Breakfast Club Forever

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Mushrooms please.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Morning Lil. What’s happened?’

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

‘It is sweet,’ Cyril said.

‘Whose side are you on?’ Lil asked.

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

‘Morning Cyril. How are you?’

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

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

‘Shortly, yes,’ Armando said.

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

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

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‘Fancy pants. What’s that for?’

‘Writing.’ I said.

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

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

‘Where did you get that from?’

‘ebay or rather South London.’

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

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

‘Why did you want an old one?’

‘More of an inspiring set up.’

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

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

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

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

‘Hello,’ I said standing up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘And lunch and cake,’ Armando added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who?’

‘Don’t ask,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘My shopping list Owen dropped off.’

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

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

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

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

‘I can always help out,’ Lil added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What’s the cake for?’ Gertie asked.

‘Breakfast Club,’ Lil said.

‘Sounds like fun. Is it members only?’

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Wayne XX

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In Sickness and in Health

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

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

‘What’s happened? Are you OK?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who?’

‘Mavis, who else.’

‘Is Mavis in hospital?’

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

You didn’t tell me it was Mavis.’

‘Yes I did.’

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

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

‘When?’

‘Last night.’

‘Why are you here?’

‘Because, I’m her next of kin.’

‘I didn’t know that.’

‘I know you didn’t.’

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

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

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

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

‘Is Mavis stable?’

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

‘Will she make a full recovery?’

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

‘How do you feel?’

‘Confused.’

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

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

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

‘I’ll get a cloth,’ I said.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Resolutions Abound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, not happy –’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Coffee?’ asked Armando.

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

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

‘We’ve been to see him.’

‘A funny business,’ Nelly said.

‘I hope he’ll be OK.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I was early and first into the café.

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

Cyril and Gisela arrived next.

‘No Lil?’ I asked

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

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

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

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

‘Why are you not sleeping?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

‘Wunderbar.’

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

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

‘What you talking about Gi?’ Lil said.

‘I didn’t sleep well…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How are you Cyril?’ Armando asked.

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

large_797000303-1259287666-balcony-paulliac-holiday-apartment-paris-2

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

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

‘What is viager?’ Armando asked.

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

‘Who pays you?’ Lil asked.

‘The person who buys your home.’

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

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

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

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

‘Yes.’

‘Then the answer is no.’

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

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘You seem to have a short fuse.’

‘No I don’t.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How can I help?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

‘Go on,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You’re going to have to tell me.’

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

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

 

 

 

Should Old Acquaintance

I’d had a lovely Christmas Day with some of my oldest friends in rural Hertfordshire and absolutely overindulged, before flying to Dublin for a wedding with Michael’s family, but that didn’t stop me ruminating about the turn of events at our Christmas Breakfast Club lunch. Armando had dashed back to Spain for a few days too so I didn’t have eyes and ears on the ground so to speak. We landed back in England early afternoon on 28th, and as soon as we were in the car I telephoned Lil to get an update.

‘Did you have a nice Christmas?’

‘Let’s just say eventful.’

‘Let’s not just say anything. Shall I nip round for a Sherry when I’m in Crouch End? Should be within the hour.’

‘You can of course visit, but I warn you; I’m detoxing.’ And with that the line went dead.  

Michael was going to pop to Waitrose and get ingredients for a healthy fish pie, that is to say without cheese and cream, which presented an excellent opportunity to call on my favourite senior neighbour. Michael didn’t appreciate my assistance in the kitchen – my cooking skills were basic.

‘Come in.’ A bloated Lil stood before me holding her stomach. There was an unusual aroma in the sitting room.

‘Mince pie?’ Lil held forth a plate of dry looking parcels. I didn’t like mincemeat at the best of times and especially not after several days of excess.

‘No thank you. There is an odd smell.’

Lil cackled, ‘Sorry about that. My tummy is a little sensitive after the third day of brussels.’ I would have to breathe in a shallow fashion. Lil sprayed an aerosol by her side. I’m not sure which was worse.

‘How are Bill and Marty?’

‘Marty is still in Cork. It was already planned that he would be with Nelly and his niece for the festivities, which is probably just as well in the circumstances.’ Lil shifted in her seat. I made us a pot of tea.

‘It’s been mostly Gisela, Bill and me for the last few days. Cyril went to see his family in the Cotswolds.’

‘Didn’t Bill go back to his family?’

‘No. He wanted to spend Christmas here with me. He’s not been in contact much lately, and didn’t know about Marty. It’s all been embarrassing.’

