Tea at the Empress
Tea at the Empress is a delitght. Edith positively sparkles on the page -- a young woman living a life of excitement at a time when women were only beginning to access hard-won human rights.
Reaching into my closet, I took out my shortest flapper dress, deep green and covered with fringes. I gave the dress a shake on its hanger and the fringes shimmered and shimmied — the perfect dress to wear to a family dinner to which I hadn’t been invited. Grandma had come by yesterday and told me not to worry. “Your mum’s just been so busy getting everything ready.” “I know Mum’s a fussbudget,” I’d said, “but to forget to invite her own daughter!” “She’s in a tizzy because some family from Vancouver will be there,” Grandma had explained. “My great-nephew and his wife and daughter have just moved here. It’ll be their first Thanksgiving away from home.” Mum didn’t mention that to me either. Maybe I embarrassed her so much that she’d rather I didn’t come. Well, my flapper dress would give her something to be really embarrassed about. She’ll say “you’re too old to wear such a thing!” She always loves to rub it in that I’m almost thirty and still not married. “Look at Lucinda!” she’ll say. “Your sister’s four years younger than you and married with three children already!” Fine, Mum, but look at me! I have a job at The Daily Colonist. How many women can say that? 1 Armistice Day VVVVVVVVVVVVVVVV “British Empire Has Declared War Against Germany” The Daily Colonist, August 5, 1914 The Daily Colonist November 11, 1927 “This is the ninth anniversary of Armistice Day, the day which the peoples of this Empire have dedicated for all time to the everlasting memory of their dead in the Great War.” 2 Tea at the Empress I thought she wanted me to be a teacher, but it seems she really wanted me to give her grandchildren and I let her down. I’ll show her, I said to myself, slipping into my flapper dress and giving it a good shake. I caught a glimpse of myself in my dresser mirror and walked over to finish getting ready. I pulled on my silk stockings and slipped a green band over my bobbed hair. Then I lined my eyes with kohl and put on some lip rouge. That’d annoy Mum for sure. My cat Biddy, knowing by my actions that I was going out, wound herself between my legs. “Out of the way!” I cried as I stepped over her. Then I went into the kitchen to pour myself three fingers of single malt. I needed some fortification before a family get-together like Thanksgiving dinner. Prohibition might be long over in British Columbia, but it’d be dry at Mum’s house. We wouldn’t even have a glass of wine to toast the memory of the dead from the Great War. I didn’t get it anyway. How we were supposed to mourn the dead and celebrate Thanksgiving on the same day? It never made sense to me. To make matters worse, there was going to be some distant cousins there. Another happy family for me to be envious of. I threw back the scotch. Then I grabbed my coat and called goodbye to Biddy over my shoulder as I walked out the door. In the hallway of my apartment building, I smelled fresh paint. Out in the garage, my 1919 red Chandler roadster was waiting for me. Long and sleek, it had long running boards and tires with white spokes like spiders’ webs. Being an American car, its steering wheel was on the left and, as we drove on the left side of the road in BC, it was sometimes difficult to see traffic on the right. I loved that car and paid extra for the garage space to keep it in tip-top condition. If only I could put the top down. The clouds were high and it didn’t look like rain, but the wind still cut through my coat like cold steel. I jumped in and turned the motor over. She roared to life, then gently purred. It filled my heart with happiness to hear that sound and feel the power beneath me. I put her in gear, unleashed the beast, and drove up Quadra to Fairfield, then to Linden. The car nosed her way down the hill to my parents’ house, two blocks from the sea. As I jumped out and slammed the car door shut, I took a deep breath. I missed living so close to the salty scent of the ocean. Whenever I was sad or angry or grieving growing up, I used to walk those two blocks to the sea. I’d sit on a driftwood log and listen to the steady, perpetual 3 Edeana Malcolm swoosh of the tide. My heart would slow to its rhythm and all of my cares would drop away as if they’d never been. I should visit the ocean more often, I thought as I walked up the garden path. Mum had planted rose bushes along this path before I was born, I paused to take a deep whiff of the dying roses before climbing up the steps. Mum answered my knock. She looked surprised to see me, but quickly recovered and gave me a peck on the cheek. She squinted at me and I noticed that her frequent frowns were etching lines between her eyes. “You’ve been drinking,” she said. Then, “Come inside.” I entered, feeling like a child again. “Let me take your coat.” I took it off and handed it to her. She looked me up and down, then shook her grey curls. “Why do you even own such a dress?” she asked. She didn’t wait for an