Maggie Says Hello

 

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Tom opened his eyes as the front door closed with a thud. ‘Grandad?’
‘In here. Is it Tuesday?’ Dana, his granddaughter bounded into the room, all arms and legs and little else. Plonked herself down with a sigh.
‘Yes, it’s Tuesday, Grandad. All day!’ She giggled. ‘Nan used to say that, remember?’ She pulled her knees up to chest. ‘Can I have some squash?’ Maggie used to make squash for the grandkids. Dana said he made it too strong.
Tuesday, he mumbled, creases pinching his forehead as if it remembered many Tuesdays. He pulled himself from his chair. Shuffled to the kitchen. Flicked on the kettle. Turned on the tap.
‘What have you been up to then?’
Tuesday was named after the Tiw, the one-handed God of war. He felt like he’d lost the war, shuffling through each nondescript day to the next.
‘Went shopping with mum, took Alex the park after school, homework. Boring stuff.’ She sipped the squash he handed her. Grimaced. ‘Have you started doing it? Can we go and see?’
He tittered to himself. ‘I must admit I haven’t, but I will, so don’t worry.’

His days used to have their own texture, their own set of precise routines. Tuesdays would be book club for Maggie and dominoes for him. Thursday, they played squash together at the leisure centre and after had a bite to eat at the café on Marshall Lane. On a Saturday morning, Maggie did Tai Chi at the community hall and when she came home, she would always have a quick shower, then make enough soup for the week. They both liked a bowl of something hot for lunch, as they surveyed the garden and talked about how seasons change.

Dana twitched her nose, freckles like biscuit crumbs shimmering across her pale nose. ‘I miss my nan, Grandad.’
‘I know you do.’ Tom said, putting his arm around her shoulders. ‘I do too.’

The kettle whistled for attention. He removed it from the stove. One of few sounds left now, the old kettle, echoing in all the empty spaces Maggie left behind. The only other sound, his own thoughts. He imagined them darting through the air, lines of half-formed letters trying to complete themselves before deciding they must be pointless, or obsolete.

He watched Dana tear the lid off the biscuit tin. ‘You never have nice biscuits anymore.’
‘Your nan dealt with all that.’
’What did you do?’
Taken aback, he looked out of the window, ran his hand across his forehead. Opened his mouth to speak.
‘Do you think heavens real?’
Maggie had always been better at answering Dana’s questions, keeping up with her curious mind. ‘I’m not sure to be honest.’
‘Is nan there though, in heaven I mean?’

He grabbed the silver spoon, the one lying sticky on the worksurface with its a coffee stain halo. After she died, he’d had to make his own coffee. He didn’t even know how he took his own coffee. He knew he liked just a drop of milk, and not too strong but did he take sugar and if so, how much? He’d had to try no sugar, one sugar, two sugars until he discovered his preference.

Tom peered at his granddaughter. ‘In heaven? I don’t know, Dana.’ She looked so young and innocent, unblemished by life. ‘Although, I think wherever she is, she is happy and still loves you very much.’
Dana seemed to chew over this, for a second, then her eyes lit up. ‘Do you believe in ghosts?’
‘I can’t say I do.’

A quarter of a teaspoon seemed to resemble the coffee Maggie made, which he discovered at her wake, when Charlie took his glass from him, accompanied him outside where he endeavoured to manage his grief with fresh air and two mugs of Mellow Birds. He pushed the thought from his mind. The finality of death meant her absence filled the house, but everywhere you looked, she wasn’t there. The line from Driscoll’s poem came into his head, ‘Someone is dressing up for death today’ and a stray tear whispered down his cheek.

