It was that crowded time of the evening at Highbury Corner when I saw the old Chinese man in his chef’s uniform wandering back and forth on the pavement. He squinted up at the names of shops and restaurants while the flow of commuters broke and eddied around him.
Something about the old man reminded me of my dad. Not the way he looked – Dad was not old, or Chinese – but the way he went about his business with complete disregard for the irritation of strangers.
He leaned out into the road to see shops further down the street. Watching for a 277 bus which would hit him, I asked, “Are you looking for somewhere mate?”
He ignored me.
Freezing raindrops stung my face, and I opened my umbrella. “Are you lost?”
The old man grimaced, and the raindrops collecting on his lined face caught the red of brake lights from the road. As a photographer, it was a painful sight when I didn’t have my camera.
“Come on,” I said, and gestured for him to come under the umbrella. “I’m Jack.”
It began to rain heavily as he considered his options, and by the time he had made up his mind his thin hair was dripping and his uniform was soaked.
We walked together down Saint Paul’s road with headlights spinning our shadows around us like a clock in reverse.
I didn’t usually do things like that. I didn’t volunteer, or give to charity. I didn’t know the names of my colleagues’ kids, or give up my seat on the tube, or rinse out shampoo bottles before I put them in the recycling. So the only explanation I had for my bringing an old man home with me is that I was having some sort of breakdown.
This was plausible.
I spent six days a week photographing handbag dogs for women who gave their pets people-names, and gave their children dog-names, and gave neither any basic training. The result was that my shoes were always soaked in dog urine, and the studio was usually trashed by the end of the day, because of course you bring your kids to your dog’s two-hour photo session. I had stayed late that evening peeling gum off the seat cushions while feeling jealous of today’s eight-inch-tall Pomeranian. For lunch, Scarlet had bolted a whole fillet of wild Scottish salmon, while I chewed on last night’s cold pizza.
So yeah. Breakdown.
I shouldered open my front door and was immediately mortified. The pizza box was still splayed on the table, filling the flat with grease-stink. Beer cans littered the coffee table, and the floor was a mosaic of paper scraps.
I unstuck the cans from the table and pitched them in the recycling. (No, I didn’t rinse them.)
“Sit, please,” I said, holding out my arm in a way that said sit please. The old man sat.
I handed him a mostly-clean towel, and he dabbed the rain off his face and hair.
“Can I call someone for you?” I took out my phone and waved it around. “Call? Call?”
He slipped his hand inside his uniform and pulled out a scrap of paper. In neat handwriting it said, “My name is Tommy. If I am lost, please call my family.” A phone number was written underneath.
Looking at the carefully printed digits, I wondered if his son or daughter had written them, and if I would have written such a note for my own dad some day. No. If it had to be done, my sister would have done it. But maybe I would have gone to fetch him, wherever he was, and we could have talked on the way home in the car. Maybe by then we would have learned to talk about something other than football.
Probably not though.
I dialled the number and it rang seven times before a lady answered. When I told her Tommy was in my flat, there was an explosion of Chinese at the end of the line. She asked for my address, and when I had given it she hung up.
“They must be coming to get you,” I said. The old man frowned. “I said, I think they’re – oh you don’t speak a word of English.”
I collapsed into an armchair and parked my feet on one of the cardboard boxes that were lying around: things from dad’s house I had meant to unpack months ago. Tommy sat straight-backed on the edge of the couch, his stiff chef’s coat bunching in the front. I wondered if he really worked in a kitchen. He was quite old and got lost from time to time – hence the note – but he didn’t seem otherwise confused, so maybe he did.
The clock on the wall ticked with satisfying clunks. As the hand pushed past a raised bit of the warped card backing there were a few scraping seconds, but then it was back to satisfying clunks all the way around.
I should have asked how long they would be.
The clock eventually started to get on my nerves, and I decided to occupy myself by collecting the sheets of paper on the floor.
The day before, a Maltese-Toy Poodle had savaged my ankle, and by the time I got home I was desperate to know if I could set up my own studio – one for people. I tried crunching the numbers, but it turned out I knew nothing about the costs of doing business. So in the end, all I had to show for the exercise was a mess and a headache.
Balling up the last scrap, I turned towards the recycling and bumped into Tommy, who was right behind me picking up bits of paper. He was a guest in my flat and he was helping me clean it.
What a terrible host.
“I’m so sorry; can I get you a drink?” I took the paper from him and stuffed it into the recycling. “Maybe something to eat?” I made a motion like I had a spade in my fist and I was using it to fling porridge at my face.
