WRITTEN BY AMANDA BRITTANY
The tearoom’s atmosphere brought back happy memories…
Tuesday after school, we always went to the little tearoom on Inkerman Street. Mum said it was like stepping back in time.
“So few remember the 1940s first-hand,” she always said, as we sat at our familiar seat with Auntie Wendy, and I breathed in the yummy smell of cakes baking, and listened to old-fashioned songs playing from a big wooden radio.
“Miss Bakewell’s here again,” I said on our last visit, spotting the old lady who always sat in the corner.
I wasn’t sure what her real name was, but Miss Bakewell kind of suited her. She’d been there every Tuesday since we started coming, and I was itching to talk to her. She looked so friendly, with soft white hair like ice cream, and bright blue eyes. I had a feeling she’d remember a time when bombs dropped on London and children had gas masks.
We’d been learning about it at school, and my teacher told us to talk to as many people who might recall that time as possible.
Once I’d finished my hot chocolate, and Mum and Auntie Wendy were chitter-chattering as always, I slipped from my chair and headed over to Miss Bakewell. She had a chocolate brown teapot in front of her and was sipping from a green cup, just like the ones they had in the 1940s.
“Hello, little miss,” Miss Bakewell said, as I stood staring, taking in her cosiness and the hundreds of laughter lines around her twinkling eyes.
“I’m Rebecca,” I said, ramming my hands in the pockets of my blue and white checked school dress.
“I had a dress just like that when I was a little girl,” Miss Bakewell said, a smile dimpling her squishy cheeks.
I smiled back.
“I’m at junior school,” I said, proudly.
“I see.” She put her cup down on her saucer. “So, does that make you seven?”
I nodded and climbed onto the chair opposite her. “How old are you?”
As it happens, I’m ninety-two
She laughed. “Well, I’m not sure that’s the sort of question you should ask an old lady.” She leaned in close so I could smell lavender, and in a whisper, added, “But as it happens, I’m ninety-two.”
“Gosh, that’s a big number,” I said. “You’ll get a telegram from the Queen in…” I paused to add-up in my head, “…eight years.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” she said.
She must have seen me looking at her cakes – despite me trying to be polite and look everywhere but – because she lifted the plate and offered me one.
“Thank you,” I said, taking one.
“Do you like this little tearoom?”
“I do. It’s like it would have been in the war, isn’t it?”
She picked up a cake and bit into it.
“Do you remember what powdered egg tastes like?” I asked. “It sounds yucky to me.”
She smiled. “Well they were just dried out eggs. We put them in cakes, and sometimes mixed them with water.” Her eyes danced over the tearoom. “This place brings back memories for me.”
Vera Lynn began to sing We’ll Meet Again from the radio.
“I know this song because we sang it at school,” I said and began singing along, swaying in my seat, and Miss Bakewell joined in.
“Mum says the lady who opened this tearoom had a brilliant brainwave.”
“She did indeed,” Miss Bakewell said.
“Mum says everyone likes to step back to a quieter time.” I looked at the ration book menus and the waitresses with scarves wrapped round their heads.
“Well I’m not sure it was quieter, exactly,” Miss Bakewell said, “what with bombs dropping.” She smiled. “But I know what your mum means.”
“Where do you live?” I asked, biting into my cake, crumbs sprinkling the table.
“Close by, always have,” she said. “In fact this building was a tearoom when I was a young woman.”
“Was it really?” I said. “Did it look exactly like this?”
“Very much so. In fact I used to come here with my fiancé, Tom.”
Her eyes looked all wet, and she took a deep breath.
“We would sit at the table in this corner, and make plans for our future.”
Did you get married?
“That’s very romantic. Did you get married?” I took another bite of my cake.
She shook her head. “I’m afraid my lovely Tom never came back from the war, but he lives on in here.” She patted her chest.
“That’s so sad,” I said. “My teacher told me lots of people died in the war.”
Miss Bakewell nodded. “It was a sad time. But I’m not sad now, little miss. My memories of Tom and the times we shared make me smile.”
“That’s good,” I said, glad she was happy again.
“I was lucky to have known him,” she went on, “and I’ve had a lovely life.” Her eyes dried, and she smiled and patted my hand. “I was a teacher for many years, and lived with my sister. These days I come here for a nice cup of tea on Tuesdays, and most afternoons I meet friends, then home to read or watch TV.”
I spotted a brooch on her dress lapel, in the shape of a horseshoe.
“Wow, that’s pretty.” I reached over and touched it with my finger.
“Ah, yes,” she said. “My lovely Tom gave it to me.”
“Rebecca!” called my mum, and I noticed she and Auntie Wendy were putting on their coats.
“I’d better go now,” I said, jumping down from my seat. “But it was lovely talking to you.”
“Bye-bye, little miss, it was lovely talking to you too.”
The following Tuesday, I rushed into the little tearoom, excited at the thought of talking to Miss Bakewell again, but someone else was sitting at her table, and my heart sank.
Once seated, the waitress came to take our order, and I said, “Where’s Miss Bakewell?”
“Who?” The waitress looked confused, and I remembered I’d made up her name.
“The lady who sits over there every Tuesday.” I pointed to the table in the corner.
I’m afraid she passed away, Rebecca
“Oh.” The waitress sighed, and shuffled her feet. “I’m afraid she passed away, Rebecca.”
“But, that can’t be right,” I said. “Miss Bakewell is going to get a telegram from the Queen in eight years.”
Mum and Auntie Wendy looked concerned.
“She had a lovely long life,” the waitress went on, as though that made everything alright.
Tears bubbled up in me. “But we’d just got friendly,” I said.
“Oh, darling,” Mum said, covering my hand with her own. “Don’t be sad.”
“And,” the waitress said, rummaging in her apron pocket. “When she left last week, she asked me to give you this.” She handed over the horseshoe brooch. “She said she knew you would look after it.”
“Really?” I said, my tears drying, knowing I would treasure it always.
“How lovely,” Mum said, as I turned it over and over in my hand, before Auntie Wendy took it from me and pinned it onto my dress.
Eventually, the waitress brought our order, and Mum and Auntie Wendy began chitter-chattering as always.
I sipped my hot chocolate, watching the young man and lady in the corner, feeling a bit cross that they were sitting where Miss Bakewell loved to sit. They were being all lovey-dovey, and I wondered if I should go and tell them it wasn’t their table to be romantic at.
Eventually they got up and walked towards the exit. I knew they had to pass my chair, so I put on my best growly face, and folded my arms, taking in that the man was wearing a uniform, and the lady’s clothes were old fashioned.
As they passed, the lady smiled, her blue eyes twinkling.
“Hello, little miss,” she said. “What a pretty brooch.” She winked, and gripped the handsome man’s hand. “Let’s go, Tom,” she said and, smiling once more, they left just as the waitress approached our table again.
“Is everything alright with your food?” she said, and Mum nodded.
“Who were the people at Miss Bakewell’s table?” I said in a rush, looking over and noticing a reserved sign next to the salt and pepper pot.
“Nobody’s sat there since last Tuesday,” she said, her forehead crinkling. “We’re keeping it free for a week as a mark of respect.”
I ran my finger around the shape of the horseshoe brooch. I wasn’t quite sure what “mark of respect” meant, but I did know that Miss Bakewell was with her lovely Tom now – exactly where she belonged.