Breakfast Club Forever

We’d said goodbye to Gisela on Saturday morning not knowing how soon we would see her again. At least we could draw comfort from the fact that she would be back, even if only for a short time, to settle her affairs. This was of course dependent upon the Germany move being a positively splendid experience. Life went on and it was Thursday morning and Breakfast Club was imminent. This week was to be a special club although I wasn’t sure if anyone else realised so. It was the anniversary of our first, and at that point unofficial, Breakfast Club; only Lil or Armando would potentially be aware, and neither had mentioned anything. I’d dressed in a special black t shirt with CELEBRATION written across it in glittering silver. I got to the café deliberately early with a cake. A local baker’s had made and decorated the cake for me with a ‘Full English’ iced on the top. Armando was surprised when I appeared with a cake, and as suspected hadn’t realised the importance of the occasion. He stored our sweet and commemorative treat carefully in the kitchen until the others arrived.

As I sat at our table I bathed in the feeling of comfort and a second home from home. It was still a good 15 minutes before the others would arrive, even if early, and it gave me time to people watch. I hoped my clique wouldn’t keep me waiting as the first set of diners I tuned into were nothing to write home about. I shuddered as I listened intently to their ordering.

‘Pear, apple or orange juice? all freshly squeezed’ Armando asked.

‘You don’t by any chance have any squash?’ the female diner asked.

‘Errrm, I’ll see what I can do,’ Armando said. A dash to the corner shop a few doors down might be required. ‘Would you like that with sparkling water?’

‘Errrrgh no. I don’t do sparkling. I’ll have it neat,’ she said.

‘I’ll have a tea and a Full English,’ her male companion said, ‘but I don’t want beans.’

‘Extra mushrooms or tomato instead?’ Armando asked maintaining a friendly demeanour.

‘Mushrooms please.’

‘I don’t want mushrooms,’ the squash girl said. Armando smiled.

‘It doesn’t say chips,’ the male said.

‘No chips,’ said the girl fiddling nervously with her phone, her face turning from orange to white.

‘The breakfast is substantial,’ Armando said still smiling although his teeth were gritting.

The girl’s expression turned from horror to fury. ‘I’m sure there’s room for some chips on the side.’

I smiled at Armando. He didn’t smile back. I tried to erase the chips and squash brigade from my mind and turned my attention to an older woman I didn’t recognise. She had just sat down on the table next to ours. She removed her balding fur coat and placed it carefully on the back of her chair. She heaved an enormous, vintage, black leather handbag onto the table and pushed open the clasp. I have often wondered how older woman cope with this particular style. The clasp requires strength and dexterity to open and close and presumably gets more difficult as arthritis worsens. She pulled out a bright pink, plastic spectacles case and switched those already on her visage with another pair – presumably reading. I was feeling nostalgic and poetic as I was on a table next to an unknown old woman as I had been a year ago. I should have brought my copy of A Summer Book by Tove Jansen and reread it to complete the image. I wanted to engage her in conversation but that felt unfaithful to Lil, especially on such an auspicious occasion. The old woman removed the clear plastic rain hat and straightened her hair. A pot of tea arrived which she inspected and stirred. She called Judith back and informed her there were not enough tea leaves in the pot. I was sure I heard gnats piss being spoken of but I couldn’t be certain. I was glad Armando didn’t overhear. He wouldn’t be impressed. Judith disappeared to follow the woman’s instructions and add more leaves.

I didn’t get a chance to see if the new pot was sufficiently strong as Lil and Cyril burst through the door.

‘That bloody machine will be worn out before we even get to bingo,’ Lil said as she thrust her overcoat on the back of the chair revealing a brightly flowered house coat.

‘Morning Lil. What’s happened?’

‘Bill. He’s off at the community centre every morning to practice with the new machine.’

‘It is sweet,’ Cyril said.

‘Whose side are you on?’ Lil asked.

I looked closely at Cyril. He looked a lot better than when I’d seen him earlier in the week. We’d spoken after Gisela’s announcement and he’d called round. His eyes had been red and watery but he didn’t cry in front of me. He’d said that all his life he’d seen people come and go and sometimes it hit harder than others. He had developed a close relationship with Gisela and they had often joined forces in matters of Lil. And as she was so busy with Bill he was feeling on his own. I had thought, at the time, that perhaps Armando and I should engage our matchmaking skills again but decided it wouldn’t help mentioning it then.

‘Morning Cyril. How are you?’

‘Good morning. Fine thanks and finding activities to fill my time. The church has asked me to lead the Easter committee,’ Cyril said with a smile on his face. Lil rolled her eyes. He was feeling better and my plan to become his dating emissary would have to be put on hold.

‘Armando, are you joining us?’ Lil called as Judith arrived with tea.

‘Shortly, yes,’ Armando said.

‘Oooo what’s up with him?’ Lil asked. Armando could hear but chose to ignore and continued busying himself behind the counter. I wondered whether it was birthday matters which kept him from us.

‘I’ve bought a new writing bureau,’ I said.

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‘Fancy pants. What’s that for?’

‘Writing.’ I said.

‘I know that you silly sod. I meant why did you need a new one?’

‘I was using an old rickety table in the spare room and we decided to get a new, well new to us, vintage writing bureau. It might be even older than you Lil.’ Lil erupted into a cackle.

‘Where did you get that from?’

‘ebay or rather South London.’

‘I’ve heard of that eBay. Is that like a shop online?’

‘Yes indeed. It’s an online auction site. We bid and won the item and had to go to a rather less than salubrious part of South London to collect it last Sunday morning. I was anxious as the block of flats was dilapidated to say the least. The lady though was lovely, even if she had just cooked sausages and the bureau stank of greasy pork. It was nothing a good wiping and a can of lavender polish couldn’t fix.’

‘Why did you want an old one?’

‘More of an inspiring set up.’

‘Classic all the way. I don’t blame you Wayne. Some of the modern furniture is so gauche,’ Cyril said.