‘It was a massive surprise when he walked through the door. I know Armando had invited him, as a courtesy, but we hadn’t heard back and assumed he wasn’t coming. We wondered if we’d ever see him again.’

‘He’s looking good isn’t he? The waistcoat hung off his belly.’

‘Have you had chance to talk. I mean have a heart-to-heart about why he came back, and more importantly where you fit in?’

‘Not until today. Gisela has always been there with us, and that suited me fine. I had no idea he was coming back. I was getting things sorted with Marty after the recent drama. My head was in a right spin.’

‘What did Marty say?’

‘He was upset to be going away, with Bill returned. He asked me to not see Bill until he came back, which was unrealistic and he knew it. Who else was Bill going to spend Christmas with and I wasn’t sending him back to his family. I mean, he might have lost weight, but at Christmas you need to eat.’

I topped up our cups. I never drink much on a long journey as it’s not always easy to use the conveniences, and I was thirsty. Lil turned one of the festive pies in her fingers. She took a bite and returned it to the plate.

‘They’ve seen better days.’ I had to nod in agreement. Lil had crumbs down the front of her lilac dress.

‘And what about Bill? What did he say today?’

‘He wants us to give it another go. That’s why he’s back. Seeing his family together has left him longing for his own romantic love. He said that he’s thought of me every day. His daughter took some persuading apparently that he should leave the bosom of kin at Christmas. She eventually understood that he was pursuing his last chance of love. She did ask him if he was having a senior moment again.’ Lil crowed and clutched her stomach as it jumped with laughter.

‘Aren’t you the lucky girl with two beaux.’

‘I’m not sure I agree. Yes, yes, yes, there is the sheer romance of it all, but I don’t know what to bloody do or who to choose, and I’m not comfortable with having to make a choice between them anyway.’

‘Neither of them can rush you into making a decision. Remember that please.’

‘I’m not one for hanging about.’

‘What does Gisela think?’

‘She’s Bill all the way. You know she’s never taken to Marty.’

‘Cyril?’

‘Too much of a gent to give an opinion. He told me he wanted me to be happy.’

‘Where are you in your thinking?’

‘Confused. Maybe we should have that Sherry after all – sod the detox. They’ll be plenty of time for that in the New Year.’

‘Right, well I’ll get the glasses and then we can list their pros and cons.’

‘Use the posh ones from the sideboard please.’ I slid the frosted glass ribbed door to reveal a multitude of vintage glasses in all shapes and sizes. There was a delicate pair of red Sherry glasses at the front. ‘Not those, they only hold a sodding thimbleful.’ Behind them I found beautiful hourglass-shaped glasses with a gold rim. They looked a little too large to be Sherry receptacles but from the look on Lil’s face my second selection was successful. I was pleased to see Lil hadn’t slipped back into her cream ways and a three quarters full bottle of Oloroso was on the drinks tray. After we’d both drawn a lengthy portion and digested our thoughts I asked again.

‘Marty is funny, so funny, fun and he makes me feel young and worthwhile. He is good looking and sharply dressed. I haven’t felt that type of attraction in years.’ I wasn’t sure I agreed with all these attributes as I had seen crocodile skin shoes. I also didn’t want Lil to become more graphic with sensual magnetism.

‘And the cons?’

‘It’s tough to trust him. He has wandering eyes and he can’t say no. I mean, who would go out with Mavis in their right mind? He also hasn’t got two halfpennies to rub together.’

Lil paused to drain her measure of Sherry. I mirrored and refilled.

‘Bill? Where do I begin? I feel secure and loved with him. He doesn’t set the world on fire but that isn’t necessarily bad. He’s like your favourite warm and comfortable pair of slippers.’

‘I’m not sure he’d see that as a pro,’ I said, ‘however, I agree. Excitement can be great but with the high highs come the low lows.’

‘Yes anyway Boulevardier, this isn’t about you.’ Lil cleared her throat and took another glug before continuing. ‘Bill’s illness and state of mind is a worry, and his sense of style leaves a lot to be desired.’

‘Where does that leave you?’ I had my opinion but unless pushed I would not pass judgement at this sensitive moment.

‘No idea. What do you think?’

‘I’m not getting involved,’ I said wearing a compassionate expression.

‘I think I know anyway.’

‘Are you still coming to Breakfast Club the day after tomorrow? It’s our New Year celebration.’

