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Rated: E · Other · Contest Entry · #1824592
In which a cricket fan finds a curious letter
Out in the middle of that great oval of green, Ian Bell hit Tanvir Ahmed's delivery low and far. Pakistan's fielders scuttled after the ball hoping to stop it before it reached the boundary as the England crowd cheered.

Although his seat on the North Stand afforded him a good view of the action, Norman Hollis had missed it. In fact he'd barely managed to time any of the runs that the England team had made all day, and his normally meticulous recording of the match remained broken and sketchy on the page of his exercise book. Norman sighed and shifted in his seat to relieve his nagging sciatica. It was a big day too; the third one of the second test against Pakistan, exactly the kind of day he should be recording in all its detail.

I suppose that is how love is - glory or ruin - and we never know which it will be. The line from the letter bubbled up into his conscious mind, once again driving the cricket beyond the boundary of his thoughts. He could picture the letter's looping script, rendered in blue biro on its vellum sheet, and the England crowd groaned as Bell was run out for twenty-two. Or maybe twenty-six. The Pakistan supporters cheered and their green flags rippled over the South Stand as Norman wondered if it had only been twenty.

"Buggerit," he muttered and closed his exercise book. He tucked it into his satchel then stood up. There was no point staying; between that letter and the drunken cricket louts in the Carnegie Stand he wasn't going to get anything done. He'd have to buy all the papers in the morning and cobble what he could of the day's play from their reporting of it if he were to live up to the promise he'd made to his father all those years ago. He felt a twinge of guilt as Eion Morgan, the Middlesex left-hander, strode out to the crease and he almost returned to his seat. Glory or ruin, he thought and shook his head at the mental intrusion. "Buggerit," he grumbled and left the stadium.

Norman crossed the road to the Cricketer's Cafe and ordered two slices of white toast with a strong cup of tea, then sat down by the window and slipped the letter out of his satchel. It wasn't addressed to him, in fact he'd found it tucked in the pages of a book he'd bought from Bristow's Second-Hand Books a couple of doors down from the Cricketer's Cafe. Curiously, it was addressed to the very same lady who had written it.

At first he considered taking the letter back to Mr Bristow but he didn't want the shopkeeper thinking that he'd read it, and then he thought about throwing it away, but in the end his curiosity got the better of him and he'd read it anyway. He felt awful about it, after all it was someone's innermost thoughts and about as private as anything could be, and as he unfolded it to read it once more he felt awful all over again.

Dear Irene, it said,

I hope you are well today.

As you will know, I have been quite down in the dumps lately. I'm not sure why. Maybe it is the rainy weather. I was thinking about you earlier - I know you felt the same way a few days ago and I wonder if you would have any advice for me that might make me feel better. Of course, you won't be able to write back in time, but that is alright. I like to think of you having answers for the things that bother me.

I've been having that dream again recently, you know the one, the one about the mysterious man with the umbrella. I still haven't seen his face but when he offers me to stand under it with him, I know that I love him. And I know that he loves me. It feels so very real, you know, but I know it isn't. It's just a silly dream. But it makes me sad when I wake up and it has gone.

Maybe that is how love is in real life too – when you wake up from it you feel sad that something which was never really real has gone and will be all forgotten about by tea-time. I do hope it isn't. I wonder what would happen if I didn't wake up? Would he kiss me? Would he walk away and take his umbrella with him? I wish I knew. I suppose that is how love is - glory or ruin - and we never know which it will be. I suppose that is what makes it as wonderful as they say. I wish I knew, you know. But you do know, of course. You know me better than I do, I should think.

Maybe you will have an answer by the time you receive this letter. I very, very much hope so.

All my love and best wishes,

Norman sipped his tea in quiet contemplation. There was something haunting about the letter, not only in its words, which touched something deep inside him, but also in the whole idea of a woman so lonely that she wrote letters to her future self in the hope that it would lead to some kind of fulfillment. Or perhaps it was just for the company. Either way it made Norman feel quite peculiar. If he was honest with himself, he was lonely too, but at least he had his cricket and the promise he'd made to his father to keep his record keeping up to date; he didn't have to invent any strange little stratagems to occupy his time.

But there was something else, too, something that he couldn't find the words for. Maybe it was the connection she had with her own inner self, an awareness, a consciousness that Norman might once have had and since written off as worthless. But it wasn't worthless in her and it fascinated him. He found himself thinking about her writing those words, her pen pressing ink into the paper and transmitting something of herself, maybe even of her soul, with it. Without realising it, he folded the letter and held it against his chest as he finished his last slice of toast.

Norman got his things together and stood up. It occurred to him that he might be able to find out who had sold the book to Mr Bristow and perhaps learn something about Irene, so he left the cafe and walked the few doors along to Bristow's Second-Hand Books.

The bookshop was very small, with straining bookshelves all around the walls and another one that ran down the middle of the room. The counter wasn't much more than a polished plank of wood atop a plywood partition, with space enough behind to accommodate the eponymous Mr Bristow, who was conveniently skinny enough to fit there.

