Tea for Two
A young woman stands uncertainly in the doorway of the Lyons tea room. One hand struggles to stop fair hair escaping from a felt hat. Eyes scanning the crowded tea room, she takes in the familiar sounds of hissing steam, clinking china cups and smell of teacake. Face relaxing in recognition, she winds through the little tables.
‘Well, here we are again, Carrie,’ she says, smiling down at the young woman absent-mindedly stroking a scarlet silk scarf, so absorbed by a magazine that she hasn’t noticed the arrival.
‘Caroline – always the one with style,’ Vivienne thinks. Glancing up, Caroline is quickly on her feet, arms out, a little theatrically, to meet her friend’s more tentative gesture. The man in a suit at the next table, noticing the slightly awkward embrace as he brushes cake crumbs from his lips, wonders if they are friends, family or strangers.
‘Viv! Oh good, you made it. I wondered if you would cry off.’
‘What a gorgeous scarf!’ says Vivienne. Something safe to say. Caroline touches the scarlet paisley at her throat.
‘Oh, this old thing. Picked it up in Rome last year. Those poor Italians were so desperate for our currency they’d sell us anything.’ Was there ever a time when Caroline had not worn something red? Vivienne thinks. Even at Dad’s funeral last week, a red bead choker with her neat black costume.
‘Viv, darling, do sit down and I’ll order tea. Scones and cream? They do have them now, even if it is that sickly artificial stuff.’
‘Well yes, it does feel a bit of an occasion doesn’t it? And if it hadn’t been for the…well who knows when…?’ Vivienne trails off, as she settles her old green raincoat on the back of the chair, and brushes imaginary fluff from her suit jacket.
‘Yes,we have to thank the funeral for that at least. It was such a good turnout so no time to talk properly, but without it we might have gone on missing each other in Portsmouth for years!’ Caroline’s bracelets tinkle, as with one red shiny nail she pushes a sleek blonde lock behind an ear.
‘And with all your gadding about in the WAAFs, Caroline, we never quite knew where you were. So hush-hush your mother always said, although we took that with a pinch of salt.’
‘Lord, my mother!’ Caroline says, rolling her eyes. ‘Although hush-hush was right, really. Still not supposed to go into details even now!’ One finger touches her lips in a playful shush. ‘But since I got back from Italy, well, life’s been rather dull.’ A moment’s hesitation, a quick glance down at her lap, looking for chipped polish or seeking her own reflection in the scarlet shine of her fingertips.
‘But listen, really darling, how are you feeling now? The funeral – quite a day for you, wasn’t it?’ She turns her head to summon the nippy, avoiding her friend’s eyes. As the waitress takes the order, Vivienne picks up a silver teaspoon, as if checking its cleanliness, needing time to think. The waitress turns away, fingers quickly touching her white frilled uniform cap out of habit, vaguely wondering why the young women seem so awkward.
‘I’d say quite a day for everyone,’ Vivienne sighs. ‘What would poor Dad have made of it? Even our old Edith turning up after all these years.’
‘And still with all that red frizzy hair!’
‘You know, after she’d left us I used to wish I’d talked properly with her. She was just there. Answering the phone, making cocoa and hot water bottles, devouring her film magazines. Strange though, seeing her again at the funeral I didn’t seem able to ask her a single thing.’
‘Both your sisters turning up too. Did you wonder if they’d make it, given everything?’ Caroline takes a quick breath but hasn’t finished. ‘Mummy was in pieces of course, not just about your father. She really did love Alex, you know. But trying to think of a plan…if there were difficulties I suppose.’
‘Of course, we’d all been wondering who else would show up and how on earth it would be managed if he…well, you know,’ Vivienne says, a small frown focusing on a green napkin.
‘And you remember how much she’s always seen herself as a party maker! Everything must run like clockwork, enough to eat and drink and lots of compliments on her youthful figure and face. Even at a funeral!’
‘Your mother! Goodness, yes. I’ll never forget that ghastly Christmas do of hers.’ Vivienne’s frown is replaced with a girlish grin. ‘Was it ’41 or ’42?’
‘Oh, don’t remind me – all her twinkly showing off and sausage rolls! And she gave Julia a real grilling about her love life, didn’t she? I’d never seen your sister so pink and stumped for words.’ Thoughts overlapping, they are both smiling as the tea and a plate of scones arrive. ‘Now, of course we know what all that was about, don’t we?’ says Caroline. They both give the waitress a grateful smile and she is relieved. She takes her job seriously.
‘We remember things like that, but how much have we forgotten?’ says Vivienne. ‘All those years, all those people, all those awful – ’
‘Dried eggs!’ Caroline says, looking across at the sunlight slipping through a nearby window. And again a shared smile.
‘Carrie, some things I think have gone forever and then suddenly – don’t you find that something really tiny can conjure up so much?’
‘And is that good or bad, sweetie?’ Caroline asks softly, as she pours tea. Vivienne is folding and unfolding her napkin for a long moment.
‘Like Dad’s funeral, I suppose. All those dark coats and demob suits and sympathetic glances and whispered words.’ A smaller voice now, Vivienne seems to shrink a little into her chair.
‘Yes. People never quite know what to say on these occasions, do they? All that odd collection of people last week drifting around us, and the – here, take your tea, Viv. Hey, come back, you look miles away.’ She stares at her friend.
‘Darling, what is it?’
Still the sounds of spoons on teacups, scrapings of chairs from tables, murmurings of couples. Vivienne doesn’t hear them. She is seeing a window of memory slowly slide open. Her mind’s eye races to meet the past, spreading into a haze of remembered acrid smoke.