Conversation fell away as the café door opened and in walked Mavis. She looked well, in the circumstances, even if her eyes appeared sunken. She was flanked by two of her cronies and walked straight to the counter. She smiled across at our table and I thought I saw a sly wink in Lil’s direction. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw Lil wink back. Mavis moved with less energetic purpose than previously but it was good to see her out and about. She left without incident holding aloft a takeaway paper cup. She had no doubt thrust herself back into committee work for age club.

‘I’m hungry, I wish Armando would hurry up,’ Lil said to us, but loud enough for Armando to overhear. He was talking to a man at the counter dressed in a smart black suit. They were laughing and joking. The suited man turned and looked at us. Armando dashed from behind the counter and steering the suit towards us.

‘I would like you all to meet Owen.’ Lil’s mouth fell open as she looked the handsome, smooth man standing in front of her, up and down – as did Cyril.

‘Hello,’ I said standing up.

‘I’ve heard a lot about you all. You must be Lil,’ he said offering his hand.

‘Oh hello,’ Lil said with rather a forced posh accent.

‘I’m dashing now. I just dropped off Armando’s shopping list he left at mine this morning.’ And with that he was gone. Armando beamed.

‘About bloody time we met him,’ Lil said and dropped her faux diction. ‘Can we get on and order please, I’m about to drop. I’m as weak as a kitten.’ Judith appeared as if by magic and took our usual order. I was desperate for a vegetarian with a sausage but having lost three and a half pounds this week I needed to stick to my plan. My sausage craving would have to be suppressed. With the order placed we waited. The aroma of other patrons’ fulfilled orders becomes more desirable and intense when you are waiting for your own. I could smell sausages and eggs. It was all too much.

‘What’s it like here?’ asked the lady on the next table.

‘The best breakfasts in Crouch End,’ Cyril said.

‘And lunch and cake,’ Armando added.

‘I’ve not seen you before. Hello I’m Cyril.’ He had twisted in his seat and held out the hand of friendship.

‘I’ve just done a flat swap from Bermondsey. My daughter lives this way. And I’m Gertie.’ She shook Cyril’s hand. From the look on his face it was firmer than he expected.

‘Dirty Gertie from number 30.’ Lil erupted into an earth shaking cackle.

‘Lil.’ I said. This was outspoken even for her.

‘It’s all right – I like a laugh.’ Gertie echoed Lil’s cackle. I don’t think Lil was accustomed to competing for cackle volume.

‘Don’t we all,’ Lil said. Her face grimaced and her voice had essences of her snooty aloofness again.

‘I haven’t heard that for years. My old fella used to say it all the time. Where did it come from, the saying I mean?’ I knew the phrase and equally hadn’t heard it for years. Armando looked foxed too.

‘Bloody Basil Brush,’ Lil said and added, ‘Boom Boom.’ Lil and Gertie erupted again. Armando looked confused.

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‘It’s nice to meet you. Everyone else I’ve spoken to seems a bit stuck up around here,’ Gertie said.

‘You haven’t even met Mavis yet,’ Lil said.

‘Who?’

‘Don’t ask,’ I said.

Judith delivered our breakfasts as Nelly McAleen walked through the door.

‘Just a Coca-Cola for me please Judith,’ Nelly said as she pulled up a chair from an adjacent and vacant table.

‘What a lovely surprise. How are things? I asked.

‘Grand, just grand. I’m thinking of heading off to Ireland again to see my daughter. I’m missing so much of my own family, and had great fun with them over Christmas.’

‘Fantastic. When are you planning on going over?’ asked Cyril. I looked at him for signs of losing another friend upset.

‘Not sure yet. I’d like to go for a spell but I’m not sure I could trust Marty to look after himself and not get in any bother.’ Fortunately Lil’s mouth was too busy chewing a fork load of bacon and mushroom to comment.

‘What’s in the envelope Armando?’ I asked of the blank white object sitting on the table.

‘My shopping list Owen dropped off.’

‘A bit mad to put it in a sealed envelope isn’t it? Unless of course chef has secret ingredients,’ Lil said.

‘Yes it is.’ Armando put down the crust of his sausage sandwich and tore the paper apart. A colourful printed page dropped on the table.

‘A weekend away – in the spring,’ Armando said. We all cheered.

‘It looks as if Judith will get her first weekend as manager in a couple of months,’ I said.

‘I can always help out,’ Lil added.

‘I’d better get on my way,’ Nelly said.

‘Not yet. I need you to stay for a few minutes.’ I disappeared to the kitchen with Armando in hot pursuit.

‘Can you believe it’s the first anniversary of our Breakfast Club,’ I said as I returned with the cake.

‘Are you telling me we’re celebrating and I’m in a house coat,’ Lil said.

‘Don’t worry about that. Do you want the slice with the iced fried egg?’ Cyril asked.

Bill walked in. He could smell cake being sliced from miles away – apparently. According to Lil it was one of his many talents.

‘What’s the cake for?’ Gertie asked.

‘Breakfast Club,’ Lil said.

‘Sounds like fun. Is it members only?’

‘Why don’t you join us,’ I said and we budged across to make room for another.

‘You’ll have to watch out for too many Full Englishes – they might spoil your figure,’ Lil counselled Gertie.

And so Breakfast Club continued and I hoped it would be a regular part of my life far into the future. My life had been enriched with the highs and lows of my friends. I can’t call them new friends anymore as I’ve known them for over a year and we had become close – an urban family. We had lived through many a drama and many a laugh in the last 12 months. People had come and gone, but I was glad to have the core members. If someone had suggested a year ago that one of my favourite regular activities would be to sit down with some senior citizens and eat a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side, I may have dismissed them as loopy. Life in Crouch End is close enough to the bright lights of central London, but equally sufficiently far away to create a village atmosphere where people actually interact and speak with each other. If I hadn’t taken the time to answer an insistent old lady in a café a year ago I might never have met Lil. Who knows what the future holds, but right now I intend to sit back, drink Assam tea, eat cake, and celebrate…

If you missed any of the Breakfast Club series then the following link will take you to where it all began…

https://berkeley34.wordpress.com/2014/01/19/lil-and-armando/

 

 

I would like to thank everyone who has taken the time to read my blog and share their comments and feedback for the last two years. I started writing it when recovering from a serious condition in January 2013. I set myself the goal of writing a post every week and I am proud that two years later I’ve achieved what I set out to do. I’ve met some great people along the way and made some fantastic new friends who are now a regular part of my life. Writing is something I have enjoyed ever since school and I will continue to use my spare time to better my craft. I am going to take a break from the weekly blogging and focus on a novel I’m halfway through writing and finish off a number of short stories. There is plenty more of the Breakfast Club and I’m sure I will add further tales of Lil and the gang in the future.  If anyone has any comments or thoughts on whether I can use my Breakfast Club posts for publication then please shout out.

