The Tea-Time Visitors
Illustrated by Tanvi Chunekar
They were surprise visitors. We rarely had visitors of any kind and the effect on my mother was dramatic. It was as if she woke from a long slumber, with a kiss from a prince. There was, of course, no kissing. That sort of thing didn’t happen in our house. But I suppose even my mother had dreams.
The knock was brisk. Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. I listened from the dining room, where I had just spread out my homework all over the table. Mother’s voice was bright as she welcomed whoever was there into the hallway of our house. Their voices were deep and indistinct. I started pushing my books into a pile, then the visitors were filling the doorway of the room. Two enormously tall men with strangely blank faces.
“Marcia,” said my mother, with a politeness she did not normally employ with me, and a curiously formal turn of phrase “These gentlemen have travelled far to visit us. We must attend to their needs. Please set the table.”
We had had our tea. I had homework to do, as my mother knew. I glowered at her but she didn’t react. She looked like a doll and I wondered what kind of hold these men had over her. Were we in debt? Was that why my father was not here? Of course I said nothing, but did as she commanded.
As I fumbled for knives in the kitchen drawer my father and brother appeared at the back door. I made danger signals towards the dining room and they moved to look through the window. Then I saw them disappearing back down the garden. What did they know that I didn’t? I picked up a small sharp knife to put in my pocket.
“Marcia!” Mother was calling in that awful bright voice. I dropped all the knives back in the drawer and ran into the dining room.
She was sitting at the table, between the two men. They looked wider than they were tall now they were sitting down. I was surprised that mother didn’t fear for our chairs. The table was full of food. I had no idea where it could have come from.
“Marcia, darling, we’re waiting for you.” I wanted to shout at her. She never called me darling. I smiled meekly.
“I’m sorry, mama,” I said. Until that moment I had only ever addressed her as mother, but she betrayed no surprise.
“Please,” she said to the two men. “Help yourselves to all you can eat.”
I ducked back into the kitchen for the abandoned knives but they did not need a second invitation, filling plates with sandwiches, sausage rolls and other savouries. Mother poured tea, then we both sat and watched as these strangers ate us out of house and home. For our tea we had eaten bread and jam, as we did every day. I had never in my entire life seen a spread like this in our house.
“Marcia,” my mother reached out a hand, but stopped short of actually touching me. “Please assist our visitors.”
They did not seem to be shy about helping themselves, but I dutifully passed plates of iced fancies and chocolate-covered balls which turned out to be full of cream.
Eventually the visitors were replete and sat making small sighing and burping noises. Mother, who would have been disgusted if my brother or I had made such sounds in her hearing, continued to smile. The men had clearly taken over her mind.
One of the men took out a wad of money. Mother tried to wave it away but he fanned it out on the tablecloth. Then the two men rose, clicked their heels and bowed formally to me, before mother, with another painted smile, escorted them to the door.
For my pains I was sent to bed early. I heard mother and father arguing downstairs soon afterwards.
What happened to the money I do not know. When I raised the subject with him my brother denied all knowledge of the event and I did not dare to ask mother or father. Our lives continued as before. I lived in hope of a chocolate-covered and cream-filled bun, but ever after, until my mother’s dying day, there was only bread and jam for tea.