It was 13:29 when Nelson dropped down into his armchair, a mound of mangled wood and cheap leather, less arranged and more dumped in the centre of his back room. It put him two metres in front of an old Philips CRT 29PT9421 and next to an inoffensive table from a chain that erroneously claimed to sell oak furniture. In anyone else’s home, the set-up might have been quirky – the mossy wallpapered walls, the bareness of it all; it had Vogue potential, the type of thing you had to ‘get’ – yet, with all things considered, including Nelson Flood himself, it was just a bit seedy.
Clamped between Nelson’s two hands was a sandwich, a limp thing that drooped as he edged the right corner into the widening tunnel of this mouth. It had to be Kingsmill Soft White No Crusts from Darnton’s Off Licence, yes you have a good day too Mr Patel. The spam had to be spread two inches from the edges all the way round and layered once, twice on the bottom slice. Slap bang in the middle: a slice of Green Pastures Natural Cheese, named courtesy of a loophole in the Cream and Cheese Regulations 1995 that permitted it to be neither Natural nor Cheese nor from Green Pastures. Still, Nelson Flood liked that the expiry date came as month/year rather than day/month.
Nelson had eaten the Spam and Cheese Delicacy 30,660 times, 30, 671 if you counted the leap years; twice a day at 13:30 and 18:00 on the dot for the last thirty years of his life. He had eaten it on his first day at the Bovril factory, round by the bins at the back and on his own. He had eaten it on the day that his father had bought The Artillery, in an empty back room as plaster crumbled around him. He had eaten it five years after that, by his hospital bed, as he waited for his Old Man to die from cirrhosis of the liver. He had even eaten it the next day, when he inherited the two-story bed and breakfast on a bad street in Ladbroke Grove. There had been two exceptions: a Thursday eight years ago when he had taken a lady from the lonely hearts pages out for dinner – the only thing that repeated from that roguery was the creamed cod – and today.
Nelson closed his eyes. On average, it took guests thirty seconds to leave the unmanned reception, a figure skewed by an enthusiastic crack addict who, one Christmas, had delivered a two-hour sermon from the other side of the door on how, even at the birth of Jesus Christ, there had been hot running water.
Twenty seconds to go.
A fisted knock now. Then two, in quick succession. A break. Then constant rapping.
Nelson lowered his right arm to glance at his watch, in as theatrical a manner as possible. In three, two, one, one …and there it was – silence. He smiled smugly. Now, where was he…
‘’Scuse me. Can you open up please?’
The arms shot down, the mouth snapped shut. 13:33. ‘No arrivals between one thirty and two o’clock.’
‘Sir. Open the door.’
The voice was measured. Curt. Female.
Nelson pushed himself up from the chestnut heap, bread and spam and cheese in his right hand, muttering something about nothing as he shuffled across the room to the door that opened up into the reception. It was a sorry affair consisting of a laminated desk behind a raised countertop, cradled by the chocolate-orange carpet that shrouded the whole of the ground floor. He unlocked the door, positioning his right shoulder in the opening gap so that only his head could be seen.
It took two seconds longer than he had planned before the words left Nelson’s mouth. Only he was not expecting someone as beautiful as Janelle Williams to be standing there in the doorway, in his Bed and Breakfast on a bad street in Ladbroke Grove.
‘What part of one thirty to two o’clock do you not understand?’
Janelle blinked. The Obnoxious Man was no foreign specimen to her; in fact, his diametric, the Un- Obnoxious Man as it were, held the same mythical status in her mind as Big Foot or houses with front gardens. It never failed to surprise her – it had not surprised her when her father had left her mother for a younger woman, or when her University tutor had suggested a way to bump her grade up – but standing here in front of Nelson Flood, in a Bed and Breakfast on a bad street in Ladbroke Grove, she was almost certain that he was the most obnoxious man she had ever met. Still, she had been raised as a good Nigerian girl and it was only by the good grace of this that she decided to smile.
‘I am sorry, Sir. You see, it’s just that we’re in a bit of a muddle today. I’m not sure if you heard, but there’s been a fire. North Kensington. Quite a big one, too.’
‘Well, of course I’ve heard. Council’s had been me on the phone all morning asking about rooms, absolute nuis–’ “
‘And let me just say, thank you. Thank you, Sir.’
Janelle clasped her hands in front of her chest. ‘In times like this, it’s folks like your good self who give us hope. You are a real hero of the community.’
Nelson looked at Janelle, the slight furrow in between her eyebrows, and relaxed his shoulders. He had never been an anything of the community, nothing to his face anyway, and certainly never a hero.
‘Right, well what is it you want?’
