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Sara Ball

Sara Ball studied English and Modern History at Queens University Belfast, in her own words, a lifetime ago. She spends her time writing opinion pieces, pantomimes (Oh yes she does!) and magazine articles. A keen dramatist and local historian, she divides her time between her writing, work, two children and dog.
Sara Ball

Sara Ball

Sara Ball studied English and Modern History at Queens University Belfast, in her own words, a lifetime ago. She spends her time writing opinion pieces, pantomimes (Oh yes she does!) and magazine articles. A keen dramatist and local historian, she divides her time between her writing, work, two children and dog.

The dull, rhythmic thumps echoed in the woods as the man kicked the snow off his boots against the door. Fish still slung over his shoulder, the door creaked open.

“Better get the pot on, auld fella,” he said, kicking a half chewed boot in the direction of the collie. “Fair notice a change in the weather – can’t say I remember a winter as cold.”

It was a monologue, but not by choice. A match hissed and dispelled the curtain of darkness in the room. Turning the oil lamp up, the room and its contents became clear. There was one of everything, apart from bowls; the collie Ezra had a bowl.
A wash-stand stood beside the single, body hollowed bed – a huge basin and jug and a little white towel. Toothbrush, comb and razor stood to attention in a small blue and white chipped jug, while a shaving brush lay recumbent on a bar of soap to the front of the shelf. The floor was swept clean and was bare apart from a small stained rug. It was better on the other side – good side down. He liked it that way – reminded him of how things could have been. The only other furniture was a pine desk, wood split and filled with years of polish and a chair. A single bookshelf above the desk held about six books, an old tin can striped with rubber bands and some loose pieces of paper.

Before long the kettle was whistling in the grate and a couple of potatoes were bouncing in the bubbling saucepan. At the desk, the old man licked his pencil and began to write. He wrote slowly and carefully like a child. His lips formed the words in the air and the pencil, sharpened at both ends, wrote them down.

“My Dearest Darling Joy,                                                     December 2015

         Another year has passed. The snow is on the ground now and Ezra is getting old, like me. We both fell today. Getting up is slower. I had to get on my hands and knees and push myself up. Ezra was a bit quicker. Plenty of fish in the river today – trout mostly. Brought half a dozen home – I’ll salt them the way your mother taught me to. Do you remember her,Joy? Then when the river freezes, we’ll still have something to eat. The days are short and the nights long, but the forest is brighter than it is in the summer. Mother Nature is wonderful. I wonder if there are trees where you are? Do squirrels and raccoon trace and race their way along the branches? Maybe you have a river too? With fish. I hope you have a river. With luck the traps I’ve laid in the roots of the trees will bring us a rabbit or two. I had to retire Brown Bess, I hope you remember her – my lovely twin bore shotgun. Cartridges are dear and I’ve moved on from the village store in Hellsfarm; I fancy Madge Cunningham has been talking about me. Some people – just their way I expect. Anyway – as I was saying the cartridges were too dear and my eyesight is also beginning to fail. If I close my right eye my left eye is all misty. I could hardly make out the old yellow pine tree from the porch. There’s no glamour in old age, my darling Joy. Not that you would know anything about that – how old are you now? It must be forty years since my eyes saw your face, that day when you tickled trout and laughed. How I miss you. I still have your baby shoes, you know. Do you remember old Lila Parker? Well she gave me some tissue paper to wrap them in. They’re safe in the trunk at the bottom of my bed with…. Anyway sometimes I brush their soft leather across my lips and see you playing. My Joy! Banging a wooden spoon on a biscuit tin. Bang Bang! Maybe your face is thin now and laughter lined, and maybe even dare I say it, crows’ feet around your eyes. Are you tall? Joy – I think you are tall. Shapely like your mother was with blue, blue eyes. Your mother cried the blue right out of her eyes when you went. I miss her too. Fourteen years. I looked for you the day she was put in the earth – but maybe you were busy. I went to see her, a few weeks ago, the last time I needed supplies – I go to Attica now. Her grave was bare except for a couple of pretend roses. In my head, I saw you, a fine woman, stooping to place them while your children played hide and seek among the graves. I know now they were from Lila. I wish I didn’t. I look forward to sleep when I see you. It won’t be long before I fall asleep forever.”

He set down the pencil and got up. “Joy wouldn’t want to hear me prattling on about our aches and pains – would she Ezra? No – I thought that.” Taking a sip from the enamel cup he sat down and continued to write, taking a new page from the pile, blowing to separate them.

“But that’s enough of that. Listen to me maudlin’ in my old age. We have a new pair of blue jays in the forest and they are mighty fine, with their blue chevrons. Of course there was hell to pay when they arrived – such an amount of squawking I never heard. The old couple – you remember I told you about them last year? Well – they went berserk – such a hullabaloo. But things have settled down now.”  

