Pesky Kids or should that be Pesky Parents?

I’d woken unnaturally early which was irritating. There is nothing worse than waking up before your alarm on the days you’re not at work. I couldn’t get back to sleep so I’d readied myself for the day and walked early to the café.

Armando looked at his watch as I entered. The café was busier than usual but I supposed these were patrons filling up en route to work.

‘I know I’m early. Please don’t ask questions and bring me a pot of strong Assam.’

Armando nodded. I extracted a copy of Brideshead Revisited from my coat pocket and tried to start reading. My eyes were sore. I put it down again and waited for my tea which duly arrived. I let it brew for five minutes before pouring.

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A fair number of take-away transactions were in progress. These were people on their way to day jobs. Armando had never mentioned his mobile trade when bemoaning the lack of business. I wondered whether it was usual to have so many passing customers. I tried again with my book and was disturbed a couple of chapters later by a commotion outside the café.

‘Watch where you’re going you bloody brats or I’ll take my stick to you. You should already be at school. I’ll bloomin well report the lot of you.’

‘Good luck with that grandma,’ was the fading reply.

Armando had the door open in seconds and helped Lil into the café. He rushed outside to see if there was any remnant of trouble but the protagonists were specks in the distance.

Lil had a face like thunder and patted the edges of her cream woollen overcoat and steered her trusty trolley over to the table.

‘Are you OK?’ I asked.

‘Of course I’m bloody OK. Those pesky kids need to watch where they’re going on those skateboards. They’ve nearly knocked me over. Tea immediately please Armando.’

Armando scurried out to the kitchens to make sure the emergency recovery aid was not delayed. I moved my hands across the table and put them on Lil’s and looked at her affectionately and compassionately.

‘Don’t bloody fuss Boulevardier. Something’s happened. Don’t turn it all into a bloody drama.’

‘But Lil you must be careful. It’s only a few weeks since you fell over.’ I moved my hands back and Lil continued and ignored my concern.

‘It’s not even as if they’re ill-bred. Their accents are very middle classed. I’m not sure their parents would approve of their manners or lack thereof. So bloody inconsiderate.’

Armando arrived with two fresh pots of tea and three cups and saucers and sat down.

‘Lil, you are not injured? Bloody youths. No respect for the elderly.’ Armando asserted.

‘Yes, yes, yes – the pair of you stop fussing. And who you calling elderly?’

Armando looked at Lil and did not answer. ‘I’ll pour,’ he said.

‘But maybe it is the parents’ fault Lil. Some don’t set a good example, especially those who fall into the expectant Generation Y category.’ I said.

‘Boulevardier, listen here. I am in no mood for your twaddle. And please don’t go into one of your bleedin monologues about generation or whatever you said.’

‘Oh, but I will tell you what happened on the bus a few days ago when I was coming back from the hospital.’ I tried not to sound nonchalant about having my theory stopped in its tracks and reasoned that I hadn’t just been the victim of a near-miss assault.

‘The bus was packed and this woman got on with several children in tow. She sat down next to me and they disbursed to the four corners of the vehicle, aside from one who must have been about five years old, who was refusing to sit down.’

“Stop it James you’re pissing me right off” she announced in an irritated tone. Two minutes or so passed. “James sit down you’re getting right on my tits” she broadcast in a louder and more vexed manner. James settled for a matter of seconds and then joined two teenage girls in his travelling party and they started making quite a hullabaloo and the woman proclaimed “Will you kids shush. There are other people on this bus. Show some respect.”

‘Respect I thought. That is rich coming from her. However, I refrained from commenting or offering advice.’

Lil and Armando looked at each other and started giggling.

‘I should always come and listen to your Boulevardier when I need cheering up. You’re lucky you didn’t say that. From the sounds of it, she’d have slapped you across the face’ said Lil.

‘That didn’t seem to bother you when you were shouting after those kids Lil. I wish you’d be careful. They might have a knife, ‘ I said.

Lil laughed louder and didn’t stop. This had tickled her. We all three were cackling infectiously.

‘Knife! This is Crouch End not the ghetto, ‘ Lil said.

‘When I was young I had to be well behaved. My parents wouldn’t tolerate rude or unruly conduct,’ I said.

Lil and Armando nodded in agreement.

‘Oh no.’ I was shocked. ‘I sound like an old person talking about the youth of today.’ I was distressed.

‘Ha, you know nothing of old yet. Although you are greying and Armando is going a bit thin on top,’ Lil responded with mischief in her eyes.

Armando huffed, in a continental way, and got up ‘So you want breakfast today or no?’

With all this kerfuffle we hadn’t ordered breakfast. Now that is unacceptable behaviour.

We ordered quickly. Armando settled again.

‘Now, what I really wanted to talk about today was bingo,’ said Lil.

