Authors: Grace Thompson
Seranne Laurence closed the door of the van in which she had been given a lift, by pushing against it with her hip. A small, slim figure, she wobbled on high heels with which she tried to compensate for her lack of height, and took short, impatient steps. Her arms were holding a shallow
box which meant she couldn’t see where she was placing her feet. When she reached the kerb one trim leg hovered until her foot touched the road surface. An elderly man nearby paused holding his breath until she had regained equilibrium.
In the box were blocks of margarine, a packet of ice-cream mix and two dozen eggs. The tea rooms she ran with her mother had used dried egg powder for two days and today they could claim fresh eggs again. Like most food, eggs were still rationed in 1952, seven years after World War Two had ended.
She was in a hurry, running across the road after the van had moved off. They needed to make cakes before the tea rooms opened for business at ten o’clock and she increased her speed, stumbling with her awkward load. When the dog ran towards her, barking hysterically and startling her, she lost her grip on the box, tripped and staggered across the
trying to steady it. She fell against the garden wall of the house shouting at the animal in rage. The shouts turned to groans as the box hit the wall awkwardly before sliding slowly to land against her waist and allowing eggs to smash and shed their contents over her feet.
Never a tolerant person, Seranne glared around, looking for someone to blame.
‘Hey! You!’ she called to the owner of the dog who was trying in vain not to laugh. ‘That dog is dangerous! You should keep him on a lead!’
‘I’m sorry but—’ The rest of the apology was lost as the woman gave way to mirth. Several passers-by had stopped and were also highly amused. The dog enjoying the fun ran towards her again.
Seranne screamed. ‘Keep him away from me,’ while the dog
began licking the egg from her feet.
‘Can I help?’ the old man asked.
‘Did you see that? The dog ran at me and I dropped it all and what are we going to do about the eggs? They’re rationed you know. This woman has to do something!’
Accepting there was nothing he could do, the elderly man walked away.
‘You were trying to run carrying a large box. Hardly anyone else’s fault,’ the dog owner shouted back. Relenting a little, she came over and picked up the sticky box and without thanking her, Seranne snatched it from her and walked the few yards to the door of Jessica’s Victorian Tea Rooms.
Across the road a car had slowed down and stopped. With dread, Seranne looked away, hoping she had been mistaken and the man was not the one she knew. The driver, a dark-haired man in his thirties, had seen the incident and he too was smiling. Seranne risked a second glance and recognized him with dismay. He was the man who always chose the corner table in the tea rooms, a regular customer who was polite but rarely said more than convention demanded. Yet there was something fascinating about him and Seranne had begun to look forward to his visits. Why did he have to be passing at this exact moment? Her embarrassment was
when a woman called, ‘The red sale price label is sticking out of your blouse, mind. You can’t act dignified with the label showing!’
Renewed laughter followed her through the door, accompanied by the roar of the MG sports car’s powerful engine as the man drove away.
She threw the box and its sticky contents on the kitchen table and pulled at the label revealing the reduced price, ten shillings and six pence, on her blouse. What will that man think of her, and why did she care? He was only a customer and he didn’t even leave generous tips.
She went into the kitchen but her mother wasn’t there. She was
sneaking out to see her latest boyfriend. There had been several over the years, since divorcing her stepfather, each one more unsuitable than the last. Just as well Jessie was out; she didn’t really want an audience looking like this. It was bad enough that the dog owner and the man who tried to help and the man who sat at the corner table had seen her at her worst. She told herself it didn’t really matter and tried to believe it. Calming herself, she took off her messy clothes and had a second bath before dressing in fresh clothes, by which time she had begun to see the funny side.
Her mother, Jessie Laurence, appeared as she was taking the first batch of scones out of the oven, and she put the utensils she had used into the newly fitted large sink and laughed as she explained the disaster. Turning away from the sink to share the joke she was quickly aware that her mother wasn’t really listening. ‘Is everything all right, Mum? You look flushed and anxious.’ Probably boyfriend trouble, she mused. ‘Not bad news I hope?’
With a serious expression on her pretty face, Jessie tried to smile. ‘No, in fact I’ve some wonderful news.’
‘You’ve managed to get the pretty new china we need for the tea rooms?’
