Monday, 20 April 2009

Folio 4 ~ The Turkish Tearooms

Caroline alighted in a part of the city that she did not often visit. An imposing archway led onto a colonnaded arcade with dark varnished wood and ironwork so creamy-white that it made you want to lick them. The city’s pigeons scrabbled with scratchy claws on the glass ceiling.

There was nothing exactly wrong with this part of the city, but it was full of shops with tastefully arranged (in a minimalist sense) handbags and shoes in the windows and Caroline had never seen the need of such things. Once, she did actually own a shoe, but it was not as comfortable or as useful as a pair of red, rubber gumboots and the tadpoles escaped through one of the lace eyelets (something which would never occur with a good – or come to that even a fairly poor – pair of gumboots). And what was the point of a handbag when you had two perfectly good pockets in the front of your dress? Anyway, handbags would get caught up when you squidgeedled through gaps in fences and holes in hedges.

Nevertheless, windows are created for the sole purpose of looking through and so Caroline, with impressive thoroughness, set about scrutinising each shop window with an apparent disregard to the shopkeepers, who seemed to take exception to their windows being huffed upon. Her gumboots, on the arcade’s polished marble floor, made a satisfying squeechy noise; almost as satisfying as the sqwurlch of a particularly boggy bit of mud. In fact, so taken up was she by the squeech, squeech, squeech she was making, Caroline hadn’t noticed that, by now, the number of shoppers that filled the arcade were thinning and that the shop windows were no longer filled with shoes and handbags, but begun to display rather wonderful and colourful arrays of coloured glass bottles, others shelves of leather-bound books and, yet others, strange instruments made out of polished wood and brass.

Rather unexpectedly, the shopping-alley curved suddenly to the right and tucked into the corner was a little window; the lower half was screened by a net curtain, in which a huge and splendid aspidistra was displayed. Beside the window was a door and on the door was a big brass twistable doorknob that, in the dim light, shone like a candle flame. Such brass knobs are made to be twisted and so Caroline squeeched up to it and giving it a firm twist and with one boot braced against the lintel she tugged at the door. After a few tugs, the door swung open with the ring-a-ting of a brass bell (which also shone like a flame). Caroline peered into a room that was filled with clouds of steam and bees-wax polished wood and the most delicious sweet smells she had ever smelled. Ornate dainty tables were scattered around, all draped in crisp, white, starched-linen tablecloths. And upon each table, large ornate silver ware was set. Along one side of the room ran a dark oak counter upon which a huge samovar hissed and boiled and from which great clouds of steam kept erupting into the air. The entire ceiling comprised an elegant arch of glass – rather like the glasshouses that stood unloved in the gardens of old houses. The glass was old and greened with age and the light that shone through it was watery; mottled and greenish. It gave the feeling of standing underneath a wave that, just as it was about to break over the top of you, had been frozen into a solid block of ice. Condensation dripped from the glossy leaves of the potted ferns and the aspidistra.

To one side of the room stood a highly polished black grand piano at which an aesthetic, wan gentleman, whose hair was a huge toppling pile, like the towering waves of regency wigs, played with fingers that seemed to merely brush the keys. A smaller aspidistra, in a blue and white porcelain pot, was perched on the floor beside him. Beside them both stood – or rather teetered – an enormous woman, as if rising from the floor like a tumbling, top-heavy and velveteened, thunder cloud. Her operatic alto voice boomed around the walls. Hands clasped in front of her, she sang in rattling vibrato:
“My body lies over the ocean,
My body lies over the sea,
My kidneys lie under the curtains
Oh bring back my splee-heen to me...”

No one appeared to be taking any notice.

At one of the tables two, rather severe looking, old ladies sat. They both wore voluminous black dresses of bombazine and paramatta silk that smelled of camphor and mild disapproval. One had on her head a black crepe bonnet and, perched on the end of a hook-like nose, wore a pair of round spectacles whose lenses had fogged over with condensation making her look blind. The other matriarch, who was rather rotund and clunked with beads, looked up as Caroline entered and took out a pair of pince-nez from a crocheted pouchette.
“Hmmm,” she said, looking rather critically at her red gumboots, “ You, gel. Come over here and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake.”
The ladies looked rather ferocious, but the cake, which was a particularly colourful Battenberg, looked rather delicious and so Caroline walked over to the little table and sat down.
The lady with the pince-nez scrabbled under the table and drew out a large ear trumpet which she held up to Caroline’s right ear and bellowed into it, “How many miles to Babylon?”
“I beg your pardon?” replied Caroline swiftly judging which slice of the Battenberg contained the thickest amount of marzipan.
“You see Gertrude? Deaf as a dodo,” cried out the woman, smacking the ear trumpet in triumph against the table, “I knew as soon as I saw her, that this poor wee scrap of a mite is as deaf as a dodo.”
She then proceeded to pat Caroline on the head and to coo in sad voice, “Poor, poor thing. T’is such a shame poor wee hen, and such a brave, BRAVE little gel.”
“The expression, Clarice,” interjected Gertrude, “is not deaf as a dodo. It is deaf as a bat.”
“Bat’s aren’t deaf,” retorted Caroline who was wanting the pleasantries to quickly end and the apportioning of the Battenberg to begin.
“Nonsense!” the thin matriarch creaked back on her chair in shock, “Everyone knows that bats are as deaf as... as... deaf as dodos.”
“Ahaha! See? I told you so!” cackled Clarice in triumph and giving the waiter, who was passing by the table, a hefty whack round the back of the legs with the ear trumpet.

“Well they’re not,” Caroline was sure the slice to the left under the thin end piece was definitely the most marzipanyist and she was just about to hoik it out with her finger.
“Oh so we have a chiropterologist in our midst do we?” sneered the bespectacled widow with a nasty sneer, “And, tell me young lady if you are so wise, Goosey, Goosey Gander whither does thou wander?”
“Upstairs and downstairs” Caroline replied feeling a little miffed that there was still no offer of cake.
“OOOHH! Good, Good,” clapped Clarice with delight, “She knows her Milton doesn’t she?”
“Well be that as it may, but she shouldn’t speak with her mouth full. And let that be the end of the matter.” And with that Gertrude took a sniff of a little pot of smelling salts that was at her elbow.
Caroline was just about to say that her mouth was far from full when the first widow suddenly announced in a loud voice.
She then replaced the ear trumpet in Caroline’s ear and bellowed into it, “Lady Grey or Orange Pekoe?”
“Um,” thought Caroline (on the very edge of a huge and shuddering nose-snuffle, which she only just managed to contain, as she had found that elderly ladies tend to take a dim view of snuffled noses).
“No matter,” cried Clarice happily and handing the plate of cakes over to Caroline, “It’s all the same here; Lady Grey, Black Dragon, Orange Pekoe, Formosa Oolong, Lotus Flower, Gunpowder, Blue Sky, Russian Caravan, Lapsang Souchong.”
“Why?” asked Caroline, digging down into the pile and extricating, with practice long born out from playing Pick-Up Monkeys, the marzipany slice that she had been earlier eyeing.
“Why! Because here, it all comes out as thick Turkish tea, of course.”

1 comment:

  1. Delightful post!!! Great photos and you have a FANTASTIC writing voice. Just beautiful.