She put the milk in the cup before pouring the tea. It irked me, but not strongly enough to make me voice my annoyance. Whilst pouring she held the lid of the teapot firmly in place with her slender, manicured index finger, still talking, but eyes scrupulously on the spout to ensure there was no undue overflow of tea. Her movements were precise and harsh, perfected over many years of hosting.
‘One lump or two?’ she enquired, her voice cutting through my scrutiny of her technique.
Apparently there was no option to have no sugar at all, so out of sheer politeness I asked for two. I watched as she used a small pair of tongs to retrieve two cubes of sugar, one by one, and listened intently to the satisfying ‘plop’ they made as they sank into my tea.
Finally, carefully raising her teacup from the delicate saucer – covered with swirls of green and pink posies – Mrs Avenshaw sat back in her high backed chair and took a gratifying sip of her drink. The chair made her sit so straight and upright, as though she had a rod expertly threaded through her spine. Her chin was slightly raised even when sipping her tea and this provided an excellent opportunity for her to look down upon me, perched uncomfortably as I was on her stiff ottoman.
I would only have been eight at the time, but I was observant enough to have matured beyond my years. Mrs Avenshaw was testing me. If I were to become a ward of this estate, I had to ensure that I was worthy enough to adhere to all of Mrs Avenshaw’s expectant tastes.
I attempted to mimic her graceful method for drinking the tea, but my hand shook as I held the saucer and my intent to sip became a noisy slurp. I froze. I could feel my heartbeat in the tips of my fingers, the blood rushing around my head. I silently swore in my head – a word I had heard Eric use just the day before – ‘Damn’.
To my astonishment Mrs Avenshaw threw back her head and laughed a light, high pitched chortle that reminded me of the notes on the far end of the piano in the drawing room. After a moment she must have noticed my utter horror at my error, still breathless with smiles she lay a gentle hand on my knee:
‘Now, let’s not try and make you into something you are not, my dear. If you do become a member of this household, I would not expect you to alter who you are, nor how you may drink your tea.’
She smiled softly, her perfect white teeth gleaming between painted lips, the colour a little too red for her complexion. She placed her tea on the tray and rose swiftly from the chair, straightening her skirt in one deft movement.
‘Come. Let’s find somewhere more comfortable to talk.’
She marched out of the room, and I hurried to follow, clumsily spilling my tea as I plonked it beside Mrs Avenshaw’s empty cup, slightly chastised that my discomfort was apparent.