George and Spider Part Eight - The Anniversary cont'd
By Jane Hyphen
It occurred to Arthur now just how lonely Cynthia must have been; walking through parks with the children, doing shopping and chores with them always under her feet, entertaining them all day long. Francis had been such a sensitive boy, eager to please but so easily upset and offended, Anthony was always so active and boisterous and George such a puzzle and so very prone to tantrums. What he would give now to learn something of Cythia's lonely days with their young boys, to catch just a glimpse of that unknown past, but all that was dust. The closest he could get now was to watch this young mother as she grappled with her only child.
Arthur found himself smiling briefly, but the corners of his mouth dropped as a surge of sadness swept through his body. The fleeting nature of life's highlights seemed to him to be despairingly unappreciated by those who are yet to be shaken by its tragedies.
He hadn't noticed the men in green boiler suits who were now kneeling just feet in front of him, pulling out summer bedding plants and replacing them with regulation winter pansies. They pushed them roughly into little holes and swept the soil back with gloved hands. The young plants looked so awkward and unnatural, standing there in perfect lines like soldiers, some were already drooping, dehydrated by the sun and wind. Typical council, no imagination! Thought Arthur as he got up from his bench and began striding out of the park in the direction of the shops. He was feeling hopeless, churned up and rather cheated and angry, like he was missing out on something, he didn't know what, but he wasn't getting it.
He decided to go to a different florist than his usual one, since during his last visit he'd been rushed by an insensitive assistant and made a bad decision; orange gladioli, what was I thinking? Florists were always emotional places for Arthur, Cynthia had loved flowers and the hardest part of organising her funeral had been choosing the wreaths.
He hovered outside a shop called "The Flower Barrow". There was no sign of any staff so he tried to go in unseen so he could have a quiet browse and make a good choice. An annoying bell put an end to this plan, tingling abrasively as he opened the door. Friday was evidently a busy day for florists, there seemed very little on offer in the green buckets. Arthur's eyes scanned the shop, unaware that he was breathing very heavily. The presence of ornamental chillies annoyed him greatly and he shook his head and muttered some comment.
A middle-aged woman in a yellow apron had been observing him quietly. 'Can I help you sir?' she said.
Arthur didn't look at her. 'Errrrmmmm - yeah,' he said thinly, desperate not to spend too long faffing. 'Is this all you've got?'
'No no. There's loads more out the back.'
'Oh. I want a bouquet. Something nice - natural.'
'Any particular colour, small or large?'
Arthur paused and frowned a little. 'Er medium I suppose, and classy - no orange - and no chillies or glitter or nothing silly like that.'
The woman smiled. Arthur noticed the badge on her tabard, it said "Mary". 'Come back in an hour, I'll do you something nice,' she said and vanished through a curtain into the back room.
Arthur stood still for a moment, feeling that events in the flower department had suddenly got out of his control. But I don't HAVE to come back, he told himself as he left the shop.
Walking had made him feel very thirsty, and the stress and turmoil of the day had left him with a medical grade urge for an alcoholic beverage. He rarely ventured into town during the day because he was always in his shop and the sheer volume of people on the streets alarmed him. The constant necessity of avoiding pedestrian collisions didn't come easily, he found it tiresome and wearing. I must get away from these people, he thought and retreated to the nearest pub.
It was early lunchtime and the suits were out; office workers indulging themselves in a liquid lunch, only to return to their work a couple of hours later, useless with a throbbing forehead. They got away with it too, such was the anonymity of working for a large insurance company.
Arthur got himself a pint of bitter and sat down in a quiet spot near the window. He felt quite exhausted and sort of emotionally weighty, as if his soul was dragging him down, warping the floorboards beneath his chair.
He observed those youthful office workers with disdain. Young men in pink shirts and stretchy trousers, girls looking much the same, both posing and drinking from bottles with trendy labels. Arthur didn't much approve of the mediocre merry-go-round of middle-rank, white collar employment. Yes these young people had jobs, but to Arthur they were like limpets, trapped and hermaphroditic; their twice daily commute carrying them like a tide, only to suck up the slime of their dull, limited worlds.
He began to feel proud that his own sons, if a little dodgy, had turned out so different to these flimsy, slimy-haired creatures of the day. The thought of his three boys brought a small smile to his face; Cynthia WOULD have been proud of them, she WOULD. He sipped his beer and exhaled slowly, it was just like medicine and briefly he slipped into a soothing, hop induced swoon. There was no reason for him to pay any attention to the clonking heels which were approaching from behind.
