Bernard smiled as the helicopter swooped low over the chimney pots. He could see the whole town in his monitor; he paused to enjoy the view of the sun setting behind the gasworks for a few moments then remembered his mission. He checked the map in the top corner of the screen and guided the drone towards its target. He soon had the street in his sights and followed the long ridge of the terrace, rotors spinning silently, the motors powering them screened for maximum secrecy, counting the chimney pots until he reached number 17. At just the right moment he banked the little craft sharply to the right and down. Carefully he followed the roof tiles down, down, over the gutter and down into the back garden. God, I’m good at this, he thought. Through the camera in the nose cone he could see lights on in the downstairs windows. Bernard set the machine hovering at head height, 10 metres from the back door, moved his mouse; the little arrow found the red button on the screen. A click and inside the house a phone rang.
“Who’s that calling me in the middle of Strictly?” Margaret Hodge muted the television, put down her mug of tea and picked up the phone. It was a new phone and she hated it. She peered short-sightedly at the screen, looking for the bit she had to touch to answer it. After a moment she realised that she was holding it upside down. “Hello, Margaret Hodge speaking. If you’ve interrupted my favourite programme to try and sell me more bliddy windows I’m going to speak to your supervisor.”
“Hello Mrs Hodge,” said Bernard. “This is Amazon. Your parcel has arrived and is awaiting uplift. It’s at your back door.” As he spoke, Bernard brought the helicopter and its payload down to the path, just outside the back door, where it settled gently and waited, rotors still.
“Parcel? Awaiting uplift? How did it get to my back door? Oh, it’s one of those droney things isn’t it? But I haven’t ordered anything from Amazon. I don’t like Amazon. I got a coat from you once. It didn’t fit.”
“Well, we’ve certainly got something for you now, Mrs Hodge.” said Bernard with professional good cheer. “It’s right outside your back door if you’d care to go out and get it.” Hurry up you old bat, he thought. I’ve another five deliveries before I can go home. He checked his other screens; three of his drones were nearly at their delivery points. He put them into a holding pattern; he had a feeling this delivery was going to take a while.
Margaret reached the back door and was staring balefully out at the little helicopter, which was sitting patiently with its plastic covered parcel.
“It’s raining,” she said into the phone. “And my tea’s getting cold.”
“Can you see the parcel, Margaret? Why don’t you nip out and get it, then we can all get on.”
“Don’t you take that tone with me, young man. You’ve interrupted my telly and now you want me to go out into the rain to get a parcel I didn’t order.” Despite her words, Margaret was pulling on her outdoor shoes and unlocking the door. She approached the machine carefully, expecting it to start turning its little rotors and cut her to shreds at any moment. In his monitor, Bernard saw a small elderly woman in a shapeless orange cardigan and beige trousers edge towards him. She still held the phone to her ear.
“It’s all right Margaret, it’s quite safe. The copter won’t start up again until I tell it to and I won’t do that until you’re safely back in your house. The parcel isn’t connected any more, you can just pick it up.”
“See you don’t start the bliddy thing, young man. I don’t trust it. Could take my bliddy eye out with these bliddy propellers. Don’t know why you lot can’t just stick things in the post like you used to when we had proper post that is.” She leaned down, face suddenly filling the screen.
But Bernard had stopped listening. He was leaning forward peering at the screen.
“Margaret? Is that you?”
“What’s that you’re saying now, you young idiot? Of course it’s me, who else would it be?” She picked up the parcel and hurried back inside. “Now, I’ve got the bliddy parcel, will you take your stupid helicopter off my path and bugger off!”
Bernard laughed. “Now I know it’s you, Margaret Middleton. Nobody else could ever swear like you. This is Bernard. Bernard Meade. Bernard Meade from Lakeside Sec. We went through five years of hell together. Don’t you remember?”
“Bernard Meade? Little Bernie? My word, fancy that. Of course I remember you. How could I forget? But how can it be you – I’m 74, you must be the oldest delivery boy in England.”
“I’ve been here for 10 years. I wanted to retire a while back but they wouldn’t let me. said I was too important to them, a valued team member. But I reckon they don’t want to pay me my pension. They’d rather I just die here, behind my desk. Cheaper for them. And you know we don’t get our state pension till we’re 83 now. But never mind that, why don’t you have a look at your parcel? If you didn’t order it someone’s sent you a present. There might be a message.”
“Hmph, alright then, but I don’t know who would send me a present and I’m missing Strictly.” Despite herself, she was keen to see what was in the parcel, although she wasn’t going to admit that to anyone, not even a childhood sweetheart. As she pulled at the sticky tape her mind travelled back 60 years. She had always had a thing for Bernie, but he had been infatuated with Helen Lawson. A tinny voice squawked at her, she had forgotten Bernard was still there. She put the parcel down and put the phone to her ear.
“Do you remember Helen Lawson? Good looking girl.”
“I do, I do. Lovely lass. Had a bit of a crush on her, truth be told. Only a little one, though; I really fancied someone else. She was always very approachable, was Helen. Very friendly. Not like some people.” Bernard said.
