Odhrán, a sixteen-year-old, has moved from Ireland to start a new life in a strange city. He doesn’t know anyone. But a chance meeting with some strangers is about to change his life forever.
About the Author
Michael McGlade is an Irish writer with over a hundred short stories published in journals such as Gray's Sporting Journal, the Saturday Evening Post, the Irish Times, and Confrontation. Michael was a finalist of the Hennessy Literary Award and holds a master's degree in Creative Writing from the Seamus Heaney Centre, Queen's University Belfast.
Find out the latest news and views from Michael at McGladeWriting.com.
Will Work for Room by Michael McGlade
I knocked, listened, and knocked again. A mid-terrace redbrick house on another carbon copy street. Tuesday, early evening, London. I’ve been two whole days in the city and still without work or room.
The door opened on a woman in a white dress and combat boots. Love at first sight. I had the “Work for Room” card I pinched from the corner shop window.
“My name’s Odhrán O’Connell. I’m Irish, so I am.”
Couldn’t believe I said so I am. Like I wasn’t already Irish enough, so.
The woman looked me up and down. I felt like a lost boy.
The aroma of freshly baked bread drifted from inside the house. My empty stomach growled.
“It does that around strangers,” I joked.
“Growling is not problem,” she replied. “But does it bite?”
A thick Eastern European accent.
Small web-like scar beneath her chin. Large espresso-shot eyes.
She hadn’t blinked yet, which made mine water.
She snatched the card. “So you are thief?”
I felt like an ant stuck on a jam tart at a picnic.
The door shut in my face. London was the capital city of door slamming.
So then another night sleeping rough. I’d been charmed enough to chance upon an abandoned car—mostly pee-free. But the alley was rampant with doggers. Kept finding pudgy, balding men peering through the window with utterly disappointed faces.
I heard voices inside the hallway now. A quick exchange. The door opened.
“I’ll do anything,” I said. “So long as it’s legal, I suppose.”
“Where do you think it is that I am from?”
On the telephone table was a baked potato wrapped in tinfoil.
“You’re Romanian,” I guessed.
She grinned. “I am Cosmina. Now you to speak to ai mei.”
Cosmina yanked me inside and shut the door.
I was wearing a suit and tie, my crinkled white shirt hanging like it belonged to someone else, because it did. Suitcase in hand, covered in stickers of places I’d never been: the suitcase contained no clothes, almost empty, like me.
“Tell me what it is you know about row-MAH-nee-ah.”
I wasn’t expecting an inquisition and blurted, “Dracula and communism.”
“We are no longer communist,” she explained. “Here in Britain, we are free . . . Illegal aliens, of course, but we come for work.” She paused, as if to blink, but didn’t. “As for vampires . . .”
I was drawn to her. Something was wrong. Yet, I moved closer.
Had I been glamoured?
Loud voices from the adjoining room. “Who all’s inside?”
“Is this an interview? For the work position? What exactly is the job?”
“Show me what you have in suitcase.”
Unable to resist, I popped the hasps.
She lifted out the only object inside: a bottle of whiskey. My Da had willed it to me. I was the youngest in the family, and the others took over the farm; I came to London to make my way and send back whatever I could earn.
This sixteen-year-old whiskey (bought the day I was born) was to be a bribe.
“You are big Irish drinker, yes?”
The only time I drank whiskey, it was like a scene from The Exorcist.
Never touched a drop since.
“Romanians and Irish, sure, we’re all a buncha great drinkers.”
Cosmina leaned in close, straightened my collar, dusted my shoulders. I almost kissed her.
“Make a good impression with Dragos.”
“What’s a dra-goes?”
She grabbed my hand—her fingers icy cold—and hauled me into the kitchen.
Flour ghosted the counters. Cake mixture glooped off wooden spatulas. Batter ribboned a chopping board. Was it a pastry explosion?
Around the corner, a dozen birthday cakes were lining the table. Maybe instead of candles, they celebrated with a cake for every year. A carbon copy of Cosmina was icing a sponge.
“This my sister, Claudia.”
“Pleased to meet—”
I was lugged through a set of French doors into a room shrouded in smoke. My lungs creaked.
She released my hand.
“Dragos will take care of you.”
The French doors shut and she was gone.
A hand extended out of the murk. “I am Dragos.” We shook.
I stumbled and sat hard on the couch, a person to either side. I’d managed to miss every lap.
Dragos was seated opposite, shapeless as spilled oil.
“Tell us what it is that you think of the Brexit?”
The UK pulling out of the European Union.
“Makes it all the more difficult for any of us to stay here and work,” I replied. “I’m only looking to make my way, same as yourselves. You’re not here legally?”
I could feel eyes on me. Staring.
The air vapoured like morning mist.
Camera flash. Cosmina had taken my mug shot on her SLR and displayed my owllike face for the others. Said, “Oh-rawn is here to make his case for to be your assistant.”
The French doors clicked shut; again she was gone.
I tapped the ground with my foot searching for a trapdoor.
“Oh-rawn,” Dragos replied. “You are Irish and you bring whiskey. Like stereotype.”
They chuckled. My bottle of whiskey was on the coffee table.
I coughed, the smoke sticking hotly to my mouth. I’m not a smoker . . . had seen what it did to my father, eating him away into a husk till nothing remained but a bog mummy, some teak-stained woodly-grained thing that had once been my Da, a strong farmer with bowling ball shoulders who had croaked in his fifties. No, a smokers’ commune was not for me.
“Do you all smoke?”
