My kids won’t believe it, but there was a time when there was only one Burger King in London. The kids take Burger King for granted now, of course. My two don’t even go down there for the food, I think, they just like to hang out there with their friends at weekends. Even Sonia, and Sonia’s a vegetarian, or so she says; she goes mad if I put animal products on the same shelf as her food in the fridge. I ask Sonia what she does at Burger King, and she says she just hangs out and chills, and besides, the beanburgers are all right. And I ask Sonia whether she’s worried that the beanburgers are cooking around all that dead cow, and she shrugs and says it doesn’t matter.
I suppose you get too much of anything good in this world, and you start taking it for granted. Health. Family. Fast food restaurants.
I don’t remember the first time I was taken to a Burger King, no more than I can remember any specific childhood Christmases or birthdays or days we broke up from school – all those good times just roll into one. But I do remember the first time I heard about Burger King, because Dad was so excited. Dad had occasional business meetings in London and go there on the train, his going there always seemed to me like some great expedition, for which he’d have to pack properly (with his special suitcase) and dress nicely (with his special ties), and I’d hope he’d bring me back some sort of toy. This particular time he came home from London and his eyes were shining, I can see his beaming face in my mind’s eye now quite distinctly, and he told the whole family of this wonderful new restaurant he’d discovered. Even the name was royal. And it had, he said, the most delicious food he’d ever tasted. And it was so good that he was going to take us all there, this very weekend, which was as soon as Tabby and me had free time from school and Mum had free time from the shop. Mum objected – we couldn’t just go all the way to the capital city of England for dinner, that was such a waste of money, that was just too long a journey and Tabby and me would get all tired out – but Dad put his foot down, and said this was a once in a lifetime treat, and for our own sakes he wasn’t going to allow us to miss it. And Dad didn’t put his foot down too often. No. Looking back, poor sod, I don’t think he often got his way.
London’s first Burger King stood just outside Victoria railway station. Or, at least, it was the first one we knew about, and for several years that was the one we visited. We used to do it on special occasions, like my birthday, and Tabby’s birthday too – though I’ve spoken to Tabby about it since, and she claims it was never such a big deal for her, it was more my treat than hers. We’d go there by train, and that was exciting in itself – from the moment Dad went to the ticket office to pay our fares – always to ‘the city’, he never even needed to say London! – the adventure had begun. And on the train we’d choose what we were going to eat that night, because there was always a choice, especially with the flavoured milkshake we’d have as dessert. I always chose a Whopper with cheese, and fries; I don’t think that I dared eat anything else from the menu just in case it didn’t live up to the Whopper with cheese, and fries; to come all that way and order something else and for it not to have been as good as the Whopper with cheese, and fries, would have been tragically disappointing.
And what I remember is how bright the restaurant was. And that was so unusual back then, most restaurants were just cafes with more expensive food, and the light was just the same as the light at home, and they smelled like ordinary things, Grandma’s front room, school. But Burger King had a special light, everything so yellow, and so happy; and the smell was of meat and of salt and of special sauce. And by the time we arrived my anticipation was at fever pitch, but we didn’t even have to wait for the food – in most restaurants it’d be so boring, you’d sit down and wait ages for someone to come and take your order, and then you’d have to wait more ages for someone to come and deliver it, and you’d wait so long sometimes you waited yourself right out of being hungry. Not at Burger King – we’d get into queues, and within a minute Dad would be telling the server how many Whoppers with cheese he wanted, and the server was smiling because serving us was such a pleasure, and you didn’t many smiles in the early 1980s. And the meat had a tang I’d never tasted before, and even the chips were special, specially thin, with that special name. And we’d be done in five minutes, usually, and then we were ready to go home again.
“It’s because it’s American,” Dad would say. “The Americans know how to do things properly.” He and Mum had been to America once, before Tabby and I were born – it had been a work thing, they’d gone over on a ship and stayed for nearly a year. America seemed like somewhere impossible to me, with its skyscrapers and its film stars and its cool lazy accents – oh, and it had Disneyland there too. But Burger King offered me a little slice of America, just off Buckingham Palace Road.
