a short story by Sean Harris.
Oh, how she longed to go outside! Staring out the window, staring out the window—all she ever did was just stare out the window!
She happened to see her son from the window walking down the road at that moment. He let himself in the house with his key, wearing a cap, a chef’s jacket and some blue-check trousers.
‘I got the job, Mum!’
‘The one at Santon’s, on the river—a kitchen porter.’
‘Oh, Santon’s is just lovely!’
‘It was lovely being there in the sun, too—so peaceful.
‘I sat on the riverside while I waited to speak to the chef, and I saw some fish in the river, and I saw a kingfisher, and I saw a heron flying with really big whooping wings.’
‘It’s just lovely there. You’re already wearing a uniform?’
‘They want me to start tomorrow. They said I’ll mostly be washing dishes, but I don’t care. I get a free lunch and dinner, anything I want from the menu, and, once I’ve turned eighteen, I can have a free pint at the end of my shift as well.’
‘Anything you want from the menu?’
‘Anything. The chef said he’ll make it for me.’
‘Wonderful. Your first job, Alex. It’s quite an occasion.’
‘I’m going to get like five-hundred pounds a month, Mum!’
‘I’m sure your father would have been very proud.’
‘Oh, don’t cry—because then I’ll cry.’
She stepped forward and held her son in an embrace. They cried together and felt the breathless heaving of their chests, while crying and crying. The boy was trying to gently pull away after a while. His mother held him and decided unrealistically that she would never let him go. She let him go and said:
‘I’ll come and visit you one day.’
‘You can’t go outside, Mum.’
‘I’ll make an exception. I’ll have a cream tea.’
‘That would be nice, Mum. It would be really good for you.’
‘I need to start making an effort.’
‘I think things are going to start getting better now, Mum.’
‘Yes, I hope so.’
When that weekend was finished, after the boy had worked three ten-hour shifts, his mother found him in the kitchen in the morning forlornly huddling a cup of tea.
‘Alex—you look tired,’ she said to him. ‘It’s hard work, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah. It’s all right, though.’
‘Is it just washing dishes?’
‘I cut up some potatoes—but that was the only other thing.’
‘Do you think you can manage?’
‘Yeah, of course. Just got to get used to things.’
‘What about the people there? Are they friendly?’
‘Did you eat your lunch with them?’
‘Are there people your age there?’
‘Yeah, some of the waitresses.’
‘Did you get on well with them?’
‘Did you stay for a drink after work—a soft drink?’
‘No—yeah, on Saturday.’
They ate a small breakfast together.
The boy started getting ready for college afterwards. His mother watched TV and wrung her hands together with the pit of her stomach in a twist. When her son came downstairs ready to leave, she told him stutteringly that she would come and visit him for a cream tea on Saturday morning.
‘That’s brilliant, Mum!’
‘I have to come and see you. I used to love Santon’s.’
‘You probably won’t be able to see me, though. I’m busy all day. They don’t like me walking out of the kitchen, anyway—because I’m always so dirty with all the washing and the scrubbing.’
‘Well, just to be there and know you’re there will be enough for me—just to be out of the house, to be honest.’
‘It’s going to be so good for you, Mum, to get out. You’ll be fine.’
‘Yes. We’ll have to see.’
On Saturday morning, when her son was already at work, she prepared herself at length to leave the house. The showering and getting changed didn’t take all that long. Filling up her handbag did, though. After making a list, she put inside plasters, deodorant, perfume, lipstick, two mobile phones, a pen, a pencil, her purse, a tub of insect repellent, a small bottle of water, and a multitude of different hairbands—so that the little handbag was literally bulging. Then she finally stood with her hand on the knob of the front door.
‘Come on,’ she whispered to herself coaxingly.
She opened the door and felt the fresh air and warm light of the sunny spring morning. It took her a long time, just standing there. When another woman walked past, she looked down at the floor in shame and almost turned back inside. Then she stepped out at last and walked on down the street—anxious, but not melting down.
She walked past the school and along by the library. Then the trees started thickening out, and she felt a curious feeling a peace descending upon her. The birds were singing, and she saw a little vole of some sort scurrying by the stream. No one else was around, despite it being a sunny Saturday morning; and she strolled, she thought, just like any other normal person out walking.
