Monday, May 19, 2014

Magpie Tales: Tea for Two, Dinner for One.



I'd like to say thank you
to  Magpie Tales
where this week's image is a 
delightful Edward Hopper.

It made me think of cream teas,
charming tea rooms,
cake-stands full of pastel pretty pastries.

In fact, it made me very hungry,
which lead me to those wonderful
fairy tales where someone's hunger
can be a very scary thing, indeed.



 Tea for Two, Dinner for One.


Two at table four, Margaret, please.” said the Maître d'. 

 Greta nodded, straightened her apron. She carried the heavy tray with the tea things and placed it, with demure ceremony, on the table. A smile, for the customers. 

The woman smiled back, her thickly painted lips as red as a glazed strawberry, then shrugged off a heavy coat to reveal a rather smart gingerbread coloured jacket. The man, however, just gave a hitch of his mouth and turned his attention back to the blank tablecloth.

“We have sachertorte and congress tarts.” Greta handed out the stiff, engraved menus, with their sinful miscellany of pastries. “There's the éclairs, of course, and the macaroons and tarte au citron and...”

The woman rapped her tea cup with her spoon. The ringing tone jarred Greta out of her rambling and she swallowed silent the description of patisserie.

The woman leaned forward, as if about to share a secret.”I think we'll start with the hot buttered crumpets and then we'd like to try everything that you recommend.” She gave a nod of her head, neatly wrapped in a cherry-red cloche.”Hans here is rather hungry, poor soul, so I'd like to make sure he gets to eat his fill.” She then stared across the table at Hans, who hunched his shoulders a little and nodded.

“Yes, Mrs, Cotter.” he mumbled.

Do call me Ginger, silly boy!”  Mrs Cotter suddenly tapped Greta's wrist with her fingers, flashing nails as white and smooth as blanched almonds. “Don't you think Hans is a silly boy?”

Greta wasn't sure what she thought. Hans wasn't a boy at all. He looked to be in his twenties, a good five years older than she was. Younger than the woman, though, so she wondered exactly what their relationship was. Mrs Cotter was older but not so old as to be his mother. A pampering aunt and a sulky nephew? Maybe. Maybe they were lovers, as Mrs Cotter's glances were full of greedy proprietorship as she smirked at Hans. He looked rather nice, clean and neat. He also looked utterly miserable. There were dark daubs under his eyes, as if he hadn't slept, and his face was all pulled tight. Maybe he'd been ill, she wondered? She gave him another smile.

No response.

Mrs Cotter lightly clapped her hands together, the movement releasing a fragrance of cloves and vanilla. 'Well, that's decided, then! Hans, pour the tea would you? There's a dear. No sugar for me.” She winked, rather coarsely, at Greta. “I'm sweet enough.”

Greta hurried away to place the order. She looked out the wide windows of the Woodland Tea Room, where outside the Bentleys and Talbots and Rovers splashed through the rain. The sky hung down grey, like wet mould. But inside, everything was bright and clean; the silver tea pots, the gleaming cake stands, the delicate, brittle bone china. All the conversation was muted, and broken by the happy silence of someone biting into a billow of light pastry. Genteel. Civilised. She smiled again, fluttering between the tables in her uniform, with the huge bow at the back making her a butterfly. A cake-bearing butterfly.

Returning with the imposing tower of delights on the cake-stand, she noted a strange scent. Mrs Cotter was smoking. That wasn't in itself unusual. Lots of ladies smoked in public. It was the 1920's, not the Dark Ages! But the smoke wasn't the usual acrid reek of tobacco. It smelled spicy. Greta stood the silver cake-stand on the table, for inspection. Mrs Cotter smiled and nodded, and blew a pale wreath of cinnamon-fragrant smoke over it.

“Thank you, dear girl. You really were very quick. Wasn't she, Hans?”

Hans gave the first sign of some kind of life. His head jerked up and he gazed around, like a sleeper woken by a sudden sound. Then he stared down at the plate, apparently transfixed by its design of hand painted ivy leaves.

“I'm not hungry.” he said to the plate.

“See?” Mrs Cotter gave her another vulgar wink. “I told you he was a silly boy. Eat up, dear heart! You're positively wasting away!” As Greta placed a plate and fork and napkin in front of the woman, she wafted it away, in a stream of smoke. “ No, no! Nothing for me! Nothing before dinner tonight.”

And with that, she rubbed a hand, pale as chantilly cream, over her little bun-shaped belly, smirking. Greta didn't know where to look and felt her face heat up in a blush. Mrs Cotter's simper changed to a plump pout of annoyance, as Hans continued to stare morosely at his plate.

“Come along now, darling. You need some meat on those bones.”

She gestured to Greta, who began to place frothy little confections onto Hans' china,  all the while feeling a prickle of disquiet. When his plate was a mound of mille feuille, choux, savoy sponge, meringue, macaroons and galette, Mrs Cotter struck the side of her tea cup with the spoon again, like a dinner gong.

