Short story: I Just Need Margaret

Worth 1000 words: Summer Herald will each day publish a short story competition entry. The winner will be announced on January 30. Picture Simone De Peak

杭州桑拿

SHE had been the belle of the ball – Margaret Gorton.

Her flowing blonde locks had been coveted across town. Even when winter arrived, she carried the ethereal glow of an eternal summer.

Margaret was a regular at the Friday night dance. Her floral dresses and lipstick shades were the town’s Monday morning gossip. I had done my best to impress her but I wasn’t much of a dancer myself. Hell, she could have had any man in town. Perhaps that is what she had found so attractive. I was a man who knew his place in the world.

It had seemed so unlikely. A Paterson of all people! My family weren’t exactly known for their status. I was from the wrong end of town. The offspring of a dodgy mechanic and an easy hairdresser. I could feel the town scoffing at Margaret and I’s budding audacity. Our rainy sidewalk strolls had attracted the attention of every man and his dog.

“A Paterson and a Gorton?” they scorned from behind their shop window.“Who does he think he is?”

With a cough, I startled myself from my daydream. The fabric of the recliner had dewed sweat upon my shoulders and brow. How long had I been sitting in this damned thing? Marg would be angry. That was something I tried to avoid at all costs. It wasn’t worth having to witness the pulsing vein in her forehead.

I glanced at her seat next to the fireplace and was startled to find her absent. Tuesday was crossword day, her favourite day of the week, and something she never missed. Standing slowly, I lumbered down the hallway and poked my head into our crammed bedroom.

The bed was cold.

“Marg, love?” I called, turning back towards the kitchen. Maybe she had had the good sense to put the kettle on.

I came to a halt in the hallway as I examined the photo frame on the wall. That was peculiar. I definitely hadn’t taken these pictures and I didn’t recognise the people either. An old person was peering back at me. Heck, a really old fella and he was standing with an adult. They were smiling sedately. A woman, dressed rather strangely, arm in arm with the ancient man.

“Marg, who the hell are these folk?” I shouted, pulling the frame from the wall and marching towards the kitchen. “I’ve never seen these people in my life! Why do we have ‘em hanging from our walls?”

There was no answer. The kitchen was empty and the kettle certainly wasn’t boiling. This made no sense. Was this my house? It had to be. The linoleum floors were where I had laid them. The kitchen hadn’t moved. The garage? I quickly hobbled down the few stairs to the shed and shoved the door from my view. My Torana! Where the hell had it gone? I hadn’t driven it anywhere lately and Marg didn’t have her licence. It was the blasted neighbourhood hooligans! They had nicked it. I needed to phone the police but for the life of me I couldn’t find the damned telephone.

Fine!I’d go to the station myself. Johnson would be on duty. He would be able to make time for a midday cigarette. Now in a hurry, I stepped onto the street and began the short journey.

“How can I help you?” asked a young policeman as I trudged through the doors of the Watt Street station.

“I’m here to see Johnson,” I ordered, tapping my foot impatiently.

“Mister Paterson?” the policeman asked.

“How do you know my name?” I barked, squinting my eyes at the young blighter. “I want to see Johnson! He’s always on duty on a Tuesday.”

“Sir, no Mister Johnson works here.”

“Suit yourself,” I muttered, throwing the boy a glare. I would report the theft another day when Johnson was around. Instead, I would visit Marg at work. That’s where she was. She must have had an early shift.

A grin crossed my face as the train station came into view as I marched down Watt Street. Margaret had always been good at her job. She sold train tickets to the commuters and passengers that visited the harbour.

“I’m the first thing they see when entering the city,” she’d laughed once, running her hand through her tresses. “I feel sorry for them.”

“Love, anyone who has the privilege of laying eyes on you is having a lucky day,” I had cooed, pressing a soft kiss to her neck.

The station was silent as I approached. It was far cry from the usual bustling chaos. There were no trains waiting at the platforms. In fact, there where thick bars blocking my entry. Dark maroon iron bars reminiscent of a prison. What was happening? I threw my fists against the metal. I needed to see Marg. I needed to hear her voice. I needed to …

“Dad?” came a wary voice from behind me.

“You’ve got the wrong person. I ain’t no Dad,” I answered, without looking away from Marg’s office behind the bars.

“Dad? Are you OK? The police rang. Said you were asking for Johnson again?”

I turned to look at the mistaken woman. My mouth dropped open as I recognised her as the one from the photograph. The one with the old man. Her blonde hair was the mirror image of Marg’s …

“Where’s Marg?” I demanded.

“Mum died a few years ago, Dad.”

“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” I shouted, a sudden wave of fury sweeping over me.

“Dad, Margaret died in 2012. We’ve been over this.”

I shook my head. The stranger was wrong. This was 1968. Marg was fine. She would finish work in a few hours. I’d be smiling as she swayed into our home to make dinner. Maybe it would be my favourite – a chicken roast.

“Dad?”

“Everything will be all right,” I whispered, turning back towards the abandoned station.

“I just need Margaret.”