Humbug Hamburgers

I’d had an emotionally conflicting week. I supported Lil utterly, but having heard Marty’s story I had come to the conclusion that the situation wasn’t as one sided as I’d previously thought. He had to be accountable for his actions, true. However, he deserved to be given some latitude as his own life course had moulded his person and his behaviour protected his own heart from further wounds. It’s never too late to make changes and grow, but I did wonder whether these two pensioners should give it another go. Lil was keen on him, and nothing ventured and all that, yet I couldn’t predict the level of hurt which existed in the future. I was certain, however, that it would be a bumpy ride. They were both adults and would make their own decisions, but Lil looked on us as her supporters, her roots, and I wouldn’t let her down.

The second and more pressing unexploded bomb was that Mavis had orchestrated the date(s) with Lil’s beau. Marty had been sensible and sensitive enough not to appraise Lil of this fact and only Armando and I knew. We had brought Cyril into our confidence but could rely upon his discretion. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to relay this intelligence, and if so, when. Lil deserved to know but it would definitely add additional stress to an already rocky relationship. I had misjudged Marty’s behaviour and had been trying to convince myself that he’d misunderstood a hand of friendship, but it wasn’t sitting comfortably. I was struggling to keep an open mind where Mavis was concerned. The worst case would be that Lil found out that we already knew, and held back, and I couldn’t trust Marty to not set the wheels in motion, whether inadvertently or not. If Mavis became aware that we knew I am thoroughly persuaded that she would stab Lil with the knife of knowledge.

Lil had, thankfully, decided to leave the sanctity of her block and attend Breakfast Club this week with Gisela. I couldn’t quite understand from the garbled message, but there was news from the German member of our clique.

Armando was standing by one of the café front windows with his arms folded as I arrived. His eyes were as red as the sky on a summer’s evening.

‘Good morning Armando. Are you burning the candle at both ends again?’

‘Morning Wayne, and yes café is busy and I might have another bulletin,’ Armando answered with a cheeky grin. I was about to request additional and immediate information when a familiar polka-dotted shopping trolley appeared ahead of Lil and Gisela.

‘This conversation isn’t over,’ I said to Armando as I waved to the girls.

‘Who are you waving at? Silly sod,’ said Lil as she poked the door open with her umbrella which doubled as her stick. It was dotted too and coordinated perfectly with her shopping cart. ‘Now lift my trolley in would you Boulevardier.’

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The activity of getting to our table created a fuss. I wasn’t as adept a navigator as Lil and struck several chairs en route to the back of the café. I was glad to see the returned trolley in one sense, as it aided Lil to keep her balance. However, it was also her security blanket which had all but disappeared in recent times. I cleared the thought that Marty associated shopping trollies with old women from my brain before it had a chance to germinate. Gisela looked distant and sad.

‘Now, I have to tell you that I’ve had some upsetting news,’ she said as she adjusted her spectacles to sit higher on her nose.

‘Hang on Gi,’ said Lil, ‘let’s get the tea order in first. I’m parched.’

‘Already in progress,’ said Armando and huffed.

‘My name is Gisela. We all have preferred designations Lillian.’

Lil pursed her lips – her mood was truculent today.

‘What’s happened?’ I asked.

‘One of my school friends has passed away. She was so healthy until the last few months.’

‘I’m so sorry for your loss. Were you close?’ I asked.

‘We have written every week since I left Germany.’ Gisela removed her glasses and wiped the moisture from the corner of her eyes.

‘Are you planning to attend the funeral?’ asked Armando.

‘I am. I am flying to Bonn tomorrow. I’m terrified. I haven’t been home in over 30 years. I feel very emotional. I don’t know what to expect and here is my home now and I don’t want to confuse that.’

Judith was by our side with an extra-large floral pot. We took the opportunity to place our orders. Lil never wavered from her Full English – Armando joined her, which was a surprise and I wondered why he needed refuelling? I had a vegetarian with a sausage, and Gisela a bacon sandwich.

