A short story by Tina Konstant
Maggie closed her eyes for a moment. For just one second she needed privacy. She needed to block all these people out. All these people dressed in black with sad expressions who shook hands and nodded and plastered frowns on their faces between phrases that could come out of corn-flake boxes if corn-flake boxes mourned the dead: “Sorry for your loss”, “We’ll miss him”, “Great man”.
In the dark behind her closed eyes, Maggie tried to shut the words out. They meant nothing. Absolutely nothing. How could someone be sorry for a loss or miss a great man when they didn’t know him?
Only Maggie knew him. Only she knew his passions and his secrets. Only she knew his whole heart.
She opened her eyes and let her gaze follow the line to the end. All these handshakes, all those socially suitable smiles.
“You can do this, Maggie.” George’s voice. Like he was standing right next to her, holding her up, stopping her hands from shaking too much. “You can do this, my lovely.”
Maggie drew her breath in and let a small smile creep onto her face. People around her would think she was being brave. Maybe. Maggie didn’t actually care what people thought. She wished they would all disappear. She wished she could be alone with George. That’s when she had the best of him. These people got his days. She got his nights. Most of them.
“Maggie?” George would whisper. “You awake?”
Maggie would giggle. Of course she was awake. She never slept when George was there. Didn’t want to miss a second. “What?” she’d whisper back. “Of course I’m sleeping.”
He’d cuddle into the warmth of her back and wrap his arms around her waist. “Fancy pancakes?”
Maggie would pull his arms tight around her and in that space, the world would become a place where magic was real and peace was possible. The work, the kids, the family, the noise, even the sun would disappear and all that would be left would be Maggie and George and the big, bright, beautiful moon shining in on their bodies through open curtains framing their bedroom window looking out over fields and forests and farmland.
Just them. No one else. Maggie would feel George’s face press against her back and a smile would spread through her body starting at her toes and creeping up through every inch and fiber of her being.
Being careful to trap their warmth inside the covers, they’d crawl off the bed, drag the duvet with them and, keeping it wrapped around their shoulders, pad downstairs in bare feet to make pancakes. Not just any pancakes. This was George’s specialty. They would start with one plain one and by the end of their feast, they’d have consumed strawberries, syrup, ice-cream and half a bag of crushed almonds. “Art,” George would say after every presentation. “Can’t rush art.”
Their midnight pancakes sometimes lasted until dawn. The first three would always stick to the ceiling, but by the time the sun came up, they’d have had their fill of each other and drifted back to bed to sleep until the rest of the world woke up, then Maggie would lose George for another day.
Maggie blinked. Sun beaming through chapel windows pulled her away from George as she reached out to shake another hand. The person on the other end had no grip. “Sorry for your loss.” Maggie heard the words but didn’t really register. The person whose hand she’d shaken was young, a girl. Maggie had seen her before but they hadn’t met. Like all these people in the room; she’d seen some of them but didn’t know most of them. She knew about them. George would tell her things. But it wasn’t what they liked to talk about. There was no need. She had no interest. She was only interested in George. These people had known him for what… 10 years? 12 years? By the look of the girl in front of her, no more than 18 years. Maggie had known George for 52 years. She’d had the best of him. His nights, when his peace and joy came out to play. These strangers got his days. She got his heaven.
Like their anniversaries. Maggie smiled again. George loved anniversaries. He loved them more than Christmas and birthdays combined. Their anniversary and Valentine days were events. Every year George tried to outdo the year before. They had celebrated 52 years just three weeks ago.
Maggie let the smile fade, squeezed her hands together and stared at the wooden floor under her feet. Just three weeks ago George had arrived with flowers and a cake he’d bought from Maggie’s favourite baker. He had sliced the cake with so much care that for a moment, Maggie remembered the first night they spent together. So much attention. So much love. Maggie had watched closely as George had cut the cake, then frowned when the knife stopped like it was stuck on something hard. The cake was so perfect and fresh and soft. What could possibly hinder the cutting of it? Then George had smiled, put his hands into the cake, icing to his wrists and dug out an envelope. Maggie had squealed and jumped up and down like she had all those years ago when he’d surprised her with flowers for the first time. He’d opened the envelope and, with sticky fingers, pulled out two tickets. Airline tickets. For the first time in all their years George was taking time away. They were going on holiday. Just them. No one else. No kids, no family, no guilt. For the first time in 52 years, Maggie was going to have George for two whole weeks; day and night, 24 hours. Maggie had cried. George had cried. They’d clung to each other and danced around the kitchen until they were both covered with cake and icing and love.
