CORA QUIGLEY

★ ★ ★ ★

FICTION

Her Favourite Hat

O’Malley’s Family Restaurant got a surprising number of customers in spite of its out-of-the way location, far from any motorway, where the closest big town couldn’t really be considered close, or even all that big. Most people who popped in for a bite were inevitable lost tourists. For the restaurant staff it was a handy enough location, because they didn’t serve the kind of food you’d go out of your way for. They were capitalising on desperation.  While it was frequented by a local or two every so often, their customer base was all but made up of blow-ins, largely due to the fact that there just wasn’t that many locals.

That’s how Clodagh liked it. What a bore it would be to talk to the same local losers day-in, day-out. She’d been talking to the locals all her life, she’d had enough of them and what they thought of her. If they were the main clientele, she wouldn’t be able to don a different hat every night, the way she did; the way she loved to do. Precocious; wild, quiet; thoughtful; shy: these were just some of the adjectives that could be used to describe Clodagh, depending on the night. Every customer who walked through those doors came in with a different expectation of who she would be, what they wanted her to be. Who was she to disappoint a new fan?

If she were to generalise, the Americans either wanted piety or a party. The Brits wanted a laugh. The others she tended to play by ear. Whatever the expectation, Clodagh always gave it her all. The restaurant was her stage and she was its leading actress; its brightest star.

That night the majority of her audience was a group of bible-thumping Americans who were on their way to Knock when they encountered a bout of particularly poor weather. They arrived drenched, as if they had decided to step into a power shower fully clothed. It was the kind of custom that kept the restaurant’s doors open and Clodagh quite amused.

Lately, there were a few more religious zealots than usual. She blamed the grotto up the lane. Most of the year, the little statue of the Virgin Mary that sat inside was neglected, practically camouflaged by the dust of the elements. Every few months one of the local fossils would take pity upon the poor icon and clean her up a bit, maybe lay a few flowers so that they and their friends could have a prayer or two for whatever family member had recently committed an innocuous sin. When Clodagh fell pregnant at 15, her Grandad visited the grotto every day until his death. Since then, he’d had more conversations with the statue than he ever did with his granddaughter and great granddaughter. On his deathbed, he told Clodagh that she was his greatest shame.

It was particularly teeming with people from far and wide around referendum times. Clodagh’s first memory of it was the Divorce one in 1996. She may have been young, but she thought it strange that people were crying over the fact that people who didn’t want to be married anymore were now allowed to make that choice.

“Isn’t Aunty Marian in England divorced because her husband was mean to her?” She asked her mother.

“She is, my dear.”

“Do they think that’s bad?” asked Clodagh, even more puzzled.

Her mother’s expression hardened. The conversation was over.

It was an exchange Clodagh had forgotten until the equal marriage referendum just a couple of years before. Passing by the grotto on her way to work, she noticed it was attracting quite the crowd yet again. High on the excitement she felt after hearing about the positive result on the radio, her puzzlement was akin to that of 1996. She was older, marginally wiser, but she still couldn’t quite understand their point of view. If they loved marriage so much, why were they upset that a greater percentage of the population could now engage in this ancient patriarchal institution?

Now, after the abortion vote, people had gone even more bananas. There was a franticness to the reciting of the rosary. There was more crying; more despair. More Christian Americans floating about the place, a smug sadness in their eyes, as if daring you to beg them to save you.

It certainly made for a more interesting time at work. But it was exhausting, too. She was kept very busy humouring people and answering questions like:

“Which iteration of the Lord’s prayer do you think is most correct?”

To which Clodagh would say,

“Now that would have to be the traditional Mathhean version for me, personally.”

And,

“Have you ever been witness to the blessed virgin?”

To which Clodagh would say,

“Now I don’t like to talk about this, but there was one time when I swear I caught a glimpse of her in the mirror of my downstairs bathroom…”

And,

“How next do you think Ireland will descend further into the abyss now that its unborn have been mercilessly stripped of their rights?”

To this, Clodagh sighed sadly and said, “One would hope not, but…” she trailed off thinking of just how proud she was when she marked the “Yes” on her ballot paper with a big fat X.

“Fucking hell, I need a drink after that!” exclaimed Clodagh later on, after the group had gone. She went to the bar and poured herself a generous helping of Jameson; a nightly tradition. “They were intense, weren’t they?”

“Honestly, I don’t know how I put up with your messing,” said Bridie, shaking her head. “You’re lucky I haven’t washed my hands with ye at this stage, I do be having palpitations the way you go on. Can’t you just be normal?”

“If I did this job normal I’d be driven mad. Definitely wouldn’t have lasted ten fecking years, that much is for certain.” Clodagh took a sip of her drink, the fiery liquid a lovely reward. “Besides, who would you get to replace me? All the young ones have split. I’ll be joining them one of these days.”

It was a conversation they had every evening. At this stage, Clodagh would always busy herself with the cleaning or whatever else to avoid the inevitable look of half-amused pity in Bridie’s eyes.

