Last week, my niece Amber celebrated her seventh birthday. She told her mum that, instead of a party, she would like to go for afternoon tea at an upmarket local hotel. It’s one of those places with a gym and a pool and Amber had seen the Afternoon Tea menu advertised one morning when her mother took her swimming. We all thought this request was out of character, as Amber is the archetypal tomboy. If she’s not playing football or being Spiderman, she’s climbing trees and having fun with her two dogs. But the menu choices seemed to have mesmerised her and her mind was firmly made up.
The whole family, well, the distaff side, turned out, dressed to kill and ready to hit the dining room. There was Amber, her 11-year-old cousin Cara, mum Maggie and me, Auntie Noreen, Granny Brigit and Great-Auntie Josie. Talk about competitive! The two seniors had donned wedding hats and brandished their handbags like weapons, and Amber even wore a dress – unknown!
In the dining room, we could almost inhale the gentility. Flowers were everywhere, dahlias and gladioli, in sparkling containers brimming with greenery. The table linen was as gleaming white as Granny Brigit’s new dentures. Our chairs were noiselessly adjusted by smart young waiters as we were seated, conversations hummed around us in muted tones, spoons really did tinkle against fine bone china. It all felt a bit like an Agatha Christie murder mystery was about to kick off, so much so that I found myself peering round to see if there was any sign of Jane Marple or the immaculately French Hercule Poirot. But no, there was only our excited little party and a dozen or so other ladies, taking tea at tiny tables, waited on by a contingent of attentive waiting staff.
Until. We had oohed! and ahhed! over the neat pyramids of wafer-thin sandwiches, the light crumbly scones with oodles of jam and cream, and were dreamily contemplating the heavily-laden cake stand – chocolate and cholesterol heaven – when HE arrived. Our daddy, Brigit’s ex, Willie.
Picture the scene. A mature – 85 next birthday – stocky chap, short in stature but making up for it in havoc potential, paused in the doorway. It was like an alien had entered the chintzy room and every female’s eyes swivelled to check him out. Willie wasn’t wearing his glasses – vanity being another of his main attributes – and seemed to be having some difficulty in focusing. Our entire table groaned, before turning to concentrate on the contents of the cake stand.
Except Amber. Reverting to her usual demeanour, she leapt to her feet and yelled, ‘Grandad! We’re here! Just look at the size of our bloody chocolate eclairs!’ The very room seemed to gasp. Grandad followed Amber’s call, weaving his way through the seated ladies, occasionally nodding and winking, coming close enough to hover over Cara, eyeing the unfamiliar bevy before him with something resembling incredulity.
‘Is it you, Brigit?’ he eventually blurted. ‘Is that you? What’s wrong with your face? You look like a tomato plant!’
As one, we turned to look at Granny Brigit. To say she’d turned scarlet would be an understatement. She swayed to her feet and removed her primrose hat, crumpling it against her green twinset in short fat ring-festooned fists. She’d gone from tomato plant to velociraptor in the space of five seconds. Fiery sparks shot from her eyes in Willie’s direction.
‘I invited you,’ she growled. ‘I distinctly remember asking you to come. But you said you’d a snooker match at the club. Too busy playing with your coloured balls to come to your grand-daughter’s party. And what in the name of God is that you’re wearing?’
She’d done it now. Everyone in the room stared at Willie’s turquoise silk jacket, peach chinos, yellow paisley cravat and engineer boots. The fact that he is only sixty inches tall and had his hair slicked back like John Travolta in Grease seemed to somehow complement his choice of outfit. ‘He looks like our old Andy Pandy with a quiff,’ I whispered to Maggie, who glared at me and tried not to giggle at the same time; no mean feat.
‘It’s not the party, Granny,’ Amber piped up. ‘The party’s tomorrow. Today is afternoon tea.’
‘Afternoon tea?’ Willie’s eyes widened to a zombie stare. He gripped the back of Cara’s chair, threatening to tip her out of it and onto the parquet flooring. ‘Don’t they serve any proper drink in this fancy shebeen? I’ve not got done up in my best gear for bloody afternoon tea!’
A rush of activity ensued and Willie was surrounded and rapidly seated by the smooth young waiters. As though by magic, a pint of Guinness appeared on the gleaming tablecloth beside the waiting chocolate fancies. Willie smiled and chucked Amber under the chin. ‘That’s more like it, you know what your old Grandad likes, darlin’, don’t you?’
Amber looked at him innocently and nodded. ‘Yes, Grandad, football and drinking and snooker and chips and golfing and…’
Cara dived in to change the mood. ‘Would you like a scone first, Grandad? Before your drink?’
Willie thought about this. He looked around the table, taking in the mixed expressions of the adults and the trusting young faces of the two girls. ‘Well, if there’s no chip butties on offer, I suppose I could risk a scone.’
Beside me, I felt Millie relax. Across the table, Brigit’s face still threatened war, but we knew that she wouldn’t spoil her granddaughter’s special day. The ladies at the other tables had lost interest, sensing that no fireworks were going to be set off, and returned to their muted gossiping.
Amber picked up a china plate and loaded it with a huge fruit scone, a pot of thick cream and a tiny jar of strawberry jam, before handing it to her Grandad. She waited while he prepared his feast and took a bite before turning to Maggie, her expression serious.
‘Next year, Mummy, if we come for afternoon tea, I think we should all wear fancy dress, like Granny and Grandad. I’ll be Spiderman.’