The following story is by guest contributor Gordon Robertson. Gordon is a writer and filmmaker from Scotland. To date, he has had two short stories published, and a piece of flash fiction. As a filmmaker, he’s directed two short films and a music video. He’s also written half a dozen short films, one of which is currently doing the festival circuit and has already won an award (Best Super Short at the UK Screen One International Film Festival).
Margaret Dunne organised her kitchen cupboards not by any generally accepted method, but by the method that best suited her. After all, she had no one to impress; nobody to irritate with her idiosyncratic storaging. Tins of soup and beans and fruit might have sat shouldered together awkwardly, almost haphazardly, on the scrubbed Formica shelves, but the logic Margaret employed in arranging them was, to her mind at least, impeccable.
The rapping at the door had to be repeated twice before Margaret pulled herself away from the lower of the two large food cupboards. She rose slowly from her hunkered position and paused to let her knees crack, hoping that whoever was outside would quickly grow tired of knocking and simply give up and go away. A third frantic bout of rapping convinced her that this was just wishful thinking on her part, and she forced herself to leave the warmth of the kitchen for the cool of the hallway and porch, where she now stood, hunched over the letterbox.
The female voice that came back was thin and rattled.
“Could you help me please? There’s an old man here who’s fallen on the ice.”
Margaret reached for the umbrella resting against the wall of the porch. She’d read about these so-called doorstep scammers in the free paper pushed through her letterbox on Thursdays, the ones who preyed on the elderly and the vulnerable, and although Margaret would never consider herself to be either, she wasn’t taking any chances.
Margaret cautiously unlocked the door and peered over the chain. The orange neon of the streetlamp across the road allowed her just enough light to make out a well-dressed woman in her forties leaning over what appeared to be an older man, seated, or at the very least resting, on her front step.
“I’ve called an ambulance and given them this address, but I can’t stay.” The woman brushed a lock of blonde hair back behind her ear. “I need to pick my daughter up from her dad’s. The less ammunition I give him the better, believe me. Are you okay waiting for it?”
“Waiting for what?” Margaret couldn’t stop staring at the fresh splashes of blood near the carrier bag the man still clutched in his left hand.
“The ambulance.” The woman turned and walked down the path. “I need to go. I’m sorry.” She turned into the street, not bothering to close the gate, and was gone before Margaret could call her back and tell her she had no time for this, not tonight.
Margaret scanned left and right. The street was dark and bare. No one was going to come help her. She sighed loudly, glancing down through the gap at her would-be assassin.
“So. Do you think you can walk?”
“You didn’t have to do that. Thank you.”
Margaret had just rolled up the man’s trouser leg and wiped the skin clean of blood with a warm cloth. She’d found a plaster in a Tupperware dish at the back of the medicine cupboard and pressed it over the wound, before rolling the trouser leg back down again.
“I didn’t want you getting blood on the suite.”
The man laughed. “All the same.”
Margaret took the cloth back to the kitchen. Taking advantage of the silence, the man let his eyes wander around the room.
Ornaments. Lots of ornaments. Nothing in the way of photographs or decorations, but plenty of ornaments. And no one single style either. The Eastern-looking ones he actually quite liked. Others, like the set of three Murano clowns, he’d quite happily smash against the overly-ornate mirror above the too-small fireplace. But each to their own.
“My name’s Vincent!” he shouted over his shoulder.
Margaret stepped out of the kitchen, away from the bubbling of the kettle.
“What was that?”
Vincent turned and smiled in Margaret’s direction, lowering his voice. “I said my name’s Vincent.”
Margaret nodded and looked down at the china cup in her hand. “I’m making tea. What do you take?”
“Almost half an hour.”
Vincent had been enjoying the silence, and the tea, when Margaret broke up both with her non-sequitur. He looked across at her and raised an eyebrow.
“The ambulance,” said Margaret. “I’d have thought it would have been here by now.”
Vincent took a last gulp of sweet tea and placed the cup and saucer carefully on the floor. To be honest, he’d spent the past ten minutes terrified of dropping them and breaking them, they looked so expensive. He rubbed a hand down the front of the leg that Margaret had so carefully wiped clean earlier.
