The boulevardier walked into the café as always on a Thursday for his breakfast club but the corner table was without patrons. In fact on a cold February morning the café was almost empty.
Armando emerged from the kitchen and greeted me with a nod. He looked serious.
‘Morning Armando. Where’s Lil?’
‘How should I know? I’m not her mother. In fact where is anyone? Why do I bother opening in this cold weather?’
I knew Armando was constantly worried about making ends meet, and when this was coupled with long days and a continental dramatic personality, it could often generate quite the flounce.
‘Well I’d like an Assam and a vegetarian full breakfast with a sausage please.’ I was trying to watch what I ate but after his pronouncement I thought better than to order porridge.
‘I hope she’s OK. Perhaps it’s the cold weather that’s…‘
The door opened and there was Lil leaning heavily on her stick, in a furry hat, full length quilted coat and black flat boots with their fluffy lining poking out.
‘Will somebody bloody give me a hand? I’m froze to death and my legs aren’t working properly.’
Armando moved swiftly between the tables and chairs and guided Lil to her favoured spot. She sat down frailly and looked exhausted even though it was only just after 10am. She slipped off her coat to reveal a beautifully flower-patterned housecoat. I wondered whether she meant to leave it on to keep warm or had forgotten to take it off before coming out.
Armando appeared with a pot of tea for Lil. I had ordered first but this wasn’t the point. She was suffering. And two cups could be generated from the pot.
‘So what’s new with you Boulevardier?’
‘Lots Lil. But first how are you?’
‘Yes, yes, yes. Don’t fuss.’ She said no more and looked at me. This was clearly not a day to talk about Lil.
Armando reappeared with another cup, saucer and pot of Assam. There were no other customers and I suggested that he sit down and join us. He put his trusty tea towel on the counter, grabbed another cup and saucer, mismatching of course, and sat next to Lil.
‘You be mother,’ Lil said to me and I poured cups of tea for the three of us.
‘I’ve booked a holiday for April to Santorini, for me and my partner to escape this cold.’ I said.
Lil bit her lip, looked at Armando, and started to shake. This wasn’t the effects of the cold however, but rather she was trying not to laugh and she failed.
She looked at me and said ‘Partner. Ha. Don’t you mean fella?’
‘Well I, well I….’
‘Of course it’s a bloody man. No one who writes in their blog about re-quiffing their hair, whether or not to wear leatherette jeans and constantly sips Sherry is going to have a wife!’
‘I thought it was rather metrosexual to be honest.’ I was defeated. How did she really know?
‘Metro bloody what? And it doesn’t bother me either – I spent too many years as an usherette and part-time chorus girl at The Old Bedford in Camden Town with plenty of confirmed bachelors. Most of them enjoyed the wigs and face powder far too much. And there’s no point in you looking shifty Armando. I’ve watched you mincing around the café for the last few years.’
‘It’s newer to me Lil, I said. I’ve only accepted and realised it in the last four or five years. I only discussed it with my parents last weekend.’
‘How did that go Boulevardier?’
‘Surprisingly well. It had been difficult and most of my friends knew but I hadn’t found the time or opportunity to speak to my parents about it. In fact I was incredibly nervous.’
I proceeded to tell Lil and Armando what had happened.
I was booking too much with my boyfriend Michael, and now we were going on holiday together I couldn’t carry on trying to skirt around the truth with my parents. It wasn’t fair on me, them or Michael.
Armando’s kitchen assistant brought our breakfasts over on the usual china plates and we paused for a second. I knew Lil and Armando wouldn’t wait for me to eat my breakfast so I resolved that it would likely be cold by the time I ate it. That was fine. This was important.
I came up with a flimsy excuse to visit on a Sunday afternoon and set off from London to Bedfordshire feeling really sick and terrified. I had manipulated enough flexibility to not do it if I really couldn’t. Only one friend knew what I was doing. I couldn’t tell anyone else and especially not my boyfriend as I didn’t want him to anticipate my actions and then feel let down, or even more so, to feel that I had to push forward with my parents because of anyone else but me.
I arrived and made tea. We caught up on general news, the weather, the gardens and everything but…
I had planned my first line and a few times I took a deep breath and prepared to say ‘There is something I need to talk to you both about.’ As I took the breath and went to speak and either Mum or Dad jumped in. They of course had no idea what I was building up to.
After what felt like an hour, although it must have only been a matter of minutes, I managed to get my first line out. This was followed by ‘I want to be clear this is not about health. There is no change in my health.’ After my serious illness the previous year I knew this would be the first place their heads and hearts would go.
‘After I had therapy a few years ago remember I said that I’d talk to you about it at some point…’
No further words would leave my mouth. I was rooted with fear, anxiety and shame. Once out this was not going back in the box.
‘Give me a few moments please… I just can’t seem to say it.’
Dad was seated next to me in his leather high-backed armchair and Mum was on the sofa, both barely breathing and looking intently at me.
‘I don’t know how to say it…’
Dad suddenly said ‘Is it that you’ve got a boyfriend?’
The moment hung in the air and it took all of my strength and energy to say ‘Yes.’
‘Thank goodness for that. I thought you were going to say you were about to die,’ said Dad.
‘I’m sorry but it’s been very difficult for me.’ My heart rate was no longer increasing. It wasn’t coming down much either. An enormous amount of stress left my body. I felt sick again but this was a very different sick.
‘Why didn’t you think you could say something?’ asked Dad.
‘Nearly all my friends know but I had a bad reaction from two close friends and it made me realise how much it can hurt. They’re much better about it now but they had initial negative reactions. I feel a lot of shame.’
‘Be proud of who you are and what you do.’ Said Dad
This sentence uttered by my dad has had a profound effect on me. I never expected him to say that. It’s incredibly empowering.
‘You’re quiet Mum.’ I was worried.
‘I can’t get a bloody word in with your Dad.’
We then talked more openly. This is a new normal for me. They want to meet Michael when the time is right.
‘That is great. Your parents sound very sensible and incredibly supportive,’ said Lil. ‘I’d like to meet them at some point.’
‘Now Armando, his breakfast is cold. I suggest we get this Boulevardier a fresh breakfast and a fresh pot of Assam tea.’
Lil was back in charge and directing the café. Her bones had warmed.
‘So did you mean to wear your housecoat outside?’ I asked with a smile.
‘Now just because you’ve had a drama doesn’t give you leave to be so bloody cheeky you little bugger. Gays, always full of drama.
The familiar warmth of Lil’s cackle filled every crevice of the café.
All was right in the world.