Mammy was doing her moustache again, the smell of the beeswax strong, steam curling off the pot. She was fierce obsessed with hair removal; it was the second time in a week. The counter at the front of the café had turned messy with her things, the gummy tubs of wax mixed up with the dusty sweet jars, the wooden spatulas sprouting from the cup meant for coffee stirrers. ‘With a bit of luck you won’t need to do this,’ she said as she spread the golden solution over her top lip. She checked her reflection in the mirrored Coca-Cola sign hung on the tongue-and-groove, pressing a strip of gauze onto her mouth before the liquid hardened. ‘See me, I’m Sicilian. Covered in hair I don’t want, like the Turks, the Greek. But you’re Irish, Majella, and that’s as Caucasian as it gets. It only takes two generations to assimilate. That’s what your old Nonno told me when you were born. “You’re Irish now, Bonfilia. An Irish bambina to prove it.”’ She pointed the spatula at me. ‘But you didn’t turn me blonde now, did ye?’
My Nonno was sitting at the back of the room, at the booth nearest the window. He got up at four o’clock every morning, dressed in his Y-fronts and an inside-out woollen cardigan, and went and sat there in the café. He’d stay put until eight in the evening, eating malted biscuits and smelling of pee, the way that ninety-year-olds do. Sometimes he acted the maggot; shouting at people who weren’t there, throwing his arms about in a rage. Mammy said he was reliving his days in the Italian Navy, fighting the Spanish Civil War. He didn’t pay any attention to us because in his loo-la head we weren’t born yet. We didn’t pay much attention to him either, which is why we failed to notice he’d suffered his second stroke a week ago.
‘Youch,’ Mammy squealed, pulling the gauze from her lip. And at the same time there was another sound, a brazen clanging from the door chime. A fierce tall feller with yellow hair like Shaggy out of Scooby-Doo was standing in the gangway, his Barbour jacket dripping, a soggy cardboard folder under his arm. ‘Bout ye?’ Mammy said, eyeing him suspiciously as she wiped a gobbet of blood from her mouth.
‘Could I get a coffee?’ he asked scrabbling around in his pocket, coins jingling.
‘Sure ye can,’ Mammy said. But she didn’t get up from where she was sitting. Instead she stared into his face, like an optician looking for the onset of a cataract.
‘Say, you wouldn’t mind if I set up in that little booth of yours over there?’ he said waving at the seats at the back of the café. He was a Yank, I was sure of it. He took his folder from under his arm and showed it to Mammy, but there was nothing about its plain beige cover to signify what was inside. ‘I’m the writer in residence at Queen’s University this semester,’ he said, explaining himself. ‘It’s kinda busy this time of year and I’ve got me a novel to finish. You won’t even know I’m here.’
‘You’re sure you’re not a reporter now?’ Mammy said, her voice sluggish from her morning medication. ‘I thought ye had to be dead to be a novelist, and you’re a good two miles away from the University, so you are.’
‘I’ve been looking for somewhere quiet,’ he said blushing a wee bit.
She nodded at the seats at the back. ‘Ah, go on with ye,’ she said.
So your man put a few coins on the counter next to the waxing strips and shuffled to the other end of the café. Ach, I thought he was terrible brave to come all this way, and through Sandy Row as well. We hadn’t got a real, paying customer for four months, not since the insurance money had come through on the MacDermott’s chip shop and they’d turned it to a coffee house called CU Latte. ‘What do they know about coffee?’ Mammy’d said, ‘little girls playing waitresses with their eejit plastic nametags and their skirts hitched up to here.’ She’d bitten down on the pendant of her necklace, denting it between the N and the F. ‘They should be so lucky getting a wee bit of shrapnel through their window. If I had that kind of money I’d be away to America now.’
