The seven of them all lived in a small town in the South of England; they met, at irregular intervals, in each other’s homes; they served home baked cakes and brewed large pots of coffee, which they took while sitting around the dining table. They competed with each other to lay the prettiest, daintiest table, using lacy cloths and napkins and their best, matching china. Each one followed the rules, as their mothers had before them, and their grandmothers before them.
They didn’t all come from the same country, home had been Austria and Germany, Hungary and what was once Czechoslovakia.
Winter and summer, spring and autumn, they met. Before and after the coffee table ritual they sat, talked, listened to music which had long been forgotten by everybody else even in their home countries; they sat in deep chairs by the fire on cold afternoons, by wide-open windows on hot days, in kitchens and sitting rooms, garden rooms and sometimes, not often, they strayed out of doors, into the shade of the very ordinary English trees they had planted in their gardens.
All of them had found a new home in England, several had found English husbands and raised English children; had you asked them, they would all have sad they were happy and contented with their lives.
The seven had very little in common, three were educated professionals, three were housewives, one was a widow and long retired. They spoke English with each other, more or less fluently, with the harsh guttural sounds and rolling RR’s of Central European languages always present. Although five of them had enough German to communicate easily, shyly genteel Edith, who came from Budapest, spoke little English and no German. Agnes, also from Budapest, her exact opposite, loud and buxom, spoke both languages fluently but badly, and helped out when necessary. But it wasn’t often necessary, because the ladies appeared to communicate on a mysterious level, where each could use a mix of several languages and still be fully understood. Esther from Prague was by far the eldest; she preferred to speak nothing but English, She felt safer that way. She always wore long sleeves that covered her wrists and the number tattooed on one of them.
When they met, they found common ground from deep within them, the folk memory of what life had been like long before they became adults, before they were children even, from a time before they were born. Fate had destined them to be eternal wanderers, always searching, always carrying their lives’ stories with them. In spite of their settled domesticity their roots stretched far into the distance and the past.
Lucy, once a statuesque Viennese beauty, was the one who insisted on music, although it always made her cry. In the old way, the ladies took a drink after coffee, a brandy, a liqueur, a glass of wine; that, together with endless talk about the old days, the ‘people back home’, the sadness of lost youth, lost family, the yearning for ‘the way things used to be’ provoked a little tear on many occasions.
Christine, also from Austria, from mountain stock, unsentimental and as beautiful, yet harsh, as the landscape that bred her, found her compatriot overly sentimental; her flame-red hair bespoke her fiery temper and her quick tongue whipped across the tears.
The two Germans held back their tears for private moments. Both North European in outlook and nature, and therefore a little repressed, they were rarely loud, usually calm, and invariably amused when the Austro-Hungarian temperament enlivened the afternoon. Hedwig, a very elegant lady, who never left home without a hat, smiled graciously and blamed the drink when the noise levels rose.
By late afternoon cheeks had reddened and faces grew flushed; coffee, open fruit tarts, friendship, baked cheese cakes and creamy confections, followed by a convivial, lady-like sip of the cup that cheers yet only slightly inebriates, had had a benevolent effect on the company. The meetings were a means to unburden themselves of slights or put-downs they felt they had received at the hands of the host country, as well as finding the freedom to regret the host country’s indisputably alien way of life.
The ladies had all had to leave their homelands for one reason or another and these meetings were the only way they had to keep the past alive and real.
For one bitter-sweet afternoon they forgot they had been uprooted.
As these things go, the ladies were not connected by close friendship, but they certainly understood each other. Their bond was deeper than the bond of friendship.