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.

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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.

Lack of Lil

It was a freezing Thursday morning, and as I pushed back the duvet a gust of cold air hit me. I wanted to re-cover myself and stay put. However, Thursday was breakfast club and I didn’t want to disappoint Lil and miss a chance to hear another of her great stories.

I gathered enough strength to throw my legs to the side of the bed, grabbed my warming towelling robe and got up. I walked to the kitchen and felt the hallway radiator en route. It was hot but I still felt cold. After flicking the kettle switch and popping a mixed-berry Berrocca into a glass of water I walked back to the bedroom and opened the sliding wardrobe doors.

I always have found it so difficult to decide what to wear. I even pause before getting ready for the gym. I looked longingly at my leatherette jeans which were currently too small. I wish they’d shrunk in the wash but quite simply I’d gained weight. When it’s cold style suffers slightly and I chose my fleece-lined Gap baggy combats. They were a relic from the late 1990s but the fleece lining added a layer of warmth which I relished. I remember the television commercial promising free movement as skaters sped across the ice wearing those combats which had reflective patches on each of the pockets. I wanted them in black but the shop only had mid-brown and those were pre-internet shopping days.

Time was ticking on and I selected a black T shirt and my multi-coloured H&M sweater, and decided to wear a cap which would save on quiffing time.

I exited the front door at 9.55am which made sure I would not be late. Lil didn’t like it when I arrived after 10am. The air hit my face and felt glacial.

As I entered the café the corner table was empty. There were a number of mumbling patrons but no Lil.

Armando looked up and we exchanged smiles by way of greeting.

‘Morning Armando. What would happen if someone was sitting there when Lil came in’? I asked pointing to the corner table.

‘It more than my life worth. I would have to say ‘reserved’.’

‘No sign of her yet then?’ I enquired. Armando shook his head. ‘I’ll start with Assam as always please, and a bowl of porridge with blueberries.’

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With my order placed I unbuttoned my Parka with the fake fur hood and sat down. I sat sideways to the table so I could keep an eye on the door. Lil always sat facing the doors. I took my iPhone from my combat pocket to check the time – 10.05. Lil was late which was unusual but she had been late before, and the cold weather presents additional challenges.

After tweeting and updating my Facebook status I took my Kindle from my coat pocket. I hadn’t really expected to get a chance to read but brought the digital reader just in case. I was midway through Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Dellafield and couldn’t put it down.  Despite a rather prim title the book is extremely funny. It’s the diary of an ill-fated lady in the 1930s, who’s trying to juggle a succession of demanding servants, children’s needs, financial worries and a husband who doesn’t seem interested in her, all the time keeping, or rather trying to keep, up with the other middle and upper class families surrounding her little life.

I know I’m not helping in selling it but trust me it’s worth a read. There are not too many laugh-out-loud moments but plenty of smiles.

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I smirked as I read ‘Cannot many of our moral lapses from truth be frequently charged upon the tactless persistence of others’; an excellent introspection. Sometimes we have to bend the truth to satisfy our interrogators, especially when they won’t take no for an answer. I reasoned that if they are sufficiently tactless to not read our discomfort at the constant pushing and pulling then we need to steer them away in a demure and smooth fashion. I was reflecting that indeed the Boulevardier lives by this standard when Armando was back with the porridge and tea. I looked at my phone again and it was 10.20. As I said the book is consuming.

‘Thanks Armando. This is odd. Lil has never been this late before. Has she always come in on a Thursday?’

‘Yes, more often than not. In fact now I think of it she did telephone a couple of months ago when she had a bad cold and wasn’t coming. She knows I save the table and didn’t want me to lose customers.’

‘Well this is indeed odd. I’m starting to get a little worried. Do you have her number? Can we call her?’

‘No. I don’t have her number. She called here.’

‘Do you know where she lives?’

‘No.’

Armando sat down and we looked at each other mirroring expressions of concern.

I’d been chatting merrily away with this lady weekly for a couple of months but I didn’t know very much about her. She tended to ask the questions.

The picture in my mind was of the previous week where I had waved goodbye to Lil at the café door and watched her disappear along the street towards the clock tower pushing her trolley with the stick jutting out.

What had happened to Lil?

Coming Out

The boulevardier walked into the café as always on a Thursday for his breakfast club but the corner table was without patrons. In fact on a cold February morning the café was almost empty.

Armando emerged from the kitchen and greeted me with a nod. He looked serious.

‘Morning Armando. Where’s Lil?’

‘How should I know? I’m not her mother. In fact where is anyone? Why do I bother opening in this cold weather?’

I knew Armando was constantly worried about making ends meet, and when this was coupled with long days and a continental dramatic personality, it could often generate quite the flounce.

‘Well I’d like an Assam and a vegetarian full breakfast with a sausage please.’ I was trying to watch what I ate but after his pronouncement I thought better than to order porridge.

‘I hope she’s OK. Perhaps it’s the cold weather that’s…‘

The door opened and there was Lil leaning heavily on her stick, in a furry hat, full length quilted coat and black flat boots with their fluffy lining poking out.

‘Will somebody bloody give me a hand? I’m froze to death and my legs aren’t working properly.’

Armando moved swiftly between the tables and chairs and guided Lil to her favoured spot. She sat down frailly and looked exhausted even though it was only just after 10am. She slipped off her coat to reveal a beautifully flower-patterned housecoat. I wondered whether she meant to leave it on to keep warm or had forgotten to take it off before coming out.

