The Hamburger Lady
by Gavin Twedily

Based on a true story

Since Renato opened up the diner ten years ago he'd never seen his friend like this, never seen anything close. This man sat at the end of the counter looking like he was due to be executed in five minutes wasn't Harry. Harry was a happy man; a man with a kind heart who shared conversation, chess and jokes with Renato, his wife and children; a man who had willingly tried every variation on a constantly changing lunch menu; and a man who every single day bought a hamburger to go which he delivered to the mysterious rich beauty living on the outskirts of town. Harry demanded secrecy when he told Renato of his hamburger lady and though Renato occasionally doubted her existence, and his friend's mental stability at the same time, he kept the secret and never even told his wife of the truth behind Harry's hamburger to go.

Too long he'd been sat there, much too long. He was usually so exact that it drove Renato crazy: arrive 11:30 every working morning at the end of his shift, play a few chess moves over some lunch and a coffee, then leave at 12:30 with the hamburger, occasionally a few minutes after if he wanted to make his move before leaving, but never this, never past 2:00. And the worse thing was that he kept saying nothing was wrong. For the first time in their long friendship he sat in silent misery and nothing was wrong! Did he think Renato was a fool?

Renato threw the towel behind the counter and walked down to the other end. "You ready for that hamburger to go yet?"

"No, not yet."

"You're messing up my day. I'm getting all confused here. What's wrong?"

It troubled Harry Borlase, sitting in his usual place at the counter and dressed as always in his postman's uniform, that he couldn't tell Renato for the first time in five straight years he didn't want a hamburger to go. It wouldn't be difficult to say the words but then he'd have to explain why, and that's what he wanted to avoid. He needed time to digest the events of yesterday.

"You depressed or something, some bad news? You're not yourself today."

"No I'm fine, didn't sleep much last night."


That was just it with Renato; he always wanted to know why. He couldn't tell part of the story without having to tell it all. He couldn't face that today; he should've taken the day off and stayed home.

Yesterday he'd left Renato's diner right after the 12:30 news carrying the hamburger in a brown paper bag. It took him five minutes to drive to the large, secluded house like he'd done hundreds of times before.

On the very first delivery he'd walked up the driveway and rang the bell. No-one answered and there was no mail slot, so he left the hamburger on the concrete step. The following day he found a message taped to the door. "Please leave hamburger in mailbox". He walked back to the end of the driveway and placed it where requested. On the third day he opened the mailbox and found a note which said "Thank you." He smiled at this, a nice touch, good manners.

When the postmaster had told him about the unusual request, Harry was happy to oblige. The house was the last on his round; it was no trouble to stop off at Renato's and the extra twenty five bucks would come in handy. Besides he knew the hamburger lady from when she attended his school, they were in grade five together before she got sent to an exclusive private school in Europe somewhere. The next time he saw her was a photograph in the local newspaper ten years later, the day her parents died in an automobile accident. "Poor little rich orphan," his Dad said, no sympathy in the old bastard's voice. She had been pretty at the age of ten but was even prettier as a young woman. Harry remembered her birthday, 29th October, two days after his.

Every working day for five years he'd opened the mailbox and placed the hamburger inside, concerned it would get cold before she could eat it. He always glanced through the wrought iron gates searching for a glimpse of life behind the curtained windows, but he never saw anything move in or around the house. The only change he witnessed was the expansive garden growing more unkempt each passing season. If it wasn't for the fact that someone picked up the hamburger each day, he wouldn't have believed that anyone lived there.

During the first few weeks he'd been sorely tempted to creep around the house and peer into any gaps in the curtains, search for clues as to what she did in there all day, but he never did. Once, immediately after a delivery, he stopped the van around the next corner and crept back to the gates, unseen crouched behind the overgrown hedge, and waited for her to leave the house. He had planned on striking up a conversation when she picked up the hamburger from the mailbox, but as he silently listened to his short nervous breathing, peering through a small gap in the hedge, he saw himself as some kind of pervert and abruptly returned to the van before someone drove by and saw him.

The hamburger lady rarely received mail, and when she did it was always something official looking; usually a letter from the solicitor in Montreal, never anything personal. On the first 29th October Harry decided to leave her a birthday card and received in return a note the following day saying "Thank you for the card". He had hoped for something more, some recognition that she remembered him from school, but when it didn't come he gave up his attempts at contact, deciding instead to leave the eccentric rich to themselves and not bothering with any more birthday cards. He respected her privacy and dutifully did what he was paid the extra money to do. He brought her the hamburger, asked no questions, and kept his mouth shut; postmen weren't meant to be paid for hamburger delivery.

