Mr. Jolly’s Dilemma
Jo Hewlett

    It was rather a gloomy evening, but, in spite of this, Mr. Jolly decided to go for a walk on the heath. He needed to get out into the fresh air. He needed to sort out his thoughts, and he felt he could not think properly in the house. The sounds of the music lessons emanating from the music room brought all logical thoughts to a complete halt. As he left, closing the door none too quietly behind him, he wondered idly why not one of his sister’s pupils was any good?
    Mr. Jolly was a rather natty dresser. This afternoon he was wearing his new lightweight suit in a pleasant oatmeal colour, with a slightly darker shirt and a dark orange tie – an outfit eminently suited for a leisurely walk, he felt.
    He had left his lunch dishes stacked tidily on the draining board in the kitchen. It would not have occurred to him to wash them up – that was Cynthia’s job – but he always left them neatly piled by the sink, and felt that he had done his part of the task!

    Despite his bright and cheerful outfit, Mr. Jolly could not throw off a melancholy feeling that had bothered him all day. It had begun when he picked up the letter from the mat this morning and placed it in his jacket pocket, unopened. It was still there, still unopened, and he found it quite impossible to think of anything else.
    He had dreamt last night of his sister, and in his dream she gazed at him reproachfully. He knew he had treated her badly. And now this morning the letter had arrived.
    Determined to think of something else, he strode off across the heath. Suddenly he was aware of a movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned towards it and saw, to his amazement and horror, the tiny figure of a red devil, sitting on a rock watching him. He thought for a moment; his logical brain told him this could not be – it must be a garden ornament….but what it was doing on the heath he could not imagine.
    And then it moved!
    Mr. Jolly went quite cold with fear. This could not be happening! He shut his eyes and shook his head and when he opened his eyes the creature had gone. Mr. Jolly heaved a heavy sigh of relief.
    “Indigestion!” he said firmly, and walked on.
    Ten minutes later, just as his heart rate had returned to normal, he saw it again.     This time he was able to take in the details of the nasty creature: it had a pointed, red beard and tiny, white horns. But what he found most disturbing were its eyes; they were small, and piercing, with an expression of pure evil. For a moment, Mr. Jolly found that he could not move, but, as he stared at the devil, it jumped down and wandered off into the undergrowth, swinging its tail.
    It was certainly more than indigestion!
    “A daydream of some sort…it can’t really be a devil!” said Mr. Jolly firmly to himself.
    He resolved to avoid the heath in future and hurried back home. The following afternoon, having decided to take his walk elsewhere, he was very surprised to find himself back on the heath, in the same place, and once again staring at the horrid little imp. It seemed to be waiting for him, its eyes fixed firmly on Mr. Jolly’s face. The piercing eyes seemed to be looking into his very soul, in particular into the pocket of his smart summer suit.
    “It knows!” thought Mr. Jolly. “It knows about the letter!” And the missive lay like lead against his heart.
    The imp suddenly pulled a set of panpipes from somewhere and started to play. It was not like real music – just notes running up and down, a sad sound, full of foreboding. Mr. Jolly knew that the sensible thing would be to go home at once….but, despite his decision to do just that, he simply couldn’t make his feet obey him. The pipes were calling him on, deeper and deeper into the wooded part of the heath.
    He found himself stumbling through a shallow pool; an awful smell arose from the stagnant mud stirred up by his passing. He thought of the effect on his beautiful suede shoes, but he couldn’t go back – the pipes were calling him further into the wood. There was a heavy mist rising from the swampy ground. He wanted more than ever to turn tail and run, but he couldn’t. 
    Sometimes the music was quite loud, sometimes it seemed to vanish almost completely. Sometimes he thought he saw the little devil ahead of him, its evil eyes glinting. Sometimes he thought he heard it laugh. 
    Then all he could see was swirling mist. The ground was getting rougher and the evening darker. He stumbled once or twice and tried turning to go home, but, at that moment, he heard the pipes again very close, and once more he plunged after them.
    It was then that someone, or something, grabbed him by the cuff of his jacket. With shaking fingers he felt down his arm….but it was only a long, whippy bramble! When he had finally released his sleeve he discovered that the bramble also had him by the trouser leg, and he tore the material free from its grasp.

