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

 

 

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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.

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.

643607052

‘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.

 

 

Marty’s Pad

‘Good morning Mrs McAleen,’ I’d said as I greeted Nelly standing below the clock tower.

‘Ah morning Wayne, how are you?’ she’d replied clutching her Crouch End tote bag against her body.

‘Much better for seeing you on this cold morning. Are you with your brother?’

‘I’m waiting for him. We’ve having a morning coffee and I had to finish some shopping first, although I might have a Coca-Cola.’

I was about to clarify the obsession with the dark fizzy drink when Marty appeared looking sheepish as he eyed me. At least he was alone. I needed to play it safe and not launch into a Mavis inquisition.

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‘Morning Marty – Armando and I wondered if we could meet with you and talk about the current and unfortunate situation.’

‘Errrrr, yeah I guess. Do you want Nelly to be there too?’

‘No, let’s keep it to the boys for now.’

‘I don’t want Cyril to come.’

I took a breath and tried to keep my tone neutral and said, ‘It will just be the three of us.’

After jotting his address in my phone we parted. I wasn’t going to tell Lil or anyone else what had just occurred. I wasn’t sure how Marty would respond to our interference and didn’t want to cause any additional difficulties, but equally he’d upset Lil and we were looking out for her. We were walking the knife-edge of pensioner drama.

Armando and I had agreed to meet separately at Marty’s so as not to arrive threateningly en masse. I didn’t realise the tall Victorian building contained local authority housing as I buzzed on number 12 of 15, and wondered at so many dwellings packed inside. Marty granted entry. The communal hallway was a mess, and I could hear children crying in one of the flats. The carpet on the stairs was worn and filthy. There were three brown doors on the second floor hallway; one opened and Marty welcomed me in. Armando was already sitting on the arm of a battered wingchair, next to the stained and rickety wooden dining table. As I looked left I saw the kitchenette; Marty lived in a bedsit. There was a second older armchair – no sofa, and a small double bed in the corner. An old TV, and a small table, and a black wireless were the only other features of note.

‘Tea?’ asked Marty, pointing to the blemished pot on the table.

‘Yes please,’ I said, hoping for a clean cup. The sugar bowl was cracked and protected by a once white plastic cover.

‘I am in the middle of explaining to Marty that we want to help him sort out the situation with Lil,’ said Armando. I sat down on one of the dining chairs, and Marty followed suit.

‘Things weren’t this complicated in Ireland. I long for those days,’ said Marty.

I bit my lip and was glad I’d sipped a preparatory Sherry before I left home. It was going to be difficult to refrain from blasting him with both barrels, such was my affection and spirit for Lil.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Armando.

‘I wasn’t one for going out when I was young. I used to spend a lot of my time bird catching. You could sell them for a few bob at the market. We had a net as tall as this room, which we would secure with pulleys, and release when there were a number of birds feeding on the field. I could catch 10 to 15 at a time. They were mostly green plover, but sometimes we had golden plover, which went for more. It isn’t legal anymore.’

‘Was it legal then?’ I asked. His going into so much detail with his story was irritating.

‘I suppose not,’ said Marty.

‘You lived here long?’ asked Armando.

‘I’ve moved around a fair bit since my divorce – ’

‘You were married?’ I interrupted.

‘Yeah for close on twenty years, to Janet. Janet Loos as she was, and a beauty queen of Tewkesbury.’ Marty paused and looked distant. I was not surprised in the slightest that his marriage had failed if his current morals were a barometer. I also noticed the pile of racing papers on the floor and wondered if his gambling had also contributed to the demise of his relationship.

‘I came to England when I was 23. A fella from home had some building work here, in Swindon and the surrounding area, and it was more money than I could make in Cork. I couldn’t believe the weekends in Cheltenham; all the girls flocked to the American servicemen who were stationed there. Me and my mates used to wait and see who was left at the end of the night. Easy pickings. That’s where I met Janet. She was actually dating one of the American soldiers at the time, but her mother didn’t approve. I loved her so much but it was difficult to keep her happy. She was never satisfied. She didn’t want children, and as hard as I worked it was never enough. The more hours I worked, the more she spent and the more men she had. When we split up Nelly joined me in England with her daughter, and we relocated to London.’