‘I have to keep my strength up. I’m not one of those people who makes a fuss about eating when upset,’ said Gisela. Lil pursed her lips and folded her arms. I poured the tea to alleviate any growing tensions.

‘I think you’re doing the right thing. Hopefully you can cherish some memories of youth again, and celebrate change. I mean Germany wasn’t united when you were last there.’

‘Yes, I’m trying but I’m scared too.’

The door opened and there stood Marty and Mrs McAleen. Nelly approached us first and greeted the table – nervously.

‘Take a seat Nelly,’ said Lil.

‘Sorry for your loss Gisela,’ said Nelly. Marty was hanging back.

‘Pull up a chair Marty,’ said Armando.

Our breakfasts arrived and there was a kerfuffle as space was made for the plates, and condiments were shuffled along.

‘Thank you Nelly. It’s been a hard week.’

‘What’s up?’ Nelly elbowed Marty for asking a question he already knew the answer to. She’d briefed him that morning on their way. The grapevine always wheedled its way through the community.

‘Gisela has lost an old friend in Germany and has to go there tomorrow,’ said Lil through gritted teeth as she tore open her egg and plonked a mushroom into its yellow innards.

‘I always thought she was a bit of a Hamburger,’ said Marty.

Burger-Hamburger

Gisela started to cry.

‘What did you say that for?’ said Lil.

‘I think he was trying to lighten the mood,’ I said.

‘Why are you sticking up for him?’

Cyril walked in and straight back out again.

‘You are a saucy baggage when you get cross,’ said Marty.

‘Who are you calling an old bag?’ said Lil and tutted.

‘We’ll go,’ said Nelly glaring at Marty. ‘Shame as I was just in the mood for a Coca-Cola. Sorry Gisela.’ Nelly leant over and planted a comforting kiss.

I hadn’t seen this side of Nelly before. She’d always seemed to be at her brother’s beck and call. Marty pushed his chair back and walked out with a passing ‘See you all when I’m looking at ya.’

‘It’s not him. Any mention of Germany at the moment is hard, and my husband used to call me his little Hamburger, even though I was from Bonn.’

I understood. The emotions associated with the past intensify the more past there is. I recently went to a reunion in the village where I grew up. I walked into the pub which had once been my local, and it looked similar but the people who were now the locals looked at me as if an outsider. I should have felt completely at ease but I didn’t until the flood of old friends appeared. I settled down but the nostalgia of memory didn’t sync with the surroundings that day.

Lil tore tigerishly at a piece of bacon before thrusting it into the baked beans dispelling tomato sauce over the edge of her plate.

‘You are the messy pup today,’ said Gisela.

‘What do you expect when my breakfast is spoiled and I’m given indigestion?’ Lil slammed her cup on its mismatched saucer.

‘Careful please,’ said Armando.

Lil tutted.

‘How long will you stay in Germany?’ I asked.

‘I have an open return. If I feel good then I might spend a few weeks there and see my childhood home one more time.’

‘And I’m abandoned,’ said Lil.

I started to remind Lil that not everything revolved around her drama but decided better of it. She was responding to more than Gisela disappearing for a few weeks.

‘We’re still here, and your Cyril is only across the hall.’

‘Yeah I suppose – although I saw him come in earlier and vanish straight away.’

Who could blame him I thought as I nodded and refilled our cups.

Marty’s Pad

‘Good morning Mrs McAleen,’ I’d said as I greeted Nelly standing below the clock tower.

‘Ah morning Wayne, how are you?’ she’d replied clutching her Crouch End tote bag against her body.

‘Much better for seeing you on this cold morning. Are you with your brother?’

‘I’m waiting for him. We’ve having a morning coffee and I had to finish some shopping first, although I might have a Coca-Cola.’

I was about to clarify the obsession with the dark fizzy drink when Marty appeared looking sheepish as he eyed me. At least he was alone. I needed to play it safe and not launch into a Mavis inquisition.

Coca-Cola_0

‘Morning Marty – Armando and I wondered if we could meet with you and talk about the current and unfortunate situation.’

