Short Story: For Old Times’ Sake by Jonathan Lee
O’Duffy’s flat was full of seaweed, but I hadn’t seen that yet. The first words I heard him say were: “Whiskey please, love.”
“Cheapest,” he said.
He paid, took the bottle, and walked out the shop. I went to the till after him and put my pasta and milk and apples together in a pile.
As the woman scanned my things, she asked if there was anything else she could get for me. I asked for a lottery ticket, two lines.
She printed the ticket and handed it to me. I took it, ripped it in half and then half again.
“I like not knowing,” I said.
I paid for my items and left the shop. Ahead of me, at the end of the road, I saw O’Duffy again so I followed him.
I stayed a few paces behind him for a while until he stopped and turned and asked me what I was doing, if I was following him. I said I was. He didn’t seem surprised. He took me to his flat and invited me in and I agreed.
The inside of the flat was small. The kitchen and the bedroom and the sofa were all in one room. There was a toilet behind another door. Everything was old and nothing matched.
There was seaweed everywhere. I took my shoes off and sat down.
O’Duffy poured me a whiskey and asked me about my life and I answered him honestly. I’d been married for twelve years. My children were nine and seven. My job was boring, but aren’t all jobs?
O’Duffy laughed at that.
My wife, Mari, wanted pasta for tea. The apples were for the kids for school. I drank O’Duffy’s whiskey. He asked if Mari would be expecting me home soon. I said she would but it was okay if I was a little bit late.
O’Duffy poured me another. I asked him about the seaweed.
He told me a story about a man his father knew who went to the harbour one day and stayed there. That’s what the seaweed was about. It was on the coffee table, behind the sofa, dangling from lampshades.
I’m not sure what the man did at the harbour, O’Duffy had a tendency to trail off when he was drinking, but I liked the sound of that sort of life.
The seaweed, he said, had accumulated in the flat slowly over the past few weeks. He said he’d clean it up. Not on my account, I told him.
I got up off the sofa and walked around while he made a phone call. He had lots of old blues records. Great taste, I thought. I loved listening to the blues. When he returned, O’Duffy smiled at me and poured another drink.
I slept there on the sofa. I left the flat when O’Duffy said he needed to go to work in the morning. He said that I should go home to Mari, she’d be worried.
But by then I knew I wanted to go to the harbour, though I kept that to myself. In that case, he said, I was welcome to stay. Take the flat for as long as I wanted. It was mine, he’d be the one to leave. Nonsense, I told him.
After O’Duffy had gone to work, I looked directly at the sun and walked to the harbour.
I walked past the home I had built over fifteen years with Mari and continued to the coast. I’m not a coward, I must point that out, but I knew if I told Mari I was leaving her and the kids to live at the harbour, she would try to talk me out of it.
“Did you used to know O’Duffy’s father?” I said to the first man I saw when I got there. He said he didn’t and I took his word for it.
My bare feet curled and cramped and bled on the loose stones which were scattered across the broken tarmac on the harbour road until a fisherman gave me an old, torn pair of green shoes. They looked like they were probably very nice once.
By then, of course, my feet were mostly calloused and used to the stones but I took the shoes anyway because I wanted to be polite and make friends.
I thanked him and he told me not to mention it. He said it was a privilege. I asked him what his name was and he told me but I’ve forgotten it now. It definitely started with a P, though. Or maybe an S.
Anyway, I didn’t see him again after the shoes but I carried on wearing them because he was nice and they were comfortable.
Along the harbour road were dozens of fishing sheds. They were all painted black and made of wood but each of them had a different name chiselled above the door. In front of most of them, too, were small wooden boats with big nets made of thick rope, resting inside.
On the other side of the road was the water: a long, narrow channel that went all the way to the sea. That’s where the bigger boats were.
Not long after the shoes, I asked another man if he knew O’Duffy’s father. He said he didn’t.
“That makes two of us,” I said.
