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The Letter by Jules Robbins

This story is to remember Edith Grey who planted a tree on October 19th. 

She wouldn’t go tonight. Sitting at the table, podding peas and looking with half an eye at the newspaper, she felt almost content now that her mind was made up. Seven in this one; seven beauties lined up in perfection. Edie enjoyed the sensation of release as each pea succumbed to the slight sliding pressure of her thumb and the ting-ting-ting of the peas landing in the enamel dish. Later, Maureen would be certain to grumble if there wasn’t enough on her plate. Dismissing the uncharitable thought, Edie’s attention was drawn to an item on the fourth page of The Herald. Further investigations were being conducted into the recent vandalism of post boxes and shop windows across the city; the police were expecting to make more arrests by the end of the week. They’ll be lucky, she thought; nobody’s talking and there are no witnesses.

Basket on her arm, she walked towards the city’s market. What a pleasant day it was with the late summer sunshine and a cooling breeze. Perhaps she would stop in and see Holly on her way back. Her old school friend had recently made the odd comment which suggested that she missed the camaraderie of her old job, but surely being in her own home with a lovely husband and her dear little boy must be preferable to those noisy days in the printing works. Edie decided that she would buy a treat at the market to take to Holly’s and later give her a hand with the garden.

The breeze was brisk in her hair as Edie crossed the bridge. She stopped for a moment, her attention caught by a blue boat moored a little way along the canal. Geraniums bloomed scarlet in glossy painted tubs along the roof of the boat. What would it be like to live on a boat like that? To wake up and begin your day by making breakfast in the tiny kitchen and to fall asleep with movement beneath you, the noises of the city so close by all the time? Just once she had been on a small pleasure boat out of Wroxham and she recalled her surprise at being so low on the water, almost like being within the water, and the way the sounds from the outside were transformed inside the cabin. She tried to imagine another life for herself, and in the space of two minutes it seemed almost as though she had brought that life into being. So strong was the feeling that as she stepped away from the bridge she felt that she was leaving behind something important. A wistful nostalgia.

She turned the golden pears in her hands, looking for the least blemished whilst secretly exerting just a tiny pressure with her fingers under the ever-watchful eye of Mrs Jackson. Six selected, she handed them over for weighing. Broad beans were piled high and at a good price today so she put three handfuls into a paper bag and passed those across. With the same movement she handed over a brown bag filled with leaflets about the meeting this Saturday. Mrs Jackson didn’t react. She looked tired, her skin almost translucent. Money was exchanged for produce and Mrs Jackson turned to her next customer. In the smoky pub across the way, her husband would already be consuming the penny profit on those pears.

Edie still had business to conduct at the bank, bread to buy, and a letter to post. She enjoyed the luxury of taking her time but finally she found herself outside Holly’s house, her hand on the familiar gatepost. There was Holly herself at the door already, the child on her hip. They locked eyes and in that instant there passed a hundred thoughts, of friendship, of the sunny day itself, of decisions and discontent, of the hour ahead and a pot of tea to get making. Inside the little house, the air was filled with the vanilla scent of biscuits baking.

“Will he eat a pear?” Edie asked, taking one from the brown bag and aware of the boy’s eyes already upon the fruit.

“He seems to love all fruit at the moment,” Holly replied. She took it and quartered it before handing a piece to the boy.

They went outside, the boy leading the way with his fist clasping the pear, then Holly with the tea tray and the biscuits – still warm – on the blue roses plate she always used.

“How is it?” she asked.

“Not too bad this week.”

They sat side by side on the bench with the nasturtiums crowding yellow and orange around their feet and the busyness of sparrows in the privet loud at their side. The boy was already looking for more pear and took a piece in each hand before reversing towards the back step and lowering himself.

“Did you tell him?” asked Holly.

“No.”

The tea was poured and the biscuits sampled and commented upon.

“What will you do?”

Edie didn’t know.

She didn’t want to discuss the letter; Holly would want to know what she’d written. For now, her decision was pending. Once the letter was posted, the decision would be made. If she told Holly now, it would force her to set that decision in stone before she was ready to do so.

“Perhaps you should meet him after work one day this week to explain?”

“No. I can’t face that.” She put the cup down and stood up. “I need more time to think.”

They wandered around the garden. Edie brushed against the Michaelmas daisies and the honey bees lazily rose, then rearranged themselves. Roses were deadheaded and the last of the tomatoes placed into a mixing bowl before the vines were pulled up and added to the compost heap. The little herb garden she had helped Holly to plant was past its best for this year and they cut a large posy each to dry for use over the winter. There was a sense of packing the garden away. It was both a refuge and a restraint, Edie supposed, being in the home with her son all day. The boy was lining up stones along the low wall. He saw them watching him and smiled impishly, then swiped the stones onto the ground and laughed to himself.

“I’d better go. I’m preparing the meal this evening and the others will want to eat early.”

“Thanks for stopping by; you know how I appreciate it.” Holly paused, unsure of finding the right words. “Good luck.”

Edie smiled briskly, not wishing to be caught again in the familiar conversational web just as she was leaving.

“Thanks. I’ll try to pop in again on Thursday. Tell your husband not to eat all the biscuits in one sitting!”

And she was able to exit on the crest of an everyday light-hearted comment whilst inside her head thoughts crashed in turmoil.

