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‘Have fun.’ Xavier says to Caroline as he pulls up outside of Harvey Nichols.
‘I’ll try.’ Caroline rolls her eyes playfully before giving him a kiss on the lips. Just before she walks through the doors, held open by the uniformed doorman who tips his hat in greeting, she looks back at the car to see her husband still looking at her with a smile. She gives him a quick wave and makes her way into the luxury department store. The distance between the house and Harvey Nichols is all of ten minutes but Xavier insists on driving her. Their schedules have been at warp speed lately they barely get to see each other, so these moments count for something.
For a chance to oogle the in-store displays, Caroline opts for the stairs instead of the express lifts. She has always been a fan of Harvey Nichols’ displays, they are works of art. Of the big three it is still her favourite store, Harrods has long been overrun by tourists and Selfridges is smack bang in the middle of commuter hell, Oxford street. But there is something reverential about Harvey Nichols, a subtle elegance almost and their displays in recent years have become so supremely spectacular to the others. Liberty comes a close second. Where Harvey Nics is more contemporary with a dash of Avant-garde, Liberty is truly traditional, from the tudor building to the wooden floors, like being in a country manor.
‘Wow.’ Caroline says to herself, stopping on the second floor to take a good look at the spectacular display by the escalator, this theme is Alice in Wonderland. Olive would have loved it too, and she would have wanted life size Alice to come home for tea. It is the same on the other floors, more of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole. Truly magnificent. She arrives at the 5th floor restaurant five minutes late thanks to her dallying . The floor is bustling with shoppers doing their food shopping and diners in the Yo Sushi bar or the open plan café. Much as she likes the store, Caroline envies the people who can do their weekly shop there, she wouldn’t dare. Maybe a few imported specials like real Canadian Maple Syrup, cornbread mix and Oreo batter much favoured by Xander but for everything else, Waitrose does her just fine. It is what it is.
‘Hello, I’m with the Bernadette George tea party.’ Caroline says to the maître at restaurant.
‘She’s with me.’ A voice says behind her, recognising that voice, Caroline turns with a ready smile for her friend, Kelly. ‘You’re late woman.’ She playfully chastises.
‘I hardly think five minutes counts for being late.’
‘It is when you keep the Queen B waiting.’
‘She’s here already?’
‘Yes. Bernadette is a stickler for punctuality amongst other things.’
‘Oh well.’ Caroline shrugs, she has sinking feeling this tea is going to be a bust and from what she can see of their table, it seems every wife in the Borough is here to witness it. ‘Full house.’
‘As if anyone would miss this. You and your BFF are about to become fodder for lunch time gossip don’t you know.’ Kelly says cheekily. She gives Caroline a quick once over, ‘you’re not looking half bad Mrs Darling. Bernadette will not approve.’
‘Thanks it makes the mental check list worth it. Although I almost threw in the Birkin just for the hell of it.’
‘You rebel you.’
‘At £6,000 I better bloody well be living in that bag. If Xavier ever found out I paid that much for a bag, he’d put me on a budget, whether or not its my money.
They get to the table just as Kelly is subsiding from her giggles.
‘Care to share the joke Kelly?’ Bernadette inquires, ignoring Caroline.
‘Just something silly about the Birkin that Caroline was telling me about.’
‘Oh the tedious Birkin,’ Bernadette sighs ever so dramatically, ‘and Caroline. How nice of you to join us.’ Bernadette makes a point of looking at her watch. Not subtle at all.
‘Nice of you to have me.’ Caroline takes her seat next to Kelly, opposite Bernadette of course. She was going to apologise for being slightly tardy but Bernadette made her point when she looked her at her watch.
‘Its no bother at all. When Madeleine asked me to have you to tea I couldn’t turn her down.’ Bernadette did not waste time in ruffling Caroline’s feathers much to the amusement of those around the table. This is her turf and little Miss Middle Class will play ball her way. What did Xavier see in her anyway? A man like him could certainly do better. So she is not completely ridiculous looking, some may even call her beautiful but she lacks the class expected of any wife who lives within the colony. They stick together, to their kind. But Xavier had to be the one to bring and outsider in. Some men.
‘Madeleine put you up to this?’
‘Of course she did.’ Bernadette’s feelings are crystal clear, she would not be caught dead with Caroline that much is understood, but for her meddling mother-in-law. ‘She practically begged me and I coudln’t possibly turn her down. She wanted me to show you the ropes.’
‘You know, how things are done on this side.’
