Protected Contact
  Seven Stories by Julie Stielstra
  1  Protected Contact
2  Posthumous
3  Little Deaths
4  Begin with Lilies
5  I Never Saw the Sea
6  The Heron
7  Requeening
  About the Author  |  |  November 2017 Fiction Issue


Tess came late to foreign travel. Not until after her husband left her, when their daughter was safely off to college and Tess was forty-four years old. If not given to counting her blessings aloud, she was comfortable enough and had simply assumed that things would go on as they always had. Then one day, puffy-eyed and breathing fast, Roy tried to explain “this girl at work… she’ll be thirty next month and I guess I just want to be able to be with her....” It was so banal, so stupid, so utterly Roy. Tess packed up nineteen boxes of books and Noggs the cat, and moved out without a murmur and barely any tears.

Roy wouldn’t go anywhere he couldn’t drive to himself. They drove to Disney World, to Yellowstone, to Arizona and California (Tess couldn’t for the life of her remember why they wanted to go to California). She wanted to go somewhere far, somewhere where the money was different, and, as someone said in her high school senior play: “where they don’t talk English and don’t even want to.”

She got a passport. Her courage failed her, though, when it came to the not talking English part, so she went to London. A package tour would make her first attempt easier, she thought — flight and hotel and all arranged, and London should be green and blooming in May.

It was dismal. A Holiday Inn hotel, bus tours, manufactured “luncheons” in “real English pubs,” where everyone in the place had gotten off another tour bus. A mass outing to Les Miz, when she really wanted to see War Horse (“Oh, that would be much too sad!” chirped the guide).

They went to Westminster Abbey, of course. Walking in the door was stunning, into that shapely, towering space. But she sidled away along the rows of folding chairs to where her guidebook showed the Poet’s Corner. Before she got all the way across, there was a little cleared space on the floor where no chairs stood. She looked down, and there, side by side, were Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy (and Kipling, whose presence she tolerated for the sake of his son Jack, lost in the mud of Loos). She was too self-conscious to kneel. The dearest companions of her youth and middle age. Hardy had given her her own name when others still called her Theresa (or, worse, Terry). And Dickens could always sweep her away, away from her cataloger’s desk in the community college library, away from a disloyal spouse and a mystifying daughter who was too engrossed in pop bands and cheerleading to notice. Tess decided she should have married Newman Noggs, the gentle, alcoholic, honorable and dishonored clerk, best friend to Nicholas Nickleby: to protect and cherish him as his gallant if flawed nature deserved. Instead she named a cat after him. Which was the next best thing.

Next year she would come back to London, and she would come back alone. She would come back and be someone else next time.


Somehow she got turned around coming out of the Dickens Museum late in the darkening January afternoon. What she thought should be Guilford Street turned out to be Theobald’s Road. Tess had seen Londoners with their A-Z mapbooks peeking out of purses and pockets, so she was not ashamed to pull hers out to reconnoiter. Who could resist a slanting alley called Lamb’s Conduit Passage? She’d been rambling through London for a couple of days now, heading down any street whose name appealed to her, rather as she chose wine because she liked the look of the label. She had checked for a Noggs Street, but hadn’t found one. The passage emerged into Red Lion Square; Fisher Street sounded promising but wasn’t. She knew where she was now, nearly to Bloomsbury Square. Glancing down a side street, a swinging signboard caught her eye: Krook’s Books. If it lived up to its namesake, the filthy, combustible hoarder of junk in Bleak House, it might be a little scary but you never knew what you might find there!

A small bell tolled when she pushed open the door. It was small and neat and the dry floorboards flexed beneath her feet with gentle sighs of protest. There was no one there, except a gray-haired man in the alcove behind the counter. He sat in an old armchair in front of an electric heater, with a book in his lap and a nearly empty wineglass at his elbow. Also in front of the heater was a misshapen basket containing what had apparently once been part of a fur coat and a large gray cat. The man — younger than she had thought at first — glanced up, nodded to her, and went back to his book. Camus’s First Man, she noticed. She always noticed.

