It was, she thought, a complete waste of time. Of course her mother and aunt were busy in the sweltering kitchen, of course they were ruining their eyesight by squinting at the cucumbers to see if they were sliced thinly enough. They were holding up the paper-thin slices, see-through and dripping icily, to show each other the ideal size. Outside, there was a veritable heatwave on, but they didn’t notice. Their minds were far away. She felt alone in the present, where a warm breeze made things worse, stirring through the dried leaves of the coconut, and reminding her of how her own skin was drying. She watched her mother and aunt for a little longer.
“I remember when her parents got married,” her aunt said.
“Yes! Do you remember how Aunty Esther held a feast for all the neighbours?” her mother said, resting the knife on the board and moving all the cucumber slices to a plate.
Her aunt went to the oven and opened the door. She felt the blast of heat all the way from where she was standing, by the back door to the garden.
“The cakes are ready,” her aunt called, carefully taking the tin out of the oven. She put it on the table and slid another tray in.
She sighed dramatically. The adults noticed her.
“Go and bring the good linen tablecloth in,” her mother said. “It’s out on the line.”
“Maybe a crow has done something on it,” she said, grumbling.
“Don’t say such things!” her aunt cried.
“A crow will not have done such things,” her mother said, sternly. “Even the crows know what day it is today.”
She went outside, barefoot. The grass had turned brownish-green and it crackled underfoot as she went to the line. The tablecloth, snowy white, blinded her. She felt its sunny warmth as she pulled it off the line and closed her eyes. It smelled good.
She went inside. “Set the table, will you?” her mother called. “I washed the good tea set and kept.”
She snapped out the tablecloth and laid it over the polished wood of the dining table.
“Go and iron it,” her aunt advised.
She sighed again. She went to the back room, her feet appreciating the coolness of the cement floor. She ironed the tablecloth carefully and brought it back.
Her aunt was waiting for her, holding two stacks of delicate little plates. They laid the table together, with the delicate plates from her grandmother’s all-the-way-from-England wedding present tea set, and the fancy engraved silver cake forks.
“Remember eating Aunty Sylvia’s asparagus sandwiches off these plates when her parents got married?” her aunt asked.
Her mother paused. “Oh yes, and then that boy- what was his name? The one you thought was good-looking?”
Her aunt clicked her tongue. “Never mind his name. What did he do?”
“He dropped his plate and it chipped slightly, at the edge.” her mother said, looking at the plates on the table to identify the victim.
“That’s the one,” she added, pouncing on one of the plates. It had a microscopic chip on one edge.
“So long ago,” her aunt sighed, looking wistful, and she wondered if she was thinking about the good-looking boy from Aunty Esther’s tea party.
Her mother looked at the clock. “Good heavens! It’s almost three! We’ll miss it if we don’t hurry.” They ran out of the dining room together, on their way to wash.
Her mother popped her head back in.
“Go and wash, put a nice frock on,” she commanded, and disappeared.
She grumbled to herself but went anyway. The cool water felt good in the heat of the afternoon, and she put on a frock. She couldn’t reach around to tie the ribbons in a nice bow so she left them dangling until her mother would notice and scold her. She didn’t dry her hair properly so that her neck and scalp could stay cool.
She went back to the dining room. The food looked very tempting, and she stole a small cucumber sandwich, stuffing it into her mouth before the adults could come in and catch her. The radio was already switched on, playing some marching band. The live broadcast must have started.
Her mother and aunt came in then. They, too, had worn dresses, much fancier than they usually wore around the house.
“Did it start?” they asked, impatiently.
“The band only,” she said.
Her mother turned the volume up.
The cakes smelled so good. A single fly buzzed around, aimlessly circling the ceiling fan. Her aunt covered the food with the food cover.
From the kitchen, the whistle of the kettle came. Even before the adults turned and looked at her, she was on her way to fill the teapot, everything perfectly timed so that they could have their tea when the ceremony was done.
She got back to the dining room, walking carefully with the steaming teapot. The cat wound around her legs.
There was a strange silence as she went into the room. Her mother and aunt stood in the centre of the room, in their fine dresses, staring at each other.
The ceiling fan flagged and began croaking to a halt.
She set the teapot on the table and realized the radio was silent.
For a moment, she thought her aunt was going to cry. Her mother looked upset. They had planned this for the last month, an oasis of fairytale and English tea in the heat and worry of the nation.
Her mother shrugged, and a smile twitched her downturned mouth.
“What a time for a powercut,” she said. She crossed to the table and bit into a cake.
“This one is as good as Aunty Esther’s,” she announced.