Homeward Bound

We were halfway through January and I was willing the nights to start drawing out. I longed to see signs of Spring thrusting itself upon us. I was perhaps a little unrealistic and premature in my expectations, but it made me feel a lot better. I’d spoken to Lil several times during the week, in-between her visits to the hospital. Mavis was doing well, in the circumstances, and was already starting to offer inpatient improvement advice to the hospital staff. The background information I now possessed regarding the complicated history between the two urban sisters hadn’t affected my views of either; if anything my resolve to protect Lil had increased. Armando didn’t know their full backstory yet and I didn’t feel right brining him up to speed. If he was to know Lil would have to retell her story or ask me to do so.

My early waking thoughts focussed on the impossible choice of temperature-appropriate attire. The weather was yo-yoing between freezing or damp and mild. My Teasmade hadn’t whooshed yet so I didn’t need to be overly concerned until I’d at least had the first Assam of the day. I poked my toes out from the protection of the duvet and they didn’t recoil which was promising.

I arrived at the café, having decided that layers was the only way, to find Lil and Gisela already in situ.

‘Blimey, are the sides of your hair short enough?’ Lil said.

‘Morning to you both, and yes thanks. I want it to be disconnected from the top.’ I kissed both of the seniors. Gisela looked a little uncomfortable, and I hoped it wasn’t my show of physical affection. She hadn’t reacted thus previously.

‘The top’s a bit long. It looks like a wig.’ Lil cackled.

‘I can assure you it’s all mine. Do you want to give it a tug?’

‘Get away with ya.’ It was nice to see Lil back to her bantering best.

Armando joined us. His apron looked grubby and frayed around the edges.

‘Is it scruff day?’ Lil asked.

‘What do you mean?’

‘You look less pristine than usual,’ Gisela said.

‘It’s yesterday’s. Is it that obvious? I forgot to bring in the clean ones today.’

‘Don’t worry about it. Everything all right?’

‘Yeah I guess.’ We all sat forward waiting for the update. However, at that moment Judith arrived with the pot. I’d never before wished a teapot of Assam was a few minutes late.

‘Is Bill joining us?’ I asked.

‘Later, let’s order, I’m hungry.’

Lil ordered her usual, Armando a coffee, Gisela a pain au chocolat and porridge with blueberries for me. It wasn’t easy to stick to a reduced calorie intake, but the bloating seemed to be slowly dissipating and I was wearing jeans I hadn’t managed to for over a year. I would have to stick at it, if I was to lose two stone before the summer.

‘Well?’ Lil asked. We all looked at Armando.

‘My relationship – ’

‘Oh no, not more drama. I don’t think I can take it,’ Lil said. I rolled my eyes, internally, as most of the drama in our little group was Lil-centric.

‘- is fine,’ continued Armando, ‘however, that doesn’t mean there aren’t difficulties.’ Armando paused as Judith arrived with his double espresso. He stirred slowly and didn’t look up. We waited expectantly for him to continue. I was glad Lil didn’t prompt impatiently for details. I poured the tea. Lil stirred her cup noisily and for longer than necessary. Eventually Armando looked up and continued.

‘I don’t think I mentioned before that he was married previously, to a woman.’ Lil dropped her teaspoon.

‘He is of course divorced and was so when I met him.’

‘Is he bisexual?’ Lil asked.

‘No he is gay.’

‘Doesn’t make any sense,’ Lil said. The table fiddled uncomfortably and I think Lil realised she had overstepped the mark.

‘He has two children which makes it even trickier,’ Armando added. I willed Lil not to speak.

‘Does he still see them?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes, he is a good father and spends time with them every week.’

There was another break in the conversation as Judith was beside us with our food. Lil didn’t waste any time and declared ‘yummy’ as she sliced a tomato. It was like watching surgery; next the toast was buttered and the egg skin folded back to reveal the soft yellow innards.

‘I’m not sure where I fit in, and it was on my mind all night and this morning,’ Armando said.

‘He probably feels the same way,’ Lil said.

‘All relationships are difficult,’ Gisela said and sighed.

‘Sorry?’ Armando asked looking at Lil.

