Down But Not Out

It was disappointing but not surprising to receive a note from Lil on Tuesday indicating that she wouldn’t be able to attend Breakfast Club this week. I called in to see Armando and he’d received a similar note – delivered by a rather forlorn Bill. We agreed that I’d call Lil to establish whether a house call would be more amenable. I wasn’t holding out much hope as she hadn’t been receptive to anything since our last meeting.

‘If only I could get my hands on that bastard,’ said Armando.

‘That wouldn’t do any good, you’d end up in trouble with the police too,’ I responded. I shook my head as I raised the 1970s pottery coffee cup from its saucer to my lips.

‘Maybe, but it make-a me feel a lot bloody better. There is no respect for older people.’

We consumed a second slice of Madeira cake to suffocate our sorrows.

I called Lil – answer-phone, again. I explained my concern and that in the absence of a response I would have no alternative other than to make a personal visit. I tried to sound funny rather than forceful. Lil was down due to a forced invasion, but I wasn’t going to let her be out.

She called back and sounded like a vanishing echo of her former self. Fortunately there was a glimmer of her essence. I detected a sliver of indignance.

‘I’m not feeling great Wayne and I don’t appreciate your “or else” scenario,’ Lil said as soon as I answered her call.

‘Sorry to hear that Lil. I hadn’t heard back from you and then I got your note and I had to try again.’ I always found situations of this nature impossible and struggled to balance supportive and directive against pushy and interfering.

The line hung quiet for a few seconds and then I heard a tut, another pause, and then she continued.

‘Well? What did you want?’

‘I wanted to persuade you to receive two callers tomorrow morning, just briefly, and as a tempter Armando is baking Battenberg today and there is a wedge with your name on it,’ I said.

‘If you mean that you and Armando are going to pop over tomorrow morning with Battenberg then I suppose that’s OK, but you can’t stay long, I’m too tired,’ Lil answered.

‘Thank you Lil. I know it’s not easy. We’ll come at 10am if that’s convenient. Don’t eat too much breakfast.’

‘Righty-ho – see you then.’

And with that the line went dead.

I met Armando at 9.50 as planned. The café, ironically, was full and it was odd seeing two young women and their oversized perambulators inhabiting our usual spot. I pursed my lips at them, in honour of Lil.

Armando asked me to wait for a few minutes as Lil’s ‘meals-on-wheels’ wasn’t ready. He passed me a bag and informed of the muffins and cake inside. I licked my lips.

After a couple of minutes Armando emerged with a plate wrapped in foil and indicated that our mission had commenced.

It was 9.55 when we closed the cafe door and spotted Bill looking in the window of a neighbouring shop.

‘Shit, I forgot Assam,’ said Armando and disappeared back inside his cafe.

‘Morning Bill,’ I said.

‘Morning Wayne. Isn’t your Breakfast Club about to start?’

‘Lil wasn’t up to it. We’re popping over to her flat instead. Have you spoken to her this week?’

‘No, I tried a couple of times, but Mavis said probably best to leave her to it, until she’s ready to deal with life again. I don’t want to hassle her, however much I miss hearing her cackle,’ Bill said.

I wondered if it were wise to be seeking the counsel of Mavis. Bill read my face.

‘There have been a spate of bogus callers in the area and Mavis is working with the police to heighten awareness for us oldies…’

I wasn’t sure he should be jumping to Mavis’ defence. It was perhaps fortunate that Lil wasn’t talking to Bill. I doubt she’d want to hear Mavis’ pearls right now.

Armando re-emerged, armed with Assam, and we politely excused ourselves from Bill’s company.

We made it through the intercom without incident and were soon outside the front door waiting for entry to be granted. Lil didn’t look too bad physically and the purple from her eye had all but mottled into her skin.

Armando took charge and inhabited the kitchen with purpose and I guided Lil to her sitting room. She sat gingerly and gave a weak smile. My eyes wandered and I was pleased to note the mantelpiece was full of cards.

