FLORENCE FOR TEA
It was difficult
to move silently through the litter of last year's twigs in the oversize Wellingtons
borrowed from the zoo. The vet carrying a case containing tranquillizing darts
and a gun had not expected to be dragooned into manoeuvres which would have
exhausted the Territorial Army: she had merely expected to look at the recurring
rash on the ear of an elderly lemur. Nothing had been mentioned about stunning
a large arboreal primate with a sweet tooth.
'For pity's sake!' the vet complained to the nearest zoo attendant. 'She's harmless. Why couldn't you just leave some food out and let her come back in her own time?'
'Head Keeper don't want the press to pick it up.'
'And he thinks a battalion of beaters ploughing a through the countryside isn't going to attract attention?'
'What if she reaches the village? Just hope there's no ice cream van doing its rounds. You know what our Florence would do for an ice cream, don't you.'
The vet said nothing. She knew only too well what Florence would do for something sweet. It was a wonder she could still get off the ground.
The late spring air was
warm, the sun at its height and the birds busy defending their territories and
Monica slammed down a handful of cutlery onto the garden table as though declaring war with the plates stacked at its other end.
'Of course we'll come and see you every now and then,' her sons had promised. 'And we'll bring all the family. Be prepared!'
So Monica left her luxury yacht, bought a cottage in the country, and a sturdy garden table which could seat twenty. And how often had that table been used? Three times. Once for the vicarage's garden fete and twice by the fuchsia society. Now the grass underneath it was dying.
As she brought out a strawberry cheesecake and plate of mustard and cress sandwiches the once mistress of her own destiny considered donating the table to the village hall. But there was one last purpose it was going to serve before that. Monica went back to collect the chocolate éclairs and Black Forest gateau, which she dumped against the large platter of cheese scones and sent them rolling across the lacy tablecloth that had taken weeks to crochet.
Of course, one o'clock was rather early to serve high tea, but as no one was coming to eat it the time was academic. The food could have been frozen if Monica had been prepared to allow confectionery to take up the space intended for the lovingly grown beans, peas and cauliflowers surrounded by a rabbit proof fence and filled with spinning bottle tops to scare off the pigeons. Another exercise in futility; the wildlife here was relentless. At least you could shoot sharks menacing your snorkelling passengers and no one would have been any the wiser. Oh, how she wished to be back at sea.
At last the table was filled with cutlery, crockery, glasses, sandwiches, sweets, savouries, cold soup, flower displays and serviettes; yet something was still missing. Yes, of course - people!
Monica tossed a few chairs roughly into position and sat glowering at the spread. The vibrations she sent out deterred even the pigeons from coming down to try their luck. Perhaps she should invite some of those contractors waiting to fell the nearby local wood so they could build a slip road? No, they were trying to lower the value of her property and no one in the village would speak to her again if they saw the footprints of their boots on her path. She could, of course, have invited some neighbours. Unfortunately all the locals here did was grumble about a world they knew nothing of, people on benefits in general, and luscious Lulu up Brook's Alley in particular. At least that woman took the trouble to look in the mirror before he stepped outside. Monica would certainly have allowed her on the luxury 55 foot yacht, regardless of how she had raised the fare. And Lulu would have added a bit of sparkle to her table, though Monica would have probably ended up branded as her madam or maid.
There was nothing else for it; the only way now was death by dessert.
Without a second glance at the sandwiches, Monica ploughed straight into the Black Forest gateau. Spooning her way through the cherry laden chocolate sponge and cream, she gazed up absently at the line of ramshackle huts perched precariously in the trees. Strange birds, their plumage braided with beads, had nested there and only came down to collect the tins of food donated by appreciative villagers. Now the wood was virtually deserted while everyone waited for the Transport Minister's final decision.
As Monica automatically swallowed cake she noticed the flash of a mirrored skirt in one of the tree houses. She recognised the red velvet jacket which had been parcelled up with a few other things for the weekly collection by local sympathisers. They were the scrawny pair in danger of having a cuckoo chick push them from their nest.
Monica waved. A thin hand waved back. She raised the plate of gateau and beckoned them to join her. The response was immediate. The solitary protesters scrambled down a knotted rope and bounced through the leaf litter, barely giving Monica time to set two places at the table.
The couple wriggled through the yew hedge and self consciously darted towards the table like unsure squirrels. Unused to garden parties, they hesitated at the sight of the incongruously deserted banquet.
'Hi. My name's Monica. I recommend the cucumber and fennel soup for starters, but if you're really hungry, plough into anything you like.'