Although Norman had been visiting the bookshop for many years he had never struck up a rapport with Mr Bristow out of respect for the appropriate distance in the shopkeeper/customer relationship. Even had they been the best of friends, Norman would still have found it difficult to ask Mr Bristow about the book's previous owner, and he stood at the shelf he'd bought it from, furiously thinking of a way to broach the subject. It didn't help that he felt so sensitive about the whole thing; the guilt about reading the letter niggled at him and he had an odd feeling regarding Irene, a bit like nervousness mixed with excitement mixed with nausea. It made him feel quite ridiculous, especially at his age.

As he stood there, the shop door opened and the little bell above it tinkled. Norman barely noticed it, nor did he look to see who it was who brushed by him to get to the counter.

"Good afternoon." It was a lady's voice.

"Yes, madam," Mr Bristow replied, "can I be of assistance?"

"I brought a book for you a few days ago and I was wondering if you'd sold it already. I left something inside it..."

Norman's face flushed and he felt a sudden sense of guilty panic.

"Oh, yes, I remember," Mr Bristow said. "What book was it?"

"Bolton Abbey And The Strid by Geoffrey Harvey."

"Hmmm," said Mr Bristow, "I think I might have sold it already. Is it on the shelf?"

Norman's eyes bulged and his heart battered against his ribs.

"I will have a look. Thank you," the lady said and from the very corner of his painfully swivelled eye Norman saw her turn toward his bookshelf. He shuffled around the other side as quickly and casually as he could manage, hoping that the perspiration that prickled his brow wasn't obvious and that his flapping heart wouldn't go into arrest.

He pretended to study the books, waiting for her to find Bolton Abbey And The Strid gone and then leave, when he caught a glimpse of her eyes between the shelves. They were blue and light with a kind of depth to them that made his heart beat in a softer fashion. They had slightly darkened arcs beneath them, much like his own, and the wrinkles of late middle-age surrounded them, also much like his own. Her eyes met his and they both looked away. He risked another glance and their eyes touched again before darting away. Norman harrumphed and heard the lady clear her throat on the other side of the bookshelf as he did.

"Is it there?" Mr Bristow asked.

"No, I don't think so," she said in a voice that wobbled ever so slightly, "I can't see it anywhere."

"I must have sold it then. I'm sorry, madam. I still have your address on file if it turns up."

"That's quite alright," she blurted, "it wasn't anything important." Then she turned on her heel and left the shop quicker than she needed to.

Norman waited for a few moments, which was as long as he could manage, before following her out of the shop. He watched from the doorway as she walked down the road. Her gait reminded him of his own and, like his own shoulders, hers sloped away under the burden of a lifetime of disappointment and loneliness. Part of him wanted to follow her and perhaps contrive some circumstance that would give him reason to speak to her, but he wouldn't know what to say and he was sure he'd be too ashamed anyway.

And then she vanished round the corner, leaving only her image behind his eyes. Norman stood there for some time, watching the space Irene had occupied and feeling something he couldn't find a name for.

The next morning, Norman got dressed and resolved to put the lady and her letter right out of his mind. He had newspapers to buy and notes to take, a task he'd done a hundred times before and which had always kept his thoughts in check, then he would go to the cricket and give it all the attention the game deserved.

He went downstairs, took the letter out of his satchel and tore it up into tiny little pieces. He scrunched them together and put them in his shirt pocket, then left for the newsagents before he'd even had his breakfast. He whistled all the way there so as not to give his mind the opportunity to betray his resolve, and when he arrived at the shop he dropped the balled up remains of the letter into the litter bin outside.

As he walked home with his bundle of papers under his arm, Norman felt much more like his old self. A little part of him tried to recall the words he'd disposed of but he chased them away by recounting Geoff Boycott's heroic five-day stand at the crease against Australia at Trent Bridge in 1977. What a test match that had been and it only seemed like yesterday.

When he got home he fried up some eggs and bacon and made a silent promise to his father that he'd do a better job of committing the day's play to paper. He ate them over his newspapers, fork in one hand, pencil in the other, circling, underlining and annotating the various accounts of the previous day's cricket. He mopped up the last bit of yolk from his plate, swilled it down with the rest of his tea then got ready to go to the match.

The weather forecast was good, the cricket louts would be subdued after three days and nights of revelry and Norman looked forward to a proper, uninterrupted day of cricket. He slung his satchel over his shoulder and unlocked the front door.

I wonder what would happen if I didn't wake up? The words halted him mid-step and there he stood, half in and half out of the house, trying to bowl them out from his mental wicket. Moments passed and then his inner umpire handed down a decision.

"Buggerit," Norman sighed as he hung his satchel in the hallway and picked up his umbrella. He went out into the glorious sunshine and locked the door behind him.

Irene wouldn't get her letter back, but she might get her reply.
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