Number Twenty-Four

The policeman stood in front of what was left of the door, after officers had to force their way in earlier in the day.

‘Five minutes, and don’t touch anything.’

‘Ok. Do you know when I’ll be able to empty it?’

‘I don’t, sir, but the officer dealing with this case will be in touch with you soon.’

The landlord eased himself through the gap, immediately enveloped by what smelt like rotting cabbages. After negotiating his way around piles of rubbish he stood in the cramped front room. Facing him, the lumpy two-seater sofa still had the impression of his tenant’s body with the cushions all bunched up into one corner.

‘Why did you have to go and peg it on Christmas Eve?’

He turned, shaking his head at the string of tinsel nearly bald with age, which was held in place by an overflowing ashtray on one side of the mantelpiece and an empty Stella can on the other. With growing unease he realised that the sole Christmas card was one that he’d sent out to everyone on his mailing list as part of a marketing campaign last year.

In his spiral notebook he started a list:

  • Order a skip – Bill?
  • Call Tony about decorating.
  • New carpet?
  • Check kitchen, bathroom.
  • Greg – garden?

A shaft of light through a tear in the grime-coloured net curtains revealed the dust particles in the air. It was then he noticed a tiny white triangle in the corner of the sofa. Using his pen he tugged at it, pulling out a creased photograph. The man in the picture could’ve been his tenant, in happier, healthier times. The young girl on his knee, in a green dress, made him smile and wince at the same time. She was just like Sally at that age. White-blonde hair scraped up into two bunches, her mouth smeared with chocolate and a sore-looking grazed knee.

Memories he’d tried to suppress surfaced of the row he’d had with Sally when she was 16. He felt his hand stinging from the slap across her face. Minutes later he heard the two beeps from a taxi, with the whole house shaking as she slammed the door. All he saw was a flash of her red jacket as she ran out of the house. She hadn’t looked back, not even for a second. Through friends and colleagues he knew she’d struggled after that; at one stage she was in a hostel, another time a B&B. She would be 21 now, a young woman.

He felt the weight of his mobile in the back pocket of his jeans. Surely she would’ve changed her number by now? He scrolled down the list and found her name. Before he could change his mind he pressed ‘call’.

It started to ring, and he stopped breathing.

‘Dad? Dad, is that you?’

The policeman poked his head around the door, and saw the landlord talking quietly on the phone. He tried to catch his attention by tapping on his watch, but to no avail. He decided to give him another five minutes. It was Christmas, after all.

 

About the author:

Ruth F Hunt is the author of The Single Feather (Pilrig Press) and a columnist for the press (online and press) She is also does interviews for the GFT Press LLC in California. She lives in Lancashire, and belongs to the Society of Authors and The National Union of Journalists. When she was 30 she was homeless after being in hospital for a long time.

 

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