Now they were at eye level, Monica noticed that the leanness of her guests was due to emaciation, not youth. Far from being teenagers, she now realised that they were well into their thirties. Despite their weather-beaten skin, these protesters had that innate delicacy often found in the morally aware, as well as an otherworldliness which would have obliged them to defend the Asteroid Belt from mining companies.
The woman plucked open her serviette with birdlike fingers. 'This is really very generous of you. Are you sure we're not intruding?'
'Intrude all you like. My name is Monica, though my crew used to call me Captain Blood.'
The young woman made a gallant effort not to look worried. Decent food was too much of an imperative that moment. 'My name's Euphan. My friend is called Tristan.'
Tristan's mouth was already full of cheese scone and he spluttered his appreciation.
Monica swallowed the last of her gateau and, regretting it, next filled her plate with cress sandwiches.
'Where will you go when the decision for this road scheme is settled?'
Tristan swallowed. 'Probably on to the next one, but we're starting to win y'know. May not be many more after this.'
'Amen to that.' Monica doubted it. Living in a village she was obliged to have a car, but still preferred her luxury yacht which had ferried the wealthy from port to port, or circled the coast with billionaires' mistresses, and their pets which would have otherwise gone into quarantine. With a second mate, six crew, steward and cook to order about, Captain Blood had been on her very own highway of life. What was she now? A grandmother who had just spent all week cooking for a family who suddenly decided they had something better to do.
Euphan sensed the angry cloud hanging over her host. 'This is so good of you, but will there be enough left for your guests?'
Monica planted glasses of apple juice before them. 'You are my guests.'
Euphan mouthed a noncommittal, 'Oh,' and thought it safest to just carry on nibbling her scone.
Tristan was too immersed in gastric gratification to notice any tension. 'Of course, we could always try Greenpeace again. I've got nautical experience and can handle a dinghy.'
Monica swallowed half a sandwich prematurely. 'Are you mad!'
'Sudden ambushes on ships dumping toxic waste are very effective.'
'The only sudden thing about getting under falling drums filled with toxic waste is death.'
Euphan rushed in to agree. 'I keep telling him that. And he's far too old. They wouldn't let him do it.'
'Shouldn't think so either.' Monica tossed a slice of flan onto his plate. Tristan cautiously eased a piece of it away with his fork. 'It's vegetarian - filled with nuts and free range eggs.' That was a concession to her youngest grandson, the only child in her self interested brood who actually thought about what he was eating. The carnivores and bullies would soon knock that out of him if she couldn't persuade him to run away to sea first. The sea... A dreamy expression crossed Monica's face as she recalled the changing ocean skies, uninhabited tropical shores, and the thrill of watching whales breach in greeting.
She finished her plate of cress sandwiches and reached for the éclairs. 'How long were you at sea?'
'Ten years. Six as a merchant seaman and two on an oil rig supply ship.'
'Can you read a chart?'
Tristan looked puzzled. 'Was working towards a pilot's licence when I met Euphan.'
Euphan washed down her scone with apple juice before taking a slice from the flan Monica offered. 'I wanted Tristan to carry on, but he insisted on joining me at my first bypass protest.'
He shrugged. 'Well, what would there be to come back to if someone doesn't make a stand now? The country will soon be overwhelmed by fumes. Small wonder the land is repeatedly flooded when it's covered in so much tarmac.'
'Ocean's not so clean,' Monica warned. 'The North Atlantic Drift doesn't only push a warm current our way. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen float past on the high seas. Then there's the other sort of filth that has to be seen off with guns.'
Euphan's jaw dropped. 'You've actually had to fight off pirates?'
'Once we mounted the machine gun on the stern they didn't bother us. You'd think I'd used the same ploy on my family by the way they keep changing course to avoid me.'
By the expressions of her guests, they were taking on board how Monica had earned the name of Captain Blood. But, what the he! She had every right to be belligerent and took a large bite of her éclair.
'It's a shame ... all this food.' Euphan commiserated.
Monica was not a defeatist. 'Plough on, children. I have indigestion tablets and live yoghurt waiting in the kitchen.'
After a few more minutes of serious gluttony, there was a penetrating 'Cooeee!' from the front garden.
'I'm out the back, Gussie!' Monica shouted in mid swallow, nearly choking on an almond slice.
The visitor had already started her side of the conversation before coming into view. 'Just thought I'd pop round before everyone arriv-'
The ample woman stopped in surprise as she came round the rose trellis, though the hem of her voluminous, flowery gown kept travelling a little longer and described a ripple of organza violets in the breeze. She cautiously approached, voice lowered. 'What happened?'
