Joe talked a lot without actually saying anything. All those words and he never once said he was ill. Cass broke the news when she came home from work. “Hey, you heard about Joe?”
“Not seen him in months. Been meaning to call.”
“Too late. Joe’s gone.”
“He’s moved out?”
“Moved out of life. Pancreatic cancer. Took hold and wouldn’t let go.”
“Joe’s dead, I’m sorry.” Cass moved off into the kitchen, and came back scowling. “Hey, you could have washed the dishes.”
The dishes were stacked high. I’d spent the day on the couch contemplating life. I didn’t put forward a defence.
“It’s a mess in here. Can’t you get off your behind and help out once in a while? Did you go down the job centre? What about the rubbish? Have you emptied the bins? Did you pay that bill?” Cass just reeled off the questions one by one without pausing for breath. She moved around the lounge and picked up the empty beer cans from the coffee table. When she’d finished she drew back the curtains and opened the window. “It smells in here.”
“What of?” I asked.
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Did you go down the job centre?”
“They’ll stop the benefits. You can’t mess these people around. They’re still open for another half hour, you need to call.”
I moved off the sofa and straightened up the cushions in an attempt to tidy up the place. “I’ll do it first thing tomorrow. How’d you find out about Joe?”
“You’ll do it now or I’ll kick you out.”
She meant it too. I knew she meant it. The relationship was nearing a natural end, and it wouldn’t take much to finish it. We hooked up about eighteen months ago, and I moved in shortly afterwards. Cass was a few years older than me at thirty-five. Life, more than time, had etched itself into the lines around her eyes and the creases across her forehead, but she could still turn heads. When she was younger she did heroin, and she kept doing it until the choice wasn’t hers to make. She got herself clean, but by that time social services had taken her two kids off of her. Now she didn’t touch anything. No tobacco, no alcohol, absolutely nothing unless it was prescribed. Even though she’d kicked the habit the scars of that time ran deep. She’d tell you about herself, but only what happened and what she did. There were never any conversations about how she felt inside. There was always a veil there. A part of Cass that was private that belonged to her, and her alone. The only time she ever looked completely free was between the sheets. I guess that the physical high of her orgasms took her to a good place.
I thought about taking her up on her threat and leaving there and then. Any love I had was gone, but not loving someone doesn’t mean you don’t respect them. I didn’t want it to end like this so I fished out the number and dialled the job centre. An officious voice answered my call. “Croydon Job Centre.”
“Yeah, I was supposed to come in today but I didn’t make my appointment.”
“Right, can I take your name?”
“Mitch,” I said being difficult. I already knew I didn’t like the voice I was talking to.
“Is that your surname?”
“I need your surname.”
“So I can find your appointment.”
“My appointment was at ten-thirty this morning. Can you find it now?”
“No, the system doesn’t work like that. I need your name. I need to be sure it’s you.”
“That sounds like a crap system. If you give me a job I’ll come in and re-design your system for you.”
“Sir, if you don’t co-operate I can’t help you.”
“I am co-operating. I rang you and I’ve just asked you for a job. You’re the job centre right? So can you help me or not?” I could see Cass in the background shaking her head. I decided to play it straight.
“Sir, I need your name. Not your nickname, or anything else, I need your full name If you don’t give me that information I will terminate the call.”
“Right, Mr. Hendricks, I can see you on our system. I need to ask you a couple of security questions. Can you tell me your date of birth and your national insurance number?”
“Twenty-sixth of August nineteen-eighty-five. And my N.I number is NS583770D.”
“About your missed appointment today. You know that’s serious? You do realise that we can stop your payments?”
Her accentuation of missed wasn’t lost on me. I gave up trying to be civil. “What’s your name, Sherlock? Why do you think I’m calling?”
“Don’t take that tone with me, Sir. It’s my job to point that out to you. If I didn’t make it clear to you, and we stopped your payments, I could lose my job if you were to complain.”
“I doubt it. My word against yours, and your lot would close ranks. There’d be a colleague who’d swear to all that’s holy, and unholy, that they heard you tell the jerk on the phone that his benefits could be cut. Now, are you going to help me or not?”
“Why did you miss your appointment?”
“A friend of mine died suddenly. I was in shock. The grief. I wasn’t thinking straight.”
“I’m sorry for your loss. Can you verify that?”
“Are you serious? What do you want me to do?” All of a sudden I didn’t need to try and be difficult.
“Would you be willing to see a Doctor to verify your state of health?”
“Ah c’mon. If it saves my benefits yes, but all I want to do is re-arrange the damn appointment.”
“I have to ask these questions. I also asked you if you would be willing. That’s not the same as insisting.”
“So this is an English comprehension test?”
“Sir, I’m trying to help. I can see that this is the first time you’ve missed an appointment. Please be advised that we could ask you for proof if you were to miss another appointment on medical grounds. As it’s your first missed appointment I’m prepared to give you a concession. Can I ask you to be here tomorrow at eight forty-five a.m.?”
“That’s a little early. Can we do late morning?”
“Sir, I’m going out of my way for you. We’re only open from nine to five-thirty. All tomorrow’s slots are taken. I’m giving up my time to try and assist you. If you’re serious about finding a job surely you can make it. Ring the bell, and I’ll let you in. You’ll need I.D. So is eight forty-five ok?”
She had me cornered, and she knew it. “Thank you. I’ll be there. Bye.” I hung up before she could say anything else.
Cass stood in the doorway with her arms folded. “With that sort of attitude it’s no wonder you can’t hold down a job.”
“Hey, you didn’t hear the bitch at the other end of the line.”
“You could ring the paper factory where Joe worked. They’ll have a vacancy now. Probably haven’t had time to advertise the position. Best get in there early.”