Edging down the narrow aisles between the shelves (knocked together two-by-sixes, crudely stained), Tess started her litmus tests: Austen, Brontë… wait! Emma by Charlotte Brontë? She peeled it out of the shelf: a posthumous fragment…and she’d never even heard of it. Cradling it, she slowed to the focused pace of a mushroom hunter. All fiction, only fiction. A special edition of Dickens’s Drood, containing all the efforts others had made to finish the book he was working on when he dropped dead in his study. She’d never cared for Drood. Forester… a final Hornblower she hadn’t read. She added it to the crook of her arm on top of Emma. Gaskell — the works — but she already had at least two copies of Wives and Daughters. Holtby — my God, he had all of them! She piled them up. She snatched a title from the S’s. Jose Saramago was dead, and she already owned everything… except this one, an early novel only now translated from the Portuguese. Death had not quite silenced him.

She dropped her hoard on the counter and the man set Camus down and rose from the deep old chair.

“You did rather well for yourself,” he said. He was very tall and looked down at her with a slow smile. His hair needed cutting. The cat stretched itself out of the basket, strolled out around the counter and leaned into her calf.

“I did. Everything I could think of, you have — and then some!” Tess reached down to scratch the cat’s cheek. “And please tell me this cat’s name is Lady Jane.” He smiled more broadly. His sallow, acne-scarred face reshaped into something flushed and boyish.

“You know your Bleak House, then!” he said. “His predecessor was indeed Lady Jane, but he has neither the gender nor the temperament of that evil old cat. This is Skimpole.” He watched her face. She laughed.

“Perfect! Lazy, feckless, assuming all the world will take care him, and completely charming.” The cat purred charmingly.

“Would you like a drink?” the man said. “It’s shutting-up time anyway. Amontillado?”

Tess would very much have liked to be someone who liked sherry. She would have loved to sip a small footed glass of sherry before dinner, in an emerald green silk dress. And she could pretend to be anyone she wanted to be, traveling. She could be a violinist traveling to London for an audition at St Martin in the Fields; she could be a novelist on her way to the Frankfurt Book Fair. She could be what perhaps she should have been: an academic going to present a learned paper on the dog imagery of Dickens or on the poetry of Wilfred Owen. She could also be, and had fiercely determined to be, exactly who she was: a middle-aged woman in blue jeans and a Burberry scarf she couldn’t afford but had bought anyway. And she couldn’t stand sherry. The very smell of it made her swallow hard. She temporized.

“Amontillado? I hope it isn’t deep in the bowels of your cellars…”

“Not at all — I couldn’t afford a whole cask anyway. I keep it handy.” He offered his hand over the counter. “I’m William McBride.” She grasped his hand, a beautiful, large hand with clean straight tendons and broad square nails. The hand of the bronze soldier laid out beneath his greatcoat at the Royal Artillery monument.

“How do you do, Mister William McBride?”

“Would you like to sit down here, by my fireside?” he answered.

She had once driven two hundred miles to hear a balding Australian songwriter sing a song to a dead boy named Willie McBride, one of many fallen boys of 1916. Once she had heard him sing the song he had written, the song that made her weep in her seat, she never listened to it again. She had offered the first line, and William McBride had returned a version of the second. She did not want to let go of William McBride’s beautiful hand.

“My name is Tess Watson,” she said. “I would like to have a drink with you, but I really can’t stand sherry.”

“How do you feel about Irish whiskey?” he asked.

“Much, much better,” she answered.

“Then follow me,” he said.

The cat sashayed ahead of them into a back room, where William McBride unlocked a door and ducked under the lintel of a narrow stair. Tess followed. He wore soft corduroy trousers in that rich tobacco brown she had only seen in England. They hung loosely off his hips; the wide wales were worn to velveteen across the seat. The elbows of his sweater were bagged into fuzzy mesh.

