Camberwell, London, 1947
The menu started like this:
SPECIAL VALENTINES DAY OFFER
2 X THREE COURSE MEAL
LADIES ACCOMPANYING GENTLEMEN DINE FREE
OFFER APPLIES VALENTINES DAY ONLY
John had returned from Greece six months ago. His wife had assumed him killed at the hands of Jerry when he had been dropped over Italy. She had taken up with a Yank airman stationed with the RAF at the Croydon airfield, John had been informed of this by her mother. He had not seen Gladys since his arrival back in England.
He was renting a small bed-sit in Camberwell. The street he lived on, not far from Camberwell Green, was flanked by rows of shops. There were butchers, greengrocers, hardware stores, fish & chips, a couple of cafes, newsagents, even a Woolworths. Post-war London was a world removed from the city he had left behind him at the start of the decade. John reached for the paper flyer and screwed it up in his hand. He walked with the crumpled sheet back up the oppressive communal corridor, to the beige door that separated his tiny flat from the outside world, carrying a handful of envelopes with him. One was from his sister, Mary. He could tell by the handwriting. He would open that one later.
Johns bed-sit, and those of the other residents he shared the building with, were on the top storey of a Victorian house. Most of the houses on the street had been affected in some way or another by the blitz but the building where John resided had merely required a touch of modernising. Unfortunately the old house had not fallen prey to a doodlebug. Inside it was damp and cold in the winter, and February was a cold, cold month. At least spring had almost arrived.
At the end of the hallway was a window and a vicious crack sliced right along the centre of it, through which a lazy wind hissed. John reached the top of the staircase, the wooden banister creaking under his weight as he hoisted himself to the top. He found stairs more difficult, since the incident that followed his landing on the Continent. Sometimes his leg would give way beneath him. He found it easier to have a hold of something for support, just in case, although he had not felt it necessary to invest in a cane. He was only twenty-nine and was not a man upon whom sympathy could rest easy.
John dropped the ball of paper into the dusty wicker waste-bin that sat in the corner of his room. The bin ate the paper up greedily; it was already half-filled with refuse. John was not a house-proud man. He had married Gladys when he was just seventeen and she had taken care of the home while he worked himself into the ground at the bank. Upon his return to England, he had been unable to face the daily grind back at the bank. He had seen too much, done too much, to allow himself to fall back into a life of dull routine, especially with Gladys gone.
Yet however thrusting his initial intentions, Johns dreams of a life of adventure were swiftly thwarted with the death of his sisters husband. How many lives had been shattered by that ridiculous war? One crack team of marines and Adolf would have been dispatched within the day! John had often thought to himself, but the marines were untried and their tactics mistrusted.
He had seen many men die in the field. He had seen horrors that no man had any right to see, but it was not the dead he grieved for, it was the living. Those left behind after the flames and smoke had dispersed. The people who still had the fumes of war writhing around inside of them, and always would.
His sister Mary was one such individual. Her love for her husband had been unquestionable. She would go to her grave without ever taking another man in her arms. John knew this with a certainty that puzzled him.
* * *
John looked up at the front of the edifice. The sign was crooked, hanging by two nails instead of four. The paint was faded and caked in grime from the soot of the city, the detritus of over a hundred years of London smog.
He could make out the name of the establishment easily enough, although the I on the sign was almost invisible beneath the layer of dirt. It read:
THE M LTON
The Milton. John said aloud. He remembered the name from the flyer he found on his doorstep the previous morning. Strange though, that the place appeared abandoned. The windows of the restaurant were shuttered and the double doors at the front were covered in dust. John peered in through the portico. The small windows at the entrance were the only ones left unbarred, but the glass was tinted and John could not make out what lay inside. It was already close to dark. The sun had been vying for attention for most of the day with a fleet of angry storm clouds and had finally given up the competition, hastily sinking below the horizon in surrender.
A spot of rain impacted on Johns shoulder. Oh great! He declared, to no one in particular. All I need. He made his way back home to the bed-sit as fast as his crippled leg would allow.
* * *
Opening the front door John was greeted by a pair of soldiers belonging to Mrs Barnes army of cats. A petite tortoiseshell he had not seen before rubbed itself up against his good shin. John ignored it and, taking off his sodden coat, he ascended the rickety stairway to his apartment.
* * *
Inside, the restaurant was dimly lit and the only colours other than shadow were the greens and tarnished reds of the painted furnishings. In one corner of the main dining area was a disused agar, atop of which was a large bird cage. The Concierge, a white cloth draped neatly over his left arm, welcomed John to the restaurant.
Do you have a table booked sir? The man asked, with a slight twitch of his well-oiled moustache.
Er, no. Ive come to enquire about reserving one. John replied, his eyes drawn to the shuffling form in the birdcage. He had seen parrots in pictures before, but could not be sure if this were one or not. The light made it difficult to be certain.
If sir would like to book for Valentines day, sirs companion would dine for free. John returned his attention to the short Concierge.
No, I er. I saw the flyer. Just a table for myself, if thats possible. But yes, I would like to book for Valentines Day.
Of course sir. John booked a table for seven thirty. He walked back to his apartment underneath a dark but dry sky.