Again massive thanks for all the support, encouragement and for just reading what I’ve put out there…

Wayne XX

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Homeward Bound

We were halfway through January and I was willing the nights to start drawing out. I longed to see signs of Spring thrusting itself upon us. I was perhaps a little unrealistic and premature in my expectations, but it made me feel a lot better. I’d spoken to Lil several times during the week, in-between her visits to the hospital. Mavis was doing well, in the circumstances, and was already starting to offer inpatient improvement advice to the hospital staff. The background information I now possessed regarding the complicated history between the two urban sisters hadn’t affected my views of either; if anything my resolve to protect Lil had increased. Armando didn’t know their full backstory yet and I didn’t feel right brining him up to speed. If he was to know Lil would have to retell her story or ask me to do so.

My early waking thoughts focussed on the impossible choice of temperature-appropriate attire. The weather was yo-yoing between freezing or damp and mild. My Teasmade hadn’t whooshed yet so I didn’t need to be overly concerned until I’d at least had the first Assam of the day. I poked my toes out from the protection of the duvet and they didn’t recoil which was promising.

I arrived at the café, having decided that layers was the only way, to find Lil and Gisela already in situ.

‘Blimey, are the sides of your hair short enough?’ Lil said.

‘Morning to you both, and yes thanks. I want it to be disconnected from the top.’ I kissed both of the seniors. Gisela looked a little uncomfortable, and I hoped it wasn’t my show of physical affection. She hadn’t reacted thus previously.

‘The top’s a bit long. It looks like a wig.’ Lil cackled.

‘I can assure you it’s all mine. Do you want to give it a tug?’

‘Get away with ya.’ It was nice to see Lil back to her bantering best.

Armando joined us. His apron looked grubby and frayed around the edges.

‘Is it scruff day?’ Lil asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You look less pristine than usual,’ Gisela said.

‘It’s yesterday’s. Is it that obvious? I forgot to bring in the clean ones today.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Everything all right?’

‘Yeah I guess.’ We all sat forward waiting for the update. However, at that moment Judith arrived with the pot. I’d never before wished a teapot of Assam was a few minutes late.

‘Is Bill joining us?’ I asked.

‘Later, let’s order, I’m hungry.’

Lil ordered her usual, Armando a coffee, Gisela a pain au chocolat and porridge with blueberries for me. It wasn’t easy to stick to a reduced calorie intake, but the bloating seemed to be slowly dissipating and I was wearing jeans I hadn’t managed to for over a year. I would have to stick at it, if I was to lose two stone before the summer.

‘Well?’ Lil asked. We all looked at Armando.

‘My relationship – ’

‘Oh no, not more drama. I don’t think I can take it,’ Lil said. I rolled my eyes, internally, as most of the drama in our little group was Lil-centric.

‘- is fine,’ continued Armando, ‘however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t difficulties.’ Armando paused as Judith arrived with his double espresso. He stirred slowly and didn’t look up. We waited expectantly for him to continue. I was glad Lil didn’t prompt impatiently for details. I poured the tea. Lil stirred her cup noisily and for longer than necessary. Eventually Armando looked up and continued.

‘I don’t think I mentioned before that he was married previously, to a woman.’ Lil dropped her teaspoon.

‘He is of course divorced and was so when I met him.’

‘Is he bisexual?’ Lil asked.

‘No he is gay.’

‘Doesn’t make any sense,’ Lil said. The table fiddled uncomfortably and I think Lil realised she had overstepped the mark.

‘He has two children which makes it even trickier,’ Armando added. I willed Lil not to speak.

‘Does he still see them?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes, he is a good father and spends time with them every week.’

There was another break in the conversation as Judith was beside us with our food. Lil didn’t waste any time and declared ‘yummy’ as she sliced a tomato. It was like watching surgery; next the toast was buttered and the egg skin folded back to reveal the soft yellow innards.

‘I’m not sure where I fit in, and it was on my mind all night and this morning,’ Armando said.

‘He probably feels the same way,’ Lil said.

‘All relationships are difficult,’ Gisela said and sighed.

‘Sorry?’ Armando asked looking at Lil.

‘Don’t look all hurt, I mean that you’re married to this place. He might be concerned that you’re not putting him first either.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that perspective.’ Armando drained the last dregs from his miniature cup and signalled to Judith for another.

‘I’m not just a senile old bat.’ Lil let out an excruciatingly loud, guttural laugh before anyone had a chance to agree or disagree. I hadn’t missed Gisela’s comment either, which weighed heavy with meaning. She wasn’t herself today.

‘You don’t meet people without baggage when you get to our age, we included,’ I said.

‘I don’t know about that,’ Lil said, ‘hello love.’ She stood to plant a smacker on Bill’s expectant and pouted lips. We scooted across to make room for Lil’s beau.

‘What have I missed?’

‘Oooooo your new shoes look lovely,’ Lil said looking adoringly at Bill’s feet. Bill shuffled in a dance-type movement and followed with an attempt at jazz hands. Lil giggled. They were still enveloped in young or rather fresh love which was sweet, however, I didn’t need to see the saccharine up so close and personal.

‘His other pair were starting to let the wet in,’ Lil said. Bill shrugged in a ‘looking for sympathy’ way. Armando smiled. The joy of love was contagious.

‘We went to Muswell Hill yesterday and I got these in Clarks. In the sales, I’ll have you know.’

