“I hear you’re dead, Michael,” said Ian, over the garden fence.
Michael was dozing on a bench. He opened his eyes and looked up. “A week last Tuesday.” He turned away from Ian, who was standing with one foot perched on a spade. He gazed out at his own garden. The seed pods hanging from the laburnum tree swayed in the wind. He was sorry that he had missed the yellow flowers this year. They were out so briefly, and he had been too ill.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Michael,” said Ian. “Happens to the best of us.”
Michael grunted and closed his eyes again. He heard the rustling in the trees, and knew that the wind must be picking up. “Didn’t see you at the funeral,” he said.
“No. No, er… I’m sorry about that too. Had to go into hospital, you see. To see the consultant. You know how hard it is to get an appointment.”
“Nothing serious, I hope,” said Michael, his eyes still closed, his chin resting on his chest.
“It’s my hip, it’s been playing up. Still waiting on the results.”
Michael heard the churning of the ground as Ian resumed his work with the spade. “Better take it easy,” said Michael. “Don’t want to make things worse.”
“You’re probably right. But these carrots won’t plant themselves. I’m already late putting them in.”
They had been neighbours for more than forty years. The fence separating their gardens was low. They never had a reason to put up a higher one, as most of the other residents along the street of terraced houses had done, at some point or other. A blackbird danced around the edge of the vegetable patch in Ian’s garden, looking for any worms that might be unwittingly dragged up to the surface. The bench beside Michael began to darken, in thick splotches.
“It’s raining, Michael. Better go in.”
Ian stood the spade upright in the mud and hastened into his house. Michael sat a little longer, watching the complex patterns of the raindrops unfolding in the pond. A few puddles developed on the undulating concrete patio. A frog hopped across the lawn. The grass was much too long; he had been too ill to mow it since the spring began. It was too much for Maud. She would have to get a gardener.
“Michael, are you still out here?” Maud’s head emerged briefly from the back door. “Oh, it’s pouring, come in.” Michael rose slowly from the bench and crossed the patio to the house, his hands in his pockets.
“Take your shoes off,” said Maud as he stepped into the kitchen. Michael couldn’t, and nor was there any need to, but he didn’t say anything.
Maud still made two cups of coffee every morning at eleven. She still carried them both through into the sitting room. She would drink one herself, and pour the other into the kitchen sink. For the first few days, she had been inconsolable, sitting across from Michael without taking her eyes off him, although how much she could have seen through a constant stream of tears was questionable. It had been awkward. He’d had no idea what to say. Now though, they had already begun to resume their normal routines.
While they were sitting with their coffee, the bell tinkled above the front door, and a familiar voice sang its greeting from the hall. Eileen appeared in the doorway, her vast handbag slung over her shoulder.
“Morning, you two,” she said, sitting herself down heavily on the sofa beside Michael.
“Michael,” Maud whispered.
He followed her frantic gaze downwards. He had not noticed that the sofa had sunk a few inches under the weight of Eileen, and he now hovered a little way above the cushions. He adjusted himself. It was the sort of thing he would have to practice.
“I’ll get you a coffee,” said Maud, and removed to the kitchen, though Michael’s coffee was still hot, and untouched.
“So, Michael, how’re you doing?” said Eileen. “I bet you feel a lot more comfortable now you don’t have all those tubes and things inside you. Now you don’t have all those aches and pains.”
“Yes, much better.”
“I bet you’re glad it happened at home, as well.”
“I tell you something, I saw Mary the other day – you remember Mary – well, her husband Clive went a week or two ahead of you. But he was in hospital when it happened, so now she’s back and forth to see him every other day. She had enough of that when he was ill. They’ve got a special wing for them all, apparently. Have to keep extending it every few years. And they don’t get a moment’s peace. No, you did right getting sent home, you did.”
Michael nodded his agreement. Maud re-entered the room with the freshly poured coffee. The two of them chatted, while Michael stared idly at a magpie on a wall across the road. The white of its feathers was discoloured from the dirt of the city. It hopped along the wall, poking its beak in the cracks between the bricks. He couldn’t tell whether it found what it was looking for there. After half an hour, Eileen stood up to leave. Michael adjusted himself as the sofa cushions rose.
“Don’t get up,” she said to Maud, bending down to hug her goodbye. She turned to Michael. ‘Erm… Can I… touch you, now?”
