Second place, Spring 2023
Picture by The Blowup at Unsplash
Grandad and I are in the lounge, building a den with cushions and blankets, when we overhear Mum and Dad in the kitchen discussing retirement homes.
‘What’s a retirement home?’ I ask.
‘Get your dictionary, we’ll look it up together.’
When I’m back, the den is empty. He is gone.
We go searching for him, Dad blaming dementia, Mum blaming Dad. Nothing.
I find Grandad later while walking the dog.
‘Shhhh,’ he says.
I look at the empty street lined with identical semi-detached houses. It’s a summer’s night so there’s still light outside but everyone’s at home. The front rooms are lit in tv-set blue, from the kitchens come distant voices and the clinking of dinner plates in the sink.
‘Shhhh,’ Grandad says again.
That’s when I see him peeking through the red pillar box in front of the Taylors. I never noticed it. Nobody sends letters anymore.
‘How did you get in there?’ I ask, circling the pillar in search of a way in. There’s only a keyhole and a small handle near the embossed crown and the insignia of the Queen. I try the handle: it’s stuck.
Grandad says he’s fine, it’s nice and cosy in there. Safe. When I mention Mum, he closes the rectangular letter-hole with green leaflets from the local pizzeria.
‘You do know that I must tell her?’
He doesn’t reply.
Days pass. Every morning, Mum marches to the pillar box to talk him out. As soon as she mentions the retirement home, he closes the hole.
Neighbours gather, and then the local newspaper comes too, which drives Mum mad:
‘Everyone will think I’m a bad daughter.’
Grandad’s laugh echoes in the pillar box.
Our neighbours bring him toast and tea, fish and chips. Someone sneaks half a pint of beer too. In exchange, grandad offers letter-writing services. It’s not that they cannot write, they just aren’t used to writing letters anymore. He helps them avoid typos and misunderstandings, slipping an extra word here, cutting a word too many there. ‘You don’t want to say that,’ he says.
When the letter is ready, he hands it out for them to sign, stamp, and slip back in.
At the end of the week, the postman comes. Mum hopes he’ll ask Grandad to leave but he thanks him, instead, because he hasn’t collected so many letters in ages.
‘It’s nice to feel useful.’
‘Exactly,’ Grandad replies.
That night, I hide in the den. From there, I see Mum scribbling something, then crumpling the paper. She tries again, and again.
‘I cannot find the words,’ she grumbles.
I look at the dictionary, it’s still there.
‘I’m sure Grandad could help you,’ I say.
The next day, Mum slips a crumpled letter into the pillar box. After a while, Grandad pushes back the letter. Some lines are cancelled, some words are added.
Mum signs the letter and slips it back in. She doesn’t put a stamp though. She doesn’t need one. I’m sure the postman won’t mind.
Judge Anika Carpenter said:
“I enjoyed the thoughtful balance between the bizarre and the everyday, and also between the comic and the painful. The author has taken the theme of failing communication in a direction that cleverly mirrors the effects of dementia, which are devastatingly farcical. Using a child’s POV heightens the sense of mischief at play and brings delight to the story of a vulnerable man taking drastic action to retain his place in the world.”