Fiction
“Excuse me. Might I have a word?”

 

The speaker was a dumpy little woman, probably in her mid-sixties. Ronnie cursed herself for being so judgmental. She ought to be more positive. The woman came to the gym regularly. She was at least making an effort. Anyway, the customer was always right. That had been a fundamental part of her training.

“How can I be of assistance?” She pulled her lips into what she hoped was a convincing smile.

“I thought you had a policy of not allowing people to keep their things in the lockers overnight.”

“That is correct, Madam.”

“Only it’s locker 13, you see.”

“Locker 13?”

“It’s always occupied.”

“Perhaps you just come at the time as someone else.”

The woman snorted. “Who would want locker 13? Apart from me. Thirteen is my lucky number.”

Ronnie could picture locker 13. Just to the left of the first set of mirrors as you went into the ladies’ changing area. And you didn’t have to bend down to get into it. “It’s quite a convenient one, actually, isn’t it?”

“Would be. If it wasn’t always occupied. Anyway, I’ve checked the combination. It’s always exactly the same. 75436. Funny number. Not one you’d try to remember. Somebody set it to that and left it. You should force it open. You never know what you might find.”

There was a queue forming at the desk. “Well, thank you for bringing that to my attention. I’ll get it looked into. Now if you’ll excuse me…”

 

It was busy that day. There was a problem with one of the tennis courts and she’d had to shuffle the bookings around. Then one of the young women who worked in the crèche had gone home sick and she’d had to ring around for someone else to come in. When the mums brought their kids after school, nearly all stopped to book their offspring on to the half-term series of activities. Where would they be without this club? Where would she be either?

She loved the work here. She especially loved her free membership. What a perk! And now it was time to finish for the day. What should she indulge in? Definitely a swim and then sessions in the Jacuzzi, steam room and sauna. She deserved this.

It was only as she made her way into the changing room that she remembered the conversation about locker 13. And there it was. Locker 13. With a great big padlock on it. She looked at the number. 75436. Wasn’t that what that funny little woman had said? It sounded familiar. She took a photo of it with her phone.

By the time she’d finished in the sauna the place was empty. The mums and kids had gone home. The straight-after-work tribe hadn’t arrived yet.

Her colleague, Zelda, was in there cleaning. “Do you know anything about this locker? A lady was complaining earlier about it always being locked.”

Zelda shrugged and shook her head.

“Only there doesn’t seem to be anybody about now. It was locked when I came in earlier.” Ronnie checked the combination number against the one she’d photographed. 75436. “It doesn’t look as if the person using it has been back.”

Zelda sighed. “Perhaps it’s a member of staff?”

“I sincerely hope not. We can’t have one rule for members and another for staff. I think I’m going to get the cutters.”

 

“Still here?” It was Gary Stevenson, the deputy manager on the desk. He always made her a bit nervous. “I thought your shift finished ages ago.”

“It did. I’ve been using the facilities. I’ve just come for the cutters.”

Gary raised his eyebrows and tutted. “Not another idiot locked themselves out? ”

“No, this time it’s a rogue one.”

“Rogue one?”

“It looks as if somebody’s left things in overnight. We can’t find who it is.”

“So you noticed this yesterday?”

“Well no. Just this afternoon. But I don’t know how long it’s been like that.”

“So you’re not certain it’s overnight then?”

Gary had gone red and Ronnie could see a pulse beating in his neck. She felt her own cheeks burn.

She shook her head. “I suppose not.”

“So leave it. We can’t have a repetition of what happened last week.”

Of course. She remembered. A lady had demanded they cut the padlock off one of the lockers and then found it wasn’t her locker after all. Later, when the real owner of the locker turned up it appeared that a ring had been stolen. The police were investigating. The club had been in the local newspaper and the report hadn’t been pretty.

“Get on off home now. Check it again in the morning. If it’s still locked you can cut off the padlock then.” He actually smiled for once.
 

Ronnie found it difficult to sleep that night. She was convinced the locker had been abandoned. She worried there might be something valuable in there. She did eventually sleep only to have nightmares about opening the locker and finding a severed head dripping with blood, a knife, and a dead rat.

