There was a time in my part of the world when many women wore black from head to foot. Elderly ladies in black shoes and thick black stockings, long black button-up coats from ankle to neck, and their hair, usually white by that time in life, strictly hidden under a black narrow-brimmed hat held in place by a long hatpin with a white glass end. They always carried a black handbag, often the capacious sort with metal handles. I’d see these old souls on the streets and used to wonder if they belong to some special society, or perhaps a firm religious order. Later I knew the garb to be the badge of women who’d more than done their bit, but were now left to wander the streets by themselves, ostracised because of age.
My Mother and I were having tea and crumpets in a cafe one afternoon, when a mature example of the above description came in and was shown to a table next but one to ours, a little to the left and up against a wall. She was stern of face, a tall, nervous type who didn’t seem at ease at all where she was. The waitress arrived and took her order – four sausages, grilled well with tomatoes, mind, and a fried egg. I heard all this, for the girl was asked to repeat the request.
To while away the time before her food arrived, the lady in black took to digging in her handbag. Maybe she had the idea she was short of the price of the meal and was trawling down at the bottom for the difference. Whatever the reason, many things came out and were put on the table and then swept away again, except a large white hankie, and all just in time, for her meal arrived and was put in front of her.
The plate was scrutinised to see that what lay there was exactly as she wanted it, but before she could pick up her knife and fork, the hankie dropped to the floor, and down she bent to get it. Somehow, when she came up again the hatpin had snagged a sausage. There it was wobbling by her ear!
Mum nearly choked on her tea. The waitress, also a witness, nipped through the kitchen door and peeked out through the little glass window. The lady in question stared at her plate in disbelief, for there were now only three sausages lying beside the lonely egg. From the looks we all got, she’d decided that everyone in the room had taken number four, and in her agitation, which was building every second, the offending hankie decided to go for another flutter and fell under the table at her feet this time. Down she went again, searching wildly with a hand to snatch it, and upon coming up, she discovered with awful shock that the wayward sausage had rejoined the rest.
At this development Mum took off and went barging through the Ladies bathroom door, I could hear her crying with laughter, the waitress was yowling in the kitchen, and sad to say I wet myself. I’d wanted to run away as well, but had left it too late!
What to say? If film makers had tried to capture that scene, it would have needed dozens of takes, but barely a minute or two passed after the plate was put on the table. The incident stayed with us for years; the blackness of the woman’s clothes was so striking, and the blackness of the humour, so unintentional and of her own making, it had to have been aided and abetted by imps.