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Upside down inside out: A Novelby Monica McInerney
Eva Kennedy had just stepped into the cold March air when a watermelon rolled across the footpath in front of her.
“Sorry ’bout that, Eva love,” a middle-aged woman called over. “It’s been trying to make a run for it all day, that one.”
Eva picked up the runaway fruit and passed it across to Brenda, who was surrounded by the remnants of her fruit and vegetable stall. There were boxes of cabbages and oranges piled high on the Camden Street footpath around her. Brenda’s son was dismantling the stall itself, loading the wooden trays into a van parked illegally beside the footpath, its interior light throwing out a dim glow.
“Howya, Eva,” Sean called from the back of the van. “Any chance of a pint together tonight?”
“No chance at all, Sean. Haven’t you given up on me yet?”
“Never. You’ve my heart broken, you know.”
Eva just laughed at him. Not even fourteen years old and he was already full of cheek.
She had just started pulling down the delicatessen’s security shutter when she heard someone calling her name. It was Mrs. Gallagher, one of her favorite customers, walking quickly down Camden Street and waving a shopping list like a small white flag.
“Eva, I’m so sorry,” she said breathlessly as she reached her side. “I just couldn’t get away from work before now. Am I too late?”
“Of course not, Mrs. Gallagher. I wasn’t going home yet anyway.” She pushed the shutter all the way up again and opened the front door, the bell giving its little ring as they walked in. The shop was warm, the air fragrant with the mingled smells of fresh bread, coffee, cheese, and spices.
Mrs. Gallagher gave an appreciative sniff. “Thank you for this, Eva. I’ve friends coming over for dinner and I promised them some of your wonderful cheese.”
“It’s no problem at all.” Eva went in behind the counter, tied on an apron again and pulled on some gloves. “Ambrose and I are having a quick meeting after work in any case.”
“Now, that’s the sort of meeting I’d like to have. I can just imagine what you two talk about. ‘What do you think of this cheese, Eva?’ ‘Is this olive oil good enough?’ ‘Are these chocolates chocolatey enough?’ ”
Eva laughed at the envious look on Mrs. Gallagher’s face. “That’s about it, actually. Now, which cheese were you after? We’ve your favorite here, this crumbly farmhouse one, or perhaps you’d like to try this new one? A smoked cheddar, from a small producer near Cork that Ambrose heard about. It’s something special, I have to say.”
Mrs. Gallagher took a taste, then smacked her lips in pleasure. “Oh yes, I’ll have a good wedge of that, Eva, thank you. Where is Ambrose, by the way?”
“In the Bermuda Triangle.”
“Our storeroom. It doesn’t seem to matter how many times we reorganize it, things just disappear in there, never to be seen again.”
“Sounds just like my filing cabinet at work. And tell me, how will Ambrose cope without you while you’re off gallivanting in New York with that young man of yours?”
“My cousin Meg is coming up from Ennis to help out. She’s just finished a course at the Ardmahon House cooking school and really wants the work experience.”
“Oh, that’s a marvelous place, apparently. I’ll have to ask her for some recipe tips. Now, let me think, can I have some of that camembert? And some of the blue vein as well, while you’re there.”
Eva had just taken out the wheel of camembert when she heard the front doorbell ring. She looked up, her smile fading slightly at the sight of a red-faced elderly woman. Mrs. Lacey. The Terror of Camden Street.
“I know it’s after six, but you’re still here, so of course you can serve me,” Mrs. Lacey said loudly as she rummaged in her bag. “It’s ridiculous the hours you shop people keep. You should be suiting us, your paying customers, not yourselves, if you ask me, Eva.”
Yes, Mrs. Lacey. And may I say how especially toadlike you look today. A pound of our finest dried flies, was it? Or some of this pond slime flown in fresh from Galway this morning? Perhaps you’d just like to flick that long toady tongue of yours over the counter here and serve yourself?
“I’ll be with you in just one minute, Mrs. Lacey. Just as soon as I finish looking after Mrs. Gallagher here.”
Mrs. Lacey stared at the other woman as if she had magically appeared out of nowhere. “But I’m in a hurry. Where’s that uncle of yours? Surely he can serve me?”
What a good idea, Eva thought. She called over her shoulder. “Ambrose, I wonder could you give me a hand out here for a moment?”