Lil read my eyes, ‘Old people, ha, never miss a chance to send a condolence card. There’s even one from Mavis stuffed with pamphlets. It’s a bit late to read about validating unknown callers. That ship has sailed…’

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Armando walking into the sitting room with a tray. The foil was gone and its absence revealed a full-English which he set on Lil’s lap. Lil didn’t say anything but picked up her cutlery and set about consumption. He was a generous guy. His café hadn’t dabbled in take-away until today. Lil didn’t speak but her appreciation needed no wordy confirmation.

Armando went back to his temporary kitchen and returned with muffins on side plates and a pot of tea, and sat beside me on the sofa.

I poured the tea and placed a cup by Lil’s side.

‘Wow, I never thought I’d actually get served by you Boulevardier,’ said Lil. Her voice wasn’t as confident and determined as usual but the sarcastic spirit was encouraging.

‘Needs must Lil,’ I answered.

We fell into silence again. Who should lead the conversation, and what subjects should we cover?

Lil ate slowly and managed a few forkfuls, but didn’t shovel with her usual gusto.

I tried again. ‘Have the police been back to see you Lil?’

‘No…’

‘We saw Bill outside the café today. I think he wanted to bump into you,’ I continued.

‘I’m sorry I’m tired and I need to lie down. This is too much. I have to be on my own,’ said Lil.

Armando and I looked at each other. Our eyes wore a mutual concern.

‘Now stop that. I’m fine. I’m just tired. Armando could you please put the foil back on this lovely feast. I will reheat it later.’

‘Of course Lil, and I’ll leave the Battenberg in the bread bin,’ said Armando.

We knew that she wouldn’t be eating it later. Who reheats breakfast? But she wanted her solitary sanctuary. And hopefully she’d savour the Battenberg.

As we left she allowed us to kiss her on each cheek and raised an affectionate smile. There were the early signs of tears in her eyes.

I was frantic with worry but didn’t want to let it show. I didn’t want to let Lil sink. It would be like abandoning my own mother.

As we walked back to the café I said to Armando ‘We need to come up with a plan to lift her spirits.’

Armando agreed and suggested I purchase a slice of his lemon meringue pie to feed my plotting.

 

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Bogus Damage

After the dramas of last week I was looking forward to an update at Breakfast Club.

Had Bill been forgiven?

Had Lil softened in her view of the newer Crouch Enders?

Had Armando had sufficient customers of any variety this week to keep him happy?

Had Armando re-engaged in his personal life?

Goodness I barely had time for a working life around my writing and Chronicles of Crouch End.

I was first into the cafe, which wasn’t unusual. Armando came over and looked less tense than he had lately.

‘Morning Armando. How’s life?’ I asked.

‘Yes, busy week in the cafe, and I had met some new nice people at the weekend…’

Armando stopped mid-sentence and looked over at the door. I turned to see Lil shuffling in with her shopping trolley. She was adorned in the biggest pair of Jackie O sunglasses I’d ever seen. Victoria Beckham would have been proud.

Armando wolf-whistled. Lil didn’t react and shuffled over. She didn’t look at us, but carefully parked the trolley by her side and sat down. Something didn’t feel right.

Lil didn’t move for what seemed like forever and then raised her hand to her face and removed the oversized shades to expose a painful-looking black eye, which was mostly excruciatingly purple.

Lil burst into tears.

Armando and I both reached across. She rejected our hands and stopped crying – anger replaced the weeping.

‘Don’t let anyone in. It ain’t fucking worth it,’ Lil said. I’d heard her swear before but never with the f word. I was bewildered and had no idea what to say. I looked down and then at Lil. Her expression was frozen and she didn’t appear to want to add to her statement.

Armando signalled to the waitress that he wanted a pot of tea immediately and looked at Lil with love and care and spoke in a soft tone.

