Written by Mark Ralph Bowman
I like postcards. Feels a bit nosey but, when all is said and done, they are public–anyone can see. And the other postmen read them.
This one is a black and white photograph of The Merry Maidens. Near St Buryan. I prefer the modern, coloured pictures, but this is good too. On the reverse is written, ‘All done.’ No signature. I slip it into the letterbox and scurry down the path, away from the sound of her door opening.
“Thanks, Frank,” she calls after me.
“S’OK, Nora,” I shout over my shoulder.
“See you Thursday.”
As I step onto my red postman’s bike, I glance back. She leans against the doorpost tapping the point of her thumbnail with the postcard, a distant smile in my direction. I push down on the pedal and wave–a wistful thought of what might have been flutters away like a bird from a bush.
I’m vice-captain of the church bell-ringers. Geoff the captain. Regulars are Graham, Martin and Ernie. And her, Nora Pinkham–the only woman. Ringing practice Thursdays, seven p.m. The next Thursday, come half past seven, Geoff’s not there. We’re standing in the belfry at the back of the church. Nora’s caressing the brightly coloured woolen sally on her rope, her faraway gaze seems to embrace me.
Martin’s lounging in a pew, his feet up on the one in front, teasing the shiny cowlick of hair over his forehead with a greasy black comb.
“I’d best find out what’s going on,” I say.
“Why don’t we start?” says Martin. “Don’t need Geoff Slater.”
“Grandsire Bob tonight,” Ernie mutters. He takes the oily peak of his cloth cap between thick, work-stained forefinger and thumb and nudges it into a rakish angle. “Reckon you c’n call the changes good as him, Martin?”
Cross-eyed with concentration, Martin pinches the lick of hair into a sharp point. “Suit yourself,” he mumbles.
The house looks deserted but I bang the door knocker, tap at the windows, call out “Geoff! Anne!” Rattle the back door. The house is locked up tight so I go back to the church.
“We could have a little jangle,” I suggest.
“We was s’posed to be doing Grandsire Bob,” Ernie grumbles. “No point in a little jangle.”
“I wouldn’t mind,” says Martin. “What about you, Nora. Fancy a little jangle?”
“Not sure there’s a lot of point, is there?” she says.
“Quite right,” says Graham. That seems to clinch it and we shuffle out of the door.
Saturday morning, I prop my bicycle against the wall of Graham’s garden and rummage for his letters.
“Good morning, Frank.” I look up, surprised. Graham has never opened the door to me before. “Geoff’s back. In quite a state. As you’d imagine. What he’s been through.”
“What’s he been through, then?”
“It’s too ghastly–Anne. Scarcely believe it.”
“What about her?”
“Drowned. She went swimming–never came back. They found her towel and things on the beach.”
I find myself gazing at the roof of Geoff’s house, just visible beyond the trees. I jut my chin towards the chimneys. “Home is he?”
“Who knows with Geoff?”
“Right,” I say, turning away towards my bike. I look at the mailbag curled like a scruffy mongrel hiding in the metal carrying cage in front of the handle bars, then swing my leg over the crossbar and pedal, glacier-slow, towards Geoff’s house.
I hesitate before knocking. The door opens at once. Geoff stands holding it, red-eyed, mouth half open as if caught in mid-sentence. His black Labrador, Spidger, pushes past his pajamaed legs and snuffles about my shoes, investigating.
“’allo Spidge.” I bend towards the dog and ruffle his ears. “You all right then?”
Geoff stares beyond me, a hint of bewilderment in his expression, as if he’s forgotten something.
“I just heard,” I say.
“Anything for us?” he asks. Then his face collapses and he hurries away into the house, sobs trailing after him.
I step through the door.
“Geoff?” I call. And listen. But hear only a kind of groan.
He’s sitting at the kitchen table, apparently looking at the clock. One hand rests on the table, palm up, as if expecting something. The other scratches the dog’s neck. The tea towels are neat over the rail on the front of the stove, probably how Anne had left them.
“Make you a cup o’ tea, will I?”
“Thank you, yes,” he murmurs.
It becomes a pattern. I pause in my round to make sure that Geoff’s had a good breakfast and feed Spidger. Geoff just hangs around the house, sometimes getting dressed.
Until the day my phone rings before I leave for work.
“They found her,” Geoff says. He sounds relieved. “Washed up near Polzeath–thirty miles along the coast.”
“Well that’s good,” I say. “I s’pose.”
“Will you be dropping in later?”
Geoff recovers some of his old energy. But funeral arrangements don’t interest him.
“Can you do that, Frank? I–I, really don’t mind what the coffin’s made of.”
“We’ll do the…um…after, the, er, wake thing at the pub, Frank. Can you talk to them? They’ll know what to lay on.”
When it comes to the headstone, he’s stubborn.
“Can’t think about that, Frank. It’s ghoulish. I’d have any old bit of stone for me. But…well…different when it’s for your wife.”
A few weeks later, the funeral done, after a lot of persuasion, Geoff agrees to go back to ringing. I tell the team.
“’Least we c’n get back to Grandsire Bob.”
“Grandsire flaming Bob, Ernie,” Graham scoffs. “I’ve had about enough of your Grandsire flaming Bob. Pardon my French, Nora.”
Nora adjusts her white cashmere cardigan.
“Well,” she says. “I think Frank’s done a great job, myself. But it’ll be good for Geoff to have something to take his mind off of…” She hesitates, thinking. “Off of what happened.”
