Miss Edith Comes to Tea


Edith Williams didn’t like change. At 9:25 a.m., on a Friday in April, she put a chair by the front window and peered through a gap in her net curtains to keep an eye on the removal van parked in front of her lawn. To be sure she wouldn’t miss a moment of the arrival of her new neighbours, Edith filled a flask with hot tea and moved the small electric heater nearer her feet. 


Jane, her dearest friend and neighbour of the past forty years, had died just two months before and Edith had hoped Jane’s house, a tired Georgian terrace with a tiny front garden and peeling sash windows, would stay empty for longer. It didn’t seem respectful that new people would take her friend’s place so soon. 


The cul-de-sac on Denham Road where she’d lived for most of her life held few surprises, which was just as well. Edith didn’t like surprises. 


Misty, her liver-spotted spaniel, whined, ready for his morning walk. They should have been down by the river an hour ago and were usually back home by nine. Edith tucked the dog’s leash under the cushion of her seat and said, ‘I’m sorry Misty, we can’t just go out whenever we feel like it anymore.’ 


The dog whimpered and sat down at her feet, resigned. Edith didn’t really want to bump into anyone new, not yet. ‘You must be patient.’ She spoke to the dog without taking her eyes away from the window. 


A shiny blue car pulled up and a tall dark-haired man and a much shorter woman stepped out, followed by a dusky little girl with plaits so long they almost reached her waist. 


The couple seemed very young, in their late twenties maybe, though these days most people seemed young to Edith. 


When most of the furniture had been unloaded and carried inside, the man smiled at his wife, who tucked her arm through his as they stood side by side and looked at their new neighbourhood. The little girl ran straight into the house. 


Edith longed for a walk in the fresh air and she needed milk and something for her supper, but she stayed at the window until she was sure the removal van was empty and the ornate chairs and the faux potted plants had been carried inside. She got up and went into the kitchen. Her knees were stiff and ached from sitting for so long. She opened her back door, just enough to hear what was going on, but making sure she could not be seen. As she pulled up her tights, which had begun to sag around her swollen ankles, she heard the man and woman talking loudly. Jane used to be so quiet. 


‘All this noise, it doesn’t stir confidence, does it?’ she said. 



At two o’clock, Edith put Misty on the leash, wrapped a scarf around her head to cover the worst of her grey hair and stepped outside. She moved slowly, pausing to look at the overgrown lawn next door and comparing it to her own prim and proper patch. There was no one to be seen and so Edith stalled a while, untangling the frond of a lime green fuchsia from a rose bush and inhaling the heavy scent of lilac that hung in the air.


‘Hello there.’ 


Edith turned. It was the man. 


‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You took me by surprise.’


‘We have just moved in next door. My name’s Ashok.’


She looked at his outstretched hand, at the thick dark hair peeping out of his cuff. 


‘I hope we are not too noisy settling in? The packers are delayed in Mumbai and this is only half our stuff. There’s more to come, I’m afraid.’ Mumbai rang in her ears, strange and unsettling. Then the man smiled and asked her name.


‘I’m Edith.’ 


‘Have you lived here very long? In this town?’


‘Most of my life,’ she said. ‘I was born in the local hospital.’


‘Wow! That’s something. My wife and I have moved round from one place to the other for most of our lives.’ He paused and bent to pat Misty. ‘First we lived in Chennai, then Delhi, Mumbai and now here, Henley-On-Thames.’


‘You sound well-travelled.’ 


‘Yes, but just as we were starting to call Mumbai our home it was time to leave. This might be the place we finally settle down. Who knows?’ 


His voice was soft, his accent slightly rounded. Edith didn’t find it unpleasant, and yet she tightened her scarf beneath her chin. She began to edge away, following Misty tugging on the leash. She wasn’t sure she wanted to be seen out here by the other neighbours, talking to this man. 


‘My wife asked me to invite you over for tea on Thursday. Hopefully we will be ready by then.’


Edith tried to think of an excuse but couldn’t come up with anything on the spur of the moment because most days were exactly the same as the ones before. She wasn't used to change and she’d had no need to learn the art of improvising. Even the weekends ran into the week. 


She nodded. 


‘We look forward to welcoming you to our new home.’ He brushed his hair away from his forehead and Edith noticed that he wore a gold ring with a large coral stone. ‘See you soon, Miss Edith. Anupama will be delighted to meet you.’



She’d not been called Miss Edith since she retired from her teaching position at Trinity, the local primary school, ten years before, to spend more time at home nursing her ailing mother. The memory of those days caught like a hook in her chest. She missed her time at the school, surrounded by children. Most of them would have families of their own by now. 


