AFTERNOON TEA

by Larkin Vonalt

But I could have told you, William, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.

 

On Wednesdays, my stepfather took the afternoon off. We’d all pile into his grey Morris Minor, “the Bumble” and go somewhere. He was a spontaneous sort of person, so I don’t know if he planned where he wanted to go, or if he just let the car carry us along, out of the valley and over the Pennines.

Sometimes it wasn’t so far– perhaps a section of the ruined Roman Road that he and my mother wanted to explore. I remember the three of us kids stayed in the car that time instead of following them out onto the windy moors. After awhile I was very thirsty, and pulled the only bottle of beverage out of the picnic hamper. I’d never tried it, but it was a favourite of theirs. I unscrewed the long cap, poured in the golden liquid, thinking it looked a bit like Rock Shandy. I drank the cap full down in one swallow and burst out coughing and spluttering. My mouth felt like it was on fire! I knew the bottle was a fifth of  Bell’s scotch whiskey, but I had no idea what kind of beast whiskey could be.

Other times, we’d go farther– to Doncaster or Sheffield, one time to the ancient walled city of Chester on the border of Wales. We didn’t see much of Chester in the dark, but I remember eating a pork pie in a deserted bakery that delayed their closing to feed us. There were English country houses to see, and cathedrals and gardens. We’d read in the backseat, Swallows and Amazons and Enid Blyton’s Famous Five, until we were dizzy. Hannah once asked plaintively why we couldn’t go someplace fun, like Blackpool.

It was cramped in the backseat of the Bumble, two ten-year-old girls different as chalk and cheese, but bound by a thorny confederation.  Propped between us sat William, Hannah’s brother, aged six. When William was born there had been a grim mistake, and the baby was somehow deprived of oxygen, each long minute removing him a little further from us.

In those days, children like William were called “spastic” and “backwards.” He could walk, a kind of lurching, shuffling gait, with a person on each hand, if he was having a good day. Otherwise he would inch along on his bottom, shimmying across the floor like a crab. He never had a cross day with anyone, but the intellectual deficits compounded by autism had stranded him in some Neverland, far away even while sitting with us. His speech was very limited and his beautiful grey-green eyes struggled to focus behind the lenses of his little glasses. He was prone to seizures. He had to have his nappies changed. He loved to sing.

When he was hungry, William would let us know by asking, very sweetly in a perfect British public school accent “Would you like some tea?”  “Tea” at home was toast and baked beans, bacon and eggs. William loved Weetabix, so he might have had that for tea instead. “Tea” while bumbling was often a picnic, or a few provisions bought in a shop or bakery; fish and chips wrapped in newspaper or ham butties.

We often went to Manchester on a Wednesday afternoon, to visit the orthodontist or buy new shoes or see a museum exhibit.  If we were in Manchester, tea was taken at the Midland. We must have been a sight crossing the lobby of the grand hotel, unfolded from the little car, road-weary, in jeans and boots and Aran sweaters, William careening between us.

If it made them wince to see us settling into the pink striped sofas in the Octagon room, they never made it plain. We often had the same waiter for tea, a graceful white-haired man named Charles. When my stepfather found out that Charles had also served at the Ritz in London, he took to referring to him as “Charles of the Ritz,” after a then-popular perfume and cosmetics company.

The man would smile gently, nod his head and say “Yes, sir.”  The tea service was all in white, on white linen tablecloths. White-haired Charles was also clad in white. When I try to remember now what it was like to contain William in this elegant setting, that sliver of memory is simply gone.

What I remember instead is Charles warming the teapot with hot water as he set out the savouries and the sweets for the tea. There were tiny sandwiches with the crusts removed: salmon on pumpernickel; cucumber, cream cheese and apricot; egg mayonnaise and watercress.  Scones with clotted cream and jam, Victoria sponge, fairy cakes, cream puffs.

“Milk in first, Miss?” Charles would ask, looking to me.  (Of course, milk in first, so as not to bruise the tea, making it bitter.)

“Yes, please,” I’d answer. Charles, graceful and correct, would pour tea for all of us, using tongs to place our individual sandwiches and cakes on tiny plates. William must have had a tiny plate too. It’s doubtful that he could manage tea in a cup.

“Would you like some tea?” he’d ask Charles of the Ritz, and Charles would smile.

In the Bumble, on the way home down the M62, William was singing bits he’d heard on the television. “When you eat your Smarties do you eat the red ones last?”

“Oh William,” my mother said.

“Starry, starry night,” he replied, singing. “Starry, starry night.”  My mother had started singing him Don McLean’s song about Vincent Van Gogh. She sang it to him every night and William loved to sing it back to her. “Starry, starry night,” he repeats, softly, leaning against me in the car, his shiny cap of straight brown hair falling across my arm.

My stepfather was determined that William could be made, if not whole, at least better. That he would somehow overcome the terrible effects of his birth. And William tried, he really did. But for every step forward there were seizures taking him further and further away like a boy on a boat without a paddle or a sail.

A few months later, we emigrated to Canada. It’s a funny thing, emigration. Countries are not keen to add a significantly compromised person to their citizenry. William went to live in a nursing home in Birkenhead while the application was made and the insurmountable details (like a lifetime trust for his care) were worked out. And we went to Canada without him, because that was the way it had to be done. While my parents were struggling with the red tape, William suffered a series of seizures and died.

When someone like William dies, some people suggest that it is a blessing. They see the burden lifted from our shoulders, the endless care-taking no longer an issue.  We couldn’t afford for all of us to return to England, so only William’s father and sister went, and my mother and I stayed home opening sympathy cards and sobbing with grief and regret. I think of William, asking if I’d like some tea. I think of him still nearly every time I pour the milk in first.

William, monstrous and delicate. William scooting across the floor. William gentle and William laughing.

William singing: Starry starry night.

William the beautiful, his sleepy head on my arm.


Advertisements