Danielle McLaughlin lives in County Cork. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Stinging Fly, Boyne Berries, Crannóg, The RTE TEN website, Inktears, and in various anthologies including The Bone Woman and other short stories, recently published by Cork County Library and Arts Service, the Fish Anthology 2012 and the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology 2012. Another of her stories was shortlisted for the Francis Mac Manus Competition 2012 and will be broadcast on RTE Radio 1 in July. She won the Writing Spirit Award for Fiction 2010, a WOW!2 Award for Fiction in 2011, the From the Well Short Story Competition 2012, and the William Trevor/Elizabeth Bowen International Short Story Competition 2012.
Midnight at Ali's King Kebab Takeaway
Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway squats at the junction of Fair Street and Butcher’s Lane. Years of grease and malt vinegar have made soft the red leatherette of the seats, dulled the overhead glare of the halogen strips. It is close enough to the War Memorial Fountain that, on windy days, the spray hits Ali as he stands in the doorway. If he looks left, down Fair Street, he can see the old brewery, skeletons of abandoned bicycles chained to its gates. To his right, towards the quays, are the make-shift stalls of the street traders with their cheap watches and plastic toys. On a sign above the door, Ali’s name is painted in fat, orange letters. There is a picture of a burger, the gherkin glow-in-the-dark green, the ketchup blood-red, but Ali stopped doing burgers years ago.
On this particular night it was pissing rain, as Ali’s customers like to say, and outside on the deserted streets lamplight puddled on the pavement. A storm blew in from the river to rattle along the shuttered shops. It was still only ten o’clock, the early-bird hour for takeaways, and Ali was behind the counter pouring red, brown and yellow sauce into bottles. He caught a dribble of mustard with his finger, wiped it on the canvas of his apron.
The girl was the only customer in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway. Squalls of wind bounced rain off the window as she sat on a stool eating chips, not seeing the inside-out umbrellas that blew by on the street or the snaking queue at the taxi-rank. She had arrived at the bus station a few hours earlier with €10 in her pocket. Now, after Ali’s Curried Chip Special and a battered sausage, she had €5 left.
She decided to text her boyfriend back home. Perhaps he would book her a flight over the internet. The girl was eighteen and before this morning, before she had pulled underwear and eye shadow from the shrubbery of a 3-bed semi, she had not known what it was to be cast loose. Outside on the street, people shrieked as they splashed towards buses, jackets pulled high over their heads like caped avengers. Passing cars sent muddy tsunamis crashing against the kerbs. Nobody came into Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway.
The woman in the au-pair agency had been no help. ‘Sorry,’ she’d said, ‘computer’s down.’ She had carried on scraping at her nail varnish with a paper-clip, a magazine open on the desk in front of her. The office was dark and poky, a pot-plant dying on a solitary filing cabinet. It was not at all like the plush, glass-bricked office in the brochure. And the woman, her dark roots visible as she bent her head, did not look like the glamorous woman on the agency’s web-site. Her teeth were not as good for a start, and she wore a crumpled t-shirt and track-suit bottoms.
The girl had tried again. ‘Many children is ok. I like many children.’
The woman ignored her.
‘Smoking is ok too’, the girl said. ‘I don’t mind if they smoke.’
‘The children?’ The woman’s head shot up. Her eyes, creased and red-rimmed, fixed on the girl.
‘No,’ the girl said, ‘the parents. I don’t mind if the parents smoke.’
The woman folded her arms, leaned forward. ‘Do you smoke?’
‘No!’ the girl said, panicked, ‘I never have smoken.’
The woman sighed, shook her head. ‘Smoked. You never have smoked.’
‘I never have smoked.’
‘Good,’ the woman nodded, ‘good. I can never place the girls that smoke. It’s the same with the vegetarians.’
The girl shuffled her feet on the balding carpet. She noticed how the room had grown darker since she arrived, the light fading with the gathering storm. The woman shifted in her chair. For a moment it looked as if she might get up and take some file from the cabinet, might telephone some desperate chain-smoking mother with half a dozen children. But she went back to her nails. ‘Sorry,’ she said, ‘computer’s down.’
The girl had hung out in a department store for a couple of hours. She had tried on a t-shirt, two pairs of boots and a lipstick. When the store closed, she wandered down a side street and into the greasy warmth of Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway.
