I was in between jobs, living in a council flat that had no central heating. Above me dwelt a small-time drug dealer, known locally as Tony Balony. Pearl’s café was just around the corner and it was warm and cosy and Pearl was dead. The café hadn’t been re-decorated in decades. It was done up like a little Parisian bistro, dark and cosy, red and white checked table cloths, stucco walls, wooden beams, candles in wine bottles, etc. The only nod to modernity was an asteroids gaming machine, hidden away in one corner, and in comparative terms an antique itself.
Pearl’s daughter, Ava ran the mystery café single-handed. She was in her mid fifties and still a looker, but back in the day she’d been a heartbreaker, just like Pearl. I don’t think the café made any money, but a dead husband’s life insurance took care of that side of things. Ava had it easy. The café didn’t open on Mondays, Thursdays or Sundays, and usually I was the only customer. Well, it was cold inside my flat.
There were photos of Billy Fury all over the walls. Billy Fury was Ava’s teenage idol and often his fifties brand of rock and roll could be heard on the sound system, Halfway to Paradise, Maybe Tomorrow, Collette, Last Night was Made For love, Jealousy.
Ava thought I was a genius. I’d sit in my corner of the bistro writing, or pretending to write, but really just daydreaming. Ava would stand behind me and try to read what I’d written, but I always covered the writing with my hand. This made Ava laugh. Then she’d tussle my wavy hair and say,
‘You’re ganna make it Joe boy, one day, just mark my words!’
I marked the words and secretly hoped it was true.
Once, when drunk, I wrote a poem on one of Pearl’s Café’s red napkins entitled, ‘I Would Have Given You All of My Heart.’ When Ava discovered the act of vandalism, she let out a little shriek. It was beautiful she said. Then she had the napkin framed and hung it on the wall underneath a poster of Billy Fury in his 1950’s heyday.
Tony Balony rarely came to Pearl’s, but one day he did. He burst in like this,
‘I can’t fucking believe it!’ He cried.
I was playing Asteroids, but was so shocked by Tony Balony’s sudden appearance I let all the meteors bust my spaceship into fragments.
Ava stopped pretending to look busy, ‘What’s up Tone?’
Tony slumped into a chair and gave us the low down. His dog had been run over and killed. Hit and run. His dog was a handsome Rhodesian ridgeback called Harold. Tony Balony was in bits and it brought a lump to my throat.
Tony stayed in Pearl’s café all that night, drinking cans of Stella and weeping. He loved that dog and vowed to get revenge on the culprit. Ava comforted Tony by making love to him in the kitchen. I can’t prove this, as I drank too many wife beaters and passed out underneath one of the tables. But I reckoned they did because Tony was a ladies man.
Anyway, neither of us was lucky with our pets. At that time I had a cat called Stupid, who couldn’t walk or jump properly. She had a problem balancing and kept falling off things and breaking her legs. After the fourth break the vet gave me the low down. Another fall, he warned, and she would have to be put down. I didn’t like the sound of that and afterwards only let Stupid out on a lead, where I could keep an eye her. Still, despite all her problems Stupid was a magic cat because she could speak. No one else thought she could speak, but I knew she could. I’d ask her a question and she would meow in reply. The mews sounded like words.
The days went by like strange dreams. I frequented Pearl’s café whenever it was open with Stupid in tow, talking all the way. I was working on a novel, it was a tragic love story, and the bistro helped the writing. Did I tell you that Ava smoked like a chimney? Three packs a day, consulate. Her skin was wrinkled and she coughed a great deal, ‘There’ll be the death of me,’ she’d say, as she sparked up another.
‘You should cut-down Aves,’ I’d say.
Sometimes Ava would talk about the past. She’d once been a modette. She showed me photos of her gang of friends. They were sharp dressers and very serious about everything. All the details were correct, Italian mopeds, expensive clothes, scarce 45’s. Her first husband was a mod. They met in school, teenage sweethearts, the first and only time she’d been in love. It was love at first sight. He died of a brain tumour, at 33 years of age. When they lowered his coffin into the grave Ava swore she would never marry again.
Sometimes Ava would tell me this, ‘Life’s not fair, Joe boy, it’s all a load of bollocks. If anyone tells you any different, they’re liars. There is no god and there is no heaven, you mark my words.’
I think it was the way she said them, but I’ve always remembered those words.
One day I went to Pearl’s café and found it shut. I peered inside, the tables and chairs were covered in white dust sheets, and someone had taken my poem from off the wall. When I found it shut the next day I intuitively knew something was wrong. I found out later that Ava was in the hospital. I visited with flowers, chocolates, and a little framed photo of Billy Fury. Ava cried when I was there, but I never. I felt the tears coming and successfully fought them back. Ava had the big C.
Outside the hospital I broke down. I couldn’t help it. Some children saw me and began staring and pointing, but I didn’t care, and to top it all Stupid past away a few weeks later. I found her lying on the living room carpet with her tongue lolling out and her eyes wide open. The light of life had vanished from her blue eyes forever. I buried her in the communal garden, underneath a weeping willow tree, and marked her grave with a tiny wooden cross. Not long afterwards I left the country. As far as I know Pearl’s café is still shut and Tony Balony is in prison.