A Noo­dle of Truth

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - HENNESSY NEW IRISH - WORDS BY BY DAIRE McNALLY

It was that crowded time of the evening at High­bury Cor­ner when I saw the old Chi­nese man in his chef’s uni­form wan­der­ing back and forth on the pave­ment. He squinted up at the names of shops and restau­rants while the flow of com­muters broke and ed­died around him.

Some­thing about the old man re­minded me of my dad. Not the way he looked – Dad was not old, or Chi­nese – but the way he went about his busi­ness with com­plete dis­re­gard for the ir­ri­ta­tion of strangers.

He leaned out into the road to see shops fur­ther down the street. Watch­ing for a 277 bus which would hit him, I asked, “Are you look­ing for some­where, mate?” He ig­nored me. Freez­ing rain­drops stung my face, and I opened my um­brella. “Are you lost?”

The old man gri­maced, and the rain­drops col­lect­ing on his lined face caught the red of brake lights from the road. As a pho­tog­ra­pher, it was a painful sight when I didn’t have my cam­era.

“Come on,” I said, and ges­tured for him to come un­der the um­brella. “I’m Jack.”

It be­gan to rain heav­ily as he con­sid­ered his op­tions, and by the time he had made up his mind his thin hair was drip­ping and his uni­form was soaked.

We walked to­gether down St Paul’s Road with head­lights spinning our shad­ows around us like a clock in re­verse.

I didn’t usu­ally do things like that. I didn’t vol­un­teer, or give to char­ity. I didn’t know the names of my col­leagues’ kids, or give up my seat on the tube, or rinse out sham­poo bot­tles be­fore I put them in the re­cy­cling. So the only ex­pla­na­tion I had for my bring­ing an old man home with me is that I was hav­ing some sort of break­down. This was plau­si­ble. I spent six days a week pho­tograph­ing hand­bag dogs for women who gave their pets peo­ple-names, and gave their chil­dren dog-names, and gave nei­ther any ba­sic train­ing. The re­sult was that my shoes were al­ways soaked in dog urine, and the stu­dio was usu­ally trashed by the end of the day, be­cause of course you bring your kids to your dog’s two-hour photo ses­sion. I had stayed late that evening peel­ing gum off the seat cush­ions while feel­ing jeal­ous of to­day’s eight-inch-tall Pomera­nian. For lunch, Scar­let had bolted a whole fil­let of wild Scot­tish salmon, while I chewed on last night’s cold pizza.

So yeah. Break­down.

I shoul­dered open my front door and was im­me­di­ately mor­ti­fied. The pizza box was still splayed on the ta­ble, fill­ing the flat with grease-stink. Beer cans lit­tered the cof­fee ta­ble, and the floor was a mo­saic of pa­per scraps.

I un­stuck the cans from the ta­ble and pitched them in the re­cy­cling. (No, I didn’t rinse them.)

“Sit, please,” I said, hold­ing out my arm in a way that said sit please. The old man sat.

I handed him a mostly-clean towel, and he dabbed the rain off his face and hair.

“Can I call some­one for you?” I took out my phone and waved it around. “Call? Call?”

He slipped his hand in­side his uni­form and pulled out a scrap of pa­per. In neat hand­writ­ing it said, “My name is Tommy. If I am lost, please call my fam­ily.” A phone num­ber was writ­ten un­der­neath.

Look­ing at the care­fully printed dig­its, I won­dered if his son or daugh­ter had writ­ten them, and if I would have writ­ten such a note for my own Dad some day. No. If it had to be done, my sis­ter would have done it. But maybe I would have gone to fetch him, wher­ever he was, and we could have talked on the way home in the car. Maybe by then we would have learned to talk about some­thing other than foot­ball. Prob­a­bly not though. I di­alled the num­ber and it rang seven times be­fore a lady an­swered. When I told her Tommy was in my flat, there was an ex­plo­sion of Chi­nese at the end of the line. She asked for my ad­dress, and when I had given it she hung up.

