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.’
‘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.’
‘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.
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.
‘Yes that’s what I said.’
‘I think I’m getting a blister.’
‘You’d not make a good kitchen boy.’
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.
‘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.