The Oyster Eaters – a short story

The Oyster Eaters


The film was called Philomena, and it was based on a true story – hundreds of true stories. Judi Dench played Philomena Lee, an Irish woman whose three-year-old boy was sold, against her will, to a childless American couple. Anthony Lee became Anthony Hess for one thousand pounds, paid to the nuns who ran the Catholic convent Philomena lived in. The punishment for Philomena’s carnal sin was the nun’s everlasting silence, which greeted any later enquiry of hers into her son’s fate. This film had just begun its emotional dovetail, when two men with two shopping bags walked into the TV room and asked whether they might join the two girls sunk in the curving embrace of the brown leather sofa. They were welcome, of course, and were quickly filled in on the film’s key facts as they sat down on the second sofa – a smaller, firmer counterpart at a right angle to the girls’ seat.

The screen showed Philomena, now an old woman, alone in a fortuitously empty Washington Airport. When her companion came back, she suggested that she might not return home to mourn the freshly discovered death of the son she had never met, who had spent the last five years slowly turning stale in ground she had not visited. Instead, she might stay, and try to find out more about him and the people who would have been at the funeral that she had not been at.

—  Excuse me, are there any plates ‘round here? One of the men asked in an accent that was difficult to place. Why he would think there might be plates in the TV room, neither girl knew. They were sorry, but they didn’t think so. The two men spoke to each other, fairly hushed, in a language the girls did not understand. The one who had asked for the plates left the room, returning shortly afterwards with a plastic dinner tray. When he walked, the man’s whole body seemed to report to his bum; its globular cheeks swelled from side to side, pressing in turn against the soft cotton sweatpants knotted around his middle. Settling back onto the sofa, whilst Philomena drove away from Washington airport, he took two Cobra beers out from the first shopping bag.

Although the TV room was a communal space, it seemed to the girls a little odd, if the men intended to eat – which the search for plates and the conquest of the dinner tray certainly suggested – to choose the TV room over, say, the bar, or the dining hall. Especially as to find the dinner tray he had returned with, he would have to have gone through both of these rooms beforehand. Perhaps the men did not realise that Philomena was a film, an actual activity; a commitment, not a channel-flicking background to dinner and casual conversation. The girls exchanged these thoughts in their eyes’ quick glances, their side-shifting mouths, and the wrinkled apex of their brows. With tiny tilts of lifted thumbs, and a shrug so slight it could have been a twitch, they assumed that the men would soon realise their mistake, and leave.

The man who had found the dinner tray opened the beer bottles with his teeth. There was a pop and a hiss, as Philomena said something to her son’s old lover and the two men on the sofa chinked their bottles of beer. The men were in high spirits, and their initially quiet chatter became quite animated. The man with the bloated bottom laughed more boisterously than his friend, who sat quite upright, with little space between himself and the arm of the sofa.

The film went on, and it was good, but the girls found it hard not to look towards the sofa as a blurred dance of movement began there. The dance started with a rustle, a quiet opening of anticipation, as the leading man reached into the second shopping bag and drew out a large, white, polystyrene tub. Philomena looked at photos of her son in silence – his arms held strong with love around the shoulders of his partner – and the rustle turned into a series of squeaks, as the lip of the polystyrene tub was released and the lid sprang open. The girls turned the volume up, from 26 to 29. A quietly depressing but quite beautiful soundtrack took over the film. The simple, lilting piano notes tinkled in tune to Philomena’s realisation that her son believed that she had abandoned him, that he had died believing that. Long notes were plucked on harp strings and the girls lifted their hands to their mouths to keep their hearts safe inside.

A strange scratching sound brought their arms back down to their sides. On the other sofa, from the polystyrene tub, the man had taken out an oyster. He held it in the palm of his hand, over the dinner tray. Leant forward with his elbows on his knees, a small slip of his stomach folded over his waistband. The string-tie of his sweatpants appeared from underneath this fold like a plaited extension of the whirls of brown hair which curled upwards towards his navel. He held a knife in his other hand, whose jagged edges grated against the oyster’s calloused jaws as he tried to prise them open. Where he had got the knife from, neither girl knew. With supportive clenched fists, they hid their laughter in the whites of their wide eyes.

Philomena began to hunt for a sign, any sign, that might show that her son had had some interest in finding out about his Irish mother. All her searches ended in the same answer: a pitying “no”, slowly drawn out from grimacing mouths. The small word was stretched into the length of many as a substitute for the things she could not be told, the questions that her son had not asked. Often, this was followed by an apology, another verbal understudy, this time for the hug that it would be strange for a stranger to give. Philomena received the same response from door to door, and the assault on the oyster’s insides continued. Leveraging the knife this way and that, there was a final crack and the shell fell in two. Its gelatinous innards quivered from the shock. The girls’ eyes flitted from the screen to the man with the mollusc. He delightedly showed off his prize to his friend, who had now taken the knife himself and was beginning his own attack on a carbuncled catch. The leading man lifted the open oyster to his mouth and took a small sip from its edge. He licked the briny liquid around his lips, with a little moan of satisfaction. A dribble down his chin was wiped up with a pudgy finger he then sucked clean. The two girls did not realise that their foreheads’ frowns were no longer disguised. Their mouths curled upwards towards their furrowed brows as the man bent over the oyster, sliding the pink tip of his tongue through his lips until it touched the animal’s anaemic wobble. The film’s soundtrack suggested that something particularly emotional was happening onscreen whilst the girls studied the man whose tongue continued to probe into the shell’s slippery hollow. His face was soft, as boyish as the hair which sparsely covered his head in thin, light brown curls. The heavy balls of his cheek fell towards a soft dusting of down, a plump mouth now wet with the shine of the oyster’s brine. His tongue continued its explorations. Curled into a meaty spoon, it swirled around the gelatinous creature, spilling some of the salty sea juice over the shell’s edge. When the swirls turned into thrusts it became clear to the girls that the man was attempting to detach the oyster from its slimy membrane with his tongue alone. He leant further over, and another crease appeared in the soft slip of gut which had stolen over his sweatpants. Tensed with revulsion, the girls stared in horror at the feasting fleshiness, the repellent lumpiness that seemed to have been stuffed through his body until it reached the limits of the short, pudgy fingers now pinching the oyster between them. Next to him, his companion cut another oyster from its bed and tipped it quickly back into his throat. As Philomena wept for reasons the girls did not know, the wet swirl of tongue and oyster finally settled, and the man hunched over the mollusc sucked it back down his gullet with a slurp of saliva. He leant back into his seat, slumping onto his swollen stomach as he took a swig from his bottle of beer. Exhaling, he spread his thighs wide across the sofa. He held his beer bottle rested in his crotch. Sucking each finger clean, he closed his eyes and grunted his contentment at his partner. There was a brief silence, broken by the rustle of leaves which Philomena was clearing off a grave. Then the man leant forward again, licked his lips, and reached towards the polystyrene tub. It squeaked as he pulled out a second oyster. His arms began to wobble with the movement of the loud, scratching knife. The girls counted the oysters left in the tub. There were nine more.

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