Albert MacDuff woke to the late September sun dappling his face, shining hot through the grimy glass of his bedroom window. He lay for a while and stared at the tattered and grubby net curtains as they wafted and billowed in draughts that crept around the rotting window-frame.
A thought crept up on him. It was Monday. Pay Day.
He braced himself for the daily fight to get out of bed. His mattress had collapsed years ago, and he now had to fling one arm over and grab the bed frame, then haul himself around, and hope his feet hit the floor before the rest of him did. He kept an emergency bottle of stout and a packet of ginger biscuits on the bedside table, in case he didn’t make it one day.
His feet found his slippers, and he stood to attention before his rheumatism could talk him out of it. He straightened with a cry of “Oh, ya bugger”, then stretched just a little, careful not to do himself a mischief.
He shuffled into the only other room in his flat, the loo. After a long and unusually trouble-free pee, he had a thorough wash, with soap.
He shuffled to the kitchen sink, scratching himself and yawning. He filled the kettle, wiped a mug on his pyjama sleeve, then turned to the calendar on the wall and tore off “Sunday” to reveal “Monday”. On the new page he’d already scrawled “P.D.” in spidery red. He used to write “Pension Day” in full, but his joints ached like hell these days. Plus, he’d always considered brevity to be a gentlemanly virtue. He crumpled up yesterday and tossed it toward the bin beneath the sink. It bounced wide and disappeared behind Isobel’s cleaning buckets. Isobel was a fierce and battle-scarred harridan who descended on his flat like a force of nature twice a week to clean up and otherwise torment him. She’d-bin it tomorrow, but not without complaining for an hour first.
In the bread-bin he found, to his delight, half a pack of bran biscuits. He poured himself a mug of tea and left the bag in, stirred it until the milk looked good and rusty. He hummed some random tune as he pottered about. He felt good about today.
Albert described his flat as open-plan. His late sister, Sissy, had left him a fake Persian rug, around which lay lounge, kitchen or bedroom, depending on which side he stood. He’d long ago swapped his old double-divan for a single with under-bed storage, which gave him plenty of room to hide the old newspapers that Isobel used to keep tripping over. His one table, 1970’s formica, chipped & wobbly, was at different times a kitchen table or a coffee table, depending on which side he placed his one remaning useable chair. Today, he sat at the kitchen table, so he could watch the pigeons on the roof of the nearby pie factory. One old bird, tatty and filthy, and with one knackered leg, was hard at it, pestering the same hapless hen without mercy. The determined wee sod shrugged off knock-back after knock-back, but just kept at it. An attitude which Albert couldn’t help but admire.
He ate one small gummy nibble of his biscuits at a time because his teeth were still in their glass, too uncomfortable to wear all day. More to the point, the light of his life and the source of his current excitement, Consuela, didn’t start her shift until noon. Another lazy hour in bed was out of the question; his mounting excitement made that impossible. After an hour sucking his way through his breakfast and re-reading last Monday’s newspaper, he surrendered to his impatience and began his preparations. He dropped his mug back in the washing basin, and brushed the crumbs off his pyjamas, most of them also making it into the sink.
With practised efficiency, Albert got changed for pay day.
He rinsed his dentures under the tap and popped them in, then checked his perfect pearly grin in the mirror. His old cologne bottle with the faded and peeling brown label held just enough for a good splash on each cheek. He’d demanded an extra shave last Friday, and Isabel had called him “a right, royal pain in the arse” when he refused to say why.
He pulled out a suit from his wardrobe and laid it on the bed with reverence. Then he bent down with a grunt and a few choice words, found his tan and white wingtips, and polished the toes with his pyjama sleeve. Next, he lifted out a large round box – once shiny and white – and placed it on the kitchen table. A final rummage in a drawer produced his one pair of silk socks, plus the matching tie and handkerchief.
The suit, black with gleaming silver pin-stripes, was older than Sissy’s rug but still held its creases, having seen only occasional daylight. The white patent leather of his shoes glowed against his filthy and thread-bare rug. He had the usual trouble pushing his gold links through the double cuffs of his sumptuous Italian shirt, but the promise of the day ahead lent courage to his aching fingers, and he triumphed in time. It also took him long minutes to fix a fat, exuberant knot in his tie. Heavy silk, ivory-white flecks on deep crimson. It was his sole concession to outright flamboyancy. That and the matching hanky tri-folded in his breast pocket. He fumbled inside the jacket for his calf-skin wallet. He checked the contents, a single plastic bank card, then replaced it. Then he opened it and checked again.
He opened the box on the table and lifted out a brilliant white Borsalina 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 the hat at just the right angle, first time.
“Bogey, you got nothin’ on me, pal.”
He grabbed his cherry-wood walking stick, and strode out to meet the world, cane swinging and heels clickety-clicking on the ancient stone steps of the tenement stair.
