The man who worked for the council

o-OLD-COUPLE-HOLDING-HANDS-facebookBoth of Arthur Pemberton’s eyes were wide open but he could see nothing. The room was in total darkness and you would never know that there was a streetlamp less than twenty feet from the window as the heavy, velvet curtains prevented even the tiniest glimmer of light from getting in. Without lifting his head from the pillow Arthur shifted a little, so that the cold, plastic, coating of the headboard made contact with the top of his balding head. From this position he could clearly see the alarm clock on his bedside cabinet and it’s two bright luminous hands shining in the darkness like a sign. A sign that it was twelve minutes to five. The alarm was set to go off at five o’ clock.

Arthur gently eased himself round and into a sitting position, trying desperately not to disturb the sleeping mass of duvet beside him, and, taking the clock in his hands he slid the tiny lever to off, thereby ensuring that his dear wife, Violet would not be disturbed.

As his eyes adjusted to the light he could just make out the outline of the Lloyd Loom chair near to the bedroom door. On this chair were his workclothes, neatly folded from the night before. On the top of this pile, as usual, was a sheet of paper torn from an exercise book. This was Violet’s daily, ‘things to do’ note. Arthur pulled himself to his feet, picked up the bundle of clothes and with the deftness of a burglar opened the bedroom door.

As he walked toward the bathroom the tackiness of his bare feet made a gentle ‘Ca-thwap’ sound on the cold linoleum of the landing each time he lifted a foot. He switched on the bathroom light and a full-length mirror standing on an old yellow Formica backed chair stared back at him. The mirror reflected a tired man. A man whose face was almost the same colour as the grey in what little hair he had left. He rinsed his face in cold water, brushed his teeth. Then dressed and went downstairs.

In the kitchen he put a slice of bread into the toaster, clicked on the electric kettle and switched on the portable television on the table. A face few people would recognise came alive on the screen and told him what programmes he could expect to see later in the day. Arthur didn’t hear this; he was busy taking two of his pills from their container on the window ledge. He grimaced as he tried to swallow the larger ones, they were new and they were hard to swallow. His doctor insisted he change his medication every eighteen months or so, as it helped prevent too many unpleasant side effects.

After eating his toast and drinking his tea he put on his jacket and boots and stepped out onto the communal drive, closing the door on another unfamiliar face on the screen, talking about the weather in Eastern Europe. When Arthur reached the end of his drive he stopped and pulled his collar tight around his neck. His warm breath billowed before him in the cold air like tiny clouds.

Arthur was a familiar figure around the Handford estate. Everybody knew him even if not by name. as soon as they saw his bright orange Day-Glo waistcoat they were reminded that he was the man who worked for the council. Elderly ladies in their pinnies would stop him as he walked by and bring his attention to some leaky guttering, or a damp patch that had suddenly appeared. And Arthur would hear them out patiently.

‘Hmmm’, he would say, ‘I’ll see what I can do’.

In truth Arthur could do very little. He held no position of power.

Arthur made his way in the darkness, the brightness of his jacket glowing like a beacon in the night. The estate was peaceful at this time of day. No young yobs, or joy riders screeching up the street. They were all tucked up in bed. It looked a nice place to live at this time of day.

As Arthur crossed into Holywell drive the rising whine of a milk float greeted him.

“Morning Arthur”, the milkman called, “Where are you today?’

‘Don’t know till I get there,’ Arthur replied, ‘They’ll tell me when I get there.’

Arthur never asked questions.

The early morning air was cold and the road glistened with frost. The sky was absolutely clear and clusters of stars danced and shimmered like expensive lights on a Christmas tree. Arthur stopped and stared at the crescent moon. It shone bright, as if it were freshly painted and the smaller stars looked like tiny flicks from the paintbrush. In the quickest flash, the short time that it takes for a single thought to flick through ones mind, Arthur saw himself with Violet on a fairground ride. They were sat in a car shaped just like that moon. And all of their friends were calling to him, ‘kiss her, kiss her!’

Then as quick as the thought came it was gone and Arthur moved on.

As he continued on his way towards the bus stop he passed a young man scraping ice off his car windscreen.The man stopped what he was doing and turned to watch Arthur walk by. Violet had told Arthur to keep away from this man.

“People like him don’t like people like us”, she had said.

Arthur chose not to remember the time he was shopping with Violet and this man and two of his friends followed them up the High Street, salivating and making faces. He chose not to remember being called “Mong!”

As Arthur arrived at the bus stop there was a lady standing under the shelter, stamping her feet in the cold.

Morning.’ She said.

Morning.’ Arthur replied.

Cold one today’, she continued.

Arthur nodded, and then they both stood in silence. Occasionally she stamped her feet again, or made a shuddering sound as though somebody had poured icy water down her back. Arthur felt in his pocket and pulled out his list of things to do. There was only one thing on the list today, ‘get perfume for violet.’ Arthur had written today’s list. The perfume was to be a treat. Today was their wedding anniversary.

As Arthur stood in the cold under the shelter he thought about the day that he had met Violet. She had been brought into the council offices to get a little work experience, to help her to learn how to mix with people. She had spent a lot of her life in homes, just like Arthur had. From the moment they saw each other there was a chemistry. The rest of the staff at the depot commented on it, about how strange it was that people like that are drawn together.

