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The clouds fractured and sunlight bloodied the rubble
strewn bank that sloped down to the Tyne, sea gulls
screaming over the river's exposed low tide mud banks
and rotting jetties.
This was the gutted street's one remaining house and
it was also Romney's final delivery of the morning. He
paused for a smoke, as he always did, and watched the
usual protestors congregated on the corner of the next
street that was due for demolition. They held banners
that declared 'Save Our Community' and 'No More Luxury
When he'd finished his cigarette Romney crushed the
stub under his boot and reached into his pocket for
the Special Delivery. He pushed open the rusted old
gate and walked up the garden path to the terraced
He rang the doorbell. And waited. He was about to ring
a second time when he saw movement behind the glass
door; the shape of a big woman. She opened the door.
Romney faced the unsmiling rock that was the
housekeeper, as he did every Friday morning. The
lenses of her spectacles glinted, her unyielding jaw
Without a word she let Romney into the house and
closed the door behind him. The big, silent, unsmiling
woman led the postman down the corridor, past the
stairs on the right where the cats sat, watching. The
housekeeper and postman went into the living room on
the left, their footsteps snapping on bare polished
An icy sideways glance from the Rock warned Romney to
wait outside in the hall. He pushed his hands into his
jacket pockets and listened to the housekeeper talking
to the old woman who, as always, was chirpy and bright.
When, finally, the Rock let Romney into the room it
was by opening the door and gesturing. She didn't say a word to him. She never did. She
rarely even made eye contact with him.
As he squeezed past her into the room he sensed her
dislike for him, unfocused but intense.
The Rock fussed over the old woman, tucking her in,
patting the blankets. Then the housekeeper moved past
Romney as she went out into the hall. For a moment
their eyes met and the Rock's stare drilled into him.
Romney only relaxed when he heard the house door
The old lady hummed as she signed for her letter. She
sat, as always, in her armchair, covered in blankets,
one skeletal hand resting on her walking stick. The
room was bare and quite dark but spotlessly clean and
warm, thanks to the housekeeper who was devoted to the
The mantelpiece was lined with clocks, each showing
different times, all ticking and chiming. Amongst them
was a framed wartime photograph of the old woman's
husband. The old lady's life was stored around her;
photographs, letters, ornaments ingrained with
memories, all carefully and lovingly packed up by the
housekeeper. Like the boxes laid around her, the old
lady now waited to move to her new residence in a
nursing home. And then the property developers would
Romney liked watching the old woman write; her hand
blue and brown with veins and wrinkled skin. She wrote
slowly but her signature was elegant, distinguished
even. She looked up at the postman with sparkling
eyes. "Well through ye gaan pet, it's aal ready for
Romney always hesitated when this moment in the Friday
morning ritual arrived. He opened his mouth as if to
decline the offer but he didn't. He never did. He put
down his mailbag and went into the kitchen.
He took his breakfast from the oven. The unease with
which he undertook this part of the Friday routine had
remained over the weeks, in fact he got goose pimples
at the very thought of the lads back at the sorting
office – or worse, the gaffer – finding out about
He poured a cup of tea and tucked into the bacon and
eggs. Anyway, he thought, the truth be known, the lads
– and the gaffer – would be green with envy if they knew
about this, living like a king. Romney enjoyed his
meal. And his secret. His enjoyment was only enriched
at the thought of the Rock having to stand there and
cook for him. And even better, having to wash the
The thought made Romney smirk as he poured another cup
of tea. As he did so he heard the old woman in the
living room, humming to herself. She was always doing
that, sitting in her chair, skeleton hand rested claw-like on her ancient walking stick.
Once Romney had finished his breakfast, the next phase
of the Friday morning ritual would unfold. He would go
into the living room and sit next to the old woman and
she would tell him stories of her childhood and youth.
Romney never tired of hearing such tales.
Sometimes, as she told a story, the old woman laid her
long, cold, bony hand on Romney's and her eyes were
bright in her bird like face. She smiled a lot but
sometimes she got tearful when she recalled her late
husband and Romney never knew what to do or say and
usually ended up saying something inane like, "Well
he's in a better place now."
