Short Fiction by Kayleigh Cassidy
Margrit Silvia Twist lived across the road from a retirement home. As she closed the front door behind her, she noticed two young carers smoking out of their patient’s window. The blonder of the two, hocked phlegm in her mouth and spat into the nearby rose bush. Margrit shook her head.
“Get back to work!” Margrit shouted. “Wasting tax payers’ money!”
“What was that Grandma?” said the spottier of the two. “We can’t hear you.”
They flicked their cigarettes onto the lawn and slammed the window.
-oh jolly. Grandma? I wish.
Margrit was on her way to work. Underneath her light beige mac was her penguin uniform: a black skirt, white tights, white shirt, a black bowtie and a rectangular badge which read: Penguin Promoter. Punctuating the outfit, was a pair of lilac cotton gloves with a crimson bag dangling from her wrist. Margrit was sixty-one. As legislation changed so did the likelihood of her retirement. She lived at 99 Penny Road in the ‘Building Upwards Area’ of Shepherds Bush. In recent years, most of the houses had been converted into flats or maisonettes and she could count on one hand the neighbours she knew the names of. As she walked past number 93, a big grin wiped across her face.
‘Bit cold for a picnic isn’t it, John?” Margrit smiled.
John was sitting at a plastic table in his front garden shuffling an oversized pack of cards. He was older than Margrit. His white moustache mostly yellow from a diet of coffee and cigarettes. John had lost his wife over twelve years ago yet he never missed a trip to her grave. Always leaving dear Yolanda with a fresh red rose. When John saw Margrit, he jumped up, knocking the table he was tucked into over.
“What a pleasant surprise,” he said beckoning her over.
Margrit looked at her watch. Recently, she had to leave extra time when she was going to work. Just encase she forgot something. Since Neil passed away her brain was often in a scatter. She would leave her keys, Freedom Pass and on one occasion she left the house in her slippers. John’s face was so surprisingly chirpy, Margrit had to give the time to him. He deserved it. The gate creaked open.
-oh jolly. Maybe, just maybe his good cheer will rub off on me.
“You look like a different person,” Margrit said. “What happened?”
John bent over and Margrit saw his cream long johns hoisted high under his brown cords. While John picked up the table, Margrit picked up the purple cloth and smoothed it over the top. It was silky smooth and wonderful to touch. John leaned on the table and panted.
“They’re Yolanda’s oracle cards,” he said, offering Margrit the other chair. “I found them in the kitchen drawer. She loves…loved playing with these.”
Margrit sat down.
“I can’t stay long, John. Some of us have a job to go to.”
John placed the cards on the table. Margrit noted their tower like quality.
-oh jolly. those cards look like flats. flats that aren’t flat but high.
John collapsed the block by fanning the cards across the table.
“Isn’t it just awful what is happening to London?” said Margrit. “Streets in the sky. In the sky, I tell you. Knocking down antique brick for plastic, unaffordable housing.”
“Still helping the penguins?” John asked, spreading his palms face down on the table.
Margrit nodded. She had worked at Penguin Promoter’s Ltd for thirty years. At first, she was the person inside the penguin costume, running around and posing for photographs. Now her energy went into assisting the oversized penguin. Handing out flyers and encouraging children to ask Penguin the penguin questions.
“You should come along. I can get you a free ticket.” Margrit’s eyes lit up. “Did you know some of the penguins can tie shoelaces?”
John laughed. “Are they for sale? I could use a little help around the house.”
-oh jolly. How much better the world would be if penguins cared for the elderly.
“Pick a card,” he said.
“I don’t believe in tarot,” Margrit lied.
“Come on, Margrit. Not tempted? Don’t be scared.”
“Have you seen those young carers over there?” Margrit said. “No respect for the elderly.”
“Oracle cards are different from tarot,” he said tapping his thick finger on the table. “They help people like us with daily personal guidance.”
A motorbike whizzed past and Margrit flinched. With her heart in her mouth, she looked at her watch. It would be quicker to do the card and dash off. It would have been quicker to have never stopped at all. But Margrit was Margrit and she was always getting waylaid.