‘Lil, what has a happened? We need to know and a-understand.’ This was the Mediterranean quality I’d previously looked for in Armando. I’d no idea what to say or do and he’d delivered the perfect enquiry brimming with concern and compassion.

The waitress arrived and looked down realising this was not the moment to provide smiley, American-style service. She deposited a quite beautiful 1950s teapot and passed a cosy to Armando, and vanished from our side.

Lil still hadn’t spoken. Armando busied himself stirring the tea. This was one time when I wished that brewing was instant and not a time-consuming art form.

Several minutes had passed since Armando had asked his question and Lil was still in a trance. She was not surrendering to the immense emotion that was swimming inside mind and heart.

At last the tea was ready and Armando played mother. The china chinked as Lil lifted the cup from its mismatched saucer. She took a slow, long sip and set her china down. Tea had worked its elixir magic and revived her senses sufficiently to allow further interaction. She took a deep breath and started to speak.

‘Last week’s Breakfast Club was brilliant. Bill had irritated me and our chat was marvellously jolly and cheering. I always feel so young and worthwhile when chatting with you two.’

Lil paused and took another long mouthful. I wanted to order food but didn’t want to interrupt. I hoped my tummy growls would not get any louder.

‘I went home and my mind was fixed on Bill’s grovelling apology which I knew would happen. I wondered what flowers would accompany his protestations. I decided that he wouldn’t get lunch as punishment, but I would make a tasty Cottage Pie for supper.’

Lil paused and looked round as the door opened – there was fear in her eyes. She was nervous.

‘You two should order. I’m not hungry,’ Lil said.

‘Lil, I’ll make asomething light. We’ll all have sausage sandwiches. I know Boulevardier likes a sausage,’ said Armando. Lil smiled. She was too distressed to laugh or give us one of her cackles which we thrived on.

‘Anyway, it was lunchtime and the doorbell rang. I knew it would be bloody Bill. His stomach and its need to be full to bursting would override any need to make a point or maintain a stance. I picked up the intercom phone and greeted the visitor in a formal and offhand way – appropriate to my mood. It wasn’t Bill’s voice which responded. It was the man from British Gas to inspect the property. He had tried to call a week or so previous and I’d forgotten that they were due back that day. Bill and his shenanigans had put me out of sorts.’

Lil paused to cover her recently arrived sausage sandwich in tomato ketchup. She delicately lifted the fresh white slice to reveal a butter and sausage fused, grease smeared underside. Lil squirted without reserve. I did hope that ketchup wouldn’t jettison from the sides of her mouth amid an important section of her trauma report.

‘There had been reports of a gas leak and he needed to check my supply. Gas is extremely dangerous you know.’

Armando and I nodded in agreement, mouths full of pork encased parcels.

‘Anyway I buzzed him in and up he came. He flashed his ID card at me and I led him to the boiler in the kitchen. He was a little younger than I expected and he had one of those really short haircuts. His numerous tattoos were visible on his forearms and exposed upper chest where his overalls gaped. He asked for the layout of the flat and where the radiators were. I asked him if he wanted a cup of tea, which he declined, and directed me into the sitting room so I could relax and not get in his way. I sat down in my armchair and could hear him rooting around in the kitchen. My thoughts turned to Bill and I was cross that he hadn’t yet arrived.’

At this point Lil took a bite from her ketchup laden sandwich and as suspected the red liquid escaped and ran down the corners of her mouth. In addition to the eye, of which we yet knew little detail, it looked as if she’d just competed in a boxing bout. Lil dabbed the corners of her mouth with her paper napkin reminding me that she wasn’t a prize fighter but a vulnerable old woman. A feisty senior but an impuissant one too.

‘I thought of the slab of Battenberg sitting on my kitchen counter. It was for Bill who didn’t deserve it, and I decided to offer it to the man from the gas board instead. That would serve Bill right, and after all we know he could do with skipping a few cake portions. I’d heard the gasman walk through the flat so headed to my bedroom and as I walked in, his hands were rooting in my drawers. “There’s no gas in there. What are you doing?” I asked him.’

