The Comfort of Background Noise

Dying was the most interesting thing George had ever done.

Joan had frozen as she watched him clutch his chest, his face puce, his ordinarily calm blue eyes wild and frantic. His mouth twisted into a silent scream before he crumpled to the floor, the slap of his overweight body the only sound he made amid the jangly supermarket music. Joan’s gaze followed him to the floor, where he lay on his side, the back of his shirt slightly untucked from his trousers, the shape of him bracketed on either side by washing detergents and air fresheners. The fragrant air filled Joan’s nostrils as she stared, only adding to the surrealism of what was happening. No other shoppers witnessed this sudden end to George. No one saw that Joan’s response to it was an exaggerated roll of her eyes.

True, they were both in their seventies, so the spectre of death loomed larger in their lives; but the way it happened, the abruptness of it, felt – wrong. A sense of injustice had kept Joan rooted there, staring at her husband’s shell; at the painted chequered floor; at the overturned plastic basket with their prospective purchases spilt at her feet – the Greek yoghurt that was now splattered over her favourite beige slacks. There’d been no warnings, no health problems, no utterances of feeling strange. They’d just been comparing detergent prices, and then they were one less – no longer a couple; a wife without a husband; a box of detergent with only half the clothes to wash. Yes, dying was undoubtedly the most interesting thing George had done in all their fifty-five years of marriage.

Joan treated death factually. She accepted its inevitability, its inescapability. She knew it could come at any time, but this way – so… inconveniently? She’d imagined George would pass away in his sleep: a boring end to a boring life. But this? Silently, she’d watched as staff closed the aisle and eased her into a battered vinyl chair. Strong, sweet tea was forced upon her – ‘for the shock’. And it was a shock. It was. And Joan hated that. George’s swan song had been public and gaudy. To Joan’s dismay, the local newspaper even gave the incident a ten-sentence mention the following day.

Her husband had made a spectacle of himself – of her. There could be no private funeral once word had spread, and as George had been a ‘pillar of the community’, treating resident’s beloved pets at the veterinary practice since he’d left university, there’d been standing room only at the small church. George had been well liked, well known. In turn he had known every birth, death, marriage, and scandal in town since they’d been married. She’d never cared for his gossiping – it was all background noise to Joan. She had raised the children and worked; she had managed the house. He’d never offered input to any of it, never had an opinion when she asked him for one. So steady was George. So dependable. So boring. Joan tolerated the funeral, accepted condolences from strangers, ready from the start for it to be over. She’d kept her face impassive as his veterinary colleagues had all but drowned out the priest’s words with truly obnoxious weeping.

It is to them she brings the keys six months later, having found them in the glove compartment of George’s ancient Volvo. Two identical keys, bound together by a flimsy metal hoop, had slipped out of the vehicle’s manual as Joan discarded air fresheners and sun cream bottles. No fob indicates their use, and they haven’t fit the padlocks at home. George obsessively labelled all their own keys with little coloured caps, so the sight of their naked metal heads unnerves her. The presence of them in the key bowl increasingly bothers her. They are a constant reminder of him, and she begins to feel that locating their locks is the only way she can move on.

Joan keeps her gaze steadfastly on the receptionist as she enters the vets. She wants this visit to be quick, free from meaningless enquiries as to how she was coping. She ignores the throng of waiting pet owners crammed into chairs around her.

‘Oh! Mrs Henry!’ The young woman whose name Joan cannot recall, rises sharply from her chair.

‘Do these belong here? They’re Georges.’ Joan dangles the keys at eye level between them. Light catches the metal and tiny prisms glittered onto the walls. The receptionist peers at them, then quickly drops her gaze. Her cheeks flare into a violent crimson that reminds Joan of George’s death. A pause.

‘Would you like to wait out back?’

Despite George having worked at the practice for close to sixty years, Joan has been here only a handful of times. They lunched together as newlyweds, but George always chose to meet her elsewhere. She follows the young woman into a small, clean office which smells strongly of alcohol rub, then seats herself on a low chair by the door.

The young woman clears her throat, then gently sets the keys on the desk. ‘I’ll just get Sam for you, Mrs Henry.’

Joan hears the tremble in the girl’s voice and, feeling flushed, touches her cheeks with open palms. Really – couldn’t she just hand the keys over and be done? She tries to remember who ‘Sam’ is. George spoke almost exclusively about work once the children left home, but she had long stopped listening. She’d been relieved when he decided to work on after retirement. She didn’t want him at home, upsetting her routine, visiting people, prattling on. She glances at a photo on the office wall, and sees the shiny and happy face of Arthur, the vet’s founder, smiling out at her. She always liked Arthur, George’s boss. He had been good friends with George, and the two of them always insisted that Joan and Arthur’s wife Mabel, spend more time together. But Joan found the other woman too quiet, too eager to acquiesce to the strongest opinion, too boring. She had a lot in common with George, Joan remembers. After Arthur’s death George had become less chatty, and that had suited her just fine.

‘Mrs Henry. Sorry for the wait.’

