I picked up my tea and cake from the counter. I didn’t really want the cake to be honest, but the rain had been making my walk around the shops even less enjoyable, and the mayor’s charitable coffee morning in the town hall provided a reasonable place to drip dry for a while. I looked around a seat. Plenty of people had had the same idea and there were no tables free, but I saw in the corner a table with just one occupant, a prim and tidy lady in her late seventies minding her own business, the sort of woman that you can sense is called Margaret or Rose. I walked over and asked if I could share it with her.
‘Of course,’ she smiled.
I thanked her, and hung my dripping coat over the back of my chair, anticipating no further discourse with her.
‘I’m Margaret Rose,’ she said.
‘Martin,’ I returned, stirring my tea and hoping this would be the beginning and end of our conversation.
‘I see you’ve gone for the walnut cake too, but the one without the icing.’ She pointed at my cube of cake with a naked walnut on the top. Hers did indeed have a slathering of soft buttercream between sponge and nut.
I justified my selection, ‘I’m not that keen on that stuff.’
‘You’re probably right. It can be sickly. Very sickly. My husband’s the same; likes walnuts but not the cream.’
I felt embroiled into conversation. ‘Are you going to take him home a slice?’
She rested her forehead in her hand and looked down at her slice of cake. ‘I don’t think so. He’s dead.’
‘Oh god. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…’
’Sixteen years in March. I couldn’t listen to the Moody Blues for ages.’
I didn’t really know what to say.
‘It was my husband who introduced me to them. Well, he wasn’t my husband then, of course. We were there at their first gigs. 1964 it was.’
I still didn’t know what to say. I’d heard of the Moody Blues in the same way that I had heard of the Great Train Robbery and the Profumo affair, but they were a good twenty years before my time, and anyway, I was a bit thrown by this line of conversation. It didn’t really matter though as she carried on regardless.
‘Then Ray died in January, but of course you’d know that.’
I had no idea who she was talking about, but having already upset her once, I chose my next line with caution. ‘Oh yes, terribly sad, that. Were you close?’
‘In a way. He was flute and mouth organ mainly.’
‘In an orchestra?’ I sensed I was saying the wrong thing as the words fell out of my mouth.
She glared at me and spelled out slowly, ‘Ray Thomas was one of the founder members of the Moody Blues.’
‘Ah, that Ray,’ I lied. Sorry.’ I could see her eyes were welling up. ’Look, please don’t cry, the other band members would be proud to have such a caring fan, but they wouldn’t want you to be upset, I’m sure, nor would your lovely husband.’
She wiped away a large rolling tear. ‘Other members? Clint Warwick died in 2004, and now Ray. And my husband’s dead too. Dead, dead, dead.’
‘It’s perfectly understandable to be sad, Mary Rose, but….’
‘Margaret Rose,’ she snapped. ‘Mary Rose is a boat.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. Again.
She sniffled. ‘That’s where the remaining Moody Blues play now.’
‘On the Mary Rose?’ My voice wavered as I said it, but I felt compelled to query.
‘No! On cruise ships,’ she huffed. ‘In the Caribbean mainly, I think.’
‘How lovely,’ I said, hoping a line of positivity might ease her sorrow. ‘Have you been on a cruise to see them?’
She burst into full tears. I tried desperately to look innocent sensing I was now being the subject of attention from other tables. The old lady struggled to gain a little composure while with swollen eyes, started to sing:
‘All the nice girls, love a sailor
All the nice girls love a tar…’
I was a bit taken aback. I knew the song from somewhere, but not all of the words. I smiled and tapped the table to the beat with my cake fork.
‘Bright and breezy, free and easy.’
By this time, many on the other tables had turned to see what was happening. A few even joined in the singing.
‘He’s in love with Kate and Jane,
then he’s off to sea again,’
At this point, I was relieved to see she seemed to be smiling albeit with a faraway look in her eyes.
‘Ship ahoy, sailor boy!’
The end of her song was met by a small round of applause around the room from the good people of Newbury. I thought I’d improve her mood further with a quip, “Sadly, I could never go on a cruise, I get seasick in the bath! I bet you’re not as wimpish as me.’
‘I’ve not been on a boat since 1982.’
‘No?’ Ha ha, you don’t get seasick as well, do you?’
‘I don’t think so,’ she said. ‘My son Malcolm was killed in a freak incident with a swan while riding the rapids on the Kennet and Avon canal in 1982 and from that day on I vowed never to go on the water again.’ Her tears broke free once more. I could sense the other cake eaters staring at me, wondering what that nasty man was doing to be persistently upsetting that poor old lady, and whether the authorities ought to be called.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I really didn’t mean to bring back bad memories.’
‘My husband got a letter from the Queen after Malcolm died.’
‘Ah, that’s nice. Shows that she has a heart, doesn’t it?’
‘It said that if he didn’t stop to verbally abusing the swans he saw on the canal and throwing them bread laced with laxatives, then as she technically owned them, she would have him locked in the tower.’
‘I suppose she had a point, I can’t believe a swan meant to kill your husband. Sometimes tragic accidents do happen.’
‘Do they? A few days after that letter, those innocent, ‘butter wouldn’t melt in their beaks’ swans ganged up, and surrounded him one morning on the tow path. They broke his arms in 56 places then tied him to a canoe before steering him into a whirlpool. He never stood a chance.’
