New short fiction by Malcolm Bray

Two Letters

When I lower myself on to the cold park bench, Doctor Kaldor’s letter crackles in my pocket like fire. I look around me in mute desperation. The old man is there again, on the next bench, wearing the same army coat and tattered woollen hat. I can smell him easily at that distance, with every small breath of wind; a bitter-sour cocktail of booze, old sweat and damp wool. He is human though, more human than me, and I get up and walk over to him.
‘Paddy,’ I say, ‘I’m going for a sandwich. Will I get one for you?’
‘I’m not focking Irish,’ he says.
‘Well,’ I tell him, ‘I’ve lived most of my life there. Kerry, Clare, Mayo.’
His eyes widen, and I can see their watery blue.
‘Mayo,’ he says, and grins, showing me the last of his teeth. He sings it then: ‘May-o, May-o.’
‘You’re from Mayo, then,’ I say.
‘I’m a Boyle from Westport. There’s a lot of us out there.’
‘I’ll go and get those sandwiches then, Mister Boyle,’ I tell him, and he mumbles something.
‘Oh. Right. P.J.’

Three days later, I’m back in the park again. I feel better today, and for a very simple reason. Jackie is beside me. She is a true, bold seven year-old, with eyes like mine. I introduce her to P.J., and she offers her hand. Eyes wide in panic, he says: ‘Don’t touch me, you don’t want to touch me!’
Jackie smiles at him. ‘We’re going for cakes, P.J. Do you want to come?’ He looks up at me, and I nod.
The cakes in the window of the tea-shop are brightly coloured, like Christmas decorations. Jackie and I go inside, telling P.J. to choose something from the window. Two women behind the counter spot him and begin muttering. One is louder than the other: ‘If he touches that glass, I’m calling the cops.’
I say: ‘Jackie, go and ask P.J. if he’s chosen yet.’
The women stare in horror as she goes outside. They are waxworks. Jackie comes back in and gives the orders; hers, mine and P.J.’s. The loud woman wraps the cakes in silence, and we leave.

Two years have passed me by, despite Dr. Kaldor. Today there is another letter, but this one is welcome. The writing on it is small and neat, and I open it impatiently. Jackie is fine; she can swim twenty metres now, and her friend is from Romania. Mrs. Talbot, the English teacher, has shown the class a newspaper article. It is Discussion Day. The article has a photograph of a dead homeless person, and Mrs. Talbot is asking the class about morality in society. Jackie puts up her hand.
‘I know that man!’ she says. ‘He’s a friend of mine. P.J. Boyle. Dad and I used to have breakfast with him.’
The teacher, she says, and the whole class too, went completely silent. Like women in a tea-shop.

• Malcolm Bray says “I'm from Kent and live in Ireland which I love. My twin obsessions are short fiction and wild things.”

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