Devon Prize (2018/19) - Seeing to Mrs Hickmott by David Bonnett
Seeing to Mrs. Hickmott
by David Bonnett
Mrs. Hickmott needs seeing to. And sooner rather than later. This morning’s telephone call has made that clear.
Meanwhile, Norris could use a drink. It’s early, but time of day has never come into it.
“Thank you for explaining things so clearly,” Norris says into the telephone on his desk. Keen to end the call he adds, “Goodbye,” rather too quickly for politeness, but it must do.
Norris – Councillor Norman Norris, with responsibility for local housing – now sits in thought. He uses a swivel chair. He moves it side to side. Gently, head back on the rest, deciding what to do next. His answer is always the same. A drink. He stills the chair, reaches for his hip-flask, and remembers he has recently mislaid it. He leans towards the inter-com gadget they’ve given him. He doesn’t need it. His P.A. is right there, through the outer office glass. She looks up and he beckons her in.
“Iris, you’d better do me another letter to Mrs. Hickmott.”
Norris prefers to keep things brief.
‘Regarding your latest communication concerning problems with mice and damp in your home, I can assure you that everything is in hand and will be given prompt attention.’
“The sooner she gets it the better, please Iris.”
“If you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Norris, you’re doing exactly the right thing,” Iris says approvingly. “Eliminate the mice and deal with the damp in double-quick time. Then there will be no reason for further correspondence.”
“My thoughts exactly.” He could do with a drink.
Councillor Norris has been receiving correspondence from Mrs. Hickmott at No. 4 Beacon Terrace regarding mice and damp in her home for quite some time. But following a recent face to face meeting on site, during which Mrs. Hickmott had triumphantly (There! Do you see!)shown him droppings and water stains, before surprising him by enquiring if there was by any chance a Mrs. Norris, Councillor Norris had noticed that the letters from Mrs. Hickmott had been increasingly friendly, and in danger of becoming affectionate. On reflection, he wished he had been less forthcoming with his reply regarding Mrs. Norris.
“Hilda and I parted some years ago. We thought it for the best.” In fact, it had been Hilda who had thought it for the best. She hadn’t been as keen on the drink as he was. He hadn’t told Mrs. Hickmott about that. Maybe he should have. As it was, Mrs. Hickmott had been undeterred.
“We can all make mistakes in life. I certainly have.”
Mrs. Hickmott had probably been beautiful once, decided Norris. She still wasn’t bad. A shade heavy, but it suited her.
Mrs. Hickmott’s fingers had briefly settled on his arm. “I always like to hope true love is just around the corner. One never knows, does one?”
Norris thinks one probably does know. He is fifty-five. He is resigned to a solo lifestyle. He’s learned to deal with it. When not engaged upon Council matters, he’s even taken up metal-detecting. No particular reason, only that it is peaceful, and he likes a bit of peace. Tramping the nearby fields, ear-phoned and equipped with his bleeper, plus a fully loaded hip-flask, a man can bloody relax. The relaxing and peaceful aspect is more important to him than the possibility of finding some relic from the past. And he’s joined a film group. No special reason for that either, except that he quite likes Westerns and the film group shows a lot of them. So, yes, he’s got the hang of being alone. But whilst he has settled for a life without true love Mrs. Hickmott, the once beautiful widow at No. 4 Beacon Terrace might not have.
Her early letters bringing the mice and damp problems to his attention had been business-like and printed (Mrs. Hickmott seemed to be good with a computer, decided Norris who wasn’t, and who disliked technology in general – apart from his metal detector thing which seemed straightforward enough) but they had recently taken the form of azure-inked handwritten ones on scented notepaper, each bearing a small floral motif in one corner. The scent was possibly lavender, decided Norris. Or maybe it was just his memories playing tricks. Hilda used to be keen on lavender. He could still catch that familiar scent, at any time and at any place, taking him by surprise. Some things you never forgot.
And the ‘hit’ that a few whiskies could deliver, you didn’t forget that either. This morning, as every morning, he could use a drink.
As Mrs. Hickmott’s letters had become fragrant and handwritten so her originally chilly ‘Yours Faithfully’ method of signing off had taken on a noticeably warmer tone. Whilst Councillor Norris supposed ‘Yours in anticipation’, might reasonably relate to Mrs. Hickmott’s hopes for speedy action regarding her mice and damp problems, ‘Always in my thoughts’, and most recently, ‘Thinking of you always’, surely could not. Norris had decided against making any further visits to Mrs. Hickmott, until, having mislaid his hip-flask, and suspecting that he had left it at Mrs. Hickmott’s house, he had set off for Beacon Terrace , but got no further than the ‘Coach and Horses’. The pub was not only directly on the way, it was also in Norris’s opinion a more appealing destination. After that he had dismissed the idea of another visit to Beacon Terrace. He decided instead that he would make yet another of his attempts to keep off the drink. The hip-flask could stay wherever he had left it.
But keeping off the drink this morning is hard. Bloody hard.
“Mr. Norris, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mrs. Hickmott is after you,” Iris says, waving her pad. “That woman has definitely got the hots for you, mark my words.” Iris, having been after a fair number of men in her time, knew the signs.
“I’m hoping to cut her off at the pass, as it were,” Norris says. Since joining the local film society he had sat through many 1950s Westerns. The dialogue was mediocre, yet inclined to be memorable.