Still a little rattled, Edith tugged on Misty’s leash and walked toward the river. Something about the encounter with the new neighbour had unsettled her, but she couldn’t put her finger on what it was. After all, he’d been nice and polite. What had he said his name was again? These foreign words muddled her. 



The fading sun lapped at the edges of the slate rooftops and the town was busy with tourists wandering the narrow streets lined with rows of quaint mews cottages, and the picturesque riverside, which Edith barely noticed anymore. A Japanese couple took pictures of the fifteenth-century church spire, the cobbled streets, the ancient bridge built across the green stretch of the river which in the summer was busy with the annual regatta. Over the years it had grown in popularity and become a destination for all kinds of visitors from around the world. 


Edith would usually be back home by now with biscuits and a cup of tea, listening to The Archers. 


She looked down at her feet and walked on.



Early next morning, Edith drew the bedroom curtains and watched the child playing in the back garden next door. The girl wore a bright yellow sundress and threw and caught a ball, up in the air, over and over again.


Edith dressed and brushed her hair. Fifty strokes each side, as she’d been doing since she was ten years old, in this same room at the same mirror; but now the face that stared back was a stranger to her. Her short grey hair framed her thin face, the deep grooves around her mouth and chin and forehead a map of her life, and it occurred to her that the little girl had probably seen more of the world than she ever had or ever would.


She went down to the kitchen, made a pot of strong Yorkshire tea and fed Misty; and then, just so she didn’t miss a thing, she hung out her washing and sat on the back step in the sun to drink her tea. The sun was warm on her face and she listened to the child, who seemed to be practising counting in English. 


As Edith sipped her tea, a soft spring breeze played through the magnolia tree which Edith had planted almost twenty years ago. Its top branches now nearly reached her bedroom window.


‘Laila, Beti, come inside.’ The mother interrupted the child’s play.  


‘Why now Mama? I want to play more.’ The mother and the little girl then spoke in a language Edith had never heard before.


‘Come help me put out the washing then, if you want to stay out.’ The mother switched back to English, her words rounded like her husband’s. ‘You must practise speaking in English, now that we are in England. No more Hindi.’


‘But why, Mama? Do the English not speak Hindi?’ 


‘No, Laila, The English speak English.’


‘Can’t they learn to speak in Hindi?’ 


‘I’m sure they could if they tried, just like you must try harder to speak in English.’ 


When they went back inside, Edith stood up and peered through a crack in the fence and saw clothes fluttering on the line, reds and yellows and bright pinks. Dresses and flared trousers, long lengths of bright patterned material, even a pair of trousers like a billowing pantaloon. She looked at her own washing line. The single blue plaid skirt, the thick grey stockings and white blouse embarrassed her. She took them down. 


This family was making her nervous. 



On Wednesday, Edith bought a tin of sardines at the local supermarket and treated herself to a small loaf of bread and a box of chocolate biscuits which were on sale. She wasn’t hungry when she got home from her walk by the river and let her tea go cold as she sat beside the radio. She hardly paid attention to the programme and couldn’t stop thinking about her new neighbours. She felt anxious: it was a long time since she’d been invited to anyone’s for tea.


After a restless hour, she fetched the old Times Atlas she kept on the bookshelf next to the electric fireplace. It had belonged to her father. 


She looked up Mumbai, poring over the index with a magnifying glass. She didn’t find it listed there and this bothered her. 


‘This is just no good,’ she said, pretending to talk to the dog, and then she shut the atlas. Dust blew out of the old pages. The world seemed to have changed so much around her while she was growing old in this small riverside town. Misty groaned in her basket.


It was darker now and pouring with rain, and the first heads of her black tulips bent as if in mourning. Her mother had warned her against planting tulips. They were weak and unaccustomed to wet weather. After her mother died Edith made sure she filled her borders with tulip bulbs.



In her early twenties Edith had left home and moved to Oxford to teach English at the Headington high school. Her father had been dead for nearly a decade and her mother, who had learnt over the years to rely on her daughter for almost everything, wept on the eve of Edith’s departure.


‘But Oxford is barely an hour away,’ said Edith.


‘You can’t survive by yourself. It’s not me that I’m worried about.’ 


‘Why not, Mother? I’m going to be working and I’ll be living with Muriel. Why can’t I survive on my own?’ 


‘Because, Edith, you’ve never coped with change. Remember, when you were little, how you cried the entire week we spent in Cornwall on holiday? You wouldn’t give up until we got back home. You’ve always preferred to stay home, near me.’ 


Edith had been determined to prove her mother wrong. Oxford had been a challenge, an exciting one to start with, going out with friends after work and coming home late, earning her own money and spending it the way she wanted to. When she visited home her mother complained about being left alone, but Edith had tasted the sweetness of freedom, of not having to answer for everything she did. Those were good times.


