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Magpie's Tearoom was a lovely refuge from modern life.
Nestled between a travel bookstore and a vintage clothing boutique, it had survived Nouvelle Cuisine, Low Carbs, and Raw Food. Although there were few damp, drizzly days in Los Angeles, there was always a warm welcoming fire at Magpie's to suggest otherwise.
Pictures of sporting dogs and the bucolic English countryside hung on the rosy pink walls. A towering china hutch displayed dainty cups and saucers with storybook patterns like Tally Ho and Chelsea Gardens. Sometimes, while relaxing in one of the worn armchairs and sipping a cup of Earl Grey, a customer would tell Margaret that owning a tearoom like Magpie's must be the most wonderful job in the world.
Of course Margaret would smile graciously.
And then pour them more tea.
On this Thursday in February, it actually was raining and Margaret Moore was late. Stepping off the porch of her tidy cream-colored bungalow, she hurried across the soggy lawn and then slid behind the wheel of her old Volvo. Winding down to Fountain Avenue, she immediately discovered that traffic was jammed all the way to Crescent Heights. Remembering the days of the ten-minute commute, she groaned. Now it took at least forty minutes to get anywhere in the city.
Just before 3rd Street, she turned left into the alley and pulled into one of four spaces marked Tearoom. A satin-blue Prius was parked beside her.
Lilly's on time, she thought gratefully.
With the expertise of an Englishwoman, she unfurled her umbrella and reached the back door with nary a spot of water landing on her raincoat. Her shoulder-length chestnut hair hung perfectly in place.
Marching briskly into the kitchen, she stowed her purse and umbrella on a stainless steel baker's rack. Shrugging off her coat, she noticed dirty bowls littering the counter and a pan in the sink filled with something resembling amber crystals. Then she heard the rush of running water.
She knocked on the bathroom door. "Lilly?"
A rotund woman of fifty emerged, dabbing her wet face with paper towels. "Hope you don't mind. I crashed here last night," she said.
Margaret did mind but decided not to engage in what she knew would be a lengthy conversation about Lilly's domestic problems. "As long as you don't make a habit of it," was all she said.
Several aprons and a crisp white shirt hung on hooks next to the bathroom door. Margaret exchanged her coat for a black-and-white plaid apron that complemented her narrow black slacks and long-sleeved T-shirt.
Lilly squirted some gel into her palms and spiked up her short gray hair. "Deborah and I had a fight."
She's too young for you, thought Margaret, examining the pot of burned crystals in the sink.
"Just let that soak," said Lilly. "I thought a butterscotch pudding would make an interesting trifle, but the caramel seized."
Margaret's blue-gray eyes clouded. "How can I possibly go to England and leave the tearoom under your command?"
"You're going to England?" Lilly scrubbed at an egg stain on her soiled chef's jacket. "When did this happen?"
"Nothing's planned. But my mother's getting on, you know. She's almost eighty."
"I thought you hated your mother."
Margaret drew herself up. "Where did you get that idea? Just because we're not...overly fussy with one another. I have enormous respect for her."
Quickly turning her attention to the kitchen, she surveyed it with dismay. Although she employed a daily cleaning service, they never seemed to scrub the sink to her satisfaction. And Lilly was the messiest chef on earth. She never closed drawers or returned utensils to their proper hook on the overhead rack. Dishes were jammed willy-nilly on the open shelves below the counters and teacups were stacked precariously in the cabinets above. It wasn't as if this were a grand restaurant, either. They were a medium-sized tearoom with a dwindling inventory of china and flatware. It was sheer luck that the Health Department hadn't caught them in this condition and slapped them with a C rating.
Lilly seized a tray of buff-colored scones. "I made these last night to go with my insomnia," she beamed. "Peanut butter chocolate chip."
"Sounds like a hideous American candy bar."
"Oh, come on, Margaret, half the world loves peanut butter and chocolate. I think we could make a killing on these."
"Must I remind you that we are not here to make a killing. We are here to serve tradition."
Abandoning the kitchen, Margaret forged on with her morning routine. Why is it so difficult for Lilly to stick to the menu, she wondered, heading down the hallway towards the tearoom. It is simply crucial to have proper scones, layer cake, and egg salad at the ready. Customers depend upon it.
At the end of the hall was a door with a small brass sign inscribed "W.C." Inside the customer restroom, blue toile wallpaper and a pedestal sink gave the space a slightly Victorian air. She checked to be sure there was tissue, hand towels, and seat covers. Noticing a small puddle of water next to the toilet, she averted her eyes and hoped it was residue from last night's mopping and not a harbinger of ugly things to come.
From there, it was three quick steps to the tearoom. She crossed the floor to the two large windows that faced 3rd Street. Gently pulling back the chintz curtains, she tied them up with ruffled sashes and glanced out at the sweeping rain. I never really wanted to leave London, she thought. That had been Tony.
Shaken by this unexpected nostalgia, she set about putting her place in order. Neither trendy -- nor conservative -- there was an underlying elegance in the mismatched slipcovers and scuffed hardwood floors. Club chairs and ladder-backed chairs snuggled up to the tables -- all good pieces snatched at flea markets and garage sales, long before that sort of treasure hunt became a pastime for studio executives and hipsters. The choice spot in the house was the loveseat next to the fireplace. A paneled oak door on a wrought-iron base served as its tea table and a beveled mirror over the mantel captured the room in its face. All the old customers wanted this table and Margaret had honed her diplomatic skills on its availability.
As she straightened chairs and pinched dead petals off the roses in several vases, Lilly followed closely behind, not being the least bit helpful.
"We fought about this weekend. Deborah doesn't want to go away with me. She never wants to leave town!"
"She's new here. It's still exciting." Margaret glanced at her watch: ten-thirty, customers in an hour.
"She refuses to visit any more B&Bs. She hates eating breakfast with retired couples in matching jogging suits."
"Can you blame her?"
"No." Lilly stuck out her lower lip. "But don't most couples like to go away on romantic weekends?"
Margaret rearranged the tchotchkes on the gift shelves. "I have no idea what couples do -- I'm here on the weekend with groups of women. I can't recall the last time I saw a couple."
Next to the front door stood a pine writing desk with a phone, a reservation book, and an answering machine. Reaching out, Margaret pushed the blinking red message button.
"Hey, it's Lauren, I'm gonna be late. I got an audition at ten," said a careless, cigarette-sucking voice.
"I must stop hiring actresses," Margaret muttered.
"You've got to stick with the older ones that never work," said Lilly.
There was a sharp bang at the back door, followed by a gust of cool air and, finally, Clarissa Richardson. Beautiful and just a gasp from forty, she favored theatrical attire and Bakelite bracelets.
Without so much as a hello, she breezed in with the day's dilemma.
"My cell is almost dead and my agent's supposed to call!" Rummaging through her bulging purse, she spilled a pair of eyeglasses on the floor.
Lilly playfully scooped up the emerald-green frames and dangled them in her face. "When did you start wearing these?"
Clarissa snatched them back. "They're for driving."
"Uh-oh! Can estrogen replacement be far behind?"
"What are you talking about? I'm still in my thirties."
Is that in dog years? Lilly thought.
"I suppose you've already prepped the sandwiches so we don't have to wait like yesterday." Clarissa looked pointedly at Margaret.
Deciding to separate the two, Margaret made a preemptive strike. "Lilly," she said smoothly, giving her chef a little push towards the kitchen. "Please finish up with the scones."
Lilly swiveled on her heel and trudged back down the hall.
"Five minutes is not a wait!" she shot back.
Margaret paused until Lilly was out of earshot, then whispered, "Was there a problem yesterday?"
Lowering her chin, Clarissa clasped her hand to her throat to underscore the graveness of the situation. "After you left for your teeth cleaning, she forgot to put the leaves in the teapot and then she forgot to boil the eggs for the egg salad."
"I see," Margaret said thoughtfully. "Clarissa, please check the rest of the messages before you make your call. And do hurry. Lauren's going to be late."
"Did her nose ring get infected?"
"An audition. Thank god I can count on you."
"I go on auditions!"
"I meant that as a compliment," Margaret said.
Clarissa's green eyes burned brightly. "I might have an audition later. A killer part. Just perfect for me."
Back in the kitchen, Margaret kept a watchful eye on her chef. She knew there was truth in what Clarissa had said. Lilly had been very absentminded lately. Last week some of the customers had complained about the scones. They were metallic tasting, probably a result of too much baking soda. Margaret shuddered. That was the trouble with running your own business, she thought. You could never really let up. Otherwise, you had inedible, horrid scones.
