The winner of our short story category in the Hysteria Writing Competition last year (2015) was Shauna Mackay with her story called No Odysseus.
Belter Brenda wants Malc and Malc wants Belter Brenda, only trouble is Malc’s got the wife and bairn at home. ‘See this,’ he says to the lads, and he raises his ring finger, ‘I don’t wear this thing for fun.’
‘Nobody’s said nowt,’ says Dobbs.
Malc takes a good swallow of his pint. ‘You know Odysseus, right?’
‘Eh?’ says Tommo.
‘I’ve heard of the bloke,’ says Dobbs. ‘How you so up on him, like?’
‘I did learn something at school, you know, Dobbs. He’s the one who had a right time of it getting back from the Trojan War. Hell of a sea voyage that lad had to contend with.’ Malc’s gaze strays from his two mates’ ugly mugs and travels the length of the Memorial Hall to where Brenda’s taking to the stage. She’s got her shiny red dress on and he has to close his eyes against her curves.
‘Are you thinking you might do off to sea yourself, like?’ cracks Dobbs. ‘If the redundancy rumours turn out to be true?’
All three of them work on the bins. Dobbs and Tommo have always been there for Malc. Fantastic they were last year when he wasn’t himself for a bit after the bairn got diagnosed with the CF. Cystic Fibrosis it stands for and it means Malc and the wife have to slap the poor little bugger’s body about everyday so his lungs don’t get all clogged up. Coughs like an auld pitman. Malc wishes CF was transferable. He’d like to take it from the bairn. If only he could.
‘Earth calling Malc,’ says Tommo.
‘Sorry,’ says Malc.
‘What’s the big deal with this Odysseus, then?’ Dobbs asks him. ‘Make it sharpish though. Brenda’s doing her one twos.’
‘Well,’ says Malc, and then he stops because he spots his mother-in-law’s sister sitting a couple of tables away. ‘Put your backs together, lads,’ he says, all stiff-lipped like a ventriloquist.
The lads look around and spot bat ears. ‘Aw, I catch your drift,’ says Tommo, and he shuffles in his stool to make a pow-wow.
‘She’s all lugs that one,’ says Dobbs. ‘She’ll have her hearing aid amped up to the hilt. Probably a lip-reader. Wouldn’t put it past her. Auld gossip. Got a bloody nerve when her Patsy’s the village bike.’
‘Don’t,’ says Malc.
‘It’s true,’ says Dobbs.
‘Luckily for you, Dobbs,’ says Tommo.
‘Listen, lads, it’s like this, right, I don’t know how much longer I can keep Brenda at bay.’ Malc has a quick drink of his pint. ‘She’s coming on strong.’
‘Aw, I really feel for you,’ says Tommo.
‘It’s not funny,’ says Malc.
‘What’s this Odysseus bloke got to do with the price of fish?’ asks Dobbs.
‘He had his mates tie him to a pole so he could hear the sirens’ song without coming a cropper.’
‘I’ve always said you’re a bit touched, Malc,’ says Tommo.
‘The sirens, right,’ says Malc, ‘they were these seductive women, well they were half women, half bird, following so far?’
‘Which half was the bird half?’ says Tommo.
‘What way round do you reckon would be best, Tommo?’ says Dobbs.
‘This is serious stuff,’ says Malc. Sometimes he knows what it is to be all at sea even though the only time he’s ever been on a boat was when he took the wife and bairn on that trip over to the Farne Islands to see the puffins. That was the week after they found out about the CF. It had been a rough crossing but the three of them had laughed all the way over. Coming back, the sea had settled itself down. ‘The sirens used to sing and lure sailors to their death,’ he says now, almost past caring.
‘What did they sing? Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep?’ says Dobbs.
‘By, you’re going back a bit there, lad,’ says Tommo. ‘I know you’re as auld as the hills, like, but bloody hell.’
‘Are you two listening, or what?’
‘Aye,’ says Dobbs. ‘Carry on.’
‘Most sailors would do anything not to hear the sirens’ song, right? Because they know it’s curtains if they do. Not Odysseus though.’
‘What did Oddsy do, then?’ Dobbs shrugs at Malc and Tommo. ‘That’s what we’d call him if he was on the bins with us.’
‘He’s just said, Dobbs. He had his mates tie him to a pole.’
‘He wanted to hear the song but not succumb,’ says Malc. ‘And that’s what I’m going to do with the help of you two bonny lads.’
‘You want me and Tommo to tie you to a pole?’
‘It can be easily arranged,’ says Tommo.
‘Not an actual pole,’ says Malc. ‘A metaphorical one.’
‘A whattie?’ says Tommo.
‘Look,’ says Malc, ‘I could easily stop indoors with the wife of a Saturday night, away from Belter Brenda and her come ons but I want the night out, don’t I? I like the banter with you two jokers and I enjoy a pint or six. Do you know what I’m saying?’
‘I think so,’ says Dobbs.
‘I’m not sure,’ says Tommo.
‘I’m going to do an Odysseus. I’m going to hear Brenda sing. When she holds those top notes I’m going to watch her boobs tremble like two frightened doves huddled together for comfort and later on when they call time at the bar and she’s giving me the glad eye, you two are going to hold me back. But there’s no actual pole, you both got that?’
‘I think I’ve got the gist of it,’ says Tommo.
‘Clear as mustard,’ says Dobbs, stretching his neck up so he can see the stage better where Brenda’s singing about setting fire to the rain.
‘Is that a figure or is that a figure?’ says Dobbs.