“You need to get that properly looked at.” Margaret tapped her hand impatiently against the armrest.
“It’s just a bruise.”
“At our age, nothing is just anything.” Margaret glanced over at the window. “I can understand it not being the best night to put an ambulance out, but still. It could have been an emergency.”
“But it could have been.”
Margaret stared at Vincent, daring him to steal the final word back from her. He didn’t bite, and she found that disappointing. She got so few visitors, and so few opportunities to argue. She drained her cup and stood up. Vincent scrabbled to gather up his own cup and saucer but Margaret beat him to it, snatching them from under his nose, pausing again to let her knees crack.
Vincent smiled. “Sounds like it’s you who needs the ambulance.”
Margaret swivelled, her hackles up. “Do you think?”
“And you’ve got medical training, I suppose.”
“I’ve got ears.”
“And a funny way of showing your appreciation.”
Vincent shrugged. “If you’ve got arthritis, you’ve got arthritis.”
The corners of Margaret’s mouth turned up, but there was no warmth there. “It’s not arthritis. It’s this bloody cold weather.”
“I thought at our age, nothing is just anything?”
“Oh, very good.” Margaret marched into the kitchen, a cup and saucer in each hand, the heat of Vincent’s grin burning a hole into her back.
“What’s in the bag?” Margaret nodded in the direction of the carrier bag propped up against the sofa.
“See for yourself.” Vincent was rubbing his leg again.
Margaret stretched her neck, but couldn’t see a thing. She huffily crossed the room, dug a hand into the bag, and yanked out a red and white outfit.
“Ha!” Margaret snorted in surprise. “That was not what I expected.”
Margaret stuck her hand back into the bag and pulled out a large white beard. She smiled to herself.
“John used to keep one like this up in the attic.”
Vincent stopped rubbing his leg. “John?”
Margaret ignored him. “That can’t be your real job though.” She put the outfit and beard back in the bag and returned to the table. “What do you do the rest of the time? After Christmas.” There was no denying it. He was interesting, this strange small man who dressed as Santa.
“I sometimes think there is no after Christmas.” Vincent focused on a point just beyond Margaret’s left shoulder. “Just Christmas and almost Christmas. Which isn’t half as exciting as it sounds.”
“I hope you don’t talk like that in front of the children.” Margaret’s tone was almost comically indignant. “Spouting nonsense like that when all they want to hear is whether you’ve got them a doll or a bike or not.”
Vincent roared with laughter; a laugh at odds with his size.
“What are you laughing at?” Margaret looked offended.
Vincent took a second to catch his breath. “A doll or a bike? You really don’t know what kids are into these days, do you?”
“My daughter always used to ask for money.”
“So you’re clueless, is what you’re saying.”
For the first time since Vincent’s arrival, Margaret suddenly looked uncomfortable. Vincent tilted his head a little. She reminded him of a fire that had spectacularly fizzled out.
“What’s your daughter’s name?” Vincent’s tone was unexpectedly warm; intimate.
Margaret met Vincent’s gaze. He thought he detected a touch of nervousness behind the eyes. “Eve.”
Vincent smiled. “Appropriate for this time of year. Tonight especially.”
“You’ll be seeing her tomorrow, I’d imagine.”
Margaret stood up sharply. Her knees cracked, and she grimaced. “You know, there’s so much more I could be getting on with. I wonder if they’ve not gone to another address.”
Vincent watched as Margaret moved to the window. He leaned back on the sofa and looked up at the artexed ceiling. “This morning, a five year-old sat on my knee and called me ‘daddy’. Not because I looked like him, but because he was looking for someone to be him. His mum said he’d never known his dad.”
The living room curtains had been left open all day. Margaret pulled them tight.
“Does Eve still see her dad?”
Margaret turned and looked down at Vincent. “What are you trying to do?”
Vincent twisted his neck around. “I’m not trying to do anything.”
Margaret adopted what for her was a battle stance: left foot placed slightly in front of the right, arms folded, chin jutting.
“I don’t have to answer any of your questions, you know. I took you in, remember? You’re the one who’s damaged.”
Vincent watched as a vein on the right side of Margaret’s face rippled up past her eye. “So does she?” His voice was like velvet.
