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.

Read another story here

The day a cup of coffee saved my life

The day a cup of coffee saved my life

“I am going to tell you how a cup of coffee saved my life.”
Great Uncle Mostyn extended his wrinkled hand and selected a piece of Turkish delight from the silver box on the table. He had changed in the ten years since I had last seen him.His hair was still coiffed in silver swirls which gave him the air of an elegant meringue, but no amount of rouge and powder could rejuvenate a face seamed and pouched with age.
“You’re not paying attention, dear boy”
“I am, uncle- honestly”
But in truth I wasn’t. I was looking out at the garishly wonderful South American sunset which flooded the horizon beyond his shoulder. I was listening to the rustling of palm trees and the asthmatic breathing of Uncle Mostyn’s parrot, Sewell.
Uncle Mostyn tapped the table pettishly with his fan.
“Edwyn ! I am an old man.I am ninety eight years old. It is therefore quite probable that I am dying. I wish to relate an episode in my life when I faced a man with a gun. You might do me the courtesy of at least appearing to listen !”
“I’m all ears, uncle”
“A disfigurement which could easily have been avoided if your mother had paid attention to me immediately after your birth,” snapped Uncle Mostyn. He steepled his fingers and stared moodily at Sewell, who was taken with a sudden bout of coughing, like a tubercular old tramp.
“It happened,” he said suddenly, “In 1929. I was working in the beverage department of a large store in London-a store which still has Royalty among its clientele. It was a wonderful education for a boy not quite twenty years old. During the day I learned the provenance of every tea, coffee, infusion or tisane which graced our shelves. To this day I remember the peculiar properties of a coffee bean grown only on the slopes of a volcano in Uzbekistan. At night…I learned…other things altogether.
Which was why, in the late summer of that year, I had to leave England in a hurry, following an unfortunate incident with the Bishop of Wolverhampton’s chaplain and a Sunday newspaper. I took a steerage passage to New York where I landed…almost legally…on October 23rd.”

His voice was as soft and hypnotic as the gentle susurration of the waves as they crumpled onto the beach behind him.
“I spent my first week in America at the Algonquin Hotel, drinking malt whisky and eating oysters.”
“And after that ?”
“I had no money so they threw me out on the street. Americans have no sense of style.”
Uncle Mostyn’s old, cracked face suddenly clouded with terrors more than half century old.
“It was not an agreeable time….New York winters are particularly unpleasant…it is a damp, biting cold that rolls in off the river…..for three nights I slept in an alleyway behind a bakery…it was warmer there, you see…but the smell of fresh bread was torture….I wandered from humiliation to…humiliation, getting colder and hungrier by the day. “
His eyes closed. Outside the evening was turning to blue velvet.
“What happened then ?” I whispered.
He was awake in an instant.
“I smelled coffee.”
“And that saved your life ?”
Uncle Mostyn looked at me pityingly.
“Of course ! Even the aroma of a good coffee is enough to revitalise the spirits.”
He held out a small chunk of Turkish Delight to Sewell , who took it carefully in his hooked beak and then began to suck on it noisily.
“This,however, was not a good coffee.” Uncle Mostyn continued “ It smelled like yesterday’s grounds boiled up for the third time…but I was desperate. I stumbled down some stairs. I saw a sign- “Sullivan’s Coffee Lounge” – I pushed open the door, greedy for warmth…”
“And then ?”
“I collapsed on the floor,”he said , “It was the voice of an angel who brought me back to this Vale of Tears.”
“What did the Angel say ?” I asked.
“’ Give the poor sap a cuppa cawfee’ “ said Uncle Mostyn in an execrable Irish accent. “ I had encountered the proprietor, Mrs Sullivan ”
The geography of my uncle’s face relaxed with the memory.The high places were levelled and the valleys raised. For a moment he could have been a youthful seventy five.
“ She picked me up so easily, I might have been a feather pillow- then put me into a chair and placed a steaming mug into my aching grasp.”
“It must have tasted wonderful, “ I said.
“It was appalling. Quite the worst cup of coffee I have ever tasted. I told her so, muttering through numbed and frozen lips – ‘This is not coffee. This was made from something which probably contained powdered owl droppings. It might have been shown a coffee bean once- as something to aspire to.’
“And what did she say ?”
“The poor bastard’s delirious. Stick him on the couch and throw a blanket over him. I’ll chuck him out in the morning.”
“And did she ?”
“Good gracious ! No ! When I told her that my name was Seamus O’Neill she clasped me to her ample bosom and begged me to stay on and work behind the bar.”
“But your name isn’t……”
“Of course it isn’t !” said Uncle Mostyn testily,” I played on her good nature- as she later played on mine. I started off tending bar- which meant pouring shots of diluted lighter fuel for customers crazy enough to think that it was gin. I made coffee for the ones with more intelligence- bad coffee at first- that was all I had to work with- and then- later on- good coffee – Ethiopian Chestnut and Guatemala Gran Reserva…that kind of thing. To start with our clientele consisted of bored clerks with tight celluloid collars, plumbers and janitors.. if we were fifty dollars up on Friday night it was a good week. But then word went round and we began to get bohemians…socialites who would drop in for a bath-tub gin and a decent coffee after seeing a Broadway show. Ma Sullivan left more and more of the business to me- it gave her more time to indulge her little hobbies.”
“Which were ?”
Uncle Mostyn screwed up his face into a mass of wrinkles.
“She played the horses. An Irish vice, I believe. But we had an equal division of labour, Ma Sullivan and I – I earned the money and she spent it. We were doing well- making two, sometimes three hundred dollars a week and yet…”
Uncle Mostyn stared glassily at the wall. For a long moment I thought he had died, or at least had a fit.
“And yet..” I prompted.
My uncle re-entered his ancient body with a noticeable jolt.
“And yet there was never any money to pay for the booze, or the coffee or a painter to give the walls a lick of paint…and she was always talking to Joe Lezzard.”
Uncle Mostyn leaned forward intently, his eyes the colour of lightly poached eggs
.
“ Joe Lezzard was a regular. He came in two or three times a week and Ma Sullivan had decreed he could have whatever he wanted- on the house. I liked him because he dressed well- a neat three piece suit in dark grey and a silk tie. Every Friday night he and Ma would retire to the back room; I guessed the intercourse that took place there was financial, rather than carnal as Ma Sullivan weighed three hundred pounds and had a face like a broken shovel. But Ma ‘s private life scarcely peeked over my horizon. I was young, I was good looking, and for the first time since I arrived in America…I had money in my pocket.

