Runner Up of Winter 2018/19 Short Story Competition

Runner Up: Mark Mulholland

Young couple entering a competition

Mark Mulholland was fifteen when he underwent a stroke of genius and left schooling to linger around second-hand book stores where he explored books by cover or title or some indefinable inclination. The whole world was to be found in those book stores, he says, and everything a boy needed to learn could be learned there. He has been educated in this way ever since.

Mark is the author of the internationally acclaimed novel A Mad and Wonderful Thing. His short fiction has been published in the UK, the USA, France, Australia, Ireland, and India; and has been shortlisted for the Dorset Fiction Award. He lives in London where he works in the transport sector and rural France where he renovates old houses and writes.

Four Kids and a Mortgage

Four Kids and a Mortgage enter O’Sullivan’s in the mid-morning.

‘Go on, love,’ he says, looking across vacant tables. ‘Take that one in the corner and I’ll get us the coffees.’

He watches her go, and smiles. He knows he is lucky.

He lifts a laminate tray from a pile near the cash desk and slides it along two steel bars that are cantilevered from the counter. He takes his place behind two women who await an order which a girl is preparing. He looks to the girl; she is new here, well newish, maybe a month or so. And she is young, so young. And she has that Irish thing to her. Actually, she looks like his own eldest girl; same hair, same freckled skin, and with that same honest shape to her. He watches her work as a hot cascade fills a stainless steel pot with a loud hiss and then he turns and stretches into the light of the windows and sees herself settling in. He smiles. He turns again as the double-doors to the side of the girl burst open and a cook enters holding a large pot of steaming potatoes. The cook lifts the lid of a bain-marie and pours the potatoes in, replacing the lid when the pot is emptied.

‘Tee minus fifty to blast-off,’ the potato carrier says to the girl, and laughs as he retreats through the swinging doors. The girl nods an acknowledgement without turning as she closes a valve on the hissing faucet.

Four Kids and a Mortgage know that O’Sullivan’s start the food at noon and so they come early; they like to be in and settled before there’s a crowd. And usually, at this time of the morning, they have the pick of the tables. She likes the row along the big front windows so she can watch the passers-by on Main Street; and he likes the same row because of the good light and because of the large tables, so he has room to spread his newspapers.

And room to spread is what he wanted and it is what he got when he left a grey Ireland across a grumpy grey sea on a grey boat to a grey port in England. But he left grey behind him when from that port he took a train into the colours a new life with a spinster aunt in Sparkhill and that aunt embraced the duty of his welfare like a Redemptorist missionary charged with care of the Eucharist. It was a new home. It was in many ways, a first home. He sure landed on his feet. He knows he is lucky.

‘Now then, ladies,’ the girl says, turning. ‘Today it’s Banoffee Pie, Black Forrest Gateaux, Mixed Berry Cheesecake, and the old reliable—Apple Tart and Cream.’

He watches the two customers. They too are Monday regulars.

‘Them’s too rich for me, love,’ one responds. ‘I’ll stick with the old reliable.’

He sees the other woman hesitate.

‘I’d go for the Banoffee Pie,’ the girl suggests. ‘It’s totally gorgeous.’

‘One Banoffee Pie so, Geraldine, and one apple tart and cream,’ the woman orders, reaching into her handbag and withdrawing a large green purse. She takes a twenty pound note and lays it down beside the till as her companion moves slowly towards the tables.

He watches the woman go and then drops his gaze to the food counter and drifts. He loves their Monday mornings in O’Sullivan’s. He loves it all here, has loved the whole thing since the boat and train, has loved it since day one when he landed and took to Birmingham like a wasp to an orchard. And the job came quickly; the aunt had sent him off in a new navy-blue suit for the factory interview. He met herself at a works’ social evening. He was in the new suit. And they fell to settled and plans and funds gathered and the wedding in the navy-blue suit and the bank asked and approval given and the house bought and herself pregnant and the first girl born and the christening in Saint Anne’s in the navy-blue suit. That suit was his golden ticket. He knows he is lucky.