Margaret paused, the parcel forgotten. Was she unfriendly? Had he taken her no-nonsense approach to life as a sign she didn’t like him? She’d always liked him, but he had seemed so quiet, reserved, while she’d been quite the opposite. She suddenly saw herself, with absolute clarity, perhaps for the first time in her life, as other people saw her. She had a flash of what might have been. She bit her lip and her chin wobbled.
“Are you all right there Margaret? You’ve gone very quiet. Not like the Margaret I remember.”
Margaret took a deep breath. “Of course I’m all right, Bernard Meade. Why wouldn’t I be? But I’m buggered if I can get into this parcel.” She was holding it in her hand, turning it over, looking for an opening.
“It’ll be on the long edge, a black and white strip. You pull it.”
“I see it. Let me just put the phone down a minute…”
Margaret was none the wiser when she saw what was in the parcel. A book, green with a strange picture on the cover.
“That’s a funny looking book” Bernard heard her say, faintly. Then Margaret picked up the phone again. “Someone’s sent me a book, Bernie. It’s got a picture of a tomato on the cover. Must be a cook book.” She said.
Bernard laughed. “That’s not a cook book, that’s a book about films, the Rotten Tomatoes Book of Films. One of our best sellers this year. It tells you all you want to know about the best films ever made, according to Rotten Tomatoes; the films that got 100% on their website.”
“I don’t know about websites, and I’ve never heard of the rotten tomatoes” said Margaret. “But there’s no message. I wonder who’s sent me that?”
“Tell you what, Margaret, I’ll have a look at the order from here, and find out for you. I’ll need to hang up, cos I’ve got other work to be getting on with, but I’ll definitely phone you back. Ok?”
“That’ll be lovely, Bernie. My, but it’s been good speaking to you again. I wish we could speak some more.” She brightened. “Maybe we will, when you phone me back! You will phone, won’t you? You’re not just saying?”
“Wild horses couldn’t stop me Margie. Don’t you worry. I’ll speak to you tomorrow, without fail.”
Margaret felt a catch at the back of her throat. Nobody had called her Margie in 60 years. She sat down in her chair and ignoring the gyrations of a jitterbugging David Cameron in the Strictly semi-final, opened her book.
The next day, at 3 o’clock, Margaret was sitting in her favourite chair, by the fire, reading her new book. She was up to film number 315, Odd Man Out, a film from 1947, starring James Mason, which she vaguely remembered and now wanted to see again.
She started as the doorbell rang. When she opened the door she saw a small, old man in an old-fashioned cloth cap. “Bernie! I was expecting you to phone! Come in, come in out of the rain.”
“Don’t mind if I do” said Bernard. In the hall, he waited for Margaret to close the door, then awkwardly leaned towards her and made to give her a peck on the cheek.
“You were always too polite, Bernard Meade,” said Margaret, and embraced him in a bear hug. Flustered, he tried to respond, but as ever didn’t know what to do with his hands. “Come in by the fire, and let me get you a cup of tea.”
Margaret bustled into the kitchen and he looked around the small, over-warm room. There was a chair beside the fire, facing what was clearly Margaret’s own chair, which had the Rotten Tomatoes Book of Films lying open on it. He looked at the open page. “Odd Man Out,” he called through to the kitchen, “now there’s a film. A classic.”
Margaret emerged with a tray laden with mugs of tea, milk, sugar and a plate of chocolate digestive biscuits.
“You like old films then, Bernie? Me too. That’s a brilliant book. Did you find out who sent it me?”
“Now there’s the thing, Margie. It wasn’t meant for you at all. Customer put in the wrong address, would you believe. It was meant to go to number 17 Railway Lane, not 17 Railway Villas. He claimed the Amazon address thingy completed the address wrongly, so I’ve sent him another one. I said this one was lost, unable to recover as we call it, so it’s yours now.”
Margaret looked at the old man sitting across from her. What he said didn’t sound entirely right, but she decided to let it go.
“So how are you then Bernie? How’s your life been these past 60 years or so?”
Bernard set down his tea and looked at her steadily. He’d spent half an hour, sitting in his car, steeling himself for this moment.
“It’s been good, my life, I married a lovely woman, dead these last five years, I have a lovely daughter, she lives in Spain, I see her every six months or so. But you know what? There hasn’t been a day I haven’t thought of you, particularly since Mary died. When I saw you yesterday it brought it all back it made up my mind for me. I’ve chucked in the job at Amazon, made easier by the fact that I crashed three drones yesterday because we were on the phone so long. One of them hit a police car. So I’m out of a job and I’m looking for a new challenge in my life. I Googled you after our chat, so I know you’re in the same boat as me, on your own. I’d like to make you my challenge. I’m going to get to know you properly, and when I do I’m going to ask you to marry me. Or we could just live together, I’m easy. We’ll go through all the old films in that book, together.”
Margaret looked at the small, determined man in her living room. It was, by far, the longest speech she had ever heard from him. For once, she could think of nothing to say.