“You want me to take my dead friend’s job? That don’t feel right.”
“Not right? You just used him as an excuse to miss an appointment you’d already missed before you even knew he was dead. That ain’t right.”
I couldn’t argue. Cass had a habit of cutting through crap, it’s one of the reasons I had time for her. I went to the fridge and got myself another beer. I downed it in one, and slung the empty can in the bin. Later Cass told me that she’d heard about Joe in the canteen at work. There wasn’t anything else she could tell me.
* * *
I found out more about Joe in death than I ever did in life. To me he was just a guy from a local bar who talked too much, and I called him friend. I knew he had a wife, Mary. We’d all been out before, me, Joe, Cass, and Mary. They were good times. When I think back Joe never talked about himself. The women nattered over this and that. We talked about football and nothing in particular. Most of our conversations involved me listening. Occasionally, I’d get to ask how the kids were doing at school. Joe would always answer, “Doin’ alright,” and then he’d be off on another anecdote. Joe and Mary had two kids aged seven and nine. Once he’d gone it turned out he had an older boy of fifteen from a previous marriage. I didn’t know he’d even been married before let alone had a kid. I mentioned it later to Mary. She just said Joe was a private guy. I guess he was.
The split with Cass was becoming more and more imminent. I didn’t know why but the more I found out about Joe the more I started pushing Cass on the taboo subjects. “How’d you feel when they took your kids away?” I reeled question after question at her. “Do you think about them now? Should we try and get them back? Is it worth building bridges with your parents? What about your siblings?” Cass only ever replied with silence. I tried one last time. “Cass, let me in.”
She put on her coat and said, “Get a job.” Then she left the flat. She didn’t come back till the following day.
It took me a couple of days but I did get some casual work waiting tables in a restaurant, but I fell out with the maître d’ and didn’t last the week.
* * *
Joe’s funeral took place on the hottest day of the year. It wasn’t a day for wearing black. The sun tore us up. I arrived with Cass and we nodded to the other mourners gathered outside the church. Joe’s three boys were there. I couldn’t help but look at the eldest boy. His name was Simon and you knew he was his father’s boy just by looking at him. He wore a grey suit, white shirt, and black tie. He was at that awkward age where he had a man’s height, but not a man’s frame. The suit hung a little loose on him and you could tell he felt uncomfortable with the formality of his attire. I went over to him, and offered my hand. “You must be Simon. I was a friend of your father’s. I’m sorry. He was a good man.”
The boy nodded. “Thank you.”
I moved away. The boy’s body language told me he didn’t have anything else to say. Cass stood talking to some guy I didn’t know. I walked over and she introduced me. “Mitch, this is Ron. Joe’s brother. Ron, this is Mitch my partner.” We shook hands and made polite conversation.
When he moved on I shook my head. “I didn’t know Joe had a brother.”
“I think Mary mentioned it once.”
“Does it matter?”
“I don’t know. I guess not. It’s just I’m not sure how well I really knew him.” There wasn’t time to say anything else as we were invited into the church. The still coolness of the church gave everybody a respite from the suffocating heat. The service was like any other funeral. There were prayers and songs intercut with sniffles and sobs. Ron gave a reading and talked about the Joe he grew up with. It was a Joe I’d never known and didn’t recognise.
We gathered at the graveside and they buried him. Handfuls of earth were thrown onto the oak coffin, and the priest sprinkled holy water as he uttered the final words of the burial service. That was it. I had to use my handkerchief to wipe away the sweat from my brow. I hate gravesides. I had to squeeze Cass’s hand for comfort.
With Joe laid to rest everybody headed back to their cars. The plan was to drive to Mary and Joe’s house for the wake. I guess it was just Mary’s house now. I looked at the people around me and I knew I couldn’t go. I pulled Cass to one side. “Do you mind if we cut? Let’s just go home, park the car up, and hit a pub.”
“We can’t. We have to go back to Mary’s and pay our respects.”
“I’m not sure I knew the guy.”
“Why’s it a problem? You liked him didn’t you?”
“That’s the problem. Friends talk to each other. They tell each other things. It’s like you, Cass, you don’t let me in.”
“Everybody has locked rooms. Places they don’t want to tread. Friends understand that.”
“Friends share. They talk.”
“This is about you and nobody else. You want to cut then cut. I’ll get a lift with somebody. It’s not working, Mitch. You know that too. I want you gone.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know, but it ain’t about me. We could have been good, Cass. All you had to do was let me in.”
“It’s all you. You ever stop to wonder why you’re so preoccupied with everyone else? It means you don’t have to look in on yourself. How many locked rooms you got? Your whole past is the murky unspoken. You can’t hold down a job. You struggle with authority. You laze around the house and drink all day. If you go anywhere it’s the pub. I’ll let anybody in, as long as they earn the right. What you got hidden away? Who are you, Mitch? That’s the only question in life you need to figure out. Who the hell are you? Once you find your answers then you might just have the right to step through the lives of others.”
Like I said: Cass had a habit of cutting through crap. She turned on her heel and left me there. I never went back to her flat and I never saw her again.
All I had was the words she left me with that day. Gnawing and tearing away at me. Battering against the deep rooted walls of my unspoken past. Walls that I created. Barriers that I wasn’t ready to dismantle let alone forcibly collapse. That was the way that I was happy to be. That’s the way the world would have to take me, at least, for now.
M. J. Wolfson's stories have been appearing in anthologies, magazines, and e-zines since 2012. He's a book collector, an autograph hunter, a part-time lion tamer, and a full-time fantasist. You can usually find him here: http://www.musingsfromplanetwolfson.com/