Victim Support

By Janet Olearski

jayson-hinrichsen-Xe50GCoRzDU-unsplash

They’re at home, Leah and her father. They’re sitting in the kitchen and they hear someone pushing at the door of the flat. There’s a faint knocking too. They look at each other.

‘What’s that?’ says her father.

‘I don’t know,’ she says.

He gets up and goes to the door to look. She hears him say something like, ‘Who do you want?’ He sounds suspicious, but not alarmed. She follows him to look. There is a boy on the staircase, a teenager. He is already off down the stairs, saying he is sorry, he has made a mistake. He is not sorry. He has not made a mistake.

Looking down the stairs to the bathroom on the landing, Leah sees that the curtains, which are normally closed, are open.

She says to her father: ‘Did you open the curtains?’

‘No.’ He looks bewildered.

‘Well, neither did I.’

The blind is rolled up, the window catch is unlocked, the bathroom cabinet is open. The boy thought he might get into the flat across the roof. No if’s or but’s, or benefits of the doubt.

Leah calls the police.

They send a small efficient policewoman with a blotchy red birthmark on her face to listen to their troubles and to write a report in her black-leather-covered notebook. She wears a white shirt with short sleeves, and a cute little police hat that you would expect to fall off but that stays in place while she scribbles down the details in large curvy writing. The policewoman’s writing is the sort that Leah once produced herself: her writing is grown-up now.

Her father keeps interrupting with irrelevant facts. Leah tries to bring the discussion back to observations that are of significance. The policewoman is business-like, but she’s also compassionate. She listens.

‘It’s only happened once before in thirty-five years,’ Leah tells the policewoman, who writes it all down in her book.

‘We’ve been here thirty-five years,’ says her father. He is being helpful.

Leah looks at her father and thinks, ‘That much she has grasped.’

‘As long as that!’ says the policewoman.

They tell her a story of times past. Who else will they tell it to?

‘A boy – another boy – came up the stairs,’ says Leah. ‘The door was unlocked. It was always unlocked. We live on the top floor. Who would come up here? The boy pushed the door open. My father saw the shadow. But not the light. He had been having himself a slice of bread and butter. My father, not the boy. The carving knife was on the table. My father picked up the knife and went to the door.’ The boy met a man with a carving knife at the top of the staircase. Should she be telling this story to a police officer? ‘The boy said he had made a mistake and flew away down the stairs.’

Leah’s father smiles at the retelling of the tale, but there’s uncertainty in his eyes. He is hearing it for the first time. He knows it must be true, but he cannot remember any of it. Not even the carving knife.

‘He never came back,’ says Leah.

The policewoman says she will send the fingerprint man. Her father will make him welcome, she is sure. A robbery, even just an attempted one, is an opportunity for much brewing of tea.

They’re living at the scene of a crime. Most of the day’s conversation revolves around what should have happened and what could have happened.

Leah goes out later for a walk to clear her head. When she is away on her holiday, she wonders if the flat will be burgled in her absence. Her father might be stolen. What would it be like without him?

She stops by the dry cleaner’s to tell Siobhan the story.

‘And what if your father had been on his own?’ says Siobhan. What if, indeed? Siobhan says she thinks she saw two boys hanging about around midday.

‘A tall one,’ says Siobhan, ‘and a short one. When I saw them, I thought to myself, I wonder what they’re up to?’

Another part of the jigsaw for Inspector Whoever. They’re on the case. They need all the help they can get. Dry cleaner watch.

Every time Leah thinks she should be moving ahead towards something new, covering fresh ground, she finds she is stuck. There are ends to tie up, letters to write, matters of business to be seen to. There is always something else, something to be dealt with, so much to do that she does not know where to start. The days seem short. She is going on holiday. She does not have much time. She will have to leave him alone and there are thieves about. She has to sort out her clothes for the trip, and tell him she is going, and sort out who is going to keep an eye on the car, and who is going to keep an eye on him. And on and on.

People ask him if he is all right. He is the victim of a crime: a break-in, an attempted crime, if nothing else.

‘How are you feeling?’ they say. ‘It hasn’t upset you, has it?’

He looks concerned. Yes, he thinks he is all right. He will manage. But he is amazed at the fellow’s nerve. ‘I mean… coming up the stairs like that, having a story ready…’

Yes, he is all right. But Leah is not. She needs help.

