The Wicker Man

This story first appeared, and was Highly Commended, in the Crossing The Tees anthology in 2018.

Crossing The Tees Alan Parkinson

Dennis straightened his tie in the mirror, a bright affair this morning; it may not have reflected his mood but one had to keep up appearances. A classic navy blazer, crisp white shirt, beige chinos and freshly polished brogues made up the rest of his outfit. A pocket square finished it, complimenting the tie; never matching, that wouldn’t do.

He ran the comb through his grey hair one final time, then again through his waxed moustache. He put on his thick rimmed glasses, the look complete, he was now ready to face the world.

Dennis’s daily outing to the newsagents to buy a copy of The Times could be anything from a pleasant stroll to a minefield of abuse. Today was the latter.

“Nonce!” A group of children passed on the other side of the road, laughing; neither knowing nor caring if it caused offence. It was an insult he had grown used to; as hurtful as it was unfounded. The world didn’t approve of eccentrics these days, at least not in this part of the world.

On TV, on the reality shows that Dennis never watched, it was fine. In far off places that people only read about in magazines or on social media, eccentricity was great. On a run down estate in the North East of England, it wasn’t welcome.

He collected his newspaper and headed home, taking in his surroundings, trying to see beauty in the greyness. The seagull fighting with a plastic food carton, a dog barking in a far off yard. Had he been on the other side of the globe, it was all character that would be recorded in his travel journal.

As he walked up his garden path it wasn’t hard to see why people thought him a little odd. Straw huts may be all the rage in Bali or Sub Saharan Africa but not in the drizzle of Hartlepool. His house wasn’t a hut, it was a quite beautiful bungalow. His life’s work; constructed out of hundreds of rattan baskets of all shapes and sizes.

So what if it didn’t meet building regulations? He was the only one living there, he wasn’t putting anyone in danger. Who cared that it didn’t offer much protection against the elements in the harsh northern winters? He’d tried to insulate it, filling the baskets with blankets, old quilts and towels, clothes that had aged but he couldn’t bear to throw away, decades old newspapers telling of how things used to be; nothing much had changed.

He looked along the street at the identikit boxes and he knew his was a thing of beauty in comparison. But people didn’t like different, not on the tiny corner of the globe that Dennis called home.

He ate his breakfast whilst leafing through The Times. Half a grapefruit, followed by poached eggs on wholemeal toast, then a black coffee. He cleared the dishes away and removed one of the hundreds of travel books from the bookshelf.

India, a place of so many contradictions. The vibrant colours, clashing with the darkness of poverty. The spicy aroma of exotic dishes competing with the stench of filth. He closed his eyes and he could almost smell it, he was almost there.

The rattle of the letterbox shook him out of his daydream and an envelope dropped onto the straw mat with a satisfying thud.

He opened it; a passport.

His first one.

He smiled. “A little late,” he thought.

He put it on the table alongside the letter. The letter that he had been ignoring for some weeks. The letter that he could ignore no more, today was the day.

He decided that a change of clothes was appropriate. He wouldn’t be venturing out again and had no intentions of answering the door to anyone. He changed into an immaculate pair of silk pyjamas, slippers, smoking jacket and a cravat. Today was definitely a cravat day.

He poured himself a large brandy and waited.

The sun came out from behind a cloud and cast beautiful shadows through the gaps in the baskets; dancing on the floor, reminding him of the shadow puppets of India that he had never seen.

It was moments like this that convinced him that he was right to build the house. It was a shame that the council didn’t agree.

He almost felt the rumble of the bulldozer before he heard it. Its orange flashing light waltzing with the blue lights of the police car to create more majestic shadows. This was as close as he would get to the bright lights of Tokyo or Hong Kong. He closed his eyes once more, imagining faraway places.

He took a sip of brandy as the letterbox rattled once again. No envelope this time; a visitor. There was no need to answer, he knew who it was.

The council planning officer had been nothing but fair with Dennis; he was only doing his job. Dennis hadn’t applied for planning permission, hadn’t adhered to any building regulations, and he had stopped communicating with the council long ago. The letter on the table was the last straw.

Today was the day they were coming to evict him and demolish his home.

“Well,” thought Dennis, “not before I’ve finished this brandy.”

He could hear a crowd gathering outside, drawn to the blue flashing lights that would normally be a warning to run in the opposite direction.

He took another sip of brandy.

The planning officer pleaded through the letterbox but now wasn’t the time for negotiation.

Dennis lit his cigar with a match, never a lighter, and took a long puff on it, relishing its bitter taste on his tongue and savouring the coffee like finish.

He read  the letter from the council one final time then touched the corner onto the tip of his cigar.

Once fully alight, he dropped it into a basket containing all of the other correspondence from the council and his travel journal; the pages untouched. It took seconds before it took hold fully, seconds before the planning officer realised what was happening and ran up the path screaming for someone to call the Fire Brigade.

It took less than a minute for all of the wicker baskets to catch on, the crowd gawping at the inferno, the funeral pyre.

Dennis closed his eyes, took in the smell, the flickering flames casting shadows over his eyelids, and he drifted away on one final journey.