‘Don’t look all hurt, I mean that you’re married to this place. He might be concerned that you’re not putting him first either.’

‘I hadn’t thought of that perspective.’ Armando drained the last dregs from his miniature cup and signalled to Judith for another.

‘I’m not just a senile old bat.’ Lil let out an excruciatingly loud, guttural laugh before anyone had a chance to agree or disagree. I hadn’t missed Gisela’s comment either, which weighed heavy with meaning. She wasn’t herself today.

‘You don’t meet people without baggage when you get to our age, we included,’ I said.

‘I don’t know about that,’ Lil said, ‘hello love.’ She stood to plant a smacker on Bill’s expectant and pouted lips. We scooted across to make room for Lil’s beau.

‘What have I missed?’

‘Oooooo your new shoes look lovely,’ Lil said looking adoringly at Bill’s feet. Bill shuffled in a dance-type movement and followed with an attempt at jazz hands. Lil giggled. They were still enveloped in young or rather fresh love which was sweet, however, I didn’t need to see the saccharine up so close and personal.

‘His other pair were starting to let the wet in,’ Lil said. Bill shrugged in a ‘looking for sympathy’ way. Armando smiled. The joy of love was contagious.

‘We went to Muswell Hill yesterday and I got these in Clarks. In the sales, I’ll have you know.’

Bill started to shuffle again. ‘Sit down now darling,’ Lil said. ‘I also got a lovely new frock in one of the charity shops. Some of the rich old biddies must have had a clear out. It didn’t even look worn. I’m saving it for a special occasion.’ Lil winked and inserted the last crumb of toast into her mouth in a seductive manner. We all blinked in shock.

‘Special occasion?’ I asked and nervously passed my empty bowl to Judith.

‘Another pot?’ Judith asked rhetorically.

‘It’s great news, isn’t it Bill. Do you want to tell them or should I?’

‘I think you’re making a big deal out of it,’ Bill said.

‘Stop being so bloody modest.’

‘Will someone tell us what is happening?’ Armando asked.

‘Do I need a hat?’ Gisela asked.

‘You can wear a hat if you want Gi…’ Lil started to tap her hands on the table, in imitation of a drum roll. ‘Bill is making his comeback as our bingo caller in two weeks’ time. I’m so proud.’ Bill coughed.

‘I’ve got to learn how to use the new machine.’

‘What happened to the last?’ Armando asked. I kicked him under the table.

‘You might recall it fell over.’ Lil glared at Armando.

‘Is it easy to use?’ I asked.

‘It is but it’s all arse about face’

‘Huh?’ Armando asked.

‘Everything is the opposite way round. I’ve had a practice and will have another few sessions to get to grips with the beast before the main event.’

‘Fantastic news Bill. Are we all invited?’ I asked.

‘Of course you are. It’s a special occasion. Everyone has to be there,’ Lil said.

Judith appeared as ever in a timely fashion with a china receptacle full with brewing golden, elixir.

‘I’m glad you’re happy and settled,’ Gisela said. She started to fidget in her seat.

‘Thank you my lovely friend.’ Lil took Bill’s hand. I stirred the pot.

‘It’s especially timely as I have some news.’

Bilder Alfter

Lil released Bill’s hand and gaped at Gisela. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

‘Let’s pour the tea first,’ I said. I could see that Gisela was uncomfortable and needed a few moments to collect her thoughts.

‘Well?’ Lil said as soon as I’d replaced the pot on the table.

‘I’ve been talking to my cousin’s daughter in Alfter.’ Gisela paused to take a sip – all eyes on her. ‘They’ve invited me to go and stay with them for an extended period, and if it all works out, they’ve asked me to live with them permanently.’

Lil slammed her cup on the table. ‘You can’t?’

‘You’re happy with Bill.’

‘You’re my best friend.’

‘We can still write.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘We can talk on the phone.’

‘It won’t be the same.’

‘I miss Germany.’

‘I thought you were happy in England. You’ve not mentioned a longing for Germany before.’

‘I didn’t realise how much until I visited.’

‘Why didn’t you tell me how you were feeling and what you were planning to do?’

‘It was only finalised yesterday.’

