End of the Line – all change please

I was grateful it was Thursday and Breakfast Club, although with the volume of shenanigans which had already come to pass this week, we would probably need a Breakfast-Brunch-Lunch-Dinner Club to catch up fully.

For once it wasn’t Lil at the centre of all the activity. It had been so busy that I hadn’t spoken to her at all. I had planned to call and check in with her after Bill’s sudden departure but it hadn’t made it into pole position on my to-do list.

Michael had stayed with me all week. We usually spent Friday until Monday together but after the success of Santorini we wanted to spend a whole week together – a normal week, to see how we got on, and it was going pretty good thus far, but more on that later.

I’d had an emergency drink with Armando one evening due to some distressing events in his personal life.

My phone rang Tuesday morning. It was Armando calling which was unusual. I was fixated with a work report which was due and wasn’t perfected when the welcome interruption diverted me.

‘Oh Wayne it’s all gone a-wrong,’ said Armando as the call connected. It took a few seconds for my brain to move from sales planning to Armando. I didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t mentioned anything amiss at our last Breakfast Club and the café seemed to be doing OK, but his wouldn’t be the first commercial establishment to come and go within a couple of years in Crouch End; some only lasted a couple of months. I did not understand why there was such a high turnover in our little corner of North London as the area is affluent, and niche boutiques and endless cafes should thrive. I had heard rumours that rents were extortionate and it was by no means easy to make an acceptable living, but surely not our café. It was too much to bear thinking about and I’m not sure that Lil would take the news well.

‘I’m sorry Armando, what’s happened?’ I eventually managed to answer. I had a tendency to go off into my own dreamlike state and debate internally when all I needed to do was to ask the question.

‘I’ve had to finish my romance with Jason. Another failed attempt. Will I ever find my love?’ said Armando.

‘I am very sorry to hear that. I thought everything was going well, despite your clashing schedules.’

I was relieved – call me unfeeling if you like. While I was upset for Armando, after all he’s a lovely guy, I was glad it wasn’t the café. It’s become one of my regular haunts and a hub in my world, it would be such a shame to see it vanish. I reasoned that this was not entirely selfish as while Armando was upset, Jason was relatively new in his life, and the loss of the café would have incurred far greater and lasting consequences.

‘It was just that. It was such an effort to see each other between the café and his odd shifts. We were only able to see each other twice, and for a short time, in the last three weeks. It was destroying my heart…’ Armando stopped talking and I’m sure I heard a sobbing between breaths.

‘Do you want to meet up later for a drink?’ I asked.

It was agreed. We would meet at 6.30pm at our local pub. It wouldn’t impede on my time with Michael as he would be at college then in any event.

Armando was already seated at a booth table in the corner as I l searched for him at the bar. He looked pale, aside from his eyes which were red. He was nursing a pint of something. I ordered a double Sherry and some snacks and joined him.

Armando explained ‘My life feels like it’s slipping away. All I do is work, and I have no time for a real life.’ His eyes began to well up again. I reached over and gave his hands a consoling squeeze.

‘Jason didn’t have much time either. I think it was the combination of you both which made it difficult. You are a handsome, lovely man with a lot going for you.’

This didn’t help much and only succeeded in ensuring his tear ducts were in full working order. I took the opportunity to offer a wasabi pea or two. I’d ordered a small dish at the same time as my drink. They were not cheap either; long gone were the days of a packet of dry roasted peanuts. Although I’m sure some bright spark in marketing will bring packeted peanuts and pork scratchings back in the future, as a retro yet innovative ploy to secure customers.

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We chatted in a similar vein for an hour or so during which time I managed to consume two double Sherries to keep Armando’s two pints of cider company.

I was getting hungry. I couldn’t even remember lunch it was so long ago, and the wasabi peas barely filled a hole. Despite Armando’s protestations that he wasn’t hungry I persuaded him to come with me to our local Caribbean fusion restaurant. As we walked along Park Road I already knew what I was going to have; grilled tiger prawns with spicy mayonnaise to start, followed by jerk chicken with rice and peas and plantain. I would forgo pudding – it only being Tuesday.

Armando had a supper of cider as expected with a few kernels of popcorn which were gratis and placed on the tables in small plastic bowls. All I could do was listen and reassure him that I would support him as much as I could. I was surprised he called on me as I didn’t know him intimately. He’s such a nice guy I’m sure there are lots of people who’d queue to assist him in a crisis. Equally I was happy to be the shoulder to literally cry on. We hugged as we went our separate ways.

I hadn’t spoken to him since then, and ergo didn’t know what I would find when I opened the café door.

