I tend not to make plans on a Wednesday evening. My routine is usually to finish work at dusk and breathe a deep sigh of relief. It was no different this week.
I slumped on my leather corner sofa and flicked on the television. I needed some escape viewing and selected The Real Housewives of New Jersey from my Sky Plus planner. I know it’s not characteristic of a Boulevardier to watch such programmes but I like to think of it as an anthropological documentary – that’s how I justify it to myself anyway. I think there should be a new franchise – The Real Boulevardiers of London. I’d happily play my part.
Something was missing – I hauled myself from my comfortable den to the kitchen and poured a double Oloroso. I wilting back into the sofa as the housewives engaged in their latest drama. My viewing pleasure was interrupted by a telephone call. The screen identified my caller.
‘Hi Lil, how are you?’
‘Good evening Wayne. I’m not feeling great. My head’s full of cold and I feel constantly tired. I’m not sure I’m going to make Breakfast Club. You know I hate to miss it.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that. Do you need anything? Shall I nip round? Do you have food‘
‘I knew you’d bloody start fussing. I’m fine. I just have a cold and don’t feel well enough to go out tomorrow.’
‘We’ll come to you,’ I suggested.
‘Armando has a business to run and I don’t want either of you fretting about an old woman.’
‘Well I’ll come then. Shall I arrive later, say 11.30 to give you chance to get up?’
‘Fine.’ Lil was too weak to put up much of a fight.
‘Seriously though do you need anything? I can pop to the shops en route. It wouldn’t be any trouble.’
‘No, I’m fine.’ I could hear Lil’s lips pursing.
‘OK see you tomorrow. Hope you sleep well. Bye.’
I sent Armando a message on Facebook who of course was happy to join me and said he’d bring cake.
It was a cold but bright morning as we walked to Lil’s low-rise block. I knew roughly where she lived but hadn’t paid much attention to the 1950s block before now. There was a pleasant grassy front and a concrete path leading to the communal green front door.
The hallway was drab but clean and gifted us an aroma of bleach. We ascended the stairs to the first floor and knocked. I felt quite excited at the thought of getting to see inside.
A loud clatter was followed by an exclamation of ‘Sod it.’
Lil opened the door looking pale, with half-styled hair and a brightly coloured housecoat and fluffy pink slippers.
‘Hello. You’d better come in, but I’m not ready,’ said Lil.
We paused to take in the sight before us and made a ceremonial crossing of Lil’s threshold.
‘QUICK! Before the nosey cow from across the hallway comes out to poke her oar in.’ Lil was not wearing tolerance today.
We scampered into a hallway. Lil pushed passed and slammed the door. There was an open door immediately to my left which looked like the kitchen, with a tray, milk jug and sugar all over the floor. Lil barged passed and shut the kitchen door and suggested we move ahead into the sitting room.
‘Do you want me to clear up spillage?’ Armando offered.
‘No. Go in and sit down and give me a few minutes to finish my hair and get the tea things ready,’ said Lil.
‘I brought a Victoria Sponge Lil to have with tea,’ said Armando.
‘Oooh I love a slice of Vicky. Pop her on the table and I’ll sort it out in a minute. Thank you.’ Lil ushered us into the room ahead of us and disappeared along the corridor.
The sitting room was square and had a dark green, two-seater couch and two matching armchairs. One of the armchairs looked more worn and had a foot stool in front of it and a small table to the side. This was Lil’s chair. I glanced at the reading material on the table and eyed a copy of Women’s Weekly and The Lady next to a reading lamp and a coaster. All items in her suite were protected by white crocheted antimacassars. There was a central glass table with several matching floral coasters and a vase of daffodils. The mantelpiece was full of brass ornaments which reflected in the mirror above. There was a piece of ripped wallpaper next to the mirror which had been the cause of Lil’s recent fall. The room was full of trinkets; the teak sideboard was covered in photo frames.
‘Want tea?’ Lil called from the kitchen.
Armando had sat down and I looked at some of the pictures and a particular early colour shot caught my eye. Lil had red hair piled high on her head, wore a floral dress with a puffed skirt, and was standing next to a rather severe looking older lady.
‘Who’s this in the picture with you Lil? Your mum?’ I asked.
‘I’m in the bloody kitchen. I can’t see through walls. Wait,’ Lil answered.