‘Finalised – exactly. You didn’t even tell me what was on your mind. I thought friends, especially close friends spoke to each other.’

‘I didn’t want to upset you.’

‘A bit late for that now isn’t it.’

‘Let’s calm down,’ I said and placed my hand affectionately on Lil’s arm.

‘I’d forgotten how comfortable it feels to speak German every day. I speak and think in English of course, I’ve been here so long, but it was like putting on an old glove.’

‘That makes sense. When I was in Spain at Christmas it’s easier to speak your mother tongue.’

‘Yes, and I didn’t realise that I cared about family, and seeing family so much until I met them again. And you know I miss German sausage.’ I tried not to snigger like a schoolboy.

‘Gisela, it isn’t fair. Everything is so good at the moment.’

‘Lil you have Bill, Cyril, Nelly, and not to mention Wayne and Armando. I’m sure you’re not going to miss me that much.’

‘I will.’ Lil pouted her lips and produced one of her legendary tuts.

Gisela looked alarmed but pressed on. ‘My cousin, Sabine, has a granny annex, which has two bedrooms and two bathrooms. It’s on the same plot as her daughter’s, Sybille. The plan is that I would take the second bedroom.’

‘And what’s your cousin to say about that?’ Lil asked.

‘She is keen too.’

Lil huffed and folded her arms.

‘We were close as girls, and goodness only knows how we will get on together now but I’m hoping it will be good and fun.’

‘She’s probably changed,’ Lil said.

‘But relationships formed in childhood can last a lifetime,’ I said with purpose in my voice. This was a little harsh, and Lil picked up on my Mavis reference. However, she needed to back off with her attack. Lil turned her cup on its saucer in a truculent manner.

‘I think if you have a chance for happiness you should grab it,’ Bill said. We all looked at him a little shocked that he would dare overrule Lil. ‘I did, and I’m sure glad I came back to London, otherwise I might not be in the best relationship of my life right now.’ Lil stayed quiet, and fingered her cup in a less fractious manner, which was quite astonishing. Bill’s influence provided a sedative effect.

‘I’m sorry,’ Gisela said and started to cry.

‘Don’t cry now. I’m sorry too for getting so cross. I’m going to miss you that’s all. Shall we have another tea?’

‘Tea, yes,’ Armando said.

‘You’re going to miss my bingo debut, well return rather than debut.’

‘That is a disappointment. Perhaps someone could take photos and send them to me.’

‘I will,’ I said.

‘There are a couple of spare bedrooms in the big house too. Perhaps you and Bill would come and visit.’

‘Me, in Germany. Are you joking?’ Lil was cackling again which was a good sign. ‘I don’t understand a bloody word. What’s the German word for Assam?’

‘Assam,’ I said.

‘We’ll see about the visit,’ Bill said, winked at Gisela, and took Lil’s hand again.

‘Excellent. Cyril is going to holiday with us too.’

‘Cyril knows?’ Lil asked.

‘Yes.’

I wasn’t sure if this was going to set Lil off again. ‘What about Armando and me?’

‘I would love for everyone to visit. Even Marty Maguire. I’m sure there are plenty of lonely elderly ladies in Germany longing for his charm.’

After we’d finished chortling at Gisela’s witticism we finished our tea and went on our way. Breakfast Club was to change again. Gisela may not be one of the core or founding members, but she’s played a great part in our weekly meetings and had been a phenomenal support for Lil particularly when battling some of the other women in their age club. I suspected the person who would miss her most was Cyril, particularly as Lil and Bill were now so committed to each other. I resolved to check in with him later in the day. He and Gisela were Lil’s wing people and spent a lot of time together.

 

 

 

 

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Bruises and a Damaged Ego

I’d called into the café a few times in the last week to see if Armando had seen or heard anything from Lil. His response was consistent and negative. We hadn’t discussed possibilities as neither of us wanted to articulate what could have happened to our elderly friend.

It was Thursday and I had no trouble getting out of bed. In fact I was out of the door at 9.30am and seated in the café with a cup of Assam tea by 9.45. I’d sat in Lil’s seat so as to have the best view of the door.

I’d hoped she’d already be there or that Armando would finally have some news.