Downstairs, he listened at old Mrs McAulay’s door. Dishes clattering in a sink meant she was at the back of the house. He plucked a fat white rose from under her front window, tucked it into his button-hole, then scurried away, as fast as his stiff old legs would carry him.
On the high street, he stopped at a cash machine. The work of the devil, in his opinion. He used to enjoy chatting up the girls inside the bank, but they’d had less and less time for him over the past year. When the inevitable happened and they closed the branch, he’d had no choice but to embrace the evils of technology. He checked the street was clear both ways, then fished out his wallet and inserted the card the right way around on the second try. He typed in Sissys birthday and retrieved two ten-pound notes. Fresh, crisp notes today – had to be a good sign.
Before the machine spat his card back out at him, it reminded him, as it did every week, just how much cash was languishing, unused, in his account. Never failed to annoy him, that. He’d spend it when he felt good and ready. When he had something worth spending it on. This made him smile, made him eager to be on his way.
He tucked the banknotes away in his wallet and strolled on.
Aldo’s cafe sat in a lane just off the high street. He peeked around the corner from the noisy main road and saw only three other customers.
His lucky table was free.
He straightened the rose in his button-hole and puffed himself up to his full five foot three. By the time he sauntered down the alleyway and took his seat, he was no longer plain old Albert, but the great and fearless Don Alberto Gonzales Amante MacDuff – lover, fighter, breaker of hearts.
Consuela appeared, all dusky and severe, in the cafe doorway. She turned her big, round, chestnut eyes his way, and waved at him, and he knew.
“Today’s the day, mi pequena flor”, and he waved to her with one flamboyant flick of his silk handkerchief.
Consuela slinked across the cafe forecourt. She had to squeeze sideways between the chair backs, and Albert lost himself in her fantastic figure as she glided towards him. He stood, careful not to put his back out, which would rather spoil his patter. He removed his hat and bowed to her.
“Buenas dias, Senora Consuela” he said, in what he hoped was perfect Spanish.
Consuela blessed him with the same enigmatic smile she always did as if amused at something he was missing. He worried this should bother him, but only for a second. She motioned him to sit, and he realised he still stood, stooped over, hat in hand. He sat and placed his Fedora on a chair beside him.
“Como esta, mi bella ?”
Again, that knowing smile. Was his Spanish perhaps not as polished as he thought? He’d read three whole books and practised in front of a mirror, but always he got that look.
“Me siento bien, senior Alberto. Se mira bien, tambien. Su orden habitual?”
Albert gaped at her. She wasn’t playing fair, the wee minx. Before he could embarrass himself with a clumsy reply, Consuela spoke again.
“Lo siento, Senor Alberto. My accent can be little hard to follow. I ask if you like your usual order today?”
And then that smile again – knowing, patient, indulgent. A whisper of caution warned against digging himself any deeper. It advised him to come clean, ‘fess up as his nephews used to say before they grew up and had their own families to worry about.
But he was the great Don Alberto Gonzalez Amante MacDuff, and he knew no fear.
“Please – no need to apologise, Senora Consuela”. You speak beautifully, but I don’t hear as well as I used to.”
She smiled and nodded him a gracious thank you.
Good save, mate, he thought.
“Yes please, Consuela. A large glass of Manzanilla, and a tortilla de patatas, as always, my sweet.”
Consuela winked at him. “Diez minutes, Senior Alberto”, and she headed back inside. Albert watched her glide away, as light on her feet as a girl half her age and a third her size. He’d always liked his women generously built, and Consuela looked to have a healthy appetite.
When she disappeared inside, he willed himself to relax. He’d thought long and hard since last week, but still had doubts about today’s plan of attack. She’d be expecting the usual banter, but this time he intended to bemuse and confuse her, lower her defences, catch her off guard.
When she appeared again with his drink, he beamed at her. She placed the glass on his table and waited. But Albert said only “Gracias, mi cosita dolce.” Critical to his mission today was a long, slow burn, a careful lowering of her formidable defences.
He sipped his sherry without further comment and caught a satisfying flash of confusion in her eyes. She turned and wandered away. She glanced back at him twice, frowning. He watched her attend to other customers while he waited, marvelling marvelled at how she floated around the tables, often detouring around choke points too narrow for her glorious girth. Her solid, sensible bun of silver hair bobbed up and down as she served and cleared tables. Her lacy black cotton dress stretched tight across her vast bosom, and he sighed in admiration. Every so often, she glanced at him, and he lifted his glass and toasted her across the forecourt, with the same patient smile.
