Authors: Sarah-Kate Lynch
Rotten things happen in threes in Florence’s family, so when she’s fired by her best friend and left by her husband in the space of a single afternoon, she knows there is yet more trouble brewing. And when her son Monty returns from his gap year Down Under it’s only too clear what, or who, that trouble is.
Then the plan to turn her crumbling home into a tea room hits a snag, the macramé at her sister’s house seriously starts to unravel, and why is her doctor leaving so many messages?
Enter Will, a mysterious handyman with a secret stash of chocolate truffles, and soon life – with all its hiccups – is just her cup of tea.
A bittersweet story about life, living and the importance of cupcakes.
For anyone who ever had a bad day.
Or week. Or month.
The moment Whiffy O’Farrell threw a Victorian chamber pot into a Regency mirror I should have twigged that my days in antiques were numbered. Or my hours, to be more exact.
That, if nothing else, I should have seen coming.
Personally, I had nothing against poor Whiffy. He didn’t smell very fresh, hence the nickname, but for a street person he really had rather lovely manners. Better than most non-street people, actually. Whenever he came into our west London shop — every couple of weeks or so, to look at our fob chains — he always accepted a cup of tea and a slice of whatever I was offering with the utmost charm.
I suppose it’s possible that other antique shop owners were plying him with tea and cakes on a regular basis, so that’s exactly what he expected from us. But I doubted it somehow, as no other antique shop I had been to bothered to offer tea and cakes. In our shop, though, it had become my habit to extend
this courtesy to all our customers (or visitors, as many of them more correctly were). I felt it was our point of difference, it set us apart from the great mêlée of other, almost identical, shops in the city and I didn’t see why Whiffy should miss out just because he usually ate from a rubbish bin.
More than once or twice I had seen him rifling for leftovers in the big black bin on the corner of Formosa Street and Warwick Avenue, just around the corner. He used the same thick fingers layered black with grime to excavate half-eaten Subway sandwiches as he did to drink delicately out of a fine bone-china cup, and I used to wonder what on earth must have happened to him to get him in such a state. Was there a wife somewhere, wondering why he’d gone out to buy tea bags and never come back? A daughter who passed him on the bus and turned the other way? A son who refused to have children of his own because his father had ended up a down-and-outer?
He was certainly down and out, there was no doubt about that, but he was steady on his feet and whatever he smelled of (and it was quite a ripe cocktail, let me tell you) did not seem to include alcohol. He wasn’t a wino, I was sure, but on occasion he did mumble incoherently, like a drunk might, over the fob chains. When this happened, my partner Charlotte would ‘tsk tsk’ loudly and eventually shuffle him outside, holding her face away so she didn’t breathe in the fumes. Afterwards, she’d race to the tiny loo at the back of the shop and wash her hands with what I thought was unnecessary vigour.
‘Honestly, Florence,’ she would scold me, her skinny fingers rubbed raw with L’Occitane. ‘Must you encourage him to stay? It’s an antiques shop, you know, not a soup kitchen.’
But when Charlotte wasn’t there, I let Whiffy be. There was something about him that tugged at my heartstrings (filaments
too easily plucked, my husband Harry told me once, fondly enough, although I had to look up filaments in the dictionary afterwards to make sure it was a good thing).
Whiffy would glance at me so gratefully as he elegantly lifted a forkful of Victoria sponge into his all but toothless mouth that I couldn’t help but feel an ache and offer him a smile of encouragement. Then when he finished his cup of tea, he would wipe daintily at his matted beard with a filthy handkerchief and nod his appreciation before leaving the store — the aroma of living on a Maida Vale park bench wafting moodily behind him.
Well, I know people who live in fancy houses and smell only of the finest French perfumes who don’t wipe their mouths or nod their appreciation of a good Victoria sponge. If you’re the one who went to the bother of making it, you most certainly don’t consider them to be cut from any finer cloth than Whiffy O’Farrell.
Unfortunately, the day the poor old boy lost it with the chamber pot, Charlotte was in attendance. She and I had owned the (possibly slightly faltering, now I come to mention it) antiques business on Warwick Place in Maida Vale’s Little Venice for nearly ten years, after coming up with the idea over many bottles of Bulgarian red one night at dinner with our husbands, who at the time were both junior partners in the same City law firm.
