Read by Lois Tucker
Someone was rapping on the shop front downstairs. Dave tossed the quilt up, buttoned the sheepskin he hadn’t taken off for a week and padded to the window locked by the frost. An unconscious choreography of stiff jiggles and static bounces was being performed all the way along the road, shoulders leapt and seized beneath ears, heads jutted forwards ahead of anticipated steps, each graceless dancer curdled in the turning light. At least it wasn’t just him: winter had snuck up on them all, tricked by a November coppering late afternoons to make them seem longer than they were. December took a good week to creep in and then cracked an icicle whip, leaving Dave to curse the boiler he’d meant to get fixed months ago.
‘I’m looking for a desk,’ the woman said.
‘Miriam?’ Dave pronounced the name as though there was something sacred in it, but either the woman either hadn’t heard or it meant nothing to her.
The angles and edges were Miriam’s – those blades slicing diagonals under her eyes – but the woman in front of him was smiling now, petal soft mouth – not even quite a woman, a girl –
‘Miriam?’ There was nothing sacred in the way she said it, tinkling hollow. Of course it wasn’t Miriam – she’d be getting on for fifty now at least and this girl… She seemed to be looking at him rather too closely, as though she was looking for something in his face, but as soon as he met this closeness her eyes danced past him, giving a tinkling giggle as she scrunched a bobble tipped nose – no, it wasn’t Miriam, hardly anything like –
‘Miriam’s my mother’s name,’ she said, a bright little blink as though she were quite accustomed to offering this explanation. ‘Oh, I like this one.’ She had her head between a cabinet and the underside of the French desk he couldn’t get rid of – no one wanted that sort of thing any more, just wanted something for their little computers, no drawers, nothing – ‘yes,’ she was saying, ‘this is perfect.’
Her mother’s name.
‘Can you deliver before Christmas – cutting it fine I know but I couldn’t move in without a desk – I just couldn’t – I’d pay you in cash.’
‘All goes to the government either way.’
‘Oh.’ No tinkle.
Miriam’s daughter – Lottie? Somehow she’d stayed vivid, one of the few shards that flashed from so many blacked out years. Lottie when she was five or so, swinging her round in their back garden – all those daisies, trying to show her how to make chains and having to give up because all she wanted to do was pick the petals off until Miriam came out to find what in the Lord’s name had become of Lottie’s dress and hair.
‘It wouldn’t be till the twentieth. And it’s the twentieth or nothing – I’m out the country after that.’ That felt a little better: Yes, he was the proprietor, this was his territory and all that was happening was that some girl was after a desk.
‘Funny time to be going away.’
It was not a funny time to be going away. It was the perfect time. It was dead this time of year. Winter sun do him good. Two fingers up at the country and its carols and its cake – for a week at least. Come back to the same – doggy bag of merriment by then. Why had she been looking at him like that? Maybe it was Lottie – she might have recognised him – no, she couldn’t, he didn’t even recognise himself. It was better not to think about what Miriam might have told her about her Uncle Dave – say who he was and she’d be out the shop in one of those bright little blinks, leaving him stuck with the desk...not that he really cared about the bloody desk. It was a nice little piece though, had thought it was quite a find when he’d picked it up from a market near Calais, he’d have liked Lottie to have it – no, he was getting sentimental, and all over a bit of wood. In any case he was done with that family.
‘So do you want it or not?’ He hadn’t meant it to come out like that, he was only trying to counter the sentimental, but she flinched as though he’d taken aim.
The Christmas tinkle danced cold fingertips on Dave’s cheek. Oh, Lottie! Why had that come out so harsh? The little shudder of the petal soft mouth that could never have been Miriam’s and now, rubbing the tips of her fingers on the back of her hand the way his brother Jake used to when he was pretending not to be upset – and Jake was usually pretending not to be upset.
‘You just jot your details down for me –’ Dave pulled his tissue and receipt stuffed pockets inside out, leaving himself and Lottie – no, himself and the girl – to watch his saved litter float to the ground. The girl bent down, rescuing each scrap, apologies hanging in Dave’s silent, open mouth. She handed it all back to him and went back to run a hand over the desk, jotting down her details on her very own card, covering it with a wondrously neat hand.
