'Otto’s laughing, telling himself a story. And his eyes flicker behind his glasses smeared with dandruff and dust.'
Benny Allen's short story won third prize in this year's SMHAF Writing Competition. All of this year's shortlisted entries feature in our Writing Awards e-Book which you can download here.
From behind the counter a woman says, “Number twenty-five. Vanilla milkshake.”
Mindy’s standing in front of the menu board holding her mum’s hand. Her mum looking at Mindy. Mindy pointing at the faded picture of a strawberry milkshake on the menu.
Milkshakes are always half-price on Thursday morning. Midweek bargain, her mum always said from behind her eyeglasses. And Mindy never knew what bargain meant.
“With double cream please,” Mindy says.
“On its way, Mindy.” The woman behind the counter says, with such a big bleached smile that you never knew white could be that white.
A man walks past them striding towards the counter. Then he stops and stares at the menu on the board.
“Get the kids to sleep,” the man says to nobody. And he keeps mumbling to his shoulder. The way you do on your phone. Whispering secrets. Revealing embarrassing stories you don’t want anybody to hear.
But the man has no phone.
Mindy peeks at him from behind her mum’s skirt. Mindy, little puffy legs sticking out of her dress. Tiny sausages wrapped in thick white socks all the way up to her knees.
Number twenty-six is ready to be collected. The man bursts out laughing to a joke nobody’s heard. Then he slides away, shuffling his feet, the way you walk with your slippers on a wet floor.
People are standing in the queue half-asleep. Fighting gravity. Shifting their balance from one foot to the other.
Holding her mum’s hand, Mindy looks around.
A kid’s crying in a buggy and the world runs in slow motion. Early morning, the world is always out of focus. The early morning world pumping in caffeine. Sip after sip. In a way, this is renewable energy. That will let you run for another day. Miles after miles. Hour after hour.
They call number twenty-seven.
And the man comes back muttering. He stands in front of the counter and pushes his eyeglasses up on his nose. He says, “Hi, I’m Otto.” And he sticks his hand out waiting for a handshake that doesn’t come.
The café moves slowly. With people dragging one step in front of the other.
They call number twenty-eight. And Otto walks away, arms folded on his chest. Quick soft steps. Mindy looking at his fast gait. Trying not to crack a floor of a thousand invisible eggs. He keeps muttering curses away. Eating prepositions and swallowing pauses. Whispering sentences in a single endless word.
How Mindy’s grandpa’s radio talked. Word after word, with no pause. The way they told us the war, Grandpa would say. A life story told in one single long word. Breathless. All those German stories. German names. A word in German can take up to a whole sentence, he’d say. Whatever that meant.
And then he’d light the pipe, staring at the wallpaper patterns for hours.
They call number twenty-nine. Then Mindy’s sitting with her head on a striped straw sticking out of her double cream strawberry milkshake. Drinking the morning one gulp at a time.
Relaxing pop music comes out of the speakers. The cheery beat that makes your fingers drum on the table. The music and bacon roll combo that will let you through another day at work.
Two guys in suits look with their chins wrapped in their ties. Ignoring each other with their waxed combed hair. Snubbing the world around. Snubbing half of their bacon rolls left wrapped-dead on the tray. The world around, their little shell of rubbish.
Otto’s standing by the wall now. Arms folded. Skulking at the counter. He says dolphins are not fish, they’re mammals.
They call number thirty and he walks away. Swearing.
When she feels ice in her head, Mindy squints and slaps her palm on her forehead. “It’s freezing cold,” she says. Her eyes disappear under her shut eyelids. Then she looks at her mum and laughs. One of those kid’s laughs that makes you think everything’s going to be ok.
At the table next to them a man is stirring his latte without drinking it. He says he finds himself alone in a too-big house. He’s all by himself. He’s talking to a woman in front of him.
The man says bills are too expensive now. He says he’ll never marry again.
They call number thirty-one and a chocolate milkshake is waiting to be collected with ice cubes dancing in the plastic glass. Otto does his lap to the counter and back.
Mindy’s mum blows on her hot mug of coffee and Mindy sees her disappearing behind a bubble of steam. Mum’s eyeglasses all clouded. Then she cups a hand on one eye. Mum the pirate. She sticks her tongue out.
“Captain, there’s a storm,” Mum says with a husky voice. Mum on an invisible pirate ship. Sailing through the impetus of a hundred thunders. Swaying on her seat. Mindy’s eyes, wide open in wonder. She loves when mum does the pirate.
When her dad boarded and set sail for places she couldn’t pronounce Mindy asked her mum if he was a pirate too. And Mum said he was, but a good one.
The woman behind the counter calls number thirty-one again. Nobody’s collecting it and the milkshake starts melting.
Then Otto says the best way to clean a pipe is with vinegar. Then he swears and walks out. A woman’s holding the front door. He says, thanks. He says, I’m Otto.
Door still open, he walks one step then spins on his foot and walks back inside.
Mindy looks at her mum and says, “Am I getting any pinkier?”
The man at the next table says what’s the point of things. His doctor said he might have arthritis. But he has no idea what that is. He just hopes he can still have an erection.
Otto’s laughing, telling himself a story. And his eyes flicker behind his glasses smeared with dandruff and dust.