'Both my little shits decided to take their revolting broods to EuroDisney instead. Something about a special offer for the simpering and sub human.'
'Oh dear.' Gussie sat down opposite Tristan and Euphan, giving them a discrete wave of recognition.
'Grab a plate, Gussie. We have leagues to go yet.'
'You'll make yourself bad,' she declared unconvincingly as she placed the plastic bag she was clutching on the table. 'Brought your basil. Like me to pot it up for you?'
'Later. I know you would prefer to dive in from the high board.'
Gussie gingerly took a plate. 'You know I'm trying to lose weight.'
'You're always trying to lose weight. It never works, so why worry about it now?'
'Just little, then.' Gussie cut a sliver of cheesecake and poured a few drops of single cream over it.
Monica smiled to herself. Her friend had known what cutlery was for before she could say 'jam trifle' and the subsequent delicacies which hadn't passed those poppy red lips weren't worth tasting.
'Actually,' Gussie began, but was unable to resist swallowing a mouthful of cheesecake before going on. 'That friend of my mother is visiting. You said you would like to meet him.'
'Is he hungry?' Monica hesitated. 'What friend is that?'
'You know. Dorian. He used to be a steward on the QE2.'
Monica's crusade against her waistline was momentarily sidetracked. 'Was? You never said he retired?'
'He decided to go into business with a neighbour. They run a waste recycling company in the East End.'
What limited knowledge Monica had about the QE2, being a steward on it didn't seem the best qualification for going into the waste disposal business. 'Tristan here wants to ram ships dumping waste with a rubber dingy.'
'I know, dear, but don't pay any attention to him. He's far too skinny for that sort of thing.' Gussie's plump arms broke the cover of her organza sleeves to reach for a cheese scone, some cucumber and fennel soup and a handful of bread sticks. 'I told Dorian to pop along if I wasn't back in ten minutes?'
'Fine. Pass me the mango chutney will you, Euphan.' Monica decided to follow Gussie's savoury example and scooped several dollops onto a cheese scone.
Gussie looked at the selection of confectionary on the plates surrounding her friend. 'Aren't you taking things a little out of sequence?'
'The only thing I took out of sequence was trying to raise a family before I was seventy.'
'Don't be absurd. Nobody could produce a family after that age, even with the wonders of modern medical science, ' Gussie admonished, her tone having the edge of the herbalist remembering what the Witchfinder General did to her forebears.
Trust her friend to miss the point. 'I would be prepared to live with the frustration.'
'So now you regret selling the yacht.'
Monica gave her a sly, enigmatic glance over her glass of apple juice. The look reminded Tristan that he was sitting at the table of a captain who kept a machine gun in the hold.
No more was said. There were places even Gussie's open toed court shoes dare not tread.
After sampling something from every plate within reach, even her appetite flagged. Euphan and Tristan had to loosen their belts and Monica felt too bloated to get up and fetch the indigestion tablets. Despite that, more than two thirds of the spread still remained when Dorian appeared. The effete fifty-something may have been in the waste recycling business, yet wore a batik shirt and white trousers as though his natural habitat was the deck of a cruise liner.
He came over with a sprightly step to shake Monica's hand. 'I'm so pleased to meet you. I've always wondered what it would be like to serve on a luxury yacht like yours.'
'It wasn't the QE2. You needed a decent sense of balance.'
'What sort of people hired your vessel?'
If this guest was going to talk shop, his narrow waistline was obliged to pay the penalty, so Monica handed him a plate and waved him to a seat.
'You also needed to phone Interpol before taking on clients. Grab some food.'
'Well thank you, I did miss lunch.' Dorian deftly cut a piece of flan and dressed it with green salad as though about to serve it to an archduke. 'Were your clients really that suspect?'
'About every other one. My yacht could have taken them into international waters before the police knew the bank had been robbed.' Fond recollections brightened Monica's mood. 'Never got caught out, though. The nearest I came to ferrying a villain was when the best mate of my useless, eldest son needed passage to Calais to collect a van load of wine.'
Gussie piled some salad onto her plate. 'There you go again. Your family can't be that bad. You were the one to bring them up after all... Well, before you left them with their father and took to the high seas.'
'They were over twenty five. I was entitled to.'
Tristan had also gone to sea to escape a life of emotional entanglement and appreciated Monica's reluctance to discuss hers. 'What was the name of your yacht?' he asked.
