Aphelion Issue 242, Volume 23
August 2019
 
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Clearing Up

by Elizabeth Guilt




George checked his notebook as he pulled up outside the house, reading the details while he raked the handbrake on. No police hints on this one, just a straight house clearance: an elderly man, taken into hospital after a fall and died a week or two later.

He flipped through the rings of keys and let himself in, running a jaded eye over the living room furniture. Cheap tat, mostly. The settee and chairs were good only for the dump, and the telly looked like it'd been bought ex-rental decades ago. Nice '50s dresser, and a vintage dealer might want the plates off it. The clock was worth a second look.

He didn't even notice the piles of newspapers, the clogged comb, the dentures. He cleared the jetsam of people's lives, binning the grot along with the sentimental clutter that relatives found so hard to handle.

He barely glanced at the kitchen, experience correctly predicting what he would find: filth, worn-out utensils and a greasy microwave beneath the drooping and dusty Venetian blind. Up the steep staircase, he shoved open the bedroom door. The horror propelled him out so fast that he almost went straight backwards down the stairs again. He slammed the door, slumping onto the harsh, corded carpet of the landing.

Getting old, getting careless. Breezing through rooms like that, assuming he could rely on the mundanity of a suburban geriatric. The room had been bad – though he’d seen much worse – but he should have been better prepared.

He stood up carefully, took a deep breath, and opened the door again. Over the bed hung a thick, sticky cloud of jealousy and malice. Rage shot through it as shards of memory reached out for George. A bruised, tear-streaked face, a raised fist, a pillow firmly held down.

"And you got away with it, too, you bastard," muttered the house-clearer as he surveyed the mess.

The murder was old, years old, but the rage was still urgent and biting. The elderly man had gone on hating his wife long after he buried her.

The wife had been frail and ill when he finally moved that pillow. Had a care worker, somewhere, suspected – but let the details slide? A devoted husband, easing his wife's misery, who could blame him? But George read the trails of red in the sticky tangle emotions; George saw the glee as the wife fought for breath. This had not been a merciful gesture.

Steeling himself, he plunged his hands into the roiling cloud of angers and jealousies. With the choking strands around his fingers he wrenched the images apart, feeling hatreds and dreams tear and fray. The wife's despair; forty dragging years of suspicion; the husband's paranoia; his delight in his wife's unhappiness; his final, vicious triumph.

George withdrew his mind as his hands methodically shredded the threads of ideas that held this nightmare together. He let each insult, each broken promise and every threat float off and dissipate harmlessly.

While he worked, he drifted back to a long-ago memory of his father's voice. It had been nearly fifty years ago, in a tiny terraced house where a woman had been found with her head in the gas oven.

"The family won't thank you," his father had said. "They won't even know you've done it. And the new people who move in, they won't thank you either. But they'll be a lot happier and fare a lot better in this house if you clear that up."

Both George and his younger brother had worked for their father's firm, and Dombridge & Sons prospered. They gained a good reputation for fair prices and honest work, stripping and selling furniture, unwanted possessions and the detritus of spent life. And as they went, they always "cleared that up". They never mentioned it.

George had read about mediums, about people who tried to suggest something persisted after "loved ones" had departed. He had no time for them and despised the false hopes they held out to grieving families. He saw the tattered, leftover emotions he cleared from houses in much the same way he saw the stacks of old newspapers and yellowing family photos that they bundled into black sacks.

A few - a very few - people did thank them. Often vaguely, as if they recognised that something had been done, but couldn't quite say what. And the detective inspector who recommended Dombridge & Sons to grieving relatives after violent crimes, he knew all right. More than one of the undertakers in the area had dropped the occasional hint.

A couple of months previously a customer had requested a house clearance but stipulated "don't take Grandma away". They'd been quite insistent that the furniture and remaining effects could be sold or disposed of, but "not Grandma". George had emptied the house, smiling to himself as he left the pink-beige, lavender-scented column of motherly kindness in the corner of the kitchen.

Of course, in most houses, George and his brother Ralph simply shifted furniture, boxed up books and crockery as they were paid to do, and made a lot of trips to the local tip. But whenever it was necessary they also "cleared that up" quietly and without fuss.

Back in his van, George rang the customer. Yes, yes, no problems, standard price for a house of the size. Next Monday? No worries.

He returned a call he'd missed. "Hello, George Dombridge of Dombridge & Sons..." He felt the familiar tiny needle of guilt as he said that. His father barely worked at all now, but they kept the name. With Alex working all hours and taking almost all the long-distance driving, it really should be "... & Sons & Grandson" these days. He and Ralph studiously never mentioned it. Alex hadn't asked, but if he'd never wondered then he was even dafter than they thought.

