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Authors: Colm Toibin

Tags: #Fiction, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Literary, #General

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BOOK: Mothers and Sons
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As she stood up, Matt Nolan looked at her with resentment. She knew what he was thinking; she had married
into the Sheridans and she had a nerve now to be borrowing on the strength of their name.

Late that evening, when she had come back to the living room, having spent time with the children, Betty Farrell phoned her to say that the loan had been approved. Jim, she said, would bring the money in cash the next day.

She drove to Dublin and paid half the money to the man in Thomas Street; she found the two girls whom she had previously laid off from the supermarket and offered them their jobs back, specifying that the hours would be different. They needed the work, she knew. With the help of the children, who were puzzled at her sudden need for tidiness, she removed all the boxes and other rubbish from the store and brought several loads out to the town dump. She found a man to paint the store and paid him in cash when he had finished. And she discussed each detail with Birdseye when he came to the supermarket to take her order. She phoned his friend to discuss what supplies she would need for the opening two weeks. Then there was nothing more she could do except maintain silence.

Two days later, the freezer was installed and then the supplies arrived – boxes of hamburgers, fish in batter, frozen chips. No one observed the men carrying the freezer into the store, even though it was done in full daylight; and Gerard, who liked to know everything that was happening, did not think to look into the store to see what was new. She kept the curtains in the storeroom drawn.

T
HE MAN FROM
Thomas Street came on a Friday evening at eight o’clock. She had done the delivering a day early so
she could be there to meet him. He had a van and as she stood at her door a car pulled up with five men inside.

‘They’re all home from England and they’re hungry for overtime so I told them if they wanted overtime, I’d give them overtime,’ he said. ‘And I promised I’d get them home for the last pint tomorrow night. So it’ll be all go.’

He chuckled.

‘And when will you sleep?’ she asked.

‘Ah, there won’t be much sleeping,’ he said. ‘We’ll lie down on the floor, but we’ll need a big feed at around midnight and another at eight in the morning. Sausages, rashers, pudding, eggs, the works.’

‘When am I going to learn to use this machinery?’ she asked, as the men began to walk into the store.

‘There are five stages for making chips,’ he replied, ‘and the same goes for the fish, but it’s different for the burgers. If you get paper and a pen, I’ll write it out for you.’

‘When will I be ready to open?’

‘When we quit this place at nine tomorrow night, you just have to heat the oil and you’re away.’

‘You mean open tomorrow night?’

‘And I have one tip for you. I have a fan here that works wonders. I’m going to put it up in the corner at the window. Heat the oil, have it as hot as you can get it, and throw in the chips. After a few minutes when they’re nearly done, open the window, turn on the fan and the people of this town will smell chips and they’ll come to you like a terrier who has smelt oxtail soup.’

She drove up the town and found the two girls and asked them to come to work for a few hours after nine o’clock the following night. Neither of them asked her why the
supermarket would be open so late. When she came home, she made the children turn off the television and she told them what was going to happen.

‘Do chips make money?’ Gerard asked.

‘Are you going to work there?’ one of the girls enquired.

‘Are we going to have the supermarket as well?’ Gerard asked.

She allowed them down to view the work as it started.

‘Who knows about this?’ Gerard wanted to know as they stood in the hall while the men carried in heavy boxes. It struck her that he sounded like his father.

At midnight, she invited the workmen to come to the kitchen where she had the table set for them. She had made a huge fry-up, as requested, and heated up several large tins of beans. Soon, however, the food was gone and the tea was drunk and she had to begin again, frying more rashers and sausages, heating up more beans, going down to the shop to get more bread and making more tea. The men talked and laughed among themselves, noticing her only when she offered them more food. One of them had a long blue tattoo all along his forearm in the shape of an anchor.

She was woken through the night by the sound of hammering and drilling. When she dressed and went downstairs at seven o’clock, she found that Gerard was already there, sitting watching the work. He barely acknowledged her. The place was a mass of wires and sawdust, but it was now possible to make out a counter and a cooking area. She wondered how she was going to manage in the supermarket all day, what she was going to say when people asked her questions, people who had seen the work through
the door of the storehouse, which would, she thought, often be open as the men came in and out to the van parked on the street.

