‘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.
‘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.