    When he was finally free, the sound of the pipes had gone. The spell was broken! He was alone and afraid and completely lost! The sky was quite black, with just a sprinkling of stars. The mist was very heavy and was gradually turning to rain. He wandered off in what he hoped was the direction of home. A shape loomed up in front of him and he barked his shin painfully, but it was only a tree stump. Mr. Jolly sat down on it. His clothes were soaked, his arms and legs were scratched and bruised and he was miserable. He had no idea of the time or of how long he had been wandering, but he knew it must be late.
    He wondered if Cynthia would be worried about him? Probably not: did she really care what time he got home? And whose fault was it if she didn’t care?

    Mr. Jolly didn’t like his sister much. He would play silly tricks on her: tangling up her knitting just for the pleasure of seeing her trying to sort it out. Her round, pink face would frown with concentration, her short-sighted eyes blinking behind thick glasses.     He knew it was unkind, but he couldn’t resist a sly tease.
    His mother would have been very upset.
    Mr. Jolly fell into a reverie. He had always had a simple faith, given to him by his mother many years before. He had always believed that when he died he would wake up in Heaven, with an female sort of angel sitting on the side of his bed.
     She would say: “Don’t worry, Mr. Jolly, you have died and gone to Heaven!”
    “That’s silly”, thought Mr. Jolly, “she would know my Christian name!”
    He shuddered! How could his mother, an excellent woman in every way, have given him the awful name of Herbert! Never mind, it would have to do.
    “Don’t worry, Herbert, you have died and gone to Heaven!”
    But his present predicament had upset his ideas about everything. Did he really deserve to go to Heaven? Would any angel want anything to do with him after what he had done to Cynthia? And it wasn’t just the knitting prank he was thinking about. He had pushed the memory of the first letter to the back of his mind. He hadn’t thought about it for years. Now he kept seeing his mother’s kindly face asking him to look after his sister.
    Mr. Jolly stared up at the dark sky; a few stars were visible. He thought he might recognise The Plough, but, even if he could, it would not be of any help, as he had no idea which way it pointed!
    Yet again his guilty conscience provoked the memory of the first letter addressed to Cynthia.

    He had found it on the front door mat. He really didn’t know what made him pick it up and retreat with it to his bedroom. Of course, once he had opened it and read Rollo’s stumbling, incoherent proposal of marriage, it was far too late to put it back.
If Rollo had really cared, he would have written again long ago, thought Mr. Jolly defensively. He wouldn’t have gone charging off to that job in Denmark without another word. No, of course he wouldn’t! The marriage would never have worked anyway; Cynthia was too stupid to hold any man for long – even Rollo. Mr. Jolly tried to ease his conscience with these thoughts but, deep down, he knew it was a rotten thing to have done. His mother would have been dreadfully upset. She had liked Rollo, with his stoop, and his silly, shy smile.
    All of a sudden, out of the blue, Mr. Jolly had a perfectly horrible thought.
Perhaps he was going to die; perhaps the little red devil had come to take his soul to Hell, not Heaven with angels at all! Perhaps he was going to die right here in this beastly, wet wood, too late to apologise to Cynthia or Rollo or his mother. He would never see her again as she would most certainly be in Heaven.
    “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” wailed Mr. Jolly, and tears joined the rain running down his face.

    Suddenly, he saw a star he DID recognise: it was the red star over the Texaco garage! With great relief he headed towards it. Within a few hundred metres he felt tarmac under his feet, and in another ten minutes he was home.
    His key turned in the lock with a comforting click. In no time he was in a hot shower and then tucked up under his warm duvet. Firmly pushing all thoughts of Cynthia and her dreary romance out of his mind, he went to sleep.