Hans suddenly picked up his fork and began to put away the cakes as if he was stoker loading coal. A wedge of éclair. A whole tartlet, studded with raspberries. A cream horn stuffed with whipped chocolate ganache. As his plate began to empty, Mrs Cotter cleared her throat with some annoyance and gestured to the cake-stand.

“Dish him up some more, would you, and then bring us a fresh pot of tea and some more of these delightful pastries. Do you have any Linzer torte? Palmiers? I'm sure you know what to bring.” And with that, the woman leaned back, brushing some stray crumbs from her gingerbread coat, with its butterscotch glass buttons.

Greta was glad to get away. After returning with more tea and another tray glutted with confectionery, she was happy to wait other tables, with more conventional customers. Twice she was summoned back to Hans and Mrs Cotter, for more tea and even more cakes.

At five o'clock, Hans' resolute, mechanical shovelling had slowed. His face was pink now, and his sad, shadowy eyes were dazed and blinking. Greta saw Mrs Cotter lean over the table, producing a handkerchief, white as sugar, to dab chocolate sauce from his lips as if he was a child. He didn't move. He didn't move when she reached out with those almond-white fingernails and pinched his cheek. She left red marks on his skin.

“Oh, I think you're done, dear boy.” she breathed, then waved an imperious hand at Greta.

When Greta returned with the bill on its little silver salver, Mrs Cotter shook her head and pulled out another cinnamon bark cigarette.”I can't see all that tiny writing without my glasses.” she said, between tugs of scented smoke,” Give it to Hans. He might as well do something useful before dinner.”

Hans took the piece of paper with sweaty fingers. Then, with a chagrined expression, he showed Greta his hands were covered in chocolate ganache. He took up his linen napkin and began to wipe his fingers clean, one by one,  with great deliberation. Once they were cleaned to his  satisfaction, he opened his wallet and unfolded a crisp white five pound note, laying it gently on the salver under Mrs Cotter's amused gaze.

“Come along, dear boy! You don't have all night!” And with that, Mrs Cotter got to her feet. She stubbed out the cigarette in a rosette of whipped cream. Then Hans helped her into her coat, his face stiff with resignation.

When Greta hurried back with the change and receipt, Mrs Cotter just waved her away, impatiently.

But Hans leaned forward, gave Greta a polite tip of his hat. “Please, keep the change.” he muttered, and gathered all the coins into his dirty napkin, making a little package. He pressed the napkin into Greta's hands. “Please.”

“Come along!"

And with that, Mrs Cotter herded him out of the tea room.

Greta watched them go. She looked at the wreckage of the table, covered in cream and crumbs. Then she opened Hans' napkin, and the coins all tumbled out in a metallic cascade. Written on the cloth, in thick smeary chocolate  ganache letters, were the words

HELP ME


Afternoon Tea Party . Jean Etienne Liotard . 18th C


(Thank you so much for reading! 
If you would indulge me, I'd like to  point you 
in the direction of a giveaway, 
presently running on the The Narrator's Study.
There's all kinds of good things
being given away.
For free!
No cakes though, unfortunately)

18 comments:

  1. Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Cait! That's very kind of you! :)

      Delete
  2. Oh, poor delicious Han. I do hope he gets what he needs in the future...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I think he's getting the long skewers and a spicy rub. That and a bit of larding. Does that sound dirty?

      Delete
    2. No, it sounds delicious. Does that make me sound dirty?

      Delete
    3. I'd be disappointed if it didn't. :)

      Delete
  3. Wow, deliciously uncomfortable the way a real fairy-story should be. I heartily approve, Rhissanna. Can we expect a book-shaped collection of retold fairy tales in our future?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Mr N. The debauched fairy tale is very tempting, I have to admit...

      Delete
  4. Replies
    1. My pleasure. And thank you very much for saying so.

      Delete
  5. Intriguing. Reminds me of Hansel and Gretel. Maybe she is fattening him up only to stuff him in the oven!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Heh! Thank you very much! Yes, that is exactly what I'm hoping people would see. Does Hans get rescued? You'll have to ask Greta.

      Delete
  6. Replies
    1. Insert the knife into the abdomen. I think he might be roasted whole, though, as he's already stuffed.

      Delete
  7. No way out? Greta? Not too young? Intriguing...~ Thanks for stopping by my blog :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you! I thought I'd leave the ending to the reader. Maybe she'll get there before he's trussed, larded and mounted on a roasting spit?

      Delete
  8. I really enjoyed this very intriguing and clever tale...wonderful!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you very much! I did wonder if I'd made the fairy tale impenetrable (or over-indulged in the list of cakes) but decided to leave it as a puzzle. And to leave Hans' fate for the reader to decide...

      Delete