And then, one morning in early summer, I returned to the bar after a night of…diversion…to find the door open and unlocked. This was not just unusual- it was unheard of. Ma had three locks on the door and she and I were the only people who had keys. Cautiously, I went inside. The air smelled of sunshine and last night’s cigarettes. The place was empty.And then I heard an indistinct noise from the back room. I moved softly behind the counter and picked up the baseball bat Ma kept there for customers who were reluctant to pay. The door to the back room was ajar….

“Hi Seamus !” said Joe Lezzard , “ I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t be you.”
Joe was standing by the open safe .He held out his hand and I noticed it contained a large black revolver. The muzzle stared at me like a malevolent eye.I suddenly realised that I had lost the power of speech; my throat felt as though it was filled with sawdust.
“How about you put the bat down,” Joe suggested, “ We don’t want no accidents, do we…”
I laid the baseball bat slowly on the floor.
“Now back off,” said Joe, “Let’s you and me go sit in the front parlour- and we can have a little talk.”

Joe sat down at one of the tables. The gun gestured me to do the same.
“Now the first thing I gotta do,” said Joe, “is give you this.”
He reached into his inside pocket with one hand while the gun watched me warily. He pulled out an envelope and threw it on the table.
“Read it,” said Joe, “It’s got your name on the front.”
It was a note from Ma.
“DEAR SEAMUS ,” it said in unsteady capitals, “MY PORE FATHER IS ON HIS DEATHBED IN DONEGAL IRELAND AND I GOTTA BE WITH HIM. LOOK AFTER THE BAR TIL I GET BACK.IM SO SORRY MY DEER BOY IMELDA SULLIVAN”
“There must be some mistake, Mr Lezzard,” I gasped.
Joe shook his head.
“You’re a nice guy, Seamus,” he said, “I guess you’re a fruit but that don’t matter. You deserve to be told the truth.Truth One is this- I work for a fine gentleman called Mr Dillaglio who ensures that the business premises in this part of town remain undisturbed by fire ,theft or mayhem.That’s why I drop in from time to time- to collect a small weekly payment from Ma Sullivan to ensure same.With me so far ?”
I nodded.
“Truth Two is that Ma Sullivan owes Mr Dillaglio- owes him big – like eight weeks without so much as a dollar. Does this sound right to you `?”
I shook my head violently.
“Seamus- I gotta tell you. Ma Sullivan has been using Mr Dillaglio’s money to back the ponies. Using- and losing. Ain’t that a shameful thing ?”
“Absolutely awful,” I gabbled.
“Truth Three is that Ma Sullivan is about as Irish as you are. Her real name’s Ellie Foston- Canadian- she was seen catching a train north at two thirty seven this morning. I guess she’ll be over the border by now.”
I thought I could see the tiniest glimmer of light at the end of a long tunnel.
“Excuse me…Joe…” I said, “But I wonder if Mr Dillaglio would be interested in taking over the business..?”
Joe seemed to give this idea serious consideration.
“Yeh, “ he said at last, “Mr Dillaglio would be very interested in so doing.”
I was beginning to feel a little more confident.
“Perhaps,” I ventured, “He would like to retain the current bar manager …”
Joe shook his head.
“Mr Dillaglio is a man of great patience and understanding…but he has his reputation to consider. An example has to be made…you understand..”
He reached forward and patted my hand.
“But Ma Sullivan has gone….” I protested.
“Exactly,” said Joe, “Which leaves …you…”
I knew then, with a terrible,cold certainty, that I could be dead within the next few minutes.
“But you can’t !”
I lurched to my feet and started to move towards the street door.
“Don’t move !”
Joe was on his feet. The gun was staring hungrily at my forehead.I heard the oiled click as he pulled back the hammer.
