Pamela lay in bed listening to a scrabbling noise. It sounded as though it was coming from the walls. Since George had died, the house seemed to have turned against her. First there had been the loose roof tile, then a leak in her bedroom radiator and, finally, the electrics had started buzzing as though she had a wasp nest somewhere.
“Oh George,” she found herself declaring. “Why aren’t you here when I need you?”
She eventually gave up trying to sleep. Her head was too full of disturbing memories. It was only 5.30am, but she put on her nightgown and slippers and went downstairs. Each tread of the stairway seemed to creak and groan as she made her way into the hall. She turned on the kitchen light, which flickered annoyingly for several seconds as though trying to induce in her some sort of seizure.
A cup of tea and a Marmite sandwich, that’s what she needed. She took them through to the lounge where she made herself comfortable on the settee. She no longer sat in her old armchair, for it stood opposite George’s armchair where he had presided year after year; a Queen Anne wingback, with a board balanced across the arms to write those interminable letters to the press and the BBC and the Council – indeed, to anyone, really, who made a grammatical error, or misquoted, or misattributed something.
George would turn it into a test for her, too. He would present her with the newspaper, prodding a column of print with his finger.
“What do you think of that?” he would ask, as she strove to find the offending passage.
“Well?” came the inevitable prompt, taking Pamela back to her schooldays when her English teacher would stand over her, similarly impatient, a finger tapping on her work. “What is wrong, Wright?” he would quip. Wright had been her maiden name, and how she had suffered because of it.
Sitting there now, gazing at George’s chair, Pamela recalled the moment in the park when he had proposed to her and the alacrity with which she had responded, much to his surprise.
Little did he know that her enthusiasm was partly prompted by the thought that she’d finally be able to escape her surname, even if it meant becoming Mrs George Higginbottom. How naïve she’d been! She smiled at the very thought as she gazed at George’s empty chair.
He had been eight years older than she was and at the time she saw him as her saviour. St George rescuing her from the family home where, after her mother’s untimely death from cancer, she had seen herself becoming trapped with her demanding father. He had been another man who was always right. Out of the frying pan, as her friend Betty always said.
Once again, Pamela looked across at the empty chair with George’s bookcase alongside it, his reference works neatly lined up against the edge of the shelf. George had regularly adjusted their alignment. “Inspecting the troops,” he called it.
She had always laughed at his little foibles, the way he tried to impose some sort of order on the world. Now she missed his habits; in fact, a few of them she had taken on board herself.
It had been three months now since his death. She still found herself making his morning cup of tea and placing a digestive on the saucer, and she still made sure his corner of the lounge was kept neat and tidy.
“It’s like a shrine,” Betty from next door had said. “Why don’t you get rid?” But somehow, she hadn’t been able to disturb anything associated with George.
Betty had been one of the few neighbours to attend his funeral. It was only down the road. Pamela thought a few more might have paid their respects, but she was not really surprised, for he had alienated them from so many of their friends with his ways.
Betty had gone with her last week, too, when she went to freshen his flowers and clean up his plot. Betty was very generous, considering that George had taken her to task for a sign she displayed in her porch: “No Junkmail, Cold Callers, Canvasers, or Religious Groups.”
“Canvas with one s is what campers sleep under,” he had informed her. “Whereas, to canvass – double s – is an activity undertaken by supporters of causes.”
Pamela always giggled when she heard Betty imitating George. She had him off to perfection. “And junk mail,” Betty would add, “is two words, not one.”
“Stop it,” Pamela had pleaded, holding her ribs. Pamela had felt guilty, standing beside George’s grave, chortling in such an abandoned way. “Poor old George,” she had said, trying to put herself into a more respectful mood. To make obeisance, she had given his headstone a thorough polish.
Here lies George Arthur Higginbottom
“Passing through nature into the eternal”
Betty had said nothing, pursing her lips sceptically. Afterwards the two of them had gone back to Betty’s for tea.
Pamela came back to the present with a jolt as George’s carriage clock suddenly struck six. She leapt up from the settee as though stung, for, since his demise, she had not wound the thing. It had been one of George’s rituals and, somehow, it had seemed respectful, after his death, to let it rest too. She gingerly picked up the timepiece and held it to her ear. It was definitely ticking. How peculiar. Could it have been Betty, perhaps?
Bewildered, Pamela replaced the clock. It had been presented to George on his retirement from Braithwaite’s Insurance, where he had worked for 43 years. Pamela yawned and considered returning to bed.
She was halfway to the stairs when the phone in the hall rang. She was close enough to silence it almost immediately, lifting the receiver to her ear. Nothing. After a while she could bear the eerie silence no longer.
