Albert alighted from the scruffy, gold and green, striped number eleven bus at the corner of Gray’s Lane and the main shopping precinct in Haverstock Road. He stumbled slightly as his arthritic left foot met the unforgiving resistance of the dimpled slab on the pavement which denoted to the blind that here was a crossing point. Recovering with a low groan, he pulled his old ankle-length, grubby, brown coat tighter across his chest to ward off the sudden chill of the early evening air. For once the heaters had been working on the town’s buses and he’d sweltered. He lowered to the pavement the plastic Tesco bag he held and heaved a sigh of relief. The contents of the bag had grown heavier as the journey progressed, a fact he had not taken into consideration when he set out. He prayed the bag wouldn’t break, the contents could not be divulged until he was ready.
He paused a moment to catch his breath and get his bearings. Old-age never comes on its own, he thought, there were always the aches, sudden pains, and blurry eyesight. He smiled as he recalled his Daisy saying that bad eyesight was a blessing these days. Some of what you were forced to see, she had said, should definitely be only for the blind.
‘Aye, my love, but never your face!’ he muttered suddenly, the smile draining from his face and tears starting in his eyes at the remembrance. Despite what he’d been forced to do he still loved her.
The bus jerked noisily behind him, its pistons making all sorts of strange sound when the driver revved his engine and closed the concertinaed door. It moved off almost before Albert was safely clear. He shrugged the coat on his shoulders until it sat more comfortably. He’d owned it for donkey’s years and, as he’d aged, he was in his seventies now, so his frame had shrunk. The old mac, of course, had remained its original size though its shape was somewhat distorted. Daisy always pulled the raincoat tidy on him. Recollection brought fresh tears to his eyes, surprising him he thought he hadn’t any left.
He turned his head and glimpsed the illuminated bus rolling away in the dusk. ‘Well, that’s the last I’ll see of you, or any other, for a while—if things go my way. If they don’t, well… ’ he mumbled cryptically.
He glanced up at the cloudy sky full of impending rain. ‘Typical, the first time I forget my hat for years it rains.’ He often talked to himself, irritating his wife of fifty years, and the others. Daisy, though, had learned to put up with it—as well as everything else.
He lifted the heavy bag and shuffled around the corner into the precinct. Halting he stared along the brightly lit main shopping centre of the town. Through teary eyes he espied his destination at the other end of the road and memories of his life with Daisy came flooding back, the deluge taking his breath away. Why couldn’t he control his temper!
They’d met for the first time on this road. He’d been nineteen years of age, she eighteen. He’d been home on leave from the Royal Navy, she home on leave from the Motorised Transport Corps. She was in civvies – a bright blue dress with a small white collar framing a neck of pure alabaster, he was wearing his number ones, the uniform with the gold badges. She’d laughed and clapped her hands at sight of his bell-bottoms and the white lanyard around his neck. In a more intimate moment she’d held the cord in her hands and asked him if it was a leash to stop him straying. He’d unstrung the lanyard from his uniform and placed it around her shoulders.
‘There, you keep it, if it is a leash I can’t leave you now.’
He recalled the very passionate kiss that followed and smirked. There had been very many more over the years. But that first had cost him a week’s pay, fined for losing the King’s uniform.
Albert had fallen in love with her throaty laugh that first night and had since spent most of his married laugh maintaining her exuberance so that he could enjoy her giggling all the more. Daisy had a dirty laugh and she had used it cunningly to make him forget his troubles — at least for most of their life together. He had succeeded in keeping her jovial for forty of their fifty years together. And then she’d discovered the business he was in, hating it, she didn’t laugh much after. But these last two years had been the worst. These last twenty months or so neither of them had felt remotely happy. She’d nagged something terrible, pleading with him, but he hadn’t listened. He couldn’t.
He walked wearily along the pavement his sad eyes downcast. Once they had been bright blue and sparkling, at least Daisy had always said so. But then Daisy was biased – she loved “her Bert” as she called him. That’s why their marriage had been such a success, both had been very sure of each other’s love. Even through these last years she’d never stopped loving him, and he her.