Ali poured fresh oil into the fryers, hooked on the wire baskets. He counted the fish portions in the freezer. The girl squeezed ketchup on her battered sausage and decided that she would wait until things got busier. Then she would hide in the toilets. Sleeping on a toilet floor was not something the girl had done before, but already she sensed that today, something in the chart of her life had shifted course. She could not see it, but she could smell it above the frying of the chips, could hear it above the hiss and spit of batter. She watched Ali as he moved unhurriedly behind the counter. The bulk of his belly beneath his white apron was oddly reassuring, as was the ripple of muscle along his arms as he carried a crate of chicken legs in from the store room.
Ali’s wife left him last summer. Bolted, Frank, one of his regulars, said. She left him for a mechanic from Mullingar that she met during the Rally of the Lakes in Killarney. She came back a week later for her jewellery and their two dark-eyed little boys. The mechanic had waited outside in his Honda Civic, two wheels straddling the pavement. He had one arm out the window, the other thrumming fingers on the steering wheel. He stared in at Ali, ugly music pulsing from the dashboard, then raised one finger in a word-less war-cry. A curly-headed little runt, Frank had called him. Ali sees the boys every second Sunday in a fast-food restaurant in Athlone where the chips are thin and powdery.
Now, on this night that you wouldn’t send a dog out, Ali watched his only customer, the girl with the curtain of straight brown hair, eating chips by the window. He was absorbed by the half-visible tattoo at the base of her spine, the top half revealed when her shirt rose as she reached for the ketchup bottle, the bottom half disappearing into black knickers. She was very young. She didn’t look Irish. Frank had warned Ali long ago about Irish women and Ali had only himself to blame that he didn’t listen.
But what was this girl doing out by herself on a night that would have tested Noah? The girl was in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway because she had been out-witted by an eight year old. It was this out-witting, and the ease with which it had been accomplished, that had unsettled the girl more than anything that went before or after. The eight year old had handled the money like a cattle dealer, reverently counting the notes, flattening them one by one. She had taken a sparkly slide from her hair and clipped them neatly, edge to edge, before slipping them into the pocket of her jeans. Then she had told her mother anyway.
The shouting began in the kitchen. The velour of Mrs Host Mother’s tracksuit rippled violently as she stormed the stairs. From the sanctuary of his study, Mr Host Father heard the first volley of insults. Mrs Host Mother was heaving and squawking like a shot pigeon, wings beating in a flurry of dying feathers. The girl was already out on the pavement, ducking airborne tubs of moisturiser and the sharp edges of CD cases. Ornaments, a hair-dryer, lipstick – some the girl’s, some Mrs Host Mother’s – came like bullets.
Mrs Host Mother’s hoarse falsetto floated out to the garden where the girl scrambled about after her belongings.
‘What’s she got that I haven’t got?’ The girl could see Mrs Host Mother by the open window, making wild stabbing motions towards her crotch. ‘We’ve all got one of these, you know!’
The eight year old sat on the front steps, her hair in two neat bunches, playing with her Nintendo.
When Mr Host Father took out his wallet, his wife’s face had turned as purple as the baskets of African violets that bloomed, un-perturbed, in the porch.
‘Do I get paid for it? Do I? Look at me, Dermot, when I’m talking to you!’
The girl unhooked a bra that had landed on a hydrangea bush and shoved it into her rucksack. She yelped in shock as the spiky heel of a shoe grazed the side of her head. Looking up, she saw the eight year old, mute and expressionless, staring at her from the doorstep.
Mr Host Father gave the girl a lift to the bus stop. As he listened to the football results on the car radio, his left hand moved seamlessly between steering wheel, gear stick and the inside of her thigh.
The girl remembered the sting of stubble, the faint odour of leftover aftershave that first night six weeks ago when Mrs Host Mother was at her Pilates class. As they waited at traffic lights, she stumbled blindly around the small-holding of her vocabulary. ‘Today’ she said, ‘it is very sad.’
Mr Host Father handed her the money for her bus ticket. ‘Ah, don’t worry about it,’ he said, ‘she’s always losing the head. She’ll be grand when she calms down.’
It was now half past eleven in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway and outside, empty chip cartons turned cartwheels in sheets of grey rain. Customers in wet anoraks rubbed shoulders by the salt and vinegar. Ali spooned mushy peas into Styrofoam tubs, shook chips into fryers. The kebab dribbled silent juices as it rotated on its spit. Frank was sitting at the counter with a can of Fanta. He had learned not to mention the bolted wife, or the dark-eyed sons, or the curly-headed little runt. Instead, he said ‘Looks like Bray Wanderers will be relegated from Premier Division.’ Ali noticed that the girl had not moved, even though she had eaten her last chip half an hour ago. There was a honey tinge to her skin, warm and syrupy, not at all like the freckle-spattered porcelain of his ex-wife’s that he had once found so exotic.