Lil’s hands went for her cup and were trembling. I wanted to reach over but wasn’t sure if she’d reject it. Armando reached his hand over just as Lil lifted the cup. She wasn’t to be physically connected with at this moment.

‘Please don’t continue if painful,’ said Armando.

‘I have to finish,’ said Lil. I saw a tear forming in the corner of her amethyst eye. The colour however throbbed more than sparkled. I didn’t like where this story was going and wasn’t sure if she should continue.

‘”Piss off grandma,” he said as he barged passed me, knocking me onto the bed. I was shocked but not so much as to allow him to get away with my property. I got up and started towards the door, caught my foot and fell face first on the door handle.’

‘Lil, no…’ I said not knowing how to finish my sentence.

‘The next thing I knew the nosy cow Maggie from across the hall was talking to me, and I was on the floor of my bedroom. She and the police thought he’d hit me. Bill eventually arrived.’

‘Did he get anything Lil? Have they caught him?’ I asked.

‘No to both Boulevardier. Or nothing physical. He got me. Why did I let my guard down? Bill is gone and I want nothing to do with him. I don’t need to worry about anyone else. I’ve got you two once a week and that’s fine with me.’

Lil looked longingly at Armando and me and we both affirmed and reached over and gently rested our hands on each of hers. After a few seconds she pulled back and replaced the sunglasses.

We were going to need more than another cup of Assam tea to fix this.

Hoity-Toity Crouch End

I’d been in the cafe for about ten minutes and was still waiting for Lil to sit down. She was standing at the front window, arms firmly on her hips ruffling the sides of her spring floral blouse and crinkling the daffodils emblazoned upon it.

She tutted.

‘Lil come and sit down for goodness sake. Standing at the window is not going to make him arrive any quicker,’ I suggested.

‘No, I want him to see my face as soon as he turns the corner. I told him Breakfast Club starts at 10am and it’s almost ten past. I don’t want his interruptions. He sure as hell won’t be getting any homemade soup for lunch today now.’

‘Shall I order at least?’ I asked.

‘No… ‘’I’m nipping to the Post Office’’ he said,’ Lil added.

Armando came over and whispered that he feared Lil was scaring away potential customers.

‘Ah, here he comes, the lost man of Crouch End,’ said Lil and pursed her lips in an explosive pout. Her truculence escalated.

Bill entered the cafe in a stressed manner with the tails of his grey raincoat billowing like a cape behind him. He went to kiss Lil on the cheek and she turned away.

“I’m sorry love. There was a queue in the Post Office. The wait does seem to be longer since they started the renovations but they promise it will be more efficient once the self-service counters are fitted,’ said Bill.

‘The queue must have been as far as the Clock Tower with the amount of time you’ve taken. Now hand over my stamps.’ Lil was not yielding to Bill.

‘No, the queue was outside the front door, but when I came out I bumped into Lucy and we had a quick catch up –’

‘Who the hell is Lucy?’ Lil asked. I wondered if any answer was likely to satisfy her need for blood.

‘Oh you know, Lucy Ridley-Smythe, my daughter’s friend who recently moved into one of the big houses on Weston Park. She had the twins with her. It would have been rude not to stop and catch up.’

‘Oh ‘er. One of the new, hoity-toity Crouch Enders. She gets on my nerves,’ said Lil.

Bill jiggled with a suppressed laugh and Lil tutted. Lil had an ability to tut and make the entire room shake – figuratively. Lil’s tuts are legendary. She could win awards for them.

I was also subduing a growing need to laugh out loud. It was pretty comical to watch; Lil was in the throes of taming her man. He would be a fool to resist for too long. It would be too painful.

‘Right well, I shall leave you to your Breakfast Club and come back later. Are we still meeting for lunch?’ asked Bill.

