Tia Maria

Colour Sergeant McFadden lifted my great uncle Mostyn up the bed and arranged him as carefully as one might arrange a vase of flowers. The noble head was placed at a pleasing angle on a pillow incongruously patterned with characters from Star Wars; his elegant hands positioned symmetrically on the counterpane.

“I’ll be about an hour,” said Colour Sergeant McFadden , “I’m just popping down the road to get a meringue for his tea.” He turned to me. “Don’t overtax him, “ he said, “he’s very weak.”
“I promise.”
“See you later then”
The door clicked quietly behind him. I could hear his footsteps clumping heavily down the stairs.
My uncle Mostyn lay in the bed like one dead. I have seen medieval tombs with more joie de vivre. His breathing was as quiet as a whisper, barely moving the bed clothes ; his long fingers motioneless on the coverlet.

I went over to the window and looked down into the street. The North Sea broke sullenly on a winter beach deserted except for half a dozen rumpled gulls. An angry˛ east wind rattled the windows.I watched Colour Sergeant McFadden fight his way down the street, one hand clutching a shopping bag, the other clamping a tweed hat onto his head.

I turned to the motionless figure in the bed. How dreadful to die here, I thought – a grubby little flat in Scarborough in the middle of winter. His eyes began to flicker from side to side under their parchment thin lids.
“I don’t regret a thing,” he said in a quiet voice.
My great uncle Mostyn opened his eyes slowly, like a swimmer under water.
“Has he gone ?”
“Yes. He’s gone to buy you a cake.”
His head made a tiny movement, the merest sketch of a nod.
“He’s a good man. We’ve been together for….forty three years…ever since he deserted from the Royal Scots Greys…they’re probably still looking for him…”
His mouth twitched in a smile.
“Can I get you anything ? Tea ? Coffee ?”
“Rum- over there. And make yourself a coffee.There’s some Alta Madora in the cupboard.”
His eyes gestured to a slab sided sideboard that looked like a coffin.
“Are you sure…” I said, “ Won’t it ….”
“Got to kick start the old motor somehow…anyway…I like the taste .”

The rum was in a black bottle with no label. It smelled of treacle with a hint of kerosene. I poured a thimbleful into a glass tumbler and held it to his lips.
“Ah….” he murmured as the dark liquid trickled into his mouth. “Wonderful….”
A strange and wonderful change came over my uncle Mostyn. A pink glow drove the ghastly pallor from his cheeks; that old look of foxy cleverness came back into his eyes.
“Haul me up,” he said- and his voice was already stronger, “ I want to sit up.”
“You should be resting”
“What the hell for ? I’ll be resting soon enough. It’ll be” RIP Mostyn” in a day or two. Now get me up, boy, so that I can talk.”
I re-arranged the pillows behind his back.
“That’s better,”he said, “Now drink your coffee and listen…that’s all you have to do…just listen..”
Sleety rain clattered at the windows.
“It happened years ago- in the summer of nineteen fifty nine,” said my uncle, “When I was in Cuba.”
He glared belligerently.
“Didn’t know I’d been in Cuba, did you ?”
“No”
“Well I was. After that little bit of trouble in Alabama I wandered round South America for a while.That was where McFadden and I teamed up. I was the toast of the Sergeants’ Mess in Belize, I can tell you that.”
He picked idly at the sheets with his long fingers.
“But that was another story. Me and Mac ended up in Batista’s Cuba shortly after the war. Ever heard of Batista ?”
“No”
“You’re a waste of an expensive education. I told your mother that years ago. Batista, dear boy, was a dictator. Kept pet snakes and liked barbecues-nasty little man- wildly hetero. I couldn’t stand him. Anyway, Mac and I bought ourselves a little coffee plantation. It was half way up a mountain in the middle of the Sierra Maestra.”
Uncle Mostyn took another sip of his rum.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard of the Sierra Maestra either…?”
“Cuban geography isn’t my strong point. ”
“ Dreadful place. Soggy jungle or barren mountainside. We got the mountainside. A few acres of half way decent soil where we could grow some Turquino Superior and a few villagers to help us harvest the beans . There was an old truck and we’d drive it into town every year with the harvest. The road was full of potholes. Like life….”
Uncle Mostyn was staring pointedly at his empty glass.
“It might kill you,” I said.
He gave me a withering look.
“Don’t be so bloody silly.”
I poured him another drink.
“ The late summer of fifty-nine,”said my uncle, “That was when I met Fidel ….”
“Castro ?..big beard …glasses…Cuban president ? ”
“The very same. Only he wasn’t president then- just an outlaw, hiding in the jungle- with other outlaws – or freedom fighters . Depends on your point of view. All I saw was a tall, gangling boy in a green uniform who was burning with fever. They turned up one afternoon – half a dozen of them . It was raining so hard, it was as though the air had turned to water. Two of them were carrying Fidel on a stretcher. He was in a bad way.”
“What did you do ?”
“What could we do ? They were just boys, tired and frightened. Mac managed to dry out their clothes and give them something to eat and I ransacked the medicine cupboard for something to give to Fidel. We had a couple of quinine pills left after my last bout of malaria so I gave him those. Didn’t touch it. By morning the poor man was raving, sweat pouring off him, his teeth rattling. If I hadn’t taken decisive action, dear boy, the whole history of Cuba…and indeed the world…would have been very different.”
“What did you do ?”
Uncle Mostyn ran the tip of his yellowed tongue round his lips.
“ I gave him a stiff Tia Maria.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The rum was wearing off. Uncle Mostyn took deep, shallow breaths; the pulse in his temple twitched uncertainly.
“There were only two things in the place that could possibly do him any good- rum and coffee. I brewed up a good strong pot and gave him a slug of it, cut half and half with rum. Worked a treat. The following morning Fidel was as frisky as a two year old. Wouldn’t even stay to dinner- said he had to eradicate some bourgeois running dogs who lived down the track. Never saw him again. Nice looking boy too…apart from the beard…”
Uncle Mostyn coughed, a little, dry sound like a sick child.
“Nice looking boy…” he whispered.

That was the last thing he said. I must have sat there for ten minutes, watching the afternoon light fade from the window and listening to the dry rasping of Uncle Mostyn’s breathing .It happened quite suddenly, as deaths often do.The glass tumbler fell from his grasp to the floor, and a silence soft as dust settled on the shabby little bedroom.I didn’t switch on the light. It would have been disrespectful somehow.

That was how Colour Sergeant McFadden found us when he came clumping up the stairs.
“ I wish I’d been with him, at the end,” he said.”It’s been a long time…forty three years…I don’t know how I’ll come to terms with it.”
He put down the shopping bag and started to take off his woollen gloves.
“Did he…say anything…you know…at the finish ?”
“Yes,” I said, “Yes, he did. ‘Nice looking boy’ he said .’Nice looking boy.’ “
He looked at me for what seemed like a long time.
“I was,” said Colour Sergeant McFadden, at last , “I was a real looker, in my prime.”
He knelt by the bed and took Uncle Mostyn’s dead hand in his, and his big, awkward body shook with a massive sorrow.

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