Viscount Boulevardier

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lil.

‘Morning Boulevardier, are you up yet?’

‘Yes of course,’ I lied.

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

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

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

‘Yes, see you then,’ I replied.

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

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

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

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

‘Wow! Gorgeous dress,’ I said.

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

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

Lil crowed and adeptly diverted attention to Armando.

‘How’s the new boyfriend?’ she asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I like to settle early,’ answered Gisela.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Technical difficulties were delaying the first ball.

Bill was fiddling with his machine frantically.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Schwein,’ Lil added and flicked her fan.

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

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

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

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

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Cyril Vicious

‘Armando? Are you joining us today?’ Lil was shouting at the wall, the other side of which was the café kitchen.

There was no answer.

Lil waved one hand at me in a decisive manner which seemed to indicate that I should sit.

‘Armando? Are you there?’ Lil was louder and almost trilling her request.

Armando’s head popped out through the kitchen hatch. His hair was messier than usual and a black grease shone from his face. ‘Dishwasher not a-working now, bloody expensive, and I’m a-trying to fix.’

His head disappeared again into the recesses of the scullery.

Lil raised her eyebrows and gave an omnipotent purse of her lips.

‘Armando’s been avoiding me since I asked about his boyfriend. I don’t know why. It’s not as if he needs to be embarrassed to talk to me about it,’ said Lil.

‘How’s your boyfriend Lil?’ I asked.

‘Who?’ Lil knew exactly what I was asking.

‘Bill.’ I answered.

‘He’s not my boyfriend.’ Lil’s response was sharp and fast.

‘Where is he anyway?’ I asked.

‘Now listen here Boulevardier. I know exactly what you’re trying to do and it’s not going to get past me. Bill doesn’t need to come every week. This is my Breakfast Club and as he recently left me for weeks to go and visit his family, I’m not having him here. And don’t try and change the subject.’

Lil lifted the antique china pot and poured the golden liquid into the mismatched vintage cup and saucer in front of her.

‘Armando hasn’t yet told me he’s gay,’ she continued.

‘Is he?’ I asked innocently. I didn’t necessarily feel comfortable having this conversation with Lil. Armando had been open with me but it wasn’t for me to gossip about him, even if it was only with the third axis of our intimate group.

‘Look here. I know these things. Take Cyril for instance,’ said Lil.

‘Who’s Cyril?’ I asked.

‘Don’t you listen to a word I say Wayne?  Cyril, the guy who lives in my block.’

‘Lil I promise you haven’t mentioned him before.’ Lil told so many stories it was difficult to retain the detail. They were invariably colourful, contained drama or tragedy or both. I’m not sure I’d have forgotten hearing about her other gay friends though.

‘Well anyway, he’s in his late sixties and a confirmed bachelor, or so he says.’ Lil released a mammoth cackle, ‘I wasn’t fooled. I managed to wheedle it out of him.’

I was glad I’d ordered a vegetarian breakfast, with a sausage on the side; listening to Lil on a roll was hungry work. I sliced a juicy grilled tomato and pressed it against a sliver of Halloumi. I raised the loaded fork to my mouth and looked expectantly at Lil to continue.

‘He moved in three years ago and wears yellow Marks’ trousers with floral shirts and silk scarves and I knew straight away. He’d lived in Brighton and done a flat swap.

I asked him if he watched Downton Abbey. He said he did, and then I asked who his favourite character was, and do you know who he said?’

‘No idea Lil.’ I didn’t know where our conversation was going or how many clichés we would be embracing.

‘Thomas the Underbutler.’ Lil’s response was perspicacious from her tone but I wasn’t so sure.

‘Thomas is a conniving, sly manipulator. Perhaps Cyril likes those qualities. I don’t think identifying with a character in a TV show gives certainty Lil, although the clothing you describe could tell a different story,’ I said. I started to laugh and thought I’d been funny. Lil wasn’t laughing.