Is this where I am raped, strangled and incinerated in the boiler in the cellar? she wondered.

“You’re not Jack the Ripper, are you?” she asked.

“Sorry, no. He’s down in Whitechapel. Though I hear he’s been up Yorkshire way in recent years,” said William McBride.

A bedsit above the shop. The mate to the armchair downstairs, with a good lamp. A ridiculous London kitchen, with a two-burner cooktop, one linear foot of counter and a dwarfish refrigerator skulking beneath it. Skimpole yodeled.

“Forgive me,” said William McBride. “Priorities, you know.”

“Oh, I know,” Tess said. “My Noggs is also very particular about his schedule.” She could tell by the set of William McBride’s shoulders that he was smiling again.

The Bushmills fumed sweetly at the back of her throat. Tess drank it sitting on a chest at the foot of the bed. The bed was fitted into a dormer lined with bookshelves. From where she sat she skimmed titles: Capote’s Answered Prayers, James’s Ivory Tower… You could wake up in the night and reach down something to read without even having to sit all the way up.

Yes, in London on vacation. She was from Minneapolis. She was staying over near the British Museum — three more days. National Gallery — yes, Imperial War Museum, oh, yes. Big Ben, Westminster, the Tower — that was last time, in the group, so she wasn’t going to do those again. The Eye, of course? No, thanks, much too tall and spindly. Aha — how about the Monument? The Great Fire Monument. She hadn’t thought of that. Now there’s a climb and a view… tomorrow? Really? Yes, thanks, that would be really nice.

When he bent to splash a little more whiskey into her glass, he was looking at her face and not the glass, and she knew that he wanted to kiss her and she wanted him to. He did. Skimpole jumped down off the bed with an irritable mumble.

She lay looking up at him braced above her on slender arms. Between her thighs, he bumped and nudged until she whispered, “Please…”

“Are you sure?” he said into her ear. “It will never feel quite like this again.”

“Please,” she said again.


“What’s this from?” she asked. She ran a fingertip along the scar, a broad chevron pointed beneath his breastbone and splayed across his belly.

“Oh,” he said, cupping her hand. “Old surgery. Spleen. You must be hungry.” She was.

“Have you had a decent fish and chips yet?”

“One place, I tried, but I wanted one in wrapped in newspaper,” she said.

“Niki’ll do that if you like, but we can also sit at a formica table on old linoleum. How’s that sound?”

It was two doors down the street. Next door was an undertakers.

“Convenient,” said William McBride. “When I die, Tom Lynch and his boys can just step upstairs and bring me down.”

The chippie had a counter open onto the street, and a side door into a narrow room with the promised formica tables on checkered linoleum. Tess felt William McBride’s hand on her shoulder as he introduced her to a beautiful dark young man behind the counter.

“Tess Watson, meet Niki Patel. Niki’s father Niel has been my landlord for lo, these many years. How is your father?”

Patel’s eyes slid from her to William McBride and back again, and then he smiled at her.

“He is well,” said Niki. “How are you?”

“Tess is visiting from the States and…”

“And you told her you knew where the best fish and chips in London were to be found!”

“Exactly!” cried William McBride. “Two large orders please.”


She woke in the night in William McBride’s bed, and the space beside her was occupied only by the cat. William McBride was reading The Pale King (he kept his upstairs and downstairs reading separate) in the old armchair, with a blanket over his shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” she mumbled, scraping her hair out of her mouth. “I should go.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said pleasantly. “No taxis at this hour. Go back to sleep. I’m an insomniac. That’s why my bed has books all around it. Go to sleep.” She did. The cat purred.

In the morning there was coffee. Not tea, not nasty instant granules: real coffee, hot, black, strong, made in a simple glass pot with a plunger. She vowed to buy one when she got home.

“We’ll go get your things from your hotel,” said William McBride. “After breakfast.”

She began to see why people read romance novels. She was having a vacation fling, she thought. With this nice, nice man. Who read books. Who named his shop and his cat from Dickens. Maybe he did this all the time, picked up women who walked into his shop. But she chose not to think so.