‘Errrrr, yeah I guess. Do you want Nelly to be there too?’

‘No, let’s keep it to the boys for now.’

‘I don’t want Cyril to come.’

I took a breath and tried to keep my tone neutral and said, ‘It will just be the three of us.’

After jotting his address in my phone we parted. I wasn’t going to tell Lil or anyone else what had just occurred. I wasn’t sure how Marty would respond to our interference and didn’t want to cause any additional difficulties, but equally he’d upset Lil and we were looking out for her. We were walking the knife-edge of pensioner drama.

Armando and I had agreed to meet separately at Marty’s so as not to arrive threateningly en masse. I didn’t realise the tall Victorian building contained local authority housing as I buzzed on number 12 of 15, and wondered at so many dwellings packed inside. Marty granted entry. The communal hallway was a mess, and I could hear children crying in one of the flats. The carpet on the stairs was worn and filthy. There were three brown doors on the second floor hallway; one opened and Marty welcomed me in. Armando was already sitting on the arm of a battered wingchair, next to the stained and rickety wooden dining table. As I looked left I saw the kitchenette; Marty lived in a bedsit. There was a second older armchair – no sofa, and a small double bed in the corner. An old TV, and a small table, and a black wireless were the only other features of note.

‘Tea?’ asked Marty, pointing to the blemished pot on the table.

‘Yes please,’ I said, hoping for a clean cup. The sugar bowl was cracked and protected by a once white plastic cover.

‘I am in the middle of explaining to Marty that we want to help him sort out the situation with Lil,’ said Armando. I sat down on one of the dining chairs, and Marty followed suit.

‘Things weren’t this complicated in Ireland. I long for those days,’ said Marty.

I bit my lip and was glad I’d sipped a preparatory Sherry before I left home. It was going to be difficult to refrain from blasting him with both barrels, such was my affection and spirit for Lil.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Armando.

‘I wasn’t one for going out when I was young. I used to spend a lot of my time bird catching. You could sell them for a few bob at the market. We had a net as tall as this room, which we would secure with pulleys, and release when there were a number of birds feeding on the field. I could catch 10 to 15 at a time. They were mostly green plover, but sometimes we had golden plover, which went for more. It isn’t legal anymore.’

‘Was it legal then?’ I asked. His going into so much detail with his story was irritating.

‘I suppose not,’ said Marty.

‘You lived here long?’ asked Armando.

‘I’ve moved around a fair bit since my divorce – ’

‘You were married?’ I interrupted.

‘Yeah for close on twenty years, to Janet. Janet Loos as she was, and a beauty queen of Tewkesbury.’ Marty paused and looked distant. I was not surprised in the slightest that his marriage had failed if his current morals were a barometer. I also noticed the pile of racing papers on the floor and wondered if his gambling had also contributed to the demise of his relationship.

‘I came to England when I was 23. A fella from home had some building work here, in Swindon and the surrounding area, and it was more money than I could make in Cork. I couldn’t believe the weekends in Cheltenham; all the girls flocked to the American servicemen who were stationed there. Me and my mates used to wait and see who was left at the end of the night. Easy pickings. That’s where I met Janet. She was actually dating one of the American soldiers at the time, but her mother didn’t approve. I loved her so much but it was difficult to keep her happy. She was never satisfied. She didn’t want children, and as hard as I worked it was never enough. The more hours I worked, the more she spent and the more men she had. When we split up Nelly joined me in England with her daughter, and we relocated to London.’

‘Where’s Nelly’s husband?’ I asked. I was taken aback by Marty’s sudden outpouring of revelation. I was definite that he was a ne’er do well, but he had heartbreak of his own, and judging by his current living situation, wasn’t having an easy time of it now either.

‘He had an accident on the railways, where he worked. He was never the same and died. Nelly looked after him until the end, but in those days no one wanted to take on a woman with a child. We lived together for a while but that didn’t work. Nelly said my comings and goings didn’t provide a stable environment for the girl.’