‘No, Cyril is a nice chap. He’s drawn to Thomas as he hides his sexuality too.’ Lil was orating as if a University Professor. ‘And I’m certain that Thomas would be your favourite character too Mr Boulevardier.’ Lil crowed again.

‘I like the Dowager Countess. Maggie Smith has all the best lines,’ I said. In fact I liked Maggie Smith in most of her roles, ‘Tea with Mussolini’ being my favourite.

‘Exactly. That’s precisely the same,’ Lil wasn’t for turning today.

‘Thomas, Maggie Smith, it doesn’t mean anything and I think you’re rather jumping to conclusions Lil.’ I hadn’t seen Lil using stereotyping in such a blatant and shallow way before. She wasn’t being negative or offensive but equally was drawing conclusions from pathways which didn’t link.

‘Let me finish. I also asked Cyril last winter if he’d watched Vicious, you know the show starring Derek Jacobi and Ian Mc’what’s his name, about the two senior gay men who have been together for years. And he said that he was watching it.’

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‘Perhaps he fancies Frances de la Tour,’ I offered.

‘Ha, don’t be so bloody stupid. Anyway I know these things. Remember I worked in the theatre for years.’ Lil speared a piece of sausage and thrust it into her mouth in an authoritative manner.

Armando appeared from the kitchens looking flustered but clean, and collected a cup and saucer from the counter and sat down.

‘Is it fixed?’ I asked.

‘For now, but I think I have to call engineer to check. Staff don’t like too much a-washing up.’ Armando was trying to straighten his hair. His hair generally had a mind of its own but being stuck in a dishwasher had heightened its coiffeur. Armando’s ‘just got out of bed’ cool mess was bordering on just being a mess.

One of the waitresses arrived with a fresh pot of Assam tea.

‘We were just talking about television shows Armando. Do you watch Vicious?’ asked Lil with as much subtlety as a baboon’s backside.

‘Yes, I’ve a seen it. I’m not sure it is good.’

‘I knew it,’ said Lil as she sat back in her chair and folded her arms.

A ringing from Armando’s pocket interrupted Lil’s gloating. The dishwasher repair people were en route and Armando was off and to the kitchen again.

‘How’s Mavis?’ I asked Lil.

That wiped the smile from her smug face.

‘Another tea?’ I added innocently as I held the pot above Lil’s empty cup.

You say tom-ate-o and I say tom-art-o

Arguments have long endured between the British and Americans concerning correct class, etiquette pronunciation and tradition.

I certainly held my sword aloft to this debate when I recently hosted a good friend Joe for a couple of weeks. He is American.

I quite happily quoted Downton Abbey, Tea With Mussolini and other worthy and valuable rules books at him when it suited my purpose.

Did not the Dowager Countess profess in Downton Abbey ‘You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.’

I somehow can’t remember Shirley MacLaine’s response.

I have a great greeting card which questions

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Cher was not invited to the picnic in Tea With Mussolini, as according to Maggie Smith, the ‘Americans simply don’t understand picnics’, and was criticised for buying a knickerbocker glory or ‘that American Monstrosity’. Maggie confirmed that ‘they (Americans) can even vulgarise ice cream!’

I love America and have spent significant time there over the years and enjoy immersing in their culture. However, they do get rather antsy when talking about tradition. Great Britain has been great for a long time and had opportunity to develop, enhance and refine tradition. Perhaps our friends from across the pond should look and learn.

Is the difference in language? We seem to speak the same words but in different order and with apparent misspelling (theirs).

From their fannies (our posteriors) to our fags, (their derogatory word for gays) to our vest (their undershirt or wifebeater), to our wifebeater (a slang term for Stella Artois lager). American vests are our waistcoats, and our braces their suspenders, and our suspenders their garter belts.

It’s no wonder conversations are oft difficult. It reminds me of spending afternoons drinking with a group of Glaswegian friends, whose accents grow stronger and they talk faster with each passing drink. After a short time I always hope I am nodding and smiling in the right places.