He moved the weighty bag into his other hand, accidentally nudging a young girl as he passed. She was performing an impromptu dance and, by the looks of it already drunk, bouncing all over the pavement. She was one of several teenagers waiting outside the “Dog and Duck” for its happy hour. A short period of frantic sloshing of cheap alco-pops down necks so that meagre amounts of money would last the night. Usually, though, the night’s revelry ended sooner rather than later, mouths vomiting into the gutter whilst screaming abuse. The town centre was always the same on a Friday night. He and Daisy avoided it like the plague.
‘Oy, Granddad, watch where you’re fucking going will ya?’ she shouted after him.
He raised his sad face to eyes almost black with mascara. ‘In my day, young lady, youngsters moved out of the way for their elders and they always showed respect. Leave me be and learn some manners.’ He walked off to further abuse ringing in his ears. But one young lad, Billy Prentiss, paled when he recognized Albert, and he hid in a doorway hoping he hadn’t been seen.
That’s another thing that came in handy when you were old, Daisy had said. Deafness! The language on the younger generation was beyond a joke, she’d said…often.
He changed hands again. The bag was giving him painful creases along the inside of his fingers. Why did it have to weigh so much—it wasn’t very big! He was halfway along the road now, his destination becoming clearer to his old eyes. And then his heart nearly stopped at another memory. He was staring at the venue of their first date, the beginning of their romance – strange it should also be the site of its ending as well.
It wasn’t the Palais now, of course, the building’s role had changed many times over the intervening years, but back then…. It had been the Mecca for all the youngsters trying to obliterate the harsh reality of war. He smiled. There had been the back row of the Odeon for that as well. Daisy had walked into the dance hall on his arm and he’d been floating on air. The most beautiful girl in the world clinging to him, smiling into his eyes — he’d never forgotten that night. The jealous glares of the local lads, the snide comments that it was really the uniform she was after – he grinned, he could still feel the knives in his back. And then there was Daisy, smirking because she had the best looking sailor in the navy. His ear tingled, he could still feel the sensuous breath of her whispers, and his nose twitched recalling the scent of her long-hoarded talcum powder.
It began to drizzle as he came up opposite the old Palais. Water dripped down his neck unattended as he stared at the gaudiness of what it had become. He sighed. ‘Come on, Albert, let’s get it over with. Let’s get rid of him.’ Albert waited for a break in the traffic and hurried across the road.
He was a small, bent old man shuffling wearily through that glass door that night, his long, scruffy coat sleeve catching on the handle bringing him to an abrupt halt. Shaking loose with a struggle he entered the pristine premises as the old Beatles classic ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ blared out. The tinned music drowned out the giggling made by the only two customers in the place – a young courting couple canoodling in the far corner.
Jimmy, tall and blond, his acne not so visible this evening, looked around at the sound of the door scraping across the badly lain linoleum, and swore beneath his breath. He had been spending the last half an hour ogling the young girl getting touched up by her boyfriend, and he didn’t want to be distracted now by another customer. His job as order boy for the ‘Madcap Burgerbar’ was mind-numbingly boring at the best of times, and this old man tottering in to be served was not going to enhance his fantasies in the slightest. Jimmy bemoaned his fate for the umpteenth time that week – there had to be something better than this in life – there had to be.
He studied Albert ambling closer and shuddered with a nightmarish premonition – was he going to end up like this old wrinkly? He glanced again at the far pleasanter sight across from him, his voyeuristic fantasies arousing.
Albert approached the bright blue plastic counter and placed his Tesco carrier bag carefully on the floor beside him. He was panting heavily; his chest had tightened on moving into the heat of the shop from the cold air outside. It fair took his breath. Blinking his pale eyes he peered up at the garishly lit menu above his head. Considering his options, he jingled the few coins in his pocket.
Jimmy waited impatiently, not taking his eyes from the boy’s hand surreptitiously stroking the inside of the girl’s thigh as he snogged her neck, her eyes closed.
