice came out.
“Don’t go outside today George. There’ll be a thunder storm soon, and you’ll catch your death of cold.”
He dropped his porridge-covered spoon in his lap. Some of it dribbled from his mouth, wide open in disbelief. Margery always used to say that to him if it was raining, or the weather forecast was bad. And here she was, announcing it through the TV set. Impossible. Anyway, it had been a glorious few days, surely it couldn’t start thundering soon.
“Please stay in.”
There it was again. Her voice, unmistakeable this time. That same pleading rise in tone at the end of a sentence whenever she asked a favour.
“Margery, are you there?” But it was too late. The programme cut back to a news reader in the studio, who droned on about war… Afghanistan … immigration … crisis. Margery was gone.
“Speak to me! Are you ok?” As he clutched the TV, George suddenly felt like a fool, and wondered what the hell he was doing. He wiped the spilt porridge from his trousers. He’d really gone and lost his marbles now. Next up, the toaster would be singing to him, or the shower would start warning him when a book was due at the library! He sighed, switched off the TV and flopped onto the sofa to have a nap. He just needed to get some rest, and everything would be alright.
Half an hour later, George was woken by the sound of fat raindrops hurling themselves at his window panes. Thunder set his slates quivering on the roof, and bright lightening stung his newly opened eyes.
The cupboards were becoming empty. The one above the cooker just had a tin of sweetcorn in it and a jar of Horlicks now. Sweetcorn and Horlicks might not be so bad, George thought. His stomach growled warily in response. It was a while since he’d left the house. What if Margery tried to speak to him at home, but he was out? He didn’t want to lose another chance to hear her voice again. George missed her so much, the lonely ache inside him hurt more than hunger ever could. If he told anyone what was happening they’d call him mad. Try and put him in a home. Not that he knew anyone he could talk to about it.
George sat down on the sofa and turned the TV on. He wondered how long it would be until the weather forecast came on again. A couple of hours. Not too much time to wait, he told himself. Each tick of the clock as the seconds went by felt like an irritation. The slow passing of time rubbed away at him. He wished it would rub away the grain of restlessness that grew inside.
When he picked up the tin opener and can of sweetcorn, the sound of a football pounding against his house began again. This time, he noticed a new rhythm in it, which disrupted the monotony of ticks from his grandfather clock. The irregular beat which played out on the wall quickened his pulse. George remembered that he’d loved football once. The freedom he felt out on the local pitch every Sunday morning. The thrill of cheering for his favourite team from the stands.
George’s gaze travelled towards the front door as he searched his pockets for the key.