George and Spider Part Eight - The Anniversary
By Jane Hyphen
The following week marked the fifteenth anniversary of George's mother Cynthia's death. The jewellery shop opened up as usual but Francis placed a sign on the door saying, "Closing at 3pm today, sorry for an inconvenience".
Each year the whole Jules family visited the cemetery during the afternoon, to lay flowers and pay their respects. Bizarrely, the day was always meteorologically identical, and this day was no exception; a clear blue sky, strong autumnal winds and a clean nip to the air. It struck Arthur hard. Some years he prepared himself for it, he felt the day approaching and it stirred him gently for a week or so. This year he'd repressed it and now the full force of it was baring down upon him, churning him up inside.
The atmosphere inside the shop was heavy and hesitant. Arthur had a face like thunder; he stomped about, dusting cabinets, polishing silver and generally trying to keep himself busy, to keep the demons at bay. George felt pressure to stay inside the shop and show willing, to help and support his father. In an attempt to ease some of the tension he went up to his flat and fetched down some caged birds which he hung from a hook behind the counter. The two finches inside began to chirrup and jump from perch to perch causing the cage to swing violently. That old hook had once supported the weight of a trailing plant, a lipstick plant, one of many tropical plants nurtured by Cynthia. They thrived under her care, she heard their cries and instinctively knew what they needed, whether it be tepid rain-water, Baby Bio, or even moving away from a draft. After her death
all those plants perished and lay brown and desiccated in their pots for many months afterwards.
Arthur would not normally have allowed birds in the shop but today he couldn't be bothered to protest, further more, he indulged in second thoughts and decided that Cynthia would have rather liked those birds tweeting in her honour.
Francis was feeling the pressure too. There were storms inside his head and worms in his heart. He wanted to shout, to hurt himself. With this in mind he took the liberty of removing a prohibited CD from the cupboard in his workshop and inserting it slyly into the shop's audio system. The music began, slowly to begin with; strange ambiguous sounds which only Francis recognised, they soothed him, buffered his tension. Arthur didn't notice at first, he continued dusting, pausing occasionally to stare into space, sighing here and there. Then suddenly he stopped, his posture hardened, the glaze on his eyeballs changed.
'What the hell is that noise?' he said.
Francis shrugged, pretending to be ignorant, but he felt the force of his father's persistent stare and so with a dismissive air of nonchalance he said, 'It's just Pink Floyd Dad.'
Arthur dropped the duster, lifted his hands up to his bald head, spreading out his fingers like a man in despair. 'Christ almighty!' he said, 'First we got tweeting birds, now fucking Pink Floyd! If EVER there was a sound - designed - for the sole purpose - of removing a man's sanity it's fucking Pink Floyd. Get it off Fran please.'
Francis exhaled sharply and said, 'What about the birds?'
'They can stay - for now.'
A sudden gust of wind caught the folding metal sign outside on the pavement, lifting it up and sending it crashing and scraping along the road.
'I'll sort it,' said Francis, rushing outside.
Arthur stood at the window with his hands on his hips. He watched the huge plane trees swaying, the leaves, dehydrated and primed to dehiss, trembled as the wind rippled through the branches. Mr Mahmood observed Arthur from the window across the road and waved. Arthur lifted a heavy arm, held it for a second, then let it drop with an accompanying sigh.
'That wind's getting up!' said Francis, rubbing his hands to warm them. 'I've brought the sign in Dad.'
'Okay Fran. We ought to get another one done you know. That's one's getting rusty round the edges, a bit like me. Dear oh dear oh dear!' Arthur sighed again and rubbed his eyes. 'I'm struggling with today lads. It all feels, I dunno, the same I suppose.' He laughed briefly. 'Francis you're fifteen again, reading in your room, playing Pink fucking Floyd and thinking about, God knows what! George you're eleven. You haven't changed a bit! You still sulk and give me grief! Arthur became angry now, he clenched his fists and said, 'I don't understand you at all George, you're like a - like a left-handed tin-opener! Every time I think I've got a grip on you, you slip out of it, and then you injure me! Your mother would never have approved of - oh never mind, never mind!' he said desperately.
There followed a minute or two of silence.
'Why don't you go out for a bit Dad? Go for a walk - or go home for a bit.'
'I'm alright Fran. I'll - be alright.'
Francis and George glanced across at each other, cringed and quickly looked away. The emotions they felt in relation to their mother's death were huge, but they'd been pushed into the tiniest space inside their heads. If only they could talk about her, surely it would relieve some of the pressure, but they were not in the habit of doing so. Consequently a thick impenetrable layer had grown around the subject and fifteen years of air had hardened it.
Privately, Francis suspected that George had very little memory of their mother, but he was so wrong. George had larger and more accurate files stored away in his memory bank than the rest of the family put together.
'I'm going out to do the fish,' said George. He stormed out, removing a packet of cigarettes from his back pocket as he went. 'Come Crystal!'
'I think I'll take up smoking again,' said Arthur, as he flicked through the business diary.
'You DO smoke.'
'Cigars don't count Fran. I need SOMETHING for sure. Oh, it says here Mrs Brooks is coming in to collect her wedding ring today, she's gone from an M to an O, that sound right Fran?'
'All done Dad. Swollen hands. They might go down again, then she'll want it taken down.'
'Swollen hands? Middle-age spread more like! It gets the hands you know, and no, it doesn't shrink back. Women are always in denial aren't they?'
Francis shrugged. 'Wouldn't know.'
'Oh and tell George there's a man coming in later to look at erm, phantom fish or something.'
'That's the one.'