Lotto Balls

‘Bingo?’ questioned Armando.

‘Yes. Mavis Bellamy is organising charity bingo at the community centre and I’m allowed to bring a guest. Suffice to say I’m bringing two. You’ll look smart and bring decent bingo prizes and play every game.’

As ever this was an order and not a request. But I felt warm that Lil wanted to bring us to her charity event as chaperones.

I refreshed our cups.

Pension Wars

After exchanging numbers last week I’d called Lil twice to check in with her. She was curt on the phone and I suspect didn’t appreciate being asked, or cared for. She was a proud, independent woman. What I didn’t realise was that Armando was calling too. I hope she felt looked after as well as fussed over, even when it wasn’t so welcome.

I arrived at the café just before 10am as usual on Thursday for Breakfast Club. As I looked through the glass door I could see a figure in the corner and knew that Lil was already there and back to normal. As I opened the door she called out rather urgently to me.

‘Wayne, please hurry up, close the door, and come straight over.’

I wondered what was happening now. Firstly Lil had never addressed me by my Christian name. She would say ‘Boulevardier’ or ‘Our Boulevardier’, and secondly I didn’t understand the rush.

As I sat down I asked ‘What’s up Lil? Why the hurry?’

‘Shhhh just sit down. Armando, a fresh pot of Assam for my friend and me please.’

Lil was behaving oddly again. I looked round and the café was moderately busy, and nothing seemed out of place. The polka-dotted trolley was back by Lil’s side and she was wearing a dark-coloured woollen sweater and a woolly hat. Her purple curls spread under the fur rim of the bonnet. The purple bruising on her face was still evident but faded from its violent appearance the previous week.

‘What’s wrong?’ I whispered.

‘It’s that bloody hoity-toity woman from the Age club sitting over there. She is well above her station. She wanted to join my table, but I heard enough of her bragging on Tuesday. I told her I had a meeting with a young author I was assisting and she couldn’t join us. I wasn’t having her interfere and grab you when you walked in.’

‘How would she know it was me?’ I teased.

‘Ahhh well that’s a point but there is no need to take unnecessary risk. Are you having a full veggie breakfast, with a sausage?’

Lil was acting jealous and possessive. I was seeing a different side to her today and I was glad our meetings meant something special to her too.

‘Armando, I assume you’ll be taking our Boulevardier’s order and joining us as usual.’ The ‘as usual’ was emphasised. Lil was protecting her territory and making no space for unwelcome intrusion.

I wanted to take advantage of a distracted Lil. She hadn’t shared much of her life and might be more open when preoccupied.

‘Were you ever married Lil?’

Armando had just arrived back with the tea and took a seat.

‘What?’ Lil did have this habit of asking ‘what’ to give her some thinking time.

‘Married?’ Armando impatiently asked.

‘Of course I was. Do I look like a bloody frigid spinster?’

‘Do you have any children?’ I pushed my luck.

‘No. Right let’s get this tea poured before it stews. And why the sudden questions? I don’t like being interrogated.’

Armando and I glanced at each other. Lil noticed.

‘He was a lot better behaved than Mavis Bellamy’s husband. From what I hear Mr B had much more than a roving eye.’ Lil spoke in a lower confidential voice.

‘Who’s Mavis Bellamy?’ Armando asked.

‘Shhh – She’s right over there in the corner. For goodness sake Armando don’t you listen!’

Our breakfasts arrived which signalled a halt in the conversation as we focused on our food. The toast was thick and of a mottled brown – perfect.

‘What was your husband’s name Lil?’ I asked as I spread butter across the first slice of toasted bread.

Lil didn’t answer. Her lips pursed. I wondered whether I’d pushed it too far.

‘Oh hello again Mavis,’ Lil said in a formal voice. I realised I hadn’t upset Lil but rather a defence against the incoming invasion.

‘I thought I’d pop over for a chat before I left. There’s lots to do today.’

‘Thank you. Well don’t let us hold you up‘

‘Aren’t you going to introduce me to your breakfast companions Lilian.’

‘I’d love to Mavis, but another time. We’re right in the middle of a detailed literary discussion and we mustn’t lose the thread or hold you up. See you next Tuesday. Good day.’ Lil smiled widely.

Mavis smiled slightly, nodded and backed away. She obviously understood the rhetorical nature of conversation with Lil.

‘Lil,’ I said. ‘Wasn’t that a little rude, she was just being friendly?’

‘Friendly? She couldn’t bear the thought of me being here with a writer and her not being part of it. You really need to see her at the Centre. I guarantee it. Raymond, he was called Raymond.’

‘Drama with the OAPs.’ I said.

Lil let out an enormous cackle just as Mavis Bellamy closed the café door. I wondered if she was spontaneously laughing at my amusing comment or for Mavis’ benefit. But better still we now knew that Lil had been married. She was mysterious, and not to generalise, but older people usually love talking about their lives, memories and experiences. Lil was an enigma and sometimes you could see sadness in her eyes when she let her guard down and didn’t realise you were looking.

