Sick Lil

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.’

‘Bye.’

I sent Armando a message on Facebook who of course was happy to join me and said he’d bring cake.

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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.

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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.

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Lavatories and Cheese Sandwiches

‘Bingo!’ I announced dramatically as I opened the café door.

‘For goodness sake, bloody come and sit down. Bingo was last week.’

‘How are you Lil?’

‘Well apparently Mavis Bellamy has been telling everyone that I was rude to her at the bingo.’

‘which you were rather…’

‘Armando please remove the Boulevardier from the café if he’s going to side with that la-di-da interfering nosey cow.’

Armando darted over from the counter to settle this subtle disturbance. I shouldn’t have interrupted and said something so inflammatory but I’d woken in rather a bad mood with a headache.

‘Sorry Lil and of course this was after she accused you of cheating. I’m tired after a long week of working in Swindon,’ I said.

‘Hmmmmm,’ replied Lil.

‘I’ll get the Assam,’ said Armando ‘as peace offering.’

I nipped to the loo and as usual found the lavatory seat down but the lid open which is one of my pet hates.

‘I do hate it when the loo seat lid isn’t lowered after use,’ I said as I returned to the table.

Lil was pouring the tea ‘And I hate it when men leave the seat up.’

‘Come on Lil, that’s the argument always asserted by women but I find it a bit hypocritical as they rarely put the loo seat lid down.’

‘Why should they?’ Lil argued firmly.

‘Well due to large quantities of bacteria and viruses in toilets after use, it’s polite to close the lid while flushing in my mind. I believe the effect of the flush can cause germs to spread across a bathroom for hours.’

‘Is that true?’ said Lil.

Armando arrived with Lil’s full breakfast and my porridge with blueberries. The café was rather busy and he didn’t stop to sit with us.

‘Yes, and just imagine if the germs reach your toothbrush,’ I added.

‘I’ve bloody had enough of this. You’re not acting much like a Boulevardier. More like a grumpy sod, and I’m certainly not having toilet talk over breakfast,’ said Lil.

Lil and I looked at each other and smiled in a friendly manner. We were both a little tetchy. No wonder Armando was busying himself in the café.

‘The spread was good last Thursday Lil.’

‘Yes us oldies know how to put on a buffet.’ I resisted the urge to ask Lil what part she had played in the preparation.

stecca cheese sandwich

‘When I ate the cheese sandwich and drank the coffee it triggered a wonderful old memory. I’ve been thinking about it all week,’ I said.

‘What’s that then?’

Armando joined us with an Americano and muffin.

‘When I was young we always used to go on holiday to the same chalet in a small village called Winterton in Norfolk. Well, until we upgraded to the Isle of Wight but that wasn’t until I was 13.’

Lil sliced a mushroom and dipped it in her egg.

‘Anyway, we had to set off early and I always looked forward to the stop in Thetford Forest. I could taste the combination of cheese roll and coffee as soon as the journey started. I reminded Mum of this in the week and she said we didn’t regularly stop at Thetford, but I’m sure we did. Anyway, Mum used to bring a thermos of milky coffee which I would drink. I wasn’t always allowed coffee but on holiday I was. I would drink the coffee with a Clingfilm wrapped cheese roll. It was like a ceremony as Mum opened the glove compartment in our Austin Cambridge and placed paper cups on the purposed indentations and poured.’

Austin A60 Cambridge

Lil put down her cutlery and looked up.

‘We didn’t have much luck with our Cambridge.’

‘You had one too?’ I asked.

‘What is this Cambridge?’ Armando interjected.

‘What would now be called a classic car, and yes we had one. It was Ray’s pride and joy. He loved his cars. We hadn’t had it for long and went out for a spin on a Sunday afternoon when this idiot crashed into the passenger side of the car,’ Lil said.

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‘Oh no. Were you injured?’ I asked.

‘The impact was on my side and the door crushed right into me, and thank goodness the Cambridge was sturdy otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here.’

‘Lil, please don’t say that,’ said Armando.

‘It’s true. The unborn life in my tummy didn’t fare so well…’ Lil paused and took a deep breath.

Armando moved his hands across the table and put them on Lil’s. She had water in her eyes.

