Espresso for Mary, a short story by Susan Condon
Susan Condon, a native of Dublin, Ireland is currently working on short stories with a little flash fiction on the side. She was awarded a Certificate in Creative Writing from the National University of Ireland Maynooth. Her short stories have won numerous awards including first prize in the Jonathan Swift Creative Writing Award while others have been long-listed, on four occasions, in the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Short Story Competition. Publications include Ireland’s Own Anthology, My Weekly, Boyne Berries 22, Live Encounters, Flash Flood Journal, Spelk, Flash Fiction Magazine and The Flash Fiction Press. Susan blogs at: www.susancondon.wordpress.com. You can find her on Twitter: @SusanCondon or check out her crime fiction reviews and interviews on www.writing.ie
The man huddled in the doorway is thin and frail, his eyes: a watery blue, sunken and weary. Yet he still manages to raise a smile, tipping the peak of his cap when I drop a few coins into the paper cup nestled between his feet.
“Ma’am,” he mutters which for some unknown reason brings a tear to my eye. It makes me want to burrow further into my handbag and rethink the pittance I’ve just given. But I resist the urge. Instead I hurry on. It would have been too embarrassing to top-up my initial contribution. It might even have been misconstrued as an insult. Besides, I only ever deal in cards; it was unusual enough that I’d had any cash to share.
Hours later, while grabbing an Espresso to fuel yet another after-hours meeting, he enters my mind. The usual thoughts, that I’m sure we’ve all experienced, float around my head. He is somebody’s son, maybe a brother, husband, parent or even grandparent and I wonder how he has ended up here, sheltering from the bitter wind in an open doorway in Nassau Street. Although close in proximity to the affluence of Grafton Street, he could just as easily be a million miles away.
My mind conjures up the many scenarios that might have resulted in him being here today. While I feel sorry for him, I do consider the fact that maybe, in a past life, he has been an abuser to a wife and child and finally been barred from their lives. I don’t know him, having only ever heard that one word he’d uttered with his country lilt, yet somehow I can’t see him in that light. When he had looked up at me, something in his eyes had reminded me of my own father’s; kind and intelligent.
“Mary,” a voice shouts. “Espresso for Mary!”
It takes a moment to realise that’s me. My name is Darlene. A name I love, but I’ve long ago given up using it when ordering a coffee. It has resulted in the entire shop turning my way: the server shooting bright red as he tries, in vain, to pronounce it, while the queue gets ever longer. Mary is easier.
I push my way towards the counter and take my coffee.
Grafton Street is full of pedestrians taking photos in front of Brown Thomas. Many of them pose with the door man. It feels as if he’s been there for centuries. This cheerful man with the black top hat and ruddy cheeks the colour of his immaculate uniform was a constant throughout my childhood. My heels click a tune on the pavement and instead of mentally preparing for the next meeting, as I usually do, I think again of Jim. Big Jim. Apart from their age and the proximity of their locations, the two men are a world apart.
Maybe it was a drink or gambling problem that pushed him onto the streets. His age has me doubting that drugs were the cause but, I suppose, you never know for sure. Taking a caffeine hit, I admonish myself for immediately jumping to the conclusion that his homelessness was all of his own making. Maybe he’s been a victim of circumstance; the recession that has sent us all spiralling from our ivory towers into the abyss below, some falling further than others. I arrive at the office block with only minutes to spare, all thoughts of him evaporating rapidly as I’m shepherded to the sixth-floor board room.
Days later, after a stressful Monday morning, I need a walk to clear my head. It’s April and the sky is a cloudless blue, but it is still bitterly cold. I turn up the collar of my jacket and curl my bare hands into my pockets wishing that I’d brought my leather gloves. Pushed along by the lunch-time crowd, I find myself entering St Stephen’s Green. Although close to the office, it has been years since I’ve walked the shaded pathway that brings me to the bandstand. My mind floods with childhood memories. If I close my eyes I can almost see my two younger sisters at the pond’s edge, trailing their fingers through the murky water.
One day, in particular, I remember so vividly that it could just as easily have been yesterday. We were all dressed in our Sunday best – my dark hair short, their golden hair plaited and gleaming in the afternoon sun. They constantly argued. On this occasion, it was over the stale bread for the ducks. Helena, always the wilder of the two, had snatched the bag of bread, torn the slices into pieces and fired them all into the middle of the pond before Victoria had even realised what happened. Then the squabbling had really started.
I was the older sister: The sensible sibling who got to babysit far too often. It may have caused me to resent them a little. Don’t get me wrong – we all got along and still do, on the few occasions we meet. But even now, I constantly feel like the outsider. It’s as if we were always two different families. I was ten when they were born. Although it was never said, I’m guessing – by doing the maths – that I wasn’t exactly planned. They, on the other hand, were planned and planned and planned. Add to that, the fact that they were twins and there was always going to be a degree of separation.
