When I got to London, the weather was typical for late Autumn in Shepherds Bush, dry, overcast, and breezy. My sister’s flat was up on the second floor. She wasn’t home so I followed her directions to locate the key and let myself in. I struggled up the narrow stairway, dropped my bags in her bedroom, and opened the window in the living room. I struck my head out into a quick rush of wind, breathing in the freedom of a short business trip away without my husband and teenage sons. I loved my family, but these small breaks helped me to keep it alive. I loved my sister’s cozy flat and her neighborhood with tree lined avenues crouched between rows of Victorian terraced houses. All around, small articulate front gardens popped with color and twirled gusts of leaves that scratched among fallen pink geranium petals. Mostly, the houses had been converted into flats, three or four stories high.
I loved my job, in interior lighting sales, and this was my first all-expenses-paid adventure to the BIG city by my Edinburgh based company. The Covent Garden area of London, loaded with architects and interior designers, had recently been added to my existing sales patch covering Ireland and the West of Scotland. I was good at selling stuff, but in that world, you are only ever as good as last week’s sales figures. In my new found celebration of success I decided to show off a bit to my younger sister. The next morning, we would go out and have tea at the Ritz, utilizing my shiny new company credit card.
Sure enough, in the morning, the taxi picked us up and we shot off into town. The weather had turned wet and a bit colder forcing us to pull coats on over our best outfits. The Hackney cab pulled up outside the Ritz Hotel, in Piccadilly, and out we bounced laughing and carrying on like a couple of giddy girl, where we pretended to get stuck in the revolving door joking and having a great time to ourselves. We went around a few times. When the door eventually threw us into the foyer, time froze. The four string quartet continued to play, but pinky-up women in chiffon hats and jewels looked at us with such disdain. Formal morning wear was the preferred attire! Oh dear! The Maitre d’ approached us with the same courtesy as he would royalty, however his acknowledgment of our lesser stature, in a room filled with duchesses and dukes, was rather palpable. He led us to our table, pulled out or seats and when we sat, pushed them back in for us. He then reached out gesturing for our coats. We timidly gave them up and he walked off holding them at arm’s length, like we had just handed him our dog’s beds. We burst out laughing again, drawing a few more harsh looks, making it all feel like we were scullery maids having breakfast at Downton Abbey being waited on by Carson
The menu lay atop bone china and highly polished literal silverware, it felt heavy. Our waiter showed up and bid us good morning. He motioned to a waitress, dressed in a black long-sleeved dress with white frilly apron and hat, to place fluted crystal, with orange juice and champagne from her silver tray, in front of each of us. His appearance resembled a window display at Harrods or Selfidges. He wore a black jacket with long tails and striped gray pants with white shirt and, get this, white gloves. He had one arm behind his back, the other bent across his chest with immaculate white linen napkins hung over it.
He shook out the napkins one by one and placed them on our laps. We dared not move or respond in any way. He took our order, my sister chose white crab sandwiches with India tea, I chose salmon sandwiches with Earl Grey tea. In a flash, or so it seemed, our tea and sandwiches arrived and the waiter poured out tea from individual silver teapots. He bent forward asking, “Will there be anything else Madam?” We shook our heads and he walked off ending the ritual, for now.
Gracefully, we dipped our hands into the doily laden china and drank down the booze. Turning our heads as we ate, with pinky fingers up, we surveyed this genteel place as the classical music played on.
We started a rather intellectual conversation of our own and morphed ourselves into the aristocratic environment like chameleons. It seemed to be working. Paying no mind to previously learned impulses and behaviors, we proudly ate postage stamp sized sandwiches, slathered with watercress and cucumber, with expensive knives and forks afforded by this luxurious upper crust establishment.
That’s when it happened. My sister glared at my tea plate with an alarming look on her face! The waiter was coming to clear away the dishes. I glanced at my plate. Oh God! I ate the doily! The outer edges were still crisp, pretty, and lace, but the center was gone. I ate it! Oh no! How can I hide it. Quickly I threw my napkin up over the table, to cover my embarrassment. The waiter picked up each napkin by the tips of his lily white gloves and shook them. My face burned in total mortification as he omitted a punishing ‘Tut tut,’ under his breath.
When he returned with the bill, I gave him the credit card and a nice tip, by way of ‘hush money.’ He nodded a faint forgiveness in my direction. We left our seats under the same formality as we had taken them. With our coats returned to us, we took the stairs to the ladies’ room and immediately burst into fits of laughter. What a relief to be out of that stuffy stuck up world where one is judged by any departure from expected protocol. It felt as though we were in time out for bad behavior. Out through the revolving door we went, laughing and spilling fancy soaps and lotions from our pockets onto the wet sidewalk, while inside the music played on.
We hailed a cab and were gone. Over the years since, I have developed a fondness for Earl Grey tea, but never drink it without thinking about my sister, whom I love dearly, and our brush with aristocracy, while putting on the Ritz.