'Sibella. You wouldn't have seen it when you were working the oil rig run.' Monica turned to Dorian. 'Why did you leave the QE2?'
He sighed. 'They needed younger legs and higher heels. Everyone around me was half my age. Why did you give up the sea?'
Monica was silent for a while. 'No idea. Must have been mad.'
Silence once again descended. By this time Monica was so full she stopped to watch Dorian eat with elegant enthusiasm and the others, also full up, pick at morsels. Eventually a comfortable wave of oneness descended over the company, almost as though they were linking hands in some empathic ether.
None of them had been expecting the rustling in the branches of the old oak overhanging the table.
Monica gave the tree a cursory glance. 'Bloody squirrels. They've smelt the hazelnut flan.' She poured herself some spring water. 'Who else is going to finish all this food? It's a pity you wouldn't have a freezer, Gussie. '
'I prefer to dry my herbs.'
'Freezers are very handy. You can live out of them for ages.'
'It's people like you who put rural shops out of business.'
'Spent too long at sea. What you couldn't purchase by the hundredweight wasn't worth taking on board.'
The words were hardly out of Monica's mouth when a huge, hairy body of muscle and fat crashed onto the far end of the table. Plates, glasses, cakes, sandwiches, scones and cutlery did a brief mid air ballet before landing like jackstones on the lacy tablecloth. The gathering stared in disbelief at the doleful sack of blubber covered with long orange hair.
Gussie took a deep breath. 'I say, isn't that an orang-utan?'
Monica opened her mouth, but all that came out was an infantile squeak. Euphan, at one with all Mother Nature's creatures, rescued a cream cake and gingerly edged her way down the table to the mournful heap sitting on several éclairs, a Victoria sponge and flower display. Fixing her with a steady gaze, the orang-utan delicately accepted the offering. Jutting out her elastic lower lip, Florence dropped the cake into her mouth and, without bothering to masticate, swallowed it.
Encouraged, Gussie sliced a large portion of Black Forest gateau and followed suit.
'Steady on, we'll never get rid of the thing if you encourage it.' Only after the words had come out did Monica realise how absurd she sounded.
'Well she seems very friendly.' Gussie was obviously entranced by the visitor. 'And she does have a sweet tooth.'
'Try her with a cheese scone.'
Florence popped the offered morsel into its mouth, slowly masticated, swallowed, and then pulled a face which could only have meant two out of ten. Euphan quickly gave the orang-utan another cream cake.
'Think all that sweet stuff is good for it, Eu?' asked Tristan.
Monica grunted. 'When you're that size, who's going to argue?'
Dorian pulled out his glasses and peered thoughtfully at the ape. 'An old Chinese sailor I knew had an animal like that on his junk. Used to be very helpful with the rigging.'
Monica loaded a platter with éclairs, flan, cream cakes and gateau.
The orang-utan gazed at the pile of cakes as though having a near death experience in some confectionery heaven and a vengeful god was about to haul her back to reality. Ponderously, she lifted each delicacy and posted them into her capacious stomach.
'Think we ought to phone someone?' suggested Tristan.
'Let her have fun first,' said Gussie. 'She'll probably have the rest of her life in some enclosure to burn it off.'
The thought of being confined made Monica shudder.
'Alright?' asked Gussie.
'What am I doing here?'
'Playing grandma to a phantom family when you should be plying the Caribbean,' Gussie scolded. 'What did you have to go and sell the yacht for?'
Monica gave her that sly, sideways glance again.
'You did sell the yacht didn't you?' her friend demanded, not believing she would have kept something like that from her.
'That's what the boys told me to do. They would be a darn sight more attentive if they thought I was liable to take off again.'
'And them expecting to inherit a small fortune from its sale. Really Monica, that's dishonest.'
Everyone burst out laughing. Florence paused to cast a bemused glance at them before proceeding to graze from the surrounding plates.
Monica sat back and chewed a breadstick, the only thing her stomach could make room for. 'I rented the yacht out to a small cruise line. The lease is up for renewal in four weeks.'
'You know something,' Gussie sighed hopefully, 'I've always wanted to go on a cruise.'
'Sibella will need a cook. Any good at cordon bleu?'
For a successful waste disposal merchant, Dorian was paying unusually keen interest. 'What about clients?'
'Had at least a dozen contact me since Christmas.'
'So all you need now is a crew?'
Tristan gave Euphan an appealing look.
But Monica was concentrating on the orang-utan. 'Pity there isn't any rigging.'
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