“Does she what?”
“See her dad.”
“I’m not telling you.”
“It’s none of your business.”
“It’s a simple question.”
“No it isn’t.”
“Because I said so.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Yes it is.”
“No it’s not.”
“Yes it is.”
“Tell me about Eve’s dad.”
“Because he’s dead, that’s why! There. Satisfied? Happy we’ve got that out in the open?” The vein near Margaret’s eye rippled back down the side of her face, stopping an inch or so from her mouth.
Vincent twisted his neck back around and settled into the comfortable hollow he’d created on the sofa.
“I like the way you store your food alphabetically.”
“What?” Margaret dropped her arms and moved away from the window.
“I saw you in the kitchen earlier. You have a very methodical mind. You compartmentalise. That’s good. When did Eve’s dad die?”
Margaret took up her seat by the table again and sighed. She couldn’t explain it, but something about Vincent’s voice made her want to open up. And anyway, she was too tired to fight any more.
“Eve was eight. John had been recalled to Belfast. I’d always hated Belfast.”
Vincent rubbed his nose and nuzzled further into his seat.
“They’d post guards all round the garrison. You’d hear them patrolling at night. I told him: that’s no way to bring up a family. He didn’t listen.” Margaret was lost to memory now. “Even when we were packing to leave I knew something was wrong. I could feel it. So when they told me his jeep had run over a landmine and that he was dead, it wasn’t a surprise. I half expected it.” It was as though all the air in the room had suddenly been sucked out in one almighty gulp. Vincent shivered. Margaret continued. “The driver survived. I’ve never been able to work that one out.” She looked up at Vincent. “I had to bring Eve up on my own. I did a bloody good job. But then fifteen years ago she told me she blamed me for her dad’s death. Me.” She looked down at the table. “That was the last time we spoke.”
Vincent watched Margaret try to find answers in the whorls of the oak table, but there were none to be found. She raised her head again, her voice defiant.
“Well? Was that what you wanted to hear?”
Vincent shook his head. “I lied.”
“Or rather, I didn’t tell the whole truth. About you storing your food alphabetically.”
“What are you talking about?”
Vincent scratched an itch above his left temple. “Most people store food simply. It makes it easier to get to. There aren’t any barriers. People who store, or stack, or list, things alphabetically put up a wall. A wall not to keep things from getting in, but to keep them from getting out. It can be a secret, or a memory, or… anything. I think you store your food alphabetically because you don’t want to admit to yourself the truth.”
“What truth?” Margaret’s pale face had grown paler still during Vincent’s short speech.
“That you blame yourself for John’s death. You think it’s your fault. You didn’t try hard enough to convince him not to go. You secretly think Eve’s right.”
A tear crawled down Margaret’s face.
“You need to tell her.”
Margaret swiped a hand across her cheek. “What?”
“Tell Eve you’ve suffered enough. That it’s time to let it go.”
A swirl of coloured lights entered and circled the room ahead of a dim beeping from outside. Vincent peeled himself gently off the sofa.
“My carriage awaits.”
Margaret stood up from the table and sniffed. “I’ll see you out.”
“It’s fine.” Vincent nodded at the mobile phone lying on the table. “You’ve got something else you need to do.” He slowly made his way to the porch. A brief flurry of cold flew in as he opened the front door, causing Margaret to shiver, her face caught for a moment in the coloured swirl of lights from outside, changing her from white to red to blue to white again, before both the flashing and the beeping stopped and she realised Vincent was gone. She took a deep breath, reached over, and picked the phone up from off the table. She punched in a number, hovering briefly over the call button. As she paced the room, nervously waiting to connect, she realised she hadn’t heard the ambulance drive off. She crossed to the window, slid one of the curtains to the side, and peered out. Nothing. Just a faint ringing of… was that bells? Just then, a voice crackled on the other end of the phone. “Hello?”
“Eve, it’s mum.” Margaret unconsciously carried the phone into the kitchen. And as the conversation, stilted at first, gradually built momentum, Margaret found herself on her knees again, in front of the lower of the two large food cupboards, rearranging tins of soup, tins of beans, tins of fruit.