“How was your day dear?” The words left George’s lips without thought; he said the same words every day and had done for almost forty years. And his wife replied from the kitchen the same way she always did.
He could hear her bustling around in there, washing up, cleaning away the cooking things. His son-in-law was one of these modern husbands who cooked and cleaned while his daughter went out to work. But George Henshaw would have been lost in the kitchen; he had never had to take care of himself and wouldn’t know how. Good old Mary, she had always looked after him, never a word of complaint, not even when he’d had that problem with his drinking in the early years of their marriage.
Coming out of the Merchant Navy he had had problems finding work, had felt almost resentful of being tied to a family and a home life, to a daughter he hadn’t seen for four years, to a wife he had only spoken to in letters for the same time. He had travelled the world in the guise of a man newly married to a beautiful young bride. And then he had come back to a tiny council flat, a ragged garden, a four-year-old daughter he didn’t know and a wife that had become a mother, and a mother that had had to cope on her own for four years into the bargain.
He had only ever known the sailor life and this sudden role of father and husband thrown on him confused and irritated him by its restrictions and its mystifying newness. He had retreated to the company of his male friends, to the atmosphere of the pub that he understood and felt comfortable in.
Yet that was behind them now. Of course at this age practically everything was behind you. If a couple were still together at this old age then very little could separate them.
There was one thing of course but George didn’t like to think of that.
No, all the problems they’d had, all the trials of married life, they were all in the past, they had come through them and grown stronger in the process. Their marriage had never been stronger.
George was retired now but he spent most days fishing by the river. He liked being by the water, its soft fluid sounds comforted him. He wasn’t escaping these days, not like he used to. But daytimes were Mary’s time, they always had been and she filled them and the house with the bustle and activity of a woman, which things George had never felt a part of. At first it was baby things, then sewing circles, mothers groups, general cleaning. Mary spent a lot of the day out as well; she had always been very active in church activities.
After he’d eaten his dinner George went to his favourite chair for a doze. He didn’t really need it, not after his after-lunch-nap he usually had while by the river, but there was nothing on the box yet, and the Labour club wouldn’t open for a few more hours.
He heard Mary come and sit next to him, in her old chair. There was a soft groan of settling wood, then the gentle creak as it rocked back and forth. He always found such a sound comforting. She would read her books at these times and when he heard her happy laugh as she read something funny he would remember her as she was, a youthful girl, long blonde hair, a slight figure, knowing green eyes that sparkled as she danced and laughed.
He had loved her then. And he loved her now, in a different way of course, nothing stayed the same, that was the main lesson old age taught a man. No, nothing ever stayed the same.
His love wasn’t such a fierce, consuming fire as it had been. His heart did not beat faster at the sound of her voice, she did not fill his every thought as she had when they had first met, before he had left her to sail the world. No now it was a comfortable love, a companionship so deep he didn’t know how he could live without it. She was part of him in such a way that he didn’t understand, couldn’t comprehend, and had never before even known.
George closed his eyes and let himself drift into a reverie at the sound of the rocking chair. He heard her laughter beside him and a single tear rolled down his wrinkled cheek.
The television chattered to itself in the corner of the room. A box spilling its light and noise into the small dark room with its old, poor furniture. The babbled laughter of the audience on the game show seemed to grate on his mind tonight. He had turned it down to a whisper but it didn’t help. He considered turning it off but he thought that the silence would be worse.
The tears were close tonight, but George didn’t let himself cry, he rarely did. He hated being old, for one thing there were so few distractions left to him to occupy his mind. Mary asked him a question. George laughed, glad of the interruption from his thoughts. Mary told him something funny that had happened to her the other day and George listened with a smile on his lips, nodding in the right places and laughing as she reached the punchline. Mary had always been able to cheer him up. He smiled. She got up to make a cup of tea. The game show was almost bearable now with the familiar sound of the kettle being filled, the cups being readied, the ancient ritual of tea-making being performed in the next room.
George didn’t go to the Labour Club tonight. He didn’t think he could face his friends, not in his current mood. He walked into the kitchen. Mary was there. She was cooking a meal; she looked younger in the bright harsh lights of the ceiling light bar. The kitchen was small, as it always had been. But it was clean; well-brushed linoleum covered the floor, bright yellow walls that he remembered painting in the summer of 1954. They had been happy then, he had just got his job as a watchman at the docks, they had gone out for a meal at a French restaurant, something they had never done before. George hadn’t much cared for the rich foreign food but Mary had been so happy he had barely tasted it. Come to think of it he couldn’t remember what he’d had that night. He remembered her smile though. He’d always remember her smile. He watched as Mary opened the oven and took a roast joint from its heart. She smiled at him. He felt like crying.
George went into the bathroom. He saw it as empty, a small room with dusty shelves and a box of newspapers in the corner. When they’d first moved into this house back in 1952 this had been an unused boxroom. There had only been a small outside toilet at the bottom of the garden. George had had to get his uncle to fit the plumbing when he had bought it.
He had promised Mary a full-fitted bathroom like those she had seen at a showroom in Ipswich. Mary turned to George and fixed him with her knowing look that at differing times either fascinated him or infuriated him. She told him it would never work. She was happy with the outside toilet and the tin bath. He smiled at her with the smile of a hopeful young man with a new job, a new house and a wage packet in his pocket and replied he wanted her to have the best. She just looked at him. She didn’t need to say anything; they both knew they would never have the best.
George went back to the living room. It was dark, the television was still flickering and he turned it off. It was time for bed, it always seemed time for bed nowadays, but then, what else was there to do. At least sometimes when he slept he dreamed of Mary.
He left the room and glanced into the dirty kitchen. It hadn’t been cleaned still, even though he’d told himself he would. He just didn’t see any point any more. He walked past the dining room, the table still containing the remnants of his microwave meal. It hadn’t been very nice, he had never been able to figure out the machine his son had bought him.
He took the stairs slowly, his back starting to hurt. His body always seemed to ache these days. And he was pretty sure his eyesight was going. He probably should go to the opticians but what did he need to look at nowadays. He wasn’t even allowed to fish now with the new conservation laws. The whole river was private property.
He passed the bathroom but didn’t go in, it had never been the best, not by a long way but it had been good enough for them. And Mary had been so proud; she had invited all her friends around to see it. It made him smile to think of it now.
George reached his bedroom at last, shuffling out of his clothes and into his nightshirt he sank down into the musty embrace of the bedclothes. The house was silent again as he lay there listening to it settle. He felt Mary come to bed, her side of the bed sinking gently as she sank into the mould of her body she had crafted over the years.
George rolled over and put his arms round her, desperate to feel her in his arms again. His hand just touched the bed, empty and barren. The tears started to finally come and George lay there crying silently into the sheets, his hand tracing the impression she had left in the mattress.
Sometimes he forgot she was dead.