Janelle pushed her left leg back and raised her right arm, gripping the doorway above her head. ‘Well, I believe you may have been expecting us. Well, not me. But a family.’
Nelson sighed. He unstuck his hand, meaty and pale, from where it had been resting on the door. ‘Yes, and like I said young lady – no check-ins between one thirty and two o’ clock.’
‘I understand, Sir. But, you see, I can tell you are a kind man. A decent man. And, well, I ask that just today, you make an exception.’
‘What would I do that for?’
Janelle stepped back so that her body no longer blocked Nelson’s view of the lobby and so that he could see, behind the wooden counter, cramped at the base of the carpeted stairwell and behind the splintered front door, a woman, brown-faced and slightly plump. She was dressed oddly; iridescent trainers flattened at the back by her heels; an enormous duffle coat that cushioned her padded frame; and a plastic carrier bag, barely weighted by its contents, that hung from her fingers like they sometimes do from the branches of trees. Wisps of her black hair escaped her hijab and Nelson was sure that in the whole of his life, he had never seen anyone who looked so tired.
Nelson gave something between a wince and a nod. He was not a racist, no, no, not at all; can a man not have an opinion these days? No, for the most part, Nelson Flood was just uncomfortable around people, and mostly those of the darker variety.
He came from good stock, alright. His father spoke fondly of that glorious night in ‘58 when they had beaten them good and right, oh yes we did son. He spoke of it right up until the confabulation got him, and even then it only elevated him from bog-standard racist hooligan, a standard issue thug, to the chieftain heights of Moseley’s right-hand man. But in the same way that he had failed his military medical and had never catcalled a woman, Nelson never quite lived up to his father’s expectations of rampant racism. Instead he had chosen the sect of pacified prejudice; the practice of bigotry in the privacy of your own home, and by his own home, he meant the flat at the back of the Artillery.
He liked it best this way; he wished Mr Patel a good day; he smiled at Horace the postman, heck, he had faltered at Janelle Williams hadn’t he? And, in 1999, when The Artillery was on the verge of bankruptcy, he had began accepting homeless guests from the council, who came in dark shades and all. Fifty quid a single, seventy a double, tenner for an extra cot.
‘Look, I said two o’clock.’
Janelle stepped forward again, her arm bent onto her hip. ‘Well, I thi–’ ‘Muuuum.’
Nelson and Janelle, both closer to each other now than at least one of them would have liked, stopped and looked, simultaneously, in the direction of the hijabed woman, who had not spoken but instead stood with her right arm swinging back and forth, her hand pushed and pulled by the little brown fingers that hung onto it.
Nelson pushed himself up onto his tippy-toes, just high enough to peer over the raised counter and to see, next to the plump lady, a girl. He saw her hair first, short and black and knobbly, and then the rest of her. She was as brown as her mum but not half as curiously turned out, because oversized and dippy clothing never seemed as weird on ten-year-old girls.
‘Shh.’ Her mum brushed her arm aside and kept her gaze. Now was not the time. Not in front of the nice man.
Janelle turned back to him. ‘One exception, Sir.’
‘Well, I think you mean two.’
Janelle inhaled sharply. ‘“When the Lord tests you, respond with love and patience young child”. Ephesians 4:2,’ her mum would preach, often as she towered over her with a wooden spoon or dishcloth or whatever kitchenware she had selected from her disciplinary arsenal.
‘Very well. But, let me tell you, this is not how I run this place.’
Janelle nodded to agree that running a business with compassion and politeness was a terrible, terrible idea.
‘Thank you, Mr…’ ‘Flood.’
‘Ah. Flood. Well. Thank you.’ She thought something about the bible and floods and destruction and decided that Nelson was too drab for his name.
With all his unhinged fury at the situation, Nelson placed his sandwich down onto his desk so that it hit the wood with a dull dud.
‘Yes. Yes.’ He clapped his hands together, exaggerated and farcical like a cheap mime artist to show that business was really about to be gotten down to.
‘Now, your stuff.’ He looked at the tired lady. ‘Is it outside?’
The tired lady went to open her mouth –
‘Uh, no. That’s all they have, Sir,’ Janelle said. ‘That’s the thing about fire. Tends to burn things.’
Nelson turned, rummaged under the desk for a moment with one hand and returned with a key. ‘Up this way.’
Janelle watched as mum and daughter followed the strange man up the carpeted stairs, fuzzy with dust and hair and all the other things that humans shed without much thought. Their hands slid up the watermarked banister, the plastic bag that held their lives swinging back and forth.