So I asked Joe for his 5 points of commentary on the differences or challenges he faced while in England. I will try and offer a suitable answer to each.

1)      Air-conditioning: Admittedly, I grew up in the Southern US and always seem to find myself living in places that are warm and muggy, except during the deep freeze of February. So, I like my air-conditioning. Unfortunately, the London Underground and other enclosed public spaces don’t seem to share my love of things cool. It’s about time that England joined the rest of us in the 21st century and condition the air supply. I’m not saying they have to crank the thermostat down to sub-arctic conditions, but a little cool air is refreshing when one is packed into a carriage with 100 other sweaty people. I was there in September, and that was bad enough. I can just imagine what it’s like at the peak of summertime with tourists so thick you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting 50 of them.

Boulevardier: It is rare that air conditioning is necessitated in the United Kingdom. For the few days a year when it would be useful we would rather protect our atmosphere rather than risk contributing to the ozone layer. But fear not Joe, we are always cool. Rest assured that our styling is carefully plucked and arranged to ensure cool at all times.

2)      Ice: Water, water everywhere, and nary a drop frozen. The US traveller will learn very soon to ask for “extra” ice in their drinks. Otherwise, you’ll just get a cube or two. I’m surprised pubs and the like haven’t caught on that there is less liquid poured into a glass that’s full of ice. Less liquid, higher profit margin; it’s simple economics.

Boulevardier: As a frequent visitor to the USA I am overwhelmed with the amount of ice in drinks. I can barely get to the drink sprinkled lightly between the ice cubes. Perhaps this is why Americans are quite quick to involve support organisations such as AA. I mean if you are able to actually get to the drink between the ice you must have a problem.

3)    Language: George Bernard Shaw purportedly said, “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” Don’t even try to call out an Englishman when he’s made a grammatical gaffe; it’s a battle you will never win, even if you are correct. It is, after all, “their” language. I mean who cares if the major contributors to modern English were the Angles, Jutes, Danes, Norse, Romans, and French? Sadly, the original inhabitants’ Celtic has long been phased out of modern English vocabulary, with only traces of its syntax remaining. However, I digress.

The English know everything there is to know about their language; and other speakers of English from, say, the US (aka speakers of English as a foreign language) will never be able to comprehend the complex nature of the language. Just smile and nod.

Boulevardier: I think you make my argument quite succinctly. Unlike you and your fellow countrymen I do know when to keep quiet.

4) Tipping: Don’t tip in pubs, unless you have food. Round up to tip the cab driver unless he/she assists you with your bags, then it’s a pound per bag. Some restaurants include the tip on the bill, some don’t. Look, either do like the US where everyone sticks their hand out for money regardless of how much or how little service they have provided, irrespective of the quality, OR just do away with tipping all together. Who can remember all the rules for how much to tip because of convoluted tipping customs that would require a dissertation to explain?

Boulevardier: On this point I am happy to agree. Tipping here is confusing. Perhaps we should not have attempted to mimic your ways.

5) Public Transportation: I know I’ve been winging (that’s ‘complaining’ for you non-native speakers) about things I feel would improve England, but I have to say London’s public transport has got it right this time. Convenient, efficient, and for the most part, timely, London’s underground, rail, and bus service is on the mark. I never had to wait more than a few minutes for a train or bus, and it’s fairly simple to navigate. Although a bit pricier than public transport in the US, it’s well worth the little extra cost. I was never more than a few minutes’ walk from a station or stop. I think almost every major city in the US could learn a lesson from London, if they could only get that air-conditioning issue sorted out.

Boulevardier: Agreed. We agree on two of your five points. It was rather lovely when you even knew the times of the W7 bus to and from Crouch End. They come every few minutes so we natives just turn up and ride.

So the war is far from over and Americans may have size, voice and an air of entitlement but it’s no match for our class, style, tradition and age. All in my own humble opinion of course.

TNW