Tonight, though, Bridie had another look in her eyes. She wanted to say something, but didn’t. They went about the usual evening routine, removing table cloths, gathering knives, forks, glasses, any remaining table-setting stragglers they missed earlier. All the while Bridie kept looking over at Clodagh, opening her mouth as if to say something, and closing it again.

Clodagh was growing tired at the performance and she was mildly curious.

“Bridie… If you keep opening your mouth like that you’re going to start catching flies. What is it you want to say?”

Bridie hesitated.

“Go on! You’re killing me with this suspense.”

“Do you know the way I’ve a sister in Dublin, yeah?”

“Yeah?”

“Well, she has a flat she’s been renting out for years, but it’s free now. She’s looking for a new tenant. Rent is pretty reasonable for Dublin. I…..” she trailed off.

“You..?”

“I mentioned you.”

“You what?”

“I think it’d be a good opportunity for you. Get out of here. Make something of yourself.”

“What, in the world of waitressing?”

“You’re always talking about leaving! Here’s your chance.”

Bridie had her there. Clodagh didn’t know what to say. They continued their closing routine, but since Clodagh wheedled the news out of her, Bridie wouldn’t shut up about it.

“Bridie,” Clodagh said, finally. “Can you let me sleep on it?”

“Of course!” said Bridie. She kept shtum for the rest of the night, but it was clearly quite a chore.

When Clodagh left that night the rain had eased but there was a caustic chill that hit hard. She hoped Sophie had lit the fire. Their cottage was a lot of things, but well-insulated wasn’t one of them. Thankfully the fire just about still kindled, but was on its way to flickering out as Clodagh entered the house. She readied for bed quickly to make the most of its concluding gleam of life. She entered her room and found her daughter was sleeping in her bed again. She found it a comfort to stay there, those nights when Clodagh had a late shift. She got into bed, basking in the comfort of her child’s body heat. It felt like home.

The next night Bridie couldn’t wait to hear Clodagh’s decision. She interrupted her mid-performance, rendering her attempt at convincing a raft of Swedes that she was actually a Russian runaway who ended up on the island at the tender age of 10 unconvincing at best. She dragged her into the kitchen, where the staff clearly had their ears pricked up for a nose.

“Well?” she asked, excitedly.

“Jesus, is half a day what you call giving me ‘time to think?’” said Clodagh with a laugh, knowing full well she’d made her decision on the matter as soon as Bridie mentioned it.

“Clodagh.”

Clodagh sighed. “Thanks for the offer, Bridie. But no. Dublin’s not for me.”

Bridie began to storm off before Clodagh had even finished speaking. She hated disappointing her, but it was her decision. Bridie had no right to be angry about what she did with her life, she told herself. Even so, if the silent treatment Bridie gave her all night was intended to make her feel guilty, it was a resounding success.

Later, as the pair were closing up the restaurant, Bridie finally broke her silence. It was dish-washing time. Annoyingly, just that morning, the dishwasher broke, so they had to wash everything by hand.

“This wouldn’t happen in Dublin,” Bridie said, pointedly.

“Do dishwashers not break in Dublin?” asked Clodagh.

Bridie shook her head. “That’s some chance you’re after washing your hands of.”

“Come on, Bridie. You can’t be getting snippy at me over this, over not doing what you want me to. That’s not fair.”

“That’s not it, Clodagh. You’re going to be stuck here. I can see it.”

More silence, then only broken by the squeaky rub of drying glasses with a little too much pressure from the tea towel.

“What if I said I actually wouldn’t mind sticking around here, Bridie?”

“Fuck off, Clodagh. You’re always waffling on about leaving.”

“Maybe that’s all it is; waffle. Maybe because that’s what’s expected. Leave, go somewhere else, my life instantly becomes better. I don’t know. I’d probably end up doing much the same somewhere else that I’m doing here. Except I’d be on my own.”

“I think that’s bullshit, Clodagh. And you wouldn’t have to be on your own.”

“Well, maybe. Maybe I’m just kidding myself. Maybe I’m just fucking afraid. I have a daughter, after all. It’s not just me I have to think about. Anyways, I’d like to decide on it myself, to be honest.”

Bridie sharply sucked in some air; a small whistling noise of disapproval. She said nothing.

Clodagh, felt a sudden burst of anger. “And you know what, why should I have to leave, Bridie? This is my home. I’ve lived here all my life. I’ve stuck it out, the good and the bad. Why I should I let myself be pushed out? I’m perfectly comfortable here.”

In response Bridie’s expression hardened. She bustled out of the kitchen to do some cleaning out the front. No more was said on the matter.

The next day on her commute to work, the Clodagh passed by the grotto. Its formerly large flock had dwindled to just the one lost sheep who wasn’t quite ready to move on with the rest. The expression this woman’s lined face held suggested she’d soon follow.

Gradually, Clodagh sensed, the old way was fading.

Cora Quigley is a writer from Dublin, Ireland who lives in Berlin. She’s written all sorts over the years, but concocting fiction is where her true passion lies. When she’s not hard at work writing (or procrastinating), you’ll likely find her dancing in the kitchen or mishearing the words of everyone around her. Find out more (but not that much more) at coraquigley.wordpress.com 

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