‘Yes I am although Auld Lang Syne on 30th and in the morning doesn’t seem right.’

‘That’s our time and anyway it’s my friend Karen’s birthday on New Year’s Eve so I’ll be back out in Hertfordshire.’

Lil huffed but it would do no good. Our celebration was set. We finished our drinks and I ventured home to the smell of fish pie.

Armando had set the wheels in motion, and I walked into the café to an extended corner table set for eight with party poppers aplenty. We were to have our usual Breakfast Club with some added celebratory accents.

‘Need any help?’ I asked Armando, ‘Did you have a good Christmas?’

‘Morning Wayne, yes thanks. It was all too quick but good to see the family. I’m shattered actually as I only flew in last night. Is there any update?’

‘None of consequence but I guess we’ll see what happens today.’

‘I pray for no arguments in the café.’

‘Mavis?’

‘No. I didn’t invite her and hopefully after last week she won’t just show up. What about Marty and Bill?’

‘I can’t see them duelling, literally for her. Lil is the most likely to create a scene.’

As we chortled together the door opened and Gisela entered.

‘How were your festivities?’ I asked as I kissed our German friend on the cheek.

‘Good, although I felt like the gooseberry pie.’

‘Yes I heard you’ve been a faithful lady-in-waiting and chaperone.’

‘Indeed. And I’ve had lovely emails from my niece in Koln, or Cologne as you Brits say.’

‘I thought you were adopted Brit?’ asked Armando.

The door opened again and in breezed Lil and Cyril. Lil twirled in her new purple coat, which matched the colour of her hair. I steadied her before she fell over and hoped that she hadn’t been at the bottle already; it was barely 10am.

‘Looking glam,’ said Armando.

‘Thank you sir. I like to make an effort.’ Lil slid out of her coat and passed it to me revealing a pretty red dress with a flared skirt.’

‘Hmmm; should do after taking so long to get ready. I had to interrupt my own ablutions twice to dash across the hallway to provide advice.’

‘You loved it and the second time was more about the post from Holloway anyway.’

‘Holloway?’ Gisela asked.

‘The prison. I’ve had a card from the prat who broke into my place earlier this year.’

‘What did it say?’ Armando asked. He was fortunate to have Judith to attend to other customers today so as not to miss a moment of the never ending action.

‘He apologised for what he’d done. He said it was part of his rehab and he was reforming. I’ll believe it when I see it.’

‘Let’s not dwell on that today. At least it’s positive. How was the family Cyril?’

‘They are good, although I do like to get back to London. All the Cotswold’s opulence makes me giddy.’

‘Do you miss it?’ Gisela asked.

‘Goodness no. I left that behind a long time ago. I am happy in my little council flat in Crouch End.’

A bustling at the door drew our attention. Bill had arrived at the same time as Marty and Nelly and the men were jostling to cross the threshold first.

‘Let a lady first please,’ said Nelly as she tapped them both with her brolly. They had no choice but to stand aside and let her through before Marty slipped ahead of Bill.

After extended and jovial greetings we all took seats. Hunger pangs were increasing and I hoped we would be able to order quickly. Lil had managed to sit herself with a beau either side.

‘You could slice the tension with a knife. Is it too early for a stout?’ Nelly asked.

‘I’m not sure we have any in stock.’

‘I always come prepared,’ Nelly said as she produced a can from her shopping bag. A Coca-Cola wasn’t going to satisfy her today.

Judith appeared with a glass, and her pad. Most ordered a Full English, which according to Lil was much needed brain food. I ordered a vegetarian with a festive turkey sausage on the side and Gisela a pain au chocolat.

‘Have you missed London?’ I asked Bill.

‘Yes and especially this one here.’ He put his hand on Lil’s. Judith returned with two industrial sized pots of tea.

‘I’ll pour,’ Marty said as he decanted into Lil’s cup.

‘You might want to let it brew first mate,’ Bill said.

‘It’s as weak as gnat’s piss,’ Lil said.

‘What plans does everyone have for New Year’s Eve?’ Armando asked moving swiftly on from the battle of Lil.

‘I’ve invited all those here and a few other stragglers to mine for a few Sherries,’ Cyril said.

‘I’m off to Berkhamsted,’ I said.

‘No doubt some bloody hoity toity affair,’ Lil said.

‘I think my friend Karen would be pleased to be addressed in that manner,’ I said.

‘I don’t understand why we can’t all just go to Cyril’s,’ Lil said.