‘Where’s Nelly’s husband?’ I asked. I was taken aback by Marty’s sudden outpouring of revelation. I was definite that he was a ne’er do well, but he had heartbreak of his own, and judging by his current living situation, wasn’t having an easy time of it now either.

‘He had an accident on the railways, where he worked. He was never the same and died. Nelly looked after him until the end, but in those days no one wanted to take on a woman with a child. We lived together for a while but that didn’t work. Nelly said my comings and goings didn’t provide a stable environment for the girl.’

‘I didn’t know Nelly had a daughter,’ I said.

‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me and my family Wayne. She married and is back in Ireland. She’s happy enough.’

‘Do you have any idea of the trouble that already exists between Mavis and Lil?’ Armando asked.

‘I’m getting the picture. Listen fellas I know why you’re here, and it’s not that simple. I wasn’t one for settling, and always take a number of outings with a multitude of women, but Lil is different and I’ve struggled with that. I like spending time with her more than most, but I still want to keep my other female friends.’

‘But why Mavis?’ asked Armando.

‘She approached me, and I never turn down chance for a chat and some female company.’ I knew it. Marty was far from innocent but Mavis had injected herself in the middle.

‘Why didn’t you go to the fair with Lil?’ I asked.

‘We’d had a row and she put the phone down.’ This wasn’t exactly how Lil had presented it, but I tried to keep an open mind.

‘What did you row about?’

‘She was unhappy and feeling frumpy and took offence at my suggestion to shop for some modern garments. I joked, “I can tell that you’re square by the clothes that you wear, so why not get with it, and pay me a visit”. It used to be the advertisement on the wall of the tailor’s back home.’

‘And what about Cyril?’

‘What about him?’ asked Marty.

‘I’m not sure you’ve been welcoming to him,’ Armando said politely.

‘He’s got Lil eating out of the palm of his hand, and yes he might say he prefers men, but I’m not so sure. They’re always round his posh flat.’

‘I can assure you. He isn’t interested in a romantic relationship with Lil,’ I said.

‘Told you that has he?’ asked Marty.

‘Not in so many words, but I know.’

‘I agree,’ said Armando.

This wasn’t as straightforward as I thought. Before today I was convinced that Marty was the villain, however, I wasn’t certain now. I was still convinced he wasn’t right for Lil. She needed someone she could feel secure with and that wasn’t Marty. He was in fact a sad character and tainted by his own life experiences and lack of acceptance of getting older.

‘Thanks for explaining,’ said Armando.

‘Are you going to help me sort it out?’ asked Marty.

‘We’ll see what we can do, but you have to understand that we have to make sure it’s right for Lil,’ said Armando.

‘Yes of course. She sees you two as her sons and I can see why,’ said Marty.

‘One question before we go,’ I said. Marty nodded.

‘Why is your sister always talking about Coke?’

Marty let out a belly laugh. ‘She’s always loved the stuff, and it was a bit special when we were younger. A real treat. It could be worse, she could have followed in our Gran’s footsteps.’

‘What does that mean?’ asked Armando.

‘She lived to 95 and swore it was because of half a pint of Guinness and some snuff, daily,’ said Marty.

‘What does snuff taste like?’ I asked.

‘Suppose it tastes like snuff,’ said Marty. And after that useful response we thanked Marty for his hospitality and departed. How to address this with Lil would occupy significant cerebral space over the coming days.

 

 

 

Cyril’s Inner Sanctum

Unfortunately I had been away with work most of the week, and busy into the evenings, which meant that I couldn’t check in with Lil as often as I’d have liked. Armando, as ever, stepped up to the plate and corroborated her mental and emotional condition and Cyril had become Lil’s garde-malade as he lived across the hallway. Lil hadn’t left the flat, aside from a Remembrance Day service, for fear of bumping into the interlopers. By all accounts she had barely responded to Gisela. I suspect the latter for her previously cited views on Marty.