She is eating her pre-packed salad with the Thousand Islands dressing. She has the brochure open in front of her. She says to her father, ‘What do you think about where I’m going for my holiday?’ He looks at her, horrified.

‘You’re not serious, are you?’ he says.

‘Yes. I’m very serious,’ she says. She has been hinting at the holiday for weeks. He never believed for one moment that she was going. He is selfish for not wanting her to go. She is selfish for going. He thinks her selfish. He just wants her there and there and there.

‘All I ever seem to do is fill in forms,’ she says. She needs a holiday. ‘Insurance forms, Pension forms, Tax forms, Reader’s Digest forms.’ She’s a household form filler.

Leah takes her holiday clothes to the dry cleaner’s. She tells Siobhan she has been feeling very low since the ‘flu. Siobhan says she has been a bit low herself.

‘I don’t feel like speaking to anyone,’ says Siobhan.

‘I feel the same,’ Leah says. ‘Maybe I need a change.’

‘Yes, a holiday,’ says Siobhan.

The fingerprint man comes. He looks about eighteen and wears a business suit. He has a ponytail, rich chestnut hair with a tinge of ginger. He wears glasses and has very white skin. He carries a large silver case and the inside of the case is silver too, with little pockets for tubes and tubs and brushes, big silver soft-tufted brushes that he fluffs and twirls across their bathroom window, across the dust of ages that she jokes about.

‘It hasn’t been opened all winter,’ she says. She does not say which winter.

‘The print is fresh,’ he says. He peers at a smudge on a blotchy pane. Leah wonders if he wants to take her father’s prints, and she imagines him looking at her father’s yellow-stained fingertips.

‘No,’ he says, ‘old people lose definition.’

She always knew her father had lost definition. How long before she will too?

He looks at her fingers. Perhaps she is the thief. All will soon be revealed. He has her press her thumb into a soft damp pad of black ink.

‘No, too much,’ he says. ‘Oh, that’s too much,’ he says.

It was nice, she thought, in the black pad, like rolling about in therapeutic mud. She imprints slowly on his clipboard.

‘I should really get you to do this properly,’ he says. He takes her hand in his and he shows her how she must roll her black thumb across the page.

‘That’s better,’ he says and he scrutinises the whirls and twirls. He compares.

‘Is it the same?’ she asks.

‘No, it’s not yours.’ he says.

Leah wonders if it belongs to her dead mother. As if she had left them nothing but her thumb print.

Her mother would know what to do.

‘They didn’t want your prints,’ Leah says to her father when she goes back upstairs. He looks at her nonplussed.

She goes to collect her cleaning.

‘You’ll feel more secure now that you’ve had your prints done,’ says Siobhan.

‘Yes,’ says Leah, ‘I know now that at least one of us is above suspicion.

abbie-bernet-EPklS0dwJl0-unsplash

‘Victim Support’ was first published in 2015 in Jotters United.

Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline Journal, Wasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Typewriter

By Janet Olearski

patrick-fore-0gkw_9fy0eQ-unsplash

‘I don’t think you quite understand, Nick. We’re out of time. Ten more days and they’ll want their money.’

‘Is that ten day-days or ten working days?’ I said.

‘Not funny,’ she said, and the phone went dead.

I shuffled to the fridge, rattled out the rum and re-powered the contents of my glass. Back at my desk, I took baby sips and tried to see around the yellow Post-It notes that obscured the view from my window. I reflected on the nature of obligation, read notes at random, and sipped on. I was none the wiser. I had an incoherent narrative. As the daylight faded, I saw my reflected self materialise in the shiny blackness of the pane. Then a profound thought – we need these once in a while – that without my work I would hardly know who I was. And, on staring into that dark mirror, I no longer recognised my own distorted image.

It was difficult to remember how I’d cajoled myself into starting, but I’d managed and felt smug about it. After that everything had petered out, all the juices used up, all the imagination wafted out through the air vent. I sat late into the night at my laptop, with nothing coming. A blank screen, a sense of guilt, of deep anxiety, of unhappiness. Woe, woe, woe, I’d think. Why me? Every day I’d be overcome by a bludgeoning weariness, and then I’d wake, slumped at my desk, my hair stuck to my forehead, my eyes bleary and unseeing.

