by Mel Fawcett



On her return from the local shops, ninety-year-old widow Dorothy Dalston barely looked - never mind waited - before crossing the road opposite her house. Although she was hard of hearing, it was intransigence not deafness that caused her to ignore the blaring horns. She had been living in the same house on this street since before the last war and as far as she was concerned she had more right to be using the road than any of the strangers tearing past her door day and night.

            It did not occur to her that she had a charmed life, but, somewhat miraculously, she reached the safety of the pavement outside her house. She climbed her steps with the aid of the handrail. At the top of the steps, she began rummaging in the bottom of her bag, searching for her key in the tangle of string, tissues and loose coins. The absence of shopping didn't register in her rudderless mind; she had no memory of having left her loaf on the counter of the baker's, with the cheese, tomatoes and tea-bags she had gone out to buy.

            She was still searching for the key when her next-door neighbour came out. On seeing her, he gingerly pulled his door closed and hurried down the steps, deliberately refraining from greeting her until he was by his car.

            'All right, Mrs D?' he shouted up to her.

            But he hadn’t allowed himself enough time to get into the car.  Mrs Dalston turned round while he was still unlocking the door.

            'Someone's stolen my key,' she said.

            The neighbour winced.

            'Are you sure?' he asked.

            'Of course I'm sure, I'm not stupid.'

            'Maybe you left it somewhere?' he suggested.

            'Why should I have? I'm telling you, someone's stole it.'

            He stood by his car, waiting.

            'They stole my shoes yesterday,' Mrs Dalston told him.

            'Not again,' he muttered.

            'They hid them inside the cooker. A dirty trick, that was. Must be the same bad lot what's taken my key.'

            'Mrs D., I'm in a bit of a hurry, d'you need any help?'

            'Help?' she repeated. 'No, I don't need any help. I need my key.'

            'Okay. As long as you're all right.'

            And he slipped eagerly into his car and drove away.

            Mrs Dalston gave up looking for the key and started off towards the telephone box on the corner. She was going to ring her son, Johnny, and tell him about the key thief. She would also tell him about finding her shoes in the oven, if she remembered. She couldn't understand why people always tormented her. Johnny told her she did it herself, but she knew that wasn't true. Why would she do such a stupid thing as to hide her own shoes in the oven?

            As she approached the phone-box, she felt in her pocket for some change and pulled out her door key. She stared at it in disbelief.

            'I'm a silly old woman,' she said, a flash of sanity causing tears to well up in her eyes.   

            There was a lot of confusion in her life these days. She had been badly confused that morning. She had thought it was Sunday, when Johnny sometimes comes to see her, and she had been looking forward to his visit so much that she had almost run to the door when she'd heard a knock. But it had been the meals-on-wheels lady - and she only comes on weekdays. Conversely, Mrs Dalston often waited all day on the doorstep for her lunch on a Saturday or Sunday; it would sometimes be dark before she gave up waiting.

            By the time she got back to her house and opened the door she had forgotten about the trouble she'd had finding the key. Her only thought now concerned  the cup of tea she was going to have.       

            In the kitchen she was taken aback to find someone going through her cupboards.

            'What're you doing?' she said.

            The skinny boy spun round in alarm. Then she noticed him looking behind her and she turned to see another youth. He was stockier than the first and had a bad complexion. Mrs Dalston wasn't frightened; it didn't occur to her that she had anything to fear.

            'Where've you come from?' she asked the one with the bad complexion. 'I don't know you.'

            'Of course you do, missus,' he said, carelessly winking at his companion.  'I cleared the snow off your steps last Christmas, don't you remember? You said what a good job I'd done and I said I enjoyed helping old people.'

            'We haven't had snow in a long time,' she said. 'What're you after?'

            'Your front door was open. We saw someone coming out - didn’t we, Tad?'

            'That's right,' the skinny one agreed.

            'We thought he might've taken your money.'

            'Who's taken my money?'

            'We don't know yet. Where was it? We'll have to see if it's still there.'

            'I bet she's got it in her bag,' the skinny one said.

            'Is that right, missus? Have you got it on you?' the other one said. 'Let's have a look.'

