The door slammed behind him making her jump, spilling her tea into the saucer. George trudged into the kitchen with his usual business-like swagger, droning on again about the choice of venue for the Rotary Club dinner. “For God’s Sakes Eileen, what were they thinking of? What possessed them to book a function room at the back of a funeral parlour?”
“Oh dear. The meeting didn’t go well? I think it was very enterprising of John and Sally to create a welcoming space for the bereaved to gather, and to hire it out as a function room. And it’s very generous of them to offer it for the Rotary Club dinner.”
George spluttered, indignant, as he plonked himself down opposite her at the kitchen table and waited for her to pour him a cup of tea from the pot.
“But we can’t have Lady Morgan-Stanley as guest of honour at the annual RC gala dinner surrounded by coffins! And Urns! The smell of embalming fluid everywhere….”
“It’s not like that George. They hardly ever embalm – they do all that natural stuff. You know, wicker coffins, biodegradable urns….”
“It’s preposterous. They’re not enterprising, their just desperate. Inheriting that business from her father has nearly broken their marriage and everyone knows it. I don’t want to be walking past dead bodies on my way to dinner!”
“If you had ever gone into their funeral parlour you would know it’s not like that.” There was an uncomfortable silence. George looked at her, but could see no discernible reaction. As usual, his policy on these occasions was to say nothing. He noticed that she had not poured him a cup of tea.
“What’s that?” George waved at the turquoise Box, too large for jewellery and too small for clothes. It had a ribbon, and lay between them like an offering. Next to it lay a flyer with a picture of a couple holding a similar box, and a headline. He picked up the flyer and read the words out loud: “Divorce in a Box”.
He slapped the flyer down on the table. “What on earth is this Eileen? What in God’s name is ‘Divorce in a Box’?” He said the words mockingly. Eileen stared at him, studying his face, and he felt uncomfortable. She hadn’t really looked him in the eyes for going on 8 months. He busied himself pouring his own tea, but he could feel that his hands were shaking slightly. He hoped she didn’t notice.
In order to avoid her gaze, George surveyed the kitchen he had fitted almost single-handedly over the previous 20 years, and it looked like most other 1980’s kitchens with orange formica tops, swirly lino on the floor and – his own bit of creativity – a curved salad bar which he’d copied from a photo his brother in Sydney had sent him of his wife and first born child standing in their own sunny kitchen, thousands of miles away. A happy image that had touched him at the time, even though he and Eileen had married on the agreement that they would not have a family of their own.
“Eileen, who’s getting divorced?” He felt his voice sounded more solid than he was feeling.
A pause. Eileen seemed lost in thought, staring at a rather incongruous addition to their conventional decor – a slightly rusty number plate hanging above the door leading to the living room. Once or twice it had fallen and nearly decapitated the cat, but George had always insisted on replacing it.
“Why do you keep that thing?” She asked, still looking at the number plate. “The van died years ago.”
“You’ve met someone else.” George’s voice was accusatory. He wasn’t going to be drawn on questions of decor at a time like this.
Eileen shuffled on her kitchen chair, looking uncomfortable.
“It’s that bloody driving instructor, isn’t it? Did ‘Drive with Bob’ get confused about which gear stick you were supposed to be pulling on then…?”
Eileen couldn’t help but smile. She’d never seen him be jealous before. It was almost comical. “You were the one who insisted on me having driving lessons. I was quite happy with you doing the driving.”
“You needed to get out of the house woman! You were taking those bloody pills that made you stare into space for hours and I wasn’t going to have a drug addict for a wife.”
“The doctor said I needed them. Why couldn’t you just let me be depressed. Why do you always have to interfere?”
She sat upright suddenly, and eyed him inquisitively. “George” she said slowly. It was good that I came off those pills. Because then I really was able to feel the pain 100%. And those driving lessons gave me some respite from the crying. Because I don’t have windscreen-wipers on my eyes, it was dangerous to cry whilst at the wheel. And yes, I did get to associate that nice young man with feeling – well – better I suppose.”
George picked out the words one by one as she spoke and arranged them in his head in the order that fit his preconceptions.
There was an expression on his face almost of smugness. This really irritated Eileen. When she spoke, her voice lacked its usual warmth.
“When a husband loves his wife, and he thinks she’s having an affair, one would expect signs of regret, sadness – even tears.”
George’s face turned from rosy to puce in a millisecond.
“Tears! That old hatchet again?!” He was shouting, suddenly incandescent with rage. “A top class prep school, a high achieving Grammar education and 14 years in the Army does not provide qualifications or skills in ‘crying’.” His voice softened: “Besides, haven’t you done enough crying for both of us?” He wasn’t trying to be unkind. That was something he rarely did, which she appreciated about him.
He leapt up knocking his chair over, and looked as if he was going to run somewhere, but didn’t know which direction to flee. He stayed standing, anxious, suddenly no sign of smugness on his face. He reminded her of when he’d first left the army, looking confused and not sure what he was going to do next, or what the future held for him.
Calmly, Eileen looked up at him, too shaky to stand herself. “George” she said slowly. Why didn’t you come to the blessing?”
“Because we’d already had the funeral Eileen. It was all done and dusted and time to move on. Why did you have to bring it all up again last month and want a ‘blessing’? A bloody pagan ceremony with your funeral parlour friends saying made-up prayers and scattering ashes all over the dead leaves in the wood….”
