Saturday, 21 January 2017
The Afternoon Tea Party
For several weeks following the death of our father, my four year old brother, and I were given treats by the neighbours and generally approached with care and even caution, presumably due to the possible emotional trauma we were suffering. Bernard was simply confused, having not been told that his father had died and I was under strict instructions not to enlighten him, my mother feeling the best way forward was that he should simply forget he had existed in the first place. This strategy was unwise and was to have a profound effect upon him in the future but for the time being, unused to treats being lavished upon us, we revelled in the attention. We were invited to tea by my father’s foreman from the Cement Works who had a family of two slightly hysterical girls called Brenda and Sylvia, and two foster sons called Kevin and David. They were what my mother called `Good People’ and attended a Methodist Chapel regularly. We were excited and more than a little anxious. Being invited out to tea was not something we were accustomed to. Dressed in our best clothes, we walked the two kilometres from York Road and I had to hold Bernard’s hand all the way. It was a bitterly cold January day but there was a cheerful fire in the Foreman’s living/dining room which was impressively quite separate from their kitchen. Theirs was an upper working class terraced house but with a little front garden and a narrow entrance hall. I was only too aware how badly our own home environment compared and would have cheerfully had my finger nails pulled out to have lived in such luxury; imagine coming home to a house with an entrance hall and thus not having to walk directly from the street into the front room! Furthermore I later discovered this lavish residence also had an inside toilet in a real bathroom where little pink fluffy towels were available if you happened to want to wash your hands. As I was not in the habit of washing my hands after visiting the toilet I did not use them but instead tried to imagine the indulgence of never having to don coat and scarf before traipsing forth into the backyard on winter nights. There was a freshly ironed blue and white cloth on the table and it was set for six – the two excitable girls, their young foster brothers and we two. A plate of bread and butter was in the centre and beside it a little dish of strawberry jam with a spoon, another plate of assorted biscuits and pieces of homemade gingerbread and in the very centre of the table, in pride of place, six chocolate tea cakes wrapped in silver paper. I knew what they were because I had often longingly examined them in their tempting red and white boxes in Trokes’ corner shop, and at the Co-op. My mother never bought them because they were, she said, `too pricey’ but occasionally opted instead for a more substantial Lyons Individual Fruit Pie which could be cut into sizeable portions and still feed three. We two sat at the table more than a little ill at ease because of our excitement. It was just like being in a Noel Streatfield story. Bernard was offered bread and butter with jam which he unhesitatingly turned down in favour of gingerbread and biscuits. I had read enough about this particular social situation to know we were meant to begin with the bread and butter option and so, glaring at him just a little, I did, working my way methodically towards the gingerbread and biscuits. Bernard was asked if he would like another piece of gingerbread which he refused. Would he perhaps like a chocolate tea cake the hovering foreman’s wife asked? He nodded enthusiastically and could scarcely get the silver paper off fast enough, then looked at the dainty morsel as if he could not believe his good fortune before beginning to slowly nibble around the edges. The rest of us began a stilted afternoon tea conversation about the latest Enid Blyton book that Brenda was reading, all the while taking glances at the miscreant in our midst. I was torn between fury towards him for letting me down on the very first occasion in my life I was invited out to tea, and anger at myself for not warning him in advance about social etiquette. Of all this my brother remained blissfully unaware. One of the boys pointed out that it wasn’t fair to get a chocolate tea cake without eating any bread and butter. He was quelled by a fierce look from his foster mother and in the interim Bernard’s progress around the edges of the teacake had become rapid and he was already licking odd bits of chocolate from his fingers. `That was very nice’, he remarked conversationally and shook his head when offered biscuits or more gingerbread. Meanwhile even whilst engaging in conversation, all the host children except Kevin had demolished the required amount of bread and biscuits and were tucking into their own chocolate tea cake. I joined them. One solitary silver wrapped cake remained in the middle of the table, now eyed anxiously by Kevin. The host mother urged him to hurry up and began to take off her pinny and fold it, cheerfully asking if her two guests would like something more. I shook my head. Bernard was now sitting on both his hands, his cheeks slightly red, a smear of chocolate on his chin. He paused for an agonising two or three seconds and then to my extreme horror said loudly, nodding towards the centre of the table - `I’d like that tea cake please’. She gave it to him immediately whilst Kevin began a howl of protest, `But that one is mine – it’s mine – it’s mine.’ He was ignored by Bernard who hastily ripped off the covering and began to cram it into his mouth before she could change her mind. Kevin threw himself on the floor and crawled under the table, continuing to cry loudly. David swung to and fro on his chair making baby noises. The two girls looked wide eyed and shocked, mouths open. I wished a hole would appear in the Axminster carpet for me to disappear into. I had never in my eleven and a half years of life felt so utterly humiliated and let down – imagine having a brother who ate the last tea cake! What could possibly be worse? On the way home I did not hold his hand. `Why did you ask for the last tea cake?’ I demanded to know as we reached the corner of Perry Street. `Because I wanted it,’ he said unhesitatingly. Through gritted teeth I snarled that it was obvious he wanted it but that eating the last teacake simply wasn’t done. `Why not?’ he wanted to know. I considered giving him some extended punishment but in the end thought better of it. Probably as he grew older and learned to read proper books with chapters, he would begin to understand the rather complex social rules pertaining to those who aspired to join the lower middle classes and thus be invited out to afternoon tea where exotic items like teacakes were served in the first place. It had begun to snow on the way back and when we got home there was a huge fire in the kitchen. `Well did they give you a good tea?’ our mother wanted to know. Bernard said, `Yes, it was good. They have different jam to us – it doesn’t come in a jar - it comes in a dish…….and they have chocolate teacakes in silver paper. I ate two of them and I kept the paper.’ He pulled several wrinkled and creased pieces of silver paper from his pocket, placed them gently on the kitchen table and began to examine them reverently. I was astonished to find my eyes filling suddenly with tears. I bolted upstairs before either of them noticed.