Arthur had remarked what a pretty dress it was that Violet was wearing and she had blushed.

The bus finally arrived. The lady paid first and went to sit right at the back and Arthur sat at the front, near the driver. Most of the drivers on this shift knew him and they would all chat to him. They talked about the weather. Of football, and sometimes even touched on politics and the state of the country. Arthur never had any real opinions of his own but the drivers listened politely to what Arthur would say and never corrected him if he got the name of the prime minister wrong, or mispronounced a word.

The bus arrived at the town centre a little later than usual. But the street lamps were still lit and they reflected in the frost on the roads. Arthur liked this time of day, especially in winter, when it was still dark. It made him feel special, like the whole town was his, and all of the shop windows – their bright displays, where all for his benefit. Sometimes he would stop, transfixed, staring in at one of these windows and minutes would fly by. One day a policeman came over and tapped him on the shoulder to check that he was all right. But there was no time for looking in windows today. The bus had been late this morning and he still had to call in to the newsagents before work. He climbed off the bus with a ‘cheerio’ to the driver and went on his way. He walked as quickly as he could, but by the time he got to the newsagents he was too late. Mr Patel had already pushed the steel shutters up and was inside serving a customer.

Sorry Arthur,’ Mr Patel said, handing the lady her change, ‘I couldn’t wait any longer’.

Arthur was disappointed. He always helped Mr Patel to lift the heavy shutters.

I’ve got your sweets for you anyway’, Mr Patel continued, and he handed Arthur a small paper bag from under the counter. Arthur took his sweets and went on his way.

By the time Arthur got to the depot wagons were already pulling out.

Morning Arthur’, voices chorused from the windows of the wagons.

‘See you later, Arthur’, they called.

Arthur raised his thumb in a gesture that everything was fine. Then he walked into the small office block, past the posters warning of the dangers of drug and solvent abuse, and was met by a friendly voice.

“Here again, Arthur?” The smartly dressed man placed a friendly arm around Arthur’s shoulders.

“You know you don’t have to come here anymore, Arthur?”

“Mmm.” Arthur replied

“Look, I’ve got a team out near the Handford estate today, the man said, that’s not far from where you live. You can go along with them and they’ll drop you off home later’.

‘I have to call into the chemist today.’ Arthur splurted, proud to show that he had managed to remember. ‘I want to get a present for Violet. It’s our anniversary today’. He finished proudly.

‘Hey, congratulations, man… Look, tell Violet to make an appointment with your bank. You’ve got a lot of money in there, now. You should take a nice holiday, the two of you… Then, as he turned to go he said,

And Arthur, Remember me to Violet, won’t you? wish her all the best from me.

Arthur sat on the bench in the hallway with a satisfied smile. Directly ahead of him there was a flyer advertising the annual works outing to Blackpool. A budding artist had drawn the tower, and there was an attempt to draw two men having a drink together but the perspective was wrong giving the impression that one of the men was wearing the Tower as a hat. Beneath the poster there swung a biro tied with string. Arthur took the biro in his hand, and beneath the four names already listed he wrote ‘Arthur’ and ‘Violet’. As he sat down again he took his ‘things to do’ note from his pocket, flattened it out gently across his knee, and waited patiently for his wagon.

That evening Arthur waved to the driver that had just dropped him and walked in through his back door into his kitchen. The room was as he had left it. His plate and cup were still on the table and the television- still playing, showed a young Australian couple having an argument. Arthur took from his pocket a paper bag and a small brightly gift-wrapped box. He put them both on the table and draped his bright jacket over the back of the chair. Then he picked up the breakfast things and put them into the washing up bowl, on top of the other unwashed crockery. He switched off the television and made his way upstairs remembering to carry the parcel and the bag of sweets from Mr Patel. There was a stillness in the house, an overpowering quietness. A car screeched on the road outside and young voices called to one another, but inside, the house was cocooned in quiet.

The action of opening the bedroom door released a stagnant stench but Arthur wasn’t aware of it. And there was a loud ‘buzzing’ sound. Arthur walked to the window and pulled back the heavy curtains, and a large bluebottle blundered awkwardly past his face and back into the room.

The streetlamp outside bathed the room in a golden, honey warm glow. But the movement of the curtains made the smell worse. Arthur went into the bathroom and filled a large bowl with soapy water. And carrying it back into the bedroom he began humming a tune. He placed the bowl on the cabinet at Violet’s side of the bed and gently pulled back the cover.

Violet stared past him her eyes wide. The flesh of her face was taut, as if she had had a number of face-lifts and had no more skin to stretch. Her cheekbones forced their way through her flesh making a very white mark through the heavy blusher that Arthur had applied the day before. She had been dead for some time.

Arthur continued humming his tune and occasionally mumbled some of the words to the song, On this day, and You’ll be mine, as he gently sponged her tiny body. When he had finished he made up her face again, opened her anniversary gift and sprayed her with her favourite perfume. Then he climbed onto the bed next to her, opened the sweets that Mr Patel had given him, and, placing them on the bed between them he told her of his day, working for the council.

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