by Tamar Hodes
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing, Liam?’ Jonty holds the glass up to the light. Through the smudged surface, the boats and water twist into a distorted blue. The men are standing in the open door to the restaurant, Oysters; behind them the marina offers itself to the sky. ‘Our customers are coming out for a meal to celebrate their birthdays or anniversaries or special occasions. They are certainly not paying to drink from dirty glasses. Sort it out. Or get out.’ And he pushes the glass hard against the young boy’s chest as he strides past.
Liam catches the glass before it drops, and his face falls. He had heard before he took this job that Jonty was hard to please but he had no idea he’d be so ruthless. Each day Liam lays the tables as he has been told to but nothing is ever good enough for Jonty: the gap between the knife and fork is too small for the plate; the linen napkin is not folded neatly enough; the setting should be squarely opposite the chair.
If only Jonty knew what it was like living in a crummy bedsit, Alesha crying half the night, the room cold, and Carly moaning that she wished they could live somewhere better. He’d only known her a few weeks when she got pregnant. He tried to do the right thing, didn’t he, stayed with her through it all, attempted to give up the weed and booze and is working to support them but it’s not enough. It’s never enough.
Sometimes Liam feels that he’s being used. By Carly. By Jonty. Paid a pathetic wage to sweep the floors, lay the tables and bag the laundry. He saw the ad in the newsagent’s window last month when he was looking for work. Minimum wage. Zero hours contract. But at 19 and with no qualifications, it was the best he could do. Most of his mates have signed on but he wants to work and do something with his life, be a good role model to his child, not like his own dad who walked out when he was two. And now he’s ended up with a heartless boss in his linen suit and suede loafers.
Jonty isn’t even his real name. In his St Mary’s Primary School, there were three Jons in one class. He was Jon Thomas so Jon T emerged. When he opened Oysters many years later, Jonty seemed more impressive than that plain name his understated parents had given him. Their modesty manifested itself in all areas of their lives from their terraced house to their plain clothes to the name they gave their only son: only one syllable, as if they didn’t want to take up too much of the English language.
When Jonty looks at Liam, he feels he is staring at his past self. Liam, with his hair aggressively short; the tattoos stamped down his neck and arms; his eyes hollow. He spotted it straight away. When Jonty was seventeen, out of school and without a job, he, too, was angry. He shaved his head, changed his friends, hung around with hard men who spent their days drinking and thieving. It was fun at first but each day he had to see the sad faces of his parents when he came in and smell their disappointment in the air. That was when he took a job in a restaurant, taking out the rubbish which stank of fish bones and guts; sweeping the floors; cleaning the toilets of shit and puke after customers had had too much to eat and drink.
But unlike Liam he did not fight and argue. He admired his boss and learned from him. He did not resist; he observed; he obeyed (maybe his parents’ humility had come in handy, after all) and gradually, slowly, he rose from cleaner to waiter to supervisor, assistant manager and then boss. He swapped his overalls for a suit. He was polished. It had been his dream all along to own his own fish restaurant and when the empty space in Ocean Village had come up for sale, he used the small inheritance from selling his parents’ house and put down a deposit on it.
Jonty only had two applicants for the job at Oysters and the other one didn’t turn up. When Liam came for the interview, wearing a creased white shirt, shiny grey trousers, and too much cheap aftershave, Jonty could detect it: a belief that society owed him a living. He didn’t like the boy or his attitude, but he had no-one else.
Now months later, Liam has proven himself to be what Jonty expected: wanting to do well but not willing to listen to authority. Trouble with the young these lads, thinks Jonty: they want to rise quickly but without putting in the graft like he did.
Each day the fish arrives packed in ice from Brixham-on-Sea: hake and cod reclining haughtily like snow queens on their ice-beds; prawns and shrimps, keeping their pink secrets to themselves; salmon, silver and glossy, catching the light; mussels hiding their treasure in blue shells, and oysters, frilly hard casing concealing soft promises.
And look at Oysters now: brick walls; Italian slate floors; industrial bulbs with no shades making the glasses gleam; functional tables and chairs with no cloths but a stiff linen napkin as a mattress for each fork. Jonty had seen this look in a glossy magazine and set out to replicate its combination of simplicity and artifice. The only art works were black and white photos of the harbour, alluding to its past. Guests liked them, often commented on them, even wanted to buy them. But Jonty thought the restaurant needed colour.
Jonty and Ella met when she brought in her paintings to show him. Huge seascapes on wide canvases, the water bright and textured; the sky elasticated and vast. In some of them, the sea edged the sand to the margins. The paintings made him feel hopeful when he saw them; he wanted to dive into the blue of the canvas. When he thought of his parents’ small brown front room and then saw these vast expanses of light, he thought: I really have travelled a long way.
‘These are amazing.’ Jonty held one up to the wall. ‘I love them. They would really brighten the restaurant up. How many more can you bring me?’
And that was how it began, Ella supplying six paintings initially and when one sold, Jonty would phone to ask her to bring in more. Customers loved them, especially when the weather was drizzly and the marina smudged and then they could stare into the sapphire and sunlight of the canvases and escape into them.
