David O’ Doherty is from Cork. His short stories and flash fiction have been published in ROPES, Wordlegs and Bicycles With Umbrellas. He has also written for stage and radio. He has read at Listowel Writer’s Week, The West Cork Literary Festival and O'Bheal. A recent graduate of NUI Galway’s MA in Writing programme, David has also written for stage and radio.
Commended in the Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
Damien McGrath crouched behind the battered hood of his 1992 Nissan Micra and watched the last customer fade into December gloom. Whiskey tinged bile seared his throat as the rotund cashier emerged to shut the door. Reaching into his bag, he ripped open the packet, pulled the tights free and stretched them over his head.
This was it.
A deep, calming breath.
A last glance up and down the icy car park.
‘Don’t fuck it up now Damo.’
Straightening, he scooped everything into the plastic bag, cracked his knuckles and strode towards the post office.
“So Damien. What would you say your weaknesses are?”
That one always stumped him. He’d yet to uncover a way of claiming a lack of weakness without appearing conceited. Sweat trickled down his back as he shifted in the ergonomic office chair.
“Um,” Damien attempted a friendly grin and opened his palms to the interviewer, “If anything previous employers have told me I’m too dedicated, that I work too hard.”
Damien scratched his inner thigh as the stony-faced HR woman etched a large ‘X’ on her assessment form. He should have washed those new pants before wearing them. The HR woman wrinkled her nose and peered across the desk.
“And you’re available to start ... ”
Not that it mattered. Another flunked interview. Another despondent trudge home. Another day scouring jobs websites. By now he almost preferred when his applications passed without reply, allowing him continued immersion in the bubble of unrealistic optimism and expectation that could not, and would not be punctured by pernickety interviewers or itchy pants.
“Nobody move. This is a stick up!”
Christ. The line sounded cornier than he’d imagined. He felt like he was auditioning for the lead in a bad action film.
“I said this is a stick up!”
Damien arranged his face into what he hoped was a menacing glare, and brandished the 1kg block of EC Aid white cheddar at the startled cashier.
“Empty the fucking tills.”
The cashier remained motionless.
“Is that a block of cheese?”
“Empty them now.” Damien’s face flushed. A little whiskey belch escaped his mouth.
The cashier squinted at Damien over tortoiseshell rims. Her meaty head was framed by a white lick of hair that had broken loose from her coal tar perm. Squinting, as she did now, made her look like a large shifty, bespectacled badger.
“What kind of fool are you?”
Damien hadn’t anticipated this. In the videos the cashiers never talked back. Fumbling in his pocket, he produced a Super Valu plastic bag and thrust it into her face.
Fill this up. Now!”
“Since when has it been a good idea to hold up a post office with a block of cheese?” The cashier stepped from the counter and shuffled towards Damien.
Damien took a step back. He was beginning to realise that he hadn’t given his weapon choice due consideration. It’d been a spontaneous decision. He’d felt angry, frustrated, powerless. Perhaps he hadn’t given any of this due consideration. An hour and four whiskies had elapsed since he’d stormed from the offices of the Local Employment Service. Doubts were crowding his mind like morbid rubberneckers clambering for a glimpse of butchered flesh at the scene of a car-crash. This woman, thighs and shoulders like Sunday roasts, looked like she meant business—she was almost certainly a match for a block of cheese.
Waving the cheddar about his head, Damien scowled forward, channelling the spirit of Al Pacino as Sonny Wortzik. He was going to do this.
“Don’t make me use this on you woman.”
He thrust the plastic bag towards her again.
“Fill it up.”
He was on the second packet of fig rolls when Denise arrived home.
“Didn’t go well then love?” She scooped to kiss his forehead.
“What do you think?” Damien shovelled two fig rolls into his gob, spraying crumbs all over the couch and onto the carpet. Chewing with relish, he contemplated her disapproving face.
“How was work?”
“Alright,” Denise flopped down next to him. “I’m exhausted.”
She snaffled the remaining fig roll from the pack and patted her distended stomach. “He’s getting heavier.”
Damien brushed the crumbs from his rumpled suit and took Denise’s hand. “Only three weeks to go,” he forced out a smile.
“Don’t worry love; I’m sure you’ll get a break soon.” Denise placed his hand on her bump. “We have faith in you.”
This wasn’t going well. The cashier was laughing at him now. Laughing at him and his fucking cheese.
“I know you. You were here yesterday paying ten euro off your electricity bill. I’d recognise that jacket anywhere.”
Damien glanced down at his red sailing jacket with the large designer’s logo. Not the most inconspicuous choice of clothing, he would have to admit. So, she knew his jacket. So what? Lots of people wore red sailing jackets.
“You’re not very good at this, are you?” Her voice had assumed an air of quiet confidence. Damien realised that she had drawn several inches closer, a smirk playing across her lips. A wave of nausea washed over him. This clearly wasn’t working.
Time for Plan B.
What was Plan B? He hadn’t really even had a Plan A, just a sustained rush of blood to the head. He looked around the post office, seeking something, anything to extract him from this mess—a poster of a famous Irish actor promoting a children’s charity, a flyer offering trombone lessons for beginners, a cloth sack bulging with letters. Nothing doing.
Damien gnawed at his right index finger.
Plan B. Time for Plan B.
Fuck Plan B.
