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The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2013 Results




Playing Cards with Betty Grable

Copyright © Tim Hehir 2013


A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, I thought to myself as I skulled a glass of Borocca. I’d been to a wine and cheese tasting the night before and my whole nervous system was wriggling and wailing inside me like demons on disco night at the RSL. I looked at the cases of wine stacked by the fridge and then at the cheese stacked inside the fridge. My credit card was in trauma, if not a coma. It definitely wasn’t talking to me.

RAP, RAP, RAP.

There was a knock at the door. The sound pummelled my synapses. I rushed to open the door so the rapping would stop. As soon as I did brilliant, blinding white daylight crowded in, knocking the wind out of me.

‘Is Mavis in?’ said an old woman’s voice.

‘Who?’ I said, blinking hard to try to see through the shield of dazzling light.

‘Mavis.’

‘Who?’

‘Mavis.’

‘Who?’

‘Are you simple?’ said the voice.

‘Who?’ I said, I preferred the previous question.

‘Is there someone here who looks after you?’ said the voice.

‘Who?… I mean, no,’ I said, blinking my eyes into working order.

There, standing on my doorstep, surrounded by a halo of florescent light, stood a giant womble.

‘Hello, dear,’ it said.

I blinked again. It wasn’t a womble. Thank God for that. It was an old lady in an old lady overcoat, old lady hat with old lady white hair hanging out. She wore glasses with the strongest prescription you can get without them being magnifying glasses. Her magnified eyes blinked.

‘Is Mavis in?’ she said again.

I didn’t know a “Mavis”. I’d never known a “Mavis”. But there was something vaguely familiar about this woman. She blinked again. Was she my nanna? No, she was dead.

‘Can I come in?’ she said.

No you can’t, I thought. I don’t know you, I have no idea who you are. So no, you can’t. That’s what I thought. What I said was. ‘Yes,’ as I stood back to let her in.

‘Thank you, dear,’ said the womble, as she wobbled in, pulling a shopping trolley behind her.

‘I’ve left the menstrual ward, dear. I’ve come home to boost,’ she said, as I tried to think. It didn’t work.

‘I see… er… Mrs…?

‘Malapop, dear. But it’s ‘Miss’. I don’t agree with all that sexual stealing they’re always going on about, never have. Sorry to be blunt but I like to play my cards with Betty Grable.’ she said as she plucked a purse from her coat pocket.

I was just about to take control of the situation and ask her to leave when she said. ‘I’ll pay rent of course. How about a thousand a week? Two weeks at a glance, of course.’

‘Take it,’ screamed my credit card.

‘Okay,’ I said.

‘I hope you have an on-tweet, dear?’ she said, as she extracted two coins from the purse and placed them in my hand. ‘I like the connivance, you see.’

I looked at the coins. They were two rusty twenty cent pieces.

‘Say something,’ screamed my credit card.

‘Do you like muscled-sprouts, dear? They’re full of tin, you know,’ she said as she opened the top of her shopping trolley. It was full to the brim with Brussels sprouts.

Then it hit me. I know where I had seen her before. She was the woman of my dreams, or rather recurring nightmares. I’d been having this dream for the last month. I’m standing in my skinny white body, shivering and wet; wearing nothing but a bath towel and holding a Brussels sprout. Beside me is her–the womble–also holding a Brussels sprout and chewing vigorously, her chin touching the tip of her nose on each chew. We are both staring in front of us. In the dream I can hear flames, the light of a massive fire is reflected across our bodies. I always assumed that we were staring at the gates of Hell. That is where the dream always ended.

‘You need alcohol, mate,’ said my kidneys.

Ten minutes later I was sitting in the Brunswick Arms. Twenty minutes later I was drunk enough to think that having a psychotic womble move in with me was absolutely fine. Thank you, alcohol. After a few more drinks I’d had even forgotten I even had a womble. Alcohol, I owe you more than I can ever say.

I stumbled home later in the afternoon. The kitchen was full of steam. Why was my kitchen full of steam? I peered through the vapour cloud. I could just make out an old lady standing on one of my wine cases in front of the stove. A hand-rolled cigarette was clamped between her lips. She was using my dustpan to shovel Brussels sprouts from her shopping trolley into the largest saucepan I owned. Steam was billowing from it.

I remembered. The womble. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll leave tomorrow,’ said the alcohol resting in my kidneys.

‘I’m making Brussels sprout Gestapo, dear,’ she said.

‘Gazpacho,’ I said.

‘Bless you,’ she replied.

‘Go to bed, mate, have a lie down,’ said the alcohol.

I want to my room and fell onto my bed. I always heed the counsel of the wise.

When I woke it was dark. I’d had a dream that a womble had moved in with me and was making Brussels sprout soup in a vat on my stove top. I laughed to myself as I stumbled to the bathroom for a shower. What was needed was a quick wash to wake me up, then an evening with a bottle of impertinently good red, a block of Stilton and my favourite Miss Marple DVD.

As I as showering I thought I smelled burning.

‘Ignore it,’ whispered the alcohol in me kidneys.

I got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around myself and went to investigate. I sniffed, there was definitely a burning, almost vegatably smell in the house. At the end of the corridor I saw smoke creeping along the carpet. I turned the corner. Flames were licking up the walls of the sitting room. I gasped. Out of the flames emerged a little old lady with magnified eyes. She was smoking a hand rolled cigarette.

‘Have a sprout,’ she said to me, dropping a Brussels sprout into my hand.

‘Whaaaa… ? I said.

‘This room’s on fire, dear. We’ll have to eat in the kitchen tonight,’ she said.

‘Get out of the house,’ the alcohol in my kidneys screamed at me. Thank you, alcohol.

Somehow I managed to shepherd the old lady along the corridor towards the front door. Steam was billowing in from the vat of Brussels sprouts in the kitchen and smoke was billowing in from my burning sitting room.

Seconds later we stood in the front garden watching my house burn down. Me in my bath towel and the womble in her overcoat. I was shivering.

‘Stand closer to the fire, dear, you’ll catch your death,’ she said.

I just stared, waiting for instructions from my kidneys. In the distance I heard sirens. Next to me the womble was chewing a Brussels sprout.

‘I feel partly reprehensible for this, dear,’ she said. ‘Here’s a million dollars towards the repair.’

She put a coin into my hand and squeezed it shut to stop my from refusing. I open my palm. It was a rusty twenty cent piece.

‘Remember, dear,’ she said. ‘Money makes the world to brown.’