“Bluebells” Eileen interrupted. “In the Bluebell wood. Where we used to make love”.
“But not any more!” George’s voice was quavering now. She didn’t quite recognise him. He was really angry – not just his usual blustery Sergeant-Major-self behaving at least ten years older than his 58 years, but actually, really angry.
Eileen continued, softly: “It’s not just the funeral parlour business that has rocked Sally and John’s marriage. She had a miscarriage 2 months ago. They don’t talk about it. But they wanted to have a ceremony, and I felt that I needed to have one too. The funeral was such a blur. I wanted to be awake and say good bye properly.” She was starting to cry. This was not what she had intended, this was not how this Saturday afternoon had been planned out. It was all supposed to be simple and clean but now she was crying again.
George picked up the chair, but still didn’t sit down. “If you remember” he said slowly, not looking at her, “how it hurt you. A lot. And when you cried out with those bloody contractions, what could I do? I hid in the hospital corridors, feeling completely useless. And then there was that horrible silence. I came into the delivery room and everyone was staring at me with those sad, fucking sad eyes. “It’s killed my wife” I thought. “This little monster we didn’t even want in the first place, that crashed into our world messing up all our retirement plans with no respect for the bloody menopause and then I saw you, you were looking at me. And breathing. And someone touched my arm and told me it was dead and all I could think was ‘good’.”
Slowly, he eased himself into the chair, and turned to her and looked at her with a face so open that she almost fell into it. “But then I had to watch you suffer, and I couldn’t do anything to help you. Even in death, it was tearing you away from me. So no, I didn’t want to visit the body in the funeral parlour. I didn’t want to throw ashes over the fucking bluebells. I don’t want to remember or talk about ‘Justin’ or whatever you called him. I don’t want to talk about anything that makes you hurt, when I can’t do anything about it. When I can’t make it better.”
Silence. He’d said the baby’s name. It was the first time she’d heard it on his lips. She started as if to speak but George threw his hands in the air in a gesture of despair and anger and she kept her mouth shut. He leaped up from the chair, knocking it clattering to the floor again and lurched over to the living room doorway. He jumped up and grabbed at the licence plate above the door, and it wasn’t till the third leap he managed to yank it off the wall, bits of plasterboard spattering his greying hair and flecking the edge of the brown and blue living room carpet.
He ran towards her with the now bent piece of metal in his large hands and for a moment she was afraid, afraid that he was going to beat her with an old number plate of the camper van they had shared so many wonderful adventures in before the gearbox went on the M6 and they never replaced it. Because saving for retirement became the priority of the day. She felt indignant during those few stretched seconds that she had in which to review her situation, as George came towards her brandishing the now twisted metal, his arms raised, and she felt cross, not wanting “beaten to death by camper van number plate” to be her epitaph in the local press.
He grabbed the side of the kitchen table, his breath rasping, almost excited, and waved the number plate at her. “I’ve fixed it” he panted, “I’ve fixed it”. Eileen waited for him to make sense. “The camper van, it’s in a garage and I’ve been fixing it up. I stopped for a while because of the pregnancy because I thought it was all messed up, but these last months I’ve been getting it ready.”
“What do you mean – getting it ready?”
“For our retirement. Next year, or this year if you want, or whenever you want, we can go away in it. We can go to all the old places, or to new places. I want to go and see my brother.”
“But he’s in Australia”.
“Yes, I know. But we can just go can’t we? We don’t have any reason not to. That’s why I bought you those driving lessons so we could share the driving. It was going to be a surprise, I was going to bring the van up to the house and take you for a drive and we were going to plan our route. I’ve been saving up. For the last 3 years.” He paused. “Are you having an affair with Mr Parsons from the ‘Drive With Bob Driving School’?
Eileen spoke softly. “No George. I’m not pulling on ‘Drive with Bob’s’ gear stick or having an affair with him or anyone else.”
“George”, Eileen continued slowly, as if to someone waking from a dream, who you don’t want to startle. “At what point in this ‘conversation’ did I give you a present of this box? At what point did I hand it over to you – or even say it was for you?”
“What?” George’s confusion made his voice sound almost childlike. “What do you mean?”
Eileen held his gaze. She felt that old familiarity of sinking into his features with her eyes the way she used to do whenever he returned on leave. It always felt like coming home for her too. Suddenly a look of deep compassion rearranged her 54 year old face into a softer, kinder visage.
The silence was long, but not uncomfortable. “It’s a present for Sally and John.” Her explanation was slowly paced, clearly articulated. “I bought it on the internet. It’s full of vouchers for relationship counsellors as well as lawyers. It keeps people out of court – or that’s what they said. Anyway, it’s for them. It’s not for you.”
George’s curiosity kicked in. Now freed from the imminent threat of his wife leaving him, he reached out for the unopened box. Eileen grabbed it, a little too hastily. “I’ll need to add their names to the gift tag” she says briskly, sweeping the box up into her arms as she left for the hallway.
As she turned the gift tag on the box over, she stared at her own neat handwriting, and took the pen that lay resolutely by the phone message book, never allowed to move from it’s allotted position, one of George’s relatively few rules and regulations. She neatly, firmly, and with quiet deliberation, crossed out the words “To George” written on the card tag attached by a gold thread to the box.
She then snipped off the tag with scissors from the hall table drawer, and taking a new, fresh label to add onto the box, she wrote the names: “John and Sally. A present from well-meaning friends.”
© suzy miller 2012