‘I’ll have the plain burger, please,’ Albert asked his voice strangely gruff.
Jimmy stretched to the top shelf of the heated display behind him, retrieved the cheapest order on the premises and placed the paper-wrapped bun in the yellow Styrofoam carton. ‘One pound thirty,’ he said, without once looking at the old man. He continued watching the increasing fumbling across from him.
Albert counted out the coins slowly onto the counter between them. He had three pennies over. ‘Here. You may as well have these as well. I won’t be needing money where I’m going.’
‘You wha…!’ Jimmy, startled out of his reverie, stared at the old man picking up the carton in arthritic stained hands. ‘Why won’t you need money? Where you going?’
‘The nuthouse…I think.’ He turned and walked off to the nearest table, picking up his bag as he went. Jimmy couldn’t help but wonder at its contents. It seemed overly heavy for its size.
Placing the carton on the Formica surface, Albert drew out the chair and sat down with a groan. He put the bag on the floor by his feet and arched his back, at the same time massaging his lumber region. He’d suffered sciatica for years and his right leg was giving him jip. He groaned even more as he raised his knee a little way in an attempt to quieten the nerve. The trauma of the day had brought on his aches and pains worse than ever. ‘Never mind, I don’t expect I’ll suffer much longer,’ he mumbled just loud enough for the order boy to hear.
He sat contemplating the yellow carton, kneading his swollen knuckles to relieve the pain as he did so. He closed his eyes, remaining motionless for all of two minutes but, as the music changed to some strange rap noise, he slowly became aware of his surroundings again.
‘Not much like the old days, the old Palais, hey love?’ He spoke to Daisy her face indelibly printed in his mind. Was it because of guilt? Bile rose up all of a sudden in his throat and he swallowed convulsively. No, she must have known that he could never do this without her help—despite everything. He almost panicked at the thought that she wouldn’t, that she’d deny him. But no, she’d supported him all her life, always been the stronger of the two – she wasn’t going to leave him now.
He heaved the plastic bag up onto the table where it landed with an audible thump, distracting the courting couple and halting the roving hand. The girl snuggled closer annoyed at the old man she’d been enjoying the caresses.
Albert opened the neck of the bag and withdrew the heavy object, placing it not too gently on the table to face him.
The girl screamed, her shrill voice cracking when it reached the top notes. Her boyfriend vomited over their table, the undigested burger and coke he’d partaken splashing all over the girl’s chest – not that she noticed. She couldn’t take her eyes from the obscenity the old man was positioning on the table.
Jimmy, about to fill small cardboard boxes with even smaller, thin chips, dropped the stainless steel scoop and it fell to the floor with a loud clatter. He stared pop-eyed at the unbelievable sight. The cook, rushing from the kitchen preparing to berate the order boy for his carelessness, seemed to lose all coordination as he gurgled incoherently and stumbled against the hot shelf. Putting his hand to his mouth, gagging, he knocked several paper-wrapped burgers to the floor when he flinched from the burning surface.
Jimmy was the first to recover his senses and he grabbed the phone from beneath the counter and rang the police.
‘Your name, please?’ The policewoman on the switchboard sounded bored stiff as she began the ritual greeting.
‘Jimmy,’ he whispered, his hands trembling on the receiver.
‘Jimmy, yes? And where are you calling from, Jimmy?’
‘I…I work in the Madcap Burgerbar on Haverstock Road…you’re not going to believe this!’ His voice gained confidence the more he spoke and he smiled. He suddenly realized that he would be the envy of all his mates in college the next day—an eyewitness! He’d milk them for every pint he could get.
‘What’s the problem, Jimmy?’
‘I have a man…a customer, sat right in front of me and…and he has put a head on the table.’
‘Did you say “his head”? Is he unwell? Perhaps you have the wrong emergency service,’ she said impatiently.
‘I don’t mean his head! I said a head.’
