Fall 2010, Volume 9

Fiction by Robert O'Shea


"That will be five dollars."

The man stares at Kimberly in mock disbelief: his eyes dilated, face covered in sweat, mouth working overtime as he chews gum. His singlet is also drenched in sweat and when he raises an arm she smells the tang of Lynx with the undertone odour of socks.

"Five dollars for a bottle of water? You joking?"

Kimberly’s hands hold firmly onto the bottle which is placed on the counter beside the cash register. She can hear the thud of techno music pumping from the basement below. She can see the man is eager to get back to dancing with his mates, eager to drink, because whatever he took has caused him to be dehydrated. She feels his outrage, five dollars for water is shocking but it’s the rules. And she knows—and he knows—that the cold water taps in the toilets have been turned off so that the only other option is to drink warm water or scab a drink from his mates. She has overheard Leon say that this is how he makes the money on these nights. The cover charge at the door, and the mark up on the cloakroom tickets, the water, the soft drinks: clubbers are too high and hot to refuse paying. Leon’s Russian bouncers frisk every clubber for smuggled drinks. If they find drugs, the Russians keep them for themselves. The man makes to grab the water and Sam intervenes. He leaves the sink area and walks over to the counter, arms folded, the muscles and tattoos rippling underneath the overhead light.

"Listen mate, you either pay up or we bar you from the place for wasting our time. What’s it gonna be?"

The man scowls, takes a five dollar note out of his wallet and throws it at Kimberly. She hands him the bottle and he walks off in disgust.

"Thanks Sam. I was okay though."

"What a nobhead."

Sam goes back to the sink, his back hunched as he scrubs away at a pan. The tray by the sink is piled with things he cleaned earlier—bowls, plates, chopping boards, strainers, whisks, pots, cutlery. It had been a late night at Old New Orleans restaurant and so there had been plenty of leftover work for them. Leon used the restaurant premises on a weekend nights as an all night techno club for drugged up and drunk revellers: the basement below served as the club where a DJ played the latest tunes and spun the records; the kitchen worked as the premises to sell drink: the upstairs dining area was covered in cheap table sheets and chilled out ambient music was played for those dancers who were feeling the strain of too much dancing and burning. Even though Leon was constantly in fear of the police busting a restaurant parading as a club the one thing he didn’t risk was the sale of alcohol: hence he turned off taps and made a killing in cheap fizzy drinks. Kimberly worked there as a dishwasher in the day. She did double shifts on a Friday and Saturday night when the club opened. Leon paid her and her mother cash in hand so they never had to worry about immigration finding them. They had been in Wellington three months: they had left Auckland after Kimberly’s mother had bitten another waitress in the Turkish restaurant. Kimberly put the money in the till, took a tea towel and helped Sam. He grinned, a tattooed tear underneath his eye stretching slightly.

“So you think about my offer?”


“What I said earlier? About going out for a drink?”

His mouth was wide, a smile shaped like the curve of a bow bringing more lines to the rough features of his face: he was attractive, Kimberly thought. Sam worked in the kitchen in the daytime as a junior chef. Unlike the others, he didn’t shout at her to wash things quicker, to mop the floor better, to scrub the tiles on the wall cleaner. He didn’t make Irish jokes about the IRA or potatoes or slag her when she said “tank you” instead of “thank you”, or “tink” instead of “think”.

“I don’t know.” She dried a ramekin.

“We could go to a nice restaurant as well. My treat.”

Steam ran off his lower arms as he took them out of the water.

“You worried about your mother?”

“Well if I did go for a drink no one could know. Everyone in this place gossips. But yeah...  I don’t want me Mam knowing.”

A rogue image came to her mind: her mother’s teeth in the waitress’s arm, the blood on her lips later when they were in the taxi. She shook her head.

“No,” she said decisively. “Nice idea but I don’t think—best just staying mates.”

Another sweating clubber appeared at the counter. She threw the towel down and turned away from Sam’s disappointed expression.

“What can I get you?”


It was ten by the time she had finished. She helped Kwang with the mopping of the basement floor: she had turned off the club lights and put on the normal basement light and stared at the thin layer of steam that hovered in the air like a disappointed dream. On the floor she picked off chewing gum with a fork. In the toilets she scrubbed dried vomit from one of the sinks. Somebody had smuggled in cans of beer; after they had drunk the alcohol they had crunched the cans and put them in the women’s waste disposal bin. Sam had said very little to her for the rest of the shift, sulking, which she shouldn’t have found cute but she did. She wanted to tell him that it wasn’t so easy to go on a date: that her mother wasn’t well; that they’d come over to New Zealand for a pretend holiday and overstayed; that she wasn’t nineteen but actually seventeen; that she lived in fear of immigration finding them out; sending them back home to what they had run away from. Deportation. She shivered when she thought of the word: red letters branded on the inside of her mind like a hot mark on a cow’s hide. Kwang walked her as far as the harbour.

“Wha you do with rest of yor day Kim-baa-ley?”

“Nothing. Go to bed I guess. I’m knackered.”