‘We’ll be needing breakfast, ma’am,’ the boss said.

‘Have you been up all night?’ she asked.

‘No rest for the wicked,’ he said, laughing.

‘Are you really going to open tonight?’ Gerard asked her.

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘There’s a queer lot of work to be done first,’ he said.

After breakfast, as she contemplated the day, she found the boss.

‘You know the sign?’ she asked.

‘The Monument. I have it here,’ he said.

‘Could you leave it until last? I mean don’t put it up until everything else is in place.’

‘Right you be,’ he said.

She saw Gerard glancing at her suspiciously.

S
HE OPENED
the supermarket as usual at nine thirty and took in the supplies of bread. The girls left early to go and spend the day with school-friends, but Gerard haunted the storeroom and refused to go out. Catherine came at ten; both she and Nancy stationed themselves at the cash registers as though nothing strange were happening. Saturday was late opening and the busiest day. When the hammering and the drilling became intense, Catherine did not ask her any questions. She seemed too sleepy to observe that there was anything strange happening. All morning, Nancy waited
for someone who came come into the shop to seek an explanation of the work next door, but no one did.

At lunchtime, she left Catherine alone in the shop and made another fry-up for the men, including the potatoes they had asked for. She waited for the boss, the man from Thomas Street, to tell her that they had forgotten to load some vital piece of machinery, or they had come across an unforeseen problem, or he had miscalculated the time it would take. But he remained smiling and confident. As the men ate, she went downstairs. Gerard was alone in the storeroom sitting on a chair. They looked at all the new machinery, and examined the ceiling which was a maze of half-connected wires; she opened the steel container where the chips would fry and they both inspected the area where they would drain, from where the chips could be scooped into the bags, which had also been provided by the supplier. Upstairs, she had the plastic salt and vinegar containers ready and red containers in the shape of tomatoes for the ketchup.

As she studied the new machinery with Gerard, she did not realize at first that the curtains in the storeroom had been pulled back and that two women were staring in at her. She stood back into the shadows until they went on their way then moved quickly to close the curtains.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ Gerard asked.

‘I’m going back upstairs. Don’t talk to anyone,’ she replied.

‘You look like you’re going to be arrested.’

‘Gerard, if anybody asks you any questions, you know, anyone from the town, tell them to talk to me. But tell them nothing.’

‘OK,’ he said, as if he were taking control. ‘You go back upstairs. And if anyone calls for me, tell them I’m not here.’

At six o’clock, as she left Catherine in charge again, her daughters arrived back and merely glanced nonchalantly into the storeroom, expressing no interest in what was going on. Gerard, on the other hand, stayed in the room staring at the work as though, were he to lift his eyes from it, it might disappear. The men now wanted ham sandwiches and tea and chocolate biscuits.

The new shop was almost ready; nothing had gone wrong. Two of the men were working on the sign, chipping at the stone over the storehouse door and window, drilling holes. Propped against the wall was the long white plastic sign with The Monument printed boldly in red.

‘Wait till you see it in lights,’ the boss said to her.

Nancy remained in the shadows, expecting at any moment a crowd to gather.

‘Cheer up!’ he said. ‘It may never happen.’

‘It’ll happen all right,’ Gerard interrupted. ‘It’ll happen at nine o’clock tonight.’

‘Have you no homework?’ she asked him, but they were suddenly both distracted by the putting up of the price list in the same brittle plastic as the sign over the door, listing what was available and how much it cost, information which Nancy had given the boss some days before.