“Now sit down…I don’t want to kill you here…it’s a messy business…cleaning bills to consider.”
When you are staring into the black mouth of death, all fear leaves you. A profound calm flooded through my body. I felt clever, resourceful, intensely alive.
“Perhaps,” I said, “I could have a cup of coffee before…”
“Sure !” said Joe, “We got time. Make me one while you’re about it- but no funny business.”
I went behind the counter and switched on the coffee machine; I reached for the tin of ground coffee and then stopped….”
Uncle Mostyn paused. Outside the tropical night glittered like a cheap mirror ball.
“You recall I mentioned a certain coffee,” he said, “Grown on the slopes of a volcano in Uzbekistan.”
“Yes.”
“It is a curious bean. Used by the Uzbeki shaman to contact the spirit world, it has a double effect. First it sedates, and then…if taken in the correct strength, provokes visions.”
Uncle Mostyn leered.
“I had bought a small packet the week before- as a trial. I made two cups of Uzbeki- one heavily watered for me and one – double strength- for Joe, and took them back to the table.
Joe took a slug of coffee.
“That’s good,” he said, “You make a good cup of coffee. I’m really sorry about this.If it was up to me I’d just break your legs and take whatever’s in the till- so I can say I’ve earned my crust.But MrDillaglio needs a corpse. He’s got to have a photo in the paper – “Bar tender slain in coffee house slaughter” – it keeps the troops in line. He is a very demanding man, Mr Dillaglio .”
“Life must be very difficult for you,” I said carefully, studying his face for signs of somnolence.
“ Then there’s my wife Delia- always on at me for a new coat and when can we change the car and when am I going to get a promotion. The protection business is very precarious, you know. You got bad debtors to deal with as well as other mobs muscling in on your territory and then there’s the image – I mean you got to look smart. If you’re going to ice some guy it’s only fair to make sure that the last thing he sees is a decent suit.”
Joe’s face was misted with sweat.
“Tell me one thing-” he said ,” Have you got any brothers ?”
“No”
“Then what’s that bastard doing behind the bar ?”
He swung the revolver round and pulled the trigger. Two bottles of gin disintegrated into glittering rain.
“Jesus ! “ said Joe, “Three of them now ! Which one is you ?”
I dived under the table as he blasted the empty room. At last I could hear nothing except the click of the empty cylinder as Joe pulled the trigger over and over again. At last there was nothing but silence and the smell of cordite and gin.
I felt a tap on my shoulder.
Joe was kneeling beside me. His pupils were the size of pinheads.
“Excuse me, “ he said, “But have you got any more ammo? I seem to have run out”
Then he collapsed beside me on the floor and started to snore.

It was time to move on. I went back to my room and collected my stuff. Then I went back to the bar. Joe was still fast asleep. I thought for a moment about leaving him there. Then I found a trolley out back that we used for shifting crates of gin around. I loaded Joe aboard and dropped him off on the front doorstep of the Trappist monastery down the street. He did very well there , I believe, and became a respected theologian in later years.

By two o’clock I was on a train headed south. There was a song at that time – one line of it was going round and round my brain…..”

The tropical night was filled with tiny noises- the hush of waves on the beach, the wind rustling in the palm trees. My uncle’s face hung in the light of the hurricane lamp like a old oil painting, cracked and dusty with age.

“What was it ?” I asked.
Uncle Mostyn’s pale eyes flickered with amusement.
“ The song ? Something about there being an awful lot of coffee in Brazil.”