A fan whirred, and the smoke cleared. Nobody had a cigarette, no ashtrays anywhere. A circuit board had burnt out on a soviet-looking hunk of equipment that might have been on a submarine, wires charred into black commas. A fire extinguisher on Dragos’ lap.
Dragos had a carpenter pencil behind his ear. He popped his feet up on the coffee table.
“I am developing a system—”
“We are,” the man on my right interrupted.
“—to transfer broadband data through the visible spectrum.” Dragos pointed at the LED bulb sitting on top of the coffee table, which had charred like an old-fashioned flashbulb.
“Are you an engineer?” I asked.
“No, I am woodworker.”
I chuckled. Nobody else did.
He sat forward and tapped his sonic screwdriver off the uncommonly long, wooden coffee table. The air smelled of linseed oil, like old hay and shaved wood.
“Back home in Romania, I am electrical engineer. But here, in this country, I—”
“We,” the man on my right corrected.
“—am branching into wood.”
“I’m handy with my hands,” I said. “I’ve repaired loads of doors and window frames on the farm.”
Everyone exchanged sidelong glances.
I said, “Is it someone’s birthday?”
“Yes, is tradition in Romania to give on birthday your age in cake.”
They burst out laughing.
“A top in the morning to you,” the man on my right said.
“It is top of morning,” Dragos corrected, then added: “Is correct?”
I was bookended by Romanians. The man on my right had a pale featureless face, like Jack Skellington. On my left was a guy with a ponytail and more silver jewellery than a werewolf hunter.
“Aye, it’s close enough, to be sure.”
“Ai mei is important to us,” Dragos said. “We are all related, even if not by blood.”
“That’s your legendary campfire hospitality.”
Dragos chuckled. “We are all woodworkers—”
“Carpenters,” the man on my right corrected.
“—through an opportune opportunity. What do you think of coffin?”
“Coffin? In general? I think they’re a tight fit.”
Again he chuckled. “I believe by end of night you will be happily inside box room.”
Box? Coffin? What were they planning? I had the sudden urge to bolt. I leapt to my feet. A hand tugged me back seated.
I knew then I’d made some terrible mistake. If only I had stayed home, never attempting to move on, content with my lot in life, working a wee craggy strip of land with my family, harvesting barely enough to survive.
“What is wrong?” Dragos asked. “Do you dislike quality coffin for your eternal repose?”
“I don’t want to see the inside of a coffin,” I stammered. “I was just looking for a job, nothing worth dying over.”
The others conferred in Romanian, glancing in my direction.
“It is hard for us, this conversing in a foreign language,” Dragos said. “Let us to be drinking to our health.”
He cracked the seal on the whiskey bottle and poured four shots. Where the glasses materialised from, I have no idea . . . Cosmina, probably, preternaturally fleet of foot.
Everyone said, “Noroc,” and downed the shot.
If I was to die, I’d bleedin well do it drunk. I poured the shot into my mouth, swallowed, and inhaled flames. I slumped over, head between my knees.
An ordeal now.
A long minute passed.
I sat up, and another shot had been poured.
Liquid sloshed inside my head like molten lead.
“I should go,” I said. “I don’t belong here.”
Dragos selected a song on his laptop. John Lennon sang about all the things he didn’t believe in. My Da played this song all the time and always grinned at the same part: I just believe in me.
“It is easier to not believe than it is to find the thing you do believe in,” Dragos began. “Yet here we are, different peoples with different skills, all seeking to find our way.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yes, you may leave any time.”
I stood. My legs gave out, and I collapsed onto the couch, the booze hitting hard.
“Never pretend to be something you are not.”
He offered the shot. I pushed it away. Dragos grinned widely.
“Welcome on board,” he said. “Now we discuss the work you are to be doing for us.”
My eyes blurred. LEDs blinked on the servers stacked in a glass cabinet by the television, blocky soviet-era things that could probably land a nuclear strike.
“Family is sometimes like stirring cognac with a twig—”
“Rusted nail,” the man on my right corrected.
“—but when we come together, like many twig, we harder to break. This is why we come to foreign country, to find new opportunities.”
My head lifted as if pumped with helium.
The man on my right tapped his wristwatch, the kind of watch that looked like it had been smuggled out of occupied Belgium in an anus. He exited the room, leaving with Cosmina to deliver the birthday cakes to a local store for sale.
Dragos pointed to the coffee table. “You will help me build coffin.”
“You mean table?”
He removed the lid to reveal a coffin. The grain had been buffed out with linseed oil.
“We will sell them through our website, make many people happy with quality product for reasonable price. Romanian quality coffin—vampire proof.” He was sitting next to me on the couch. “You write copy for website, answer phone, polish wood—”
“Sand the wood,” the man on my left corrected. “I am now promoted to the polishing.”
“What’s the pay?” I asked.
“Everything is split between us equally.”
Vampire Quality Furnishings Incorporated. I don’t know if I said that aloud. The bones had melted from my body. It might actually have been happiness.
Cosmina had previously taken my photo for social media and web promotion.
Dragos indicated at the open coffin. “You can sleep here, Odhrán.”
I said, “I wouldn’t be seen dead in that.”
I chuckled. He did too.
“You’ve a decent clan here,” I said. “Reminds me a lot of the family I left behind. They were a buncha jokers, too. But do I really gotta kip in the coffin?”
He replaced the coffin lid. Knocked, listened, knocked again, seemingly satisfied with the sonorous resonance. “There is a box room for you at the top of stairs,” he said. “You are one of us now . . . ai mei.”
About the Story
Will Work for Room was written by Michael McGlade.
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