TEA-TIME ON FOREIGN TERRAIN
On my mother's birthday: This story is dedicated to my mother's memory. Always feisty. Always an English rose.
I’ve heard it feels the same way when your heart gives out. In the mild winter sunshine, I caught myself holding my breath. As I stood there bombarded by loudspeaker announcements in French, I thought about my mother.
I was in my teens.
She was heading off to work. Mother managed the fabrics section at a major department store. A devotee of thrift shops, she stitched off-cuts, sale items and recycled garments and she miraculously dressed her children in the latest gear.
‘What on earth are you thinking, girl? Spending on that trashy magazine? Dad and I constantly scrimp and save. All to keep food on the table, clothes on your backs.’ Mother scoffed, ‘If you’re going to waste your babysitting money that way, give it to me.’
I cringed, visualising my teenaged self steel herself for my mother’s blow: the Liverpool rant. Ration tickets. Mashed beans. Dried eggs… The litany went on and on...
‘Waiting for someone, Madame?” A male voice burned through my mental fog. A Frenchman beside me was smiling, kind of flirtatious.
‘Waiting? Oh yes, my mother,’ I presented a neutral demeanour.
‘Wow, your mother. Looking forward to it?” he asked, a bit too eagerly.
‘Your know… It’s complicated,’ I said, crossing my arms so my wedding ring was clearly visible.
Familiar footsteps signalled her approach. My chest tightened. I turned and spotted my mother. With her woollen scarf and beige British mackintosh flapping, she marched towards me from the airport shuttle bus. I groaned inwardly. She was still lugging around that bulging weather-beaten leather shoulder bag. She pouted her lips then planted a kiss on my cheek.
‘Hello darling,’ she said. ‘My, it’s been a while. How wonderful you got accepted onto this course in Paris.’ Then eyeing me up and down, she added, ‘You look...well.’ You could never tell if she meant something by that comment.
Our embrace was awkward, anguish, trepidation and love in tight competition. ‘Well, you know...Melbourne.’
‘That fella of yours treating you right?’ asked Mother.
‘Mum, you promised.’
‘Yes, yes. I remember. Nothing heavy…’
‘Just a pleasant long weekend. No talk of the B-L-I-T-Z either. Still traveling light, I see.’
Mother patted her bag, pleased. ‘Oh a good cup of tea and some clean knickers, preferably white, is all a girl needs. Learned that fifty years ago during the...'
‘Liverpool Blitz,’ we chorused. I sighed.
On the metro, looking out the window, Mother said, ‘It says Champs Élysées. So where’s this hotel?’
‘At Bastille, Mum. Just a few more stops.’
Her eyes shifted, now she was studying her flat sturdy shoes. ‘Don’t they know about escalators in the tube over here?’
Once at our room, she stated with a note of surprise, ‘Why, it’s actually very clean.
‘Whoopee,’ I said under my breath.
‘Did you say something, dear?’
‘Tea?” From her shoulder bag, she tugged out a Hobbs kettle, a flowery porcelain teacup and a few teabags. ‘Good English tea.’ Smiling, she lay them out carefully until, ‘Oh?’ Mother gazed at me, holding aloft a very British plug. I already knew what was coming. ‘Be a love.’
‘Fine, Mum. Lucky for you, I spotted an Électroménager shop on our way here.’
Later, as the aroma from her steaming cuppa rose, Mother seemed to gather strength for her next foray. ‘Have you talked to your brother Ian, lately?’
My head shook no. And I remembered Ian, the peacekeeper, the chip-off-Dad’s block. The one who held Mum’s hand when I told her I was leaving for Australia.
‘Why did he marry a Canadian? Why move to Canada? Of course, Canadians were never evacuated in the war like we were, with our essentials in a pillowslip. Now it’s all high-spending on the credit card. Poor Ian. I tried to warn him.’ She sipped on her tea, warming to the theme.
‘Mum,’ I sighed, my weariness evident. ‘Can’t this just be our moment?’
‘I’m sorry,’ I could feel her protest coming, ‘But at my age…‘
‘Let’s just enjoy this time,’ I said.
The next day found us touring the Musée d’Orsay, a converted railway station. Now a vast white, marbled museum filled with paintings, exhibits and sunshine streaming through an arched glass ceiling. For the most part, Mother said very little. But there were times, I swore I caught her looking at me, puzzlement in her eyes.
I had booked lunch in the restaurant upstairs that overlooked Parisian rooftops. Mother scanned the menu, looking at the prices.
‘Mum, I’m not one to throw money away.’
‘Money? That’s not what I was thinking.’
