Monday, January 13

No Kind of Romance

CARTER WAS IN the army at one point or other and on a particular Tuesday—though it could have been any—he was looking out of his window through the twitch of a curtain at a suspect car parked in front of his house, the owner vacant for some time and this was, given the quietness of the road, a most unusual and suspicious event. He sipped his tea and tried to distract himself, so he wandered around his house for a while, tidying up the odd mess as he went, though by no stretch of the imagination could his house be considered messy.
Afore the front door, on the mat, was a small pile of letters; no more than three, of varying sizes and coloured envelopes. Carter was surprised, because he had not heard the crack of his letterbox, a sound that, in the countryside, has all the startle of a gunshot. He walked over and picked the letters up. He organised them, largest to smallest, and flicked through. He led, what he himself called, a ‘lonely existence’ and so post was usually of the unexciting kind: bills, circulars, offers from the local supermarket, a newsletter from his MP. On this particular Tuesday they were of the usual fare when the last and smallest letter surprised him because it was not addressed to him, not to his house nor anyone who lived there. He put the other two letters down and studied the last. It was a handwritten address, stamped regally, and dedicated to someone he had never heard of but who lived in the same village as he: Great Muddy.
‘Miss Martha Marlboro.’
(I don’t know a ‘Miss Martha Marlboro’.) The date stamped on the letter was three days old. He took the letter to the kitchen, where the light was better and sniffed it suspiciously. He cursed the postman and the Royal Mail and held the letter in the air. (What a thing!)
As a child, his mother had ordered that his shoes be kept in a cupboard under the stairs. To this day he kept his shoes in the same place, though it was his own cupboard under his own stairs. His mother was not about any longer. She had choked on a cherry stone and been buried in the churchyard. He went to fetch his shoes.
His knot made sure that the laces hung in equal lengths down each side of his shoes.
On a small bookshelf in the backroom was an ordnance survey map of Great Muddy. He pulled it, just so, off of the shelf and unfolded it—expansive and green—upon his dining table. Placing the letter on top, he made a note of the road and scoured the map. It was less than a minute before he found it. The road was on the outskirts of the village and was in (the shape of a seahorse’s tail). In pencil that he would later rub out, he drew the route from his house to the address on the envelope. On the way he would, he decided, stop off at the cornershop and buy a can of coke because he was thirsty and felt like one. He memorised the route. He traced the route seven times, and then he set out.
The day was grey, was autumn pulling into winter. It was cool. The skies were overcast so that not a shadow was splayed. Leaves had started to fall and many of them were dryly fornicating on the floor, thrusting with the gusts of wind. Carter took off down the road. He did not put the envelope in his pocket but walked on, strong and steady, measured, with power in his stride and thinking of a can of coke. His whole mind was an advertisement for coke. A small lip of wind came down and unsettled his hair so that, remembering his path, he smoothed it down.
The man in the cornershop stared at him with annoyance in his eyes as Carter counted out the correct change. He still had the envelope in his hand and counting out the correct change was a little difficult.
‘I’m sorry. I’m making a delivery and felt like a can of coke.’
‘…’
‘It’s my favourite drink in the world.’
‘Yes.’
The drink paid for, Carter said—‘I hope you choke on a bacon rind.’ And Carter left the store.
His Great Muddy surroundings had taken on the colours of the ordnance survey map; the village green was paler than it appeared, the pavements he walked along had twelve-foot high letters across them, the church was a symbol not its usual testament to moss, lichen and old habits.
(I wish people weren’t so rude sometimes I was just making conversation.) He snapped the coke open and thought that it was the best tasting drink in the world, so he held it up to the camera. The drink filled him with energy. He could not think about his home and the emptiness there and the car parked outside. He moved his fingers on the envelope so as not to water-damage it with his perspiration. Miss Martha Marlboro’s house was just under a mile from the cornershop, the halfway mark, the tick of an HB on a well-creased ordnance survey map. The coke was delicious.
Carter came to the road and thought (This is where it starts to take on the shape of a seahorse). He had put his empty coke can in a bin some yards back. He was not all too familiar with this part of Great Muddy, although the houses were under the same gloomy detailed silence of his own. Not a doorway moved nor child played. He double-checked the envelope. (So much effort why can’t they deliver to the right houses but I suppose it gives me something to do the window is so still and the scenery only moves to the beck and call of the wind.) He almost thought that he would miss the envelope when he had delivered it, because, after all, it had been in his own home. For a moment he took on the shape of a postman, he imagined the hour was much earlier and the banter he would share with the people he was delivering letters to. But Carter was no sort for banter; the sooner he could deliver this letter, the sooner he could return home to silence, his silence. He was a solitary man, not by nature but by nurture. His efforts to reach out in youth had been thwarted, so he kept to himself and compared the colour of his bruises to winter fruits. He was a loner in the village. People stared at him, then spoke quietly to each other. Children made up rumours about him. Everyone in the village knew of him yet none spoke to him.
Being so far from home and unsure where he was, he quickened.
The house of Miss Martha Marlboro was straight in front, where he had seen it would be on the ordnance survey map. It was a house just like the others on the lane. The windows were shuttered with lace curtains that teased passers-by with the windowsill’s ornaments; most noticed by Carter was a china ornament of two dogs rolling around on top of each other in play. He froze for a second to look at it, then caught his breath and put the letter—with a glance of farewell—into the letterbox.
He hurried home and did not look back the entire way. Some sweat had broken out on his forehead and he cursed himself when his front door closed behind him.

Martha had taken a seat by the front door. She always had a chair there, since she moved in, and rarely used it other than to catch her breath after bringing the shopping in. All around her the house did not make a sound. She was expecting a delivery. She was greatly anticipating a knock and a confused smile; letter in hand; a cup of tea. The clock in the living room ticked very loudly so that it banged on her ear. (Surely he will be here soon.) Nerves rolled around in her belly like fat snakes. Could she not think of something to say? She would laugh, too, and ask him how on earth a letter addressed to her house had made it to his, and they would both laugh. (Would you like a cup of tea? or a can of coke?) (He loves coke.)
She had been waiting for almost two hours when she was startled by the crack of the letterbox. Martha looked up in time to see the letter she recognised fall to the floor.
Sadly, she walked over and picked it up. (It’s warm.) She would… or no, she would not. (I will.) She flung open the door—her snakes writhing hard and fatter; words and voices flying around her head—but he was halfway down the street. Then, he was gone from view, and words had melted on her tongue as though they were confetti. She went back inside and tried, with all her might, to formulate another plan to bring them together. It was no kind of romance for grown-ups.

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