Northwords Now Issue 35

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Tiramisu

by Maureen Cullen

Dolly unlocked the borstal kitchen door, hung her coat on the scullery peg, smoothed the papers in her apron pocket and got on wi the stew. She sliced onions and added them tae the pot wi carrot and turnip, left them tae sweat while she slapped a flank of beef ontae the marble slab, inched her knife under the tarp, chopped the flesh intae chunks and rolled them in flour, her palms padded white. She flung the clumps of beef intae the pot wi two pints of stock and left the lot tae simmer on the gas. At half past ten she poured a cup of coffee tae steady her nerves.

Two and a half hours tae go.

She took her usual seat at the front of the empty canteen, plucked oot the envelope, laid it on the table and took a sip of strong, black coffee, a habit handed doon through the generations on her papa’s side. He drank it black fae a bone white cup, fragrance coiling through the air like a ballerina. He’d take the handle between finger and thumb, tilt it tae his lips, moustache dipping behind the rim and, efter a sigh of contentment, tell her stories aboot Italy. Her childish enthusiasm pressed for mair on Grandma Dolores’s café in Roma, Grandma’s bosom held aloft like a battering ram, black hair rising magically intae its bun, Grandma weaving aroon wrought iron tables wi her silver coffee pot lifted high.

Two hours and twenty minutes tae the interview.

She put doon her cup, unfolded the notice fae The Mail.

Tenders invited from suitable interested parties for the café at the pavilion in the park. Summer months only: April to September. Apply to Council Chief… Mr Connor Begg.

She wis tae attend the cooncil offices at one o’clock. But she didnae want tae run intae a relative of Archie Begg. This fella wis new tae the town, she’d no been able tae get any gab on him. Anyhow, there’d be bigwigs efter the place, unlikely they’d gie it tae a woman. Dolly rubbed at the age spots splashed across her hand. Whit would a suitable party be for such an establishment? Aye, it’d be a young local in a dark suit.

Well, she wouldnae gie up before she started. She wis prepared.

Stock? She knew a man for that.

Furnishings? She knew a man for that.

Help? She’d only trust a woman for that.

Papa had lost his trust. He’d been a vanilla stick in that hospital bed. ‘Oh Dolores, never the trustin those people. Preten you one of them, then…’ He sliced his throat wi an imaginary blade.

The pungency of onions drew her tae stir the stew.

Couldnae be a son of Archie Begg, could it? No son of his would be so high-up in the cooncil. Begg standing in the road, the smirk before he spat on Papa’s shoes.

When she wis a girl it wis her job tae polish they shoes. A dollop of wax ontae a cloth, rubbed intae leather, circled ower seams and inlets, her wrist aching. Papa picked up each shoe, turned it aroon and aroon. ‘Magnifico, Dolores,’ he said, placing it on newspaper tae dry, before leaning doon tae where she knelt, his lips soft on her forehead, his moustache prickly. He slipped sideways tae the door, pinched finger and thumb intae his waistcoat pocket and tossed her a silver thruppence. It hung in mid-air, spinning light before her palms slapped thegither.

‘Always be catching the rainbow, Dolores.’

Eleven o’clock. Two hours tae go.

When the afternoon shift arrived at twelve, she went tae the toilet, sprayed another layer of lacquer, and turned in the mirror. Her hair wis still black and her figure trim. Aye, she’d dae, except for the crow’s feet aroon her eyes and the wee craters on her chin. Normally this didnae bother her but today? Och, it didnae matter. They’d never gie the daughter of an enemy alien a tender for the café, no the one in the park owned by the Cooncil. But even if there wis the smallest chance, she must grab it. She’d done her sums. Wi her widow’s pension and savings she could afford tae take the risk. Besides, the war wis a long time ago. Nearly twenty years.

Connor Begg. No necessarily a relative of Archie Begg. Anyhow, this man wis the boss, he wouldnae be seeing the likes of her, she’d be interviewed by a lackey. Nae point in getting worked up. She put on her coat and checked her watch.

At quarter tae one she wis alone in the waiting room. A lass, hardly oot of school, skirt up her backside, came in and took her name.

Dolly tried no tae look at the shire insignia on the wall. She knew some said she wisnae a true Scot, even though in her top drawer lay Papa’s letters tae Ma, sent fae the Somme, telling how proud he wis tae be fighting wi his pals. She couldnae read the words withoot seeing him being dragged away fae his ain front door intae the polis van, neighbours pelting stones at her ma’s windae, shouting, ‘Dirty Tally.’

She rummaged in her bag for her compact, slipped it oot and pressed some dark tan on her cheeks. Scots-Italian, Papa said, acid and sassy rolled intae one.

As she clicked her handbag shut, the door opened and she of the chicken thighs said, ‘Mrs Deighan. Mr Begg will see you now.’

‘No, ah thought he wis the boss.’

‘He’s the Head of Department but he does actually meet with … townspeople.’

The girl sniggered. Any of her boys tried that, their ears would smart for a week, but Dolly allowed a lifted eyebrow tae dae its work. The bizzum had the sense tae step back, clattering intae the bin behind her.

Dolly stepped intae a large office dominated by a mahogany, leather topped desk.

A brass clock on the wall chimed one o’clock.