“Very wise, if you don’t mind me saying so, Mr. Norris. I’ll attend to the letter straight away.”
Norris, needing alcohol, considers sending Iris out for some before she does the letter, but decides (hopes) she may still not know he’s a lush, although he’s never been sure. Iris is an intelligent young woman with an enquiring mind.
Norris had always got along well with Iris Ponds whilst never becoming close enough to enquire whether or not she was ‘with someone’. He thought she simply might not be the marrying sort and perhaps (having an athletic look about her) played hockey to a reasonable standard.
Iris in fact hasn’t been with anyone for ages, doesn’t know one end of a hockey stick from the other, and definitely is the marrying sort if only she can find someone. And now she thinks she has. She wants the correspondence from Mrs. Hickmott to stop every bit as much as does Norris himself. She had previously considered Norris somewhat average facially, and a bit underwhelming generally, but now she thinks the grey-speckled beard which Norris has allowed to grow in the past few weeks has given him gravitas and also improved his jaw-line. In fact she has gone from having no particular feelings for him to now having deep ones. She believes she is in love with Norman, as she now thinks of him. Consequently she has started to regard Mrs. Hickmott as a rival. Norman Norris is hers, and definitely not Mrs. Hickmott’s.
“You’re a distinguished looking man, Mr. Norris.” Iris thinks about adding, ‘since the beard’, but decides not to.
Norris, who is not used to receiving personal compliments, says nothing. Hilda had never called him anything but ‘Norman’, until his intake of whisky increased and she’d settled for ‘boozy’. To tell the truth Norris had never quite got over her ever noticing him in the first place. Hilda, with her dark looks and good legs could surely have done better for herself. She probably had by now.
“Very distinguished indeed, if you don’t mind me saying so,” Iris adds, suddenly busy re-aligning Council papers on his desk-top.
“And end that letter ‘Yours Truly’,” Norris says. He hopes that sounds about right. Businesslike, yet friendly.
“I’ll make you a coffee just the way you like it, Mr. Norris,” Iris tells the man of her dreams.
He doesn’t want bloody coffee. He wants whisky.
Well I never, thinks Mrs. Hickmott this morning. As she sits in the front room of No. 4 Beacon Terrace she examines the object she has discovered nestling down the side of the chair she reserves for visitors. Councillor Norris had been the last person to sit in the chair during his recent visit, and the hip-flask must surely be his. Who would have thought it. Mrs. Hickmott sips her first (but by no means her last) gin of the day and turns the flask over several times.
This afternoon, as Norris, ear-phoned and chunkily-booted trawls a grassy field (he takes Wednesday afternoons off) he breathes the scents of spring which seem somehow sharper this year. He considers the summer to come, which may be …
Norris senses a presence beside him and looks up from the grasses. He claws away the ear-phones and peers at his interrupter.
“Mrs. Hickmott …?”
“Mr. Norris? Councillor Norris – it is you isn’t it? That secretary girl of yours at the Town Hall said this is where you’d be, it being Wednesday - she said not to disturb you on your afternoon off, but I just had to…”
“How may I help?” Norris hopes he manages a smile.
Mrs. Hickmott is holding out the hip-flask which Norris recognizes as his.
“Mr. Norris, you recall we met recently regarding mice and damp in my home? And …” She flourishes the flask as might a statesman returning triumphantly from talks and bearing a treaty. “Norman – I may call you Norman – I found this just this morning. Down the side of the chair … in which you sat the other day.”
“I’ve been wondering where I must have left it.”
“Norman, I do understand. You see, I too, seek solace in the bottle,” Mrs. Hickmott says. “Gin mostly, although not exclusively. Since losing my Ernest – he was on the buses for twenty years, you know, until his accident. It happened riding home on his motor-bike after a late turn on the 15b. Thick fog it was, and a juggernaut came out of nowhere and … my Ernie was so good on the roads. Of course, driving his buses all those years he would have been.” Mrs. Hickmott, who is not tall, raises her eyes to his and Norris suspects a tear.
Norris takes back his flask. “Thank you for taking the trouble, Mrs. Hickmott. You could have dropped it in at the Town Hall.” He is glad she did not. There is still something in it. He can feel the weight of its fiery contents.
He needs to put the flask to his lips. Today, as every day, he needs to gulp down the golden liquid. It is too late to stop the drinking now even if he could. Boozy, yes he’s boozy. And the bloody booze has done its work. This morning’s phone-call from Dr. Humphreys had made it clear. The words have clanged in his mind all afternoon whilst tramping this peaceful meadow.
“You asked me for the truth, Mr. Norris. The truth is I’m afraid you have very little time. A few months at most. There’s nothing that can be done. I’m very sorry.”
“Mrs. Hickmott,” Norris says, abruptly shouldering his equipment, “I now intend to spend several hours in the ‘Coach and Horses’, off Town Hall Square. I always find them pleasant in there. They look after me. Perhaps you’d care to join me in the ‘snug’?”
“I would indeed, Mr. Norris.” She knows the ‘Coach and Horses’ well.
“Mrs. Hickmott, whilst we are there I think we must further discuss your mice and damp problem. I have decided to see to it immediately.” Whilst he still has time.
Mrs. Hickmott’s fingers have settled on his sleeve. Norris thinks about shaking them off as he would a fly. But he doesn’t. It really doesn’t matter.