by Susie Gharib

She had brought nothing with her to that shabby shrine, meant to heal but only aggravating her ill feeling. They had commercialized death itself. She thought of florists, candle shops and toy lands profiting from the demise of a forsaken child. Even tears refused to wet her cheeks that had always glowed red with fury at sentimental scenes in books that she used to peruse in public libraries, but the time had come for her to choke over a real tragedy. She had only seen him once while alive, at the undertaker’s shop, lying in a small coffin newly made for the next-day funeral. He reminded her of David Copperfield or was it Oliver Twist. She could not decide which. His eyes looked weary with living, his sallow cheeks sunken with the lack of chewing and speech. The whole face was a calligraphy of grief. Glum, that was what everybody called Mr. Morossen, rebuffed her questions about the boy and his whereabouts. When she offered to take him home for a bath and a light meal, he discouraged the idea, stating that there was no point in making the child grow attached to her since he was not hers. She should report him to the authorities and then seek adoption if she was seriously interested in him. He knew that Betty did not have the means to feed another mouth, a single mother with a daughter on whom she doted.

She lit a cigarette then incessantly coughed until some blood spurted out. She kept her mouthwash in a small bottle in her handbag. The diluted blood she spat had become a familiar sight. The doctor had warned her that excessive coughing could rupture the blood vessels in her throat. She drove her Austin to Rhoda’s school. The annual fees were overdue and she had to assume the father’s role. With considerable difficulty, she managed to convince the school board of accepting it in installments. She had contemplated selling the car, her only gift from Rhoda’s father, who upon hearing of her pregnancy had left the car keys on the kitchen table with a one-word note, Sorry, to vanish without a trace. 

The boy sat in the middle of a puddle, bespattered with mud. She bent over him to enable his pallid lips to mumble something into her head. Betty nodded and opened her fridge that had miraculously moved from her kitchen to the pavement opposite her house. It was utterly empty of food. The boy looked famished. She called after Rhoda who had gone to church to receive communion bread. The undertaker appeared out of nowhere with a soggy biscuit in his wrinkled hand, which the boy reluctantly received in his mouth only to spit it into a crib that instantly grew into a coffin filling with blood. Betty screamed and sat in her bed with cold sweat on her troubled forehead.

“It’s all right. Just a nightmare. Please have a sip of water,” said Rhoda, her green eyes filling with tears. “Let me wipe your forehead. You have been screaming. I could not wake you up.”

“Why are you so upset?” Rhoda asked as soon as Betty looked calmer. “Is it the boy’s death? You are blaming yourself. You do not even know his name. Does he even have one? I know you were thinking of helping him without going through the system, but he died before you could do anything. Please stop blaming yourself. I heard the neighbors speak of him as the coffin-boy, yet nobody bothered about him. Some candles, a few teddy bears and his memory will soon fade. He does not even have a mother to grieve over him.”

“I’m grieving for him. I wanted to bring him home. I know all about abandonment. I shouldn’t have listened to Mr. Morossen. I should have brought him here despite all consequences. A boy having a nap in a coffin. How could I, Rhoda? Of all the people I!” said Betty, her body convulsing with emotion.

Rhoda knew that the person before her was the mother and she could not win any argument. The driver received her orders with indulging smiles and the father generously complied with her every financial need but the mother in Betty was a sea of tenderness that the slightest breeze would ruffle.

In the morning, the driver assumed her habitual air and gracefully dropped Rhoda at school but as soon as the daughter vanished out of her sight, a cloak of sullenness enveloped her. She called her boss at work and told him she was feeling rather indisposed and unable to attend to customers. She then pondered over the list of things available in the fridge, and decided not to visit any shops. She did not feel like seeing anybody.

She stared through the half-curtained window at where she found the boy dead, curled up like a frozen worm. Betty had driven early in the morning to have a cigarette before Rhoda was ready for school when the sight of the dead body sent her into hysterics. No one figured out what happened to him. The undertaker was shocked at hearing the news. He confessed that he had allowed the boy to sleep overnight in any coffin of his choice.

