48 - The Viscosity of Custard

         

                                                                

 The swing door, the sort that pivots on one side, swung easily open when Stanley Holloway gave it a small shove and he walked straight in out of the rain. He took a table by the window overlooking the street and hung his overcoat over the back of a classic utility chair where it spread out over the floor and dripped. Then sat down looking around the tables at all those people creating that everyday cafe din, that sort of echoey row full of clattering plates and rattling cutlery and overlapping conversations creating a wall of murmuring sound. The waitress, tall and maybe in her mid-thirties, with that almost wavy but not quite wavy blond hair, sort of ambled over, chewing gum and holding a worn out note pad with all the edges curled up like they do when pulled in and out of a pocket all the time. It sort of matched her own worn out expression. She smiled one of those fake, tired smiles showing her front teeth smudged a bit red by overmuch lipstick, some sort of Patsy Red, the pout making type and looking hurriedly applied, he thought, as though she had tried to smarten up a bit in a quiet moment that turned out to be not so quiet after all.

“What can I get you today then Stanley?” she said with her normal depressed sigh but knowing already he’d say, “strong black coffee, a double hit please, and a bacon bap with three rashers. And tell Charlie to grill off all the fat please Doris, I don’t want the fat.” He had said that, just like that, for the last however long. Of course she could have just asked if he wanted his usual but she quite liked to hear his voice which was polished as though he had been at posh school, not Eton or the likes but a quite posh place for sure and from an upmarket sort of background she suspected.

Stanley watched her saunter to the back to lean on the red Formica countertop and clip the white chitty on the stainless steel orders rail and put the notepad in her apron pocket curling it some more. Then shouted through the open hatch with the steam coming out, with a trill voice, though she actually had a smooth, gentle kind of voice, except when she yelled then it was trill with that little warble that trill voices have. The words fighting the clanging din of Charlie rattling about in a frying pan and plates chattering and all those kitchen noises as she shouted over the top of it all, “Charlie, hey Charlie grill off the fat on number ten will you. You hear that Charlie? It’s for Stanley.” Charlie must have nodded or something because Doris picked up a loaded plate, from the hot rack, next to the number eight chitty, using a not so white tea towel and meandered around a few tables, flashing her fake smile here and there, to the back and where a dark haired, good looking man in an overworked grey suit sat reading the local rag. His hair looking a bit phony, that sort of solid flat hole in the air look that too much cheap, dark hair dye gives and he was getting on a bit and it made him look pasty. His hair being so solid dark. That was the giveaway he was getting on, that and the worn out, dated trilby sitting on the table.

At nine thirty the place was still buzzing a bit but getting slower as jobs had to be got to. Charlie's Place, around the back of Tower Bridge Road, the sign in bold red letters above the door said that and the best cafe for miles and always busy. Opens at five thirty to catch all those building worker early bird types and the antique dealers from the Friday antique market that started before six and several hundred full English or maybe pie, mash and cabbage and apple pie and custard and all that sort of stuff, several hundred of them later the lunch menu would start and that is not a lot different. And being building workers and antique dealers they all paid cash. Loads of cash.

At nine thirty Doris was knocked out as she gave him his order. “When d’you get off today then Doris? You look all in.” Stanley said. He looked at her and saw the bags under her eyes, drawn down deep. But ignore those dark, deep set eyes and the other things that complicated her looks, he knew she would look a lot better than just ok.

She looked at him and smiled, a proper smile though. He could see the difference, this one cracked a bit of daylight into her better than ok looks softening her strained expression. “Three this afternoon,” she replied, “Charlie’s short handed again and some mug has to fill the gap.”

“Why’d you do it Doris? Getting yourself all knocked out for what? A few extra quid?”

“It’s the few extra I need Stanley. Makes all the difference and I still get home in time to be there when Katie gets in. It takes off the pressure of life, helps make everything bearable. You know how that is don’t you? You’ve been there I know. When you lost Joan and needed to make life bearable.”