Yes, I have always had a fondness for melodrama.

And now the ultimatum. I’d stalled to the limits of everyone’s patience and they were onto me. This long night I needed to step out and walk off the desperation, just follow the darkness. I needed to open some empty space in my head, like opening doors and windows to let out the bad air.

I wrestled into my jacket, my collar and cuffs askew, but what did I care? I caught sight of my face in the hall mirror as I exited the flat and it disturbed me. Surely I could look better than this? Not doing what I was supposed to do had wrecked me. Just thinking about having to do it had wrecked me.

Outside, the city slapped into my skin and blew me awake. I wandered down the road, along the pedestrian walkways, and into the market, passing stalls and small shops, cafes, restaurants, and multi-coloured people to suit all locations. I found myself a stranger in my own city, entering alleys and narrow streets I’d never ventured into before. It was Saturday night and the place was alive. This energy was a revelation to me. I’d been so wrapped up in myself and my private agonies that I’d forgotten there was a world out here to be enjoyed. I had lost months. Should I worry now about the loss of a Saturday night?

I thought I might choose some small bar with tables out on the pavement, and sit there, taking it all in, watching people come and go. I yearned for liberty, but shame was the greater emotion. So many months, so little accomplished. My conscience kept me moving. It kept me hoping that something would jar inside my head, and that I’d get one of those prophetic signs that we all pray for, the signal that tells us something … only we don’t always know what.

That’s when something did happen, and I did get the message.

I turned a corner and I lost my bearings. Not that it mattered, since I’d lost those long ago and wallowed in the self-pity of my self-imposed loss. I found myself standing, looking into the window of a dimly-lit shop. And in the semi-darkness, I saw a black, antique typewriter.

‘For Sale,’ it said, ‘one special owner.’

I pulled open the door and went in. A bell dinged. There was a man sitting behind a dark, veneered table that passed for a desk. He was turning the pages of a newspaper, his massive forearms covered in tattoos. A sliver of smoke rose from an oversized cigar in an ashtray by his side.

He looked up. ‘Hello, my friend,’ he said. ‘You need something?’

‘The typewriter,’ I said. ‘What’s special about it?’

He looked me up and down. He said, ‘It’s Hemingway’s. You know Hemingway?’

The Hemingway?’

‘Hemingway the writer.’ He sat back in his chair. ‘You know him?’ he said. He had a sourish, almost confrontational look on his face.

‘How do you know that?’ I said. ‘How do you know that it’s his?’

‘I know. Of course I know. I’m Cubano,’ he said. ‘You see the name of this shop? You see it? Cuban Curios. That’s the name and that’s what we got – Cuban curios.’

‘How much?

The man reached for his cigar, took a puff. ‘For the typewriter? Three hundred dollars.’

‘Way too much,’ I said, and I turned as if to make for the door.

‘You no have to buy it, my friend,’ he said, ‘but someone else will. You type on that…’ He gestured with the cigar towards the typewriter. ‘You type on that – you buying Hemingway. You buying… the spirit of Hemingway.’

‘That’s rot,’ I said.

For a split second the man’s eyes flared. Then they relaxed and he grinned, revealing a set of tightly-packed spindly yellow teeth. ‘Maybe you right, my friend,’ he said. ‘But I know how it work. You come here because you blocked. I see it before. Buy this, you not blocked no more.’ He took another puff of his cigar. Behind him some kind of moth-eaten animal – a gazelle, or an elk – something brown at any rate – leaned out from the wall and cast a shadow over his face.

‘You give me the money,’ he said. ‘You take the typewriter. You problems finish.’

I looked at the typewriter. How it shone. How it glowed. I wanted it. ‘Yeah, like I’ve got three hundred dollars in my pocket…’

‘I take Mastercard,’ said the man, and he reached below the table and pulled out a card machine.’

I stared at him. He stared back. Then he rattled his newspaper and continued reading.

‘Okay,’ I said, and I felt in my pockets for my card. ‘What about ribbons?’ I said. ‘Don’t I need ribbons?’

So, there I was, sitting facing the typewriter. I hadn’t much idea how it worked but I sure as Hell was going to find out. I pressed down the shift key and felt it lock. Then I pressed ‘H’ – ‘H’ for Hemingway – and it went down nice and easy, like pressing your finger into a sponge and, as it went down, the thin metal bar reared up. I let it drop and then I slid my hands across the keyboard, across his keys. They felt as though they had been moulded to the shape of my fingertips. His touch was mine now. The lights came on for me at that precise moment.