Poor Alex, it wasn't his fault. He was a good lad. He just couldn't... couldn't clear up like the rest of the family. And it was only chance that meant George had come and done the estimate on the house today. Alex would have walked into that bedroom without blinking, taken all the furniture away, and some poor young couple would have been at each other's throats without ever knowing why. George hated trusting Alex to do jobs by himself, even as he conceded that Alex offered as good a service as any other house clearer. But he couldn’t offer the Dombridge service.


*****



George was just about to drive off when the phone rang again. Ralph's voice trembled on the other end, sounding faint and panicky.

"Help... George..."

There was a thud and the call dropped out. He didn't waste time calling back, he rang straight through to the shop.

"Alex, where's our Ralph at the moment?" He tried to sound calm.

"Doing a clearance in the West End, probably. He said it'd likely take all day. I'm not sure..."

The address, dammit, give me the address. George gripped the steering wheel as he tried to keep his voice steady and casual. "I think his phone's bust, I'll pop in on him on my way back. What's the address?"

His teeth ground as Alex fussed and fumbled with bits of paper. He had his foot down as soon as he knew the road and was nearly up to thirty before Alex finished saying the house number. Driving, seatbeltless, with one hand holding his phone he headed into a maze of backstreets.

Ralph had called for help exactly once before in all the time they'd been clearing houses. In the same time George himself had nearly lost it twice - once before they had mobiles. His dad had come looking when it got late and rescued him. He could still remember the red-hot, trapped feeling of someone else's pent rage; it had filled his mind until he'd had no thoughts left of his own.

What was Ralph doing? Alex hadn't known, of course, it was "just a normal house clearance". All house-clearances were normal to Alex, with his donkey brain and stolid walk. Such a disapp...

George scraped a kerb and his attention snapped back to the road. Nearly there, nearly there.

He parked awkwardly across a dropped kerb, leaving the van door swinging as he slammed through the neat, white-painted front door.

"Ralph? Ralph!" He was running, wheezing, up the stairs as he shouted. "Ralph!"

A door stood ajar and he crashed into a pretty, pink room with flowered walls and ruffled furniture. Ralph was slumped against a wooden cot, his phone on the floor beside a giant fluffy teddy. A slimy, grey stream wound about his head, in and out of his mouth as he breathed.

George reached for the grey threads, confused. Such a tiny strand of a story, easily broken apart - surely not enough to trouble his brother. Was Ralph ill? Was this a mundane emergency which even Alex could have handled?

Ralph was breathing, albeit with an ashen white face. George brushed the greys aside, and found himself looking down into the cot at a still, lifeless baby. The baby! After so many, so very many, secret griefs and all the guilt, the baby she had finally carried was dead and cold. A swelling, ripping sensation burnt up from her lungs as she tried to breathe, tried to scream, tried to...

George gripped the edges of the cot, the wood digging into his palms as he pushed and pushed, frantic to get these freezing despairs out of his head. Momentarily he found himself and he swung blindly at the clutching threads, beating them away from his brother's face. Gritting his teeth, he snagged individual thoughts that snapped like rotted silk until the twisting coil became loose, disconnected patches. Ralph flopped sideways onto the floor, his head on the teddy's legs. He drew a massive breath, and opened his eyes. George dropped next to him.

Ralph's expression was still bleak and distant, but he nodded slowly.

"Cheers, mate."

George remembered himself coming round, sprawled on the floor in a badly burned kitchen a decade ago. He'd had the same feeling that words were inadequate, and had thanked Ralph in a similarly banal way. He gripped his brother's hand.

"Cot death," said Ralph. "Husband left, wife killed herself."

George nodded. Seven words, and people would say oh, how sad. The gap between the words and the hideous, tearing pain of the young mother yawned greedily, eager for others to fall in.

"Dad... Uncle Ralph?" Alex came through the door, confused to find the two men, pale and shaky, sitting on the floor and holding hands. George struggled to his feet.

"Dad, are you ok? You sounded weird on the phone, I thought I'd just come over."

"Thanks, son. It's fine. Ralph just took a bit of a turn. His angina, I think. Scared us both."

He reached down to help Ralph up, realising as he did so what old men they had become. Behind Alex, a thin screaming started.

"Sorry, sorry!" Alex scooped the toddler into his arms. "Sally's ill, I had to bring the bairn with me." He stroked the little boy's face. "Ssh, now, it's fine. Uncle Ralph just felt ill for a while. Ssh, ssh..."

George looked at his grandson's face, contorted, red and screaming in terror. A chubby little arm pointed directly at the patchy greys above the cot.

He turned to look at Ralph who was now grinning broadly. Dombridge & Sons suddenly had a future.



THE END


2019 Elizabeth Guilt

Bio: Elizabeth Guilt reads and writes stories to make her daily commute on the London Underground more enjoyable. She has recently had her first pieces of fiction accepted for publication by Straylight literary magazine and Luna Station Quarterly.

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