‘No, you’ve irritated me. I will call you later and we can make plans from there. You may go your own way.’ Lil sauntered towards me at our usual back table and sat down, straightening her skirt in a demure fashion, which I hoped would also calm her mood.

‘Let’s order boys. I’ve worked up quite the appetite today. I’ll have a full English with an extra sausage please.’ Lil let out an enormous cackle just as Bill had closed the door. He heard her verbal expression of enjoyment and that was exactly what she wanted.

‘In that case I’ll have a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage please,’ I said, adding to the joke.

‘Bloody customers should order items on the well-developed menu,’ said Armando. Lil and I looked at Armando with our mouths aghast. Surely we hadn’t upset him.

Armando grinned.

‘Very good,’ said Lil. You had me fooled and I’d already had my fill of drama from men today.’

We toasted our cups of tea together with a china chink and cemented our camaraderie as Breakfast Club members.

‘What’s happened to Crouch End? It used to be full of real Londoners, and a community. Now it’s got all the bloody la-di-da crowd who couldn’t afford Highgate,’ said Lil.

‘Come on, it’s not that bad Lil. It still has a great community spirit,’ I said.

‘I agree,’ said Armando, ‘lovely customers; some of them have been here years. Lots of groups for the community.’

‘Well neither of you were here twenty years ago. It wasn’t the new place to be. No one would touch it with a barge pole. That’s the spirit I miss. The real original Crouch Enders, when you went to Alexandra Palace for the horse racing, not bloody hoity-toity picnics with sun-dried tomatoes.’

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‘Horse Racing at Ally Pally? Are you sure, where?’ I asked.

Lil casually buttered a thick slab of toast. Suspense hung in the air.

‘Of course I’m bloody sure. I ain’t losing me marbles yet, you cheeky sod. It was there until the early 1970s. It was called the Frying Pan, because of its shape. We used to love going up there. And where do you think Victoria Stakes got its name from?’ Lil gave us that all-knowing look. I wish she recounted some of her more personal memories with as much warmth and nostalgia. I hoped there were some.

‘Wow, never knew that,’ said Armando.

‘Neither did I. Lil you are a font of knowledge today,’ I said. Lil smiled and celebrated by smothering another piece of toast with butter.

‘But I have to disagree that all is lost. Where else can you get a fishmonger’s, bakers, grocers, florists and haberdashery in a single London suburb? People remember you, people talk to each other. I love it and am proud to be a Crouch Ender,’ I said with pride.

‘I’ll tell you where you can get ‘em; in-between the millions of coffee shops, no offence Armando, over-priced artisan delicatessens and bakers, and vintage shops selling people’s unwanted shit for extortionate prices. Us, ahem, older members of the community are being pushed out.’ Lil was passionate about her lost part of London.

‘Never Lil. No one would ever dare push you out or even around.’

‘Too bleedin’ right. Now someone get me a fresh pot of tea,’ she said.

Armando’s chair seemed to glide from his bottom and he was off and into the kitchen. No one stood between Lil and her tea.

‘And another thing, don’t think that I don’t know that Bill will be crawling around my front door later with flowers and so he should.

What a great and productive Breakfast Club with my boys.’

I couldn’t agree more. I loved our precious Thursday mornings.

 

Cyril Vicious

‘Armando? Are you joining us today?’ Lil was shouting at the wall, the other side of which was the café kitchen.

There was no answer.

Lil waved one hand at me in a decisive manner which seemed to indicate that I should sit.

‘Armando? Are you there?’ Lil was louder and almost trilling her request.

Armando’s head popped out through the kitchen hatch. His hair was messier than usual and a black grease shone from his face. ‘Dishwasher not a-working now, bloody expensive, and I’m a-trying to fix.’

His head disappeared again into the recesses of the scullery.

Lil raised her eyebrows and gave an omnipotent purse of her lips.