“You have to be careful,” said John, as Margrit pointed at a card. “The youth of today are very fast.”
John turned her card over. The Grim Reaper, cycling a fixie bicycle with a big grin. With a sharp inhale, Margrit stood up. She was still feeling shaky from the motorbike.
“I haven’t got time for this,” she said.
John stood up. His thick eyebrows furrowed.
“Death doesn’t mean death,” he said. His hand reached for his chin, he scratched it through his beard. “Not everything is as it seems.”
Margrit looked at him, feeling her pulse ticking faster than her watch.
“The Death Card is the luckiest card,” he continued. “Go do something lucky. Like the lottery or something.”
Margrit hung her head and sighed. She needed luck. Neil had left her with a lot of debt. Debt that her working class paycheck could only dust the interest off.
“I can’t. I’ve got work.”
John placed his hand on her shoulder and Margrit’s head lifted.
“Oh Margrit. I’ve lived a long life. I’ve seen so many people miss their chances. Don’t get stuck. Do something spontaneous. You won’t regret it.”
John’s words brought a lump to Margrit’s throat. Her eyes glazed over and for a moment she thought she might cry.
“It’s what Neil would have wanted,” John added.
Margrit opened her bag. There wasn’t much inside: a photograph of Neil, an inhaler, her shiny new Freedom Pass, house keys and a flip phone.
“Hello, Penguin Patrol Limited, how can I help?” said the voice on the phone.
“I’m not feeling very well–” Margrit stammered.
Margrit flinched at a sudden honk, honk, honk, followed by the screech of car tyres.
“I can’t come to work today.”
“Is that you, Margrit?” her boss asked. “Poor thing, you sound awful.”
John was smiling, both his thumbs in the air.
“Poor Margrit. Get some rest. I can barely hear you,” said her boss.
She closed her bag.
“Well?” said John.
“I’m going to play Bingo,” Margrit replied.
At the cash register of ‘Palace Bingo’ in Elephant and Castle, Margaret smiled. The cashier’s eyes were covered by a jet-black fringe. In his cheek was a silver stud and his name badge said ‘Gary, init.’
“Sorry?” said Gary.
“Lovely day today, isn’t it?” Margrit repeated.
“I’ll have all the bingo books, please.” she said.
Gary handed Margrit an electronic device.
“What’s this?” Margrit asked.
“It’s all the bingo books.”
Margrit’s eyes grew wide. Her face fell into a grimace.
“I don’t understand.”
Gary rolled his eyes.
“We’ve switched to electronic bingo books, init. Part of our new thingy to save the planet and all that.”
“I’m not very good at technology.”
Margrit picked up the electronic device and jumped as a static spark popped between them.
“You’ll pick it up, init. It’s easy. Card or cash?” he asked.
“We don’t take cash.”
Margrit’s cheeks prickled with heat.
“You’re making fun of me. That’s not right. You should have some respect for the elderly. Not all of us voted Brexit!”
“Alright, Granma,” Gary mumbled.
Margrit handed him a ten-pound note. Gary stretched it between his hands, then picking up a pen, he scribbled on it.
“Just checking it’s real, init,” he said.
Margrit walked away. Everything was loud. His voice. Her heavy breathing. The echo of their conversation playing over and over in her brain.
In the bingo hall, the lights were harsh and bright. Looking at the floor, Margrit enjoyed the wonderful red carpet adorned with purple and gold spirals.
-oh jolly, what luck, there’s a silver coin.
Margrit crouched down to pick the coin up. Except it wasn’t a coin. It was a piece of chewing gum. Trodden into the carpet years ago. Margrit stood up. Her hip cracked, the sound of two bird beaks meeting. She removed her gloves and placed them in her coat pocket, making a mental note to wash them. She scanned the swathes of red chairs and beige tables for a place to sit. But the lights were burning her eyes. Margrit squinted. She could just about see an empty table at the front of the hall, close to the stage. Margrit walked briskly towards it. As she passed the rival tables, she noticed how they were covered with picnic snacks. Margrit found this odd. There’s no time to blink in bingo let alone eat all that.
