Nostalgia/Memoir Competition - Runner Up

Jon Markes

Runner Up
Mr Tooth's Cigar
Nostalgia/Memoir Competition


Jon Markes began writing short stories on January 1st this year. This is the first time he has been placed in a competition, having been shortlisted for the Segora Short Story Competition earlier in the year. He is a shopkeeper, working and living in York and currently completing a novel that was contemporary fiction when he began it a couple of decades ago, but which is now verging on the historical!

Mr Tooth's Cigar By Jon Markes

Despite Mr Tooth only ever venturing as far as the front room, his visits to discuss the rent payments, or, more likely, lack of them, were preceded by mother cleaning the house from top to bottom, bribing me, with the promise of a new Matchbox car, into wearing a green corduroy suit and my father disappearing from early morning to very late in the evening. On this particular day, we were given only couple of hours’ notice that Mr Tooth would be arriving that afternoon. I sensed that this was a particularly important, if unexpected visit because my mother stood silently for at least a minute, holding onto the yellow telephone receiver. This was very much the lull before the tremendous storm that followed, during which she raced around the house, flinging detritus left by me and my father into whatever cupboard was near. The Bissell was pressed into action and I swear I could smell molten nylon as she pushed it vigorously back and forth across the carpet. The smell of beeswax polish, which I still find nauseating fifty years later, permeated every room. Cushions and pillows were pummelled and plumped, emitting dust particles that swirled around sharp beams of winter sunlight streaming through squeaky clean windows. I helped in the best way I knew, by getting out of her way; quite an achievement in the path of one moving at such speed. The cleaning completed, she sat me down and reminded me of the rules:
speak only when spoken to;
if you have to speak, speak politely and speaking politely means saying ‘Mr Tooth’ at the end of every sentence;
don’t mention the cats. Or, your father.
The large mantel clock ticked towards three o’clock. We sat waiting for Mr Tooth’s arrival, me popping the press studs of my corduroy jacket and my mother staring blankly into space. At the first chime, she sprung from her chair and ran into the kitchen. She liked to bring the tea tray into the room soon after Mr Tooth had settled himself into what was his and my father’s favourite armchair. In has occurred to me since that pretending afternoon tea was a daily occurrence in our house was counterproductive. It made us appear posher and wealthier than we were and weakened my mother’s plea of abject poverty.
It was while my mother was clattering crockery in the kitchen I felt with my tongue the chewing gum that had been lodged in my mouth since lunchtime. There was a loud knock on the door. I spat the gum into my hand and looked around for a receptacle in which to deposit it, but my mother had removed the normally overflowing bin and it had not been returned. I hunted around the room for a tissue, a piece of paper, anything in which I could hide the gum, that had long since lost its flavour, but not its adherence to any part of me with which it came into contact and as I tried to shove it back into my mouth, it stuck fast to the palm of my hand. I tried to prise it away by scraping it with my teeth, but that only elongated the sticky mess. I pulled at it with my other hand, but it stuck between my middle finger and thumb. The more I tried to get rid of the sticky mess, the more I stretched it between my hands, resulting in the creation of a crude, limp chewing gum Cat’s Cradle. I could hear Mr Tooth talking to my mother in the hallway. Miraculously, the strings of gum snapped into each palm and I thrust my hands into the pockets of my corduroy trousers.
Mr Tooth entered the room, my mother a demure figure behind him. He glanced towards me, now seated, sticky hands firmly in pockets. My mother, with a sweep of the hand that would have prompted an orchestra to rise to take the applause at the end of a symphony, gestured for me to stand. This was not easy without hands for leverage, but I succeeded.
‘Well, my lad. You’ve certainly grown since the last time I saw you!’ boomed Mr Tooth, as he always did whenever he saw me.
‘Thank you,’ I said, followed by, ‘thank you, Mr Tooth,’ in response to a silently mouthed prompt from my mother. To this day I do not know why I thanked him for remarking on my growth as if he had something to do with it.
‘We were just about to have tea and cake, Mr Tooth. Would you like some?’ asked my mother, feigning nonchalance, but with an affected voice that I only ever heard whenever she spoke to Mr Tooth.
‘That would be lovely,’ replied Mr Tooth, adding, ‘without prejudice, you understand.’ He wagged a finger at my mother. I didn’t understand, but my mother seemed to and withdrew to the kitchen to finish preparing the tea.
Mr Tooth slumped deep into my father’s chair. He took out a tin from his top pocket, flipped open the top and pulled out a cigar. He removed the cellophane sheath and stroked the cigar between his thumb and forefinger. My own thumbs and forefingers were now firmly stuck together, deep in my pockets. He lit the cigar, sucking hard on it and smacking his lips before puffing out a plume of blue, aromatic smoke. I have to admit to admiring his dexterity; it was not what I expected from a man with fingers shaped liked Walls sausages. Unfortunately, my admiration came across to Mr Tooth as something entirely different.
‘I bet you want one of these, don’t you, lad,’ he said blowing out a ring of smoke towards the ceiling. I shook my head.
‘How old are you? Twelve? Thirteen?’
‘Ten,’ I said. ‘Mr Tooth.’
‘Come here then, lad.’
He beckoned me to him, Fagin-like, with a thick, nicotine stained finger.
I could hear my mother milling about in the kitchen and the kettle being filled. As I approached Mr Tooth he lit a second cigar and leaned forward, waving it in front of me.
‘Take it,’ he said, with a grin. His teeth at the point they met his gums were dark brown, like treacle toffee and his breath smelled of cigar smoke and alcohol.
‘Take it,’ he hissed, less kindly, this time. I shook my head.
Mr Tooth’s next movement was so fast that he could have given my mother a good run for her money and, before I had time to shake my head again, he thrust the cigar between my lips.
‘There we go,’ he said, throwing his large body back into his chair, evidently satisfied. ‘Make sure you enjoy it. They’re not cheap, you know!’
At this point my mother entered, balancing on a melamine tray a full tea set and a Battenberg cake which she had cut into far too large slices. She began to say something to Mr Tooth as she entered, but when she saw me, standing in front of him, hands in pockets, cigar wedged in mouth, her own mouth opened wide and I feared for the safety of the crockery. Yet, strangely, she remained calm, placing the tray carefully on a side table next to Mr Tooth’s chair. She poured tea into china cups.
‘You need to take it out of your mouth, lad,’ said Mr Tooth, laughing, nodding at my mother and then towards me.
By now the gum in my hands had mingled with wads of pocket lint. I clenched the cigar between my lips, puffing clouds of smoke out of the side of my mouth.
‘Take it out, lad. You’ll choke,’ said Mr Tooth, looking slightly more concerned.
I coughed out more smoke. The taste was awful and I was beginning to feel sick.
‘Take it out,’ implored my mother, more concerned that I was disobeying Mr Tooth than with the possibility that her son might shortly choke to death.
I stood fast.
‘What’s wrong with you, lad?’ shouted an agitated Mr Tooth.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ he asked, looking at my mother, about to deposit a teaspoon of sugar.
Now, at this point, if I remember correctly, I wanted my mother to remove the cigar from my mouth, slap Mr Tooth across the face for abusing her child and for me to run upstairs and bury my head into a pillow for a week. What actually happened was I heard my mother saying, ‘I don’t know, Mr Tooth,’ and then, turning towards me with an expression borne of both panic despair, ‘what’s wrong with you?’
By now the smoke was rising up my nose and down windpipe, (or the other way round, I could not be sure) and it was becoming increasingly difficult to breathe. Through my stinging, watery eyes I could make out Mr Tooth and my mother looking at me and then at each other, shaking their heads in unison and disbelief.
It was at this point my misery ended with an involuntary cough that propelled the cigar out of my mouth, shooting it between Mr Tooth’s fat leg and the side of the armchair. ‘What the bloody hell...!’ he yelled, leaping up, fumbling to retrieve the cigar, but only succeeding in pushing it further down the side of the chair, where we would often search for emergency loose change. His weight leaning on the arm of the chair pushed it against the tea table, sending crockery and far too large slices of Battenberg cake crashing to the floor.
I can only imagine what happened next, as I ran upstairs to be violently sick in the bathroom, but the rest of the afternoon could not have gone well because, a week later, we moved house very late at night.
My mother never said a word to me about what had happened, but I remember her coming into my room later that night, when she thought I was fast asleep and whispering, ‘I’m sorry.’
I never did take to smoking cigars. But, I always make sure I pay my rent on time.