I wrote that night, the next day, the next night… and on and on. And when my agent called and said, ‘You’re paying back the advance tomorrow, Nick,’ I said, ‘No, I’m not.’ And she said, ‘You can’t tell me you’re done…’ And I said, ‘Oh but I can. I’m done.’

Three books later, I was still going. I went out for air one Sunday evening. Dark shadows hung under my eyes, my shoulders were hunched and painful, my joints – knees, wrists, elbows – swollen, my mouth and throat parched from the self-neglect of the obsessed.

Hemingway had a lot to answer for.

I walked down through the pedestrian walkway, along the alleys and semi-familiar streets. Curiosity drove me. I realised I was looking for the shop. It took some time, but I did find it. At first I didn’t recognise where I was. The light was negligible. The building was in darkness. There was a chill in the air. I shivered and looked up, searching for the sign. And there it was – Cuban Curios. I levelled my gaze at the shop window and gave a start. A face stared back at me from the glass. My own self reflected. I leaned in close to the window, cupping my hand over my eyes. And as my vision adjusted to the gloom inside the shop, a large dark object gained definition. I blinked. And there it was, glorious and shining. Hemingway’s typewriter.

I mean… how many did he have?

jon-tyson-z_Uk5aK0FUg-unsplash

‘Typewriter’ first appeared in the literary journal Jotters United in 2014.

Janet Olearski is a London-born author and writing coach, who lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline JournalWasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com   Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Evelyn’s Virtual Diary

By Janet Olearski

robert-anasch-ugV_7jiFRxM-unsplashOneday

My origination day is Forsday. I had almost forgotten. I strolled into the lounge with my bowl of Coco Pops (penultimate packet) and the entire AnimaDisk lit up. ‘Good morning, Evelyn,’ it said. ‘This is to advise you that your expiry approaches. Please select your date and time of processing.’

I need to think this through.

Twosday

When I go, I may take a few with me. What do I care? Frank will be top of my list. He dropped by yesterday morning with a large tube of decorative vitamites, and he saw the message. He said he hadn’t realised I was that old. I really didn’t look it and it was amazing what they could do these days.

He asked if I was going to throw a deletion party.

Threesday

I stepped out to gather a few vegetables from my patch – real food – and before I knew it, I had a gaggle of bloated little plastikids around me, tubby little stomachs, fat legs and double chins. I may be old but I can still walk and run, which is more than I can say for them.

Are they old enough to drive those SlipShoes?

Forsday

A circle of fluorescent flowers lit up the AnimaDisk this morning. The message read,

On this origination day,

With joyeous voice we say

‘Happy Hundreth, Evelyn!’

I nearly puked. Underneath, it said,

Congratulations!

Your processing is booked at Yoothanazium for 12 noon on Fivesday.

We hope you had a good life and we wish you a smooth departure.

Finding the tube empty, Frank said it wasn’t a good idea to down so many vitamites in one go. Colourful they may be, but they are not sweeties. Too true. They are, however, tempting to plastikids with fast shoes.

Fivesday

[Click here to enter your thoughts.]

“The desires of today are the errors of our tomorrow.”

Evelyn Coomber, 2061

HISTORICAL NOTES ON EVELYN’S VIRTUAL DIARY

Evelyn transferred her kreditz into powndz on the BlakMarkit. This enabled her to live out the rest of her days comfortably in Bermooda.

We understand that Evelyn reached the Bakovbeeyond under her own steam as it were, wearing a pair of SlipShooz, which she obtained from a plastikid through the barter of a large tube of multicoloured vitamites.

The government’s ‘Perfekt Children for All’ manifesto was rejected but the idea appealed to, and was supported by, the affluent middle klasses who subsequently reverted to the services of popular providers such as Optimal Offspring and ChildPerfekt.

Plastikids were intended as first generation origination improvements. Their facial features were to be corrected and re-calibrated at intervals of between one to five years. Teeth could be straightened at origination, while skin and feature defects could be could be controlled through painless sinthetik injections.