Breakfast Club had been supplanted by a late lunch at Cyril’s. I collected Armando from the café at 1.45, who was, for once, empty handed. Cyril had everything under control.

‘How are you?’ I asked Armando as we made the short walk to Lil and Cyril’s block.

‘Doing fine I think. I have focused on increasing events at the café.’

‘That’s excellent. Who knows you might even meet someone at one of the events.’

‘Maybe, but not the purpose. It seems that Lil and I are in, and out, of relationships in sync.’

I pressed the familiar buzzer but knew that once granted permission to enter we would take a different direction at the top of the first staircase.

‘She’s flopped out in the sitting room,’ whispered Cyril as he opened his front door. The floor plan was a mirror image of Lil’s flat, but with a different ambience.  A wonderful aroma emanated from the kitchen. It was indeed a late lunch and my appetite needed no whetting. The hallway was lined with gilt-framed photos. The pictures were mostly black and white, and the faces perhaps people from Cyril’s past. Today wasn’t the day but I hoped I would have the opportunity to seek an explanation for each. I didn’t spot Lil when we first entered the sitting room as she was lost amid the rich tapestry of fur (I assume fake) throws by which the sofa was swathed. She looked small and fragile. Lil had shattered my illusions regarding the elderly. She lived with extreme emotions, high highs and low lows as an everyday part of her life. It wasn’t all lavender and Countdown. However, there was an aroma of lavender which I assumed came from one of the oil burners situated on the sideboard. Next to Lil was a small occasional table with a slim glass containing a dark liquid, and a lamp with a red velvet tasselled shade that wouldn’t look out of place in a bordello. After greeting Lil with an affectionate peck I sat in one of the two upright arms chairs filled with brocade cushions. Sherry wafted from her breath. Cyril appeared carrying a tasteful gold-coloured tray with two additional small Sherry glasses.

‘Oloroso Wayne, I hope you approve,’ said Cyril as he bowed to offer his wares. It was incredibly sweet of him to remember my preferred tipple.

‘I’ll have a top up please,’ said Lil.

‘Just the one Sherry before luncheon,’ answered Cyril.

‘Stop gawping Wayne,’ said Lil.

‘I wasn’t dear, I’m lost for words. It’s like I’m in the middle of a Greek tragedy with Medea at the centre.’

Lil snorted in appreciation of an attempt at a lighter comment.

‘There is nothing as dead as a dead love affair,’ said Lil informatively.

‘Honestly Lil, you don’t seem to be doing too badly, lying there, wrapped in fur, eating bon bons and drinking Sherry – rather sybaritic if you ask me,’ I said.

‘Has he still been pestering you?’ asked Armando moving the conversation along.

‘I have to keep taking my phone off the hook, and thank goodness we have the security downstairs otherwise he’d be knocking down my door. He has got into the building a couple of times, and pleaded at my door. I can’t face him yet.’

‘It’s shameful, Irish barbarity,’ said Cyril and then disappeared to put the finishing touches to lunch.

‘It’s Nelly I feel sorry for. He’s got her to call a few times too,’ said Lil.

‘It’s probably not the first time,’ I said before biting my lip to stop any further vitriol escaping. Armando glared at me to stunt additional inflammatory comments.

‘I didn’t see Nelly there last week Lil. Was she?’ I asked.

‘No, she came later, and was mortified according to Gisela,’ said Lil.

‘Is Gisela joining us today?’ Armando asked.

‘No, she had a meeting which would run into the start of lunch.’

‘I’m sure Cyril wouldn’t mind her coming late. It’s only lunch,’ I said as I polished off the remainder of my Oloroso.

‘You haven’t been to Cyril’s before. It’s more formal than you’d expect and it wouldn’t be appropriate to arrive mid-way through an event. You’ll see,’ said Lil.

