We are proud to present for the first time online the winning entry in the 2016 Prescot Festival Short Story Competition. Entrants were asked to write up to 1,000 words of fiction inspired by the phrase ‘in a pickle,’ first recorded in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
Maureen McEvoy of Haydock won £100 for her winning story.
The Solution Is in the Pickle
By Maureen McEvoy
Although Henry Mortimer loves his wife, he doesn’t really like her, something he is reflecting upon over breakfast.
‘Are you listening to me, Henry?’
‘So, when are they arriving?’
‘Julie said about four.’
‘I wish you wouldn’t call her that. Juliet is classical. Julie is commonplace. Anyway, I’d expected my daughter to take me out to lunch on my birthday. And before you offer, Henry, you’re not paying.’
‘They’re struggling, Pam, and Robert is being made redundant.’
‘Again, thank goodness they haven’t got any children. I hope they don’t expect us to support them,’ and Henry makes a mental note to hide their next bank statement.
‘Well, I suppose we can stretch to a small buffet, but don’t put my favourite pickle on the table, Henry, it’s far too expensive to waste.’
Many years ago Henry, a shy, timid youth, had fallen in love with a feisty young woman who was not afraid to express her opinions, and by the time he developed some of his own, the pattern was set. Pam’s views prevailed. In the early years of marriage this seemed unimportant, but when their children arrived it created problems. As a child Juliet had suited her name, but the overweight, gauche teenager she became resented being asked when she would find her Romeo. This, combined with constant criticism from Pam, drained her daughter’s self confidence. Perhaps it was not surprising that, in the fullness of time, Juliet shortened her name and married someone as socially inept as herself. Nigel, their son, was made of stronger stuff and escaped to London to set up home with his partner. Despite being Pam’s favourite child, visits by him or to him were difficult. She simply couldn’t accept that her son was gay, viewing this as an affectation, something he would eventually grow out of or overcome.
Henry contemplates phoning Nigel for advice, not knowing how to resolve the issues he now faces. Julie is pregnant and he is concerned that his wife’s tactless observations will place undue stress on an already vulnerable family. Even the vicar of their local church has left, due in no small part to Pam’s observations on his sermons. No, this is a problem I should have addressed years ago, Henry thinks, and to involve my son would be cowardly. Something has to be done. Then suddenly the answer comes to him: The solution is in the pickle.
A few years ago, when on holiday in Japan, Pam and Henry had visited Nagno, in the northern part of Honshu, to view the famous Togakushi Shrine. Whilst there they had sampled the local cuisine, Pam declaring that the pickles made from amanita muscaria mushrooms were quite delicious. Their tour guide had later explained that while the amanita muscaria mushrooms could be eaten, if carefully prepared, other varieties were poisonous.
Henry grabs his library book and, after telling Pam it is overdue, leaves the house. When arriving at the library he notices that his friend Joe is preparing to log off from the computer and volunteers to do it for him, so Joe can catch his bus. This also ensures that the searches Henry plans cannot be traced back to him. It does not take long to find what he seeks. Amanita phalloides, also known as the Death Cap, grows from July to November, their habitat being hardwood trees, especially oaks. Henry now knows just where to look, what they smell like and what they look like, when he prints off a picture. All he needs to do now is find some.
Tracking the mushroom down takes time and this is a worry. Julie needs to keep her secret a while longer and Pam has begun to look at her daughter with suspicion. Each morning Henry searches a different part of the wood, it takes several weeks to locate the amanita phalloides. With mixed feelings, Henry pulls it up with a gloved hand, before wrapping it in a clean handkerchief. He does love his wife, so can he do it?
Henry is still unsure, a few days later, when an opportunity presents itself. Pam has had a busy few days, helping to ready the vicarage for the new incumbent. Henry plans a fishing trip with Joe, unwilling to witness the actual event.
‘A dram of poison, such soon-speeding gear,
As will disperse itself through all the veins.’
—Romeo and Juliet
No, it would simply be too painful to observe.
‘You deserve a rest,’ Henry says, when presenting his wife with breakfast in bed. ‘I don’t want you to exert yourself at all today. I’ll make a light lunch and leave it in the fridge, then book us a table for tonight.’ He stoops to kiss Pam a tender good-by.
After going down to the kitchen he prepares a sandwich, cheese with her favourite pickle to mask the taste of the finely chopped poisonous mushroom. Carefully, Henry removes the crusts and cuts the sandwich into four neat triangles. These he arranges on a china plate, covering it with cling film and placing into the fridge. Finally, with a heavy heart Henry goes to meet his friend.
It’s impossible to delay his return any longer, so late in the afternoon Henry opens the front gate to walk up the path to his house. At the front door he hesitates, fearful of what he will find. The deed is done; now he must face the consequences.
‘At last you’re home,’ Pam greets him in the hall. ‘The new vicar arrived to collect his key just as I was about to have lunch. The foolish fellow took an early train and was ravenous, so I felt obliged to offer him my sandwiches.’ The colour drains from Henry’s face.
‘And now he has thrown up over the carpet. Don’t just stand there, Henry—fetch a mop and bucket.’