Adventures in Shopping

After the events of the last couple of weeks I was looking forward to a Christmas shopping trip to Brent Cross with Armando, Lil and Cyril – Gisela was still in Germany. I wanted us to have a jolly day full of early Christmas cheer even if we had to address the Mavis and Marty issue. After a quick and uneventful Assam we walked the short distance to my car.

‘It’s a bit small isn’t it?’ Lil said of my Lexus.

‘It’s a hybrid,’ I said proudly.

Armando had assumed passenger position, and Cyril and Lil were to be in the back. However, Lil was fussing, and tapped her umbrella against the window.

‘It’s electric, I can’t open it yet,’ Armando said.

‘What? Open the window, I can’t hear you.’ Lil tapped harder with the brolly, and rather than have the glass smashed I got out again to see what was wrong.

‘I can’t sit in the back. It makes me feel sick.’ I did understand as I too suffer from motion sickness but wished she’d said before everyone was in. After a shuffling around we were off.

‘Stop,’ Lil screamed before we were even halfway up Shepherds Hill.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said swerving to the side of the road and slamming on the brakes.

‘You were too close to the car approaching from the opposite direction, and going far too fast, and now you’ve nearly knocked that poor woman over on the pavement.’ Lil  clutched her scarf in a dramatic fashion.

‘Errrr I wasn’t and that woman is fifty feet away.’

‘Can we get on please,’ Cyril said.

‘I can’t stop every two seconds for a passenger seat driver,’ I said.

‘Fine – switch up the wireless and I’ll close my eyes,’ Lil said and with that folded her arms, and gripped her patented handbag, complete with gold clasp, tightly.

‘What shops do you need?’ Armando asked, changing the subject.

‘I need a number of items from John Lewis, but I’m afraid I won’t be able to afford them all,’ Cyril said.

‘Come to Boots with me,’ Lil said.

‘I don’t think they have the kind of gifts I’m looking for’, he said

‘Come on, they do Old Spice box sets.’ Lil released a splintering cackle. Her second attempt this morning to shatter the glass in my car windows and we were barely even out of Crouch End. ‘At least we’re no longer suffering from Black Friday, which I haven’t got the foggiest idea about by the way.’

‘It’s one of those dreadful Americanisms that we can do without. We don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, and I don’t see why we have to have their Black Friday,’ Cyril said.

‘I’m afraid with the growth of multinational companies and online shopping it was always going to come,’ I said.

‘I don’t give a shit about that. I just want to get to Brent Cross safely – watch out for those traffic lights,’ Lil said.

Fortunately Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer came on the radio and we all sang along together, which improved the cheer in the atmosphere. Lil sang loudest, of course.

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‘Can’t we park any closer?’ Lil asked after I’d spent several minutes trying to be as proximate to the centre as possible.

‘No,’ I said curtly and pulled up the handbrake.

We shuffled inside and were infected by the piped Christmas jingle from the centre’s speakers.

‘Now that’s a lovely tree,’ Lil said.

‘Have you got your decorations up?’ Armando asked.

‘A fake tree, some tinsel and a few ornaments, but that’s good enough for me,’ Lil said.

‘I try,’ Cyril said as he gazed up at the massive tree, ‘but nothing matches the decorations we had at home when I was young, and a lot of them home-made.’

We parted and agreed to meet in an hour at the John Lewis café for coffee and cake. I didn’t have that much specific Christmas shopping to do. I find it such a stressful chore to seek out and procure items which you hope the recipients will love and value. I much prefer to buy presents when someone has expressed a need. And to add to my woes most of those I buy for already have ‘everything’ or have the financial stability to buy what they need or want when they need or want it. I pushed gift purchasing from my mind and nipped along to Zara to peruse their winter sweater range. This was unsuccessful as my overindulgence in Sherry and Battenberg has rendered Zara clothing unbefitting – literally; and I was in no mood for hats, hankies and socks. I meandered back towards John Lewis and was drawn into All Saints; their sizing being more forgiving.

‘What you going in there for?’ came a familiar voice. I turned to see Lil laden with Boots’ bags and a new tinsel scarf.

‘I’m having a quick look at sweaters and t shirts. You want to join me?’

‘I suppose. I am trying to be more with it,’ Lil said with essence of sarcasm.

‘You’re well on your way with a tinselled neckerchief.’

We were approaching the heart of the store where I’d spotted a gun metal grey sweater with leather patches, which I liked. My inspection was interrupted.