Stanley went all quiet, like he always did when someone mentioned Joan. He would kind of shut down, switch off a bit. He poked the bap around the plate and shuffled the hot coffee mug, dragging it through a slop circle. It had been four years since and a long four years at that.

“Oh I’m so sorry Stanley, I didn't mean…. I just didn’t think. Look at me Stanley, you can’t go on like this forever. What you need’s a break. Come to dinner and say hi to Katie. She’d love to see you. You make her laugh. You know that, don't you? We all need to laugh now and again. Don’t we? Cheer you up. I know it’ll cheer you up. Whatcha say Stanley? Come this Sunday. I’m not working and can make you something special.”

Stanley looked up straight into her face and her sad, weary eyes and thought he detected the makings of a tear right on the edge of her eye and he thought how kind she was but also how sad she was, she was a sad woman and lost a bit, lost a bit in her humdrum life. A tough life, a single mum.  So he said, “sure Doris, that would be great but not meatloaf, I don’t care much for meatloaf. Especially if it’s got pickle in it. Don’t give me pickle Doris. I definitely don’t do that brown pickle.” He said this because he thought she needed company probably as much as he did. And because he liked her because she had saved his life.

“That’s great Stanley. I’ll do a pie, all you guys like a pie, don’t you? and I make a great pie. Ask Katie when you see her, how great my pies are. She’ll tell you how my pies are. You’ll love it. Chicken and ham that’s what I’ll do for you. My best chicken and ham pie ever, just for you Stanley. And veg, all the best veg all steamed up nice and crispy. None of that boiled out stodge you get here.” She said this in that smile-talking way, that enthusiastic way of talking that people did when they were excited, when they spoke real quick. Then she said, “So Stanley, what've you got planned for today then?”

“Getting my haircut. Thought about a number one to get rid of all the grey but I'm not too sure yet. What d’you think? Spiky short or leave it long?”

“Long, leave it long. Definitely leave it long. You look good with it long, with your great looking face and all. Don’t think you’d look too great all short. But that won’t take you long, will it? How about the rest of the day, after that, when you’re looking all handsome with your tidy long hair.”

 “Oh I don’t know Doris. You know it’s all so boring. Everything’s going down the old crapper isn’t it? Everything’s just so boring. You know, I’d rather talk all day about the viscosity of custard than talk to most of the boring bastards I meet. And all the TV crap and everything, And those boring politician bastards running the country to fill up their bank accounts. They do way too much bullshit talking don’t they? And it’s all crap. All of it.”

“What’s this viscosity thing then Stanley?” she said with a frown.

“Doesn't matter Doris, just my way of saying stuff. Just means everything’s crap. That’s all.”

“Well then, why not go for a long walk Stanley, out in the country somewhere. Somewhere nice and peaceful with all those wild flowers. Drive out to the country where it’s all green and fresh and cheerful. I'd love to go to the country. So would Katie, she would be really excited to go to the country but I can’t afford it. Could not get anywhere close. Why not go where there’s a river or something. All that sparkly water bubbling about, it’s therapeutic, that’s what it is, That’s the right word isn’t it Stanley? Therapeutic. Soothes the nerves. So they say anyway.”

“Not too sure about that Doris, sounds all a bit too green and fresh and healthy. Way too healthy for my old lungs. I’d probably choke to death. Maybe I’ll do something more exciting. Maybe I’ll rob a bank, hope to grab some of those smug politicians' cash or a jeweller or maybe a post office but one without one of those sweet old post office ladies. Wouldn't do to scare old ladies. Would it Doris?”

“If you do all that, be……” but she was distracted, all the cafe yacking had stopped and she looked at the door and the music playing, “Hey, Hey we’re the Monkees” and the two brown, furry monkeys that had just walked in, their fur all soaked and flat and dripping all over and being followed by a sharp blast of rainy wind before the door swung shut. The smiling monkey heads looking this way and that, looking a bit odd, smiling like that. A real toothy grin for a monkey. One of the monkeys was holding a sawn-off shotgun just hanging loose and pointing down. The other had two big bags, those holdall types, like the ones doctors used to have but bigger and brown. Half hanging out his pocket was the grip and cylinder of a snub-nose .38 special. Stanley thought, a bit bizarrely considering what was about to go down, he thought, “why do monkeys need pockets?” That was all he thought. The rest he did not care about, it was all just crap anyway.