answer but walked the width of the vestibule and hung my coat in the closet. The only adornments in the hallway were a blue china umbrella stand beside the front door and a matching vase on a wooden table. Being November, there were no flowers in it. On either side of the vestibule were double glass doors that were usually closed. The doors to the dining room on the right were open and a card table had been set up in the doorway. Mum saw me looking at the anomaly in her usually pristine house. “It’s the children’s table,” she said, shaking her head. “In my day, children didn’t eat with adults.” She opened the door to the kitchen and called to the maid. “Could you set another place at the table for Edith?” So, she didn’t intend to invite me. That stung. “You didn’t say you were coming,” Mum said, looking embarrassed. “You,” I replied, “didn’t invite me.” “Come,” Mum said, “let me introduce you to my cousin and his family.” We went through the glass doors on the left that led into the parlour. All the seats were occupied. My young nieces and nephew were scattered on the carpet. The two little girls jumped up and ran to me. “Auntie Edith!” they cried. “Hello, Smelly. Hi, Weasel.” Lucinda glared at me. She disliked my nicknames for her girls. Melissa and Louisa gawked at my flapper dress. I gave it a shimmy so they could admire its full effect. They laughed and clapped their hands. The adults tittered too, but I could feel the tension in their laughter. More of an embarrassed giggle. 4 Tea at the Empress “Behave yourself!” Mum said, pretending to smile. “Let me introduce you to our guests. This is my cousin, James.” A handsome, boring-looking man stood up and shook my hand. “How do you do,” he said flatly. “And his wife, Margaret.” She was seated on the love seat beside him. She didn’t stand and I could tell that she disapproved of me at least as much as my mother did. “And this is their daughter, also Margaret.” Mum indicated a girl sitting on the edge of a straight-backed chair. She was at that awkward age somewhere between childhood and adulthood. Too old to go on the floor with the other kids and too young to feel comfortable sitting with the adults. She smiled at me, obviously amused by my childish antics and impressed with my flapper dress. But that smile took my breath away! Where had I seen it before? I went over and shook her hand. She seemed embarrassed by the gesture. I could feel her mother glaring at me. Clearly, she saw me as a bad influence on her child. Well, I didn’t even know the girl. “I like your dress,” the young Margaret said. Such an astute child! I smiled back at her. “And I like yours.” Her mother had obviously dressed her. She wore a frilly dress similar to my nieces’ and a matching white hair bow stood up on her head. Poor young Margaret made a face and her mother glared at me. She too must have heard the sarcasm in my remark. “Now that everyone is here,” Papa said, “we can go in for dinner.” Oh, yes. Papa was here. I hadn’t even said hello to him yet. I went over and gave him a kiss on the cheek. He blushed. Papa was English and very uncomfortable with any public show of affection. He went into the dining room. My sweet grandmother was sitting in an armchair. “Hello, Grandma,” I said. She stood up and I took her arm and escorted her into the dining room, following my father. Mum had outdone herself, with the help of the maid, of course. A long time ago, she used to be a maid in an upper-crust house and she always aspired to the same classiness in her décor. The mahogany china cabinet and sideboard gleamed with lemon polish. The table was splendidly set in autumn colours. The china pattern was India Tree by Spode. There were crystal water glasses only. So, no wine then, as I’d expected. But the smells of turkey, gravy, and cranberries were heavenly. In that moment, I was glad to have invited myself to this table. No matter how bad the company was, the food itself would be worth the agony. 5 Edeana Malcolm Mum had kindly put name tags around her table. I sat Grandma in her chair near Mum, who was seated at the end of the table nearest the kitchen door. Of course, Papa was sitting at the other end. I went around the table, found the place setting without a name tag and sat down. I was seated between my sister and her husband. Lucinda gave me a dirty look as if I’d chosen to sit there. My cousin James was sitting directly across from me with his wife on one side and Grandma on the other. Young Margaret was doing a circuit of the table but couldn’t find her name tag. “I put you at the children’s table,” Mum said to her. “I hope you don’t mind.” She indicated the card table halfway out in the hallway. “Of course she doesn’t mind,” Margaret’s mother said. Young Margaret glared at her mother and went to the table where my nieces were already sitting and where my two-year-old nephew was struggling not to be deposited by Lucinda. He had his arms wrapped tightly around her neck and wouldn’t let go. Young Margaret seemed equally reluctant, but dutifully sat, looking longingly at the adults’ table. I felt some sympathy