Margrit placed the bingo tablet in front of her. She pressed the screen and it flashed blue. Margrit reached for her reading glasses. She was looking for the bingo books. Instead she pressed the camera button and could see nothing but her own face. Margrit started stabbing the screen.
-oh jolly. get off get off get off.
But Margrit couldn’t figure it out. On the parallel table, a young girl was playing on her mobile phone.
“Excuse me?” said Margrit. “Do you know how to work this?”
The young girl ignored Margrit.
Margrit stood up and sat in the seat opposite her.
“My boyfriend’s sittin’ dere,” said the girl.
“Oh, no. I don’t want to sit here. I wasn’t expecting to come here today and unfortunately, I do not know how to use this machine… thingy. Would you be so kind as to help me?”
“What?” The girl was looking at her phone, smiling.
“Do you know how to work the bingo machine?” asked Margrit.
“Ask someone else.”
Margrit looked at the wall, red pellets against a black screen. That was the beauty of digital time, it didn’t tick. It passed by silently. The time on Margrit’s wrist wasn’t so quiet.
“Can you save my table for me?” Margaret asked.
The girl ignored Margrit.
At the bar, Margrit tried to find a helper. The monotonous drip of the lager tap increased her agitation.
“Hello?” she shouted.
Splashing in the drip tray, the lager began to overspill.
When Margrit returned to her table, there was an old man sitting in her seat.
“Excuse me,” Margrit said. “That’s mine.”
“Oh! I’m ever so sorry,” he said. “Let me just–” the man stood up. Holding the table with one hand, he reached for his walking stick. His hands were shaking. She could see the blue veins in his pale, baggy skin. The man groaned, stopping to hold his back.
“It’s okay,” Margrit said. “You’re older than me. I’ll find somewhere else.”
“You can sit with me?” the old man offered.
His turmeric eyes were wide. Margrit disliked how turmeric stained everything. Besides, she couldn’t sit with him. He was a sorry reminder of her future. Margrit picked up her bingo tablet and walked away.
There was an area at the back of the bingo hall with a group of empty tables. As the bingo caller tottered onto the stage, Margrit took her new seat. A semi-inflated ‘Good Luck’ balloon was stuck to the ceiling. Margrit thought about John and his oracle cards. Whoever had sat here before, had lost their luck. But not now, not Margrit.
“Hello! Hello! Hello!” said the bingo caller
Margrit was on her own. A belt of ice seemed to separate her from the rest of the room. On the screen a little button illuminated. It said: Play Now. Margrit clicked it and revealed a green bingo book. She sighed with relief. She didn’t have to do anything. The device would guide her through.
-oh jolly. This really is easy, init.
After the green, blue, red and pink book came the golden one. This was the one Margrit was going to win. Death hadn’t felt lucky. When Neil died, she fell apart. Missing the man who loved to hear her penguin stories. She talked to herself. She talked to his picture. But feeling inspired by John’s oracle card – the fresh perspective it gave her on her own grief – Margrit took a deep breath.
“Right, are you guys ready? It’s the book you’ve all bin waitin’ for. The biggest cash prize we’ve had in Elly C. We’re lookin’ for a full house.”
Margrit unclasped her purse. Picking up the photograph of Neil, she placed it on the seat next to her. It was her favourite picture. Captured on the evening when they first met.
They were at the village disco. Shake, Rattle and Roll had kicked in and Margrit was standing by the Juke box.
“Care to dance?” said a handsome voice.
A wide grin swallowed up her face as she stared into his hazelnut eyes.
“What’s your name?” Margrit asked.
“Twist,” the voice replied.
Misunderstanding his name for a dance, Margrit unlocked her knees and started twisting. Neil joined in. They danced the whole night through. The photograph was taken by Margrit’s best friend, Lizzie. It froze them in their happiest moment. Afterwards, Neil walked Margrit home.
“So, what’s your name?” Margrit asked again.