But mostly the old lady talked about her childhood in
Newcastle during the 1920s. "The River Tyne then!
There was a red glow over the river day and neet,
because of aal the industry.
"Me dada was a welder in the Armstrong shipyard, which
was just doon the street from us, and the pubs ootside
the yard was aalways open at five in the morning for
him and the other men, to gaan for a pint or a whiskey
before work. And when the men went into the pub aal
the drinks would be ready and waiting for them on the
The 90-year-old would rock gently in her old leather
armchair as images of her life flashed through her
decaying mind. "There was miles of fields roond here
then, pet. Sometimes me mam gave uz a penny and sent
uz to the shop for a gas mantle because aal the lights
in our house was gas lamps. I had to cross a field to
get to the shop and there was foxes and wild cats from
the local farm. Mind, those gas mantles was fragile
and if I broke one on the way I was in trouble
when I got back," the old woman clasped her hands and
her eyes sparkled as she laughed. "I've seen many a
day when dada chased me roond the kitchen table with
his belt because I'd broken a gas mantle.
"For a day oot me and me sisters took a bottle of
water and a jam sarnie and we went doon to the Tyne,
and at low tide we climbed over the shiny rocks and
the ship wrecks that lay in the mud like bid dead
whales. There was loads of these sunken ships ye knaa,
and they was aal old wooden ships, ancient as bones.
We found aal sorts doon there on the riverbanks. Once
we found some coins and me dada took them to the
library and they said they was Roman. When dada came
home he gave me nose a little tweak and says, 'We've
got a little centurion in the house,' and we aal
laughed and laughed.
"Me and me sisters used to walk along the Tyne's
banks in our bare feet; the mud was up to our knees,
it was. I liked to walk alone sometimes and look up
the river at the Tyne Valley and the clouds and the
hills and the river, and the wind blew in me face and
through me hair. Me hair was really long then ye knaa
hinny, it was me dada's pride and joy, seeing me hair
being blown by the wind.
"When I went walking along the banks of the Tyne I
loved listening to the sea gulls and the wind singing
across the water. Just by meself, I liked that. I
loved standing in the mud and looking west to the Tyne
Valley. I never got sick of that view, the view of the
hills and the light on the river, and I knew then that
I would spend aal me life here, just as me mam and
dada and theirs before them.
"Me and me sisters liked watching the ferryman rowing
the workmen across the Tyne and in the winter the
passengers had to help the boatman break the ice with
their fists so they could get across the river. And
sometimes we saw bodies being pulled out of the water
and taken away by horse and cart. They was often
"Once it was a man from our street. He had thrown
himself off the Tyne Bridge and his body had been
carried doon river to us. I was so sad because he was
a nice man." When she told this story the old woman
would go silent as she thought about the kindly man
who had lived a few doors away, his bloated body being
dragged from the river, his hair as bright as brass in
the sunshine of a summer's morning in 1929.
Sometimes the old woman talked about the day she met
her husband, "I was seventeen. It was a beautiful June day. I
was walking across the field near home with Betty
Reynolds who was me best friend. We put flowers in our
hair and walked bare foot through the long grass and
was followed by the cats from Thompson's Farm. By,
those farm cats was little beggars! Aalways up to
"I was singing and then I heard a voice, it said,
"There was a young man standing on the roadside. He'd
just come out of the shipyard and had stopped for a
"'What's what?' I says back to him.
"'That bird, singing.'
"'I divven't knaa what ye mean,' I says to him.
"Betty giggled, 'He's talking about ye, dafty.'
"Well I just went as red as a lobster. And that's how
I met Sam."
Romney would sit and look at the floor while the old
lady sang her stories and the postman smelt the
medication on her breath and watched the cats curl
around his legs and he imagined open fields around the
centre of Newcastle and the ferryman rowing people
through ice and young girls in rags and bare feet
watching corpses being dragged from the Tyne.
Romney awoke with a start. He was sitting sprawled in
the kitchen chair. Its legs screeched as he sat up. He
blinked in the gloom. "Hello?"
His voice echoed. There was no response. The house was
dark and silent. Romney stared down at his unfinished
breakfast, which had turned into a cold greasy mess.