Armando appeared with a pot of tea for Lil. I had ordered first but this wasn’t the point. She was suffering. And two cups could be generated from the pot.

‘So what’s new with you Boulevardier?’

‘Lots Lil. But first how are you?’

‘Yes, yes, yes. Don’t fuss.’ She said no more and looked at me. This was clearly not a day to talk about Lil.

Armando reappeared with another cup, saucer and pot of Assam. There were no other customers and I suggested that he sit down and join us. He put his trusty tea towel on the counter, grabbed another cup and saucer, mismatching of course, and sat next to Lil.

‘You be mother,’ Lil said to me and I poured cups of tea for the three of us.

‘I’ve booked a holiday for April to Santorini, for me and my partner to escape this cold.’ I said.

Lil bit her lip, looked at Armando, and started to shake. This wasn’t the effects of the cold however, but rather she was trying not to laugh and she failed.

She looked at me and said ‘Partner. Ha. Don’t you mean fella?’

‘Well I, well I….’

‘Of course it’s a bloody man. No one who writes in their blog about re-quiffing their hair, whether or not to wear leatherette jeans and constantly sips Sherry is going to have a wife!’

‘I thought it was rather metrosexual to be honest.’ I was defeated. How did she really know?

‘Metro bloody what? And it doesn’t bother me either – I spent too many years as an usherette and part-time chorus girl at The Old Bedford in Camden Town with plenty of confirmed bachelors. Most of them enjoyed the wigs and face powder far too much. And there’s no point in you looking shifty Armando. I’ve watched you mincing around the café for the last few years.’

‘It’s newer to me Lil, I said. I’ve only accepted and realised it in the last four or five years. I only discussed it with my parents last weekend.’

‘How did that go Boulevardier?’

‘Surprisingly well. It had been difficult and most of my friends knew but I hadn’t found the time or opportunity to speak to my parents about it. In fact I was incredibly nervous.’

I proceeded to tell Lil and Armando what had happened.

I was booking too much with my boyfriend Michael, and now we were going on holiday together I couldn’t carry on trying to skirt around the truth with my parents. It wasn’t fair on me, them or Michael.

Armando’s kitchen assistant brought our breakfasts over on the usual china plates and we paused for a second. I knew Lil and Armando wouldn’t wait for me to eat my breakfast so I resolved that it would likely be cold by the time I ate it. That was fine. This was important.

I came up with a flimsy excuse to visit on a Sunday afternoon and set off from London to Bedfordshire feeling really sick and terrified. I had manipulated enough flexibility to not do it if I really couldn’t. Only one friend knew what I was doing. I couldn’t tell anyone else and especially not my boyfriend as I didn’t want him to anticipate my actions and then feel let down, or even more so, to feel that I had to push forward with my parents because of anyone else but me.

I arrived and made tea. We caught up on general news, the weather, the gardens and everything but…

I had planned my first line and a few times I took a deep breath and prepared to say ‘There is something I need to talk to you both about.’ As I took the breath and went to speak and either Mum or Dad jumped in. They of course had no idea what I was building up to.

After what felt like an hour, although it must have only been a matter of minutes, I managed to get my first line out. This was followed by ‘I want to be clear this is not about health. There is no change in my health.’ After my serious illness the previous year I knew this would be the first place their heads and hearts would go.

‘After I had therapy a few years ago remember I said that I’d talk to you about it at some point…’

No further words would leave my mouth. I was rooted with fear, anxiety and shame. Once out this was not going back in the box.

‘Give me a few moments please… I just can’t seem to say it.’

Dad was seated next to me in his leather high-backed armchair and Mum was on the sofa, both barely breathing and looking intently at me.

‘I don’t know how to say it…’

Dad suddenly said ‘Is it that you’ve got a boyfriend?’

The moment hung in the air and it took all of my strength and energy to say ‘Yes.’

‘Thank goodness for that. I thought you were going to say you were about to die,’ said Dad.

‘I’m sorry but it’s been very difficult for me.’ My heart rate was no longer increasing. It wasn’t coming down much either. An enormous amount of stress left my body. I felt sick again but this was a very different sick.

‘Why didn’t you think you could say something?’ asked Dad.

‘Nearly all my friends know but I had a bad reaction from two close friends and it made me realise how much it can hurt. They’re much better about it now but they had initial negative reactions. I feel a lot of shame.’

‘Be proud of who you are and what you do.’ Said Dad

This sentence uttered by my dad has had a profound effect on me. I never expected him to say that. It’s incredibly empowering.

‘You’re quiet Mum.’ I was worried.

‘I can’t get a bloody word in with your Dad.’

We then talked more openly. This is a new normal for me. They want to meet Michael when the time is right.

‘That is great. Your parents sound very sensible and incredibly supportive,’ said Lil. ‘I’d like to meet them at some point.’

‘Now Armando, his breakfast is cold. I suggest we get this Boulevardier a fresh breakfast and a fresh pot of Assam tea.’

Lil was back in charge and directing the café. Her bones had warmed.

‘So did you mean to wear your housecoat outside?’ I asked with a smile.

‘Now just because you’ve had a drama doesn’t give you leave to be so bloody cheeky you little bugger. Gays, always full of drama.

The familiar warmth of Lil’s cackle filled every crevice of the café.

All was right in the world.