I would get her story one day.

Bruises and a Damaged Ego

I’d called into the café a few times in the last week to see if Armando had seen or heard anything from Lil. His response was consistent and negative. We hadn’t discussed possibilities as neither of us wanted to articulate what could have happened to our elderly friend.

It was Thursday and I had no trouble getting out of bed. In fact I was out of the door at 9.30am and seated in the café with a cup of Assam tea by 9.45. I’d sat in Lil’s seat so as to have the best view of the door.

I’d hoped she’d already be there or that Armando would finally have some news.

I didn’t order breakfast until I knew.

9.50 and 9.55 passed and still no sight. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the door and my hands wrapped around the cup containing the tea.

The time indicator on my phone changed from 9.59 to 10am and still no sign. I called Armando over.

‘This is ridiculous Armando. There must be something we can do to find her. Have you asked anyone else who comes in regularly if they know anything about her?’

‘I’ve been asking everyone I could think of. You know what it’s like in London. People don’t know too much about each other. It’s very different in Spain.’

‘But this is Crouch End. People do care. It’s like living in a village.’

The door opened and we looked from each other to the entrance.

Thank goodness. It was Lil. There was no shopping trolley and she was unsteady and heavy on her stick but it was her. She wore a long puffer coat and a fancy felt hat with an artificial rose on the side. Armando efficiently wove through the tables to her side, and offered his arm, and his support.

‘What you doing in my seat? Bloody hell I miss one week and you’re in my grave!’ Lil said with a weak cackle.

I apologised and moved. I’d forgotten where I was sitting when I’d seen her arrive.

As she removed her hat I noticed two new features; a purple rinse and a purple face. I let Lil settle, remove her outer coat to reveal her housecoat and reached across for her hand. We looked at each other with appreciation to be in each other’s company once again. Armando pulled up a chair and instructed the kitchen assistant and waitress not to disturb him, and to bring fresh tea.

‘What happened? Are you OK?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been a bloody fool,’ said Lil with water welling in her eyes. ‘I was fed up with a particular piece of peeling wallpaper above the mantelpiece in my sitting room. I got the steps from the hall cupboard and climbed up to rip the paper off. I lost my footing and fell off cracking my face on the side of the armchair and smashing to the floor.’

‘Lil, that’s awful. Did someone take you to hospital? When did it happen?’

‘It was last week Tuesday afternoon, and thank goodness my care-worker was due to visit otherwise I could have been stuck all night. The pain in my side was excruciating and I felt so sick.’

Lil looked away from us both as if deep in thought. ‘I’ll have my usual Armando please. I need to keep my strength up.’

‘Of course,’ and with that Armando ordered breakfast with a look to the staff. We could now settle a little and enjoy some sustenance. I, as usual, had a vegetarian breakfast with one sausage.

‘I was in the hospital for two days while they checked me out. Fortunately it’s all knocks and bruises, but I could have fractured my hip and cheek. Apparently I was in shock but that all sounded a bit like the modern mental clap-trap.’

‘Who’s looking after you?’ I asked.

‘I have some support but I’d rather do it myself. I have to keep moving. There’s no use relying on others.’

Lil said that when she was young an older lady she’d looked up to had taught her a rhyme, a mantra she had applied her whole life and proceeded to share it with us:

‘If your face wants to laugh, let it.

And if a smile you can get, get it.

Never look down. Don’t wear a frown

Because everyone else will hear about it

All over town.

So if at times you think you’ve got troubles

You’ll find someone else has double.

So laugh and grow fat

And if your face wants to laugh, let it.’

It made me think of my Auntie Rose who lives in Norfolk who says something similar.

‘Lil, we’ve been so worried and had no way to get in touch with you.’

‘Trust you to make it all about yourself Boulevardier.’ Lil smiled and picked up her cup with both hands. ‘And I’ve missed this bloody Assam, and that’s your fault too! I used to be fine with PG Tips.’ Lil was lightening the atmosphere. I would have to do likewise.

‘So what happened to your hair?’ I posed.

‘Bloody cheek. It’s to match the colour of my face. One of the support workers thought it would cheer me up! I hear Kelly Osbourne has hers the same colour.’

‘More like Mrs Slocombe-‘

‘-You can give us your number now, and we give you ours,’ Armando interrupted before Lil had a chance to react to my amusing comment.

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Lil knew better than to refuse the offer and we exchanged telephone numbers and continued breakfast. We conversed and laughed about the mundane, with Lil offering blog improvements as always. Equilibrium had been restored to Crouch End.

Our breakfast club was a recent but increasingly special event for us all and it was clear we were determined to keep it intact.