It’s 11:05 a.m., which means fifty-five minutes till the post is due. I’m in the kitchen, waiting, leaning right forward over the draining board. Through the window, I watch the windsock the weather-mad neighbours across the way have stuck up in their garden, a heavy canvas thing hanging right over their fence. Right now it’s barely moving, just a feeble twitching. You know, I can remember nights when you were about as immobile as that. I push the roll of my stomach against the worktop until I feel it pinch me through my blouse. Take that, I think.
Sundays and Bank Holidays are much harder: those days when the post doesn’t come at all. But today is a Tuesday, three weeks on. And since you left, I’ve already had a letter. A real one this time, I’m sure.
I slide over and switch on the kettle and wait for it to come to the boil. There’s a nice ritual in this, plus it eats up a fair amount of time. Once the plastic kettle has boiled and quieted, and boiled and quieted again, I allow myself a rice cake from the bread-bin, as if I’m on a diet and haven’t just eaten a bacon breakfast. I brush the crumbs from the worktop, making it once again all spic and span.
After that, I go through into the living room. I’ve laid the letter out on the coffee table, to remind myself that it really does exist. I’ve got every word memorised, every embossed logo imprinted. It gives me a thrill every time I see it. The living room is painted mustard and cream. I sit down on the sofa and lean my head against the peely wall. There have been other letters like this, lots of them. Alright, I’ve been stung a few times, I don’t mind admitting that, and fair enough you were right about that particular one. The one about the inheritance, the one we fell out over. Afterwards, once I’d calmed down and made myself look where your stubborn finger kept pointing, I could see the smudgy errors. But the letter on my living room coffee table doesn’t have any of those. In fact, this new letter has phrases such as ‘certified’, ‘bona fide’ (I especially like that one), and ‘guaranteed’. I sit up and run my hands one more time over its glossy sheen, circling a finger over the shiny stamp in the top right hand corner.
Dear Miss Mills, it says.
Eleven twenty three – I tilt my watch, and put the letter back down. On BBC news the forecast is for rain. Something else for the neighbours to measure. Through the living room doorway, I catch a dash-dart out in the hallway. A dark grey streak, I know what it is: a cat the last tenants abandoned when they moved away. It’s turned half-feral now, roaming the neighbourhood, scavenging at bird feeders. At birds. It can still get in through the cat-flap in my back door with the chip dug somewhere in its neck. I could easily get the flap boarded up, but I don’t. After all, I’m not planning to stay.
On my clunky old iPad, I check my emails. Nothing yet, but it’s not even lunchtime. What if… says a finicky voice in my head, but I bat it quickly away. Instead I picture myself: tanned, thin, rolling in sand dunes, baking in the sun. My whole new life, where I’ll be able to buy anything, afford everything. I just need to wait, they’ve told me, they’ll be emailing any day now. Meanwhile, there’s always the next post.
It’s almost peaceful, without you here. I remember you and this sofa: always elbowing the cushions, grinning, complaining that the springs were poking your back. I gave you all the scatter cushions, but you still could never get comfy. Looking back now, there were so many things we couldn’t agree on. Like how I was supposed to rinse things when I washed up, how you said I gave the house plants too much water and that’s why they always died, and how you thought my favourite mug – the one I made at the pottery place and spent a whole day decorating – was ‘comic’.
I got so protective about that mug. I was alright compromising on the other stuff, but I couldn’t give that up. Maybe if I had it would have all been okay.
The living room smells. I get up and check behind the TV for about the hundredth time. There’s nothing there, but the messy, rotted odour won’t go away. It’s because the other day, the cat dragged a half-dead bird into the house, flapper-thump through the cat-flap, down the hallway and across the living room floor. A purple rainbow arc smeared right across the carpet. There was a fight. Afterwards, it pulled the carcass behind the TV stand, all gummy feathers and cracked bones. It didn’t know what to do with it after that.
I go back into the kitchen where it’s all bleachy clean. The wind has picked up; the windsock outside is flapping about. Some days it blows practically horizontal and I can picture it tipping over and crashing through their fence. I wonder what the neighbours would do then. I think about getting horizontal with you. On the floor of the landing mainly, in a state, when you’d do that thing of pretending you were only going upstairs for a minute, and then I’d find you already in bed, asleep. I never thought it would be like that, when I agreed to let you move in.
Eleven forty five. I can feel my heart beginning to soar, by which I mean it comes up and glugs high in my throat. The next post shouldn’t matter so much now, what with the letter of mine on the table but somehow I can’t help it. Sometimes I wonder if I’ll miss the thrill of this in my new life. No debts anymore once this payout comes through, but no post either. Still. Did I mention I quit the Pound shop last week? I won’t be needing a job where I’m headed. I sent the five hundred pounds first though, I wasn’t that stupid. The second five hundred, I mean. The first was to check it was real.
Out in the hallway, the cat is scratching at the stair carpet. I clatter a spoon against the draining board. When the scratching stops, the silence seems worse.
I’m only saying all this now because you’re not around to argue back. Not like before. You know, I really wish you hadn’t been like that. About that other one:
Dear Miss Mills,
We are delighted that we have traced you…. a Lost Inheritance… No other known Heirs….
Yes, I can still remember what it said, how I stood there with my silly mug in my hand while you read the whole thing aloud. I got over-excited, I know, it was just that I thought you’d be pleased. I never expected you to hold my letter up and roll your eyes and scoff, and go to chuck it in the bin. The bin. You might as well have stuffed me in there. And especially – and I’m not making an excuse, just trying to explain why what happened next happened – especially, you shouldn’t have laughed.
Even if I was wrong.
Outside the window, that windsock. Sometimes I wish it would blow right off.