‘It’s too bloody dark in here to see anything,’ Lil said. One of the size zero male assistants sauntered passed with an acerbic grimace.

‘It’s for the ambience,’ I said in a discreet tone.

‘You’ll have to speak up – I can’t hear you over this bloody music. What’s the point of shopping if you can’t see or hear each other?’

Lil’s nerves were fraying and I ceased my sweater inspection, took Lil’s arm and guided her to the sanctity of the sanitised John Lewis café. We were 15 minutes early and first there. We selected a vacant table and awaited the other members of our party.

‘Have you seen Marty?’ I asked.

‘Yes we had tea.’

‘And?’

‘And what?’

‘It was tea Boulevardier.’

‘How do you feel about that?’

‘I don’t know. I enjoy his company. He makes me laugh, but I’m still not comfortable with him and Mavis.’

‘Are they still spending time together?’

‘I don’t think so, but who knows without Gisela and her eagle eyes.’

‘Armando and I met with Marty.’

‘I know,’ Lil said and pursed her lips. Her face folded into a cross frown, ‘and I don’t understand why it’s taken you two weeks to tell me.’

‘Sorry Lil but I wasn’t sure what to say or do. He isn’t exactly as I expected but I’m not sure he is capable of being what you want him to be either.’

‘You know a lot for someone so young,’ Lil said.

‘He did say that Mavis approached him.’

‘I’m not surprised in the slightest. That one has never been satisfied. She’s always coveted what I have.’

Armando arrived at the table with the necessary refreshments.

‘I saw you two, thick as thieves and got coffee and cake.’

‘Good. I think we’ve finished this conversation. Yummy chocolate cake,’ Lil said.

I shrugged my shoulders. Armando looked confused. Cyril joined us taxed with John Lewis bags.

‘Beautiful ornaments and decorations,’ Cyril said.

‘They don’t make Yardley gift sets like they used to’ Lil said as she extracted a box from one of her carrier bags. She proceeded to remove several other pre-packed gift sets, a bottle of eau de toilette for Gisela, and finally a super-sized can of Elnett.

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‘Who’s getting the hairspray?’ I asked.

‘Ha, it’s for me you silly sod.’

Lil and Cyril were on a mission and departed together in the direction of Marks and Spencer leaving Armando and me holding their purchased spoils. This was fortunate as it provided a good opportunity to pursue an update from Armando.

‘I think I’ve met someone decent, early days, but in my age group, he works normal hours and speaks English,’ he informed me grinning from ear to ear.

‘I’m pleased. What does he do?’

‘Media and marketing in the West End.’

It looked as if Christmas was all around us and the good spirits were soaring. Now, if we could only have some resolution in Lil’s life, we could hit the festivities head on.

‘Come on Armando, let’s get after the kids before they run amok.’

Armando patted me on the shoulder before we picked up the many festively decorated plastic bags and moved to locate our wards.

 

 

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An (Un)civilised Craft Fair

Today there was to be no Breakfast Club. I would be catching up with Armando for coffee only. My week was supposed to be filled with days off, fireworks, writing and other artsy activities. However, I had inadvertently become embroiled in the latest pension war.

Lil had telephoned on Tuesday evening and she wasn’t happy.

‘I can’t believe him Wayne. He’s a bloody law unto himself,’ she’d said as I answered the call.

‘Who? What’s happened Lil?’

‘Marty – who else and don’t pretend you like him,’ said Lil.

‘What’s he done now?’ I said adding irritation to my tone.

‘He told me to update my look.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Apparently a few “with it” items of clothing wouldn’t go amiss. He said my dresses are more suited to old ladies. I told him I was an old lady and he was an old man.’

‘Good for you Lil. He is too much – really.’

‘He didn’t take kindly to that and added that if I wanted to go with him to the craft fair at the community centre tomorrow I’d better get with the programme. I told him to sod off. That was this morning, and I’ve waited in for either him to call or visit with an apology – and he hasn’t.’

‘Oh Lil, you should have called earlier.’

‘I didn’t want to busy the line. I’ve barely even been to the loo.’

Now probably wasn’t the best time to sell the merits of call-waiting. ‘Do you want to go to the craft fair?’ I asked.

‘Aren’t you listening? I said he won’t go with me.’

‘When have you ever done what you’re told? Why don’t I take you?’

The line went silent. I could hear the brain cogs whirling.