Lil and Armando were huddled at the table and didn’t notice my entry. There were two other members of Lil’s community flanking her; Gisela – and I could barely believe -Mavis. This week was turning into some type of alternative universe. Had I stepped through a mirror and not noticed it?

‘Ah there you are,’ said Lil once my presence was realised, ‘you’ll have to grab a chair from that table.’ She pointed at the adjacent and empty stall. I obeyed but was irritated to have been ousted from my usual position, by Gisela, and of all people, Mavis.

‘Too much tragedy,’ said Gisela wearing an empathetic expression.

‘You’ll find someone new, who actually deserves you Armando,’ said Mavis.

‘I’m not sure he’s ready for the “there are plenty more fish in the sea” speech Mavis,’ said Lil.

I held my breath.

‘Good point, well-made Lillian. You’re in the same boat. I still can’t believe what happened with Bill,’ said Mavis.

‘I need to get on with my life now, as do you Armando. It’s not a practice run,’ said Lil.

‘Good advice,’ said Gisela.

I’d walked into a mutual appreciation society and hadn’t even got a cup of tea yet. I raised my eyebrows and played with the cup handle hoping to issue forth a subtle hint.

‘Anyway, my dear, we’ll let you get on and see you this afternoon for the committee meeting. Bingo needs a new compere,’ said Mavis and with that she and Gisela got up. After farewells and their departure I moved into my usual seat.

‘I could die of thirst over here,’ I said with a forced smile.

‘So sorry Wayne, I’ll get a fresh pot. What do you want for breakfast?’ said Armando.

I’d meant to make a joke, not offend his hosting skills.

‘Thanks. Porridge with blueberries please – ’

‘And a full English for me please. I have to keep my strength up,’ interrupted Lil.

I wanted to share my news about Michael but it seemed insensitive alongside everyone else’s current romantic adventures, or lack thereof.

‘When did you and Mavis become close Lil?’ I asked.

‘We’ve known each other for years, and yes she can be a nosey busybody but she’s been very supportive the last couple of weeks. Gisela said she’d noticed a vast improvement too,’ said Lil.

I hoped it was genuine but I’d never been sure of Mavis. I wondered whether she simply enjoyed wallowing in other people’s misery.

‘Have you heard from Bill?’ I asked tentatively.

‘No. I don’t think it would be right at the moment either. I need some space from the whole Bill situation. How are things with you and Michael?’ asked Lil.

I didn’t have a choice now and I was bursting to fill them in.

‘Great – but I feel a little insensitive talking about it at the moment with you guys,’ I answered.

Armando shrugged.

‘It would be lovely to hear some positive news about a good relationship right now,’ said Lil.

Breakfasts arrived. I noticed that Armando wasn’t eating again. He poured another tea for Lil and me and an espresso was deposited in front of him.

Lil set to work as always, buttering her toast first and then delicately peeling back the skin of the yoke on her fried egg, before she launched into carving the bacon.

I took a mouthful of porridge and continued, ‘He’s staying at mine all this week. We’re having a trial week, when we have to go to work and live our normal lives.’

Lil started shaking with laughter and I thought she was going to spray her recently inserted bacon over us. ‘A trial week. It’s not try before you buy Wayne,’ she bantered.

‘We are forty-something men and to be honest a little set in our ways so it’s a sensible approach and it has been great,’ I said.

I took another mouthful of porridge and eyed my fellow breakfasters staring at me, urging me to continue. I thought I’d lighten the mood rather than descend into slush.  ‘I’ve been reading some Barbara Pym lately, and laughed at her middle-aged characters, usually women, who get in a tizzy when the vicar makes an unannounced visit and they feel obliged to miraculously come up with something other than the bread and butter they’d planned for their own supper, or wonder when they’ll get a chance to finish the novel they’d planned to read that evening.’

‘I’m not sure that type have trial weeks Boulevardier,’ said Lil.

‘Thank you, and if you’d let me continue…  Well I was in the kitchen yesterday and noticed that the bin was full and it was Wednesday. I only change the bag once a week, and on a Monday. I was irritated. After a few huffs, one of which was fixed directly at Michael, it dawned on me that I was being as silly as a character in the Pym novel.’

Excellent women

‘Ha, you bloody silly sod. It’s only a bleeding bin bag.’ Fortunately Lil didn’t have any food in her mouth as she exploded with laughter.

‘I know, I know. It’s getting used to someone else being around. But it’s nice that he’s there and we’re existing well together. Don’t even get me started on the number of times the dishwasher has been on.’ I smiled hoping I’d added additional jollity to our rapport.

Armando put down his empty coffee cup and got up, ‘I need to check on the kitchens.’