Charlotte’s husband, Martin, had gone on to become a senior partner in that same firm and they were very upwardly mobile. Harry, on the other hand, had abandoned the law in favour of writing unpublishable novels and we were very downwardly mobile. But happy. Or so I thought.
The point being that when I did think about it — which I possibly should have done a year or two sooner — Charlotte
and I had started up Drake Dowling Antiques in the ’90s, when we were both unquestionably on the same trajectory. But by the time Whiffy took to the reflective surfaces, we were heading in desperately different directions.
I still loved our shop as much as I ever had because it was so full of stories, of other people’s histories. That’s what antiques were to me, that’s why I was interested in them in the first place. The shop was a repository for relics of varying strangers’ pasts, a collection of little splinters of times gone by. We were the curators of these treasures, I figured, restoring and protecting them until someone else took them away and carried them into the future. And the someone elses always had stories to tell as well and nobody liked to hear these more than I did.
I liked the stories a bit more than the antiques, actually, although I did have a passion for the very fine bone china around which Whiffy’s filthy fingers so gently curled when he visited. I loved all the china for its delicacy, its colour, its prettiness and its staying power, but it was the tea paraphernalia I truly adored: the teapots, cups, saucers, milk jugs and sugar bowls of yesteryear.
As our partnership progressed, however, Charlotte felt that there wasn’t enough money in these small things; that we should concentrate on larger pieces of furniture and more priceless antiques so that we could ‘grow the business’ and ‘focus on more lucrative markets’.
In short, Charlotte wanted to make more money. I couldn’t really understand that, to be honest, because if anybody needed more money you would think it was Harry and me. Charlotte and Martin already had great pots of it. The Drakes had a beautifully appointed house in Hampstead that was impeccably kept; they drove a Range Rover and an Audi
convertible, sent their three gorgeous daughters to expensive private schools, and dressed entirely in Nicole Farhi and Paul Smith.
Harry and I had a splendid but falling-down house that went weeks without seeing a Hoover, drove a tired old Golf or got the bus, had sent our only son Monty to the local comprehensive, and dressed entirely in whatever we could get our hands on that wasn’t falling apart at the seams or speckled with chocolate.
Not that I’m complaining. Harry and I didn’t need money, I had always believed. We had each other, we had Monty, and we had the splendid but falling-down house right there in Little Venice (a neighbourhood enthusiastically named after its two — count them, two — connecting waterways). It was worth a total fortune, the price of London real estate had gone ballistic in the twenty-odd years we’d owned it, but I would not dream of selling. It meant so much to me, that place. It was my own personal sliver of times gone by and anchored me to my adored grandmother, who had left it to me when she died.
Anyway, Charlotte had been fairly frosty towards me for quite some time before the Whiffy O’Farrell incident because I could not — or would not as she saw it — afford an injection of £30,000 to bankroll a trip to France to buy some of the bigger antiques that would ‘grow the business’.
For a start, I didn’t travel; for a finish, I liked English antiques. Let everyone else sell wrought iron garden chairs and borer-ridden armoires and pock-marked jardinières. Honestly, for a while there you couldn’t move through Portobello or the Church Street markets without being sucked into a little piece of Provence. If you want a little piece of Provence, go there, that was my opinion. Don’t carve the place up and start
clogging London with it. Seriously, I didn’t even care overly for Limoges and I told Charlotte that (or I jolly well meant to).
Either way the atmosphere between us had cooled ever since we’d first discussed the £30,000, which I found further perplexing because she knew I didn’t have it to inject. And if I had found a spare £30,000 lying under the sofa or hidden in a brick behind the fireplace, I would have used it to put a new bathroom in our house and done something about our kitchen, which was extremely antique but not in a good way.
