I push the Royal Mail trolley along the pavement of a short terraced street one damp Saturday lunchtime. I hate being here. I want to get away. I want to drag the damned thing into my nearby mail van, drop off the extra weight and drive to the Sorting Office parking yard and then go home.
expects a postman and the regular chap can’t do it and Management insists I work
off my usual beat today.
I go, despite the fear of discovery. Despite the knowledge that when the child is found my life will effectively be over. I am a private man. I don’t want to be known nationwide. I don’t want my picture in the papers, on television and the internet. I don’t want my childhood held up as An Example to millions or my education analysed by celebrity psychologists.
I don’t want my name to be bound forever to Sally-Ann Gresham’s.
Yet here I am disguised as an honest, law-abiding Postie delivering bills and cards from nieces too old-maidish or too mean to carry tablet computers on holidays oversea or in those colourless English seaside towns where children’s dreams are dashed by Gulf Stream moisture and Continental cold fronts and by the poor imaginations of parents who imagine oil-stained sands and deadly cliffs as a tropical paradise. Children’s dreams are also dashed by inquisitive men with hunger in their souls.
My own hunger is physical as much as spiritual today. My stomach growls as my breakfast fades – the meat a bittersweet memory of a happy morning now lost. I had expected to be digging asparagus trenches on my allotment by now or laying the concrete foundation of a shed for my tools and other items. Then the phone call came and they handed me unfamiliar van keys and barely looked at the electric cart that I am learning to hate.
The voice speaks to me; inescapable in my ears.
Get it over with Samuel. Do it and dump the trolley and you visit your allotment and I can go on my way.
The first door on the street is white paint peeling off timber; a sunburned nose between the wide, curtained eyes of the large bay windows added when the Council sold it.
“Mrs, um, Macintyre?” I ask as a blowsy old bird peers at me through half-moon spectacles she must have got from www.everythingforancientbiddies.co.uk.
“Yes?” she says, hateful in her freedom from the burden I’m hauling around with me.
“Parcel for you, Missus.” I mutter, handing her a scented buff bubble wrap oblong. A toiletries sample, perhaps. She snatches it from my steady-seeming fingers, oblivious to the soil under the nails and the scars. She stares for a long, awful moment during which I think she might examine the trolley; so low down its tyres because of the extra weight.
“You’re not the usual one,” she snarls and swishes the door shut. Not discovered. Free, until the next one.
Next house along is empty and boarded up. From the next music blares from both upper-storey windows. My hand reaches slowly under the flap lid, shaking in fear I’ll expose its contents, hastily stuffed at dawn under a nylon bag of mail.
Have courage, Sam. Soon you will be away, comes the voice. I doubt it. Today’s heading to one of two possible futures, and neither of them contains much freedom for Samuel Corby, Ba, (hons), failed novelist and obscure public employee. Today’s events will kill any anonymity for me.
“Letter for you, sir,” I smile deceptively as a red-eyed student type peeks around the door jamb after the summons of my balled fist.
“Yeah. Right. Er, thanks,” mutters the boy, unclean with last night’s alcohol weed.
“And there’s a parcel for the resident of the other flat,” I add, obliged to keep the door open longer than I want. “Will you sign for it, or send him down?”
“No, I’ll sign. And it’s a she. Jo’s a girl.” He signs and a door is once again between eyes that did not pry at the trolley.
And so it goes along the flagstones of this Victorian suburb as I wheel my burden over the iron grates in the pavement of a street once home to the minor clerical staff of the mill town’s boom days when the ever-emerging English Middle Class built houses with coal cellars.
Draughts blow up from those grids from cellars now filled with junk or chest freezers. They bring up scents at which a dog might sniff and bark or scrabble with betraying claws: scents that just before dawn did indeed close the around me and this one street. I have one chance only because the discovery of my trolley’s contents can go tragically, fatally wrong in seconds.
The voice speaks to me and others; unheard by the rest of town. That’s it. It’s the student house. She’s in the cellar. Go! Go! Go!
I open the trolley’s lid and pull out the lock-pick shotgun atop the carbon dioxide and heat detectors and blast the Yale away as the mail van opens up and my fellow officers thunder into the house on my heels.