Garlic Fingers by EM Reapy
Ten stories have been selected for the shortlist in our short story competition, Legends of the Fall. We will publish two per day this week and reveal the winner on Friday
What the judges said about Garlic Fingers:
Éilís Ní Dhuibhne: “Another very powerful story of the workplace, recreating vividly the atmosphere and the general activity in a garlic factory in Australia. Although it is a savage indictment of the way Ireland has abandoned its young graduates, the rather happy, zany humour of the characters and the narrator counteract this. Strong, but not contrived or sensational, storyline. The characters and details are excellent. Tightly focused, very controlled work.”
Donal Ryan: “Garlic Fingers: A great story, tight, immediate and suspenseful. Unfulfilled and seething, like many young people in his position, Tommo’s anger is palpable.”
Garlic Fingers by EM Reapy
‘I’ve a BA, a Postgrad and an MSc, so I do. What has Mitchell, the stupid culchie? Only attitude. Seeping out his big black pores along with the fucking garlic,’ said Tommo. His Dublin accent got thicker when he was angry.
‘Hey Tommo, I’m a stupid culchie too,’ I said.
‘You’re not stupid, Fiona. Never say that again.’
I smiled. Tommo was a sweet lad. Lazy, always hungover but he was sweet.
Mitchell, our supervisor, was running around the place, his shirt sleeves rolled up, sweat in beads under his hairline. There were four on my section, me, Tommo, Chuan Li and Amy Hu. Both of them were from South Korea. The garlic was endless rolling by us for ten hours a day.
Mitchell rushed over. He put his hand on my back gently.
‘Is it all going okay here, girl?’ he asked in his lilty West Limerick accent.
‘Yeah, it’s grand, Mitchell, cheers,’ I said. ‘Any word on sponsorship?’
Mitchell sighed and then said, ‘Not yet. But we’ve got buyers coming over from Italy and Greece over the next few days and I reckon if I can get along with them, I should be elected for the visa. You know, two of the backpackers got it last year so maybe. Fingers crossed, eh.’
I smiled at him and returned my attention to the belt, he walked away.
‘This is probably the height of his career, of his whole measly existence. That and the hamster porno he’ll no doubt star in,’ Tommo said.
‘Ah, I don’t know why you’re so harsh on him, Tommo. He’s grand.’
‘Do you really want to know?’
‘Yeah, go on,’ I said.
‘Nah, I’m saying nothing,’ Tommo said and laughed. His laughter was quickly followed by a smoker’s cough. He slapped his chest. ‘Fucking joints are ruining me lungs.’
Chuan Li and Amy Hu worked further down the line from us and though I tried to concentrate for most the shift, sometimes when Tommo was on form, I’d be struggling to breathe from laughing so much. Then the garlic would go past us and Chuan Li and Amy’d be doing our jobs too. I always offered them Double Choc Tim Tams on last smoko to try and make up for us messing. They didn’t really mind though, they were just mad for work.
The day before the buyers came, Mitchell was walking around and Chuan Li let a little scream out of him. Mitchell came over to see what was happening. Chuan Li never fussed. He was holding onto his finger tight. He’d slit the skin with the trimmers. Blood streaking up from the clean nick. I wondered if he’d need stitches.
Mitchell said, ‘Look, I’ll get you a band-aid but you should know, that if you don’t cut yourself at least once during your shift, you’re not working hard enough.’
Tommo gave me eyes.
Chuan Li’s soft face went a bit white but all he wanted to do was get back to trimming.
About forty of Tommo’s cloves went by us as all this was going down. Amy Hu sorted them.
‘She’s a sexy garlic ninja assassin,’ Tommo said and winked towards her.
Mitchell shouted over at him to get back to work. When he left to get Chuan Li’s plaster, Tommo told me the story.
‘Here, d’ya wanna know the truth? What happened with us? Why I hate that dope?’
I nodded my head yes. There was at least 40 minutes to next smoko.
Tommo took a big breath and said, ‘One day, I pissed myself at work.’
He stopped and checked my response. I didn’t react, I wanted to hear more.
‘It was way before you got here. So, yeah, I’m not proud of it or anything. It happened because Mitchell wouldn’t let me go. He knew I was hungover to death. He knew me bladder was full of water coz I was parched at the beginning of work. I was hopping up and down with me legs crossed like a junkie Elvis and me face was sweating. I said, ‘Sir, please. I’m absolutely busting,’ and he said break was in twenty and I could wait.’
I covered my mouth with my hand and tried not to laugh at the image.
