I received a phone call from Lil on Saturday afternoon. It wasn’t from her usual number. There was unlikely to be a Breakfast Club this week.
‘Wayne, it’s me. I’m at the Whittington.’
‘What’s happened? Are you OK?’
‘Yes I’m fine although a little shaken up. Any chance you can come down?’
‘Of course.’ And before I had a chance to ask which ward she was in, she’d gone. I telephoned Armando, but he was short staffed and couldn’t get away. The cold snap was continuing and I wrapped myself up in my faux fur hooded Parka. I slipped my leather, cashmere lined gloves on and locked the front door. The 41 bus didn’t want to come and the wind whistled along Topsfield Parade. I took one of the last remaining seats on the lower deck. The journey seemed to be taking forever. There was no urgency as people got on and off the bus. There was an incident with an oversized pushchair which wouldn’t fit between the seats. After several minutes of easing and pushing, the male passenger disembarked and re-joined via the back exit doors. The pushchair was finally and successfully set in the wheelchair area. I wanted to scream ‘collapse the damn thing’ but instead I tutted. The tut I had inherited from Lil. If she was attending a routine appointment and she wanted support, she would have arranged it in advance. I deduced that she must have been an emergency admission.
I battled through the sea of smoke in the area outside the hospital as visitors and patients, some of which were wrapped in pyjamas and dressing gowns, sucked on their cigarettes ignoring the no smoking signs above them.
I explained my situation to the middle-aged woman on the front desk. She understood my plight and sought the location of Lil on the screen in front of her, but couldn’t find her name. There was a slim chance, or so I was informed, that if she’d entered via Accident and Emergency her data wasn’t yet uploaded. I walked swiftly through the building to the casualty department. The waiting room was packed with slippers and trippers – victims of the icy conditions. I was given a similar story – she was not an inpatient at the Whittington. I replayed the conversation with Lil in my mind and I was sure she said the Whittington. I could think of no other than the one in Highgate. I dialled the number Lil had called me from and got the automated welcome message for the hospital I was standing in. At least I knew I was in the right place. I walked back to the front desk, and resolved to not budge until they found her. As I put one foot on the descending escalator I heard my name called from behind me and turned to see a vanishing Lil. I tried to scramble up the moving stairway but it was futile. I walked down and whipped round onto the up travellator. As the mechanical transporter rose I got my first proper view of Lil. She was dressed, which was the first shock, and didn’t look too unwell. A little pale and cold maybe but nothing more.
‘I couldn’t find you.’ I hugged Lil – hard.
‘Yeah, sorry I forgot to tell you which ward, and I thought I’d better come and find you while she’s sleeping.’
‘Mavis, who else.’
‘Is Mavis in hospital?’
‘Yes – don’t you listen to a bloody word I say?’
You didn’t tell me it was Mavis.’
‘Yes I did.’
‘Well it doesn’t matter now. I’m glad you’re OK. What happened to her?’
‘I wouldn’t exactly say I was OK. It’s been quite a shock. She had a stroke.’ Tears started to appear in the corners of Lil’s eyes. She wiped them away quickly.
‘Why are you here?’
‘Because, I’m her next of kin.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘I know you didn’t.’
‘It’s about time you told me what this is all about. If that’s OK?’
‘Yes. I knew I would have to. I’ll just nip back up to the ward and check everything is stable. Why don’t you go into the canteen and get us some tea and cake and I’ll join you there shortly.’ I gave Lil a kiss on the cheek and watched her move towards the stairwell.
Hospital canteens are more modern affairs these days. I could choose between three different franchises with a common seating area in the middle. There is an outside seating area but it was too cold to even think of sitting there. I purchased teas and slices of carrot cake. The portions were enormous and layered thick with white butter icing. There was a small, orange, carrot shaped iced decoration on each slice. I carried the tray to a quieter looking area and sat down. As I was stirring the pot Lil re-appeared and slipped out of her winter coat and hung it on the back of her chair.
‘I needed that,’ Lil said as she sipped the refreshing and all healing tea. I passed her a plastic fork and napkin to aid with cake consumption. I peeled the carrot from the icing and popped it in my mouth. It tasted sickeningly sweet. Lil was still busying herself arranging the napkin on her lap. I would not hurry her. She played with her fork and continued supping her drink. She wore a pensively melancholy expression.
‘Is Mavis stable?’
‘Under the circumstances yes. It was a warning shot. She’s resting at the moment. The doctors are undertaking more tests.’
