The Tea Party – a story by M. Anne Alexander

The Tea Party

We’d come to visit Aunt May’s grave: to clear weeds, to plant new flowers, to water those still alive. The sun seemed to have absorbed her smile, her warmth, her wit, her spirit: I’d always thought that they could never be snuffed out. 

A chattering couple entered from the lych-gate, arms full of flowers. Seeing us by her grave, they fell in like old friends, regaling tales of times shared with her and her mother. Their flowers were fresh cut, frequently renewed, as they lived close by. Familiarly, they replenished their father’s grave – and then their mother’s – and then her father’s – and then her husband’s father’s mother … till the graveyard felt like a field full of their family folk.

The waving of their arms merged with the murmuring movements of the branches of the Spring green trees in the warm breeze. The directing of their eyes seemed to awaken their folk from their graves, till the churchyard became peopled with chattering souls. They named each, fondly, and yet accepted that they were gone.

They showed where they had booked their own plots – for, as they said, the one thing certain in life is that their turns would come. And this was where they wanted to rest. 

“Of course,” they said, “the village isn’t as it used to be – all commuters coming in now. They come. They go.” They nodded ahead, to indicate their family home, close by, to which they had now to return for tea.

We walked footpaths that marked ancient ways. The trees were slow to meet the month of May, but flowers bloomed and animals busied themselves as if we were invisible to them. Rabbits flew through the fields. A deer flashed past, surprised, rather than shy. Birds settled, fearless as in a fairy tale.

There never had been time to walk when driving down before Aunt May had died. Then, the Bank Holiday heat had been merciless, melting the roads, choking the traffic. I’d advised our son not to drive down to visit her, not knowing… A lone crow had looked at us, from the hospital gates. I had noted that, in a story, this could be a horrible omen, but I’d not believed in these things.

At the peak of a wooded hill was an empty cottage. An old man, in ancient sack-cloth toned jacket and trousers, appeared. We were walking baked chalk tracks that were once a main thoroughfare, he told us, in his quiet, clear voice, while his gaze seemed settled on something far away. The last resident had left, he said, because it wasn’t worth the cost of bringing power here. “See this sandstone?” he said. “Bricks were made here, on the spot, for our cottages. Water was here…” He pointed to a well in the garden. It drew on a now-dry spring at the foot of the hill, he said.

A summerhouse … in the cottage garden … Were children still playing here, in this little world within the woods? Bright cottage flowers – mostly red and yellow – asserted themselves from out of the tangled earth, and jasmine and honeysuckle reached their tendrils over the hedgerows, as if assuring us that life went on.

That night, we slept in Aunt May’s still too-silent house, and I dreamt of a tea party in the garden. Old friends of hers were there. Then our daughter, Rachel, approached, carrying her own cup. One lady lifted the teapot, the other lifted the jug of milk, but neither poured into her waiting cup. Instead, they stared coldly at her distressed face. They seemed to be making excuses not to help her, though they acknowledged among themselves that she had already done more than most would ever do to help herself. “The war, you know… and then the family… and now…”… their excuses.

“Oh no, don’t fade away!” she was crying. “Where else can I turn?”

“Not to the dead,” they called.

I awoke, stunned, ashamed. “What are we doing?” I asked. “What about her grief?” I fumbled in the dark for my mobile telephone. Then remembered that it was the middle of the night and that, anyway, there was no signal here. 

Only when we returned home the next day did we learn that she and her friend had been robbed on a bus in London, on their way home from orchestra – of her brave defence – of others’ cowardice – of the uselessness of cameras and police – of the injustice…

Not knowing that, I’d slept again. This time I had dreamt that we were walking in that beautiful hinterland again. Only, Jack had wandered further on. So I was the one to be stopped by a police car. The man and woman police officer inside had wound their window down, and had spoken gently. There were still things that needed to be done, they said, that had not been done: I had to speak to him.

Next, in the dream, I saw Aunt May, sitting in her chair. In the dream, I looked towards Jack, to see if he saw her too. He saw, but looked away. Aunt May sat straight as she had always done, gracefully, so like our daughter. They’d always been close. Aunt May had told us that she expected to die soon, and that her one regret would be not living to see Rachel developing her career.

In the dream, Aunt May’s eyes twinkled, as if the sadness that had settled silently there was pierced now with peace, even joy. “Please stop calling me back,” she asked, smiling, stretching out her arms. “Take my hand,” she urged. “Feel that I am for real.” Her delicate wrist was unmistakable, as was her warm, gentle grasp – like no-one else’s, except Rachel’s. “I don’t want to stay here anymore,” she explained. “I had a life before you were born and I’m where I want to be forever now.”

She appeared young. Perhaps it was the way she was around the end of the war, for there was a surprising lack of softness in the fabric of her dress, and an unsubtle brightness in her lipstick. Her gently waving hair was parted at the side, as of that day, but her soft facial features were as always, delicate as a porcelain doll, like Rachel’s.

Her eyes would not stop speaking to me – would not fade until I finished thinking through what she seemed to be telling me. Had Aunt May found again her first love, who had died in the war? Was this not what I would want to believe – that she was with him now forever, at the age they were then?  I would not drag her back any more.

And I had to help others to move on. 

But how?

“Remember when we came to tend Auntie’s grave…?” I began. 

M. Anne Alexander’s background is as a lecturer in English and teacher of Music. She turned to writing poetry, generally exploring restorative relationships with Nature, as an outcome of counselling. Her latest publications are the poetry pamphlet, Wildflowers (Poetry Space, December 2021) and a story, Flight, ShabdAaweg (January 2022).

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