There was a pause in the conversation and I felt uncomfortable. I trusted I hadn’t got overexcited and overdone the stories.

‘I told you Lil. It’s insensitive. Armando and I met up for a drink during the week and he is upset.’

‘Interesting,’ said Lil with a sage expression.

‘Why is that interesting?’ I asked.

‘Yes he is upset, but dealing with it. He mentioned the wonderful evening you had together. I think he’s taken a shine to you Boulevardier.’

‘Don’t be silly Lil. We’ve been friends for ages,’ I answered. But had we? We didn’t know each other that well. He knew I had Michael. I hoped she was wrong.

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O For the Memories

Crouch End has always been a wonderful place to live. It’s a suburb of our capital city but has a unique village feel which compliments a vibrant London arts’ vibe. I’ve always felt safe and secure and barely witnessed a cross word.

That is until I entered the world of our senior residents. In talking to friends, this is not a phenomenon unique to N8 and seems to penetrate our senior community globally. I wonder if the swearing nan in Catherine Tate’s show inspired our genteel senior community to be more verbally expressive…

After an afternoon of community bingo deteriorated in such a fashion last week I wanted to know what happened thereafter, but also didn’t want to know. I hadn’t heard from Lil or Armando since the episode with Bill, which I hoped was a positive sign.

The sun was pouring through my bedroom curtains and I had no time to dawdle or procrastinate further and was up and ready to go – shorts and an Amy Winehouse T shirt prepared me for Breakfast Club.

Lil wasn’t yet in situ and I took the opportunity to extract an update from Armando.

‘I found him two streets away sitting on someone’s wall. He looked a-confused. He couldn’t explain what happened.’

Armando paused his explanation as our first pot of tea arrived. I could feel the warmth radiating from its welcoming centre. It didn’t matter how high the outside temperatures climbed; I had to start Breakfast Club, or in fact any day, with tea.

‘I took him home, and let me tell you, he hadn’t been looking after himself properly for quite a while judging by the state of his flat. I telephoned his daughter and she asked me to stay with him until she arrived, which I did. I haven’t heard anything else.’ Armando finished his story and started to pour our tea. I always appreciate a china cup, irrespective of a mismatched saucer. Is it in my mind or does tea taste better when consumed from china crockery?

‘Pour the third cup please Armando,’ said Lil as she sat down to join us.

We greeted with our routine, tender kisses. Lil was not decked out in finery this week, and had a simple white blouse with a beige cardigan. Her hair, however, was electric blue. She’d been at the rinse bottle again.

‘Nice hair Lil,’ I said. She nodded her gratitude at my comment. ‘Tory blue is it?’ I added.

Armando jumped in before Lil had chance to answer. ‘Any news of Bill? I didn’t want to trouble his daughter.’

The waitress was back to take our order. Armando and I requested granola with yoghurt and berries. Lil ordered a full English. I wasn’t surprised; not only because it was habitual but the hair would require feeding too.

‘It’s been a dreadful week for Bill and his family. I spoke to Penny, his daughter. She went to his GP’s the morning after she arrived, which would have been Friday, and demanded an emergency appointment. He was on a waiting list to get memory tests completed as you know, and they brought the session forward to Monday.’

Lil stopped speaking and looked towards the door. I wondered if she were hoping Bill would walk through and save her from continuing. From our previous discussions we knew the percentage chance of Bill developing dementia was high at his age, and that the memory tests were a key component of diagnosis.

Lil was distracted as she greeted another elderly patron of the café. Apparently this one was called Mrs McAleen. She spoke with a strong Irish accent and was waiting for her brother Marty who was joining her for morning coffee, although she would be having a Coca-Cola, or so she informed us. Her spectacles wouldn’t have looked out of place on Dame Edna Everidge. Mrs McAleen moved away to await her company as our breakfasts arrived. I managed to drain another cup of tea for myself from the depleted pot and sent for another. I was particularly thirsty today. I’m sure it had nothing to do with the bottle of Oloroso which evaporated in my presence the previous evening.

‘I took a chance and paid an impromptu visit on Tuesday morning to find his sister packing up some of his stuff. She explained that the tests had proven inconclusive, or at least confirmed that he wasn’t suffering from dementia but they were concerned he was confused to such a degree and not taking care of himself. Anyway, Penny told me that they had decided to take Dad, as she called him, back to theirs for an extended visit to keep an eye on him. Bill and I went out for a morning tea, at her suggestion, while she continued loading items into battered suitcases.’

I wasn’t sure how I felt about the departure of Bill. He was jolly and fun, and for a time had made Lil happy. I wasn’t confident their journey together should as yet be snuffed out.