He looked at his watch: 1pm.
Romney jumped to his feet. He was breathing hard,
running his hands back through his hair. How could he
have fallen asleep? He fumbled on his Royal Mail
jacket then washed his face under the cold tap.
Reaching out a hand for a towel, he hit a jar and it
Romney picked it up. He waited for the old woman to
say something from the living room but she didn't. The
silence pounded. Then Romney saw that several ten pounds
notes had spilled from the jar. He stuffed them back
inside and screwed the top of the jar on.
Romney turned to go. Then stopped. He stared through
the kitchen doorway, into the dining room. "Hello?" He
said. There was no response.
Romney went back to the jar, unscrewed it, took out a
ten pound note and pushed it into his jacket pocket. Then he
put the jar carefully back in its place, picked up his
mailbag and went into the dining room.
The old woman was sitting in her armchair, head back,
mouth open. Her face was as white as bone and her eyes
were narrow frozen slits. Romney put his fingers on
her wrist and searched for a pulse. She was still
As he straightened up the old woman's shrivelled hand
shot out and grabbed Romney's arm. "Is that ye Sam?"
Romney stood rooted to the spot. The pulse in his
throat pounded and sweat glimmered on his upper lip.
"Sam, is that ye?" The old woman repeated.
It took Romney an age to get the old lady's hand off
his arm; she had a surprisingly strong grip.
She was looking at him with clear blue eyes. "Why
didn't you make me happy Sam?" she asked.
"Ye knaa me," Romney said, his voice a dry rasp. "It's
me, the postman. Remember?"
The old woman stared at him. Romney reeled out into
the corridor and had to battle the front door open; it
always jammed. Once outside he gulped in the fresh air
and lit up a cigarette with shaking hands. And got
away from the house, as quickly as possible.
Romney enjoyed his smoke and watched the protestors. A
BBC TV crew had turned up this week. In the middle
distance, at the bottom of the steep bank, the River
Tyne shone. The thump thump of machinery echoed across
what was left of the housing estate. A tractor roared
into life, belching fumes.
When he'd finished his cigarette Romney crushed it
under his boot and walked up the garden path to the
house. He rang the doorbell. It wasn't the Rock who
answered this week but an elderly man. Romney told him
he had a special delivery for Mrs Parkinson and that it
had to be signed for. The old man told Romney that he
had better come in.
The postman stepped into the house. He waited for the
man to close the door and then followed him down the
The cats had gone; the armchair in the living room was
empty. The clocks, the boxes, into which the
housekeeper had neatly packed a hundred years of family
photographs and letters; it had all gone. From the
kitchen could be heard the sound of cutlery being
washed. Romney guessed that it was the Rock.
"Erm. Yes." The man rubbed his brow "I mean, Mrs
Parkinson was my mother. I'm Derek. I, er, I'm afraid
my mother died. Last Friday night, in her sleep."
Romney fumbled in his jacket pocket for the Special
Delivery. He tried not to think of the events of the
previous Friday; he had been trying to forget all
week. And to think, he'd been walking past the house
every day and didn't even know that the old woman had
died. His mind raced as he searched his pocket for the
Derek scribbled his signature. His hand writing was
different from his mother's, it was firm, pen pressing
into the paper. "It's... er... from my brother. In
Canada," Derek explained. "He wrote to her every week.
Gave her something to look forward to."
"Yes, I know," Romney said. "Mrs Parkinson, well, she
used to enjoy reading out the letters."
"Yes. Of course," Derek smiled then said,
"Unfortunately my brother didn't find out about the
old girl passing away, until after he had posted this
Romney took the slip of paper that Derek had signed
and sensed that there was something else on Derek's
mind. Derek paced up and down. Romney's face burned
red, his heart pounding.
Finally, Derek stopped pacing and looked the postman
in the eye. "The thing is old son, my mother has left
you some money. In her will."
Romney stared at Derek who grinned and gently punched
the postman's arm. "For spending all that time with
her. It really meant something to her. She looked
forward to your visits each week. She told me. She
thought a lot of you. I would have spent more time
with her but, well... Do you have a family? Well then,
you know how it is."
