Rebecca Tyrrel: Days Like Those

'The tea party, for Matthew, issomething that comes straight from the set of a Merchant Ivory film'
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I made quite a simple and, I thought, innocent suggestion recently, but it didn't go down terribly well. Matthew gave me his "shall I call the psychiatric hospital now or leave it until themorning when it will be easier to sedate you" look. And then he said, "How can you even think of such a thing? I would rather gouge out an eyeball and eat it on toast with a sprinkling of Tabasco than not have our traditional tea in Devon for Louis' birthday. We have been having that tea for 10 years now and we will go on having it for another 10 years and another 10 years after that."

"You mean we will still be serving several tonnes of scones, cream and jam to whichever local village folk happen to be passing by the cottage until Louis is in his twenties, thirties, even forties, until, in fact, we are in our graves?" I asked incredulously.

"Well, yes, since you ask," said Matthew recklessly.

The point I had been trying to make when I suggested that we might not have the tea this year, by the pond, among the daffodils in front of our holiday cottage, was that Louis will be 11 and perhaps is beginning to outgrow that particular kind of birthday party. My other point was that we don't know anyone to invite since some friends, a family of five, moved to Midhurst and the local gamekeeper, his wife andmother-in-law relocated to Perthshire.

Matthew isn't a great fan of life in Devon, finding the absence in the cottage of broadband and television a strain. He finds the dearth of casinos and betting shops within a five-mile radius a tad trying too, and he resents having to climb a steep hill at the back of the cottage to receive a telephone signal.

But he is prepared to put up with these stressful ordeals for Louis' birthday tea. Not just because he wouldn't miss being with Louis on his birthday for the world, but because the tea, for Matthew, is something straight from a Merchant Ivory film. It is the only "tea", as such, that we have all year. And it may well be the most lavish served anywherein the world - combining the full Devon variety, with some more sophisticated attributes concomitant with the Waldorf Hotel, circa 1922.

Apart from a vast range of cakes and fancies, there are smoked salmon sandwiches, cucumber sandwiches, egg sandwiches and Gentleman's Relish sandwiches, all cut by me, while Matthew hovers, into dainty triangles. The shopping for all the baked goods, jams, cream, cucumber, salmon and Gentleman's Relish is always done by Matthew. And while we usually expect an average of 8-9 guests, he generally buys enough for about 28-29, which means everyone goes home with enough food to keep them well-fed for the rest of the month.

And this year, it would seem, will be no different. Louis will, according to his father, go on enjoying his annual tea party until he is 93 and come what may we, and later Louis, will find enough people to make it an enjoyable event. Matthew won't tell me quite how he is going to round up this year's people and I have decided to stop worrying until I am called on to unload the shopping, which will be when Matthew returns at about midday from his big shop.

And so it was that he set off the morning before Louis' birthday at 8.30 in order to have parked the car and be standing outside the first retail outlet by 9.00. As he left he said, "This year will be no different. Every year we have at least five locals and at least fivelocals is what we are going to have tomorrow. I'm going into town to buy food and round up guests, and will see you later." And then leading a reluctant Louis by the shoulders, off he went.

I did shout after him that he mustn't go making any of the inexcusablydreadful inbreeding jokes that he tends to think are appropriate to shopkeepers in the West Country, but I doubted it would make a difference. I doubted too that he would be returning with any invitations accepted. Thankfully when I went up the hill to check my phone messages, I found I had received a call from the family of five, to say that they were in the neighbourhood and wouldn't miss Louis' tea for anything.

Louis arrived back in the kitchen ahead of Matthew, who was busy loading the shopping into a wheelbarrow for transporting up the path. "It wasn't great Mum," began the official report. "You know the man in the dry cleaners, with the creepy smile and the bulging eyes? Well Dad told him about the tea party, and then said he would be thrilled if he brought his mother, his sister and his great aunt along if she's free."

"Oh," I said, sounding very like Olivia Walton, I thought. "It's just your father's way, just his little joke. Don't you worry about it."

"But Mum, there's more. He did the same thing in the electrician's, but with the mother, the sister, the great aunt, the grandmother and the daughter."

"And did they say they would come?" I asked. Louis just gave me a look and said, "What do you think?" And then I told him about the family of five and we hoped that there would be enough food. By which time Matthew was arriving in the kitchen with the first of a two wheelbarrow-loads of scones, cream, jam etc, two large coffee cakes and a Black Forest gateau.