Mike Bristow was awake long before the alarm clock went off. He muffled the beeping as soon as it began and looked across at his wife in the bed beside him. Emily’s long, blonde hair tumbled loosely across the pillowcase as she stirred and turned over.
‘Hope the new job goes well,’ she murmured, before going back to sleep.
‘Thanks,’ Mike said. He got out of bed and crept from the room so as not to disturb her further. He almost tripped over their black Labrador who was asleep outside the bedroom door. The dog got up, stretched, yawned and wagged its tail.
The cold, February morning was still dark outside when Mike let the Labrador into the back garden. He left the dog to roam and went into the bathroom to shave. He stared into the mirror. The harsh fluorescent light made his face look drawn. His grey, receding hair merged with his pale skin. His light blue eyes had dark circles beneath.
Once ready, Mike threw some crisps and chocolate bars into his bag, unable to face anything to eat so early. He then let the dog back in before leaving the house.
When Mike arrived at the distribution depot he noticed a group of people standing around at the far end of the yard. He made his way over.
‘I’m Mike Bristow, new van driver. Can anyone tell me what I need to do, please?’
‘Ah, Mike.’ A petite woman with a pinched face appeared through a nearby doorway carrying a clipboard. ‘You’re assigned to round 3 today.’
‘Round 3 is mine,’ a stocky, rotund man interjected.
‘I’ve moved you onto round 10 Neil because you’re more experienced,’ replied the woman.
‘No chance, Kathryn. That’s Castlington. Not going there. I’m sticking to round 3,’ Neil said stubbornly.
‘All right. I can’t be bothered to argue with you again about this.’ Kathryn sighed and looked around at the group. ‘Anyone willing to switch to round 10?’ The drivers glanced at one another and all shook their heads. ‘OK, it’ll have to be you, Mike. I’m sorry.’
‘No problem. What’s wrong with round 10 anyway?’
‘Nothing, they’re being stupid,’ Kathryn said.
‘Then explain to us why every driver that goes to Castlington always quits that day? Some bloke from the town has to bring his van back.’ Neil gave the woman a challenging glare.
‘Maybe it’s because you’ve freaked them out with your daft comments.’ Kathryn glared back at Neil.
‘There’s something weird about that place,’ Neil huffed.
‘I’ll report back later,’ Mike said and put out his hand for the clipboard containing the day’s orders. He needed this job to work out.
The first drop on the schedule was in a village several miles from Castlington. Mike drove gently down the country lanes, unused to the van. The hedgerows sparkled with frost in the early morning light. He located a small cottage with latticed windows that he ascertained to be the address of his first drop and knocked on the front door. An elderly man answered, took the parcel and signed for it. ‘You’re an early bird,’ he said. ‘Where are you off to next?’
‘Another drop near here, then Castlington.’
‘Castlington, eh? Bunch of inbreds there. Everyone’s sister is also their grandmother, and probably their mother-in-law as well.’
Mike glanced at his delivery schedule. Each drop on the list had a different surname. He smiled and waved goodbye to the old man, who shuffled back inside.
A young woman wearing a leopard-skin print onesie came to the door of the next house. Her hair was vivid indigo and she held a toddler on her hip. She took the parcel and put it between her knees in order to scrawl an unintelligible signature with her free hand.
‘Is that the right direction for Castlington?’ Mike pointed towards a left hand fork in the road.
‘Castlington?’ The woman gave him a strange look and shut the door.
‘They’re all mad.’ Mike returned to the van, shaking his head in disbelief. He got in, started the engine and having checked his satnav took the road to the left.
‘Welcome to Castlington,’ a sign with bold black lettering on a white background announced Mike’s arrival in the town. He was ahead of schedule. Feeling hungry, he pulled into a car park beside a duck pond with ice around its perimeter and watched a couple of moorhens as he ate a packet of crisps. There was a deserted playpark nearby. In the distance a man with short, dark hair was walking along the pavement past a row of independent shops. Someone turned on the lights in the greengrocers and flipped the sign around. The door of the newsagents opened and a tall woman with short, dark hair stepped out and walked past him towards a nearby street. He munched on a chocolate bar and then picked up his mobile phone to call Emily.
‘Did you get back to sleep?’ he asked.
‘Yes, until the dog started whining to go out again. How’s the new job?’
‘I think my colleagues are on a windup. They’re trying to freak me out about the round I’m on, pretending there’s something peculiar about the place that they’ve sent me to.’
‘Where are you?’
‘What’s it like?’
‘All right,’ Mike said, looking around him. ‘I’m just having something to eat in a car park by a duck pond. There’s some shops, a children’s playground and there’s a sign for a leisure centre. The usual kind of thing. Not many people about, but it’s still early.’ He glanced in the rear view mirror as he said this. His face looked less drawn than it had done in the fluorescent light of the bathroom. ‘Seems well cared for.’
‘Never been there. It sounds nice.’