Six months later Edith met Mr Andrews, a tall, well-spoken history teacher at the school. They saw each other one evening at the Fox and Grapes, the pub where Edith went most evenings with Muriel and a few other girls. He had nodded to her from where he sat at the bar and then sent her table a round of drinks, all the while locking eyes with Edith. She had never been sent drinks before and she was overwhelmed by his attentions, his gentle manners, the way he walked her home each evening they were out and kissed her as they stood in the darkness of her doorstep. 


She began to plan their future together, how she’d move to Oxford for good, have children perhaps, a semi in Summertown. It was nearly ten months later, after she’d been out with him several times, that she found out he was married with children of his own. There was of course no question of a divorce. And in spite of her tears and pleading he just shook his head and walked away. He’d never meant it to get serious, he said. Edith had been a fool to dream but, by then, Edith had offered him so much more than just her heart. 


Three years after she moved to Oxford, after everything that had happened – the doomed affair, the pregnancy that she found out only too late, the secret visits to the clinic in the run-down part of Jericho, the procedure that left her hollow and sore – Edith came back home to her mother and never left Denham Close again. 



Thursday afternoon was grey and the sky spat rain. Edith stood outside the house next door, took a deep breath and lifted the brass knocker. 


A strong smell of roasting spices wafted through an open window. She wrinkled up her nose. This really complicated things, she thought as she stood there, and she made up her mind to refuse any offers of food. She’d say she wasn’t well. Her mother had often told her of the havoc that foreign food could wreak on Edith’s delicate constitution and her diet hadn’t really varied over the years. When her mother was alive, she had warned her against so many things: men, foreign food, strangers, travel. How Edith had wished she could have just taken a ferry and gone across to the continent, to visit Paris or Rome, to wander in an idyllic Italian village wearing a straw hat and sandals like the women she saw in travel magazines. Edith couldn’t imagine her mother ever allowing her to leave England, and she’d dared not do so whilst she was alive. After she was dead it was too late to think of taking up the challenge of overseas travel on her own.



‘Welcome, Miss Edith! I am Anupama and this is Laila.’ The woman was pretty. Dark hair and skin. Dimples that danced when she smiled. 


Edith pulled her grey cardigan tight across her chest.


‘Laila, please take Miss Edith inside.’ The little girl took Edith’s hand as if she knew her well. The child’s fingers were warm and sticky.


Edith had been inside this house many times before. In the narrow hallway, where Jane had kept an elegant shelf with framed photographs of her family, there was now just a row of shoes; and in the living room there was an enormous brass statue of some sort of elephant-headed creature reclining in the corner.


‘That’s our Lord Ganesha,’ said Anupama as she saw Edith staring.


Edith stood in the middle of the room, holding the box of biscuits she’d bought on special offer. She had to watch her spending: her pension didn’t seem to get very far these days. 


‘Are those for me?’ Laila asked. Her upturned face was bright and eager.


‘Laila, don’t be greedy. Wait for Miss Edith to settle down first.’ The woman rested her hand on the girl’s shoulder. Edith was surprised that her heart beat tenderly in her chest when the child spoke. ‘Yes, these are for you,’ she said, and her voice sounded strange, as though in just a few steps she’d been transported to another country.


‘Please sit down. Sorry about the lack of comfortable chairs.’ 


Edith sat in an upholstered velvet chair with wooden arms that looked far too big for the room. In fact, most of the furniture – a great big chaise longue with a carved wooden head, the dining table with several heavy chairs, and a glass coffee table – all looked cramped and out of place, as if they had once belonged somewhere far bigger than this room. Edith found it difficult to remember that where she now sat had once been Jane’s plain and sparse living room. 


‘You’re the first person we have welcomed into our home. In fact, we don’t know anybody here apart from the estate agent who sold us the property.’ Anupama sat on an upholstered bench that faced Edith and wiped the palms of her hands on the material of the bright blue trousers she wore. Edith looked around to see whether her husband was at home.


‘I hear it gets quite busy during the boat race?’ 


‘Yes, the regatta is the highlight here,’ Edith said. She stared at the bare walls where Jane had once hung frames of pressed wildflowers and wondered what this family would choose to hang in their place.


‘Would you like to try a barfi, Miss Edith?’ 


Anupama offered her a silver tray covered in colourful squares. Reds and greens and yellows topped with delicate flecks of silver. To Edith they didn’t look like anything edible she had ever seen before. 


‘They’re sweets made of milk and coconut,’ the woman said. ‘They won’t poison you.’


Edith held a bright green square between her fingers and sat staring at it. A loud whistle from the kitchen made her jump. The little girl giggled. 