Standing on the step outside, she pulled from the back pocket of her jeans a lighter and a roll up, given to her at five a.m. by a young Bangladeshi boy outside St James’ Church. She brought it up to her lips, cupped its butt away from the breeze and lit it with a lighter adorned in loopy writing that spelt out ‘Maga Bitch’, though the ‘B’ had long since rubbed off, so that the lettering now alluded to a Balearic rash. Janelle had never been to Magaluf but she wondered if a souvenir with such an ailment was probably more apt for remembering the party strip. She took a final puff of the cigarette, looked back at The Artillery and Mrs. Haj and Aysha Haj and for the first time since her mother had tried to take her own life, she cursed God out loud.
Nelson’s day passed as they all did, tediously and rigidly and according to his rituals. Still, an earlier blip meant that his 14:15 patrol of the building had had to be a little brisker for his 14:30 checking of the accounts to commence on time, just before the 15:00 supervision of Aleksandra the Cleaner and the 16:00 inspection of her work. At 17:45, just when Nelson had turned the last pages of his paper for the second time that day, and just as he prepared to close reception for his evening meal, the little girl, swamped in a black coat that had been given to her in the early hours of the morning, appeared at the other side of his desk.
‘’Scuse me Mr.’
Nelson turned a page, this time backwards. ‘Flood.’
He turned the page again, without looking up. ‘Pardon?’
Page turn. ‘Mr Flood,’ he replied, deadpan.
‘Mr Flood. The kettle in the kitchen isn’t working.’ ‘And how do you know that?’ Page turn.
‘Well, when I went to push the little thing down, do you know which thing I mean Mr Flood? When I went to push it down, nothing happened.’
Page turn. ‘Did you think to put the plug in the socket?’
‘How else would the electricity be conducted through to the kettle to heat the water to a hundred degrees Celsius?’
‘Right. And did you make sure the socket was turned on?’ Page turn.
‘How else would the resistance be reduced for the electricity to pass through?’
Nelson looked up. He knew that, this time, it was just the kettle. The kettle in the first floor kitchen had not worked for three months now, not since Latex Man in room 3 had boiled twenty eggs in it at once.
‘Mr Flood, do you think maybe I could borrow some hot water?’ ‘Well, what do you need hot water for?’
The girl shook her right hand and with it she rattled the dry contents of a pot noodle she held.
Nelson squinted. He had, in the past, contemplated picking up one of those noodle things from the Off Licence, something different, a foray into the exotic, but decided against it when Mr. Patel had made it very clear that the only flavour stocked at Darnton’s was Original Curry. “No no, I’ll leave it,” Nelson had said as he unloaded three tins of spam onto the counter. He had been prepared for something different; he hadn’t gone off the bloody rails.
‘Nothing else you could eat?’
‘No Sir, this is all we got given before we left. They said they would be bring more though, but they didn’t say when.’
‘Right, well. You just wait here. But let me tell you, this is not how I run this place.’
He pushed himself up from behind the desk and retreated into the backroom, returning two minutes later with the boiled kettle, the flacks of lime scale no doubt still suspended in the bubbles.
‘Mr Flood, what’s your name?’
Nelson looked down. The little girl, the coat wrapped around her like a cape, had migrated from in front of the reception desk to behind it, so that she now sat on the little round stool used for Nelson’s arthritic feet. He looked at her, her back slumped, her feet crossed at the floor, and blinked.
‘Mr Flood, are you okay?’
Nelson let out a noise, something close enough to a harrumph, to express just how utterly mortified he was at what seemed to have occurred.
‘Is it Nelson?’
And suddenly, the absurdity of the situation has become so catastrophic that Nelson decided to talk. ‘Why’d you say that?’
‘’Cos it says it, there, on that envelope.’ She pointed to the desk. A ripped letter, an unpaid gas bill. ‘Nelson. Like Nelson Mandela?’
Nelson winced at the suggestion. ‘It’s after the Horatio Nelson,’ he had explained to his lonely hearts date from across the table, the effect of opening his mouth extra wide and speaking extra slow slightly undermined by the speck of béchamel he had catapulted onto her face, just beneath her right eye. In truth, Nelson had been named after Nelson Ripon, his mother’s uncle, a man best known for dying on the beaches of Normandy, a whole seven years before the first troops had landed, from an undiagnosed peanut allergy.
‘Look. Do you want this water boiling or not?’
The little girl pulled the packaged meal from the oversized pocket of the oversized coat, this time pulling a plastic fork out as well. She ripped the foil cover off with her teeth and placed it on the desk.
Nelson began to pour the boiling water over the blanched and dehydrated intestinal block in what could have been was his most caring act since he insisted lonelyhearts have the cheeseboard over the sorbet. He stared into the pot, his eyes glazed by a film of wetness, mesmerised as each crunchy fold loosened.
