Well, Christmas Eve – but the last Tunbridge Wells Writers present for this year…
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY SANTA
The street is silent, the early darkness and biting cold keeping people inside their homes. The shower of snowflakes falling from the sky is too light to lay; the flakes melt on impact with the ground. The grey paving slabs of the footpath and black asphalt road surface glisten with reflected light from the yellow street lamps. If the gritters aren’t out tonight the roads will be treacherous by morning.
A white van turns into the street, its headlights illuminating posters in the windows of the corner shop. Quality Street are five quid a tub for this week only, and Mr Kipling’s deep-filled mince pies are only ninety-nine pee for a pack of six. There are wines on special offer too, and there’s a lottery draw this weekend guaranteed to make four lucky winners millionaires.
The van passes the corner shop and pulls over to the kerb outside of number eighty-six. The driver sits for a moment watching the snow dancing in his headlights. He smiles, his lips, red from the cold, almost concealed behind his curly white moustache and beard. He turns off the headlights and cuts the engine then opens the door and steps out onto the road. His red suit is looking slightly dishevelled and at least two sizes too big. As he walks round to the back of the van he hoists the waistband of his trousers, which are slipping down despite the wide black leather belt he wears. The crack of his arse safely concealed again he opens the van doors and reaches in, pulling two white plastic bags toward himself. He checks the labels tied to the handles and pushes one bag back into the depths of the van before pulling two more forward. He checks the labels on these, rejecting one and keeping the other.
There is a clipboard with a spreadsheet attached to it tucked into one of the door panels. The spreadsheet is held in place by an oversized bulldog clip, attached to which is a small red marker pen swinging on a short length of nylon string. He takes the clipboard out and makes two quick marks on the spreadsheet then wedges it back in the door panel. His hand slips, catching the metal along the door’s edge. ‘Bugger,’ he says, rubbing the knuckle. He looks at the joint for a couple of seconds waiting to see if blood will appear. It doesn’t, and after giving his hand a quick shake he picks up the bags he’s selected and puts them in a sack he pulls from the other door panel. The sack is quite full but he lifts it easily and places it in the road. He shuts the back then walks around to the driver’s side door and locks the van. Can’t be too careful… He picks up the sack and throws it over his shoulder, then opens the gate of number eighty-six and walks up the garden path and knocks on the front door. He waits a while but there’s no reply, so he knocks harder.
‘Come in, it’s on the latch.’
He pushes the door open.
‘Florrie,’ he says, ‘where are you, kitchen or front room?’
Florrie emerges from the door of the front room halfway down the hallway. She shuffles into the hall, manoeuvring her zimmer frame ahead of her. ‘I’ll put the kettle on,’ she says.
‘Don’t be daft,’ he says, ‘I’ll sort that. You go and sit in front of the fire, I’ll bring it through in a tick.’
‘You bloody won’t,’ Florrie tells him. ‘The day I’m too old to make a guest a cup of tea in my own home is the day they can put me in my box.’
He laughs, knowing any further argument is pointless. He waits behind her as Florrie makes her way down the hall to the kitchen. When there’s room for him to squeeze by he does so, moving into the kitchen and putting his sack down on the floor beside the table.
As he enters the room Florrie sees him properly for the first time. She’s squinting behind the thick lenses of her glasses, and as her eyes focus she smiles and laughs.
‘What’s with the outfit, you daft bugger?’ she asks.
He laughs too. ‘Carol’s idea,’ he says. ‘She thought it would be festive, but to be honest I’m bloody freezing.’
‘I’m not surprised,’ Florrie says. ‘There’s hardly any material there at all – you could shoot peas through that! Haven’t you got your regular trousers on underneath?
‘Too uncomfortable,’ he says. ‘I wish I’d had the sense to put my long johns on, though.’
As he says it he realises he’s as cold inside the house as he was outside of it. He wonders if Florrie has a heater on in the living room or whether it is as cold as this kitchen. He suspects the latter, and that Florrie has just left a warm quilt on the sofa to answer his knock at the door. He feels a momentary pang of guilt.
He watches as Florrie fills the kettle at the sink. He doesn’t really want the tea – he’s awash with the stuff after a busy evening delivering –but he takes it anyway. He’ll have to be away a bit sharpish because he’s still got half a vanload to deliver, but he’ll get the scalding tea down somehow.
While the kettle is boiling he lifts the two plastic carriers from his sack and places them on the table. ‘Do you want me to put this lot away for you?’ he asks.
‘No, I’ll be fine,’ Florrie replies, ‘but if you bung it up on the table for me you can take the bags and use them again next time. Waste not want not.’
He unpacks the bags, spreading the contents across the surface of the table. When he’s finished the table is covered with store cupboard staples: bread, tinned goods, teabags, and cereals. The packaging is very basic – lots of blues and oranges on plain white cellophane denoting value and basic ranges offering more bang for your bucks.
The last few items are seasonal extras: two individual Christmas puddings, biscuits for cheese, Tartan shortbread, Eat Me Dates, and a packet of Mr Kipling’s deep filled mince pies. He finds Florrie’s gratitude for these small gifts embarrassing. He blushes as she tells him how much these weekly drops mean to her. He looks at the paltry amount of food on the table and wonders how so little can mean so much.
He drinks his tea quickly and makes his excuses. Florrie seems disappointed he can’t stay longer, but he suspects she’s also quite keen to get back to the living room and whatever heat she can find there. She sees him to the door and waves him off.
‘Merry Christmas,’ she says.
‘And you,’ he replies. ‘And I’ll see you same time next week. Don’t forget to lock this door after I’m gone.’
As he walks back up the path towards his van he catches a glimpse of himself and the red suit reflected in the passenger side window. Suddenly it feels wrong, and he wishes he was wearing just his usual jeans and jumper. He’s doesn’t think Florrie or the other people he delivers to would mind, but somehow it all feels a bit trivial and insensitive. He decides to nip home and change before he makes any more drops.
This is his third year as a volunteer deliveryman for the food bank, and his round seems to be growing bigger by the week.
© David Smith (2015)