Lilly Ng and the Starlight Burger Bar
By Mark Burrow
1. Career Opportunities
When Leon Fish was 15-years old he told Mr Bier, his depressed and cynical Careers teacher, that he wanted to become a captain of industry.
‘Thousands of people will obey me,’ stated Leon.
‘What industry would you captain?’ asked Mr Bier.
Leon thought for a moment, then said, ‘That’s not important.’
‘You have no idea what you’re talking about, do you?’ said Mr Bier, downing the dregs from a mug of instant coffee. The teacher planned to leave the inner-city school at the end of the Term. His office was the smallest in the collection of run-down blocks and none of the other teachers took him seriously, treating him with less respect than Mrs Robson, the Religious Education teacher who was off sick after suffering a nervous breakdown.
He was weary of these kids who didn’t possess a shred of innocence. They thought self-improvement and education were signs of snobbishness. They actively wanted to squander their lives in dead-end, meaningless jobs, breeding more of the same ignorance in their rat-hole council flats.
‘A captain of industry,’ repeated Mr Bier, vaguely impressed by the boy’s flicker of ambition.
Leon nodded, imagining himself sat at a wide desk in a massive office on the top floor of a tower of glass.
‘But that would require aptitude,’ added Mr Bier. ‘Arithmetic and writing skills, for example.’
‘That’ll come,’ said Leon.
‘No it won’t. It takes effort, commitment. Intelligence doesn’t just grow like hair. Your grades are dreadful, Leon, because you’re phenomenally bone idle.’
Mr Bier marvelled at the boy’s errant mind-set. Soon he’d be free of this ship of fools. He would be in France with his unbelievably hot fiancé, Agnes, helping to run her loaded father’s vineyard. ‘What about becoming a car mechanic?’ he said in a last attempt to save the boy from the gutter. ‘Even you could get on a training course for that and then you’d have a trade.’
‘Nah,’ said Leon. ‘That’s not how it’s gunna roll.’
‘Shall I tell you how it’ll role if you don’t listen for once?’
‘At best, you’ll be working for a fast-food chain or stacking shelves in a supermarket. You’ll be poor and miserable and trapped in a nothingness that won’t be over until you die.’
Mr Bier waited for a response.
Leon examined the walls. ‘How come your office don’t have no windows?’
Mr Bier also looked at the walls. It was a good question. One he’d asked himself every single morning he came to work. ‘Ah, fine, have it your way,’ he said.
Leon went to leave and then turned to face the teacher again.
‘Yes?’ said Mr Bier.
‘Teachers always yak, yak, yak about exams and the importance of education, right?’
‘I suppose we do.’
‘Well, if it’s so amazingly awesome and all that, why are teachers in this school stressed out and unhappy?’
Mr Bier paused. ‘Education won’t make you happy.’
‘But it’ll give you a better chance of finding it. Believe me, life is difficult and cruel enough without making it harder on yourself. Don’t put yourself at a disadvantage from the very start.’
Leon stood there. ‘Right,’ he said.
‘Can I go?’
‘By all means.’
The carefree boy bounced out of the coffee-
smelling office. He was thinking about the panoramic views of his own office and the photograph of Miss Lilly Ng on his mighty desk of black marble. Except she wouldn’t be Lilly Ng by then. No way. Not in a million years.
She’d be Mrs Lilly Fish.
2. Young Lovers
Lilly was the prettiest girl in school. No, forget that. She was the prettiest girl in Lambeth, in South London… But better— the whole of London Town… A new English queen, born in Vietnam.
The fact of her beauty and pedigree struck him when she first entered that double-period science lesson, wearing those wickedly tight blue jeans which gave him a rocket hard-on so bad he thought it’d launch through his pants and fly to the moon. He tingled and ached whenever he glimpsed her. That shoulder length, jet black hair. The way she popped gum, talked about music and received A-grades for maths like it was no big deal.
And those legs and white cotton shorts in PE.
Boy oh boy, she was magical.
Leon knew that if he could win Lilly’s heart then he would find happiness. Exams. Jobs. Careers. Material things. What did they matter?
All that could wait until Lilly belonged to him.
Her love would be enough.
3. The Mistake
Maurice Moretti, his friend at school, advised him to keep his passion a secret. ‘Don’t do this,’ said Maurice as they leaned against a wall, sharing a bag of crisps in the morning break.
‘I’ve no choice,’ answered Leon, seeing her on the far side of the playground with her gang of girlfriends.
‘She’s not your type.’
Leon tutted. ‘Flowers or chocolates – that’s what I’m asking you about: what do you think she wants?’
Maurice handed the crisps to Leon and took out his asthma pump. ‘If you give her chocolates at school you might as well come to Worthing and live with me.’
Leon felt sad. His friend’s parents were leaving London to start afresh by the seaside. Maurice’s dad had seen another woman and that had upset Maurice’s mum but the dad promised to never ever see the woman anymore. He was going to buy a family dog too.
‘What about music? She likes bands.’
‘You’ve never spoken to her and I heard she’s going with Steven McCullough.’
‘She’ll make a tit out of you and then Steven will beat you up.’
‘But this is love,’ replied Leon.
The two of them took the long way round to the next class to avoid a group of boys who enjoyed making smart remarks and getting into punch-ups.
It wasn’t as if Leon could ask his parents for advice. Are you kidding? Those two! Besides, his dad died that very Term when, staggering home paraletic from a poker night at the pub, he was run over by a drunk driver. Killed instantly, apparently. How anyone knew this was a mystery as the body was discovered by a milkman the next morning.
Leon’s mum was hysterical (during the funeral at least).
‘What’ll we do?’ she wailed, weak legged and sobbing. She held onto Uncle Gary for support in the church and by the grave. In many ways, she never did let go, as she moved into his place six weeks after the burial.
Uncle Gary, it transpired, was a mean person, urging Leon to do sport and lose weight and he would shout and criticise the food Leon’s mum cooked for them.
Leon couldn’t say he felt much over the hit-and-run. He wasn’t altogether sure what he was supposed to feel or how he ought to act. As he stood in the church, the sensation inside was similar to when boys at school inflicted a dead arm or a dead leg, repeatedly punching the same part of a limb until it went numb.
Hearing his mother’s sobs and seeing the morbid expressions, Leon’s one certainty was that everything would be infinitely better if Lilly could be by his side.
5. The Gift
So he followed her home.
It wasn’t the first instance. Nor would it be his last. As if! But on this occasion he carried a single rose, which he hid in his coat. If any of the kids at school or on the bus discovered the flower on him, he’d be toast.
She lived off Lavender Hill. He sat by the stairwell on the top deck of the bus, in case she stepped off early as she did now and then. It was noisy on the bus with the school children. The screeches and shouting and the foul-mouthed pubescent drama annoyed the grown-up passengers.
Leon winced as a thorn pierced his shirt and pricked his skin. He was frightened and excited by the thought of kissing her… Smelling her hair…Touching those legs.
She got off the stop before the library, by the police station. He trailed her along the main road, staying about 20 paces behind. She was listening to music. He imagined her teaching him about singers and bands and they could see live gigs together at the Brixton Academy.
Things were changing.
She turned left into a street of terraced houses. It wasn’t like the flat where he lived on the estate. These were the sorts of places dad talked about living in if he won on the cards or the horses or the dogs. Leon breathed deeply like he was about to dive into cold water. This is it! He surfaced behind her and tapped her on the shoulder.
She jumped, frightened. ‘Hey!’ she said, kissing her teeth and removing her earphones.
There was a frown as she tried to put a name to the face. ‘You’re from school.’
‘Yeah, you can’t do maths.’
‘No, I really can’t,’ he said, laughing.
‘Alright, laters,’ she said, going to replace the earphones.
‘I have something for you.’
Her head cocked back.
Unbuttoning his coat, he removed the rose. ‘This is for you, Lilly. You are the most beautiful girl I have ever seen and I can’t imagine my life without you. I want you to be there with me into old age.’
Their eyes met and he felt his blood surging.
Momentarily, he thought he had her.
The softness of her expression hardened into a scowl. ‘Stalker,’ she said.
‘I’m gunna tell everyone at school that you’re a
dirty, creepy stalker. Shame on you.’
‘It’s not like that, Lilly, no…’
She stepped backwards, tossing the flower into the road. ‘Do you honestly think I’d date you? For one, you’re half-caste. My dad would kill me if I ever dated your sort. Not that I would date you anyway… Dream on.’
‘But Lilly, we’re meant for each other.’
‘You’re mental,’ she said, flicking him the finger as she sauntered along the street.
6. Bad to Worse
‘I told you not to ask her out,’ said Maurice.
They were sitting outside the Medical room. Steven McCullough had punched Leon on the nose during lunch-break. Leon tried to run but tripped over his own sports bag. Steven kicked him in the nuts as he crawled under a mini-bus in the school car park.
It felt like he was at a nightmarish Wembley Final, such was the noise of the cheering and yelling kids as they gathered to watch the spectacle of Leon getting thrashed 25-nil.
‘Why didn’t you listen to me?’ repeated Maurice, passing another tissue to his deluded, grazed and bleeding friend.
That evening, Leon’s left testicle ballooned up, turning purple and green and red like an alien fruit.
At the hospital, the decision was made to amputate.
7. Damage Done
Thirty years later, after the second suicide attempt, he was put under observation and then released into what was called The Community. Once a month, he was supposed to visit a counsellor to discuss the pros and cons of what he liked to call his “harmless crush”.
The counsellor wanted to make an issue out of how he spent his evenings. ‘You’re still scanning the web for traces of this woman?’
‘We agreed this was an extremely unhealthy activity for you.’
He picked at a thread on his shirt. ‘She gives me pleasure still.’
‘But you never knew her.’
‘The one contact you had with her was entirely negative. She rejected you because of your colour and engineered an assault that left you with one testicle.’
‘Tell me about it.’
The counsellor was, like Leon, in her forties.
He noticed that the lenses of her glasses were usually smeared.
‘How does Mandy, your wife, feel about your on-going obsession?’
‘She gets it.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘I told her from the off and Mandy won’t ask questions when her mouth is stuffed. That’s what motivates her. That’s why she’s up in the morning. Scoff, scoff, scoff… Watching TV…. Game shows mostly. She’s obsessed by food and game shows. My wife is at her classic best, smiling and clapping, when people she doesn’t know win prizes and her belly is fit to burst.’
‘You resent her for this?’
‘I never judge Mandy. Nobody should ever judge Mandy.’
The counsellor stared.
That was the problem with this crew. Thinking and more thinking. It was an illness with them. You believe you’re having a normal chat and then, bam! They’ve analysed you and consider locking you up for treatment.
Psychiatrists were better. You knew where you stood with them. No messing. They pumped you full of drugs, waving the wand of living-death over you.
When, if they stopped for a second to listen, what he wanted was harmless and full of natural goodness – to ingest and live the pure essence of Lilly Ng.
8. Fast Food
Leon was single when he began working at the Starlight Burger Bar on the Lambeth Walk.
Neil, the owner-manager, was puzzled by Leon’s long-standing attraction. ‘So you never so much as fingered her?’
‘No tongues? No drunken fumbling in the dark?’
‘One fleeting conversation.’
‘You’ve not touched this bird and thirty years later you’re in a hot bath with a razor?’
‘Kitchen knife, if you please.’
‘Whatever. We need to get you a girlfriend.’