Ronnie knew what she had to do when she got to work the next day, but now that she was allowed to she somehow didn’t want to. She fetched herself a coffee and was just finishing it when Gary walked in. “Any more news on the locker?” he asked.

“I’m just getting on to it.”

“I hope you don’t find anything too gruesome in there.”

She wished he wouldn’t joke like that.

The front door swished open and the little old lady walked in. She nodded at the cutters. “Another mysterious locker?”

“The same one actually. I think you may be right but the boss said to leave it until today. Just to make sure it has been left overnight.”

“It’s been weeks, I can tell you.”

Ronnie began to sweat. She’d used the cutters several times before but she suddenly felt weak. Several people were staring at her. At last she felt the clunk as the cutters sliced through the steel and the padlock dropped to the floor. She slowly opened the door.

No, there was nothing smelly or gruesome in here. Just a child’s satchel, a pair of trainers and what looked like a packet of school photographs. “No great drama here.” She turned to the old woman. “The locker’s all yours now. I’ll just get my colleague to give it a wipe around.”

The old lady chuckled. “Jolly dee. Mind you, it’s bit disappointing.

“Pretty little girl, though. Funny her mum never came back for the pictures. Or the satchel. And what was that poor child wearing on her feet when they went home?”
 

As she made her way back to reception Ronnie realized she recognised the little girl in the photo. About three weeks ago, wasn’t it, when she’d seen her and her mum rush out? It had struck her as a little odd at the time. Mum was clearly white but the little girl was black. And the child had been wearing no shoes. Her mum was carrying her. The woman’s lips were pursed and she was frowning.

“Is everything all right?” Ronnie had called.

The woman had nodded. “We just have to hurry.”

Fair enough. But it was decidedly odd they’d never come back. She could see the woman quite clearly now. She was aware that she’d not seen them for a while. No, they’d not been there last week nor the week before. Maybe even not the week before that. Perhaps they were away on holiday? That would explain everything. But it was still term time. They wouldn’t be able to take the children out of school, would they?

“So, you’ve got some treasure there then?” Gary watched as she placed the contents of locker 13 on the counter.

“I think I can find out who they belong to. I recognise the little girl. We keep photos of members on file, don’t we?”

“Only adults, not children.”

“But I remember her mum.”

“It will take you ages.”

“They have a family membership and the dad is Asian, so that will narrow it down a bit.”

“I still can’t afford you to be spending time on this. We’ll put an appeal in the next newsletter. Along with a reminder that members should not leave items in lockers overnight.”

“Would you mind if I did it in my own time?”

Gary sighed. “Just don’t make a habit of it.”

 

Ronnie didn’t go for a swim that evening, nor did she visit the gym. Instead she pored over the member records. It took her three hours to find the Patel family. Mr. Patel’s eyes stared out at her. She looked from his eyes to the eyes in the little girl’s photo. Clearly she was looking at a father and daughter. And there were their contact details. She called the mother’s mobile number.

Voicemail. Voicemail. Voicemail. The mother’s mobile. His mobile. The landline. His work number. Her work number. An unidentified emergency contact. At nine o’clock that evening. At eight o’clock the next morning. At lunch time. At four o’clock. She left a message each time.

They must be away. Some sort of family emergency? Perhaps they’d all gone back to his home? Oh, what a silly thought. He’d probably been born in this country. And even if they were away, who didn’t fail to pick up voicemail occasionally these days?

She would look through their contact details again.

The time to the end of her shift really dragged.

“I’m off then,” she said to Gary when it was finally 6:30.

“The exit’s that way. You’re heading towards the office. I know what you’re up to. Remember GDPR.”

“We keep records so that we can contact people in an emergency, don’t we?”

Gary laughed. “What’s so urgent about a packet of photos, a pair of trainers, and school bag?”

“I just think something’s not right.”

“The police wouldn’t take you seriously.”

“No, but I do.”

