A Nice Cup of Tea

Celia Imrie

The following is an exclusive excerpt from A Nice Cup of Tea, the newest novel from Olivier-award-winning actress Celia Imrie. The third in her Nice series, about a group of retired English expatriates who run a restaurant in the South of France, this installment begins with the restaurant on the skids. The friends have to figure out a way to save it--meaning that things are already hard enough when Theresa’s granddaughter goes missing, and she, herself, becomes the target of a stalker.

Sally drove the van along the coast road to Cagnes-sur-Mer. She was visiting a little fish stall from which she frequently bought red mullet and sea bream for the restaurant. She hoped to buy something good – a treat which she could cook up for everyone at tonight’s dinner of fate.

As she climbed out of the driver’s seat, the sun emerged from behind a black cloud.

It felt so lovely, especially after the dismal weather this morning, that she couldn’t resist running out on to the beach and darting about, abandoned, springing up like Isadora, dipping in and out of the water, even though she was wearing shoes.

When she had exhausted herself with her little display, she flung herself down on the sand and closed her eyes.

That was exhilarating!

She felt like one of those blonde-haired girls who used to twirl around in misty 1970s adverts for Polaroid or Nimble and other long-forgotten products. As Sally recalled, those girls usually seemed to steal an apple somewhere along the line, and so pretty were they that nobody ever arrested them for theft.

What a turn-up! Only this time yesterday she had thought that today she would be rich. This morning it was all change. Her dreams of round-the-world cruises and new wardrobes of lovely clothes right out of the window. Not only that but she was much worse off than she had been a few years back before plunging much of her savings into La Mosaïque.

She closed her eyes, basking in the warm March sunshine, and felt guilty because, despite everything, she still felt happy.

It was inexplicable. Immediately after the bad news came, she felt terrible. But once she was out of Theresa’s flat and walking up the lane to her house a kind of thrilling pall fell upon her. She wondered whether this wasn’t a leftover from her years in the acting business. That sense of not-knowing what will come next, the wide dark hole which opens up as every job ends, understanding that you might never work again, but, at the same time, now you were again available to all offers and it was possible that your next job might take you to Hollywood, riches and world fame. Sally realised that, like most actors, she was addicted to those adrenalin surges, and living a life which was like walking a tightrope. She could never have been happy sitting around, smug, behind a desk, with a pension lined up, guaranteed promotions in the pipeline and safe, reliable security all round.

She bit her lip and winced.

It was a pity that the others felt so very bad about the end of La Mosaïque.

She felt slightly foolish for having put quite so much of her spare cash into the place, but, until yesterday, nothing about that seemed to be risky.

Of course it would be a struggle for them all. She felt slightly foolish for having put quite so much of her spare cash into the place, but, until yesterday, nothing about that seemed to be risky. In fact, the whole project seemed to be just like a game they were all playing while waiting for the spoils.

Her feelings towards La Mosaïque reminded her of moments when she was a child, running a post office with one of those paper kits your grandparents invariably gave you every Christmas. Little pink, yellow and blue envelopes; stamps with teddy bears and bunny rabbits on them; a rubber stamp and a red ink-pad…

Now she and her friends were running a toy restaurant, only this time the food was real and customers were spending real money, not plastic tokens. But Sally and her friends carried none of the actual pressing anxiety that all the other local establishments must have been feeling over the last three years.

For, at the back of the minds of the owners of La Mosaïque, whatever came to pass there was always that safety net lurking: the cosy, warm security of the Picasso.

She opened her eyes.

Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!

She laughed aloud, even though she was lying alone on the beach. She peered along the way to see if anyone had heard her.

It reminded her of when she played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady for one of the better northern repertory companies. Hadn’t Higgins said that when she slammed the door on him?

She looked around to make sure no one was staring. But the other people there all seemed too preoccupied with digging out their sunglasses and blowing up beach balls to care about anyone else.

Now that La Mosaïque would soon meet the dust Sally also realised that she was going to have a lot more time to herself, which might be fun.

She could get back to classes at the Sea School. See if she could get that Yachtmaster Certificate. Or perhaps she could try something else. A course in wine or perfume. There was so much opportunity if you went out to find it.

A shadow fell across her face.

At first she presumed it was someone passing by, looking for somewhere to set down their blanket for the afternoon. But the shadow remained.

Sally felt quite irritated that these people were blocking her sun. She wished they would just settle and get out of her ray of sunshine.

She kept her eyes determinedly shut.

‘Oh, yes! It is.’

‘I don’t believe it.’

They spoke English, too. How awful! She prayed it was not fans who remembered her from years back when she was well known on English TV.

‘Sal? Is that you?’

Sally opened her eyes. She could barely see who was looking down, but could tell it was two people, a man and a woman.

‘I don’t believe it. Sally Doyle! Salzy, old darling! How faberoo de vous voir.’

Sally shielded her eyes but could still not make out the identity of the man and woman who loomed over her.

‘It’s Eggy, darling! Eggy and Phoo.’

Sally sat upright, rather quickly.