    The next morning Mr. Jolly awoke late. Judging by the tortured sounds issuing from the music room, Cynthia had already started her lessons. Someone was playing scales with more attention to volume and speed than accuracy!
    Mr. Jolly had a headache; he groaned and headed for the kitchen with the intention of making himself some toast and coffee.
    He had almost completely convinced himself that the events of yesterday had been a really bad nightmare, until he opened the fridge and saw the imp sitting on a pack of butter!
    It was now only 10 centimetres high and in its hand it held a toasting fork, such as is used for toasting sinners in Hell.
    Mr. Jolly slammed the fridge door. He felt he might faint. His heart was pounding so hard he thought it might burst through his throat.
    He staggered into the hallway like a drunken man. He had hardly had time to pull himself together before Cynthia came out of the music room and escorted the young pianist to the door – a tall, spotty girl with glasses. He looked at her with intense dislike, but she was quite oblivious to his feelings and politely shook hands with him.

    Cynthia was obviously bursting with news, her gentle, round face suffused with excitement.
    “I think I’ve got time for a cup of coffee before my next lesson,” she said, as she preceded him back into the kitchen.
    “Oh, Herbert, you’ll never guess what’s happened!”
    “I don’t suppose I shall have to, as you are obviously going to tell me,” he remarked sourly.
    Mr. Jolly wondered why he couldn’t be nice to his sister, but the habit was too ingrained. He tried to smile at her, but she was too excited to notice.
    “I had a phone call from Ruby Hickson – you remember Ruby!”
    Mr. Jolly did remember Ruby from long ago but he didn’t want to admit it.
    “Who on earth is Ruby Hickson?”
    “Oh, Herbert, surely you remember? She is a friend of Rollo’s sister, Pam. What do you think?”
    “I don’t know what to think!” Mr. Jolly tried not to sound too sarcastic. Cynthia didn’t notice anyway.
    “Rollo is coming to a conference in London for a week!”
    Mr. Jolly felt that he really couldn’t cope with any more shocks. He sat down and said, quite nicely:
    “Will you get in touch? It’s not far to London. You could go up for the day.”
    Suddenly, all the joy drained from Cynthia’s face. She seemed to come down to earth with a bump.
    “Me? Go and see Rollo? Oh, I don’t think so. After all, he could have got in touch with me anytime in the last twenty years.….if he had wanted to!”
    Cynthia’s lip quivered and Mr. Jolly was irritated to see tears behind her thick glasses.
    Of course he had known what the new letter was – he had recognised Rollo’s handwriting, even after all this time, and, of course, there was the Danish stamp to confirm it.
    He had picked it up, and exactly as he had on the previous occasion, stuffed it into his pocket.

    The next pupil had arrived, and he watched his sister go back into the music room, her shoulders slumped, a picture of weary disappointment.
    Mr. Jolly retreated to his study – a euphemism if ever there was one; he had never studied anything since leaving school, and not much before that.
    He took the letter out of his pocket and turned it over and over in his hands. He thought about his comfortable life: food ready on the table, clean clothes tidily arranged in his drawer. He thought about his sister. Surely he would be glad to be rid of the silly woman with her everlasting knitting? But no, he thought, he wouldn’t! He would be wretchedly lonely.
    Mr. Jolly finally faced the fact that Cynthia was the only person in the world who gave a damn about him. And what about the money? How would he live on his pension without the money she made from her music lessons?
    Mr. Jolly knew that what he had done to Cynthia was not just spiteful and silly, like messing up her knitting, but truly wicked and bad. He went back into the hall and there was the little devil sitting on the hat stand. As he placed the letter back on the mat, a look of concentrated fury appeared on its nasty little red face. Its evil eyes sparked with rage and the tiny, savage mouth snarled. As Mr. Jolly turned to go back into the kitchen, the imp exploded and disappeared in a wisp of red smoke. A strong smell of sulphur filled the air.
    Mr. Jolly suddenly felt that perhaps he wasn’t going to die just yet after all.
    He listened to the awful scales coming from the music room. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to that for much longer. Better to be lonely than whisked off to Hell by a little red devil.
    “I think I’ll get a dog,” said Mr. Jolly to himself, and smiled.