Chrysanthemums

            Jerry and Michelle had driven down from their home in Wester Ross just as soon as they had heard the sad, but long-expected news. Travelling through the night and much quicker than they had meant to, they had crossed the river into Lincolnshire shortly before six in the morning. Thinking that it was still a little early to wake up the house, they had decided to breakfast at the Happy Chef. It was now two days later and here they were again, sitting at the same table.
              'Would you like to order?' Asked the waitress. Jerry noted from the name tag that she was called Pauline. He always noted this wherever he went, but never had the front to use the knowledge.
              'I'd like the soup of the day, please,' said Michelle, 'and to follow I'd like a cheese and mushroom omelette with chips, and a side order of coleslaw,' she added, not one to miss an opportunity to eat. 'Oh, and a pot of Earl Grey, please.'
           To be fair, she hadn't eaten all that much in the last twenty-four hours, but Jerry was seldom fair and he resented her appetite anyway. 'Just a coffee for me,' he said. He took out a cigarette, lit it and took a long draw.
              Michelle had long learned to spot when Jerry was tense. For a start, he always smoked more. Sometimes she couldn't see why he was tense, it was like he was tense from the inside out, like the natural pattern of cause and effect had been reversed somehow. At other times, like today, the cause of his tension was clear. Today he had buried his one remaining grandparent.
             Michelle hadn't been aware of how close Jerry was to his grandmother. She didn't think he was the sort to be close to anyone, even her, but he had plainly been upset throughout the service. She had turned to him, but he just continued to stare at the flower arrangement straight ahead of him, occasionally sobbing and occasionally closing his eyes. His grip on her hand, held in his lap, became very tight and she could feel his tears fall from his chin onto their hands. She felt that the salt water might somehow work with the compression to fuse their hands together. She liked the idea of that. She had never seen him cry before and she'd never felt closer to him than she did then. She decided now to prolong that state by asking about his relationship with his grandmother.
'You're going to miss her, aren't you?' Michelle asked as their drinks arrived.
Jerry stared at his wife and thought for one confusing moment that she was talking about the waitress. 'Miss who?' He said.
'Your grandmother of course, who else?' Said Michelle.
'Oh, my grandmother, yeah right,' sneered Jerry, 'for about as long as it takes the inheritance cheque to clear.' He ignored the flicker of surprise in his wife's eyes, stubbed out his cigarette and continued 'Let me tell you something about my wonderful grandmother, shall I? She was quite probably the most selfish, demanding, unfair and unreasonable woman I've ever met. Her obsessive desire to control has, down the years, had a devastating affect on my family. She nagged and bullied my grandfather to an early grave. My mother was quite literally driven to the point of madness by her overbearing interference in her marriage. Why don't you ask her whether she'll miss the old dear? I don't even want to talk about how mean she was to me. It doesn't matter which way you look at it, she was an old bitch and I'm glad she's finally put us out of our misery.'
The waitress brought the food just as Jerry was finishing his outburst and his voice tailed off into a hiss. He hadn't meant for anyone to overhear his words. Michelle thanked the waitress, edged the soup towards her and looked at her husband. The bitterness in Jerry's words had surprised her, not least because she had no idea that he felt that way about his grandmother. 'Surely she wasn't all that bad, she was always fine with me,' she said.
Jerry nodded his head slowly. Perhaps he had gone a bit far. 'Maybe', he conceded, 'but I can assure you that I'll not miss her, not at all,' he added.
'But you were so upset. I've never seen you like that before. I just thought.'
'Yes, I know what you thought,' interrupted Jerry, a little softer now, 'and I know why you thought it. I was upset, but it wasn't that woman, it was the place, and the flowers. I was in that chapel before, many years ago. I was just reminded of something I try not to think about, that's all.'
He placed his elbows on the table and rested his chin on one upturned hand. With the other hand he turned his saucer round until the cup handle faced to the right. Michelle watched him do this. She was just about to speak again when her husband took a deep breath and reached for the cigarettes. She changed her mind.
