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Saturday short story: The Letter, by John Parkyn

"The letter Gary received from Leonard Cohen hardly ever left his hands or his thoughts": a short story by New Zealand writer living in Mexico, John Parkyn.

The boarding house was a two-storey, grey wooden structure that creaked alarmingly in the wind. It was run by an alcoholic Irishman named Brendan Mulligan, who always wore liquor-stained navy blue trousers and collarless shirts, and his wife Maude, who usually dressed in faded  floral frocks. Mulligan spent most of his time drinking in a back room with one of the ageing longer-term lodgers.

I met Gary at my very first breakfast in the boarding house. He was sitting opposite me at the table with a bowl of cornflakes and a plate of scrambled eggs.

“Good morning,” I said. But I was met with only a quick nod and a shy smile. As Gary withdrew into a strange silence while he continued eating, I was able to observe him a little better.  He  was overweight and in his mid-20s. He had a babyish face with large, light-blue, rather innocent eyes that seemed, however, to have a certain impenetrable depth to them. He rarely spoke to anyone, and was generally ignored. He had no job to go to as far as I could tell. He could have been receiving an unemployment benefit, perhaps even a sickness benefit. He was sometimes seen writing carefully, laboriously, in a large lined writing pad he carried about with him.

The other men who came to the dining room usually included Joe Higgins, a muscular wharfie in his 40s, and Simon Jenkins, a balding shoe salesman at a downtown department store. Jenkins bore a pretentious air that seemed to insinuate he was more respectable than the other lodgers and had arrived at the boarding house by some sort of mistake. He was about the same age as Joe Higgins and usually quite dapperly, if cheaply, dressed. Another regular at the table was Jerry Frost, an aggressive apprentice mechanic who roared up and down the street at night on his backfiring Norton Dominator.

I tried again to open conversation with Gary after breakfast one morning while he was writing in his pad, but all I received was his strange smile, before he looked away.

Joe Higgins caught my eye and whispered: “It’s no use. He’s a little..." He tapped his forehead, but made sure Gary didn’t notice. Simon Jenkins zeroed in on Gary.

“Listen, what the devil are you writing there, Gary?” he said.

“A letter,” Gary replied.

It was the first time I’d ever heard him speak. Perhaps it was the first time for some of the others too.

“And who the hell are you writing to?” asked Jerry Frost.

“Someone,” Gary said.

“Of course you’re writing to someone, you wouldn’t be writing to no-one, would you now?”

Gary made no reply.

Jenkins laughed. “He’s writing to a girl, that’s who he’s writing to.”

“No, Mr Jenkins, I am not writing to a girl,” Gary said.

“How do we know you’re not?” said Frost.

“Leave him alone,” Joe Higgins said. “He’s not doing you no harm.”

“I’m not doing him no harm neither,” said Frost.

Gary put his head down and just went on writing. It was only because the ball pen he was using ran out of ink that I became involved.

“Here,” I said, “I can lend you one of mine.”

“Thank you,” Gary said. He took the pen and wrote some more. When he’d finished he offered to hand it back to me.

“No, you keep it, I have others,” I said.

Gary nodded his thanks.

“Could you tell me,” I asked, “who you’re writing to, Gary?”

“I’m writing a letter to Leonard,” he said.

“Who’s Leonard?”

“Leonard Cohen.”

“The singer?”

“Yes.”

The other men had fallen silent for a few moments. They were surprised, I think, that Gary had actually spoken as much as he had.

“Who’s this Leonard Cohen?” said Joe Higgins.

“A Canadian folk singer and poet,” I said. “A very good one in fact.”

“Oh I see.” Joe was happy enough with my answer. He rolled himself a cigarette.

“Why are you writing to Leonard Cohen?” I asked Gary.

“Because he understands things.”

Jerry Frost laughed scornfully: “Understands things!”

“Well, you know, I think you’re right,” I said to Gary, ignoring Frost. “I think he does understand things.”

“Is he a Jew? Cohen? Name like that, must be a Jew,” said Simon Jenkins.

Gary got up and left the table with his writing pad. He went upstairs and we heard his door slam shut.

