Coming back from Sainsburys, Mrs Bambayag met The Single Mother on the tenement stair.
The Single Mother – Eileen – had two squalling children with her. The child in her arms was determined to pull up her t-shirt and expose her bra to the neighbourhood, and the other was being bounced around in a pushchair. The children, pushchair and three bags of shopping were being dragged upwards, step by step, with bumps and screams all round.
Mrs Bambayag calmly observed the operation from a lower landing until she could get safely past. Her own purchase, a tissue-wrapped bottle, was tucked like a hen’s egg in her stern, little handbag. Mrs Bambayag hoisted her bosom.
“Happy Birthday, miss McIntyre,” she said. “Doing anything special to mark the day?”
“Oh – ah, no Mrs Bambayag,” Eileen sighed, “not after… last year. And you, I mean…” She pointed at the twist of black crepe. “A celebration?”
“Oh, you know… an anniversary. An old lady still has her days, my dear; she still has her particular days.” And with that, she slipped past, pointedly ignoring the small voice that shouted furiously: “Why does that woman have a moustache?”
“Reggie!” squawked Eileen.
Mrs Bambayag was humming a little military march as she entered her charming residence, fluttering a doily or two as she passed. Her hat and coat were stowed and straightened on the neat little hooks in the hall.
The handbag, she took through into the lounge, where she fetched the fine crystal decanter from the mantle. A little silver funnel came next and Mrs Bambayag carefully unwrapped the bottle, uncorked it with a delicate ‘phung!’, and poured out its contents with a steady hand and gimlet eye. Watching the rich, plummy, liquid splash into the funnel, she gave a little shiver of excitement, as if it were triumph, rather than fine brandy, that was rising up in the sparkling crystal.
Exactly one year ago today, Mrs Bambayag had murdered Eileen McIntyre’s thirtieth birthday party. In fact, it had been quite ironic seeing her on the stairs. The murder weapon had been a single call to the local constabulary on a black, Bakelite phone. The police had not wanted to intervene – Eileen’s mother had come over especially from Adelaide, her brother had come from the Kassala in the Sudan, and one of their off-duty colleagues was enjoying the Peach Champagne Punch – but a complaint was a complaint. An obscure fire Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order from 1805 had been quoted down to the numbered sub-sub-section and had to be upheld. Of course, it had – Mrs Bambayag had once been a lawyer. Haemorrhaging guests, the party had managed to drag itself to a local pub, where, by all accounts, a substandard time was had by all, before the celebration had finally expired.
Mrs Bambayag liked to celebrate these sorts of victories as if they were great battles that could be pointed out on a map and marked with little, crossed swords: ‘No quarter taken, July 22nd, Battle of Bargaining Down The Fish Shop on a Quarter Of Cod’, or ‘Victory in Shortcuts Salon, January 15th, Battle of the Pink Rinse Voucher Being Out of Date, But by God it Was Redeemed,’ and other such dates. But today – the first anniversary of her Waterloo, you might say; the death of Eileen’s soirée – was a day yet to be named and awarded its colours.
On her wall was a spacious wall plan – a calendar – of birthdays, and on the drawing table, was her little black book, with its list of the other tenants in her block and the names of their landlords or landladies, and the phone numbers of those respective persons, ready for complaints, of course. And the tenants and their birthdays were all neatly indexed.
It could immediately be seen that all the birthdays had been crossed out with a careful stroke of red ink, and Eileen’s was double scored as the very last, with ‘Buy Brandy!’ written next to it.
Even Eileen’s children had been ‘nibbed in the bud,’ as it were. In fact, Mrs Bambayag had ruthlessly polished off every party, nobbled every ‘knees up’, and eviscerated every entertainment in the tenement for the last twenty years. She’d done it anonymously, of course, by phone, with some querulous complaints, a pitiful cough, and a few crocodile tears that clearly demonstrated she’d been driven to distraction – “Oh deary me, officers, I really didn’t want to complain, but what with the terrible noise and my having such a dickey heart and all….” The complaints were backed up with a raft of old and quite legitimate legal loopholes, the likes of which even the inquisitional lawyers of the Spanish in 1478 would’ve considered far too grotesque and underhand to use (though despite this attributed weakness, she was still a fan of Tomás de Torquemada).