After a couple of drags Jerry looked at his wife. He could see something in her eyes but he wasn't sure what it was. 'Michelle,' he began, 'when I was thirteen I killed someone.' Michelle opened her mouth to speak, but Jerry raised his hand. It looked for a second as though he might be offering her his cigarette, as though it were a joint. 'No, let me finish.' He said. 'I want to explain.' Michelle felt strangely excited by her husband’s words. 'When I say I killed him,' he continued, 'I don't mean I actually put the rope around his neck, or anything. No, he did that himself. I didn't stop him though, and that amounts to the same thing really, doesn't it? I could have stopped him, but I didn't, I didn't.'
Jerry looked out of the window for a moment at the passing cars. He could see their energy and power, but he couldn't hear their noise. 'Matthew Okamoto,' he said, almost randomly. 'Or "Fatty Mattie", as we called him. He wasn't even that fat, but "Fatty" was the only thing we stupid little tossers could think of to rhyme with Mattie. For some reason, everybody had to have a nickname like that. There was "Slimy Simey", "Wank Frank" and "Goby Robbie". Mine was "Merry Jerry", because I wasn't. They thought that was great.
'I don't know why we bullied Matthew as much as we did. At least, I don't know why everyone else bullied him. I know why I did. Matthew Okamoto was a bit of a godsend for me. He was the kid with the dead mother and the Jap dad; I was just the kid with the mad mother. Foreign was more exotic than mad, and dead was better than both, especially when we found out that she'd died of some weird lung disease that we'd never heard of.
'It started out gentle enough but, as the whole thing gathered momentum, we became relentless. There was a lot of tripping him up, and stealing and hiding his stuff to begin with, you know the kind of thing, nothing too heavy. We tried to take his dinner money, but he only had tickets on account of his mum being dead, so we took them instead. We took his glasses all the time. He'd get into trouble for not doing his homework because he couldn't read what it was from the blackboard. As soon as the bell went at the end of the lesson, one or other of us would rush up to the board to clean it before he could get close enough to read it. Occasionally he'd raise his hand in class and ask to borrow some glasses because he couldn't see. We'd all laugh and sometimes the teacher would join in the fun passing along their own glasses. I remember one teacher would rifle around in his desk and bring out a pair of those blacked out glasses you're supposed to wear when there's an eclipse. He made him wear them for the whole morning. We thought that was brilliant.
'I don't know whose idea it was, I can't remember now and I don't think it really matters, but when we found out about his mum's disease, someone suggested that we all go around breathing heavily when we were near him, you know, Darth Vader-style. I don't know why, but we all did it, all of us. And not just for a short while, we did it for weeks and weeks, every chance we got, until....' Jerry stopped speaking for a moment and Michelle could see from his face that he was finding this difficult. She looked down at the food in front of her. It was growing cold so she looked away again.
Jerry looked out of the window, while he organised his thoughts. The light was fading and a huge truck was trying to reverse on to the forecourt of the garage next door, blocking the road as it did so. An elderly man with a dog on a lead was helping to guide him in. The windows of the backed up cars on the main road were filled with bored faces, and it seemed to Jerry they were all turned towards him. He shifted uneasily in his seat.
'I didn’t want to go to the funeral,’ Jerry said, ‘but they made us. The whole class went, along with the teachers and some other members of staff. They put us all on one side, and when I arrived, the only places left were down at the front. Matthew’s family and friends were already seated on the other side, and an elderly Japanese woman turned and stared at me as I took my seat.
‘Even with them all sitting there, I don't think I had any real sense of what was happening, or of what had happened. I don't think any of us did. I didn't feel any sense of responsibility, because I didn't have the sense of finality that his parents must have had. What did we know about death? We were just kids. Even when the coffin was carried in and placed on the rollers I didn't really get it. I had no sense that the wooden box I could see contained Mattie’s lifeless body. I had no sense that the face on that body would be twisted and contorted beyond any reasonable level of recognition. I certainly had no thoughts about what Mattie’s poor family had gone, were going through, especially his poor grandmother, who had found his limp body hanging from the curtain rail in his bedroom. All I could remember thinking about was how uncomfortable this new suit was, how boring this music was and how beautiful all the flowers were'
        Jerry took another cigarette from the box in front of him. Michelle picked up the matches, struck one sharply against the box, and held it out for him. After his cigarette had taken, she dropped the match into the glass ashtray. They both watched the flame until it died. Jerry thought about the chapel again, and his eyes were drawn towards the blinding lights of the cars outside, now moving once more.