It’s close enough now to twelve that I can go out into the hallway. The cat is still there, hunkered at the top of the stairs, peering down. I think it’s got something wrong with its tooth; it drools on one side and its face looks swollen. I don’t know who’s supposed to take it to the vet. Eleven fifty five. I sit myself at the bottom of the stairs.
I couldn’t do this when you were around. I had to pretend that I didn’t really care. But now I can sink into it, enjoy the whole thing. The waiting, the anticipation, hearing the footsteps, like I do now, crunching up the gravel of my path, announcing the delivery, knowing what it brings.
Here the footsteps come, brisk and steady as always, but then something makes my heart almost stop.
The doorbell. The doorbell rings.
The cat streaks down the stairs and tears past me, the mouldy smell of its fur catching at my throat. I can’t understand. I don’t talk to the neighbours, I don’t have visitors, no-one but you, and you were a rarity, believe me. So it must be the postman – who else? – though I haven’t ordered a package, nothing I need sign for. Yet he’s rung the bell. He wants to come in and I don’t know why.
I wipe my slimy hands on the stair carpet and stand up. Now my heart doesn’t glug, it hammers. He rings again before I can get to the door, when I’m coming already, I’m coming.
‘Miss Mills?’ he calls through the wood. ‘Miss Mills?’
He doesn’t use my first name, just calls me Miss, from the post he delivers, day in, day out. I cross the hall-way but don’t touch the door. ‘Yes?’ I say, in my dressing gown.
‘Can I speak to you? I have this flyer.’
I don’t understand. I don’t have to answer. The cat has left me. I think it’s run outside.
‘It’s about scams,’ he goes on. ‘I’ve been worried…’
I picture my postman, his fuzzed moustache and beard, shorts and white legs come rain or shine, all glimpsed through my windows. I picture the windsock blowing behind his head, flailing.
‘I don’t need a flyer,’ I say. ‘I don’t need anything.’ But even as I say it, a corner comes poking in, red bordered and yellow, a horrible clash.
‘Here – I’m putting it through your letter box.’ Edging in, wriggling its way through till it dives at my feet.
The flyer stares up at me from the floor. I can read the first few lines, in their big, bold, rescuing font. My heart feels sickly. See, what I never told you is how sometimes it can feel so good to let yourself be sucked in. Just for the hell of it. Just for those sweet moments. I knew you would never understand, rushing away like you did, still woozy, still bleeding, throwing shirts into a bag while I trailed you round the house like a bleating lamb.
The postman is still standing out there, waiting. I could open the door, let him help me sort through the letters, separate out the good from the bad. Really try and turn over a new leaf. But I’m waiting on an email and the email might not come, and what would I be left with then?
I close my eyes. Slowly, with my foot, I push the flyer sideways until it crumples and jams itself in the gap of the skirting board. ‘Please,’ I say. ‘Can I just have my post?’
The gravel crunches on the other side of the door. For a moment I think he’s walking away. Then the letter flap squeaks again and now here they come, bundles of them, shiny, thick and every one for me. They thump to the floor, scattering themselves across the doormat like clean, new babies. Shaky with relief, I scoop them in my arms, hugging them to me.
I leave the postman out there on the step and carry the letters into the living room. I scatter them about me on the sofa, sinking into the cushions, half covering myself with the thick envelopes. Dear Miss Mills, they say. Dear, dear Miss Mills. For these precious seconds, precious moments it all becomes possible, my whole happy, perfect life.
How could you ever understand this?
Through the big windows I can see the cat out there in the garden, scratching up the flowerbeds while the rain falls as forecast and the windsock flaps and drags. It’s chasing some scent, digging up every inch, looking for something it never seems to find. I know it all happened very quickly, so quick neither of us knew what to think. I didn’t even say anything, did I, just swung out, and even now I’m not sure if I was reaching for you or the letter, if I meant to cling to you or shove you away. I just knew you were laughing and I had to make you stop. I swung out with the clumsy mug in my hand and I knew right away I’d crossed the biggest line, but you were already horizontal by then, the way I’d go on the upstairs landing, only you were laid out on the kitchen laminate with such a bash on your jaw, your whole mouth was full of blood.
Afterwards you didn’t stop, didn’t wait to hear my stream of sorry’s, just drove off into the sunset, your wing mirror scraping the wall as you spun out the drive, rounding the corner without me, to who knows where. You realised, didn’t you? It wasn’t the first letter and would hardly be the last.
I hug the envelopes closer. I try to think about the good things. When this money comes through I’m going to go abroad like I always planned. I try to picture it, the tan, the sun – but somehow now it isn’t feeling so good. I can’t stop seeing that flyer out there in the hall, and I can’t help thinking, if it ever really happened, if I ever left all this behind, all these moments of Dear Miss Mills, how would I manage, how would I even cope?
I don’t blame you for leaving, not after I hit you. But I’m starting to wish, I really am, that it could all be different. I’m like that cat, dragging birds across carpets, making a mess of everything. I don’t think I ever really meant you to go. I can’t stop wondering where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing. I try to picture you hearing of my windfall. I try to imagine you saying you’ll come back. But none of it comes, none of it feels real.
Instead it’s me I see, me sitting here on this same sofa. Still in my dressing gown, surrounded by letters, though the cat is long gone and the rest of the house has been empty for years.
That’s what I see, suddenly. Me, Miss Mills.
Ever waiting for payouts that, in reality, never come.
Philippa East is originally from Scotland and now lives in the rural county of Lincolnshire, England. After studying Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford University, she now holds down a day job as a Clinical Psychologist. Philippa’s prize-winning short stories have been published in various UK magazines and anthologies including Brittle Star, For Books’ Sake, The Fiction Desk, and The Lampeter Review. Her novel-in-progress was recently long-listed for the 2017 Mslexia Novel Award. You can find her on Twitter: @philippa_east