The Oyster CatcherBy: Jo Thomas
The sea air hits me like mouthwash for the head. It’s clean, fresh, and smells of salt. I’m standing on the steps of the Garda station; or Portakabin really. The wind blows my hair and I hold my face up to it, letting any tears that may have escaped mingle with the damp air. With my eyes shut and my face held up to the wind I realise two things. One, I’m in a place called Dooleybridge and two; I am absolutely stranded wearing the only dress I have – the one I’d got married in.
I open my eyes, shiver and walk back towards the harbour wall where the camper van had been. There are some scuff marks on the wall and a headlight that had fallen off, but other than that there’s no real trace that it was ever there at all. I bend down and pick up the light. Oh, that’s the other thing I realised while being cautioned. There’s absolutely no way I can go home, no way at all.
I turn round and walk back towards the road; when I say walk, it’s more a hobble. My shoes are killing me and are splashing water up the back of my feet and calves. But then it isn’t really gold mule weather. It’s cold and wet and I couldn’t feel any more miserable than I already do. I head back up the hill and cross the road just below the Garda station and step down into a tiled doorway. I take a deep breath that hurts my chest and makes me cough. I have no other choice. I put my head down. I touch the cold brass panel on the door and with all the determination I can muster, push it open.
The door crashes against the wall as I fall in, making me and everyone else jump. As I land I realise it’s not so much the throng I was expecting but a handful of people. All eyes are on me. A hot rash travels up my chest and into my cheeks making them burn and inside I cringe. I feel like I’ve walked on to the set of a spaghetti western and the piano player has stopped playing.
‘Sorry,’ I mouth and shut the door very gently behind me. My stomach’s churning like a washing machine on spin cycle. I look round the open-plan pub. At one end is a small fireplace and despite it supposedly being summer there’s a fire in the grate giving out a brave, cheery, orange glow against the chilly atmosphere. There’s an unfamiliar smell in the air, earthy yet sweet. In the grate there are lumps of what look like earth burning on the fire. Back home I’d just flick on the central heating but home is a very long way away right now. There’s wood panelling all across the front of the bar, above it, below it and round the walls. When I say wood panelling, it’s tongue and groove pine that’s been stained dark. It’s the sort of place you’d expect to be full of cigarette smoke but isn’t. In the corner by the fire there’s a small group of people, all of them as old as Betty from Betty’s Buns. Or as it’s now known The Coffee House. Betty’s my employer, or should that be ex-employer?
Betty refuses to take retirement and sits on a stall at the end of the counter, looking like Buddha. She’s never been able to give up the reins on the till. She did once ask me to take over as manager but I turned it down. I’m not one for the limelight. I’m happy back in the kitchen. Kimberly, who works the counter, tried for the job but Sandra from TGI Friday’s got it and Kimberly took up jogging and eating fruit. The group by the fire is still staring at me, just like Betty keeping her beady eye on her till.
There are two drinkers at the bar, one in an old tweed cap and jacket with holes in the elbows, the other in a thin zip-up shell suit and a baseball cap. They’ve turned to stare at me too. With burning cheeks and the rash still creeping up my chest, I take a step forward and then another. It feels like a game of grandmother’s footsteps as their eyes follow me too. The barmaid’s wiping glasses and smiles at me. I feel ridiculously grateful to see a friendly face. It’s not her short dyed white hair that makes her stand out or the large white daisy tucked behind one ear. It’s the fact she’s probably in her early twenties I’d say, not like any of her customers.
A couple of dogs come barking at me from behind the bar. I step back. One is black with stubby legs, a long body and a white stripe down its front. The other is fat and looks a bit like a husky crossed with a pot-bellied pig.