Do you remember when mowing was something your dad did on Sundays while your mother got tea ready? A gentle click click click up and down, and the result looking like a cricket pitch but without the silly mid-off or blokes hammered on real ale and expecting to intercept a small leather missile travelling at light speed.
Of course this was a less relaxed activity when, instead of tea, something called High Tea was scheduled. This was generally a tuna or spam salad which comprised a precise number of lettuce leaves and slices of radish, a couple of large semi-indestructible tomatoes, and some cress. The cress, I learned later, was not the stuff posh people knew by that name – the large leaved, power packed salad items grown in running water and nipped off at the peak of taste and texture; that’s the sort you get in bags from Sainsbury’s. No; this was the stuff you grew on a flannel in the bathroom – if you had a bathroom – and you put it in water on the table to stop it drying out; a feat it seemed able to accomplish in extraordinarily short order.
For us, High Tea was a Highly Mannered ritual to be performed for the purposes of demonstrating one’s capacity to set out the cutlery in the right order and on this one particular occasion we were being visited by some rather puffed up relatives who, at their own home, had a front room into which riff raff like us were never invited, but from whom my parents hoped to cop the odd bob or two when they passed on.
Seated around the table with the best china laid out, the salad distributed among the assembled parties, and me howling about the unacceptability of radishes (Get it down you, there are starving children in India), our budgie, perched aloft on the curtain rail and forgotten, suddenly launched himself at the table, landed in the cress and there proceeded to flap, preen and splash in the performance of his ablutions. Then, with exquisite timing, our cat appeared, recalled her feral origins and made a dive for the budgie who was now strutting his stuff in the direction of the buttered bread, leaving a trail of cress across the table.
By this time, both parents had given up on any hope of future pecuniary advantage in the interests of preserving some semblance of a meal – presumably because of the starving children in India – and set about prising the cat off the table cloth and securing the bird with the help of somebody’s hat. Order restored, the fruit salad was produced as though nothing had happened and the illusion of dignity was dragged back into the room with the offer of ‘a small sherry’ to accompany it.
When the time came we only got a pair of curtains from the rellies and I buried a cat in one of them.
From Not Being First Fish by P Spencer-Beck. Available from Amazon (non-illustrated edition). Second edition (illustrated) due 2018.