Joan startles at the sound of Sam’s voice. His face is drawn and pinched around the eyes, his glasses magnifying the dark purple circles of sleep deprivation.

‘Sam. I won’t keep you. I came to return those,’ she nods towards the keys, then begins to rise from the chair.

Joan notices how Sam’s eyes avoid hers. She’s a sharp person to talk to, she knows this, but surely the boy could show respect to his boss’s widow. She stares at him, willing him to look at her. His body language is stiff – guilt emanates from him. She senses something is not right. Her armpits and chest prickle as an uncomfortable silence fills the small room. Sam runs a hand through his hair.

‘Thing is, Mrs Henry, we… um.’ He sighs, and Joan resumes her struggle out of the chair, but her knees protest and despite the inexplicable panic she feels, cannot get to her feet. Sam is gazing at the ceiling, oblivious to her efforts ‘Thing is –I know what those keys are for.’ Briefly, he meets her eyes. ‘We were going call you, but the timing, you see. We worried…’

‘Sam.’ Joan interrupts. ‘Just tell me.’ She stops battling with the chair and gives him her full attention. Sam examines his fingernails, then begins to bite one.

‘Well, George had a shed here, out back. He wanted a quiet place for his breaktimes, away from the office. We never had reason to go out there- you need to know.’ He drags his eyes to her, then flicks them away. ‘We remodelled, as you probably can see,’ he gestures with his hands to the shiny walls and floors, ‘and had to move the shed for the builders… We should have contacted you, but thought it was too soon after losing him…’

Joan’s hands are sweating. She wipes them on her knees. She can hear her own breathing.

‘Perhaps you should just see.’ Sam’s voice is soft. He doesn’t wait for her agreement, just pushes himself away from the desk and towards the door, before remembering her and lending his arm to help her up.

Once mobile, Joan walks behind him, panic within her rising like smoke. Noises seem muffled, her limbs slow and heavy. She is filled with dread.

Sam pushes a fire door too hard. It clatters against something metal outside, the sound of metal-on-metal sharp and loud. Joan flinches, her heart beating hard and fast. It’s been raining, and the sky is low and grey. The paving stones are darkened with moisture, weeds emerging from the gaps between them. The smell of damp earth reminds her of George’s burial.

A windowless shed sits on bricks, in a corner of a parking area. As they reach it, Sam turns to speak to Joan, but stops. She ignores him, continues her shuffle towards the door. Her breath comes in ragged pants as she puts a hand on the splintered wood. She leans on it to steady herself, then watches her pale; wrinkled hands pull it slowly open. From behind her she hears Sam’s retreating footsteps.

Joan’s eyes struggle to adjust to the dim light as she stands in the doorway. She makes out the shape of a small table with two chairs at either end. Stale air wafts around her, before mingling with the damp from outside as she looks around. Another smell is here too, one so familiar to Joan that her heart lurches. The scent of George winds itself around her, and with it the realisation that she has missed him- the quiet steadiness of him, always in the background, always with soft, kind words. Shaking, she walks further inside, the uneasiness in her stomach replaced by an ache.

‘Oh, George,’ she whispers. Tears flow down her face, following laugh lines and wrinkles. She lets them fall, then through them finds the light switch. She blinks against the sudden fluorescence, before seeing that, on every available inch of wall, are photographs – but not of her, or their family. Joan squints and moves closer. The handsome face of George’s boss and friend Arthur is duplicated over and over – in different poses, from different angles. Photos of he and George together: at dinner parties, at work events, at rugby matches, at places Joan doesn’t recognise. She looks about for her own image, or the children, but finds none, not even a passport sized snap. Overwhelmingly, they are all Arthur.

The outside sounds of traffic swooshing along the wet road beyond reaches her ears as Joan stares. Her mind is freewheeling, grasping to make sense of what she is seeing, understanding dancing close, then flitting away. She releases the breath she has been holding. In a frame behind her, she sees a photograph of herself with George by her side, on their wedding day. To the other side of George is Arthur. She looks at herself, smiling for the camera, but George has his face turned towards Arthur, his expression solemn and dark with longing. The mirrored emotion on Arthur’s face as he returns George’s gaze causes a jolt in Joan that threatens to shatter her bones. Her husband, her boring, pointless husband, keeps his eyes on the only thing that he was ever interested in.

When Joan returns home, she hunts through the colour coded bunch of keys for the green fob and opens the door. Stepping inside, she pauses, her eyes firmly on the key bowl. Moving faster than she has in years, she grabs it and throws it down upon the tiled floor. Panting with exertion, she ignores the shattered glass, before shuffling to the kitchen. With a sigh, Joan puts on the radio – for the comfort of background noise.

by Noreen Jeffers

Noreen Jeffers lives in Northern Ireland. She is pursuing her lifelong dream of becoming an author. When she isn’t spending time with her husband and three kids, she is either reading or writing. Or thinking about reading and writing. Or talking about it to anyone who will listen.

photo credit: Emiliano Arano