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
she steadied the hidden note. "Tea, Mr. Gilbert? Will you
taking two sugars? And an almond slice, perhaps?"
She watched Mr. Gilbert glance up sharply from his delving in humorous
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
hem of her skirt rode high.
"Would you just look at this, Harriet," he said. "There's
cards of a serious nature here than over on the cards
of a serious nature shelf. Wouldn't you think the public could
trusted in putting the cards back where they found them once
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.
Perhaps they're too overcome by rhymes and ramblings to put them
back in the proper places. Perhaps they just can't help
Mr. Gilbert grunted. "Aye, I can see how that could be the
I can't help myself sometimes, too. But it seems to me as if
spend my day moving the entire stock from one end of the shop
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
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
palm from the small brown jar in her pocket. She shuddered at
aroma of Mr. Gilbert's corned beef sandwiches laid bare upon
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,
"I will." No friend to her legs, Mrs. Elms shuffled toward
counter. "Her birthday's tomorrow."
Harriet was born on a Thursday. A rainy Thursday in November,
like Maureen. When she was young she'd stood at the bedroom window
watching the postman as he lumbered down her garden path. His
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
full of magic. And as the years passed and the cards grew less
number, the magic dwindled. Now, only Mr. Gilbert sent her a
Mrs. Elms raised a questioning eyebrow and nodded toward Mr.
Gilbert, he standing to the rear, lost up to his elbows
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
the hem of her skirt rode. "Not yet, Mrs. Elms. But I will.
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
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
"In his place?" Harriet shuddered. Just where was that?
was her own place? So much confusion.
They took their tea at the cash register, Harriet and Mr. Gilbert;
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
on the box of Yesterday I was still thirty-nine badges.
He edged closer, pretending, she felt, to find interest in the
upon the cheap key rings that dangled on the cheap key ring tree.
shuddered at the aroma of his aftershave - give-away Christmas
scent with corned beef undertone. When his hand brushed hers,
the counter where the hem of her skirt rode high, she fumbled
"I think we're needing to order more silver wedding, Mr.
He straightened and moved away, his breathing appearing labored.
watched him retreat with her twitching eye.
"A most popular card, Harriet," panted Mr. Gilbert. His
flushed. "More popular even than Happy
Harriet nodded even though she knew this not to be true. She
her tea and her lenses fogged once more. "I'll be telephoning
Rogers in Distribution as soon as I've taken my break. If anyone
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
strewn upon hooks, and staring out at passers by huddled against
rain. Not one of them looked in. Across the street, Mrs. Elms
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
shoulder set her heart pounding. His fingers tarried where the
her blouse met the gentle curve of her neck. Across the street,
Elms waved again, all but lost now to Mr. Gilbert's reflection
in the plate glass window. He stood dark and spectral behind
a shadow in the wonderland of glitter and light that was An
"An unseasonable amount of rain, so I'm told," he continued.
remained. Harriet felt the fingers trembling as they traced the
of her brassier hidden beneath her blouse. "Only yesterday
told me the rainfall had set a new record for November. She'd
in the New Scientist, she said. It was something to do with El
whatever that is. Still, that's Mrs. Dobson for you; always one
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.
worried over crepe paper laid out immaculate upon the window
floor. Crouched, her fingers played against the hem of her skirt
it rode high upon her leg, the dark cotton stretched taut against
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
room. I dare say you'll manage without me for a moment. It all
Harriet stood as Mr. Gilbert scurried away. She brushed a hand
her shoulder, toying where the hem of her blouse met the warmth
skin, experimenting as if unsure where it was that she began
world ended. The pulse on her neck rapped urgently against her
From this side, near the window, the card she'd cunningly hidden
the big Happy Christmas, Darling, I love
you job jutted outward.
Beyond it, the Christmas cards were neat and tidy, sorted by
Harriet hesitated. She moved toward the card, reaching to retrieve
with a trembling hand. Her finger traced the words upon its inner
sleeve; words exact and meaningful, not cryptic, odd notes like
others. And this time she'd signed it with her name. This time
Mr. Gilbert, enough! She mouthed the words as she read.
be no room for such familiarity in An Occasional Card. I'm sorry
your touchiness is nothing more than platonic, but you must realize
that I find it unsettling. I write this as a warning, Mr. Gilbert;
does not stop then I shall be forced to complain to Mr. Rogers
The card was still in her hand when the sound of Mr. Gilbert's
upon the stairs to the rear. He thrust through the door marked
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
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
of the lovey-dovey Christmas selection. "I waited
twenty minutes for
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
shelf. She looked to the floor, and then back up to where they
It's just that no one has ever taken any kind of interest
she cast her thoughts up at them. I'm thirty-nine years of
a good man, he really is. He looks after his old mother, and
generous to a fault. Can it really be so bad?
That evening, as daylight faded and the streetlights beyond the
window flickered in the rain, Mr. Gilbert held open Harriet's
she might step inside. He smoothed dust from her shoulders and
down her back where no dusts lay. Harriet stood rigid.
She barely flinched as his fingers loitered where the hem of
"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
Harriet hurried onward. She wondered how long it would be before
Gilbert found the note slipped under the cheap key ring tree.
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.