‘Christ, you could frame this,’ Dave said as she gave the card to him. He meant it too. He’d never seen anything quite so perfect. Could remember the warmth of Lottie’s four day old head in his hand, how huge it made his hand seem and then, Miriam right over him again, taking Lottie back, telling him that her skull was still in all these parts and he’d wished Miriam had never agreed to let him hold her, just thinking how he might have broken her. Dave was on his best behaviour then. It was only a shame that his best behaviour meant the shakes. Miriam, in her Christmas tinkle of course, told him daily that there was no way on this god forsaken planet they could let him stay in their house a minute longer. They did let him stay though, for another five years, right up until Miriam told Jake that she found Lottie in tears, that Dave had thrown the living room upside down and terrorised the life out of Lottie. Couldn’t think where she’d dreamt that one up – except those holes punched through the living room wall. Oh yes – alright, so it was all a bit of a tip, it was true, but to say he had terrorized Lottie when she was the most precious –
Miss Charlotte Flower – her perfect writing on the card in his hand.
‘No really’ Dave said, ‘on my mother’s grave, it’s a work of art.’
‘She took six sugars in her tea,’ Lottie said, but knocked Dave’s smile away with a soundless laugh and put her pencil back. ‘The twentieth then,’ she said, ‘I suppose you’ll need a deposit.’
‘Oh don’t worry about that,’ Dave said.
She glanced at the door – too soon, he wasn’t ready for her to go – he stepped towards her but it only moved her backwards, her soundless laugh again as she pulled her bag round in front of her – ‘It’s overpriced,’ Dave said, ‘I’ll knock fifty off it, sixty.’
‘That’s... very generous.’
‘No. No it isn’t, I’d like to.’
‘I mean I want to,’ Dave didn’t like the way her neck kept shifting, her feet too – but he couldn’t let her go without saying something. He looked at her, too long without managing to get a word out. She twitched back.
Dave made a last dash effort: ‘Was it only six? Your grandmother, only –’ The door opened, stopping Jake – nostalgia wouldn’t wash, not on Miriam’s daughter.
‘My grandmother?’ She laughed, Miriam’s Christmas tinkle. ‘How very –’
‘Sorry,’ Dave pulled out a scrap of tissue to blow his nose. He should have just let her go, deliver the desk on the twentieth, drive off, get his winter sun... She hadn’t left though. Once he could bring himself to put the comfort of his tissue back in his pocket he looked up to see the shy petals of Lottie’s mouth folding. ‘Sorry, that must have seemed a bit –’
‘I’ll say it did, she’s been dead ten years.’ Her tinkle of a laugh wasn’t the cruelty of a hollow Christmas, it was the lightness of four or five year old Lottie in the back garden in her mucky dress, her hair a mess, learning how to make daisy chains. ‘I suppose you enquire after all your customers’ families do you?’
‘Not all – just – how is Miriam? And Jake?’
‘Dad’s...look, this is –’
‘You do remember me?’
‘I have to go, don’t worry about the desk, I don’t want it.’ She was outside now and Dave was trying to catch her up.
‘But you can’t move in without a desk.’
People were looking, people that she was sliding past. He knew he should have just left it. Charlotte Flower. You can’t tell where a person’s memory starts – Dave’s started early enough, it was the blank spaces between the beginning and the point he’d somehow got to – despite all the odds – that were the problem. But he remembered Lottie and she remembered him – must have – his mother, her grandmother, six sugars. Sometimes seven. Didn’t realise it had been Lottie who’d taken the edge off sobriety until he left.
The twentieth was less than a week away. He’d deliver the desk. He wouldn’t say anything. Leave the poor girl alone. Let her have the desk and get himself some winter sun. Maybe he should call Jake. No, leave him alone, leave Lottie alone – they were done with him so he was done with them. Tidy things up here and go for pint. He deserved it after all that.
‘Dave?’ No Christmas tinkle, just a girl after a desk inside the door he hadn’t locked.
‘No one calls me Lottie any more.’
‘No – it’s okay – look the thing is,’ she was rubbing her fingers against the back of her hand, trying to smile, petals folding. Dave waited for Miriam’s Christmas tinkle – hoped for it almost, just so that whatever she said next didn’t matter. But there was no Christmas tinkle. This was Lottie, not Miriam, and she was looking at him, eyes bright but without their blink – and whatever it was she saw, whatever it was she was getting ready to say, did matter. ‘Thing is – I would like the desk.’
(c) Miranda Gold, 2016
Miranda Gold's first novel, Starlings, has just been published by Karnac Books. Before turning her focus to fiction she took the Soho Theatre's course for young writers where her play, Lucy Deck, was selected for development and performance. She is now working on her second novel, A Small Dark Quiet.
Lois Tucker has done various bits and bobs and may very well end up doing more. Stuff includes penning and performing three solo shows as her silent comedy alter ego ‘Lois of the Lane’ and releasing the MissLLaneEous EP on Bandcamp earlier this year which consists of catchy, silly songs that you just might like. (She’s not always as serious as her headshot makes her out to be …) www.loistucker.net