by Gerard Brennan
“I was watching out for you.” His voice, a sudden intrusion, blotted out the traffic hubbub for an instant. “To tell you a truth.”
Jeanine almost knocked a batch of traybakes off the chestnut sideboard. She’d dragged it out of her café that morning, onto the still busy Upper Ormeau Road footpath. Her first attempt at a socially distanced business diversion since panicked government restrictions forced her to close her doors to the clutch of semi-regulars she’d managed to net. Bent over the remaining wares, sunlight warmed the back of her neck. She resisted the urge to turn and face the source of the voice. To squint at a mystery silhouette framed by a sky full of pink clouds.
The man’s voice crackled, like it needed more time to warm up. “I saw the wee ‘Honesty Stall’ sign and wondered if it was some sort of God thing.”
“I don’t pay much attention to religion,” Jeanine said; Belfast-speak for, Let’s not make this an us-and-them thing.
Her face reddened, but still she didn’t look away from her task of gathering little Tupperware boxes, mostly empty, into a larger Tupperware box. She just wanted to carry them inside, get the empty ones washed, and hole up in her bedroom, directly above the shopfront of her halted business.
“Pity.” This time he tried to clear his throat; the noise muffled by a tissue or sleeve. A cough disguised. “The Godly things ’round here are usually free.”
Jeanine wanted to go indoors and wash her hands. She considered leaving the boxes behind, to be coughed on and touched by strangers. Maybe stolen by bored kids with no school to go to. Then she could tell herself that her modest business model couldn’t possibly work in this climate. She was too scared of catching the virus anyway. Refused to believe that hand sanitiser and polite coughing techniques could save the world.
Her interim business idea was inspired by a news article about a young man living with Down’s Syndrome who sold baked goods in the country. People drove to the entrance of his family’s farm and collected a bag of cookies from a pillar-mounted wooden box, shaped like a barn. They completed the transaction by squeezing a donation into a padlocked moneybox bolted to the bottom of the miniature barn. The suggested donation was a measly quid. Janine would get a lift out there someday and stuff a fiver into the moneybox to thank him for the inspiration. She just hadn’t gotten around to it before the lockdown.
But she’d come up with her own version of an Honesty Stall. The sideboard had a few traybakes on the upper surface, and the donation tin was in the drawer on the righthand side, glued down rather than bolted. The drawer on the left had tissues and plastic knives, for anybody that wanted to cut their sugary treat in half. Both drawers were left open to reduce the need to touch the handles, since they were deep enough to stop the napkins sailing down the road in a gentle breeze.
The previous week, Jeanine’s nephew, Jason, designed a poster based on her vague outline. He printed out and posted a colourful A4 sign for the price of a few caramel squares.
“How does it work?” the man asked.
The instructions were written on the sign. She should have listened to young Jason when he said she needed a bigger page with clearer instructions. But she’d liked his first effort and didn’t want to torture him with extra work just because he had a computer and printer in his bedroom.
Jeanine looked over her shoulder to see how close the stranger was. The volume of his voice suggested mere inches, but she could see he’d heard the news about standing two metres from strangers. If anything, he’d overcompensated his distancing as much as he had cranked the volume of the crackled enunciation of his speech. The man was younger than she’d first thought. Was his voice deepened and gravelled by a throat infection? A virus? The virus? Her palms slickened under disposable rubber gloves. She wished she’d worn a mask or a visor or something. They still hadn’t decided if face coverings made a difference, so far as she knew. Certainly, there weren’t many to be seen around Belfast right then.
“What do you mean?” Jeanine asked, and wished she hadn’t.
“The sign says, ‘Honesty Stall,’ but I can’t see the small print from two metres away.” He nodded towards the inadequate instructions. “Do I tell you something, then get a wee treat?”
Jeanine couldn’t figure out if he was trying to be funny. Winding, as her generation put it, or banting, as young Jason had taken to saying since he’d started big school. The maturing sunlight behind the man made it harder to read the creases in his face. She decided to play it straight rather than risk angering him with a misunderstanding.
“No, it just means that I have to trust you to pay what’s fair, because I can’t stand outside and serve you.”
He tilted his head. “Oh. Well I have money. Just not on me. How long before you close? I’ll go get some.”
“I’m closing up now.”
“Will them ones go in the bin?” He nodded at the remainders.