Judges Comments

Mr Tooth's Cigar, the runner up in our Nostalgia Competition, is another story where the rose-tinted spectacles have been removed. Jon Markes uses black observational humour to conjure a hugely uncomfortable scenario: the arrival of the unpleasant landlord Mr Tooth, whose monthly visits are loaded with dread and whose relationship with the narrator's mother, though not spelled out, is fraught with fear.

The sense of being vividly present in this past scenario is wonderfully conveyed through Jon's use of detail. There's a Bissell (not just any old carpet sweeper) and beeswax and Battenburg, the mother's anxiety about the monthly encounter expressed in it being 'cut into far too large slices'. It's so well observed that it enables us to see all the layers of Jon's narrative: the mother's attempts to appear posher than she is, which make her endearing at the same time as they expose her anxiety; the sadistic Mr Tooth, with his 'fingers shaped like Walls sausages' as he wields his power over a helpless child; the humiliation of the boy, caught in an impossible situation as he tries to please Mr Tooth and his mother without embarrassing himself. The ten year old boy's experiences with the chewing gum and Mr Tooth's noxious cigar are slapstick comedy made excruiciatingly awful in this claustrophobic domestic context. In this story, the mother's whispered 'sorry' at the end expresses a vast amount of love and regret, and gives Mr Tooth's Cigar another layer, of redemption.

In Jon's hands, past memories are evoked so clearly that as readers, we feel we're in the room as the whole awful scenario plays out. In a coda at the end, he links the past to the present: a lesson learned. It's a really well told story of looking back, and moving on.