“Who could that be at this hour?”
I got out of bed. The floorboards were cold beneath my feet, and there were icicles on the window. On the inside as well as the outside. I would have to fix that pane. Tomorrow.
My breath misted in front of my face, and then I was visited by my deep raking cough. My lungs are not what they used to be.
Halfway down the stairs I stopped and listened. All I could hear was Elsie wheezing through congested lungs. Perhaps she imagined she heard a knock. I turned to go back up the stairs.
Knock, knock, knock on the front door, not loud or insistent or impatient, but undeniable. I sat on the stairs. If I did nothing they would surely go away.
Walter de la Mare’s poem flashed through my mind.
“Tell them I came and no one answered.
That I kept my word,” he said.
And his horse in the silence champed the grasses
Of the forest’s ferny floor.
Elsie sat beside me on the stair clutching her dressing gown around her. “Aren’t you going to answer it?” she whispered.
“I’d rather not,” I whispered back. “I was hoping they’d give up and go away.”
We sat there for three minutes, shivering, Elsie’s teeth chattering in the icy silence.
“He’s gone,” said Elsie. “Let’s go back to bed.”
Knock, knock, knock.
I called out: “Who’s there?”
No one answered.
“Who can it be?” said Elsie, grabbing my arm. Her hands were deathly cold.
I said, “I’m going to switch on the electric fire. I have a shilling for the meter. It’ll see us through the night.”
“Aren’t you going to answer the door?”
“Not tonight, Elsie,” I said.
The canteen was abuzz with dark, hooded figures exchanging tales of their successes; it was the weather for it. He hung his sickle on a hook with a dozen others and pinned two dog-eared dockets on the cork-board.
“No joy?” said his supervisor.
He shook his head. “It was a close run thing. Maybe tomorrow.”
© JJ Toner