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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Irish Eyes are Smiling

I became aware of my surroundings as the synapses in my brain started to fire. The sun wasn’t pouring through the curtains which was an unwelcome change from the previous few weeks. The sunshine yellow of my dandelion retro duvet cover would have to do. I hoped it wasn’t raining as after Breakfast Club I needed to get my hair cut.

I was always grateful to wake naturally as I do find being jolted awake by the alarm clock rather barbarous.

When I rose and had a cup of tea in my hands, I braved the sitting room to see swirling grey clouds, threatening a summer storm, from the sanctuary of the closed French doors.

It was still warm however, and I wore my new flower-patterned jersey shorts and an older black t shirt. I wanted to wear a David Bowie T shirt and channel my Thin White Duke, in spite of my ever-increasing waist line. However, despite all the modern technological wonders we still have some way to go to cease trimmed hair sticking to the inside of clothing and creating itchy garments – even after washing. An older ‘haircut’ T shirt is still the least incommodious option.

‘After you,’ I said to Lil as we simultaneously arrived at the café door.

‘Why thank you kind sir,’ answered Lil with a familiar cackle. She was wearing a lemon-coloured sun dress and white sandals. I observed the lack of trolley or walking stick but decided against commenting.

Armando joined us at our table.

‘Is it too warm for a cooked breakfast this morning Lil?’ asked Armando.

‘Never – it’s my weekly treat,’ said Lil.

‘I’d like the Greek yoghurt with honey and fruit please,’ I said.

‘Bloody typical Boulevardier. You do get above your station sometimes – what a hoity-toity breakfast,’ said Lil. Armando sniggered.

‘I’m surprised you don’t want a sausage on the side,’ added Lil which caused her and Armando to exchange loud laughs. I tried to maintain a straight demeanour but failed. She was funny after all.

A large family-sized 1970s teapot arrived. I lifted the lid and as expected the brewing process was in progress.

‘Everything all right with you and your new fella?’ asked Lil looking squarely at Armando.

‘Yes, it’s good. Language barrier is a problem though. His English is limited to a few words and we have to use a translator constantly. He knows some Italian but no Spanish.’

‘The language of love needs no translation,’ said Lil. It was my turn to add stereo to her loud crowing.

Armando lifted the lid and started to stir the pot. I have often wondered at the pre-occupation with teapots as a concealer for discomposure.

I do, if you hadn’t previously realised, have a tea addiction – Assam in particular. I felt a familiar rush as Armando streamed the golden elixir into my expectant and chipped cup.

‘Speaking of love Lil, who was that Mr McGuire? He was very attentive last week’ I said.

‘Who?’ said Lil. She as ever knew precisely who and what I meant.

‘The man at your feet in the park,’ I continued.

‘Delicious – just what I needed,’ said Lil as our morning meals arrived. Lil clutched her cutlery and prepared to gormandize a rasher of back bacon.

I stirred the honey, fruit and nuts into my yoghurt and was momentarily transported back to Santorini when my taste buds had savoured the exquisite combination.

‘When’s your next date?’ Lil asked Armando with quite the mouthful. The food was disappearing swiftly from her plate  .

‘Hopefully Saturday evening,’ said Armando, ‘we need to confirm the detail.’

‘Mmmmmm,’ said Lil as she shovelled another fork load of egg and sausage into her mouth.

‘Hello there,’ said a random voice from the café door. Armando and Lil smiled and I looked round to see Marty McGuire and Nelly McAleen heading in our direction.

After pleasantries Mrs McAleen took the seat next to me and Marty pulled up another from a free table.

‘It’s a great day for the Coca-Cola,’ said Mrs McAleen. It was strange, she’d said the same to me at the picnic. I wondered whether she had been a marketeer for Coke, although the sweet smell from her breath didn’t represent the same brand. It smelt like some kind of beer but it couldn’t be, it was only 10.20am.

I decided that the next time she said it I was going to ask her why but for today said ‘Yes, indeed,’ as I loaded a combination of honey, yoghurt and blueberry onto my spoon and added ‘Shall we get a fresh pot of tea?’

‘We’re fine thanks,’ said Marty, ‘in fact we’ll need to get going shortly if we’re going to make it to Muswell before the lunch rush. You nearly ready treasure?’

He was directing this at Lil. I was about to intervene and hint that we were in the middle of breakfast when Lil spoke.

‘Yes – just let me go powder my nose,’ she said as she dabbed her napkin at the corners of her mouth. There was food left on her plate. This had not happened before – especially as she was shovelling only seconds earlier.

‘Lil, you haven’t finished your breakfast?’ I said. I actually wanted to reprimand her if she thought she was leaving Breakfast Club early. I’d certainly been told off for missing sessions in the past.’

‘I’m full thank you Wayne. Please don’t fuss. Mr McGuire and Nelly have kindly invited me to accompany them to the summer sales, and I’ve had my eye on several new pieces.’

‘I thought Nelly wanted a Coke.’ I said rather facetiously.

Lil stood and glared at me. ‘Don’t be petulant please.’ She switched the scowl to content and turned to our Irish pair and said, ‘now if you two would give me a minute.’

Armando scurried to the kitchen. He was such a coward.

Marty McGuire looked at me and said, ‘I can tell that you’re square by the clothes that you wear, so why not get with it, and pay me a visit.’

Well really. ‘I’m fine the way I am, thank you,’ I said.

‘It used to be the advertisement for our local tailor in Cork. Good eh,’ said Marty.

It seemed as if we had the elderly advertising duo of Crouch End. I smiled politely.

‘What a picture – stop right there – I want to capture this moment,’ said Marty looking at Lil. He framed his fingers and looked between them.

Lil giggled – and yes, I mean giggled. I wanted to send out an SOS to Bill. I wasn’t taking to this Irish charmer at all. I picked up my cup and drank through pursed lips.

Mrs McAleen was quiet but at least she’d stopped talking about Coca-Cola.

‘See you next week Armando,’ Lil called towards the kitchen. Armando appeared at his counter and waved. Lil kissed me on my cheek and whispered that I should behave, and with that they were gone. I could see outside that Marty had linked arms with Lil and his sister as they paraded off to the W7 bus stop.

I was cross.

Armando sat – now the coast was clear.

‘You think that Lil has a new boyfriend?’ he asked.

‘I sincerely hope not,’ I answered and folded my arms.

‘It’s not easy being on your own and being lonely,’ said Armando.

I softened and put my arms on the table. I had Michael and I’d forgotten that it can be desolate on your own. I wasn’t sure that Marty was right for Lil or this Brazilian right for Armando but as long as they were contented or at least positive.

‘It’s difficult to keep friends with an anti-social job,’ said Armando.

Armando was surrounded by people all day but of course they are mostly customers rather than friends. It made me think of the lyrics in Super Trouper ‘facing 20,000 of my friends, how could anyone feel so lonely?’

Perhaps I was being a little judgemental and decided to extend the hand of friendship again.

‘You’re right Armando, I hadn’t thought of it like that. Are you busy later? Shall we meet for a drink and supper? Michael has a late meeting anyway.’

‘Fantastic. Can we go out of Crouch End though? I need a change of scene.’

Steady on Armando, I thought, but again redressed myself. ‘Yes, let’s go to Hampstead.’

Despite Lil’s previous gossip about Armando’s crush I didn’t share her concerns. I had Michael and he knew it, and he had his Brazilian.

And before that I had to get my haircut. Always a tricky time in fear of them slicing too much from the length of my quiff. I re-filled my cup to temper my nerves.