Albert woke to hot July sun on his leathery old face. Dazzling, even through the grimy bedroom window. He lay and watched the grubby nets billow in draughts that crept around the rotting window-frame.
And then it dawned on him. Wednesday again. At last.
It took him a full five minutes to get out of bed. His mattress had collapsed years ago, so he had to throw one arm over, grab the bed-frame and haul himself around. Most days, his feet managed to hit the floor before the rest of him did. He kept a bottle of stout and a packet of ginger biscuits on the bedside table in case he didn’t make it one day.
He stood before his rheumatism could talk him out of it, then shuffled into the smallest room in his flat. After an unusually trouble-free pee, he had a thorough wash, with soap.
Albert described his home as open-plan. His late sister, Sissy, had left him a fake Persian rug, and around it lay lounge, kitchen and bedroom. He filled the kettle, wiped a mug on his pyjamas, then turned to the calendar on the wall. He tore off Tuesday – tricky because his fingers ached badly today – to reveal Wednesday, with “Lunch” scrawled in spidery red pencil. He crumpled up yesterday and tossed it toward the bin under the sink. It bounced wide, behind Isabel’s cleaning buckets. She came twice a week to clean up and generally torment him. She’d bin it on Friday.
In the bread-bin he found, to his delight, a stale scone. He made some tea and stirred it until the milk turned good and rusty.
His table – formica, chipped & wobbly – was a kitchen or coffee table depending on where he sat. Today he sat at the kitchen table so he could watch the pigeons on the pie factory roof. One old bird, tatty and manky and with one knackered leg, was pestering the same hapless hen incessantly. The determined wee sod shrugged off knock-back after knock-back but just kept at it. An attitude Albert had to admire.
He ate slowly, partly because his teeth were still soaking in a glass, too uncomfortable to wear all day, but mostly because the light of his life, Consuela, wouldn’t start work until noon. He spent an hour sucking his way through his scone and scanning the Racing Post, then surrendered to impatience. He dropped his mug in the wash basin and brushed crumbs off his pyjamas, most of them also making it into the sink.
Then Albert prepared himself for lunch.
He popped his dentures in and checked his pearly grin in the mirror. He splashed on some cologne from a bottle with a peeling and faded label. He’d demanded an extra shave yesterday and Isabel had called him “a right, royal pain in the backside” when he refused to say why.
He pulled a suit and shirt from his wardrobe, wrapped in dry-cleaner plastic, then bent down with a grunt, found his tan and white wingtips on the wardrobe floor, and polished them on his pyjama sleeve. He lifted out a large round box, once shiny and white, and placed it on the bed. Finally, he rummaged in a drawer for his silk sock and tie set.
The suit, black with silver pin-stripes, still held its creases having seen only weekly use. The white leather of his shoes glowed against the filthy, thread-bare rug. He had the usual trouble pushing his gold links through the cuffs of his sumptuous Italian shirt, but anticipation lent courage to his aching fingers. He fixed a fat knot in his tie – silk, white flecks on crimson – and tucked the matching hanky into his breast pocket. He checked the contents of his calf-skin wallet – one plastic bank card.
Finally, he opened the box and lifted out a brilliant white Borsalino Fedora. He smiled as if greeting an old friend. Sissy had loved him in this hat. He smoothed down his sparse silver hair and placed it perfectly first time.
“Bogey, you got nothin’ on me, pal”
He grabbed his mahogany walking stick, his door-key and his bus pass, and strode out to meet the world, cane swinging and heels clickety-clicking on the stone steps of the tenement stair.
Downstairs, he heard dishes clattering at the back of Mrs MacAulay’s flat. He rushed out the front door, plucked a fat white rose from under her living-room window, and fled as fast as his bandy legs could carry him.
The bus took a frustrating age to reach Partick. He hurried to a cash machine – the work of the devil, in his opinion. He used to enjoy chatting up the girls inside the bank but the branch had closed, so he’d bitten the bullet and embraced technology. He checked the street was clear then inserted the card the right way around on the second attempt and typed in Sissy’s birthday. He retrieved a ten pound note, crisp and clean today. A good omen.
He hurried along to cafe Rodriguez, slipped the rose through his button-hole, and puffed himself up to his full five foot three.
By the time he sat at his usual table, he was no longer creaky old Albert, but the great and fearless Don Alberto Gonzales Amante de Carntyne – lover, fighter, breaker of hearts.
Consuela appeared, all dusky and severe. She turned her chestnut eyes his way and waved, and Don Alberto knew.
“Today’s the day, mi pequeña flor”, and he waved her back a flamboyant flick of his hanky.
Consuela slinked towards him. Albert ogled her fantastic figure as she squeezed sideways between tables. He stood, removed his hat, and bowed to her.
“Buenas tardes, Señora Consuela” he said, in what he hoped was perfect Spanish.
Consuela blessed him with her usual enigmatic smile, as if secretly amused at something. She motioned him to sit and he realised he still stood, stooped over, hat in hand. He sat, and placed his Fedora on the chair beside him.
“Cómo estás, mi bella ?”
