Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, Afternoon Tea, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
The pure, languorous line of her left profile caught my eye.
White, white, white was the skin, flawless as that of a marble statue with only the merest hint of pink highlighting the cheekbones – as if an artist had lightly touched her face in passing with his paintbrush. The long, dark sweep of her coal black hair moved backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards as she spoke, now hiding, now revealing. Whatever she said was uttered with no sign of animation, yet a sense of urgency was present and visible as her head moved and the curtain of hair swirled protectively to shield her face from the gaze of strangers.
I admired that hair. I marvelled at its density: so black it reminded me of a moonless midnight sky, the fury of which has put out all the stars. My fingers itched to feel its texture. I was sure it would feel warm. I had a sudden fancy – no an outright desire – to swathe my face and neck in it; wrap myself in its glory and breathe the sweet aroma that must surely inhabit its depths.
The tilt of the deep brown eyes that flashed from time to time with a cold fire, told me beyond doubt that the lady – girl? – was Oriental. Across the table, the companion to whom she spoke sat silent, his face expressionless as he absorbed like a sponge, the torrent of her words.
He was young, no more than twenty-five or so – it was difficult for me to assess with any degree of certainty having long left the heady days of my youth behind me.
His mouth was set in a thin compressed line but I could tell from its shape that, in normal circumstances, his smile would be broad, easy, charming: in every sense a likeable fellow. His short brown hair obviously defied all attempts at control and tumbled about his face in chaotic curls. Strain evident in every line; his face was that of an enraged angel. I had no doubt that, as a child, he had been the darling of his mother’s friends and had remained that way possibly until this very moment.
I had a momentary flash of light and dark – good and evil – then I shook my head, chiding myself for what was for me, a wild imagining.
The chink of teacups reminded me with a start that I was after all in a public place and that it was not polite to stare. Slowly I shifted my gaze and nonchalantly let it run over the other occupants of the tearoom.
A couple of local stalwarts sat at the corner table, blue rinsed and high coloured, held tightly together with the rigidity of old fashioned whalebone and steel, old money and sheer force of will, encased in expensive but rough to the touch, tweed.
I mused briefly on the incongruous fact that the very well off, the fairly well off and even the just ‘well off’ always seemed to find it necessary to cloth themselves in garments reminiscent of the hair shirts of monks. Could it have something to do with guilt I wondered – guilt about having so much while others had so little – yet being incapable of parting with any of it? If only they could bring themselves to enjoy their wealth then one might be able to pardon them for their possession of it. Maybe too they might then be able to forgive themselves.
My glance returned yet again for a moment to the couple at the bay window table.
The long, cool lines of the dark red jersey dress my Oriental lady wore flowed and clung with an ease that flattered her grace. She wore the dress with a casualness that betokened one who thought about what she clothed her body in and then promptly forgot it. I watched as her expressive fingers toyed with a strand of the dark satin sheaf that covered her shoulders, descending and hovering precisely one inch below her exquisitely small waistline. The even straight line of her hair caused me to imagine a guillotine slicing through its thick length, so definite was its ending.
I noted with dismay that her companion was now the one speaking urgently, white about his jaw-line with the effort of his words, his fingers clenched in two small fists on the edge of the walnut coloured table. She bent her head even lower, her white fingers moving faster and faster through the hair that slipped between them like a small, dark river, the rest of her body completely immobile.
I felt a sense of distress and turned away as much to relieve my own tension as to afford them privacy.
Directly opposite me, flush against the wall, a small two-seater table, impossibly wedged between two of the larger, family sized ones, sat the gentleman I had come to think of as the ‘sad banker.’ Whether he was in fact a banker, I, of course, did not know. He wore what I thought of as banker’s clothes; neat pinstripe trousers and smart cutaway jacket. His ties were always discreet but obviously expensive, although I had the curious sensation that his shirts, only the collars and cuffs of which were ever revealed, were somewhat used and shabby. As he never removed his jacket I can give no reason for my conclusion but nevertheless, I was quite definite in my own mind that it was indeed so.
His hair was grey and thinning, combed back from his high, gleaming forehead, every silver wafer lying close against its companion. His face hung in tired, pouched flesh, clean- shaven. His stirred a teaspoon endlessly in the cup of tea before him with a chink, chink, chink that became almost hypnotic, the two solitary digestive biscuits that he always ordered waiting patiently on the white china side-plate. He never ate two, only one. The other he always crumbled restlessly with one hand while the other stirred his tea, his sad, grey eyes staring fixedly into the middle distance.
