Nerys sits at her table in the window, knitting mechanically with pin-thin fingers and squinting at the world through wire-rimmed glasses. Propped up in front of her is a sign. It reads ‘Toy Soldiers For Free’, but there are no little plastic men to be seen. Her front door is open, inviting passers-by inside providing they can negotiate a sullen stray Yorkshire Terrier, which is slumped in front of her gate.
One man does just that, shuffling the dog out of the way with his foot. ‘Hello?’ he says as he steps into the hallway.
He sidles into the lounge. The brown wallpaper is peeling away from walls in dire need of plaster, the grey carpet is fading badly and stuffing oozes from a long rip in the tattered green sofa. ‘You said you had toy soldiers?’ he ventures.
‘Not for you.’
‘Not for you.’
He leaves, like so many others before him, confusion creasing his brow as he curses inwardly at the mad old woman.
Nerys slumps in her chair. He hadn’t been her Bradley, she’d seen that straight away. She hasn’t seen her son since he vanished that day, years ago, just before Christmas. But if she ever lays eyes on him again, no matter how he might have changed, she knows she’ll recognise him.
She pats the box beneath the table. It contains toy soldiers. They had always been Bradley’s favourites. She remembers the war games he used to play on the floor, the cries of ‘bang bang’ and ‘I’m hit, I’m hit!’ as another unfortunate warrior met an untimely end.
Nerys peers around the dank lounge. This wasn’t her home. Never had been. She’d just been put here and forgotten about. A few months after Bradley disappeared and the police had said there was nothing more they could do, Gerald had left her and shacked up with some tart from the other side of town. He was the one who’d paid the rent. She couldn’t afford it herself. She’d told the people who came for her that if they moved her then Bradley wouldn’t know where to find her when he returned. But they just shook their heads, put her in a van and dropped her off at this slum, where she’d spent years on her own with only fear and rage for company. She can feel that rage whispering to her now and she closes her eyes and listens to it for a moment, clenching her fists and feeling her overlong nails tear into the translucent skin on the palms of her hands. Eventually she pushes it away, glances down at the box and half-smiles. No, not only fear and rage. There was still hope too. She lets herself bathe in it for a while. One day, the hope tells her, Bradley will come looking for her. He’ll see the sign and come inside.
Then she can give him his Christmas present.
David Cook’s work has appeared in Spelk, Ellipsis Zine, Ginger Collect and more. Find more of his work at davewritesfiction.wordpress.com and say hello on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter.