Every Tuesday and Thursday, when she had worked half-days, Miss Sarah Parsons had taken tea with her good friend Madeline Murray in the restaurant of the Imperial Hotel. They continued the tradition after she retired. They also had lunch there together after church on Sunday. They stood out among the other diners both in dress and appearance, for when they had begun frequenting the establishment most of its regular customers had been schoolboys, so the two women were both older and of a different gender. The clientele was not exclusively male – Sunday lunch attracted a mixed crowd – but except for them, on weekdays you would have been hard pressed to find a table not occupied by gay men, most of them artists, musicians, journalists and so forth, who did not have to work regular hours, and perhaps one or two of independent means who would have gone somewhere fancier and more expensive if they hadn’t been gay. For them it was a place to gather in the afternoon before the pubs opened, to have a little snack with a cocktail or a glass of wine, but Sarah still thought of it as tea, a custom she had observed as a girl, when she lived in India.
Though they had nothing in common with the other customers and Sarah realized how out of place they must look, she could not imagine going somewhere else. She had grown fond of the old place over the years, which, except for the people who ate there, had changed but little. Also, its name, the Imperial – quite unsuited, really, to its simple décor and the modest accommodations it offered – reminded her of India, as did the excellent mutton curry she invariably ordered for Sunday lunch.
So it took her aback when one Thursday afternoon Madeline leaned forward over her scone and whispered, “You know, my dear, that the other people who come here are homosexual.”
The observation was hardly a revelation for Sarah, and she could not believe it had taken her friend that long to notice. However, knowing Madeline’s conservative views (to put it mildly, the woman was a bit of a prig) and not wishing to find herself in an argument, she said, “Why, Madeline! Whatever makes you say such a thing?”
“That they come here at all makes them suspect.”
“What’s wrong with the Imperial? Don’t we come here?”
“For tea. Real men go to a pub.”
“I thought you didn’t approve of strong drink. Besides, they look real enough to me.”
“You know very well what I mean by real. Masculine men. And just look at what they have on their plates – cucumber sandwiches and cheese and onion tartlets.”
“An excellent choice. The Imperial makes first-rate cucumber sandwiches, the best I’ve ever tasted.” She had asked for cucumber sandwiches that afternoon. “The bread is fresh and thinly sliced, they are generous with the butter, and the little bits of radish they put in with the cucumber give it that extra bite you won’t find anywhere else.”
“I, too, am inordinately fond of their cucumber sandwiches, but I must say it makes me uncomfortable sitting here among… their kind. I do think we should find ourselves another restaurant.”
“On Sundays, too? We always see families here at lunch.”
“No, dear, just for tea. I know you wouldn’t give up their mutton curry.”
“Neither would I their cucumber sandwiches. Quite frankly, I think we need only concern ourselves with the quality of the food and the attentive service. Besides, I’ve been coming here since I left London. To go anywhere else would feel like a betrayal.”
“Surely you don’t approve of their lifestyle?”
“It matters little whether I approve or not. Homosexuality is legal and has been for more than a decade.”
“Fifteen years, to be exact. I tell you, making it legal was only the first step in their agenda. Just see what they do now, and openly!”
“Go to restaurants?”
“Honestly, Sarah, you can be very stubborn at times.”
“And I shall be stubborn now, Madeline. I shall continue to have my tea at the Imperial. Alone, if need be.”
Their traditional Sunday lunch went on interrupted, but for the past month Sarah had sat alone at her table at the Imperial and enjoyed her cucumber sandwiches the less for it, though they tasted as good as ever. Sitting there, she saw herself with brittle clarity as a relic of another generation and a separate culture that had thought itself English. But loyalty to the Imperial was for her a matter of principle. If the waiters had grown rude, the place become dirty, the prices doubled, or the predominantly gay men who went there made her feel unwelcome, she would have turned her back on the Imperial with no regrets, but she would not let Madeline nor anyone else bully her into snubbing her favourite restaurant because she disapproved of the private lives of the people who ate there. Not that she did disapprove, not any longer. She had shared those prejudices in the past, and it had cost her dearly.