Did these people know that? Did people know that they were due to fly today? Maggie glanced at the clock on the brick wall in front of her. 3.15 p.m. In fifteen minute, she and George should be on a plane to Greece. Her first flight. His first holiday. Did people know that?
No. Not possible.
Maggie shook another hand. This time, she didn’t even recognise the person. A man. He looked like attending George’s funeral had fallen between a business lunch and a meeting; harried, tense, a little bored.
“Sorry for your loss.”
Maggie shook her head. She hated those words.
In her mind, George laughed. He wouldn’t have been impressed with this send-off. He’d wanted a cardboard coffin, not the hunk of wood they’d put him in. He’d have wanted “Knock on Wood” by Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper not the religious nonsense they played. George was an atheist. Didn’t they know that? He’d have wanted money to go to charity, not flowers that would wither and die. He’d wanted to be buried, not cremated. But then that’s what happens when family gets involved. Decisions get made without all the right information. People do what’s good for them, not for the person they’re saying goodbye to. But then they didn’t know him. No one knew George like she did.
Maggie shook another hand. This one was firmer. The woman was older. She looked angry but didn’t seem to know why. Maggie knew a little about her. George had talked about her. They didn’t really get on. Maggie wondered why she was there. “We’ll miss him.” New words. Maggie hated these ones even more because from so many people in this room, they were a lie. How could you miss someone you didn’t know?
Maggie was willing to gamble the rest of her life that no one in this room knew that George loved breakfast for dinner. His favourite colour was blue. He liked to wonder around the house naked. He loved dogs more than he liked cats. He loved to climb into bed early to read or do a puzzle or play. He didn’t like beetroot. He loved action movies. He hated soap operas. He loved Orion’s Belt. Of all the constellations, he felt they had the best story. He loved oranges but wasn’t keen on apples. He loved the feel of her skin against his. He loved to whisper secrets to her in the dark hours before dawn. He loved to fall asleep knowing she loved him.
No one knew that.
Maggie took a step back for a moment. She couldn’t shake another hand. The thought of more words and limp, dry skin against hers made her want to run from this place and cry until her soul lifted from her body. But she was here. She had to be. How else could she say good-bye to the man she’d known most of her life.
“You can do it, girl.” She heard his voice in her mind again. Soft and deep and warm. “Remember Loch Muick. We’ll always have Loch Muick.”
Another smile trickled onto Maggie’s face. Broader this time. Lock Muick, three in the morning, snow on the ground, coffee in a flask, pancakes in a basket. It had been his idea. The snow had fallen all day and most of the night. When it stopped, the clouds disappeared and the moon came out lighting the earth up in a dazzling display of blues and shadows. George told her to get up and get dressed. “Dress warm,” he’d added and ran downstairs. Ten minutes later they were in his fifteen year old Honda, skidding and sliding down country lanes to the loch. They’d parked and, giggling like teenagers, scrambled over fences and locked gates and had stepped on the shores of Loch Muick like the first men on the moon. By the time they’d walked around the frozen edges of the lake the sun was coming up. The pink light bounced off the ice and filled their footprints. Maggie and George had left a perfect circle around the water. Arms around each other, they watched the new dawn float above the hills.
“Time for work,” George had said and Maggie cried.
She hated the sun.
Another handshake. Another man Maggie didn’t know. “We’ll miss him. He was a great man.”
Maggie let the words float around the room then dismissed them. George wasn’t great. Great was the word used for people who wrote pieces of literature that lasted centuries or made history that changed the world or created music that transfixed the masses or found the cure for cancer or world hunger or war. George didn’t do any of that. He wasn’t great. He was more than that. He made a difference, one day at a time. He did that without needing recognition or medals or honours. All he had to do was smile. Nothing more. He didn’t need science or medicine or politics. He needed nothing he wasn’t born with.
A great man? No, not George.
A giant? Yes.
Maggie lifted her head. Nearly the end of the line. Three more people to go. Two men and a woman. The men were crying. Both trying to stop the tears but not managing to. Maggie shook their hands. She knew their names. One was Michael, the other was Jamie. George had liked them. He’d loved them actually. Best friends. They didn’t look at Maggie. Maggie didn’t really look at them. She was looking at the woman. Maggie had seen her before. George had never talked about her and Maggie had never asked.
Maggie reached her hand out. The woman looked up and frowned, then lifted a frail hand and placed it in Maggie’s. Maggie squeezed gently like she was looking for the woman’s pulse. She knew her name. Francis. George had told her that much.
Francis stared at Maggie for a moment, then glanced at the two men next to her. Maggie was last. Everyone else was gone. There was no one left.
“Do I know you?” Francis said.
Maggie shook her head. “No,” she said. “You don’t know me.”