Jeanine needed the loo. She didn’t want to be outside any longer. The risks were higher than ever. Used to be she’d be worried about getting mugged on her way to the bank with much needed takings. Found her breath quickening every time she passed a soul. Now her anxiety could be triggered by somebody attempting friendliness with a passing ‘hello.’ She wanted to shout at people to be quiet, irony be damned. That’s how she knew she wasn’t in great form. How she knew she was only a breakdown or two from homelessness. From begging in the street. Or relying on ‘Godly stuff’ to get by.
She reminded herself that it was often a good idea to be kind. And the man still hadn’t made a move to go fetch his money, despite the silence between them swelling towards infinity. Jeanine made a snap decision before doubts could start prickling her scalp.
“I’ll tell you what,” she said. “I’m going to leave these tubs inside. You help yourself to what’s left and next time you’re passing you can drop a wee bit of money in the box.”
“But what if I don’t pass by here again?”
“Are you not local?”
“Aye, I am. But like…”
The man started to mutter. Jeanine couldn’t make out what he’d said under his breath, and she didn’t want to lean in to spitting range.
“Well, don’t worry about it, then. Just have them.”
“I don’t want to owe you.”
“It’s grand. You owe me nothing. Just enjoy them and tell your friends about the wee stall. We’ll call it advertising.”
She stopped just short of winking at him.
“I don’t have friends anymore.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Jeanine started to feel like she was being sucked into a sob story. One that might end up costing her more than some leftover traybakes. It was time to bail. “It was nice talking to you. Goodbye.”
“I should probably die,” he swatted at his ear. “I miss my old friends.”
Jeanine bumped her backside into the front door of her café and swung it open too hard. She stumbled backwards across the threshold and dropped her Tupperware. A swift kick sent the nested boxes across the café floor and she slammed the door shut. Turned the lock. Took a breath. The man had come closer to the door. She felt safer with a pane of glass between them but briefly considered rolling down the metal shutters for good measure. They’d be too slow, though. If this man wanted to put a brick through the window, she couldn’t stop him.
The man raised his arm. Jeanine flinched, expecting him to hammer-fist his way in. But he hadn’t curled his hand into a weapon. He touched the tip of his index finger to the tip of his thumb and fanned out the other three fingers. Then doglike, he tilted his head and pushed out his lower lip, turning the okay sign into a question.
“I’m fine,” Jeanine said, so loud she hurt her own ears. “Don’t worry about it. Just help yourself.”
“Not unless I can give you something for them.”
Jeanine no longer felt the urge to be kind.
“Then could you just go away, please? I’m finished working, right?”
Now that his face was close enough to mist up the other side of the glass Jeanine could see he was younger than she first estimated. She could also see that he was scared. Maybe more scared than she was herself.
“I don’t want to go home. Barney’s dead and I don’t know what to do with him. And if I die tonight, there’ll be two messes to be cleaned up instead of one. But maybe Barney could be my ghost friend then.”
It was time to lower the shutter. Thank God she’d put the extra money into fitting an electric one. She turned the key from her side of the door and watched its maddeningly slow descent.
The man breathed more mist onto his side of the windowpane. He used the tip of his finger to draw a simple sad face. Two dots for eyes and a downturned slash of a mouth.
“Barney was my last friend. My best friend. I don’t know what to do with him.”
“Try phoning the police.”
“What if they think I killed him?”
The shutter stopped in its tracks. Jeanine turned the key left and then right. She pressed the button again. More movement, but not far enough to end their encounter.
“I’ll phone the police,” Jeanine said.
“Then they’ll definitely think I killed him. Don’t worry about it. He’ll probably fit in the wheely bin.”
Jeanine had heard the bins wouldn’t be emptied for a few weeks. Jesus wept. Should she tell him?
“That was the truth I wanted to tell you,” the man said. “Barney’s dead, but I didn’t kill him. I was trying to keep him safe. That’s all.”
“I believe you,” she said.
Neither of them believed that.
The man knocked on the window, three slow beats. “I wish I could come in there and tell you stuff. Tell you the truths. But I know I’m not allowed.”
Jeanine thought about her mobile phone. The one Jason had chosen for her. It had a touch screen and loads of gigabytes and Facebook for her café and it counted her steps and she sometimes felt guilty about clicking into Daily Mail articles about women older than her who looked twenty years younger and she could use it to phone the police if she could remember where she’d last left it.