‘Armando’s been avoiding me since I asked about his boyfriend. I don’t know why. It’s not as if he needs to be embarrassed to talk to me about it,’ said Lil.

‘How’s your boyfriend Lil?’ I asked.

‘Who?’ Lil knew exactly what I was asking.

‘Bill.’ I answered.

‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ Lil’s response was sharp and fast.

‘Where is he anyway?’ I asked.

‘Now listen here Boulevardier. I know exactly what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to get past me. Bill doesn’t need to come every week. This is my Breakfast Club and as he recently left me for weeks to go and visit his family, I’m not having him here. And don’t try and change the subject.’

Lil lifted the antique china pot and poured the golden liquid into the mismatched vintage cup and saucer in front of her.

‘Armando hasn’t yet told me he’s gay,’ she continued.

‘Is he?’ I asked innocently. I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable having this conversation with Lil. Armando had been open with me but it wasn’t for me to gossip about him, even if it was only with the third axis of our intimate group.

‘Look here. I know these things. Take Cyril for instance,’ said Lil.

‘Who’s Cyril?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you listen to a word I say Wayne?  Cyril, the guy who lives in my block.’

‘Lil I promise you haven’t mentioned him before.’ Lil told so many stories it was difficult to retain the detail. They were invariably colourful, contained drama or tragedy or both. I’m not sure I’d have forgotten hearing about her other gay friends though.

‘Well anyway, he’s in his late sixties and a confirmed bachelor, or so he says.’ Lil released a mammoth cackle, ‘I wasn’t fooled. I managed to wheedle it out of him.’

I was glad I’d ordered a vegetarian breakfast, with a sausage on the side; listening to Lil on a roll was hungry work. I sliced a juicy grilled tomato and pressed it against a sliver of Halloumi. I raised the loaded fork to my mouth and looked expectantly at Lil to continue.

‘He moved in three years ago and wears yellow Marks’ trousers with floral shirts and silk scarves and I knew straight away. He’d lived in Brighton and done a flat swap.

I asked him if he watched Downton Abbey. He said he did, and then I asked who his favourite character was, and do you know who he said?’

‘No idea Lil.’ I didn’t know where our conversation was going or how many clichés we would be embracing.

‘Thomas the Underbutler.’ Lil’s response was perspicacious from her tone but I wasn’t so sure.

‘Thomas is a conniving, sly manipulator. Perhaps Cyril likes those qualities. I don’t think identifying with a character in a TV show gives certainty Lil, although the clothing you describe could tell a different story,’ I said. I started to laugh and thought I’d been funny. Lil wasn’t laughing.

‘No, Cyril is a nice chap. He’s drawn to Thomas as he hides his sexuality too.’ Lil was orating as if a University Professor. ‘And I’m certain that Thomas would be your favourite character too Mr Boulevardier.’ Lil crowed again.

‘I like the Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith has all the best lines,’ I said. In fact I liked Maggie Smith in most of her roles, ‘Tea with Mussolini’ being my favourite.

‘Exactly. That’s precisely the same,’ Lil wasn’t for turning today.

‘Thomas, Maggie Smith, it doesn’t mean anything and I think you’re rather jumping to conclusions Lil.’ I hadn’t seen Lil using stereotyping in such a blatant and shallow way before. She wasn’t being negative or offensive but equally was drawing conclusions from pathways which didn’t link.

‘Let me finish. I also asked Cyril last winter if he’d watched Vicious, you know the show starring Derek Jacobi and Ian Mc’what’s his name, about the two senior gay men who have been together for years. And he said that he was watching it.’

Vicious

‘Perhaps he fancies Frances de la Tour,’ I offered.

‘Ha, don’t be so bloody stupid. Anyway I know these things. Remember I worked in the theatre for years.’ Lil speared a piece of sausage and thrust it into her mouth in an authoritative manner.

Armando appeared from the kitchens looking flustered but clean, and collected a cup and saucer from the counter and sat down.

