Return to Sender

A short story by Tina Konstant

Return to Sender - a short story by Tina Konstant.“There’s another one!” Cyrus Cruikshank shoved the box to the other end of the dining room table. Just like the others; the postmark said it came from London, the return address was to Wales. Stupid. Cyrus stirred three spoons of sugar into his tea. He had a farm to run. Didn’t have time to return packages to idiots who didn’t know how to get it right. “Lizabeth! I said there’s another one of those damn packages! I don’t have time to send it back.”

“What’s in it?”

Cyrus sighed. Lizabeth thought it was fun. Fun? It had been happening for a year. A damn year! Every few weeks a new box arrived. Every box had their address on it with no name. Same with the return. No name, just an address. Cyrus knew someone in Wales once so had opened the first box. Mistake really. Rockie (stupid name for a human being no matter how modern his parents were) delivered it along with the other mail. He had already got into his postman’s van and left before Cyrus thought to ask where it came from. So he’d opened it. It was a dried flower. Protea. He didn’t have to look it up. What the hell was a flower that grew in South Africa doing in a box on his kitchen table in Yorkshire sent by some fool in Wales? Waste of time, that’s what it was. Damn waste of time.

Over the next seven weeks Rockie the postman delivered another three packages, all of which Cyrus refused to accept. Instead, he sent them back with black scrawl over his address saying “wrong address”. A week later Rockie delivered them again. This time, they had his address and “no mistake” written under it.

So he’d opened it.

The second box had a medal from World War Two in it. Victoria Cross. Not a trinket. Cyrus knew a man fought hard for that. He knew people who’d earned it. Fought beside them. The third box had more flowers. A bunch of daisies. Really? Who sends daisies in a box from Wales?

Since then they’d received wedding cake, birthday candles with bits of icing stuck to the bottom, socks with holes in the toes along with a needle and thread and a cat’s collar.

“I’m not going to open it,” Cyrus muttered. “I’m tired of playing this stupid game. You deal with it.”

Cyrus tossed his mug in the sink, spilling the last of the tea and chipping the rim. Too much to do to be playing games with anyone let alone some crazy person miles away. “I’m going out.”

Lizabeth smiled. Married forty years this year. How had she lasted? A good heart. That’s what he’s got. All hidden and buried under layers of mood and grumbles, but a good heart nonetheless.

Soon as the kitchen door slammed shut she ran down stairs. Another box, another box. She loved this game. She had no idea who sent them and if she was honest, she didn’t want to know. In the beginning, she did. She did a search for the address, contacted the post office and even asked Rockie her lovely young postman to look into it. He said the post office couldn’t give her a name.

It crossed her mind once to take a short trip to find out. She could tell Cyrus she was going to see her sister. Instead of traveling north to Scotland, she’d travel west to Wales. But she was no good at lies and secrets. They ate into her soul and kept her up at night. Always had. And anyway, with the farm to run, kids to see, grand-kids to treat, friends to help out, neighbours to check up on, breakfast, lunch and dinner to prepare, well, time just got away from her and after eight months of Rockie delivering boxes, she stopped wanting to find out who sent them and just enjoyed the conversation. Because that’s what it was after all. A conversation. Two way. This, Cyrus didn’t know. This was a secret Lizabeth was willing to keep.

She didn’t do anything with the first three boxes; the protea, the medal and the daisies. But when the wedding cake arrived, she replied.

“Thank you for the cake,” she’d said. “I had it with tea this afternoon while the rain poured out the skies soaking poor Cyrus to his bones.” The note was quite long. She talked about the farm struggling along but doing alright, her dreams of running a little coffee shop where she sold tea and coffee and homemade cakes to passersby, the weather changing all day everyday and what it did to Cyrus’s moods, her sister being as ill as she was at the time. Chat. Nothing big. Just conversation.

Then when the socks arrived with holes in the toe, what else could she do? She smiled, darned them and returned them with a cupcake she’d made that afternoon for the grand-kids who were due the next day. When the birthday candles arrived she’d laughed, rushed into town, bought a new pair of socks, wrapped them and sent them with a card. It was fun. It was harmless. It was a bit of a mystery in a life where everything that happens once has already happened a hundred times and will continue to happen long after Lizabeth Cruikshanks left this earth.

At first she thought the packages were souvenirs of another life. Some of them were. They seemed like strange and personal letters. Others seemed more like a gift, like the slippers she’d received just three days before her old ones got chewed by the dog or the box of rat poison that arrived the day before Cyrus discovered the basement was infested. Like someone was watching and knew what they’d need even before they knew it themselves. Comforting.

