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a short story

by Gary Couzens

Just now Miriam, your wife -- no, your widow -- walked through you. She was vacuuming the hall carpet, and she went back and forth through the spot where you died.

You don't feel the cold, though January frost is on the ground outside. Come the summer, you won't feel the warmth either. By then Miriam will be gone, though you'll still be here.

Eat sensibly, they said. Take plenty of exercise. But everybody has 20/20 hindsight. When you felt the chest pains, you knew your time had come. A little part of you welcomed the inevitable. You were forty-five years old.

Is your soul forty-five? Or is it timeless? Maybe the latter, though there's no way of telling. You speak to no-one, and you have to answer your own questions.

Tick tick tick. The bleep of digital watches. Time is a treadmill. And now you're off it. You don't feel time passing. The clock hands turn, the leaves brown and fall, the ground is covered in white that melts to grey, but it's just a spectacle to you. You don't feel time's throb in your blood. You've shed the past and you have no future. A continuous present tense.

Miriam is on the phone to John, the eldest of your two children.

"I don't know," she's saying. "I did tell him to look after himself. But he wouldn't listen... Yes, I suppose you could call him pigheaded. I'd rather put it that he knew his own mind... Well, it's too late to do anything about it now."

The now is elongated, louder than the rest of the sentence. You watch as her face creases and she covers it with her hand. Her shoulders shake with dry sobs. Her eyes are red from crying.

This is your world.

You wander from the hallway into the kitchen, dining room and the study at the back. In another direction is the front room.

You can't leave the house. You're at your strongest in the hallway, where you died. If you roam the house, day or night (you don't sleep) you sense some loss of energy the further you move away from that spot. But you can't go out the back door. It's as if your house, your home, the network of associations it has amassed from your twenty years living inside it, holds you together. As if you're imprinted on it. You can't leave it: you've tried. Outside you'd simply disperse, scatter like ashes on the wind.

From the hallway you go upstairs onto the landing. Straight ahead is the bathroom. To your right is John's old room, then Georgina's, your daughter who's only recently left home. You were going to redecorate her room. Then there's the room you shared with Miriam for twenty years.

It's eleven at night, and Miriam is undressing for bed. You watch her put her clothes away, folding them with the instinctive neatness you used to envy. The woman you loved for twenty years or more is naked in front of you, and you feel nothing. You watch her pull a nightdress on over her head, smooth it down over her hips. She climbs into bed, puts on her glasses to read. But she can't concentrate, it seems, so she puts the book away and turns out the light.

Miriam answers the doorbell. On the step is Georgina in a pale orange padded coat, a scarf wrapped around her neck. When she speaks, her breath is visible; her cheeks are red. "Hi, Mum!" she says, and they embrace. On Georgina's right is a taller woman with long dark hair; she flashes a nervous smile.

"Mum, this is Sue," says Georgina.

"Oh yes," says Miriam. "Your..."

"The word is lover, Mum!" Georgina laughs.

Miriam invites them inside and takes their coats. Georgina has had her mouse-brown hair permed since you last saw her. You often wondered at her lack of boyfriends in the past, but didn't presume to ask her: she's always been attractive (if a bit on the short side) and looks especially good in leggings, which she's wearing at this moment. Now you know.

Later in the evening, Georgina says: "You remember when I told you I was a lesbian? Five years ago it was, now. Time flies." She and Sue are holding hands.

"How can I forget? It came as a total surprise."

"Did you ever tell Dad?"

"No, I didn't. I always said it was for you to do that."

"I never did. I was always meaning to. It's too late now. I -- I...I know this sounds silly, but I had no idea how he'd react."

"Were you scared of him?"

A long pause. "I suppose you could say that."

"You shouldn't have been. He always thought very highly of you. In fact, he often asked me why he never saw you with a boyfriend."

"Well, he never bloody asked me!" Georgina's face is flushed; she gesticulates wildly with her cigarette in her right hand. "I'd have told him why if he'd asked! I've known since I was bloody ten!"

Sue looks on, not wanting to take part in this family altercation.

"You should have told him, Georgina," says Miriam.

Georgina is crying now. "It's not my bloody fault! It's his, for being so bloody distant!" She coughs, dabs at her eyes with her handkerchief. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I shouldn't have said that."

