Copyright © 2011 Peter Beckett
George had always done his crosswords in pen. Towards the end, the letters would stop fitting the remaining words and he would regret his choice. Pencils showed uncertainty and notes on the side would glare out brazenly. He had never needed the notes before. Whenever he managed to successfully complete one, note-free and without error, he would leave it lying open on the coffee table. It seemed to glow proudly, pen lying askew by the clues; all scored out with a single deliberate line. Today the crossword sat on the coffee table. As June walked in he flattened the fabric of his trousers with his palms and glanced towards the table conspicuously.
“Afternoon, George,” she said, ignoring his success. The hairs on his neck pricked and his eyes had a fevered intensity as he again beckoned with a look.
“June, is it that time already?” he said. The paper burned the peripherals of his vision as he watched her move towards him, oblivious. Receiving the small plastic cup accompanied by pinks and blues, he didn’t take his eyes from hers. Pausing before indulging the ritual, a glimmer of hope flashed upon him as June moved towards the coffee table.
She knocked the pen on the floor as she covered the newspaper with the tray.
“I will take my dinner on the veranda please,” he said, “It is such a beautiful evening.”
“Right you are George,” she said, receiving the empty cup “Today we are having cod, that’ll be nice wont it? A nice bit of fish?”
“Lovely, thank you,” he said. “Is it that time already June?” He stretched out his hands to receive his pills.
“We’ve just done that George,” she replied, turning back to face him.
“Oh.” He said “What are we having for dinner tonight?
“It’s cod, George.”
“Is my daughter coming to visit me today?”
“She left an hour ago, George.”
“Why didn’t she say hello?”
“She was with you all morning, George.”
“Where is Margret?”
“Your wife has been dead ten years.”
“Oh,” he said.
June lifted the tray from the coffee table and turned to continue on her rounds. The crossword sat alone on the table and George was left to his thoughts.
Across the hall a television blared out ‘Countdown’ at full volume, whilst its audience snored and spluttered. Neil from Halifax had thirty points, the defending champion; Dale from Leeds, had sixty-two. George got out of his chair. As the years had passed he found getting up more of a challenge. He no longer lifted his own weight, but had to push the whole world down. Grasping his silver topped T-handle cane with his right hand he began to negotiate the short distance to the French windows. By the time he reached the glass, Dale had raised his score to eighty-nine, Neil was certain to lose.
Leaving behind the vinyl floors and pine-effect MDF, George stepped out into the small garden enclosure.
The sun beamed its last hurrah, the sky awash with pinks and purples set against the blue canvas. Something stirred in the back of George’s mind. Pinks and blues. He turned back toward the room. It must be about time for his medication. As he stepped back into the room his eye was caught by the reflection in the window. The flower beds that ran along the paths sides were in full bloom. He had helped the council workers plant the bulbs. It had been one of his better days. He had remembered his daughter’s visit and the paper had lain open on the table. June had congratulated him that day.
Walking over to the nearest flowerbed George reached down and cradled the head of a tulip with his fingers. It smelled like the cottage garden. He could still see the stream at the bottom of the lawn and the willow tree that stroked the surface with leafy fingers, when he closed his eyes. He had sat with Margret by the waters edge for days on end as his daughter had splashed around trying to catch the newts and frogs that hid just below the weeds. He knew he couldn’t go back. There was a reason.
He frowned as he opened his eyes. Margret was nowhere to be seen. In the window opposite, June tended to a stout man in a beige dressing gown. He wore one slipper. Rising from the tulips, George looked at the other flowers in the garden. Michaelmas daisies stood proudly over squat begonias and a vast rosebush was crowned with a single flower head. But there was something wrong in the picture. In an earthy mound a small pink leg protruded from the ground.
George’s cry was a deep agonised crescendo, loud enough to send crows fluttering from the roof. June ran out of the room, not seeing the baby submerged in the flowerbed. She couldn’t have guessed the cause of the horror encapsulated on George’s face as he stepped backwards, unsteady, pale as death. He feared the worst. The leg lay unmoving. Anything he could do would surely be too late, but no one else had seen. No one else knew the infant lay under the earth, maybe still grasping onto the last hopes of life.
“Under the ground, in the soil!” he cried out as June came within arms reach. “We need to dig! Now!”
“George,” June began in a calm voice. “George, we already planted the bulbs, you helped, remember?”
“No, no, no!” he said, trying to get past her.
“Yes George, see, they’re blooming now. You helped. It’s ok.” She stepped back giving him space, raising her hands apologetically. “George, it’s ok.”
“You don’t understand!”
“Yes I do George, it’s ok. I know. Things don’t make sense all the time, do they? But it’s ok, we’re here to help. You remember who I am, don’t you?”
He pushed forward, ignoring her, trying desperately to get to the flowerbed. A firm grip landed on his forearms, suppressing his movement. As adrenaline continued to surge through his body, the desperation turned to fear. He was being held against his will and didn’t know why. Who was this woman and why would she want to hurt him? He ripped his hands back and struck a swift blow with the end of his cane.
She dropped to the ground instantly, her legs sprawled at awkward angles.
George looked from the body to the cane. He allowed it to slide in his grip until his palm rested on the cold silver handle. A chill had fallen with the setting sun. He shivered softly and pulled his shoulders in tight. Turning back towards his room the artificial light invited him with the promise of warmth and shelter. His steps were slow. His legs were old legs, not like his at all. Before him, an old man’s hands held a silver topped cane. He had seen it before; it was Margret’s father’s cane. He had bought it after the war; the Great War, to help him with the leg injury he had sustained. He had promised he would give it to him one day.
Margret must be inside making food. George hadn’t eaten in hours. He would sit in the chair and wait for her. She never liked being disturbed when she was cooking. A TV blared in another room somewhere. Noel Edmunds was congratulating Julie, a housewife from Kent, who had the chance to beat the banker and change her life. He looked around the room where he sat. June should be here
soon, it must be time for his pills. Down the corridor a family were saying goodbye to their elderly relative. Their footsteps grew louder as they moved towards George’s door. A tall woman dressed in a floral blouse and smart trousers led her young daughter towards the exit. The girl could have been no more than five. Her hair was tied in tight bunches on either side of her head and she wore a blue dress that stopped just above muddy feet. Tears trickled down her cheeks towards a pouting mouth. She sniffed loudly, squeezing her arms tightly around a one legged doll.
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