for her. But where had I seen that look before? That shy sadness? Lucinda gave up struggling with her two-year-old and looked at Mum. “Do you mind if Roland sits with me at the adult table?” Mum looked disgusted by the whole idea of a two-year-old at her well-decorated table, but she nodded. Lucinda carried her toddler over to her seat beside mine at the big people’s table. She sat down with him on her lap. Papa had intoned grace. He thanked God for food and family, then he mentioned our gallant soldiers who had fought in the Great War. I silently thanked my father for remembering. When he’d finished, my mother started circulating the bowls of food around the table. “Where is Rob and his family?” I asked after my brother. I spooned a few Brussels sprouts on my plate. I didn’t like them much, but I took two or three from habit. Best not to anger Mum. “Robert,” Mum responded, “is with Florence’s family this year. You know very well they alternate, and last year they were here for Thanksgiving.” “Oh,” I said, passing the sprouts on and taking the mashed potatoes. They looked more appetizing. I took a large spoonful. “What do you do for a living, James?” I asked my cousin. “I’ve just got a job with the provincial government,” he said as he moved a large slice of turkey from the platter to his plate. “I’m an accountant.” 6 Tea at the Empress That left me nowhere to go in our conversation. I had no knowledge nor interest in accounting. No, wait. There was one thing. “What department do you work in?” I asked. “Finance.” I should have known. I put some more vegetables on my plate. Suddenly, peas were flying everywhere. “No!” Lucinda cried, grabbing her son’s wrist. “Stop throwing peas!” Rollo – my nickname for him – squished the peas that he was holding. Green mush seeped between his fingers. He had such a happy and mischievous smile on his face. I smiled back at him. “Don’t encourage him, Edith!” Mum admonished me. “Does everyone have everything they need?” she asked, looking around. We all nodded with our forks poised over our plates, ready to dig in. “Well,” she said, “if you need anything else, let me know.” Lucinda was wiping little Rollo’s hand with a napkin. He smiled at me. I looked down at my plate. One thing was missing. “Could you pass me the gravy, Margaret?” “I understand,” Cousin Margaret said, passing me the gravy boat, “that you’re a career woman. What kind of work do you do?” “I work at The Daily Colonist.” To say I was a reporter would be a stretch. “What do you do there?” Apart from fetching coffee for the real reporters, you mean? “I write for the Society and Women’s Affairs page,” I said, making the stretch. “Oh, how fascinating!” she said – disingenuously, I thought. “Does it make up for not having a family?” What a catty and cruel question! She and my mother had a lot more than a first name in common. “Women,” I said, getting on my soapbox, “are so much more than a husband and children. Women are persons in their own right.” Cousin James snickered. “You’re referring to the petition those five women made to the Supreme Court of Canada last summer, aren’t you?” He must read the paper from cover to cover. The story was usually buried in the back pages. “Yes,” I said. “What is that about?” his wife asked. “Whether women,” I said, “are considered to be ‘persons’ in the British North America Act of 1867.” Mama shook her head and tsked at me. Papa shook his head. “Could we not talk about politics at the dinner table? It does nothing to aid my digestion.” 7 Edeana Malcolm A quick glance at little Rollo showed me that he was still having a wonderful time squishing peas. That didn’t help my digestion either. Nor did watching Lucinda spoon mashed potatoes into his mouth. He saw me looking at him, smiled and half of the potatoes fell out of his mouth onto Lucinda’s plate. I made a face and then saw that Mum was watching too. “Next time you come,” she said to Lucinda, “I hope you’ll think to bring a high chair for Roland.” “Give him to me.” Lucinda’s husband, Larry, spoke for the first time. Lucinda passed Rollo over my lap to her husband. Rollo spit some more mashed potato onto my flapper dress. It would be a bugger to clean, but I didn’t dare say anything. It would just be pointed out that I shouldn’t have worn such a dress to dinner. “Now, young man,” Larry said sternly. “You will behave yourself at the dinner table.” Rollo immediately burst into tears. He grabbed my dress and pulled at it, trying to clamber his way back to his mother. He managed to rip off a little handful of fringes. I stood up and backed away from the table. “Perhaps we should exchange places, Lucinda.” She switched the plates and moved to my chair. I brushed off the peas and potatoes that had collected on her chair before sitting down. “Sorry,” she murmured to me under her breath as Rollo jumped back onto her lap. I smiled across the table at Cousin Margaret. “Children are so delightful, aren’t they?” “They can be.” Grandma was sitting directly opposite me now. Something in the way that she looked at me when she said it made me feel unutterably sad