“Hear, hear,” says Graham, smiling at Nora. “Well said.” He releases his bell rope and feels the sally, ready to start. “Truth to tell, Ernie, I do get a bit lost in Grandsire. All the permutations.”
“Ropesight,” Ernie growls. “Just keep one eye on that old sally you’m holding. Keep t’other eye on the rope as followed you. S’easy. Listen to them old bells–watch the ropes. Doesn’t do to think too much. You just got to see what them sallys is telling you.”
“Make a start shall we?” I say.
With Geoff both back at work and returned to bell ringing, my routine is once again the slow, twice-daily circuit of the round. But a few weeks later, as I approach Nora’s house, her front door opens. She must have seen me coming. My heartbeat quickens.
“I’ve been worried about Geoff,” she declares.
“Right,” I say.
“Yes, he’s locked himself away. Don’t do nothing ’part from ringing. Seems a shame. I mean. She ain’t coming back.”
“He’s in mourning, Nora.”
“Spend your life, you don’t watch out. People need company.”
“Why you telling me?”
“Up to you to help him. You’re his friend.”
“All right, then.” So I decide to make a special visit. Geoff seems surprised to see me. Pleased. But surprised.
“Cup o’ tea? Something stronger?”
“Drop of whisky go well.”
I sit and watch Geoff arrange the drinks, admiring his easy, methodical manner as he sets them up.
“Cheers!” he says.
“I’m glad you came ’round, Frank. Tell you the truth, don’t reckon I’d’ve got through it without you. Wanted to say thanks. Well. S’pose we known each other a long time.”
We gaze into our glasses. He swirls the liquid into a spiraling wave. I hold mine still as a well. Spidger snorts and whimpers in a dream. His tail thumps a heartbeat on the floor.
“Long time,” I echo.
“You never married,” Geoff says.
“Nobody take your fancy?”
“Somebody. Didn’t find a liking to me. And that was it, really.”
“There’s just the one for the likes of us, eh, Frank. Just the one.”
I think of my promise to Nora and drain my glass.
I nod. “Wouldn’t say no.”
He fixes our drinks. We watch Spidger twitching in his sleep. Geoff seems completely at ease. I search for the words.
“Different for you now, of course,” I say after a couple of sips. “Got a message for you. From Nora.”
“Nora?” He looks surprised.
“Nora Pinkham–yes. She told me you need to get out and about again. Shutting yourself up won’t do you no good, according to her.”
“Reckon she’s got her eye on you.”
“Get away!” Geoff dismisses me with a wave of his arm. Spidger lifts his head towards the raising of the voice.
“Reckon so. Nice-looking woman.”
“That’s for sure, Frank. But it’s very soon.”
“All in good time. Up to you, Geoff. I’m just the delivery man.”
“Thank you, Frank. You’re a good friend.”
Some weeks later the ringing team learns that things have changed.
“See they got that Red Barrel over the pub at Pitherton,” Martin Langport announces as we’re looping up the bell ropes, the air still resonant with a completed peal.
“Now that,” says Ernie, “that were Grandsire Triples. Couldn’t bottle that.”
“Scampi in a basket too,” Martin goes on. “Classy. Where I’d take somebody I wanted to impress. You been there, Geoff?”
“Some of my calls were a bit late, Ernie,” Geoff apologizes. “Sorry about that.”
“It was fine, very fine,” says Graham. “We were all spot on tonight. Good advice, Ernie. Thank you.”
“Mind on summat else, Geoff?” Martin asks, insinuation thick as the grease in his hair.
“We’ve been over the pub, Martin,” Nora says, raising a hip from the bench and smoothing the black and white, polka-dotted frock ’round her bottom. “I’m not much of a one for beer. Geoff likes his Red Barrel, though.”
The final echo of the bells has faded. Nora looks from one averted gaze to the next until she comes to Graham smiling at her. “Well, I think it’s a good thing,” he says. We murmur our agreement, Martin grinning as he strokes his earlobe.
“P’raps you was a bit late on some of them calls, Geoff Slater,” Ernie complains. He turns his bulbous, cider-drinker’s nose towards Nora. “I c’n understand that now.”
They all laugh, at ease with it out in the open. I feel my mouth’s doing some sort of grin.
Quite late one Monday evening my phone rings. It’s Geoff.
“I’m about ready now, Frank. For the stone. But, thing is, not sure I’ll be able to do the organising with the memorial people. Still tend to lose meself when I talk about it. You know.”
“I could sort that out, Geoff. I’ll knock the door on my round tomorrow. You can give me the details.”
He’s waiting and takes me through to the kitchen.
“Nora all right, is she?” My voice strains a little.
“She’s in excellent form, thanks, Frank. Yes.” A cough. “Very well.”
He’s written out the details. The kind of stone, size and all the rest of it.
“You want this engraved on it, then? ‘Sally Anne Slater 1913–1956. Beloved wife of Geoff, now left all done.’”
“What?” Geoff jumps up–snatches the paper from me. “You need reading glasses, Frank? Look–‘now left all alone.’”
Pointing at the words, he hands the paper back to me. “See?”
“Oh, yes. I misread that, sorry. Must be getting old. Catches up with you in the end, don’t it.”
“Left all done,” Geoff mocks. “Where’d that come from? Wouldn’t make sense, would it.”
Cycling away, I’m troubled, feeling stupid, trying to think why I’d read the words all wrong. A magpie rattles its black and white flash from hedge to hedge across the road behind me, screeching. Another follows.
featured in our winter 2019 issue