Plastikids were eventually discontinued. Initially, the government’s ‘No sport at skool’ policy, which had been designed with the aim of protecting plastikids from injury, had the effect of nurturing obesity. Later, due to a preponderance of law soots against teachers, home skooling through Interactive AnimaViz replaced regular skooling. However, long-term AnimaViz exposure resulted in a number of horrific melt-down incidents in plastikid subjects that had been treated with advanced sinthetiks.

It would seem that Evelyn used a RetroPC for the writing of her diary. There is no trace of this hardware but, miraculously, paypa hardcopy of her document survived and is now preserved in the Heritage Moozeyum.

Evelyn’s work came to light through research undertaken by the Society for the Preservation of Ritten Rekordz. The Society seeks to conserve our linguistic heritage and supports the reinstatement of ritten documentation, the skill of riting and an appreciation of “classical” speling. The Society advocates the standardisation of speling. (Note Ben: A number of critics/kritics have denounced the inconsistency of the Society’s own ritten output and akordingly efforts are being made to remedy this.)

The decline of the ritten word began with the rise in popularity of text messages, which we at the Society believe handicapped and de-skilled our young people. Around 2040, works of fiction submitted for the Booker Prize were limited to a maximum of 50,000 words per book. Publishers eventually applied this rule to all books, mainly for financial reasons. But the fact was that, increasingly, the general public was finding it a strain to read ‘long books’ on their book devices. It was only a question of time before official riting was limited to 250 words per communication (though this could be interpreted liberally).

Research revealed that the excessive use of sinthetikz was in fact affecting brain-eye coordination with the result that attention spans were declining steadily. University dissertations were rarely longer than 1,000 words. However, most educated people could not read more than 250 words at one sitting. The ‘man in the street’ could not manage even 250 words in a month… hence the return of oralkulture. It is highly probable that if you are able to read thus far, you will be a second generation klonak.

The practice of having oneself kloned and thus drawing on previously learned and arkival knowledge is common in the field of akademia. Certainly it does give akademics the edge both where their students and their unkloned colleagues are concerned. The only disadvantage with this procedure is that the subject must be deceased in order to undergo processing.

Evelyn’s neighbour and would-be suitor Frank was deleted by appointment at Yoothanazium in 2082.

Evelyn herself died peacefully in her sleep at the age of 152. A statue was erected in her honour in the grand foyer of the Heritage Moozeyum but, following requests from the public, this was later replaced by a plak engraved as follows:

Evelyn Coomber 1951-2103

A life prolonged is experience gained

In recognition of Evelyn’s heroic flight from deletion, the statue itself was transferred to the Moozeyum’s gardens so that Evelyn’s free spirit could gaze across the vast yellow plains of Bakovbeeyond.

jeremy-bishop-6GqDIGk7HlE-unsplash

***

‘Evelyn’s Virtual Diary’ first appeared in the literary journal Beautiful Scruffiness in 2011.

Janet Olearski is from London and lives in Central Portugal. Her short fiction has appeared in Constellate, Sleet Magazine, The Commonline JournalWasafiri, and elsewhere. A graduate of the Manchester Writing School at MMU, Janet is the author of the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, and the founder of the Abu Dhabi Writers’ Workshop. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com   Twitter: @JanetOlearski

Postcard

By Janet Olearski

IMG_6018In some distant country, in the back of beyond, when Christina stood pushing her postcards into an empty metal post box, hearing them clatter onto its hollow floor, she remembered Sonia. Sonia flitted into her mind like a soul without a home.

It was Sonia who had appeared in shows, auditioned, sung at concerts, and travelled to film studios together with Christina’s grandmother Kay. The two women, Sonia and Kay, had been almost inseparable. Sonia was not at all flamboyant in the way that Kay had been, but she was of the same essence. Theatricality is in the blood, they say. Except everyone ruled that out when they met Christina.

Christina thought back to the winter when Sonia had contacted her mother. It had been agreed that she and her mother should pay a visit. Christina was not especially keen. She worried that her mother might be showing her off, and that Sonia would be expecting her to be just like her grandmother. It seemed to Christina that she would disappoint them both. She protested, but her mother had got it into her head that they had to go and was ready for a stroll down memory lane. Christina sulked – as she did in those days – but they went anyway.