Settled at the writing desk, Clarissa ignored the answering machine and, instead, reached for the land line. She dialed her agent, or rather, her agent's assistant, since she rarely spoke directly to him these days. "Amy? It's Clarissa Richardson again. Is Ken in yet? I have to get into that pilot, Lavender and Lace. I'm perfect for the part of Scarlett Finnegan."
"I think that role's for twenty-five to thirty," replied Amy in a dismissive tone cultivated by young agents-in-training.
"No, it's thirty to thirty-five. I saw the break-downs." Where does he find these girls? she thought angrily. They know nothing about acting except acting like they know everything.
"I'll give Ken all your messages." Amy hung up the phone.
Remember my extensive range, Clarissa prayed silently. Then, closing her eyes, she repeated her affirmations. I am an extraordinarily good actress. I love myself and I am willing to have success in my life.
Lilly tossed cubes of cold, unsalted butter and four cups of flour into the food processor. Then she hit the pulse button. When was Clarissa going to get it? she thought. It didn't matter how great she was as an actor or how hard she worked. Success so often depended on those other, intangible things. Things like who you know and who you meet.
And how lucky you were.
Unlocking the lid of the machine, she reached into the bowl and rubbed her fingers through the flour. It felt like coarse cornmeal -- perfect. Dumping the mix into a large stainless steel bowl, she added buttermilk and stirred until the batter came together.
Turning the dough out onto the wooden counter, she began to pat it into two smooth circles. She remembered how her mother, Cora, would often keep her up at night, crying about the parts she didn't get. The two of them had lived on canned beans and Birds Eye frozen vegetables for several years until Cora finally landed a soap.
A part she got because the producer's first choice came down with pneumonia. And the thing that will keep you off a soap is sickness. You had to be there five days a week for forty-eight weeks a year.
With a chef's knife, Lilly cut each round into six triangles. She beat an egg with a little milk, then brushed the wash over the scones. Clarissa's a better actress than my mother was, she thought. But Cora was lucky. She was in the right place at the right time plus she had me for the emotional support. Clarissa has no one. No daughter to cook for her, clean for her, listen to her nervous breakdowns.
Lilly felt a little guilty for riding Clarissa so hard. Acting wasn't something you picked; it was in your genes. Like brown eyes or schizophrenia.
Placing her scones on a parchment-lined baking sheet, she popped them in the oven.
While watching her cell phone for signs of life, Clarissa listened to the phone machine. A woman with a heavy English accent had just started speaking when the cell buzzed. She checked the caller ID.
Stopping the machine, she frantically opened her phone. "Hello?"
"Liss," her agent cooed, "we need to talk."
Something in his tone set her on edge and she braced herself against the top of the desk. "Ken, I know that Amy is new and she doesn't know my range but -- "
"Liss, we're doing a lot of reorganizing around here. Sort of defining our mission statement and who and what applies to that goal."
"What?" Her phone began the beep, beep of low power.
"Liss, you know I love you but frankly, I'm not seeing work that's right for you and I'm not sure our synergy is creating opportunity."
"What?" Preoccupied with her battery, she didn't catch what he was saying.
He paused. "Listen, I think right now you'd be better off with someone who could give you the attention you deserve."
Beads of sweat broke out on her upper lip. "Ken, I've been with you almost twenty years."
"Exactly. Exactly! I'm glad we're on the same page. Change is difficult, but really, it's for the best. And of course, we'll always be friends...we'll still see each other, oh, who is it, Amy?"
Clarissa wondered if she were levitating. "Ken, we have to discuss this in person!"
"Can't, I've got to take this other call. Don't view this as a negative..."
Her phone died. He was gone.
Now Ken and that hateful Amy were not even a thorn in her side.
Too late, Clarissa realized that a lousy agent was better than nothing at all. Copyright © 2008 by Sandra A. Harper
Posted March 21, 2010
I bought this book because I am an avid tea connoisseur and thought it would be a sweet, dainty story. It isn't! It's a good, quick read, but not at all what I was anticipating. The storyline is abrupt and choppy, and the characters anything but sweet and dainty. Definitely don't judge a book by it's very adorable cover in this case! Finished it within two days.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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