‘Please come into the dining room, lunch is ready,’ said Cyril.

‘Can’t we eat here?’ implored Lil.

‘No,’ said Cyril but lamented and added, ‘but you can bring a fur if it would make you happy.’ Lil wrapped a mink-coloured throw around her shoulders and led the charge to the dining room. A formal table was laid, without cloth, but with stunning, shining silverware and an ornate candelabra at the centre. A Rococo glass mirror hung on the wall, beneath which was a delicious arrangement of pussy willow and gladioli in a vase atop a dark wooden bookcase. I spotted novels by Willa Carther and Nancy Mitford before turning my attention to the table where devilled eggs were set out; name place cards guided us to our appointed position.

‘Would you pour the wine please?’ Cyril asked Armando.

‘Yes please,’ said Lil before she was asked, although as the only lady present she would have been served first in any event.

‘You have a lovely home,’ I said.

‘Thank you. I try to keep it decent and comfortable. The mirror there came from my family home.’ It was like being in an aristocratic council flat. Decadence oozed from every pore but with frayed and faded edges.

‘The fish is in the oven, so please eat up,’ said Cyril.

‘Anything from Mavis?’ I ventured to enquire.

‘Nothing,’ answered Lil with such finality in her voice I dared not pursue it further.

‘Look, I know this has hit me hard and it has and I feel bloody humiliated, but I’ve been worse. I knew that Marty had wandering eyes, but that was part of his charm.’

Armando and I eyed each other in a way which agreed that we would have to meet with Marty, establish his true intentions and aid this affair to reach its conclusion one way or another.

‘Shall I tell you something of the outside?’ I asked.

‘Yes please,’ said Cyril welcoming new life into the discussion.

‘Last Sunday I went for a power walk with my friend Marina to Alexandra Palace –’

‘Power walk?’ interrupted Lil with a cackle.

I glanced at her in an overtly dramatic manner and continued, ‘an unusual, well unusual for Ally Pally, smell hit our nostrils, and Marina said she could smell cheese. I recognised the smell from childhood and it wasn’t cheese. Let’s call it a farmyard smell. I took a deep breath and declared that it was muck. I further tried to isolate the aroma, and pronounced it was most likely pig. Well Marina almost fell on the floor laughing. ‘Trust you, she’d said to be able to know whose backside it came from. It was a perfect country boy meets city girl moment.’

‘Silly sod,’ said Lil looking slightly cheered.

‘Country gents don’t have to analyse muck,’ said Cyril, ‘especially during a civilised luncheon.’

‘You’re a sillier sod than he is,’ said Lil waving her fork at Cyril.

Cyril took this as a cue to remove the plates and attend to the stuffed and roasting haddock in the oven.

‘I know whose face I’d like to push into that muck,’ said Lil.

‘Now,’ said Armando as he topped up the wine glasses. We used to drink Assam tea, and were devolving (or evolving I can’t make my mind up) into lunchtime drinkers.

‘When do you think you’ll return to society?’ I asked Lil.

‘I don’t have to leave the block and I have Cyril here, and Gisela is visiting regularly, but I know that moment will come. I feel ashamed,’ said Lil with water forming in the corner of her eye.

‘You have nothing to be ashamed of,’ said Armando and rested a comforting hand on Lil’s thin arm.

‘Exactly,’ I echoed, ‘Marty and Mavis should be mortified.’

Cyril reappeared carrying antique gilt-edged white plates loaded with roast fish, sautéed potatoes and spinach. As we started to tuck in the door buzzer rang – urgently.

‘Ignore it,’ said Cyril. He feared it was Marty.

The buzzer rang again and it did sound pressing.

‘Excuse me,’ said Cyril as he stood with irritation and slapped his napkin on the back of his chair. We listened intently and heard Cyril grant the caller entry. Lil looked suddenly ashen. We heard a recognisable voice, and an out of breath Gisela joined us in the dining room.