It was different in the Seventies. Then the tourists would drive all the way from Bangor to buy my Nonna’s vanilla pokes. Nonna was deadly with the ice-cream. Our café got its name from the colour of her eyes. My grandfather had been painting the kitchen walls at the time. He held the swatch up to her face and chose the shade that matched them best: Blue Ruin, a light electric blue, like old gin. Mammy says it’s unlucky and that she’ll change it the first chance she gets, but Nonno didn’t know what it meant; his English wasn’t all that grand back then. I never saw Nonna’s eyes myself because she died two days before I was born. In the pictures they look like they have no colour at all, white like the ivory statue of the mother of God in St Peter’s cathedral; she looks like she was blind.
Nonna tried to teach Mammy all about the ice-cream pokes; how to use whole milk instead of butterfat but Mammy’s got the patience of the devil and only my Da picked it up. My Da died on the day of my third birthday party, kidnapped and murdered by the leader of the Shankhill Butchers on his way to buy plastic knives and forks from the cash & carry on Linfield Road. The policemen found him two days later behind a house on the Shankhill Estate. Mammy told me that he wasn’t looking where he was going and got run over by a bus. I found out she was lying when at the wake I heard a drunken old feller going on about Da’s coffin being screwed closed on account of his mutilated body. That’s about the time Mammy developed a taste for the tranquilisers and the hair removal. Back then she liked the crossword puzzles too. She’d have a stack of them piled on the counter next to her, a pen poised behind her ear. One time when she was in the lavvy I took a peek at the one she’d left out and saw that she’d done it all wrong. Instead of answering the clues she’d written my Da’s name over and over, in every grid that it would fit. Even I knew that ‘Eurasian plant with fragrant white flowers (5,7)’ was not a Tommy O’Keeffe.
‘Would you make yer man there a nice cup of coffee now, Majella?’ Mammy said. Having not seen a paying customer for so long, shyness had pushed me behind the counter where I could watch events through the grimy glass of the catering display. ‘Coffee?’ I said.
‘Aye, coffee,’ she said. ‘Go on there wean, don’t be bold.’ She knew full well that the cappuccino machine was banjaxed, but she only winked at me and went back to her reflection in the mirror. After a few minutes, wondering what to do, I took my plastic tea set out of my toy box. It was grand I tell you – red with white polka dots and shiny, but chewed a wee bit ’round the rims. I pretended to brew the coffee into one of the cups, making the sucking sound of the old frothing nozzle by pressing my tongue against the roof of my mouth. When it was done I carried it to your Yankee feller, the way that Mammy’d taught me: slow so as not to tip any on the mosaic floor, and curtsying a wee bit as you place it fierce gentle on the table. Mammy’d been teaching me a lot now since I was off school because of the start of the marching season. There wasn’t all that much to do except watch the way she served scald to Mrs. Lynch from the neighbourhood watch, or listen to the way her voice rose or fell depending on which pills she’d taken.
The man curled his lip at my plastic teacup. If he’d tried to pick it up he would have got his index finger jammed in the handle for sure. He looked past me, hoping for some assistance from my mother but she was asleep now, her tangled black hair fanned over the Formica. ‘Go on sir, it’s rude not to,’ I said pleading with him to drink from the toy cup, the way I did with customers when I was in the low babies. But I was seven now, a big girl, and my heart wasn’t in it no more. He was about to stand up when my grandfather cried out.
‘Don’t-a you move you asshole,’ said Nonno in his thick eyetie accent, fashioning his arm into a gun, cocking two fingers and training them on the Bobby Sands mural painted on the pine end outside. There was a trickle of white saliva hanging from the corner of his grey mouth. ‘Area out of bounds, rapporto to Corvette Captain.’