So Whiffy and I were having a robust cup of Irish Breakfast tea and an especially rich piece of fruitcake on this particular day when Charlotte arrived at the shop, the temperature plummeting as she stepped inside. Even the bell above the door — which she hated but I loved — sounded angry when it rang to herald her arrival. And it was usually such a happy little bell. At thirty-nine (the same age as me) Charlotte was very beautiful, but since she’d discovered Botox it had been harder to guess her mood from her face. Once upon a time she would come in with pinched lips and a ferocious frown and I’d know I was in trouble. More recently her outbursts had come as a shock because her face remained smooth and untroubled.
‘What the hell is he doing here?’ she demanded rudely as she bustled past the costume jewellery and beaded evening bags, and got wind, literally, of Whiffy.
His cup was halfway to his mouth but froze mid-air when she spoke, his gaze fixing on the wall behind the counter.
‘We’re just having a cup of tea,’ I said chirpily, trying to hide my embarrassment at having her speak that way in front of him.
‘Well, get him the hell out of here right now, it smells like
a sewer,’ Charlotte barked.
Whiffy stayed frozen and I considered doing the same but my cheeks were burning. Although I hated to make a fuss, I couldn’t in all conscience hold my tongue.
‘He’s right here, Charlotte,’ I said softly. ‘And he’s not deaf.’ Although he could have been for all I knew.
‘I’m sorry about this,’ I apologised, just in case he wasn’t.
‘I don’t care if he’s deaf, blind or Jesus bloody Christ, Florence. Just get him out of here. You and all your charity cases. For heaven’s sake, it’s ridiculous!’
Her fury quite flabbergasted me. It’s one thing to be pinched and frosty but to be furious?
‘Charity cases?’ I repeated.
‘This is an antiques shop,’ she snapped. ‘I’ve tried explaining this to you before but you simply refuse to understand. It’s a bloody business, Florence. We want people to come in here and buy antiques, not faffabout all day drinking tea and
about your latest cakey thing.’
She looked disdainfully at my latest cakey thing. She was very thin, Charlotte. Not much of a cake eater, actually. She preferred her food without icing, which is not something we had in common.
The bell above the shop door rang again at that point (definitely less angrily, I might point out) and Marguerite, another regular customer/visitor, wandered in. Marguerite didn’t care for big priceless things that would ‘grow the business’ either. In fact, she didn’t even care for teapots, sugar bowls or milk jugs, but she liked tea cups even more than I did and came in every couple of weeks to check for new stock.
‘Morning, Florence,’ she said. ‘Anything new for me? I’m in the mood for a bit of Royal Grafton, I think.’
‘Over here, with the Wedgwood,’ I smiled and pointed,
trying not to let my agitation with Charlotte show. ‘There’s a tea set just in with the loveliest violet pattern.’
I turned back to my partner and in as hushed a tone as I could manage said, ‘I make the cakes at home. I do it because I like to. And I buy the tea myself, so it doesn’t cost you a thing.’
‘But we’re not a cake shop, Florence,’ Charlotte snapped again. ‘Wake up and smell the economics. You might be doing this for love and companionship or whatever but I want to be taken seriously as a businesswoman, as an antiques dealer. Do you get that? No, of course you don’t.
‘And as for you,’ she turned to Whiffy, who was still frozen, and roughly plucked the cup and saucer (Royal Albert) out of his hands, grimacing at having to be so close to him, ‘get back out on the streets where you belong, you filthy old devil.’
This was disgraceful behaviour and I could not let her get away with it. But before I could even start to object, all hell broke loose. It started when Charlotte gave Whiffy a decent shove with her elbow, so as to not touch him with her skin, I suppose. This jolted him out of his trance, during which time he caught sight of himself in the aforementioned Regency mirror hanging just behind me to my left. This seemed to give him a terrible fright. Perhaps he didn’t know quite how much loo paper was stuck in his hair. Anyway, he opened his mouth in an awful sort of silent roar, then picked up the nearest thing to him, the chamber pot, and flung it at his own reflection.
The noise was incredible — the mirror shattering, the frame splitting, the chamber pot disintegrating — and it was not helped by Charlotte shrieking hysterical threats to call the police. I begged her to calm down as I scrambled for the dustpan and brush to pick up the broken shards of mirror and shattered chamber pot during which time Marguerite, bless
her, somehow managed to get Whiffy out the door before Charlotte could even get to the phone.