‘Sir, you do realize it is a criminal offence to make a hoax call to the emergency services?’ The policewoman’s tone changed, she sounded offended now, because of his tone he suspected—she still didn’t care.
‘Of course I bloody know!’ Jimmy was now getting overexcited, spittle dripping at the corner of his mouth.
‘Very good…uh…Jimmy. Calm down, please, there’s no need to shout. Now…you say a head…what kind of head?’
The policewoman was growing more exasperated by the minute. ‘What do you mean? What kind of head is it?’
‘It’s a dead head! It looks like a boy’s head covered in blood.’
‘What? Covered in blood, you say?’
‘YES!’ Jimmy was losing patience with the stupid woman. Couldn’t she understand plain English?
‘Oh…uh…what is the man doing now?’
‘He’s using a sugar bowl to prop it up straight.’
‘It keeps falling over!’
‘YES!’ Jimmy shouted again, ‘You b…’ and then he managed to control himself. He knew instinctively that cursing the stupid woman was not going to help and he’d quite likely end up in trouble himself.
‘Very good, sir. Now listen carefully…I don’t want you to approach him or say anything to him…I will have a response team with you in minutes.’
Jimmy held the receiver out in front of him and stared at it for moments before replacing it on its cradle. ‘That woman’s mad,’ he said to no-one in particular, and then he looked around at the cook still staring goggle-eyed. ‘She’s just told me not to go over there and speak to him…as if I’m stupid enough to.’
The cook, his face ashen, shook, and returned his look. Still bemused, he looked over at the girl crying hysterically in her boyfriend’s arms. Everyone too scared to move or take their eyes from the grotesque parody being enacted at the small table in front of them.
Albert, having satisfied himself that the head was propped up securely, ignored all around him and opened the lid of the carton and removed the plain burger. He then broke the small snack into even smaller portions and proceeded to carefully push each piece into the open mouth of the head. He used his gnarled, blue-veined fingers to prod the morsels deep into the cheeks and to the back of the throat as if he was stuffing a chicken for his Christmas dinner.
The girl fainted and slid slowly beneath the table, her boyfriend making no attempt to arrest her fall. He couldn’t. His slight body trembled from head to toe.
It was at that moment the police surprised everyone by turning up outside, the response time had been miraculous. They usually waited until everything had calmed down before turning up at any call, that way they were safer—didn’t get hurt by the people they were employed to protect. The fact that the perpetrators of any crime of violence had usually disappeared long before they arrived didn’t seem to worry them. The patrol vehicle’s blue lights flashing drew the inevitable crowd of onlookers, most of them spilling out on to the road from the pub opposite, drunk. Quite a few ran across the road, dodging the traffic. These endeavoured to peer through the misted up windows of the Burgerbar. A portly police sergeant, in his fifties, peeked through the frosted glass of the door and, a moment later, pushed it open slowly. Peering around the jamb, and seeing no immediate danger to his person, he walked in followed by a constable, a recent graduate from the police college, a man young enough to be his grandson.
Looking quickly around the room, the sergeant assessed the situation at a glance and strolled quietly and unthreateningly over to the old man. Albert, his head still bowed, was concentrating fully on poking burger into the stiff mouth of the disgustingly bloody head. The policeman gazed down at him utterly shocked. He knew Albert, had grown up around the corner from him. All his life he’d never known Albert or Daisy do anything out of the ordinary. They were decent, law-abiding, and quiet, the kind of people he had always respected.
The police sergeant was an officer with years of experience on the streets. A mentor looked up to by many a rookie copper, including the one standing, fidgeting anxiously behind him. But in all his years of dealing with the aftermath of violent crime he had never encountered a situation quite like this before. Yet, he was that rare copper, a man who thought before acting and he surely knew that Albert needed someone to talk to. He drew out a chair and sat down opposite the old man.
There was complete silence from everyone watching and waiting with bated breath. The only sound was that of the strident notes of some boy band now playing in the background. Nobody had thought to switch off the music.
