If there were ever a ‘most annoying person’ competition up the community centre, I know who’d get my vote. Ever since Myrtle pinched my ‘thank-you’ sweets at the Winter Festival, I’ve had my eye on her. To look at that placid face, those neat washable suits and the perky hand-knitted berets she wears in all weathers, you’d think butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. I know better. Who smuggles whole packets of biscuits into her bag? Myrtle. Who makes off with the spare toilet rolls? Myrtle. Who ‘borrows’ anything not nailed down? Who do you think?
I daren’t say anything, because Myrtle has a genius for pulling the wool over people’s eyes. When she’s not piling on the charm at the over-fifties club, she’s in her church, where she’s very popular. Even Father Wayne, a lovely man who played Santa at our Christmas party, thinks the sun shines out of her polyester-clad backside. ‘Myrtle is so generous,’ he mumbled to Erica, our manager, through a cotton wool beard. ‘She doesn’t have much, but what she has, she gives gladly.’ Which explains where the community centre’s missing biscuits and toilet paper go.
Bub, who knows everyone’s back-story, thinks I should cut Myrtle some slack. ‘Don’t you know the poor woman’s alone in the world? She told me she was evacuated here from the burning slopes of some volcano or other and, when the rest of her family went back, they left her behind. Can you believe it?’
I didn’t tell Bub that I had no trouble believing it. Given a choice between living with Myrtle or an active volcano, I’d choose the volcano any time.
Myrtle is not the only one who’s had a hard life, but other people don’t milk it the way she does. Flo, a retired nurse in her eighties, has mobility issues due to an accident, but she doesn’t complain. Flo never misses Film Club, although her journey to the centre tires her so much that she goes to sleep the moment she sits down in her favourite armchair. Every week, the film plays out to a sound-track of her snores. When the credits roll she wakes up and says, ‘That was a great story! Even better than the last one.’
One afternoon, Flo left her bag open while she dozed through ‘Casablanca’, and woke up to find that her bus pass was missing. She was very upset. One thing pensioners love about being old is free travel. Erica, Bub and I checked all the usual places for her pass, but Flo wasn’t sitting on it, it wasn’t down the back of her armchair and she hadn’t tucked it inside her bra.
‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘How am I going to get home?’
Flo didn’t have enough money on her to pay the bus fare. Erica offered her some petty cash, but Flo wouldn’t accept it. Old ladies can be very stubborn about taking what they see as charity, so I had to drive her home, because lifts don’t count as charity in old-lady-land. Travelling more than a few hundred metres in my rusty Ford Escort is always a challenge, and that day it was pouring with rain and the traffic was heavy. When I unloaded Flo from the passenger seat outside her block, I was a nervous wreck. While I helped her into the lift and up to her flat, I left my car on the pavement. By the time I’d refused a cup of tea, the lift had stopped working and I had to walk down seven flights of stairs, arriving just in time to catch a traffic warden slapping a ticket on the windscreen.
The drive back to the community centre didn’t improve my mood, and I nearly blew my top when I saw Myrtle getting off the bus from a Mall located five miles away. There’s a popular discount store there, and its logo was all over the bags she was carrying. The return fare to the Mall is nine pounds, which is well beyond the budget of most folk around here. Myrtle often complains that she has years to wait before she gets her own free travel pass, so this was all highly suspicious.
Myrtle was taking a short cut across the centre’s car park, in the direction of Father Wayne’s church. No-one else was around. If I was ever going to challenge her about her ‘borrowing’, this was my chance. Feeling a bit like James Bond, I parked without bothering to keep between the lines, leaped out of the car, and confronted her.
‘I have reason to believe you’ve recently made an illicit trip to the Mall,’ I growled.
Myrtle isn’t stupid. She knew her card was marked, so she put down her bags and we faced each other like a couple of gunslingers at the O.K. Corral.
I said, ‘Did you take Flo’s bus pass?’
‘Who’s asking?’ said Myrtle.
‘Your worst nightmare,’ I said, pulling myself up to my full height and realising too late that Myrtle was a couple of inches taller than me. ‘I’ve seen you pocketing the Bourbons and nicking the ultra-quilted, so I suspect you also took Flo’s bus pass. If you don’t give it back to her right away, I’m going to tell Erica.’
‘Knock yourself out,’ she said. ‘You can’t prove nothing. Anyway, I only borrowed it. I’ll give it back to Flo when I’m ready.’
Myrtle was calling my bluff. She was right, I had no evidence. She was an expert at covering her tracks and, if I accused her in public, there were plenty of bleeding hearts like Bub to back her up. And one old lady looks much like another to the average bus inspector, so she wasn’t going to get caught that way. It was time to bring out the big guns.
Weeks earlier, my strimmer had gone missing from the shed where Erica allows me to store the equipment for my one-woman gardening business. A few days later, I saw Father Wayne using it to tidy the front garden of his church. Of course, I knew who was to blame. I didn’t say anything, because Erica had already bought me a new strimmer but, while I watched the good Father attacking the weeds along the vestry wall as if they were mortal sins, I swore I’d get my own back on Myrtle.
‘If you don’t get down to Flo’s with her bus pass right now,’ I said, ‘I’ll tell Father Wayne where you got that strimmer you gave him. Don’t kid yourself you can get away with it, because all my tools are secretly marked.’ They’re not really, but Myrtle doesn’t know that.
I’ve never seen a middle-aged church lady move so fast. She’d stashed her shopping in the bin store and was back at the bus stop before I could say, ‘Shaken, not stirred.’ While I drove home, I wondered how she’d explain it to Flo, but I’d underestimated her. The next day, Erica was full of praise for Myrtle, who’d found the missing pass in a flowerpot the rest of us had overlooked, then gone to all the trouble of delivering it to Flo’s home. As usual, she’d come up covered in roses.
The funny thing is, although Myrtle still annoys me, since that day her ‘borrowing’ has stopped. Bub said, ‘You and Myrtle are getting along better, aren’t you? I told you she’s alright when you get to know her.’
‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘Where Myrtle’s concerned, knowledge is freedom.’
‘What have you been up to?’ said Bub. ‘Don’t tell me, I’d rather not know.’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2. ‘Free Travel’ is the fourth in her series ‘Up the Community Centre’.