From time to time he would give a quiet sigh that heaved his rather ponderous bulk up and out, pressing his stomach against the ridge of the table. I imagined that such a stricture would feel quite painful but he never seemed to notice or if he did, he did not acknowledge it.
I knew that within fifteen minutes he would give an extra large sigh, pull out a heavy gold watch from his inner pocket, look at it, shake it, replace it, dab his eyes with his paper napkin, blow his nose loudly upon it and then, placing the discarded napkin disdainfully upon the remnants of the second biscuit, rise and squeeze his pumpkin shaped body out of its prison of seat and table and depart.
I had wondered so often why he did not sit at a more accommodating table that, on several occasions, I was moved to place my hand forcibly over my mouth to restrain myself from actually asking him this.
‘Two Wild Cherry Cakes and a Pot of Tea for Two Mrs B.’
The voice behind my and the answering call of ‘Coming right up Mrs G’ recalled me with a start from my reverie.
I watched as Mrs G, her plump, bustling figure poured into a suitable black dress several sizes too small for her, manoeuvred deftly between the tables with her tray, delivering the Wild Cherry Cakes and tea to the patrons tucked away behind the jutting framework of a genuine Welsh Dresser whose shelves held china of blue and white Delft ware in such profusion that disaster was always imminent.
It was one of the fearful fascinations of the place for me to sit and watch the plates and jugs jiggle and jounce on their ledges as Mrs G’s not un-large feet in their stout, flat, serviceable shoes trod their firm way, the wooden floorboards groaning ever so slightly in protest. To date, nothing had descended but I lived in hopes. You will gather that I am not a lover of Delft china and to those that are I offer my apologies.
I craned my neck as always, but could see no more than the two bent heads I always saw, in such close proximity and of such similar colouring, (a mid-brown that my mother always called ‘mousy’) that one would be forgiven for thinking they were one and the same person, or at least related.
They were there every Friday at the same time, shoulder to shoulder, thigh to thigh, holding hands in a desperate manner, their voices rising and falling in a soft unending murmur as they gazed into each other’s eyes oblivious of the room’s other occupants. I knew this because once I had managed, quite by accident I hasten to say, to drop my walking stick its full length upon the floor necessitating my having to walk past the Welsh Dresser to regain it and I had seen them.
Two pairs of startled eyes had received my mumbled apologies and gestures with never a word in response. They were not young these lovers, but middle-aged, the woman’s face lined with those indentations that bespeak a hard life. Her clothes were neat and clean but of the kind that shouts instantly of age and a great deal of care to maintain them. But her eyes were of the deepest, bluest sapphire and as they met mine and her mouth began to curl in a smile of amusement, I was sure she had found me out and I blushed, the more so as her face transformed itself to elegance and charm in a single instant, causing me to think of fetes, laughter and the spontaneity of a high summer’s day.
The man beside her was tall and thin, the flesh barely covering his prominent bones. His hands were large with long, tapering fingers. One of the hands clutched his companion’s with the intensity of a child determined to remain by his mother’s side at all costs. His face was gaunt and you felt immediately the desire to buy him a good meal. His eyes were grey and sunken almost into hollows, but they glowed with a fierceness that tried to deny all they had seen. His clothing was expensive and the gold watch and signet ring he wore on his left hand were of a quality quite out of place in this setting.
The aura of passion and despair that surrounded and emanated from them with an almost palpable force determined me to ensure I never again intruded on their small bubble of a world.
The violent smash of china breaking on the polished wooden floor turned my head with a rapidity that caused my neck bones to creak in protest.
The room was shocked into silence, all frozen into the state of immobility one experiences in a waxworks museum, when viewing a tableau of particular gruesomeness.
The occupants of the bay window table sat in stillness contemplating the shards of white china that now decorated the once pristine polish of the wooden floor. Time ceased to run and I had the distinct impression that one of them had swept the plate from their table in an angry gesture of dismissal or contempt - or both.
Slowly, the slender body bent and her white fingers reached out and began to pick up the shattered pieces, the mass of black hair descending like a waterfall to sweep the floor in a gentle caress, hiding her face from my view.
Mrs G hurried over, tut-tutting, dustpan and broom at the ready.
‘Never mind dear, I’ll see to it. Just you get on and enjoy your tea now.’
Very efficiently she proceeded to remove the evidence of the minor squall and peace, of a kind, was restored.