Lil was carving a fat, skin encased sausage. She dipped a piece in the semi-congealed yolk of her egg before inserting the fork into her mouth.

‘Armando, I think this sausage is off. It tastes weird,’ Lil exclaimed as she extracted the contents of her mouth into the handkerchief which was conveniently tucked into the sleeve of her cardigan.

Armando didn’t appreciate the sudden change of conversation or the criticism of his produce, and put his hands on his hips and said ‘Nothing wrong with sausage. They are fresh,’ and glared at Lil.

‘Maybe it’s the new flavoured sausages,’ said a passing waitress.

‘What? What’s wrong with the bangers you usually serve up?’ asked Lil.

‘Lil, please stop it. We are using local wild boar and apple sausages, and we never used what you call bangers.’ Armando was being firm despite Lil’s latest woe. The café was his business and he was proud of its achievements.

Lil realised she had overstepped the mark and had already, adeptly, slipped the squelching full hankie into her handbag.

‘Sorry. Maybe I overreacted. I’ll try again. I thought it was off, not apple.’ Lil cut a thinner sliver of sausage and coated it in ketchup, added a button mushroom and popped the new combination into her mouth. I didn’t want sausagegate to stunt the story and decided to encourage its continuation.

‘What happened next Lil? Did you go out with Bill?’

‘Yes Wayne.’ Lil looked relieved to be back to her traumatic tale and away from potential disagreement with Armando.

She continued, ‘We went to small café near Bill’s flat.’

Armando huffed gently. I hoped we weren’t now going to get knocked off course again to discuss the choice of café.

‘We wanted somewhere quiet to talk. I’d have preferred to come to Armando’s, but it’s too bustling.’ Good Lil, very smooth I thought.

‘“I don’t know what is wrong with me Lil, and I’m scared” Bill said as soon as we sat down with a pot and two slices of walnut cake. I didn’t know what to say to that,’ said Lil.

She hesitated and added additional salt to her setting yolk. I refrained from pointing out that she’d already salted it once.

‘“They said it isn’t dementia…yet. So does that mean it’s on its way?” he’d asked next. There was a real fear in his eyes.  Goodness I still didn’t have any answers and instead took a bite of my cake.

It then got worse.

He took me hand and said “I’d wanted you and me to enjoy a few good years together, before we had to deal with anything like this.” I went to speak and reassure him but he wasn’t finished.’

Lil paused again. Armando and I were finishing our bowls and trying not to scrape our spoons against the sides as we extracted the final remnants of yoghurt covered granola.

‘Oh Wayne, he carried on,“I don’t know what to do next, but I know if this is a sign of what’s coming then I don’t want you to be part of it. It’s not fair and I’m decided. I’m going to Penny’s for a while.”’ Lil put down her cutlery at this point and put her hand over her face. I hoped she wasn’t going to cry. She was obviously upset, but we’d had enough of that lately.

Lil picked up her paper napkin and dabbed the corners of her mouth before taking a long, slow, sip of tea which revived her to continue.

‘We just looked at each other for what seemed like ages. Neither of us knew what to say or how we should feel about it. In the end we just continued with our tea and cake. It was all we were able to do.’

‘That is too sad,’ said Armando as he placed his spoon into the empty bowl before him and picked up his cup.

‘He was right, and I don’t mean to sound unkind. It put the fear of God into me. We’ve seen so many friends and other members of the community start suffering from these dreadful symptom and it robs life and enjoyment and replaces it with confusion and panic.’ Lil delivered the latter part with remarkable stoicism but she made a good point. People are living longer and the chances of dementia increase with age. We worry about cancer, HIV and it’s no different for the elderly to worry about a devastating affliction which affects them. Lil hadn’t declared a finality to their relationship and I wasn’t going to ask but it sounded over to me.

Fortunately it hadn’t suppressed her appetite and she looked up and wiped the last slice of toast across her plate.

‘How’s your love life Armando? Still with Jason the ticket inspector?’ asked Lil.

She was bloody good at this. She avoided getting to the nub, the painful part, of the conversation and moved on. This must have been how it was with Bill. They’d reached a part of their conversation which was too excruciating and instead of dealing with it, they returned to their cake. We didn’t know how she felt deep inside and it was clear she didn’t want us to ask.

‘Yes, and he works in the ticket office, not a ticket inspector. Although we don’t get much time to see each other. He has such silly shifts, and I’m always at the café.’

Another pot of tea arrived. This was a serious Breakfast Club and we hadn’t even established whether Lil had seen Mavis in the week.

