Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, & I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. Over the years we have come up with what feels like the ideal format - afternoon tea in an 'interesting' setting in central London, a place we can all get to (& back from) fairly easily.
Vi contemplates all the goodies
Our once-a-year plan had already gone through some changes this year. Vi had been taken ill during a trip to Australia to visit (my) sister Marina and (her) sister Carol and, on medical advice, had delayed her return for a month. When she finally returned home we all wanted to meet up again so Kay organised a group lunch at a quirky Brazilian café with her birthday as the ostensible excuse. A couple of months later Terri arranged her own birthday meal at Dishoom, an eclectic Indian restaurant. While there was an element of seeing how Vi was getting on during these little family gatherings we all enjoyed them so much that I suspect we'll be meeting for everybody's birthdays in future.
Some of our previous meals had taken quite a bit of organising as we juggled calendars & preferences, especially as we'd often leave things relatively late and had to plump for second or third choices, but this year things fell easily into place. I established a mutually convenient date well in advance, Terri provided a list of possible venues and after a quick round of emails & phone calls we had a reservation - afternoon tea at Brigit's Bakery in Covent Garden. It seemed to have a nice mix of style, fun & indulgence and the anonymous online booking returned a very personal confirmation message so it felt like a good choice.
For some reason I always seem to have travel issues when journeying up for one of Vi's birthdays and this time was no exception, although they manifested in new & unusual ways. I'd booked my ticket a couple of days in advance but when I went round to retrieve it the machine was out of order - an unusual but by no means unknown occurrence. Never mind, I had another whole day and even if the machine was still poorly I could call in at the ticket office and get my tickets manually. Next day I was checking the times on my phone app when a travel alert popped up (something I'd never seen before) saying that Bradford on Avon had both a broken machine and a closed office. This wasn't a disaster but it would mean setting off early enough to pick up my tickets at Bath and still make my London connection, while allowing for the usual crowding & delays that come with weekend travelling on my local line.
For some reason - possibly my history of writing travel apps - I decided that I might as well pop round to the station anyway to check the situation for myself. Needless to say (after such a build-up) the machine was working perfectly and the ticket office was open as usual. I rechecked the app and it assured me that this was not the case. After retrieving my tickets I tried to do my civic duty and point out that the app was telling porkies but there was no way to do such a thing. Oh well.
Kay in full flow, Terri spots the camera
On the day itself the trains ran as expected, very full but that seems to be becoming the norm nowadays. The only hiccup in my journey was finding that the direct Tube line I was planning to use was closed for maintenance but this was easily circumvented by a two step route. In fact I used my old London knowledge to go past Covent Garden, the nearest station, and disembark at Leicester Square which had easier street access and less congested pavements. A short stroll through the fine drizzle and I arrived at the Bakery.
The restaurant was light, open & spacious with (tastefully off-) white walls and wide windows onto the street. Warm colour was provided by the light wood floor and the drawings on the walls with their pink key tones. Vi & Terri were already there so I joined them just before our waiter could intercept me.
This led to the first challenge for the staff. I'd booked a table for four but the evening before Kay had sent me a text saying Roger (her partner) 'might be joining us'. Things didn't look good when I asked the waiter if we could add another to our party and he said he'd have to talk to his manager, after (pointedly?) looking at the fairly close-packed tables. But all was well, an extra chair was brought over and after some rearranging of nearby tables (including ours) space was made for an extra diner. Getting five sets of afternoon tea components onto our two small tables would be tricky but in my experience there are always more objects than the apparent surface area and somehow there's always a way to get them all on.
After getting the furniture rearranged for our benefit it was a bit embarrassing when Kay arrived on her own but she quickly informed us that Roger was on his way. A few minutes later he appeared at the door and we were soon settled and perusing the menu.
There are rarely many decisions to be made when ordering afternoon tea, usually it boils down to a choice of tea and whether or not to have a glass of something bubbly to start. In fact it was particularly easy on this occasion as the restaurant had started using its Christmas menu which included a free glass of prosecco. A meat-free option was available for Kay and although they seemed well set up for special dietary requirements I decided to go for the full experience despite my usual diabetic restrictions. Exotic sounding teas were ordered and we toasted Vi with our swiftly delivered fizzy wine.
