Old Bert

Sophie Clothier knew there was a dilapidated building across the narrow, country lane from the small bungalow where she, her husband Paul and Rebecca, their toddler, lived. Sophie could only see its roof peeping above its hedge when collecting the milk and mail from the makeshift postbox at the end of their long, potholed, gravel path. It was otherwise hidden behind the line of towering leylandii conifers that Sophie despised but was stuck with.
Bert, a stooped but proud pensioner, lived in that rundown, prefabricated shack. The only person left alive in Bert’s world was his loud-mouthed, wheeler-dealer son, who was secretly waiting for his father to die so he could develop the land after demolishing Bert’s home. He scarcely visited his father, fearing if he did so, he would have to resolve his father’s impoverished state. Sam had better things to do with his money, such as spend it on himself. There was nothing homely about Bert’s home, which was falling down around his hairy ears, with damp seeping in from all angles. In winter it was warmed by only one sleep-inducing Calor Gas heater that caused rivulets of condensation to run down the rusty, flaking, metal-framed windows.
One exceptionally hot day, Sophie had been peering inside the post box, incredulous to find it was empty as she was expecting to find two pints of milk inside. Agitated by Rebecca starting to grizzle and squirm in her pushchair, Sophie heard a wobbly, male voice call out to her from across the narrow lane and spotted Bert walking unsteadily up his path towards her. Judging by the state of his worn clothes, he would smell unpleasant. He did.
‘Hello there, Mrs Clothier? I took in your milk. It’s in my fridge to save it from turning sour in this heat. Come along into my house and collect it,’ he urged.
Once inside Bert’s squalid home for the first time, Sophie tried to conceal her shock. How could such a sweet, elderly man be living in such primitive conditions in twenty-first century Britain?
‘I’ll bring your milk in for you on really hot days. You can pick it up from me any time as I’m always here,’ he offered. Not wanting to hurt his feelings, she agreed.
‘That’s really kind of you. I’m Sophie, by the way and this is Rebecca. It’s hard to believe how we’ve never talked in the two years we’ve lived opposite you. I’d better get home as I think she needs changing,’ Sophie replied. ‘If my milk isn’t in my box, I’ll know to knock at yours to collect it. Thanks again, Bert.’
Hating herself for feeling irritated at having to cram an unsolicited social visit into her busy day toiling as a book illustrator, housewife, mother, gardener, every time she needed milk, Sophie resigned herself to collecting her milk from Bert. She sensed he craved company as he often kept her chatting far longer than she would have liked, but she smiled sweetly back at him, fighting back the urge to escape to continue work. He was too proud to accept her gift of a new, plastic, washing line to replace his wire line. It tugged at her heart to see him protecting his clothes from rust stains by placing off cuts of card over the wire before pegging up his washing.
She had just started to enjoy her visits to Bert’s when he suddenly died. It was not long before she saw Bert’s son organising the much anticipated demolition of the shack of the father he had mostly ignored.
Months later, Sophie overheard a conversation between the overstuffed, ebullient village butcher and a gossip hungry customer. ‘Did you hear about poor, old Bert dying up Snugford Lane? He had ten thousand pounds stashed away in a cardboard box under his bed? Sadly, the mice had nibbled their way inside, destroying most of the notes. There was a chewed letter in the box stating Bert didn’t trust banks and wanted his son, Sam, to inherit the money.’
On her way home, as she manoeuvred her daughter’s pushchair around the piles of horse dung freshly deposited on the narrow, country lane, she caught sight of a lorry carrying the dismembered body of Bert’s house balanced precariously on it. When she got home, after telling her husband about the destroyed banknotes, she added, ‘I reckon it’s some sort of justice that his son will never get his hands on the money under Bert’s bed. The mice had kept the old man company more than Sam ever had done. They deserved it far
more.’

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