‘I didn’t know Nelly had a daughter,’ I said.

‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me and my family Wayne. She married and is back in Ireland. She’s happy enough.’

‘Do you have any idea of the trouble that already exists between Mavis and Lil?’ Armando asked.

‘I’m getting the picture. Listen fellas I know why you’re here, and it’s not that simple. I wasn’t one for settling, and always take a number of outings with a multitude of women, but Lil is different and I’ve struggled with that. I like spending time with her more than most, but I still want to keep my other female friends.’

‘But why Mavis?’ asked Armando.

‘She approached me, and I never turn down chance for a chat and some female company.’ I knew it. Marty was far from innocent but Mavis had injected herself in the middle.

‘Why didn’t you go to the fair with Lil?’ I asked.

‘We’d had a row and she put the phone down.’ This wasn’t exactly how Lil had presented it, but I tried to keep an open mind.

‘What did you row about?’

‘She was unhappy and feeling frumpy and took offence at my suggestion to shop for some modern garments. I joked, “I can tell that you’re square by the clothes that you wear, so why not get with it, and pay me a visit”. It used to be the advertisement on the wall of the tailor’s back home.’

‘And what about Cyril?’

‘What about him?’ asked Marty.

‘I’m not sure you’ve been welcoming to him,’ Armando said politely.

‘He’s got Lil eating out of the palm of his hand, and yes he might say he prefers men, but I’m not so sure. They’re always round his posh flat.’

‘I can assure you. He isn’t interested in a romantic relationship with Lil,’ I said.

‘Told you that has he?’ asked Marty.

‘Not in so many words, but I know.’

‘I agree,’ said Armando.

This wasn’t as straightforward as I thought. Before today I was convinced that Marty was the villain, however, I wasn’t certain now. I was still convinced he wasn’t right for Lil. She needed someone she could feel secure with and that wasn’t Marty. He was in fact a sad character and tainted by his own life experiences and lack of acceptance of getting older.

‘Thanks for explaining,’ said Armando.

‘Are you going to help me sort it out?’ asked Marty.

‘We’ll see what we can do, but you have to understand that we have to make sure it’s right for Lil,’ said Armando.

‘Yes of course. She sees you two as her sons and I can see why,’ said Marty.

‘One question before we go,’ I said. Marty nodded.

‘Why is your sister always talking about Coke?’

Marty let out a belly laugh. ‘She’s always loved the stuff, and it was a bit special when we were younger. A real treat. It could be worse, she could have followed in our Gran’s footsteps.’

‘What does that mean?’ asked Armando.

‘She lived to 95 and swore it was because of half a pint of Guinness and some snuff, daily,’ said Marty.

‘What does snuff taste like?’ I asked.

‘Suppose it tastes like snuff,’ said Marty. And after that useful response we thanked Marty for his hospitality and departed. How to address this with Lil would occupy significant cerebral space over the coming days.

 

 

 

Cyril’s Inner Sanctum

Unfortunately I had been away with work most of the week, and busy into the evenings, which meant that I couldn’t check in with Lil as often as I’d have liked. Armando, as ever, stepped up to the plate and corroborated her mental and emotional condition and Cyril had become Lil’s garde-malade as he lived across the hallway. Lil hadn’t left the flat, aside from a Remembrance Day service, for fear of bumping into the interlopers. By all accounts she had barely responded to Gisela. I suspect the latter for her previously cited views on Marty.

Breakfast Club had been supplanted by a late lunch at Cyril’s. I collected Armando from the café at 1.45, who was, for once, empty handed. Cyril had everything under control.

‘How are you?’ I asked Armando as we made the short walk to Lil and Cyril’s block.

‘Doing fine I think. I have focused on increasing events at the café.’

‘That’s excellent. Who knows you might even meet someone at one of the events.’

‘Maybe, but not the purpose. It seems that Lil and I are in, and out, of relationships in sync.’

I pressed the familiar buzzer but knew that once granted permission to enter we would take a different direction at the top of the first staircase.