“Ah,” said Tommy. He reached into his jacket, pulled out a leather roll, and opened it out on the table. There, perfectly reflecting my own terrified face, was the most enormous knife I had ever seen. It could have felled trees. Tommy picked it up and stood there with the blade glinting in his hand and I thought, this is it. This is how I die.
Tommy didn’t murder me though. Instead, he walked into the kitchen – otherwise known as the corner of the room with the oven in it – and opened each cupboard in turn, removing an item or two from each: a dry noodle square, a jar of peanut butter, some sort of oil that was there when I moved in, sachets of soy sauce from takeaway sushi, expired stock cubes, a dried herb. The fridge offered up an egg, some shrivelled spring onions, and some sort of meat that Tommy sniffed and threw in the bin. He filled a pot with water and set it on the flame. Then he pulled out a chopping board and thundered on it with the knife.
Watching Tommy work, I felt an urge to get in there and lend a hand. When I was growing up, Dad would throw everyone but me out of the kitchen on Sunday afternoons. He would roast a chicken, potatoes and vegetables, and I would help. I’d wash, peel, grate, and when the meal was almost ready I’d stir the gravy while he carved. I was the only person he trusted with gravy.
Tommy poured the contents of the pot into a bowl and set it on the table with a flourish. The noodles sat in a brown liquid dotted with spring onions. The egg was in the middle, cooking in the sauce.
“But you didn’t make any for yourself,” I said. I pulled out another bowl and divided the meal in two, cutting the egg down the middle in a swirl of yolk.
The aroma of peanuts and soy sauce made my stomach growl. It had been a long time since I’d eaten, and longer still since I’d eaten anything that wasn’t pizza. The sauce burned my tongue, and burned all the way down, but was salty and delicious.
Tommy slurped his noodles with a noise like a street cleaning truck moving over a puddle.
“This is seriously good,” I said.
Tommy watched me delicately suck noodles into my mouth. He looked hurt.
“It’s good. It’s good,” I said, desperate to be understood. I took a forkful of noodles and slurped them as loudly as Tommy had, rubbing my belly for good measure.
He broke into a grin.
The noodles slapped my chin and sprayed my neck as I devoured them, and when they were gone I upended the bowl and drank the sauce. When we had both finished, Tommy went back to his spot on the couch and I collapsed into my armchair, crossing my arms over my full belly. A wave of tiredness crashed over me, and questions that had been on my mind all day drifted back into my head, but distant now, with all the urgency taken out of them.
“I’ve been thinking about starting my own studio, Tommy,” I said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, so I’ll probably screw it up. My inheritance will be gone and everyone will know I failed when my shoes go back to smelling like dog piss.” Tommy stared at me. “So what do you think? Should I do it or not?”
He seemed to think about it, but when he replied it was in Chinese. That was as good as I was going to get from Tommy.
I jolted awake when the door snapped shut. I staggered downstairs and on to the street where the mizzle showed the path of headlights, and the coloured signs of the corner shop reflected off the road in garish smears. A car pulled away from the curb, the back of the old man’s head visible in the rear window. I waved, but he didn’t look back.
I stood there, unsure what to do, looking down the street where the car had gone. A line of street lamps stretched down the road, each one with a mound of rubbish at the bottom.
I wondered what Tommy had said when I asked about opening a studio. Maybe it was Chinese for what my dad would have said, and he was accusing me of having already made up my mind. That always annoyed me. He’d say all I wanted was someone to tell me I’d made the right decision. He was no help at all.
But, thinking about it, had I made a decision already? If I wasn’t going to do it, wouldn’t I have stopped thinking about it by now?
But I didn’t usually do things like that.
“Goodbye security,” I said out loud, an audible shake in my voice. “Goodbye dog piss.”
I pulled off one of my shoes and pitched it under the nearest street lamp, imagining the rain washing the piss down the drain. When I put my foot back down, icy water wicked up between my toes and made me gasp. I quickly pulled off the other shoe, threw it with its mate, and went inside for a fresh pair of socks.
As I squelched up the stairs, I wondered if it had been one of Tommy’s children driving the car. My relationship with Tommy had been a bit like my relationship with my own father: I couldn’t talk to him, he fed me, and he left without saying goodbye.
Daire McNally is from Skerries, Co Dublin, and lives in London with his wife and two little boys. This is his first fiction to appear in print