Albert took no notice of the policeman at first, but having forced the last morsel of burger into the dead mouth of the dead head, he gently closed the Styrofoam carton and placed it to one side. He sat immobile resting both his hands on the table in front of him and suddenly began to weep, the tears streaming down his face.
‘Albert…Albert what’s happened man?’ asked the sergeant.
Albert raised his head and stared unblinking, and unseeing, at the blue uniform on the opposite side of the table.
‘Albert, do you remember me? I’m Jonno’s son, Tom. You had the allotment alongside my Dad.’ Receiving no answer, he continued. ‘I remember you well, you used to give me plums off your tree,’ he paused. ‘Who is this, Albert?’ and he indicated the head, its mouth distorted by the undigested burger.
‘Jonno’s boy? Aye, I remember Jonno…we could never forget him, could we Daisy?’ he smiled. ‘Do you remember that year Jonno beat my parsnips? That was a good year, that was, a good show.’
Tom, even more puzzled as Albert seemed to be talking to his absent wife, studied the old man closely, wondering if senility had set in. ‘Aye, you beat my Dad the following year with your kidney beans, though…he was livid, until you gave them to him. He said they were the best he’d ever tasted.’
‘We had some fun, me, your Dad and Mam and…and my Daisy.’ Albert’s eyes focused on his old friend’s son. ‘How long’s he been gone now…nine, ten years? Not that it matters. I’ll be seeing him before much longer.’
‘Albert, who is this?’ Tom asked again. Albert had resumed staring transfixed at the head on the table between them, clots of blood now congealing on the blue and white chequered surface of the Formica. ‘Come, Albert, tell me please,’ he implored. He noticed that the neck had been severed from the body very inexpertly—it was ragged.
Albert lifted his eyes again and gazed at Tom. ‘You’re a grandfather aren’t you?’
‘I am…two boys. I retire in six months to enjoy them.’ He watched the old man staring grief stricken at the sundered head. ‘Who is this?’ he repeated, not moving a muscle, knowing now what the answer would be. Peering closely at the face beneath the blood, he recognized the boy who had been a source of so much trouble in the community since his arrival.
‘This…this monster…is my grandson Joey,’ and he looked up at the sergeant again and smiled bitterly. ‘Stupid bloody name isn’t it?’
The girl stirred on the floor and her boyfriend attempted to lift her back into her seat, but the strength seemed to have left his arms. The constable standing shocked, moved over to assist him. Albert stared at them but made no indication of wanting to interfere. His face remained noncommittal.
‘I killed him,’ Albert said taking a deep breath.
‘Because he killed my Daisy!’
Tom’s sharp intake whistled through his teeth, his shock palpable. The sound did not divert Albert’s thoughts in the slightest though. He looked down at his dirty hands, the bright lights of the Burgerbar revealing the grime to be old, caked blood. And then he gazed at his grandson’s head still propped up against the sugar bowl. He moaned deeply and all of a sudden it was as if a dam broke and the story bubbled from him.
‘Joey was a bully. He’s always been a bad ‘un. He got thrown out of school up north when he was fifteen. He prided himself on being the toughest in the school…the scourge of all those smaller than him. My daughter and her husband couldn’t cope. Joey was a thief and a layabout, so they threw him out of their home a few months after his expulsion. A year later, nearly two years ago, he turned up on our doorstep. Me and Daisy felt sorry for him. Our daughter warned us against him but we took no notice…family’s family after all’s said and done! Joey was only a kid and he could be very charming when he wanted to be.’ Albert’s voice became very hoarse as he struggled to breathe through his grief, and he stopped talking for a moment, licking suddenly dry lips. ‘Can I have a glass of water, please?’
Jimmy rushed and poured one at the bar and the constable brought the glass over very warily, placing it at arm’s length on the table in front of his sergeant. Albert gulped it noisily, his hands unable to hold the glass steady, it rattled against his false teeth. The police sergeant gave him a moment more to recover as the others waited spellbound.
‘Go on, Albert. What happened then?’
