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.