Before they arrived, the house was quiet while mother slept. A lot. I remember the highs and lows of my parents numerous trips to the clinic. The nods, the whispers, the smiles from which I always felt excluded. But then, a few short months later, there would inevitably be tears and cries from my parents’ bedroom where my mother would spend most of her time. The whispers, after those episodes, were not the excited kind, but the finger to the lips kind where I was forever ushered away from her.
“Don’t disturb your mother. She needs to rest.”
“You can see her later, when she’s feeling better.”
But that never happened. By the time she was eventually feeling better the twins had arrived and then there was no longer any room left for me. I disconnected then. Pulled into myself and became the independent, self-sufficient person that my husband has recently come to despise. He forgets that these were the qualities he once found so attractive in me: the air of confidence I exude when entering a room, my intelligence and my inquisitive mind. When the recession hit, my star continued to soar, while his plummeted along with, it appears, everything about me that he used to love. I convince myself that’s the reason he’s chosen Poppy over me. She’s everything I’m not – which allows him to again become the star attraction.
I wasn’t supposed to know what was going on back then. But with little else to do, I’d begun to eavesdrop. The clinic was always spoken about in hushed tones and their visits, and the days that followed, brought extremes of either happiness or sadness. Especially to my mother. I began to hate the word: my life becoming uncertain as to what was to follow in the days, weeks and months ahead. They would also determine whether my father was home much or whether he worked late, arriving long after I’d gone to bed. That was until the day he left for work and never returned. One of the so-called, missing. I never knew whether that word referred to the person who disappeared or the huge void left in the lives of those they left behind.
My sisters began life as triplets, but arrived as twins, and for the most part we all got along. But because they were twins, they didn’t need anyone else. They had each other. I learned to love my own company more and more. A habit I’ve come to depend on again recently. I’d spend hours with my head between the cover of a book, returning to the library or, when money allowed, the local book store to replace it with another as soon as I’d finished. I was an avid reader but, I suppose, my social skills didn’t develop quite as they should. In my late teens, I blossomed, if the number of male heads turning was to be believed – but I didn’t know how to deal with the attention. That’s what books and magazines were for. They gave me an opportunity to reinvent myself.
I mastered the art of make-up so that, for my first day of college, I emerged a fully-fledged swan. It’s amazing how superficial the human species can be. I’d never encountered this amount of attention in all of my eighteen years. Guys went out of their way to hold doors open as I approached while girls kept me seats at lectures and in the canteen.
“It’s a beautiful scene, alright.”
Lost in my memories, the voice, coming from the other side of the bandstand, startles me.
“Mary,” he says, smiling as he tips his hat. My quizzical look has him pointing to the name in black marker on the side of my paper cup. I don’t have the heart to correct him.
“It is,” I say, returning his smile. “I came here often as a child.”
“Me too,” he says, his blue eyes twinkling, “but maybe a little further back than you.”
I watch as ducks skim across the water, seagulls swooping overhead as children throw chunks of bread through the air. Some of them manage to catch the bread mid-air before it ever hits the water. “Sometimes, I wish I was back there,” I say, “it feels like another lifetime.”
“There’s no going back,” he says, his voice a gravelly whisper.
I turn towards him. “But surely—”
He cuts me off. “I could never return. This is where I belong now.” His eyes look past me and into the distance.
“Life takes a series of twists and turns. Some good, some not so good. We all make choices, never knowing where the alternate route might have led. Mine led me here.” He nods towards a pop-up tent behind him. “That’s my home.”
“What about your family? Do they know where you are?”
He shakes his head. “You learn to push their memories from your mind. It’s easier that way. Although your smile,” he sighs, “it reminds me a little of …” His voice trails off and I’m unable to make out the name.
“Who?” I ask, bending closer.
“My daughter,” he says, rubbing his finger below his right eye. “Now I’d better go. Places to be, people to see.” He shuffles closer to me, extending his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Mary!”
Noticing the dirt under his finger nails, I hesitate. In that brief moment, whatever connection I had previously felt is broken, he has already shoved his hand into his pocket and turned away. He bends to pick up his paperback. A battered Churchill biography I read some years ago.
“Sorry,” I whisper, but he doesn’t reply as he enters the pop-up tent he calls home.
It’s November; dark, wet and busy. A cold spell has pushed in and we’re braced for winter. I flick through a news app while I’m waiting for my coffee order. A headline catches my eye.
Homeless man found dead.
My heart skips a beat. It could, in all likelihood, be him. I’m unable to determine whether I’m thinking of Big Jim or the missing man that used to be my father.
“Mary. Espresso for Mary!”
I pick up my coffee and walk slowly towards Nassau Street, afraid of what I might find.
© Susan Condon