I didn’t order breakfast until I knew.

9.50 and 9.55 passed and still no sight. I couldn’t focus on anything other than the door and my hands wrapped around the cup containing the tea.

The time indicator on my phone changed from 9.59 to 10am and still no sign. I called Armando over.

‘This is ridiculous Armando. There must be something we can do to find her. Have you asked anyone else who comes in regularly if they know anything about her?’

‘I’ve been asking everyone I could think of. You know what it’s like in London. People don’t know too much about each other. It’s very different in Spain.’

‘But this is Crouch End. People do care. It’s like living in a village.’

The door opened and we looked from each other to the entrance.

Thank goodness. It was Lil. There was no shopping trolley and she was unsteady and heavy on her stick but it was her. She wore a long puffer coat and a fancy felt hat with an artificial rose on the side. Armando efficiently wove through the tables to her side, and offered his arm, and his support.

‘What you doing in my seat? Bloody hell I miss one week and you’re in my grave!’ Lil said with a weak cackle.

I apologised and moved. I’d forgotten where I was sitting when I’d seen her arrive.

As she removed her hat I noticed two new features; a purple rinse and a purple face. I let Lil settle, remove her outer coat to reveal her housecoat and reached across for her hand. We looked at each other with appreciation to be in each other’s company once again. Armando pulled up a chair and instructed the kitchen assistant and waitress not to disturb him, and to bring fresh tea.

‘What happened? Are you OK?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been a bloody fool,’ said Lil with water welling in her eyes. ‘I was fed up with a particular piece of peeling wallpaper above the mantelpiece in my sitting room. I got the steps from the hall cupboard and climbed up to rip the paper off. I lost my footing and fell off cracking my face on the side of the armchair and smashing to the floor.’

‘Lil, that’s awful. Did someone take you to hospital? When did it happen?’

‘It was last week Tuesday afternoon, and thank goodness my care-worker was due to visit otherwise I could have been stuck all night. The pain in my side was excruciating and I felt so sick.’

Lil looked away from us both as if deep in thought. ‘I’ll have my usual Armando please. I need to keep my strength up.’

‘Of course,’ and with that Armando ordered breakfast with a look to the staff. We could now settle a little and enjoy some sustenance. I, as usual, had a vegetarian breakfast with one sausage.

‘I was in the hospital for two days while they checked me out. Fortunately it’s all knocks and bruises, but I could have fractured my hip and cheek. Apparently I was in shock but that all sounded a bit like the modern mental clap-trap.’

‘Who’s looking after you?’ I asked.

‘I have some support but I’d rather do it myself. I have to keep moving. There’s no use relying on others.’

Lil said that when she was young an older lady she’d looked up to had taught her a rhyme, a mantra she had applied her whole life and proceeded to share it with us:

‘If your face wants to laugh, let it.

And if a smile you can get, get it.

Never look down. Don’t wear a frown

Because everyone else will hear about it

All over town.

So if at times you think you’ve got troubles

You’ll find someone else has double.

So laugh and grow fat

And if your face wants to laugh, let it.’

It made me think of my Auntie Rose who lives in Norfolk who says something similar.

‘Lil, we’ve been so worried and had no way to get in touch with you.’

‘Trust you to make it all about yourself Boulevardier.’ Lil smiled and picked up her cup with both hands. ‘And I’ve missed this bloody Assam, and that’s your fault too! I used to be fine with PG Tips.’ Lil was lightening the atmosphere. I would have to do likewise.

‘So what happened to your hair?’ I posed.

‘Bloody cheek. It’s to match the colour of my face. One of the support workers thought it would cheer me up! I hear Kelly Osbourne has hers the same colour.’

‘More like Mrs Slocombe-‘

‘-You can give us your number now, and we give you ours,’ Armando interrupted before Lil had a chance to react to my amusing comment.

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Lil knew better than to refuse the offer and we exchanged telephone numbers and continued breakfast. We conversed and laughed about the mundane, with Lil offering blog improvements as always. Equilibrium had been restored to Crouch End.

Our breakfast club was a recent but increasingly special event for us all and it was clear we were determined to keep it intact.