‘Don’t you work on a Wednesday?’

‘No, I’ve some time off this week to write.’

‘OK, yes, let’s go, you can pick me up at 1.45.’

Our plan was in place. I hoped that I was going to be there when Lil informed Marty she’d managed to make it solo, the world didn’t revolve around him, and his denial of the ageing process.

I’d collected Lil as directed and complimented her on her M&S inspired outfit of tailored black trousers and a cream wool sweater. She added a head scarf around her neck secured by a diamanté ring. Her hair had a vibrant blue hue – she’d been at the rinse again.

‘Are you looking for anything today?’ I asked.

‘Not really, it’s mostly overpriced doilies but they always have good cake. I might look for a new tea cosy but it depends on the cost. I remember when you could pick one up at a jumble sale for 5p.’

‘But this isn’t a jumble sale,’ I said.

‘Same difference,’ said Lil closing the conversation.

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The community centre wasn’t busy when we arrived. Tables had been set out around the side, behind which sat expectant ware sellers. The crafts available were not the overpriced variety one finds at contemporary fairs, but what some might consider more down to earth. It reminded me of similar affairs I’d attended in the village where I’d grown up; tombolas and raffles aplenty. I usually ended up winning a soap-on-a-rope or items of that ilk. At the time I’d felt sophisticated and longed to don the soap around my neck. We paraded along the left hand side of the hall and Lil introduced me with pride to each of the stallholders she knew, as she fingered their merchandise. Her lips pursed at some of the prices. I could see the tea and cake stand getting ever closer, and my appetite rose. I shouldn’t have been hungry after a delicious mushroom omelette for luncheon, but cake passion tends to create hunger pains.

‘Shall we stop for tea?’ I asked Lil.

‘Yes, it’s starting to pack out, and I don’t want to miss out. I’ll have a cuppa, I doubt they have Assam; and a slice of walnut and date madeira please.’

I sat Lil at a vacant bistro style table and attended the serving hatch. The Battenberg called to me from its display plate.

‘You going to buy anything?’ Lil asked as I delivered our tray.

I shrugged my uncertainty as I set the table.

‘You should support the community,’ said Lil.

‘I don’t see you buying much.’

‘I am the community.’

‘And who do you think exchanged coins for your current repast?’

We laughed affectionately.

‘Actually prices are much higher than last year, but I must buy something to flaunt in front of that man,’ said Lil.

‘I’m not sure one-upmanship is a worthy occupation, although on the other hand it is Marty.’

Lil grabbed my arm and I feared I’d gone too far. She pushed the chair back and stood up. I followed her eye line and saw that Marty and Mavis had entered the hall, arm in arm, like royalty.

‘Sit down Lil,’ I implored. She sat and took my hand. She was shaking and I didn’t know whether through anger or shock. She followed her prey as they move along a couple of stalls.

‘I’ve had enough of this. I won’t be made a fool of,’ said Lil as she rose again and moved with purpose across the hall. I popped the last bite into my cake hole and followed.

‘Hey princess,’ said Marty as we approached, unfazed as ever.

‘What do you think you’re doing,’ said Lil looking directly at Mavis as she held her palm up to Marty.

‘Why, I’m attending the fair,’ said Mavis as she released Marty’s arm and put her hands on her hips.

‘Don’t mess with me – harridan,’ exclaimed Lil.

‘Attending a local event with an old friend is hardly cause for an accusation of that magnitude,’ said Mavis calmly. Her facetiousness was in full working order.

‘Don’t give me that twaddle. I never saw you anywhere near Marty until we started courting –’

‘Princess,’ interrupted Marty intending to pacify.

‘Don’t you princess me – I’ll deal with you later.’

‘And don’t call her princess when we’re together,’ said Mavis her pitch elevating.

‘Ha, so you do think you’re with him – floosy,’ said Lil in a louder tone.                              Attentions had been diverted from the tables full of produce, to the central floor show. Marty took his cue and snaked backwards and out of the firing line.

‘Lillian stop being so immature. You’re always so common, shouting and screaming in the streets, and I have no interest in your name-calling,’ said Mavis.

‘We’re not in the streets. You always have to go after my men. Let’s face it, you could never hang on to your own,’ said Lil sneeringly.

Mavis gasped before regaining composure and saying, ‘you’ve normally so many on the go Lillian it’s difficult to tell who your actual man is.’