“They must be com­ing to get you,” I said. The old man frowned. “I said, I think they’re – oh you don’t speak a word of English.”

I col­lapsed into an arm­chair and parked my feet on one of the card­board boxes that were ly­ing around: things from Dad’s house I had meant to un­pack months ago. Tommy sat straight-backed on the edge of the couch, his stiff chef’s coat bunch­ing in the front. I won­dered if he re­ally worked in a kitchen. He was quite old and got lost from time to time – hence the note – but he didn’t seem oth­er­wise con­fused, so maybe he did. We waited. The clock on the wall ticked with sat­is­fy­ing clunks. As the hand pushed past a raised bit of the warped card back­ing there were a few scrap­ing sec­onds, but then it was back to sat­is­fy­ing clunks all the way around. I should have asked how long they would be. The clock even­tu­ally started to get on my nerves, and I de­cided to oc­cupy my­self by col­lect­ing the sheets of pa­per on the floor.

The day be­fore, a Mal­tese toy poo­dle had sav­aged my an­kle, and by the time I got home I was des­per­ate to know if I could set up my own stu­dio – one for peo­ple. I tried crunch­ing the num­bers, but it turned out I knew noth­ing about the costs of do­ing busi­ness. So in the end, all I had to show for the ex­er­cise was a mess and a headache.

Balling up the last scrap, I turned to­wards the re­cy­cling and bumped into Tommy, who was right be­hind me pick­ing up bits of pa­per. He was a guest in my flat and he was helping me clean it. What a ter­ri­ble host. “I’m so sorry; can I get you a drink?” I took the pa­per from him and stuffed it into the re­cy­cling. “Maybe some­thing to eat?” I made a mo­tion like I had a spade in my fist and I was us­ing it to fling por­ridge at my face.

“Ah,” said Tommy. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a leather roll, and opened it out on the ta­ble. There, per­fectly re­flect­ing my own ter­ri­fied face, was the most enor­mous knife I had ever seen. It could have felled trees. Tommy picked it up and stood there with the blade glint­ing in his hand and I thought, this is it. This is how I die.

Tommy didn’t murder me though. In­stead, he walked into the kitchen – oth­er­wise known as the cor­ner of the room with the oven in it – and opened each cup­board in turn, re­mov­ing an item or two from each: a dry noo­dle square, a jar of peanut but­ter, some sort of oil that was there when I moved in, sa­chets of soy sauce from take­away sushi, ex­pired stock cubes, a dried herb. The fridge of­fered up an egg, some shriv­elled spring onions, and some sort of meat that Tommy sniffed and threw in the bin. He filled a pot with wa­ter and set it on the flame. Then he pulled out a chop­ping board and thun­dered on it with the knife.

Watch­ing Tommy work, I felt an urge to get in there and lend a hand. When I was grow­ing up, Dad would throw ev­ery­one but me out of the kitchen on Sun­day af­ter­noons. He would roast a chicken, pota­toes and veg­eta­bles, and I would help. I’d wash, peel, grate, and when the meal was al­most ready I’d stir the gravy while he carved. I was the only per­son he trusted with gravy.

Tommy poured the con­tents of the pot into a bowl and set it on the ta­ble with a flour­ish. The noo­dles sat in a brown liq­uid dot­ted with spring onions. The egg was in the mid­dle, cook­ing in the sauce.

“But you didn’t make any for your­self,” I said. I pulled out an­other bowl and di­vided the meal in two, cut­ting the egg down the mid­dle in a swirl of yolk.

The aroma of peanuts and soy sauce made my stom­ach growl. It had been a long time since I’d eaten, and longer still since I’d eaten any­thing that wasn’t pizza. The sauce burned my tongue, and burned all the way down, but was salty and delicious.