Keep it simple, he reminded himself.
“Estoy bien hoy, Señor Alberto. Espero que estés bien, tambien. Su orden habitual?”
Albert gaped at her. This was new. The wee minx wasn’t playing fair.
“Perdóname, Señor Alberto. My accent can be difficult. I ask if you like your usual order today?”
And then that smile again. Knowing, patient, indulgent. A voice in Albert’s mind cautioned against digging himself any deeper. ‘Fess up, as his nephews used to say.
But he was the great Don Alberto Gonazalez Amante de Carntyne, and he knew no fear.
“Please don’t apologise, Señora Consuela. You speak beautifully. I just don’t hear well these days.”
She smiled and nodded him a gracious thank you.
Good save, mate, he thought.
“A glass of Manzanilla and a tortilla de patatas, as always, my sweet.”
Consuela winked at him. “Diez minutos, Señor Alberto”, and she glided away, graceful as a girl half her age and a third her size.
He willed himself to relax. He’d thought long and hard since last week, planned a whole new strategy for today. She’d expect the usual banter, but this time he meant to bemuse and confuse her, lower her defences, catch her off guard.
She returned with his sherry. Albert said “Gracias, mi dulce.”
Critical to today’s mission was a long, slow burn. He sipped his salty Manzanilla without further comment and was rewarded with a confused frown. She wandered away, scowling. He watched her float around other tables, detouring around spaces too narrow for her glorious girth. He watched her solid sensible bun of silver hair bob up and down. He gazed at the black cotton dress stretched across her vast bosom and sighed in admiration. She glanced at him just once, and he simply raised his glass with the same patient smile.
Eventually, she brought his tortilla. He breathed deep as she leaned across. Lavender, as always. He tucked his napkin into his collar and cut a mouthful. He didn’t like omelette but “tortilla” was easy to pronounce. After chewing long and slow he touched his lips in expression of culinary delight.
“Señor Alberto ?” Her eyes narrowed, probably expecting the usual patter to begin.
“Delicious. My compliments to Maria.”
He smiled again, a picture of innocence. She flapped one dismissive hand at him then stomped away muttering something too Spanish for him to catch.
Ripe for the taking, he decided.
He’d tried various tactics over the years. Flattery had left her scornful and unconvinced. Romantic overtures had rung off-key. Tales of his war exploits, some of them true, had left her unimpressed. Only recently had a glimmer of affection leaked out from behind her fierce and severe facade, but he wasn’t getting any younger.
Today he’d try a new tactic. He would just ask. Had to be worth a try.
Señor Rodriguez had drunk himself to death last year. Consuela had worn widow’s black for a respectful month, then rediscovered her love of good food and dancing. And something had awakened in Albert too, something he’d thought long-gone. So here he sat, every week, determined to return the favour and awaken her own less-respectable appetites. Eventually he couldn’t wait any longer. He pulled the rose from his buttonhole and beckoned her over. She approached, her demeanour tense with suspicion.
“Consuela ?” He gazed up at her, took her fat little fingers in his own.
She looked scandalised – he’d never touched her before. She pulled back, but not very hard. She started on an indignant tirade but the words died as her eyes met his. He offered the rose to her and, strangely calm, spoke truly to her for the first time.
“Consuela Rodriguez, my angel, my saviour, my heart’s deepest desire. Marry me.”
It wasn’t a question, more a statement of inevitability.
The rose wobbled in his fingers. She stared down at him for an age, but Albert waited. Waited for her to make him the happiest Spaniard in Carntyne.
Consuela, speechless, sat beside him, the first time ever, her eyes wide.
Albert held his breath.
She pulled her hand gently from his, patted her bun as if to check her decency was intact. She laced her fingers in her lap, and studied him with an unreadable gaze. After an eternity she stood, cupped his cheek with one hand, blessed him with a smile he’d see in his dreams for months, then plucked the rose from his fingers and slipped it into her hair, flamenco-style.
Then she turned and walked back into the cafe.
His heart nearly died. He’d thought himself all but victorious, only to watch her walk away without a backward glance. What could he do but go home, lick his wounds, try again next week?
Maria brought him his bill. Albert handed her the ten pound note. As she rummaged for change, Albert noticed something written on the back.
He saw a smile in her eyes. She knew something.
“Si, Don Alberto ?”
“What does Hoy no, mi hombre magnifico mean ?”
Maria grinned, then whispered in his ear.
“It means Not today, my magnificent man.”
Albert gaped at her, then grinned so hard his teeth nearly fell out.
“See you next week, Albert ?”, asked Maria, but he wasn’t listening.
Back home, Albert sat in his pyjamas stirring a mug of tea, cold and stewed far beyond drinking.
“Magnificent man …” he repeated, over and over. His face hurt from grinning.
He’d pinned the bill beside the calendar. Isabel would go nuts asking what it said.
He glanced out the window. The same scruffy old pigeon was still at it. Each knock-back deflated him for a second then he’d be off again, puffed up and proud and unstoppable.
“You magnificent, shameless old scruff”, said Albert, then went to make another mug of tea.