The mother sat in the kitchen staring at the fridge, wondering if it was empty as in last night’s dream. Rhoda liked to prepare her own breakfast and the driver was not in the habit of having one. A cup of black coffee with a cigarette sufficed until her lunch hour at work. She wanted to cook something delicious for Rhoda but instead she lethargically slumped into an armchair feeling as heavy as the weight of centuries. She meditated over the fridge. She needed to pluck her courage before she could open it. What if the undertaker appeared in the middle of the kitchen with a soggy biscuit!

She was startled out of her nap by a knock on the door. Two police officers were investigating the death of the boy. After some routine questions, they were heading towards the door when Betty politely asked if one of them could kindly open the fridge for her. She quickly added that it needed repair. The younger one paused and giving the whole kitchen a survey with a pair of intelligent eyes approached the fridge but with evident caution. He pulled the door with all his might and the contents rattled with unnecessary force. Betty pretended to be surprised at the ease with which it was opened and was effusive in her thanks.

With the biggest obstacle out of her way, the mother began to prepare dinner for the evening. When the time came to collect Rhoda, the driver began to think of a convincing excuse for having not gone to work. Rhoda always inquired how the driver’s day had been, and the driver selected episodes that amused the young woman in the back seat. They never discussed school or work at home, where the driver instantly transformed into the most affectionate mother in the entire world, who saw to every need of her overindulged daughter.

Rhoda looked cheerful after the sleepless night and boarded the car with habitual pride. She had done well in her assignments, so she told the eager driver, about whose day she then inquired. The driver had thought of every possible excuse but failed to find a thing to say, so the mother intervened, for the first time in the Austin, and informed Rhoda that a sumptuous meal was awaiting her to compensate both of them for the ill-spent night.

At work, Betty kept herself very busy and out of gratitude for the one-day, paid leave, she asked for extra duties. The boss, who was worried about her health, having seen her cough out blood on several occasions, seemed very happy with the transformation. Betty evinced extra cheerfulness, which was her way of masking the subterranean disquiet at work in the deep recesses of her psyche.

Excited with the approaching school holiday, the mother and daughter started planning their activities over the break. Rhoda deliberately kept her mother busy in the evening. Betty also preferred physical exertion to mental strain. Both dreaded the night ahead of them but the boy was not alluded to until Rhoda requested a warm glass of milk. The mother stared at the fridge and then asked Rhoda to fetch the milk, busying herself with other things. “Poor boy,” said Betty as she handed her daughter the warmed glass of milk.

“We’re leaving in three days,” said Rhoda with excitement. The mother was making a shopping list. “Perhaps I can help you with the rearrangement,” continued the girl. They always rearranged the furniture and changed the position of the pictures on the wall to feel a sense of novelty upon their return.

Their holiday was an immense success until their visit to the restroom in the station on their way back home. A handsome man that was leaving the Gents viewed Betty with apparent surprise and politely nodded as he cast a quick glance at Rhoda. The mother averted her eyes and hurried through the door. Rhoda asked if the elegant man was a customer at work. Betty mumbled something and said she badly needed to go into the bathroom. She later sat distracted twiddling a piece of paper that the man had inserted into her pocket on her way out.

Rhoda slept all the way back home and forgot all about the elegant stranger as the mother expected. In the morning, Betty placed the slip of paper on which was scribbled a phone number, that of Rhoda’s father, in a tin box, a present from her grandfather, who used to keep tobacco in it. The anchor on its lid fascinated his grandchild and he readily parted with his dear box.

When Betty called Rhoda to dinner, the daughter’s face was beaming with joy, but as soon as she sat at her usual place, she could not help but observe a new addition to the table. There was an extra plate with food served on it.

“Are we expecting somebody mother?” asked Rhoda, feeling more surprised at her own strange question. Nobody was ever invited to dinner. The mother was startled then evaded the question by remarking on how healthy Rhoda looked with her beautiful suntan. 