Breakfasts arrived which provided a needed break in the conversation.

‘What are you doing Armando?’ Gisela asked.

‘Quiet one.’

‘Ha, no doubt with his new fella,’ Lil said and cackled. She dipped a corner of toast into the baked bean’s tomato sauce before plunging it further into her egg yolk. They must both be blinded by love, I thought, as I couldn’t see this behaviour as particularly alluring.

‘How was your daughter Nelly?’

‘She’s grand. I miss home sometimes, although I don’t think I could trust this one on his own.’  She glugged from her stout and elbowed Marty in the ribs. Bill laughed louder than was necessary. Gisela for once was managing to eat her chocolate croissant without spillage.

‘I can’t eat any more,’ Bill said and looked at his half empty plate.

‘What’s happened to you in the country Bill? You used to polish that off and have a slice of cake too,’ Lil said.

‘I guess my stomach’s shrunk,’ Bill said and patted his flatter tummy proudly.

‘I bet that’s not the only thing that’s shrunk,’ Marty said. I nearly spat turkey sausage across the table but managed to maintain my decorum.

‘Marty,’ Nelly said with a hint of reprimand in her tone.

‘I for one can’t wait for Cyril’s soiree,’ Gisela said.

‘Ha, not sure how soiree it will be after we’ve all had a few drinks,’ Lil said.

‘Hmmm – I suppose that New Year is one of the few times it’s acceptable to be disorderly,’ Cyril said. Cyril’s expression didn’t support his comment. He was thinking of his Rococo mirror and other classic furnishings.

Judith started to clear the plates.

‘Delicious as ever,’ Gisela said.

‘Dare I ask if Mavis is back in town?’ I enquired.

‘Apparently not back for a few more days. She’s cleared out to friends in the country for cleaner air. Perhaps she should stay longer and clean some of that bile from her attitude,’ Lil said.

Judith held a tray with eight glasses of something fizzy.

‘I think we should all wish each other good health, wealth and happiness for 2015.’ Armando stood up. It wouldn’t have seemed right to declaring a happy new year.

We all joined Armando and clinked glasses and embraced wishing each other prosperity. Lil stood up slower than everyone else and had a suitor either side looking at her longingly, waiting to be the chosen one. I kept one eye on Lil as I embraced Mrs McAleen. Lil looked from one to the other, the moment seemed to play out in slow motion. She put her glass down on the table before turning to Bill and embracing him. He planted a smacker right on her lips. She reciprocated. Lil then turned to Marty and half-heartedly embraced him with an apologetic hug. His arms hung by his side.

‘Should old acquaintance be forgot…’ Gisela started to sing.

 

Happy-New-Year

 

 

God Rest Ye Merry Gentlewomen

This week we were to have our inaugural Breakfast Club Christmas luncheon. It might be a few days early, but we would be scattering to the four winds by December 25th. As usual, for our little group however, there were events worthy of report during the week, before we even got to our midday repast.

A little after 6pm on Tuesday evening I received an urgent phone call from Lil to see if I could pop round for a chat. Lil’s calls were always timed so. She lived in a bygone era when calls were cheaper after six. I remember not being allowed to use the telephone before that time as a child. My parents wondered why I needed to speak to my school friends so urgently having only just left them. The days before mobile phones and social media certainly had their challenges. Lil should have been at the Age Group’s Christmas party and sounded a little the worse for wear.

‘Come in, I’ve poured you a Sherry,’ she said as she staggered back down the hallway. Her curls were festively bright pink, but less coiffured than usual.

‘Thank you. Do you think that you’ve already had enough Sherry?’ I asked tentatively.

‘I’m having one for the road, and after I tell you about today you’ll want more too.’

‘Cyril OK?’

‘Yeah, he went to his own flat. He needed to ice his cake – apparently.’

We clinked glasses and I waited for Lil to begin. She held her thumb and forefinger together and was tapping at her mouth. She didn’t look upset or traumatised. However, her alcohol consumption could have provided a sedated veneer. She selected a Strawberry Cream from a small bowl of Quality Street and offered them out to me.

‘Take one of the toffees will you. They play havoc with my teeth. I’m not keen on the coconut either so you could have one of those if you prefer. ’ My favourites were also the creams but in the circumstances I settled for a golden-wrapped round toffee. I wasn’t fond of coconut either. After Lil had chewed her sweet and taken another sip of liquor she was ready to talk.

‘It’s all kicked off with Mavis again today. That woman has always been such a bloody nightmare.’