I sat back and watched Lil and Armando chatter about Jason. Dating can be traumatic and whether it’s kiss-chase in the junior school playground, clubbing in Soho, or a companion for your later years, it’s fraught with drama, or it can be. My thoughts turned to my Michael and I was grateful he was in my life. We had a relatively drama-free romance.

‘What you thinking about?’ said Lil nudging me in the ribs and interrupting my thoughts.

‘Nothing,’ I said, ‘so who did your hair this time?’

Lil pursed her lips before she allowed them to part and released one of her famous, eardrum-shattering cackles.

 

Viscount Boulevardier

The sun streamed through my ecru cord curtains. I never open them, for security reasons, and it was therefore important to have a somewhat transparent material to interpret the weather before leaving the sanctity of my duvet.

Michael wasn’t impressed with my never-opened window covers, or lack of nets for that matter. I’d object to his flinging open the drapes and revealing my inner sanctum to pedestrians. Our dis-harmony with the bedroom screens wasn’t relevant today as I drifted alone, in and out of the blissful state of neither sleep nor wakefulness.

The Teasmade, incidentally my favourite purchase of the year, started to whirr, the water was boiling. I waited for the whoosh as the liquid transferred to the expectant teapot. With my eyes still closed I knew it was just before 9am and extended my legs the length of my divan and tightened the muscles to stretch.

It would be blissful if every morning contained this level of luxuriating.

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I imagined myself a resident of a large stately home – Gosford Park would suffice. The chamber maids would have already attended to either light a fire or open the windows, dependent upon the season. I’d have ordered a tray rather than descend for breakfast and feasted on boiled eggs with toast, rather than soldiers, and homemade marmalade before my valet arrived to help me wash, select appropriate day attire, dress and coiffeur…

My semi-conscious dream was invaded by an electronic sound – the phone. Who would call before a morning tea?

Lil.

‘Morning Boulevardier, are you up yet?’

‘Yes of course,’ I lied.

‘No you’re not,’ said Lil and cackled. Once she’d regained her composure she added, ‘having a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage are you?’

‘I’m seeing you this afternoon Lil. What’s up?’ I asked.

‘Keep your hair on Wayne…. I wanted to check that we’re meeting outside the café at 1.30pm?’

‘Yes, see you then,’ I replied.

It was to be a bingo afternoon rather than a Breakfast Club morning, and my waking dream of life evolving into that of Viscount Boulevardier had been breached. I rose, sat on the terrace and enjoyed a cup of tea. My imaginary valet had vanished.

Bingo is a regular feature in our senior community and if I’m honest, I’d had so much fun last time, I was happy for it to become a regular feature of mine too. Just don’t tell anyone. I’m not sure the rush of bingo should form an integral part of a Boulevardier’s adventures, however displaced he is.

It was a hot early summer day and three-quarter length cotton trousers and a T shirt would have to do.

Armando and Lil were already standing outside the café as I approached. Armando was wearing his staple linen-shirt-and-shorts combination and Lil a 1950s style dress patterned with polka-dots. A butterfly embossed handheld paper fan was rotating in her wrist to maintain her cool demeanour.

‘Wow! Gorgeous dress,’ I said.

‘Thank you Wayne,’ Lil responded and flicked her fan, open and closed, akin to a peacock displaying his tail-feathers.

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‘Is it bingo at the community centre, or a Friday night jive at the Palais?’ I asked.

Lil crowed and adeptly diverted attention to Armando.

‘How’s the new boyfriend?’ she asked.

‘It’s good. Lunch was nice but too short. His shift started at 4pm,’ said Armando.

‘Shame you didn’t manage to turn it into an early night,’ squawked Lil and added, ‘as we used to say back in the day “if you’re not in bed by 10, go home.”’

‘Lil, please, I’m a gentleman,’ said Armando.

Lil stifled a laugh and flicked her fan dramatically several times. We promenaded three abreast in the afternoon sun.

Mavis was in the hall, holding court with a number of enthusiastic subjects as we crossed the threshold and entered the fray of the community centre. They leant in closer as she lowered her voice, no doubt imparting some busy-bodying gossip. Lil gave her a loud flick of the fan. It was like being in an elderly version of Dangerous Liaisons.

Gisela sat patiently waiting for us at a carefully selected table, her hands neatly folded in her lap.

‘Thank you Gisela,’ said Lil as we sat, ‘I knew I could rely on you to secure the perfectly positioned table.’

‘I like to settle early,’ answered Gisela.

Armando slid away to procure liquid refreshments – old habits die hard.