Back home he collected his mail. There was another letter from his sister, a postcard from Henry and another flyer that advertised the Milton. Mrs Barnes rarely received any post.
That night the rain fell heavy from crashing black clouds. John was kept awake by the drip, drip sound of water slowly filling a saucepan in the corner. He had only noticed the leak a week before but there had been little respite from the rain since then and the hole in the roof constantly dribbled down rainwater, dirtied by the lead roof tiles.
The following night John went back to the Milton. He rarely frequented any of the pubs in the area, finding it difficult not to feel awkward amongst the working classes where he had been forced to make his home. But the Milton was different, an oasis of order and eloquence in a wasteland of chaos and grime.
Tomorrow was market day. John would be awoken by the ill-spoken stall holders yelling their wares, competing with their fellows in an effort to sell the cheapest rags and bones. The war was over but rationing was still a regrettable part of everyday life. Markets were a flurry of activity but John found the desperation and normality of such places depressing. He would be sure to take the long way round to the park in an effort to avoid East Street.
John spent much of his day on the green. He read mostly, or sat and watched the sparrows and starlings as they picked in the grass for worms and bugs. He watched as pigeons forced their way in on any action, bullying the smaller birds.
Once the market was finished and the vendors had packed away their meagre stock, John would wander down the wide street like a ghost amongst the ruins. The abandoned market felt familiar to him, like the aftermath of battle. The floor was littered with discarded vegetables, newspapers, dog-ends, empty bottles and assorted pieces of metal and plastics. The frames of the market stalls waited like forgotten metal mounts, their modesty protected by flapping canvas sheeting.
John strolled through the street, devoid of life but for the road-sweeper and a grizzled old stray dog that nosed around at the kerbside, following his progress along the road, but keeping its distance. John arrived at the Milton just after six.
Good evening sir. The Concierge greeted him.
Id just like to get a drink at the bar. John informed him.
Of course sir. Go right ahead. John glanced over at the agar. The birdcage was covered with a silk cloth that reflected the amber light of the fire.
He spent much of the evening at the bar. He drank more than he should have and staggered home beneath a night sky, naked, devoid of both clouds and stars. He found a strange comfort inside the dim light and flickering shadows of the Milton and fell to his bed in strange anticipation of his meal there the following night.
* * *
John sat at the table he had requested, the nearest one to the gilt cage. Valentines night and the restaurant brimmed with couples. As far as he could make out, he was the only fellow there on his own. Not that he minded.
The silken coverlet had been removed from the cage and the strange multicoloured bird inside snuggled itself away from curious stares, hugging the far edge of its enclosure. Once the starter courses began to be served however, the bird ventured forwards and eventually began to sing. A soft, crooning voice that rolled its rs and drawled its vowels. John looked on fascinated, sipping at his pint of bitter. He decided that the bird was too small to be a parrot, but was definitely some kind of lesser parakeet.
Your menu sir. The waiter was almost identical in appearance to the diminutive Concierge, except this man had no moustache and had dark brown hair instead of black. He left John to peruse the menu at his leisure and moved to another table where a young couple sat staring into each others eyes, savouring the romance of the occasion.
John leafed through the menu in astonishment. He beckoned the waiter with a cough and a raised hand, causing the man to dip his eyebrows, the only sign of reticence that he would display.
I believe that there has been some kind of mistake. John suggested, indicating the menu. There is no food on this menu. Is this some kind of joke?
The waiter looked puzzled. My English is not so good. He answered in a Gallic accent. Please wait, monsieur. The waiter moved to the entrance of the restaurant and consulted the Concierge. The shorter but senior member of staff came over to Johns table. The waiter for his part was away once more, darting between tables and diners.
What seems to be the problem, sir? The Concierge asked John in his crisp, concise English.
My menu. John said patiently. There are no meals on it. Its all feelings and emotions. How am I supposed to know what to order? If its a gimmick, is there a guide of some sort?
The Concierges lips stretched beneath his thin moustache in a benevolent smile. Sir, I assure you it is no gimmick. Our fare is the finest in Britain, perhaps even Europe. Why, is that why you have not come here? There was a sudden disturbance from behind. A young blonde woman, her mouth bright with gaudy red lipstick, stood up in defiance of her much older dinner-mate. She emptied the contents of her wineglass into the mans lap and stormed out of the restaurant. Her companion was left with a red face and a wet crotch, embarrassed with the realisation that he was now the focal point of everybody else in the restaurant. He wiped himself down with a napkin and carefully placed a neat pile of pound notes on the table between his own half-emptied plate and that of the departed woman. He gave the fussing waiter an apologetic shrug and slipped him a handful of coins as he passed him heading towards the exit.
The Concierge returned John his full attention. Sorry sir, you were saying?
* * *
For a main course John had ordered a portion of sautéed guilt to accompany his medium rare fillet of regret. For a dessert he had selected sorbed Sorrowful Love in a crystallised basket of melancholy. He had been unable to decide on a suitable starter and had been thankful when the waiter had directed his attention to a chalkboard by the window.
For a starter, John declared. I will have the soup of the day.
An excellent choice sir. The waiter answered, encouragingly. As John ate, the simple melody of birdsong filled the restaurant.
Copyright © 2003 by Neil Ayres