‘Didn’t your Christmas spirit consume your ill feeling?’

‘No, and I’m not one for pretending that all’s good just because of the season. It’s fake. I’ve never been fake and I don’t intend to start now. Anyway, so off I went today with Cyril. We arrived early to make sure we got a good table. I’d arranged to meet Marty and Nelly. Gisela is still in Germany.’

Lil paused to take another mouthful. She hadn’t categorically told me that she and Marty were back on, but I had suspicions.

‘You and Marty together again?’

‘We’re working at it. He does make me laugh. The tables were set out for six and you’ll never guess who tried to take the last spot.’

‘Mavis.’

‘Yeah, and Doris. How did you know that?’ I shrugged and raised the glass to my lips. At least Lil was drinking Oloroso and not the odious sweet cream from the West Country.

‘The audacity of that woman. I blocked her with my stick. She tried to rattle the chair out from under the table but I had it jammed. “Excuse me Lilian” she said in that bloody hoity toity voice. After I told her she could find another seat, she asked Marty if she could sit, and I swear I saw red and was about to whack her with my stick when Nelly spoke up. Nelly I tell you.’ Lil sat forward and picked up her empty glass.

‘What did she say? Top up?’ I asked.

‘Yes please, the bottle’s on the tray there on the sideboard. Well Nelly told her to stop messing her family around. Doris scurried off followed closely by Mavis. She didn’t even stop to argue.’

‘Good for Nelly. Didn’t Marty speak?’

‘Not directly, although he made a point of sitting next to me. Lunch was nice but had a bitter taste from the other side of the room. Nelly needed a stout.’

‘I’ve never understood you and Mavis?’

‘And neither will you today. It’s such a long story going right back to when we were growing up, and I am too exhausted to talk about it. She can’t just let it be. She’s never been any different.’

Lil exhaled and I noticed the small, fake, sparkling tree next to the mantle and the various Christmas themed ornaments. ‘Nice decorations.’

‘Thanks, I told Cyril he should be the fairy on the top and he said the spot is for an angel not a fairy.’ Lil let out a booming cackle. I could tell she was tiring, finished my drink and made sure to put the bottle back, in the hope it unconsciously stopped her from drinking more. I kissed her affectionately and left her warm and tipsy in her sitting room.

There was another call on Wednesday, which was fortunately just to inform that Gisela had arrived back suddenly and to check there was room for her at our lunch. I had agonised whether to invite Mavis but decided against it. Armando and I were throwing a special lunch for our Breakfast Club and friends of Breakfast Club and the situation was too raw to include her.

I was up early, in my Christmas sweater and tinsel necklace, and over to the café to help with preparations. I wasn’t particularly adept in the kitchen; ask Michael, or my closest girlfriends who’ve suffered at the hands of my homemade garlic bread and other such delicacies. Armando was already in full flow, with turkey in the oven and various sauces in progress.

‘I thought sauces came from Waitrose packets,’ I said as I patted him on the shoulder. He cast me an unkind look, thrust a peeling implement into my hand and ushered me to a perching stool in the corner, where a mound of dirty vegetables sat. I hadn’t seen Armando in chef mode before – it was frightening.

‘Yes captain,’ I said with a stamp of foot and a salute. Armando didn’t even crack a smile and turned back to his jus fashioning.

Easy_Scalloped_Potatoes_2

I set about scraping potatoes, parsnips, carrots and sprouts; not that I would eat the latter. I wasn’t a fan of Brussels. The radio sang out songs of sleigh bells and winter wonderlands as the orders from the café came thick and fast. Full English breakfasts were being prepared amid our seasonal feast. Oddly, I didn’t hear an order for a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side – in this I was unique.

I could sense Armando over my shoulder checking on progress.

‘These are not peeled,’ he said pointing to my proud pile of spuds.

‘Yes they are.’

‘No, see here lots of missed bits,’ he said holding one of my potatoes and digging the minute remnants of skin which were in the dimples and difficult to reach. I didn’t argue and re-peeled all of my already peeled vegetables. They were rapidly shrinking in mass.

The pile of peel was growing and my hands getting sore when I was pleased to see the Armando I knew at my side with a glass of Sherry in his hand. ‘You’re doing well, here is a sniff to keep you going.’ I stifled a laugh.

‘Snifter.’

‘Yes that’s what I said.’

‘I think I’m getting a blister.’

‘You’d not make a good kitchen boy.’

‘Good.’