A good-looking, well-dressed man in his mid thirties came up to her table one afternoon while she sat idly stirring her tea. “Excuse me, Madam,” he said. “I don’t wish to appear impertinent, but I have noticed that it’s been a while since I last saw your friend with you here. Is she unwell? I hope nothing has happened to her.”
“Madeline and I have had a tiff, I’m afraid. No, not a tiff, more of a falling out. Not to worry. It was really quite silly, something we don’t see eye to eye on. I’m sure she’ll come round eventually.”
The man smiled. “Perhaps you ought to come round. I’m sure you miss her company.”
Sarah feared it might offend him to learn the nature of their disagreement and that he would not think it at all silly. “Yes, I do miss her company, but it’s not as if we’ve stopped speaking to each other entirely. There’s still room for a reconciliation.”
“Would you consider it intruding if I joined you for tea? I’m alone too, you see. My partner has been sent to India on business and will be gone for a month.”
“To India? Why, I was born in India!”
“Were you really? How fascinating! My father was stationed in India.”
“During the war?”
“Before and during. May I?” And he made to sit down.
Sarah hesitated. How unlike her to accept the company of a total stranger, as much as she would have enjoyed talking about India. But what if he pursued the subject of her falling-out with Madeline? “Well, I’m not sure, Mr…” she began.
“Blerry,” he said. He noticed her surprise and added, “It’s an unusual name, is it not?”
“It’s just that I knew a Lieutenant Blerry once.”
“Not Edward Blerry?” Sarah nodded. “Why this is a coincidence! I’m his son, Julian.”
Julian Blerry took a seat across from her without asking further permission. She could scarcely protest, having acknowledged that she knew his father. This was a coincidence, and potentially a most embarrassing one. Quite a striking resemblance all in all, now that she had become aware of it. Dear, dear, dear! Well, as they said, like father, like son, and apparently in more ways than one.
“I presume you knew him in India, Mrs…”
“Miss. Sarah Parsons. I’m certain your father remembers me. You must give him my regards. How is he? Does he live here now?”
“No, Dad and Mum are in Edinburgh. Mum’s people are from Scotland.”
So not only had Edward married and fathered a child, perhaps more than one, but he was still married in spite of his natural inclinations. She would have to tread carefully. She doubted Julian Blerry knew just how much like his father he was or that Edward would want him to. What would provide a safe topic of conversation? India? Perhaps not, but she could think of nothing else.
“Did your parents meet in India, Mr Blerry?”
“Julian, please. No they met in London, when Dad returned after the Independence.”
“And has he been back? Have you ever visited India?”
“No, Dad has no desire to see India again.”
“I can understand that. I missed India terribly when I first came here. That was just before the war. Homesickness, you understand. I was very young then, almost a girl. But once the Indians took over I expected the place had changed, especially with all those dreadful things I read about the partition. Much as I loved India – the old India, mind you – I shall never return.”
“I get the impression that Dad has other reasons. He doesn’t speak fondly of it. In fact, he doesn’t speak of it at all.”
The waiter came to take Julian’s order. He asked for coffee and biscuits.
Sarah went on, “Now that does surprise me. Edward was… shall we say enamoured of India when I knew him. He had a number of Indian friends, which was most unusual for a European at the time.”
How could she have been so thoughtless as to say that? Enamoured, of all words to choose! No, talking about India was anything but safe.
“Perhaps he learned his friends had been killed in the riots,” Julian suggested.
“Yes, that must be it. I can think of no other explanation. Do tell me about yourself, Mr… Julian. What is it you do, and how did you come to live in Hampshire?”
“My partner, Anthony, found work here, and I followed.”
