Wednesday, November 23

Their Boy, part I

SHE WOULD slap a first class stamp on anything. There was no thought to the operations of the Post Office. She reasoned, in her careless way, that the post would get there, no matter what. He always wrote back that she wasn’t paying the full postage but she did not seem to care. She did not mean anything by it.
So the notification from the postman lay, with scuffed edges, on the table by the front door. Fortunately the depot was local and it would not close until late, so there was plenty of time after work for him to walk down there.
The smell of fish pie—thawed and set in the microwave—permeated the house. It was a leftover from some time ago and he thought, as he had thought back then, that he should have put peas in it. It is one thing to have carrots, celery, leak & spinach, but he thought that peas would have added a whole lot more. There was always next time.
His shoes were by the back door and his cat stirred when he went to put them on. Rufus looked up from the groove he had sculpted for himself in a chair, blinked and rested his head back down. The life of a cat. Taking his driving license for identification, he left the house.
A fine fog lay at the level of the trees. Light from lamps that zigzagged back & forth over the road burned mistily. There was the smell of evening, which was the smell of dew, which was the smell of the day lying down to rest. Quietly his footsteps hollowed down the road.
Sometimes he worried that he would come across youths on the street. When they passed he kept his head down.
Leaves had turned, fallen, and, in their shade of brown, crumpled. Blown by the breeze they looked like scurrying mice. He minded his step.
He knew that the other men at work remarked behind his back about his illegitimate child. They all remarked—“Can you believe it? . . . Yes, when he was just eighteen!” “He doesn’t seem the type.” “I know!” And so the child, the boy becoming a young man, existed away from him, tied to his life by the infrequent letters from his past lover. He had become—because he could not recall doing it in years gone by—the sort of person who smells a letter before he reads it. Such people were a dying breed, a people emigrating from one small area of the earth outwards to walk among others, secretly sniffing the innards of letters written by hand and spent some time upon. A letter has a definite smell, there is no argument about that, but, once opened, how long does that smell last? A day? A week, maybe two? If the letter is not handled or read too much then it can last longer. It must be reinserted into the envelope. Unfortunately the scent never lasted long for he carried the letter around with him on the inside pocket of his jacket and read it at will. The folds grew more prominent and untidy. Her cursive, though, in its scratched manner, held the most romance for him. Not the scent, nor the content, really, but the handwriting that escaped to him, at first in school, then love letters, then birthday cards, then requests for support and now updates on her, and their boy.
The off-license glowed.
Its thin plastic signage glowed red with white lettering but mostly the white from the shop glowed out on to the pavement with a handrail and a small ATM beside it.
I will go in there on the way back, he thought, and pick up a bottle of wine.
That is another thing he enjoyed with her letter: a bottle of wine. Not half, or a glass, but the bottle. If you read a letter
properly, from start to finish, carefully, a few times, it can last long enough to see you through a bottle of wine.
Her handwriting had not changed since school. Reading it he felt a rush into history. The mention of the boy placed him in the delivery room with her & the doctors & the intrusive lights & the screaming & the pushes & the cord. You don’t forget things like that, even after they have walked away from you.
He walked into the industrial estate—closed—and down the alley for the bridge over the railway. The cables buzzed. From the stairs down from the bridge he could see the Post Office depot and the red vans outside it and a few cars parked for the remaining staff.
For the size of the building, the public entrance was very small. It was a tiny room with the door on one side, a service window on the other, and a notice-board describing rules & policy changes, local events and a poster on paying the correct postage fee & including the post code. He was embarrassed by the poster, but only slightly.
The man behind the window had not heard him come in. He was old and had a potbelly and a white moustache. He rubbed his eyes under his glasses and apologised—
“Sorry, I was daydreaming.”
“That’s quite all right.” He leaned on the desk that ran along the window. “I’m here to collect and pay postage on a letter.”
The old man was hard of hearing and leaned closer to the window.
“I’m here to collect and pay postage on a letter. They didn’t put the right stamp on it.”
“They didn’t?”
“No. I know who it’s from. She sticks a first class stamp on everything.”
“Oh, does she?” the old man chuckled, “And I bet she sticks it on a large letter!”
“Yes, she does.”
The old man laughed some more, which made him laugh, too.
He regained himself—“Address and post code, please, sir.”
He told him and showed his identification but the old man did not really care to see that. There was a radio playing behind the window somewhere. The song could not be made out. There wasn’t much postage to be paid.
“Thank you.”
“Thank you. Good night.”
He left the old man in his small room on the side of the Post Office depot.
Gripping the letter delicately in its large envelope he felt a sense of warmth creeping up his arm, as if he had placed his hand on a radiator.
The letter could be felt through the envelope, which, despite being the same size as the envelope, was folded so it only took up a third of it. He wondered why she did this. There was also an address window in the envelope, but she had scribbled it on the outside anyway. It made no sense but it made him smile.
The railway cables buzzed.
He carried it all the way home, taking special care not to crease it, or soil it with his fingers too much. There was a discount on wine in the off-license and the cheap brands were even cheaper. Excited anticipation hurried his pace. The cat was still snoozing on the chair when he got in, the heat of the house falling across his face.
He shouted out to his wife—“I’m home.”
She did not call back.

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