Mindy’s dad always said her pink skin was beautiful. So now she doesn’t drink milk because that makes her skin pale. She says drinking strawberry milkshake will make her skin pinkier. So when her dad will come back she’ll be beautiful for him.
They call number thirty-two and Otto goes back to the counter.
He’s yelling now. Shouting his order is not ready. And he starts slamming his punch on the table. Thuds echoing in the cafe and the two guys in suits leave.
The man at the table says his son promised to visit but he didn’t. That was four months ago. He’s not even returning his calls.
Mum says Mindy is now something between pillow pink and curtain pink.
“I wanna rose pink,” Mindy says. "Rose like the flower.”
The man says he feels like he failed.
Otto’s walking back and forth, answering to a question nobody’s asked. Then he sits down at a table. He’s mumbling something.
The man says he feels half-husband and half-father. That doesn’t even make a full man. And the woman checks her watch and holds a yawn.
Otto says, “The Vice Admiral told us before we boarded.”
The upbeat music keeps coming out of the speaker. And number thirty-three is ready to be collected at the counter.
Otto sprints to the counter. Says something, but comes back empty hands.
And Mindy’s just two slurps away from finishing her milkshake and turning full pink.
The woman at the table says, it’s gonna be ok. The man says, “It’s all like shitting without flushing. After a while, it’s all stuck. Congested.”
The woman at the table says she has to go.
“And you just don’t wanna flush,” the man says. “Because with all that pile of shit, you’ve just no idea what can happen if you flush.”
And they leave.
Otto’s sitting at a table. Hands in his greasy hair and starts sobbing. His glasses get all hazy. Hiding him behind the lenses. Hiding from the caffeine pumpers and milkshakes.
And he can’t see Mindy leaving her table. He can’t see her, sliding little steps on the floor towards him.
When his glasses are just a grey fogged cloud he can’t see Mindy standing just in front of him. He snuffles, behind his hands covering his face. Then he feels somebody holding his hand.
Mindy’s holding his hand.
“Are you ok?” she says.
Otto opens up his hands and sees this snowflake wrapped in a blue dress with tiny boats and ships all over. Otto takes off his glasses and Mindy looks at him straight in the eyes.
Black coffee eyes you could mirror yourself in. Reflecting your face. Curved in the pupils you could see your own thoughts. Piled up memories you won’t even remember.
The stack of regrets you don’t want to have.
Otto blinks and looks at her. He says, “Hi, I’m Otto.”And sticks his hand out. Mindy’s hand disappears in his palm.
I know, Mindy says. I know.
I’ll be your friend, she says. With that smile that reminds you of hot chocolate and biscuits. The smile of tucked bedsheet at night. The lullaby you listen to before you start dreaming. Knowing that nothing can hurt you. Knowing that everything, everything is going to be all right.
Thank you, Otto says.
And he squeezes her chin between his thumb and his index finger. The way her dad used to do. The way she remembered him. Before she started missing his goodnight kiss. Before she started waiting for him to come back.
“Mum always says that sometimes the only thing you need is to know that everything is gonna be ok,” Mindy says. Her eyes fixed on him. Mindy standing still. Mindy, standing like the little exclamation mark you look for at the end of a sentence.
“Your mum is right,” Otto says. “Mums always are. Remember that, ok?”
And Mindy nods, without moving her gaze from him.
Otto looking at Mindy looking at him. And then her mum is behind her. Mum puts her hands on both her shoulders.
Pop-flock music plays next in the playlist.
“Mindy,” her mum says.
They call number thirty-four. Vanilla milkshake.
Then Mum bends on her knees. She’s as tall as Mindy now. Mum moves Mindy’s hair behind her ear and grabs her chin between her thumb and her index finger.
The way her dad used to do.
“Mindy,” her mum says. “Who are you talking to?”
Somebody opens the door and wind blows on Mindy’s dress. Making all the boats and ships waving in the ocean of her dress. Her dad on a ship sailing in countries she can’t even pronounce. Countries their names are as long as a whole sentence. The one you’d pronounce in one long breath.
Mindy turns and looks at her mum.
“Nobody, Mum,” she says. “Nobody.”
Mum looks at the empty table in front of her. Then she ruffles Mindy’s hair and gives her a big smack kiss. Breathing ocean tales and strawberry. After her milkshake, she always smells like strawberry.
Behind the counter another order is ready to be collected. “Thirty-five,” the woman says. “Vanilla milkshake.”
Then Mindy and her mum are standing outside in front of the café.
Mum says, “Milkshakes are always half-price on Thursday morning.”
“Midweek bargain,” she says from behind her eyeglasses.
“Do you want one of your favourite strawberry milkshakes?” she says.
And Mindy nods. She says, yes with that big smile that reminds you of tucked bedsheet at night. The lullaby you listen to before you start dreaming.
Then Mindy’s standing in front of the menu board holding her mum’s hand. She’s pointing at the faded picture of a strawberry milkshake on the menu.
And from behind the counter a woman says, “Number twenty-five. Vanilla milkshake.”
70 Stories is an online project curated by the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival to mark the 70th anniversary of the Mental Health Foundation. The project connects stories from our Writing Competition, stories from SMHAF participants, and more in a compelling portrait of mental health in 2019.