“Twist,” he said.
Margrit looked at him and fell into laughter. Neil reached for her hand and she laced her fingers through his.
With Mr Twist next to her, Margrit felt luckier.
“Two ducks, twenty-two,” the bingo caller smiled.
-oh jolly. that’s our number Neil. That’s our bloody number.
“Dearie me, it’s number three,” said the bingo caller.
Margrit pressed the screen. The best feeling – the only feeling – was when she was touching her numbers.
“Leg’s eleven, eleven.”
Margaret hovered her finger over the screen. It was divine, being one step closer to winning.
“Twenty-two, quack quack.”
“It’s legs eleven.”
“Doctors order number nine.”
“Jump and jive, its thirty-five.”
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
Margrit looked at the photograph as though it was a portal to her husband. As though he could see her and rest peacefully knowing she would be okay. Every number on her screen was covered. Every number, except eighty-nine. The bingo caller pressed his own device. Margrit froze. The final number flashed on the screen. Margrit’s hands trembled.
“Nearly there, eighty-nine.”
Margrit touched the final number on her screen.
“Oh jolly!” she screamed.
Margrit stood up. Her head fell backwards.
“House! House! House!”
Her face, beamed.
“We did it Neil, we bloody did it… House!” Margrit shouted.
But the bingo hall did not pause. The bingo hall did not stop. Instead, the caller pressed the next number. Margrit tapped her throat and another number flashed on the screen.
“House! I got a full house!”
Margrit held her temple. Cold rivers were trickling around inside her brain. The room blurred into a palate of orange, purple and red.
“Eighty-five, staying alive.”
Margrit was trying to run down the aisle to the stage, but she couldn’t get her balance.
“Full-House!” shouted another voice.
“No!” Margrit shouted. “No. Please. This can’t be happening.”
The whole room stopped. Standing by the other winner, the real winner, the assistant double checked each number. Margrit inhaled heavily in the aisle.
“Looks like we have a winner!” said the bingo caller. “What’s your name?”
“Peach,” said the new winner.
It was the young girl who had snubbed Margrit at the start. Margrit closed her eyes. Some people were already standing up, others were filling their roller trolleys with the left-over snacks. Holding her throat, Margrit gulped. It worked; she was sure of it. This moment, this time had meant the world to her.
-oh jolly. where do i go next? i won. me. yet where is my prize?
Margrit’s feet dragged behind her. With her shoulders slumped, head staring at the floor, she pushed open the door. At the bottom of the escalator, forgetting to step off, she tripped. It was there, on the cold tiles that Margrit felt it. Her voice slipped, like cold honey, down the back of her throat. Through the doors ahead she saw a different Elephant and Castle, new builds making the borough look like a house of mirrors. She couldn’t save her voice from falling. If her voice was rough, it might get stuck and she could cough it up. But it was too smooth and kind for these expensive high rises. In her chest, she heard it plop into a pool of everything she never said. Not lost words, just unused. Her chest was warm. Maybe the unused syllables found warmth in each other; what they might have done, the changes they might have made had they been spoken. Thinking of Neil–
-oh jolly. Neil.
Margrit picked herself up. She had left the photograph on the seat, with her handbag and her coat. Standing in the doorway, the bingo hall was empty except for Gary Init, who was wiping down tables. Every seat looked the same. Until Margrit saw the deflated balloon. Still stuck to the ceiling. Margrit rushed over.
“Neil!” she shouted. “Neil!”
Gary Init looked at Margrit.
“What?” he said.
But Margrit didn’t hear him. She was too busy. The photograph was there, sitting
on the chair where she left it. Margrit clutched the photograph to her chest.
“Oh Neil. I thought I’d lost you. I thought I’d lost you for good.”
There it was. That winning feeling. Heat rushed to her cheeks and a wide grin wiped across her face. Gary Init was standing in the aisle.
“Who are you talking to?” he asked.
Margrit was not a loser that lost things. She was a winner. She could focus on what she did have rather than what she did not. She was heard once more.
Image by Danielle Downey