‘So I’d been waiting. I’d been waiting and waiting and I couldn’t anymore. The first drop sprung hot and dangerous and next thing I was proper leaking. A relief and a shame too. It reminded me of a weird experience I had one night in Cambodia with a local girl but that’s neither here nor there. So the jeans were wet and the floor was dribbled underneath me. The heat and wet was uncomfortable. I sucked a breath up and called him over. Pointed to meself on the quiet. Said I told him this would happen, I was bleeding dying to go. He sent me home to change me jocks. And as I walked away from my station, he announced it again. Much louder this time so that even the non-English speakers knew something was up and looked at me, glimpsing me up and down and staring. Some laughed, smirked. Some gasped. Some just put their eyes back on the line of endless garlic cloves, disappointed they had become part of the drama between me and him. Disappointed to have the routine of their shift broken by my childish accident. I didn’t really mind though.’
‘Really?’ I asked.
‘Yeah,’ Tommo said, ‘coz embarrassing and all as it was, I snuck in and changed back in the hostel. Had a good aul chinwag with this girl from the next room. She was sick of picking oranges and had told the hostel owners to fuck themselves. Wasn’t going to bother trying to get the second year at all. Ireland has to be better than this slavery she goes and asked me why I was finished work so early. I faked a cough and said I’d to get me medicine but head back to the factory. I gave her the nod. Goons later. Got into the van, got it started up after a few scratchy attempts and on the way I had a stop in Hungry Jacks for a feed of pancakes and some coffee. Checked me Facebook on the phone. Checked me Paddy Power and then swanned back in just in time for second morning break. I wouldn’t let him know any of it got to me. I don’t think it did really. Life is messy anyway.’
‘I suppose it is,’ I agreed and chopped at the never-ending garlic.
We snipped the roots and tips off mostly. But some days, we had to sort it into nets or for paste. Some of the workers, mainly the backpackers, turned blind eyes on the septic garlic that went down for paste. It was because if they took the rotten stuff out to drop it in the waste shoot, all the gunk and wet garlic would cling to their fingers and it would mean a couple of showers in the evening to get rid of the smell.
The buyers were in. There was a little electricity around the factory that something was different today but after a while, when we got into the monotony of the shift, we forgot all about them and were sorting.
‘Do you honestly not mind touching that shit?’ Tommo asked. He was turning a blind eye. Big chunks of diseased garlic rolling by him.
‘It’s not the worst thing that could happen, Tommo. Having a smelly hand isn’t a big deal when you consider what badness is out there,’ I said. I meant it.
He shrugged. ‘The first night I got to this village, I got with a lovely Italian girl. Beaut. Massive brown eyes. Very sensual. I had heard the women were gagging for it in the outback. Thought I was fucking elected. Bang bang bang. Then, I got this job on me third day and nothing with the ladies since. Nothing. Nada. It has to be the garlic. The no-fucking fucking garlic,’ he said.
Then he lifted a clove of garlic and put on an Eastern European accent. He started going backwards and pretended the garlic was burning him.
‘So you think the garlic is the reason?’ I asked.
He straightened up again straight away. ‘Yeah, Fiona, I’d say it has a lot to do with it. Working in this place is bringing me confidence down. I’m literally down under. I reckon Mitchell eats garlic for breakfast dinner and tea. Garlic and spuds and flasks of tae probably. Here he comes, der Führer himself.’
Mitchell had a clipboard and looked more formal than usual. He was nervy. He flashed me a smile and then checked some things off on his board.
‘Everything alright?’ he asked. He was scanning around us.
‘Yeah, it’s grand,’ I said. ‘Are the buyers about?’
‘There going to come by our section soon, heard from some of the forkies. I did some study last night. On Google. Did you know all this, how garlic is good for people, an anti-biotic, anti-septic, reducing your risk of cancer and toxins and blood pressure? All that and how it makes things taste so good. Just in case they ask when they’re here.’
Mitchell was like a schoolboy itching for a gold star. I gave him a smile and Tommo gave him a little clap.
‘That’ll knock the cocks off them,’ Tommo said.
Mitchell’s grin plummeted to a frown. ‘Are you fucking drunk still?’
‘No,’ Tommo said. ‘I was praising you.’
Mitchell walked over to Tommo and put his head in close to him and sniffed.
‘You smell like an alleyway on Paddy’s Day. You’re on your last legs here, so you are. I’ve already ask them to move you off my section regardless of whether we’re both Irish. If you so much as do anything out of order again, you’re gone. D’yeh bleedin’ understand that?’
Tommo nodded and stormed up off his seat, past Mitchell, their shoulders clashing.
‘Get back here,’ Mitchell shouted but Tommo was stomping his way towards the jacks.
Mitchell was right - Tommo was steaming drunk. I knew it from when I first sat in front of him that morning. His eyes bloodshot and a three day shadow on his cheeks. When he went to the bathroom, I didn’t know he’d taken everything so far to heart. He eventually came back and his eyelids were pink.
‘Tommo, you okay?’ I asked. It looked like he was crying.