She’d left her phone beside the till. Everything would be okay. The police would come and take this poor, sick man away and they could deal with dead Barney. Everything would be okay. They shouldn’t even need to talk to her in person. Not during a pandemic. She just wanted to make sure this man got taken care of. Or investigated. Maybe arrested if he’d hurt somebody.
The man knocked at the window again, still polite, and yet Jeanine almost loosed her bladder. The bloody shutter needed a service or something. She decided to give up on it.
“I think I’ll take one traybake,” he said. “Would I owe you anything for one?”
Jeanine pretended she couldn’t hear the question. She turned her back on the man and hoped that he wouldn’t smash his way in.
“Did I tell you enough truth for one traybake, missus?”
She walked past the till, decided in the split second it took her to spot her phone that a knife would be a better option, and continued on into the café kitchen.
Chef knife. Psycho blade. She could barely grasp the handle tight enough to draw it from the wooden block it resided in. When she managed to wiggle it free it felt unwieldy. She laid it on its side by the blade block and snatched at a paring knife instead. It looked nasty enough to scare someone but wasn’t so top heavy that it would slide through a shaking, sweat-slicked hand.
Jeanine tucked her right hand behind her back and started a breathing exercise. She closed her eyes and sucked in air for four seconds, held it for five, then blew it out again for six seconds. Once, twice, three times.
When she opened her eyes, she saw that the man was gone. Or maybe he had moved a few paces to the left or right, just to get out of her line of sight. It didn’t matter. A few more rounds of measured breathing, only this time with her eyes opened and fixed on the ghost of a sad face drawn on the other side of the door glass, and she felt brave enough to venture forward.
“Relax yourself,” she said. The sound of her own voice made her feel foolish, but she continued to talk. “Just make sure he’s gone, try the shutter one more time, and don’t panic. It’s going to be fine.”
Baby steps turned to a disjointed shuffle. She got to the door before she could figure out how she usually walked.
And he was gone.
Jeanine giggled a little and called herself stupid. She tried the shutter again, this time raising it slightly before trying to lower it. Something fell out of the track closest to the door. A little wedge of wood. Jeanine squinted at it until the shutter rumbled to her eye level. She blinked and moved backwards, her movements still a little alien to her.
Somebody must have put that wedge high up in the shutter track to stop it from closing. But when and how? Even a tall man would struggle to place it high up enough to stick. Her creepy visitor hadn’t seemed particularly big. And it wasn’t like there would be much point breaking into her wee café to rob her. She hadn’t had a customer in a few weeks and the Honesty Stall had barely made enough to cover her ingredients since she’d started.
Maybe somebody wanted more than money from her. Something physical?
“Stop thinking like that.” Jeanine shook her head. “And for the love of Christ, stop talking to yourself before you end up in the same care home as Barney’s mate.”
Her wee jibe made her feel guilty, but she couldn’t suppress a sneaky smirk.
She halted the shutter at waist height. Relief flooded her body, and she took a second to think. Her Honesty Stall was still outside. It would need to be dragged in if she wanted to try again in the morning. Otherwise some scumbag would lift the whole thing. Either an opportunistic thug hoping to make a couple of quid, or some drunk students thinking petty theft was hilarious.
Although, if somebody did steal it, she could give up and admit that she shouldn’t have taken redundancy from the civil service last year. She should have kept that dull job for the rest of her life and not taken any chances on her wee retirement dream. Maybe she could get another job. Just not in an office or a café.
Before she could decide, her mobile phone rang. She almost stabbed herself in the face with her paring knife when she automatically raised her hands to her mouth. Jeanine dropped her weapon and kicked it towards the dropped Tupperware. She bustled to the till and snatched up her handset. A video chat from Jason. Such a good boy. Her world began to feel more normal.
“Hiya, Jason. Ach, I’m so glad you called.” She squinted at her screen. “Are you all right? You look worried.”
“I saw your café on Snapchat. Where’d that weird guy go?”
“Snapchat? Why would one of your friends…?”
“They aren’t friend-friends. We have a streak, just.”
Jason looked away from his phone then back at the screen. “Mum’s making faces at me here. Never mind why I saw it, but I did.”
“Put your mum on.”
“I can’t. She’s trying to phone the police.”
“She’s worried about you. That man got beat up after he tried to break into your place. Some kids dragged him away.”