Sometimes Ella would stay for a drink at the bar and a chat. He liked her frizzy, red hair and bright, loose clothing, which revealed her to be a free spirit. He could connect the artwork with her: open, unashamed, alive.
Ella liked Jonty’s naked ambition. Her route to art had been easier than his to Oysters. Liberal parents loved the idea of their daughter at art college and even cleared a room in their rambling Hampshire cottage for her studio. They liked to come in and see how the canvases became brighter and more covered with paint and sand and they were filled with pride for her.
The more time Ella and Jonty spent together the closer they grew. They admired the other’s drive. She did not understand the restaurant business any more than he did painting but somehow they met in the middle: both agreeing that they didn’t want children; that they did like walking their golden Labrador, Honey, along the shore; both loving evenings in with a film on the telly and a bottle of red.
When, after a couple of years, Ella and Jonty bought their beautiful white house overlooking Mudeford Beach, life felt complete. Large windows let in the light. They kept the floors wooden, the furniture simple, and from their black-railed balcony they could watch the waves lift themselves into a high ledge before collapsing and flattening out again. They liked to walk Honey on the beach, looking for shells, letting the wind blow through their hair and watching the gulls swoop greedily down for discarded chips before gliding away again. They sometimes spotted a cormorant with its black body silhouetted against the sky.
Alesha has been crying all night. Carly has been moody and irritable with her and Liam has had to walk the baby round the bedsit until he felt dizzy. Neighbours in the flat below have complained before about her wailing so he tries to calm her. Liam feels tired and weak. He is worried about the rent, which they are behind on and Alesha needs nappies and formula which they can’t afford.
The next day he has a sixteen-hour shift and when he gets to work, his skin feels sweaty and his head is spinning. He does his best to sweep up, lay the tables, take the bins out, roll up the filthy laundry, peel vegetables when the kitchen is short-staffed, but all he can hear is his daughter crying and Carly whining. Suddenly his boss is in front of him, seething.
‘Right,’ says Jonty, his face flaring. ‘That’s it. I gave you a warning, Liam. This is not fucking good enough.’ He holds a blurry glass up and the light tries but fails to shine through. ‘Get out and don’t come back!’ and he presses it against Liam’s chest. The young boy catches the glass and runs.
Unable to face going back and telling Carly, Liam buys a four pack of beer and settles on a bench as if he has no intention of ever leaving. The day slips slowly away. He does not ring home, he just sits and drinks, smokes the last bit of weed he has, spends the last money he has on more booze and in the evening, lies on the pavement and cries as the sunset bleeds its beauty onto the lemon sky. All day he carries the dirty glass in his hand, fills it up with beer and fag ends. When he lifts it to the light, he can see nothing through it. The view is cloudy and unclear as if there is nothing beyond.
Drunk and depressed, Liam staggers back to Oysters, the beer on his breath and determination in his heart. He presses his face against the window. The restaurant is lit for the evening and full of people. He aches to see how lovely it is: Ella’s wide canvases against the brickwork; the white candles on each table; the reflection of the lights upon the shimmering water reflected in the glass. He does not belong there. He is not wanted there. He slumps to the ground and swigs more of his beer. He drifts into a troubled sleep.
Next thing Liam knows he can hear the restaurant being locked up for the night.
‘Goodnight, Yosef. Thank you, Madga. See you tomorrow,’ says Jonty as he walks away, his shoes clicking on the gravel. The lights in the restaurant are out. As Jonty passes by, Liam leaps up, smashes the dirty glass onto a wall and then rams the jagged piece into Jonty’s neck. He cries out and falls heavily to the pavement, blood gushing from his throat and into the broken glass beside him, filling it like rich wine.
Since Jonty’s death, Ella still lives in Muddeford. It was not hard for the police to trace and arrest Liam and get him sent down for years. He didn’t even deny it. Oysters has a new owner. Ella has stopped painting the huge canvases, which Jonty so loved. These days she works smaller, as if the loss of her lover was also the loss of her love of life.
Now she walks Honey and scans the beach for glass. She especially likes the green and blue pieces, which she takes home, rubs the harsh edges down and threads wire through. She hangs the mobiles in the windows where the slight breeze makes them twirl.
Sometimes Ella puts her face up close to the coloured glass and loves how it remains resolutely what it is whilst also allowing the light to shine through.
Tamar Hodes was born in Israel in 1961 and lived in Greece and South Africa before settling in the UK in 1967. After growing up in north London, she read English and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge. For the past thirty-four years she has taught English in schools, universities and prisons.
Her novel Raffy’s Shapes was published by Accent Press in 2006 and chosen as the book of the month by Waterstones in October of that year. It was followed by The Watercress Wife and Other Stories in 2011 and The Water and the Wine, published by Hookline Books, in May 2018. Tamar has had stories on Radio 4 and others in anthologies including Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015, The Pigeonhole, Your One Phone Call, the Ofi Press (Mexico), MIR online (Birkbeck College) and Fictive Dream.