‘Sorry to disturb but I had to come and tell you immediately,’ said Gisela and welcomed the wine glugging into a glass in front of her. After taking a sip she continued, ‘I was walking home from the community centre and I bumped into Mavis with three or four children, presumably relations. She greeted me sheepishly and I returned the greeting with a polite but formal attitude and carried on my way. However, hiding and poking his head from the very next corner was Marty. It was no coincidence in my opinion. He is not sorry for behaviour.’

‘I never trust a woman draped in children,’ said Lil with pursed lips.

Whatever she said, Lil didn’t blame Marty anywhere near as much as she did Mavis. History and past hurt leaned heavy on her views but she was dangerously close to allowing that to cloud her contemplations. I glanced from Gisela to Armando and Cyril and knew we were united in purpose. Armando and I would meet with this Irish Don Juan.

 

An (Un)civilised Craft Fair

Today there was to be no Breakfast Club. I would be catching up with Armando for coffee only. My week was supposed to be filled with days off, fireworks, writing and other artsy activities. However, I had inadvertently become embroiled in the latest pension war.

Lil had telephoned on Tuesday evening and she wasn’t happy.

‘I can’t believe him Wayne. He’s a bloody law unto himself,’ she’d said as I answered the call.

‘Who? What’s happened Lil?’

‘Marty – who else and don’t pretend you like him,’ said Lil.

‘What’s he done now?’ I said adding irritation to my tone.

‘He told me to update my look.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Apparently a few “with it” items of clothing wouldn’t go amiss. He said my dresses are more suited to old ladies. I told him I was an old lady and he was an old man.’

‘Good for you Lil. He is too much – really.’

‘He didn’t take kindly to that and added that if I wanted to go with him to the craft fair at the community centre tomorrow I’d better get with the programme. I told him to sod off. That was this morning, and I’ve waited in for either him to call or visit with an apology – and he hasn’t.’

‘Oh Lil, you should have called earlier.’

‘I didn’t want to busy the line. I’ve barely even been to the loo.’

Now probably wasn’t the best time to sell the merits of call-waiting. ‘Do you want to go to the craft fair?’ I asked.

‘Aren’t you listening? I said he won’t go with me.’

‘When have you ever done what you’re told? Why don’t I take you?’

The line went silent. I could hear the brain cogs whirling.

‘Don’t you work on a Wednesday?’

‘No, I’ve some time off this week to write.’

‘OK, yes, let’s go, you can pick me up at 1.45.’

Our plan was in place. I hoped that I was going to be there when Lil informed Marty she’d managed to make it solo, the world didn’t revolve around him, and his denial of the ageing process.

I’d collected Lil as directed and complimented her on her M&S inspired outfit of tailored black trousers and a cream wool sweater. She added a head scarf around her neck secured by a diamanté ring. Her hair had a vibrant blue hue – she’d been at the rinse again.

‘Are you looking for anything today?’ I asked.

‘Not really, it’s mostly overpriced doilies but they always have good cake. I might look for a new tea cosy but it depends on the cost. I remember when you could pick one up at a jumble sale for 5p.’

‘But this isn’t a jumble sale,’ I said.

‘Same difference,’ said Lil closing the conversation.

tombola

The community centre wasn’t busy when we arrived. Tables had been set out around the side, behind which sat expectant ware sellers. The crafts available were not the overpriced variety one finds at contemporary fairs, but what some might consider more down to earth. It reminded me of similar affairs I’d attended in the village where I’d grown up; tombolas and raffles aplenty. I usually ended up winning a soap-on-a-rope or items of that ilk. At the time I’d felt sophisticated and longed to don the soap around my neck. We paraded along the left hand side of the hall and Lil introduced me with pride to each of the stallholders she knew, as she fingered their merchandise. Her lips pursed at some of the prices. I could see the tea and cake stand getting ever closer, and my appetite rose. I shouldn’t have been hungry after a delicious mushroom omelette for luncheon, but cake passion tends to create hunger pains.

