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Short story: 'To all their dues'

We feature a short story by Belfast writer Wendy Erskine from the new collection, Stinging Fly Stories.

Wendy Erskine

Updated 19 September 2018

TODAY WE BRING you an extract from a short story by Wendy Erskine.  It’s from her debut short story collection, Sweet Home, published by The Stinging Fly Press. Sweet Home is launched tonight (19 September) at a public event at 6.30pm in Hodges Figgis in Dublin.

Erskine lives in Belfast. She studied English at Glasgow University and works as a teacher in Belfast. This story contains some adult language.

Three types of beauty salon: the pristine Swiss clinic set-up where the staff might as well be in scrubs; tart’s boudoir with a job lot of gold leaf and damask; and then the retro parlour with a few framed fifties pin-ups. Mo had tried something different. Tropical. An InvestNI start-up loan and a bit of money she’d saved bought her a tiny shop unit and some second-hand equipment from a liquidation auction.

On the two-week start-up course they’d said about how you’d to achieve a total concept with it all working together to create brand synergy—the waiting area, the music, the décor. She had got a mate to do the painting. She had in mind a Caribbean paradise but when he’d finished it looked like a coffee shop off the Damrak. Would you like a quarter with your eyelash tint? Today’s double-sell! The lights on dim and it didn’t look so bad. The total concept got abandoned. The bowls of sand and shells in the waiting area should have been a good idea but people were always sticking their hands in and making the magazines gritty. After three days of Classic Reggae: The Soundtrack to Jamaica on repeat Mo retreated to the usual gentle ambient sounds and filled the bowls with boiled sweets.

What they said on the course didn’t matter anyway because it was all about the quality of the treatments. Treatments were reasonably priced—allowing for a careful margin—and methodically executed. Nails, waxing, facials, bit of massage, fake tan. One treatment room. Total reliability: no day-release wee dolls messing things up. She was in the place for 8, ready to start at 9 and she was there for the rest of the day, six days a week. Mo was starting to get regular clients, which was good. When she opened she’d put an advert in the local free paper with a discount voucher (15%: enough to create a positive vibe) and that had got things started well. She wasn’t fully booked at this stage—there were gaps in the diary—but she had known that this was how it would be for at least the first six months.

This morning Mo arrived at the same time as usual. The butcher next door was putting out his sign, a wooden cut-out cow, as Mo put up her metal shutter. Then she went through her routine: kettle on first, switch on the wax pot, light a few of the scented candles (black coconut). You needed to take away the smell of the bleach that lingered from the night before when the whole place had been washed down because ammonia wasn’t very ambient. Switch on the heat: important this, although it was expensive. The place always needed to be warm because people felt awkward enough stripping down to paper pants for a tan and they didn’t need to be freezing as well. The electric heater made a racket but no one had ever complained. Listen to the answer machine, turn the sign to open and finally, finally make the cup of tea.

Mo was reaching for the milk when there was a shatter of glass. She came through from the back and saw a hole in the window, a circle about two inches wide, and coming from it silver spokes that were tinkling as they crept further towards the edges of the window. Beside the table with the celeb magazines, a shiny red snooker ball had just come to rest.

Mo heard the cracking of the glass, stared down at the ball, then looked at the window. Through the hole the road looked darker. She put the ball on the counter and went next door to the butcher’s.

Did you hear that? Mo said. My window’s just been put in.

The butcher shook his head, continued moving some meat from one tray to another. Shit, he said. That’s not good. Do you need a number? For a glass place?

Yes, I do, said Mo. I can’t believe that just happened.

Desperate like, he said.

I can’t believe that just happened!

A woman came into the shop and he turned his attention away from Mo, did the what can I get for you my darlin?

Waiting at the bus-stop outside the salon were a handful of people.

Did you see what happened there? Mo asked them. My window’s just been put in.
An old fella shrugged. A boy in school uniform didn’t take out his headphones.

Yeah, a man said. Car pulled up and the window went down and they threw something. Drove off quick. Did anybody get hit?

Nobody got hit, said Mo. It was just the window that got wrecked.

Bad state of affairs, said the man. Nuts.

Mo’s first client of the day, in for an eyebrow wax and an eyelash tint, never commented on the window.

Blue black? Mo asked.

Blue black, the woman said.

She had taken her shoes off to lie on the bed and they sat neat in the corner, sad little comfortable shoes. Mo mixed the dye in the glass vial then smeared the Vaseline over her eyelids and under her eyes, positioned the semi-circles of paper under her bottom lashes.

That window. Unfair so it was. The woman’s eyelids fluttered as the dye went on, cold and wet.

That’s us, said Mo. I’m going to leave you for ten minutes to let that take. You warm enough? Mo pressed two cotton wool pads on her eyes.

Oh yes, said the woman, lovely.

Good then, said Mo, and she closed the door on the woman lying blind in the dark.

The next client was a full-body spray tan. Mo showed her into the cubicle where she had laid out the paper pants. White—if it was Marilyn-white, dense and creamy—was beautiful. But people weren’t ever Marilyn-white, they were lumpy and mottled. Tan helped but everyone wanted it too brown; never mind the different calibrations Mo offered, they always went for the top intensity. Mo liked doing the spray tan. You needed skill. It wasn’t just point and go.

What happened your window? the woman asked, shivering a little as the tan spray moved across her tits.

Mo shrugged, concentrating on progressing to the woman’s shoulder blades. Not entirely sure, she said. Young ones messing. It’ll be sorted tomorrow. Hopefully anyway.

Terrible, the woman said. A place was burgled the other week.

The man, Kyle, held the door open for the woman on the way out. It gave Mo a shock to see him standing there. He wore a leather suit jacket and held a briefcase that could have come from a game show, the prize bundles inside. He put the briefcase on the table and rested on the counter.

Problem? he asked, nodding towards the window.

It’ll be fixed by tomorrow, said Mo, and she started fussing at one of the shelves, aligning moisturisers.

Kyle sighed slowly, shook his head. Not good, he said. This road isn’t what it used to be.

Yeah, said Mo.

The other week, he said, I was only trying to help. Seriously. This situation is just what you are trying to avoid.

Through the broken glass and the cellophane Mo could just about see a man outside, leaning against a car. She said nothing but put her hands by her sides because shit they were shaking.

You live round here? he asked.

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No, said Mo. Well, not that near, she said.

Yeah, you do, said Kyle. House with the white door, number 32. Is there any point in being stupid? he said.

Mo thought of her white door.

He spread himself out in one of the seats. You see, it’s like this, he began. It’s all about community. Communities don’t run themselves. Businesses like yours, they’re vulnerable, you see what I mean? There’s a lot of people out there who are not nice people and all we are really doing here, you know, if I’m being honest, is offering you our help. As a member of the community.

I know what community means, said Mo.

You do? said Kyle.

I know exactly what community means, said Mo.
On the shelf by the window there was a line of OPI nail varnishes, running the range of colours of the spectrum, twenty of them. Mo watched as he used the back of his little finger to push from the left so that the varnishes fell slowly on to the tiles, one at a time.

All twenty bottles, one at a time.

Only two actually smashed, a coral and a hot red.

You need to watch it, he said.

Mo swallowed. That leather jacket would be wipe-clean.

It’ll need to be in an envelope, Kyle said. And it’ll be a Friday.

On his way out he turned round. And you’ll also be giving me a Christmas and Easter extra. Plus something over the holiday.

I’m talking money, he said. Fuck sake don’t flatter yourself love.

Hey, she shouted after him, when she knew he couldn’t hear. Hey, big man! You left your ball!

Another late night it would have to be then. Nothing else for it. In the appointments book she ruled the line for Tuesday down to the bottom of the page.

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Originally taken from Stinging Fly Stories, edited by Sarah Gilmartin and Declan Meade, published by The Stinging Fly Press. Features in Wendy Erskine’s new short story collection, Sweet Home, which is out now.

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Wendy Erskine

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