Money was exactly what you were thinking about, I thought.
‘Look at this menu. All in French. Why I can’t even read it to see if I there’s anything I can eat,’ was her pronouncement.
I ushered her into the high-ceilinged room, decorated with large floral displays. In the end, no complaints. To finish off, she ordered coffee, a brew she rarely drank.
Must not want to complain about the tea, I thought. And she insisted on paying the bill.
As we left, Mother said, ’A boat ride would be nice.’
The boat slid languidly along the Seine. I gawked at the regal buildings and landmarks lining the banks. My mother’s attention was fixed on our fellow passengers. Japanese tourists were pushing and shoving for drinks while the French vendor shouted and flailed at them with a glass bottle.
‘Can’t even queue quietly,’ she tut-tutted. ‘Foreigners. When I think of the humble way us Brits just get on with it and queue.’
I slipped on my sunglasses and hunched down.
Our last full day together seemed fitting for some lazy morning lounging. Warm bed. The paper. Room service.
Mother looked to my side of the bed. ‘Well, it’s nice and clean here.’
I glowered over the top of the newspaper. ‘You said that two days ago.’
When our continental breakfast arrived, I offered her baguettes and croissants. ‘When in Rome…’
‘I could kill a bit of toast with bacon and tomato. They don’t do that here, do they?’
‘Not even on a Sunday?’
Mother brewed her tea. English tea. Once ready, after an awkward pause, with her back to me, she murmured, ‘Were you really that…unhappy...that you left for Australia?’
Take deep breaths, I thought. I pretended I hadn’t heard.
Knowing she liked interior decor, I looked forward to taking her to visit the Paris Opéra that afternoon. Once there, she immediately flopped prostrate, toes up on a gold-framed red velvet chaise longue. ‘I’m knackered, you go and look,’ she waved me away. A French couple raised their eyebrows. I hunched into my jacket and slunk away.
‘How about we have our last supper at Chez Eugénie tonight, up in Montmartre, since it’s not far?’
Mother sighed. ‘More French food. Well, let’s give it a shot anyway.’ After dinner, the dessert trolley came around and a kind of childish delight flooded my mother’s face. ‘Always had a soft spot for éclairs.’ Wriggling her fingers, she selected a few, positioning them daintily on the porcelain plate before her. “When I was little, your nanna would bring them home from work. It was my only treat during...‘
‘...the Blitz.’ A couple at the next table swivelled their heads. I scrunched up my linen napkin.
Afterwards at Pigalle, a gang of young thugs surged onto the homebound train.
‘Don’t make eye contact. Tell her to look the other way,’ whispered an elderly lady sitting opposite. After translating, I half-expected Mother to retaliate with, ‘Well, when we went through the Blitz…’ I cut in with the elderly Frenchwoman’s next words, ‘She says she takes this train to Mass at Sacré Coeur every Sunday evening.’ With my handy language support, my mother went on to engage in lively conversation with the stranger, oblivious to the restless energy of the kids.
Once back in the hotel, my mother flopped onto the bed.
‘Make us a cup of tea, darling. I could murder one right now.’ She began fishing through her bag. ‘Make sure you put hot water in the pot first. Give it a good swirl. And here, use these teabags. Hate weak tea.’
While making it, I asked, ‘Why do you love this tea so much?’ Mother drew in a breath, a fleeting sadness crossed her face.
‘It was the only thing the'
I was amazed. She’d cut herself short. ‘Go on…’
‘It was the only thing the B-L-I-T-Z didn’t take from me.’ She paused. ‘That and family.’
I felt the cold chill of remorse occupy my body and spent the next few minutes staring at hot steeping tea.
When I handed Mother her drink, she put down her return ticket to take the cup.
‘Wow. The time just flew,’ I said.
Mother smiled. ‘Oh, it’s been much nicer than I expected.’
‘Well, I’m going to miss you, Mum.’
She searched my face, her eyes watering. ‘Really?’ Mother asked, like she was frightened of my reply.
For a while, my mother’s breathing seemed to stop. ‘Oh how I wish you hadn’t moved so far away. And now you’re a mum too. How are those little girls?’ She smiled wistfully. Took a long sip. ‘Ah, English tea. Nice and strong. Nanna would be so proud.’
‘Of both of us,’ I agreed.
The following morning, heartsore and in turmoil I watched my mother as her back receded through the departure gates. A slight figure wrapped in a respectable scarf, useful mackintosh and wearing sensible shoes, she clutched her precious bundle. A bundle containing her kettle, a teacup and her tea, cherished only slightly less than her beloved daughter.
And oh yes, clean knickers, preferably white.