‘Shall we stop for tea?’ I asked Lil.

‘Yes, it’s starting to pack out, and I don’t want to miss out. I’ll have a cuppa, I doubt they have Assam; and a slice of walnut and date madeira please.’

I sat Lil at a vacant bistro style table and attended the serving hatch. The Battenberg called to me from its display plate.

‘You going to buy anything?’ Lil asked as I delivered our tray.

I shrugged my uncertainty as I set the table.

‘You should support the community,’ said Lil.

‘I don’t see you buying much.’

‘I am the community.’

‘And who do you think exchanged coins for your current repast?’

We laughed affectionately.

‘Actually prices are much higher than last year, but I must buy something to flaunt in front of that man,’ said Lil.

‘I’m not sure one-upmanship is a worthy occupation, although on the other hand it is Marty.’

Lil grabbed my arm and I feared I’d gone too far. She pushed the chair back and stood up. I followed her eye line and saw that Marty and Mavis had entered the hall, arm in arm, like royalty.

‘Sit down Lil,’ I implored. She sat and took my hand. She was shaking and I didn’t know whether through anger or shock. She followed her prey as they move along a couple of stalls.

‘I’ve had enough of this. I won’t be made a fool of,’ said Lil as she rose again and moved with purpose across the hall. I popped the last bite into my cake hole and followed.

‘Hey princess,’ said Marty as we approached, unfazed as ever.

‘What do you think you’re doing,’ said Lil looking directly at Mavis as she held her palm up to Marty.

‘Why, I’m attending the fair,’ said Mavis as she released Marty’s arm and put her hands on her hips.

‘Don’t mess with me – harridan,’ exclaimed Lil.

‘Attending a local event with an old friend is hardly cause for an accusation of that magnitude,’ said Mavis calmly. Her facetiousness was in full working order.

‘Don’t give me that twaddle. I never saw you anywhere near Marty until we started courting –’

‘Princess,’ interrupted Marty intending to pacify.

‘Don’t you princess me – I’ll deal with you later.’

‘And don’t call her princess when we’re together,’ said Mavis her pitch elevating.

‘Ha, so you do think you’re with him – floosy,’ said Lil in a louder tone.                              Attentions had been diverted from the tables full of produce, to the central floor show. Marty took his cue and snaked backwards and out of the firing line.

‘Lillian stop being so immature. You’re always so common, shouting and screaming in the streets, and I have no interest in your name-calling,’ said Mavis.

‘We’re not in the streets. You always have to go after my men. Let’s face it, you could never hang on to your own,’ said Lil sneeringly.

Mavis gasped before regaining composure and saying, ‘you’ve normally so many on the go Lillian it’s difficult to tell who your actual man is.’

Lil raised her arm as if she was going to strike Mavis but thought better of it. I was standing close enough to assist or restrain, dependent upon the need, but I didn’t think it was correct, or safe to get in the middle.

‘Listen Bellamy,’ said Lil in a lower but vicious tone, ‘hasn’t anyone told you that less is more with lip-rouge. You tend to trowel it on. Once a tart always a tart.’ And with that blow Lil flounced and spun on her heels. I thought she was going to topple over and I took her arm and led her away. Mavis gathered herself and marched off in the opposite direction. Marty was also in the wrong, but he seemed to have got away scot free. I couldn’t believe the argument ended with maquillage insults.

‘What is it with you two?’ I asked Lil as we rapidly left the building.

‘Hmm – one day I might tell you, but not yet. She is, as you know, a piece of work.’

‘You do seem to go from being as thick as thieves to screaming at each other in public. It’s odd.’

Lil didn’t answer and we walked on in silence. She wore a pensive expression.

‘And what about Marty?’ I asked.

‘What about him?’ asked Lil rhetorically.

‘Do you want to get a drink?’ I asked. I craved a Sherry – large.

‘No thank you Wayne. I’m tired and going straight home.’