‘That’s a figure,’ says Tommo.
Brenda looks like a goddess tonight. Malc wonders how it would feel to be all over her naked body. Lost to the redundancy rumours, lost to the fact the bairn’s got the CF, lost to everything but Brenda’s warm flesh. There’s a key change now and the song soars and Malc thinks about the two doves being released. Waves of wanting crash onto the shore of his shoes, white horses gallop up his trousers, trample his chest only to be brought up short, panting at his head. He’a a married man. He made vows in front of a vicar. Half the village was there and God was likely watching. Brenda and him can’t happen. He’s done the right thing in enlisting the lads to the cause. She’s a temptation he needs help with.
Come last orders and Brenda’s bothering him. She’s pushed up behind him at the bar, pressing her hands over his eyes. ‘Guess who? She says, her sticky breath warms his right ear.
‘It’s Dobbs, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘I’d recognise those soft hands anywhere.’
She laughs and sidles in beside him. Malc girds himself with the thought the lads are on standby and, bonus fact, his mother-in-law’s sister’s looking sozzled and won’t remember her own name tomorrow never mind that Brenda has squeezed up to Malc at closing time.
‘Warm, isn’t it?’ says Brenda.
‘Very,’ he says. ‘Can I get you a drink?’
‘I’ll have a pint of cider and black, ta.’
He orders the drinks and they smile at each other. She’s got a load of teeth but she’s not at all horsey, thinks Malc. And some might call her fat but he’d call her fit. God, she is fit alright. He likes a woman with a bit of meat on. ‘Smashing show you put on tonight, Brenda.’ He looks over her head to try and catch one of the lads’ eyes but Tommo’s not there and Dobbs is too busy acting the goat with Patsy.
‘Something up, Malc?’ says Brenda.
‘No,’ he says, trying not to show he’s ruffled as hell. The barmaid’s finished pulling the three Fosters and Brenda’s already lifted her cider and black to her lips. He digs into his pocket for his last note.
‘Cheers,’ she says. ‘I hope you’re not going to leave me to sip this on my lonesome?’
‘Er, well, you know, the lads are waiting, like.’
She gets jostled by Franky Pledger who’s in a rush to get a last drink in and her chest gets pressed up against Malc. Her eyes are a dare. ‘Go give those two their drinks and get yourself back,’ she tells him.
He picks up two pints. ‘Excuse me,’ he says, and he shoulders his way through the crowd.
Dobbs is being straddled by Patsy. ‘Where’s Tommo?’ Malc asks him.
‘Had to leg it or he was going to miss the chippy.’
‘I’ll chippy him,’ says Malc. He glances back over at Brenda. She’s watching him and waves. ‘Patsy, love, go and powder your nose or something, I need a little word with my pal here.’
‘Who do you think you are?’ says Patsy.
‘I’m a desperate man, Patsy, that’s who I am. I’m Mr bloody Desperate of Desperateville, now please have a heart and give Dobbs and me a private minute here.’
Patsy flings her round blue eyes up to the roof of the Memorial Hall but then she jumps up off Dobbs and leaves.
‘You’re needy these days, lad,’ says Dobbs.
Malc puts the pints down. ‘What happened to our pact?’ Dobbs twists up his eye, trying to figure out what Malc’s going on about. Malc helps him out. ‘The pole thing? Brenda’s nearly eaten me alive over there. Fat lot of good you are.’ Dobbs is looking to see where Patsy’s gone. What’s the bloody point? Thinks Malc. ‘Look, I’m going to get off home now.’
‘Sensible lad,’ says Dobbs. ‘I’m going to Patsy’s party.’
‘How old are you, Dobbs?’ Malc shakes his head. ‘Do you not think it’s time to give Patsy’s parties a swerve? Time to grow up. You’re baldy and you’ve got an enlarged prostate.’
Dobbs winks and clicks his mouth. ‘Peter Pan,’ he says. ‘Anyway, Malc, you get yourself back up that hillside to your little cottage and your lovely little family and Belter Brenda will just have to find some other lucky sod to seduce. Tell her I’m up for it, if you like?’
‘See you Monday,’ says Malc. ‘Thanks for nowt.’
‘No bother, mate,’ says Dobbs.
Malc grabs his jacket from the back of the chair, ducks his head down, and leaves.
He’s not two minutes up the road when he hears his name being called. It’s only bloody Brenda. He turns and she starts running toward him and all he can think about is the glistening in the dark. It’s from her red sequins and the rain. Everything’s all wet with silvery rain.
‘Hoy there, handsome, what’s your hurry?’
‘I have to get home.’
‘Oh, come to mine and have a coffee or something,’ she says. ‘I left the heating on. Get yourself warmed up before you head for the hills.’
‘I can’t,’ he says. He’s not looking at her because he can’t look at her. He’s never fancied anyone as much as he fancies her at this moment. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says.
‘Come on,’ she says, and she grabs his hand. ‘We’re all sorry.’
She lives in the high street above the candle shop. They’ve already kissed twice and she’s looking in her handbag for her key when his phone goes. It’s the wife. The bairn isn’t well. He’s had Calpol and she’s let him have his dummy, but he’s still not settling. He wants his dad.
Malc double checks he’s turned his phone off and then he says, ‘this is not happening, not tonight, not any night, never. I’m a married man.’
She strokes his cheek. ‘You are,’ she says.
Malc turns from her and starts out again, at speed. He knows he’s no Odysseus but he does know how it feels to want nothing but home. It feels like this.
(Photo courtesy: Wikipedia R Howorth