Thursday, 12 June 2008
Coffee, Rice, Sugar, Tea...
Marlene was a mousy girl. Her hair was a muddy brown-grey colour, her eyes were washed out blue and she had a sallow complexion. She was ordinary and unloved, so when she was sent to live with her Aunt Maud, she pictured glamour, parties and being swept off her feet with romance. A sort of London version of Mame.
Aunt Maud was not quite like that. She wore black and pink. She drank tea without milk and coffee with whisky and was never without gin. She had a cat called Strangeways, because, so she said, he was a cat with strange ways. She lived in Sydenham, a dreary part of South London that seemed even greyer and more dull than Surrey, which was full of stockbrokers who did not want to live in London.
Aunt Maud was, however, very kind if a little brusque with Marlene. She took Marlene to her hairdressers who dyed her hair auburn and called her dah-ling. She insisted on getting Marlene underwear from Agent Provocateur, which Marlene thought was underwear for much prettier girls than she was. She brought Marlene new clothes from upmarket clothes shops like Warehouse and Whistles and Jigsaw. She taught Marlene to wear high heel shoes, which felt extremely saucy to Marlene. She told Marlene to stop wearing tights and wear stockings instead - with a suspender belt. Marlene dreaded to think what her mother would have thought. As her mother was away in Africa tending to monkeys, it is likely she would have thought Marlene frivolous.
Aunt Maud taught Marlene how to use cosmetics until her skin paled and her lips were scarlet and she looked altogether unlike the daughter of an accountant from Surrey. Marlene went to college and learned fashion design, which she liked more than she was good at it. Her final fashion show was terrifying to her. She was sure that she would fail. Aunt Maud told her to stop being a silly goose. Aunt Maud's cat however, followed Marlene up to her room one night and sat on her bed as she changed into her silk pyjamas and pom-pom mules, which made her feel special.
"I've worked so hard on my collection and I just know it's all going to go wrong," she told Strangeways.
"Piffle," Strangeways replied.
"I beg your pardon?" Marlene asked in astonishment.
"Poppycock and Piffle and also Balderdash!" Strangeways answered.
"I didn't know you were a talking cat!" Marlene hissed.
"I never told you I was," the cat answered smoothly, settling himself comfortably on the duvet.
"Now hush and listen to me. I'll tell you something for your own good," he added firmly.
Marlene plumped up her pillows and settled herself on the bed facing the cat and listened.
"Wait until midnight. Then go down to the kitchen and recite the following rhyme - Coffee, Rice, Sugar, Tea, Kitchen Friend, come to me.
Then hand over your designs and ask for them to be made in three days. On the third day, get up at three o'clock in the morning and go down to the kitchen. In the Coffee, Rice, Sugar and Tea canisters you will find your fashion collection as fine and beautiful as you could wish. Take all of them and make two cups of tea and two lots of bread and butter. On one of the plates put a cooked herring from the refrigerator. Take that plate and one of the cups of tea and come back upstairs with your collection. Give me the herring because I'm too good to you and you can have the rest."
Marlene was not sure what to expect, but she did as Strangeways asked and on the third day, he patted her with his paw to get her up at three o'clock in the morning and she returned to the bedroom with her breakfast, his herring, her fashion collection as beautifully made and wonderful as she could have hoped for. She also wore, with her silk pyjamas, a big smile. She packed the clothes neatly and off to college she went. The fashion show was a triumph and she was hired by the house of Dior on the spot. The fashion buyer called her dahlink.
When she returned home however, Aunt Maud was drunk on gin and ready to fight the marines. Strangeways ran out of the lounge and up to Marlene's room. Marlene followed him and asked what the matter was.
"Well, I may have possibly neglected to mention a few small details," the cat answered from beneath her bed.
"Oh," Marlene asked dangerously, "Such as what for example?"
"They really were very small details. Very small, almost insignificant. I didn't like to bother you," Strangeways mewed pitifully.
"Bother me with them now." Marlene commanded, lying on her stomach and glaring at him.
"Well it's just that the er, Kitchen Friend you called... may possibly be very closely related to Aunt Maud," the cat answered.
"You mean related as in the Kitchen Friend is Aunt Maud?" Marlene said firmly.
"Er, well... yes," Strangeways agreed.
"Oh you mischievous cat!" Marlene snapped.
She went down the stairs at a rush and into the lounge where she promptly apologised to Aunt Maud. It made no difference whatsoever. Aunt Maud had settled in a drunken heap of black and pink chiffon and lace in a corner of the room and was snoring like a walrus. A walrus with a Trombone inside a Tuba.
Marlene went out. She bought some chocolates. She bought some fine tea and some herbal bubble bath. She returned and wrote an explanation for Aunt Maud and thanked her for her hard work. Then she helped Aunt Maud up to bed and somehow managed to extricate the gin bottle. Her very practical and sensible mother had, like Strangeways, somehow neglected to mention the faerie blood in the family which ran wild in Aunt Maud.
Fortunately for Strangeways and indeed for Marlene, the thank-you presents Marlene had bought for her aunt, were considered adequate peace offerings. However, Marlene was always careful not to use that rhyme again. It was also a long while before she treated Strangeways to herrings.