Lil raised her arm as if she was going to strike Mavis but thought better of it. I was standing close enough to assist or restrain, dependent upon the need, but I didn’t think it was correct, or safe to get in the middle.

‘Listen Bellamy,’ said Lil in a lower but vicious tone, ‘hasn’t anyone told you that less is more with lip-rouge. You tend to trowel it on. Once a tart always a tart.’ And with that blow Lil flounced and spun on her heels. I thought she was going to topple over and I took her arm and led her away. Mavis gathered herself and marched off in the opposite direction. Marty was also in the wrong, but he seemed to have got away scot free. I couldn’t believe the argument ended with maquillage insults.

‘What is it with you two?’ I asked Lil as we rapidly left the building.

‘Hmm – one day I might tell you, but not yet. She is, as you know, a piece of work.’

‘You do seem to go from being as thick as thieves to screaming at each other in public. It’s odd.’

Lil didn’t answer and we walked on in silence. She wore a pensive expression.

‘And what about Marty?’ I asked.

‘What about him?’ asked Lil rhetorically.

‘Do you want to get a drink?’ I asked. I craved a Sherry – large.

‘No thank you Wayne. I’m tired and going straight home.’

Lil said she was unlikely to be at Breakfast Club when I’d dropped her at her door, and added that she’d rather have no surprise visitors this week.

I called into the café to update Armando on the latest spat. We were midway through when in walked Cyril. He joined us and we all three commiserated with dense hot chocolate.

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‘You’ll be glad to have missed it,’ I said to Cyril.

‘Goodness yes. I’ve been at a church meeting and stayed for a slice of gooseberry pie.’

‘Sounds like you’d all have been better eating cake here,’ said Armando. I have to say that I admired his marketing spirit, never missing an opportunity to advertise.

‘Marty is unfortunately an insecure piece of work,’ said Cyril.

We picked up our mugs of congealing, sweet, goo and agreed. Marty and his playboyesque behaviour had to leave our little group alone, or minimally fade into the background.

 

Masterclass

I’d missed Breakfast Club last week as I had booked a masterclass with VG Lee. I had the first public reading of my work at Polari Literary Salon approaching. I wanted, and needed, to immerse in Val’s advice and expertise.

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There had been one snag, and manoeuvring around it was not going to be pain-free. I’d forgotten to validate my non-attendance with Lil and had to call her to excuse myself, and as it transpired, beg forgiveness.

‘What do you mean, you forgot to mention it?’ asked a belligerent, which I interpreted as disappointed, Lil.

‘I got my weeks mixed up Lil,’ I added as much humility as I could muster.

‘I don’t understand why you need to go to hers on a Thursday. It’s very inconvenient. I’m an incredibly busy woman myself, but manage to make time for Breakfast Club.’

The line went quiet for a few moments. I was lost for words to assist in smoothing these choppy waters.

Lil was in no humour to wait for my response and continued, ‘I guess we’ll have to get along without you, but could you please make sure this doesn’t happen again Wayne.’

Having the last word, which wasn’t out of the ordinary, seemed to restore Lil’s inner peace and harmony.

I’d sent a text to Armando who’d asked no questions and replied in a civilised way. We usually shared a couple of texts every week, but I have to confess I hadn’t been as proactive in starting conversations since Lil’s crush theory. I’m sure she was mistaken, but equally I didn’t want to deliver false hope.

The café door was propped open as we were in the middle of a heat wave. The two small tables outside were occupied by patrons looking as if they wished it were cooler. I’m not going to moan about the heat, as I love it, however, we are not equipped to deal with it in the UK – there is no escape. I’m not suggesting for one moment that we should invest in environmentally unfriendly air-conditioning units at home for the few unbearably hot days and nights we have each year. It’s similar to those who bemoan the country grinding to a halt in the snow and make comparisons with Canada (who spend most of the winter feet-deep in the white stuff). We have a few days of extreme weather each season and should grin and bear with our upper lips stiff and intact.

Lil was at our table with Gisela – Armando was nowhere to be seen. I walked across the café, which was mostly empty. I greeted them both with a gentle kiss on the cheek.

‘Armando.’ Lil shouted at the kitchen wall, ‘he’s turned up this week. Breakfast Club is in session.’

‘I’m sorry I missed last week. How have you been? And nice to see Gisela too,’ I said.

‘Guten Morgan,’ said Gisela in a firm tone. I couldn’t work out if this was irritation or a formal Germanic timbre.