Bill was at the front fussing with the bingo cage and his multi-coloured numbered balls. His waistcoat, the original rather than the Lil-purchased one, had made a return. The buttons had been mismatched with their respective holes and it looked contorted as well as far too tight.

Lil followed my eyes and tutted. After rooting in her handbag she said ‘Take this and get some cards please Boulevardier,’ holding forth a £10 note.

We were soon settled with tea, lemon-iced Madeira cake and poised for the games to commence. We first had to endure Mavis’ welcome speech. Lil took this opportunity to swoosh and flick her fan like a mad woman.

‘Lil, you’re making a spectacle,’ I said.

‘I’m hot,’ Lil said, apparently sotto voce. Her whispering tone, however, was louder than her speaking voice.

Bill was on his feet and we eagerly waited for the contraption to spin and longed for the odds to fall favourably in our direction. I’m not sure I should feel so competitive among a roomful of hard-up pensioners but the bingo bug consumed me.

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Technical difficulties were delaying the first ball.

Bill was fiddling with his machine frantically.

The room which had been silent and expectant started to shuffle.

The bingo cage crashed to the floor under the weight of Bill’s frustrations as he exited stage left.

Lil was on her feet, ‘Bill,’ she exclaimed.

Mavis, who was seated at an adjacent table, stood too. ‘Leave him alone Lillian. You’ve disturbed Bill with your louche dress and Geisha fan.’

I wasn’t sure that Lil would know the meaning of louche, but I didn’t think this was the best time to clarify the point.

Gisela was up, ‘Bitte seien Sie still,’ she said in an emphatic fashion. My school-boy German told me, I think, that she’d just asked Mavis to be quiet, in a polite way of course.

‘Schwein,’ Lil added and flicked her fan.

Armando and I stood and steered our ladies out before another verbal war ensued.

‘We must focus on Bill,’ said Armando as he left me with Lil and Gisela seated on a bench in the small garden to the side of the community centre and departed to locate the distressed Bill.

My thoughts revisited my morning dreams as a rebellious aristocrat. If Downton, Gosford Park or even Made in Chelsea are anything to go by then drama freely flows through the upper echelons of society too. I gently put my hand on Lil’s shoulder and drifted back into my imagined parallel life as Lil morphed into Maggie Smith.

‘Bill,’ Lil whimpered. Her fan lay dormant in her lap.

Pleasures of the Ticket Office

Thursdays roll around quickly, and for that I am thankful. Invariably I work late into Wednesday evening, making sure everything I’m responsible for will run smoothly for the remainder of the week in my absence. Breakfast Club revitalises me and sets me up for my long weekend.

All was in order as I opened the café door; Armando was behind his trusty counter, wearing an open-neck linen shirt and working his charm on some anonymous patrons paying their bill. Lil was seated. She looked up and switched her focus from her china cup to me. Her curls were exposed and looking purpler than last week; I suspected a re-dye. She was wearing a faux-silk, cream blouse. I hoped this symbolised neutrality after last week’s political advertising.

The Andrews Sisters were harmonising as the background music filled my ears. ‘Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me…’

‘Morning my dear,’ Lil said as I greeted her with a kiss on the cheek.

‘Everything OK Lil?’ I asked.

‘So-so but more importantly have you noticed a spring in a certain someone’s step? I wager they’ll be news…’ answered Lil. We were instantly connected in purpose. If there was gossip to be wheedled out of Armando I would play my part in the extraction.

‘New menus – you like?’ said Armando as he proudly waggled plastic encased documents in front of us.

‘Lovely,’ said Lil, ‘but I suspect there’s more to that Cheshire Cat grin than an improved shiny menu.’

‘What are you talking about?’ asked Armando. I wasn’t sure he’d understood the Cheshire reference.

‘Let’s have a look at this fresh menu,’ said Lil ignoring Armando’s request for clarification.

‘Oooooo what shall I have…. Hmmmmmm…. A full English please,’ said Lil and exhaled a cackle which was as vibrant as her newly-fashioned do. The menu, irrespective of its age, was redundant to Lil. She never wavered from her regular order.

‘Ha-’ I said, ‘predictable Lil. I think I’ll try the porridge with summer berries.’

‘Are you joking Boulevardier – that’s exactly what you frequently have,’ said Lil with mischief in her tone. She missed the irony that she’d ordered the same too.

‘No I don’t.’ I played along.

‘Yes – you – do. Armando are blueberries included as part of your summer berry ensemble?’ asked Lil.

‘Yes, along with – ‘

Lil interrupted Armando’s response. ‘Thank you, blueberries and don’t you often have porridge with blueberries Monsieur Boulevardier?’

I wanted to exclaim ‘objection’ as Armando was not being given sufficient opportunity to complete his evidence.