'Arthur? I thought it was you sitting there like a - like a man on a chair!' Kelly Gas plonked herself down in the seat next to Arthur and shoved her many rustling shopping bags onto the floor beneath the table. 'I was just passing by the window and I saw your miserable face staring into space. I thought, better go in and cheer that man up!'
Arthur ignored her for a few seconds, hoping she was an apparition. 'I'm just having a quiet drink,' he said, looking in the opposite direction.
Kelly lifted her hands, the bangles on her wrists jangled together as she flicked her hair off her shoulders. 'Windy innit?'
Arthur paused and took a long drink. 'Always is,' he said quietly.
Kelly frowned and adjusted her shopping bags, then said, 'I don't think so Arthur, well it wasn't yesterday, not like this. My knickers blew off the line this morning and onto my neighbour's hedge. I saw it happen through the window so I went round there and he wouldn't let me have them back the dirty-'
'Can I get you a drink, since you've already made yourself at home?' Arthur said sternly.
Kelly checked her watch. 'No thanks, the sun's not over the yardarm Arthur! You're a bit early aren't you?'
Arthur rolled his eyes, 'Okay - you suit yourself and I'll suit myself.'
Kelly stared at his face for a moment but he was mindful not to look at her, then she gently touched his shoulder and said, 'It's been a while Arthur - you need cheering up, I can see it.'
Briefly the tension melted away from Arthur's face and he looked back at her, rather like a child finding comfort in the face of its mother, knowing that she had the potential to make everything better, for a few seconds at least. Then he caught himself, frowned hard and turned away. 'I don't think I understand what you're saying,' he said flatly.
Kelly's demeanor changed too, she became brisk and business-like suddenly. 'I think you owe me money Arthur,' she said.
'Story of my life. How much?'
Kelly crossed and then uncrossed her legs. 'A hundred - or thereabouts,' she said.
Arthur looked at her tired, made-up face, shook his head and said, 'Be more like forty Kelly.'
'Forty!' she boomed, her antelope eyes widening.
Arthur sighed heavily and said, 'What were the chances of you passing by this window, today of all days!'
'It must be fate. I need money, TODAY. Here you are - and here I am. September's an expensive month when you've got four kids and one of em's a genius. My need has led me to you Arthur. I need more than forty - and you look like you could do with some light relief, if you don't mind me saying.' She looked around at the people in the bar, edged closer to Arthur, checked her watch and said in a low voice, 'We could go and find a room somewhere, Rainbow Lodge do em for thirty quid, landlady's a friend of mine.'
Arthur put his head in his hands, a brief conflict of emotions raged in his mind. I must be braver, he thought, I must do things for myself. 'Sod it!' he said, getting up and finishing his pint.
Kelly's eyes lit up, she grabbed her noisy bags and they left the pub together.
Meanwhile, back in the shop Francis was dealing with a demanding female customer. Women annoyed him greatly. It wasn't as if he didn't find them attractive, it was more that he had a sturdy barrier separating his emotions from his sexual needs. Deep inside him he carried a warped sort of anger, he didn't realise it but he was angry with his mother for dying young. Cynthia had labelled Francis, the sensible one, and she had always made sure everyone knew just how sensible he was. After her death many of the responsibilities naturally fell, like a heavy weight, upon poor Francis. He even stopped growing during that period, and he'd never had the time or the freedom to go and out and mix with girls, plus he was prone to shyness and podgy and plain. The few girls he'd liked at school had stung him badly. Now he viewed women as deceitful and predatory, unfathomable and odd, and somehow devoid of any normal, useful intelligence.
The customer had demanded that he take out every pair of diamond earrings in the shop.
'You just can't get decent stones here in the UK,' she said, shaking her head, 'I often travel to the US on business, the diamonds are always white and clean over there.'
'Most of them are fake,' said Francis.
'Well if you don't have anything decent I'll look elsewhere.'
Francis remembered now that there were some good quality fake diamond earrings in the safe. Arthur hadn't put them out because he wasn't sure how to label them
'Well we do have some others downstairs - but obviously they will be more expensive.'
'Let me see those then please, but do hurry, I've got a meeting in - half an hour.'
The caged birds were squeaking and nodding their tiny heads in alarm for they were not used to strangers. Francis went down the five stairs to the safe. He knew exactly where the fake diamonds were but he made a play of shuffling the stock around to keep the customer waiting. The earrings looked better than he remembered, they were set into gold, who would know?
