Second Post

by Nigel Gordon

The tock, tock, tock, of the longcase clock was louder than she had realised. It echoed down the whole length of the brown-painted hallway. Looking up at it, Elsie realised just how drab and depressing the hallway paintwork was: not at all welcoming. She made a mental note to have a word with the odd-job man and get it repainted. Thinking about it she realised that, like so much in the Hall, it had not been touched since before Richard, her husband, died.

Martin, her son, had been four then; now it was difficult to remember if he was forty-seven or forty-eight. Maybe she would glean something from the letter he always sent prior to his birthday — to make sure she didn’t forget the date — or his present.

It was the expectation of a letter from him that had brought her into the hall in the first place to wait for the second post. But there had been nothing so far. She had expected something today because it was Tuesday. Martin was a very good letter writer and always wrote to her over the weekend, posting the result Monday morning on his way to work. So the letter, with its normal list of excuses as to why he could not come up to visit, should arrive today. Not that she expected him to visit nowadays. Martin’s days for visiting his mother were long over. They had been over the day he had meet that trollop. Except for the times that her spending had exceeded even his earning capacity and he needed a non-returnable loan (which seemed to be more and more often in recent years) visits were avoided. Despite, or maybe because of this, Elsie looked forward to his letters and their stories of her grandson’s adventures and his little sister’s early steps. She would have liked him to visit her more often though, even if he did bring the silly souvenir cushions that really looked awfully out of place in the Hall. She was glad of them now, though. With the aid of a stick she had reached a couple of them from the hall bench. Now they were helping her get a bit more comfortable.

She looked up at the hallway table where she had earlier put the pile of envelopes that came in the first post. Not that she received piles of mail these days. In the old days there would have been twenty or thirty invitations, letters of thanks, correspondence and jottings from friends all over the country and the Empire. Today there had been just three. A brown official letter, probably Inland Revenue. Then one of those advertising things which no doubt informed her that she had been selected for a prize draw. And finally a letter from her daughter, easily identifiable by the utterly revolting shade of violet envelope; together with the brightly coloured stamps from the overseas postings on which her work took her, leaving her husband and sons behind. Elsie had intended to read them all in the evening, once Martin’s had arrived.

She might not be in contact with her family on a physical level — she saw more of her son-in-law than her daughter, and that was not all that much — but the letters kept her in contact emotionally. She needed that contact, to continue to feel part of their lives. She prayed that Martin had written the letter Sunday night and posted it yesterday morning. There must be a letter from her son in the second post.

The longcase clock, a wedding present some fifty-two years ago, chimed the quarter. She mentally tracked Patrick the postman’s route. He would make his way up the hill, stopping to empty the box in the churchyard wall, before delivering to the Doctor’s. She still thought of him as the Doctor even though he was now long retired. Then Patrick would make a delivery to Mr. Small whose gardening magazine always came on the first Tuesday of the month, by second post. Then, hopefully, she would hear the squeak of the iron gate on its hinges. Someday she must put some oil on it. Then there would be a letter from her son. There had to be! She needed his letter to come by second post.

Further back in the house a telephone rang. She made no effort to get to it and answer it. That would have been a waste of time. Nobody in this computer age let it ring more than a few times before they hung up. The thought that there might be some who lived at a slower pace did not occur to them. As she had expected, it stopped on the fourth ring.

If she had still had a phone in the hallway, she could have reached out for it and phoned her son, even though he hated being disturbed at work. But her daughter had talked her into having the phone moved: now there was one in the lounge with extensions in the bedroom and kitchen. So there was no longer a phone in the hallway. Anyway, there always seemed to be so much more detail and information in the letters. Far more than you could ever say over the phone.

When it came to talking to each other both mother and son were tongue-tied. Neither could ever find the exact words to tell each other what they truly meant. Often they unwittingly hurt one another simply by the avoidance of communication. It was so much easier when they wrote. Then they could consider their words and establish that their meaning was clear before committing themselves to the communication. If they had made an error they could recant the words before they were sent and the other party would never know of the mistake nearly made.

In a way she preferred it when stuff came by second post. There was something different about it, something that set it apart from the normal mail. You could imagine the sender running to the postbox to get it posted before the last collection of the day. Too late to make the first delivery, it would get there by second. Somebody had thought that the letter was important enough to get it in the post that day, at least they did if it had a first class stamp — a second class showed they did not care.

Was Martin’s letter important enough for him to have got it into the post with a first class stamp? She hoped so. With an effort she craned her neck to look up through the lower banisters to glimpse the face of the clock on the half-landing. As she did so, it chimed the half-hour, sparing her the extra effort she would have had to make to see the time. Anyway, without her glasses she would probably not have been able to read its face. But it had been something to do — something to take her mind off things as they were. She hated feeling this useless. That was why she had refused to move into the Granny Flat that her daughter had built. Now that was inevitable — that or something else. Finally passing herself into the hands of strangers. The children would both insist. Then they could semi-forget about her with clear consciences. No doubt that was once again the core of her daughter’s letter that sat on the table. Elsie wondered what else her daughter would have to say; she doubted that there would be any news of her grandchildren.

The chiming of the half-hour meant the post was late. Usually it arrived about twenty to twenty-five past. Had he not written this week? Had he been too busy? A feeling of panic started to rise within her. How would she get through the rest of the day? There would be no more post till the morning and no one was due to call.

Corroded metal rubbed on corroded metal reminded Patrick of chalk on old blackboards. He kept intending to offer to oil the gate for the old lady at the Hall, but somehow had never got round to it.

He slowed a fraction as he walked along the gravel, scrunching the stones under his feet. The old lady liked to open the door and take the post off him and have a short chat, she knew this was his last call. There was one special letter, every Tuesday, every week — from her son she had told him proudly — and he recognised it amongst her mail.

Elsie heard the gate and the footsteps. Her sight might not be what it was but there was nothing wrong with her hearing. Carefully she took hold of the stick, the big heavy stick with the weighted head, that had been Richard’s. Then she waited, ready to strike the blow. It had to be just right, the postman needed to be on the spot. The letterbox opened and two letters dropped through. With all her strength she swung the stick, sending it flying through the air. The weighted head hit the window at the side of the door. It shattered into fragments. A white-faced postman looked in and saw her lying on the floor.

“I fell,” she stated, before the blackness that she had been fighting all that morning took over.

The blackness faded. There were grey shapes and voices.

“She’s very lucky; a couple more hours and it would have been very bad,” stated a voice she did not know.

“Good job there was a second post,” she heard her son, Martin, reply.