The Date

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
How death can affect you young man.

Submitted: October 02, 2016

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Submitted: October 02, 2016

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The Date

 

The wind-born sand had filled and filled again the holes of the miniature golf course and spread liquid like across the empty promenade as far as the road, Marine Drive, empty too of traffic. Guido's Italian Ice Cream Parlor with white peeling paint shutters displayed a weather worn sign proclaiming ‘Closed until Further Notice’, a state of affairs common to nearly all of the other establishments along the parade. Capt. John's Fish and Chips, no shutters but one window starred and cracked, Molly's Cafe, All Day Breakfasts, a large To Let sign nailed to the door, Seaview Sweets and Candy, a salt streaked filthy window behind which rows of empty shelves gathered dust, slowly, methodically.

The wind from the winter sea brought a fine mist of salt spray over the town, withering the plants in the gardens, rusting the railings around the park, seeping into every corner and crevice, a damp, briny corrosive miasma.

The town was dying. Every year a little more. Every year the summer season shortened, the holiday makers fewer, the winters longer, darker, sadder, and lonelier.

Seaforth had known a happier time, when coach loads and train loads of northern workers from the mills of Lancashire and the mines of Yorkshire had brought money and laughter to the town. It prospered, built a Lido at one end of the promenade, tropical gardens at the other, and a fine pier complete with kiosks, a concert hall, and a small aquarium, in the middle. The pier was now closed as unsafe, the tropical garden contained brownish skeletons of unidentifiable plants surrounded by weeds, and the Lido boasted just a few inches of green slime at the base of its cracked, mossy, and rust stained sides. 

Now few visitors came, mainly the old revisiting past memories, to stay briefly in the rundown hotels and guest houses whose proprietors were too lethargic to move or too poor to close down.

Soon nobody would come there, the last memories would fade, and a great silence descend, broken only by the crying of the gulls and the wind in the empty chimneys.

 

The man lent over the body and adjusted the knotting of the tie around the thin white neck of the corpse. He stood back, surveying his work and then turned to the youth standing slightly behind him.

'He'll do then. Just remember next time a double knot Windsor doesn't look good on a thin neck like this, much better a single knot.'

The young man nodded silently.

'I doubt there'll be any one coming to view in any case, so you can shut 'im up, you can manage that can you?'

'I can do that Mr Crawley, done it lots.' The young man replied, moving forward and looking down into the coffin where the corpse of a very old man lay in a crumpled brown suit. Mr. Crawley turned and studied his assistant critically for a moment as if unsure about him.

'Aye, just like t'other day. And when you're done give the place a sweep up and you can go off home, there's nought else to do today, he's not going until Friday.'

 

George Stalk had been assistant to Mr Crawley of Seaforth Funeral Parlor and Chapel of Rest for over a year, and considered that he had mastered the full range of his duties in the first week he worked there, and screwing down the coffin lid was about the simplest job he had. He did wonder why there were always ten screws to be driven through the cheap chipboard to secure the lid, it was obvious that four would have been sufficient, but that was not something he could bring up with his employer, ten it was and ten it always would be.

He didn't mind his work in the funeral parlor, in fact he enjoyed the quiet and the stillness of the place, it seemed he had much to think about.

It was his foster parent Bill Bench who had found him the work. Every Friday evening after dinner he would play darts with Mr. Crawley in the Marine Tavern until ten o clock. And when George reached sixteen and was no longer obliged to attend school, the Bench's were keen to get him out to work and bring in a little extra each week. George had no objection, for all his life school had been a place of misery. He made no friends, and was initially frequently bullied until his tormentors grew bored with his complete lack of reaction to their assaults. He seemed to have no interest in the work, only showing an aptitude in art, where his creations were considered talented but strange and disturbing. He had the reputation with both staff and pupils as being an oddball, a misfit, and a marginal. But Mr Crawley was happy to obtain an assistant who was not only cheap to employ, but unusually quiet and respectful for a youth of that town.

 

Four o clock and already nearly dark as George made his way home along the deserted promenade in the fine mist of rain. He passed the boarded up entrance to the pier and then on until leaving the tropical gardens on his right he climbed the hill to where the Bench's lived in a bland and rather neglected semi-detached house in a long street of similar properties.

The Bench's were both obese, and lived on benefits, Bill claiming chronic back pain, and Maureen his wife breathing problems. Bill's hobby, even obsession, was taxidermy, practised alone in the garage, a place George was banned from. The few times he had managed a glimpse inside gave him no desire to explore further for it stank of chemicals and death. Huge glass demijohns of formaldehyde were arranged around the walls, Bill had purchased a job lot a few years ago, enough to last him a lifetime George thought, and several animals were often lying about on the benches in various stages of preservation and decomposition. Sometimes Bill managed to sell a stuffed dog or cat to a grieving owner, but mostly they were just left around the house or in the garage.