Lil said she was unlikely to be at Breakfast Club when I’d dropped her at her door, and added that she’d rather have no surprise visitors this week.

I called into the café to update Armando on the latest spat. We were midway through when in walked Cyril. He joined us and we all three commiserated with dense hot chocolate.

BestHotChocolateEver

‘You’ll be glad to have missed it,’ I said to Cyril.

‘Goodness yes. I’ve been at a church meeting and stayed for a slice of gooseberry pie.’

‘Sounds like you’d all have been better eating cake here,’ said Armando. I have to say that I admired his marketing spirit, never missing an opportunity to advertise.

‘Marty is unfortunately an insecure piece of work,’ said Cyril.

We picked up our mugs of congealing, sweet, goo and agreed. Marty and his playboyesque behaviour had to leave our little group alone, or minimally fade into the background.

 

Revolving Relationships

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a Halloween party – last year I was dressed as a gothic vampire with slicked-back hair drinking blood-coloured cocktails, with Michael dressed as a ghost. However, the persistent popping of bangers outside in the streets and the relentless flow of premature Trick-or-treaters is wearisome. My living space is at the back of the apartment and I can therefore appear not at home, which is a saving grace. Goodness only knows what it’s like for our senior residents, but as it was Thursday I’m sure I was about to hear.

I dressed very anti-Halloween in a Madonna T shirt, and after adding a light jacket, I made my way to the café.

Lil was already sitting at our table with Gisela. Their teacups were already three-quarters empty and I therefore surmised they’d been in residence for a while.

‘Trick or treat?’ I asked as I greeted them. Lil backed away from my affection.

‘Don’t you fu-…’

‘I mean don’t start all that bloody nonsense Wayne. I’ve had enough of it already,’ said Lil after making us blush at her first stunted repost, containing additional colourful language I hadn’t heard from her before.

‘The noise of the banging, and into the night. Don’t the parents make the children come into the home at a reasonable hour?’ asked Gisela.

I poured myself a cup of stewed tea, and nodded to Armando behind the counter.

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‘Standards have slipped. In my day you’ve have got a clip around the ear for such behaviour, and not just from your family. Most of the community had licence to do so. And respect for your elders reigned,’ said Lil.

Gisela tutted and added, ‘same in Deutschland.’

‘Marty says that at our age we’re lucky to get any banging,’ said Lil and started cackling.

‘Excuse me,’ said Gisela as she got up and moved towards the ladies.

Lil tutted.

‘Everything OK with Gisela?’ asked Armando as he joined us armed with a fresh pot of Assam.

‘She’s not happy that Marty has stayed over. She said it’s not very ladylike.’ Lil pursed her lips. I was shocked.

‘I had no idea your relationship had progressed,’ I said trying to keep a judgemental tone from my words.

‘Don’t you start too Wayne,’ said Lil.

‘What about Bill?’ I asked. Armando put his hand firmly on my arm which I took as an indicator that I was overstepping boundaries.

‘He’s not here and life goes on,’ said Lil starting to look a little teary.

‘We don’t want you to get hurt,’ said Armando just as Gisela returned from the bathroom closely followed by our waitress.

‘Full English please,’ said Lil.

‘I’ve a strange request and wondered whether henceforth you’d consider having scrambled eggs Lil,’ I asked.

‘Errr why? I like a nice runny fried egg,’ said Lil.

‘It’s my mum – ’

‘What’s it got to do with her?’

‘She reads my blog and hearing about runny yolks makes her feel queasy.’

‘I’ve nothing against your mother, I’ve never met the woman, but no. Why don’t you stop writing about it?’

‘A key part of Breakfast Club is breakfast.’

‘In that case, I’ll have an extra runny egg please Judith.’ Lil let out an explosive laugh as she delivered this last line. I’m afraid Mum is going to have to stiffen her upper lip and endure trickling yellow centres.

I ordered porridge with blueberries, Gisela a pain au chocolat and Armando an orange muffin.