At her feet, deep in the bowels of her rucksack, the girl’s mobile phone beeped. It was her boyfriend back home. The girl’s diary with its childish scrawl of telephone numbers and God only knows what else, had been found by Mrs Host Mother under a pillow in the box room. The boyfriend would not be booking any flight over the internet. The girl dropped the phone back into her rucksack. She watched a drop of rain run down the outside of the windowpane, saw it fall into the gutters that fed the city sewers. She wondered who else Mrs Host Mother had rung. And she noticed that there were no toilets in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway.
Ali saw the girl run her hand through her dark hair, noticed her long, delicate fingers as she pushed her fringe from her forehead. Her breasts rolled gently beneath her shirt as she got down off her stool and then, almost at once, got back up again. Ali got a cloth and went over to the ledge by the window where the girl was sitting. The girl noticed the strength of his arm as he wiped in assured circles and she noticed how he watched her while he pretended to rearrange the salt sachets.
In the window, there was a ‘Staff Wanted’ sign. The girl nodded at it. ‘You prefer a girl or a boy?’ Ali liked this question. It was, he thought, a perfectly reasonable question and he liked the fact that the girl thought so too. Why should he not be allowed to prefer a boy? A boy could talk soccer with Frank, could carry the crates of chicken legs in from the van; a boy would not pile lipstick and moulting hairbrushes on the sink of his small upstairs bathroom. Ali noticed that the girl’s eyelashes were thick and curled, like a row of black crescent moons. ‘I prefer a girl’, he said.
‘Is there a room?’
There was no room but already Ali was mentally taking the Spiderman posters from the walls of his sons’ empty bedroom, was swapping the Man United duvet cover for the white one with the yellow flowers that languished in the bottom of the hot-press. ‘Yes, there is a room.’
He was unwinding in front of her, unravelling the stitches of the curly-headed little runt and the ex-wife and the hand-to-mouth early years of the takeaway, until he was a boy again, handsome and cocky. ‘A room and all the chips that you can eat.’ Ali laughed loudly, recklessly, and the girl, feeling her life spin like a roulette wheel, decided to spin with it and laughed too. She threw back her head, showing her delicate neck at its best to Ali, giggling like the teenager that she was. Ali was glad that Frank had to go home to put in the greyhounds.
Frank, though, was curiously present, even in his absence. Already Ali could see the bush of Frank’s raised eyebrows, the telling curl of his lip the next day when he heard about the girl. In deference to the absent Frank, who had established himself as something of an expert on women, Ali forced himself to ask the question. ‘Do you have any experience?’ The girl had cooked a lot of fish fingers over the past couple of months, had heated countless tins of beans.
‘Yes’ she said quickly, almost too quickly, but it was all Ali needed.
Midnight at Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway. Ali was back behind the counter, frying chips for the handful of bedraggled customers who stumbled in from the pubs. The girl drank a free coffee and stared out the window. Outside, the rain was easing to a light drizzle. After the shutters were down and the lights dimmed, and when the only sound was the soft hum of the fridges, the girl followed Ali upstairs to her new bedroom on the corner of Fair Street and Butchers Lane. Ali kicked a remote control car and a Lego brick under the bed, sought in vain to flatten the wrinkles on the musty white duvet. The girl did not ask about the children’s clothes still hanging in the wardrobe or the picture in blue and yellow crayon gathering dust on the window sill. After Ali had gone, she undressed and climbed under the duvet, watching the strange, grey shapes of the bedroom emerge from the shadows and become slowly familiar.
Ali went into his own bedroom and closed the door. He lay down on the bed without taking off his clothes or his shoes, and stared up at the ceiling, not seeing the naked bulb or the cobwebs stretching across the room but only the slender circumference of the girl’s wrist as she reached for a coat-hanger in the wardrobe. It was a long time before he slept.
The rain had stopped falling, leaving the night air cleaner, sharper than it was before. An empty crisp packet was impaled on the branches of the elm tree at the end of Butchers Lane. Nothing much happens in Ali’s King Kebab Takeaway but that night, amongst the humming fridges and the closed doors, there hung the hush of the possible. It lingered long after the puddles swallowed their last drop of rain, long after the last damp reveller threw his empty chip carton in the War Memorial Fountain and headed for home.
©2012 Danielle McLaughlin
Ethel Rohan reviews Danielle McLaughlin at The Reading Life
Story by McLaughlin in Boyne Berries 11
Stinging Fly Issue 21 containing McLaughlin story