                'The flowers were chrysanthemums, and they held my gaze from the moment I walked in the chapel. The light was bursting through the windows and lighting up the huge display in front of me. As I took my seat along the front row I realised that I was squinting and I could hardly see anything. It was like when you look at a light bulb for too long, or the sun, and your vision becomes obscured by little shadows, little blind spots. For one stupid moment I found myself thinking about Mattie’s dark glasses.
              'Determined to push this thought from my mind, I widened my eyes and stared defiantly at the flowers. The pain was intense, like thousands of little gold and white needles stabbing at my eyes. I ignored it and eventually my eyes became immune to the power of the light and I drifted off into my own thoughts. The music had stopped and I could hear that someone had started speaking, the priest I guess, but I wasn't listening. Just concentrating on the flowers. I spent a long time trying to count them, but there were too many and the yellows and the whites kept flowing together and then my eyes started hurting again, and then my leg too.
'It took me a few seconds to realise that Slimy next to me was kicking my ankle. I looked around and realised that everyone was standing, and a good few were looking back at me as I jumped to my feet. I don't know why, but my heart was beating fit to jump out of my chest. It felt as though the tight new suit was the only thing holding it in place. I took a couple of deep breaths and turned once more to the flowers.'
As her husband paused, Michelle noticed that, like a kind of physical echo of that distant place and time, he was breathing deeply and deliberately now too. She watched as he stubbed his cigarette out in the corner of the ashtray. She was about to speak when Jerry lifted his hand. Rocking it gently with its palm outstretched and the thumb pointing upwards, he seemed both to be quieting her and carving the way in the air for his next words.
'I was having trouble focusing on the flowers. The music had started again, I was vaguely aware of movement in my periphery - I guess now that the curtains were closing - and I could hear sobbing. My back was getting hot, and I didn't feel well at all. I began to see all kinds of shapes in the sprays in front of me. It was like when you're lying in the sun and looking up at the sky. In the clouds scudding past the sun you see things, things that are constantly changing shape and becoming something else. The whole thing, the warmth from the sun, the dazzling light and the layers of speed and movement, conspire to make you at the same time fixed and dizzy. That's how it felt to be standing there, the warmth, the dazzle, the movement, and the noise. I felt I was losing my mind.
'I looked harder at the flowers and steadied myself on the pew-divider at my side. As I stared, my vision became obscured on one side, like a cloud, in its journey across the sky, had partly covered the sun. I leaned to one side in a futile attempt to see around the cloud and, as I did, something hit the side of my face with such force that I was spun around and pushed back into the pew, banging the other side of my head as I did. I was in shock for only a second and the pain was quick in coming. I wasn't crying, but the tears were flowing, I could feel them. I lifted my eyes to see what had hit me. Through my tears I could see the old Japanese woman standing in front of me. I couldn't believe it was her that had hit me that hard and, for a second I thought she had come to help me. Then I looked closer. She was shaking and she was rubbing her right hand with her left, as though she was trying to remove something she had written there. She had tears in her eyes as well, and she too was fighting them back.
'She stared into my eyes for a long time and, despite all my efforts, I began to blubber. As I did so she said something in Japanese and then, in English, she asked, "Does it hurt?" It did, it really did and I said so. I saw her body shudder and I thought she was going to hit me again; she even raised her hand a little. I looked down and braced myself for the impact. But she didn't hit me. She waited for me to look up and then she spoke again. "How dare you?" She said, pointing at me, as though forcing her words home. "How dare you talk about pain when my grandson is dead?"
                'She didn't wait for an answer. There was no answer. She turned, and with her head up she walked to the back of the chapel, past all my friends and my family. No one said anything.'
            It was the same now; no one said anything, for a long time. Michelle didn't want to speak first, she felt sure that Jerry had more to say. She looked down at her cold food; the greasy film covering her soup turned her stomach and made her look away. She watched the waitress greet an old couple and seat them nearby. Jerry was looking at the food in front of them too. 'Are you going to eat that omelette?' He asked. When his wife shook her head, he pushed the ashtray to one side, and pulled the plate towards him. With the fork in his hand he looked once more at his wife. She was looking out of the window. He followed her eyes with his.
           The rush hour was over now and only the red of the taillights was visible in the darkness, lighting up the roadside; bending and softening the hard edges as the drivers headed homeward with their thoughts: speeding into the night to their journey's end.

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