The Bench's decision to foster George, when he was five, was simply a financial one. They worked out carefully that the cost of keeping him was far less than the money provided by the council for him, they had no interest in children in general or George in particular.

So the young George grew up in an emotional vacuum, unaware of the norms of relationships and affection, unaware even of his own loneliness and isolation, with not even the faintest memory of his real parentage to fill the ache within him that he hardly noticed.

Entering the house he went straight to his room, the smallest bedroom over the garage. His foster parents were watching television in the lounge, from where they would not move until George made the supper around seven. He kicked off his shoes and lay down on his bed staring up at the ceiling. For some time he had been feeling strange, different to what was normal for him, although he could not find a reason. It was a sort of empty feeling, a feeling of perhaps waiting, or wanting, although he had no idea what for. He remembered little of his life before the Bench's had taken him in, and this small bedroom had been his world, a place where he could come and forget the reality, and dream.

Once at school, when he was about eleven, a slightly embarrassed classmate, one of the few who would actually speak to him, approached him in the playground at break and muttered quickly...

‘Sheila asked me to ask you if you wanted a date.’

George felt panic and his face reddening as he struggled for a reply.

‘No.’ He whispered eventually, then clearing his throat louder and turning away quickly, ‘No, I don't.’

Embarrassed and confused he hurried into class, unable to prevent himself glancing round to where Sheila, surrounded by a group of laughing friends, was staring towards him, her face blank and unsmiling.

He had never really noticed her before, and ordinary looking girl, not particularly pretty and rather quiet. He'd certainly never spoken to her or even thought about her. It was a strange and scary, event, leaving him bewildered and slightly repelled by the unasked for intimacy but with a distant and foreign feeling of fascination, a tiny voice somewhere inside his head.

After that he took pains to avoid her, aware of the looks and giggles of his classmates that took several weeks to fade away. But George couldn't forget, and the uncomfortable feeling that he had somehow hurt the girl stayed with him, and sometimes he caught himself dreaming what might have been if he had accepted. What was it like to have a date, a friend, even a girlfriend? These thoughts came often to him alone in his room.

 

‘There's a new client coming in later this morning, you can get the coffin set up. The basic one George please, no frills this time.’ Announced Mr Crawley when he arrived for work the following morning.

‘Will we be leaving it open or closed.’ Asked George.

‘Oh we'll close it up right away, coming straight from the hospital, an' there's no kin, no one likely to want to view.'

George went to make the tea, Mr Crawley always wanted his tea before work in the morning. He was thinking about the body about to be sealed into a coffin later today and cremated later without family or friend to attend. It seemed strange that someone could live for years and then disappear without trace. Even very poor people who died, and there were plenty of those in Seaforth, who had family or friends, left something behind, memories, stories, reminiscences. Without really feeling it he knew it must be sad somehow, not right.

The funeral home of course would provide the regulation four pall bearers to carry the coffin, but it would be just another job for them, they wouldn't even spare a thought for what was in the chipboard box on their shoulders.

 

At twelve o clock the ambulance arrived from the hospital and the corpse sealed in a grey plastic body bag was carried into the laying out room at the rear of the parlor. Mr. Crawley signed for it then left for lunch that he always took in the Marine Tavern at the corner of the street.

‘You can manage the laying out can’t you George? Like I said, no extras, straight in and batten down. Got it?’ He told him ass he left.

‘Yes Mr. Crawley, I can manage.’

‘You can go for yer lunch when that's done, don't forget to lock up though.’

 

The single ting of the doorbell announcing Mr Crawley's exit faded and silence filled the funereal parlor save for the very faint hum of the refrigeration unit in the laying out room.. George liked silence, it seemed he could hear his own voice better, clearer, and noise was distracting, confusing, even frightening. The dead held no fears for George, right from his first day with Mr Crawley he had not shrunk from viewing and touching the dead. It was the living whom he had learnt to beware of, they could hurt, and often did.

He stood over the body still concealed in its plastic wrapping for a moment, checking it's length. Sometimes very tall men needed one of the special coffins, two hundred and fifty pounds extra plus vat. But this one was obviously not tall, indeed quiet small, he would be able to lift it on his own with no problem he guessed. Then he reached over and slowly drew down the zip and pushed back the plastic to uncover the body.

