Resolutions Abound

New Year’s Eve is one of my favourite celebrations and this one in rural Hertfordshire didn’t disappoint. We started early with a delicious homemade brunch accompanied by Bucks Fizz as worthy sustenance before embarking on a long and arduous walk to a designated pub. We rambled across fields, through frozen mud, up and down hills and passed various country animals. At the pub we defrosted with mulled wine and Prosecco. Late afternoon we called into another local pub for further fizz as a prelude to the main party, which provided more Champagne, food and exotic alcohol beverages. The bong of midnight came and went as we quenched our thirst for 2015. My resolution is to never drink alcohol again. I have managed to sustain my resolve thus far; Sherry has not even furnished a glass.

It seemed from our Breakfast Club party that at last Lil was going to be happy, but there was a cost – isn’t there always?, and that would be Marty McGuire. We didn’t have Breakfast Club on New Year’s Day and Armando and I decided to call on him on 2nd.

We rang the bell several times without a response, and having seen the square footage of his bedsit there was no chance he was out of earshot. We were just about to abort our mission when a familiar ‘Hello fellas’ came from behind, followed by a ‘how can I help you today?’

‘Hi Marty. We wanted to see how you were?’

‘You’d better come in then.’ Marty’s plastic carrier bag clinked as he moved forward to open the door. The hallway hadn’t received a festive spruce and looked as sad as it previously had. Marty’s room was still untidy.  It was impossible to analyse any signs of increased distress and mess as a result of his recent lost love. He filled the kettle from the dripping faucet and inspected the inside of three cups sitting on the sideboard.

‘Clean – that’s lucky.’ Marty’s attempts at hospitality were thoughtful. He put two teabags in the pot and extracted a bottle of whole milk from the fridge. After taking a sniff presumably to validate it wasn’t sour, he sat down.

‘No biscuits I’m afraid. I wasn’t expecting visitors and I’m surprised to see you to be honest.’

‘It’s been an emotional few weeks,’ I said.

‘I’m fine. You two must be happy.’ Marty looked down and showed the first signs of bitterness.

‘No, not happy –’

‘So you’d rather Lil be with me then?’

‘I think what Armando was trying to say was that we care a lot about Lil, and yes we want her to be happy, but we’re also here to see you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what we think.’

‘Yes, yes I understand. It hurts though and just my bloody luck.’

‘We wanted you to know that you’re still welcome at any time,’ Armando said.

We drank our creamy tea while Marty told us about a dead cert in the 3pm that day. I was glad that he hadn’t accused us of plotting against him and he didn’t seem to be holding a grudge. We parted on good terms.

‘See you when I’m looking at ya.’ Marty closed his front door. There was a commotion downstairs and a woman shouting at her child who was playing on the stairs. I withheld any advice on the dangers of progeny amusing themselves on the stairwell and squeezed past.

‘Coffee?’ asked Armando.

I nodded and we set off in the direction of the café. We were less than a few feet into our journey when we encountered Nelly McAleen armed with a Pyrex dish covered with tin foil.

‘A pie for my brother.’ Nelly held aloft her container.

‘We’ve been to see him.’

‘A funny business,’ Nelly said.

‘I hope he’ll be OK.’

‘Yes Wayne, he’ll bounce back. We’ve always had to.’

There was a sadness around this interaction. Nelly had looked after her brother, and I think she hoped he’d rely on her less with Lil in the picture.

‘Are you still on good terms with the girls?’

‘Yes – I had tea with Gisela and Cyril yesterday.’ I chuckled at the thought of Cyril being one of the girls. Lil was absent and I knew why only too well. This was not the time to highlight who had kept her away from an afternoon tea.

‘Oh. I didn’t see you.’ Armando folder his arms – even in this delicate situation he didn’t appreciate customers patronising another café.

‘No, we were at Cyril’s. He baked a deliciously light Madeira.’

‘I hope we’re still going to see you around Mrs McAleen,’ I said.

‘Yes of course, and don’t worry about my brother. If I’m honest he has already asked Doris out to tea.’ We smiled. This was the Marty we expected; the Irish charmer was beginning to bounce back.

‘Anyway, this pot is getting heavy and there is a Coca-Cola with my name on it.’ We kissed Nelly and carried on to our coffee.