‘Is it fixed?’ I asked.

‘For now, but I think I have to call engineer to check. Staff don’t like too much a-washing up.’ Armando was trying to straighten his hair. His hair generally had a mind of its own but being stuck in a dishwasher had heightened its coiffeur. Armando’s ‘just got out of bed’ cool mess was bordering on just being a mess.

One of the waitresses arrived with a fresh pot of Assam tea.

‘We were just talking about television shows Armando. Do you watch Vicious?’ asked Lil with as much subtlety as a baboon’s backside.

‘Yes, I’ve a seen it. I’m not sure it is good.’

‘I knew it,’ said Lil as she sat back in her chair and folded her arms.

A ringing from Armando’s pocket interrupted Lil’s gloating. The dishwasher repair people were en route and Armando was off and to the kitchen again.

‘How’s Mavis?’ I asked Lil.

That wiped the smile from her smug face.

‘Another tea?’ I added innocently as I held the pot above Lil’s empty cup.

Easter Escapades

Lil was on her own as I entered the café the week after Easter. I hoped that all was well as Bill should have been back from an Easter visit to his family. Armando was not in sight.

I greeted Lil with a kiss on her rosy cheek. She was wearing a rather glamorous sparkling grey sweater. The pink of her hair was fading.

‘How was your Easter Lil?’ I asked.

‘It was satisfactory,’ Lil said without emotion.

‘How’s Bill?’

‘Still at his daughters. He decided to extend the visit. I don’t mind. I’ve quite enjoyed the peace and quiet. If you don’t expect anything from anyone then they can’t disappoint you.’ Lil pursed her lips and I knew it would not be wise to pursue this topic of conversation.

Armando appeared and explained that he wouldn’t be able to join us today as the main oven was on the blink, or rather ‘in the blink’ as he said. Don’t you just love it when those who don’t have English as their first language pick up little phrases and then get a word or two wrong?

‘Did you enjoy your chocolate Easter Bunny Lil that Armando and I got you?’

‘Ooooo yes thanks, I ate it on Sunday. In fact I ate it all. It left me feeling queasy. I forgot to ask whether you and Michael have a good time in Hastings? Did you go and see that author friend of yours again?’

‘Yes it was great. Shall we order breakfast and then I’ll tell you all about it?’

‘I suppose so,’ Lil answered. I was starting to get the impression that she hadn’t had a good Easter, but there was no real reason why. Armando had invited her to eat at the café which she declined, and her Age Group also had lots of pre-arranged Easter activities.

With breakfast ordered – a full English for Lil and porridge with blackberries for me – we settled.

‘We arrived mid-afternoon Friday and went straight to the front to get a late lunch. We were desperate for fish and chips. What is it about arriving at the seaside, hearing the rush of the tide and the vile gulls and needing to satisfy a need for fish and chips irrespective of the time of day?’

I laughed at my comment, which I thought was quite funny. Lil looked down and stirred her tea. I wasn’t being silenced that easily.

‘I think it’s because you hope the fish was caught minutes before it’s fried. It’s almost an involuntary action. Although it was quite funny when I visited my aunt in Norfolk a couple of years back and we went for fish and chips on the front to find a sign informing us that the ‘fresh sustainable fish’ was ‘from Iceland.’’

‘They only sell frozen fish in Iceland,’ said Lil with a smirk. She was toying with me and I’d play along.

‘The country not the shop you ninny.’

Lil cackled.

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‘We then drove up to the West Hill and went for a lovely walk across its expanse and the neighbouring streets.’

Lil made a ‘hmmm’ sound, and while she wasn’t encouraging me to continue she was at least listening and so on I went.

‘The people are so friendly and everyone says “hello” and shares a little story – ’

‘What do you mean?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Well for instance there was an unusual display in a big bay window along St Mary’s Terrace and Michael and I were pondering whether it was a shop, a home or something else. A lady appeared from next door and explained that the residents liked to have a big display window at the front of the house for passers-by to appreciate. She also said that it used to be a pub, hence the large display window at the front. We wished each other a happy Easter and carried on our walk.’