Bill started to shuffle again. ‘Sit down now darling,’ Lil said. ‘I also got a lovely new frock in one of the charity shops. Some of the rich old biddies must have had a clear out. It didn’t even look worn. I’m saving it for a special occasion.’ Lil winked and inserted the last crumb of toast into her mouth in a seductive manner. We all blinked in shock.

‘Special occasion?’ I asked and nervously passed my empty bowl to Judith.

‘Another pot?’ Judith asked rhetorically.

‘It’s great news, isn’t it Bill. Do you want to tell them or should I?’

‘I think you’re making a big deal out of it,’ Bill said.

‘Stop being so bloody modest.’

‘Will someone tell us what is happening?’ Armando asked.

‘Do I need a hat?’ Gisela asked.

‘You can wear a hat if you want Gi…’ Lil started to tap her hands on the table, in imitation of a drum roll. ‘Bill is making his comeback as our bingo caller in two weeks’ time. I’m so proud.’ Bill coughed.

‘I’ve got to learn how to use the new machine.’

‘What happened to the last?’ Armando asked. I kicked him under the table.

‘You might recall it fell over.’ Lil glared at Armando.

‘Is it easy to use?’ I asked.

‘It is but it’s all arse about face’

‘Huh?’ Armando asked.

‘Everything is the opposite way round. I’ve had a practice and will have another few sessions to get to grips with the beast before the main event.’

‘Fantastic news Bill. Are we all invited?’ I asked.

‘Of course you are. It’s a special occasion. Everyone has to be there,’ Lil said.

Judith appeared as ever in a timely fashion with a china receptacle full with brewing golden, elixir.

‘I’m glad you’re happy and settled,’ Gisela said. She started to fidget in her seat.

‘Thank you my lovely friend.’ Lil took Bill’s hand. I stirred the pot.

‘It’s especially timely as I have some news.’

Bilder Alfter

Lil released Bill’s hand and gaped at Gisela. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Let’s pour the tea first,’ I said. I could see that Gisela was uncomfortable and needed a few moments to collect her thoughts.

‘Well?’ Lil said as soon as I’d replaced the pot on the table.

‘I’ve been talking to my cousin’s daughter in Alfter.’ Gisela paused to take a sip – all eyes on her. ‘They’ve invited me to go and stay with them for an extended period, and if it all works out, they’ve asked me to live with them permanently.’

Lil slammed her cup on the table. ‘You can’t?’

‘You’re happy with Bill.’

‘You’re my best friend.’

‘We can still write.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘We can talk on the phone.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘I miss Germany.’

‘I thought you were happy in England. You’ve not mentioned a longing for Germany before.’

‘I didn’t realise how much until I visited.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me how you were feeling and what you were planning to do?’

‘It was only finalised yesterday.’

‘Finalised – exactly. You didn’t even tell me what was on your mind. I thought friends, especially close friends spoke to each other.’

‘I didn’t want to upset you.’

‘A bit late for that now isn’t it.’

‘Let’s calm down,’ I said and placed my hand affectionately on Lil’s arm.

‘I’d forgotten how comfortable it feels to speak German every day. I speak and think in English of course, I’ve been here so long, but it was like putting on an old glove.’

‘That makes sense. When I was in Spain at Christmas it’s easier to speak your mother tongue.’

‘Yes, and I didn’t realise that I cared about family, and seeing family so much until I met them again. And you know I miss German sausage.’ I tried not to snigger like a schoolboy.

‘Gisela, it isn’t fair. Everything is so good at the moment.’

‘Lil you have Bill, Cyril, Nelly, and not to mention Wayne and Armando. I’m sure you’re not going to miss me that much.’

‘I will.’ Lil pouted her lips and produced one of her legendary tuts.

Gisela looked alarmed but pressed on. ‘My cousin, Sabine, has a granny annex, which has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s on the same plot as her daughter’s, Sybille. The plan is that I would take the second bedroom.’

‘And what’s your cousin to say about that?’ Lil asked.

‘She is keen too.’

Lil huffed and folded her arms.

‘We were close as girls, and goodness only knows how we will get on together now but I’m hoping it will be good and fun.’

‘She’s probably changed,’ Lil said.

‘But relationships formed in childhood can last a lifetime,’ I said with purpose in my voice. This was a little harsh, and Lil picked up on my Mavis reference. However, she needed to back off with her attack. Lil turned her cup on its saucer in a truculent manner.

‘I think if you have a chance for happiness you should grab it,’ Bill said. We all looked at him a little shocked that he would dare overrule Lil. ‘I did, and I’m sure glad I came back to London, otherwise I might not be in the best relationship of my life right now.’ Lil stayed quiet, and fingered her cup in a less fractious manner, which was quite astonishing. Bill’s influence provided a sedative effect.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gisela said and started to cry.

‘Don’t cry now. I’m sorry too for getting so cross. I’m going to miss you that’s all. Shall we have another tea?’

‘Tea, yes,’ Armando said.

‘You’re going to miss my bingo debut, well return rather than debut.’

‘That is a disappointment. Perhaps someone could take photos and send them to me.’

‘I will,’ I said.

‘There are a couple of spare bedrooms in the big house too. Perhaps you and Bill would come and visit.’

‘Me, in Germany. Are you joking?’ Lil was cackling again which was a good sign. ‘I don’t understand a bloody word. What’s the German word for Assam?’

‘Assam,’ I said.

‘We’ll see about the visit,’ Bill said, winked at Gisela, and took Lil’s hand again.

‘Excellent. Cyril is going to holiday with us too.’

‘Cyril knows?’ Lil asked.

‘Yes.’

I wasn’t sure if this was going to set Lil off again. ‘What about Armando and me?’

‘I would love for everyone to visit. Even Marty Maguire. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely elderly ladies in Germany longing for his charm.’

After we’d finished chortling at Gisela’s witticism we finished our tea and went on our way. Breakfast Club was to change again. Gisela may not be one of the core or founding members, but she’s played a great part in our weekly meetings and had been a phenomenal support for Lil particularly when battling some of the other women in their age club. I suspected the person who would miss her most was Cyril, particularly as Lil and Bill were now so committed to each other. I resolved to check in with him later in the day. He and Gisela were Lil’s wing people and spent a lot of time together.