Arthur checked his watch and said, 'Half past ten, is that all it is? Actually Fran, I don't think I can hang around here all day. Can you manage without me for a bit?'
'Yes! I said didn't I, go out!'
'Yes, yes you did. You're a man of wise words, always have been.' Arthur began to spin about looking for his coat and keys. 'I think I'll pop into town, pick up some flowers and that. Keep an eye on Georgy will you?'
'Yeah, no probs Dad. Go!'
Arthur walked out onto the street. He took out his car keys and paused just next to the Jaguar with the tip of the key just hovering next to the key hole. It occurred to him that perhaps he could walk into town. The idea of walking never usually entered his head but today his head was in turmoil; this turmoil acted like a rotavator on Arthur's grey matter, it revealed hidden pathways and previously enclosed ideas. Town wasn't far and maybe he could stop for a drink. It seemed like a good idea so he put his keys away and began walking. He was a large man and his gait was not a smooth one. Unlike George, Arthur rarely walked more than a few metres between buildings and vehicles. He viewed his legs simply as stilts to hold him upright, and the skin which covered them, a gage of whether he needed a holiday to top up his tan. After a few minutes of walking he grew tired and breathless.
Don't start smoking again, said the little voice inside his head. Arthur was rather taken aback by his lack of fitness. He was a proud man and the idea of getting old and slowing down was completely unimaginable to him. He pushed on, leaning slightly to the side and placing his hand over his ribs to relieve the stabs of stitch which plagued him.
As he approached the town centre he thought what he needed to do; must but flowers for the graveside, but it was too early to buy them now, he'd have to carry them around with him. Having done this before, Arthur knew that a man who carried a bunch of flowers attracted attention. Women would look at him, he'd read their minds, they thought, who's the lucky lady? The lucky lady's dead - the lucky lady's dead, she's dead. These solemn words ran through his head several times; he had an urge to shout them but he stifled it.
He began to question who he was really buying the flowers for. Was it for Kathleen, for the boys, for himself? Perhaps it really was time to move on, sort out the cellar, to charge George rent, send Kathleen to the old people's home. I need to be braver, he told himself. These thoughts consumed him, dulling his senses and he failed to look where he was going, bumped into an elderly man, sending him flying.
'I'm so sorry, Christ! I'm sorry!' said Arthur, helping the man to his feet.
The act of walking had somehow got the cogs of his mind turning. He decided to divert to a nearby park and sit on a bench while he sorted his head out.
There were few people in the park. Although sunny, the wind was wild and unpredictable, the day was not serene. Arthur found a seat in a sheltered spot between two mature magnolias. He leaned back so that his face was in the sun. Ah, that's the stuff, he thought. There was still plenty of warmth in the sun, despite it being early autumn. Arthur was like a lizard, basking made him feel right at home.
A young mother caught his attention as she wandered through the park with a toddler, a little boy who clung to the side of his push-chair as he tottered along, one minute lurching forward, the next stopping to inspect something on the ground. Arthur thought of his own boys at that age. He wondered whether Cynthia had ever brought them to this park. He felt quite sure that she must have, while he was a work, oblivious to the details of her life. Maybe later she would have told him about it, about something the boys had done, possibly little George had done something mad or dangerous, like balancing along the edge of the pond or stamping on a pigeon. Arthur would have nodded vaguely and gone through the motions of being interested, then instantly forgotten.
He recalled how he used to row with Cynthia almost daily. Previously there had been a reluctance in him to face these memories, these REAL memories, the day to day nitty gritty of their relationship. Instead he'd dwelt only on the perceived highlights; their wedding day, the trips out, holidays etc. Why did he feel so guilty about remembering the bad times too? It wasn't as if she could know what he was thinking - or did she?'
This question troubled Arthur greatly. He wanted to believe that Cythia was somehow present, watching over the family, protecting the boys. Very occasionally he genuinely felt that she was, but most of the time this belief was simply impossible to maintain. Trying to force himself to believe was simply exhausting. This perceived failure, failure to believe that she was anything but dust, only triggered more guilt, locking Arthur in a continuous cycle of grief, guilt and mental exhaustion.
He watched the young mother again, as she was forced to chase her little boy who was now running at impossible speed towards the duck pond. It looked like hard work, looking after that child.
Cynthia was always tired when the boys were small, always moaning and snapping at Arthur. At the time he'd speculated privately that there might be something wrong with his wife, that she might not be a "natural mother", or that she was physically weak, or disorganised and unable to cope. In those days he ran a successful dry-cleaning business. He would go out to work early, before the boys were up, and return late when they were in bed. George would often wake and cry during the night and Cynthia would curse him and take one of her tablets. The house was a mess, parking fines would arrive in the post, things regularly got broken; vases, radios, windows, televisions. Arthur couldn't understand it.
Occasionally, when things got really bad, Cynthia would threaten to go and stay with her mother. Kathleen frightened Arthur in those days and he would do anything to avoid contact with his mother-in-law, so he patched things up with his wife's favourite thing, jewellery. During their marriage pieces of jewellery were used like plasters to cover the wounds of their disagreements and stem the flow of blood; earrings, bracelets, rings, you name it, and never the cheap stuff either. Cynthia could sniff out the cheap stuff and she wasn't polite about rejecting it. Arthur, being a frugal man, became increasingly bothered about the cost of these "plasters". He set out, via the medium of the pub, to make contacts in the business and became something of an expert. This pulled him gradually away from the cleaning business and into the jewellery game. The transition was smooth. Arthur was a business man, the type of product was irrelevant. Cynthia was happier. She was the happiest she'd ever been in the months before she got ill. She used to describe the cancer as, "The price I'm paying for my little bit of happiness."