We leaned forwards to survey the structure that had been placed on our table. It was a three-tiered cake stand but the delicacies on the plates were not the traditional teatime treats of finger sandwiches, scones and sponge cakes. Instead, there were wasabi cream cheese wonton tarts and miniature BBQ pork buns, tropical fruit rice puddings and wakame seaweed sandwiches…
“Bloody hell…” muttered Cassie, eyeing the food with trepidation. She pointed to a squat little square with a lurid green jelly coating and a blob of foam on top. “What the hell is that?”
I checked the menu. “Um… I think that’s the lime and kale delice with wheatgerm curd, matcha sponge and pea shoot foam.”
Cassie made a face. “Is it edible? Sounds like something you’d plant in the garden.”
There was silence as we both began cautiously sampling the range of treats. Everything looked fancy and expensive, but once in the mouth, each tasted surprisingly bland and similar, with no particular flavour or texture standing out. Still, we worked our way diligently through the various tiers, until we reached the square “scones” at the bottom.
“Ugh…” said Cassie, putting hers down after one bite. “I don’t know what that is but it’s not a scone.” She leaned back with an expression of disgust. “Honestly, Gemma, this is all just a load of pretentious tosh—that’s all it is! Style over substance.”
I glanced around the packed dining room. “Well, it seems to be working.” I sighed. “Maybe we’re behind the times, Cass. Maybe this is what people want now and simple home-baking and traditional teas just aren’t good enough anymore.”
“Bollocks!” said Cassie scowling. “I don’t believe that. Come on, I’ve had enough of this place.”
We paid and stood up to leave. But just as we were nearing the exit, Cassie let out a cry of indignation and pointed to a table by the wall. “I don’t believe it!”
I turned and saw four little old ladies with white helmet hair, sensible orthotic shoes and lavender handbags huddled around a table. The Old Biddies! A sense of betrayal washed over me. I would have slunk away but Cassie grabbed my arm and dragged me over to their table. The four old ladies looked up as we approached and gave a guilty start.
“Gemma!” cried Mabel Cooke. As the bossiest and most opinionated member of the Old Biddies, Mabel was renowned for her thick-skinned sangfroid in the face of any awkward predicament. For once, though, she was looking uncomfortable and slightly at loss for words. “Er… fancy seeing you here, dear.”
“What are you doing here?” demanded Cassie.
The Old Biddies exchanged slightly shamefaced looks, then Mabel said: “We came back from holiday yesterday, and we did mean to come to your tearoom this morning, dear, but then Glenda found the flyer in her letterbox—”
“What flyer?” Cassie asked.
Glenda rummaged in her cavernous handbag, fishing out various cosmetics and hair accessories, before finally pulling out a printed leaflet and thrusting it towards us. I looked down, my eyes skimming over the bold, printed words:
GRAND OPENING SPECIAL!!
Ditch the stuffy old tearooms and come enjoy yourself in sophisticated, contemporary surrounds!! Mouth-watering sweets and savoury delights with bottomless tea and a free glass of bubbly for every customer!!!
~ limited number of Afternoon Tea packages! ~
GET IN QUICK BEFORE YOU MISS OUT!!!!!!
“Aha… so they’re using the oldest trick in the book,” hissed Cassie in my ear. “That’s how they’re packing them in! Nothing galvanises people like the thought of missing out on a great bargain.”
“We still think you’re the best, Gemma,” said Ethel loyally.
“Oh yes, your tearoom is ever so much nicer. We just thought it would be fun to try somewhere new,” said Glenda in an apologetic tone.
“Well, I have to say, I’m not very impressed, now that I’ve tasted the food,” commented Florence, her plump face puckering in disappointment.
“Yes, the food is very disappointing,” agreed Glenda. Then she gave an impish giggle. “The lad who brought it over to us was very handsome though! Ahh, if only I was sixty years younger…” She glanced at me. “Maybe that’s what you need, dear: a few sexy chaps to help serve the scones at your tearoom—”
“That’s it!” cried Cassie. She turned eagerly to me. “Maybe that’s what we need to do: get sexier!”