When she recognised the man behind the desk she stalled. A relative for sure.

‘Mrs Deighan?’ He got up, extended his hand. A young fella, maybe late-twenties, guid head of sandy hair. Soft, a pencil pusher. She stared at the hand. ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said, taking it back, patting his pocket as though suddenly looking for something.

‘Right,’ wis aw she could manage.

Papa’s protests. ‘You make mistake, I no a Mussolini man. I a Scot now.’ Ma gripping him by the shirtsleeve, Dolly held back by her pregnancy, two toddlers at her skirts.

Sandy-hair sat doon, nearly missed the chair. ‘Please sit down. I’m Connor Begg.’ He scratched his heid, placed his palm on his tie, though it wis awready straight as a plank: green tartan, white shirt, clean collar, married.

She pursed her lips. Might be a son. Maybe jist il nipote, a nephew.

He cleared his throat. ‘Your tender, Mrs Deighan?’

She closed her eyes. Archie Begg grinning at the scene in the street: the man wi a grudge, the man her father sacked the year before. He never had time for wastrels as a gaffer.  

Might as well be sure. She cut across sandy-hair’s mumbles. ‘Yer Da wouldnae be Archie Begg who worked as a welder at the shipyard, oh, jist before the war?’

His face darkened. ‘I believe he did work there in the thirties. A lot of folk from around here worked there then, still do.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Did you know my father, Mrs Deighan?’

‘Ma father knew him.’

‘And your father is…?’

‘Dead. Gabriele Lombardi.’

‘I don’t recall…’

The clock ticked half a lifetime away.

‘Are you alright, Mrs Deighan?’

‘Ma papa wis never the same efter a year detained in Barlinnie Gaol. An enemy alien.’ The pressure of the day rose in her chest and threatened tae bubble ower.

‘That’s terrible, I’m so sorry.’

‘He said he wis lucky no tae have been sent on the Arandora Star.’

‘Oh yes, all those Italian men killed.’

She moved forward, her chest skimming the desk. ‘Scots, Welsh, English Italians. Many lived in Britain aw their adult lives. Some had sons who were fightin the Germans. Ma father fought for Britain in the great war.’

‘Of course, I didn’t mean…’ His face wis the colour of cherryade. He fiddled wi his papers.

The eejit wis confused by her line of talk. She’d set him right. And she wis aboot tae dae jist that, when he moved forward and said, ‘I’m very sorry. That was foolish of me.’

He looked at her full square. God, he hadnae a clue. Of course he didnae. A young man. Whit did he remember of war? She wanted tae bolt fae the room.

‘War makes enemies. It’s hard tae forget,’ she said, brought up sharp by her ain words.

Begg looked doon, shuffled his papers, cleared his throat. ‘Mrs Deighan, your application for the tearooms at the pavilion…’

‘Vandals were egged on by clipes and bagotails.’ She couldnae shut up.

He looked a wee bit tapioca aboot the gills. ‘I’m sorry if coming here has upset you…’

‘Ah’m no upset, Son.’

‘Your application?’

‘Ah know, dinnae bother yersel, ye’ll have gied it tae someone else. Must be plenty…’ She pulled herself oot of the chair.

‘The Committee has approved your application,’ he said.

‘Whit wis that?’ She sank back.

‘Yes, it’s already been approved.’

‘But ah thought ah wis here tae be interviewed.’

‘No.’

‘But there must’ve been local businessmen…’

He chuckled, swallowed it back double-quick. ‘Aye, a few.’

‘How come me?’

‘You’re the most qualified and experienced applicant. Your references are excellent and you’re a trained cook. I have to ask you to sign the contract.’

He turned papers aroon and inched them forward wi a pen. She splayed her fingers tae steady them, wrote oot her name, Dolores Lombardi Deighan, and slid the ice white sheets back.

She had tae know. ‘Yer Da moved away fae the town efter the war, if ah remember right?’ Despite a slight squeak, she managed tae speak civil, as if asking efter an auld acquaintance.

He seemed tae take it as such. ‘Aye, we moved to Corby, for work. I came back here after I married.’

‘And yer Da?’

‘Passed away, Mrs Deighan.’ He shook his head. ‘Mum left him when I was a boy. He had problems… She rarely spoke of him. But in the end, it was the cancer in the lungs that took him.’

Dolly buffed her mother’s wedding ring wi her thumb.

He continued, ‘She remarried. I didn’t get to see him after that.’

Aye, that wis a turn for the best.

He shifted in his seat. ‘I didn’t get the chance to know him well. There was always something… You said your father knew him, but did you know him, yourself?’

She had her ain café. Bone china teacups, macaroons, tablet, Edinburgh Rock, coffee beans spilling fae hessian sacks, ice cream rippling through stemmed glasses. Oh, the tinkle of the door as clientele arrived, the tinkle of the till as clientele left. Soon she’d be at the counter in her black dress, the one presently in The Co-op windae, serving cones bright wi hundreds-and-thousands.

He wis waiting.

Maybe he had a right tae know. But it wis hard tae live wi hate. Hard tae die wi it. Och, he wis jist a boy asking efter his father. Whit tae say?

Papa answered. ‘Dolores, mia bella. You might be half-Scot, but you no a clipe.’