I was grateful it was Thursday and Breakfast Club, although with the volume of shenanigans which had already come to pass this week, we would probably need a Breakfast-Brunch-Lunch-Dinner Club to catch up fully.
For once it wasn’t Lil at the centre of all the activity. It had been so busy that I hadn’t spoken to her at all. I had planned to call and check in with her after Bill’s sudden departure but it hadn’t made it into pole position on my to-do list.
Michael had stayed with me all week. We usually spent Friday until Monday together but after the success of Santorini we wanted to spend a whole week together – a normal week, to see how we got on, and it was going pretty good thus far, but more on that later.
I’d had an emergency drink with Armando one evening due to some distressing events in his personal life.
My phone rang Tuesday morning. It was Armando calling which was unusual. I was fixated with a work report which was due and wasn’t perfected when the welcome interruption diverted me.
‘Oh Wayne it’s all gone a-wrong,’ said Armando as the call connected. It took a few seconds for my brain to move from sales planning to Armando. I didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t mentioned anything amiss at our last Breakfast Club and the café seemed to be doing OK, but his wouldn’t be the first commercial establishment to come and go within a couple of years in Crouch End; some only lasted a couple of months. I did not understand why there was such a high turnover in our little corner of North London as the area is affluent, and niche boutiques and endless cafes should thrive. I had heard rumours that rents were extortionate and it was by no means easy to make an acceptable living, but surely not our café. It was too much to bear thinking about and I’m not sure that Lil would take the news well.
‘I’m sorry Armando, what’s happened?’ I eventually managed to answer. I had a tendency to go off into my own dreamlike state and debate internally when all I needed to do was to ask the question.
‘I’ve had to finish my romance with Jason. Another failed attempt. Will I ever find my love?’ said Armando.
‘I am very sorry to hear that. I thought everything was going well, despite your clashing schedules.’
I was relieved – call me unfeeling if you like. While I was upset for Armando, after all he’s a lovely guy, I was glad it wasn’t the café. It’s become one of my regular haunts and a hub in my world, it would be such a shame to see it vanish. I reasoned that this was not entirely selfish as while Armando was upset, Jason was relatively new in his life, and the loss of the café would have incurred far greater and lasting consequences.
‘It was just that. It was such an effort to see each other between the café and his odd shifts. We were only able to see each other twice, and for a short time, in the last three weeks. It was destroying my heart…’ Armando stopped talking and I’m sure I heard a sobbing between breaths.
‘Do you want to meet up later for a drink?’ I asked.
It was agreed. We would meet at 6.30pm at our local pub. It wouldn’t impede on my time with Michael as he would be at college then in any event.
Armando was already seated at a booth table in the corner as I l searched for him at the bar. He looked pale, aside from his eyes which were red. He was nursing a pint of something. I ordered a double Sherry and some snacks and joined him.
Armando explained ‘My life feels like it’s slipping away. All I do is work, and I have no time for a real life.’ His eyes began to well up again. I reached over and gave his hands a consoling squeeze.
‘Jason didn’t have much time either. I think it was the combination of you both which made it difficult. You are a handsome, lovely man with a lot going for you.’
This didn’t help much and only succeeded in ensuring his tear ducts were in full working order. I took the opportunity to offer a wasabi pea or two. I’d ordered a small dish at the same time as my drink. They were not cheap either; long gone were the days of a packet of dry roasted peanuts. Although I’m sure some bright spark in marketing will bring packeted peanuts and pork scratchings back in the future, as a retro yet innovative ploy to secure customers.
We chatted in a similar vein for an hour or so during which time I managed to consume two double Sherries to keep Armando’s two pints of cider company.
I was getting hungry. I couldn’t even remember lunch it was so long ago, and the wasabi peas barely filled a hole. Despite Armando’s protestations that he wasn’t hungry I persuaded him to come with me to our local Caribbean fusion restaurant. As we walked along Park Road I already knew what I was going to have; grilled tiger prawns with spicy mayonnaise to start, followed by jerk chicken with rice and peas and plantain. I would forgo pudding – it only being Tuesday.
Armando had a supper of cider as expected with a few kernels of popcorn which were gratis and placed on the tables in small plastic bowls. All I could do was listen and reassure him that I would support him as much as I could. I was surprised he called on me as I didn’t know him intimately. He’s such a nice guy I’m sure there are lots of people who’d queue to assist him in a crisis. Equally I was happy to be the shoulder to literally cry on. We hugged as we went our separate ways.
I hadn’t spoken to him since then, and ergo didn’t know what I would find when I opened the café door.
Lil and Armando were huddled at the table and didn’t notice my entry. There were two other members of Lil’s community flanking her; Gisela – and I could barely believe -Mavis. This week was turning into some type of alternative universe. Had I stepped through a mirror and not noticed it?