“Haven’t they Ezra? Just a minute, Joy. Need to put another bid of wood on the fire. There – that’s better. Chopped up that old hen house and it’s burning like a dream. Or should I say a dream burning. Been empty for years – since we had a visit from Mister Wolf – Eh Ezra?” he glances over his shoulder.

He wrote on for another five minutes, the heel of his hand smudging its way across the page, then was roused to the present by the acrid smell from the saucepan.

“Anyway, my Joy – my time is up. As your mother used to say – those potatoes will be in skins. May the clouds in the skies above me be blown to your skies and carry my love to you. Daddy”

Setting the paper down, he stretched his fingers, before lifting it again and folding it. Standing up he took down a book from the shelf and from it removed an envelope. Sliding his fingers into it he took out a blue bell, pressed. He kissed the flower, folded it in the letter and put it all back in the envelope. Using a ruler he addressed the envelope and set it up against the pencil pot.

“Now for something to eat, auld fella”

The dog groaned as the man stooped to rub his chin, his tail half-heartedly thumping time on the floor.

“What’s it to be? Potatoes with gravy, or gravy with potatoes? What are we like the pair of us? Not a decent tooth between us. Maybe get a drop of rice when we’re at the shop tomorrow, or jelly. What would you make of jelly, auld fella?”

The man scraped the potatoes from the bottom of the pan and shared it between the two bowls. Setting one bowl on the windowsill to cool, he started his meal.

Later, taking off his boots, he slid under the covers, with Ezra at his feet.

“Night, auld pup. See you in the morning.”

The cold winter sun striped the floor through the slats in the door the next morning. The man pulled on his boots, the bed creaking under him. Ezra was already at the door. Taking his fur hat from the back of the door he went out to face the day.

Some hours later they returned.

“Not a bad day, Ezra. Glad to get that letter posted and not too many folks around, minding your business. Be interesting to see how you take to the jelly – uncharted waters Ezra, uncharted waters,” he said poking the grate. “Now where did I put that soap? Don’t look at me like that – it’s not for you. It’ll be interesting to see this new fishing line when it comes. Didn’t Marnie say it would be in the day after tomorrow? Think so”

Ezra didn’t answer.

The day after tomorrow arrived and the pair set off once again for the neighbouring village to get the fishing line. Marnie at the general store at Attica had ‘phoned the tackle shop in Dry Fork and ordered the line. The snow was thawing but still slippery in places. The man tied Ezra with a bit of bailer twine up outside and went inside Dry Fork Country Sports.

“Hi Joe. Did that fishing line come in? Think Marnie spoke to you about it and you said it might be the day after tomorrow, which is today if you catch my drift.” He felt awkward as if he was no longer any good at speaking to people, the way he felt sometimes in fourth grade.

“No, sorry. No sign, but just now as you’re here – have a letter for you. Just arrived yesterday, now where did I put it? Ah – here it is, Seth Harkin – Hellsfarm. Don’t see too many handwritten letters nowadays. And writing on a ruler. My mother would have said they had a nice hand – what was it called? Copperplate, that’s it.”

He handed him the letter. Seth thanked him and shoved it deep in the back pocket of his jeans. It took several dips to get it to the bottom. “Thanks Joe. I’ll see you again about that fishing line.” He raised his hand in parting, without looking back as he went out of the shop.

“Right, pup. Let’s get you home. Think high road this time. Less risk of flooding.”

The little cabin was exactly as it was when they left it. The man sat down with a grunt and began to unlace his boots. Setting them by the fire he reached into his back pocket and pulled out the letter. The gum yielded and he slid his finger along the opening. Moving over to the desk, he pulled out the letter. As a bluebell fell onto the table, he rubbed his eye and read.
“Still hard, auld fella,” he said, lifting the rug from the trunk at the foot of the bed. It creaked open to reveal tight bundles of letters, all ribboned in black. A small pair of child’s shoes nestled in a box with tissue paper, and cards – ‘There is another star in the sky tonight,’ headed one card, a picture of a teddy bear with ‘In Sympathy’ on another. He lifted a small tin from the box with the shoes. There was a picture of a little girl in it, with a lock of hair. He rubbed tears from his face and his nose with the back of his hand, before wiping his hand on his trousers. Gently he turned the picture over. Joy Margaret Mary Harkin b 14 Jan 56, d 16 Jan 58. He looked at the piles of photos and letters. Years of tears for Joy.

He closed the trunk and pulled the carpet back over it for another year.

“Now how about we go and see if we have had any luck with the traps, auld fella?”

The door closed behind them.



The End


Sara Ball asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.



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