Sheila Frost, his old classmate, the girl who wanted a date lay before him, her face pale, slightly matured now since he had last seen her in the classroom of 4D just over a year ago. She was still instantly recognisable although clothed in a pale blue hospital gown rather than her usual shabby school uniform.. For a while he stood leaning over her, as if in obeisance, still unwilling to accept what he plainly saw, his eyes affirming what his mind told him was impossible. This was not a place for the young, at least not in his experience, here he could expect the old, the wrinkled, grey hair or bald, yellowing nails, missing teeth, this was their domain, not this smooth skin, glossy black hair, straight limbs and all surrounded by the faint odor of a cheap perfume.

He straightened up and stepped back, quite unsure as to what to do next. The idea of lifting her into the coffin, shutting the lid, and then screwing it down with the ten ridiculous screws seemed impossible. Here was the girl who had once shared the classroom with him, taken school dinners a few feet away, set up her easel near to his in art class, who had dared the mockery of her friends and asked the strange friendless boy for a date, and who had endured the shame of his refusal. Now she awaited him, her eyes closed, the small mouth showing just a glimpse of white teeth, her hair a dark tangled storm on the cold grey plastic. 

He turned suddenly away and walked into the storage room at the back of the parlor where the coffins were kept. He pushed what he had seen away, into the darkness where it could lie safely, until...

Working quickly he selected a coffin from amongst the dozen or so arranged on racks along the walls,  slid it onto a trolley, and wheeled it back. Entering the laying out room he averted his eyes, half hoping the body would have disappeared or been replaced with another one, a real dead person. But when he forced himself to stand again alongside it, and look down at it, it was still her.

She had always been very pale he remembered, and her colour now seemed almost normal, the lips a little grey, the eyelids almost transparent, but he could imagine without difficulty her awaking as if from sleep, opening her eyes, stretching her limbs, looking up at him.

He maneuvered the trolley next to the gurney, then taking a deep breath he lifted her and placed her gently into the bare chipboard coffin. She was unexpectedly light, and through the thin fabric of the nightdress he could feel the form of her body, firm and cold.

He looked down on her for a long time, trying to connect the dead girl with the live one, trying to understand the changes, and then the wondering, what had brought her here, what accident or illness had stolen her life leaving her body untouched.

 

George was tightening the last screw, number ten, when Mr. Crawley returned from lunch.

'You've finished her then?' He enquired, ' No problems?'

George look up at him.

'No Mr Crawley, no problems.'

 

It was later that afternoon before George plucked up the courage to ask Mr Crawley about the girl.

'Do you know what happened to the client? She seemed so young, was she sick?'

Mr Crawley put down the newspaper he was reading, his feet propped up on the

large mahogany desk in his office.

'Nay lad, from what the hospital told me she took her own life. Overdose, left a note apparently, sad case. But there you are, it 'appens an' it's a sad waste of a life if you ask me.'

'Do they know why, what did the note say? Will nobody come to view her, not her family?'

George spoke quickly, trying to hide his feelings, unsuspected feelings that threatened to ambush him. Mr Crawley looked up sharply.

'Now don't you start worrying yerself about things like that, she's just another client to us remember, keep yer distance.' He paused for a moment, then shrugged his shoulders and picked up his paper again.

'If yer must know, apparently all she said in the note was 'It's too cold', must have been off her head, probably drugs in my opinion, but they didn't need an autopsy because of the note. An' she was estranged from her family apparently, nobody interested. Pathetic if you ask me, waste of a life.'

 

The end of the grey winter afternoon that seemed to George cloaked in a strange aura of sadness and mystery and Mr Crawley deciding to shut up early so quiet it seemed. The coffin with the girl lay by itself in the centre of the room lit only by a single bulb, no flowers covered it, no brass handles relieved the dull brown false veneer of its surfaces. George passed his hand briefly over it as he left by the rear door of the parlor that led into the lane that ran down to Marine Drive and the promenade. 

He needed somewhere to think that was not his tiny room in the house, and he had a place where he knew he could be alone with his thoughts, uninterrupted and disconnected from the world.

He had discovered over a year ago, just after he had started working, how he could get onto the pier. A loose board permitted his long thin arm to withdraw a bolt on the service door at one side of the entrance, and once inside he could close and bolt it again. As long as nobody was looking he was sure he was safe from discovery. There was little chance of him being spotted from the promenade, but he made his way quickly to the far end of the pier carefully avoiding those areas of the wooden planking that had rotted and threatened collapse.