The hair swirled as my Oriental lady righted her body and then fell into place like the smooth lacquer of a polished cabinet, as still and dark as a silent lake.
The young man sat back in his seat and gestured in a futile manner with his hands. His green eyes seemed to glow less bright and his body assumed the posture of defeat.
I felt saddened that the contention between them was of such moment as to separate them as surely as if they dwelt in two different countries. Her head turned in my direction and I found I was unable to look discreetly away. I found myself falling into the splendour of her two magnificent brown eyes. I know that I blushed while she regarded me in a manner that told me she was well aware that my observation and interest went beyond that of the passing.
I felt myself growing hot. I was confused by the emotions I experienced. Almost that of affection tinged with embarrassment. Her wide, pale mouth moved in the beginnings of a smile and it was as if a goddess had favoured me so brilliant was the light of it.
I coughed and began to stir the long cold remnants of my coffee (I never drink tea) with all the vigour and attention one would give to a matter of great importance. When next I dared to raise my eyes she had resumed her previous posture and the gentle hubbub of knives and cups and voices told me normality had been restored to the tiny universe we inhabited temporarily.
I castigated myself mentally for my insistent preoccupation with my fellow man. It had become too easy for me in my declining years to paint myself as merely an observer of mankind, to sit upon some lofty pedestal and pass judgment on those still in the senseless routine of the emotional acts that human beings indulge in on their way to the grave.
From my table in the middle of the tearoom I had thought myself aloof, a watcher rather than a participator, even a judge perhaps in preference to the active members of the Court. The arthritis in my hip twinged with a none too gentle reminder that I was, as yet, still a member of the human species and would have to wait some while yet to actually attain the position to which I aspired. Perhaps the twinge was more than that of arthritis; maybe one of the heart – an organ I had long since thought would trouble me no more.
‘Come Isabel, the dogs will be waiting.’
Chairs scraped and the blue rinsed tweeds rose as they always did on the dot of four thirty five. The taller of the two led the way out, the other following meekly in her wake, head slightly bowed, clutching her cardigan close to her flat chest as if to shield it from the salacious stare of a lap dancer’s audience.
They exited oblivious of any but the secured world they inhabited, bounded by dogs and horses, pushing their way, the one confident, the other safe within the subservient state she had chosen, past the tables with never a thought for those who had to hastily move parcels and bags or draw in feet before they were trampled.
With their departure, the room buzzed with the quiet anticipation of withdrawal as if a signal had been given and the time had come for all to take up the pattern of daily life again. Such brief pausing has had been given to us from the wreck and fury of daily existence was fast coming to a close.
A shadow passed across the bay window shutting out the thin, late afternoon sun, crossing her white porcelain face, draining it of what little colour it had possessed and for a moment, she looked ill and haggard. The afternoon was suddenly filled with that slight otherworldly ambience that presages the descent into twilight the nebulous passage between day and night.
The banker would be next; then the lovers: and then I.
Back to my insignificant domain where the pretence that I mattered, was involved, occupied and accepted would cease to be tenable.
Mrs G began gathering crockery with the pace of an expert, clattering them gently down on the counter for Mrs B to remove to the inner stomach of the small building. Faintly I could hear the gush of water and fancied I could scent the steam. I often pondered if the two of them were sisters or just friends, the one so plump and efficient, the other so thin and languid. I made no attempt to verify this. I preferred the sanctity and security of my own musings to the harsh whisper of reality.
The fierce bang of a chair hitting the frame of the bay window drew my startled gaze back to their table. The young man had risen and was staring down at the immaculate crown of that black head that refused to raise and meet his demanding look.
He spoke loudly.
‘That’s it then? You won’t do it?’
The black curtain rippled with the slow, negative side- to- side motion.
The fingers of his right hand struggled furiously with those of his left and a tiny chiming sound flowed. I watched the dizzy, shapeless vibration on the table until it ceased and a thin gold band was revealed. It lay on the table between them like a silent accusation.
He stood very stiffly for an instant and then, turning on his heel, left the tearoom. I expected him to slam the door but he closed it very quietly - as one might close a book one had enjoyed and was sorry one had finished – so that even the bell alerting the advent of customers did no more than swing once silently.
I glanced at the table. Her head was up and level with the window, watching his progress down the street no doubt. She raised both hands to the sides of her head, pushing them underneath her hair, holding it outwards and then throwing it back so that her face was revealed in all its beauty. Her hands fell to her lap and she sat motionless.
