This Sort of Thing...


Nellie the Devilment


Nellie, winking at me as she mopped tea from her chin with a serviette, stained as though she’d picked it up several cafés ago, told me in her Derry accent that I was a great one for the devilment. We’d known each other for less than thirty minutes.  I thought she must have been an expert in the field to have come to such a conclusion so quickly. It turned out that she was.

You see, I was in this café in Larkhall, a once working class but now gentrified middle class residential area on the eastern edge of Bath where rows and rows of oolitic limestone houses clinging to the steep hillside had the look of dominoes standing on end and waiting to be toppled by an inquisitive toddler in the early stages of perfecting his or her destructive nature. In England’s West Country, districts like this just ooze old cafés with tea served in earthenware teapots and huge slices of homemade sponge cake, brought to tables covered with red and white gingham tablecloths by wildly cheerful middle-aged proprietors called Astrid wearing pinnies to match the table cloths, a dead wasp in the window and a clientele made up largely from young mothers and ageing eccentrics. Being neither young nor female, I suspect that I edged into the latter of these categories.

A bell at the end of a coil of metal tinkled as the door was slowly pushed open and in walked an elderly lady bedecked in a clear plastic raincoat and clear plastic rain hat. She carried a golf umbrella bearing the Bristol City Council logo which she shook vigorously before collapsing it. Had it been a rainy day, customers at nearby tables would have complained about being splashed, but there was no rain today; it wasn’t even cloudy.

Without the slightest sign of inhibition she gave a little cough to clear her throat and addressed the whole café, ‘Let me tell you now my name’s Nellie and I’m in a tremendous mess because I’ve come out of the house and shut the front door behind me and the keys are on the old dresser that was my mother’s God rest her soul in the hallway but I wouldn’t have seen them to remind me to pick them up because Clancy was fast asleep there and he’s a vicious fecker if you wake him up before he’s ready so I came away without them and I’ve rung my grandson at his work because he has the spare set but he’s terrible busy as he’s a whole computer to look after by himself and he works miles away so he can’t get here until after six and I’ve left my purse at home as well so would you be able to help me at all with a wee cuppa tea and he’ll give you the money when he gets here later bless you?’ There was a brief pause for breath and then, ‘So thanks a million.’

That was a lot of words to come from just one pair of lungs and then to be just ignored by the crowd who wouldn’t have been able to do the same themselves because their fat shiny faces were crammed full with Astrid’s homemade blueberry flapjack, which apparently was to die for. Whilst thinking it a bit strange that she’d remembered her brolly but forgotten more essential items, I felt sorry for the Nellie, beckoned her to join me at my table and ordered her a pot of tea at the counter.

She thanked me profusely and listed the names of a few saints who would look out for me for the rest of my life. Then seeing me remove a fiver from my wallet to pay for her lifesaving drink she added ‘Now you couldn’t see yourself going to the trouble of buying me a wee scone could you love because the toaster at home’s not working so I hadn’t a bit of breakfast?’

The scones, loaded with fat juicy sultanas, and also homemade by Astrid (though you could be forgiven for thinking that Astrid’s home might have been a cake factory), looked just a bit irresistible so I decided I’d have one too. Nellie took off her coat and sat down at the table. Contemplating her reflection in the window and fearing that she might be standing out from the crowd, she straightened a few strands of her hair and scraped something off the cuff of her genuine acrylic cardigan to make herself presentable before giving a satisfied sigh.

As Astrid handed me my change she looked over at the Irish woman, sucked her teeth and frowned in a friendly but sarcastic way as if to send out a ‘careful what you’re doing with that one’ message.

‘Ah, bless you son! That’s a grand scone. What’s your name?’ Nellie enquired.

‘Terry,’ I said, ‘What’s yours?’

‘Nellie!’ said Nellie, looking surprised that I’d needed to ask. I hadn’t needed to ask but I thought I would, just to be polite and to make conversation. Over the course of the next few minutes it became apparent that I hadn’t needed to make conversation either.  

There was a brief silence as scones were halved and buttered, tea was poured and stirred, and introductory smiles were exchanged. ‘Couldn’t you just knock on your front door and ask Clancy to let you in?’ I asked her, feeling sure that this was the obvious way to get her out of her predicament.

