One day in summer when George was a young boy, he sat alone on the scrubbed front step of their small terraced house and waited patiently to see the welcome shape of his father appear at the end of the street. Dad was late and George’s belly growled like a hungry tiger because they always had their tea at half past five, when Dad came home from the factory where he worked, cutting small parts for big machines. In he’d stride, a giant to George’s captured eyes, a smiling bear with a laugh that was rich and deep and a strong hand to tumble his youngest son’s spill of dark hair. They’d sit together before steaming plates of food, his mother mock-scowling at both of them: I hope you two have washed your hands.
Of course we have, his father would return, with a show of clean palms for his mother and a sly wink for George.
But not today. Today the shadows grew longer and still there was no sign of Dad. Eventually George’s mother had joined him on the step and they sat together for a while, two pairs of blue eyes fixed anxiously upon the end of the street. George told his Mum about the crocodile he was making in school, out of some old egg boxes and green paint, and she listened without looking at him. Then Mum took his small hand in hers and led him indoors. They sat at the table and ate their food and stared at the empty space where Dad should have been, and the kitchen was filled with silence and the smell of his father’s food spoiling in the oven. She never even asked if George had washed his hands.
Suddenly, just as George was putting a hot chip to his mouth, there was a knock at the door. His mother rose quickly from her almost untouched meal and went into the hallway, her face growing paler with every step. George sat and waited, the tiger in his belly silent now, telling himself that Dad had just lost his keys again or something, and that everything was going to be alright.
But it wasn’t Dad at the door. It was a policeman. And what he was saying meant that everything might never be alright again.
Alan and Gemma came home for Dad’s funeral. George and his mother met Alan at the train station. He looked very tall in his soldier’s uniform and tumbled his kid brother’s hair with a shaking hand. His mother held Alan tight and cried again.
Gemma arrived the next day. She had one small suitcase. Her belly was full of her baby and her eyes were as red as Mum’s and Alan’s. George had looked in the mirror every day and seen that his eyes weren’t red at all, but then, he hadn’t done any crying yet, not even once. Every time that it seemed that he might it was like some cold and horrible flower opened up inside of him, freezing the tears solid behind his eyes.
Men in dark suits brought Dad home the day before the funeral. They put the coffin on a table in the parlour and leaned the lid up against the wall. George’s mother lit candles and the flames filled the lid’s brass plate with a bright, shifting light that reminded George of the cartoons on television.
People came to see Dad. Men from work. Ladies his mother knew, with red mouths and strong, sweet perfume. They all spoke in the same quiet way, as though they were scared of waking up Dad. When it was George’s turn, Alan had to lift him up so he could see inside the coffin. George cried then. He cried because this couldn’t be his father, with his curly hair tamed and parted, and his dry, candlewax face scrunched into a little frown. He told Alan, this was the wrong man, but Alan just smiled sadly and answered, No, this is Dad, all right. I’m sorry, Georgie. I really am.
George didn’t want to believe this, but Alan had never lied to him before and so it had to be the truth. This man, this stranger in a box … this was Dad.
On the day of the funeral, George dressed in black just like everybody else. Gemma had lain the clothes out on his bed, freshly washed and ironed, and he had dressed himself quickly and easily, even managing to fasten his own laces threaded through the black shoes that Alan had polished for him even though they were almost new. The only item he had trouble with was his necktie; George had never worn one like this before – the one he wore for school had come with the knot already tied and attached to a loop of elastic that fitted snugly under his collar – and no matter how much he tried to fix the black one so it looked alright, he just couldn’t manage it.
He stood in front of the mirror, his face twisted and intense as he tugged the knot this way and that, that way and this, trying to remember how Dad had tied his neckties. Then Alan had knocked and walked in, saying, Having trouble, Georgie? He knelt down in front of George and undid George’s attempt at a knot, rearranging the tie so that it looked like his own. All the time, he talked, telling George how smart he looked and how Dad would have been proud of him and asking if George was okay.
When at last he was finished, he stood and turned George around to face the mirror. Although Alan’s idea of a knot was much better than his own, George still didn’t think that it looked quite right. He looked up at Alan’s tie and saw that his knot looked the same, and he wondered if his brother had been crying when he fixed his own tie, too. They went downstairs.
The hallway was filled with bunches of flowers, each bunch wrapped in a piece of clear plastic and bearing a small, white card. George saw his name on one of the cards, though he knew he hadn’t written it. The front door was open, and two or three people stood framed in a square of bright sunlight. They were all smoking cigarettes, and they all nodded to Alan as he and George came down the stairs.
The sitting room was explosively hot. No-one looked at George and Alan when they walked in, and George heard someone saying that it was the hottest day of the year. Everyone was drinking tea or coffee, even though it would have been nicer for them to have some cold juice or cordial, George thought. Bright sunlight streamed through the drawn curtains, and dressed in black as they were, the people who’d come to see his father buried looked like living shadows.