The end of the pier comprised both a concert hall and the small aquarium. George seldom went into the former since the auditorium had no windows and was in virtual darkness save for a little light entering where where bits of the roof had been blown away in the winter gales. His favorite place, the place where he would go to sit and think, was in the abandoned aquarium. Here the glass tanks remained, empty of water but still containing a little sand, the occasional decorative plastic rock formation, and bits of dried up weed. Along one wall was a long window looking out to sea, and it was here, in a deck chair he had found in a cupboard that he would sit, listening to the wind sighing, singing through the rusting ironwork, and the sea, on calm days sucking and splashing amongst the girders, and on stormy days howling, roaring, making the structure tremble as if in fear of the grey black mountains that rolled in from the north sea to beat heavily on the distant beach.

Darkness was approaching from the east where the horizon had already disappeared in a grey black mist, but George was unconcerned about being caught on the pier in the dark, there was always enough light from the distant town for him to be able to see his way back.

He thought about the girl lying in the chipboard box in the dark cold room, and tried to remember. Small things came back to him slowly; how she had seemed a little apart from the other girls in the class, always on the edges of a group, never quite absorbed, the times when he had glanced towards her to find her looking at him, and they both turning away quickly, embarrassed. And how in art class she had placed her easel not next to him but next but one, and slightly behind, and he could feel her eyes upon him without looking. Once they found themselves alone in the cloakroom, the last to leave, and he had held the door for her, and she had said something as she passed, faintly, just two or three words, but he didn't catch it, and then she was gone. Now he wondered what she might have said.

But now it didn't matter, not to her at least, her words were lost, and all that was left of her, her life, her brief existence in this poor dying town by the winter sea, were his small memories and the body, still, cold, alone, in the cheap chipboard box.

It seemed that only he could see it was wrong. George was well placed to understand that she had decided that her life meant nothing, for he had lived with that himself, and somehow survived. But he wondered what particular brand of misery had taken her, abuse, depression, loneliness?  And the note, what was its meaning? 'It's too cold', her final message to the world, to him, now the only one who cared.

It was wrong he murmured to himself as he left the aquarium in the near darkness of that early evening, and he thought he knew what had to be done.

 

The removal of five huge bottles of formaldehyde from Bench's garage, part of a job lot he had brought some years ago, and their transport by shopping trolley through deserted streets to the aquarium he accomplished the next night. The following night he returned to the funeral parlor after midnight, wheeling the trolley now containing half a dozen of Bench's unwanted mistakes and failures, stuffed animals too ripe to be allowed into the house.  Working quickly he removed the ten screws and lifted off the lid he had sealed two days before.

He stared down at the girl, lit harshly by the overhead bulb, with a feeling of relief. She was just as he remembered, but more beautiful he thought, the pallor of her skin, her stillness,  giving her an almost unworldly appearance, a creature from another place.

He removed the animals before carefully lifting her out of the coffin and maneuvering her as best he could onto the emptied trolley. Then he placed them in the empty coffin, wedging them with crunched up newspaper to prevent them sliding about should the thing be tipped up or mishandled, and screwed down the lid.

Ten minutes later he opened the door to the aquarium and wheeled his charge inside. He had brought with him a large torch, and he placed it on the top of one of the displays to illuminate the room. The tank he had chosen, the largest, was originally by the entrance, a label screwed to it announcing it once housed a conger eel, but with some difficulty he had slid it across the room so it was in front of the window where the first rays of the dawn sun should strike it. He had already half filled it with the formaldehyde, now all that remained was to place the girl inside.

For a moment he hesitated with her in his arms, the hospital gown seemed wrong, a thing of the outside world, the world she had rejected and left behind, but he couldn't bring himself to uncover her nakedness, he felt sure it would be wrong for him, the person she had felt something for, to presume this intimacy. Then sliding her gently below the surface, her hair moving, waving, the gown first clinging to her then abandoning her form to float around her, stroking, caressing the pale body it concealed.

He replace the lid on the tank and suddenly feeling very tired sat down in the deck chair facing the girl, the black window on the night, and the invisible sea beyond. The lamp began to dim and flicker, the battery fading, and eventually the light disappeared.  George sat on in the darkness, knowing she was there although invisible to him, and he fell asleep for the first time in his life not feeling alone.

It was the first sliver of the sun rising above the sea that woke him. A golden light that filled the room. Passing through the salt caked windows, through the glass tank, painting the girl and her gown with yellows and greens, prismatic refractions from glass and liquid, throwing rainbows across the floor and walls, and echoing the movement of the waters in a thousand flickering dancing reflections on the ceiling. It was beautiful George thought, beautiful like a painting he had never managed to finish but stayed in his mind, the colours intense, vibrant, and warm. He felt suddenly a strange new happiness, he had no idea why.