Three tables were pushed together in the back room covered in red crepe, tinsel, crackers and cutlery. Judith had been busy too between customers.

I scrubbed my hands free of dirt and applied moisturiser to protect their usually unblemished condition. I was not one for manual labour.

At midday Gisela and Cyril arrived. He was wearing a smart dark suit with a tie covered in Christmas Puddings and Gisela a floral dress beneath her overcoat.

‘Nice tie,’ I said as I shook Cyril’s hand.

‘Lil insisted,’ he said with a chuckle.

‘Welcome back,’ said Armando as he hugged Gisela.

‘What a journey,’ said Gisela with a tear in her eye as she handed Armando a Weihnachtsstollen. ‘I’m afraid it’s shop bought but at least it’s authentic.’

We shuffled into our own private dining room where glasses of Oloroso stood on a silver tray.

‘Are you glad to be home?’ I asked.

‘Yes, such memories and too much change. I didn’t recognise my home town. My Germany has gone.’

‘I for one am happy to have you back,’ Cyril said.

‘Yes, I’ve missed you all dreadfully, and what a homecoming surprise. I hoped I hadn’t missed all the group festivities.’

‘You’ll be pleased you missed yesterday,’ Cyril said.

‘I don’t even want to know,’ Gisela said.

An attention seeking cough made us turn around to see Lil standing in the doorway, with Marty on her arm. Her hair was curled to perfection – still pink. ‘Merry Christmas,’ she said. She wore a pretty cream blouse, under a delicate woollen sweater and an eye catching crushed velvet raspberry skirt.

‘Fancy a kiss?’ asked Marty as he held aloft a branch of mistletoe.

‘Saucy,’ said Lil as she planted a smacker on his cheek. She left a rouge tattoo on his face, like a livestock branding. Marty wore a sports jacket and pointed crocodile shoes. I wondered if they were what he thought were fashionable.

Armando disappeared to the kitchens as we chatted. The fortified wine soon evaporated and was replaced by snowballs.

‘I’ll have a Coca-Cola,’ Nelly said, ‘after my stout this morning and the Sherry, I’ll take a break. No falling over at Christmas.’

‘That’s the best time to fall over,’ Marty said.

‘Time to take our seats,’ Armando said.

‘I’ll have a kiss from Gisela first.’ Marty waggled his mistletoe threateningly in her direction.

‘If you’re giving them away so freely, don’t forget Cyril,’ Lil said.

‘Come on then.’ Marty held his arms open in Cyril’s vicinity.

‘No thank you,’ Cyril said and swiftly took his seat.

‘I’ll have mine then,’ I said as Marty’s alcohol drenched lips connected with my cheek.

Egg mayonnaise was served on pretty side plates. I lit the candles in the centre of the table.

‘Frohe Weihnachten,’ Gisela said and raised her wine glass. We all mimicked – Lil’s German accent needed some work.

‘The markets in Bonn are special. At least we still have those. The smells, the spices, and the celebrations.’

‘I’d love to go,’ Armando said.

‘Perhaps we’ll all go together next year,’ Cyril said.

‘Not bloody likely,’ Lil said and let out an enormous cackle. ‘Who brought the Christmas cake?’

‘It’s Weinachtsstollen, or Christmas stollen,’ Gisela said.

Marzipanstollen

‘What’s in it?’

‘Fruit cake with marzipan and covered in sugar.’

‘Sounds like a Christmas cake to me,’ Lil said.

‘Where’s the milk?’ Marty asked.

‘Ooo yes a glass of milk would be grand,’ Nelly said.

‘Milk? With Christmas lunch?’ I asked.

‘Always, back home with a big meal,’ Marty said as if it was most natural.

‘Skimmed or semi?’ Cyril asked.

‘Whole,’ Nelly and Marty said in unison.

Armando had already disappeared and soon returned with the requested milk.

‘Coke and milk?’ Cyril asked Nelly looking at the glasses in front of her.

‘It’ll make way for the wine,’ Nelly said.

This day would hold such great memories for me. I didn’t know this group last year. I knew Armando a little but none of the others. I looked round the table at my Breakfast Club chattering and felt sentimental. The turkey arrived and not too soon as I wiped a tear from my eye. Fortunately Lil hadn’t observed my emotional moment, which would no doubt be the source of great ridicule, especially after a few refreshments.

Marty stood, ‘I’d like to raise a glass to our kind host Armando and say thank you.’