 

She extracted the Patels’ record again and looked at their address. She looked it up on her phone. Just under a mile away from her and on her way home. She felt slightly sick but she knew that she had to do it. She photographed the address, pushed everything into her bag and made her way out.

It took just ten minutes. She found the house very easily in fact; her sat nav had worked incredibly well. There was a light on. Someone was at home, then. 

Now that she was here, though, did she really want to do this?

Oh, she’d better see it through.

She got out of the car and carried the bag up the path. Would they answer the door? Why had they not been back to claim their things? She still couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong. She took a deep breath and rang the doorbell.

Ronnie thought she could hear muffled voices. Then a light came on in the hallway and the door slowly opened.

It was the little boy. He must only just be about able to reach the door. He had a cast on his leg and a crutch propped under his arm. “Daddy will be here in a minute,” he said. Then he saw the bag. The photos were poking out of it. “Oh, you’ve got Sonya’s things.” His eyes filled with tears.

What had she done? Would it have been better to leave it all unclaimed and eventually thrown it all away?

A man came to the door. He had dark circles round his eyes that were also red-trimmed. Oh dear, oh dear. He nodded and pursed his lips. “You’d better come in.”

 

The next day the funny little woman was there again. “So you found out what had happened, did you?”

Ronnie nodded.

The older lady shook her head. “You know, I never made the connection. But I did read about the accident in the local paper. Tragic. That young woman in a coma and the little girl killed. That poor young boy. I bet he thinks it’s all his fault.”

That had been the gist of it. There’d been a call from the after-school club to say that Rajid had had an accident playing football and had been taken to A & E. His mother took a corner too fast on the way to the hospital and the car turned over. She was saved by the airbag but was still knocked out. They thought Sonya hadn’t been properly strapped in. She nodded. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone round there. Rubbing it all in somehow.”

“Oh, I don’t know, love. I expect they’re both glad to get the photos back. And so will the mum be when she wakes up.”

“I suppose so. But it’ll be horrible for her.”

“Yes it will, but at least she’ll know there are some good people about who care. And some silly superstitious ones like me. Good job I’m a bit cranky or you’d never have known about that locker.” She shuffled off towards the changing room. 

Gary walked into reception then from the office.

“I think we should tighten our policy on overnight use of lockers,” she said to him. “Really enforce it. Get a strategy for checking.”

“You’re probably right. Though the kid would still have died.”

Except that they’d have been able to offer sympathy and support sooner, wouldn’t they? There would have at least been that.

“Let’s do it, even so.”

 
 
 

Author's Comment

Locker 13” was inspired by locker number 13 at the gym that I attend, one of a prestigious chain. The locker always had the same padlock on it, yet the gym had a rule about not leaving belongings in lockers overnight. Why would that happen?  How would the staff handle it? Perhaps I am the funny little old lady who likes locker 13, partly because 13 is her lucky number and partly because if she has the same locker each time she can remember where she’s left her belongings. Curiously, as soon as I had finished the story locker 13 became available again. It was difficult to avoid a sad explanation but I’m glad that Ronnie is able to offer some hope.

Bio

Gill James writes longer fiction for children and young adults; shorter fiction for adults; non-fiction, textbooks about writing and language learning and academic papers. She also conducts several writing experiments. She is published by, amongst others, Tabby Cat Press, The Red Telephone, Butterfly, The Professional and Higher Partnership and Continuum. She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at Salford University. James has an MA in Writing for Children and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing.

4 thoughts on “Locker 13

  1. Nice except for one detail: why did the “old” woman have to be a caricature of an “old lady?” Another putdown of elders; the story would work as well if not better had the old woman been a regular with some panache. It would be someone like that, fixed lucky number still, who would notice and wonder with a bit of wisdom, that would also have inspired the worker. And given this day and sad age, I expected the woman to have been deported, akin to a death in the family. I too am a writer, published in Persimmon.

  2. This story was suspenseful enough to make me want to read it to the very end. Thank you for a well-done narrative and dialogue about a sad event.

  3. I enjoyed reading this story and thought the dialogue was very believable and that the action moved along rapidly.

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