The Damned Letter
I stayed in bed longer than normal visualizing it, enjoying the best bits again. Like when the kids gasped as the lights dimmed and June appeared holding the cake. And how wonderful it had been. She had topped it off with a solitary white candle. There’d been jam and cream between the base and top, with a dotted line of white icing in the number 100. The kids couldn’t take their eyes off it and they showed little further interest in staring at me or my electronic neck tag. I think that was a relief to everyone.
I dozed off but awoke suddenly, jolted into consciousness by an impatient thought that pierced into my mind. The letter. The damned letter. I ignored it. Pushed it away. Instead I recalled that odd moment Jay had put his arm gently on my lower back and then, in an aside kind of way, so no one else would hear, asked how I was “holding up?”. I suppose it was as much the way he said it as the words.
“How are you, you know, holding up Thomas?” were the exact words he had used but the tone of voice and the way his eyes looked into mine. Like he was looking deep into me. Jay tended to be serious like that, not like June, who was always laughing. I remember being distracted by one of the kids scowling loudly so I just instinctively replied to him, without really thinking, “Yes, well, very well Jay, thank you. You know, I mean she shouldn’t have gone to this trouble whatsoever.”
When he said it I was also still shell shocked from the surprise and I thought, or at least I jumped to the conclusion that he was referring to the shock of the unexpected party. That, the party, had thrown me. And another thing.
The way Dunne had been just strolling around the apartment when he came in. He’d swaggered through the door, his short handled red truncheon dangling from it’s holder. It was standard issue but it was more than that to him, it was a trophy of sorts he carried even when he was off duty. That had been unsettling too, the way he looked around, opening the doors into the bedroom and shower, as if he had an official inspection to carry out. Never actually greeted me. Looked through me. Dunne was butch like that so although it was unsettling I wasn’t surprised by his behaviour.
Now, as I lay in bed, another thought collided with these. For a second I imagined Dunne holding out the letter, smiling in a sinister way, as if reminding me to open it. As I age, my mind seems to enjoy playing more of these devious tricks on me.
So if Jay were to ask again and I had enough composure I would have asked him what he was talking about. What was it that I should hold up for?
Jay continued, “Had you heard Máirín Higgins passed away? Found in her apartment yesterday the poor soul.” He breathed deeply.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Really too bad. June often mentioned her, she sounded like she was a very kind lady. It seems very sudden, I hadn’t heard she was ill?”
“No, she hadn’t been ill. Well, not that any of us were aware.” Jay frowned and scratched at his chin. “You know she was confined too? Thirty seven years apparently.”
At this June approached with two plates and her big generous smile.
“Here Jay. Now, Tom, cake! A big slice for the birthday boy!”
“Thanks, too kind – but the children – have they all had?”
“They’ve had more than enough and anyway, today is your day Tom,” she said handing me a plate.
“Sláinte*!” called over Dunne, loudly, raising a glass. He twisted his lips into a kind of wry smile and muttered a few words I couldn’t hear. The others around him seemed to laugh lightly.
“Oh thanks. Just wonderful. Too pretty to eat. June, really, you shouldn’t have – put yourself to the trouble, borrowing rations on my behalf – it’s hard enough -“
And before I could say any more she gave me a tight embrace and turned back to where Emily and a few of the other girls were comparing heights. Little Emily is the image of June. I can’t say that I’ve ever met a child like her to ask questions and listen. Really listen.
The hush that had followed the arrival of the cake had long vanished and by this point a convoy of children led by the bigger Sheehan boys were running wildly around screaming. Peter ran over and looked up at Jay.
“Dad, can I go out with the boys, to the Green? We’re going to play Enforcers. I’ll be back by 6. Promise. Please?”
“Back by five. No later. And mention it to your Mam.” The boy turned to run.
“Wait! Stay on the Green, you hear? And if you hear sirens or see any trouble?,” he continued, ruffling the boys hair.
Peter’s eye’s rolled and he sighed, “home on the double.” Then the boy spun on his heel and was immediately swept towards the door by the flow of children pouring out of the apartment. Jay twisted back to me shaking his head.
“Sometimes I think to myself that you’re safer off inside, it’s just such a fucken jungle out there.” There was silence for a moment, slightly awkward, before he continued, “Easy for me to say that.”