“He’s only been gone for a minute.” She checked her watch. “Maybe five minutes.”
“Mum says you have to come stay with us.”
“But the virus. The lockdown.”
“She says it doesn’t matter. They’ll only fine us if somebody touts on her, but nobody’s like that ’round our way. Dad went out in the car and mum doesn’t know when he’ll be back. Pack an overnight bag, phone a taxi and come on.”
“That poor man.”
“He was trying to rob you. There’s been burglaries all over Belfast since this whole thing started. And they’re targeting people who live on their own.”
Jeanine thought about her visitor, and her reaction to him. How the little wooden wedge had fallen out of her shutters. The man had scared her, but logic started to whisper in her ear. He didn’t seem capable of planning a robbery. He didn’t even look like he’d have been strong enough to break through her window, now that she really thought about it. She had been anxious, scared of the virus. Odder people had come into her café and left without incident. It wasn’t the man, it was the situation. For all she knew, Barney was the guy’s pet dog. Barney seemed like a common pet name. The weird guy just needed to talk to somebody.
And because of her, and her overreaction, he’d been hurt.
“I have to go out there. See if I can help him.”
“It’s not your responsibility, Auntie Jeanine. Wait, I think Mum’s got talking to someone. Uh-oh, she doesn’t look impressed.”
Jeanine heard her sister ask for Jason’s phone.
“Tell your mum I’m fine,” she said, then her view of Jason flipped and there she was, upside-down on the screen for an instant before the image turned 180 degrees. “I’m fine, Beth. Don’t worry about me.”
Beth still had her own phone pressed to her ear. Strands of wet hair straggled over her hand. She looked like she’d just jumped out of the shower.
“You’re staying with us tonight,” Beth said. “Lockdown or not. You’re family.”
“I don’t want to be a burden.”
Jeanine could have bit her own tongue in half for saying something so daft. She wasn’t that old. Beth could probably use her about the house to help out while Jason was off school. Her husband, Rory, was a keyworker pulling long shifts and Beth had been asked to work from home despite pleading her case for furlough. Jeanine could cook for them and earn her keep. But when she tried to take her words back her mouth refused to comply.
“The police aren’t going to help,” Beth said. “They have me on hold here. Apparently there’ve already been calls about other shops on the Ormeau getting robbed. These hoods are jamming shutters and breaking into shopfronts while the emergency services are stretched. Stretched they said. Like, I understand nurses being thin on the ground, but cops? Jeanine, just come, will you? It’ll be fun.”
Jeanine thought of the wedge of wood. “Why would they break into my place? There’s no money here, no valuables.”
“Apart from all your kitchen equipment. These vultures would sell granny’s jewellery for a bottle of WKD.”
Jeanine needed to get off the video chat before she threw up on her phone.
“I’ll phone a taxi now, Beth. Thanks.”
Her sister spoke while Jeanine jabbed at her screen, trying to end the call. “Thank God. Only grab your essentials. I’ve everything you need here until Rory gets a chance to bring you back for a proper pack.”
Jeanine killed the screen and ran to the customer toilet. She threw up in the sink and stumbled away from the smell of it. Her balance was off. She ignored the instinct to clean her mess with anti-bacterial spray. A cold drink would be better.
“Barney said I should thank you for the traybake.”
She could hear him, but she couldn’t see him. Cold sweat stung her eyes. How the hell did he get in? The shutter was down, her back door deadbolted. But he’d got in. The hints of guilt she felt for her earlier overreaction disappeared. She was in survival mode again. And the knife block was just steps away. All she had to do was open the toilet door and run. If the weird guy stood between her and the kitchen…
Jeanine didn’t finish the thought. She reacted. And when she shoved open the bathroom door, the man stood there, blood drenched and bedraggled. For once in her life she picked fight over flight. Jeanine charged at the man, clenched her teeth expecting impact, and ran through him.
She skidded to a halt at the entry to the kitchen and looked back, expecting to see him lying on the ground. But he stood, his back to her now, mercifully hiding his damaged face. A painfully thin cat wove figure eights around his ankles. Jeanine sat down on the floor.
“How did you get in?”
The man shrugged. The skeletal black cat hissed at her. Jeanine closed her eyes and refused to open them.
That crackled voice grated over Barney’s mewls: “I have more truths to tell, if you have time.”
© DOCKYARD PRESS