Lil roared and Armando joined in. Thanks Armando, I thought. Lil didn’t help and she’s not that funny.

‘Been hanging out with Gisela this week Lil?’ I asked.

Lil’s composure returned and she folder her arms. ‘Yes I’ve seen her. She invited to me for dinner at her place on Monday.’

‘That’s nice,’ said Armando.

‘Well yes, yes, but she is a little odd,’ said Lil.

‘Why so?’ I asked.

‘She served up breaded chicken and kept referring to it as Schnit, something or other. She said it was German. I pointed out that breaded chicken isn’t German and it’s easier to call it breaded chicken. She wouldn’t agree,’ said Lil.

‘Schnitzel you mean,’ I said. Lil nodded slowly and looked at me with pursed lips. She was not impressed that I knew the Deutsch word. ‘There’s no need to fall out over breaded Schnitzels Lillian.’ I laughed.

Lil went to speak, and thought better of it as the breakfasts arrived.

She picked up her cutlery and delicately folded back the skin protecting her fried egg yolk with the prongs on her fork. It was conducted with the same gracefulness as open heart surgery.

She still didn’t respond to my jibe.

I watched her as she sliced the butter with her knife and smeared it across a piece of toasted bread.

I knew I was pushing my luck calling her Lillian as I’d only previously heard Mavis address her thus. I wasn’t sure whether she was simply focussing on her breakfast or ignoring me so I decided to reunite our goal of probing Armando. This would set aside any potential irritation.

‘You do look jolly Armando. Anything other than the menus different in your life?’ I asked.

Lil allowed her cutlery to rest on the side of her plate and looked directly at Armando. She had accepted my white flag and we allied in purpose. She meant business and wasn’t taking prisoners in her quest for information. Armando had been rather reluctant to release personal information before and Lil’s patience wasn’t abundant today.

Armando surrendered his own cutlery to his plate and leant in. We were about to be taken into his inner world. We followed suit and sat forward.

‘Yes there is. I went on two dates in the last week – with the same guy. His name is Jason, he is 38, works at the ticket office in Hampstead tube and lives in Camden.’

Armando paused and looked at Lil and me to validate positive, responsive expressions.

He continued, ‘we had lovely drink and dinner and at the end of the second date we kissed.’ Armando looked a little embarrassed and busied his hands, clutched his fork again and chased a slippery mushroom around his plate.

‘Wooohoooo,’ said Lil, ‘it’s about bloody time you had a fella.’

Lil raised her cup aloft and Armando and I mirrored her action. Our teacups clunked together in celebration. We’d used more enthusiasm than was necessary and were fortunate not to be surrounded by broken china covered in spilled Assam.

‘When’s your next date?’ I asked.

‘He has odd shifts but we’re hoping for lunch on Saturday,’ said Armando.

‘Excellent. We now have to sort out Lil and Bill,’ I said.

I’d got too excited by all the positivity and let my filter evaporate. The joyous atmosphere had been breached.

‘I should update you both actually,’ said Lil. She placed her now redundant cutlery on the empty plate and continued, ‘Bill had his GP appointment and has to go to the hospital for tests. They’re not saying it out loud but I know the dreaded ‘D’ word is suspected.’

‘’D’ word?’ asked Armando.

‘Dementia,’ said Lil.

My and Armando’s mouths dropped open.  I went to speak as Lil scraped her chair back and excused herself and disappeared to the lavatory.

‘Shit,’ exclaimed Armando.

‘Scheiße indeed,’ I responded.

Blooming Hyacinths at the Polling Station

Lil hadn’t been in touch during the week which was just as well as work had been all-consuming. I’m happy that I get to work part-time but on occasion each working day’s hours are stretched to such a degree that they accumulate to a full-time equivalent. I do, however, take this rough with the smooth and enjoy each weekend starting from Wednesday evening.

I stood at my French doors looking out onto the garden which was starting to bloom and wondered whether Lil was busy bonding with Gisela, her new BFF. I laughed out loud at my forcing their introduction last week.

I appreciated that a rogue Delphinium had flourished early and provided a splash of azure blue amid the golden Marigolds and white Japonica.

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I realised I was still laughing out loud, however my neighbours were out and didn’t witness my solo laughing at my own funny thoughts. My sanity was generally in question and I didn’t need to add evidence to anyone’s dossier.

I eyed my voting card on the breakfast bar. I hadn’t decided whether to add my ballot. I wasn’t happy with any of the parties and they all seemed as ineffective as each other. I should be enthused to action by the growing interest in one of the more extreme groups, and add my support against them. This however would be a decision for later as it was 9.55 and I didn’t need to decide whether or not to be late for Lil.