“I’ve grown used to it Jay. You adjust.”
That was as much as we ever discussed. No one asked anything more, they didn’t want to know.
“You know Tom, I’ve said it before, you’ve been great – watching for them when June’s been out. We really appreciate it.”
My throat was dry – I blamed the neck tag but age probably played a part. I sat up in the bed and reached for the water. That other thought was still lurking in my mind. It had been there for several days. The impatient thought I’d pushed to the back of my mind would wait no longer. Today would be the day. I’d open the letter. Maybe I would write several letters of my own first. Thank you letters to everyone who had attended the party. And then one for my niece in Galway. It had been three months since I’d received any word from her. No. Procrastination be damned. First, open the letter.
The courier who delivered it hadn’t made small chat. Once I opened the door his eyes quickly dropped to a pad he held out for me to sign. He’d been gone in an instant. Once I’d made a visual inspection of the envelope I quickly turned and buried it under a pile of paper. Now, with the letter back in my hand I sat down in the chair by the front window.
Letters of any sort were uncommon. Envelopes with official State insignia generally signaled further rations of some sort, more sacrifices for the “common good”. Or maybe, a regrettable notification of loss of a privilege or benefit. Withdrawal of a medicine, or health service. But those letters weren’t registered. Registered letters were trouble.
I remember hearing the screams from Mrs Williamson who lived in the flat above the day she got one. That was the morning she found out her son had been conscripted. Daniel, just sixteen. Told to give three years National Service to the Home Defence. Daniel was dead four months after training. Terrible.
Back, years ago, strange that this thought should occur to me now, back then, in the years of “excess” as they refer to it on the news, the President used to send a birthday card, registered like this one, and a small monetary gift to every citizen who reached the century mark. Imagine, a birthday present for living so long! How extravagant such niceties seemed now.
There was a crisscross of shining tamper-proof tape around the envelope – as if anyone would be mad enough to open it. I ripped it apart and unfolded the page.
23 – 5 – 2084
Re: Ev2084/CCFGED45/10239/T.J. McArdle/Adjustment of Sentencing
For the attention of Mr Thomas J. McArdle.
At the instruction of the Government of Ireland, the Department of Justice appointed a panel to evaluate the sentencing of all convictions during the period 2045-2073 on charges brought under the Climate Change Facilitation / Gross Environmental Damage Act. The panel reached it’s findings and a series of legislative measures have since been enacted to enable the retrospective adjustment of sentencing in all cases.
I certainly hadn’t expected this. I scanned a weighty paragraph which followed. It detailed a series of Acts passed and the dates they came into effect. My eye switched further down to a red box headed, “Decision of The Commission.“
Verdict: Death without Appeal – See Completion of Sentence below.
Mitigating Factors: Given the unforeseen spiraling of climate chaos and therefore the unduly lenient nature of the original sentencing vis-a-vis your crimes, and factoring into account the unsustainable burden to the State of maintaining your care, it is the weighted decision that your House Arrest (Indefinite) will be upgraded to Death without Appeal. Your estate will be Confiscated and Redistributed by the State.
Completion of Sentence: You are given two options.
A) Self Administered Poison – this letter includes a green detachable square in the bottom left corner which is poisonous. Place under your tongue and close your mouth. Death will occur in less than 25 seconds. This remains an option until noon on the third day from receipt of this letter. Alternatively;
B) Automatic Asphyxiation – your electronic neck tag will activate it’s locking mechanism automatically on noon of the third day following receipt of the letter. Your Community Police Officer Mr Gerard Dunne (Reserve) will be in attendance to facilitate additional arrangements should the neck bracelet fail to activate successfully.
You are reminded that….
I stopped reading and threw the letter on my lap. Today, I thought. The clock on the counter read 09.25. I could hear sirens wailing in the distance and a helicopter passing overhead. Tilting the horizontal blind slightly I glanced down to the car park below. Dunne was there, strolling up and down, swinging his red truncheon by his side. I wished Jay hadn’t mention Mrs Higgin’s death. And I wished I’d never read the damned letter.
By Dermy McNally
For another short story click here or if you occasionally find yourself suffering at the hands of the dreaded Monkey Mind click here for a quick poem.