I'd not expected anything Christmassy and hadn't noticed the Yuletide theme to the decorations but the crackers & candy canes by our teacups brought the point home even before our waiter had mentioned the festive menu. I had a moment of Bah! Humbug! as the holidays were still over a month away but we collectively just ignored them - we pulled the crackers towards the end of the meal, compared the cheap plastic toys and read out a few of the terrible jokes but didn't put on the paper hats (as the neighbouring table had done). It does feel like Christmas is becoming just a general winter decorative theme which is used because it's somehow 'expected' rather than being something that people are seeking, especially in mid-November. It reminded me of the Santa & reindeer mannequins I'd seen in Vietnam and Laos the year before - tacky for the tourists, meaningless for the Buddhist locals and yet somehow there they were.
Once we'd made a start on the tea & sandwiches (& cakes & scones) the conversation flowed freely. There were some big topics - Terri had a new job and a new car while Kay was coming to the end of a major project and was contemplating what might come next - but in general we just chatted, letting the subject bounce around where it would. As a family we're pretty good at keeping in touch so there wasn't much in the way of Big Surprises or Dramatic Reveals but spending a few hours in each other's company can often give a broader impression of how we're all doing. Our stories hold centre stage but the tone, delivery, reaction & interaction fill out the picture, giving the context and emotional response that provide significance & personal meaning. I rarely learn anything new at one of Vi's birthday bashes but I usually come away with a better impression of how each of us is finding & coping with life's opportunities & challenges. And a stronger sense of family.
Splendid teapots amid the residual detritus
This year I found myself talking less than usual (or at least that's how it seemed to me), this could simply be down to my relatively uneventful life over recent months but part of me was enjoying the sense of belonging without needing to play a role or compete for attention. I chipped in to the discussions (a withdrawn silence would have been as glaringly noticeable as boorish declaiming) and was as engaged as the others, observing the reactions as much as the talking. On reflection, with four of us talking (Roger got a few words in edgeways but it's hard to interrupt my clan in full flow) we each spent three times as long listening as speaking so perhaps this wasn't a unique experience.
When booking a Birthday Tea I always mention that it is to celebrate a birthday and most venues come up with some sort of Special Treat. This year it came in the form of a chocolate cupcake topped with a big creamy swirl and a lit candle topping it off, ceremoniously presented to Vi as we were working through our teacake course. After being toasted with tea she blew it out and added it to the (slowly diminishing) pile of eatables. It was a nice moment, a reminder that Vi was the guest of honour without putting her in an uncomfortable central position for the whole meal.
I had taken a seat facing the window and throughout the afternoon I'd noticed people walking past with brightly coloured flags tied around their necks in 'superhero cape' style. After a few dozen had passed I mentioned it to the others and we puzzled over it until collectively solving the riddle - we were just around the corner from the Zimbabwean embassy and the removal of their president was being celebrated in the street outside. A nice dash of colour (and global news) on a grey November day.
It's not uncommon for restaurants to set a time limit on a lunchtime booking, for afternoon tea it's usually around two hours although they'll often arrange another table to move to if they have a bar or alternative space available. No such restriction at Brigit's, having sat down at 12:30 it was gone four by the time we decided to head off with no hint of pressure from the staff to do so. In fact we were waited on excellently throughout, there were a couple of checks for tea refills and to ask if we were ready for our scones but otherwise we were left to relax and take as much time as we wanted
With a steady flow of tea the conversation never faltered
As the bill was paid there was another nice surprise - in addition to the birthday cupcake there was another gift, a Brigit's Bakery mug decorated in the same style as the wall paintings. It was a very nice touch, a keepsake for this year's celebration.
We left as a group but soon split up, Kay & Roger off to shop, Vi & Terri to the Tube and me to Foyles for some impromptu book buying. From there the Travel Demons smiled on me and with fast and easy connections I went from Tube to train to train to home in record time and in relative comfort. It had been a long day though and rather than cook I followed my indulgent lunch with a simple fish supper from the local chippy.
It's a little surprising to realise that next year we'll be celebrating Vi's Birthday Bash for the tenth time. What began as a (not particularly well concealed) surprise meal has settled into a regular family tradition where we spend some time together in a comfy & interesting place with the minimum of extraneous fuss. Vi remains the focus but it's no longer just for her, I think we all get a lot out of sharing the time together and reconnecting with each other. I know I do. It's been interesting having meet-ups for Kay & Terri's birthdays this year, in both cases they chose the venue and didn't go for a traditional afternoon tea but still managed to find an easy, relaxed meal for all of us. In keeping with this I'll be arranging my own event in mid-January and am already searching for a suitably quirky setting.