We decided to squeeze in a Breakfast Club at the weekend. I had no idea who would be attending. Lil had been all consumed with Bill and mostly incommunicado. I took this as a good sign. I patted my ‘Ho Ho Ho’ sweater as it went back into a storage container and on top of the wardrobe for another year. My jeans were squeezing my waist after the excesses of the season and I resolved to stop eating once I was back at work. I popped a multi-coloured sweater over a Madonna T-shirt.

I was early and first into the café.

‘Who’s coming?’ Armando shrugged his shoulders from behind his trusty counter.

Cyril and Gisela arrived next.

‘No Lil?’ I asked

‘She’s nipped to the Post Office,’ Gisela said.

Judith was on hand with a large, steaming pop of Assam. Armando wiped his hands on his apron and joined us. It was unusual starting Breakfast Club within its patron.

‘I would like to order a coffee today please,’ Gisela said and added, ‘I’ve not slept too well and need something stronger to wake me up.’

‘One espresso please.’ Armando turned and called out to a disappearing Judith. She nodded; her back still to us.

‘Why are you not sleeping?’ I asked.

‘What a bloody liberty.’ Lil stood before us huffing and puffing – hands on hips, and dependable trolley at her side. ‘Budge over.’ Lil prodded at Cyril with her stick.

‘Don’t get your bloomers in a knot – we’ve not even ordered yet.’ I stood to allow Cyril to move and planted a kiss on Lil’s cheek.

‘It’s knickers in a twist.’ Lil thrust her trolley into the vacant space between tables. She looked more flustered than a trip to the Post Office should create.

Judith returned with a small cup and saucer containing dark, aromatic liquid.

‘Wunderbar.’

Our orders were placed: three Full Englishes, a raspberry and orange muffin and a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage on the side. I ordered extra toast. The food restriction would start tomorrow.

‘I had a beautiful and long letter from my cousin’s daughter. She is in Germany. I didn’t realise my visit had affected her so much.’

‘What you talking about Gi?’ Lil said.

‘I didn’t sleep well…’

‘I’ll pour, shall I?’ Lil said. I took the heavy, oversized pot from her to prevent spillage.

‘It’s difficult when your family is in another country,’ Armando said.

‘Yes. I didn’t think so until my recent visit. Our family has shrunk considerably and very few are left. We got on very well. She lives in a large village called Alfter, which is just outside Bonn. It’s a lovely spot. She and her husband have done well. Her mother, my cousin Sabine, lives in the house next door, or at the bottom of the garden, dependent upon your point of view.’

‘Good job you visited them already, isn’t it.’ Lil was irritated and I hoped this wasn’t an omen of problems with Bill. I wasn’t going to ask yet.

‘Yes, it is. She has invited me to go back for another.’

‘That sounds lovely.’ Cyril jumped in quickly. ‘I for one think it’s fabulous that you’ve reconnected with your family.’

‘How are you Cyril?’ Armando asked.

‘A little pensive. I went to the cinema in the week and watched My Old Lady. I wish I lived in a Parisian apartment and was paid over 2000 euros a month under a viager.’ Cyril put his teacup down and looked towards the front windows.

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‘Paris? Bonn? What’s wrong with good ole London Town?’ Lil asked.

Breakfasts arrived. The steam rose from the plates delivering a delicious aroma. I was famished and furnished my fork with baked beans and a slice of mushroom. Goodness knows how I was going to cope with a return to a solitary bowl of porridge.

‘What is viager?’ Armando asked.

‘It’s a life estate. The property is sold for a monthly fee, which is paid for as long as the person lives. If they die quickly then the buyer has a great deal. If they live for many years the buyer ends up, potentially, paying over the odds. It’s a gamble, but I’d love to get a monthly income for living at home. It’s not as if I have children and my family don’t need any help.’

‘Who pays you?’ Lil asked.

‘The person who buys your home.’

‘But why do they pay you if they’ve already paid for the property?’

‘They don’t pay, or maybe don’t pay much for the property. I’m not sure of the precise detail.’ Cyril had placed his cutlery on the table to better focus as he tried to explain the subtleties of a foreign system to Lil.