Betty looked as if she had lost her appetite and sat looking at the empty chair when Rhoda was not looking her way. When dinner was over, Betty spoke something in the direction of the extra plate then quietly cleared the table. The extra served plate became a habitual feature of their evening meals. Every time Rhoda tried to ask about the meaning of the additional plate, Betty evaded responding to the question with the utmost courtesy. Rhoda gave up her queries until she spotted her mother mumbling by the opened fridge. It sounded like pleading with someone to choose whatever he liked. In order not to embarrass her mother, Rhoda hid and waited for her to finish talking. She then approached the fridge and asked if Betty was on the phone. The mother shook her head and looked worried. Did Rhoda overhear their conversation?

The next day, Rhoda resolved to probe the new phenomenon, so as soon as she finished her dinner, she said that she could do with some more stew and stretched her hand to pick the additional plate before the empty chair.

“Rhoda, leave it. It’s for him,” said the mother snatching the plate with discourtesy.

Rhoda could not believe her ears so she rushed to her bedroom in tears. The mother came to her senses and knocked gently on her daughter’s door waiting for a word to be admitted. There was absolute silence. She hesitated before knocking again when Rhoda’s voice was faintly heard. The mother sat at the edge of the bed and apologized for her rudeness. How could Rhoda impart the reason of her dismay to her dearest? It was not the angry tone. It was her mother’s mental state. Was Betty losing her sanity? Whose plate was she daily serving at their exclusive dinner table?

The next day, the same plate stared at Rhoda’s face who could not swallow a bite. The mother felt that she had to act. She cleared her throat, moved her lips incoherently and then begged Rhoda’s pardon, stating that things ought to be clarified.

“Rhoda. The plate is for the boy, the coffin-boy,” she paused, then resumed in a lower voice,” he has been asking for these meals, since our return from the holiday. I cook the things he orders. He talks to me. You will think I am mad, but this is the truth.”

The color faded from Rhoda’s cheeks and her lips grew tremulous. She was silent for almost half an hour, their meals grown cold, when she quietly inquired of her mother: “Do you talk to the dead mother? Do you see him now at the table? Does he sit with us every evening?”

The mother looked disconsolate and knew that whatever her answer was, Rhoda was lost to her. She looked at the empty chair, the plate before it, and then at Rhoda’s pale face.

“I have been talking to him for days. His name is George. He is always hungry and it is enough for him to feed his eyes on the plate served before the empty chair, where he is sitting right now listening to us. They do not eat like us.”

“They! Mum, if people listen to this, they will shut you in. Shall we inquire where he is buried and take him food there? Please do not behave like this. You are the only one I have in this world. You do not want me to end up like the coffin-boy,” said Rhoda sobbing.

The mother took Rhoda into her arms and told her that she could not help the things that were happening to her. The boy even went into her bed. He needed warmth. She felt his ice chill the bed until her warmth finally engulfed him and he gradually yielded to sleep.

“Do you suggest that I see a doctor? They will take you away from me. We will be estranged. You will end up in a home and I in a mental house, and people will always think you are weird because you have a mad mother and you might take after her. It will be your lifelong stigma, Rhoda,” said the mother composedly.

“So what do you want me to do? To see you talk to the air and say nothing. Does he go to work with you? What if you get caught talking to yourself at work? Your boss will report you and you will lose your job. Who is going to feed me and him then?” said Rhoda looking in the plate’s direction.

“He never goes to work with me. He is always standing by the fridge. I entice him with the served plate, to make him sit at the table. Spirits do not harm us Rhoda. It is the living who do so,” said Betty.

Rhoda kissed her mother goodnight and sat in her bed feeling the weight of the world on her fragile shoulders. She feared for her mother. In the morning, Betty dropped Rhoda at school then drove to a nearby hospital. She pondered over the matter for a few minutes then headed to work instead. In the afternoon, she collected Rhoda before going to the local shop where they found some neighbors poring over the local newspaper with unusual interest. Betty asked if everything was all right. One neighbor who knew it was she who reported the death of the boy to the police told her that they had finally found the identity of the coffin-boy. He was an escapee from an orphanage, and his name was George.

About the Author:

Dr. Susie Gharib is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in various magazines such as Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Curlew, The Ink Pantry, A New Ulster, Down in the Dirt, the Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Mad Swirl, and The Opiate.