I recently entered a short story competition run by The Guardian. The guidelines were to write a 500-750 word piece beginning with the sentence ‘He spent his last £30 on a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne…’ Here is my entry.
[Edit:] you can view the winning entries here.
He spent his last £30 on a plate of oysters and a glass of champagne. He sat at the wooden table by the stain glass window, hunched in his overcoat and stared out in the direction of the ocean. He smiled when he looked at the bill, whipped out three ten pound notes and said ‘well, that’s everything. All my money in the world.’ He turned back towards the window. I hesitated, unsure if he was joking, unsure if I was morally obligated to give the money back. But I stayed quiet and shrugged, like I always do.
The grey light faded to black and still I served tables, wiped down the bar, hummed tunelessly. Like I always do. The other customers left and still he sat there, staring out the window. Still his food lay untouched. I stay out of the way of customers, usually, but I was intrigued. ‘Is there a problem with your food?’ His head snapped up, eyes dark and wide and full of sorrow. ‘Only you haven’t touched a bite and I’m pretty sure oysters don’t taste good after sitting out this long.’ I gestured at the plate where the oysters were lying, grey and miserable. ‘And that champagne costs a pretty penny, sure you don’t wanna try it?’
‘I’m saving them for later.’ He turned his face back to the window, back to his champagne-less solitude and oyster-free daydreams. I shrugged, like I always do.
You work in a place like this for long enough, you get used to strange punters and strange half-conversations. You get used to people who are too preoccupied to say thank you, too emotional to finish their food. I just let them get on with it and vaguely hope they find the strength to get up and walk out that door and never come back. But he bothered me, this man with his sad eyes and rusty voice. I had never seen anyone sit so still. I busied myself buffing wine glasses while wondering what his story was. I was sure that, whoever he was, he was here for the prison.
I’ve worked in The Swinging Gallows ever since I rocked up in this rain-and-ale town over 15 years ago, and I’ve long since learnt to stop asking punters how their day is going. The pub sits at one end of a coastal road in the shadow of the prison, arguably this town’s greatest tourist attraction. People only come here to go to prison or visit someone inside. The pub is a whistle stop along the way, a place for people to rest when they can’t face going inside, or can’t face going home. When I couldn’t bear to visit the prison anymore, I came here. I stayed here so long it became my home, of sorts, and now I spend my days watching men sobbing their goodbyes into pints or trying to find the courage for a visit at the bottom of a vodka bottle. Men like that strange, silent man who sat staring out to sea. I wondered who he had just left behind in the prison, who was so hard to say goodbye to, and could not bring myself to ask him to leave. I let the clock tick past closing time, past my bedtime, past the two of us sitting half in silence, half in sorrow, until my head started to droop on the bar.
I woke with a start around 2am. My head snapped up towards the window table. The man was gone, the plate of oysters and glass of champagne still on the table where I had set them down 9 hours ago. A shiver ran down my spine, even before I heard the scream.
In the flurry of excitement and confusion that was a man washing up dead on the shores of a small town, it took several hours to identify the body, but I knew who it was. I thought of his face as he turned to me and said, I’m saving them for later. I wondered what he had been thinking about all those hours of silence and sorrow. Later that day I set the plate of oysters and the flute of champagne on the shoreline and let the sea wash them away.