‘Yes, fine thank you Wayne. The world does continue to spin in your absence,’ said Lil and roared with laughter. Gisela tittered too. Armando arrived with a beautiful 1950s large family teapot decorated with a dandelion design and four cups on a simple wooden tray.

Judith followed Armando to take our order. Lil’s appetite hadn’t been suppressed by her irritation as she ordered a full English, Gisela pain au chocolat and I followed suit. Armando settled for a blueberry muffin.

‘Gone all continental have we Boulevardier?’ said Lil.

‘I ordered the same as Gisela,’ I said.

‘I thought it might be because you’re spending all that extra time closer to France – in Hastings,’ said Lil. Gisela and Armando sniggered. Lil was on fire and I hoped that we were bantering and joking. I decided to play along.

‘Val sends her regards Lil,’ I said.

‘Who?’ said Lil. She knew exactly who I meant.

‘Val, VG Lee,’ I answered and smiled directly at her.

‘Does she indeed. How very jolly of her…’ Lil compressed her lips in disapproval. I wasn’t done with her yet.

‘How are you getting on with her novel, you know, the one she signed for you.’

‘I’ve only read a couple of chapters and it’s annoyingly good,’ said Lil and cackled appropriately.

‘Is this conversation only for two people?’ asked Gisela.

‘Usually,’ said Armando.

I waved my white flag symbolically and lifted the enormous yet delicate teapot and filled the expectant cups with refreshing and pacifying fluid.

‘I guess I should be well-mannered and ask if you had a productive day with her?’ said Lil.

‘It was great thanks. Hard work as always but I’ve shortlisted the pieces I’m going to read at Polari Literary Salon at the Southbank next month.’

‘It’s not all mini-Battenbergs then?’ asked Lil with a little more banter in her tone.

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‘No, we did however have a cake break, and the best part of a couple of bottles of wine with dinner,’ I said and started to laugh. Armando started to laugh too but we were both stopped mid-titter.

‘Are you telling me that you went to Hastings to “work” and ended up getting drunk?  What a pair of bloody lushes,’ said Lil. I suspected friendly conversation had expired, which was confirmed when an enormous and earthquake-creating tut followed. Gisela’s tut echoed.

‘I’m disappointed Wayne. I wrote a couple of children’s books and you don’t ask me for advice,’ added Lil. Gisela and Armando were silent.

Breakfasts arrived which provided a welcome break in the conversation.

‘Come on Lil, that was in the 50s and Val is my friend too.’ Goodness Lil was ridiculously possessive sometimes and she’d sulked so much, and to the point of making me cross. I picked up my croissant and deliberately tore a corner dramatically and thrust it in my mouth and only then looked across the table.

Lil hadn’t picked up her knife and fork and looked a little watery around the eyes. I didn’t know why I’d let her rile me and mirrored in response. I assume it’s because I care and don’t like to upset her. However, I had to remember that she was an elderly lady who’d recently gone through some traumatic events.

‘Don’t let it get cold Lil. You’ll need your strength for next week’s celebrations,’ I said and reached over and put my hand across hers.

‘You remembered,’ Lil said and picked up her cutlery and started urgently slicing through a chunky pink rasher.

‘Yes, and don’t forget it’s a birthday picnic in the park,’ said Armando, ‘Gisela has promised some authentic kuchen.’

Gisela nodded and MMmm’ed through the chocolate centre of her pastry.

‘Is Filippe coming Armando?’ asked Lil.

‘Who’s Filippe?’ I asked.

‘Armando has a new fella Wayne. You shouldn’t miss Breakfast Club and you might not be out of date,’ sparred Lil.

She had a point.

‘No he can’t make it, he’s a-working,’ said Armando.

‘What does he do?’ I asked casually trying to subtlety bring myself up to speed.

‘He’s a window cleaner,’ answered Armando.

I nodded my support that Armando was moving on from Jason.

Gisela’s remaining piece of pastry was causing her some difficulty and ‘scheisse’ was declared as the chocolate shot out from the side of her mouth and into Lil’s cup.

This was to be a long Breakfast Club.

Down But Not Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Well? What did you want?’

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

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

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

‘Righty-ho – see you then.’

And with that the line went dead.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Morning Bill,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Needs must Lil,’ I answered.

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

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

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

‘No…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Bogus Damage

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

Had Bill been forgiven?

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

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

Had Armando re-engaged in his personal life?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lil burst into tears.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Mini Battenberg?