Many years later I asked Dad how often he’d taken us up to that first Burger King outside Victoria station. He said he didn’t know – maybe three or four times? But he’s wrong. We went far more often than that. Every one of my birthdays until I was a teenager, at least, and Tabby’s birthdays, and sometimes when school ended for Christmas or the summer break. I don’t want to exaggerate. I’m not pretending I lived for our family Burger King expeditions or anything like that. But I always looked forward to them. They were always there, in the back of my mind, something to wait for.
I’ve been to America now, several times. I nearly went with my first ‘proper’ boyfriend when I was nineteen, we got this close to buying the tickets, and then he broke up with me. I’ve always thought that if we had bought the tickets we’d probably have stuck together, the fares were too expensive to waste. And maybe if we’d gone America would have fixed us, and we’d still have been together now. Well. But. But that put me off going to America for a while.
Eventually I went with Frank, and we treated it like a honeymoon, though we’d been married over a year by then, and I was already expecting. When I went round to see Mum and Dad, a week or so before the trip, Dad said he had a present to give me. It was a guide book he had bought for that time he had been over; he said I’d find it very useful. And in the inside flap he’d written, in neat block capitals, ‘THIS BOOK BELONGS TO DAVID BISHOP’, as if he were a schoolboy, as if it were something precious. Not to David and Eileen Bishop, either, not to Mum as well, this book belonged to him, and I could suddenly imagine the way he had held on to it and read information out to her from it and kept it for himself. The book was about New York, and I told Dad we were going to Florida, remember, they were two entirely different places. He got a bit irritable at that. Told me he knew they were different, but there were some parts of the book that were still relevant; information about the currency, or the electrical voltage, or the change of time zone. And about the Americans themselves, the phrases they used, the expectations they had, how they carried themselves. “They’re not the same as us,” said Dad.
When Mum fell ill, Dad tried to look after at home for as long as possible. But he was older than she was, and besides, all those years, she’d been the one who’d cooked for and cleaned after him. He did his very best. He did a good job. But it wasn’t good enough for Mum, who was used to things being ‘just so’, ‘just right’, and sometimes she would lash out at him, she’d panic, she’d get in a really foul mood. One day she threw her dinner against the wall, because it wasn’t fit for eating, she said the food was ‘shit’ and she never used the ‘shit’ word – if I hadn’t been over there to hear it for myself I’d never have believed it – and this woman who had been so houseproud, who’d been a tyrant with the vacuum cleaner, didn’t mind that the baked beans were now running down the wall. “Leave it,” she told me when I tried to sponge them away, “no, I said, leave it! The place is a sty anyway, your father can’t clean for shit, what difference does it make?” And sometimes I’d visit and he’d have these bruises on his arm. He told me everything gave him bruises. It wasn’t as bad as it looked. But I agreed with social services when they recommended that the best care Mum could receive was in the hospice.
I went to see her every now and again. Truth to tell, I didn’t visit her very often, because it was all a bit depressing. And each time I’d see her she’d aged another ten years, she’d become this ancient thing. And she’d got thinner, and her face was sallow, and her hair had fallen out.
Dad was always there. He was always pleased to see me.
And this one time, near the end, he asked if I had to hurry back home so soon. And I said I did, really, I wanted to get back on the train before the rush hour. And he said it’d just be nice, really nice, if we could spend a little time together, we could go into town, have a spot to eat? I could hardly say no, I said, so long as it didn’t take too long.
We walked through the shopping centre, and it was probably October or November, there were a few Christmas decorations out, and that late in the afternoon it was already getting dark. But it wasn’t too cold, actually. And Dad and I spoke about this and that, actually anything except Mum. And then he plucked at my sleeve, and he was grinning, and pointing. There was a Burger King. “I haven’t been in one of these for years!”
There was some sort of music playing in there, and it may have been Christmas music too. We got into a queue. “What are you going to have?” I asked. I said I wasn’t hungry, I’d just have a coffee. “No, no,” he laughed, “a Whopper and cheese, we’ll both have that, yes?” We reached the counter. He began to tell the server that he and his daughter had been coming to Burger King for years, and we always had Whoppers with cheese, and the server looked bored, and I interrupted and made the order. “I’ll get this,” said Dad, and he began looking through his pocket for the money – I already had my purse out – “No, no, this is my treat,” said Dad, but he was taking too long, and the server was starting to look cross, and I paid. Dad looked upset at this, until I told him it was all right, he could get the next one; “We’ll do this again?” he asked, “Really?”, and I said, sure.
I carried the tray of food over to a plastic table, and Dad and I sat opposite each other on plastic chairs. I chose the plastic table which had the least lettuce on it.
I took the grease paper wrapping off my Whopper, and bit into it, and spilled onions and tomato sauce everywhere. Dad asked about Frank, about Sonia and Jackie. And then he was asking whether Sonia and Jackie were going to visit Mum at any point, and Mum was mentioned, and it was all about Mum.
“How do you think she was today?” Dad asked, and I said I thought she was a bit brighter. “She always looks brighter when you’re there,” said Dad. “She likes it when you visit. I think she gets bored with me.” I said that I wasn’t always sure Mum recognised me, she’d long ago stopped talking to me, and he said no, no, no, she did; I should see the difference I made just being there; I should see how bored she got when it was Dad on his own; the way she didn’t talk to me was completely different to the way she didn’t talk to him.
Dad played with his fries a bit.
“I’ve tried my hardest, you know,” he said.
“I know you have.”
“It’s not easy sometimes.”
“And she’ll be gone soon, I suppose. The doctors don’t know when, they keep changing their minds. One young chap says she might live for years, she’ll outlive me! But she’s already gone, really.”
I didn’t know what to say. I tried to think of something to say. I said, “Yes.”
“I don’t love her,” he said.
He tried to open a sachet of ketchup, but his fingers were too thick. I took the sachet from him, tore it open with my teeth. I passed it to him, and it was bleeding ketchup everywhere. “Thanks,” he said.
“I can see,” I said, “how it must be difficult,” I said.
“I’ve never loved her, I think,” he said. “I used to wonder whether I was just imagining that. That I’d got too used to her. But now she’s gone, you can see she’s gone. And I don’t miss her at all. I mean, I’ve nothing against your mother. She had her faults, but who doesn’t? Who doesn’t?”
I pushed away my Whopper with cheese. It was too big, and its innards kept spilling out.
“When we were in New York,” he said, “she didn’t want to do anything. Didn’t want to go up the Empire State Building. Didn’t want to do a Broadway show. Just wanted to stay at the hotel. And me with her. I wanted to explore, you know? But she never let me.”
He ate his Whopper with cheese in big bites. He was hungry. “Do you want some of mine?” I asked. “Don’t you like it?” he asked. “I told you I only wanted a cup of coffee,” I said. “These burgers are good, aren’t they?” he said, and then he said, “I should have burgers more often,” and then he said, “I’m sorry.”
“When your mother dies, I’m going away. I’m going back to New York. I’m going right across America. Nothing will hold me back. Not when there’s so much out there.”
“Okay,” I said.
“I love you,” he told me.
“Yeah, I know.”
He nodded at that.
“I’ve got to go to the toilet,” I said.
When I came back, Dad was in hearty conversation with the man who had come to take our tray away. “I used to come to Burger King with my family. So many years ago now, before you were born!” The teenager looked embarrassed, and a little resentful. “Come on, Dad,” I said, and Dad got to his feet. “Nice talking to you,” he said to the kid, smiling all the while.
There was some talk about Dad coming to live with either of us, Tabby or me. Neither of us liked the idea of him rattling around the house on his own now that Mum was gone. Tabby didn’t have a husband any more, and she’d never had children, and her house was almost as big as mine, so she seemed to me the perfect choice. But Tabby disagreed. Frank said Dad should live with us, and Sonia and Jackie said they didn’t mind. And I told Sonia and Jackie that having Dad would be a big commitment, that they’d have to share the television with him, that they couldn’t come and go so late at the weekends because they might disturb him now he was old. And Sonia, Sonia might find Dad putting meat next to her vegetables in the fridge, he was old, that’s what might happen. I said that, as a family, we should all take a vote on it, and that no one should feel bad if they decided that having my Dad live with us was too much to bear. Frank voted yes, the two girls no. I abstained. I didn’t think my vote would be entirely fair.
Dad never went to America again. I think he intended to, properly, at least for a while. He went out and bought a fresh guide book. But after a little research he was put off by things like visa waiver forms. He said he’d wait until all the complicated stuff like that went away.
My father woke me up one night. He was standing by the side of my bed, and shaking my shoulder gently, and calling me by name. Frank was sleeping next to me, he didn’t want to disturb him. For a moment I thought maybe Dad had come to live with us after all, and then I remembered he hadn’t, and that I was pleased he hadn’t – this was precisely the reason it would be difficult, he’d be in my bedroom at all hours of the night shaking me awake because he wanted the toilet or something. And I knew this was a dream then, and it was a relief.
“What do you want, Dad?” I hissed, and I tried to sound nice because I knew he was imaginary and so there were extenuating circumstances – but I was still a little annoyed with him.
“I have a treat for you,” he said. “Get dressed. Get dressed up nice and smart.” And so I did, I went along with it. Dad waited downstairs for me, and I decided I’d go for the full evening dress, why not. He nodded approvingly at me, and I saw only now that he was in a tuxedo himself, I’d made the right choice.
It didn’t feel like a dream, the way the evening dress was a little too tight around my waist. I thought, shouldn’t dreams feel more comfortable than this? Dad took my arm, though, as if I were still the daintiest thing ever, and we left the house. We got a train, the railway station was parked right next door to the house. And within minutes we were at Victoria station.
The original Burger King, I knew, had long gone. Nowadays there are tons of Burger Kings all over Victoria, around the station concourse and spilling out on to the road, none as grand as the first Burger King, all fast and unfussy. I wasn’t surprised, of course, that Dad was taking me to our Burger King, the one that had belonged to us. The familiar logo shone in bright lights like it was some glitzy West End theatre show.
The lighting was bright and friendly, but still subtle somehow. They knew us by name, of course. We didn’t have to queue. “Ah yes, Monsieur Bishop,” said the maitre d’, “we have your special table reserved for you.” The maitre d’ was all smiles and pleasing unction, and he led us somewhere discreet, close enough to the pianist so we could enjoy the music, far enough away so we could talk. “The usual, Pierre,” said my father, and there was a certain amused smugness to that, and he winked at me, look how I know a French waiter by name! (Except he wasn’t French, he was American, wasn’t he? And wore a cowboy hat?) “Tres bien, monsieur,” said Pierre, “howdy howdy!” – and within seconds he was back again, there were Whoppers with cheese on bone china plates, and there were gleaming steak knives to cut them with, and the fries came in a golden tureen. He poured our milkshakes into champagne glasses; I asked for banana, and I’m not sure Burger King even sell banana, and Dad had tutti frutti, and I’m quite certain they don’t have that. “Bon appétit, and have a nice day!” said Pierre. He made a formal little bow, and went; we unwrapped our burgers from the grease proof paper and we set to work.
The burgers were really good.
And I tried, then, telling my Dad I was sorry. And he shushed me.
“I’m proud of you,” he said. I told him I couldn’t see why. And he said nothing to that, instead he raised a glass of tutti frutti to me, and I clinked it.
“I love you,” I said.
“Oh, darling,” he said. “Of course you do.”
The dream might have ended there, but it played out properly, it was a full date. Just the two of us, and chatting more and more easily, and laughing at God knows what, and Pierre kept on appearing and topping up our glasses – “No, any more, I’ll turn into a tutti frutti!” said Dad, and then he winked, and said, “Go on, then, just another one!”
We caught the train home. He said goodbye to me on the doorstep.
“Thanks, Dad,” I said, and he smiled, and kissed me on the cheek. And I went inside, and went back to bed, and in the morning when I woke up I didn’t doubt it was a dream, but I still felt full and satisfied.
If this were a story, then that would be the night my father died. But it wasn’t. Or it would be the means by which we became better friends. And that wasn’t true either, though we did speak on the phone more often. I only saw him four more times, I think, and none of the meetings were bad ones, but I think we always did better on the phone.
That very next day I gave him a call. I thought I’d tell him about the dream. I thought he might find it funny. But, as it happens, we found lots else to talk about, and I never quite got round to it. And maybe that’s just as well. What would his reaction have been, after all? He might have suggested we go out for a real meal together, and I didn’t want that. I really didn’t want that.
If this were a story, I suppose I would find a proper ending. But endings are difficult. When things start out, they’re all so simple and clean, and there’s a sort of purity to them – and then they get corrupted somehow, or if not corrupted, complicated. And it’s silly to mind too much, to rail against what we can’t change. We just have to be grateful for those beginnings, and treasure the memory of them. And I went to the very first Burger King in London, and it was a nice restaurant, and the food was good, and we were all happy there.