‘Could I get a viag, or estate for life or whatever the bloody thing is called?’ Lil said.

‘Isn’t your flat council?’ Gisela asked.

‘Yes.’

‘Then the answer is no.’

‘There’s no sodding use in talking about it then.’ Lil’s egg yolk splattered across her plate. She was in no humour today for delicately peeling back the skin.

‘What’s wrong with you?’ I asked.

‘Me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘You seem to have a short fuse.’

‘No I don’t.’

‘You weren’t like this before you went to the Post Office,’ Cyril said.

‘What do you mean?’ Lil pointed her fork at Cyril. She was spoiling for a fight. I would have to face it head on.

‘Where is Bill by the way? I thought he might join us today.’

‘He wasn’t going to join us. He has too much to sort out at his flat, and we are going out to dinner later.’ Lil picked up a piece of toast and threw it back down again. ‘My toast is cold.’

‘Toast doesn’t stay hot.’ Armando supported Lil, but pride for the café came first – always.

Lil burst into tears. I steered her from her chair and to the back room, which was empty fortunately. I held Lil close as she sobbed.

‘How can I help?’ I asked.

‘It’s mess after mess. I can’t cope anymore.’ Another sobbing fit ensued. Judith appeared at the door and I shook my head.

‘You have to tell me what’s upset you.’ I released Lil from my embrace and in doing so encouraged her to sit up and pull herself together sufficiently to provide me with the details.

‘Bill came to the Post Office with me.’ Lil was still sobbing. I passed her a tissue and she wiped her eyes.

‘Thank you. I saw Mavis across the street, near one of the charity shops and she waved back.’ Lil paused again to blow her nose.

‘Go on,’ I said.

‘Bill said he had something to tell me when we were in the queue. He sounded nervous. Bloody Bellamy has been on at him all week for a catch up. I left Bill in the queue and drove my trolley across the road, in front of the 41. She was chatting to some poor unsuspecting woman. The corner of her mouth started to turn upwards as she saw me approach. She knew that I knew what she’d been doing.’

‘Why don’t you ignore her? She knows she’ll get a rise from you.’

‘This was the final straw and I know I’ve said that before and I always promised I would look out for her, but I couldn’t deal with any more upset. She started to ask after my health. I held my hand up and told her to fucking shut up.’

I was always shocked when such a word came from Lil’s lips.

‘Do you know that she wrote to Bill once when he was away? Once, and that was months ago. She moved onto Marty because I did. She always wants what I have. I threatened her with something I’ve never threatened her with before…’

Lil paused. She took a sip from the glass of water Judith had silently delivered.

‘You’re going to have to tell me.’

Lil shuffled in her seat and then looked me straight in the eyes.

‘I said I would go and find her son, the one she had out of wedlock, when she was 16. And she knew I meant it. She fled.’

 

 

 

Hoity-Toity Crouch End

I’d been in the cafe for about ten minutes and was still waiting for Lil to sit down. She was standing at the front window, arms firmly on her hips ruffling the sides of her spring floral blouse and crinkling the daffodils emblazoned upon it.

She tutted.

‘Lil come and sit down for goodness sake. Standing at the window is not going to make him arrive any quicker,’ I suggested.

‘No, I want him to see my face as soon as he turns the corner. I told him Breakfast Club starts at 10am and it’s almost ten past. I don’t want his interruptions. He sure as hell won’t be getting any homemade soup for lunch today now.’

‘Shall I order at least?’ I asked.

‘No… ‘’I’m nipping to the Post Office’’ he said,’ Lil added.

Armando came over and whispered that he feared Lil was scaring away potential customers.

‘Ah, here he comes, the lost man of Crouch End,’ said Lil and pursed her lips in an explosive pout. Her truculence escalated.

Bill entered the cafe in a stressed manner with the tails of his grey raincoat billowing like a cape behind him. He went to kiss Lil on the cheek and she turned away.

“I’m sorry love. There was a queue in the Post Office. The wait does seem to be longer since they started the renovations but they promise it will be more efficient once the self-service counters are fitted,’ said Bill.

‘The queue must have been as far as the Clock Tower with the amount of time you’ve taken. Now hand over my stamps.’ Lil was not yielding to Bill.