She didn’t even notice me when I entered the café. She was standing, leaning on a table currently inhabited. What did she have on her head? Armando rolled his eyes from behind his counter.

I sat down at our table and she still hadn’t spotted me. She was releasing some kind of polite titter – a tee-hee. It wasn’t the cackle I was more accustomed to.

‘Morning Lil,’ I called from my seat.

‘Morning Wayne,’ Lil responded, ‘I’ll be with you directly.’

It looked like some kind of scarf on her head, and it was bright-red. Why would she need a head scarf? It wasn’t even slightly cold or windy. Perhaps she’d had another dodgy rinse.

‘I hope you’ve voted,’ Lil said as she sat down. ‘I’d spotted those folks earlier at the polling station,’ she added indicating towards the other patrons she was previously giggling with.

I was overwhelmed by the red tulips on Lil’s silk blouse.

‘Errrr – I’ll do it later. You look especially bright today,’ I said as Armando joined us with a hot pot. Brewed Assam tea was imminent.

‘Well make sure you do. And thank you. I like to make an effort on days like today in demonstration of my support for the party. Armando it’s a shame you can’t vote,’ said Lil.

‘But I can, and I have. I’m wearing my red underwear,’ said Armando and winked. The second sentence was delivered in a lowered, more discreet tone.

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‘Excellent – about the vote, and I’ll take your word about the pants,’ said Lil and let out one of her more familiar cackles. I’m not sure what her new friends would make of the changes in class of laugh or shrieking about undergarments in a public cafe. I did hope that Lil was succumbing to the hoity-toity types that she’d previously reviled. It would give me new bantering material.

Judith, one of the waitresses arrived to take our order. Lil ordered porridge with raspberries. She was taking the red symbolism a little far. When I ordered porridge with blueberries Lil didn’t look happy. I however, wasn’t being symbolic. It was just my breakfast of choice.

‘I do hope your berry colour is not representative of your political affiliations Boulevardier,’ said Lil with pursed lips. She folded her arms to add an additional outward validation of displeasure.

‘Lil, I’m not discussing politics with you, and before you suggest it, that wasn’t an evasive politician’s answer.’

To be honest I’m not particularly political and I try to get enthusiastic about it but it’s a struggle. I’m trying to work out their policy differences before I commit.

‘You’re like that bloody Bellamy woman. You should have seen her at the Polling Station this morning, a blue dress – ha, a blue hat with flowers – ha. She looked and behaved like Hyacinth Bucket. She was trotting around, putting on a posh accent.

“I’m surprised you follow the Tories Mavis,” I’d called across to her. “Morning Lillian,” she’d replied, “Of course I do. This lady is not for turning. I’d follow the late and great Baroness Thatcher to the grave.”

“She’s already there,” I’d replied. And then Mavis yakked on about Thatcher and house-buying schemes in the 80s. I pointed out that that hadn’t gone so well for her in her council flat. She soon scurried away, something about the tea urns apparently. Silly cow.’

‘Lil, you let her bother you too much,’ said Armando.

‘No one could doubt you Lil. You look like a Post Box,’ I said.

‘I’ll have you know that I’ve had my perm done hence the scarf, thank you very much. Shanika came in the week and re-did it. It is however incidental that today’s scarf is red.’ Lil looked serious as she tapped the scarf gently to emphasise her point.

We all three spontaneously exploded into cackles. Banter was back and it felt good.

‘Any news from Bill?’ I asked.

Lil instantly quietened.

‘Not sure. He has been behaving odd. He’s out of sorts. His daughter is coming up and taking him to the GP.’ Lil didn’t look as if she was enjoying filling her mouth with melted red raspberries and oats anymore.

I had no idea what was wrong with Bill or how Lil felt about it, so wracked my brain for something else to ask.

‘Have you been hanging out with Gisela?’ I asked.

‘I’ve seen her thank you Mr friend-matchmaker. She’s a nice lady. It’s someone to chat with at Age Club with Bill not up to it, and she’s not a fan of Hyacinth either.’

‘Who?’ said Armando.

‘Bloody Mavis,’ answered Lil.

‘Somebody call?’ said Mavis as she entered the café.

I did hope we weren’t planning the next full scale battle and picked up my teacup. Ah Assam, I thought and settled back into the repartee with my Breakfast Club chums.

And of course I headed to the polling station later in the day, dressed in white. The political parties may not have persuaded me to vote but I knew better than to get on the bad side of Lil and Mavis. I’d seen the consequences of their displeasure previously and didn’t fancy an encore.