The little pathway was up ahead, trailing through the trees and leading down to the river and the restaurant. As she walked down the path with the mottled light slicing down through the canopy, she imagined having to order her cream tea and her voice breaking and her face turning red. The front of the restaurant garden was there now, a quaint wooden fence with the big homemade Santon’s sign.
It was fairly busy in the garden.
In the warm sunny weather, she saw that the tables had been put out on the lawn with the river running by deeply and serenely on the left.
She spotted a secluded little table by the river under a tree and took a seat there.
A waitress was with her right away.
‘Hello! Are you ready to order?’
‘Yes—yes—I’ll have—have a cream tea, please.’
That was that. The waitress walked off smilingly, and she sat back in the patio-style chair and watched the green-brown water running in the river. She rivetedly followed the chub’s wavering little movements with deep pleasure, completely forgetting about her problems, and she watched as the fish took a fly from the surface.
Her cream tea arrived.
It looked lovely: a generous helping of cream and jam, golden colouring on the scone, and the crockery, so colourful and exquisitely glazed, from the plate down to the little milk jug, looked lovingly handmade. The only problem: a large hair was floating in the tea.
She was deliberating intensely about whether she should say anything, when one of the boy waiters came past.
‘Excuse me,’ she called to him.
‘Give me a break!’ the boy snapped back.
She recoiled into the seat under the tree. The sun disappeared behind a cloud at that moment, and she felt the start of a shake developing in her legs. She pushed the tea away slightly; and she was just about to run away, when the waitress from before approached.
‘Did you need something?’
‘Yes. There’s a hair—a big hair—hair—hair in my tea. I normally wouldn’t say anything. I don’t like—like complaining. It’s quite a big hair, though.’
‘No problem at all. I’ll get you a new one.’
‘I tried asking a boy. But he was quite rude—rude to me.’
‘Yeah, I saw. That’s why I came over. Sorry about that. He’s—well, I am allowed to tell people—he’s got some sort of mental disability that means he’s not very good socially when he gets stressed. I know that seems a bit strange, seeing as he’s a waiter. But he’s usually very good. It’s very rare that he snaps at people. I’m sorry about that.’
‘It’s no problem.’
The waitress sighed.
‘Everyone’s a bit crazy here, to be honest. I think I might have to leave. I don’t know how I cope sometimes.
The chef is always screaming at the waiting staff, and our kitchen porter is so, so shy that he won’t speak to anyone—like, he can’t even look you in the eye. He eats his lunch in this little cupboard by himself. The bar manager is always flirting with me, and the owner is always accusing everyone of stealing as well.’
‘What’s—what is your kitchen porter’s name?’
‘Alex. He’s new.’
The waitress strutted away and returned with a new cup of tea.
She barely touched the tea, though, or the scone. She literally had two sips of the tea and only picked at the golden scone and jam. Then she daringly left a five-pound note under the cup of tea on the table and virtually ran out of the seating area, up the pathway, and all the way home.
When her son came home late that evening, she was there in the living room. She had seen the dour expression on his face while she had been watching him through the window. Now he was making an effort to smile—although he still looked hellishly tired.
‘All right, Mum. You’re still up?’
‘Yes, I went to Santon’s today. It’s put me a bit on edge.’
‘Oh, Mum! I completely forgot. I’m sorry. How was it?’
‘It was fine.’
‘Really? I’m so happy for you.’
He walked out to the kitchen and filled up a pint glass of water from the tap and downed it in one big gulp. He stood there at the sink afterwards breathlessly with his eyes closed and his back all hunched up. His mother watched him from the door frame.
‘You would tell me—wouldn’t you, Alex?—if you were unhappy.’
‘Yeah. Why are you saying that?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Why are you crying, Mum?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You must know.’
‘It’s nothing. I’m sorry.’
‘I’m working hard, Mum. It’s all right, though. I’m fine.’
‘I worry about you!’
‘Well, don’t. I’m working now, and I’ll have more money for us. I’m going to take a gap year after college in Santon’s and save loads of money for university. Then I’ll be a doctor or a scientist or someone really important. You left the house today, as well, Mum. That’s huge. Stop crying, please.’
‘I’m trying to stop. I’m stopping now.’
‘All right. Well, I’m going to go straight to bed, then. I’m exhausted.’
‘I’m going up right now.’
‘Good night, Mum.’
all pictures by Sébastien Marchand.
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