Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Death of a Village

by Hanna Whaley

She knocked on the door but already knew he wasn’t coming to answer. Five minutes passed. She exhaled another vapour cloud through her scarf into the morning mist as she waited, forcing it out like dragon’s breath while she stomped on the flagstone path, each kick a shockwave prickling through frozen feet. She banged on the frame of the porch door until white paint splinters tangled with the bobbled wool of her glove. The morning captured her sounds and muted them; the village was asleep, and it was not for her to wake it.

The old man waited at his open door every morning and she often wondered how long he stood there before her arrival, leaning his weight on the ledge, the door ajar, peering down the street. Only once before had he not been visible when she turned the corner onto his path, but the door was at least open on that occasion; he had been waiting but gone back inside, most probably the bathroom had beckoned. He never said. Mostly he relayed his remembrances of village life though this held equally little interest for her. Still, she learned that his house had once been the general store and post office for the village, and he the postmaster; that his wife was an organiser of community gatherings, with ceilidhs in the hall each month and coffee mornings on Saturdays; that children played football in the street and bathed in the burn on hot days. Often he grumbled too. He said people were ungrateful and troubled him, but she heard others speak of him growing cantankerous after the death of his wife. The village she knew had no shops and nobody organised dances; the stream had been diverted by developers many years earlier. There remained only a post-box on a pole, installed in lieu of a post office but doubling as a drop-off point for the white van which raced through rural villages each morning leaving bundles of newspapers for delivery.

And so the whole village was nobody’s but hers and his in the morning. The tarmac sparkled and slid underfoot as her steps marked the frost afresh each day, zig-zagging from house to house, lugging a luminous sack of newspapers. Occasional cars would plummet down the hill behind her, but each passing roar created only the briefest of disturbances; a mere snore for the sleeping village. His house was half-way through her round. The first she delivered to was home to the local nurse and her policeman husband; the last was lived in by a family with three young children ready to boost the school roll. Each house in between was different. Original stone cottages sat alongside ugly squat houses with flat roofs built in the sixties. Bungalows had squeezed in between, working themselves into the fabric of the village until there was not an inch left. Conservatories battled with driveways to claim the last of the garden space while parked cars littered the road that pre-dated their existence. The neighbourhood had also extended up the hill in more recent years; past the war memorial and up the brae. New roads were added in one at a time, standing apart from the old village in both geography and community spirit. The further up the brae you go, he told her, the bigger the newcomers’ houses become and the less they care.

She waited at the gatepost next to the final house, watching for her mother’s headlights, still clutching the undelivered newspaper and carrying the burden of the closed door. It was probably nothing, she was told, as she was driven home to get dressed for school. Nevertheless, the policeman from the first house was summoned to force entry to the house that sat half-way and she heard over breakfast that the old man never got up that morning. She had already been quite sure of that.

There were no visitors that she knew of apart from herself. Someone must have brought food, and she recollected some vague knowledge of a social care company delivering once each week. There was only one son, spoken of but never seen. Ten minutes of her thirty-minute paper round were spent at the open porch door each morning. The house had an unkempt stench that could overpower the freshness of the morning air and some days she felt the guilt of wishing she could hurry on her way. He would often ask her about school, delighting in the news of small achievements and class trips, and once gave her a vintage leather football from his home that matched the team on her scarf. Some days she wished she could stay longer. When she started weekend work at a tearoom in a neighbouring town, she would call in to him with the leftover scones and sandwiches for tea. He never liked the intrusion, but he always ate the food.

She requested the afternoon off from school to attend his funeral despite fearing she would find herself there alone. The entrance to the church lay opposite and along slightly from his house, down a driveway lined by dry stone dykes, stained from the water that never dried out in the winter months. As she stepped inside, a momentary panic rose within her that the day was wrong and this was a service for someone else. The church was full to capacity. The only seat left was on a pew at the very back, from which she strained forward to hear a minister that never visited him talk about his life. The minister spoke of community and togetherness and one of their own. Afterwards, the people of the old village enjoyed the excuse to eat cake and drink tea in the hall, and though they shared many stories that afternoon, none were about the old man.

The girl did not stay. She went home instead, to her house at the top of the brae.