‘Hi ye.’

He looks up to the girl who is now facing him. He must have drifted longer than he thought. He knows she recognises him from their Monday visits.

‘What can I get you?’ she asks.
He knows she knows the order, it hasn’t changed in all the years they have been coming here; but she is new so she asks anyway, and she smiles.

‘Two large white coffees, love.’

She turns again to the hissing machine and as he waits he looks across the dishes of the hot food counter. He knows what will lie beneath each of those shiny lids come blast-off. The meats will be to the right: roasted chicken halves, turkey and ham bundles with stuffing, and roast beef slices. The potatoes will be in the middle section: roast potatoes, boiled potatoes, creamed mashed potatoes, and deep fried potato-chips. The cooked vegetables will be next: cabbage, carrots, broccoli, and cauliflower with cheese. A final section on the left will hold deeper canisters of mushy peas, beef gravy, and the soup of the day.

He looks across the display as the milk boils and foams in the jug the serving girl holds to the steamer. Over the girl is a blackboard. O’Sullivan’s Hotel – Restaurant & Café is titled in embossed letters and below this, written in coloured chalks, it reads:

The Monday Menu
Dinner £5.25
Soup of the Day & Dinner / Dinner & Dessert £7.50
The Monday Mega Meal Deal 
Soup of the Day & Dinner & Dessert & Tea or Coffee £7.95

He goes through it, as he always does, line by line. He knows that on a Monday O’Sullivan’s push the remains of the weekend carvery. He finishes reading the board through and returns his attention to the counter. To his left, below a glass dome of pastries, is the cold-food counter with containers of salads, cold meats, and sandwich fillers. Beside this is a ceramic serving-platter with two rows of filled soft-bread buns. The platter is covered in a single sheet of cling film. There is no price or description with the rolls and there is no mention of them on the blackboard or on the countertop pricelist. He knows the price—95p, and he knows the description—the top row is egg and onion and the lower row is chopped salad.

The girl turns and places the two filled mugs on the counter beside the till and asks, ‘Is that everything?’

‘One salad bun, and one egg and onion, please?’

The girl peels back the cling film and with a set of stainless steel thongs she lifts the bread buns onto two small plates.

‘We Irish must be the anointed children of God,’ his grandfather told him on the way to the boat. ‘Every alternate generation gets crucified. We rise only to get nailed to the cross. It’s a cursed thing.’

He looks around. He never believed in the cursed thing. He never saw it. He knows he is lucky.

She is sitting and looking out across Main Street. She has taken the Sunday newspapers from her bag and has them ready on the table. He is looking forward to the reading and to having the whole day together. He works the weekend shifts at the factory; Saturday is time and a half, and Sunday is double time. He has Mondays off. He takes the coffees and the bread buns from the tray and arranges them on the table. He puts the empty tray onto a nearby table before sitting across from her and pulling the newspapers to him. He smiles to her but she is still looking out through the big window. He sighs and smiles to the newspapers.

‘Would you look at that?’ she says. ‘One hundred million.’

He follows her stare across Main Street. Euro Millions, a Newsagent’s banner reads, Expected Jackpot £100,000,000. Play Early.

‘Play early,’ he says to her across the newspapers. ‘Reminds me of that election slogan we heard at your mother’s. Remember? Vote early. And vote often.’ He laughs.

‘Aye, right enough.’ And she too laughs keeping her watch through the big window.

He settles into the coffee and the filled bread bun and the newspapers.

‘A hundred million,’ she says. ‘That couldn’t be right. They should divide it up, a million or two each, and so there’d be fifty or a hundred winners.’

He nods. ‘Yes, love. They should do that.’

‘What in the name of God would you do with a hundred million?’ she asks, her surveillance still wandering Main Street.

He looks back to the serving counter and to the blackboard above the girl. ‘Oh, love,’ he says. ‘I’d get us both a dinner. And I’d go the whole hog, spoil ourselves. I’d get us both the Monday Mega Meal Deal.’

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Written/Reviewed by: Amanda Gillam

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