Nelson snapped the kettle back. ‘Huh?’
‘My name’s Aysha.’
He looked her up and down, noticing for the first time that her trainers were at least two sizes too big. ‘Where’s your mother anyway? Does she often leave you like this? Damn neglectful I say.’
Aysha looked up at the right corner of the ceiling, laced over by a colossal cobweb that had been stubbornly left by Aleksandra over the months as a point of principle. ‘You get me a ladder, I clean it Mr Flood,’ she had told him as she kicked the swivel chair stacked with an encyclopedia that he had instructed her to stand on.
‘She’s at work.’
‘Leave you like this often then, does she?’ ‘Sometimes.’
‘Well, what time does she get back?’
‘I’m not sure.’ Aysha reached over and grabbed a pen, a red one, from the tin in the corner of the desk and rolled it once between her fingers.
Nelson reached out and snatched it back before pinging it back in its rightful place.
‘Well, usually it’s quite late so Mrs. Bello puts me to bed. Usually Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Sometimes Mondays. Sometimes Saturdays.’
Aysha reached over again to the tin, this time picking a green biro. She pulled the lid off it and held it to her nose. Melody at school had a green pen that smelt of apples.
‘I hear Mum sometimes when she comes home ‘cos she always gets on the bed and gives me a kiss. She smells like chemicals. Like that stuff under the sink you’re not supposed to touch.’
Aysha brought the biro back down to its lid. Mr Flood did not buy his pens from the same place as Melody.
‘Look. Mrs who?’
‘Bello. You know, like…hello.’
‘Well, where’s Mrs Hello now?’
‘I’m not too sure.’ Aysha looked into her lap and pulled the lid off again, then put it back on, then off, then on, then off, then on. Nelson snatched it back.
‘Well, Mum said we might see her later. But we got taken to the church before she got down.’ ‘Got down from where?’
‘The thirteenth floor.’
Aysha’s eyes shifted to the pot noodle on the desk, the steam that hovered above it, the plastic rim decorated by droplets of condensation. She stared at it until her eyes went out of focus. Nelson popped the lid off the pen. Neither of them moved until finally, Aysha reached her arm out and dragged the white container towards her, scratching it along the laminate wood so that it stood below her chin, on the edge of the desk.
She slouched forward and hunched her back so that her eyes were level with the deep red plastic wraparound sleeve, rotating it slowly through the bright graphics at the front and the minute nutritional information at the back. She rotated it once and then twice and then lifted her head up and looked directly at Nelson.
‘Mr Flood, can I ask you something?’
‘What?’ He pocketed the green biro.
‘Do you think I should eat this?’
Nelson looked at the plastic container, the cardboard contents.
‘What are you on about? I should imagine you will bloody eat it, else why did you have me up and about, boiling water and messing around?’
Aysha pushed the plastic container along the desk towards Nelson and he looked at it in the same way he looked at Eastern Europeans or pineapples – with deep suspicion.
‘It’s pulled pork.’
And indeed that’s what it said, in brazen blocked writing, loud and tacky and shameless. It was an offensive thing, a monstrous by-product of the recent trend of combining two beloved foodstuffs to birth things like prosecco crisps or gin and tonic anything.
Nelson looked back at Aysha, and because he refused to ask the little girl for an explanation, he fell back into his chair, rolled himself to the edge of the desk and hung his head low enough to read the container. Aysha watched as he squinted, the thin skin around his eyes crumpling as he searched for the answer.
‘Mr Flood. I’m a Muslim.’
Nelson’s head snapped back, his back still arched, his eyes still squinted. ‘You what?’
‘I’m a Muslim.’ Nelson winced.
‘Yes well, I can’t say that that’s any of my business. What you do in the privacy of–’ ‘Well, Muslims don’t eat pork, Mr Flood.’
The nerve under Nelson’s left eyebrow twitched. He jumped onto his feet. ‘Don’t you see, Mr Flood?’
But Mr Flood was too busy with the papers on his desk, organizing then rearranging and then shuffling.
Aysha pulled the pot noodle towards her.
‘Pulled pork.’ She stabbed her finger against the garish words on the plastic sleeve. ‘It’s pulled pork.’
‘Right, well.’ Nelson pulled a pen from the tin, popped the lid off, bashed it on again and dropped it back in. ‘Don’t eat it then. Look, I don’t know about this stuff.’
‘But look. It says…’ She ran her index finger along the words: ‘Suitable for vegetarians’. Nelson recoiled at the word. What folk do in the privacy of their own home, he reminded himself. ‘So look, Mr Flood. In this pulled pork pot noodle, there is no pulled pork. Isn’t that weird?’