He looked at Doris who had her hand over her mouth. She was scared, he saw that. She was standing frozen in the middle of the walkway, with her hand over her mouth just staring at the monkeys. The tears that might have been in her eyes were there now alright. Her face with that worn out sad look now looked just plain terrified, all screwed up like she was about to scream. But she didn’t, she just looked enquiringly at Stanley instead, who stood up, gripped her tightly around her shaking shoulders and sat her down next to him but by the window so he was nearest the walkway. Then he picked up the bap, opened it up and squirted in a good squelch of ketchup, closed it up and took a bite, licking clean the oozing ketchup and all the time staring at the monkeys.

 

The music stopped and the monkey with the shotgun shouted with a deep gravelly sort of voice, a bit muffled but hard, a hard man’s voice that betrayed a history of violence, he shouted, “we’ll try do this the easy way. Everyone stay still. Stay where you are, keep seated and don’t move. Or we can do it the hard way…. “ he let off a barrel at the ceiling with plaster and dust and a leaking pipe. A lady, with an antique dealer lady look, sat right in front of him, screamed, a yelling sort of scream, the sort that puts tears in your eyes when you screamed hard like that. With your eyes all screwed up. He yelled at her, “shut the fuck up,” swinging the gun about and she shut up and just whimpered a bit. Then he yelled, “You in the kitchen, out by the counter. Everyone out and now. No messing about.” He flicked open the smoking barrel and reloaded from his monkey pocket. A slick, well practiced, professional move and all the time giving the place the once over. He saw no heroes, no threats. He did linger on the dark haired man but then saw the trilby so just registered an older guy, with a hat, reading the paper.

Charlie and two others appeared, standing in their kitchen sweat behind the counter. Charlie looking flabby and red faced, his striped apron and cooks beanie looking hard worked. Stanley took another bite and squeezed Doris’s hand, in a reassuring way of course. The monkey with the bags was coming his way and stopped by Stanley’s table so Stanley took another bite, a large bite and was chewing when the monkey threw a bag on the table and said with one of those movie actor voices, those film noir actors, trying to mean it but not quite making it, he said, “you, the waitress,” his monkey eyes looking straight at Doris, ignoring Stanley. “Take that and fill it from the till, coins and all, and any float money out back.” He had to shout a bit to get over the fear fueled background din of the echoey restaurant.

Doris was shaking, Stanley could feel it and sobbing an almost crying sob but not real crying, more a distressed sobbing. So Stanley stood up, straight as he could, to his full six foot two, dwarfing the monkey and said in a matter of fact way, “I’ll get it,” and picked up the bag and without waiting turned his back on the monkey, bumping him slightly, not enough to matter, but enough to knock the stubby from his pocket which Stanley kicked under his coat, too quick for the monkey to realise or anyone else to see. They were all looking at the mean monkey anyway as he shouted, “shut the fuck up, no more talking.” Stanley walked towards the counter with no rush, his normal laid back kind of shuffle, with a slight bounce in his heel, with the monkey's eyes drilling holes in his back that he could feel but ignored and with the smell up his nose of cheap monkey aftershave and with a small smile at the spider tattoo on the monkey’s neck where his monkey head had lifted up. 

The monkey shot a quick glance at his mate who shook his head and lifted his chin, in an upward nod, in a “get on with it,” sort of way so the monkey opened the other bag and started up and down and around the tables shouting in his non-convincing way but backed up by the shotgun monkey who stood on a chair and shouted, “do as he says, nice and easy. The easy way,” and holding the shotgun high. The smaller monkey was yelling, “wallets, watches, rings, jewels, all your stuff in here,” and repeating it over and over until he got to the man with the dark hair who had appeared from behind his local rag. Who stood up and with a monotone, forceful voice said, “you should mind your manners little monkey. You don't know who I am, do you? I create nightmares for garbage like you.”