An amazingly frank thing to say to a stranger, but of course at the Imperial he must have assumed she knew and was sympathetic. But what does one say to a man who’ll pull up stakes to be with his lover? – not that London was any great distance away. Would Edward have had the courage to remain in India with…? She tried to remember the man’s name, but it escaped her. Would he have brought him back to England? Evidently not. “You must love him very much,” she said.
“Mad about him. I can’t conceive of life without him. It surprised everyone, though, my moving. I didn’t have a particularly lucrative or interesting job, but it was hard giving up my flat, even to be with Anthony.”
“Yes, good flats in London aren’t easy to come by.”
“Exactly what Mum and Dad said. They couldn’t understand.”
“They do now, I assume.”
“Yes, I came out to them and explained it all. I was afraid of a row, but I had to tell them eventually.”
“I agree. Keeping secrets from one’s family can be very destructive.” But she had never told her parents why she had broken off her engagement with Edward.
“Unfortunately, so can the truth. Anthony’s family will have nothing more to do with him. But my parents were top-notch, especially Dad, and I thought he’d take it worst.”
“I’m sure your parents love you very much.”
“They do indeed. I’m their only child and they dote on me, I admit. But Dad was very tight lipped on the issue when homosexuality was made legal. Wouldn’t say anything for or against it, which isn’t at all like him, so I assumed he opposed it and was biting his tongue to control his temper. I was a teenager then, you see, and starting to wonder if I might be gay.”
“You misjudged your father. I don’t believe I’ve ever known a man as free of prejudice as Edward.”
“So I gather.”
Sarah looked at him questioningly.
“What you told me about his Indian friends,” he explained
Had she said too much? Could he have guessed? She must have looked puzzled, because he added, “Racial prejudice.”
What prejudices they had had in that isolated community in India where she grew up! She wondered what had upset her more, learning that Edward homosexual or the fact that he had an Indian lover.
“What I said about prejudice seems to have affected you for some reason,” Julian said.
“I was thinking of how superior we thought we were to everyone else, just because we were English! And we didn’t even realize it! It was quite a shock coming back and discovering that I was ordinary at best and had no special privileges at all.”
“I don’t find you in the least ordinary, Miss Parsons.”
“That’s very flattering, but hard to believe. What’s so special about me?”
“For one, that you come here, to a gay-friendly establishment, for tea.”
“When I started coming here the Imperial was a restaurant much like any other.”
“And that you continue to come here. Am I correct in assuming that that’s what you and your friend argued about?”
“You are much too perceptive, Julian. I shall have to take care what I say to you, or you’ll puzzle out things I don’t want you to know.” She forced a little laugh to make him think she was joking.
“I say, Mum and Dad will be coming down next week. There’s room for them in our flat with Anthony off in India. Won’t you come for dinner? Just think how surprised Dad will be!”
“I think you ought to ask your father first. He might not be as keen on seeing me again as you think.”
“Why not? From what you’ve said I somehow thought you must have been good friends. Were you just acquaintances?”
“Oh, we were more than just acquaintances. But you said it yourself. Your father wants to forget about India. What else would we talk about if we met?”
“Well, I shall ask him, and we’ll find out. I’m sure he’ll want to see you. What fun when I tell him! ‘Dad, I ran into an old friend of yours from India. Can you guess who?’ What do you think what he’ll say when I tell him Sarah Parsons?”
Sarah thought he’d probably ask what she had to say about him and brace himself for the worst. She avoided his question and said, “And I wonder whom he’ll guess.”
“Some army mate, I suppose. A fellow officer.”
Or that Indian lad, Sarah thought. “I really must be going,” she said. “It was most pleasant meeting you, but I must do some grocery shopping for dinner, and I don’t want to arrive home too late.”
“You’ll jot down your phone number before you go? So I can call to invite you when Dad comes.”
“I don’t think it proper to give out my number to a gentleman in a public place,” Sarah answered. “You see, Julian, I’m really quite conventional and old fashioned, even if I do come for tea at the Imperial.”
© Anne Eldridge