“You can if you don’t mind a visit from the spectre of Death.” He watched her face, unsure whether to laugh. “Joking,” he said with a chuckle. “At least, I think I am. We’d have heard about it, wouldn’t we?”
She considered it. “I’d better not. Sorry, Michael. I’ll pop in again soon.”
“Cheerio!” The magpie was gone when he looked back.
“I saw Ian in the garden earlier,” said Michael, standing behind Maud in the kitchen as she washed the cups.
Maud jerked as she turned, staring at him for a moment in shock. A few soap suds splashed up her arms. “Oh, you made me jump. I thought you were still in the sitting room.”
“I saw Ian,” said Michael again.
“How’s he doing?”
“His hip’s playing up. He’s been to see the consultant.”
“Oh I’m sorry about that, it’s a bugger. Remember when you had yours done? You couldn’t stand having to let me drive you around all the time.”
“He’ll be all right.” Michael returned to the sitting room. He stood in the bay window and watched the drops sliding down the glass.
“I’m just nipping to the supermarket,” said Maud. “We need a few bits for tea tonight.” She still said ‘we’, always.
“Okay,” said Michael, turning to look at her. He tried to smile. They had always gone to the supermarket together. Even when he was ill, he would accompany her in his wheelchair.
Maud stood for a moment in the doorway, studying him. She sighed. “I do wish it hadn’t been that jumper,” she said, before she left. Michael looked down. The jumper was an old one. It was covered in stains – oil, mostly. Maud would have thrown it away long ago, if he had let her. But it was comfortable. He looked up again, and watched Maud through the window as she dashed to the car and drove away.
The house felt very small when he had to spend a full day in it. Even during their long retirement, he and Maud would never stay at home for a whole day if they could help it. They would go on long, ambling walks around the park, or to the high street. Sometimes they would stand at a bus stop at random and get on the first bus that passed. If the destination was unfamiliar, all the better. They would ride the bus to the end of the line, and spend the day trying to get back. It didn’t matter where they were; they always managed to make a good day out of it. They always felt it was important to not stop going on these little impulsive adventures. They may not have been quite the intrepid backpacking trips of their youth, but the spirit was the same.
In this way, Michael stayed young right the way through until he died. Now though, oddly, he felt old. He felt like a phantom, and it took him a while to remember that he was a phantom. He stalked the house aimlessly, from the top bedroom down to the basement. He had never visited the basement much before. He had always found it creepy, though he never admitted it to Maud. He shuffled from room to room, kitchen to bathroom to dining room, surveying his tiny kingdom. He could not get the television to come on. This was nothing new. He had never been able to master the remote controls, even when he could pick them up.
There was a knock at the door. Michael strode into the hallway with renewed vigour, pleased that he had a reason to go somewhere.
“Hello?” he called, through the frosted glass.
“Hello? Postman,” came the muffled response.
“I can’t open the door. I’m dead. Can’t you post it through?”
“You’re dead?” The voice sounded very young. It wasn’t his regular postman.
“A week last Tuesday.”
“I’m sorry about that. And you are…”
“Michael. Michael Mackenzie.”
“Right, so… Mr Mackenzie… Mr Mackenzie… I’ll get those returned to sender for you, sir. Let them know.”
“I’ve just got one that needs a signature. For a Mrs Maud Mackenzie?”
“That’s my wife. She isn’t here at the moment.”
“Is your wife alive?”
“Yes, Maud’s alive.”
“And there’s no one else here who can sign?”
“Not at the moment. Can’t you just post it through?”
“Sorry, it needs a signature.”
“It’ll be from the solicitor. It’ll be about my will, it’s important.”
Michael waited, but there was no response. The figure remained on the doorstep for a few moments. Then a red slip was pushed through the letterbox, and the figure receded away from the frosted window. Michael watched the red slip land on the doormat. ‘Sorry we missed you’, it said on the front.
Without sleep, it became difficult for Michael to tell one day from another. Everything became a continuous blur. He ceased to make an effort to count the days as they passed. Without anything to mark the close of one day and the beginning of another, and without anywhere to go, Michael began to feel that he was absolutely stationary, in time as well as space, while everything else moved around him. When he watched the television with Maud in the evening, he felt that it had nothing to do with him. He felt that he was tapping in to an alien broadcast, in a ship orbiting from afar. He watched television now in the same way he might gaze into an open fire; taking in only the shapes and sounds, making no effort to make any sense out of them.