The monkey just stood looking at him and bobbing up and down a bit, getting all agitated, with that slight, sweaty panic of being unsure and reached for the gun that was not there. There was a loud crack and more plaster and, “enough, get the other bag and we’re out of here.” The mean monkey shouted.

Stanley had come out from the office with a bag full of cash and coins that was a bit heavy and slung it on the floor by the dark haired man, turned to the monkey and said, “nice touch, the music, makes you properly distinctive. Where to now? Back to the zoo?” But the monkey, picking up the bag, just backed away towards the mean monkey who was heading for the door with the shotgun sweeping back and forth.

 

Charlie was straight on the phone and Stanley, going over to Doris who had stood up kind of shivering, said, “you ok Doris?” and he put his arm around her and pulled her tight and kissed her on the forehead. She looked up and just nodded, then said, “thanks Stanley,” but with a shaky voice.

The dark haired man was standing on a chair being a bit soap box. He was quite tall, around six feet or so and well built with that could look after himself look and was saying with his drone like voice, “name's Dave Simmons, Detective Inspector Dave Simmons. Everyone, please sit where you are for now. The police are on their way and will need to speak to you all.”

Getting off his chair he went over and said something to Charlie who disappeared into the kitchen and with Stanley watching him carefully as he walked his way. “Dave Simmons,” he said, holding out a muscular hand.

“I know, I heard. Nice speech. You might have thumped that monkey. I’ve heard that monkeys go down real easy and that one's a push over for sure. By the way, nice hair. Are you incognito or something?”

Dave stared at Stanley for a brief moment in an assessing sort of way. Then said, “Too many people in here and that other one, he was the real deal and my hair -  I’m close to retirement and need to look younger. What did you say your name was?”

“Well it doesn't work, just makes you look like a sad old geezer wanting to look younger and failing and I didn’t but you're sure to find out anyway, they all know me here. Stanley Holloway and I should add, retired and about to rob a bank.”

“You look after that lady Stanley, she needs your care. By the way you look a bit old to shimmy up drainpipes, sure you could manage it? The bank robbing. Will need a statement so hang about and don’t get lost.” and he wandered off pulling out a beaten up old hard backed notebook and his mobile phone.

 

Stanley sat Doris down and Charlie thrust a mug at him and Stanley shook his head, then said, “Will you be alright Doris if I sneak out the back way. I don’t want to get all mixed up with this lot and all their dumb questions and all the cop crap that will be going on. If they want to speak to me I’m sure old Dave there will find me easy enough.”

She just nodded so he said, “see you Sunday about seven,” and squeezed her shoulder.

Bending down he picked up his coat carefully wrapping up the gun in one swift movement and walked to the counter where Charlie said, “thanks for looking out for Doris Stanley, she’s been a bunch of nerves lately and this will have done her no good,”

“She works too hard Charlie so the no good was well on the way before all this. You know that, don’t you? and you know you should do something about it. She’s a good kid is Doris and deserves better. We all need to look out for her. Don’t we Charlie?”

Then Stanley looked around the cafe, saw Dave Simmons, trilby on with it pushed back a bit, in conversation with the guy nearest the door writing stuff down furiously and not looking his way. So he said to Charlie, “I think I’ve done my bit today, don’t you? I’m going out the back way. Any objections?”

Stanley slipped through the office and disappeared out the back door with no one watching and with his coat in a bundle. In the rear alleyway he waited a few moments and then, when he was sure he had not been followed, slipped the coat and the safely concealed gun under his right arm and with the rain slackening, started the thirty minute or so walk to Canada Water station and home. As he left the alleyway the air was full of sirens and flashing blue lights showing up bright against the receding black sky.

This is the first chapter of a sixteen chapter book. To read more please click on this link to see all chapters.

The Viscosity of Custard 


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