‘What about me?’ I asked as the others stood to toast our hardworking chef. ‘This blister is from getting your veggies ready.’

‘And to the Boulevardier, who’s just done his first real day’s work,’ Lil said. Everyone erupted into clinking glasses and laughter. Jollity was the order of our day.

‘How lovely,’ came a voice from the archway.

I turned to see Mavis, arms on her hips.

‘Do we have to do this today?’ Armando said.

‘Yes we do,’ Lil said pushing on the table to get to her feet.

‘I’m not so sure,’ I said and tried to halt Lil’s forward movements.

‘No Wayne,’ Lil said.

‘Best do as you’re told – like the rest,’ Mavis said.

‘Right Bellamy, I’m not getting into this today with you. You’re not ruining another Christmas lunch.’

‘My invite lost in the post?’ Mavis called passed Lil to Armando.

‘This is a private lunch – sorry,’ Armando said.

‘Piss off and find your own cronies,’ Lil said.

‘How long do you think it’ll be before he’s on to the next woman Lillian?’

‘We’re fine at the moment, without your interference,’ Lil said.

‘Who’s fine?’ asked another voice, behind Mavis. It was a familiar voice, but I couldn’t place it. A man moved passed Mavis and held his wilting mistletoe aloft.

‘Bill,’ Lil said.

‘Room for a small one?’ asked Bill.

‘Any chance of a sliver of Stilton and port?’ Cyril asked.

50 Shades of Grey Power

Breakfast Club wasn’t happening every week, however we still invariably spent time together. Our relationships had deepened and we were sharing more of our lives. Real life got in the way of a decadent weekly club dedicated to the first and most important meal of the day. Lil expected us to reserve the time to join her in more pressing pursuits and today was no different. I’d received a call during he week to confirm that my services, and those of Armando, were required at the community centre. The spoils of a year’s worth of patchwork crochet were being sold and the received funds going to charity. Armando wasn’t available due to a staff crisis at the café; news I would have to deliver to Lil.

The Christmas charity sale wasn’t as grand as the recent craft fair and restricted to a smaller section of the hall. There were five or six tables packed with various handmade items, and a general brick-a-brack stall. A couple of gentlemen, I recognised from previous events, were standing at the door as a public relations’ committee – drumming up passing trade.  Lil cooed me as soon as I entered.

‘Ah there you are Wayne, could you get me a tea please. I don’t want to leave my station.’

‘Sure does Cyril want anything?’

Cyril shook his head.

As always tea and cake were being served through the kitchen hatch. I purchased two polystyrene cups of nondescript tea – I had learned not to ask for Assam at these events – and two slices of walnut cake. At 10.15am it was, strictly speaking, a little early for cake, but after forgoing a full vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side I thought I deserved a treat. And if Cyril changed his mind when he saw my wares I would venture back to purchase an additional sweet goodie. As my order was being prepared I surveyed the room and felt awash with pride. Lil’s stall was outstanding. There must have been more than 10 crocheted blankets in a variety of sizes and colours being marketed perfectly; spread across three tables and pegged over boards at the back. I recognised a certain grey and pink blanket at the centre of the display as I’d not only seen Lil working on it but felt like I’d lived the birth of every square. The hall was filling up nicely and I had to dodge several prams and buggies on my way back. Lil was chatting to a potential customer.

‘See anything you like?’ she asked as the man fingered one or two of the blankets.

‘They’re lovely,’ he responded as he picked up a toy his child had flung from the perambulator.

‘Thank you. I made this one,’ said Lil lifting the top fold of her personal produce in a tantalising fashion. I did hope I had misjudged her selling technique and glanced at Cyril who rolled his eyes. Was she really flirting with this man, 35 years her junior, with a child in tow? I held my lips tightly together and observed further.

‘It’s great quality, but the colours would clash with our sitting room,’ the man said and smiled apologetically.

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‘I can guarantee there are 50 shades of grey in this design,’ said Lil with a wink. Cyril disappeared behind the back boards. The potential customer didn’t know where to look, fumbled in his pocket for change, and selected a small black and yellow blanket directly in front of him.

‘That one looks like a wasp,’ Lil said through gritted teeth as she took the patron’s payment. He moved on quickly.

‘Bloody prude,’ Lil said as he walked away – hopefully too quiet for him to hear.

‘Lil.’ I placed the morning refreshments down with a start.

‘Cake – delicious.’ She accepted the napkin-wrapped item in front of her. ‘I was building up a good appetite.’