‘Will she make a full recovery?’
‘They’ve said there is no reason why she won’t.’
‘How do you feel?’
To be able to help I had to understand why Lil was here. She wasn’t sharing the meat of the story and I’d been cut dead on previous attempts to get her started.
‘I don’t understand why you are her next of kin. You haven’t mentioned it before. Are you related or something.’
‘Thank god it’s only the or something.’ Lil sliced into the soft layers of dough. A blob of icing dropped from the fork and splatted on the floor.
‘I’ll get a cloth,’ I said.
‘You might as well get another couple of teas while you’re at it. It’s a long story and you seem determined to hear it.’
Once the floor was wiped we settled down with our fresh drinks and she began. It was a story I hadn’t expected and to do it justice it has to be told from Lil’s point of view…
It all started with my Aunt Vi. She was the one who took me in and raised me. We were a happy, tight-knit unit. I was an orphaned 14 year old trying to survive and study in a post-war London. We had a lot more than most. I would often hear the other women in the shops moaning about a lack of tea, soap and other items, however, we never seem to be short. We weren’t rich or living in a lap of luxury but Auntie Vi had a way of always making sure we didn’t want for nothing. I wasn’t allowed to talk about it outside of home, and I just about managed to stop myself boasting to the other kids. It was fear that immobilised me. Aunt Vi was loving but she had quite a temper too and I suffered a number of wallopings which she called necessary and character building. She always seemed to know everyone and had fingers in every pie. She kept me away from her dealings and never conducted business at home. I’ve often thought back and wondered what she was involved in. It had to be some kind of criminal activity or she was at least known in the underworld, but I never felt under threat, either from her other associates, who only ever called at night, or the police.
One day Aunt Vi sat me down in her front parlour which was reserved for important visitors and serious discussions. She had even got me a bag of sweets to soften the blow. An old friend of hers was in trouble. I never worked out what that trouble was, but she needed to disappear for a period of time and we was to look after her daughter. Aunt Vi explained that it would be like having a temporary sister and as we were the same age, she hoped we would have a lot in common. I was to share my bedroom and was given the special task that very afternoon of helping set up another bed. My bed was pushed against the wall to make way for the new mattress on the floor. It didn’t bother me sharing half the wardrobe and drawers as I didn’t have enough to fill them anyway. So that was it, Mavis arrived, but it wasn’t transitory – she never left. I don’t know what happened to her mother. She never returned for her. I asked Aunt Vi several times and she told me to stop being a nosey parker. I wondered whether she was a lady of the night on the run but I never knew for sure. That would have been great eh; Mavis’ mum a hooker.
That evening a brassy girl appeared in the kitchen after dark. I can’t remember who delivered her. She always said she was a year older than me, but Aunt Vi said we were the same age. She lit up a cigarette, right there. I couldn’t believe it. I wouldn’t have dared. I wouldn’t have risked smoke anywhere. Aunt Vi told her that she could finish that one as it was her first day, but if she ever saw her smoking again she’d knock that fag right out of her mouth. I remember Mavis drew on her cigarette, blew out the smoke and said she was bored. When we showed her the bedroom she said she wasn’t used to sharing and as the older one she should have the bed. Aunt Vi suggested that I take the floor mattress until Mavis settled in. I objected and Aunt Vi said ”Lillian” in the way which meant not to plead my case any further.
Mavis wasn’t conservative in any way and there were always boys. They called, they wrote, and were generally much older than us. She knew how to handle herself. We used to fight and argue, although not in front of Aunt Vi. She didn’t tolerate dissention in the ranks. A couple of times she caught us battling and gave us both the slipper. It makes my bum hurt just thinking about the stinging feeling now.