A tall, gray-haired man emerged from the storeroom and took in the situation at a glance. “Mrs. Gallagher, how are you? I see Eva is looking after you. So, Mrs. Lacey, I have the privilege of looking after you. What a pleasure to see you. You’re looking so well, too.”
Ambrose caught Eva’s eye and gave her the quickest of winks.
Five minutes later, Eva followed both women out to make sure the Closed sign was firmly in place and the security shutter pulled right down. A gust of icy wind rushed in at her. She shivered. The end of March and it was still freezing. It was supposed to be spring, surely. What had her friend Lainey been boasting about on the phone from Australia the day before? Autumn in Melbourne and she was still going to the beach to swim at weekends. Eva wondered sometimes if Lainey just made these things up to make her jealous.
“You managed to see dear Mrs. Lacey safely off the premises, then?” Ambrose asked as she came back in.
“Oh, now the truth comes out! ‘Mrs. Lacey, what a pleasure to see you. You’re looking so well, too.’ You’re a silver-tongued devil, Ambrose Kennedy.”
“Years of practice, Evie. And haven’t I always told you about the first law of shopkeeping? You can think what you like as long as you keep a smile on your face.”
“Mrs. Lacey’s a law unto herself, if you ask me. I don’t suppose we could install a moat to keep her out, could we? That security shutter’s useless.”
“No, I’m fairly certain she can swim. Now, are you still all right to stay back for a quick meeting? I won’t keep you too long, I promise.”
“It’s fine, I’m in no hurry.”
She’d been surprised when Ambrose asked her to stay back tonight. Their last catch-up meeting had been just three weeks ago. Still, maybe some problem had come up and he thought it better to discuss it with her before she went on holiday.
Eva enjoyed their meetings. They were a chance to compare notes on which products were selling well, which ones weren’t, what requests they’d had. A laugh about some of the worst customers, generally Mrs. Lacey. A moan about suppliers. A general chat about the shop’s comings and goings. She suspected the meetings helped ease Ambrose’s loneliness too. Since his wife, Sheila, had died suddenly of a heart attack four years before, Ambrose had stayed living in the flat above the shop on his own. It had been a very hard few years for him.
She made a pot of coffee and took out several freshly baked ginger biscuits from a glass jar on the counter. Then she settled herself on a chair at the edge of the storeroom, waiting while Ambrose put a folder of papers back on the shelf above his desk.
“You look very serious,” she said as he turned toward her. “Don’t tell me our olive-oil man has run off with the butcher’s wife? Just as we beat him down on price and all?”
“No, oil’s well that ends well there,” he said, smiling at his own joke. He took a biscuit and sat down opposite her. “Tell me, Evie, how long have you been with me now? Six years? Or is it seven?”
Ambrose in reminiscence mode? She was surprised. “Seven years all up. Those three years part-time while I was studying, and it’s been nearly four years full-time now.”
He nodded slowly. “Do you ever miss the painting, Evie? Miss being at art school?”
“Well, sometimes, I suppose. The painting more than the study, of course.”
“And that cover band you used to sing with? Is that still going, do you know?”
“It is, yes.” She often saw the band’s name in gig listings in the newspapers. When she’d sung with them, they’d done mostly private parties and weddings. Now they seemed to be playing at lots of pubs around town.
“And do you regret having to give that up as well?”
“I did miss it at first,” she answered, even more puzzled. It wasn’t like Ambrose to ask questions like these. “But I couldn’t work here full-time and do that too, I knew that.”
Ambrose shifted in his chair. She noticed then he didn’t have the orders sheet in front of him as he usually did. She realized this wasn’t a normal catch-up meeting.
“Eva, I need to discuss something with you and I’ve decided it’s best to do it before you go on holiday with Dermot.”
It was bad news, she knew it. She had a memory flash of him wincing as he came down the stairs several weeks earlier. “Are you sick, Ambrose? Is that what you want to tell me? Oh dear God, what is it?”
“Oh dear God yourself, not that,” he said, laughing at her expression. “Haven’t I always told you? I’m healthy as a young trout.”
Eva was relieved to hear it. “Young trout? Sixty-four if you’re a day, Ambrose. You’re a fine old salmon, ready to be smoked, if you ask me.”
He smiled at her. “No, I’m not sick at all, Eva. Not in health. What I am sick of is work. Sick of early starts, late finishes. I want to retire, Evie.”
“I’m getting too old for this now. I don’t want to spend what’s left of my life behind a counter. I want to stop working, it’s as simple as that. Stop working and go traveling again. Visit all the places that Sheila and I used to love visiting together. And start enjoying eating food again, not just selling it.”
