Small Potatoes | Ellen Macpherson

Small Potatoes

Ellen Macpherson

The First Rule of Nabokov


Mrs O’Sullivan had never, and would never eat a potato. This was her boast of choice when people discovered that, in spite of her anglicised accent, she too was Irish, just like her husband. An Irishwoman, but not an ordinary one, because she had never tasted a potato.

She had also never had an affair and of this, she could be certain. The only man whom she had ever loved was her husband, Mr O’Sullivan. He worked as an accountant in an insurance company and was perfectly content with his field of work – he had never harboured any secret dreams of going into show business, or politics, or professional sport. He had never dreamt, either, of being the boss.

All that Mr O’Sullivan had ever wanted was to earn enough to support his childhood sweetheart – and then when she had refused to marry him – his early-twenties sweetheart whom he had been successful in getting to marry him, and to support the two children that they had borne in a respectable eighteen month interval. All that he needed for that was a stable income, and a stable income was what he had.

Their two children now almost grown-up – one was studying dentistry, the other engineering, Mrs O’Sullivan had grown exceedingly bored and listless and rather too fond of her evening gin and tonics, so Mr O’Sullivan had observed. She was a woman who liked to be busy, but when there was no-one to pick up from school, and no PTA meetings, and only an exhaustible supply of double-cuffed white shirts needing to be ironed, she began to fear that she would get The Blues.

Mrs O’Sullivan had only ever had The Blues twice before in her life – once when she had to give up a fledgling but satisfactory secretarial career upon discovering that, still only just engaged to Mr O’Sullivan, she was two months late with her monthly cycles, and then again, this time inexplicably, after the birth of her second child, her baby Jack. That time, she went to the doctor for a routine post-natal checkup and came away herself with a prescription. Eight weeks later, The Blues were smudged into memory.

It was lovely then, when Mr O’Sullivan had come home one day and asked if she would like to rekindle her secretary skills – although now it was called being a ‘Personal Assistant’. It involved a lot of time on the computer. Mrs O’Sullivan wasn’t sure if she was up to the task. After a brief meeting with Mr Randolph, Mr O’Sullivan’s rotund and bearded boss, Mrs O’Sullivan was confident that she could make a good job of it, and that somehow she would be helping Mr O’Sullivan in his own career too.

So it came as something of a surprise then, that night at dinner, when Mr O’Sullivan, with bloodshot eyes and a drawn out face, having barely touched his shepherd’s pie, uttered the loaded words – “I think we need to talk, Mary.”

Mrs O’Sullivan, caught off guard, stopped scraping the crunchy potato topping off of her husband’s plate – it was her favourite bit – and fixed her features to show that she was both anxious and listening closely.

Mr O’Sullivan talked. It would seem that the office fog of rumours, a bad cold that never stopped doing the rounds, had stuffed up his own nose and ears, and he was worried that the employee’s wife that Mr Randolph was purported to be sleeping with, was in fact his very own Mrs O’Sullivan.

“But that’s nonsense!”

Mrs O’Sullivan was scandalised. She was shaken. She put down her fork.

“But you can see, can’t you, Mary?” pleaded Mr O’Sullivan. “Where I’m coming from? Everyone’s been saying that he’s sleeping with someone – ”

“Well I know that,” Mrs O’Sullivan cut in, unwisely.

“And you do have to spend so much time with him, being his PA and all. Oh Mary, please don’t leave me for him! I know he’s bigger than I am but – ”

Mrs O’Sullivan cut in again.

“I am not leaving you for anybody, Joe.”

Mr O’Sullivan looked relieved, but not enough. His nose and brow were puckered, as though he was about to sneeze.

“I am certainly not leaving you for Mr Randolph. And if you do want to know who is sleeping with him, it’s George. From client management.”

“George’s wife you mean?”

“No, George. It’s not just been computers, Joe, that I’ve had to learn about. Apparently, part of being a PA is keeping your employer’s ‘secret meetings’ just that – a secret. So I would be much obliged if you could not tell anyone, no-one at all, and let them think what they want to think as long as it’s nothing that approximates the truth. Now are you going to finish that?”
His face contorting with delight, Mr O’Sullivan let out a great sneeze which, most unfortunately, went all over the remainder of the shepherd’s pie.

“Oh, Mary!” he cried. “Oh, my Mary!”

“Yes,” said Mrs O’Sullivan, agreeing that yes he should be delighted that there was no man for her but him. She would have loved him a little bit more had he not just ruined the crunchy potato topping – it was her favourite bit, after all – but then, in a marriage, these things could be forgiven.