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.
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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.’