| Leroy Saldemando grew up in Crouch End, surrounded by darling little parks and quaint streets that brimmed with yummy mummies, who doggedly pushed prams like army generals heading into war. Instead of M16 assault rifles, they bore designer booties, toys featuring New & Revolutionary Play Technology™, and such treasured books as Baby Loves Mozart: Transform Your Child from Woeful to Wunderkind. They prowled the streets, ready to behead and devour, praying-mantis-style, any contesting little’uns who could mu-mu-da-da with a rounder timbre and clearer enunciation. Leroy’s mother, Annette, became a gang leader, and slipped easily into the slimy underbelly of overactive parenting; before long she was hosting tea parties, using a myriad of occasions as guises for opportunities to choose her proffered allies and elect her victims. At the housewarming party, the mother of little Eliza, a loud-mouthed 9-month-old, demonstrated extreme aptness in the arts of Patronizing, Belittling and Really Not Meaning To Offend, talents Annette immediately picked up on and, so, with the wave of a telephone number, suggested a second meeting. She worked fast in establishing her team, and they, in turn, were quick in eradicating the weak and unworthy. Bertha Harris was a prime example of such a prey.
At Leroy’s first birthday, Bertha brought homemade scones. A charming gesture, everyone had said, yet, when Bertha unintentionally mentioned that honey had featured in the recipe, she stumbled into a minefield. The bombs lay just beneath her, and Bertha, only realising her mistake in the instant her feet touched the ground, gasped in misery. Patricia Martin, who for a moment allowed organic avocado to dribble out of little Sebastian’s mouth in pure horror, exclaimed – and here comes the big red button – in a disconcertingly factual manor that honey commonly contains spores of clostridium botulinium.
“And you know what that can cause,” she whispered, securing Sebastian’s bonnet and placing her hands over his ears as she breathed the word: “botulism”.
Silence spilled all over the floor and everyone looked at the scones, no longer with oh-you-shouldn’t-have affection but with awed disgust that coated the walls like mud.
Annette was the first to speak.
“Everyone, everyone. It was so kind, really, so kind and such a shame, honestly. Oh, but I have an idea! We’ll wrap them up and Bertha can take them home with her – really you should darling – because if that sort of thing doesn’t bother her than why on earth should we throw them away and waste perfectly good scones? Her little Henry can have a feast later. I’ll get the clingfilm!”
All that remained of Bertha Harris were the scattered remains of her reputation.
Needless to say, Bertha was excommunicated. Some said that on weekday mornings you could see her sitting dejectedly at the benches in the park, unhappily throwing whole-wheat bread in the duck pond and abjectly cooing to Henry. Eventually, after she became known in the tea party circles as That Poor Woman, one can only assume she simply evaporated out of shame, leaving Henry to bathe himself in honey if he so chose. It was rumoured that Annette even suggested to Steve the Accountant (and Bertha’s husband) that they move back to Swansea, as the sea air might do Bertha and Henry some good, particularly as fresh air and lots of walks are well-known to protect against food poisoning or anything else of that nature, you know how it is…
By the time Leroy was nine, he attended flute lessons, elocution lessons and speech and drama classes. He put the gifted and talented teachers in a perpetual state of pinkness and his marks in English, maths, French and geography necessitated the creation of new scales to place them on. He took extended Latin classes (because the school doesn’t offer it, can you believe it!), and reawakened the professor – who had been very close to death – with the nimbleness of his conjugations. His weekends consisted of football, rugby and sailing, as well as Family Time every Sunday, when he and Annette would walk briskly to Priory Park and back, and she would quiz him on arbitrary things that he already knew (at the tender age of nine) pleased her very much.
“What do the teachers say about you again, Leroy, when you speak to them in Latin?”
“They say I must be very intelligent and belong to a very good family.”
“Do they really? Isn’t that just lovely? They’re right of course, Leroy – you do belong to a very good family.”
Ed Saldemando, father of Leroy and wife to Our Mother Annette, had moved to England when he was fourteen years old, after his mother, Valeria, had had an affair with the man who cleaned the windows. Ed had many fond memories of Spain and the family home at Alicante, where the air in the streets was warm and salty and he could spend all day fishing for crabs to throw at the tourists who occasionally leaked into the suburbs. Sometimes, in the sleepy afternoons, his older brother Victor would grab Ed’s face in his large and powerful hands and tell him magnificent stories, like when he had snuck into the convent of Canónigas de San Agustín one star-emblazoned night and seen the ghosts of a hundred nuns, all of whom, according to Victor, had truly fantastic breasts.
The man of the house at Alicante, the mighty el padre to young Ed, Samuel Saldemando worked somewhere that never concerned Ed. He also had a bristly moustache, which Ed could not remember ever touching. He didn’t imagine his mother had ever touched it either, for they never seemed to interact at all; her spotted sundresses samba’d and swan-dived past his flat grey suits and mashed-pea ties. Then, one day, when Ed was waiting for Victor to come home with a friend who knew a place that would sell cigarettes to anyone (as he’d promised he would), Valeria burst into his universe, threw him a suitcase and some frantic, flyaway words, and flew away down the stairs to the tune of her red espadrilles. They were leaving, she trilled, because she loved Mark, and Mark loved her. That was all there was to it. On further examination by Ed, he found that Mark, an Englishman, the pasty, pub-lingering window washer, had reversed fate. He had duped the story books and made farces of fairytales, simply because he was, by anyone’s standards, the most unremarkable man to ever walk the planet, yet, in one wind-whipped afternoon, he managed to singlehandedly steal away Valeria Saldemando and her loquacious sundresses, right from beneath her husband’s bristly moustache.
And so, the artist formerly known as Eduardo left Spain and came to a place that, to him, resembled the concrete of the INFORMATION HERE tourist booths in Calle de Gravina. Mark the Bland and Bloated Brit lived in Croydon, in handy walkable distance from both the picturesque-sounding Figge’s Marsh and the Pitlake Arms, a pub made of pebbly white plasterboard, as if, in an attempt to hide its blatant lack of appeal, it had smothered itself in white powder makeup. Victor had stayed behind in Spain, giving Ed a parting gift of a dirty magazine and his own tired leather jacket, which smelled of aftershave and moped grease, and which Ed did not take off until he was curled inside the pull-down bed in the living room of Mark’s semi-detached house.
As cuts heal and scab, memories of Alicante faded and the Grim and the Grey smoothly incorporated themselves into Ed’s life. His tangy accent was drowned in vats of glutinous gravy found at the Pitlake Arms, and his little emphatic ‘si’s were beaten down by the bludgeonish ‘innit’s. He had never been particularly good at language, and had spoken Spanish with only reasonable accuracy and little flair, so it was no surprise that over a few short months the language dirtied like a dull metal, until he could only dredge up a few sad words on command. Victor never wrote.
At ten years old, Leroy was reading at a sixteen-year-old level. Annette practically shattered with pride when she received the school report in a neat manila folder that clearly read, to her, “How Well You Have Done As A Parent”.
“Mrs. Richards said it’s an honour to teach you, Leroy. Did you hear that, Ed? An honour.”
Ed opened his eyes from where he lay beached on the sofa. The hairs in his moustache quivered as he breathed through his nose.
“Celebratory lunch, anyone? Look Ed, I bought chorizo – Sainsbury’s is stocking it now. As of yesterday, in fact! Perfect timing, no? Something to remind you of the past while we celebrate our truly great achievements.”