I gaped at her. “Huh?”
Cassie grabbed the menu from the Old Biddies’ table and started reading out some items. “Listen to this: ‘fluffy buttermilk scones with silky cream and pure fruit compote’—pah!” She cast a contemptuous look at the crumbling remains on one of the Old Biddies’ plates. “Talk about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear! Their scones are stodgy and tasteless, whereas ours are genuinely fluffy and
delicious—but they’re much better at making their stuff sound appealing. Think of our menu: it doesn’t sound as good when we just list them as plain ‘scones with jam and clotted cream’, does it?”
“I suppose not,” I said doubtfully. “But—”
I broke off as I realised that a woman had come up to the table and was standing beside us, listening. She looked to be Chinese, or of similar East Asian descent, with long, silky black hair that was caught up in a high ponytail and a striking face: high cheekbones and slanted, almond-shaped eyes which had been enhanced by black eyeliner.
“Hello ladies, is there a problem?”
“Oh no, we just happened to see our friends here and stopped to say hello,” said Cassie, indicating the Old Biddies.
“How nice.” The woman’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “Ah… I see that you ordered the Grand Opening special,” she said smugly, eyeing the cake stand on the Old Biddies’ table. She turned to me. “Don’t you think our scones are the best you’ve ever tasted?”
“Er…well…” I stammered, torn between the British compulsion to “always be polite”, and the reluctance to give false praise for something that had tasted so horrible.
Before I could decide how to answer, Mabel cut in with her characteristic forthrightness. “No, they were not. In fact, they were horribly stodgy and dry.”
The woman looked taken aback. “Really?”
“Yes,” said Mabel, jutting her chin out. She continued, her voice rising above the din of the room: “And if you really want to see what good scones taste like, you should go to Gemma’s tearoom.” She nodded in my direction. “Now, those are what I call proper scones and they really are the best you’ve ever tasted!”
Several customers at nearby tables turned our way, their attention caught by Mabel’s booming voice. I groaned silently and hunched my shoulders, not knowing where to look. I felt both touched by Mabel’s championing of me and embarrassed by the attention.
The Chinese woman glanced at the customers around us, who had obviously heard Mabel’s comments and were eyeing me with interest, and her face hardened. Turning back to me, she narrowed her eyes. “You own a tearoom?”
I cleared my throat. “Yes, on the other side of Meadowford-on-Smythe. It’s called the Little Stables.”
“Oh… that old place,” she said, her lips curling.
I felt a flash of resentment, my embarrassment fading. My tearoom might not be slick, modern and sophisticated but I was proud of it and I loved my little business. I didn’t want to cause a scene but I wasn’t going to allow myself be put down either. I raised my chin and looked the other woman straight in the eye.
“Yes, in fact, we’re known for having the best scones in Oxfordshire,” I said evenly.
“Really?” she said in a disdainful tone. “Well, I suppose I ought to visit and check it out.”
The last thing I wanted was this cold, supercilious woman in my tearoom, but I dredged up a polite smile and said: “Of course, you’re welcome any time. Um… anyway, we’d better go.”
I bid the Old Biddies a hasty goodbye, then hustled Cassie out of the tea bar as fast as I could. As we stepped out of the door and walked away, however, I could still feel the woman’s eyes on me, boring into my back, and I couldn’t shake off the uncomfortable feeling that somehow I had made an enemy.
(sneak peek from first draft of Wrongfully Infused: Oxford Tearoom Mystery Book 11 - coming Jan 2022!)
I hope you enjoyed that little snippet from the latest manuscript. The first draft is mostly finished and is currently with beta readers. Once I receive their feedback, I will be making any necessary revisions to plot, pacing & characterisation, then sending the manuscript on to my editor for the next round... The
book is currently not on pre-order yet, but I will let you know as soon as it's available.
ps. if you missed the first sneak peek in the last newsletter, you can catch up on it HERE.