‘Think of all the non-meat eaters you offend Boulevardier with your vegetarian breakfast and a pork sausage on the side eh,’ said Lil. Everyone giggled. Lil was on point with her sharp banter today. I suspect it was to keep the discussion away from her and Marty. She must realise he wasn’t as rosy as she painted him. I couldn’t see the appeal.

‘Have you seen Mavis this week?’ I asked.

‘Goodness please don’t mention her,’ said Gisela firmly.

‘Yes I saw that quarrelsome cow on Tuesday at Age Club,’ said Lil ignoring Gisela’s protestations.

‘Oh no, not more arguments,’ said Armando.

Lil pursed her lips and demurely picked up her teacup.

‘She can not help herself Armando. She is snide and I will not be walked over.’

‘Dare I ask what happened?’ I enquired.

‘Yes you may. She was standing with her gaggle of followers when I arrived. I smiled vaguely and walked towards Gisela and the tea urn. As I passed I heard Mavis say that it was unfortunate that some people take Marty too seriously and try to tame him. And what’s more, apparently he’s interested in anything in a skirt. I honestly did think twice Wayne whether to ignore her and carry on but I couldn’t. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned and said to her that he wasn’t interested in her and her polyester trousers and added that if I had her legs I’d wear long pants too. Her followers didn’t know where to look. She added something but I had spun on my heels and reassumed my victory step to Gisela. She hurled something further but I only heard the ‘Lillian’ at the end. There was no tittering from her posse. They know better than to get involved.’

‘What is it with you two?’ asked Armando.

‘History, dear boy.’ And before we could press further, breakfasts arrived. One day I was determined to find out their history. They sparred at the slightest crossing of words, but when the chips were down, had each other’s backs. It was as if there was a blood bond. Were they related? I didn’t ask.

‘Judith,’ Lil called after the waitress, ‘I asked for a runny egg and this is solid.’

‘Oh gawd,’ said Armando under his breath.

‘Sorry I thought you said not runny, let me change it,’ said Judith and started to remove the plate.

‘No, no I’m too hungry to wait,’ said Lil holding onto her plate for dear life.

I sat back and watched Lil tug-o-war, and report battles, as I stirred the blueberries into my steaming porridge.

‘Sorry Lil, you sure you don’t want me to change?’ asked Armando.

‘No it’s fine. At least it will keep Wayne’s mum happy for today. Every cloud and all that,’ said Lil as she sliced a segment of white and pushed it against a mushroom, lifted her fork and masticated.

‘How’s your Brazilian?’ asked Gisela.

‘Gone,’ said Armando. Our cutlery clanked simultaneously on the table and all eyes fell on Armando.

‘It’s fine. It wasn’t working. Dating is too much effort at the moment. I’m going to focus on the café and see what comes along.’

‘Good plan,’ said Lil and returned her knife and fork to her respective hands.

‘Quatsch,’ exclaimed Gisela as a blob of chocolate escaped from her pastry onto her lap.

‘I don’t know why you eat those things Gisela, you always get in a mess,’ said Lil.

‘I don’t, thank you. They are delicious but dangerous.’

Lil huffed as she thrust a corner of toast into her mouth.

We all jumped, as a banger exploded right outside the café followed by a stampede of youth.

‘Bloody hell – Why oh why is half-term the same time as banger season,’ said Lil.

‘Don’t worry, it’ll be bonfire night next week,’ I said.

‘Don’t just don’t,’ said Lil waggling her finger in my direction. She rested her napkin on the table after daubing the corners of her mouth. ‘Perhaps we should have a little Sherry to settle our nerves,’ she added.

‘Didn’t you have enough of that at the funeral?’ asked Armando.

‘You can never have enough Sherry,’ said Lil as she extracted a new bottle of Bristol Cream from her trolley. ‘Got any glasses Armando?’

I have to say I agree with her last pronouncement and felt quite decadent sipping Sherry at 11am. The only improvement I would suggest would be to have Oloroso. I prefer its dark chocolate taste.

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