"Yes, I know how it is."
"Anyway. The old girl left you several hundred pounds.
And... erm... I'd like to thank you. For doing that. For
spending time with her like that. If I could have your
address? So I can contact you."
Romney hurriedly wrote down his details. The sound of
dishes being washed stopped. The housekeeper appeared
in the kitchen doorway. Romney could sense her staring
"It's ok," Derek again softly punched Romney's
shoulder. "I won't tell your boss."
"Tell him what? I enjoyed listening to Mrs Parkinson's
stories, that's all."
"Absolutely," Derek said. "Absolutely. Well. Yes. I've
got to be going. Lots to do. Not enough time. Ha ha.
You'll be hearing from us." He shook hands with the
postman then left the house.
Romney and the housekeeper were alone now, facing each
other across the empty room. The postman picked up his
mailbag and moved towards the living room door.
The housekeeper moved with surprising speed. She
blocked Romney's way. He tried to get past her but she
wouldn't let him.
"Go towards a night out boozing did it?" The
housekeeper demanded, icy venom in her voice.
Romney reached behind her and tried to open the door
but the Rock wouldn't move. Her face was red with rage
and loathing for Romney. "You took ten pounds from Mrs
Romney pulled harder on the door lever. It bumped
against the housekeeper's back. "All the years I've
known that old lady," she said, tears filling her
eyes. "I was closer to her than her own son." Romney
felt the big woman's breath on his face as she moved
her face closer to his. "I knew as soon as I saw you
for the first time. I know your sort. I can always
tell your sort.
"Mrs Parkinson trusted you; well my lad, this won't
stand, you'll see! I wonder what your sorting office
manager will have to say about this? Sitting around
eating breakfast when you should be doing your job,
taking advantage of a vulnerable old lady then
stealing from her. That's one for the police."
"I don't know nowt about ten pounds," Romney told her. "But
you obviously do; maybe I should report you to Derek?
Or the cops? As for listening to Mrs Parkinson's
stories, what's that got to do with you? Eh? What did
you do for the old woman except blow her nose and tuck
her in? The longest you was ever here was when Mrs
Parkinson asked you to fry up some bacon and eggs for
me and you did that wi' unbelievable bad grace.
"Ye knaa what it is; in the six months I've been
coming here you've treated me like something you might
step on in the street. I visit loads of places and
I've never known anyone else like you who can create
such a bad atmosphere because of your instincts about
someone. As for knowing my sort, well you don't know
me from a bar of soap."
Romney remembered his predecessor's warning when he
had taken over this delivery, "You'll be a regular at
old Mrs Parkinson's. She gets a Special Delivery every
Friday. You won't be able to just go in, mind, get her
letter signed and then leave. The old girl loves a bit of
chat, it's sort of expected. You might even get a cup
of tea. But watch out for the housekeeper. She's very
good at her job and is devoted to Mrs Parkinson, which
is just as well because the old lady's family don't
give a monkey about her. Everyone says the same about
the housekeeper, about how dedicated she is, but if she
decides she doesn't like you, you're in trouble.
"Seriously mate, don't give her any excuses, like
leaving the gate open, stepping on the grass, dropping
a cigarette on the path - and if you deliver any wrong
mail... The lad before me? The housekeeper made his
life a total misery and she put in so many complaints
about him he lost his job at the finish. All because
she decided she didn't like the look of him and she
knew his sort."
Anger at six months of being treated like a criminal
boiled up in Romney and he grabbed the housekeeper and
pushed her against the wall, hard. Her eyes widened
with shock. Romney said to her, quietly, "Don't play
hard ball with me."
Then the house door shuddered open and Derek came in,
wiping his feet on the doormat. "Guess who forgot his
spectacles. Ha ha."
The housekeeper and the postman backed off from one
another, breathless, like two cats caught fighting.
There were tears in the housekeeper's eyes. Romney
lifted his hand to his mouth and the hand trembled.
Derek looked from the housekeeper to the postman,
frowning. Outside, the tractors and bulldozers geared
up in preparation for knocking down this, the last
house in the street.
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