Tom O'Brien - Runner up

Competition: WM00103 1,000 words

Tom O’Brien lives and works in London but originally hails from small town Ireland. He has written scripts and short stories as well as corporate and technical pieces for pleasure and occasional profit. Several of his scripts have been made into short films and he has had feature length screenplays optioned. Since switching his focus to prose he has had some success in short story competitions and is currently working on a novel.
Tom O'Brien

The Strangest Thing

Barry saw the wheelchair first, then the boy in it, who was laughing loudly and loosely at his father’s struggle to push him along the cobbled street. A glance at the boy’s legs betrayed the obvious impossibility that they could ever support him. The father laughed, despite his frustration. Happy because his son was happy.
There was a woman a few paces behind, repositioning a knapsack on her shoulder as she navigated the tourist-thronged street. Barry had the strongest sensation that she was the mother, even as a stray thought tugged at him. What if she was the one who catered to the boy’s smallest need and whim every other day? Then I see them on the one day the father is there, free of the escape to work, interacting with the boy. Not the daily grind but the enforced tourism of the working father.
Maybe, maybe not, Barry thought. I know nothing. Anyway, there was the laughter. That boy didn’t get much happiness. Barry was sure of that. What he did get was offset by plenty of the other; pain, frustration, boredom, despair, worry.
Barry was past them when he saw the beggar.
The first thing he noticed was the filthy baseball cap, pulled low, the logo of a luxury car brand waxy under grime. The cap and facial hair were both in need of attention or removal. Neither were likely to get that. The head under the cap slumped low, as if asleep. It seemed as if being wedged at the base of a pillar was all that kept him from lying down in sleep or in shame. Between his legs was a Styrofoam cup. There, scored as much as written, in block capitals was: THANK YOU and underneath in green ink and in lower case was: god bless you.
It was nothing Barry hadn’t seen before. He’d been in London long enough. Small town Ireland might not have had this brand of poverty, though it had its own. As a scene it was moving, if you let it be, invisible if you didn’t. He stuffed his hand into his pocket, letting it slide past his wallet to the change below, finding coins buried in lint.
He left the coins there.
When his hand slipped back up from his pocket it had his wallet in it. He flicked it open; fat with the useful and useless slivers of city life. There were credit cards and a fifty pound note and loyalty stamp cards for coffee shops he’d never revisit.
He ignored the note, crumpled so that it gave the Queen a semi-stoned smile. Instead he pulled out a credit card. He found, rather than decided, that he had stopped walking, in line with the beggar. He cast a shadow on the cup with its few lonely coins. He dropped the card on top of them, though the card and coins never touched, as it wedged halfway down.
The baseball cap tilted up, confused by the odd sound in the cup and blinded by the sunlight behind Barry.
‘Thanks,’ he ventured. Barry saw that there might be only a few years age difference between them. He heard an accent too, different to his own but an outsider in this city of outsiders all the same.
‘0604,’ he said, ‘You’ll need to remember that.’
‘0604?’
‘Yes. I won’t be paying it off anymore, so I don’t how much you’ll get from it before they shut it off but, well, good luck.’
The young man shifted his weight to stand up, as if this might help him understand but Barry motioned him not to bother. ‘You’re grand,’ he said, not looking back. He didn’t head back to his toward his flat anymore either. Instead he went to Victoria Station and bought a bus and ferry ticket. One way. It surprised him that he had his passport in his inside pocket. When had he fallen into the habit of keeping with him? Maybe things weren’t as spontaneous as he thought, even when they were a surprise to him.
He was going home. His Mam would be delighted to see him. His Dad too, though
he wouldn’t let on.
They were like that; father and son. Barry wasn’t going to let on what he had seen in the laboratory where he worked. Every day he typed out the monotonous patient details of a thousands strangers. Each one of them had been to a doctor, had blood taken, was waiting for results. Barry would never say that he had seen a man’s name on a test request, his father’s name. That request had crossed the Irish Sea to be processed by the only son in the world whose heart it could break. Blood had returned to blood. The results were terminal.
They’d worry of course, Mam and Dad, when Barry came home. They had thought he had been doing great in London. Why wouldn’t they? That’s what he had told them. Had that beggar told the same things to his parents, if he still had them? Probably not. He had bigger problems than keeping up a front for the ones at home. Barry hoped the poor soul had the wits to get the best from the card before the banks twigged and started shutting all his stuff down. Should be the best part of a month.
Barry slept well on the bus, though he was woken with a shiver somewhere in the night, on a part of the motorway he couldn’t identify, by the sound of a boy laughing, loosely and loudly.

Judges Comments

1,000 words is not a lot of room for a short story but our two prize winners achieve solid results with very different approaches in this competition.

In contrast to winner Paul Speller, Tom O’Brien takes a much wider focus, painting a scene almost of society as a whole as an entry point into his viewpoint character’s state of mind. Matter-of-fact despite touching on some very emotional points, The Strangest Thing is devoid of schmaltz. The observed details, which surely ring true to all of us, serve as a distraction for Barry. He acts impulsively and thinks about the world and characters surrounding him, both to avoid processing his own present and future, and as a means of reflecting on it. It is no accident that this story begins with an image of paternal love enduring, and ends with its echo: a big story in few words.

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