“Julie! Hello! Did you have a wonderful time?” I called.
She saw me and worked her way between the tables with her tray. I stood up as she arrived and took her coffee and carrot cake and set it down took off her coat.
“Hello, Dora, you’re looking well! What news?”
She sat down and then moved the table a little, altering the angle of her chair so she could see the counter. I thought she might have been bursting to tell me about the holiday… maybe it hadn’t gone as well as she hoped, although she’d definitely caught the sun. She glanced back to the counter, looking for her ‘boy’ as she called him.
The rest of us in the book club used to have a little chuckle, well, actually quite a big chuckle over Julie and the boy. Julie is the same age as us I guess, somewhere between mid-fifties and early sixties, the boy is probably about forty, so not really a boy at all. We could never see what she saw, he was an OK looking guy, very pleasant and friendly when he served us coffee or whatever. Julie had a big what we used to call ‘crush’ on him… which did amuse us!
I didn’t have much news; the hens were laying well, I’d made a great batch of both quince and crab apple jelly… the usual sort of domestic things, and I’d done a lot of walking and writing. She asked how my walking book was going. She was pushing bits of carrot cake around the plate. It’s her passion and usually she attacks it with gusto.
I was more interested in hearing about the Cape Verde Islands, but I obliged her with recounting where I was up to in my guide to unusual and unexpected places, and how to get there via an interesting route.
“How’s Ruby?” I had to ask after her mother. We tried to avoid it because otherwise the whole conversation would take a downward spiral. We all felt so sorry for Julie; Ruby her mother was lovely and we tried to visit regularly, but she was very wearying… sweet, but so dependent and so… well, so … well, trying really.
We took it in turns to have the book club at each other’s homes, but now we only saw Julie when it was her turn to host it – she couldn’t leave Ruby in the evenings. Ruby insisted on ‘being sociable’ and joining in, but she’d never read the book, and always tried to talk about other things. As I said, we felt so sorry for Julie that we put up with it, but it made it difficult to get any new members; a new person wouldn’t want to have a book club where we talked about Princess Diana and how Woman’s Weekly wasn’t as good as it used to be.
Julie was looking across at the counter; there’d been a big reorganisation in the museum, the café had become so popular that it had expanded into what had been the old library. The museum staff were expected to serve in the café as well as doing the museum work. We meet here regularly, good coffee, nice cakes, and a museum! What more could you want! But for Julie there was an extra, the boy.
The boy was Declan and as I said we used to have a private chuckle over how much Julie ‘liked’ him – we called him her toy boy and it got shortened to the ‘boy’. We would tease her gently as she came back blushing and happy if he happened to serve her, and roll our eyes when we met her outside and she told us about him, what he’d been wearing, what he’d said to her, what she’d said to him – it was only ever ‘Is it raining outside?’ ‘Yes, a bit.’ ‘I thought it might be everyone’s coming in with umbrellas.’ That sort of thing…
“So, come on, how were the Cape Verde Islands?” I asked.
I thought for a moment she was going to cry, but she blinked it back.
“It should have been wonderful, it should have been such an escape! I should have felt free!” she exclaimed, almost angrily. I felt desperate for her; it was the first time she’d been away from her mother for more than a couple of days since she’d moved in when her marriage broke down. It turned out her husband had spent all their savings and remortgaged the house. Julie had had no choice but to live with Ruby… to become her carer in effect… her nurse…
Julie worked at home doing secretarial and the accounts for a firm in town, and a couple of times a week Ruby went to an old people’s social club which gave Julie the freedom to come out and meet her friends, as she was meeting me now. We nearly always met in the museum… I think it was the highlight of her week to sit drinking coffee and watching the boy surreptitiously.
So the holiday… Every day she was away Julie had rung the care home where Ruby had been accommodated… and it was always something… Ruby begging her to come back early, Ruby not eating (the food was disgusting she said) Ruby not sleeping (the beds were like concrete) Ruby not wanting to get up… the care home had been wonderful and told Julie there was nothing to worry about, her mother was fine… but it had ruined the holiday.
“And now I come back to this!” she said…
She’d come into the museum last week and again this week, several times she told me, and the boy was not here, not on any of the days he usually worked, nor was he working anywhere else in the museum.
“I thought maybe because it was half term last week he was looking after his son,” she was genuinely upset. “But no, now he’s still not been here!”
She abruptly changed the subject to the novel we were reading for book club. She always read them, even though she only saw us once in a blue moon.
Poor Julie… and we arranged to meet the following week, back here in the museum.
“Hello there, what can I get you?” it was Declan, the boy, back behind the counter. He smiled in his friendly way and we had a trifling conversation about the new type of coffee beans. He was quite handsome I suppose, but I couldn’t really see what Julie saw.
I took my coffee over to her where she sat beaming. We don’t often embrace but she jumped up, unloaded my tray then gave me a hug.
“Your boy’s back!” I exclaimed and she grinned. “Are you going to ask him out? I’ll sit with Ruby!”
“Don’t be silly… it’s not like that… of course it isn’t… And anyway, even if he was older or I was younger it still wouldn’t be like that! I’m not free am I? But to come here a couple of times a week…” she stopped. “I know you think I’m ridiculous, that I’m a ridiculous old woman, and I know you all laugh at me, but the boy…” She tapped the side of her head. “In here, in my head, anything is possible! In here I’m free!”