“Do you remember,” Michael said one evening, during the adverts. Most of the things they said to one another now started with that. It seemed strange to Michael, when he thought about it. When he was alive they never really talked about the past. Part of it was conscious – they didn’t like to think that their best days were behind them – but the bigger part was simply that they had too much to consider in the present. They had always lived in the present, both of them. “Do you remember when we went to that workshop on enlightenment? We just saw the sign outside, and it tickled us. It was just starting, so we went in. We were sure it was going to be nonsense.”
“And it was nonsense,” said Maud.
“They talked about… They talked about our minds being just a space for receiving things. Sights and sounds. How from your point of view you have no head. No self.”
Michael gazed into the television for a moment. “Yes, I suppose it was.”
“You’re not getting taken in by those new-age frauds are you?”
Michael laughed the accusation off. It seemed strange to him that his opinions might be altering. That his thoughts were not set, like his clothes.
Maud seemed to be growing older faster, though he couldn’t be certain. She continued to relate the stories of her travels about town to him upon her return, but Michael took little interest. These, too, now seemed to have little to do with him. She must have noticed his lack of engagement with her stories, because, after a while, she stopped telling them. She stopped making two cups of coffee in the morning as well, and she stopped insisting that Michael take his shoes off when he came in from the garden. At some point – but again, he couldn’t be certain – Maud seemed to stop noticing him altogether. Whether this took weeks or years, he had no idea.
Gradually she began to spend more time out of the house. Michael worked out from snatches of telephone conversations that she had joined a craft club. She returned sometimes with a stack of handmade Christmas cards, or a half-painted vase. She must have joined a rambling club as well, because sometimes she came home muddy and exhausted. Once, she came home with a man, around her age, or a little younger. Michael remained standing conspicuously in the corner of the room for the duration of his visit, but she didn’t introduce him. He wasn’t sure he’d been spotted, so he took a step forward. He still couldn’t be sure. He didn’t like the man; something about the way he laughed. It was just as well he never came back again.
“Michael, are you there?”
Michael sat on his bench in the garden. It needed varnishing, but it was the sort of thing that Maud didn’t seem to notice. The laburnum flowers were out. He was staring at the flowers intently, trying to take in all the intensity of their colour. His eyes were open wide, trying to absorb all their detail in the same way that, as a child, he would open his mouth wide to catch falling snow. The sun came out from behind a cloud. For the first time, he had no trouble believing that it was however many millions of miles away they said it was. Ian peered over the garden fence in his direction.
“Michael, are you there?” said Ian, again. He was staring at Michael on his bench as if trying to make out the vague outline of something indistinct; a fish under the ice in a frozen pond, or a deer darting between trees.
“Yes, Ian, I’m here.”
“Ah, good.” Ian was thin and pale. He looked much frailer than the last time Michael had seen him. He could not remember how long it had been. He realised now that he had not seen him tending to his vegetable patch for a while. He had not noticed before that it was strewn with weeds.
“Are you still there?” said Ian.
“I’m still here.” Michael stood up from the bench and moved across the garden until he stood just across the fence from Ian. “How are you doing?”
“Ah. I’ve been better.” Ian seemed to be having trouble keeping focus on him. “How about you, Michael?”
“I’m the best I’ve ever been in my life.”
Ian smiled. Michael could tell he was trying to look him in the eye, but he wasn’t quite managing it. “I probably won’t be seeing much more of you,” said Ian. “They’re coming for me the day after tomorrow. Don’t suppose I’ll be back. You’ll be getting new neighbours.”
“You what? I thought you were only going in to get your hip replaced?”
“Yeah well. Found something else, didn’t they. While they were operating.”
There was quiet for a while.
“You can’t get nurses in?” said Michael.
“Can’t get them to come often enough.”
Maud stepped out into the garden from the kitchen. She carried a basket of clothes to the washing line.
“Morning, Maud,” called Ian over the garden fence.
“Oh, morning, Ian,” said Maud. “Lovely day.”
Maud began to hang the washing on the line. She advanced along the line, working through the clothes in the basket. With each garment, she moved closer to where Michael stood. He tried to clear his throat, but it didn’t make much sound. When she stepped into the space where Michael was standing, he felt like a bubble must feel when it pops and, for a moment, he saw specks of himself glint in the sun.
About The Author
Jonathan Willmer lives in Sheffield, UK. He works there as a postman, which leaves ample time for his writing. His short story ‘At the Pond’ has been published by Riggwelter Press.
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