SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Old Charlie by Mick Cooper

Picture: Shutterstock
Picture: Shutterstock
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Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub

Velma rinsed the bottles under the tap, shook out the unwanted drops of water, and walked to her front door. She opened it wide and greeted the bright and sunny spring day.

As she took a deep breath, she noticed a cat was hidden amongst the shrubs, watching blackbirds scooting across her lawn. She stood there for some time looking up and down the street, just taking the day in.

A car drove up and parked in front of number nine, the house next door. A man climbed out of the vehicle and made his way into the front garden.

He stood there taking photographs of the building. Velma dropped the empty bottles into the box by her doorstep and picked up two full bottles of milk.

She watched him for a moment, wondering exactly who he was. ‘Is he from the estate agents?’ she wondered.

‘Hello,’ she ventured a word to him.

‘Good morning,’ he replied and smiled.

‘Are you from the estate agents? Or the council?’ she asked.

‘No Madam,’ he placed the camera into a briefcase. ‘I’m from the Department of the Environment.’

‘Oh, what’s that?’ For a moment she was lost for words, and then she noticed the identity tag hanging around his neck.

He reached into his pocket and handed her a card which read: John Sullivan, area surveyor for English Heritage and Department of the Environment.

He moved to the building and started measuring the distance from the window to the front door and the height from the ground to the top of the door.

‘So, what are you doing? Are they selling number nine? There’s no one in you know, old Charlie died a few months back.’

‘Yes I know,’ he said. ‘I’m measuring up for a Bluey—’

She interrupted him, ‘A what?’

‘Oh, sorry, I mean a blue plaque.’

She looked puzzled and he continued.

‘The gentleman who lived here was a famous author and so there will be a blue plaque up there on that wall with his name on it, Sir Charles Smithson.’

‘What?’ she gasped. ‘What, old Charlie? No, you can’t be right, he was nobody, wasn’t he… wasn’t he...?’

‘On the contrary, he was a great writer, he wrote nearly a hundred books.’

‘Phew,’ she was amazed. ‘You mean, he was a real Sir?’

He looked at her quizzically.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Didn’t you ever speak to him?’

‘Oh yes, sometimes,’ she said vacantly, before she queried in disbelief: ‘You mean he was actually knighted by the Queen?’

‘That’s right,’ he added as he wrote onto a clipboard.

‘Hello Velma,’ said a voice from the garden of number 13, on the far side.

‘Oh, morning Maisie.’

‘What does he want?’ asked Maisie.

‘This man is talking about putting up a blue plaque on the wall for old Charlie. Apparently he was a writer, wrote stories and things.’

‘I bet they were dirty stories!’ said Maisie.

The English Heritage man looked back and said: ‘No, he wrote some very good mind-stretching, wondrous and adventurous books. He was a great man.’

‘What did he say, I can’t hear?’ said Maisie.

‘He wrote mind-stretching books, Maisie, he was an author. Who would have guessed he was one of those?” said Velma.

‘What?’ said Maisie. ‘Did you say he was one of those— Was he gay then? I always thought he was one of those paediatricophiles.’

They ignored her, and he continued: ‘In a day or so, there will be some men installing the plaque up there,’ he pointed to the wall.

‘Then in about a week, there will be a ceremony here, probably with the lord mayor, a couple of other celebrities, and a few of Sir Charles’ family, and then they’ll all have a few nibbles down at the town hall afterwards.’

‘Velma,’ shouted Maisie. ‘What’s that?’

‘He said there’s going to be a ceremony here next week.’

‘Oh,’ said Maisie, sounding confused.

‘And then,’ he continued, ‘They’ll probably drink a toast to him!’

‘What’s that Velma? What did he say?’

‘They’re going to toast Charlie,’ Velma sounded annoyed.

‘Oh that’s nice,’ said Maisie, ‘What, down at the crem? But they can’t do that, they buried him three weeks ago.’

Velma and the heritage man looked at each other, smiled and shrugged their shoulders.

‘It’s alright,’ said Velma. ‘We always call her Hazy Maisie!’

He wrote more figures onto his clipboard and turned to leave, but stopped.

‘It seems that he was born here,’ the heritage man pointed to the door of number nine. ‘Lived all his 79 years here, wrote all his books here, brought a wife here, brought up his kids here, and died here.

‘He was quite a wealthy man, but he still chose to stay here where his roots were, in this two-up two-down, back scullery and outside lavi...some people are very strange.’

‘He was married then? Well, who would have believed that?’ Velma replied.

He wished them a good morning. The gate closed behind him as he left.

Velma and Maisie stood and watched, saying nothing as his car disappeared along the road.

Velma took a deep breath and sighed: ‘Sir Charles, that sounds so funny, so strange, so odd, so...’

‘Well, I’m off to the shops,’ said Maisie. Are you going down the bingo this afternoon?’

‘I expect so but I’ve got some chores to do this morning, maybe I’ll see you down there later, after lunch, and after I’ve watched Neighbours.’

Mick Cooper is a Portsmouth-born retired photographer and musician who runs a website on the history of popular music in the Portsmouth area. Mick has also had a number of books published on the history of the city.

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