‘Hmmmm. I see,’ said Li. I’m not sure Lil was enjoying my story much as it didn’t involve her. Her face changed and she looked happier as her breakfast arrived.

‘Shall I continue?’ I asked. Lil nodded, head down as she salted her steaming plate.

‘We then went to Val’s house.’

‘Is she the author?’ asked Lil.

‘Yes, and she lives on the West Hill. We enjoyed drinks and a vegetarian feast.’

‘With a sausage?’ Lil asked and let out an enormous cackle.

‘No sausages Lil thank you very much. After a fine night’s sleep we left Val and took the West Hill Funicular down to the Old Town and walked along the seafront to St Leonards. There is a massive block of flats on the front called Marine Court which is built to look like a ship from the beach. We walked onto the beach and I asked Michael if he thought it looked like a ship and he said “no” and that was that.

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St Leonards has a very upandcoming young artist vibe, perhaps akin to Dalston about ten years ago. We had coffee in a delightful small gallery.

“Two Americanos please. Do you have skimmed milk?” I’d asked.

“No we don’t, sorry,” the young server dressed like a Hackney boy with a chequered quilted jacket and floppy hair had answered.

“Semi-skimmed then.”

“We don’t have that either.”

After I’d said that full milk would have to do the server had exclaimed “Oh no.” and had clutched his hands over his mouth.

“Please don’t tell me you’ve no milk,” I’d asked.

“I’ve got milk, but I just realised the guy I just served asked for soya milk and I gave him normal milk. What if he’s allergic?” the server continued.

“Well at least you have some milk,” I’d said. The server hadn’t looked best pleased at my lack of compassion for the poor man who was probably lying in the street clutching his throat.’

‘Well you could have shown a little more empathy Boulevardier,’ said Lil and chortled with a subterranean tone.

‘Hmmmm.’ I moved on with my story. ‘The curiosity and antique shops are amazing Lil. Think of Camden Lock Market 15 years ago. I actually said so to one of the owners and she’d said it was what they were going for. Despite this she didn’t have a decent antique gravy boat and my hunt continues.

We checked into the Swan House, a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in the Old Town and after resting, and looking in more Curiosity Shops, despite Michael suggesting that I’d looked in plenty, we went to Webbes, a fish restaurant on the front with Val for dinner –‘

‘Why did you meet her again? I thought you’d seen her the previous day,’ Lil said as she put down her cutlery with a clank.

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‘We did but we were also having dinner on the Saturday evening too. The restaurant is lovely – ’

‘How old is she again?’ interrupted Lil.

‘Early sixties I think. Why?’

‘I don’t understand why you had to go away at Easter…’ Lil faded away.

I’d pushed my stories too far. I did have something for Lil and I’d left it too long in presenting her with it. I reached into my manbag and pulled out a copy of VG Lee’s Always You Edina and pushed it across the table.

Always-You-Edina

‘Val asked me to give you a copy of her latest novel Lil.’

Lil picked up the book and looked at the cover. She looked up at me and asked ‘How does she know who I am?’

‘She reads my blog Lil.’

‘Then she doesn’t really know as you have a tendency to extend the truth.’

‘Michael always says I exaggerate stories,’ I said.

‘He sounds sensible. Perhaps I’ll meet him,’ said Lil.

Lil pursed her lips, put the book down and took out her reading glasses. She opened the first couple of pages and read a few lines and smiled. She then immediately put the book down again, but carefully, by the side of her bag and looked at me.

‘What is that silly flouncy item around your neck?’

‘It’s a spring scarf,’ I said.

‘Is it new?’

‘Yes, I got it in Hastings. Don’t you like it?’

‘Humph! Did VG help you choose it?’