The phone had been ringing off the hook all week. It felt as if we were getting ready for the Queen’s birthday. Fortunately most of the calls to me had been updates from Armando as he had taken responsibility for the picnic; the elder members of our community were constantly checking in with him to make sure plans were just so. I was responsible for chaperoning the guest of honour, and supplying a couple of bottles of wine.
It was roasting hot and Armando had arranged for some large parasols to provide sun screen. I was in awe at his ability to constantly resource perfect items. Chairs, picnic blankets, wine and cake were all checked on his itinerary. He was a good and capable soul. And more importantly, there was no sign of Lil’s suggestion of a crush. I was pleased to not to have to deal with the fallout of an unrequited infatuation.
It would have to be shorts and T shirt even if it was HRH Lil’s birthday, and our senior generation didn’t understand the modern way of ‘dressing down’. I would still be Boulevardier-esque in a pair of gold chino shorts and an All Saints T.
The party was scheduled for 2.30pm in Priory Park to allow Armando to overcome the lunch rush at the café. A couple of his staff had agreed to help transport all the necessaries and set the stage. Gisela had also volunteered to help. In fact she was heading to the park early to ensure that a blanket was down near to the shade of the trees.
My plan was to collect Lil at 2.15 and promenade her to the park. It wasn’t a surprise party, however, as it had been arranged so that her arrival as belle of the picnic was staged with celebrations in full flow. Gisela had been in charge of invitations under close supervision from the birthday girl.
Lil opened her door and looked a picture, although her rouged cheeks were more pronounced than necessary. I held my tongue and decided not to suggest a tissue to peel back some of the additional layers. She was wearing a lovely white afternoon dress emblazoned with blue flowers. Around her neck was a single set of pearls, imitation I assumed, and on her feet flat leather sandals, albeit with a sparkly strap. Her hair colour matched the flowers on the dress. Were these rinses as damaging as henna? If I dyed my hair as much as Lil, I’m sure it would fall out. Perhaps that’s why they’re called rinses. She had a beautiful gold dress ring on her right hand with a large blue coloured stone in an ornate setting. I was surprised not to see a tiara or even worse a crown. She had a blue patented handbag with a gold coloured strap over her shoulder. The shopping trolley and stick were nowhere to be seen. She offered me her arm.
‘Happy Birthday Lil,’ I said and kissed her on both cheeks.
‘Ooooo very continental Boulevardier and thank you.’
‘And thank you for the card and flowers,’ she continued.
Lil picked up that damn fan, although I have to confess it was a hot day and would be suitable for its natural usage.
We strolled gently and slowly along Middle Lane to the park entrance.
We spotted the crowd, fifteen strong who started to cheer as they saw us approach. Lil grasped my arm tighter and started to wear her public smile and wave her fan. The view in front of us was wonderful. Armando had outdone himself. There was an afternoon sandwich buffet spread across a wooden makeshift table, with a beautifully iced cake at the centre. Some of the more agile partygoers were seated on checked blankets and others on foldable deck chairs. I passed my bag containing wine to one of Armando’s helpers.
‘About time more booze arrived,’ said one unknown older gent as the bottles clinked together.
I released Lil’s arm as Gisela moved forward to hug her. I spotted Mavis on one of the distant rugs and hoped there wouldn’t be trouble today. I nodded my greeting from afar and moved towards Armando to offer assistance.
‘Great job,’ I said as I grabbed his arm.
‘I am so happy but we’ve run out of wine already. I only brought two bottles and they have evaporated. I’ve sent Julian to get a few more, although I don’t know what we will do if they all get drunk,’ said Armando.
I laughed and surveyed the view. It was lovely; chattering and laughing from a group of our spirited less-young community members. Lil was now holding court seated in the centre with Gisela on one side and what looked like Mrs McAleen on the other. I recognised her from her trademark Dame Edna specs. Lil’s fan was waving back and forth and on occasion pointing at someone in the crowd. At Lil’s feet was a man I didn’t recognise. He had Lil in a trance as he was speaking to her in an animated fashion, and then offered her a bunch of Tesco flowers. Lil smiled broadly, accepted and then passed the flowers to Gisela who disappeared to try and stem any wilting. What was she up to now I thought? It was her birthday so I guess she could do what she wanted. The man picked up a glass containing what looked like Guinness as Lil said something to Mrs McAleen and turned her attentions back to him.
Mavis was close by and seemed to have read my thoughts.
‘Good afternoon Wayne. I see our mutual friend is making the most of her celebrations.’
I turned the corners of my mouth up and acknowledged Mavis and moved on. I had my suspicions too but I wasn’t engaging with Mavis about them and hoped she’d taken the hint and return to her rug.
‘Who’s that with Lil?’ I asked Armando.
‘That? He is the brother of Mrs McAleen – Marty. They come into the café sometimes. He is, how you say, wide man.’
I stifled a laugh at Armando’s turn of phrase, ‘wide boy.’
‘Yes, although he is a man. Anyway he is always telling long tales of life in Ireland, and the number of pretty women he’s dated both there and in England,’ added Armando.
‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I can see he is popular with the ladies, I’d best go over and say hello.’
‘OK, and please get Lil ready for the cake,’ said Armando.
As I walked over, I could hear Dame Vera Lynn from the portable speakers singing The White Cliffs of Dover.
‘Hello Gisela, Mrs McAleen. Are you having a nice birthday Lil?’ I asked.
‘Oooo yes thank you Wayne, and this wine is mighty fine. I might even prefer it to Assam,’ said Lil and released a park-penetrating cackle.
‘If you were the only boy in the world and I was the only girl,’ sang Lil. She had the lyrics mixed up. The wine must have taken effect.
‘Wayne, ah, so you’re Wayne,’ said the man on the floor. ‘It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I’m Marty, Marty McGuire.’ He stood up and offered his hand which I accepted.
‘Yes hello Marty. How do you fit in with this motley crew?’ I asked retaining a formal tone to my voice.
‘Nelly McAleen is my sister, and I wouldn’t miss the birthday of a beauty queen,’ Marty said and winked at Lil.
Marty wasn’t perturbed.
‘I’ve, errrr, entertained quite a few in my time.’
‘I see,’ I said. I wished that Mavis was here right now to make some comment and detract attentions. I wasn’t sure that Lil needed an Irish OAP playboy in her life – this wasn’t ‘The Playboy of the Western World’ after all.
Mrs McAleen stood up, ‘It’s nice to meet you here Wayne. I’ve never met a real writer before.’ Mrs McAleen extended the hand of friendship.
‘I’m not really what you’d call a fully-fledged writer –’
‘OOoo isn’t it a great day for the Coca-Cola?’ she added. I had no idea where the conversation was going. It felt like she’d just said the first idea that popped into her head although I detected alcohol on her breath. I wasn’t sure Coke entered the equation.
Momentum switched as Vera started to sing We’ll Meet Again. Everyone stopped what they were doing and started to sway and sing along. It took all the members of the party back 70 years or so, and into the deepest recesses of their memories. It was a surreal moment which blended nostalgia and melancholy – loved ones and youth lost.
‘…keep smiling though just like you always do,’ they all harmonised as the song came to a close.
‘It’s time to cut the cake,’ announced Armando.
Lil stood up with Marty’s assistance and moved towards Armando’s glorious white and blue iced fruitcake.
Being part of this group was overwhelming – I adored it. I loved Lil and wouldn’t have missed her celebrations for the world.
‘Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Lil, happy birthday to you.’
Lil squealed with enjoyment as another cork popped in the distance.