An Occasional Card

Harriet hid the note, again. She sneaked it behind one of the big Happy Christmas, Darling, I love you jobs when Mr. Gilbert wasn't looking. She stood, wilting under the accusing stares of the cuddly frogs on the top shelf. The wayward nerve in her eyelid stirred, and her fingers twitched at her thigh
where the hem of her skirt rode high. She peered outward through the shop window; sparrow-nervous as if early morning shoppers might have seen her place the note. In the winter gloom, the sign above the outside of the shop reflected in the frontage of the What's Good For The Sole shoe shop opposite - An Occasional Card, cards for every occasion - the letters reversed and unfocussed, curled and confused.

Confused, like Harriet.

Harriet cleared her throat. She fought the waver in her voice as she steadied the hidden note. "Tea, Mr. Gilbert? Will you be taking two sugars? And an almond slice, perhaps?"

She watched Mr. Gilbert glance up sharply from his delving in humorous anniversaries. His shoulders were bent from a lifetime hunched over shelving and shop counter. His fingers were thick and ridged from the endless movement of greeting cards. And rough whenever they chanced to brush against Harriet's thigh where the hem of her skirt rode high.

"Would you just look at this, Harriet," he said. "There's more cards of a serious nature here than over on the cards of a serious nature shelf. Wouldn't you think the public could be trusted in putting the cards back where they found them once in a while? The public don't seem happy unless they're interfering with the order of things."

Harriet grinned, forced, mirthless. She repeated the thought - interfering with the order of things - and wondered if such an order even existed. "The public are a careless lot, Mr. Gilbert. Perhaps they're too overcome by rhymes and ramblings to put them back in the proper places. Perhaps they just can't help themselves."

Mr. Gilbert grunted. "Aye, I can see how that could be the case. I can't help myself sometimes, too. But it seems to me as if I spend my day moving the entire stock from one end of the shop to
the other. And I keep finding notes hidden away; cards with strange notes inside them."

"Notes, Mr. Gilbert?"

"Odd notes, with cryptic messages, or something. It's a mystery, and no mistake."

In the kitchen, Harriet dunked teabags like depth charges into the larger of the flowered teapots. Steam fogged the lenses of her spectacles as she reached above the kettle for the custard creams.
It stopped her seeing things clearly. She tipped aspirin into her palm from the small brown jar in her pocket. She shuddered at the aroma of Mr. Gilbert's corned beef sandwiches laid bare upon the
worktop to the side. Wednesday was always corned beef day. Mr. Gilbert, Harriet knew, was a creature of habit.

Sometimes, he was a creature of bad habit.

The tinkle of the tinsel bell snatched at her thoughts. Traffic rumbled briefly beyond the opened shop door. Someone shook an umbrella at the day before stepping inside. A flutter of unseen
pigeons took flight and the door clunked shut.

"Coming," sang Harriet as she moved back through from the kitchen."Ah, Mrs. Elms, you"ll be wanting a card for Maureen's birthday, no doubt?"

"I will." No friend to her legs, Mrs. Elms shuffled toward the counter. "Her birthday's tomorrow."

Harriet was born on a Thursday. A rainy Thursday in November, just like Maureen. When she was young she'd stood at the bedroom window watching the postman as he lumbered down her garden path. His back was bent and buckled by the weight of the sack upon his shoulder. She imagined it full of cards, all of them just for her. All of them full of magic. And as the years passed and the cards grew less in number, the magic dwindled. Now, only Mr. Gilbert sent her a card on her birthday.

Mrs. Elms raised a questioning eyebrow and nodded toward Mr. Gilbert, he standing to the rear, lost up to his elbows in Congratulations, you've passed! She spoke quietly: "And I'll be wanting to know if you've told him."

Harriet lowered her gaze and fidgeted her fingers to the front where the hem of her skirt rode. "Not yet, Mrs. Elms. But I will. I promise."

Mrs. Elms shook her head and wagged a finger. "You're thirty-nine years of age, Harriet; it's time he knew. If you don't tell him then I might take it upon myself to do so."

"I'll tell him today, Mrs. Elms."

"And see that you do. He tried it with me until I put him firmly in his place."

"In his place?" Harriet shuddered. Just where was that? Just where was her own place? So much confusion.

They took their tea at the cash register, Harriet and Mr. Gilbert; a ritualistic huddle of refreshment on the hoof should the card-loving public enter and need assistance. Harriet sipped whilst Mr. Gilbert
slurped. She dipped her custard creams daintily whilst he spilled tea on the box of Yesterday I was still thirty-nine badges.

He edged closer, pretending, she felt, to find interest in the names upon the cheap key rings that dangled on the cheap key ring tree. She shuddered at the aroma of his aftershave - give-away Christmas box scent with corned beef undertone. When his hand brushed hers, below the counter where the hem of her skirt rode high, she fumbled with her words.

"I think we're needing to order more silver wedding, Mr. Gilbert."

He straightened and moved away, his breathing appearing labored. She watched him retreat with her twitching eye.

"A most popular card, Harriet," panted Mr. Gilbert. His face was flushed. "More popular even than Happy Christmas, Grandmother."

Harriet nodded even though she knew this not to be true. She sipped her tea and her lenses fogged once more. "I'll be telephoning Mr. Rogers in Distribution as soon as I've taken my break. If anyone can send us more then Mr. Rogers is he."