“Who’s there?” she demanded. “Will you stop ringing me!” With uncharacteristic force, she slammed down the receiver.
This was something else that had begun following George’s death. At first, she’d suspected someone who’d had a grudge against him – and there were certainly quite a number in that category. She and George had experienced nuisance calls in the past.
But this was different. She’d contacted BT, who had started monitoring her calls, although BT insisted, that there were no traces of calls at the times Pamela specified. Engineers had come and inspected the equipment, even replacing the handset itself, but the calls persisted, and often at very unsocial hours. 6.03am, she wrote on the pad next to the handset.
That put paid to any more thoughts of sleep. She went to the kitchen and made herself another cuppa. It was still too early for breakfast and, anyway, the sandwich had satisfied her appetite. “Oh, George,” she sighed, putting down the spoon on the draining board. Though she thought she had done this carefully, the spoon somehow skittered off the edge of the sink and clattered into the metal recess.
“Clumsy!” Pamela admonished herself.
Back in the lounge, she crept past George’s chair, observing his leather writing case lying neatly zipped on its shelf below the bookcase. His prized possession, a blue Parker 51 fountain pen, lay diagonally across the top. It was positioned not quite as he’d left it, for he’d had that fatal stroke and the pen, together with his writing pad and the board itself, had ended up on the floor alongside him.
As she walked by, Pamela once again tutted at the stubborn ink-stain on the carpet. It seemed to taunt her. She’d repeatedly tried to remove it but, although her efforts always seemed successful at first, the blue-black stain always reappeared. She was becoming resigned to it.
Betty maintained that it was how George would have wanted to go, still engaged in his one-man battle against the barbarians who were destroying the English language. These last words were decidedly George’s, not Betty’s. Pamela again smiled to herself, appreciative of Betty’s skills at mimicry.
It was true, George often acted like an embattled warrior. When the post was due, for example, he would position himself at the bottom of the stairs, ready to pounce. George was always at his most tetchy when going through the mail. From the kitchen, she would hear him tutting or, occasionally, snorting with laughter. Though she tried to avoid being in the vicinity, George liked her to be present when he read his correspondence to be his sounding board. All that was required of her were sympathetic noises – sighing, tutting, gasping – following his cue.
She now found herself ritualistically making these noises and laughed again. Betty was right. She needed to move on. Pamela sipped her tea thoughtfully, watching the light start to bleach the curtains.
She still received the occasional letter addressed to George, and it made her realise that, out there, others were continuing their rear-guard action against the new Dark Ages. She would always write back, letting the writer know that their fellow warrior had passed on. Except that she couldn’t use that phrase: “passed on.” George hated euphemisms. He always insisted on calling a spade “an instrument for digging,” which was another of his little jokes, of course. It was no surprise that many people didn’t know what he was on about half the time.
He, though, had never been one to express any allegiance with fellow activists. George preferred to see himself as a lone wolf confronting an ignorant world, whether in the person of a local councillor, a journalist, or even unwitting innocents like Betty with her incorrectly worded sign. Each could expect a strongly worded wrap on the knuckles. Some would write back, of course, defending themselves; or, more commonly, advising George what he might do with his pen, even one as valuable as a Parker 51.
Betty had suggested that Pamela might bury the pen with George, clipping it to the breast pocket of his best suit. “It’s not quite putting it where some of his respondents recommend,” she’d said, “but he’d have his precious weapon with him in the hereafter, should he wish to get in contact.”
Pamela leaned across George’s chair and carefully unscrewed the top of his Parker. For some reason she’d started to check that it still contained ink; although, in his lifetime, George would never let her near it. She wasn’t quite sure why she did this, especially given the stain on the carpet, but she proceeded to unzip his writing case and started doodling on the top sheet of his Basildon Bond pad. What would George say if he could see her, she wondered.
He used to tell her off for doodling in the margins of the newspaper. That was in the days when she tried to share his passion for the English language. She’d read out clues from the crossword to him, but she discovered that he wasn’t actually very good at guessing the answers, preferring, instead, to criticise the compilers for their badly phrased clues. Despite the fact that she said doodling helped her think, George had always frowned on the practice.
As she recalled those early days of their marriage, she let George’s pen flow across the pad more freely. She wrote his name several times, adding loops and flourishes.
She then discovered that, without even realising it, she had written the word “eternity” below his name. It was as though the pen, of its own volition, had come up with this word. She could have sworn, too, that the style of writing – especially those strong downstrokes – was more like George’s hand.
Pamela almost dropped his pen in shock. She managed to hold on to it but, as her hand jerked, she blotted the paper, and the word “eternity” was partially lost beneath a bead of ink. She used the sheet of blotting paper at the front of the pad to absorb the spillage, but the last three letters were now unreadable.