Over time, people lose the details of experiences and events. They think they’ll remember, but they don’t. Those details are gone. When she looked back, Christina could not recall if the day of that meeting they had taken the bus one stop too far, or not far enough. She had studied the relevant pages from the A to Z, turning it sideways and upside down to get her bearings. Her mother tried to spot street names as the bus trundled along under an overcast sky. When they finally arrived, they found Sonia there in the street waiting for them, concerned they might get lost. She had come out into the cold to find them and guide them back to her front room, where tea in fine rose-patterned china cups and Viennese cakes on matching plates awaited.

It was at a time when Christina must have been at university, or perhaps was about to go. She was journeying back and forth to stay in some arid Calabrian coastal town, to be with a man, pointlessly so. It was all costing a good bit of money. The man was having fine times at Christina’s expense.

‘I wish I could have done the same at her age,’ her mother would say, whenever she learned that Christina was off again to Italy – as if this were an acceptable thing, a young woman taking herself away to visit a man who never once thought to come and visit her. That was part of Christina’s embarrassment. She had nothing to report to Sonia, only that she had a boyfriend from there. She had enough sense not to let slip that she – Kay’s granddaughter no less – was seeing a man who was separated, but not yet divorced. And him a foreigner at that. Years later it pained her to think about it. Sometimes people know things are wrong and, because they’re wrong, the ‘being wrong’ isolates them. They’re slapped over with the paint of guilt and it won’t wash off.

When they got into the light and warmth of the flat, Sonia couldn’t take her eyes off Christina. She was looking for the resemblance, almost in awe. Christina could not gauge how much she did, or did not, look like her grandmother. That was for others to perceive. Christina reminded Sonia of someone. It was partly Kay, but it was also someone else. Sonia stared and thought as she poured the tea. In an armchair, in a corner of the room, sat her husband, reading his newspaper.

‘Who does Christina remind you of, Bernard?’ she asked him more than once. Bernard looked at Christina over his glasses, said nothing, and continued reading.

Christina was drawn into an interrogation for which she was ill-prepared. Sonia wanted to hear all about how much she liked Calabria. In truth Christina hated it, but could not say. She only went because of the man. Sonia wanted hear about Christina’s interests, her studies, her aspirations. Everything had seemed perfectly clear until Sonia had asked her. How could she answer when she did not really know? She didn’t know her own mind either, which was worse. When she thought back to that time, she did not despise the Christina of the past for her ignorance. She felt compassion for her.

In the midst of this, there was a sudden flash of recognition in Sonia’s expression. She knew without a shadow of a doubt who it was Christina reminded her of.

‘Vivien Leigh!’ she said. ‘That’s who you look like. A young Vivien Leigh.’

Christina was immediately evaluated by three pairs of eyes.

‘Who?’ said Christina.

‘Can’t you see it, Bernard?’ Sonia said, turning to her husband. ‘Vivien Leigh, Gone With The Wind. Remember?’

He rattled his newspaper. ‘Maybe,’ he conceded.

‘Look,’ said Sonia to Christina’s mother, ‘can’t you see it? The similarity.’

Christina’s mother was flattered, if not surprised, that a daughter of hers should have come out looking like Vivien Leigh.

‘Oh yes!’ she said, seeing it for the first time.

‘Oh yes,’ said Sonia. ‘Definitely Vivien Leigh!’

And there were the two of them staring at Christina, admiring her, wondering at the coincidence.

‘It’s the eyes,’ said Sonia, ‘and the shape of her face …’ Christina could have been Vivien Leigh’s stand-in. Sonia knew. She had worked on Ship of Fools and had seen the real Vivien. So, who could argue with her? But there was something demeaning about being compared to someone who, even at Christina’s age, was renowned, when Christina herself was not, and probably never would be. Christina was the first insignificant one of her kind, but the millionth Vivien Leigh look-alike. There’s something not quite right about that. But not to Sonia’s mind. It brought her immense pleasure this discovery.

So, a scene in Sonia’s front room: Christina and her mother sipping their Earl Grey and eating dainty European pastries; Bernard sitting in his armchair and reading his newspaper, glancing from time to time at the visitors without saying a word; Sonia telling them about her holidays in Capri, and how she’d sing medleys of old favourites at the piano in some Italian trattoria to the delight of the proprietor. And Sonia remembering Kay, her eyes becoming glassy as she considered the loss of her old friend so long gone. For a few moments, they all sat silently in that memory.