‘After a week or so he started asking us for money, small amounts at first…a packet of fags now and then. But then his demands grew…more often and for larger amounts. Well, we had a bit put by…we’d saved for our funeral expenses, neither of us wanting to leave the other in debt when our time came. He took it all. Then he started selling our stuff, you know, our ornaments that we’d bought over the years—our memories. And then…and then he collected our pensions for us, or rather for himself. He did hand over the odd tenner to buy ourselves food, never enough of course. We couldn’t pay our bills. We had a letter this morning…they’d cut off our ‘lectric.’ Albert paused and reached for a grubby handkerchief in his pocket to dry his eyes.
‘We tried to refuse. But he got violent, pushing us about at first, later he hit us with his fists. He was clever, though. He never left a mark where anyone could see the evidence…never on our faces. He warned us never to tell anyone or he’d kill us. We believed him too. Gone was the charm…he was vicious. We stuck it for nearly two years until we had nothing left. And then…this morning…my Daisy snapped. I think it was because she couldn’t do any cooking, we relied on the ‘lectric she wouldn’t have gas in the house, said it was dangerous,’ he groaned with the terrible memory.
‘We were in the kitchen sitting down for a late breakfast; we’d stayed in bed until it got warmer as we had no heating in the house. The only food we had was one can of cold beans on stale bread. We’d just started eating it when in he stormed. He wanted money…for a burger of all things. We didn’t have it. All we had between us was one pound eighty-three pence and that was for bread and a pint of milk. He demanded that, said he was starving…starving! God, that’s all the money we had to last us four days…that’s all! I should have done something, but I just sat there, I couldn’t believe what he was saying. I…I didn’t do anything.’ Albert wailed through his tears. ‘My Daisy told him to get out and leave us alone.’ His shoulders shook violently as he strove to control the great wracking sobs punishing his body.
‘Go on, Albert, tell us the rest,’ said the sergeant, his senses numb with the heartbreaking tale. ‘Come on, I want to help you.’
‘Oh God…he picked her up by her neck and started to strangle her, shouting all the time that he wanted a burger. He lifted her so high her feet were off the floor…my Daisy’s only small, a little slip of a thing. I tried pulling him away but he was too strong. He looked round at me and laughed…and then…then he squeezed her neck tighter. I did the only thing I could think of. I picked up a knife from the table and stuck it in his back—and I kept sticking it in until he let her go. He dropped to the floor, I think he was dead almost straight away.’
Albert moaned, his anguish making him almost incoherent. ‘But I was too late! My Daisy fell down with him, her neck…there was a bright red mark right around it, you could see his finger marks. I knelt down with her and cradled her in my arms, her breathing was terrible. And then…then she must have had a heart attack, she stiffened in my arms and the next thing I know she’s gone, she’d passed on! But, before she went, she asked me to do something. And I’ve done it,’ he grimaced bitterly. ‘Her last wish!’
The sergeant licked his lips, the tragedy overwhelming. ‘And what was that, Albert? What was her last wish? What did she ask you to do?’
‘She said to drag him to the nearest Burgerbar and stuff a burger down his throat till he choked. But he was too heavy for me to move. So I chopped off his head and brought that here.’
The policemen took Albert away very gently and sat him in the back of the patrol car, the rookie copper sitting alongside him very gingerly.
It was the following day when Billy Prentiss turned up at the police station. Albert had been admitted to the local hospital for shock treatment, under a relaxed police guard. But it wasn’t relaxed for long.
It turned out that Daisy had been nagging Albert for years to give up his drug dealing, especially when he got Joey involved. For Billy told the police that Daisy had had enough. She and Joey were going to shop Albert to the police because he’d supplied a bad batch which had ended up killing Joey’s girlfriend. Joey, being careful and scared stiff of his grandfather, had written a note for Billy telling all but hadn’t had the time to post it. The police found it still in Joey’s possession. Albert hadn’t thought to go through Joey’s pockets after he’d killed them both.
But Albert had been a great reader in his time—and he had a vivid imagination. It could have worked.
Word count: 4,986