‘She’s flopped out in the sitting room,’ whispered Cyril as he opened his front door. The floor plan was a mirror image of Lil’s flat, but with a different ambience.  A wonderful aroma emanated from the kitchen. It was indeed a late lunch and my appetite needed no whetting. The hallway was lined with gilt-framed photos. The pictures were mostly black and white, and the faces perhaps people from Cyril’s past. Today wasn’t the day but I hoped I would have the opportunity to seek an explanation for each. I didn’t spot Lil when we first entered the sitting room as she was lost amid the rich tapestry of fur (I assume fake) throws by which the sofa was swathed. She looked small and fragile. Lil had shattered my illusions regarding the elderly. She lived with extreme emotions, high highs and low lows as an everyday part of her life. It wasn’t all lavender and Countdown. However, there was an aroma of lavender which I assumed came from one of the oil burners situated on the sideboard. Next to Lil was a small occasional table with a slim glass containing a dark liquid, and a lamp with a red velvet tasselled shade that wouldn’t look out of place in a bordello. After greeting Lil with an affectionate peck I sat in one of the two upright arms chairs filled with brocade cushions. Sherry wafted from her breath. Cyril appeared carrying a tasteful gold-coloured tray with two additional small Sherry glasses.

‘Oloroso Wayne, I hope you approve,’ said Cyril as he bowed to offer his wares. It was incredibly sweet of him to remember my preferred tipple.

‘I’ll have a top up please,’ said Lil.

‘Just the one Sherry before luncheon,’ answered Cyril.

‘Stop gawping Wayne,’ said Lil.

‘I wasn’t dear, I’m lost for words. It’s like I’m in the middle of a Greek tragedy with Medea at the centre.’

Lil snorted in appreciation of an attempt at a lighter comment.

‘There is nothing as dead as a dead love affair,’ said Lil informatively.

‘Honestly Lil, you don’t seem to be doing too badly, lying there, wrapped in fur, eating bon bons and drinking Sherry – rather sybaritic if you ask me,’ I said.

‘Has he still been pestering you?’ asked Armando moving the conversation along.

‘I have to keep taking my phone off the hook, and thank goodness we have the security downstairs otherwise he’d be knocking down my door. He has got into the building a couple of times, and pleaded at my door. I can’t face him yet.’

‘It’s shameful, Irish barbarity,’ said Cyril and then disappeared to put the finishing touches to lunch.

‘It’s Nelly I feel sorry for. He’s got her to call a few times too,’ said Lil.

‘It’s probably not the first time,’ I said before biting my lip to stop any further vitriol escaping. Armando glared at me to stunt additional inflammatory comments.

‘I didn’t see Nelly there last week Lil. Was she?’ I asked.

‘No, she came later, and was mortified according to Gisela,’ said Lil.

‘Is Gisela joining us today?’ Armando asked.

‘No, she had a meeting which would run into the start of lunch.’

‘I’m sure Cyril wouldn’t mind her coming late. It’s only lunch,’ I said as I polished off the remainder of my Oloroso.

‘You haven’t been to Cyril’s before. It’s more formal than you’d expect and it wouldn’t be appropriate to arrive mid-way through an event. You’ll see,’ said Lil.

‘Please come into the dining room, lunch is ready,’ said Cyril.

‘Can’t we eat here?’ implored Lil.

‘No,’ said Cyril but lamented and added, ‘but you can bring a fur if it would make you happy.’ Lil wrapped a mink-coloured throw around her shoulders and led the charge to the dining room. A formal table was laid, without cloth, but with stunning, shining silverware and an ornate candelabra at the centre. A Rococo glass mirror hung on the wall, beneath which was a delicious arrangement of pussy willow and gladioli in a vase atop a dark wooden bookcase. I spotted novels by Willa Carther and Nancy Mitford before turning my attention to the table where devilled eggs were set out; name place cards guided us to our appointed position.

‘Would you pour the wine please?’ Cyril asked Armando.