“Peace and quiet Mrs Bambayag,” she said to herself, “peace and quiet. I never did hold with all that faffing and gadding about and pointless celebration.” A prune’s a prune’s a cabbage, she liked to say, and by that she meant she was too old, or too content, to change.
While the birthday of everyone else in the tenement was so marked, Mrs Bambayag’s birthday was not amongst their number; nor had it ever been on any calendar. Her very own mother hadn’t remembered the exact day her daughter had been born – a sad thing, but true – and her daughter hadn’t had any presents until she was seven. Mrs Bambayag could only approximate her ‘many happy returns’ to a Tuesday or a Wednesday, in June or February, but possibly to a Friday in September.
When the last drop of brandy was a smear on the glass, the funnel was gently tapped twice and kept for the kitchen, and she placed the stopper back in the decanter and placed the decanter back on the mantle. Her attention wandered to the wall plan once more and she picked up her sharp, nib pen.
It was a seminal day on Mrs Bambayag’s calendar. What was she going to call it? She thought for a moment, her tongue twisting around. Then, glorious inspiration struck. She couldn’t… could she? Surely –
“Ohhhh, Mrs Bambayag, you old devil,” she chuckled.
She scratched two words across Eileen’s defeated little space: BAMBAYAG DAY. Perfect. She didn’t have a day for herself, so why not take somebody else’s?
Time to put up the decorations! “Make it a public holiday,” she trilled. A red telegram day from the Queen: Bambayag Day!
Mrs Bambayag rummaged around in her hall closet and removed an old-fashioned hat box from beneath the bundle of ribbon-tied documents she kept there, and some interesting National Geographics she’d put aside. The box smelled of old age, moth-balls and rubber bands.
Back in the lounge, she opened the box and took out a rubbery, half perished balloon. The balloon had Happy Birthday Eileen written on it. It was fragile, but precious. There were a few streamers still attached and she put those round the mirror. The balloon itself, was pinned, pride of place, next to her collection of Dutch porcelain schoolboys. A small card was next, pushed between the mirror glass and the frame. It had been hand-drawn by a child, and featured a smiling cat with blue crayon whiskers and two tails. Hapie Birtda, Mumi, it said. Reggie. Xxxxxxxxxx xxx x.
With pride, Mrs Bambayag adjusted and tweaked these oddments: the remains of that last, pitiful celebration, disinterred from the refuse bins at the back of the tenement.
Then she made luncheon. On Bambayag Day, she decided, it was now tradition-nouveau to eat with the silver cutlery, usually reserved for funerals, and the Willow-Pattern plates that hung in the hall for when the Queen should call. And, as an afterthought, she climbed up into the small space above her airing cupboard and dug out a dusty, old Christmas cracker for the side of her tray. One and Ha’penny, the box of crackers said, from the Co-op. Oh she was in a daring mood today!
Sitting primly by the fire, bean-bag tray neatly installed upon her lap, she had a lovely forcemeat roll, three golden potatoes, and some toasted parsnips for one. Then she popped open her blackened metal tin – the one with the Pears Soap label of Britannia, resplendent-Regina – and had a few malted crackers.
Dabbing at her lips with a starched cotton serviette, she placed her knife and fork quite parallel on the face of her plate. Two-fisted, she pulled the cracker with gusto. It didn’t go ‘snap!’ but it did at least frizzle with the smell of gunpowder when it tore in two, though she lost the little tin toy under the couch. She pulled out the hat, and folded it carefully, putting it between one of the Geographics for safekeeping.
Mrs Bambayag was not one for the common joke, but she was keen on the fortune slips you got in the more ‘exclusive’ crackers. Beware of Big Surprises, the little slip of paper said. Mrs Bambayag – who immediately took stock of her fate – got up to wash the Willow-Pattern plates, just in case. You never could tell when Her Majesty might call.