‘We’ll light this too,’ he said. ‘And then these are the prices you told me but you can change the numbers easily. I’ll leave you extra numbers. Now, before we go any further, I have two pieces of advice for you. The first is patience. Patience. The oil takes time and the chips take time and the batter takes time and the burgers take time.
The customer wants the stuff now and the smell of it cooking has his eyes watering and his tongue hanging out. Don’t pay any attention to him, that’s my advice to you, because he’ll be the first to spread the news that the chips were raw and the batter was runny. So that’s the first. And the second is this. When you put the bag of chips into the brown bag, throw in a few more chips, it’ll cost you nothing but it’ll look good, like value for money, and they’ll all love you. Now they’re two useful pieces of advice.’

‘Do you charge for the ketchup?’ Gerard asked.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Salt, vinegar and ketchup are free.’

‘What will we do if it breaks down?’ Nancy asked.

‘We’re not leaving here without bringing a feast of chips with us to eat on the road. So it’ll have to work. And you’d better start unfreezing the burgers. You don’t want to be giving them indigestion.’

S
HE CLOSED
the supermarket one hour early at eight; Catherine went home, still having expressed no interest in what was happening next door. Her two daughters came downstairs just as the sign was being screwed into place over the door and the light behind it turned on. It was dark in the square now. She and Gerard and the girls and the boss crossed the street until they were standing close to the monument; she saw how bright and modern and clean her new chip shop was. As they stood there, the two girls who used to work in the supermarket arrived and they too gazed at the new chip shop.

The oil was already heating, the hamburgers and the fish
in batter were defrosting and the first plastic bag of readymade frozen chips sat on the floor waiting until the moment when the oil was hot enough and they could be thrown in and fried. Nancy went upstairs and brought some cloths down and started to wipe every surface clean as the girls who had come to work cleaned the windows and Gerard swept the floor. They were open for business.

The boss had been right about the need for patience. He stood close to her as she threw the first bag in and watched her step back in fright as the uncooked chips hit the boiling oil in a great sizzle.

‘Now,’ he said, ‘another golden rule. Watched chips never fry.’

‘How long will they take?’ Gerard asked.

‘Fifteen minutes,” he said. ‘No more, no less. And the fish is the same and the hamburger on the hotplate is the same.’

As the chips cooked, the men came one by one from the bathroom where they had washed themselves and shaved. Nancy had already paid the second instalment, but she had an envelope ready with a tip for each of the men.

‘Well, there’s one thing I’ve forgotten and you haven’t noticed it’s missing,’ the boss said. ‘So stop looking at the chips for a minute and think. Look around.’

They all looked around as the chips sizzled. Nancy could think of nothing.

‘What if they order a lemonade or a Pepsi Cola? What will you do?’

‘I have them in the fridge,’ she said.

‘Yes, but if you look at the list I gave you, it included a new machine for dispensing soft drinks. So where is it?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said.

‘I forgot it.’ He laughed.

It was close to nine o’clock when she fished the first chips from the oil with the big new metal implement.

‘You’re an old hand already,’ the boss said. ‘It’s like you were one of the Cafollas.’

She noticed that people passing began to stop and peer into the shop. As she filled the bags with chips and poured vinegar on them she saw Betty Farrell passing the window, gazing in her direction for a second and then walking away quickly. She recognized several others who paused at the window, but no one greeted her or came into the shop.

As soon as the fish and chips were ready and packaged the men made for the van and the car. She shook their hands and thanked them.

‘Oh, it’s a hug for me,’ the boss said. He gave her a kiss on the cheek.

Nancy and Gerard and the girls waved at them as they set off for Dublin.

‘You have that look on your face again,’ Gerard said to her.

‘What look?’

‘You look like you’re going to be arrested.’

T
HE FOLLOWING
Wednesday the planning officer came and on Thursday she had a visit from the health officer. Both, she thought, behaved like greyhounds sniffing. Neither of them looked at her directly; as they spoke to her they peered at the ceiling, or the floor. The planning officer
told her that she would have to close. There had been complaints, he said, but even if there hadn’t been complaints, she had no permission to open a chip shop in the square. She could of course apply for permission but it would take time. In the meantime, she would have to cease trading. The health officer looked down into the freezer for a long time and smelled the oil and went on his way without saying anything.

BOOK: Mothers and Sons
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