Finbarr is a small man with short legs, but his strides are long and fast as he crosses the bridge on his way to work. He removes his clock-card from its nest, waits for the click from the machine, and then slides it back into its slot. He’s pensive as he takes his place behind the Poste Restante counter and waits for the General Post Office doors to open.
It’s been three weeks since he went to see the fortune-teller. Three weeks of wondering how to make her prediction happen, of reprimanding himself for being stupid and ignorant for going to see her in the first place. He is aware that he should have known better, but it was her signboard that beckoned him every time he crossed the bridge to get the bus home in the evening.
Madame Rose – the mystic who knows.
He’d managed to avoid the temptation time after time until, one day, he found himself following the cloying scent of incense, down the steps to her basement and into the dinge of her salon.
Did all fortune tellers have large, gold earrings gleaming from their ears? He wondered. Did they all wear colourful scarves on their heads? Were their noses all hooked and their eyes dark?
‘Seet,’ she proffered the chair opposite her.
Did they all speak with bad Eastern European accents?
She was insistent as she held his palm under her nose in the gloom. ‘Eet eez here in dee lines,’ she said. ‘I see eet very clearly.’ Her grip was strong and her fingernails dug into his hand when he tried to snatch it away. ‘There eez no denial. Eef you vant to get ahead in your life you must eleeminate the person who eez standing in your way.’ She released his hand and leaned her face close to his. ‘And you must do thees before the next full moon.’
At first, he ignored her ‘advice’ as nonsense but, as the days edged closer to the full moon, he found himself wondering more and more about it.
Finbarr watches his supervisor Mr Dunne take his place as Head of Poste Restante, behind the counter. He’s a spindly man with a thick moustache that always seems to have debris clinging to its fading brown hairs. A man who lurks behind the unclaimed mail, watching Finbarr, waiting to pounce should he pause in his work.
Mr Dunne folds his arms and surveys his domain, and Finbarr sees his distain as he stares at the elderly lady who comes into the Post Office every Thursday morning to buy a single stamp. She has only one eye and wears glasses that have one lens covered while the other reflects a giant pupil behind its myopic correction. She leans against the Poste Restante counter while she licks and places her stamp and, although post office officials have tried to deter her several times in the past, she shuffles along to drop her letter into the bin marked, in gold writing, ‘LITTER’.
Finbarr knows that at the end of the day Mr Dunne will snarl out his order again: ‘Go and get that old woman’s letter,’ and if Finbarr makes any kind of objection about it, he will snap: ‘You’re the junior member of staff, it’s your job.’
He knows that, before he can leave for the day, he will have to search through the remnants of discarded banana peel, half eaten sandwiches, sticky ice lolly wrappings and other debris, to retrieve the letter and deposit it into the correct mail bag.
He also knows that, if he is ever to raise himself from ‘junior member of staff’ and up the ladder to Post Master General, the odious little man would have to go.
At ten o’clock, Mr Dunne fumes and splutters and checks his watch while Finbarr pretends not to notice. ‘Go on and get me the tea,’ he barks, his moustache bouncing on his weaselly mouth.
Finbarr slouches off behind the shelves, where there’s a small table containing a mug, a flask of milky tea, and a bowl of sugar. He pours the tea into the mug, adds six heaped spoonfuls of sugar, and stirs the tea twenty five times, as instructed, before placing it next to his supervisor.
He is deep in thought and doesn’t notice the well-dressed woman waiting to be served until Mr Dunne shoulders him aside. She’s wearing a tweed jacket with a fur collar and, although her pillbox hat has a net that covers her eyes, he recognises the hooked nose immediately.
‘Good morning, Madam.’ Mr Dunne’s moustache bounces as he forms the words. ‘How can I be of assistance?’
‘Have you a letter for me?’ Her accent is local, but Finbarr knows it’s her.
‘What’s the name?’
Finbarr takes his cue from the exasperated look Mr Dunne throws his way, and moves to search for her mail. He keeps his head bowed as he slides her letter along the counter, hoping she won’t recognise him.
Does she imagine I don’t know who she is? Does she really think the net across her eyes is a good enough veneer?
‘Thank you,’ she says as her gloved hand clutches the letter, and the way she’s looking at him tells him she knows exactly who he is.
As he watches her leave, her black, patent-leather heels tapping across the GPO tiles, he can feel his blood pressure rising.
Does she not know what she has put me through these past weeks?