            'I never carry money on me, Johnny told me not to.'

            'Very wise, but let's have a look,' he said, snatching the canvas bag from her. He emptied its contents onto the table and then looked in disgust at the mess of loose change, tissues and bits of rubbish.

            'Okay, you old crab, that's enough pissing about. Where d'you keep your money?'

            'What money?' Mrs Dalston asked.

            'She's a bloody loony,' the skinny one said. 'Let's get out of here.'

            'Hang about,' the spotty one said. 'There must be something worth nickin'.'

            'Like what?'

            'I dunno. Everybody's got something. Don't you have any valuables, missus?' he added in a louder voice.

            'What's it to you what I've got?' Mrs Dalston said, putting a bit of string back in her bag.  'If you don't go, I'm going to phone my Johnny.'

            'It's all right - he told us to come.'

            'My Johnny told you to come here?  When did you see him?'

            'We're always seeing each other. We're very close, me and Johnny - aren't we, Tad?'

            'Yeah, ’course you are.'

            'He asked us to see if you was all right. '

            'I didn't know you were friends of my Johnny.'

            'Why else would we be so worried about you? Now, are you sure your money is still where you left it? I don't want  Johnny having a go at me because I didn't ask.'

            'He's a good boy, my Johnny - always thinking about his old mum.'

            'That's right, he is. So what about the money? Is it safe or what?'

             'Just a minute, I'll have a look.'

            Mrs Dalston went to the cupboard by which the skinny youth was standing. She reached to the back of the bottom shelf and brought out a George V1 coronation tea-caddy. Both boys went goggle-eyed when she opened it and exposed the banknotes stuffed inside.

            'Here, let me see,' the spotty youth said, grabbing the caddy from her.

            'What's your game? I've had that caddy  since before the war.'

            'Yeah? Well, in that case, you can have it back,' he said, shoving the empty tin back at her while stuffing the  notes into his pocket.

            'I reckon we can go now, Tad,' he added with a grin.

            'What about her?'

            'What about her?'

            'What're we gonna do with her?'

            'I'm not doing nothing, she's not my type. I've got what I want. You can have her.'

            'Don't piss about. We can't just leave her! She'll tell the Old Bill.'

            'Tell 'em what? She won't remember nothing. Will you, missus? You won't remember what we look like, will you?'

            'I've got a very good memory for faces.'

            'See! What did I tell you! What're we gonna do?'

            'What have you done with my money?' 

            'There's a poker in the other room, Tad,' the spotty youth said in a hushed voice. 'Fetch it here and we'll cloud her memory a bit.'

            'Now you're talking.' The skinny one beamed, going off in search of the weapon.

            He found it in the fireplace of the front room. It was a solid, old-fashioned poker, perfect for the job. He picked it up and weighed it in his hand.   He felt  like a gunfighter feeling the balance of a six-shooter. He swaggered across the room. But then reality intruded in the form of someone banging on the front door. He dropped the poker and hurried back to the kitchen.

            'Was that my door?' Mrs Dalston asked, taking her kettle out of the oven.

            'Don't worry, missus,' the spotty youth said, 'we'll get it for you.' He quickly ushered his skinny companion through the scullery to the back door. By the time the knocker sounded again they were climbing  the garden wall.

            After the third knock, Mrs Dalston went to open the door. There was a young woman standing on the doorstep.

            'Hello, Mrs Dalston. You left your shopping behind again,' she added, holding up a string bag.

            'I don't think so,' Mrs Dalston said. 'What makes you say it's mine?'

            'You're always doing it.'

            'Am I?  What's in there?'

            The young woman sighed and looked in the bag: 'There's a small white loaf, some tomatoes, cheese and a packet of tea-bags.'

            'Well, it could be mine, I suppose,' Mrs Dalston said.

            Mrs Dalston took the bag from the girl and went back inside. She emptied the things onto the kitchen table, and, seeing the tea-bags, she turned on the gas under the kettle. She didn't understand how the young woman had come to have her shopping, but she was thankful to have the tea-bags. She had completely forgotten about the two boys stealing her money.

             She had also forgotten to light the gas.   



©2006 Mel Fawcett

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