“Okay, who is this Cohen?” Jenkins asked.

“Well, he’s famous,” I said. “He writes novels as well as songs. He’s a painter, too.”

“What the living hell does he write about?”

“About everything. Everything you could imagine, actually.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Joe Higgins, “that’s a tall order.”

“Loneliness,” I  said. “He writes about that a lot.”

“If he’s famous, that fat Gary won’t be getting any answer to his stupid letter, that’s for sure,” said Jenkins. “I’m off to work. See you all later.”

Just then Mulligan appeared at the kitchen door.

“You’re two weeks behind with your rent, Mr Jenkins!”

“You’ll get your rent,” Jenkins said.

Maude Mulligan appeared at the door also.

“And you, Mr Frost,” she said, “you better keep your room a good deal tidier. I’m sick and tired of all the cigarette butts you keep tramping into the damn floor. Turning the place into a rubbish dump.”

“All right, I heard you,” the youth muttered.

Several weeks passed by. Gary spent most of his time in his room. At meal times, he had to put up with continual ribbing.

“So you finally posted off that letter, did you, Gary?” Jenkins goaded him one evening.

“I did,” Gary said.

“You didn’t forget to stick a stamp on it, did you?” said Jerry Frost. He grinned maliciously, revealing his yellow teeth.

“I did not.”

“But did you lick the stamp first?”

“Stop mocking him, Jerry,” said Higgins.

Another night, Jenkins started it again.

“Have you had a reply from Leonard Cohen yet, Gary?”

“I have not,” Gary said.

“You might be waiting a long time,” Jenkins said.

“Yeah, he might get hundreds of other letters, seeing he’s so famous,” said Frost. “He probably gets thousands, from all over the bloody world. He won’t have time to read yours, fatty.”

“Don’t call him fatty,” said Joe.

“He’ll be waiting a long time.”

“I don’t mind,” Gary said. “I can wait.”

One day towards the end of July, Gary bounded into the smoke-filled television lounge. He was laughing to himself, and skipped around like a child, clapping his hands together. Then he sat down beside me.

“What the hell are you on about, Gary?” said Mulligan, who’d been mopping the floor. His wife put down a bucket of water beside him.

“He got a letter today,” she said.

“It’s from Leonard,” Gary said to me.

“From Leonard Cohen?”

“Yes. I told you, didn’t I?’

“Could you let me see it?”

Gary paused a moment, then carefully took an airmail envelope from his pocket, removed the letter inside and opened it for me. It was postmarked Montreal. It was a short, sincerely written letter, thoughtful words to a fellow human being several thousand miles away whom he didn’t know, and never would know, typed in black ink on yellow foolscap paper and personally signed Leonard Cohen.

In the weeks that followed, the letter hardly ever left Gary’s hands or his thoughts. He carried it with him at all times, took it out to re-read it at mealtimes, and sometimes even stood humming in the street outside, stopping strangers and showing it to them, or attempting to. Usually he was brushed aside. But this never seemed to bother him. He had a record player in his room and he played Cohen’s first two LPs over and over. I also noticed him entranced in a paperback copy of Beautiful Losers in the lounge one afternoon while all the others were watching horse races on TV.

But one rainy night, when I was in the lounge with all the others, there was a long, blood-curdling scream, followed by a violent thumping on the walls of one of the rooms above. We knew immediately it was Gary.

“What the devil’s the matter with him?” Jenkins muttered from behind his newspaper.

“Christ, sounds like the poor fellow’s having a fit,” said Higgins.

“But he doesn’t have fits,” I said.

“He’s a loony, that’s what he is,” said Jerry Frost. “Always up there playing the same bloody music.” He was standing near the television, a can of beer in one hand. The other hand was in his pocket. The intense thumping continued upstairs, with agonised groans coming from Gary. Jerry gave a sharp, cynical laugh and caught Higgins’ eye. “Well, that’s what he is, ain’t he? A fuckin’ loony.”

“Now take it easy. He’s just a bit different, that’s all,” Higgins said.

