The Daily Ritual

Vin Maskell has got himself a paper route – delivering to Harry two doors down.

Each morning, about seven o’clock, I search for the plastic-wrapped newspaper. It might be in the driveway near the letter box. Or under the car. Or in the garden. Or on the nature strip. Or nowhere at all. These days newspapers seem to be on life support.

Then I walk two doors down to look for the paper for Harry. Given Harry is 90 and doesn’t get out much, last year I took it upon myself to find Harry’s paper each morning and place it a little way up his driveway, on the gas meter, in the shelter of the carport. (Like Harry, the car hardly moves either.)

We read different types of newspapers, so likely have different opinions about things, different world views. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be neighbourly.

Sometimes the papers are late. Sometimes we get each other’s papers. Or we both get the same newspaper. Or nothing shows up at all. Problems with the printing presses, apparently.

I’ve been reading the paper since I was 10 years old,  possibly earlier – whenever I started to understand football and cricket. My days start with the sports pages and a bowl of cereal. Lunchtime is a sandwich, some of the front pages and the arts pages. (The arts page, singular, to be more accurate.) Evenings it is chocolate and the crossword. Maybe the obituaries.

Harry may have a similar routine, albeit held for 30 years longer than my own 50-year habit, and punctuated by naps and medication.

In healthier times Harry would shuffle up the street in his lawn bowls uniform to the corner to catch some sunshine and enjoy neighbours’ front gardens. Maybe a little chat. Maybe he’d even go as far as the milk bar. A short walk can be a long walk as you grow older.

One morning I looked up after collecting Harry’s paper and saw him watching me from his front window. We nodded to each other before I left the paper on the gas meter.

Had Harry known it was me all along? Or did he think it may have been the neighbour who mows his nature strip? Or the neighbour who does his bins?

One morning I saw that the previous day’s paper had not been collected. The next day, the same.

A neighbour said Harry had fallen. That he was in hospital for a hip replacement. Then weeks of rehab on the other side of town.

I asked about Harry’s wife Joanna, once a livewire.

“She doesn’t leave the house. Stays in the sunroom most of the time. Doesn’t even step outside the front door. That’s probably why the newspapers are still there.”

For some weeks – two or three – Harry’s newspaper did not arrive. Had he temporarily cancelled the delivery while in rehab, or was it the troublesome printing presses again?

When Harry’s papers returned on a regular basis, I guessed he was home again. I now put the paper on the front doorstep.

One morning there were no papers at all – I checked several times. At about 10am I saw a stooped old man trying to stand up a little straighter, aided by a walking frame.

“I thought it might be under the car,” he said softly.

“No papers today,” I said. “I’ll pop around to the milk bar and get you one.”

“I could call the delivery service,” said Harry, still bent over.

“Not worth it mate. Only take a few minutes.”

By the time I returned Harry was inside, at his window. We nodded and I went home for breakfast.

The next morning – both papers on time – I found a note simply saying “Thank you” on Harry’s front doorstep. Plus a few coins.

There was no need for the coins but I did not want to deny Harry’s gratitude.

I also noticed that there was now a vertical handrail, waist high, on the edge of the porch, an aide for Harry. I’ve started balancing the paper there, so Harry doesn’t have to bend down or lean over.

We both know, without ever talking about it, that newspapers have been on death’s doorstep for some time now, that the printing presses will eventually shut down for good. Here’s hoping it’s after Harry’s time.

Vin Maskell is a regular contributor to The Big Issue and the editor of music memoir site and sport site

This article first appeared in The Big Issue Ed#661.