Old Mr Bittersweet has prospered (and continues to do so) where here and long after the great grab for batteries and bully beef have been exhausted his own line in tinned tea, tailored suits and toiletries was coming good. He and Young Alf live in their department store and given that anyone likely to roam about like a pirate being frightful have done so years before (and mostly in the end upon one another) it has been months since they have had to use their Lewis gun. Ten years since the distant mushrooms and what the British people mostly want now is a tin of biscuits and a pair of good slippers. Growing food takes a lot less time to learn than it does to master the art of a well-packed custard cream. But oh, people might be able to bake their own, but they’re not the same. There are still many communities without reliable electricity but they all have a good, local newspaper. No one is short of a bale of lamb’s wool but can you get hold of a packet of matching buttons? As Old Mr Bittersweet just said to me, ‘I should cocoa’. And he has cocoa too, at three dozen eggs a tin. The world, from what his boy Alf has told him once in my presence, might be a smoking and terrible ruin but in England people scrubbed their steps clean before seeing to a new roof. Atom bombs are atom bombs but they’re no excuse for a dirty shirt collar. Shirt collars are like gold dust after all, and Old Mr Bittersweet prices them at just that.
Here in the yard of Bittersweet & Son where shadow letters spell the legend Making The Catastrophe Cosy a tarpaulin has been pegged over the lorry and Mme Roux accepts the cup of good Indian offered her. Fussing, she’s last to the table and mine is already cool enough to drink. I’d brought cake because Old Mr Bittersweet likes little better, but no sandwiches because he only likes the proper stuff: white and ready-sliced.
Amongst the tea things there is a revolver. Having taken from his shoulder a Geiger counter Mr Bittersweet plays mother. Her rubber gloves dirty Mme Roux removes them but with care so as not to risk a split. There is no sugar bowl. For a man with a sweet tooth Mr Bittersweet has views on that sort of thing, as well I know.
“Whatever you’re thinking of doing I hope you’ve got a plan b?” says Mr Bittersweet.
“No,” she says.
He nods. Mme Roux is of the belief that sometimes it serves to show faith with a plan. It shows a lack of confidence in it to consider another way and plans can be prickly things at best, prone to all manner of accident and error. An old and proven plan might understand the wisdom of having a reserve but the young easily take offence and she well knows that more plans fail due to sulking on their part than anything else. She points at the lorry to say, “I have a bomb.”
“Famously so, is that it then?”
“Would you say so?”
I drink my tea, listening but with nothing to say. Old Mr Bittersweet on the other hand says that it certainly looks just as he had imagined it to be. Albeit (he continues) and if he is honest, with a bit more of the gleam about the steel of it? He says, “It’s true then?”
She smiles tightly. Not wanting to lie she does not have much practise in telling the truth. Mme Roux to my experience is entirely and exactly what she wishes herself to be. Others may have fallen into their lives, their loves, lusts and lollipops through circumstance. Most maybe are a cocktail of their parents and the years that came thereafter. Mme Roux once decided not to leave herself to the frail uncertainty of experience but instead to make such decisions for herself. She is not alone in this. So plucky, so adventurous and even it might be said how daring Mme Roux appears in the gossip and tales that travel where people walk and radio reaches, that her reputation has gone far further than has she. She hopes so. Near all these tales of her exploits come from her. Actually, me. Most of them are even true. Some of them are even about her. Everyone knows she has the last bomb, her Bon Bon. It has been an adequate threat but has become now (and because of our efforts) rather than a means of warning away danger, increasingly now of attracting it.
Three pieces of cake have been cut. Mme Roux frowns. She says to me, “Sorry, did you say something?”
“No,” I say.
“I must have imagined it.”
Mr Bittersweet sets one of the slices on a side plate that he passes over. He says, “What did you imagine he might have said?”
“I don’t know,” says Mme Roux. “I wasn’t listening.”