 

 

 

 

In Sickness and in Health

I received a phone call from Lil on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t from her usual number. There was unlikely to be a Breakfast Club this week.

‘Wayne, it’s me. I’m at the Whittington.’

‘What’s happened? Are you OK?’

‘Yes I’m fine although a little shaken up. Any chance you can come down?’

‘Of course.’ And before I had a chance to ask which ward she was in, she’d gone. I telephoned Armando, but he was short staffed and couldn’t get away. The cold snap was continuing and I wrapped myself up in my faux fur hooded Parka. I slipped my leather, cashmere lined gloves on and locked the front door. The 41 bus didn’t want to come and the wind whistled along Topsfield Parade. I took one of the last remaining seats on the lower deck. The journey seemed to be taking forever. There was no urgency as people got on and off the bus. There was an incident with an oversized pushchair which wouldn’t fit between the seats. After several minutes of easing and pushing, the male passenger disembarked and re-joined via the back exit doors. The pushchair was finally and successfully set in the wheelchair area. I wanted to scream ‘collapse the damn thing’ but instead I tutted. The tut I had inherited from Lil. If she was attending a routine appointment and she wanted support, she would have arranged it in advance. I deduced that she must have been an emergency admission.

I battled through the sea of smoke in the area outside the hospital as visitors and patients, some of which were wrapped in pyjamas and dressing gowns, sucked on their cigarettes ignoring the no smoking signs above them.

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I explained my situation to the middle-aged woman on the front desk. She understood my plight and sought the location of Lil on the screen in front of her, but couldn’t find her name. There was a slim chance, or so I was informed, that if she’d entered via Accident and Emergency her data wasn’t yet uploaded. I walked swiftly through the building to the casualty department. The waiting room was packed with slippers and trippers – victims of the icy conditions. I was given a similar story – she was not an inpatient at the Whittington. I replayed the conversation with Lil in my mind and I was sure she said the Whittington. I could think of no other than the one in Highgate. I dialled the number Lil had called me from and got the automated welcome message for the hospital I was standing in. At least I knew I was in the right place. I walked back to the front desk, and resolved to not budge until they found her. As I put one foot on the descending escalator I heard my name called from behind me and turned to see a vanishing Lil. I tried to scramble up the moving stairway but it was futile. I walked down and whipped round onto the up travellator. As the mechanical transporter rose I got my first proper view of Lil. She was dressed, which was the first shock, and didn’t look too unwell. A little pale and cold maybe but nothing more.

‘I couldn’t find you.’ I hugged Lil – hard.

‘Yeah, sorry I forgot to tell you which ward, and I thought I’d better come and find you while she’s sleeping.’

‘Who?’

‘Mavis, who else.’

‘Is Mavis in hospital?’

‘Yes – don’t you listen to a bloody word I say?’

You didn’t tell me it was Mavis.’

‘Yes I did.’

‘Well it doesn’t matter now. I’m glad you’re OK. What happened to her?’

‘I wouldn’t exactly say I was OK. It’s been quite a shock. She had a stroke.’ Tears started to appear in the corners of Lil’s eyes. She wiped them away quickly.

‘When?’

‘Last night.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘Because, I’m her next of kin.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘I know you didn’t.’

‘It’s about time you told me what this is all about. If that’s OK?’

‘Yes. I knew I would have to. I’ll just nip back up to the ward and check everything is stable. Why don’t you go into the canteen and get us some tea and cake and I’ll join you there shortly.’ I gave Lil a kiss on the cheek and watched her move towards the stairwell.

Hospital canteens are more modern affairs these days. I could choose between three different franchises with a common seating area in the middle. There is an outside seating area but it was too cold to even think of sitting there. I purchased teas and slices of carrot cake. The portions were enormous and layered thick with white butter icing. There was a small, orange, carrot shaped iced decoration on each slice. I carried the tray to a quieter looking area and sat down. As I was stirring the pot Lil re-appeared and slipped out of her winter coat and hung it on the back of her chair.

‘I needed that,’ Lil said as she sipped the refreshing and all healing tea. I passed her a plastic fork and napkin to aid with cake consumption. I peeled the carrot from the icing and popped it in my mouth. It tasted sickeningly sweet. Lil was still busying herself arranging the napkin on her lap. I would not hurry her. She played with her fork and continued supping her drink. She wore a pensively melancholy expression.

‘Is Mavis stable?’

‘Under the circumstances yes. It was a warning shot. She’s resting at the moment. The doctors are undertaking more tests.’

‘Will she make a full recovery?’

‘They’ve said there is no reason why she won’t.’

‘How do you feel?’

‘Confused.’

To be able to help I had to understand why Lil was here. She wasn’t sharing the meat of the story and I’d been cut dead on previous attempts to get her started.

‘I don’t understand why you are her next of kin. You haven’t mentioned it before. Are you related or something.’

‘Thank god it’s only the or something.’ Lil sliced into the soft layers of dough. A blob of icing dropped from the fork and splatted on the floor.

‘I’ll get a cloth,’ I said.

‘You might as well get another couple of teas while you’re at it. It’s a long story and you seem determined to hear it.’

Once the floor was wiped we settled down with our fresh drinks and she began. It was a story I hadn’t expected and to do it justice it has to be told from Lil’s point of view…

 

 

It all started with my Aunt Vi. She was the one who took me in and raised me. We were a happy, tight-knit unit. I was an orphaned 14 year old trying to survive and study in a post-war London. We had a lot more than most. I would often hear the other women in the shops moaning about a lack of tea, soap and other items, however, we never seem to be short. We weren’t rich or living in a lap of luxury but Auntie Vi had a way of always making sure we didn’t want for nothing. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it outside of home, and I just about managed to stop myself boasting to the other kids. It was fear that immobilised me. Aunt Vi was loving but she had quite a temper too and I suffered a number of wallopings which she called necessary and character building. She always seemed to know everyone and had fingers in every pie. She kept me away from her dealings and never conducted business at home. I’ve often thought back and wondered what she was involved in. It had to be some kind of criminal activity or she was at least known in the underworld, but I never felt under threat, either from her other associates, who only ever called at night, or the police.