That man, however, introduced me to someone named Very Old Alan. He said if anyone would remember people from the past, it would be him.
Very Old Alan sat outside a fishing shed called St Helene and played an acoustic guitar. He was the oldest man I had ever seen. Methuselah with six-strings.
I sat next to him and he played me a song. His fingers twisted around the guitar like the branches of an ancient tree and he had a birthmark on his right forearm, the shape of Wales.
I never asked him about O’Duffy’s father.
I became good friends with Very Old Alan and he shared his Navy Rum with me.
He told me he only drank when he was off duty, but sometimes he was off duty for months at a time. He was what they called a day-worker, somebody who would hop aboard a fishing trawler when they needed extra hands, and then return to land until another job came in. One day at a time.
I asked him if I could do this, too. He said he didn’t see why not. It was the middle of summer and the sun was dragging trawler boats down the harbour and into the sea at a steady pace.
Something would come in soon, he said.
Every morning, Very Old Alan got a newspaper from a young lad who came down the harbour road on a bicycle. He said he only read it for the obituaries.
He wanted to keep up to date with who had gone and who was still around. He liked knowing he was outliving people, he liked being old.
When he had finished with the paper, I read them too. I never saw Mari or the kids’ names in there, so they must have been doing well.
Old blues tunes
When we had both read the obituaries in the newspaper, we drank Navy Rum, watched the trawlers and Alan played his guitar. I liked the songs he played, they reminded me of something. Old blues tunes.
In the evenings, when the stars came on, Alan would tell stories. He’d say they were true stories from the old days. I don’t know if I believed all of them, though. They sounded made up. He had lots of stories about Bill. But I didn’t know who Bill was.
After his stories were over for the night, I’d sleep under the moon or, if it got cold, on the floor of St Helene. Alan had a hammock in there. I’d always wanted a hammock.
At the end of summer, a job came in for one of us. Alan said I could take it because we would be out at sea for three days or longer and he only liked day jobs. When I said I’d stay with him on land, he insisted I go.
“You take it,” he said. “For old time’s sake. O’Duffy and Bill, back at the harbour.”
“No old times,” I said. “We’ve only just met. But thank you.”
I climbed onto the big boat and introduced myself to the captain.
“It’s an honour to have you aboard,” the captain said. “Great to have you back.” Then he told me to catch as many fish as I could. I said I’d try my best. We sailed down the narrow channel towards the sea and I waved goodbye to Alan.
A young fisherman on the boat, whom I had never met, came up to me and shook my hand. He said it was magnificent to see me again. I didn’t correct him because he was polite and, if we were at sea for several days, I’d have hated for him to feel like a fool for all that time.
He said he was there on the day of my misfortune and he feared I was done for. I smiled, thanked him and hoped that nobody else on the ship was as confused. I walked to the edge of the deck.
As our boat left the channel and entered the sea, I looked back to the harbour. I saw O’Duffy and Mari walking hand-in-hand along the road, the kids had ice-cream. O’Duffy stopped to talk to Alan.
I thought it strange they’d have a chat with each other. I knew them both and they had very little in common. Just the same big noses. Same green eyes.
Alan pointed at my boat.
“Dad!” Mari said. She let go of O’Duffy’s hand and ran toward the end of the harbour. I thought she’d keep running but the water got in the way. The kids shouted and waved at me.
“Grumpy,” they said. Or something like that. I waved and smiled back at them. A big smile, to show I wasn’t grumpy at all.
“Dad, get off the boat. Be careful, there is-” Mari said, but I couldn’t hear the rest of what she said because we were going further into the sea. Her voice got smaller and smaller until it stopped.
Everything on the harbour got smaller, actually.
Alan and O’Duffy and the kids and Mari.
The boats and the fishing sheds, too.
I thought about the hammock in St. Helene and wondered if there was one on the ship I could sleep in. That would be wonderful, I thought.
I looked around for the captain, to ask him, but he had gone away.
Everybody had gone away and the boat kept sailing.
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