They did climb to the top of the London Monument. In a city full of monuments, she enjoyed it being known simply as “The Monument.” She went stepping smartly up the spiraling steps with William McBride behind her, thinking how easy the shallow steps made the climb. At first. 300 steps, 200 feet or so… well, that did add up to climbing, what, 18 stories? Tess heard William breathing behind her. They unzipped their coats. Another fifty, and she paused to let them catch their breath. William McBride shook his head ruefully and said only, “I lead a rather sedentary life, you know.” They sweated inside the stone tube, hauling along by the clammy iron railing. And then they emerged onto the dizzying narrow terrace, wired under a chain-link canopy (“Too many suicides,” William McBride explained), with the city spreading metastatically around them. The morning was mild, with great piled cloudbanks shifting, parting and closing, blinkering the fitful sun. Tess peered up at the riot of gilded prickles spewing from the huge orb at the top.

“Supposed to be flames,” said William McBride.

“Looks more like it’s horrified, with all its hair on end!” said Tess. William McBride laughed. He leaned back against the shaft, and Tess leaned back into him, twining her arms over his around her waist.

“Thank you for coming,” he said. Tess had no answer.


They walked and walked. How easy it was to simply amble along with a Londoner. He turned them up Old Bailey, but of course Newgate Prison was no longer there. A side turn down Snow Hill, where a police station occupied the site of the Saracen’s Head Inn, where unwanted boys had been packed off to a wretched Yorkshire school by a vicious one-eyed schoolmaster. Skirting the pavilions of the Smithfield markets, where Oliver Twist had roamed through its reeking butcheries, they doglegged across and up Saffron Hill, where the Three Cripples tavern had stood — where Bill Sikes had once gotten drunk, they now served Thai food. A few more blocks, and William McBride took Tess’s hand and told her to close her eyes. He towed her around a corner, squared her shoulders and told her to look where they were.

Bleeding Heart Yard!” she cried.

“And what would you want to find in Bleeding Heart Yard?” he asked, grinning.

“Doyce and Clennam’s, of course,” she said. The cheery, clanking, spinning factory of mysterious purpose (Dickens really had no idea what such a factory would actually do, so he’d left it rather vague) supervised by the morose and rootless Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit. “And the Plornish family, too!” she added.

“Plornish moved out a long time ago, but…”

Doyce and Clennam’s was a pretentious and overpriced restaurant, but it had handsome woodwork and expansive windows, and the lunch and bitters were good. Tess had to remind herself that these people: Oliver, Sikes, Little Dorrit, Plornish… they had never existed. Yet their London haunts felt as genuine as the yard where Anne Boleyn had lost her head. Tess had never been so happy in her life. They splurged on a cab to go home.

Tess curled up in the old armchair, having pulled Forster’s Arctic Summer from the shelves, as William McBride napped gently in the afternoon. Skimpole purred some more.


She would not let him come to the airport with her. She couldn’t bear to sit there, an hour on the Tube, checking in, waiting around, killing time, saying goodbye in the crush of Heathrow. She was afraid she would cry and blubber and make more of this parting than it should be. He did not ask if she would ever come again. She did not ask if he had ever thought of visiting the States. To what end? They had their lives and jobs and homes, thousands of miles apart. He had a computer — a hulking cathode tube job on the desk in the shop, but never mentioned email. She did one thing. She wrote her email address and cell phone number on the back of a business card. She placed it as a bookmark in Arctic Summer, and left the book on the table beside the armchair. That’s all.

They did not utter the word goodbye. At the door of Krook’s Books, William McBride held her very close, and said only, “Oh, Tess.” She walked away toward the Holborn Street tube station, with the sound of her own name trembling. No one had ever said her name like that. She never did cry, after all.