The day before yesterday he had arrived at the house and found the hamburger from the previous day still in the mailbox. This had never happened before so he walked up the driveway with the two hamburgers and rang the bell. When no-one answered he tried the door but found it locked. Maybe she got called away unexpectedly. He returned to the mailbox with the hamburgers and told himself that there was nothing more he could do. It wasn't his business how other people chose to live their lives, he was only the postman.

Nevertheless he felt something was wrong, the routine had been broken, and when he had arrived yesterday at the usual time of 12:35 and found the two hamburgers still in the mailbox, he became certain of it.

He walked up the driveway staring straight ahead at the grand house. He didn't notice immediately what was different but when he did he instinctively ducked behind a tree. He peered around the trunk and through the jungle of shrubs at the small red sports car parked outside the front door. If it was hers how come he'd never seen it before? If it wasn't hers, then who did own it?

He suddenly felt ridiculous crouched behind a tree getting his shoes all muddy. She had a friend in town, probably a rich boyfriend who drove her to expensive restaurants in the sports car. After all that nice food she'd be sick of the sight of Renato's hamburgers, it all made perfect sense.

He would've left then if not for the sudden loud cry of anguish which came from the house.

He stood up and moved slowly forward keeping to the edge of the driveway, ready to jump from sight if anyone appeared. Before approaching the front door he picked up a solid looking branch which he swung in front of himself a couple of times, testing the weight. The cry he had heard was a male cry and if the hamburger lady needed his help it was wise to be prepared.

The front door was locked so he walked around the side of the house, ducking beneath each of the two windows. When he got to the back he found a glass conservatory built onto the brick, its door ajar with one of the small window panes smashed. He tightened his grip on the branch and cautiously stepped inside avoiding the broken glass on the floor. An assortment of pots filled the room but not one held a living plant, thin sticks with the occasional dried out leaf still clinging on.

A second cry, quieter this time, more like a groan, and then a sob, louder and very near.

He gently pushed open the wooden door leading into the house, just wide enough to peer into the dim interior, the meagre light filtering through thick curtains. He could just make out a bed which ran along the right hand wall under the window and at its foot knelled a crying man, oblivious to Harry's presence. Harry watched the man's shoulders rise with each sob, unsure of what to do next. It didn't look like he needed the branch, his opponent appeared a weeping wreck, but he checked his grip all the same.

Finally, as the sobs subsided, Harry coughed but the man didn't hear. He opened the door a little wider and took two small steps into the room. He ignored the rustle of paper at his feet, not wanting to take his eyes from the forlorn yet potentially dangerous figure. He became aware of the smell, a smell that was stale, damp and rotten, but that he couldn't quite identify.

Harry coughed again, louder this time, and the man turned his head and looked briefly at him before turning his gaze back to the floor.

"Can I help?" asked Harry.

The man took a deep breath, calmer now. "Not really, it's too late."

"I see …"

"She's dead."

"Who's dead?"

The man looked up. "Laura, she's dead," and then Harry noticed and he stared at the motionless form lying in the bed, barely making a lump under the blankets.

The partially open door gave the room a little more light, and now Harry saw the emaciated face lying still on the thin pillow, her long hair almost touching the floor. He didn't recognise the face from the photograph in the newspaper, but he recognised the name. Miss Laura Mckay, the hamburger lady.

"Were you a friend of the ham … er … Miss McKay?"

"Yes, her only friend … I think. Isn't that tragic?"

"Yes it is," agreed Harry, though more concerned with the identity of the stranger who seemed to read his mind.

"My name is Casey Kellerman, I'm the late night D.J. at North West Radio. You may have heard of me?"

"No," Harry lied, not wanting to stroke what he considered to be an already inflated ego.

The whole town had heard of Casey Kellerman, the smooth talking D.J. with the sexy voice that soothed away the problems of his mainly female callers. Harry had never listened to the show, always being fast asleep before midnight, but Renato's wife, Mara, was an avid fan and on sleepless nights enjoyed Kellerman's soft accent while trying to recognise the voices of the anonymous callers, the majority of whom Mara believed to have invented their problems. If this man really was Casey Kellerman, what the hell was he doing here?

