In which our hero is caught in the middle of an ancient generational war. Biological weapons are used. Fainting ensues.
The sandwiches and scones were stacked on a 3-tier serving tray that sat in the center of the floral print tablecloth. There was steam coming out of the gold-rimmed teacups, which his mother was staring with an absent exhaustion. To her right his grandmother was menacingly chewing cream cheese and cucumber tea sandwiches with a deliberate slowness and a dour look on her face.
“This isn’t how it’s done, you know,” she commented after swallowing half a sandwich. She had the other half in her right hand, but held on to it to use an extension of her gesticulations. “In English society if you served sandwiches with this quality of ingredients nobody would come to your establishment. You’d be out of business in a month.”
“I don’t know, mom. Trip Advisor recommended this place pretty highly.”
“I don’t know very much about websites, Ellie, but if that’s the case, I highly doubt the English nobility has had had their say there. If they had this place would be shut down in a week. For another thing, their tea is too hot.”
“Mom, the tea is the temperature it needs to be to steep at.”
“I understand how tea is made, Ellie. My point is that in England they don’t serve the tea at this heat. In England, the tea is allowed to steep and cool to the correct drinking temperature before it is served. Now I know we’re not in England, and have lowered my expectations accordingly, but we’ve been sitting here for 10 minutes and the tea is still steaming. Serving it at this temperature in England is considered a great insult, Ellie. If our waitress were of a different era she would be sent to the stockades for such an offense.”
His mom grabbed a scone and bit into it forcefully, before turning away to make small talk with him about what he was doing with his life.
The visit had been sprung upon him as it usually was. Sunday night his mother called to tell him that they were coming up for a few days so that grandma could see some specialists.
“I thought I told you. Well I told Aaron, anyway, since we’re going out with him and Desi and Luna on Tomorrow and Thursday. Anyway, if you can make sometime on Tuesday afternoon, your grandmother would be very grateful to see you.”
Among many other particulars, his grandma had a rule of never being out past 6 and, therefore, was only ever available for lunch. She also had a rule of never eating in a sub-par restaurant, meaning that meals usually extended past his hour lunch break. Carla, his boss, who was a woman of the clock, calendar and contract, disliked this. But pulling at Carla’s few sympathetic strings he got her to begrudgingly agree to the extended lunch if he came in early Wednesday morning.
He didn’t realize they would be eating at a tea room, but, bizarre and tongue-in-cheekily antiquated as this place was, with portraits of dour nobility on the walls and a tiny chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, he wasn’t surprised his mother’d picked it. She’d recently been ‘rediscovering a love affair for the English way of living’. Her phone calls were full of allusions to it, which he’d gotten used to ignoring: Somerset Maugham and Mcvities Digestives and her ‘fun’ take on Fish and Chips and how ‘quirky, but brilliant’ new Dr. Who was and how ‘even though they get a lot acclaim, I don’t think people really appreciate just how brilliant Shakespeare and Jane Austin are.’
At the tea room she gave him a little present, “It’s an Enligh daguerreotype, that’s this old way of taking photos, that reminded me of you for some reason”. The portrait was of a very ugly woman with short hair bunched along either side of her head and look of constipated arrogance.
“How’re you folks doing?” the waitress asked as they were finishing up the sandwiches and scones.
“Everything here has been great,” his mother said. And then with a cheeky accent, “Just smashing.”
His mother laughed a little too much for as unfunny as the joke had been. The waitress, sensing that this would affect her tip, began laughing too. And then he started laughing out of a strange instinct to make the joke seem as though it had been funny to all the people in the tearoom that couldn’t hear how stupid the joke had been. Only his grandma didn’t join in and as the laughter died down her dour, narrowed eyes became clearer, like headlights approaching out of a thick fog.
“Excuse me, but while my daughter is too polite to say anything, I need to tell you that the sandwiches were poorly made and the tea was served at a much higher temperature than is accepted in England.”
“I am so sorry about that ma’am. If there’s anything—”
“I don’t think you understand, dear. In England, serving tea at that temperature is considered very offensive. In older times you would be fired for it and the tea house would close 3 days later out of public shame.”
“No Ellie, no. She served us outrageously hot tea and needs to feel properly ashamed for such an offensive action.”
“Mom, what you’re saying is completely made up. It’s not offensive to serve hot tea in England.”
“I’m certain it is.”
“It’s not mom. And you’re making a scene.” Turning to the waitress, “I’m so sorry about this, she’s not exactly—”
“Don’t apologize for me Ellie. She should apologize to me for serving such hot tea. I’m an old woman. I could burn myself on that tea and have to go to the hospital and never recover. In another era she’d be whipped for the offense and you would be public shamed for not defending your mother.”
“Mom, we are in a public restaurant. If you have any actual sense of English decorum you would stop making such a public scene.”
“Ellie it is very ru—”
“No mom, you need to calm down right now and apologize—”
“Apologize? Never! This place would be shut down in an instant if an English lady were treated as poorly I’ve been treated today. She should apologize to me!”
“Mom I think—”
“She already did apologize, which you would have heard if you stopped being so self-righteous for two seconds and listened.”
“I think Grandma is getting a little overly excited.”
A faint smell had been growing throughout the argument and suddenly, when the tension of the argument had dissipated slightly, it came to the forefront of everyone’s attention. At first it’d seemed to him people we’re turning heads to stare at the argument that was starting to get louder than the acceptable decibel level for conversation. But from the agitated and scrunched up look to their faces he could tell it was more the smell that was attracting attention.
“Damn it. It was all those cream cheese sandwiches. You know you shouldn’t be eating that much cheese mom.”
“I’m not a child, Ellie, and can make up my mind on what I eat.”
In defiance his grandmother reached for the last sandwich on the tray and put it in her mouth before his mother could snatch it away.
“Mom this isn’t coming from me it’s coming straight from Dr. Guillard.”
“And as I keep saying,” his grandma said chewing through her sandwich, her general sense of etiquette thrown out the window. “Snail eaters are not in a position to be giving dietary advice.”
“Not that that makes any sense, but even so, as I’ve told you, he’s not French.”
“His name is Guillard, Ellie, there is not a Frencher name.”
“And his first name is Tom. He’s American, mom. People born in America are American. And clearly by how terrible your farts smell he knows something about what you should and shouldn’t be eating.”
“Elizabeth, are you implying that I have passed gas?”
It was then that the waitress fainted.
He stopped by the hotel after work to check in. He’d hung around for a little bit and paid the check (with a very nice tip), but lunch had already run longer than he promised Carla it would. Once it was clear that the waitress was going to be fine he left his mother to deal with whatever fallout there was, if any.
His mother looked tired at the door and suggested they get a drink at a bar just down the block.
It felt weird to be sitting and having a drink at a bar with his mom. Not so much the alcohol part; that he’d been used to for a long time. It was more the fact that he was sitting alone at a bar with her. There was something that felt wrong about being there, as though that was not a space they were supposed to share.
“She’s never even been to England,” she said more to the alcohol stacked up behind the bar than to him. Then, a thought occurred to her and she downed the rest of her drink.
“It’s late and I need to get back. Mom will be worried about me if I’m not back soon.”
Image Source: Public Domain Review