Lil appeared with tray, tea pot, tea cosy, three cups, saucers and tea spoons – rescued from the floor. Her hair was now styled and still rather purple and her lips rosy red. It didn’t disguise her pale complexion or tired eyes.
‘Can you sort out the cake Armando? I’ve put out the side plates and napkins.’
‘That’s my Auntie Violet, or Vi as we called her,’ Lil added.
We all sat, Lil in her chair and Armando and me on the couch. There was a formal air that I wasn’t used to when we were together. I wondered if it was the new location and the fact that we’d invaded Lil’s private residence.
‘You mentioned her before. She helped you when you weren’t feeling good right?’ I said.
‘Yes, and so much…’ Lil looked over at the photo and it was as if we’d lost her for a few moments. She climbed into the photo and into her memories.
‘I was ten years old when my mum died of stomach cancer,’ Lil continued, ‘she’d been in hospital for a good year to 18 months before she passed. Children were not allowed in the wards in those days so Auntie Vi sat by Mum’s bed alone.
Mum’s ward was on the ground floor and her bed next to a window so I used to go round and talk to Mum through the window. Sometimes I’d take a packet of Payne’s Poppets for her. Looking back she was probably far too ill to eat them.
Then I’d go and sit on the kitchen steps where a lady from our road worked and she’d look after me.’
It was heart-breaking to hear. I felt grateful that my own parents were still fit and well and that I’d enjoyed so much life with them.
‘I remember the day I was playing in the garden with a girl from our road, Ronnie – her name was Veronica but we called her Ronnie. Auntie Vi came out and told us to go and play at Ronnie’s. That evening I slept at Ronnie’s, and her mum told me the next morning that my mum had died. I was so angry, I was a right cow. I was angry at Auntie Violet and Dad for letting Mum die. I was too young to understand.
On the day of the funeral, another auntie, Ivy, came to get me and we went on the bus to the shops and into a toy shop. I chose a game of Jacks. We went to the park and had a picnic. It was a lovely summer’s day. In those days children didn’t go to funerals. I remember it so vividly as if it were yesterday.
‘Dad couldn’t cope. He was never the same, and didn’t look after me. He started drinking. Auntie Vi told me that his heart was broken and that I’d better come and live with her until it was mended…’
Lil had shared, in these few moments, more detail than we’d heard from her since we’d met. It all sounded so harrowing but maybe it was normal back then. Cancer wasn’t as treatable as it was today, and they were surrounded by the ravages of war. I looked at Armando who had tears streaming down his face, as did I. My movement jolted Lil back into the present and she saw our emotion, which made her uncomfortable. This was more than she was used to.
‘… Shall I pour? She asked.
‘That would be lovely Lil. How much cake would you like? I baked it fresh this morning,’ said Armando.
‘Thank you Armando. I’ll have a small slice now. This cold has suppressed my appetite.‘ She paused to take a breath or two and then continued,
‘It’s Assam Mr Boulevardier. There you go. Now I’ll pop my cosy over the pot. Do you like it? I knitted it myself.’
‘It’s gorgeous and so, ahem, multi-coloured,’ I said.
‘Hahaha – I knew you’d say that Boulevardier. If you’re not careful I’ll knit you one from leftover wool too.’
‘This cake is delicious Armando’ said Lil as she covered her lips in cream.
The conversation dulled momentarily as we all focused on the fresh cake, trying not to drop any crumbs onto the Chinese style rug beneath our feet.
‘When did you catch your cold Lil? Why do you think you caught it?’ I asked.
‘Last Saturday Wayne. It’s left me feeling rather weak.’
‘Do you think talking about the car accident made you ill?’
‘Don’t be so dramatic – Of course not. How do we think I got through the last 50 years? You have more bloody drama than an episode of Corrie. I didn’t wrap up warm enough last Saturday. I could feel a chill in my bones by the evening.’
‘Lil, don’t deflect every attempt at understanding you. Do you know that you can be quite contrary sometimes?’ I said firmly.
‘Shut it, I’m poorly. I don’t have to tell you nothing.’ I resisted the urge to point out the double negative.
‘More cake?’ Armando knew that we needed to feed our emotions.
‘Yes please,’ we both answered in unison.
Lil’s husband, her Auntie Violet and all her other years would have to stay shrouded in secrecy.
For now anyway. I would get to know this crotchety old woman if it killed me.