‘The only answer anyone had in those days was to get pregnant again, but I didn’t or couldn’t or who knows. I wanted to grieve the loss of my child… And that reminds me of my auntie Vi. She was my rock. I wish she were still alive.’

I didn’t know what to say.

‘Raymond never forgave himself. He had suggested the drive but wasn’t responsible for that fool who lost control of his vehicle.’

Memories evoke memories and all from a cheese sandwich and a cup of instant coffee at a charity bingo event.

Lil looked sad.

Armando called for a fresh pot of Assam.

Bonkers Bingo

I drew the bed covers up and raised my second Assam of the morning to my lips. I loved our Breakfast Club but equally enjoyed the decadence of a long lie in, particularly when the air has a glacial bite to it. I had opened one of my sliding wardrobe doors and was looking intently in from the warmth of bed. I had no idea what to wear.

I knew how to dress for an evening with Eve Ferret at Crazy Coqs, or a night at Polari Literary Salon at the Royal Festival Hall, but what would I wear to a charity bingo afternoon at the community centre? I wanted to make sure that Lil was impressed. It would take several more cups of tea before I was able to make a good decision.

It was ten to two. How time flies when you want it to stay still, and I was having a final check in the mirror; the hair was quiffed, and the combination of purple chinos, Amy Winehouse T shirt, blue/silver Prada trainers and a dark blue cord jacket said I’d made an effort but not overdone it.

Lil and Armando were waiting, arm in arm, outside the Café as I approached. Armando had seemingly combed his hair and applied some pomade, and wore a plain shirt beneath his coat, and blue jeans. Lil looked a picture; his lips were rosy, her cheeks rouged, the hair purpler (she’d been at the rinse again), and she wore a tightly buttoned woollen coat with oversized buttons – an animal print silk scarf warmed her neck. Her fancy court shoes matched her patented handbag. She’d pushed the boat out and I was glad I was wearing some glad(ish) rags too.

‘I hope you haven’t forgotten to take off your house coat today Lil,’ I joked.

‘Shut it Boulevardier. You could have made an effort,’ Lil retorted with shooting speed.

I took Lil’s other arm and we escorted her the short walk to our afternoon entertainment.

As we entered Lil spoke to the door staff; apparently called Tom and Ted. We didn’t get an introduction but paid our fees, handed over our prizes of wine and vouchers, and received our bingo cards.

‘I’m just nipping to powder my nose gentlemen,’ Lil said, and with that she was off. She reminded me of a peacock and we were her plume.

Upon Lil’s return her cheeks were re-rouged and her lips coated in an extra layer of liner. We re-linked arms like the front line of battle and shuffled through the double doors into the hall. Our entrance wasn’t as smooth as expected as Armando caught his sleeve on the door. Lil pursed her lips briefly and then switched as we entered the hall and let out an enchanting cackle as if one of us had said something funny. She was performing. We would have to oblige.

Lil guided us between a number of elderly patrons to an empty table near the front. She asked Armando to get us a Sherry each from the bar. This was out of habit. She was used to Armando serving us. While he completed his mission Lil steered me to the front where a portly elderly gent was bursting out of his chequered waistcoat.

‘I’d like to introduce you to my good friend who is a writer, Bill. This is Wayne and Wayne this is Bill.’

‘How do you do,’ I said trying to sound as much like a writer as I could.

‘Likewise. What do you write?’

‘A blog.’ Bill looked nonplussed. An online journal and some short stories.’

‘Good afternoon Lilian. Please move away from the bingo cage. We don’t want to be accused of fiddling with the balls now do we,’ came a familiar voice.

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‘Hello Mavis,’ Lil said through gritted teeth, ‘you seem to have forgotten to take off your pinny.’

‘It’s a pinafore dress Lilian as well you know.’

‘Are you sure? You look as if you should be in the kitchens.’

Mavis smiled politely but was not prepared to engage Lil further and moved to another table where we could hear her loudly exclaiming to other attendees. I coaxed Lil back to our table where Armando was waiting with the Sherries.

‘Lil, honestly, you and Mavis are like a pair of schoolgirls,’ I said.

‘She accused me of trying to cheat,’ Lil said in a low but firm defence, ‘and I’m not having it.’

We were interrupted by Mavis, booming through a microphone to thank everyone for attending. We were invited to help ourselves to a selection of sandwiches and cakes and a hot drinks as the bingo would be starting in fifteen minutes.