‘Yes please,’ said Lil before she was asked, although as the only lady present she would have been served first in any event.

‘You have a lovely home,’ I said.

‘Thank you. I try to keep it decent and comfortable. The mirror there came from my family home.’ It was like being in an aristocratic council flat. Decadence oozed from every pore but with frayed and faded edges.

‘The fish is in the oven, so please eat up,’ said Cyril.

‘Anything from Mavis?’ I ventured to enquire.

‘Nothing,’ answered Lil with such finality in her voice I dared not pursue it further.

‘Look, I know this has hit me hard and it has and I feel bloody humiliated, but I’ve been worse. I knew that Marty had wandering eyes, but that was part of his charm.’

Armando and I eyed each other in a way which agreed that we would have to meet with Marty, establish his true intentions and aid this affair to reach its conclusion one way or another.

‘Shall I tell you something of the outside?’ I asked.

‘Yes please,’ said Cyril welcoming new life into the discussion.

‘Last Sunday I went for a power walk with my friend Marina to Alexandra Palace –’

‘Power walk?’ interrupted Lil with a cackle.

I glanced at her in an overtly dramatic manner and continued, ‘an unusual, well unusual for Ally Pally, smell hit our nostrils, and Marina said she could smell cheese. I recognised the smell from childhood and it wasn’t cheese. Let’s call it a farmyard smell. I took a deep breath and declared that it was muck. I further tried to isolate the aroma, and pronounced it was most likely pig. Well Marina almost fell on the floor laughing. ‘Trust you, she’d said to be able to know whose backside it came from. It was a perfect country boy meets city girl moment.’

‘Silly sod,’ said Lil looking slightly cheered.

‘Country gents don’t have to analyse muck,’ said Cyril, ‘especially during a civilised luncheon.’

‘You’re a sillier sod than he is,’ said Lil waving her fork at Cyril.

Cyril took this as a cue to remove the plates and attend to the stuffed and roasting haddock in the oven.

‘I know whose face I’d like to push into that muck,’ said Lil.

‘Now,’ said Armando as he topped up the wine glasses. We used to drink Assam tea, and were devolving (or evolving I can’t make my mind up) into lunchtime drinkers.

‘When do you think you’ll return to society?’ I asked Lil.

‘I don’t have to leave the block and I have Cyril here, and Gisela is visiting regularly, but I know that moment will come. I feel ashamed,’ said Lil with water forming in the corner of her eye.

‘You have nothing to be ashamed of,’ said Armando and rested a comforting hand on Lil’s thin arm.

‘Exactly,’ I echoed, ‘Marty and Mavis should be mortified.’

Cyril reappeared carrying antique gilt-edged white plates loaded with roast fish, sautéed potatoes and spinach. As we started to tuck in the door buzzer rang – urgently.

‘Ignore it,’ said Cyril. He feared it was Marty.

The buzzer rang again and it did sound pressing.

‘Excuse me,’ said Cyril as he stood with irritation and slapped his napkin on the back of his chair. We listened intently and heard Cyril grant the caller entry. Lil looked suddenly ashen. We heard a recognisable voice, and an out of breath Gisela joined us in the dining room.

‘Sorry to disturb but I had to come and tell you immediately,’ said Gisela and welcomed the wine glugging into a glass in front of her. After taking a sip she continued, ‘I was walking home from the community centre and I bumped into Mavis with three or four children, presumably relations. She greeted me sheepishly and I returned the greeting with a polite but formal attitude and carried on my way. However, hiding and poking his head from the very next corner was Marty. It was no coincidence in my opinion. He is not sorry for behaviour.’

‘I never trust a woman draped in children,’ said Lil with pursed lips.

Whatever she said, Lil didn’t blame Marty anywhere near as much as she did Mavis. History and past hurt leaned heavy on her views but she was dangerously close to allowing that to cloud her contemplations. I glanced from Gisela to Armando and Cyril and knew we were united in purpose. Armando and I would meet with this Irish Don Juan.