She was completely shocked. “But what about the shop?”
He looked steadily at her. “I want to give it to you.”
“Give it? To me? You can’t possibly.”
He laughed. “Yes, I can.”
“But why don’t you sell it, Ambrose? This building would be worth a fortune these days.”
“What do I need a fortune for? I’ve got all the money I need. I’ve got somewhere to live. Besides, the last thing I want is some stranger taking over the business and making a bags of it, ruining all the hard work we’ve put into it. Evie, you’re the closest thing to a daughter I have. I want to give it to you.”
“But I don’t know the first thing about managing a shop.”
“Of course you do. You’ve been working with me for years. You’re so good with the customers, the window displays, everything. I’m sure you know just as much if not more about food than I do now. And I’ve never forgotten that you put your own life on hold for me four years ago.”
Eva felt the familiar stab of guilt. He still thought that. Because she’d never told him the truth. “Ambrose, stop that, please. You’re making me sound like a martyr. You pay me, this isn’t a charity. And I love working here.”
“Oh, I know you do. But the fact is you went full-time to help me out after Sheila died. And thank God you did. I couldn’t see a day in front of me back then and I don’t think I could have kept the place running if it hadn’t been for you.”
He held up his hand to stop her interrupting. “Please, hear me out. I’ve been selfish, I know. Once things settled down for me again, I should have suggested you go back to your studies, back to your music. I could have advertised for someone else to help me. But I liked having you here. And when you didn’t mention your art or your singing, I didn’t either.
“It would make me very happy if you took over the shop. It would make me proud, too. And this isn’t just a spur-of-the-moment decision. Sheila and I often talked about it. How you were the sort of daughter we would love to have had. How we could both see you running this place, modernizing it, making it your own one day. But it has to be solely your decision this time, nothing to do with me or what I might want. It has to be something that you really want to do, not something you’re doing out of family loyalty.”
Eva felt the panic rise in her. Of course I can’t do it. This is your shop. I’ve only ever been your assistant. I can’t do it on my own. I wouldn’t know where to start. The customers would leave and never come back. I’d ruin everything. “Ambrose, I can’t—”
“Eva, you can. I’m your uncle, yes, but I’m also a businessman. I know you can do it. You just have to realize that too.” He softened. “I’m not expecting an answer from you now. I thought you could use this holiday with Dermot to think it all over. To decide if you want it. What you’d do with the shop if it was yours. How you’d refurbish it, modernize it, whatever you wanted. I don’t want it to stay as some sort of museum piece. I’ve seen what’s happening along Camden Street these days, new places opening, the old places changing. But I’m too old to be a part of it, Evie. I don’t want to be a part of it. But I’d give you all the help you needed, of course, financially and practically. To get you started.”
He was watching her carefully. “Or perhaps you’ll decide you don’t want it at all. That you’d rather go back to art school. Finish your degree. Start singing again. Pick up where you left off four years ago.”
Eva blinked. But that’s worse. I can’t go back to art school either . . .
Ambrose took in her shellshocked expression. “Oh, Evie, I’ve surprised you a bit, haven’t I?”
She managed to laugh. “Well, yes, that’s one word for it.”
He made a sudden decision. “A week’s thinking time isn’t really long enough, is it? Take another week off, Eva, after you get back from New York. You deserve it, you work very hard. I’m sure Meg would be happy with the extra work experience too. Have two weeks off and give it all plenty of thought.”
“Ambrose, are you sure about this? Really? I mean . . .”
“Yes, I’m sure. Completely sure. About all of it. The extra week off. The shop. Everything.” He stood up and rubbed his hands together. “There it is now. All out in the open. Give it lots of thought, Evie, won’t you? And when you get back from your holidays, we can sit down and hear what you’ve decided to do, can’t we?”
She looked out into the shop, his words still sink- ing in. She knew every single inch of it—the long glass counter, filled each day with cheeses, meats, smoked fish, olives, and dips. The shelves crammed with exotic oils, vinegars, chutneys, and sauces. The baskets of fresh crusty bread. The handmade chocolates. The coffee, spices, biscuits, pasta . . .
“Evie? We can hear your decision then, can’t we?”
“Yes,” she said, dazed. Oh God. She certainly hoped so.
From the Trade Paperback edition.Copyright © 2008 by Monica McInerney
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