‘Catch yourself on now, Nonno!’ I said, embarrassed, and thank God he did, closing his mouth-hole and prodding at his biscuits with his fingertip. Turning to your Shaggy Rogers, I said, ‘Don’t mind him sir, he’s playing soldiers. He’s away in the head, so.’ Your man there just nodded and began to fill his big notepad with narrow rows of wobbly double-writing, his head bowed over the page, as if nothing had happened. I leant over his shoulder for a minute, watching, then dandered back to the catering display, and my collection of Barbie dolls piled inside. I chose Peaches ‘N Cream to play with. She was the only one left with two whole eyes. I’d gouged most of the others out. ’Bout ye, Peaches?’ I said lifting her from the stale slab of Battenberg I’d been using for a mattress.
‘Hey Majella,’ she said. ‘Yous look deadly today.’
‘I know aye,’ I said, crouching down low where Shaggy couldn’t see me. ‘I pinched a lippy from me Mammy’s handbag, so I did. Whisht now.’ I put my finger to my lips and whispered, ‘Do you know that that American man over there’s writing a book? Aye! A whole book about a wee blonde girl who drowns in a vat of green pea soup.’
‘Ach, whisht yourself Majella,’ she said looking at me like I was a gobshite. ‘He is not writing a book about that. He’s writing a book about a man who gets his throat slit like a pig. There’s going to be a picture of him on the cover too, his head lolling about like a flag on a pole. He looks like your Da, so he does.’
‘He is not,’ I said tightening her peach stoal around her neck and making her splutter. ‘He’s writing a book about a man whose stomach ruptures from eating too much of me old Nonna’s vanilla pokes. They were deadly, they were. He couldn’t stop himself.’
Peaches flashed her brilliant white teeth at me like a rabid dog. ‘No he is not,’ she said. ‘He’s writing a book about your Nonno and all the cack he talks, the sky pilot that he is. Look at your man over there, studying the old fella as we talk.’
It was dark before he was away, his notebook full to brimming, and Mammy was awake again, her face in the Coca-Cola mirror, a pair of tweezers prised in her hand. ‘That’s you, is it?’ she said as he tried to sidle past unnoticed. He stopped, snickering self-consciously. Mammy smiled at him, the tweezers left open in mid air as if waiting to catch a fly. ‘Are ye ever going to tell us what you’re writing about now?’ she said arching her back like a cat.
‘It’s a secret,’ your man said, fidgeting with his folder. ‘Is it now?’ Mammy said. ‘We’ll see about that then.’ Sure enough Shaggy was back the next day with a Thermos flask and a round of peanut butter sandwiches wrapped in tin foil. He came every day that spring, sitting in the same place across from my grandfather, scribbling frenziedly on his foolscap notepad. Slowly but surely, Mammy came back to life, combing snarls out of her hair instead of dozing through whole afternoons. One day, early in May, she dusted the tops of the sweet jars on the floating shelf. She made Rice Krispies cakes. ‘Would yous tell us what your book is about already?’ she said, sighing, as Shaggy packed his things up one evening.
‘It’s kinda boring actually,’ your man said, shaking his head, ‘The 1946 Greek Civil War. You see? It’s boring, and the reason I didn’t tell you first off.’
‘Oh aye,’ Mammy said. ‘War. That’s a bore so it is. I’d rather French kiss a barracuda than read that shite. Why’d ye want ta write it anyway? Would ye take me Daddy over there, babbling away, senile as the devil? They say he’s gone back to his best days, doing Mussolini’s dirty work. Nobody would think he had a wife or a daughter or a grandbaby. Wait till I tell ye, I lost my husband in the war, so I did.’ She pushed the cuticle on her index finger down with her wee wooden stick. It was the most she’d said in four years.
‘What war?’ yer man said, his elbow on the counter.
‘What war?’ Mammy said mocking him. She pointed at the row of great boulders lining the pavement outside. ‘This one, yer eejit.’
‘Of course,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘You’re alright,’ she said, her voice fierce breathy, like she was having an asthma attack. ‘But you should write about something happy, a love story, so.’ Their faces were close, their noses nearly touching. ‘I’m going away for a couple of weeks now,’ the man said pulling back. ‘Home to the US for an engagement, but I’ll be back real soon. I’ll bring you a little something.’
