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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
‘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.