‘No, dear, better than that. I’m going to marry Paul.’
Seranne stared at her mother in disbelief for a long moment. ‘You can’t marry Paul Curtis! You haven’t known him for more than a few months! And—’
‘And he’s younger than me? Is that what you were going to say?’
‘No, er – well, yes. He seems to enjoy the company of younger women. Younger than himself, I mean. I’ve often seen him at the local dances and he seems, I don’t know, a bit of a flirt, not the kind of man to settle in to life here in the flat above our tea rooms.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong, dear. He’s had all the travelling and excitement he wants and now he’s searching for comfort and security.’
‘Sounds exciting,’ Seranne replied sarcastically.
They went up to the flat above the tea rooms, to the beautifully furnished sitting-room filled with antique items, many of which had belonged to Seranne’s great-grandmother. A few modern pieces blended perfectly with the old. The clock that had belonged in the family for four generations, the carved oak side table on which were displayed silver treasures bought during their short marriage by her mother and her father. A tea set displayed on the dark oak Welsh dresser had been chosen by them too. How could her mother consider sharing these memories with a stranger?
Jessie stared at her daughter then said, ‘Just give him a chance, I think you’ll be happy for me once you accept you are no longer the whole of my life.’ The pointed remark was given with a smile.
Seranne smiled and hugged her mother affectionately. ‘You’re right, Mum. I can’t expect us to go on like this for the rest of our lives, running our tea rooms and living up here like a couple of part-time hermits.’ She looked again around the beautifully furnished room. ‘But it will be a bit cramped.’
‘We’ll manage, at least for a while,’ Jessie replied.
‘Perhaps I could move into the smaller room, and use my bedroom as a second sitting-room?’
‘Thank you, that’s an idea worth thinking about. But not yet. Let’s wait until we’ve lived in it for a while, plenty of time later to start
‘How long? Have you thought about when you and Paul will arrange the wedding? Perhaps in the winter months when we aren’t so busy?’
‘Oh, it’s all fixed. We’ve booked the ceremony. It’s two weeks from Saturday, the eighth of November.’
Seranne was too surprised to produce a verbal reply, she turned away, thankful for the knock at the door offering a reprieve. Leaving her mother to put away the last of the breakfast things she ran down the stairs to open the door for the baker. It wasn’t who she expected. A baker, but the wrong one. Tony Hopkins was a baker in the small town of Cwm Derw and his sister Babs was one of Seranne’s closest friends. He held out a wooden tray on which, resting on greaseproof paper, there were some filled bread rolls and a couple of fancy cakes.
‘Morning Tony,’ she greeted him, as he pushed past her into the kitchen. ‘What’s this? Still trying to convince me we’d be better served by Hopkins’s bakery?’
‘No, although if you want a trial run…?’
‘No thanks, Tony,’ she replied as he put the cakes on to a plate.
‘I’m here with a message from Babs. She sent these little treats for your elevenses,’ he said, already on his way back out. ‘She wondered if you fancy setting her hair for her tomorrow night? I think she’s got a date but she won’t tell me.’ He grinned as he stepped into the van. ‘I bet it’s that useless lump of lard, Keith.’
‘That’s muscle not fat!’ she protested laughing. ‘I’ll see her at seven,’ she called as the van moved off, and his arm came out and waved acknowledgement. They were always in a hurry, Tony and Babs. Tony worked long hours at his parents’ bakery while Babs ran the shop.
For a moment his appearance had allowed her to forget her mother’s news. She wished he’d had time for her to talk about it. Then the door reopened and he came back waving a piece of paper. ‘Forgot to give you this. It’s an invitation to come a week Saturday and stay the night, there’s a party for one of Mam and Dad’s friends and we’d like you to come.’
She offered him a cup of tea and he glanced at his watch, then at her worried expression and sat down. ‘Is something wrong, Seranne?’
‘Sort of. Mum is getting married and I think the man is most
‘Why?’ he surprised her by asking. ‘Is he unsuitable, or are you afraid of the changes he’ll cause?’
‘Both,’ she replied honestly. ‘He’s too young and I’m so afraid of Mum making yet another mistake.’