One day Aunt Vi sat me down in her front parlour which was reserved for important visitors and serious discussions. She had even got me a bag of sweets to soften the blow. An old friend of hers was in trouble. I never worked out what that trouble was, but she needed to disappear for a period of time and we was to look after her daughter. Aunt Vi explained that it would be like having a temporary sister and as we were the same age, she hoped we would have a lot in common. I was to share my bedroom and was given the special task that very afternoon of helping set up another bed. My bed was pushed against the wall to make way for the new mattress on the floor. It didn’t bother me sharing half the wardrobe and drawers as I didn’t have enough to fill them anyway. So that was it, Mavis arrived, but it wasn’t transitory – she never left. I don’t know what happened to her mother. She never returned for her. I asked Aunt Vi several times and she told me to stop being a nosey parker. I wondered whether she was a lady of the night on the run but I never knew for sure. That would have been great eh; Mavis’ mum a hooker.

That evening a brassy girl appeared in the kitchen after dark. I can’t remember who delivered her. She always said she was a year older than me, but Aunt Vi said we were the same age. She lit up a cigarette, right there. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have dared. I wouldn’t have risked smoke anywhere. Aunt Vi told her that she could finish that one as it was her first day, but if she ever saw her smoking again she’d knock that fag right out of her mouth. I remember Mavis drew on her cigarette, blew out the smoke and said she was bored. When we showed her the bedroom she said she wasn’t used to sharing and as the older one she should have the bed. Aunt Vi suggested that I take the floor mattress until Mavis settled in. I objected and Aunt Vi said ”Lillian” in the way which meant not to plead my case any further.

Mavis wasn’t conservative in any way and there were always boys. They called, they wrote, and were generally much older than us. She knew how to handle herself. We used to fight and argue, although not in front of Aunt Vi. She didn’t tolerate dissention in the ranks.  A couple of times she caught us battling and gave us both the slipper. It makes my bum hurt just thinking about the stinging feeling now.

I got my bed back mind. She had it for about a week and then I put my foot down. Mavis gave in. To punish me the next day she stole my best friend Ronnie who lived on our street. Mavis always had an answer. She was streetwise and I think Aunt Vi struggled to control her. After about a year she pretty much came and went as she wished. Until one day when everything changed. I remember it so clearly. Mavis hadn’t gone to school as she was feeling sick. Aunt Vi called me to the front parlour as soon as I got in and gave me a bag of sweets. Mavis was sitting on one of the armchairs, swinging her legs and smoking – defiantly. Our guardian wasn’t stopping her. It was on that spring afternoon that I learned that I had to go away to the country for a few months. Mavis was going to have a baby. I didn’t understand why we had to go away or why I had to leave my friends and my home, but I got the slipper that evening for being selfish. Aunt Vi knew someone who would take care of us and was experienced in dealing with Mavis’ sort of problem. They lived in a small village on the edge of Berkshire. I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to anyone; not even Mrs Tomkins who ran the corner shop and always gave me an extra toffee. All movement had to be in the dark, and we were ushered into a car the following evening. Even Mavis was crying and looked scared. We eventually arrived in a lane. It was pitch black. I remember I couldn’t even see my shoes. We were ushered straight upstairs. The room was cold and we had to share a bed. Mavis cried and cried and we huddled together as we went to sleep. Auntie Doreen, as we knew her, had a small cottage. I wish I could go back and see it. There weren’t any other houses for miles and we weren’t allowed to go any further than the fields immediately surrounding the house. We didn’t go to school and had to work from early in the morning and scrub the house from top to bottom. Mavis was often crying now. I suspect she missed her London life. As she started to get fatter she had to share clothes with Auntie Doreen, who wasn’t a small lady. The bigger Mavis got the more work I had to do and the more rest she had. I only complained once and got a walloping which would put those administered by Aunt Vi to shame. One of the downstairs rooms had a big table in the middle. We weren’t allowed in there unless it was to clean and it had to be the cleanest of all, and sometimes cleaned twice in a day. Whenever Aunt Doreen was expecting visitors we had to hide in our bedroom. They usually came at night, and I could often hear girls’ voices until they closed the door. Mavis said they were the lucky ones and she wished she’d got there sooner. It actually got to the point when Mavis was too big to do anything. She waddled around the house until her waters broke. I had to assist Aunt Doreen deliver the baby. Mavis was propped up with pillows and blankets on the big table. Once the baby, a boy, was born, Mavis gave him a feed and a name – Tommy. A man in a big overcoat then took him away. We never saw Tommy again.

We stayed at Aunt Doreen’s for another couple of weeks and then returned to London and Aunt Vi. Everyone asked Mavis how she was. They all thought she had something wrong with her lungs and had to get out of London for a while. Mavis’ wild ways calmed from then on. She saved all her wildness for me. She hated me passionately for the next couple of years. I hated her too mind. I blamed her for taking me away from all my friends and schooling and she held me liable for losing her baby. When the chips were down and she’d given birth and held Tommy in her arms, I think she actually wanted to keep him. She never said so of course.

As we grew up we started to focus our energies on our own lives and became less bothered with what each other was doing. That didn’t stop her flirting and throwing herself at my husband at every opportunity. He used to ignore her. By then she had a respectable reputation but I knew the real her. She eventually married, but he wasn’t that good to her. There were endless rumours of his infidelity with every skirt that crossed his path. He tried it on with me one Christmas and I sent him away with a flea in his ear. He wasn’t even that good looking.

Aunt Vi lived a good life and then suddenly got ill and died. Mavis and I thereafter drifted further away and only stayed in touch loosely. We were the only family each other had after all. She was the sister I never had. Her venom has lost some of its potency but it’s still there as you’ve seen from her recent behaviour. We promised Aunt Vi we would look out for each other, and so we always have. We know that when push comes to shove we’ll drop everything to provide whatever is needed. Why do you think she was one of my biggest supports after the break in?