 

 

In the weeks that followed George tried to visit the girl every day, even though it was almost dark when he left work. The Bench's complained about his lateness arriving home, but could do nothing, perhaps fearing now he might claim his independence and move away, depriving the of the money he gave them each week. When George had arrived home after that first night, when he had installed the girl, he had taken a crow bar to the garage door, and as quietly as possible forced the lock, making it look like intruders had gained entry and stolen the formaldehyde and the stuffed animals.

'Bloody weird bunch if you ask me.' Bill had said surveying the damage, 'What would they want with that stuff, must be drug addicts if you ask me. That bunch that's always hanging around the old arcade, what do they call themselves? The Midnight Posse or something?'

'Most likely.' Said George. He knew the gang well, some of his old unemployed class mates were in it, and a couple of times they had stopped him in the street on his way home, demanding money in threats disguised as jokes. He had been pushed around a bit but managed to get away before worse could happen. But he had no idea that the gang, bored  and broke, had an interest in him, looking for a opportunity for entertainment at his expense, an outlet for their frustrations and hopelessness, calling him the freak, the nerd, and other names.

It was a late February afternoon when George, having been let off work early, set off for the pier, and was spotted by one of the gang named Spike, who decided to follow him. He watched from a distance as George approached the pier entrance, looked around carefully, then pulling back the loose panel reached inside to unlock the door and let himself in. Spike swore under his breath.

'Bloody hell! That's where he goes, he's found a way in the bugger.' And he hurried away to locate the other members and inform them that their prey was effectively trapped, alone, and isolated from any help.

George let himself into the aquarium and as usual went and stood close to the tank, looking for any change in the girl but not expecting any. Over the last few days she had in fact moved slightly, turning a little from her previous position face up, and rotating so that she seemed now to be facing into the room and away from the sea, towards where George usually sat. Her hair floated around her face, loose strands across her mouth and eyes, the gown had lifted, exposing her thin legs as far as her thighs. George stared intently for several minutes, but could not detect any movement. He went and sat down in his chair, the room now being almost darkened. He waited.

The voice from nowhere, from inside him, or far away, spoke to him.

 

I just wanted you to smile at me, just once.

I know, I was afraid.

Of me?

I don't know. Of the others. What they would say, or do.

But I didn't care about the others.

I'm sorry.

I wanted you to see me.

I can see you now.

From outside the aquarium came the sound of whispered voices.

He's in there.

The door's locked.

Smoke him out.

Did you never think of me?

I did, very often.

What did you think?

Put it against the door, it'll burn easy.

He'll be out in a flash.

What did you think?

I wondered, how you were, what it would be like?

Be like?

To be with you. To have a friend.

Give us the matches...quick now. There...it's alight.

You never had a friend? Never?

And you?

Never, not a real one, not someone who cared, even a bit.

Jesus, it's going up...they'll see it from the town...better get out of here.

 

The noise of many feet on the boards fades away. The sounds of burning, faint at first, then louder, becoming a roar.

 

Will you leave me now.

Never.

I know, but leave, it's alright now.

Alright?

I'm not cold anymore.

The girl had turned, now she faced the window. Looking out into the blackness where a half moon was lifting itself from the sea. Her face was lit by the cold light, and he could see her eyes had opened, as if watching its ascent.

He turned and looked towards the door, smoke was pouring under it and rising to the ceiling, creeping across the room towards him.

Go my love. It's over. I'm living in your dream.

He could feel the heat on his face and he turned once more towards the girl in the tank, he could see the reflection of her face in the black window, a spark of light reflected in her wide open eyes.

He went to the window at the end of the tank and opened it, the cool night air entering like a blessing. He lifted himself up by his arms and swung his legs over the sill, sitting briefly on the edge and turning once more towards the girl. He opened his mouth to speak, but no words came to him, and then he lowered himself down, moving from girder to girder until the water tugged at his ankles and he let himself go, slipping into the sea that welcomed him. He felt no cold, just the clinging of his clothes about his body, and he turned on his back and began to swim away.

He could see the glow in the sky as the fire took hold, and a little way away from the pier he let his body sink as he stared back at the aquarium, silhouetted against the bright background of flame, then suddenly came the explosion of light and sound as the formaldehyde caught, the ball of writhing twisting brightness rising from the fire, soaring upwards towards the red stained clouds, taking with it the aquarium, the tanks, and the girl dreaming a liquid dream cloaked in fire, anointed with heat.

Soon all that was left was the glow of the fires amongst the timbers, all had disappeared, and the young man turned away and began to swim, towards the moon that led him on with a silver trail across the water so straight and bright, and after a while he grew tired and stopped, knowing finally the meaning of her words.

 

The End

 

 


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