A Letter To The Editor
Margaret had standards. Armed with an unwavering belief in a set of principles and entirely sufficient will to adhere to them, she marked her 70th birthday with a thimbleful of watered down whiskey and the satisfaction of having written an edifying letter to the local newspaper. For years since Mr Winton had passed, Margaret had been succinctly and regularly proffering her opinions of ‘modern living’, which she did not think amounted to much living at all.
Two hours of the day had elapsed and Margaret had already achieved a great deal, including the week’s washing. She noticed as she hung the bedsheets out to dry that the neighbours had once again left their ragged collection of garments on display over night. ‘Ghastly’ really was the only word that would suffice. Margaret let it form on her tongue but kept it firmly lodged inside, like a brittle barley sugar hemmed in by her teeth.
Re-entering the house after wiping her shoes and replacing the basket where it most certainly belonged Margaret was greeted by the familiar introduction to the Monday morning 8am radio news broadcast. Reports from the wars, disasters and deficiencies of the world droned on as Margaret primly embarked on the task at hand. Despite the fact that only one fork, one knife, one soup spoon and one teaspoon were used (she had no need of dessert cutlery and never buttered bread), Margaret continued her ritual of polishing all of the silverware. Her reflection on the thoroughly buffed soup tureen received only the most cursory of glances. Margaret didn’t need a mirror to confirm that her stone coloured hair was still firmly twisted in place.
With the silverware burnished and returned to the sombre confines of the solid wood cabinets, the single tea cup rinsed, dried and put away and the tea towel bent in half over the rail, Margaret was resolved to the task of letter writing. It had occurred to her that it was possible that there might be people who simply had never been taught how laundry reflected the spirit and standards of the home. In the flower of her youth Margaret would not have been able to believe this, but as she advanced in years one of the few constants in her life was a sense of being out of step with her neighbours.
She retired to her bedroom and settled herself. After a brief pause she drew out the brass key that hung on a length of grosgrain ribbon around her neck and unlocked the bureau. Ever since Mr Winton (who in a moment of passion she had once referred to as Georgie, regretting the incident immediately) had passed Margaret had divested the home of superfluous ornamentation and housed all that was truly precious in her bureau. On the rare occasions that nostalgia got the better of her Mrs Winton exercised but the briefest inspection of the contents during the time set aside for letter writing. Her worldly treasures amounted to a collection of photographs, a tie pin, Mr Winton’s retirement wrist watch and the first gift Mr Winton had ever given her, the Academy at St Martin-in-the-Field’s recording of Mozart Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, No. 23. Margaret admired it as a bright yet restrained rendition that had so aptly described their courtship.
The next day, the intended recipient of Mrs. Winton’s letter was thumping a wheezing air conditioner with a rolled up copy of the Hillsborough Banner. The Editor, Mr. Geoffrey promptly gave up on the illusion that he might fix it himself. While it was certain that in the years of cutbacks and downsizing he had taken on a great many extra responsibilities at the Banner, maintenance was not one of them. He rang his assistant’s extension to request a more qualified technician.
The Assistant to the Editor, Veronica (who on dates would refer to herself as Assistant Editor), had ceased commenting on Mr Geoffrey’s archaic work practices. She also no longer made mention of how Mrs Winton’s letters accompanied the thick pile of folders Mr Geoffrey would pack into his briefcase before finishing up for the day. Veronica thought it rather sweet but still odd of poor Mr Geoffrey to go to the bother of of taking crotchety Mrs Winton’s lectures home and retyping them for inclusion in the Op Ed.
At home that evening Mr Geoffrey worked his way through his customary toasted ham sandwich before proceeding to read over his files. As the clock advanced, to the untrained observer Mr Geoffrey might seem to grow more animated, a ripple in the otherwise still pond of a man long resolved to the unavoidable. At 8pm he took the pewter letter opener from his desk drawer and carefully sliced open the top of Mrs Winton’s pristine envelope, withdrew the neatly pressed contents and unfolded them with an unusual tenderness. He sighed for the second time that day as he progressed to her letter.
There she was again. Clear and bell like, a voice wholly imagined, but matched to the refined purity of purpose and prose. He secretly liked to picture her letters as a conversation, that they would be seated facing each other across impeccably white linen. He spoke, only to himself “Dear Editor”.
The letter went on to express Mrs. Winton’s feelings about an incident signifying a certain “moral laxity” in housekeeping. “It would appear that there are those amongst us who are perhaps unaware or unbeholden to a base level of decency. Laundry is a task best done first thing in the morning…” (Mr Geoffrey paused to check that he was not in contradiction of this edict, before remembering he had been using the laundromat since 1987). Mrs. Winton proceeded to give Mr Geoffrey a dazzling display of her refined laundry technique. She showed him how the first step was to arrange bed sheets to create a modest screen around the rest of the laundry. The next inner layer was made up of pillow cases and tablecloths. Then like an onion peeled, subsequent layers yielded garments in decreasing sizes; day dresses, trousers and twin sets before blouses. The most private were well hidden from view. He was most delighted by Mrs Winton stating “Finally, laundry should be removed from the line once it is dry. Leaving it out excessively is tantamount to forcing your neighbours to meditate on the state of your cleanliness.”