I often wondered what happened to Tommy and whether he would come looking for his birth mother. I think he was sold which was in part to cover the cost of our keep at Auntie Doreen’s. I don’t even know if the birth was ever correctly registered. I doubt it.

 

 

 

And with that I finally knew the entire history of Lil and Mavis. We had long since finished our tea and I got us another. We sat in silence for some time as I attempted to process the revelations and Lil processed telling someone the history which had been buried for so long. It meant a lot that she told me and it would help me when trying to navigate the Lil/Mavis minefield in the future.

‘You ain’t got much to say,’ Lil said.

‘I wouldn’t know what to say after that.’

‘I can’t live with her, but I made a promise and she’s the only family I’ve got left.’

‘You’ve got us too.’ Lil put her hand on mine but didn’t speak. ‘Are you coming back to Crouch End?’

‘No, I’d better stay here for a while yet.’

‘Do you need anything? I could nip back.’

‘Na, it’s fine. I’m glad you came today. It was about time I expelled those demons of old.’

I hugged Lil. She hugged back harder than ever before. I descended the escalator and watched Lil’s shape disappear from view.

 

 

Resolutions Abound

New Year’s Eve is one of my favourite celebrations and this one in rural Hertfordshire didn’t disappoint. We started early with a delicious homemade brunch accompanied by Bucks Fizz as worthy sustenance before embarking on a long and arduous walk to a designated pub. We rambled across fields, through frozen mud, up and down hills and passed various country animals. At the pub we defrosted with mulled wine and Prosecco. Late afternoon we called into another local pub for further fizz as a prelude to the main party, which provided more Champagne, food and exotic alcohol beverages. The bong of midnight came and went as we quenched our thirst for 2015. My resolution is to never drink alcohol again. I have managed to sustain my resolve thus far; Sherry has not even furnished a glass.

It seemed from our Breakfast Club party that at last Lil was going to be happy, but there was a cost – isn’t there always?, and that would be Marty McGuire. We didn’t have Breakfast Club on New Year’s Day and Armando and I decided to call on him on 2nd.

We rang the bell several times without a response, and having seen the square footage of his bedsit there was no chance he was out of earshot. We were just about to abort our mission when a familiar ‘Hello fellas’ came from behind, followed by a ‘how can I help you today?’

‘Hi Marty. We wanted to see how you were?’

‘You’d better come in then.’ Marty’s plastic carrier bag clinked as he moved forward to open the door. The hallway hadn’t received a festive spruce and looked as sad as it previously had. Marty’s room was still untidy.  It was impossible to analyse any signs of increased distress and mess as a result of his recent lost love. He filled the kettle from the dripping faucet and inspected the inside of three cups sitting on the sideboard.

‘Clean – that’s lucky.’ Marty’s attempts at hospitality were thoughtful. He put two teabags in the pot and extracted a bottle of whole milk from the fridge. After taking a sniff presumably to validate it wasn’t sour, he sat down.

‘No biscuits I’m afraid. I wasn’t expecting visitors and I’m surprised to see you to be honest.’

‘It’s been an emotional few weeks,’ I said.

‘I’m fine. You two must be happy.’ Marty looked down and showed the first signs of bitterness.

‘No, not happy –’

‘So you’d rather Lil be with me then?’

‘I think what Armando was trying to say was that we care a lot about Lil, and yes we want her to be happy, but we’re also here to see you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we think.’

‘Yes, yes I understand. It hurts though and just my bloody luck.’

‘We wanted you to know that you’re still welcome at any time,’ Armando said.

We drank our creamy tea while Marty told us about a dead cert in the 3pm that day. I was glad that he hadn’t accused us of plotting against him and he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. We parted on good terms.

‘See you when I’m looking at ya.’ Marty closed his front door. There was a commotion downstairs and a woman shouting at her child who was playing on the stairs. I withheld any advice on the dangers of progeny amusing themselves on the stairwell and squeezed past.

‘Coffee?’ asked Armando.

I nodded and we set off in the direction of the café. We were less than a few feet into our journey when we encountered Nelly McAleen armed with a Pyrex dish covered with tin foil.

‘A pie for my brother.’ Nelly held aloft her container.

‘We’ve been to see him.’

‘A funny business,’ Nelly said.

‘I hope he’ll be OK.’

‘Yes Wayne, he’ll bounce back. We’ve always had to.’

There was a sadness around this interaction. Nelly had looked after her brother, and I think she hoped he’d rely on her less with Lil in the picture.

‘Are you still on good terms with the girls?’

‘Yes – I had tea with Gisela and Cyril yesterday.’ I chuckled at the thought of Cyril being one of the girls. Lil was absent and I knew why only too well. This was not the time to highlight who had kept her away from an afternoon tea.

‘Oh. I didn’t see you.’ Armando folder his arms – even in this delicate situation he didn’t appreciate customers patronising another café.

‘No, we were at Cyril’s. He baked a deliciously light Madeira.’

‘I hope we’re still going to see you around Mrs McAleen,’ I said.

‘Yes of course, and don’t worry about my brother. If I’m honest he has already asked Doris out to tea.’ We smiled. This was the Marty we expected; the Irish charmer was beginning to bounce back.

‘Anyway, this pot is getting heavy and there is a Coca-Cola with my name on it.’ We kissed Nelly and carried on to our coffee.

We decided to squeeze in a Breakfast Club at the weekend. I had no idea who would be attending. Lil had been all consumed with Bill and mostly incommunicado. I took this as a good sign. I patted my ‘Ho Ho Ho’ sweater as it went back into a storage container and on top of the wardrobe for another year. My jeans were squeezing my waist after the excesses of the season and I resolved to stop eating once I was back at work. I popped a multi-coloured sweater over a Madonna T-shirt.

I was early and first into the café.

‘Who’s coming?’ Armando shrugged his shoulders from behind his trusty counter.

Cyril and Gisela arrived next.

‘No Lil?’ I asked

‘She’s nipped to the Post Office,’ Gisela said.

