George and Mariam

Author: • October 15, 2018 • Short Stories

The dream continued when he returned home. His movements were mechanical and unthinking. He found a pile of Judy’s clothes in the dirty washing basket: he washed them, folded them, and placed them in her wardrobe. He hoovered the stairs and kitchen. He put dirty cups and dishes in the new dishwasher. Sometimes he spent hours flicking through TV channels, stopping for a few seconds whenever he found a news programme. Sometimes he answered the phone, sometimes he ignored it, sometimes he didn’t hear it. He called no one. He learnt that he’d been given time off work: he said nothing. Judy’s parents phoned repeatedly, with increasing panic and despair in their voices. One day when they called, he got angry, and shouted at them to leave him alone. He knew this was wrong of him, and he would regret it later. He began to sleep at nights.

One morning he got up and learnt from the calendar that it was the first of the month. Did this mean that anything had changed? It was now three weeks since he’d gone to meet Judy at the airport. He was conscious of changes within himself: he’d been through incomprehension, fear and despair. Now he was living in a new, strange sort of normality. Maybe he should go back to work? The thought lay in his mind, a thick, uncomfortable slab, obscuring all other questions. He sat at the kitchen table, silent and motionless, turning the matter over.

A loud rap at the front door made him jump. When George answered it, he found a policeman. George led him into the kitchen, and mechanically asked him if he’d like tea or coffee. The policeman chose coffee, with one sugar and no milk. George made nothing for himself. The policeman asked a series of questions about Judy’s movements. The questions grew more detailed: on exactly which dates had Judy travelled to Barcelona? George found his diary: he’d marked ‘J. Airport’ on various Sundays. What luggage did Judy take with her? What luggage did she have on her return? Did he see her unpack? At first, George answered these questions unthinkingly, as if they were an unusual sort of mental arithmetic. But, eventually, almost despite himself, he grew interested in what the questions implied. There was a pause, and he looked straight at the policeman.

‘You think she was smuggling something,’ he said. ‘You think she was smuggling drugs.’

The policeman looked embarrassed and told George that they had to consider all lines of enquiry.

‘But Judy couldn’t have been a smuggler,’ said George. ‘She hated drugs.’

In fact, he remembered her enthusiastically puffing at a joint at a party, but quietly decided not to share that particular memory with the policeman. The policeman reminded George that drug smugglers didn’t necessarily take drugs themselves. Their motivation was usually financial.

‘But Judy didn’t need money!’ George protested.

However, even as he spoke, he remembered her complaining about how she couldn’t work properly unless she got a new computer with more advanced software. Other thoughts accumulated: Judy’s willingness to visit Barcelona frequently, her nervousness about every flight, her bad temper as she came through customs. He fell silent.

‘Did you ever actually see her unpack her suitcase?’ asked the policeman again.

George didn’t answer: in fact, on her return, Judy had usually said that she felt tired, and she’d unpack the next day. She must have done it after he went to work.

‘Can you think of anywhere where she might have hidden a package about this big?’

The policeman’s hands hovered over the table, sketching out a shape about the size of a large paperback.

It was a moment of revelation. George looked at the shape traced out by the policeman’s hands, and remembered, weeks ago, seeing Judy pushing a wooden box back towards the bottom of her wardrobe, where she kept her shoes.

‘What’s that?’ he’d asked.

‘Never you mind,’ she’d said with a strange smile.

Without saying anything to the policeman, he ran upstairs to the bedroom. Everything was now clear. He threw open the wardrobe door, knelt down, pulled out Judy’s shoes and grasped the box. Then he ran downstairs to where the policeman was still sitting at the kitchen table.

‘This is it!’ cried George.

He was sure that the contents of the box would explain everything. It had an elaborate gold clasp on one side, with a little keyhole inlaid in it. George fumbled at it and realised he couldn’t open the box without the key. He grabbed a large breadknife and pushed it between the clasp and the box. Then, placing the box upright on the table, he raised his fist to hammer down on the knife.

‘Now, just a second, sir,’ said the policemen.

George ignored him. He hit the knife handle with his fist. It hurt, and the clasp didn’t budge. He hit it again, and the delicate golden clasp fell from the box, bounced on the table and then tumbled to the floor. Fumbling, George tore open the box. Inside was an old notebook and some faded photos. No little plastic bags filled with drugs, no used banknotes. What was the book? George flicked through it, and then realised the truth. It was a diary that Judy had kept as a teenager when she fell hopelessly in love with a boy living on her street. She used to talk to this boy, but never told him about her feelings. The photos were all of him. She had told George the whole story months ago and had even confessed that she had kept her diary from that time.

George sat down. He realised he was out of breath. He looked at the broken box and the little diary and began to cry. Great sobs shuddered out of him, and tears ran down his cheeks. How could he have suspected Judy? How could he have been so stupid? He cried so hard it hurt.

‘Now then, now then…’ said the policeman.

He made a cup of tea for George and stirred in two sugars. (George didn’t like tea and never took sugar.)

‘Drink this, sir.’

George made a plaintive, animal-like noise.

‘Come on now, sir, just a sip.’

George looked at the policeman and wailed: ‘What will I tell her if she comes back?’

The policeman reflected for a moment, and then said, ‘Tell her I did it.’

The policeman stayed for half an hour. He spoke to George in a changed tone, gently but firmly. He said the same things over and over again in different ways: George had to realise that he would never see Judy again. George also had to see that his life would continue: he must begin thinking about his future, without Judy. George sipped the hot, sweet tea, and listened. His sobs died away. He knew the policeman was right.

 

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About the Author

Author: Sharif Gemie

Country of residence: United Kingdom

Nationality: British

Mother tongue: English

Sharif Gemie is a retired History professor. He wrote about themes such as minorities and cross-cultural contacts. His most recent non-fiction work is The Hippy Trail: A History: see here for further details. After retirement, he turned to creative writing as he thought it was time to do some real work. Writing about fictional cross-cultural contacts and journeys is a logical continuation of his historical research. Sharif is half-Egyptian: he grew up in London and lived in Wales for 25 years.


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