I left Lil with Armando and ventured forth to get a sharing platter. The sandwiches were varied and on large aluminium plates with doilies for decoration. I’d finished my Sherry and fancied a coffee and approached the two ladies who were standing on either side of two large stainless steel urns and made my request.

Back at the table I enjoyed the simple cheese sandwiches. Why do we go for fancy sundried tomato and Prosciutto when simple and traditional tastes just as good?  I’d also secured three slices of Battenberg. Our afternoon tea was cut short as Mavis announced the commencement of the bingo.

‘I’d like to pronounce this Bingo event open.’

‘She’s not naming a bloody ship,’ said Lil loud enough for Mavis to hear.

Bill stood. I hoped the buttons on his waistcoat stayed put as they were being stretched and could cause quite a nasty injury should they ping forth. Bill turned the handle on the metal bingo cage full of coloured balls before lifting the latch and pulling forth ‘number 23’ which he then placed in its designated circular hole on the large wooden board.

None of us had ‘23’ on our cards and regrettably this was to be a harbinger as we didn’t win anything. I came close once where I only needed one number but was beaten by a rather downtrodden looking lady at another table. I reasoned that perhaps she deserved to triumph more than me.

Mavis announced the end of the proceedings, thanked everyone for their time and contributions which totalled several hundred pounds for charity.

‘At least Mavis didn’t win anything either,’ said Lil.

I turned and looked at her and she appeared defeated and tired. Did she want or rather need to win a prize?  Lil looked vulnerable.

Mavis was still full of spirits and laughing loudly with some of the attendees. Lil looked upset and I felt protective. We needed to get her out of there and home as soon as possible. A nod from Armando meant that our thoughts were in sync.

We exited the venue quickly and without further incident. Mavis was still busy talking to some of the winners on the other side of the hall and Bill was focussed on putting his balls away. As we walked back to the café Lil relied more on the arm support.

‘Are you tired Lil?’ I said.

‘A little, but let’s get a nice tea together in Armando’s café before we separate.’

Our usual table was taken but Lil seemed too weary to mind and we sat next to the front window.

‘Thank you for coming with me, my lovely boys. You don’t know how much I appreciate it.’

Armando and I looked at each other. We knew.

 

An Ode to the Pampered

Work had flown by this week and it was soon Thursday and time to meet Lil and Armando for Breakfast Club. I felt refreshed as I took the short walk to the café.

Lil’s mouth turned upwards in greeting as I entered. Armando was busy with other customers and gave a subtle nod.

‘Wow, what’s happened to you Boulevardier? You look different. How shall I put it? Less frazzled than normal,’ said Lil.

‘Ha. I wonder if it’s because I spent last weekend at a Health Spa in the country Lil.’

The cackle started low and built into a crescendo. Others in the café were looking round. Lil took a small white cotton handkerchief from the cuff of her green chunky jumper and wiped her face. She had laughed herself into a sweat.

‘Lil honestly, what is funny? Everyone is staring.’

‘You! You bloody na-na. Health Club for the weekend ha. You’ll be telling me next that you spent the entire trip swanning around in a fluffy robe.’

‘I don’t understand what’s so hilarious. And no, we tried the robes but decided to wear comfortable clothes instead.’

Lil started to vibrate with laughter again. I didn’t realise I had such comic qualities at 10am.

‘Do you want to hear about it or just take the… errrrrr, ridicule me?’ I was going to use a different word but stopped myself in time. Lil may use fruity language but I didn’t feel it right to swear in front of her.

‘I want to hear about it.’ Lil bit her lip and tucked her handkerchief back under her sleeve. Armando arrived with tea and took a seat.

I explained that as part of my birthday celebrations Michael and I had booked to go to Henlow Grange which is part of the Champney’s Group of spas. According to the website ‘Our resort spa is built around an opulent Georgian manor, with hand-painted walls and Venetian-style mirrors. A Cistercian monastery once stood on the site.’

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‘I took the train from Finsbury Park after college. Michael would follow in his car after work. The station was deserted and I was glad I’d booked a taxi in advance. I patted myself, figuratively, on the back at my foresight.