It's two in the morning. You look down at Georgina and Sue, sleeping in your bed. Miriam has given it to them: they need the space, not her. Miriam is in Georgina's old single bed.

Georgina lies on her side and so does Sue, facing the same direction, moulding her body round Georgina's.

You do feel something.

You feel pain.

I'm sorry, Georgina, you want to say.

But there's no-one to hear those words, asleep or awake.

The next morning John and his wife Donna arrive. Today is your funeral. Another family occasion. The last one was John and Donna's wedding. Donna's dress is rounded out at the abdomen. You were told you were to be a grandfather. You felt the pride you'd felt when he helped you from an early age in the garden or with the car; that pride when he grew up tall and strong, when he started to bring girlfriends home. You remember the evening when you came home one night (Miriam and Georgina were away) to find John and a girlfriend kissing and embracing on the front room settee, clothes loosened, oblivious. You smiled and closed the door, leaving them be. All that is in the past.

But now you'll never see your grandchild.

Miriam, John, Donna and Georgina kiss and embrace. John is pale and drawn; Donna, on the other hand, is blithe, the only one capable of smiling. Although she was always friendly to you (you always found her attractive, from the time when John first introduced her to you), she is perhaps most distant from today's event and with her pregnancy is otherwise preoccupied. Or simply putting on a brave face.

John and Donna shake Sue's hand. Perhaps it wasn't wise for Georgina to bring her; she's out of place. But maybe their entwined roots go deeper, and her function here is to give Georgina support. And the time she does that is when they're together alone.

Miriam serves them all tea, then goes to change into her funeral dress, black with a veil. She climbs into the front passenger seat of John's car, Donna, Georgina and Sue crowding into the back. John starts the car.

The house is empty.

You are alone.

You do not know what will happen.

Have you been fated to last as long as the funeral? Will the action of putting your body in the ground, food for worms, put your soul at rest? You look at the lounge clock. They must be burying you about now. But you feel no dissolution of energy. Or will you just simply vanish, to go -- where? And where are the other dead?

You don't know.

After the funeral, Miriam hosts your wake. In this room are people you haven't seen for years, distant relatives, old friends, some of them dating from your schooldays. How they've changed: put on weight, acquired lines, thinning hair. Parents and even, in some cases, grandparents. You listen to the conversation. How sudden, how unexpected, what a sad day. But further away, out of the earshot of your immediate family, darker notes are sounded: how you brought it upon yourself, didn't look after yourself, asking for a heart attack. They talk about Georgina too: how could she bring her lesbian lover to an occasion like this? Another comes to her defence: her father was very strict, took the news of her lesbianism very hard.

It's not true! you want to shout. I didn't know about it!

You want to cry, but no tears come. It's like you're watching a film; you can't change what you see. I didn't know. I tried my best. You can't ask more than that. No-one can.

In the centre of the room, Miriam stands next to John, talking to her sister Andrea.

"So what do you plan to do?" says Andrea.

"I'm going to stay with John and Donna for a while. They might need my help, what with the baby and everything." John puts his arm about her shoulder. "This place I'm going to sell, find something smaller. This is too big for me, and there are too many ... memories."

A FOR SALE sign has appeared in the garden. John is helping Miriam pack her belongings into his car. Many items will be sold, as she won't have room for them in her new home; she's left a forwarding address by the telephone.

Finally Miriam is ready to go. The last suitcase is packed; the last box has been filled.

"Have you got everything, Mum?" says John.

"Yes, I think so." There's a slight quaver in her voice.

"Just one final look round?"

Miriam blinks. "Yes."

You follow her as she walks round one last time. She and John have done a thorough job; the house is bare. Nothing has been left behind.

Except for you.

As she stands on the doorstep, ready to leave, you reach out and touch her on the shoulder.

She looks up. Did she feel your touch? She mouths two words. And then she is gone. You hear the car turning on the gravel.

Like a radioactive isotope, you have a half-life. Eventually you will decay and die a second time.

Goodbye, she said. And then she said your name.

for Valerie Thame, with thanks

© Gary Couzens 2003.
This story was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1996), and is reprinted in Gary's collection Second Contact and Other Stories (Elastic Press, 2003; ISBN 095437472X).
Second Contact and Other Stories by Gary Couzens
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