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November 19, 2010

Allow 28 Days for Delivery

By James Gray

Mike’s eyes opened reflexively to the vision of a crisp white sheet billowing tent-like only inches above his naked body. He felt a growing irritation at the gentle currents of air that brushed his face like a tiresome fly and which were exaggerated by the dryness of his lips. He became aware of his arms, tucked in flat against his sides, his fists clenched and thumbs pointing downward as if he were lying to attention.

A fleeting sensation of purity, near-innocence, was bulldozed by an unfathomable nagging whose fist now plunged deep into his chest cavity, wrapping its malformed fingers around his insides and squeezing until he could barely breathe. He felt his throat constricted and although he somehow knew it would be pointless to reach up and loosen a non-existent shirt collar, he was also aware of his inability to move any part of his body other than his now throbbing head. Then, sensing another presence, he allowed his eyes to wander to the right and his head followed obediently. He wanted to throw back his head and scream for help, but his impotence only amplified the painful vulnerability of his situation. Lying next to him, its apparent peacefulness at variance with Mike’s own inner flailing, was the corpse of his father.

When Mike re-emerged from the darkness that followed, gasping like a swimmer relieved to break the surface, he found himself standing next to the gurney which had held him prisoner only moments before. The white sheet was neatly draped over his father’s lifeless body, revealing only its anaemic head and shoulders. The cadaver’s translucent skin glowed under the fluorescent blue light of the electric fly killer. Mike stood shivering among the morgue refrigeration units which enveloped him, the only sound emanating from the buzz, buzz, buzzing of the fluorescent lamp.

Mike Boyle opened his eyes and was instantly overwhelmed by relief. Sweet Jesus. Fifteen years in the ground and the old man was still giving him nightmares. He slowly brought his hand down over his face, pinching his eyes, feeling every contour, moving down over his cold nose and stubbly chin. Then he held up his hand and flexed his fingers before glancing tentatively to the right, squinting at the bright red numbers on the bedside alarm clock. 7:05. Plenty of time. Mike swung his legs over the side of the bed and sat for a moment. As he looked back, Sarah rolled over and flopped an arm onto his side of the bed. He watched her as she grabbed his pillow and nestled her face into it, her half-smile forming those sexy wrinkles around her mouth.

Two hours later, Mike found himself on the pavement of a tree-lined suburban side street. He stood across from a typical Victorian semi-detached house with white UPVC windows and a red front door. Parked on the driveway was a hearse, polished to within an inch of its life and obscured by a couple of other vehicles which Mike presumed were part of the funeral procession. Not much of a turnout. Mike observed as the front door of the house opened and his sister, Karen, emerged with two men, one short and one tall and both dressed in black and carrying top hats. He watched as they exchanged words and the shorter man fetched what looked like some papers from one of the cars. They went back inside, leaving the door wide open, but Mike couldn’t face going inside just yet.

He hoisted himself up onto the low wall of the house which stood directly opposite the Boyle family home. With their mother now gone, the house had passed to Mike’s sister. He bore no grudges; he had always made his own way in the world and enjoyed success, while Karen, poor thing, had been the one to stay home, nursing both their parents through their final days and renouncing any life of her own in doing so. He thought it only right and proper that little sis inherit the house.

Mike continued to stare at the front door and he watched as Karen re-emerged and stood on the doorstep. She lit up a cigarette, and it struck him how much older his little sister was looking. There was almost ten years between them and perhaps because of that they had very little in common. Karen had a strong sense of family, whereas Mike felt a detachment which, although it had never bothered him in the least, he’d never been able to fathom, either. He saw himself as a player. His sister had always accused him of looking after number one, and he couldn’t deny it. He was egotistical, and the first to admit it. Sitting there now, Mike could barely recall the last time he had spoken to his sister. The details eluded him now, save to say there had been another argument which, for whatever reason, had been followed by a period of silence which was yet to be broken.

Seeing Karen disappear inside, Mike jumped down from the wall. As he strode towards the house, he wondered how she would greet him now. Would she turn to her older brother in her hour of need? He trotted up the three front steps and peered through the open door. With nobody in sight he crossed the threshold into the hallway, feeling like a wayward teenager again as his parents’ accusatory voices echoed through his head. He drew a deep breath before entering the living room. Standing in front of the large, gilt-framed mirror which hung above the fireplace, one hand resting limply on the mantelpiece, was Karen, dressed in a black jacket and skirt. She was facing away from him, but her reflection revealed a pale, emotionless face with cold blue eyes that stared right through him. Mike stood motionless for what could only have been a few seconds. Karen’s expressionless face told him everything he needed to know. If that’s how you want to play it.

Mike shoved his hands into the pockets of his suit trousers and spun on his heels, just in time to see Little and Large file past. Mike nodded in acknowledgement. Large poked his head round the living room door. “Twenty minutes, Miss Boyle.”

“Fine, that’s fine,” answered Karen.

Mike wondered if he was invited, too. With twenty minutes to kill, he decided to take a look around the old place. He bounded up the stairs, instinctively skipping over the squeaky third and fifth steps, and as he approached the top he saw that the ladder to the loft space was extended. The den. Mike put one hand on the wooden ladder and shook it before placing his foot on the bottom rung. As he began climbing he felt twelve years old again. Reaching the top of the ladder, he poked his head into the dusty space, which was adequately lit by a skylight in the sloping roof, and a boyish smile transformed his face. He inhaled deeply, convinced he could detect the lingering smell of joss sticks. Looking around, it seemed as if all that remained of his childhood were the leather gentleman’s chair that had once belonged to his grandfather, and a cardboard box which sat in the centre of the den.