The letter now weighed more heavily in her pocket. Somehow, she had made her decision. She stopped again at the bridge. Life on the blue boat wouldn’t suit her after all; she knew she would feel too confined even though the view through the windows would be ever-changing. The plaque on the post box told her she had missed the final collection of the day. It didn’t matter. She held the letter for an extra second but her mind was made up.

Home again. Another pot of tea – made more for the completion of the act itself than to satisfy a thirst - more thinking. Still an hour at least until anyone else was home. She smiled at the irony of a life spent wishing she was home followed by wishing she was at work; a diurnal craziness. Of course, it wasn’t work she craved, it was the company of others and the noise and clamour which prevented thoughts from crowding in on her. The meal was prepared and she walked idly up the garden and back, cut some parsley to add to the meal. Mr Henderson was in his adjacent garden and she longed for him to launch into one of his lengthy descriptions of his night-fishing adventures, but today he was preoccupied with getting things ready for his wife’s return from a visit with her sister. Edie sat for a moment in the lowering sunshine and raised her face. Children playing somewhere down the road sent their calls to one another echoing down the walls of the terrace.

“Shame there weren’t more peas. Is that really the end of them?” Maureen looked comically glum.

“They weren’t exactly what you’d call a success this summer,” Grace replied. Then she put down her cup and said that she supposed they should set off at about nine. It would be quiet then and properly dark. She turned. “What did you decide?” A moment’s pause. “Are you coming?”

“No,” Edie said. “I’ll stay in case I’m needed here for anything.”

Nobody replied.

Then Edie asked “What is the plan?”

“Best not to know,” said Grace. “If something goes wrong, you will have nothing to answer for.”

“Well, good luck with it,” she managed to say. She felt rebuked, diminished in their eyes by her refusal so far to join them in these activities.

By the time it reached half past midnight, Edie was too tired to wait up any longer. She turned in and fell asleep almost instantly. In her dream she seemed to be in a boat which bobbed gently; the air was filled with the astringent scent of crushed rosemary and lavender. The daylight snaking through the curtains woke her and she felt panic, realising that she had forgotten to set her alarm. She leapt up and went into the front bedroom but she knew by the open door that there would be no occupants, that she would find the bed still made from the day before. In desperate hope she called down the stairs but her friends’ names bounced off the walls and back again without finding any reply. She didn’t know what to do. In this heightened moment of confusion she experienced a sudden pang of clarity. She had been wrong to send the letter.

If he had never known, it wouldn’t have mattered. Nothing in the world would have been changed. Now he would have to carry the burden with him throughout his life. He would always know about the child who had never breathed. She could have spared him that if only she hadn’t felt the need for absolute honesty. She cried then, a bitter release of emotion which came too late to be of any use. She could have spared him but she had burdened him instead. Perhaps like her he would dream of what life might have held.

Edie was dressed and brushing her hair when they made their unexpected return. Grace’s face was swollen along her left cheekbone and she looked as though she had been punched. Edie rushed to her friend and guided her to sit at the kitchen table, found a clean tea towel to rinse in cold water and apply.

“What happened? What can I do?”

“Don’t worry. We’re both fine and fit to fight another day. Ask us no questions and we’ll tell you no lies,” Grace quipped.

The day lingered. Grace and Maureen had eaten a hungry breakfast then gone up to sleep before the afternoon shift. Edie flitted about, picking things up and moving them; a bit of tidying, a bit of sorting. Eventually she forced herself to sit and begin the re-draft of the speech for Saturday. What more was there to add? The audience would consist almost entirely of the committed and the converted. Last week there had been one stray heckler accompanied by his bewildered children. “Blokes for women!” He shouted over and over again as he was ushered out by the body of the audience. His lone voice had dented the evening.

A knock at the door. Holly was stood on the doorstep with her eyes wide; the boy was asleep in his pushchair. As Edie opened her mouth to speak, two policemen walked up the path behind her friend.

“Maureen Wilkinson? Grace McKenna?”

Edie was frozen with disbelief and fear.

The men shoved past, pushing her back into the door jamb.

One made his way up the stairs and the other towards the kitchen. It was a matter of only a minute or two before Grace and Maureen were being marched from their home, hair awry, coats over their nightclothes and boots on stockingless feet.

“What are you doing? Where are you taking them?” Edie cried. “Grace? What shall I do? Who should I tell?”

But their faces were turned away from her.

Holly made tea and sang a silly song to the boy to keep him entertained. She managed to find paper and a pencil for him to scribble with. She knew that Edie was finding it difficult to comprehend the sequence of events.

“There was a great deal of damage last night. I encountered Mr Jackson pushing his cart to the market this morning. He was full of venom for whoever had ‘vandalised’ Anglia Street. Three shop windows smashed, he said, plus the post box on the corner by the old bridge inked and set on fire. There were witnesses to the post box incident but they didn’t go to the police station until this morning. Night-fishers.”

Later, when she had done everything she could, spoken to everyone she could think of, when she was dropping from exhaustion with the worry of it all, she cried. She cried to think of her dear friends’ time ahead in prison, now surely inevitable. She cried for the child she didn’t have and for the man who didn’t know. She cried for the lives she had imagined but never lived and she cried for the lonely, empty, wide open days ahead of her.

At her happiest in the garden with a book in her hand, Jules has funded her lifelong reading habit by teaching English to teens and adults and by working as an educational assessor.