Kwang rubbed his eyes sleepily, the sun glimpsing from behind his thick shaggy hair. She felt sorry for him: He’d worked at the coat room during the night: taking the twelve dollar entry fees and money for the coats. When Kwang had gone to the toilet the bouncers had taken cash from his till and hidden it. When he returned and realised the money was missing the bouncers had pretended to be angry— threatening to break his “dumb yellow bones” if Kwang didn’t find the money. They told Kwang they would take him down to the harbour and dump him in the water where he could swim back to China. They kept up the joke for most of the night until finally giving Kwang back the takings at eight in the morning but by then he had driven himself into awful state.

“Those bouncers are dicks, Kwang. Ignore them.”

“But alwaa bully me. Allwaa.”

They said goodbye and she stopped near Te Papa for a short while and smoked a cigarette. An attractive couple walked past talking about Monet; their voices clear, pronounced, their eyes briefly glancing at Kimberly leaning against the wall with her tattered jeans and stringy jumper. When Kimberly walked up along the harbour edge she felt depressed by the Saturday morning people: couples walking hand in hand, mothers with prams, parents chasing or calling out after their brightly dressed children, a jogger in a luminous yellow tee shirt pounded past her, boys speeding past on their tagged skate boards. When she finally got to the house she felt too tired to make a cake. But she knew Betty would be looking forward to it. Betty lived in the flat below: she was a frail looking widow who had lost everything in a house fire three years before including her husband. The house hadn’t been insured and so Betty was left with nothing. All she had now was a small two room flat with her pet cat, Martha, and her memories. She knocked on Betty’s door. Betty opened the door, her grey eyes staring out impishly underneath a corduroy hat too big for her small pruned face.

“That’s a nice hat Betty.”

Betty let Kimberly in. The place smelt of cabbage.

“I got it in the op shop. It doesn’t look too young on me?”

“No it looks great. I’m not going to stay. I just thought I’d tell you that I won’t have your dessert ready until this evening. I’m going to have a nap first.”

“That’s fine darling. I’ll look forward to it.”

“I brought you back some Cajun chips. Put them in the microwave for two minutes.”

She handed Betty the bag and then went upstairs. When she opened the door she heard singing in the shower. Her mother was due to work in the Old New Orleans at two which meant there would be loads of time for her to polish, clean and clatter around the flat while Kimberly tried to get some sleep. She opened the fridge and took out the ingredients she had brought in New World the day before. She wished she had decided to make something simpler. Kimberly had learned to make cakes years in foster care. Brenda had shown her how to make biscuits first, then simple tarts: it had been a sort of therapeutic venture Brenda had tried, a way to cool Kimberly’s temper after another disappointed visit from her mother or when she went back to rehab. When Kimberly had been sent back to her mother she had kept in touch with Brenda, calling every third Saturday to make cakes. Kimberly had wanted to be a chef: the idea of it now made her laugh. She was illegal in New Zealand so she wouldn’t be able to go to college and even if she could, she had dropped out of school at fifteen. But she knew how to make cakes: she had talent. In Auckland she had brought a second-hand book with hundreds of cake recipes. She’d been trying them out—using whatever cash she could spare to buy ingredients, sometimes stealing things from the restaurant. In the last three months she felt she excelled in her prodigious output: lemon meringue; apple crumble pie; caramelized pears; trifle custard tart; strawberry sorbet; chocolate cheesecake; toffee pudding; black forest gateau; apple and blackcurrant pancakes; lemon cake; peach swiss roll; coconut trifle and chocolate mouse. One day she thought she would find a way in which she could study to be a chef. She would find out a way of living that didn’t involved running and mopping. Because it seemed to Kimberly that’s what she always did, mop floors, mop messes made by her mother, mop up blood, glass, tears. She checked that she had everything, eggs, castor sugar, cream, Turkish delights, dates, mixed spices, walnuts, flour, skimmed milk. Outside the window she saw a cloud: it would rain later, she thought, and those children she saw at the harbour would be brought indoors, maybe their parents would take them to the cinema and they would guzzle down popcorn while a fairytale unfolded on the screen. She was going to make a Turkish delight ice cream and a spicy walnut cake. She would start first with the ice cream, the thing she regretted the most as it would need at least six hours in the freezer. She was grateful she wasn’t working until eleven that evening. She took the powdery Turkish delight out of its pink package and began to chop it into small pieces. She heard the shower turn off.

“Is that you luv?”

“Yeah Mam.”

“Busy night?”



She woke up to screams. The room was in darkness, she grabbed instinctively for the knife underneath the bed. But now the scream had just turned to shouting. It was her mother. She rushed out of bed, pulled on her jeans. She saw the time on the clock and realised she had overslept. She called out to her mother but there was no answer. Kimberly left the flat and saw her mother downstairs arguing with Betty, her face was twisted with rage, her waitress clothes still on, her hands on her hip and her voice manic. Betty was cowering by her door, her small head trembling beneath the corduroy hat. Kimberly ran downstairs: hearing snatches.