After what seemed like an hour, she brought him his tortilla. She placed it before him and laid out his cutlery. He breathed deep as she leaned across – lavender, as always. She watched, her eyes suspicious, as he took long seconds to tuck his napkin into his collar, and cut one tiny piece from his tortilla. He wasn’t daft about omelettes, but it was the easiest item on the menu to pronounce. After chewing long and slow, he touched his lips in expression of culinary delight, then chased it down with a sip of his sherry, and turned to her.
“Si, Senor Alberto?” She stared, her eyes narrowed and suspicious. His usual patter was already long overdue.
“That is delicious. Please pass my compliments to Javier in the kitchen.”
He smiled again, a picture of innocence. She flapped one scornful hand at him, then stomped away muttering something too Spanish for him to catch. Albert decided she was almost ripe for the taking. Another few minutes, and he’d make his move.
He’d tried various tactics over the months. Flattery had left her scornful and unconvinced. Romantic overtures had rung off-key in the face of her long, unhappy years with the late Senior Rodriguez. Dramatic tales of his war exploits, some of them true, had left her unimpressed. Only recently had faint glimmers of affection escaped from behind her fierce facade, but neither of them was getting any younger, and time was wasting.
So today he intended to adopt a new surprise tactic. He would just ask. He’d let her think he’d given up, come to his senses at long last, then he’d simply ask. Worth a try, he figured.
He took his time finishing his salty Manzanilla, enjoying the warm Mid-day Sun on his face, and watching the other customers. Few noticed her as she went about her work. Albert could never understand how they failed to see the glorious glow that shone from her, the light that blinded him when she aimed that fantastic smile his way.
He’d only discovered last year that she was newly available. She and Senior Rodriguez opened the cafe years ago, but he did nothing but lie on his back and drink his way through the stock while Consuela built the cafe into the local institution it was. When he’d drunk his last bottle, Consuela wore a black headscarf for a month, then discovered a love of music and good food, and generally started having a ball. Albert found himself entranced. Her late bloom awakened something in him he’d thought long-gone.
And so here he sat, week after week, attacking from a different angle every time, dogged in his determination to return the favour and awaken her own less-respectable appetites.
He couldn’t wait any longer. He beckoned her over, and she approached, her whole posture tense with suspicion.
“Consuela ?” He strived for his most disarming smile, looked up at her, took her fat little fingers in his own.
She looked scandalised – he’d never dared touch her before. She tried to pull back – but not very hard – and he held firm. An indignant tirade died in her throat when she looked down into his eyes. He pulled the rose from his button-hole with his free hand and held it out to her. More calm than he could have hoped for, he 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. His sudden dignity stopped her breath. Albert squeezed her hand. The rose wobbled in his fingers. She stared down at him for long, long, moments, but Albert held his nerve and waited. Waited for her to make him the happiest Spaniard in Carntyne.
Consuela, speechless for once, sat beside him. Another first. Albert held his breath.
With a gentleness that surprised even him, she pulled her hand from his, and patted her bun as if to check her decency was intact. She laced her fingers in her lap, straightened her back, and considered him with a gaze he found impossible to read. After what seemed an age, she stood, cupped his cheek with one hand, blessed him with a smile he’d see in his dreams for weeks, then plucked the rose from his fingers and slipped it into her hair.
Without another word, she turned back towards the cafe.
He thought his heart might just die in his chest. The rose in her hair seemed a sure first sign of victory until she walked away with not a single backward glance. At a nearby table, a young girl with kind eyes smiled at him, but he was beyond consolation. He slumped in his chair, bewildered and devastated. What could he do but go home, lick his wounds, dust himself off, find the strength to try again next week?
Maria, the only other waitress and Consuela’s daughter, brought him his bill. Albert handed her the ten-pound notes and waved her away as she rummaged for change. As she turned to leave, Albert noticed something scrawled in Spanish on the back of the paper, and called her back. She turned back, a smile in her eyes. She knew something.
“Si, Don Alberto?”
“Maria, what does” – he read the words with care – ‘No hoy, hombre magnifico’ mean?”
Maria grinned. She stepped close, squeezed his trembling old fingers in her own. and whispered in his ear.
“It means ‘Not today, you magnificent man’.”
Albert gaped at her. Then he grinned so hard his teeth nearly fell out.
“See you next week, Albert?”, asked Maria with a fond smile, but he wasn’t listening.
Back home, Albert sat in his pyjamas again, stirring a mug of tea, cold and stewed far beyond drinking.
“Magnificent man” he repeated, over and over. His face hurt from grinning so much.
He pinned the bill on the wall beside the calendar. Isobel would go nuts asking him what it said.
Maybe he’d get himself a new suit. And another chair. And maybe next week …
He glanced out the window. The same fat, tatty old pigeon was still at it. Each knock-back deflated him for a second or two, then he’d rally himself and be off again, puffed up and proud and unstoppable.
“You magnificent, shameless old scruff”, said Albert, then went to make himself another mug of tea.