A Short Story

A Letter from the North

A Winning Entry in the Fish Short Story Prize 2019

Just north of Manchester, in a small terrace house, lives a man who is a wood carver. His name is Arthur. On sunny days Arthur can often be seen sitting on a wooden dining chair outside his house, penknife in hand, poised over a piece of wood, watching the people come and go.

Sometimes he carves little figures of the children on the street. Usually, he gives the figure to the child and tells them to paint it if they want. More often than not the figure falls from a bedside table into a toy box, which then finds its way under a bed and is forgotten, at least for a little while. Occasionally, though, the child does paint the figure carefully with their best set of paints. If these are watercolours, then the paint job doesn't last long and they are back to a plain wooden figure quite soon, but that doesn't matter so much; it can always be painted again, although it seldom is.

One day a photographer is wandering about in Arthur's town, looking to capture working-class scenes: scenes of human interest. Round here it's mainly red brick terraces and red brick mills, so I suppose there's historical interest, don't know about human…

When the photographer gets to Arthur's street, he sees Arthur sitting in his chair and Jacob and Oliver Nesbit playing on the pavement nearby. It's the middle of the day so there are less parked cars than usual, what with nearly everyone being at work, otherwise he'd probably never have spotted Arthur at all. Well, this is exactly the sort of human interest he wants – the type of scene he has come all the way from London for – so he asks Arthur if he can take a picture.

"Hi mate, mind if a take a picture of yer?"

"Ay?" Arthur looks him up and down, trying to place the accent.

"Can a take a photograph? It's for a magazine. Human int'rest. Working-class scenes. Y'know? Name's Paul Miller, see." Paul hands Arthur a business card.

"Human interest?" Arthur sucks his teeth at this and the children snigger.

"Everyday scenes. Y'know."

Arthur shrugs. "Maybe I'll be famous yet: a workin'-class hero," he says to Jacob. Then, turning back to Paul, "Yer'll have to ask their mum if yer want them on it."

A head appears at the window opposite. "What d'yer want? What does 'e want Arthur?"

"A picture, Sal. For human interest."

"Human what!" Sally Nesbit laughs out loud. "Ten quid, then," she thinks for a moment then adds, "each." She slams the window shut and appears a moment later at the door, "including Arthur."

Paul mutters something unintelligible under his breath and hands Sally thirty pounds. She retreats to her step and watches. Paul sets up his scene.

"What's so interestin' about them, then?" Sally asks.

"We're a workin'-class scene, love," Arthur answers.

Sally laughs. Paul mutters again.

"Well, work's a relative term, isn't it? This your work, then?"

Paul takes a deep breath. "Yeah, this is my work. Freelance. For magazines."

"And they pay yer?"


"How much? What d'yer get for one photo?"

"Depends. Might not sell at all."

"Aw, well, it might." With that Sally shrugs and goes back inside, slamming the door behind her.

Paul breathes a sigh of relief. Now to work. He lifts up his tripod and moves away down the street to a point where he can get a portion of the mill in the background. Shame there's no chimney anymore, he thinks. Just then the sun comes out, and he gets the red brick mill against a blue sky. Sweet. The little figures of Arthur, Jacob and Oliver dance in the foreground.

"Carry on playin'," he shouts to the children. Jacob pulls a face and puts his hands in his pockets. He is seven. You can't play to order when you're seven, so he struts up and down, wanting only to go and watch Arthur, who carries on with his carving, his head down.

"Show me how yer cartwheels are coming on, Jacob," says Arthur, glad to have the sun warming his back.

Jacob braces his legs, his arms raised, ready to attempt the spin. The cartwheels, however, need work. Oliver laughs and tries to copy.

Arthur keeps his head down as he smiles. "Keep practisin'. It takes time."

Jacob's brow furrows as he tries again. This goes on for a while, and eventually even Arthur half forgets about the photographer.

Paul finishes taking his pictures, thanks Arthur, then disappears. Two weeks later Arthur gets a letter. He opens it, and inside the envelope are a clutch of photos. A4. Black and white. Arthur chuckles to himself, thinking what an old bugger he looks in his flat cap. Then he wonders for a moment how the photographer knew his address. When he realises, he chuckles again and goes across the road to show Sally.


A few days later, Arthur is whittling again. This time the children are out with Sally, and he is alone, making a little model of the photographer from memory. Arthur has a good memory, and that comes in handy when you want to visualise something and carve it from wood. When he finishes, he wraps it up carefully in tissue paper and puts it in a padded envelope on which he has already written the photographer's address. He writes a short note that says, 'From one working class hero to another,' then he seals the envelope, tapes it up with parcel tape for good measure, and ambles off to the post office to send it.


When Paul Miller gets the parcel, he is suspicious and prods at it for a little while. He isn't expecting anything. What could it be? Eventually, curiosity gets the better of him and he opens it. Now it's his turn to smile. He studies the figure for a time, then checks in the mirror to see whether he really is that bald, whether he really has a stoop and a paunch; he can't see either when he stands up straight. When he reads the note, he laughs out loud, but he still doesn't see himself as a working-class man. You don't get your hands dirty taking photos, after all.