“Bit different? That’s a joke, that’s a fuckin’ understatement.”

“You just watch your tongue out there!” Maude Mulligan yelled from the kitchen door.

I heard another anguished moan from Gary, and rushed upstairs. His door was wide open. Leonard Cohen, playing his guitar, stared back at me with his big dark eyes from a huge poster pinned on the opposite wall. Gary was beating his fists in frantic desperation on the top of his dressing table.

“What’s the matter, Gary?”

“It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“My letter. The letter from Leonard. It was right here, on my dressing table. Someone pinched it. When I went to the bathroom I left the door open. Someone pinched it.”

“Maybe it fell off the dresser. Maybe it’s somewhere on the floor.”

“I’ve looked everywhere. Everywhere!”

I couldn’t console him. His grief was intense, and frightening. When he cried, it was as if his whole body was about to explode with the pain he suffered. I helped him search the room again and again, scrambling about on the floor and under the furniture, but there was no sign of the letter. My hands were thick with dust and grime by the time I’d finished. I went back downstairs and told Joe Higgins and the others what had happened.

“It’s pretty queer, isn’t it?” Joe said.

“Lot of fuss about nothing, if you ask me,” said Simon Jenkins.

At that moment, Gary came thundering down the stairs and burst into the lounge. His face was livid, scarlet now. He shook his fist at all of us. He was trembling with rage. Tears coursed down his cheeks.

“You bastards!” he shouted. “You bloody bastards!”

With that, he rushed out of the front door, out into the street, out into the driving rain and the dark, starless night.

“Think I’ll go and see a movie,” Jerry Frost said. “This place gives me the creeps.” He finished his beer, drew his other hand from his pocket so he could zip up his leather jacket, then lit himself a cigarette.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Joe said quietly.

“Oh no?” said Jerry. “Who the fuck do you think you are?”

Joe pointed to the letter on yellow foolscap that had fallen to the floor when Jerry took his hand out of his pocket. It had been ripped in two.

“I know who the fuck I am,” said Joe, “and I know who the fuck you are. You’re Jerry Frost the fuckin’ thief, that’s who you are!”

Jerry launched himself, head down, like a rocket. But he ran slap into a swift blow from the big wharfie’s bunched fist and fell to the floor. Joe grabbed him by the throat and shook him like a dog. Jerry’s head bounced up and down on the greasy linoleum. His nose began to bleed. Joe tightened his grip on Jerry’s throat. Jerry’s tongue popped out.

“It was just a joke, Joe!” he managed to screech.

“Fuckin’ little thief!” Joe yelled back.

“That’s enough, you lot!” bellowed Brendan Mulligan as he stormed into the lounge. He wrenched Joe off the struggling, gasping Jerry. “Any more of this crap and I’ll ring the cops.”

“And we’ll throw both of you out!” Maude Mulligan shouted from the kitchen.

Joe reluctantly released Jerry. The two men got up. The fight had finished but the arguing continued long after as the other lodgers, notably Jenkins, joined in. Everyone seemed to have completely forgotten about Gary. In fact, that's exactly what happened. He didn’t return to the boarding house that night, nor any night. He was never seen again by any of us. Finally, at some prodding by Joe and myself, Mulligan reported him to the police as missing. After a week or so, the Mulligans packed all Gary’s belongings away, his clothing, his records, his few books, his poster, and rented the room to someone else.

A few days later, a constable came to the boarding house. Gary’s body had been found in The Domain, lying in a grove of trees, blanketed by showers of falling leaves which had almost completely hidden him from sight. The constable said it seemed he’d died of exposure. Gary had laid himself down and hadn’t got up again.

Joe and I went to the funeral. The police had managed to contact some of Gary’s family. One of them, an uncle I think it was, said to me that Gary was “estranged” from the rest of them. They didn’t know why. And they thought he’d removed not only from his family, but from everybody else, from the whole world. Remembering how Gary had been found, lying there alone in the rain beneath that cold brown bower of fallen leaves, I found myself hoping Leonard would have understood.

Next week's short story is by Wellington writer Melanie Harding-Shaw.

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