The sad banker passed in front of me preceded by his stomach and I fidgeted impatiently, dodging and weaving, my hands clutching the top of my cane in a fever to see her again.
As the door closed behind him the goddess’s face cracked into a million pieces and I watched horrified as the tears slipped and slid down her cheeks, staining the dark red of her dress in tiny pools like drops of blood.
I could bear it no longer.
I rose to my feet, leaning dependently on my cane, tripping over the leg of the table in my haste to approach her.
I sat solidly, almost falling, my breath coming in little gasps from the sudden exertion, in the chair so recently vacated by the one who had caused such destruction. Her eyes met mine across the table. I fumbled in my inner pocket and produced my large, white, ironed handkerchief that usually never saw the light of day from one week to the next.
‘Forgive me’ I began ‘but perhaps this may be of use?’
Her hand stole hesitantly out and took the proffered linen, a tremulous smile beginning the restoration of the image. Her voice when she spoke brought images of iced tea, full of the fragrance of far-off places to my mind.
‘How kind you are.’
‘A lover’s tiff perhaps?’ I queried. ‘If so, do not distress yourself unduly – these things have a way of working themselves out.’
She shook her head.
‘Ah no. If only it were that then there might be hope.’
I was struck as I always am, by the nicety with which foreigners speak our language, with a precision and brevity that we seem to lack.
I raised my eyebrow questioningly and watched as she crumpled and twisted my once stiff and straight handkerchief. She could tear it into pieces for all I cared. She sniffed once, dabbed at her eyes again and then full composure returned.
‘I must go’ and rising, her skirt and hair swirling in unison, I saw with dismay that she was indeed going. I rose as quickly as brain and old flesh would permit.
‘Allow me to accompany you.’
She hesitated, then nodded her head briefly like a queen accepting due homage from a subject and I exited with her memories of past assignations, romantic dances and tete a tetes flashing through my head at a pace I could neither comprehend nor had any desire to do so.
It had been a long time since a lady had desired my company but I had not forgotten how to behave and, the door closing behind us, I offered her my arm, which she gracefully accepted, the long white fingers laying on my sleeve like strands of silky pearls.
My heart clamoured in my breast like the sea beating on the shore and one part of my brain danced in minor panic at its speed warning me that I was old, not up to such excitement anymore. I promptly ignored these sentiments for the pleasure her presence gave me.
We strolled in companionable silence down the narrow street in the direction of the University. Then she turned to me with an impulsive movement, causing us to stop and face each other.
‘You see’ she said plaintively ‘we were lovers. We were going to be married, we had exchanged rings – but it was more than that.’
Her head drooped like a broken flower, that blue blackness enveloping her again and shutting me out. She shook her hair back and looked at me with serenity, but pain shadowed deep in her eyes.
‘I was his tutor at the University. He was a mature student. So brilliant, so clever. He comes from a moneyed family; they even have a coat of arms. He was so charming, so……..so elegant and persuasive. What I thought could not be he made me believe could be. And then……’
She turned away and I was moved to touch her gently on the shoulder. She shuddered and took a deep breath, facing me once more.
‘He cheated on his final exams. I found him out. He believed I would go along with it. I would not. I could not believe he had done something so dishonourable. At first he laughed, called me old fashioned, talked about what he called the ‘new morality’. Said I should move with the times. When I would not do as he asked, when I said if he wouldn’t put it right I would have to he swore I no longer loved him. That if I did, I would do as he wished. But I do have honour. I come from a family that believes in such things. I could not do it and…..as you saw, he gave me back the ring and he has left me.’
We walked slowly together; each taking warmth from the other. Once or twice I pressed her fingers and she pressed my arm in return. We did not speak as we progressed to the entrance of the University.
I watched as she made her way across the green courtyard inside the entrance, her back ramrod straight, her red dress swirling gently in the evening breeze.
Her hair hung in all its magnificence, straight and true like her character, shielding and protecting her from the vagaries of a foreign world.
As I made my way home I jeered at myself for my much -vaunted powers of perception. I had thought I was observing a great romantic love; the clash of an angel and goddess to be resolved only by the intervention of a higher deity. Instead, only a tawdry tale of deceit, deception and dishonour had been played out amongst the teacups.
As I entered my house, small grunts of pain escaping my clamped lips, I was haunted by the image of the red dress and that long, swinging curtain of black hair, swaying and rippling, caressing and soothing the passive, supine length of my naked body.