The heat creeps up around his throat and over his face, but Mr Dunne is watching him and he picks up a pen and starts to make a note in the Poste Restante book.
At the end of the day he walks past the seductive Madam Rose sign, crosses the bridge, and takes his seat on the bus. It’s still bright on this late summer evening and he sees the street photographer across the road jump in front of a couple walking hand-in-hand, his camera at the ready. They try to dodge away from him, but it’s too late.
His camera clicks and he thrusts a card at them. ‘Your photograph will be ready from the shop around the corner tomorrow,’ Finbarr hears him say. ‘Only one-and-sixpence.’
The bus moves off, past shop windows displayed with elegantly dressed mannequins, along busy streets that become quieter and narrower, until it reaches rows of houses with tiny front gardens. He alights at the bus stop outside the empty, boarded-up house where no one has lived for years, and stands for a moment gazing over the wall where weeds and foxgloves have taken over the once neat and colourful garden.
As he walks on to his own house the realisation comes to him. Foxgloves! Then he knows exactly what to do.
Mr Dunne is surprised the next morning when Finbarr brings him tea at ten o’clock without being reminded. Finbarr watches the drops gather along his moustache as he slurps from the mug. By lunchtime Mr Dunne is drooling and vomiting into the wastepaper bin. By three o’clock the ambulance has taken him, clutching his abdomen, off to hospital.
Finbarr cleans the mug and flask, and restores them to their place on the little table.
At the end of the day Jimmy from the Parcel counter comes over: ‘A few of us are going to the Friday night pictures, Finbarr,’ he says. ‘Are you coming?’
‘On the Waterfront.’
‘Marlon Brando!’ Finbarr whoops. ‘I’m there!’
When he crosses the bridge at the end of the evening, his strides are fast and solid. He’s still living in the world of the film he has just seen and remembers the look on the face of the corrupt union boss when the dockworkers throw him into the water. The dockworkers’ triumph feels so close to his own.
He arrives at work on Monday morning to find himself alone and in charge at the Poste Restante counter, and he loves that feeling of freedom.
It’s not long before a Telegraph Messenger boy comes over to him. ‘The Postmaster wants to see you,’ he says.
This is it!
Finbarr straightens his tie, throws back his shoulders, and knocks on the Postmaster’s office door before being summoned inside. Mr Walsh is standing with his back to the door, gazing out of the window. He’s a man whose entire presence seems to resonate from his paunch, and when he turns and slumps into the chair behind his desk his neck disappears altogether.
Finbarr is not offered the seat opposite him.
‘Mr Dunne is out of the hospital.’ Mr Walsh’s lips are glossy with sweat as he heaves himself into a more comfortable position. ‘Seems he ingested Digitalis, although no one seems to know how. He won’t be back to work for a good while, though.’
Finbarr can hardly wait to hear the next sentence.
‘So,’ Mr Walsh says, ‘we’re closing the Poste Restante counter and transferring the job over to the lads at the Parcel counter.’ Finbarr takes a step backwards. ‘You,’ continues Mr Walsh, ‘will go down to the basement to work in the Mail Sorting department.’
At the end of the day Finbarr does not go straight home. Instead he walks the city streets, going in and out of various pubs along the way. By the time he stumbles to the bus stop it is dark and late. The bridge is empty except for someone leaning over the balustrade at the centre and gazing out across the water.
As he gets closer, Finbarr notices the netted, pill-box hat and the hooked nose. His stride slows and he feels the rage rising from his throat, up his face and to the top of his head, making him feel as though he could explode.
She’s standing under one of the lamps, her gloved hands flat on the balustrade, as if she’s preparing to push herself onto it.
Finbarr moves behind her and reaches down to grab her by her black, patent-leather heels. ‘Let me give you a hand,’ he says, as he lifts her off the ground.
She lets out a whimper, then a scream as her body hurtles into the river.
‘It didn’t work!’ He shouts after her, then stands back from the parapet and looks around him.
He has not heard the almost imperceptible click, nor seen the faint flash from across the road. He takes a deep breath and relaxes his body as he looks at the sky. A cloud is moving over the moon, but when it has passed and the moon reappears on the other side, he sees that it is large, round, bright, and completely full.
June Hunter lives and writes in Sneem, County Kerry, Ireland. She has had short stories published in Second Chance – an anthology; and online with Mash, Flash Fiction Magazine, Reflex Fiction and Potato Soup Journal. She takes part in two writer’s groups – Clann na Farraige, Kenmare, and the Sneem Writer’s Group.