“The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on,” he liked to quote at her. “And all your piety and wit cannot lure it back to cancel half a line, or all your tears wash out a word of it.”
She smiled to herself. Her memory was still sound, at least. “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” she said aloud. She had always liked the sound of that.
Pamela went back to the kitchen to wash her stained fingers. But before she got there, the phone started jangling again. She lifted and dropped the handset in one movement, writing 6.22am on the pad. Then through the door, she watched as the bulb in the standard lamp, which stood behind George’s chair, flicker several times before expiring with a little popping noise.
It was going to be one of those days. She went upstairs to run a bath. A long soak would do her good. She and Betty were going to visit the cemetery later, for it was exactly three months since George had died: three months since she had found him on the floor, his writing materials scattered about him.
Later in the day, Pamela found herself clearing his plot of leaves and chocolate wrappers (George couldn’t abide litter). She and Betty then sat side by side on a nearby bench, sharing a flask of tea and an iced bun.
“It’s funny,” said Betty, dispatching her last sticky mouthful, “that he wanted those words on his tombstone.”
“What do you mean?” asked Pamela. “It’s from one of his favourite plays: Hamlet.”
“That might be so, Pamela, but didn’t he always hate ufo-whatsisnames?”
“That’s them. Didn’t he always hate it when people said ‘passing’ rather than ‘dying’? Then he goes and has it on his tombstone.”
“Headstone,” Pamela couldn’t stop herself correcting her friend. “Sorry,” she smiled across at Betty. “A George moment.” Pamela then seemed to register what her friend had said. “But you’re right, Betty… How strange!” Why had she never noticed before?
Pamela took a mouthful of tea to clear her throat. “All I know is, when we were once at a performance of Hamlet, he turned to me and said that he thought it would make a most apposite epitaph.” Pamela carefully screwed the top onto her thermos. “Passing through nature to eternity,” she quoted.
“…to the eternal,” corrected Betty, pointing to the headstone.
“Oh, yes!” agreed Pamela, looking up. “Good job George isn’t here!”
“I’m sure that if you’d buried him with his pen, you’d have received a letter post haste!”
That evening, after another cuppa at Betty’s, Pamela went home. She was shocked to see the writing case lying unzipped and open on George’s chair, with the pen alongside it, its top missing. Her heart thumped until she recalled the morning’s upset. It must have been her.
Once again she caught sight of the word she’d unwittingly scrawled on his writing pad: eternity, now partially obliterated, and she recalled the Rubaiyat quote, too, about the impossibility of cancelling a word once writ. She chuckled to herself. What would George have said if he could have heard her? She screwed on the pen top and zipped up the writing case, placing the pen in its time-honoured position on top.
As she carefully arranged the items, she also noticed that the spines of George’s reference books were out of line, particularly his precious Oxford Book of Quotations. Again, she was slightly startled, for she recalled straightening them earlier – another habit she’d picked up from him.
She reached out to realign the book — which George always referred to as his Bible — but, on a whim, removed it to check the Hamlet quotation. She knew it was there, for she remembered consulting it for the funeral director.
And there it was. Except that, it did indeed say “eternity,” as she had correctly quoted it that afternoon. Which meant that – she swallowed hard – it was his headstone that was wrong.
A fortnight later, Pamela and Betty were once again sitting together, drinking tea and eating ginger cake. This time they were at Pamela’s, having just returned from their weekly trip to the cemetery. Pamela, in particular, was looking more relaxed, as Betty repeatedly told her.
The headstone had been changed, at Pamela’s insistence, and it had cost her nothing, as the error turned out to lie with the stonemason. Pamela was convinced that this was the cause of all the disturbances she’d experienced. It was poor George, who just couldn’t rest till things were put right.
Betty had simply laughed. But even she had to admit that things were now quieter in her neighbour’s house and, what was more important, Pamela was now more at peace with herself.
As the two of them reflected on this, the phone suddenly rang. They clung to each other in shock. They looked ominously at the instrument before Betty shouted, looking heavenwards, “there’s no need to thank her, George!”
Their laughter broke out again, drowning out the ringtone which, just as suddenly, halted.
About The Author
Dr David Rudd, 70+, is an emeritus professor of literature who turned out academic books and articles for some 40 years but who always had a yearning to give his imagination freer rein. His stories have appeared in Bandit Fiction, Horla, TigerShark, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Literally Stories, The Creative Webzine, Jerry Jazz Musician, Erotic Review and a Didcot Writers anthology, First Contact. He also enjoys playing folk/blues music, but this pastime is far more derivative.
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