A burger sizzled on the grill. Leon added a slice of processed cheese. ‘But Lilly is right for me. The older I become, the madder the world seems, the crueller its people, and yet she was the apex of beauty, brimming with kindly possibilities.’
‘She sounds like a venal twat,’ said Neil, burping after a mouthful of coke.
‘You never saw her.’
‘Fanny’s fanny,’ replied the twice divorced owner-manager, removing a cigarette from a pack.
‘How so?’ asked Leon, seeing the cheese bubble and melt.
‘Sleep with enough of them and you’ll soon learn. Women are only moodier, failed versions of men. You have to see this for yourself by getting hold of a bird so you can stop romanticising them. When you realise their crap stinks too, then you can start telling yourself a few home truths. It’s not Lilly who ruined you. You've ruined yourself. You’re lazy and have subnormal intelligence. You’re a natural on the grill but come on, how many times have you screwed up the till here?’
Leon kept quiet. Neil pushed the swing door to go for a cigarette. The man possessed undeniable wisdom but he was weighed down by cynicism. He was basically like the rest of them, teasing and critical and blinded to the higher power of true and eternal love.
‘Don’t burn my burger,’ said the customer, a
teenager with acne and a baseball cap.
Leon dropped the cheeseburger into a warmed sesame seed bun, adding onions.
‘Mayonnaise and ketchup,’ said the kid.
The kid paid.
Nobody said ‘thank you’ anymore.
9. Soft Spot
Mandy on the sofa, eating chocolate ice cream from the tub. What else would she be doing? It's Mandy!
The lounge was a full of empty soft drink bottles, crisp packets and loose sweet wrappers. The sink in the kitchen was stacked with crockery. The toilet bowl was the colour of a cement mixer. Scum rings marked the sink and bath.
‘What you watching?’ said Leon.
‘Who wants to be Millionaire?’ replied Mandy.
‘I’m gunna lie down.’
‘Okay,’ she said, ice cream smudging her chin and the rim of her mouth.
All things considered, Neil had a point when he said Mandy was the girl for Leon. A regular in the restaurant, she would hobble in on her crutches at 10:30am and order a full fry-up. At 2:30, she’d be back for eggs, ham and chips. Then, come 7.00, she’d be in for a burger and chips or donor kebab and chips – ‘No salad on the kebab, thank you.’
That etiquette made her stand-out from the crowd. Basic politeness showed she had, to a degree, been raised like a proper lady. Her breath did whiff of cabbage and dirty linen. When she ordered food, she couldn’t bring herself to make eye contact. Leon guessed she was embarrassed by her own enormity. He could understand that shyness. He wore wrist bands and long sleeve shirts to hide the scars of self-harm.
One evening, in the restaurant, Neil nudged him to go and sit with her as she ate. Her insecurity was such that she carried on eating like he wasn’t at the table.
‘Do you live alone?’ he said.
‘Yes,’ she murmured, looking at her plate.
‘Is it tough?’
She glanced at him. ‘It's tasty,’ she said.
‘I meant living by yourself.’
‘Oh, well, yes – sometimes.’
‘Would you like to be my wife? I won’t lie and say I love you because my heart belongs to an English Vietnamese queen who doesn’t love me. But I will be kind to you and will never shout and, when Neil's not watching, I’ll give you free meals when you come in to eat.’
She gazed at her half-eaten burger.
‘Deal,’ she said.
The wedding was held at a registry office on Brixton Hill, near the prison. No one on Leon’s side attended. His mother had died of emphysema and Uncle Gary from a brain tumour.
Searching the web on his laptop, he saw that Maurice Moretti was married with kids and living in Swanley.
Maurice didn’t reply when Leon asked him to be his best man.
Neil said he’d be delighted to do the honours.
The reception was held at the Starlight Burger Bar. Regulars from The Community attended, mostly alcoholics and melancholics and taciturn pensioners who read their newspapers, content to have a burger and chips and a fi