‘This is the wrong way round,’ he said staring at her. ‘It’s usually the mother who doesn’t want to let go. Don’t be afraid of change, Seranne.’
‘I’m not afraid to let go, or of making changes, as long as they’re the right ones.’
‘Babs is just as bad,’ he went on between hasty sips of hot tea. ‘Mum, Dad and I want to make changes in the business but Babs blocks us every time.’
‘Why does everything have to change? If things are going well why mess them up?’
‘Because they could be better?’
When he left, running to the van as though to make up for the minutes he had wasted, Seranne adjusted the oven and began to gather the
for sponge cakes. The movements were so automatic that the tasks allowed her to consider the changes to her life Paul Curtis’s arrival would cause, while her small efficient hands dealt with the preparations for the day. Her movements were swift, the tasks carried out with the
She had worked in the tea rooms all her life, even as a small child she had undertaken certain responsibilities. Jessica’s Victorian Tea Rooms had been opened by her grandmother and had continued in much the same way ever since. She and her mother had worked together in almost complete harmony, both wanting the best for their customers, offering a welcome, serving only the very best food, even in the difficulties of the war years.
Pretty, hand-embroidered cloths covered the tables. The originals had been made by her grandmother and great-grandmother, and as they had gradually worn out they’d been replaced by those made by her mother and herself. Shelves around the walls held china teapots of various styles and these were interspersed with beautiful plates. Subtle rose patterns adorned the walls and curtains, and Jessie often likened it to a garden, although the potted palms and trailing ivys had long since been banished.
They had been determined to hang on to traditions in a changing world and so far they had succeeded and found customers who
the timelessness of the place. It was a bit shabby as replacements
hadn’t been easily found for breakages and wear and tear, but they had managed to retain the atmosphere of elegance that still appealed.
She looked around, straightening a tablecloth, adjusting a chair, a plate, and sadness overwhelmed her. Once Paul Curtis moved in, things would change. Her mother would allow him to make decisions. It had happened before with other men whom Jessie had briefly believed to be her one true love. She wondered if this time she would be able to contain her temper. It wasn’t something she found easy. Pushing aside her
thoughts she returned to the kitchen and began setting trays with china ready for their first customers.
An hour later, several sponge cakes were cooling, scones were displayed on pretty china plates and two platters of sandwiches were arranged under their glass covers. The place smelled of freshly ground coffee and she had discarded her working overalls for a neat white apron with a notebook and pencil attached to the pocket. She was ready for business. She glanced at the clock. In a few minutes Jessica’s Victorian Tea Rooms would open its doors. She heard her mother’s footsteps descending and braced herself with a smile.
Jessie looked uneasy, knowing her daughter was upset by her announcement. She didn’t know what to say to ease the difficult moment.
Aware of her mother’s unease and knowing humour was usually the best way over difficult moments, Seranne asked, ‘Can I ask a question, about Paul?’
‘Of course, dear.’
‘Is he any good at washing up?’
‘Living in a room with a landlady to spoil him that’s very unlikely,’ Jessie said with a chuckle. ‘D’you know, that’s one of the reasons I’m so happy to be remarrying. I like looking after a man, making sure he has his favourite meals, that his clothes are immaculate and always ready for him.’
‘As long as Paul is ready for slippers and pipe,’ Seranne warned.
As soon as the door was opened, several people walked in: two ladies who always met on Wednesday morning before they did their midweek shopping, a mother who came for a coffee after taking her children to school, an elderly man who lived alone and depended on them for tea and toast for his breakfast.
Seranne glanced at the table in the corner by the window. She wondered whether the dark, serious-looking man would come. After the embarrassing moment when she lost control of the eggs, she half hoped
he wouldn’t. He occasionally called in for tea and scones, and always chose that particular seat, where he could observe without anyone
in his direction, and from where he could look out at the street. She knew nothing about him, not even his name, but was drawn to him by curiosity, attracted by his slow smile and the look in his brown eyes. Accepting the fact he had seen her at her worst, covered in egg, arguing with people in the street like a fishwife, she determined to greet him with a smile, look confident, pretend it hadn’t happened. Crossing her fingers as each customer entered, she dreaded someone taking his favourite place, stupidly convinced it would prevent him coming in.