The Cake-Stand

   Things had got to the stage of the cake-stand with George and Jean.
   The three-tier utensil which was part of the Heritage Sunday Afternoon Tea at the Salutation Hotel.
   The eats were accompanied by a pot of tea (Indian or China), milk or lemon to taste.  The crockery carried on the traditional theme, with sprig roses, but was a modern shape and had no gold edging and said on the underside (Jean turned her saucer over to look) 'DISHWASHERPROOF'.
   Afternoon tea had been George's idea.  They had been socialising for a couple of years, ever since Jean's husband died.  George had been a widower for longer, and met Jean when he downsized to a flat in the same development she had just moved to.
   The flats were in a big converted house.  Some of their neighbours had airs and graces, but George was down-to earth (retired engineer) and Jean used to work at the cottage hospital (admin.) where of course you saw everything. 
   Oddly they had seldom been just by themselves: twice to the theatre, once to the opera at the Ca'd'Oro (less enjoyable than Aychbourn or J M Barrie - tuneless Janacek, from a motley Baltic company), and now and then a Sunday stroll into Carnbeg and an ice-cream (George's idea, and Jean succumbed, holding her double nougat in a hankie).
   Friends had fingers crossed for the tea.
   Jean's first surprise was that George hadn't put on a jacket for their formal surroundings, but was in a heavyweight all-weather  jumper. 'People don't much now,' he said, 'dress up,' responding to something she blurted out about not having known what to wear.  By comparison she felt decked out like a Christmas tree. 
   The next surprise was George closing his eyes.  For a moment Jean thought he'd fallen asleep.  He was actually saying grace, and she felt caught out with one hand already hovering over the sandwich plate.
   For his part George was puzzled when Jean took her cup out of his hand and said, through a big bright smile, she always put her milk in second.  She was still examining the contents of her sandwich, bread peeled back, by the time he'd down a couple: not enough to satisfy a sick budgie's appetite.
   They got to talking.  Exchanging newspapers every day, it had struck them both over the months how much they agreed about.  But without his tabloid for clues George was floundering.  Jean was talking about everything she ate, while to him it was just body fuel.  George wondered aloud how heavy the waitresses' trays were.  Jean was blabbering away about other afternoon teas that came to mind, enjoyed with her husband, and George didn't dare say that Irene's chief quality had been sitting in martyred silence because everything had been said between them.
   Jean was talking so much because she was appalled by George's down-the-hatch table manners, never slicing anything, running a wet fingertip round his plate to collect crumbs.  Whatever Ian's many faults (all those teas and weekends away were meant to compensate her for something, she suspected - assuaging his guilt about what?), he hadn't been a glutton.


  George said he'd pay.  Jean planned to hurry off to the Ladies, to pick cress garnish out of her teeth.
   They both knew they'd get phone calls this evening.  How did it go?  Time now to get back and face the music.
   Which of them was it who sent the plate stand toppling off the table?
   Their waitress caught it in the very nick of time.  She laughed, 'Not bad for my age, am I?'  George put his hand on her arm to steady her, and smelt her sweetness, breathed it in deeply.  He knew who she was because her sister used to answer the phone in the office.  He blinked at her, instantly smitten. 
   Jean noticed Dr Williams from the hospital watching.  He was sitting in a sports jacket, at a table set for one.  A difficult man, but no wonder, married to a flighty woman who'd run off with his junior.  Jean nodded at him.  Dr Williams bowed his head, looked into his tea cup, looked back at her in her Sunday best.  Over his cake-stand with most of the food untouched, he offered her a smile.  Jean responded in kind, and her day was magically saved.

© Ronald Frame

Published in The Herald 2008

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