Carpet Fluff-Encrusted Eclairs James Follett © 2008
A great treat when I was about six or seven was to be taken to
the Palm Court Restaurant in Bentalls, a large department store in Kingston,
Surrey. A silken,
crimson rope guarded the entrance until a table was ready. That rope had magical properties. On one side was the unspeakable drabness of post-war England that I
always remember in black and white; on the far side was a Technicolor wonderland of deep pile carpeting that reached the walls, a string quartet playing
softly, and cakes -- wonderful cakes that had 'eat me!' wrought into their icing.
When a table was available a waitress would set in place a two-tier
cake stand loaded with ten cakes: doughnuts, scones and eclairs, the latter
filled with a
greyish-white synthetic substance which, in those days of rationing, was called 'creme'. The cakes were untouchable because one was charged for any eaten.
The managers of that restaurant had invented 'impulse eating' long before 'impulse buying' -- but to have eaten one of those tempting offerings would've
ruined my mother's budget, so I had to nibble my toasted teacake, sip my coffee-dash, and try to ignore the forbidden sixpence-each delicacies placed
An empty table by the window was vacated by a rich lady and gentleman. I say rich because they had eaten, and paid for, nine of the ten cakes, leaving an eclair.
The summer breeze flapped the curtain across the table just before it was cleared and sent the remaining eclair onto the carpet where it lay, 'creme' down,
unnoticed, under a chair. My mother went to 'spend a penny' and I seized my opportunity. I dived under the neighbouring table and, screened by the tablecloth,
grabbed the eclair and scoffed it down. The 'creme' was covered in carpet fluff but I didn't notice. In retrospect I don't think I noticed anything about that eclair
such was my concern to get rid of the evidence, wipe my mouth hurriedly on the tablecloth and be back in my seat by the time my mother returned.
When she did return, she gave me an odd look, counted the cakes,
and demanded the truth. Her 'compact', a sort of make-up toolkit that many women
those days, had a mirror which she used to reveal the damming evidence: a smear of that ghastly 'creme' on my face. Fearful of her effective and quite deadly
interrogation techniques, I had little option but to blurt out the terrible truth. Like Alan Bennett's mother, that I had eaten something 'off the floor' mortified her --
far moreso than my theft of a carpet fluff-encrusted Bentalls cake.
Her method of cleaning me up 'on the hoof', so to speak, was to
stretch her forefinger over her handkerchief like a linen prophylactic, lick
it and wipe my
face vigorously while holding my head in an iron grip with her other hand. This action was usually accompanied by the observation that one could grow potatoes
behind my ears. For years this oft-repeated comment on my hygiene, or lack of it, had me feeling behind my ears when waking up, fully expecting to find that a
fine crop of King Edwards had sprouted during the night.
As Alan Bennett commented in 'Eating Out', the war did not feature
much in his part of England -- Leeds; the Luftwaffe had priorities other than
Fifty-Shilling Tailors factory, but I saw plenty of action. I was only two at the start of the blitz when my mother took me to the supposed safety of Bristol to
stay with relatives and yet my memories of that period are sharp and clear.
Hitherto my experiences of the war were limited to hearing the
mournful wail of air raid sirens -- a sound that still sends shivers down my
spine whenever I hear
it in TV documentaries, particularly the rising and falling note that was supposed to herald the imminent arrival of falling bombs, which never fell on New Malden.
Bristol was a different matter. Within a week of my arrival there
was an unexpected raid on the aircraft factory at nearby Filton and for the
first time I
actually heard the heavy crump of exploding bombs. Looking back, I suspect that my feelings towards my mother were those of gratitude for having the foresight
to send me to Bristol to witness the war at first hand otherwise I might've missed it.
Four years later, back in the safety of New Malden, a V2 demolished
our street. The explosion collapsed our house onto the Morrison shelter I was
killed my tortoise, and left me slightly but permanently deaf in my left ear, a grievous handicap for a small boy destined to become blind less than ten years
later. But that's another story.
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