Letter From Portsmouth
As the pony sweated past on the hill, Wilfred Potter winced at its leathery smell. The postman, relaxed in the saddle, touched his cap to the walker.
“Good morning, indeed. A fine day.” Wilfred swung his stick, cut that morning from a lime tree in his garden, and inhaled the September morning. Below stretched a sultry Windermere; above, mountain-tops pushed into the cooler winds of a sapphire sky. Pebbles crunched beneath his boots. He remembered, years earlier, his little son running ahead on paths just like this.
The postman had stopped at a cottage, a slovenly bundle of stones behind a wooden fence, with a few dejected lettuces and a cow tethered to a stake. Wilfred saw him dismount, take a letter from his saddle bag and cross to the door. He knocked, firmly, but without interest.
A woman opened the door, just enough to be sure. Seeing the letter, she came out, pulling a shawl around her. A little boy clung to her skirts, gaping in amazements at seeing a visitor to this place.
“Purlbeck Cottage, is it?” The man swelled his cheeks and blew a puff of melancholy air. The woman nodded, holding out a hand for the letter. He pulled it back, taunting her.
Wilfred, at the fence, drew himself up sharply. She glanced at this man in the tweedy breeches and cape, but returned immediately to the sealed paper in the postman’s hand.
“Large letter, travelled from Portsmouth,” he said. “Expensive.” He leered at the woman. “One shilling. Pay on delivery.” He shrugged. “Or don’t pay. Then it goes for burning.”
“Can I see who sent it?” She reached out and touched the letter. “It’s my son. I know the writing.” She bent to the little boy. “It’s from Tom,” she said, smiling.
“Well,” said the postman. “One shilling to see your son’s letter. That’s the system.” He made to put it in his pocket.
The woman shrugged. “I don’t have a shilling.” The postman stuffed the letter away and turned to his horse.
“I want to see it,” shouted the boy, running to the gate. But the man was mounting, blowing his lips gloomily.
“Wait!” said Wilfred. “Let me speak to her.” He stepped over the fence into her garden. She looked surprised, but spoke politely. “Good day, sir?”
“My dear woman, this letter, I understand, is from your son.?”
“IN Portsmouth, sir. Left last week to join the navy. Little use staying with no work around here.”
“The navy? Then you may not see him for months?”
“For year, sir. He’ll be off to goodness knows where.”
“You have no money to pay for the letter?”
“None, sir. Not till we sell some milk tomorrow.” She laughed mockingly. “Not then either – a shilling!”
Wilfred turned to the postman. “Give her the letter, my man,” he said, pushing two fingers into his waistcoat, searching for a coin. “I shall pay the cost.”
“No sir, no sir!” She caught his arm. “Please, you must not.” But he took her hand gently off and said, “I insist.” He smiled. “I know what it is to have a son, what this means to you.” He passed the shilling to the postman, who shrugged, took the letter from his pocket, and gave it to him.
He held it out to the woman, but she simply stood, shaking her head. On the road, the postman’s horse made soft clopping sounds as it moved away.
‘Take it,’ he said. ‘Your son’s letter. You can open it now, find his news.’
With a sigh she broke the seal, opened the letter and held it up. There was nothing: not a greeting, not a word. A blank sheet.
‘What’s this?’ he said, “has your son nothing to say to you? Why send a letter with no words? He would have had you pay a shilling for nothing?”
“Oh, no, sir,” she said. “Tom cannot write, you see. He will have asked a friend to write the destination.” She smiled sadly. “I’m very sorry sir, that you’ve paid good money without cause. Tom’s a good boy, sir. We agreed that if a letter arrived from Portsmouth, I’d know all was well. No need to pay.” Pushing the little boy inside the house, she followed him and closed the door. For a moment, nothing moved.
Slashing with his stick at a tousled clump of Moor Lilies, Wilfred tramped again, down the dusty path, thinking of another son, his own, with a fine education, who in seven years had written home not one word.
Jim Waite started writing when he retired, and his poems and short stories have appeared in publications such as Northern Voices, The Smeddum Test, Poetry Scotland, New Writing Dundee, Stone Tide, Southlight and The Herald. His poetry, usually in Scots, has won The James McCash Award 2010, the Neil Gunn Prize 2013 and the Wigtown Book Festival Poetry Prize (Scots) 2014. You can see some of his work at perthshirewriters.co.uk/jimwaite.