Lizabeth tapped the box and started to hum a little tune she hummed when the weather was particularly gloomy. What will it be today? She sometimes lined all the packages up, in the order she received them, to see if there was any sort of pattern. She decided in the end that there wasn’t. The packages that held simple things like spent movie tickets and photos of Brighton Beach were letters. Someone in a small town in Wales was sending news telling her about his or her day. Maybe she was wrong, but Lizabeth read clues into every package. Some were easy. The birthday cake and the wedding cake told her a birthday and a wedding had happened and she had been invited to the party. The socks told her she was probably talking to a man. Would a woman send a sock with needle and thread for darning? Most likely not, but she could be wrong. Perhaps it was a young woman who had just left home and didn’t know how to repair a sock. Little clues. She knew she could be wrong, but she liked to try.

With the kettle boiled, the tea brewed, toast popped and buttered, Lizabeth stopped humming, sat at her kitchen table and pulled the package towards her.

Same as all the others. Their address on the top. No name, just the address. The letters were all careful print in black ink. The return address at the back was in the same hand. Again, no name, just the address in Wales. The stamps, as always, were neatly lined up like someone had taken great care to put them on straight. The franking over the stamps said they were posted from London, like always. The tape holding the neatly cornered brown paper in place was cut in straight lines with scissors, not teeth or the ziggy blade used to cut tape when it comes in one of those holders.

Lizabeth took a sip of her tea and a bite out of her toast and started to hum again, then unwrapped the package.

Usually, the box inside was cardboard. Depending on the contents, it was a shoebox or a gift box or a simple box provided by the post office. Lizabeth took another sip of tea and paused. This box was different. This box was made of wood. Plain. No carvings. No hinge for the lid. Just a plain wooden, unvarnished box with a lift-off lid.

“Well,” Lizabeth murmured. “What do we have here?”

Another sip of tea and bite of toast, she lifted the lid.

“No, no.” Lizabeth let go of the box and covered her mouth with both hands. “No, no, no. I’m so sorry.”

There wasn’t a flower or a medal or a piece of cake in the box. Nor were there candles or socks. Resting at the bottom of the box on a small white cushion was a cross. A simple cross. No carvings or varnish. A cross, a rose and what seemed like the start of a note: My Dear Cyrus.

Nothing more.

Cyrus? Not her Cyrus.

Lizabeth ran upstairs to her desk, pulled out her paper and pen and started to write. “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m sorry, I don’t know who it is. You sent me the collar for a cat last time.”

A cat? A person? A parent? A friend? Who had died? Lizabeth didn’t know how to finish the letter. How do you talk to someone you only have clues about. How do you know what to say?

“Lizabeth! Come quickly!”

Lizabeth stopped writing and listened. “What? Alex? Is that you?”

Alex was tall and wiry and had worked side-by-side with Cyrus for as long as she and Cyrus had been married. Forty years at least.

“Hurry it up. Call the doc. There’s been an accident. Cyrus is down.”

Oh, Lord, no.

Grabbing the phone, leaving her letter and the box, cold tea and toast, Lizabeth ran down the stairs, through the kitchen and into the barn where Alex stood over Cyrus. An accident? No accident. “Cyrus! What have you done?”

“I took him down,” Alex said, tears wet on his face. “Quick as I could, I took him down.”

Lizabeth pressed her fingers on the rope burns around her husband’s neck. “Doctor’s on the way, my love.” Lizabeth knelt beside him. “He’s on the way. Lie still. Lie still.”

Cyrus reached up his hands and touched her face. “What…” He closed his eyes for a moment then opened them again. “What was in the box?”

“Nothing,” she smiled and wiped mud from his weathered cheeks. “Nothing at all.”

He shook his head. “The box. Tell me. What was in it. It’s all right.”

Lizabeth frowned. What did her Cyrus know or care about the packages? “A cross on a silk pillow with a rose. Nothing more. The last one was a cat’s collar. I think he’s telling us he lost his cat. It means nothing. Just rest. Help…”

Lizabeth stopped talking the moment Cyrus stopped breathing. His eyes open, his blood still in his veins, his heart so silent Lizabeth heard the rustle of the wind in the trees at the bottom of the farm.

What did her Cyrus know about the packages? What did he care?

After Cyrus’s funeral, Lizabeth handed the farm over to her children to run or sell. She didn’t care for it. She packed her books, her kitchen, Cyrus’s workroom and the packages into a van and moved to a sterile house in the middle of town. Two bedrooms, no farm smells, no memories, no new packages. That day she lost two friends. Her best friend and husband and someone she’d never met.

It was six months before she was able to look at the remains of her life to decide what to do next. The rain was falling that day. She put on the kettle and made some tea, then spread butter on her toast and took it all into her living-room where she’d packed Cyrus’s boxes along with the packages. Today, she decided. Now she was ready to clear things out.

