GEORGE • by SJ Bryars

I sit on the bottom stair of the empty house, sold sign standing by the hedge. Every item is rehomed or lying deep inside landfill on the edge of town. I can smell George’s snuff and spicy aftershave before I see his ghost. It’s 1982. I walk next door and the top of his freckled, bald head is just visible over the back of the sofa. He covers it with an intricate swirl of soft, white hair which, when caught in a breeze, lifts alarmingly, extending upwards in waving fronds. His arms are behind his head and his thumbs stop up his ears from our shrieks of laughter. His lips move as he whispers Russian phrases I will never understand. As our volume rises, he unstops his ears, leaping forwards and we scamper upstairs.

I go to join him but the room is empty. It’s 2015. He’s making a speech for my mother’s seventy-fifth birthday. Before starting, he lets out an enormous trumpeting bellow as he clears his nose into an immaculate, sheet-like handkerchief. The address itself is quiet and thoughtful, each word carefully measured but everyone’s attention is caught by his nasal complications. His hand clutches a glass as he talks, voice low and carefully modified to remove his childhood accent. I see the taut knuckles but his audience are unaware of both these and the ever-tapping foot.

Stepping away, I turn to the dining room. The former book-lined walls lie empty and a series of sad marks are all that remain. But here’s George again — it’s 1985. He sits at the head of the table, clutching his knife and fork, pretending to pound the table with them as we giggle. Then we’re older and I’m passing him champagne. He swears at my scant measures, so out of character that a smidgen of laughter escapes me. I pour more because I’m so very sorry that he’s forgetting us all and I want him to smile. He joins me — his laugh is more of a wheeze, shoulders rising with the effort.

I’m in the car now. I look in my rear view and his ghost is at the gate. He waves — a high, strong movement like a salute. He turns, head down, steps slow and reluctant. His cream, thick, intricately-knitted jumper hangs loosely around his fading form. I remember it tight across a round body. When I get home, I want to call him to say I’m safe. I think of that phone now, its twisted cord waiting endlessly to be unravelled in an empty hall.

SJ Bryars lives in Hertfordshire in the UK.

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