Mike hauled himself into the roof space and approached the cardboard box. Is this all the bitch left me? He recognised the old Flora margarine tubs, which housed everything from a decaying rubber King Kong and a Spider-Man action figure that had seen better days to his collection of beer mats and golliwog badges. Sitting atop this eclectic hoard, though, was his once-prized Super Siren Bicycle Alarm (with 4-way siren and microphone). Oh yes, Mike nodded, slumping into the leather chair. Breaker one-nine, this here’s the Rubber Duck.

It was the summer of ’79. Leafing through the pages of a mail order catalogue one Saturday afternoon, Mike had discovered the Super Siren Bicycle Alarm (with 4-way siren and microphone). The bright yellow siren, as sunny as the Colman’s mustard tin which sat on the kitchen window ledge, cast an immediate spell. The siren’s megaphone-shaped body was connected to a matt-black handset by a coiled black cord and Mike could clearly make out the switch on the siren which would enable him to scare unsuspecting passers-by with the sound of an ambulance, fire engine or police siren. According to the brief description which accompanied the photograph, the handset could also be used as a microphone. The area of Mike’s brain which regulated mischief lit up like Blackpool Illuminations.

Mike had carefully cut out the picture and description, tucking the clipping safely into his back pocket and taking regular doe-eyed peeks as a soldier on the front line might regard a photograph of his girl back home. He had spent the entire weekend convincing his parents of the merits of the Super Siren Bicycle Alarm (with 4-way siren and microphone) and by Monday morning his persistence had paid off. Mike even filled in all the forms. There was just the small matter of how he was going to pay for it. The small print said “Allow 28 days for delivery”. Mike reckoned you could look up “frustration” in the Oxford English Dictionary and you’d find “Allow 28 days for delivery”. On the other hand, it would give him just about enough time to save the £12.99 plus postage and packing.

True to his word, Mike spent the next four weeks cleaning and valeting cars, creosoting fences (Mr Garrett was forever creosoting his fence and proved an easy target), mowing lawns, washing windows and doing any menial job he could lay his hands on. It was the worst twenty-eight days of his young life so far, and Mike waited for the postman like a dog for his master every single day, just in case the catalogue people had somehow caught wind of his good deeds and decided to dispatch his order early. On day twenty-eight – a Friday and the final delivery of the week – Mike’s taciturn father had brought his world crashing down with the words “Nothing for Mikey today.”

Mike could recall every minute detail of that weekend in ’79. The day after he had received his devastating news, his mother and father had dragged him off to see Granny Marsden, as they did with annoying regularity almost every Saturday. Mike had sat in the back of his dad’s Saab and refused to speak for the entire drive. Once there, he had sat through old family stories about people he had never heard of, didn’t know and would never care to, and when Granny finally relented and switched on the TV as the afternoon drew to a close, it was to watch the wrestling rather than Blake’s 7. Losing patience, Mike had insisted it was time to leave so they could at least get home in time for Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em, but he could already sense from the looks on their faces that something was coming.

“How about spending the night at Granny’s?” his mother offered. Mike, deflated, had been here before and knew it was more of a rhetorical question. There was usually a bribe involved, like a trip to the cinema, but after the last time he remained sceptical. Granny had promised him The Empire Strikes Back, but because the queue had been much shorter and her bunions were giving her jip, they ended up going to see a re-release of The Water Babies instead. Mike figured on some payback this time. His parents left with the promise to pick him up first thing Sunday morning, and Mike immediately ditched the maths homework they had thoughtfully packed for him; despite Granny’s Einstein hair-do, his hopes of any competent help with his quadratic equations were dashed when she smiled at him wistfully while shaking the Ludo box. And when she tried to send him to bed, he informed her with a shake of the head and a roll of the eyes that “Of course mum and dad let me stay up to watch Starsky and Hutch.”

The next morning after breakfast a miracle happened which made up for a night spent in the box room sandwiched between an electric blanket and sheets tucked in so tightly he thought his blood supply had been cut off. Granny had led him outside and told him to wait while she disappeared into the garage. Two minutes later he heard a muffled cry from inside: “Open the doors, Mikey!” Mike had tutted, raised his eyes heavenward and shaken his head, deciding to give Granny a few more seconds before he complied. When he opened the doors, Granny came blundering out, barely able to keep her dentures under control. Not only was she pushing a shiny new, brushed silver Raleigh Striker, but mounted on the handlebars was the Super Siren Bicycle Alarm (with 4-way siren and microphone).

Mike’s reverie was broken by the sound of the loft hatch closing and the postage stamp of light disappeared. “Hey!” he said, “Hey, there’s somebody in here!” but it was too late. Shit. Mike heaved himself clumsily from the leather chair, hearing the sound of the front door slamming shut as he crossed to the skylight. He peered through the grimy glass, surveying the street out front. What the hell is she doing here? He could just make out Sarah, decked out in black, in an embrace with Karen. “Hey!” he shouted. He watched them both climb into one of the cars and all he could do was stare as the engine revved and the tyres began to munch the gravel driveway. For a split second he was convinced he could see his parents standing side by side on the pavement opposite, but in the blink of an eye the hearse had pulled out in an almost calculated manoeuvre and blocked his line of vision, graciously presenting him instead with a set of blood-red floral letters neatly arranged alongside the casket.

Copyright – 2010 James Gray

All Rights Reserved

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