‘So sorry to make you jump, Miss Edith. That’s the pressure cooker going.’ She frowned and got up, still holding the plate of coconut sweets. 


‘Laila, why don’t you sit with Miss Edith?’ She disappeared into the kitchen from where a low hissing sound now came.


Laila sat on a purple silk footstool next to Edith and held the box of biscuits in her lap. Her little face was radiant and innocent. The next thing she knew, Laila put the box down and came to stand right beside her. She was wearing a long red and gold tunic over matching red trousers. It suddenly seemed to Edith a lovely outfit for a little girl to wear on a dull, grey day like today. 


‘Miss Edith, you look so old, like my Grandma.’ It wasn’t the observation of a rude or precocious child and she spoke with wonder. 


‘I amold!’ Edith said.


‘How old?’


‘I’m seventy,’ Edith said. ‘How old are you?’


‘I am five.’ Laila sat on the armrest of Edith’s chair and ran her hand along the wooden carvings. She smelt nice, milky and sweet. She smoothed down the material of her dress on her lap. Her fingers were slim, the nails bitten to the quick. 


‘I wore this bangle especially for you,’ she said and lifted her wrist to show Edith. 


‘It’s lovely,’ said Edith. 


She wished that she’d made a bit more of an effort to dress for the occasion. She put her plate on the small side table next to her and brushed an imaginary crumb from her skirt. 


‘Have you ever been to India?’


‘Good gracious, no,’ said Edith. ‘Is it nice there? Do you miss it?’


‘I like it here. Mummy and Daddy say this is our new home and I’m going to start going to the Trinity school soon. Do you like it here?’ She twisted her left plait between her fingers as she spoke. 


Edith said that she’d lived here all her life so she supposed she did like it here. The whistling sound had stopped in the kitchen, replaced by the sound of heavy rain pattering loud against the windows. 


‘My teacher at my new school’s name is Mrs Cow-Michael.’ Edith smiled and didn’t correct the child. 


‘She’s not as old as you,’ she said. 


‘I suppose there aren’t many teachers as old as me,’ Edith said. 


‘Who lives with you in your house?’ 


Edith said she lived alone with her dog Misty. 


‘You should come and live with us then,’ the child said coolly. 


‘Really? You wouldn’t mind if I moved in here with you?’ Edith said, playing along with what she hoped was a joke. 


‘You could be my English grandma.’ 


Before Edith could speak the woman bustled back into the room with a tray laden with food. 


‘I hope Laila hasn’t been annoying you Miss Edith,’ she said. 


‘Not at all,’ said Edith. 


‘Mummy, Miss Edith lives all by herself, like you said. Can she please come and live with us?’ Laila ran to her mother and put her arms around her legs.


The woman looked at Edith and said, ‘I’m sure Miss Edith wouldn’t want to move from her lovely home to ours, Laila.’ She laughed. ‘Sorry Miss Edith!’


‘I’ve got Misty to look after,’ Edith said as she nodded gently, ‘and you know Misty is quite attached to her home.’ Laila listened but her large brown eyes were liquid, filled with quick tears. 


‘Please eat, Miss Edith,’ said the woman.


‘What are these?’ 


‘They are potato bhajis.’ She lifted the bowl towards Edith. ‘They’re not spicy,’ said the woman. ‘I made them specially.’ 


Edith picked one out of the bowl. It was warm in her fingers and she placed it next to the sweet which still sat untouched on her plate. She looked around for somewhere she could put the plate down without them noticing. 


‘Try it, Miss Edith,’ said Laila. ‘They are my favourite.’


Anupama left the room to get some water from the kitchen. Alone again with the child, Miss Edith looked at the plate on her lap. She knew she should be grateful for the effort the woman had gone to for her. She’d never been offered anything more than a cup of tea and biscuits by any of the other neighbours.


Laila perched herself next to Miss Edith and her face was too close.


‘May I touch your face?’ 


‘If you’d like to,’ Edith said. 


Laila began to trace her little fingers along the grooves on Edith’s forehead and cheeks. Edith closed her eyes. Laila’s fingers were soft and delicate and to Edith it felt as if her skin were being brushed by the tendrils of a young plant. She surrendered to the moment.  


‘I like you, Miss Edith. Will you please come and stay here?’ the girl whispered.


Edith opened her eyes and, as she sat in that room, with the plate of food on her lap, surrounded by the unpacked boxes and the elephant god, and the rows of shoes at the door, she felt an unaccustomed joy unfold within her. 


The black tulips in her front garden would surely lift their heads now that the rain had stopped. Laila’s little hands were on her face and Edith couldn’t help thinking that perhaps all this change would not be such a bad thing after all.

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