Life is not a practice run. We press forward living our existence as best we can, chasing our desires, ruing our regrets and missed opportunities.

Last year I became very ill. The fragility of life hit me between the eyes and woke me up.

My creative self had lain dormant for years. I longed to write and sat down at my laptop and started and haven’t stopped since. Distractions get in the way, like the day job and socialising, but I keep coming back to it like never before.

Does our youthful creativity desert us as we hurtle through the years? I remember going to see artists’ studios in the Torpedo Museum in Alexandria, Virginia a few years ago. A number were inhabited by retired or older artists. The pictures were beautiful but lacked innovation, or that excitement you get in the pit of your stomach when looking at new art. I wondered if, while good artists, life had sucked the fire from their bellies?

We still see, fortunately, current ageing artists who never fail to excite – David Bowie for example.

A little closer to home and accessible to me is the award-winning writer V.G. Lee who I am also privileged to call a friend.

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VG, or Val, started writing later in life and in the last 20 years has published four novels and a collection of short stories.

In 2009, to celebrate her 60th year, VG Lee decided to become a stand-up comedian. She set herself a target of 60 performances which grew to 90 and she finished the year as a runner-up in the prestigious Hackney Empire’s New Act of the Year 2010. She has appeared twice at the Edinburgh Festival. In 2013, she performed her one-woman play, Lady of the Wild West Hill to packed audiences as part of the Brighton Fringe Festival.

Val is inspirational and full of stories and experience. I asked her a few months ago if she would allow me to interview her for my blog, looking particularly at pursing a late blooming desire to engage in one’s chosen art.

I met Val at her residence on the West Hill in Hastings. After enjoying a sumptuous lunch of Carrot and Coriander soup, made fresh by Val’s good friend and neighbour Mary, accompanied by delicate slices of fresh sesame seed baguette, we settled on a comfortable settee and prepared to start the interview.

‘I’ve put my M&S aquatically patterned toilet rolls out in the bathroom,’ said Val proudly, adding this extra touch of comfort to her already commodious dwelling.

‘Thanks,’ I replied, wondering whether I should complement her later should I have occasion to sample this luxurious item.

After a couple of tests on my recording equipment we were ready to go.

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What was going on in your life in your early 40s Val?

Absolutely nothing basically. I’d split up with somebody who possibly didn’t even know we were still dating and I was on my own. I went to two classes: gardening and a writing class and the writing stuck. I completed both classes and I still love gardening but writing is what I do best

What made you decide on these two courses?

To be honest I think I was possibly looking for friends because I didn’t have any. I still don’t have many if anyone is reading and is interested…

The interview paused so that I could pick myself off the floor. Val is spontaneously funny and in fact quite popular.

Did you find any friends?

I found a couple of writing buddies that I still know today and I’m still friends with the tutor also.

What was the inspiration to start writing in your 40s and develop further from the class? Were you not ready to start slowing down?

No. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I’d never been particularly good at anything, but I had been able to make people laugh all my life. And I thought I’d write something funny, and people did laugh and that gave me the nudge to keep going.

Did you always have passion for writing?

Absolutely not! I’d never had a passion for anything up until then. I wasn’t good at writing but I was good at art. I was a commercial artist although I don’t do it now and that’s what I did right up to my 40s.

Had you written since school?

Yes. I wrote stories at school but they weren’t very good. I’d tried to mimic Shakespeare on a couple of occasions and I wasn’t quite up to his standards which rather surprised me at the time.   

Again after several minutes of laughter imagining Val as a budding schoolgirl Shakespeare we returned to the interview.

Who do you write for?

I write for me. I have a real interest in the characters, and the characters’ lives. I’m drawn to the lives of very ordinary people. My interest in my characters is fanatical; what happens, why they’re like they are, where they’re going and how they can change.

It’s not clear to me who to write for so that’s really helpful. Some writers who achieve great praise from the writing community don’t necessarily have commercial success and some that can’t really write, do. How can you balance the two?

As far as I am concerned it’s not worth writing if I’m not writing what I want to write. Having always been rubbish at everything up until then, and finding something in my 40s that I was good at, then there would be no point in trying to focus on a certain market. I’d then, and yet again, be doing something for someone else. If my writing wasn’t for me it wouldn’t have a soul and in my view wouldn’t be very good.

Are you going to share how long you’ve been writing or your current age? If indeed it’s appropriate to ask a lady her age.

I’m 63.  