‘I see. I’ve only been with Xavier for six years and considering my lack of scandal I hope I’ve mastered a few things along the way.’ At the mention of “scandal” there is a turn around the table, the Blackbook Scandal is still fresh in their minds. The press still use it as a footnote when referring to the Georges. ‘Heaven forbid things be done differently or worse, go awry.’
Score one for Caroline. She’ll handle her mother-in-law later but right now, this is the battle field and she has to marshal her arsenals appropriately.
‘We have our ways and it will do you well to learn them.’ Bernadette deadpans.
‘I think I’m doing fine with my ways. Thanks.’ Caroline says this with as much sickly sweetness as she can master.
Tea is served with much ceremony, customary for Harvey Nichols and chatter breaks out around the table, conversation carries on around her, Caroline gives her two cents here and there, but she doesn’t miss the daggers Bernadette sends her way each time they make eye contact.
‘Of course I wouldn’t imagine being married to a man with a child outside my marriage would be easy.’ Bernadette’s dig brings a hush to the table. Her smirk is mocking Caroline.
But from her serene smile, Caroline is not about to rise to Bernadette’s bait. ‘Xavier and I make it work Bernadette, but thanks for your concern.’ She could get up and leave, there are a million other ways she would prefer to spend her afternoon, including watching paint dry, than sit here engaged in a cold war with some jumped up, entitled high school bully but somehow staying and thrashing this out seems the easier option. How? She doesn’t quite understand, but it feels that way.
The other wives exchange uncomfortable glances with each other, their captain is abandoning the playbook. She has already broken their cardinal rule; get it together, keep it together. At all times.
Caroline’s phone rings just at the nick of time. Xavier. ‘Excuse me, it’s my husband I have to take this.’ She delivers that line with a side of subtle sass reserved solely for Bernadette and from the look on her face, her adversary gets the message. Kelly almost passes out from holding her laugther in.
Once out of ear shot, Caroline answers the phone call.
‘Your mother put her up to this Xavier.’ Caroline cannot hold in her chagrin. She’d had to rein it in with Bernadette but she will allow herself the luxury of being mad at someone and her poor husband will bear the brunt of it.
‘She didn’t.’ Xavier is rightly astounded.
‘Yes she did.’ Caroline affirms. ‘Bernadette only took delight in telling me so. Apparently I don’t know how things are done on this side so Bernadette is to be my guidance councillor.’
‘Xavier your mother put her up to this!’
‘I’ll talk to her.’
‘No, I will.’
‘Xavier don’t even start. I know she is not my biggest fan but I’ll be damned if I let her do this to me.’
Caroline lets that hang between them.
‘I’m sorry.’ Xavier says again and she can hear his sincerity.
She relents. ‘Fine.’ but not so much.
‘Sweetheart, I really am sorry.’
‘She’s your mother not mine so…’ she stops herself from going too far because that is a tad unfair, he may be her son but Xavier is nothing like his mother. None of his brothers are. ‘I love you.’
‘I love you too.’
‘I better go before I’m voted off the island.’ Xavier is about to say something but she doesn’t give him the opportunity to before hanging up. Sated somewhat, Caroline makes her way back to the table.
Bernadette and a few others look like they are ready to leave.
‘I’m bored, so we’re leaving for a spot of shopping down the Kings Road.’
Just as well, Caroline thinks to herself. ‘I’ll see you around.’ She returns to her seat beside Kelly who hasn’t abandoned ship, thankfully.
‘You’re not coming.’ Bernadette’s tone fails to disguise her irritation. Her look dares Caroline.
‘No. I’ve hardly eaten anything.’ Caroline purposely fusses with pouring herself a glass of champagne, forget the tea, she needs something stronger to calm the rising anger at her mother-in-law. ‘Want a glass?’ She asks Kelly.
‘Yes please. Thank you.’
Bernadette and the others walk off in a huff.
Finally Kelly is able to laugh her head off and Caroline joins in. For a while both women look like happy drunks.
‘Goodness me, what on earth was that?’ Caroline says between laughter.
‘High school cafeteria all over again. That’s just life.’ Kelly says, raising her glass in toast, ‘here’s to you, for surviving your first tea and making it worth my while.’
‘Glad to oblige but it’ll be my last.’ Caroline clinks glasses with Kelly. ‘Oi Vey. High Tea, higher drama.’
‘Let’s eat I’m starved.’
Between the two of them they finish off pastries, sandwiches and fruits meant for ten, along with two bottles of champagne. It turned out to be a decadent tea after all.