For weeks, she jumped every time her phone chirped. She opened her email with her heart quietly seizing. Nothing. Nothing at all. She should have left her home address, she thought furiously. He might have written. He did not. Nor did she. It was a vacation fling. She returned to Library of Congress Classification, to trying again (and failing) to read Henry James, and drinking white zinfandel from a 5 liter box. Bushmills was astonishingly expensive, and it didn’t taste the same anyway. William McBride presumably returned to Camus, his Amontillado, and seducing his customers with the shaft of the Great Monument. She wished she had made it to the Tate, as she had planned.


In September, Roy sold the house.

He and Susie or Sally or whatever her name was decided to live together, and Sally or Susie didn’t want to live in the house where Tess had lived. So he sold it. Tess got half. It took her two weeks to decide. She booked a hotel and a flight. It took another two weeks before she wrote the postcard, one she had bought at the Dickens Museum, of a quailing Oliver Twist with empty bowl and spoon in hand. She wrote, “Arriving Tuesday, 11/11, Rhodes Hotel, Paddington — TW” and dropped it in the mailbox four days before her flight, so she would not know if he answered or not.


She laid a paper poppy on the breast of the bronze soldier beneath his greatcoat on Tuesday afternoon. She went to the Tate on Wednesday, in case she missed her chance again. Then she walked across Red Lion Square, along Fisher Street and turned the corner.

Could she have missed the street? No. There was Lynch & Sons, there was Niki’s fish and chips. The swinging sign was an empty bracket. The shop was dark. It was empty. It had a To Let sign in the window. He was gone.

Tess did not know what to do. She strode on after a moment, to the end of the street, then came back, trying to look as though she knew what she was doing and where she was going. The young man at the counter of the chippie called out to her, “Can I help you, miss?” She went to him.

“There was a bookshop there…” she said.

“Yes, Mr. McBride’s shop. So sad,” he said. Tess gazed dumbly. The young man looked at her with concern.

“You’re Niki Patel?” she ventured.

“I am,” he said. “You — you were William’s friend!” She nodded. “You are Tess Watson!” She nodded again.

“Oh, Miss Watson, I am so sad about this. He was ill, you know?” She shook her head. She could not form any words, gathering and throbbing in her throat.

“Yes, yes, he was very ill. He had a cancer, in his liver — he had surgery, oh, two years ago. They thought it was gone, but it was not. It came back.” He turned from Tess and pulled a large cup of tea from the urn behind him and handed it to her where she stood, shivering in the darkening street.

“I am very sorry to tell you. But the saddest thing of all, I think, is that he decided he would not have any treatment. No more surgery, no more drugs. He laid down in his bed, and took sleeping pills. I called the police because he had not opened his shop for three days and I had not seen him. I am so sorry.”

“Where is Skimpole?” Tess cried out. “Where is the cat?” Niki Patel smiled sadly.

“He is here. My wife brought him in to us. What better place for a cat to live than a fish and chips shop?” Tess wiped her eyes on her coat sleeve and spilled her tea on the pavement.

“When?” she asked. “When did he know?” Niki Patel paused and thought.

“Last Christmastime, I think? Before you came. I was glad a friend had come to him when I met you. And Miss Watson, he left notes. He left notes about everything. One was for you.” He poked at his cell phone and murmured to someone, and in a minute a young woman appeared with an envelope she placed in Tess’s hand. She pressed Tess’s hand and touched her cheek before she let go.

Tess stood under the streetlight and read three lines:

I hope you died quick and I hope you died clean,

Or Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

In one loyal heart, you are ever enshrined. WM


Oh, the endings there could have been! One where she walks into the bookshop, and William is there, and he stands up with that slow, pleased smile, hugs her tight and there is no shadow of parting again. Or, she is in time. He has not chosen to die yet. She quits her job, moves into William McBride’s flat, and is with him for the end. She keeps the bookshop open. The Patels let her have Skimpole back, with a lifetime supply of plaice.

But she does not want to write this one, this ending that starts here on the sidewalk with spilled tears and tea and an empty window.

  © Julie Stielstra, 2017


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