‘It is. Anyway, I’d best get on. Be back later. Bye.’
‘Bye,’ Emily said, and cut the call.
Mike looked down at his delivery schedule. The first drop in the town was within walking distance of where he was parked, so he got out of the van and searched in the back for the parcel. It was a small cardboard box, which he tucked under his arm. Mike locked the van and made his way towards a row of Edwardian houses opposite the duck pond. He located number 19 and rang the doorbell. A tall, thin man with short, dark hair and a long, freckled face opened the door. He nodded curtly, took the parcel, signed for it and retreated back inside. Mike returned to the van and checked his delivery list. The next drop was a couple of streets away, so he started the engine and drove there.
He parked easily and located the door of number 38. Mike rang the bell and this time could see the silhouette of a female through the glass of the porch where the house door stood ajar. She too was tall and thin with short, dark hair. ‘I’m lucky to find you in. You were coming out of the newsagents a few minutes ago, weren’t you?’
‘I haven’t been anywhere this morning,’ she said, accepting her parcel.
‘Oh, I thought I saw someone who looked just like you,’ Mike said, noting her long, freckled face was a feminine version of the man who had opened the door of the last house. ‘Have you got a brother who lives locally?’
‘No,’ she replied and closed the door.
Mike retreated to his van. ‘Inbreds.’ The words of the elderly man he’d met on his first delivery began to play through his mind.
The next parcel on the list was for the butcher’s shop near to where Mike had parked earlier. He drove back and left the van on the street outside. The shop bell rang as he walked through the door. A glass counter displaying sausages, beef burgers, chicken fillets and other meats ran the length of one wall with a serving space behind it. ‘Be with you in a sec,’ a voice called from an adjoining room.
‘No problem,’ Mike said. He perused a selection of home-made pies in a chiller cabinet. The steak one looked appetising. He decided to purchase it.
Footsteps drew near and a tall, thin man with a long, freckled face and short, dark hair emerged. ‘What can I do for you, Sir?’
‘Oh, hello again. I’ve got another parcel for you and I’d like a steak pie, please.’
‘Hello again? Another parcel?’ The man looked at him as he took the pie from the chiller cabinet and placed it in a bag. ‘Have we met before?’
‘Yes, I delivered a parcel to your house opposite the duck pond this morning. Don’t you remember?’
‘I live the other side of town, next to the community centre,’ the butcher said. ‘It wasn’t me.’
‘Do you have a twin? Mike said.
‘No,’ the butcher said.
‘Sorry, mistaken identity.’ Mike took the pie and paid for it before handing over the parcel for a signature.
He went back to his van and drove to the car park by the duck pond again to eat the pie. An elderly man was sitting on a bench throwing bread to the ducks. He had his back to Mike, but his age was obvious from his hunched shoulders. Nonetheless his hair was still dark. A teenage boy walked past engrossed in his mobile phone. His long, freckled face showed deep concentration. A younger version of the woman Mike had met earlier pushed a dark haired child on a swing. Mike glanced in his rear view mirror. He looked away and then looked back again, trying to figure out what was different.
Mike felt a sense of satisfaction as he returned the van back to the depot later that day, all deliveries made. Several of the other drivers were already there, sitting around talking amongst themselves. They looked up as he walked in.
‘Knew that bloke Mike wouldn’t be able to handle Castlington,’ Neil said.
‘You really ought to grow up. It’s not even funny,’ Mike said. ‘Nothing wrong with that place.’ He slammed down his clipboard and van keys.
‘Then perhaps you’d like to drive delivery van 10 tomorrow,’ Neil replied.
‘I’m intending to. It’s my job,’ Mike said and left. He returned to his car and started up the engine. He glanced at his reflection in the rear view mirror. His dark eyes flashed with anger.
Emily was out walking the dog when Mike got home. He kicked off his shoes, hung his coat on a rack in the hallway and went into the living room. He sank into his armchair and was about to switch on the television when he noticed some framed photographs on a table beside the chair. He picked them up one by one and examined them. Emily was smiling, her long, blonde hair glinting in the sunlight. He looked at the man beside her. In some photographs he was young with fair hair. In more recent ones it had turned to grey. He had light blue eyes and a pale complexion.
Mike took the photographs and went back into the hallway to look into the mirror. Dark eyes stared back at him from a long, freckled face. His hair was short and dark. Mike took the photographs back into the living room and replaced them on the table. He then went into the kitchen and scrawled an apologetic note to Emily. He had to leave. This wasn’t his home any more. There was somewhere else he belonged. Mike put his house keys beside the note, retrieved his coat and shoes, then left. The automatic lock on the front door clicked as he pulled it shut behind him. He went back to his car, started the engine and reversed out of the driveway. He needed to return to his own people. He had to get back to Castlington – the most normal town in England.
I wrote this story for an anthology called, ‘The Most Normal Town in England,’ which was published by Didcot Writers in December 2018. A copy of the anthology can be purchased from Amazon by following this link: