By Ciaran J. McLarnon
The visits were moments of when Simon was given a precious glimpse of his future. From behind the shelves of tinned fruit and meat, the sacks of flour and rice, he watched the man enter his family’s grocery. Simon saw him as the man he wanted to be; his bowler hat, his golden pocket watch and tweed waist coat. His shoes were polished enough to catch the light and send a wink towards Simon. He watched his mother from far behind; Simon was almost at the back of the shop, filling another shelf with tins of beans. No matter how many shelves he filled with beans it was never enough, the wanderers and dreamers of Abbotswood seemed not to have the time or inclination to cook anything else. Simon dreamed he would invent things when he was older, things to make life as simple and reliable as a tin of baked beans.
He didn’t need to see his mother’s face to know the smile she flashed at the customer as she handed him his change. It was as if she wanted to show every shopper that her smile was nicer than theirs; usually it was. He’d always treasured his mother’s smile, but Simon reckoned this man’s smile was worth more. All other customers complained; about their health, about the people who were rude to them, about how expensive things were these days; they’d complain about the heat if they could think of nothing else. His mother smiled and nodded as if she sympathised with every trouble.. He never knew how she listened day after day, always with a smile on her face.
But his hero never complained, a smile was enough for him. He always wore a neatly pressed suit; he was always full of energy; he was going places. Other patrons never left Simon and his mother alone, constantly fingering produce as they wandered the aisles in a daze, trying to remember what they came in for. Sometimes they’d ask his mother and seem offended when she replied she didn’t know. They had ragged, sweat-stained clothes; his hero stepped by them; they laughed when his hero had no time to stop and chat.
No-one should have time to stop and chat, thought Simon as he wiped his hands on his smock before going through a door to the rooms he shared with his mother and sister. His sister cooked a lot; his mother liked to be the one who closed the shop. His sister appeared with green beans, macaroni cheese and spicy chicken.
‘Dinner looks good,’ he said as he pulled out his dark, wooden chair and took his seat at the square table in the dining room, ‘but I wish ma could join us more often.’ The dining room was small and sparsely decorated, but it was impossible to eat in the kitchen; where the stove belched steam and heat in equal measure, where smoke and burning fat from the food brought tears to his eyes.
‘I wish she’d let me close sometimes; or get more staff.’ Said his sister, ‘getting an assistant would be best.’
‘I don’t mind stocking shelves if ma needs a hand. That guy came in the shop again.’
‘You mean your hero? I hope you didn’t stare; ma says you’re just going to make him uncomfortable. What did he buy today?’
‘I don’t know, I was stuck at the back of the shop when he came in,’ said Simon, ‘I waved again but he never notices.’
‘He must live nearby,’ laughed his sister, ‘otherwise he’d never come back. I can’t think of any other reason your behaviour hasn’t stopped him coming here.’
‘I wonder where he gets his clothes. He doesn’t look like he gets them in Abbotswood; maybe he gets the tailor to make them. I think I should ask the tailor the next time he comes in.’
‘Ma won’t like you bothering her customers, you should ask her instead.’
‘I’ll do that, and I’ll draw a picture to remind her.’
‘That’s a good idea. I wonder why I didn’t think of that?’
Simon wolfed down the rest of his meal, almost licking his plate clean before he left it on the kitchen counter. ‘I don’t know why you never thought of it. Maybe I just thought about him for a little longer.’
The wooden floorboards of the dining room creaked as Simon carried the dishes into the kitchen, where the floor was also unadorned. Most of the length of the long hallway was carpeted, although the carpet was faded and stained. After he had returned his dishes, Simon skipped along the hallway to his room and closed the door.
Simon stocked shelves in the General Store most evenings. He didn’t mind it now the nights were getting longer; as the weather got colder the other children wanted to play outside less and less, so he could go about his chores without feeling that he was missing something.
‘He was back again today,’ said Simon to sister, ‘I was so tired after school that I just wanted to get the shelves stacked as quickly as possible. I think I was almost asleep when he came in, but when the bell rings I always look round to see who’s coming through the door. I think that’s a habit for people who work in shops a lot; I bet mum looks up every time she hears a bell, whether she’s in the shop or not. I wish I didn’t have the habit.’
‘Sometimes working in the shop seems like it would be a nice break,’ said his sister, doling out a lamb stew in the dining room, ‘but Mum knows how to be nice to customers.’
‘When I’m older customers will be nice to me, and people will apologise for getting in my way. When others laugh at the bearded man for not being slow he just gets faster. His beard is really getting thicker, he must’ve lots to do if he doesn’t have time to spend shaving.’
‘Have asked him what his job is yet?’
‘I’ll get around to it, he’s probably a businessman. He has more than one business, probably.’
‘Well don’t get too distracted, you still have your homework to finish. Do that before you draw more pictures.’
Simon flashed thin smile at his sister before he to his room to do his homework. He spent the rest of the night working on a drawing of the businessman. He heard the door slam shut as his mother returned from the grocery, after she had closed for the night. Simon quickly finished the picture and dated it. He had another picture to add to his wall, and another day to add to the long sequence where his hero had paid a visit.
Each time the bell in the shop jangled Simon looked up, hoping he would catch a glimpse of his hero. The days Simon drew a picture his hero never let him down. The picture had to be exact though, always true to life. If Simon drew something abstract, or if he smudged his watercolours, the man wouldn’t look like he had the day before. Simon took the time to make every sketch flawless.
But nothing lasts forever, and Simon’s run of daily drawings ran out long before his obsession did. Simon was tired when the bell rang that day, he barely noticed his hero paying a visit. Simon was stocking beans again and didn’t notice the sharp edge on one. The cut on his right hand wasn’t deep, but it was deep enough. After months and months of visiting every day, his hero never returned. Simon was distraught and asked his sister what he should do.
‘I don’t know,’ she said, ‘why don’t you try drawing more, maybe he’ll come back.’
‘It’s probably worth a try,’ said Simon, ‘and I like drawing anyway.’
He put all his effort into producing a perfect drawing, capturing even the tiniest detail; he was secretly sure it would work. He told no-one else how disappointed he was when it didn’t. Months went by when the shop seemed lifeless all afternoon, when daydreaming of his future was the only distraction Simon had from the routine of stocking shelves every afternoon when he got home from school.
For a town of its size, the schoolhouse in Abbotswood was small. All the children fitted comfortably in two classrooms; Simon and his sister Christina shared the same classroom even though she was 16 and he was 12. Most of the other children were from farms close to the town, not from the town itself. This town is no place for children, his mother said. When his father was alive his parents often argued about moving to the edge of town. Away from the drunkenness and brawling of disappointed dreamers drowning their sorrows, and the lucky few celebrating small victories.
The children were always excited when they left school in spring, blue bells and fresh leaves on trees; each day felt like a leap towards summer. The excitement filled Simon, but he also dreaded the thought of the impending disappointment. His mother smiled to see the return of her trusted stock-boy. Who will fill the shelves when I move to something better? He often thought.
Simon always shuffled along, knowing the chore that awaited him. The man ahead that afternoon irritated him; whistling, wearing a nicely pressed suit, twirling a cane, running his hands through his bushy beard…it was him, still in Abbotswood! Walking around like he didn’t have a care in the world, like he never let anyone down… suddenly a great surge of anger welled up inside Simon. He ran up behind and then in front of his former hero, preparing to accost him over his carelessness.
‘Why don’t you visit our shop anymore?’ Simon demanded of him, ‘you came in everyday for such a long time, and then you suddenly disappeared. I thought you must’ve moved to another town, but now I see you walking up and down the thoroughfare as if nothing has happened. What do you have to say for yourself?’ Simon even pushed his betrayer. He threw the bearded man off-balance and forced him to take a step backwards into the mud.
‘I’m sorry, but I do have other children I need to inspire,’ he replied, ‘and your mother asked me about my clothes. She said you talk about me all the time, that’s usually my time to stop.’
‘And here you are accosting me in the street, that’s the kind of single-mindedness I want to inspire. I don’t think you need my visits anymore. Don’t send me anymore pictures, I won’t respond to your invitations.’
‘Invitations? My drawings weren’t invitations! They were…well, I don’t know what they were.’
The man laughed. ‘Run along, boy! Work hard at school, you’ve a lot to learn.’
‘I thought I was special.’
‘And if you’re right that is even more reason for me to stop visiting.’
The man jumped onto the wooden boards in front of the saloons and banks of main street and landed lightly on the path. He sauntered into the strengthening sun, whistling and twirling his cane, leaving Simon to wonder if he was the first person to regret meeting his hero.
The bell rang sharply; Simon slammed the door of the General Store as he entered, his mother looked up from his ledger.
‘What’s the matter?’ Asked his mother, ‘you better have a good excuse for being late. We’ve sold a lot of beans today.’
Simon marched into the shop and then suddenly turned his face away from his mother, trying to hide his tears, ‘I don’t care anymore if I’m late. I don’t want the rotten people in this rotten town to be satisfied.’
‘That’s not like you,’ said his mother, ‘what happened to the Simon who wants a shop full of happy customers coming back again and again so we have enough to start somewhere new.’
‘Everywhere is the same if have no money,’ he replied, ‘and everywhere is different you do. If we had money even this town would be better, and I’d like to take from the people in this rotten town, they deserve it.’ Simon put on his smock when the light in the sky turned the clouds blood-red and made he returned to his rooms as it faded to blue grey. He ate his dinner in silence as the bearded man in flames filled his mind’s eye, drawing the image was the only way to get it out.
At the weekends Simon always worked extra-long in the shop; on that Saturday the bell seemed to be ringing constantly as a long line of usually morose customers eagerly spread the news. They announced that there had been a case of spontaneous combustion in Abbotswood, right out on main street. No-one seemed to know much about the man who had burst into flames on the boardwalk, but a few children spoke very fondly of a suited stranger who could be the same man…. and Simon thought he might know him too.
But he had work to do; in his estimation Abbotswood was as good a town to be rich as any other. The rich don’t belong to any town, he thought, and my powers can help me to rise above them all.
He studied the people who came into the grocery, he eaves-dropped on their conversations; he started to understand how his mother listened to their complaints so happily.
‘They tell me what I could sell,’ she said, ‘usually they want different things, which is not very helpful. But I look for a what they have in common; they all have loved ones somewhere else they call home. So, I will sell pens and paper, and I’ll write the letters if I have to.’
I need to find things that people have in common, thought Simon, the simple things. The next day as Simon and Christina traipsed across the well-trodden grass to reach their school, skipping around puddles and swathes of mud, Simon took note of the businesses he saw on the main thoroughfare. The family store, saloons, brothels, gambling dens…..they all catered to basic needs. In this lawless town he could see an obvious hole in the market. In his mind’s eye he saw an army, and what people might pay to keep them out. He reached for his sketchpad to draw the mighty army, and on the next page a formidable wall.
The people turned towards the the rhythmic tamping of soil under marching boots, towards the plume of dust that was curling through the town.
The customers outside the General Store stopped and stared, squinting into the morning sunlight, perhaps considering for a moment if the command was directed at them. Some rubbed their eyes, both in sleepiness and amazement, when the squadron of burly soldiers emerged from the glare and ceased their march alongside the shop front. The crowd were most impressed that these soldiers seemed fresh; their uniforms were pressed, the medals pinned to their chests were newly polished, their spotless black boots gleamed in the sunlight. The soldiers waited silently in the street, and when Simon walked through the door to begin his day only their commanding officer spoke.
‘Captain Breen, Sir! First battalion reporting for duty, Sir!’
‘What?’ Simon looked at Christina standing behind him, as if she might be able to provide an explanation. He knew it was important to act surprised.
‘Your orders, Sir! You ordered our dispatch last night, Sir!’
‘Of course, but I haven’t plans for you just yet.’
‘Very well, would you like us to escort while you make your plans, Sir?’
Christina nudged her brother and said, ‘get them to do that.’
The year was moving into summer now, children wore only short sleeves to school, but their sun did not raise early enough to burn away all of the dew before the ringing of the bell. Spring rains still gave the air an oppressive humidity. The soldiers maintained a tight formation jogging down the road just behind Christina and Simon. Drops of sweat ran down their faces as they sweltered in their grey woollen tunics, but this disciplined fighting force continued to follow Simon almost as closely as his own shadow, and only squabbled over who would get the honour of carrying Simon and Christine’s books.
When they arrived at school Simon started to see the advantages of having his own security detail. People who liked to throw their weight around suddenly decided that they should leave Simon and Christine alone. Simon smiled when kids offered the world in exchange for some protection; he was hoping adults would adopt the same approach.
It didn’t take long to see that he was right. All he had to do was walk around town late at night in the company of his battalion; even in the most dangerous parts of town he never got into trouble. People could see the value of protection, and soon the business came to Simon. The people of Abbotswood began to revel in their security, and then it turned against them.
Simon’s soldiers ran amok in the Abbotswood, creating havoc from their base in the hills outside of the town. The battalion followed their secret orders exactly, and soon the townspeople were begging for a return to the security they once enjoyed.
‘I can’t control those soldiers anymore,’ claimed Simon, ‘but I think I know of a way that you can bring security back to your town.’
Simon declared that they should and he could build a wall, and smiled when the foolish townspeople gladly handed over their money and told him that if there was anything else that they could do he shouldn’t hesitate to ask. He could now maintain his own world behind the wall, one where he was king, and he ruled the town as any king would. Soon Abbotswood became Simonstown, and only his mother would dare to criticize.
‘You should’ve moved away years ago, like your sister. Why do you keep terrorising this town? How much hero worship do you need? I should’ve said something when you started looking up to that man with the nice suits, but I thought it had maybe something to do with did your dad. I wish I’d moved, just to get you away from this town.’
‘You always go on about how well Christine is doing now, but she isn’t doing better than me,’ said Simon to his mother, ‘I’m the master of a whole town, how many people can say that?’
‘You used to say that it didn’t matter whether you lived, just whether you were rich or poor. Now you see that everybody needs the right town.’
‘I still think I was right,’ said Simon ‘people need my money and will do what they can to get it. I could have that power anywhere.’
Simon to keep his control easily, he could draw the solution to any problem. When the soldiers were hungry Simon drew them enjoying a fabulous feast. When his growing army needed more places to rest he drew their grand manor on the edge of town with an extra storey so they could all sleep soundly. Simonstown flourished as lawlessness was controlled. It didn’t disappear, for who would need Simon’s army then?
Simon’s wealth and power increased, but lavish displays only fuelled resentment in Simonstown; there were calls to return to the original name. He maintained success but the resentment leaked out in other ways.
His children attended the school he had as a child, but of course it was much changed. Gone was the wooden shack, more of a shed than anything intended to be occupied by people. It had been replaced by an imposing building with red brick walls under a roof of grey slate, with bars protecting the large windows. Of course, the children where as nice to Grace and George they had been instructed to be by their parents, when they thought that Simon’s children were in earshot.
‘They’re spoiled,’ Grace overheard some of the other children say, ‘they hardly ever share their lunch with other people.’ Some voices laughed. ‘We should hide from them at break time,’ one child said.
Grace and George stood in the empty playground at break times, wondering where all the other children had got to.
Grace would run home from school every evening and bury her face and her pillow. As tears run down her cheeks she thought of the revenge she might take only the children that weren’t really her friends. Simon was horrified at the pictures his daughter drew, and to learn of the bumps, bruises and cuts from the freak accidents that some children would always have the evening before.’
He knew it was Grace. Then he understood he wasn’t drawing solutions to problems; he was just drawing a ways to give them to someone else.
Ciaran J. McLarnon is a Northern Irish writer from Ballymena, a town near to the north coast. He has appeared on the website before, his story “The Atlas of Disappearing Places” was posted in April 2020. His stories have appeared in many magazines, including New Reader and Galway Literary Review. His debut novel New Shores’ is available October 10th 2020 through Atmosphere. For more information on his work visit http://www.ciaranjmclarnon.blog.