The packages had been stacked in the order she’d received them. Not on purpose, by accident really. It was just how they’d been stored. She glanced over them and shook her head. Her mystery pen-pal probably didn’t know where she’d moved to. She turned away from them and stood in front of Cyrus’s boxes. Stuff and nonsense. That’s what she’d called it. Stuff and nonsense he collected. She smiled. So many memories. So much love from his big and beautiful heart. She opened the lid on the first box and frowned. What is this? A uniform from the war? She was sure he’d got rid of it. Sure of it. She unfolded the green jacket and lay it on the floor. A gap? A medal missing. The medal?

Lizabeth stood up and went over to the packages. The second one they’d received had a medal in it. A medal given to people who’d fought in Africa. Africa. The protea. The first package.

“Cyrus?” Lizabeth murmured. “What did you know or care about these packages?”

One at a time, Lizabeth unpacked the boxes Cyrus had kept on the top shelf of a bookcase in his workroom. Under the army jacket was a bundle of letters. Oh, God no. Please don’t say it’s true. Not her Cyrus. The letters were faded, the paper wrinkled and stained. The writing was from a woman. No doubt. Delicate and neat. All starting “Dear Cyrus” and all signed “Daisy”. Lizabeth read the first letter then skipped the others until she came to the last. The woman had had a child. She’d lived her life. She’d died. The last letter started with I’m Sorry and ended with There’s nothing left to live for.

Lizabeth opened the next box. She remembered it now. It had confused her. It had nothing but soil in it. She’d put the soil into a pot and had planted a daisy in it. She thought it would grow well on the windowsill. Cyrus had hated it and thrown it away soon as it bloomed. The birthday cake, the wedding cake? The child? Is that who was sending this? Did Cyrus have a child who has been trying to reach out?

Lizabeth had been so wrong. The packages weren’t random postings of an eccentric stranger, they were news. It was my birthday today. I got married today. I lost my cat today. I’m your child. I want to come home.

Really? Is that what they were? What was the cross? The day Cyrus died?

The box, the white silk cushion, the rose. She scrabbled through his belongings sending up dust and history she never knew nor wanted to know. Until she came to the bottom, hidden in the corner like a frightened child. Another box. Older, cracked now and stained. Lizabeth pressed her hands to her chest. Breathed deep but too fast. Too much air, like wine, is not good for the mind. She forced air out of her lungs, picked up the box and opened it. A small silk pillow, a cross, a rose, withered and dry with what seemed like the start of a note: My Dear Daisy.

Lizabeth picked up her tea and took a sip. Cold. The air was suddenly cold. Like a window had been opened and winter had been allowed in.

“Fresh cup,” she murmured to no one because no one was there. “Just need a fresh cup of something hot.” Lizabeth wondered from the living-room, down the narrow, pale hall and into the kitchen. “Just need something to warm me up, that’s all.”

In the kitchen, Lizabeth paused. The back door was closed, the front door was locked, the windows were all sealed shut. The fruit bowl with three apples and two bananas sat untouched next to a small package on her kitchen table.

A small package.

“Hello?” she said. “Anyone here?”

The package had her address, but not her name. The return address was from Wales, the stamps franked in London. Everything in black, hand printed letters.

“Hello?” she said again, then she fell silent. The sound of her voice shaking in the empty house added to the cold she felt burrowing to her bones.

This time she didn’t make tea and she didn’t make toast. She didn’t hum or open the window to let the sunshine in. This time Lizabeth just unwrapped the package.

Inside the wrapping was a small wooden box. Square, plain, no varnish or hinge. She squeezed her hands between her knees. “I’m not ready to die,” she said to no one at all because there was no one there. She was sure there was no one there. Almost sure there was no one there. “I’m not ready,” she said again.

Then reached up and lifted the lid.

The next day Rosie Summers, a neighbour and friend, knocked on the Lizabeth’s door with a homemade apple crumble. “Lizabeth, have you forgotten? We were meeting today?” When no one answered, Rosie looked through the window and called the police and the ambulance and the fire brigade and half the town. Why had Lizabeth done it? Why hang herself? Was she that unhappy?

After Lizabeth’s funeral, Rosie sat at her kitchen table, tea in her hands, toast on her plate. It was a mystery. Lizabeth was coming round, she was getting over Cyrus’s suicide. A knock on the door pulled her out of her thoughts and back to the world. The postman. Good. She was expecting a letter from her son. Never could get used to the email thing.

“Hello Rockie,” she smiled at the young man in his postman’s uniform all ironed and neat. “What do we have today?”

“Just a package,” Rockie smiled. “Have a good day.”

Rockie was already half way down the road when Rosie realised the package had her address but not her name. Odd, she thought, then smiled. Postmarked London. Something from her son? Return address from Wales? Very odd. Rosie shrugged. Nice to start the day with a bit of a mystery.