‘I’m fucking sound, Fiona. Sound now. Couldn’t be better. I’ve a BA, a Postgrad and an MSc, so I do. I’ll show him, so I will. Mitchell. I’ll show him. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely to paraphrase the historian and moralist Lord Acton. I got 510 points in the Leaving. I’ll fucking show him not to talk down to me like I’m as thick as him.’
I got a bad sensation. ‘Tommo, it’s just the booze from last night that’s upsetting you. Don’t worry about him. He’s stressed trying to get this sponsored visa. Ignore him.’
‘You’re a lovely girl, Fiona. And I’ll miss working with you but I’m going to show him, show him fucking good.’
After big break, we noticed the Italians walking around the factories in their suits with the factory owner and top level managers and supervisors beside them, pointing at things, putting on a show. Mitchell was trying to get their attention to come and see our section. They acknowledged him and climbed across the factory’s metal stairwells towards us.
Tommo was leaning back on his seat. He was thumbing his phone above his head with one hand. The other held his clippers open even though we weren’t trimming. I tried to call him but he ignored me.
‘You’re like a dog warming his bollocks in the sun, will you put away your phone and get back to work,’ Mitchell hissed.
‘No,’ Tommo said. All Dublin. Calm.
‘Tommo, just put the phone away, will ya?’ I said.
‘Stay out of it, Fiona.’
The suits were walking down our stairs, they’d be on the line in less than a minute.
Mitchell was thundering towards Tommo.
‘What’s the matter, Mitchell? The Dolmios and Greckos are going to see you’ve no authority?’
They watched the men come. Tommo leaned back further on his stool. He was real elaborate now. I looked down the line, even the Koreans were watching.
Mitchell went over and snatched the phone from him. He protested and then he pulled his hand from behind his head, clippers perched.
He was going to stab Mitchell.
The supervisors and managers were here, they were talking amongst themselves but they were at our line.
‘Fuck you, Mitchell,’ Tommo said. ‘Fuck you.’
I closed my eyes. I was afraid. My face went hot. I liked both of them. I couldn’t understand why it had to go so extreme. My eyes were firmly pressed. I heard gasps. A man’s roar. Commotion. I opened my eyes and looked at Mitchell to see where the blade went. He wiped himself rapidly and then looked up, confused.
It was like everyone copped on at the same time. Maybe because the blood started colouring the garlic red.
Tommo had done it to himself. He had cut the top of his middle finger off.
Blood gushed all over the garlic. I screamed but didn’t notice I had until I shut my mouth. One of the suited Italians passed out.
Then stuff got too bloody, all of Tommy’s hand, his uniform. His blood was everywhere. Amy screamed this time.
The alarm sounded. People ran around.
The boss man glared at Mitchell and made embarrassed apologies to the investors. He glared at all of us. It seemed like slow motion. Tommo held his red hand up over his head and a smirk crossed his face. I guessed the tip of his finger probably gone down the conveyor belt. Gone into the garlic paste.
His skin went pale and then he dropped off his chair and to the ground unconscious.
‘You see, Fiona, sometimes people need to go above and beyond in order to make a point. To inform and to educate. To become a cautionary tale to those that must check their stations,’ Tommo said to me.
We were sharing cans of beer and sunbathing. His finger was all wrapped up in a white bandage. His face was still a little paler than usual and his beard was getting thicker. The sun was baking so we went into the shade every couple of minutes.
Our full line got the following day off work. The factory probably thought we were all too unstable to have around the investors.
Tommy continued, ‘Power had become a corrupting element in their life. Then stuff can make it into mythology; urban legends. It wasn’t as painful as I thought it would be and the factory says they’re going to compensate me, sweet eh? Insurance and all. They don’t have to but I wasn’t going to say no. Like, I know people will debate if I was right or wrong and whether they understand it or not but I wanted to know if this was real life and carrying consequences is part of that. That is something I had to learn and something Mitchell had to learn.’
‘Bit of a hard way to teach yourself a lesson,’ I said.
‘Well, you know, I’d been necking white goon and raspberry cordial until half an hour before work. Might have had some affect on me thinking.’
He rubbed some sun block over his nose and cheeks like a cricket player. ‘And I tell you wha’, Fiona, probably the best thing about it - the women are already mad sympathetic when they hear about me garlic finger.’
EM Reapy has an MA in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, edits wordlegs.com and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. She is the director of Shore Writers’ Festival. In 2012, she was the Exchange Irish Writer to Varuna Writers’ House, Australia. She compiled and edited ‘30 under 30’ in association with Doire Press. In 2013, she received an Arts Council Literature Bursary for her debut collection and represented Ireland in PEN International: New Voices Award. Her piece was translated into French and Spanish and she was one of six writers longlisted for the award. She has performed her work at various festivals and events in Ireland, the UK, the US, Australia and Argentina. (emreapy.com)