I got my bed back mind. She had it for about a week and then I put my foot down. Mavis gave in. To punish me the next day she stole my best friend Ronnie who lived on our street. Mavis always had an answer. She was streetwise and I think Aunt Vi struggled to control her. After about a year she pretty much came and went as she wished. Until one day when everything changed. I remember it so clearly. Mavis hadn’t gone to school as she was feeling sick. Aunt Vi called me to the front parlour as soon as I got in and gave me a bag of sweets. Mavis was sitting on one of the armchairs, swinging her legs and smoking – defiantly. Our guardian wasn’t stopping her. It was on that spring afternoon that I learned that I had to go away to the country for a few months. Mavis was going to have a baby. I didn’t understand why we had to go away or why I had to leave my friends and my home, but I got the slipper that evening for being selfish. Aunt Vi knew someone who would take care of us and was experienced in dealing with Mavis’ sort of problem. They lived in a small village on the edge of Berkshire. I wasn’t allowed to say goodbye to anyone; not even Mrs Tomkins who ran the corner shop and always gave me an extra toffee. All movement had to be in the dark, and we were ushered into a car the following evening. Even Mavis was crying and looked scared. We eventually arrived in a lane. It was pitch black. I remember I couldn’t even see my shoes. We were ushered straight upstairs. The room was cold and we had to share a bed. Mavis cried and cried and we huddled together as we went to sleep. Auntie Doreen, as we knew her, had a small cottage. I wish I could go back and see it. There weren’t any other houses for miles and we weren’t allowed to go any further than the fields immediately surrounding the house. We didn’t go to school and had to work from early in the morning and scrub the house from top to bottom. Mavis was often crying now. I suspect she missed her London life. As she started to get fatter she had to share clothes with Auntie Doreen, who wasn’t a small lady. The bigger Mavis got the more work I had to do and the more rest she had. I only complained once and got a walloping which would put those administered by Aunt Vi to shame. One of the downstairs rooms had a big table in the middle. We weren’t allowed in there unless it was to clean and it had to be the cleanest of all, and sometimes cleaned twice in a day. Whenever Aunt Doreen was expecting visitors we had to hide in our bedroom. They usually came at night, and I could often hear girls’ voices until they closed the door. Mavis said they were the lucky ones and she wished she’d got there sooner. It actually got to the point when Mavis was too big to do anything. She waddled around the house until her waters broke. I had to assist Aunt Doreen deliver the baby. Mavis was propped up with pillows and blankets on the big table. Once the baby, a boy, was born, Mavis gave him a feed and a name – Tommy. A man in a big overcoat then took him away. We never saw Tommy again.
We stayed at Aunt Doreen’s for another couple of weeks and then returned to London and Aunt Vi. Everyone asked Mavis how she was. They all thought she had something wrong with her lungs and had to get out of London for a while. Mavis’ wild ways calmed from then on. She saved all her wildness for me. She hated me passionately for the next couple of years. I hated her too mind. I blamed her for taking me away from all my friends and schooling and she held me liable for losing her baby. When the chips were down and she’d given birth and held Tommy in her arms, I think she actually wanted to keep him. She never said so of course.
As we grew up we started to focus our energies on our own lives and became less bothered with what each other was doing. That didn’t stop her flirting and throwing herself at my husband at every opportunity. He used to ignore her. By then she had a respectable reputation but I knew the real her. She eventually married, but he wasn’t that good to her. There were endless rumours of his infidelity with every skirt that crossed his path. He tried it on with me one Christmas and I sent him away with a flea in his ear. He wasn’t even that good looking.
Aunt Vi lived a good life and then suddenly got ill and died. Mavis and I thereafter drifted further away and only stayed in touch loosely. We were the only family each other had after all. She was the sister I never had. Her venom has lost some of its potency but it’s still there as you’ve seen from her recent behaviour. We promised Aunt Vi we would look out for each other, and so we always have. We know that when push comes to shove we’ll drop everything to provide whatever is needed. Why do you think she was one of my biggest supports after the break in?
I often wondered what happened to Tommy and whether he would come looking for his birth mother. I think he was sold which was in part to cover the cost of our keep at Auntie Doreen’s. I don’t even know if the birth was ever correctly registered. I doubt it.
And with that I finally knew the entire history of Lil and Mavis. We had long since finished our tea and I got us another. We sat in silence for some time as I attempted to process the revelations and Lil processed telling someone the history which had been buried for so long. It meant a lot that she told me and it would help me when trying to navigate the Lil/Mavis minefield in the future.
‘You ain’t got much to say,’ Lil said.
‘I wouldn’t know what to say after that.’
‘I can’t live with her, but I made a promise and she’s the only family I’ve got left.’
‘You’ve got us too.’ Lil put her hand on mine but didn’t speak. ‘Are you coming back to Crouch End?’
‘No, I’d better stay here for a while yet.’
‘Do you need anything? I could nip back.’
‘Na, it’s fine. I’m glad you came today. It was about time I expelled those demons of old.’
I hugged Lil. She hugged back harder than ever before. I descended the escalator and watched Lil’s shape disappear from view.