‘No, the queue was outside the front door, but when I came out I bumped into Lucy and we had a quick catch up –’

‘Who the hell is Lucy?’ Lil asked. I wondered if any answer was likely to satisfy her need for blood.

‘Oh you know, Lucy Ridley-Smythe, my daughter’s friend who recently moved into one of the big houses on Weston Park. She had the twins with her. It would have been rude not to stop and catch up.’

‘Oh ‘er. One of the new, hoity-toity Crouch Enders. She gets on my nerves,’ said Lil.

Bill jiggled with a suppressed laugh and Lil tutted. Lil had an ability to tut and make the entire room shake – figuratively. Lil’s tuts are legendary. She could win awards for them.

I was also subduing a growing need to laugh out loud. It was pretty comical to watch; Lil was in the throes of taming her man. He would be a fool to resist for too long. It would be too painful.

‘Right well, I shall leave you to your Breakfast Club and come back later. Are we still meeting for lunch?’ asked Bill.

‘No, you’ve irritated me. I will call you later and we can make plans from there. You may go your own way.’ Lil sauntered towards me at our usual back table and sat down, straightening her skirt in a demure fashion, which I hoped would also calm her mood.

‘Let’s order boys. I’ve worked up quite the appetite today. I’ll have a full English with an extra sausage please.’ Lil let out an enormous cackle just as Bill had closed the door. He heard her verbal expression of enjoyment and that was exactly what she wanted.

‘In that case I’ll have a vegetarian breakfast with a sausage please,’ I said, adding to the joke.

‘Bloody customers should order items on the well-developed menu,’ said Armando. Lil and I looked at Armando with our mouths aghast. Surely we hadn’t upset him.

Armando grinned.

‘Very good,’ said Lil. You had me fooled and I’d already had my fill of drama from men today.’

We toasted our cups of tea together with a china chink and cemented our camaraderie as Breakfast Club members.

‘What’s happened to Crouch End? It used to be full of real Londoners, and a community. Now it’s got all the bloody la-di-da crowd who couldn’t afford Highgate,’ said Lil.

‘Come on, it’s not that bad Lil. It still has a great community spirit,’ I said.

‘I agree,’ said Armando, ‘lovely customers; some of them have been here years. Lots of groups for the community.’

‘Well neither of you were here twenty years ago. It wasn’t the new place to be. No one would touch it with a barge pole. That’s the spirit I miss. The real original Crouch Enders, when you went to Alexandra Palace for the horse racing, not bloody hoity-toity picnics with sun-dried tomatoes.’

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‘Horse Racing at Ally Pally? Are you sure, where?’ I asked.

Lil casually buttered a thick slab of toast. Suspense hung in the air.

‘Of course I’m bloody sure. I ain’t losing me marbles yet, you cheeky sod. It was there until the early 1970s. It was called the Frying Pan, because of its shape. We used to love going up there. And where do you think Victoria Stakes got its name from?’ Lil gave us that all-knowing look. I wish she recounted some of her more personal memories with as much warmth and nostalgia. I hoped there were some.

‘Wow, never knew that,’ said Armando.

‘Neither did I. Lil you are a font of knowledge today,’ I said. Lil smiled and celebrated by smothering another piece of toast with butter.

‘But I have to disagree that all is lost. Where else can you get a fishmonger’s, bakers, grocers, florists and haberdashery in a single London suburb? People remember you, people talk to each other. I love it and am proud to be a Crouch Ender,’ I said with pride.

‘I’ll tell you where you can get ‘em; in-between the millions of coffee shops, no offence Armando, over-priced artisan delicatessens and bakers, and vintage shops selling people’s unwanted shit for extortionate prices. Us, ahem, older members of the community are being pushed out.’ Lil was passionate about her lost part of London.

‘Never Lil. No one would ever dare push you out or even around.’

‘Too bleedin’ right. Now someone get me a fresh pot of tea,’ she said.

Armando’s chair seemed to glide from his bottom and he was off and into the kitchen. No one stood between Lil and her tea.

‘And another thing, don’t think that I don’t know that Bill will be crawling around my front door later with flowers and so he should.

What a great and productive Breakfast Club with my boys.’

I couldn’t agree more. I loved our precious Thursday mornings.