Mum sat in Dad’s chair, a cup of cold coffee in her hands. She was staring at it as though she could see pictures in the black liquid. Gemma was there, too, talking with another pregnant lady and toying with one of the fingers of her left hand, where she used to wear a ring.
They all sat and waited, drinking hot drinks and dabbing at their sweating brows with handkerchiefs. George felt very alone. Alan sat him down and left to have a cigarette with the people at the front door, and Gemma was busy comparing the curve of her belly with the other lady. George looked at his mother and saw someone else. She had his mother’s face, yes, but there was something different about her, this stranger dressed in black and sitting in Dad’s chair. She looked … George struggled with it until it presented itself in a way he could understand; his mother looked like she was made of ice. Yes, that was it, she was made of ice and the droplets on her forehead weren’t sweat and the glimmering in her blue eyes wasn’t tears. This was the day of his father’s funeral, the hottest day of the year, and his mother was melting. Suddenly, George thought he might scream.
That was when Alan came back in and said, They’re here, Mum.
His mother put down her cup and tried to stand, but her melting legs folded beneath her and she sat down again, some breathless sound escaping her mouth. Everybody stopped talking. Alan closed the living room door behind him and stood there like he was guarding it. Gemma came forward and put her arms around Mum.
In the hot silence, George heard heavy footsteps pass by in the hallway. He heard them go into the room next door, where Dad was. There was a quiet creaking sound, a gentle bump and someone in the next room whispered, Okay?
Then the footsteps were back in the hallway, slower this time. A minute or two went by. George looked around and saw that everyone was looking at the carpet, so he did that too. From outside the sitting room, he heard the sound of rustling plastic. When there was a soft knock at the door and Alan opened it, George saw that all the flowers had gone.
Alan helped Mum to her feet and took her outside. Gemma took George’s hand and they followed. Three cars were waiting for them, long and black and gleaming under the cloudless sky. One of them was different to the others – it had no seats in the back. Instead, Dad’s coffin had been slid inside. The flowers were in there, too, George saw, blazing bright behind the car’s long windows as though it were a greenhouse on wheels.
George and his family got into the second vehicle and soon the three cars started moving. The journey was a long one and it seemed even longer because nobody spoke. The only sounds were Gemma and Mum crying. At one point, the car with Dad in it went through some traffic lights, but they turned red before the second and third cars could follow. They waited, the driver’s gloved hands creaking impatiently around the steering wheel as he gripped it tighter and tighter. Then the lights changed, and they went on.
At last they reached the church, its black steeple pointing like a finger at the blue sky. Alan was the first one out of their car, walking across the gravel to where the car carrying Dad’s coffin had parked. The men in dark suits who had brought Dad home were already there; Alan spoke quietly to them for a few moments, then helped three of them slide the coffin out and lift it onto their shoulders before carrying it into the church.
Inside, it was cooler. The sunlight streamed through the coloured glass of the windows and made pretty patterns on the stone floor. While Alan and the men took Dad to the front of the church, George sat between his Mum and Gemma. Alan joined them – there was a thin sprinkling of dust on the shoulder of his black suit now, but he didn’t seem to have noticed. The Vicar, a man much older than Dad but with bright, lively eyes, began to speak.
He said that Dad was a good man, was respected, and most importantly, the Vicar said, Dad was loved. There was no surprise in this, George thought. If he hadn’t been so shy, he could have got up and told everyone that.
When the Vicar had finished, the people in the church sang a hymn, except for George and Mum and Alan. George didn’t know the words, and Alan and Mum were crying, but Gemma sang in a high, clear voice that made George’s heart flutter like a caged bird.
There was more talk, and one more hymn, then the men in suits moved forward and lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and carried it from the church. George thought that Alan might help them again, but he didn’t.
The grave was already waiting for Dad, and as he stood looking into it George thought how very deep it was, how very dark. The Vicar said a few more words, speaking quietly even though some of the people around him were crying quite loudly, before the men in suits knelt down and passed long black strips to each other under the coffin.
George’s mother sobbed as they lowered Dad into the earth, and George clutched her hand as tightly as he could, watching the coffin sink further and further away and the strong hands of the men controlling its fall – one of them had a faded tattoo on his wrist, a pale, swooping bird.
And so it was done.
The days passed. Alan returned to the army, promising George that he’d be home in less than a year. Gemma stayed and had her baby, a little boy – she called him Kevin, his granddad’s name. The days passed, and slowly George saw little pieces of who his mother had been come back to her – a little smile here, a little laugh there. One day, as he watched her hanging out the washing and managing to think about nothing in particular, he was surprised and uplifted to hear her singing.
The days passed, and the following July, soon after Alan had come home for good, Gemma had visited with Kevin, and Mum had said that it was such a lovely day they should all go to the beach, have a day of ice creams and sandcastles and fish and chips. George found himself a little worried as they got on the train, because he’d heard the man on the radio say that this was the hottest day of the year, but this time, everything was alright, and it was only his ice cream that melted.