He typed up her letter in readiness for inclusion in the next day’s Op Ed, vigilantly guarding against the slightest variance. Then he carefully refolded and placed the original on top of a small pile of identical white rectangles in his desk drawer. He wondered if a single soul other than himself in all of Hillsborough would read and appreciate it.
It had been well over a week since her birthday letter. After completing the ritual of sealing, addressing and mailing her prose Margaret had wondered, for the first time in her 70 years what the point of it all might be. No one around her seemed to care about such things anymore. She had gone to sleep on Monday unusually despondent and Tuesday showed a marked decline in her usual vigour. A fortnight trickled past.
Mr Geoffrey sat examining the lines on the back of his hands. The mail had been delivered and he had rifled through it approximately seven times. He had enquired with Veronica. He had pressed the mail clerk. He had checked under his desk, behind the door, in all the in-trays on the sub editor’s desks. He enquired with Veronica again, who assured him a second time that all of the mail had been delivered, just as it had been when he had enquired yesterday and the days before.
All night Mr Geoffrey paced laps between his kitchen and study, while Mrs Winton made a thin grey line that segmented the snow white of her bed. At times she would drift off to sleep and dream, of people reading her letters in the newspaper and mocking her, of Mr Winton, and of her youth, but mostly she lay awake feeling like she was a tightly wound spool of thread that was unravelling.
Back in the office on Thursday at 8am, with no small amount of hesitation Mr Geoffrey scanned the information Veronica had collected for the obituaries column. It had been sixteen days since her last letter. At 9am Mr Geoffrey phoned the local hospital. At 9.15am he phoned the hospitals of the surrounding towns. At 9.45am he phoned the local, and then the surrounding funeral parlours. Veronica watched him through the glass panels flanking either side of his firmly closed office door, thinking that he was being most peculiar. He barely shrugged when she presented the news that the airconditioning was in perfect working order since it had regurgitated a fur ball comprised of Christmas tinsel. As the day dragged on he became less and less aware of the eyes of the staff watching as he mumbled to himself.
He repeated her address like a mantra, memorised from gazing at her hand calligraphied envelopes. He looked up her number in the phonebook, staring intently at the neat row of numbers as though a code might be hidden amongst them. He cringed when he thought about actually calling her. What would he say? “Hello Mrs Winton. Editor of The Banner here, just wondering if you were going to write any more letters?” How mortifying.
It was a good ten minutes before he realised he was shuffling down the street, past the supermarket, past the high school soccer field and heading of course, to Mrs Winton’s house. Mr Geoffrey made a quick list of all the trips he’d been on that he could remember. He’d been to Echuca on several occasions. Mildura, many years ago with a girl he though he might get engaged to. He’d technically been to Hobart, while in his mother’s womb. He would run there, and then what? Mr Geoffrey realised that it was best not to think about it, and to just keep moving forward.
The sight of Mrs Winton’s door slapped Mr Geoffrey in the face. Like a stuttering record he straightened the sleeves of his pea coat. He had thought many times about arriving at Mrs Winton’s door step, but had hoped to be invited first.
The leash slackened a little and he was able to make small erratic paces in front of her fence. He should leave now, before anyone saw him, before anyone called the police (his cousin was a police officer, there would be such shame). Despite his panic he admired the pristine orderliness of Mrs Winton’s modest yard. He also noticed how in contrast her neighbours’ rubbish bins had been abandoned at the end of their driveways, some overturned and missing lids. Their letterboxes were overflowing with junk mail, their driveways littered with unraked leaves and twisted pennants of underwear were flapping from washing lines.
Just as Mr Geoffrey turned to leave he was possessed by a strange force. He snatched up stray plastic bottles. He quietly and efficiently straightened lackadaisically strewn lawn furniture, gum boots, tennis shoes, toy trucks and milk crates. With the head of a broom salvaged from a pile of garden waste he cleared leaves and spiderwebs. Her neighbours’ recycle bins were now quite full, but he reasoned that if he climbed in and stood on top the pile he’d be able to squeeze in the last armfuls of wilted flyers and newspapers.
He heard a front door open and a voice that was sure of itself interrupt him. “Sir, what on Earth are you doing?”
Mr Geoffrey’s palms sweated. He would have recognised Mrs Winton by the thorough perfection of the pleats in her woollen trousers alone. The way the top two pearl buttons of her blouse shone above her knit vest had him transfixed. Mrs Winton regarded him cooly. “Have you a reason for being inside a recycle bin?”
“Ma’am, there was rubbish here on the pavement. I was just tidying up.”
“Do you make a habit of tidying other people’s mess?”
“Very sorry, Ma’am. I’ll be on my way in a moment,” Mr Geoffrey mumbled as he struggled to extract himself from the depths of the bin. He hopped on one foot like a younger man, shaking a shred of newspaper from his trousers and headed back for the office.