'These are whiter,' he said coming up the stairs. He opened the box on the counter. 'These are high quality - which is why we keep them in the safe.'
'Yes,' said the customer, smiling now. 'They're very nice, I'll take the largest pair, and be quick please, I need to leave in five!'
Francis was dismayed but not surprised that this woman seemed to have no interest in whether or not the diamonds were genuine. He took her money with a fairly clean conscience for they were not labelled as anything and he hadn't once said that they were real. The customer left and Francis went out to the shed to vent his dismay. George had engaged himself in some sort of push-up marathon and could only pant in response.
'Just had some stupid woman in.'
George stopped and lay face down on the shed floor. 'Oh yeah,' he said breathlessly.
'What's all this for, are you training for the army?'
'Only my own. I've got a big job ahead Fran. I want to be at the peak of fitness.'
Francis leaned upon the doorway of the shed and rubbed his forehead, 'Yes,' he said, 'I meant to tell you something about that house, you know, the doily house.'
George got up suddenly and said, 'The doily house, you call it that too?'
'Yeah, mom called it that remember? She loved that house, all the intricate stonework.'
'So - what was you going to say about it?'
'It's in one of my local history books, you know the ones I like to read. I looked it up after I saw it on that - auction programme.'
'And - what did it say?'
'It was built by Chamberlain.'
'You know John Chamberlain, Chamberlain Square?'
'I know the square, but I thought it was built for the mayor.'
Francis tutted, 'It was, but the architect was also Chamberlain!'
'Yeah and - what else does it say?'
'Well, it mentions that many of the cellars on Norton Avenue are inter-connected, well they were once. I expect they're bricked up between now.'
George frowned hard. 'Inter-connected,' he said, patting his brother on the shoulder. 'Thanks Fran, that could be significant.'
Francis nodded. 'I best get back to the shop. All ready for the cemetery this after?'
'Yes!' George snapped.
Over at Rainbow Lodge, the curtains were drawn on the busy street outside, the room was warm and rather thick and fetid. It hadn't taken Arthur long. As he handed over the money he felt a little short-changed and increasingly angry with himself.
Kelly was standing in front of a mirror, dressed only in mismatched underwear; a beige bra and purple and black knickers. The crab tattoo on her shoulder was clearly visible. Arthur hadn't noticed it, he hated tattoos and was careful to turn a blind eye to the finer details of Kelly's physique, for he feared what he might see.
She put her face very close to the glass and began re-applying her thick eye liner, occasionally pausing and standing back to inspect her complexion. 'Damn it! I've got this hair that keeps growing out the side of my chin,' she said, matter of factly.
Arthur was perched on the edge of the bed putting his socks on. 'Christ!' he said, 'Do you have to?'
'Oh it's only a thin one Arthur! It's fine - like a baby - like a baby fairy's hair. And there's only one of em - for now. You'd think I could just pull it out but - it's not that easy, it keeps slipping through my bloody finger-nails. Have you got any tweezers Arthur?'
'Tweezers? Christ almighty! Why the bloody hell would I have tweezers?' Arthur shouted. He was beginning to feel guilty now, guilty at having lost control and derailed himself. The guilt made him angry.
'Calm down Arthur! Just thought you might have some - you know, tools of the trade, the jem trade, that's all.'
'I'm a salesman. Tools of the gem trade! What kind of operation do you think I'm running, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. George isn't here - and you're hardly as pure as the driven snow are you!'
'Ah, don't be mean to George! He's short but he ain't no dwarf - the same can't be said of his side-kick of course.'
Arthur finished dressing then spat into the palm of his hands, rubbed them together and used his fingers to smooth down the wisps of hair at the sides of his head. 'I'll leave you in peace now,' he said, 'There's some things I need to see to in town.'
'Wait! I'm ready I'll walk through town with you.'
'No, you're alright. Stay here, take your time, have a shave. I've booked the room till three, but I must go right now. There's something I need to pick up.'
Kelly tutted. 'Suit yourself,' she said.
Through the reflection in the mirror she watched Arthur walk towards the door. Just as he reached for the handle he stopped and briefly turned back to look at her. She lowered her chin, fluttered her eyelashes at him and said, 'Do you like me Arthur?'
He leaned his forehead against the edge of the door, closed his eyes tightly for a second and sighed, then said weakly, 'I like you behind closed doors love - behind closed doors. Don't forget your shopping bags now.'