Brendan Burke was a creature of narrow habit and come rain or come shine, come hell or high water, he always ate meat on Fridays, even though, around the time of his seventieth birthday, it had begun to play havoc with his digestion.
‘Rebellion,’ said Brendan to Tony Naylor. ‘Rebellion against the shackles of my Catholic upbringing.’
‘Power to the people,’ said Tony, raising a clenched fist.
Tony had been a butcher since leaving school, as were his father and grandfather, but business hadn’t been so good since the influx of supermarkets selling cut price cuts of meat. Curmudgeons like Brendan were a godsend for Tony.
Brendan put the meat in his checked shopping bag and headed off.
‘Post office, next?’ said Tony.
‘As per usual,’ said Brendan. The social kept trying to convince him to have his pension paid into the bank but Brendan dug his heels in, stuck to his guns. He hated banks and enjoyed his trips to the post office, the centre of the local tittle tattle. ‘And then I’m off to the naval club, though I still don’t know if I’m an inny or an outty.’
He chuckled to himself and was still chuckling when a lime-coloured scooter jumped a light and knocked him arse over tit.
‘Jeezus, don’t send for her!’ said Brendan.
Skye, the featherlight social worker that hovered over him – looking like a delicate flower next to the oak of a man – had suggested phoning his daughter, Sue, in London and getting her to come and take care of him for a while. He’d barely been in the hospital a week, discharging himself after complaining about missing two drinking sessions at the club.
‘She’s worse than her bloody mother was for fussin’ and fannying around,’ said Brendan.
‘Well, you do need a carer, Mr B.,’ said Skye.
Brendan shook his head as he looked at her. She was sparkling and fresh, from somewhere down south – home counties, maybe. How could she possibly have a clue about anything?
‘Do you know anyone?’ she asked.
Brendan just stared at her nose stud with disgust.
Oliver Sweet had ducked into his flat as soon as he saw the social worker enter the building. He’d seen her before in the record shop where he hung around. She’d bought a Janis Ian CD and he had tried to make conversation about it but it wasn’t exactly his cup of cocoa. Neither was small talk.
Oliver was a bit off a mouse, who kept himself to himself, although it would have surprised most people to know that he loved to listen Sly Stone, Bootsy Collins and Funkadelic. These were what blew his skirt up. Along with taxidermy – his flat was cluttered with pigeons, rats, even a leathery black bat – collecting funk on vinyl was the centre of his life.
When Brendan moved into the flat opposite, Oliver was a bit worried that the old man would complain about the noise but after talking to him a couple of times, he relaxed. Brendan was as deaf as a post.
He was listing to Sly Stone and changing into his ASDA uniform when he heard the scream and the bang. He stuck his head out of the door and saw that Brendan’s door was open. And then he heard coughing, choking.
‘Are you alright, Mr Burke?’ he said. No reply.
He went to Burke’s door and knocked.
‘Mr Burke?’ said Oliver, louder this time. He went into the flat and saw Brendan doubled over and red-faced. Oliver ran towards him.
Are you alright?’
Brendan looked up with tears in his eyes. Tears of laughter.
‘Sorry…Sorry, Sweety,’ said Brendan. Oliver blushed. He hated that nickname.
‘I couldn’t resist.’ He wheezed. ‘I just wanted her to piss off, so…’ he coughed. ‘So, I asked her to check the boil on my bum. The stuck up little cow soon scarpered then.’
‘So, you’re okay,’ said a blushing Oliver.
‘Aye,’ said Brendan. ‘Do us a favour and pass us that bottle of vodka from the mantelpiece and get two glasses from the kitchenette.’
Oliver wasn’t much of a drinker but he thought he needed to calm down before heading off to work.
He poured the drinks.
‘A toast,’ said Brendan.
‘Na zdrowia, as Polish Tom used to say. To your health.’
Brendan downed the vodka in one and Oliver did the same but it burned like molten lava.
After a week or two it was decided that Oliver would be Brendan’s carer. He’d do the shopping, cash his pension and pop in now and again to keep an eye on him.
Oliver started to like drinking with Brendan and the carer’s allowance that he received meant that he could give up his job at ASDA. In fact all was tickety boo until November.
Tony Naylor’s voice was like a dripping tap to Oliver and the woman at the Post office was even worse. Still, he endured and managed to pop into the record shop before lunchtime to buy Parliament’s ‘Up For The Down Stroke.’
‘Pricey stuff, this,’ said John, the owner of the shop. ‘Been saving up your pennies, Sweety?’
Oliver ignored him and headed back home.
‘The Post Office was packed again,’ said Oliver to Brendan, as he put the shopping bags on the orange, plastic, Formica table.
Brendan said nothing, of course. He’d said nothing since he’d broken his neck falling out of the bath on Bonfire Night. Oliver still liked these evenings, though. Steak, vodka and a bit of Bootsy Collins playing in the background. He glanced over at Brendan’s massive frame as he unpacked the rest of the shopping and thought that he really should have bought some more formaldehyde.