“—screw yer cake ye dried up old turkey —”

“— she’s got better things to do then worry about feeding yer old gob — “

“— ye don’t even know —”  


Kimberly grabbed her, pushed her towards the stairs. Her mother looked at her speechless, caught for breath. She clutched onto the banister and began to cry. Kimberly shouted at her mother to go upstairs and then held Betty’s shaking figure. She told her it was okay and brought Betty back into her flat and made her a tea. She waited for Betty to stop crying. They sat awhile saying nothing.

“I just—just asked her had you made my cake yet. I heard her in the hallway and asked... She started shouting—I was scared. So scared.”

She began to cry again. This time more gently, less shakier. Kimberly put a hand on Betty’s thin wrist.

“She’s not well.”


“Has an illness... Most times she’s good. Just recently...”

She saw the concern in Betty’s face.

“Look she’s fine honestly. She wouldn’t hurt you. She’s fine.”

But the look in Betty’s face was like black tar pouring into clear water.
“I’ve got your cake. I have your ice cream too. I’ll bring it to you before I go to work. I’ll speak to Mam.”

Betty twisted the napkin her hands. Kimberly left the flat and took deep breaths. Upstairs her mother set on the coach smoking.

“What the hell do you think you were doing? She’s an old lady.”

“She kept bugging me about the damn cake.”

“You’ve no right to do that! You can’t frighten her. She could tell the landlord, we could end up on the streets again. Do you want that?”

She looked up at Kimberly, eyeliner wet and traveling, lips jutting out like uncooked sausages.

“You didn’t take your pills did you?”

“I’ve been taking them.”

Kimberly snatched her mother’s bag from her lap and rummaged through it, there were keys, lipstick, chewing gum, cigarettes. No tablets.

“Where are they?”

“I’m sorry darling, I forgot. I just sometimes...”

“There is no “sometimes” Mam. There can’t ever be “sometimes”. You know that... Where are they?”

Kimberly went into her mother’s bedroom and found the pills in the wastepaper basket. She picked them up and got a glass of water from the kitchen. She stood over her mother with the glass and two pills.

“Take them.”

Her mother sighed and took the pills. Kimberly sat down beside her.

“You can’t keep doing this. You have to stick with it.”

“I know...I know...”

“You didn’t do anything at work? Throw a wobbly?”


Her mother looked her square in the face now, despite the fine lines she still looked pretty. There were times when Kimberly screamed, shouted, swore at her mother to see sense, reminded her how bad things could get. There was something else. It wasn’t just about forgetting to take her meds.


“I saw him... Yesterday. On Cuba Street.”

“Don’t be silly.”

She looked at Kimberly with brown eyes filled with conviction.

“I tell you I saw him.”

“Not possible. He doesn’t know where we are... Unless you told someone? Mam?”

“I’m not stupid.”

Kimberly stood up.

“I’ve got to get ready for work Mam. Just... just go to bed. We’ll talk tomorrow.”


When she got to work Leon was complaining in the kitchen to Sam. Kwang hadn’t turned up for work that day and he was short one person for the club. The restaurant hadn’t been busy and that put Leon into an even worse mood. He swung around to Kimberly, his chins wobbling.

“And your mother was great tonight. Dropped two plates. You can tell her it’s getting docked from her wages.”

Kimberly waited for Tipeni to finish and then she went over to her station. She thought about when the club opened later, the long hours. Her head began to ache. She hadn’t seen him on Cuba Street. She was imagining things. Everything was going to be alright. She plunged a baking tray into hot water and began to scrub. When the restaurant closed the place was briefly quiet: the DJ arrived, staff began to rearrange tables, placing the good chairs in the cellar. Kimberly went out the back door to have a smoke. Sam was outside still wearing his chef clothes and purple bandana; his eyes searched for scuttling rats in the alleyway. She tried to light her cigarette but her lighter wasn’t working. Sam took out matches and lit her smoke, his hands smelling of garlic. He smiled at her, the light from the kitchen doorway catching the blue of his eyes.

“Okay,” she said.

“Okay what?”

“I’ll go out on a date with you.”

He laughed, not a bad laugh, a relieved laugh. She felt relief too.

“But a nice restaurant mind. No kebabs and soggy chips thankyouverymuch.”

“I didn’t say it was going to be a date,” he smirked.

“Well it is. It’s a date. You okay with that?”

“Yeah I’m cool.”


She exhaled a breath of smoke and looked up at the stars. But she couldn’t see any. It was just a canvas full of black ink. She could hear the rats though, rummaging through the rubbish and leftover food in the pissed stained alleyway.


BIO:  Robert O’ Shea is a Dubliner living in Wellington, New Zealand. Robert has worked as an editor for legal publishers and literary journals. He was part of the editing and project team for New Zealand bestseller, The Six Pack, in 2008. His stories have been published in Ireland (New Irish Writing), England (First Edition Magazine), New Zealand (Her Magazine) and the US (365tomorrows). His story, Cut Throat was shortlisted for Hennessy X O Literary Awards (2009). He won the Writing4all Short Story Summer Competition with his story Sleep. Robert has stories due to be published in newleaf issue 27 (Germany), Bravado Magazine 20 (NZ) and in http://thiszinewillchangeyourlife.blogspot.com/ . He is currently working on a novel.