‘A cat couldn’t ever open a front door,’ she replied, with a whiff of irritation. ‘He’s a very intelligent cat but not clever enough to do that and even if he was, sure he’s not tall enough to reach the latch. And it’s an old door and the damp’s got to it so you’ve to jiggle it about over to the left to get it open, especially in this awful weather.’

‘Clancy’s a nice name for a cat.’

‘Aye, it’s a grand name. It means red-haired warrior you know. My last cat was called Clancy so I wanted something different but it’s the only name that I have that would suit a marmalade cat.’

‘Did you not consider Marmalade?’ I suggested.

‘Do you know, I never thought of that.’ she replied pensively. ‘But anyway Trevor, would you happen to know anyone who has a gun that could shoot a cat for me?’

‘No! Why?’ I was shocked.

‘Because Clancy’s getting old but I’m even older and I’m worried that when they take me away to the hole in the ground at the cemetery there’ll be no one to look after him or if there was they might be cruel to him and I wouldn’t rest if I thought he wasn’t happy. He’s a sensitive wee fella and I wouldn’t want him upset so it’s best if someone could shoot him now and avoid all the unpleasantness.’ She had it all planned out. I wondered if she had someone lined up to shoot her too.

‘That’s a bit drastic’ I said ‘There must be someone near where you live who likes cats and besides, you’re not going to die just yet are you?’

‘My grandson tells me I am. The sooner the better, he says. And he laughs when he’s saying it. And he tells me that a bottle of Jameson’s is more than enough for any woman of my age in a week. He says he’s only worried about my health but the simple fact is that he’s too lazy to go to Sainsbury’s more than once a week to get me the stuff. I’ve a drop in my bag. Will you have some in your tea as thanks for your kindness? Isn’t it sinful that Sainsbury’s are open on Sundays now? Tommy Boyles wouldn’t even open the door of his shop at the bottom of our street on a Wednesday afternoon when I was a wean. I don’t remember reading a verse in the Holy Bible that said Wednesday afternoons were a day of rest but I’ll tell you now, we won’t be seeing any of yer Sainsbury’s people in heaven when we get there. I suppose they’re all good Catholics at Asda. Lovely scones they sell there too… exactly the same as the ones that Astrid makes.’

‘No thanks’ I said, shielding my cup with a hand just in case she was insistent with the whiskey. ‘What’s your grandson called?’ I enquired, expecting a saint’s name in reply.

‘Clancy,’ she uttered with some venom, obviously irritated by the young lad, even in his absence.

‘So he’s a red-haired warrior too?’ I couldn’t help but laugh. Nellie seemed a bit indignant that I’d spotted her mistake.

‘No, I mean Ken’.

‘Ken?’ I said, a little surprised. ‘Was there a Saint Ken?’

‘Saint Kenneth! Yer man from Derry. Now there was a grand fella! He was a missionary you know. He introduced civilisation to the Welsh, which must have been a big old job. Father Kenneth told me.’

‘And is Father Kenneth from Derry too?’ I could see a theme developing.

‘No, he’s from Birmingham! But he’s alright!’ was Nellie’s swift response.

A little disappointed that there’d be no more news from Derry, my mind went back to the cat. ‘Could Father Kenneth not look after Clancy after you’ve gone?’

‘He’s far too busy looking after the sick.’

At the risk of sounding glib I asked, ‘And if Clancy was sick?’  

Nellie looked horrified. ‘You can’t go around making cats sick just so as the priests will look after them. That wouldn’t be fair on the cats or the priests. No, it’s best that I have him shot. The cat, I mean, not Father Kenneth. Have you a cat yourself Trevor?’

At least she hadn’t called me Clancy. I had let her off with getting my name wrong the first time but with the second I felt the need to correct her. ‘My name’s not Trevor, it’s Terry, and my poor old cat died a few months back.’

‘So it’s a new cat that you’d be looking for? Clancy’s no trouble apart from when he’s aggressive. He does all his poo outside and he eats whatever I eat. He loves a ham sandwich from the shop apart from the bread and the lettuce and the tomato that they put in it. He’d be a lovely wee companion for you in your old age.’ I was about fifty at the time and the cat, I was informed, was nine or ten.

‘I don’t want him just yet though Nellie. I’ll wait until you’re dying.’ I saw this as my get out clause, suspecting that with or without a gun, the Irish woman would outlive the cat.

‘That’ll be a while yet son! Will we have another cup of tea?’ which gave me the impression that we would have this cup of tea while we were waiting for her to die. ‘How will you know that I’m at death’s door?’ She sounded excited at the thought of having found a new home for her red-haired warrior.