‘Mum said nan came to her, sat on the edge of the bed, asked her why her watering can was empty.’
Tom shook his head. ‘Dana, I know you’re trying to cheer me up but―’
‘It’s true, though. Mum hasn’t been out in the garden, says her head hurts. Nan used to help her, remember.’
‘Yes, your nan liked the garden.’
‘Do you think nan really came?’
‘To visit your mum?’
‘There is a boy at school who lost his mum. His dad keeps pigeons and after his mum died, one of them kept sitting on his windowsill. He thinks it’s her.’
‘Does it make him happy? To think it is his mum?’
I don’t know, I don’t talk to him.’

 

Dana skipped across the grass to the ramshackle wooden garage where her nan’s bike lived. Spring had whispered into life a few weeks before and the path alongside the garage bloomed with tulips.
‘Your nan loved tulips, they didn’t do so well last year, but this year they’re beautiful.’

She watched her granddad unlock the big, heavy padlocked door, watched the tulips swaying to a silent waltz, grinned as the familiar smell of dust and forgotten corners drifted out of the garage and weaved about her face. Inside, the air felt scratchy and cold like damp lace. She tucked her t-shirt into her jeans and stared at the Moulton learning against the door.

‘It’s covered in dust, grandad. Promise you will fix it.’

Tom stood in the doorway, one foot outside, one not quite in. Maggie had always wanted a Moulton Deluxe M2. It must be the green one, Tom, she’d demanded. He’d found one in a magazine, drove across town to pick it up, wrapped a pearly white ribbon around the handlebars and placed the miniature picnic basket he’d bought inside its white bag, filled it with Maggie’s favourite sweets: pear drops, and dolly mixtures, fruit pastilles and jelly beans.

‘Look.’ Dana cried, wide-eyed as the sun fed itself through the small grimy window and shone upon the weathered bicycle. No longer smeared with dust, the little bike shone brightly as the sun brought it back to life.
‘And they laughed and played games in the street.’
‘What?’
‘Oh, just reminded of a story, one your nan loved.’
‘Like it’s alive,’ Dana said, open-mouthed, her fingertips caressing the warm paintwork, stroking it like a precious stone. Tom nodded, gave his granddaughter a smile.
‘Maybe it’s nan saying hello. She liked the sunshine.’
‘She did.’

The day seemed to flinch then, the sun pulling away, shadows like curtains bringing the scene to a close. Dana sprang up ‘Oh, why couldn’t the sun stay a bit longer?’
‘It will come back out’ Tom reassured her.
She shivered and rubbed her arms. ‘I’m cold now.’
He felt cold himself, a strange sort of cold, like a deep chill laddering along his spine. ‘Right, go and put your coat on. I am going to dust the bike off.’
‘I’ll make you a sandwich Grandad, like I did the other day. You’ve got to eat mum says.’

She waggled her finger at him, then flew off across the grass, her hair dancing like ribbons in the breeze. Tom switched on the table lamp. Took a deep breath. Opened the white bag on the bike. Inside lay a pristine copy of The Silent Wife by A.S.A Harrison and a neatly folded, cream cardigan. He buried his face in the soft material, tried to catch a stitch of Maggie’s scent. A slither of cold ran along the back of his neck. He spun round. Something moved in the corner.

‘Who’s there? he growled, throwing the cardigan down, scanning the room for trespasses. ‘You need to leave, I had kids in here before, I will tell your parents.’

He frowned, stared into the gloom, punctuated only by faint lines of discarded memory, stored in boxes and packed away in dusty suitcases.

Something touched his shoulder. He yelped. Swung round. ‘Now look….’
Two sunken rheumy eyes glared back at him.
Tom staggered across the floor, falling over his own feet, tried to gulp air into his terror filled lungs. The light in the garage shifted, and the air pressed against his face, like clingfilm against a ceramic bowel. He clawed at his skin and cried out. The dark began to dissipate then, and the air began undulating and fanning out, blocks of colour forming into a human shape.