Do you still have a lot of new ideas bubbling forward?

Don’t you want to say anything about me looking much younger than 63?

Yes of course. How remiss of me. 63! Good grief I thought you were 45.

Thank you that’s better. Always good to flatter your interviewees Mr Boulevardier! And yes I’m full of new ideas. I’m currently working towards completing my new novel and I have another unfinished novel. After the publication of my next novel I will publish another book of short stories. Most of the short stories for the collection are in preparation.

Do you want to tell us anything about your new novel?

It’s taken me twenty two years so far but I think we are on the home stretch. It’s very different from my previous work with the main character a man and it’s more comical. At least I hope people are going to find it funny.

If it’s as witty as you are today then I’m sure they will. Now I know you’ve spoken about it on Facebook but how much importance do you put on editing?

I put a huge amount of emphasis on editing. I think when I read people’s work and it hasn’t been edited properly, and I’m not talking about punctuation, I’m talking about extraneous words, phrases out of order, self-indulgence or just the wrong feeling which sometimes writers don’t even know they’re doing because they don’t check their work.

I go over, and over, and over my work. It has to sound good to read good in my opinion. I read my work aloud as many times as it takes to get it right.

One more recent option open to new writers is self-publishing. Do you agree with it?

It’s really growing and a great way of getting published and I’m very pleased that option is now available. However, I am concerned that people aren’t necessarily as careful with what they publish. I’ve seen very small print which isn’t easy to read with dodgy layouts and covers. I wouldn’t want things to become slipshod. At its best it’s an excellent way of getting published.

Conversely then, if you’re a new writer should you start searching for a literary agent?

As a new writer you should focus your energies on your work until it is absolutely finished and polished. You should not think of an agent. You should not think of a bestseller. And just get on and do what you are supposed to be doing which is writing. People often ask after six months, sorry this is a bit of a rant as I do get cross, how they should get an agent or ‘how do I get published’ and haven’t even started writing a bloody book. So write, write and write.

Thanks Val. I wonder if we could move into talking about your books a little and perhaps you could guide us through your inspiration for each.

The Comedienne was published in 2000 and previous to that I lived in North London and I was writing short stories to perform in a cabaret run by me and some friends called ‘All Mouth, no Trousers’. I’d written a story about a young woman living in Birmingham and on this particular evening there was a publisher in the audience who asked me if I had a novel. I didn’t have a novel at the time but I did have a lot of stories and I worked really hard and produced a novel which was accepted. It included older and younger people and I liked having the opportunity to write about different age groups.

Great! So moving along to the Woman in Beige, which is my personal favourite.

The historian Rose Collis was my inspiration. I met her at the poetry café in Betterton Street and I didn’t know what to do with my future and she was so full of life and energy I thought you’ve got to get down to it Val, and the idea of the Woman in Beige came to me and I just started writing it.

That’s interesting; so stepping back between the novels was it difficult to get the inspiration to write another after The Comedienne was published?

Yes I was quite lost for a time. I always write for short spells before I really get going. I was still doing a bit of poetry and lost for what to write story-wise. I started to write a piece about my parents and moved forward into other people’s parents and the Woman in Beige got started.  

The collection of short stories came next. Were these ones you had in the bank you pulled together?

I had them in varying levels of completion from the time when I started writing. There is one story in the book called Behind Glass which was the first short story I’d ever written in my early 40s and I finished it just in time for the collection. I’m always writing stories and I had more than enough for a collection.

My favourite in the collection is Hotel Du Lac and I wondered if you fancied yourself as a bit of an Anita Brookner?

I wanted to do a more cheery and jokey Anita Brookner.

Did you have a similar slump in motivation after that or were you raring to get going on Diary of a Provincial Lesbian?

I moved to Hastings from London and I reread Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield which reflects life in the provinces and my life was so different since moving. It was of a much slower pace and I had new and very different neighbours and I decided to have a go at my version. In actual fact it was probably the easiest to write out of all my books because you had definite seasons and celebration times like Easter and Christmas to work with. I really enjoyed writing this book. It was also my quickest book and was complete in a year.

I’m sometimes inspired by what I read and I get an idea of subjects I can deal with.

And onto your most recently published work, Always you Edina.