‘For what?’ asked Cyril as he emerged from his hiding place. Lil let out an enormous hall filling cackle. I noticed her customer scrambling for the door with his buggy taking the corner on two wheels.

‘Not you as well.’

‘Have you read 50 shades?’ I asked.

‘No, but I’ve heard it’s a bit saucy which I added to my sales’ banter.’

‘I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard enough to know that it’s more than saucy. It’s blue in a deviant sort of way…’ I said.

‘What sort of way?’ Lil asked as her cheeks starting to flush deeper than the already existing rouge.

‘In an S & M way,’ Cyril said.

‘Bondage?’ announced Lil loud enough to elicit odd looks from a number of others in our vicinity. Cyril and I nodded.

‘Well I never.’ She took a large bite from the cake and sat down.

‘Crochet and bondage and all before luncheon,’ Cyril said.

‘Where’s Armando?’ Lil asked swiftly changing the subject.

‘Staffing problems I’m afraid. He said to nip in this afternoon for a cuppa.’

‘Hmmm – I thought he’d support our event.’ Lil thrust the last piece of sponge into her mouth and dabbed the crumbs stuck to her face with the napkin.

‘Do you think you’ll sell your piece?’ I asked moving on from disappointment and unjust criticism aimed at Armando.

‘I bloody hope so. I’ve been working on it for eight months.’

‘It is rather special,’ I said as I ran my hand over its woollen yarn.

‘Don’t you get it all messy with your sticky cake fingers.’

Our conversation was stunted by another customer, a middle aged woman this time, who chose a navy blue blanket.

‘Any news from Gisela?’ I asked.

‘Yes, we received a note confirming she would be back in time for our Christmas lunch next week,’ Cyril said.

‘Fantastic. How is she?’

‘Don’t know. It was a short note – typical Gi,’ Lil said.

‘Let’s hope the trip hasn’t been too trying,’ I said.

‘She was supposed to be here today to help me.’

‘I think we should forgive her in the circumstances, don’t you?’

‘Hear, hear,’ added Cyril.

‘Yes of course, but I did have to interact with that Bellamy woman. She wanted me to switch to this afternoon and I told her in Gisela’s absence I wouldn’t.’

‘Why didn’t you take advantage of the offer? We could have enjoyed Breakfast Club with Armando at the café.’

‘The only reason she wanted me to change is to clean up. The sale finishes at 1pm and the hall has to be left in the same condition it’s found in. I’m not scrubbing for that two-faced hussy. I haven’t decided how to deal with her yet, but deal I will.’

‘Hello,’ came a familiar voice, ‘isn’t this all grand?’

‘Morning Nelly, how are you?’

‘Yes, I’m fine – Marty’s behind me somewhere and I’ve told him to behave himself.’ Nelly shrugged her shoulders and moved along.

‘Poor Mrs McAleen. She is saddled with her brother’s misdeeds,’ Cyril said as he folded his arms across his diamond-patterned sweater. ‘I’m going to take her for tea,’ he added as he deserted his position, linked arms with Nelly and steered her towards the refreshments.

‘Don’t,’ I said to Lil as she was about to complain. ‘You’re lucky he’s here to help you. You could have ended up with Mavis, and then there wouldn’t be anything left to sell after you two had ripped it to shreds.’

Lil laughed and I was just about to confirm my proposed purchase when she stiffened and spoke.

‘Good morning Mr McGuire, your sister’s taking tea with Cyril.’

‘Don’t be like that princess. I was thinking how cosy it would be if we snuggled under one of these blankets together.’

Lil tried to keep her demeanour and lips pursed but it was futile and another cackle erupted. ‘Now get along with yourself Marty McGuire and don’t be so forward.’

Marty winked and moved along happy that relations were defrosting.

‘Is he forgiven?’ I asked.

‘Not exactly but I do enjoy spending time with him. He makes me laugh and I miss that.’

‘I’m glad you’re feeling more positive, but be careful please.’

‘I will, I will.’ She held up her hand, letting me know that the conversation was over. I was impressed she’d let me make a supportive comment.

‘It doesn’t look as if this old thing is going to sell…’ I said holding the corner of Lil’s throw.

‘Early days yet.’

‘I thought I’d put it out of its misery. It would look beautiful thrown over our sofa.’

Lil beamed as we completed our transaction. Lil leant forward and kissed me on the cheek. I smiled and hoped no shade of grey reference would follow.

 

 

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.