‘Ah there you are,’ said Lil once my presence was realised, ‘you’ll have to grab a chair from that table.’ She pointed at the adjacent and empty stall. I obeyed but was irritated to have been ousted from my usual position, by Gisela, and of all people, Mavis.
‘Too much tragedy,’ said Gisela wearing an empathetic expression.
‘You’ll find someone new, who actually deserves you Armando,’ said Mavis.
‘I’m not sure he’s ready for the “there are plenty more fish in the sea” speech Mavis,’ said Lil.
I held my breath.
‘Good point, well-made Lillian. You’re in the same boat. I still can’t believe what happened with Bill,’ said Mavis.
‘I need to get on with my life now, as do you Armando. It’s not a practice run,’ said Lil.
‘Good advice,’ said Gisela.
I’d walked into a mutual appreciation society and hadn’t even got a cup of tea yet. I raised my eyebrows and played with the cup handle hoping to issue forth a subtle hint.
‘Anyway, my dear, we’ll let you get on and see you this afternoon for the committee meeting. Bingo needs a new compere,’ said Mavis and with that she and Gisela got up. After farewells and their departure I moved into my usual seat.
‘I could die of thirst over here,’ I said with a forced smile.
‘So sorry Wayne, I’ll get a fresh pot. What do you want for breakfast?’ said Armando.
I’d meant to make a joke, not offend his hosting skills.
‘Thanks. Porridge with blueberries please – ’
‘And a full English for me please. I have to keep my strength up,’ interrupted Lil.
I wanted to share my news about Michael but it seemed insensitive alongside everyone else’s current romantic adventures, or lack thereof.
‘When did you and Mavis become close Lil?’ I asked.
‘We’ve known each other for years, and yes she can be a nosey busybody but she’s been very supportive the last couple of weeks. Gisela said she’d noticed a vast improvement too,’ said Lil.
I hoped it was genuine but I’d never been sure of Mavis. I wondered whether she simply enjoyed wallowing in other people’s misery.
‘Have you heard from Bill?’ I asked tentatively.
‘No. I don’t think it would be right at the moment either. I need some space from the whole Bill situation. How are things with you and Michael?’ asked Lil.
I didn’t have a choice now and I was bursting to fill them in.
‘Great – but I feel a little insensitive talking about it at the moment with you guys,’ I answered.
‘It would be lovely to hear some positive news about a good relationship right now,’ said Lil.
Breakfasts arrived. I noticed that Armando wasn’t eating again. He poured another tea for Lil and me and an espresso was deposited in front of him.
Lil set to work as always, buttering her toast first and then delicately peeling back the skin of the yoke on her fried egg, before she launched into carving the bacon.
I took a mouthful of porridge and continued, ‘He’s staying at mine all this week. We’re having a trial week, when we have to go to work and live our normal lives.’
Lil started shaking with laughter and I thought she was going to spray her recently inserted bacon over us. ‘A trial week. It’s not try before you buy Wayne,’ she bantered.
‘We are forty-something men and to be honest a little set in our ways so it’s a sensible approach and it has been great,’ I said.
I took another mouthful of porridge and eyed my fellow breakfasters staring at me, urging me to continue. I thought I’d lighten the mood rather than descend into slush. ‘I’ve been reading some Barbara Pym lately, and laughed at her middle-aged characters, usually women, who get in a tizzy when the vicar makes an unannounced visit and they feel obliged to miraculously come up with something other than the bread and butter they’d planned for their own supper, or wonder when they’ll get a chance to finish the novel they’d planned to read that evening.’
‘I’m not sure that type have trial weeks Boulevardier,’ said Lil.
‘Thank you, and if you’d let me continue… Well I was in the kitchen yesterday and noticed that the bin was full and it was Wednesday. I only change the bag once a week, and on a Monday. I was irritated. After a few huffs, one of which was fixed directly at Michael, it dawned on me that I was being as silly as a character in the Pym novel.’
‘Ha, you bloody silly sod. It’s only a bleeding bin bag.’ Fortunately Lil didn’t have any food in her mouth as she exploded with laughter.
‘I know, I know. It’s getting used to someone else being around. But it’s nice that he’s there and we’re existing well together. Don’t even get me started on the number of times the dishwasher has been on.’ I smiled hoping I’d added additional jollity to our rapport.
Armando put down his empty coffee cup and got up, ‘I need to check on the kitchens.’
There was a pause in the conversation and I felt uncomfortable. I trusted I hadn’t got overexcited and overdone the stories.
‘I told you Lil. It’s insensitive. Armando and I met up for a drink during the week and he is upset.’
‘Interesting,’ said Lil with a sage expression.
‘Why is that interesting?’ I asked.
‘Yes he is upset, but dealing with it. He mentioned the wonderful evening you had together. I think he’s taken a shine to you Boulevardier.’
‘Don’t be silly Lil. We’ve been friends for ages,’ I answered. But had we? We didn’t know each other that well. He knew I had Michael. I hoped she was wrong.