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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Chris Rooney

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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 Flats'.

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 house.

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 line jutted.

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 wood.

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 close.

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 old lady.

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 move in.

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 you."

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 this.

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 dishes afterwards.

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 bar."

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 suicides.

"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 mischief!

"I was singing and then I heard a voice, it said, 'What's that?'

"There was a young man standing on the roadside. He'd just come out of the shipyard and had stopped for a smoke.

"'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 tipped over.

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 alive.

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 corridor.

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 letter.

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 one."

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 at him.

"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 Parkinson's jar."

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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