Christina knew her mother wanted to get back to give her father his dinner. Sonia urged them to stay, but they could not. Christina’s mother said they would definitely come again. She would come on her own, or with Christina … if Christina was back from Italy. She was leaving again in a few days’ time. Another reason why Christina hadn’t wanted to visit that day: there were things to do, a suitcase to pack. But people can always find time for the things that matter. As Christina later discovered.  

Sonia hurried into another room and brought back an address book and a postcard. She had an old friend in Taormina. Perhaps when Christina got there, to wherever she was going, she would post a card to him from Sonia. Christina was not going anywhere remotely near. The card would have arrived sooner from England. Despite that, Christina agreed. Sonia was, in any case, already scribbling her message. Christina had the vaguest impression that Bernard raised his head for a moment to look in their direction.

Sonia wanted to give Christina the money. For a postcard? Christina said not to worry – she would take care of it.

And then they left, Sonia insisting on accompanying them up the road.

‘You’ll make yourself ill,’ said Bernard. ‘I’ll go.’

‘No, you’ll make yourself ill,’ said Sonia. ‘You stay here and read your paper.’

And she went with them in the cold all the way to the bus stop, hugged them both, made them promise to come back. Christina was relieved to get away, as she always was, even years later, whenever she went to visit anyone. She was no sooner there than she wanted to be gone. And yet, in retrospect, she had enjoyed that day. She didn’t know if she had enjoyed it for what had been said, or because she had done a good deed and had been there to give some satisfaction to an old lady.

The two women both came away with the sense of a job well done. Somehow, though, Christina could not really see herself returning. They watched Sonia standing in the darkness waving to them as they sat in the bus. And then they were off, heading home through the unknown territories of Hampstead. When someone doesn’t own a car – and they didn’t – even places that are near seem light years away. Christina would fly for three and a half hours to see her Italian, but twenty-five minutes on the bus in a freezing English winter seemed an eternity.

She took Sonia’s postcard with her to Calabria. She was miles from the nearest post office, she had no transport. She relied on him. Whatever her initial intentions back in London, she did not dare ask the man about buying stamps. He didn’t consider things like that important. Christina had the wrong kind of relationship with him, she realized. If she couldn’t ask him to buy her a stamp, what kind of a relationship was it? On the last day, her conscience got the better of her, and she asked him. Please, she said, please could he post this card for her? It was very important.

He scrutinised the postcard and the message. He sat for a long time trying to decipher it. Every so often he looked up at her, then back again at the card. His expression was stern, but otherwise deadpan. That’s the way he was. But he was shut out, too, from her language and her world: he had shut himself out. Christina knew what he was thinking, that she might have written it herself … to a secret boyfriend.

She said, ‘I know what you’re thinking.’

He said, ‘What am I thinking?’

‘That I’ve written the card to some man I know,’ she said. ‘Anyway, you can see it’s not my writing.’

‘Isn’t it?’ he said. He could be very awkward when he wanted to be.

‘I’d hardly give it to you to post if it was to a boyfriend, would I?’

‘You might,’ he said, ‘to make me jealous.’

Christina wanted to do one of her sarcastic laughs and say, ‘You can’t be serious,’ but she didn’t. Scorn was wasted on him. Either he didn’t get it or he didn’t want to get it. In the end he took the card and posted it. It was a game he was playing, but the trouble was Christina never knew where the game began and where it ended. And that was always the problem.

Back in England, Bernard phoned Christina’s mother. He told her Sonia had collapsed and died just the week after their visit. He had not known where to lay his hands on their number. In the end, he had found it in one of Sonia’s address books, but by the time Christina’s mother had had the news, Sonia was dead and buried. And it was probably around that time that Sonia’s postcard, her last postcard, had reached its destination.

*

‘Did you ever post that card for her?’ Christina’s mother, increasingly forgetful, often asked her daughter. And Christina, whose trips now were always for business, never for pleasure, thought how the recipient, whoever he was, had had a postcard from a dead woman, sent on her behalf by a poor imitation of a deceased film star.

But the Christina of those times was long gone, of course.

Vivien Leigh***

‘Postcard’ was one of the winners of the National Newspaper Short Story Competition in association with the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, and was published online by The National in 2013.