The next day my Nonno was dead, his face a quare mixture of shock and composure. I tried to feed him his favourite biscuits but his lips were blue and stiff. I took my Pop Singer Mitzi doll to his funeral a few days later. To be fair she was a Sindy, and not a Barbie, but she was the only doll wearing a black dress. She gurned through the whole ceremony about my leaving her wee plastic microphone in the catering display. ‘It’s my trademark, Majella, you dumb ape yer. I never leave home without it.’ In the car, going through Milltown Cemetery, she eyed the big Celtic cross gravestones and groaned, tears in her eyes. ‘Won’t be long before I’m here myself so,’ she said. ‘Stuck in that filthy café with that slob of a Mammy of yours, I’ll starve to death before long for sure! How’ll I ever be a real pop star like your woman Madonna, Majella? How’ll I ever make it in America and play the Hollywood Bowl?’ I got pretty cheesed off with her whining, truth be told, so I shoved her head-first into Mrs. Lynch’s patent handbag.
By the time your man Shaggy Rogers came back from America, Mammy was back to her old ways, napping on the counter. She was dead to the world when he walked in late on a Monday morning, a gift-wrapped box under his arm. He looked a right Dicky Dazzler in a new linen suit and all. He glanced about in search of my grandfather. ‘He’s dead, so he is,’ I said.
He nodded sympathetically. ‘I’m not sitting down today,’ he said. ‘I just came to drop this off.’ He put the box on the counter next to my Mammy’s head.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘It’s just a little something, Honey, for your mother’s American customers. It’s my favourite.’ He reached out, gently shaking Mammy’s wrist.
‘Mammy!’ I cried, trying to rouse her, but she never did listen to me. She was out cold. ‘I have to go,’ the man said, his voice sad. ‘Will you tell her I’ll see her around?’
‘You don’t have to go yet,’ I said. I untwisted the lid on one of the sweet jars. ‘Have some Parma Violets. They’re good for your brain to be sure, or take a black Jack. When you eat them your tongue goes blue, like when you swear but you don’t even need to swear, so you don’t.’
‘Not today, thanks,’ he said. He began to walk away, the material of his suit making a snazzy swishing sound. As the door chimes jangled after him I caught sight of the dolls on my old Nonna’s cake stand, Mitzi lying down knackered and dying. I ran out into the street, scanning it for the man’s yellow Shaggy hair. At the end of the block he was waiting at the zebra crossing, his bottom lip sucked into his mouth. ‘Here be’s me,’ I said, pulling on his trouser leg. He kneeled down to be level with me. ‘I’ve got this friend who’s a singer,’ I said. ‘She wants to go to California and make it big. You could take her there, couldn’t ya? You’re from America.’
‘From Chicago, yeah,’ he said. ‘It’s a fair old way to California.’
‘It’s near enough,’ I said, frowning a wee bit.
He smiled at me. ‘I guess it is.’
‘Come on with ye, then,’ I said, grabbing at his hand. ‘She’s back at the café. I’ll introduce ye.’ Your man there checked his watch and straightened up slowly, looking this way and that. ‘Would ye hurry the devil up?’ I said. ‘It’s a matter of life an’ death, I tell ye.’
‘OK, OK,’ he said.
As we got back to the door of the Blue Ruin I could see Mammy, awake and picking at the crusts in the corners of her eyes. ‘There ye are,’ she said as we stepped inside. She curled her lip at the glass jar on the counter, the gift wrap strewn about. ‘Maple syrup?’ she said to your man, her voice playful. ‘Last of the big spenders, aye, and don’t yer think I’m sweet enough?’ She took a big gulp of air and licked around her lips. ‘Anyway I’m glad you’re back, so,’ she said. ‘You can help me think up a new name for this place, you a real writer an’ all.’
‘The Blue Ruin Café’ by Rachel Trezise is from her new collection Cosmic Latte published by Parthian Books in June 2013.