Tommy slurped his noo­dles with a noise like a street clean­ing truck mov­ing over a pud­dle. “This is se­ri­ously good,” I said. Tommy watched me del­i­cately suck noo­dles into my mouth. He looked hurt.

“It’s good. It’s good,” I said, des­per­ate to be un­der­stood. I took a fork­ful of noo­dles and slurped them as loudly as Tommy had, rub­bing my belly for good mea­sure. He broke into a grin. The noo­dles slapped my chin and sprayed my neck as I de­voured them, and when they were gone I up­ended the bowl and drank the sauce. When we had both fin­ished, Tommy went back to his spot on the couch and I col­lapsed into my arm­chair, cross­ing my arms over my full belly. A wave of tired­ness crashed over me, and ques­tions that had been on my mind all day drifted back into my head, but dis­tant now, with all the ur­gency taken out of them.

“I’ve been think­ing about start­ing my own stu­dio, Tommy,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m do­ing, so I’ll prob­a­bly screw it up. My in­her­i­tance will be gone and ev­ery­one will know I failed when my shoes go back to smelling like dog piss.” Tommy stared at me. “So what do you think? Should I do it or not?”

He seemed to think about it, but when he replied it was in Chi­nese. That was as good as I was go­ing to get from Tommy.

Daire McNally is from Sk­er­ries, Co Dublin, and lives in Lon­don with his wife and two lit­tle boys. This is his first fic­tion to ap­pear in print

Ruth Quin­lan won the 2018 Gal­way Univer­sity Hos­pi­tal Arts Trust – Po­ems for Pa­tience com­pe­ti­tion; 2014 Over the Edge New Writer of the Year Award; and 2012 Hen­nessy First Fic­tion Lit­er­ary Award

■ Kiera McGarry is a grad­u­ate of the Sea­mus Heaney Cen­tre for Po­etry in Belfast. She is a sec­ondary school teacher. Her work has ap­peared in The Open Ear, Abridged and The Ogham Stone. A se­lec­tion of her po­etry is in­cluded in New Poets From the North of Ire­land (edited by Sinéad Morrissey and Stephen Con­nolly)

I jolted awake when the door snapped shut. I stag­gered down­stairs and on to the street where the miz­zle showed the path of head­lights, and the coloured signs of the cor­ner shop re­flected off the road in gar­ish smears. A car pulled away from the curb, the back of the old man’s head vis­i­ble in the rear win­dow. I waved, but he didn’t look back.

I stood there, un­sure what to do, look­ing down the street where the car had gone. A line of street lamps stretched down the road, each one with a mound of rub­bish at the bot­tom.

I won­dered what Tommy had said when I asked about open­ing a stu­dio. Maybe it was Chi­nese for what my Dad would have said, and he was ac­cus­ing me of hav­ing al­ready made up my mind. That al­ways an­noyed me. He’d say all I wanted was some­one to tell me I’d made the right de­ci­sion. He was no help at all.

But, think­ing about it, had I made a de­ci­sion al­ready? If I wasn’t go­ing to do it, wouldn’t I have stopped think­ing about it by now? But I didn’t usu­ally do things like that. “Good­bye se­cu­rity,” I said out loud, an au­di­ble shake in my voice. “Good­bye dog piss.”

I pulled off one of my shoes and pitched it un­der the near­est street lamp, imag­in­ing the rain wash­ing the piss down the drain. When I put my foot back down, icy wa­ter wicked up be­tween my toes and made me gasp. I quickly pulled off the other shoe, threw it with its mate, and went in­side for a fresh pair of socks.

As I squelched up the stairs, I won­dered if it had been one of Tommy’s chil­dren driv­ing the car. My re­la­tion­ship with Tommy had been a bit like my re­la­tion­ship with my own fa­ther: I couldn’t talk to him, he fed me, and he left with­out say­ing good­bye.

IL­LUS­TRA­TION: BÉIBHÍNN McCARTHY

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