‘Yes, yes, weird.’
‘Look.’ She pushed the pot noodle back to Nelson, standing up this time. ‘Look, I believe you.’
‘No, Mr Flood.’ She pulled herself onto the desk so that she sat with her feet dangling over the edge as she grabbed the cooled container and held it under Nelson’s nose. The smell of manufactured goods wafted.
Nelson grabbed the pot and brought right to the bridge of his nose so that it hovered two inches from his eyes. Onion juice. Caramel syrup. Malto… maltodex…maltodextrin.
‘Well.’ He squinted harder. ‘Ain’t that something.’
Nelson had read about this food that tasted like food but was not food. He’d read about it in the papers under headlines with words like ‘cancer’ and ‘risk’.
‘So really, it’s only pulled-pork flavoured.” ‘Yes, yes.’
‘Mr Flood, do you think it would be okay for me to eat something pulled-pork flavoured?’ ‘Well, I don’t know. Look, I told you I don’t know about –’
‘Like, if I’m not supposed to eat pork, does that mean I’m not supposed to taste pork or –’ ‘Look, kid –’
‘When you think about it, well, it’s just like wearing fake fur,’ she said matter-of-factly. “Or eating a veggie burger.’
She flattened her palms against the desk and raised herself two inches off the surface, pushing herself back into the counter. The tin that Nelson kept his pens and his pencils and his protractor in toppled over, the pens spraying out like the hand of a floppy toy skeleton.
‘Look. Will you just.’ Nelson clenched his teeth as he tried to remember what the polite way of telling someone to fuck off was.
‘Look, enough of this.’ He straightened the arm with the pot noodle.
‘Enough of all this.’
Aysha’s mouth opened a little and she stopped swinging her legs because she had never seen someone get quite so angry over pens or pot noodles or pulled pork.
‘Enough of this pork and this Muslim malarkey and enough of’ – he pushed the container into Aysha’s hands –. ‘Whatever that is.’
‘Now let me tell you something you don’t know. It’s now’ – slapstick checking of watch on wrist – ‘five fifty-seven. Which means, in three minutes I will be going through that door and I will be eating my dinner and you will be upstairs in your room, where you are supposed to be.’
‘And no,’ he said, cutting Aysha off even though she had not spoken. ‘You cannot use, borrow or have anything, because this is not a hotel!’
The expulsion of the final words dispersed a shower of spit into the air and a splattering of red blotches detonated across the skin on Nelson’s face.
Aysha slouched off the desk, pot noodle in one hand, fork in the other, and walked past Mr Flood and the reception desk until she was at the bottom of the stairs, about a yard off where she had been at 13:33 this afternoon. She looked at the sad old man, who stood towering over his desk as he huffed and puffed, stacking and un-stacking the same papers. She remembered something her mum said about not knowing what others were going through. Still, she had one more thing to ask Mr Flood, something that had been on her mind for at least five minutes. She thought that he might just be the utmost authority on the matter.
Stack, unstuck, huff, shuffle, puff. ‘Mr Flood?’
‘Bloody hell, what is it?’
‘If this is suitable for vegetarians … and there is no pork in it …then how does it taste like pulled pork?’
‘Bloody hell, I don’t know! Chemicals. E numbers. How do you get sweets to taste like fruit? Now, if you want to eat it, eat it. If you don’t, don’t. I don’t care. Just get out of my sight and out of my reception. This is not how I run this place!’
Aysha thought that Mr Flood must have really been going through some things.
Nelson stood up, walked to the door to his back room and gripped his hand around the handle. His chest rose and fell. His ears burned. And then, because there was a small part of Nelson, somewhere, that felt that ubiquitous need to be needed, he swivelled his body slightly so that he could see Aysha, on the stairs; the coat dangling at her feet on the carpet, the front two inches of the trainers squashed at the base of the next step. He watched as she brought the plastic fork, wrapped in the beige tangles, coated in a brownish gloop, up to her mouth and held it to her tongue, squirming slightly because it was too sweet and too sour and because she was not sure if she liked the taste of pork flavour.
‘Look. Kid. Stand there and don’t you move or talk or do nothing.’
Nelson pushed the door into the darkness and then the next one into his poky kitchen: a dingy room that lacked cupboards or an oven or utensils or safe wiring. From the packet that on the counter, tightly wrapped in clear plastic and twisted at the top, he pulled two slices of bread.
It had to be Kingsmill Soft White No Crusts from Darnton’s Off Licence, yes you have a good day too Mr Patel. Slap bang in the middle: a slice of Green Pastures Natural Cheese. All sliced diagonally, into triangles, perfect for little hands.