"Did you kill her?" Harry asked.

The D.J. looked him in the eye. "No, I didn't … but I should've done something. I knew she wasn't well."


"She started calling me almost five years ago, back then she spoke so quietly that I could barely hear her, but she kept calling, often four of five times a week. We became friends but we never met and she always refused to go on air. The last time we spoke, a couple of weeks ago, her voice sounded weak, feeble … "

"Like she was ill?"

"Yes, like she was ill."

"And you didn't call a doctor or anything?"

"No, in hindsight I know that I should've done but she said that the doctor had already been."

"And you believed her?"

"I had no real reason not to, I didn't know that she lived liked this … this house is a mess, it's literally rotting away."

"It certainly smells it."

"And then she stopped calling. I couldn't be sure that something was wrong, my listeners stop calling for any number of reasons, but it felt odd. No-one had ever called so often and for so long and then out of the blue just stopped like that. Yesterday I finally decided to act and today I managed to track her down, but it's too late."

For a moment Harry thought that the D.J. was about to start crying again, but instead he asked abruptly, "I haven't committed any crime, have I?"

"I'm not sure … I don't think they can put you inside for acting too late, but with lawyers these days, well, you never know … "

"Thanks for the comforting thought."

"If it wasn't you then, who did kill her?"

"Well that's for you guys to figure out, but if you want my opinion no-one did."

"How's that?"

"Well, there's not one scrap of food in the kitchen, and when I asked questions in town yesterday everyone who knew of her hadn't seen her around for years, they said she'd moved. I think that she starved to death. Look how thin she is."

With another rustle of paper at his feet Harry stepped closer and peered into the caved face, few signs of the young beauty he had admired in the newspaper. Uncomfortable staring at the dead, his gaze lowered to the floor. He watched a cockroach appear from a paper bag and then disappear into another.

Suddenly he leaned over the bed and pulled open the curtains and then he strode nosily back to the door and flung it fully open, casting lines of sunlight into the room. He stared at a floor littered with hundreds of small, bug infested, brown paper bags and realised that he knew where every single one of them had come from.

The D.J. started to laugh.

"What's so funny?"

"You're a postman."

"Yeah, so what?"

"I thought you were the police. I called the police not the fucking post office."

It was dark by the time Harry drove home from the police station where he and Kellerman were taken to make statements. It took a long time to answer all of their questions. They wanted to know everything and, as he had no crime to hide, that's what he told them, almost. They complimented him on his ability to keep a secret, the whole town believed Laura McKay to be living in Scotland with her grandmother, and then asked whether he was ever concerned for Miss McKay's physical or mental health, given that he knew no-one ever saw her. "I never thought about it," he lied, "I'm a postman, not a doctor."

At midnight, unable to sleep, Harry turned on his radio and tuned into North West, Kellerman's station. The news made no mention of the hamburger lady's death, but they did announce that due to illness Casey Kellerman wouldn't be doing his usual midnight to three show. The replacement D.J. wished Casey a speedy recovery and Harry switched off the radio.

Besides the police Harry was probably the only person who knew the real reason behind Kellerman's absence, and though Harry felt that part of the D.J.'s grief was wounded professional pride, he still felt sorry for the man. Before today Harry had regarded himself as a friend of sorts to an eccentric recluse, but five years of telephone conversations meant a much more intimate relationship, one which put his own claims to friendship in a new light. Like Kellerman he now felt that he should've done something, instead of blindly delivering the hamburgers on which she slowly starved to death. How could he explain that to Renato?

"You going to have that hamburger to go or not? You're disrupting my sense of order in the universe. That's a polite way of saying that you're starting to piss me off."


"No what?"

Harry stood up. "I'm not going to have a hamburger to go."

Renato threw his large hands up in the air. "You're not going to have a hamburger to go for the first time in five years and you're leaving without telling me why! Something happen to your hamburger lady? She doesn't like Renato's hamburgers any more? Gone on a stupid diet or something?"

"I'll tell you tomorrow."

Gavin Twedily took roughly two decades to realize that he is "not ready for Europe". On a trip to Amsterdam's red light district, he was frightened by some bold prostitutes who leaned out of their doorways to express invitations to him. Taking refuge in a nearby arcade, he stuck a guilder randomly into a machine, only to have it show him a short film involving a doctor, a nurse and an enema. Gavin now makes his home in Montreal where he is not at risk of being exposed to loose European morals.