‘Tell me your phone number and I’ll give you a ring from time to time.’ I didn’t offer her my contact details as it had occurred to me that as her mind and body became more ravaged by the advance of time she might want to come and live with me, eat my ham sandwiches and poo in my garden. Lovely old soul that she was, I didn’t want her ringing me up at all hours of the day and night to ask for cups of tea, scones, lids removing from jars of jam (or marmalade), help with funeral arrangements, shotgun ammunition and all that sort of thing.

‘I don’t have a telephone!’

‘Why not? Doesn’t everyone have a phone these days?’ This was the early twenty-first century. We were rattling on at incredible velocity into a technological boom.

‘I won’t have a telephone in the house!’ Nellie snapped. ‘Do you know my sister in Strabane had one put in and within the year they found her dead on the floor’.

Struggling to stifle a smirk, I asked, ‘And how old was your sister?’

‘Ninety-two,’ came her answer. ‘She’d have been ninety-three in the October. She’d the same birthday as yer man Éamon de Valera, God rest her soul… and his.’

I thought for a while before suggesting, ‘Maybe I’ll just occasionally see you in this café. And if you’re not here I’ll know you’re dead so I’ll go to your house and rescue Clancy. Where do you live?’

A look of irritation, maybe even anger, accompanied ‘In the flat below Mrs Bishop, not that she’d be any help to you. She’s always complaining about Clancy’s poo in the garden and the racket, as she calls it, of me and Mrs Shaughnessy singing a couple of verses of The Men Behind the Wire when we’ve a wee drop of whiskey in us of a Saturday night. The woman has always the sour puss on her. No wonder old Joe the park keeper stopped going round to visit her. I dare say he’s not afraid of cleaning up a bit of poo, though it would be dogs’ and not cats’. I was never in the place but her flat must be a rare old mess. I used to hear him telling her at the top of his voice that she was a filthy bitch and not to stop. They must have been doing a bit of spring cleaning together because I could also hear the noise of the bed moving.’

By then it was time for me to go. I told her that I’d make a point of looking in Astrid’s café whenever I was in the area so I was sure that I’d see her again.

‘Or the other one,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I go in the other one over the road’.

There were five or six cafés on that side of the city. I asked her if she went in them all. I certainly didn’t have time to try more than one or two.

‘Oh, I’m barred out of most of them’ she confided, sullen faced. ‘So it’s only Astrid here and the young one over the road that’ll serve me.’

‘Why’s that then?’ I asked, intrigued.

‘Oh, it’s a long old story Trevor and you’re away off in hurry. I’ll tell you next time.’ I stood up and brushed the crumbs generated by her flamboyant scone eating style from my coat before putting it on. The traces of strawberry jam weren’t so easy to deal with. My curiosity had been fuelled more and more with every word she had spoken so I wondered if I should order that third pot of tea and hear a bit more of her life story. ‘It makes me angry the way people treat me and they kick me out in the street like I’m some sort of tinker’s wife or one of those foreigners that they have these days. There’s a dearth of kindness in the world and I can’t say I’m fond of it. Have you ever been kicked out of somewhere yourself Trevor for doing nothing bad at all and felt bitterness over it for the rest of your life?’

‘I have indeed. I’ll tell you all about it next time I see you Nellie. And you can tell me what happened to you’. It was at this point she told me I was a wee rascal and full of the devilment.

I did see her again, a couple of weeks later, when we shared the stories of our inhospitable encounters though, by then, I had already worked out the bare bones of hers for myself.

As we were both leaving the café at the end of this first encounter I said to her ‘What are you going to do now? Isn’t your grandson coming here at six o’clock to take you home?’

‘I’m going to the other place over the road for a cup of tea,’ she said.

‘But you’ve no money Nellie.’

‘Oh, I’ll manage somehow.’ she said as she winked at me with her smiling Irish eyes; well, with one of them. It wouldn’t have been a wink if she’d used both eyes. And then she disappeared in search of another unsuspecting benefactor to hoodwink into a parting with a few pounds to buy tea and cake in exchange for a chinwag with a dear but lonely old woman.

Nellie the Devilment


Number of comments: 0

:) :( :D ;) :| :P |-) (inlove) :O ;( :@ 8-) :S (flower) (heart) (star)