I started writing the book eight or nine years ago and it came out of short stories which were originally quite strange and bitter. But as my life seemed to improve my mood bettered also. It’s set in Birmingham and I went back to where I had grown up and revisited all my old childhood spots. It’s based on an aunt who is a cruel but charming person and I did have an aunt who was cruel but charming and it’s loosely based on her. A lot of my memories from the 1960s came flooding back. It was a jumble for many years and I have to say thank you to Sarah Walters who went through all the stories, twice, and gave me a good steer on how to pull them together and finally it got published. And I love the book.

I think it’s really interesting that you started writing it so long ago, set it aside, and came back to it. You didn’t feel the need to push on to the bitter end once you’d started?

Absolutely not. I do this continually. If my mood changes or I’m feeling a bit lacklustre or have something else calling me then I give into the call. It does possibly mean I take a long time to get finished but I have a large body of work with lots of in progress pieces.

Do you have any favourite characters from your books?

I have Mrs Botolph from The Comedienne, who was the main character’s mother’s best friend. From Woman in Beige I like Mr Edwards the neighbour who had the giant albino rabbit. I love Deidre in Diary of a Provincial Lesbian, and she is based on an ex friend who is in a number of my stories. Interestingly I don’t have a favourite character in Always you Edina.

So when you were in your 40s and just getting into writing, did you sit down one day and think I’m going to give up my job and write four books?

No. I was working as a self-employed commercial artist doing large signs and murals and I couldn’t give up. I actually have two books which were never published. I used to finish work at 6pm and start writing at 8pm and I would work every evening until 11.30pm, and as I said earlier, I didn’t have friends to distract me and I just worked at it. In actual fact that book never got published but I still love it. I probably spent three years on it 8-11.30pm five or six evenings a week. It was a commitment but I just wanted to write.

At that time how far forward did you plan or dream?

I’ve never planned. I was so enthused to find something that I was good at later in life. I would still like to be famous and have a lot of money but I wouldn’t like to lose what I have.    

Some seem to think that it’s a quick process, knocking out short stories in a day or novels in a month. What do you think about that?

I would say a very structured short story could be written in a day and possibly a novel in a month, but I’m just not confident that it would be as good as it could be. It has taken me between one and twenty years but I don’t think I could do anything in a month. The first short story that is in my collection was not finished until the collection was put together. I put the last line in just before it was sent off for the publishers to look at, because I hadn’t come up with that last line, and I knew the story wasn’t quite right.

It takes as long as it takes and all you get is a first draft if you do it quickly.

Do you title pieces and name characters as you go or wait for inspiration?

I most certainly wait for inspiration.

How do you write? Is there a certain ambience that has to be present?

I write at my best in the mornings and sometimes get a good 3-4 hours in but then when I’m writing something new I will go over it the following day. I prefer to write longhand and then I transfer it onto my computer when I’m happier with it. I do like a fountain pen but I don’t always have enough ink cartridges and I have to revert to a cheap Bic biro. Everywhere in my house are little notebooks where I can jot ideas.

With so many tools at our fingertips: self publication, creative writing courses, an instant society, what advice would you give to new potential writers, me included, who are in their early forties and looking to do something a little different and how to succeed?

I’d certainly recommend a creative writing course. I’m not mad on the MAs as they seem to turn people out very similarly although that is just my opinion. There are fine shorter courses which have been going for around twenty years. In London Morley College, Birkbeck and City Lit all do good courses and a real variety at that. A writing group is also good because your writing friends will move on and up too and you all help each other. And if you are good I do believe you’ll get picked up. A good original voice shines out. You might not be world famous or make loads of money but you will be published.

Finally any regrets from changing your life course at 42?

No. It has been fantastic. Best opportunity I ever took.        

    

As the interview drew to a close I popped the last bite of the mini Battenberg we relished as we spoke.

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It was a beautifully sunny January afternoon and we wrapped up and took a turn around the West Hill, loitered in the Old Town, had a revitalising glass of Sherry and traditional seaside fare at the aptly named Fagin’s.

I have learnt so much from Val during our acquaintance and hope to learn more and continue sharing our love of Sherry and Battenberg.

Val can be found at:

www.vglee.co.uk

Facebook: Vg Lee

Twitter: @vglee_lee

Or in person at the following upcoming events:

Tuesday 11th February – Have a Word at Latest Music Bar, 14-7 Manchester Street, Brighton, BN21TF – doors open at 7pm

Friday 28th February – Polari at the Southbank ‘Headliner VG Lee offers her unique take on life after sixty.’ Tickets and information www.southbankcentre.co.uk/whatson/polari-280214-80292