"And I'll be sorting my way along the Christmas card shelf." Mr. Gilbert rubbed his palms with some gusto. "With any luck I'll be up to the big lovey-dovey cards by lunchtime."

Wednesday was always quiet. People did not celebrate on Wednesdays. Harriet stood by the window display, pretending to straighten bunting strewn upon hooks, and staring out at passers by huddled against the rain. Not one of them looked in. Across the street, Mrs. Elms delved lost amongst shoes in the window of the What's Good for the Sole shoe shop. She waved a limp hand. People trundled by on a bus; bored- looking and lifeless behind panes as if locked within their own miniature window displays. A trickle of rainwater wept erratically upon the glass.

Harriet sighed. All of us held captive. All of us on display.

"It's an awful day, Harriet." Mr. Gilbert's hand upon Harriet's shoulder set her heart pounding. His fingers tarried where the hem of her blouse met the gentle curve of her neck. Across the street, Mrs. Elms waved again, all but lost now to Mr. Gilbert's reflection looming in the plate glass window. He stood dark and spectral behind Harriet, a shadow in the wonderland of glitter and light that was An Occasional Card.

"An unseasonable amount of rain, so I'm told," he continued. The hand remained. Harriet felt the fingers trembling as they traced the strap of her brassier hidden beneath her blouse. "Only yesterday Mrs. Dobson told me the rainfall had set a new record for November. She'd read it in the New Scientist, she said. It was something to do with El Nino, whatever that is. Still, that's Mrs. Dobson for you; always one to dwell upon life's oddities."

Harriet stooped. Or swooned. It seemed the only way to free herself from this barest of caress. From this most terrible of menace. She worried over crepe paper laid out immaculate upon the window display's floor. Crouched, her fingers played against the hem of her skirt where it rode high upon her leg, the dark cotton stretched taut against the white of her upper thigh. The fine hairs upon her forearm bristled.

Mr. Gilbert stared. And then he coughed. "Yes, well, I just came to say I'd not be a minute, Harriet. I'm just popping down to the little boys' room. I dare say you'll manage without me for a moment. It all seems rather quiet."

Harriet stood as Mr. Gilbert scurried away. She brushed a hand against her shoulder, toying where the hem of her blouse met the warmth of her skin, experimenting as if unsure where it was that she began and the world ended. The pulse on her neck rapped urgently against her knuckle.

From this side, near the window, the card she'd cunningly hidden behind the big Happy Christmas, Darling, I love you job jutted outward. Beyond it, the Christmas cards were neat and tidy, sorted by Mr. Gilbert's hands.

Harriet hesitated. She moved toward the card, reaching to retrieve it with a trembling hand. Her finger traced the words upon its inner sleeve; words exact and meaningful, not cryptic, odd notes like the others. And this time she'd signed it with her name. This time she meant it.

Mr. Gilbert, enough! She mouthed the words as she read. There can be no room for such familiarity in An Occasional Card. I'm sorry if your touchiness is nothing more than platonic, but you must realize that I find it unsettling. I write this as a warning, Mr. Gilbert; if it does not stop then I shall be forced to complain to Mr. Rogers at Distribution. Harriet.

The card was still in her hand when the sound of Mr. Gilbert's feet came upon the stairs to the rear. He thrust through the door marked private, staff only and paused as though to gather breath.

"Is everything all right, Harriet? You seem a little flushed."

Harriet nodded, folding the card out of sight to the side where the hem of her dress rode before slipping it into the pocket of her blouse."All's quiet, Mr. Gilbert."

"I do hope that rain goes off." Mr. Gilbert lapsed back into his sorting of the lovey-dovey Christmas selection. "I waited twenty minutes for a bus, last night, and I was soaked to the skin before I got home."

Harriet stood under the accusing stares of the cuddly frogs on the high shelf. She looked to the floor, and then back up to where they lurked.

It's just that no one has ever taken any kind of interest in me before, she cast her thoughts up at them. I'm thirty-nine years of age. And he's a good man, he really is. He looks after his old mother, and he's generous to a fault. Can it really be so bad?

That evening, as daylight faded and the streetlights beyond the shop window flickered in the rain, Mr. Gilbert held open Harriet's coat that she might step inside. He smoothed dust from her shoulders and then from down her back where no dusts lay. Harriet stood rigid.

She barely flinched as his fingers loitered where the hem of her skirt rode.

"See you in the morning, then, Harriet."

Harriet did not answer as she plunged out into the evening rain. Tomorrow she would be forty and perhaps things would be clearer.

"Oh, and don't forget your card," called Mr. Gilbert after her.

Harriet hurried onward. She wondered how long it would be before Mr. Gilbert found the note slipped under the cheap key ring tree. Did it say Goodbye, or did it say I Love You? She wasn't sure if she

The aspirin rattled in her pocket as she ran for the bus.


Steven Pirie lives in Liverpool, UK with his wife Ann and their small son James. His fiction has appeared in numerous places, both in print and on the web, and he has two short stories due out in the forthcoming 'Mammoth Book of Comic Fantasy' published by Robinson. His humorous fantasy novel 'Digging up Donald' has recently been published by Storm Constantine's Immanion Press, and is enjoying excellent reviews. Details of all this and more may be found at Steven's


Copyright © 2006 Steven Pirie