Secretly, Sally Nesbit is pleased with the photo. Andy Nesbit, however, is not pleased and makes no secret of it.

"Creepy, that is. Coming 'ere, takin' pictures. Did 'e say what magazine?"

Sally shrugs, realising she probably should have asked. She hasn't told Andy about the thirty quid either. That's between her and Arthur, and neither Jacob nor Oliver have mentioned it, so she's assuming they didn't notice.

Andy doesn't know what else to say, so instead he picks up the photo and toys with the idea of tearing it up. Just then, Jacob comes in.

"No, Dad, please, I want to draw it."

"He's been drawin' pictures all day," Sally tells Andy.

"Let's see 'em then." Andy puts the photo down and his face lightens. He used to draw a bit when he was a kid. He was quite good too, but that was a long time ago now. Now his fingers are always sore and dirty from working outside all day.

Jacob appears with his sketches and Andy nods, suddenly happy again, forgetting his irritation over the photo.

"Might 'ave done 'im good, seein' that photographer," he comments to Sally later, over a mug of tea. "The drawin's were good. Good likenesses. Did yer see the one 'e did of Arthur?"

Sally shakes her head. "He was quiet all afternoon. Never been big on drawing before, has 'e?"

"No," Andy answers, "but then, I was always drawin' when I was a boy."

"Yeah, I know," Sally nods and passes Andy a chocolate biscuit then gets up to put her mug in the kitchen. As she does so, she slides the photo off the side table and hides it in the paper rack for safekeeping.


The next day, Jacob and Oliver are playing out again. Jacob sidles over to Arthur, who is on his chair as usual, and sets a piece of paper under his nose. Arthur puts down his penknife.

"What's this, then?" he asks Jacob.

"Who d'yer think it is, Arthur?"

Arthur nudges the boy and chuckles to let him know he's only joking.

"Can y'er tell who it is, Arthur?" chimes in Oliver, looking up proudly at Jacob.

"Looks like some old feller t'er me," Arthur says, and winks.

"Not very old," says Jacob, suddenly serious again.


Down in London, Paul Miller has bought himself a gym membership. He works out three times a week and still worries about whether or not he's middle class. The seed of doubt has been sown. The little figure that Arthur made sits on the mantelpiece in his tiny flat and he too is secretly proud of it. It never occurs to him to paint it. Anyway, he likes it just the way it is ­– full of sunshine.

The picture he took of Arthur, Jacob and Oliver hasn't sold yet. He's tried it in both colour and black and white. He still likes the black and white one best.

One day another envelope arrives. This one is flat, and it's addressed to 'Paul Miller, Working-Class Hero'. Paul smiles and concedes the point. When he opens the envelope, he finds Jacob's drawing inside, and he knows this because Jacob has signed it in red crayon. The picture is a perspective drawing in red, grey, brown, black and white. It shows Paul with his tripod, three small figures, one seated, and in the background the mill, which seems to have regained its chimney. This gives Paul pause for thought. Jacob, it seems, has added the dimension of time. Paul puts the drawing on his mantelpiece next to the figure, then, tentatively adds his own photo – the black and white one. Somehow, it all works. The pieces fit together: artist and subjects, past and present colliding. The artist in him nods. Sale or no sale, the project is complete. Or is it?


Back in Manchester, Andy has scrubbed the dirt off his hands and set about some model making. He started with a kit comprising a series of machined balsa wood discs and built a swan, but now he's got more ambitious and is making a model of the mill, complete with its missing chimney. For this he is machining his own pieces, each correct to the millimetre, each brick identical. The engineer has turned master craftsman, with an eye for detail that astounds even his wife. Like Arthur, Andy is using wood. He'd forgotten how good he used to be at woodwork too.

Andy is working from a photograph that Arthur gave him, showing how the street looked in 1955. Arthur is helping him. Now they have a crowd of wooden mill workers too, none bigger than three inches high. The whole thing started on Sally's kitchen table, but now it's getting too big, so it has moved across the street to Arthur's house. Arthur lives alone, so there is much more room. Jacob and Oliver are helping. There are lots of bricks to paint. It feels a bit like Lego, but you have to glue the blocks of bricks together.

It takes Andy and Arthur six months to finish their project. It's a scale model, pristine and unsullied by smoke. The bricks shine red, the chimney rises like a spire and the little Perspex windows gleam. Andy has an idea. He sends a photo of his model to the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester and asks them if they'd like to display it. It should fit in well. There's a huge array of working looms in the museum that have been preserved so that visitors can learn about the Industrial Revolution. Jacob went on a school trip there; he said they were very noisy, and the cotton bobbins spun very fast.

The museum agrees to display the model.

Andy is over the moon. He is a 3D artist. His work is on display in the city. Sally and the boys are very proud of him. Arthur raises a glass to him in The Friendship. No one thinks to tell Paul Miller, who, you might argue, set the whole thing in motion. Such is life, however, and Paul is doing well at the gym.

When Andy mentions his next project idea to Arthur, the old man laughs and tells him he should partner up with Jacob this time.

"Me," he says, "I like bein' a workin'-class hero best."

©Donna Brown 2019