Facing Up To Facts

Tea and biscuits

Facing Up To Facts was the winning entry in 2020 short story competition.


Facing Up To Facts

by Alan Kahn

My test results arrived this morning, brought by a new slip of a post girl. Letters like that should be delivered by seasoned people, not youngsters. Older ones are more discreet; they’ve seen it all before.

A large white envelope printed with a huge blue NHS. I don’t want to open it. Everyone knows that good news comes in thin envelopes; this one’s thick, obviously several sheets inside, advice and instructions, so I can guess what it says. I’ve tucked it between mantel clock and wall, almost hidden. I’ll face it tomorrow.

I was going to open it. Had it in my fingers to slide it out, but Mrs Prosser from next door arrived for tea and biscuits. We don’t talk about health; it’s not seemly, especially when it involves bowels and bits. She stayed chatting for twenty minutes then left. That envelope glowers at me, but I refuse to be dictated to by pieces of paper. I’ll open it soon. Another day or two won’t make any difference. I know they’ll just want to prod and poke me about. They don’t seem to realise that private parts are so-called for a reason – they should be kept private. I’m sure these pains in my abdomen are just digestive. Maybe I’ll stop eating buttery biscuits.

***

Poor Mrs Prosser. I’ve never seen her so distraught. Mr Prosser was rushed into hospital overnight, a sudden heart attack. I was only half-dozing, nursing a bad tummy, aware of a kerfuffle, but those eerie blue electric swirls on my ceiling frightened me, because for a confused moment I imagined they’d come for me.

Do you know that older people literally wring their hands when they’re upset? Youngsters don’t do that. Fashion I suppose. Mrs Prosser constantly wrung her hands as if she were trying to squeeze water out. All this makes me realise – my fate looms. That damned envelope has been there for eight or nine weeks now. Where does time go? I’ll open it tomorrow, I promise.

Tea and biscuits. Supposed to solve everything, but that’s just another lie. There, dear. Your roof’s collapsing, but you still have your PG Tips and shortbread.

***

Terrible news. Mr Prosser didn’t make it. In hospital for a week, but a sticky valve or something couldn’t be unstuck in time. If they’d caught it earlier, they could have done something. As it is, they did their best but he was too far gone. He slipped away with no word of goodbye.

Mrs Prosser says it’s the silence. All these years she’s complained about his whistling, and now he’s finally stopped. Ironic, really. There but for grace of God go I …

That envelope. If I leave it much longer, it’ll be too late for me too. Blue flashing lights. Silence. I promise I’ll open it tomorrow, or maybe leave it to after Monday. My birthday. I don’t want bad news just before my birthday.

Mrs Prosser looks twenty years older. She’s not good at arranging things, and his funeral expenses shocked her. Thousands. He always said he wanted an ecologically-sound cardboard coffin, but apparently they’re more expensive than wood. Would you believe that? Still, he left her comfortable enough. She has her pension on top. Tears will dry.

***

That was quite a funeral. I’d expected Mrs Prosser to dissolve crying, but she was positively arid, almost reedy. Something’s changed, I thought. She’s arrived at anger too soon, definitely furious about something. Then she told me. That woman over there. She cursed beneath her breath. That’s Mrs Prosser. And those four with her, three women and a man, they’re his children. The first Mrs Prosser? No. The only Mrs Prosser, crawling out from under a stone. Shamefaced Mrs Prosser (that’s my Mrs Prosser) admitted they’d never actually married. All along she’s been Miss Jenkins. They just slid into living together. She never knew he was married; never knew he had four children in Cromer. Crematoria are bad enough when you’re seeing off your own husband, never mind somebody else’s. What could I say? Come back for a cup of tea.

***

I was about to retrieve my envelope from behind the clock when Miss Jenkins hammered on my door, weeping, wailing, so distressed I knew tea wouldn’t be enough. I gave her coffee, not decaffeinated. She’d been drinking. Whiffs of sherry or whisky on her breath as she waved a sheet of paper around. A will. Mr Prosser left everything to be divided between his children. Everything – lock, stock and water butt. Insurance money, bank account, house (in his name of course). Nothing at all for Miss Jenkins except a few personal things. She’s broken. Destroyed. She can’t afford to contest it and must leave, move in with her sister in Great Yarmouth. Tragic. And today I’m suffering terribly with wind.

***

I still think of her as Mrs Prosser, but really she’s Miss Jenkins. She blanches whenever I call her that. But, legally, it’s true, isn’t it? I’m sure she’s shrunk, withered even, so tiny standing at my door, with her old coat looking two sizes too big. A taxi will take her to Thorpe Station for a train to Great Yarmouth. One large suitcase. A life whittled down to what can be squeezed into one plastic shell of a box on wheels which fits easily into a taxi’s boot. A sad woman. She hands me a letter. I don’t know what he was doing with this, she sniffs. Found it among his stuff. I read it. A letter from the NHS addressed to me. A single sheet. My bowel screening tests were negative. They’ll have no need to contact me for another two years. I frown as I watch her trudge down my path, wave her goodbye. Damned woman knows my business.

That envelope behind my clock – it’s addressed to Mr Prosser. An older postie wouldn’t have made that mistake, I think, as I throw it on my fire.