‘Really?’ I asked. Did anyone see it happen?’
‘Saw it all with my own eyes, all that floated to the top were matchsticks made of bits of canoe. I hate canoes and I hate swans -they were all wearing balaclavas so I couldn’t identify them in court.
‘Come on, let’s talk about something nicer. Did you mention the Moody Blues? I’m a great fan of theirs,’ I lied again to try and recover the situation, whatever it was.
This seemed to raise her spirits a little. ‘You…you are?’
‘Oh yes,’ I lied again. ‘Isn’t everyone?’
‘They are wonderful aren’t they. Which is your favourite song?’
My heart skipped a beat. I wasn’t sure I could name any, let alone have a favourite. I played for time. ‘Oh gosh, that is so difficult: they had so many classics to choose from.’ I scoured my brain, willing it for inspiration while the momentarily becalmed Margaret Rose looked at me through swollen eyes, her lower lip trembling at me in anticipation. Then it came to me. I grinned at my cleverness and leant back in my chair, ‘But if pushed, I’d say it was The Air That I Breath.’ I was so proud of myself.
Her face dropped. That’s the Hollies,’ she ground out through gritted teeth. ‘My husband hated the Hollies. Said they were stuck-up poofs. He’d rather have had sickly icing on his walnut cake than listen to anything by the Hollies’ She spat out the word Hollies in the same way I envisaged her late husband dealt with buttercream.
A voice from behind broke the tension. ‘Are you alright, madam?’ I was almost glad to see the geriatric tea urn operator with a handwritten sticker on his apron denoting his name as Charles, limp over to check on the well-being of this clearly distressed woman.
‘This, this…man,’ the old lady pointed at me, ‘seems determined to upset me. First he goes on about my dead husband.’
‘Oh dear,’ tutted Charles.
‘Then he made a kind of joke about my deceased son,’
‘Oh dear, oh dear,’ the man looked down a t me and shook his head.
‘And to top it all, now he tells me that Your Wildest Dreams,’ her voice rose to a crescendo in the manner of Jeremy Vine, ‘Was by the Hollies.’
‘What?’ Charles narrowed his eyes at me. ‘You, you monster. How could you?’
‘I fear I may have been a little misunderstood. I’ve never met this lady before, nor husband or even her poor son, bless his soul.’
‘Silence,’ demanded Charles, then finished his sentence, ‘is golden.’ I believed that to be a song by Jefferson Airport, but thought better of pointing it out, just in case. He continued. ‘This lady has suffered great loss in her life, as lord knows we all have. Only this morning I myself dropped a bowl of walnut-flavoured buttercream on the floor….’ I lowered my head to see the bare walnut on my cake, an agent to the truth of his testimony. ‘Yet she must endure and get through, though in her case she is unable to do what I did and stir up a smaller batch with the remaining ingredients and decorated what cakes I could. But for you to subject this poor woman with taunts about her dearly departed and then lied to about the canon of work by the Moody Blues, surely the most talented and respected exponents of rock music to come from Birmingham. Well. If I was fifty years younger, I’d…’ While Charles struggled to find the end of his sentence while I wondered if it was healthy for his blustered face to have turned that colour. ‘…I’d punch you on the bracket.’
‘I’m sorry.’ I was making a habit of apologising. ‘Everything just all seemed to escalate, and I was only trying to stop this lady being upset by…’
‘By lying to me!’ The old lady thumped the table which made the crockery shake and drew even more attention to us.
‘Excuse me,’ a man leant over from the table next to us. ‘I couldn’t help overhearing.’
‘That’s no problem whatsoever,’ I said, delighted that someone was coming to my aid with this clearly demented woman.’
‘I couldn’t help but hear when you said you don’t know who the Moody Blues are.’
‘Well, I know of them,’ I smiled, ‘but I’m a few years too young to…’
‘So you don’t know Go Now?’ he asked.
‘Err, no,’ I confessed.
‘How about I Don’t Want To Go On Without You?’’ asked the old lady.
I shook my head.
‘Surely Nights in White Satin?’ said Charles.
‘Nope,’ I shrugged.
‘From the Bottom of My Heart (I Love You) then?’ demanded the man on the next table.
Voices called out at me from all around the room: ‘Fly me high, This Is My House (But Nobody Calls), Everyday, Stop!, or Ride My See-Saw?’
I shouted my replay at them all, ‘No, no, no, no and no.
There was a hush of disbelief around the room.
‘Life’s Not Life,’ tried Margaret Rose.
‘NO.’ I crossed my arms in victorious defeat.
‘I think that says it all,’ said Charles, wiping his hands on his apron. ‘Suppose I’d better clear these plates.’
‘Is that all sorted then? I’m free to go?’ I asked the room. ‘No more song titles or accusations of geriatric abuse to face.’
No one had the balls to answer.
I stood and started putting my coat on ‘I’d like to say it’s been a delight and that your walnut cake wasn’t overbaked and dry,’ I did up the front zip and turned around. ‘Now, if you’ll excuse me, you crazy…’
‘AAAAAGGGHH!’ I looked back to see Margaret Rose pointing at my jacket.’
‘You bastard’ said Peter, noticing what she’d seen. ‘How could you?’
As everyone stood up in anger, I ran from the town hall and back out into the rain as fast as I could, even though my jacket with the words ‘Newbury Canoeing Club’ on the back was still damp.