Judith was on hand with a large, steaming pop of Assam. Armando wiped his hands on his apron and joined us. It was unusual starting Breakfast Club within its patron.

‘I would like to order a coffee today please,’ Gisela said and added, ‘I’ve not slept too well and need something stronger to wake me up.’

‘One espresso please.’ Armando turned and called out to a disappearing Judith. She nodded; her back still to us.

‘Why are you not sleeping?’ I asked.

‘What a bloody liberty.’ Lil stood before us huffing and puffing – hands on hips, and dependable trolley at her side. ‘Budge over.’ Lil prodded at Cyril with her stick.

‘Don’t get your bloomers in a knot – we’ve not even ordered yet.’ I stood to allow Cyril to move and planted a kiss on Lil’s cheek.

‘It’s knickers in a twist.’ Lil thrust her trolley into the vacant space between tables. She looked more flustered than a trip to the Post Office should create.

Judith returned with a small cup and saucer containing dark, aromatic liquid.

‘Wunderbar.’

Our orders were placed: three Full Englishes, a raspberry and orange muffin and a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side. I ordered extra toast. The food restriction would start tomorrow.

‘I had a beautiful and long letter from my cousin’s daughter. She is in Germany. I didn’t realise my visit had affected her so much.’

‘What you talking about Gi?’ Lil said.

‘I didn’t sleep well…’

‘I’ll pour, shall I?’ Lil said. I took the heavy, oversized pot from her to prevent spillage.

‘It’s difficult when your family is in another country,’ Armando said.

‘Yes. I didn’t think so until my recent visit. Our family has shrunk considerably and very few are left. We got on very well. She lives in a large village called Alfter, which is just outside Bonn. It’s a lovely spot. She and her husband have done well. Her mother, my cousin Sabine, lives in the house next door, or at the bottom of the garden, dependent upon your point of view.’

‘Good job you visited them already, isn’t it.’ Lil was irritated and I hoped this wasn’t an omen of problems with Bill. I wasn’t going to ask yet.

‘Yes, it is. She has invited me to go back for another.’

‘That sounds lovely.’ Cyril jumped in quickly. ‘I for one think it’s fabulous that you’ve reconnected with your family.’

‘How are you Cyril?’ Armando asked.

‘A little pensive. I went to the cinema in the week and watched My Old Lady. I wish I lived in a Parisian apartment and was paid over 2000 euros a month under a viager.’ Cyril put his teacup down and looked towards the front windows.

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‘Paris? Bonn? What’s wrong with good ole London Town?’ Lil asked.

Breakfasts arrived. The steam rose from the plates delivering a delicious aroma. I was famished and furnished my fork with baked beans and a slice of mushroom. Goodness knows how I was going to cope with a return to a solitary bowl of porridge.

‘What is viager?’ Armando asked.

‘It’s a life estate. The property is sold for a monthly fee, which is paid for as long as the person lives. If they die quickly then the buyer has a great deal. If they live for many years the buyer ends up, potentially, paying over the odds. It’s a gamble, but I’d love to get a monthly income for living at home. It’s not as if I have children and my family don’t need any help.’

‘Who pays you?’ Lil asked.

‘The person who buys your home.’

‘But why do they pay you if they’ve already paid for the property?’

‘They don’t pay, or maybe don’t pay much for the property. I’m not sure of the precise detail.’ Cyril had placed his cutlery on the table to better focus as he tried to explain the subtleties of a foreign system to Lil.

‘Could I get a viag, or estate for life or whatever the bloody thing is called?’ Lil said.

‘Isn’t your flat council?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Then the answer is no.’

‘There’s no sodding use in talking about it then.’ Lil’s egg yolk splattered across her plate. She was in no humour today for delicately peeling back the skin.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘You seem to have a short fuse.’

‘No I don’t.’

‘You weren’t like this before you went to the Post Office,’ Cyril said.

‘What do you mean?’ Lil pointed her fork at Cyril. She was spoiling for a fight. I would have to face it head on.

‘Where is Bill by the way? I thought he might join us today.’

‘He wasn’t going to join us. He has too much to sort out at his flat, and we are going out to dinner later.’ Lil picked up a piece of toast and threw it back down again. ‘My toast is cold.’

‘Toast doesn’t stay hot.’ Armando supported Lil, but pride for the café came first – always.

Lil burst into tears. I steered her from her chair and to the back room, which was empty fortunately. I held Lil close as she sobbed.

‘How can I help?’ I asked.

‘It’s mess after mess. I can’t cope anymore.’ Another sobbing fit ensued. Judith appeared at the door and I shook my head.

‘You have to tell me what’s upset you.’ I released Lil from my embrace and in doing so encouraged her to sit up and pull herself together sufficiently to provide me with the details.

‘Bill came to the Post Office with me.’ Lil was still sobbing. I passed her a tissue and she wiped her eyes.

‘Thank you. I saw Mavis across the street, near one of the charity shops and she waved back.’ Lil paused again to blow her nose.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘Bill said he had something to tell me when we were in the queue. He sounded nervous. Bloody Bellamy has been on at him all week for a catch up. I left Bill in the queue and drove my trolley across the road, in front of the 41. She was chatting to some poor unsuspecting woman. The corner of her mouth started to turn upwards as she saw me approach. She knew that I knew what she’d been doing.’

‘Why don’t you ignore her? She knows she’ll get a rise from you.’

‘This was the final straw and I know I’ve said that before and I always promised I would look out for her, but I couldn’t deal with any more upset. She started to ask after my health. I held my hand up and told her to fucking shut up.’

I was always shocked when such a word came from Lil’s lips.

‘Do you know that she wrote to Bill once when he was away? Once, and that was months ago. She moved onto Marty because I did. She always wants what I have. I threatened her with something I’ve never threatened her with before…’

Lil paused. She took a sip from the glass of water Judith had silently delivered.

‘You’re going to have to tell me.’

Lil shuffled in her seat and then looked me straight in the eyes.

‘I said I would go and find her son, the one she had out of wedlock, when she was 16. And she knew I meant it. She fled.’