I loved your Chinese tea set that lived on the bottom shelf of the sideboard; The cups and saucers that were the right size for my fingers and the pretty black teapot with its bamboo handle and strange lettering in gold. You told me it was written in Chinese and admitting your limited translational skills said it probably meant, be happy and drink tea. The milk jug was cream and gold and didn’t match but you said she liked joining in so had to be invited to our tea party, while you retrieved the tiny sugar tongs with splayed fingers that snapped gently, from the top drawer.
I believed all you told me and looked forward to Saturday afternoons when we as family visited you. This was my happiest time, yet the others didn’t seem as excited as me as we turned the corner into your street; perhaps because they were older and didn’t understand or maybe they were immune to your magic. But I loved you, your stories about the Irish rebellion and your ancestors being kings; and how our name went so far back in history that we rubbed shoulders with Boudicca. And how you could burst into to song at a moment’s notice and close your eyes as you let out the notes, living the story in your face.
You are my Auntie Rose and to my five year old eyes you appear old yet your smile and twinkle let me know you understand me better than anyone else. We pull out the black glass topped coffee table together and scatter cushions around it. The kettle is ready to boil as you bring out triangle sandwiches half the size of my hand filled with beef paste – an oriental delicacy – and chocolate coated cornflake crispies in dollied paper cases that are one bite big. Your thick ankled legs struggle to cross on the cushion opposite me and I wait in anticipation for the tea ceremony. ‘Remember Lorraine guests are always served first’, I sip my tea with delight and nod my approval as you pour your own. We talk and laugh as the beef paste goes down and soon there are only crumbs left and it’s time to go.
My parents and brothers have been watching television in the other room and have missed the party- it’s their loss. I offer to clear up, but you tell me that guests are never expected to do that and press sixpence into my tiny palm, telling me to spend it wisely on good chocolate.
That was thirty five years ago. And now I’m holding your hand as you stare past me. I sing the words of Danny Boy softly hoping you’ll remember and your eyes will flicker.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the carer wheels in the tea trolley and hands me a plastic beaker with a spout that fits into your mouth so you don’t spill tea on your bib. The beef paste sandwiches are curled at the edges and too big for your arthritic hands and the cakes are not homemade. The others in the home dive in to the sandwiches and chatter laboriously as I try to spoon feed you the mashed banana and custard. The years have taken you away from me.
The visitors’ bell tells me it’s time to go and I press my lips against your sunken cheek and leave the tea party behind.