Once the dishes were washed, wiped and stored, she watched Prisoner Cellblock H in black-and-white, and a documentary that featured more than one incidence of mating baboons.
Mrs Bambayag yawned. It was time, she decided, for a nightcap and then bed.
She went to the mantle and took down the decanter she’d prepared earlier. It was full of her very favourite brandy – Dyuc de Frombergaine – an old vintage Armagnac aged in casks of Monlezun oak; it was the kind of brandy that Napoleon drank. She took out the thinnest of crystal glasses – that rang to a fingernail – and filled it. “Death to revelry,” she pronounced, and toasted the demise of her adversary. There were other days, but none had the same, satisfying note of conquest as Bambayag Day. She took a sip – the succulence of apple, cloves, fresh-baked bread, and a hint of marzipan, filled her mouth. There might even be a hint of persimmon in there, too.
When she turned in at 10:30, it was to unadulterated silence. Listening to the clock tick was part of the celebration; watching the dust motes sparkle in the moonlight and hearing the old tick, tick, tick, was all a part of Bambayag Day. What a wonderful day it is, she thought, and drifted off to sleep.
In the living room, it was very, very quiet; a crypt-like silence hung over everything. Then, at midnight, it began to get cold. A light dusting of glitter and a few plastic stars rimed the sofa like frost. In the display cabinet, Eileen’s balloon kicked once; the movement slid a Dutch porcelain figurine a fraction of an inch, with a slight squeak of glass. Some streamers slipped a little lower on the mirror, like a noose playing out quietly through strong hands. Reggie’s card fluttered to the floor, whirling over and over like a sharpened blade of paper. An aura of exuberance and drunken debauchery began to build – whatever remained of good cheer had risen from the after-party and had come back for revenge…
At 3:00am, loud music woke Eileen McIntyre from a restless sleep. Her momentary reaction was to think she was dreaming, because nobody had parties in this block anymore. But her floor was vibrating, and a foil twist of aspirins on the bedside cabinet was buzzing and ruzzing as it crept towards the edge of the table top. A shelf of books had already collapsed, catapulting her stuffy cow, Gerry, into her knickers drawer. Birthday cards were tumbled everywhere. Somebody, somewhere, was playing one of her favourite songs – Annie Lennox’s Diva – far, far too loud.
After twenty minutes, unable to ignore the fact that it sounded like Annie was in the same bed, singing in her ear with a loud hailer, Eileen decided that she was going to have to be the one to deal with things, as usual.
“Nobody murders Annie with that much treble,” she muttered, levering herself up. She dragged up her dressing-gown from a pile of clothes by the bed, and swept a handful of hair from her face. The dressing-gown came like syrupy bread, sticky-side-down, but she bolted it on with a loopy twist of the furry tie. In the hall, she skiff-skiffed to the phone in her monster-feet slippers, only stopping to say: “Reggie! Bed! Now!” and “Yes, of course I can hear the music…” and “No, you can’t have any crisps! Go on… No, I’m just going to make a phone call! Now, bed!”
In response, small, sticky-sounding feet padded back to their room on varnished wood, somewhat miffed, it seemed.
Eileen picked up the phone, flicked the same number three times and waited.
“Thank God. Police? There’s somebody playing loud music in my block. It’s ridiculous…” and she held the handset towards the thumping ceiling. A shrill old woman could be heard singing along to Legend in my Living Room and having a rare old time. The singing was completely out of tune.
At 3:45, the police buzzed up to Eileen’s flat. She let them in; just as the music went eerily and utterly quiet.
In the first glimmer of dawn, a cat disturbed some sparkly trash by the tenement bins and the wind blew some rainbow confetti around an empty brandy bottle. A small balloon, half deflated, bounced once or twice on its string of streamers and slowly shrank to the size of a peanut. On the gaily coloured rubber, Eileen’s name became newsprint and then nothing. A little worse for wear, last year’s party had finally staggered back to its final resting place. Of Mrs Bambayag, on her wonderful day, it left not a trace.