Maggie had been put to rest in her favourite suit; a pale lemon jacket and fitted skirt, her silky hair framing her face, her skin like a china doll. The suit now hung from her frame, like a sheet wrapped around a washing pole.
He grabbed the edge of the table, his legs felt like broken elastic bands.
‘Why did you do it, Tom?’ Her voice sounded hollow and distant. It reminded him of phone calls when they were young, the distance harder when they could hear each other’s voice.
Tom swallowed, looked around as if the walls might tell him what was happening. Stared at his decomposing wife. ‘Why did I do what?’
‘You slept with Kathryn.’
‘I did?’
‘You never came to the hospital to say goodbye?’
He picked up a blunt pencil. Put it back down. ‘You went so quickly, Maggie.’

He remembered getting the call. The words mingling with the rain as it beat a rhythm of melancholy against the window. He ran to the car, or tried to, but it was more of an energetic hobble to be honest. Drove as fast as he could, watching the clock, his arch enemy now, ticking hands threatening to call time on his future. Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. He’d stroked her face, just that afternoon. Memories drifted through his mind: Maggie, arms spread wide, twirling across the warm sand, the breeze taking her dress; a diaphanous dress of pearly white chiffon, her feet keeping time with the rhythms of life. Maggie and him playing cards, Maggie cross legged on the floor drinking a mug of hot tea, wrapped in the ‘itchy’ blanket (because they’d finally made love, now she’d done him the honour of being his wife). Maggie holding their child, a tiny, angry pink creature, wrapped in a soft blue cashmere shawl.

‘I watched you.’
‘Watched me?’
‘With Kathryn, the night before I died.’
‘She invited me for some food’. He rubbed his eyes. ‘Maggie, how do…?’
She came closer. If he extended an arm, he could touch her, but he didn’t want to, her skin hung like thin strips of paper mache, her mouth a gaping black hole. ‘After the accident, do you remember?’
‘Remember?
‘The out of body experience?’
‘I recall you having some strange experiences.’
‘It kept happening, Tom, then one day, it all stopped. I thought over the years, I must have imagined it, but I didn’t.’
‘Did it happen again?’
‘The night before I died, I travelled, like I did the third time.’
‘And you saw me with Kathryn?’
‘She had her hand on your leg.’
‘She did but I didn’t encourage her.’
‘I saw her. I saw both of you. You could have waited until I was in the ground at least.’
‘Maggie, nothing happened.’
‘She’s always liked you.’
‘I went home. I didn’t stay. Please believe me.’
‘I’ve been waiting, to speak to you.’
‘Maggie, I’ve only ever wanted you.’
‘Well, I don’t look my best anymore, Tom, and you won’t want me here. Not like this. Do you remember that line “We have not cared to live in the place ourselves.”
‘You look beautiful and I would enter any place for you.’
‘The soul begins to leave before death.’
Maggie?’
‘I know you hate me talking about it, but it’s true, I never fully returned afterwards.
‘After?’
‘You can feel it, the separation, a sort of pulling away. It’s why people know they are about to die. And you can use it, if you know how to I suppose. It’s why I wanted to say goodbye, properly.’
Tom nodded. ‘Maggie, I missed you by two minutes, just two. I got stuck in traffic on the hall road’ He scrunched up his eyes. ‘All I had left of you, when I got to the hospital, was a fading body on a hospital bed, covered with a stiff sheet. After our life together, all we shared, that was all.’
‘I know.’
‘It was as if you were anonymous, but you were my wife.’
‘And I still am. I see Dana is taking good care of you.’
Tom smiled ‘She came to see your bike.’
‘I know. I miss it already. Not so silent now. I said hello to her.’
‘You did?’ He scratched his head. ‘Actually, she told me a funny story.’
‘About the pigeon?
‘How do you―’
‘We can be a part of everything in death, Tom, the wind, the sun, even the petals of a flower. I’m always around.’
‘Will we be together again, Maggie?’
‘Yes, but not like this.’
‘But in some form and you’ll wait?’
‘Yes, Tom, I’ll see you when the seasons next change.’

 

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