The taxi circled the central fountain and scrunched on the gravel drive. The big wooden front doors of the Grange opened to reveal a buzzing reception hall. Patrons were checking in, checking out and arranging treatments in a flurry of activity. A few ladies walked by dressed in white fluffy robes.’

My story was momentarily interrupted, as a fresh pot of tea and steaming hot breakfasts arrived. I paused for a minute as we conducted the familiar dance of the salt and pepper pots around the table.

‘Once I’d checked in and validated the treatment times for both of us, I was directed to my room with the promise of a guided tour starting in ten minutes.

I took the tour and was slightly unnerved by the number of people, mostly women, walking around in white towelling robes and white flip flops. Was this a sect? Would I have to wear this uniform and if so how would I assert my individuality? How would I stay me?’

Lil hooted. ‘Lil.’ I said firmly and looked to Armando for support.

‘Bloody hell Boulevardier. Only you could be bothered by the robes. Now get on with it.’ Lil said.

‘The flip flops only seemed to go up to size 8. I heard another man complaining about it at reception. We were given larger fluffy slippers as an alternative which were fine. Michael arrived and after refreshing facials we went to dinner.

But I must tell you how amusing it was as we were waiting at the treatment reception for our facials. The reception area had several comfortable sofas with coffee tables spread with magazines. You wait there to be called forward by your appointed therapist. They appear from a side room armed with a clipboard.

After a few names had been called, and you know what it’s like, if it’s not your name you don’t pay much attention. We sat up when we heard the following name called:

‘‘Harvey Nichols?’’

I kid you not.

A guy got up and followed the therapist to her treatment boudoir. The room tittered. I wondered whether Harry Selfridge or Coco Chanel would be next.

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Anyway once we arrived in the restaurant, which doubled as the breakfast and lunch venue, we were guided to a table decorated with a crisp white tablecloth and a tealight in a glass holder. We were given fresh spring water and A4 sized plastic padded menus. The waitress reappeared within a couple of minutes to take our drinks order.

‘I’d like a diet coke please,’ said Michael.

‘I’ll have a glass of red wine please,’ I said.

‘Do you have bottles of diet coke?’ Michael added.

The waitresses eyes opened wider and we looked round to see that Michael’s dangled menu was aflame having combusted (it had connected with the tealight). Staff appeared from everywhere and took the burning menu. Other patrons turned to look at the fuss as black smoke rose from our table.

The Manageress appeared to apologise and after settling the situation confirmed that she recognised me from earlier.

‘‘At least you’re not wearing bright red socks this evening,’’ she directed at me referencing her previous sighting when I gave Michael a tour of the facilities without shoes.

‘‘They are Falke,’’ I confirmed as if the brand of sock made it acceptable to wander through the facilities shoeless.’

‘Bloody hell Boulevardier,’ cackled Lil, ‘you never cease to amaze me.’

‘It gets worse Lil.’

Lil folded her cutlery on her plate and looked at me to continue.

I told Lil and Armando how the next morning the maid had walked into our room without knocking. Thankfully we were dressed and about to head to breakfast. It could have been quite the eyeful if she’d caught me en route to the shower after attending Wake-Up Workout.

After massages, a treatment in the Thalassotherapy pool (which was most incommodious in its quiff destruction abilities) and a walk to a pub in the local village it was time for dinner.

There were no candles in the restaurant.

We questioned our waitress regarding their absence. She confirmed that Michael’s antics had highlighted health and safety risks and candles were banned from the restaurant. There was nothing for it but to enjoy several glasses of wine. Michael’s spa legacy is setting the place on fire. He’s hardly the advocate for a healthy weekend.

It was all go on a relaxing spa weekend. There was hardly time to pause. However, this didn’t stop us from achieving a state of natural sedation.

‘That all sounds very nice Boulevardier. We didn’t have such treats in my day. An afternoon in the park provided us with sufficient relaxation.’

I nodded.

‘Anyway, don’t forget that it’s bingo next week, so we won’t have breakfast club. I’ll see you both at the community centre for charity bingo. Dress smart. Armando did you arrange cover?’

‘Yes the café is not so busy after lunch. But why don’t we go together?’

‘Yes Lil, surely you want to arrive with both escorts to show Mavis Bellamy who she’s messing with.’ I added.

‘Good plan. Let’s have another Assam to seal the deal.’ Lil looked rather pleased with herself.