Gripping the cheese as tightly as he could, he lunged forward and took aim at the cashier’s head. In spite of her bulk, she was surprisingly fleet of foot. Stepping smartly to her left, she evaded Damien with ease, knocking the cheddar from his grasp with a grunt and a left-handed karate chop. With a second grunt she twisted his free hand behind his back with her right and manoeuvred herself behind him, her flowing belly pressing into the small of his back. Maintaining a pitbull grip, she sailed her elbow high through the air. It arced over the actor’s twinkling eyes. It arced over the offer of trombone lessons. It arced over the bulging post bag before reaching its apex, picking up velocity and plunging swift and sharp onto the base of Damien’s spine, sending him sprawling to the floor.
Flipping him over, like a red jacketed egg, the cashier grinned at Damien and forced her sturdy frame onto his chest, expelling the air from his lungs. So much for Plan B, or was this still Plan A? It didn’t really matter now. His deluded fucking plans had landed him in this situation, but maybe they could still extract him. It was time, surely, to formulate Plan C.
Gasping for breath, he jerked his head back onto the cold tiles. Closing his eyes he tried to regain his composure, but he could not focus, his thoughts drawn, inexorably, to the previous day.
“What would you say your weaknesses are?”
At least he had an answer now.
Another day, another soul sapping appointment at a government agency. The letter told him to be there at 2.30pm, or risk losing his claim. Shifting around another ergonomic chair in a stuffy, windowless office that reeked of old paper and mustard, his mind drifted into neutral as a kindly lady chatted optimum CV presentation. He wondered if there’d be a paternity test on today’s Jeremy Kyle.
“Now Damien, it’s important to ensure that your name and contact details are prominently displayed on every CV you send out, so potential employers will know who you are and how to contact you.” He’d always loved when they broke out the DNA test, which brought, in his opinion, a touch of CSI style glamour to daytime chat.
The woman warbled on about upskilling. Thirty minutes passed. Of course, the man tested nearly always transpired to be the father, negating the drama somewhat, but watching as Jeremy teased the results was always entertaining.
They reviewed a list of local employment agents. An hour passed. The odd one, in denial no doubt, would get a bit shirty, but mostly they cried, overwhelmed by emotion and imminent fatherhood.
They reviewed his interview technique. Five interviews in the past three months, each more disastrous than the last. She spouted the usual platitudes—he seemed a nice young man, couldn’t see where he’d gone wrong.
"That’s very helpful," he smiled through gritted teeth. Yeah, really fantastic. Well worth missing Jeremy Kyle for.
“Sadly,” she concluded as they finished up, “there’s not much out there at the moment for a man with your skill-set.” Damien reddened, his head mimicking his sailing jacket, as she proffered a sympathetic smile and asked if he would like a block of EC Aid cheese.
As he exited, cheese in hand, he spotted her at the window, blinds lifted, to see him off with a friendly wave. He needed a drink.
The flushed, doughty face of the cashier loomed over him, her hot acrid breath filling his nostrils.
She shook her pendulous head to and fro, sending black and white curls snaking down her forehead as her sagging chin swayed rhythmically, a hypnotist’s watch lulling its victim.
“Please,” wheezed Damien, “I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
“Too right you have boy.” She shifted her weight and dug her knee into his gut. “In all my years this is the most pathetic thing I have ever seen. I’ve had stamps put up more of a fight.” Damien winced as she twisted her knee in deeper and broke into a chortle. “Did you even have a plan?”
“Well ... kind of ... it was a bit of an impulsive thing ... ” Damien was horrified to hear his voice—small, cracked, scared. “Can’t we sort something out ... forget this happened ... ”
“Oh, not at all,” the cashier leered over him, “I don’t take this sort of thing lightly.”
A vibration in Damien’s jeans caused her to jerk back.
The cashier reached into his pocket and pulled it out.
“That’s nice.” The cashier smiled and pressed the answer button.
“Hello Denise,” she smiled down at Damien. “No, this is Mary McCarthy from the Skehard Post Office. I’m afraid your husband is incapacitated at the moment.”
Damien squirmed under her, attempting to extract his right hand. Mary leaned back and dropped an elbow into his chest.
“Calm down dear, there’s no need for hysterics. You’ll just have to get a taxi. Ok now, God bless.”
Mary hung up and glanced down at Damien.
“Lovely woman. Her waters have just broken.”
“What? Let me up! Please! I have to drive her to the hospital! Please!” Damien launched into a wild, bucking motion, but his trashing succeeded only in drawing her beefy frame further down onto his torso.
“Please I’ll do anything. Show some mercy, please!”
Head wobbling with indifference, Mary’s stumpy digits reached out to dial 999. Pausing for a moment, she glanced at the phone and then at Damien.
“Is it your first?”
“They say you always remember the birth of your first. Such a shame you won’t be there to support your wife.”
Damien watched as Mary reached off to the side and wrapped her fingers around the block of cheese before righting herself. The pressure on his chest was killing him.
“I’ve been working in this post office for twenty seven years young man and I’ve not suffered one robbery.” There was a malicious glint in her eyes. Damien feared this was not going to end well.
“Please, I ... ” He hoped Denise would not be too upset.
“And I’m not going to suffer one today. I don’t take kindly to interference with the workings of this office. Don’t take kindly at all.”
Mary’s eyes flashed a sinister purple as she brought the cheddar down hard onto his temple, smashing his head into the dirty cracked tiles. As he drifted out of consciousness the last thing Damien heard was the call to the Gardai.
He hoped it would be a boy.
©2012 David O'Doherty
O'Doherty flash fiction story in Wordlegs
O'Doherty story in Cheerreader
'Design For Life': radio play co-written by O'Doherty & Joe Jennings