breakfast tea – well brewed.
‘This is outrageous, utter rubbish, and you are an imposter.’ A small crowd gathered around the formidable figure of Mrs Portiboys and the slight, rather exotic young woman that she was addressing. Aware of the interest her outburst had caused, the older woman lowered her tone. ‘Go away’ she hissed. ‘You are nothing to do with my brother. If you do not go immediately I will call a policeman.’
The girl replied nervously in heavily accented English, ‘Please listen to me, I can explain.’
The clock on St Martin-in-the-Fields struck eleven. Thirty years was a long time to wait for anyone, even the brother who had meant so much to her. She considered the girl carefully, and for once she changed her mind.
‘All right young woman, but you have got some explaining to do. And not here.’ People around them were drifting back to their normal business.
At the base of the steps to the National Gallery a newspaper vendor shouted ‘Evening News! Russian ships going to Cuba. Evening News!’
Mrs Portiboys shuddered; nuclear war was looming. ‘I suggest we go for a cup of tea.’ They walked in silence towards the Strand.
Something about the hoarse cries of the newspaper seller resonated in her memory, Father’s angry voice shouting dreadful words most of which she did not understand at the time. She recalled doors slamming, her mother’s cry and the silence that followed Pogo’s departure.
The two women reached the Lyons Corner House at the end of the Strand and found a table near the window. As she had done so many times before, Mrs Portiboys carefully positioned herself facing the street and the direction of Trafalgar Square. She clutched at the remnants of her fast dwindling hope that one day he would be there, just slightly delayed. The Nippy came for an order. ‘Two teas’ she snapped, quickly adding ‘Please’ as the waitress turned away.
‘We gotta trust Mr Kennedy,’ an American accent momentarily rose above the subdued murmur of the cafe ‘The President’ll hold his nerve.’
The young woman took the initiative ‘My name is Elena; I am your brother Paul’s daughter.’
‘So I know you are a liar. He cannot have any children.’ Years of practice kept her voice steady, but her thin lips all but vanished into her trembling mouth. Their tea arrived and she carefully poured out two cups. ‘But seeing as we are here you’d better go on with your story. Before I call the police’ she added.
‘My father told me that when he left home he promised to meet you on his birthday, at eleven o’clock on October 23 by the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square.’ Mrs Portiboys thought to herself whoever she is, she has done her homework. Out loud she said ‘So why are you here and not him?’
‘Sadly my father died last year. He had been ill for some time’. Mrs Portiboys felt a wave of sadness, but after so long her sorrow was tempered with relief. Thirty years was a long time to wait, and here was some sort of resolution. She was starting to believe the girl. ‘He lived in Argentina,’ continued Elena ‘he emigrated there after he left England.’
In her handbag Mrs Portiboys had a photograph of Pogo. It was the only one she had. Her late husband, the Colonel, had not approved of photographs; he was not a sentimental man. Although Pogo had left two years before she even met the Colonel, he had made his disapproval of both photographs and his missing brother-in-law very clear.
In recent years she had wondered if she would even recognise her brother. The woman claiming to be his daughter looked nothing like him. Mrs Portiboys was wary again; suspicious that some sort of trick was being played on her.
‘So, if you are indeed my niece why do you look so, well...’ she uncharacteristically fumbled for the right words, ‘ so…Spanish? Who is your mother?’
Elena sighed. ‘I don’t know. I lived in an orphanage until I was two. Then your brother adopted me. I was just one of a large number of children in orphanages in Buenos Aires. Many never left, some ended up in sweat shops or prostitution and a few were adopted. The authorities were just glad to see a child go. To any sort of family; they did not ask too many questions.’
The Nippy placed the bill in front of them.
‘Shall we walk for a little while?’ It was more a command than a question. They negotiated their way across Trafalgar Square, through groups of people anxious for news of the drama unfolding on the other side of the Atlantic.
Mrs Portiboys remembered when Pogo was born. There had been a governess who took her for walks and talked about the baby. He was almost two weeks old before she was allowed to see him. Father told her that one day this tiny baby would be a great soldier and that she must help Mama look after him.
She had spent hours reading to him, playing games, telling stories, even writing a play for them to act in front of their governess. It was never an imposition, he was simply her life. Paul Hugo seemed a big name for such a small child and she always called him Pogo, much to the irritation of her parents. For years Mrs Portiboys had never mentioned her beloved brother to anyone. She had tried once. Not long after she married, with all the confidence of a new bride she had asked her parents if they knew where Paul was. Her father retreated behind The Times. Her mother looked directly at her and said ‘Paul? I don’t know anyone named Paul.’
‘Why didn’t he contact me?’ Mrs Portiboys fixed Elena with a cold stare. The young woman responded gently ‘I don’t think even he could answer that. Time goes on and in the end I think he just kept you in a secret corner of his mind.’
‘Yet he must’ve known that I would come here every year in all weathers to wait for him.’ She was irritated that her brother had not kept his promise.
‘He only saw your advert a few years ago.’ Elena knew how lame this sounded, so she carried on quickly ‘One day he bought a mirror that was delivered wrapped in an old copy of The Times. He flattened it out and read it, every word. Then he reached the Personal Column and he saw a message from you. It was the only time I saw him cry.’
‘Yet he still did not get in touch.’ Mrs Portiboys shook her head with disappointment.
Elena sensed the older woman’s sadness. ‘He did mean to, but the newspaper he saw was five years old. He wasn’t sure of your surname, or where you lived. He only knew that you were keeping your promise.’
Mrs Portiboys recalled the awful arguments, the hurtful words and eventually the realisation that her parents would never understand, or forgive, their son. She had never spoken about their rift with her brother to anyone, so she had to struggle to find the words. ‘Father wanted Pogo to be a soldier like him. He had ambitions for him, a glorious career in his old regiment. He was so proud when Pogo did well at school. They had a huge row when Pogo refused to go to Sandhurst.’ She still could not mention the final confrontation, when Pogo dropped his bombshell and walked out of their lives.
She turned to Elena ‘Your father was a fine man.’
Elena paused before carefully continuing. ‘Then he became ill and could not travel. So I promised him I would come and find you. Here I am.’ She looked tired and cold; the anxious crowds pressing around them clearly disturbed her. Mrs Portiboys noticed that her companion was shivering. She relented. ‘I think I believe your story, but there are still many questions to be answered. Shall we go and find some lunch?’
Later she retrieved the precious photo from her handbag. ‘Do you have a more recent picture of your father?’ She hesitated as the treasured photo was passed across the table.
Elena took a wallet out of her bag. From it she retrieved a photograph and passed it to her aunt. The picture showed a laughing man with curly hair. It was clearly Pogo. Standing by his side was a tall man wearing sunglasses. The tall man’s hand was on Pogo’s shoulder. She took a deep breath. ‘Who is the other man?’
‘That’s Maxwell.’ Elena’s eyes lit up. ‘I still have one father. I am very lucky. He knows that I am here.’ She hesitated. ‘He asked that if I found you I should pass on his respects to you.’
Mrs Portiboys said nothing. She took a crisp handkerchief from her bag and discreetly blew her nose.
About the author
Penny writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry.
She has been published in anthologies including Henshaw
One and Two, This Little World and The Best of CaféLit 5
as well as in Bare Fiction, Writers’ Forum and