Edgar Markham and his wife Phoebe Taylor were the most famous married couple of English showbiz, known to the tabloid press as ‘The Magical Markhams’. Edgar – ‘Eggy’ – was renowned for playing classical roles on stage and diplomats and barristers on film, while his wife had been the queen of TV sitcom, in particular the immensely popular long-running TV series, Paddy and Pat. Taking the role of Pat, Phoebe, known in the business as Phoo, officially became a ‘National Treasure’.

‘Oh God! Eggy! Phoo! What on earth are you doing here?’ ‘En vacance, darling; like you, I suppose.’

‘No, no.’ Sally scrambled to her feet. ‘No. I live here.

Well, not here, exactly, but just along the coast.’

‘And you come to this beach to run around like a woman possessed!’ Phoo laughed. ‘Eggy and I almost expected you to leap on to a broomstick and fly away.’

Sally took the implications of this remark with a pinch of salt.

‘How lovely to see you both. Are you staying here in Cagnes-sur-Mer?’

‘No, no, darling. We’re in a very chi-chi establishment in St-Tropez. But as we have the car we thought we’d take a spin along the coast to see the rather less salubrious areas.’

Sally winced. How could anyone even think of this lovely little town as anything less than gorgeous? ‘Will you be here long?’

‘Only a few days left of our fortnight, malheureusement. I’m loving it, of course, cos I’ve a cosmopolitan soul. But Eggy’s missing his home comforts, aren’t you, darling?’

Eggy pulled a hound-dog face. ‘Haven’t had a decent cup of tea since we arrived. And no toast for breakfast for ten whole days. Never seen the point of those crescent things. Bacon, eggs, toast, marmalade and a nice cup of builder’s for me. I’m finding the froggy food insufferable. Yearning to go home and get a proper meal.’

‘Oh, Eggy darling, you are so silly. You know you’re enjoying Odile’s food well enough. You practically lick the plate clean. Or are you just hypnotised by her 48 double D?’ Phoo laughed and elbowed Sally in the ribs. ‘Odile is our landlady. Well, she’s an old friend really, I suppose.’ She giggled like a schoolgirl, something strange to see in a woman who must be in her mid-seventies. ‘Men are so transparent, aren’t they? I’ve often said that Eggy’s a bit of a twitcher. He’s always transfixed the moment he sees a pair of great tits looming.’

‘A mature man’s hobby.’

‘Second childhood, more like.’

‘You’re right, of course, Phoo. Nanny did have a pair of big balloons.’

The three had strolled away from the sands and were now sauntering aimlessly along the seafront.

‘But enough of all us, Salzy.’ Phoo turned and stood facing her, hands on hips. ‘You’re being as evasive as ever you ever were. Come along, woman, tell all. You’re living over here – is there a handsome rich chap on the scene? Do you still tread the boards? Or are you wildly, independently rich? Five kids? Run an orphanage? What gives?’

Sally was desperate to save face in front of these two, who, early on in her career, had intimidated her so cruelly. She was not going to tell them that her restaurant was on the skids. So she told them about La Mosaïque, as it had been in its glorious heyday. How the Hollywood actress Marina Martel had attended the opening night and even offered her a part in her film, but she had been too busy then to accept. How her son Tom ran a very successful art gallery in Vieux Nice and how her daughter was big in finance, working in London – the City – happily betting with other people’s money.

‘And you own this restaurant?’

‘I have partners. Theresa Simmonds …’

Eggy, not listening or waiting for a reply, raised his hand, pointed it forward, and a distant car bleeped and flashed in response. Sally noticed that it was a very expensive-looking classic BMW convertible.

‘I suppose we can’t give you a lift anywhere?’ he asked.

‘No, Eggy. Thanks for offering but I’m here in the van.’

‘Oh, you do deliveries too, do you?’ said Phoo. ‘Like Pizza Hut.’

‘No, actually,’ replied Sally. ‘I’m picking up supplies.’

‘Ever the busy little worker bee,’ said Phoo. ‘Do you remember when you were an ASM on that tour we did? Can you recall, Eggy? She was always so earnest while setting the props table. Oh, you did make us laugh.’

‘Lovely to see you again, anyhow, Salz,’ said Eggy. ‘Chin up, old girl! Enjoy the rest of your holiday.’

She pulled out into the moving stream of traffic, wondering why it was you always bumped into the people you really did not want to see, while those you had lost touch with and missed never came your way.

As Sally watched them walk away she felt a rush of relief. She ran back to the van and turned on the engine. She pulled out into the moving stream of traffic, wondering why it was you always bumped into the people you really did not want to see, while those you had lost touch with and missed never came your way.

Her mind went back over the three times she had worked with the Markhams – that early stage-manager job where they mocked her incessantly for taking her duties too seriously, but the one night when she placed the letter in the wrong corner of the table, they reported her to the company manager and almost got her sacked; then the TV job where she played their dimwit maid, and off camera they treated her as though she really was their dimwit maid; and, finally, the show where she was queen, Ssssaturday Ssssslamerama!, in which (as she did to everyone who came on the show, be they rock stars, movie stars or royalty), she glooped them. Everyone had to answer questions about themselves, and if they went wrong or hesitated, a bucketful of brightly coloured gloop landed on their head. But the Markhams did not take their glooping with the grace displayed by everyone else. They all knew beforehand that glooping was an inevitable part of the show. But not the Markhams. Oh, no. After the live transmission they behaved as though she had glooped them spitefully, just to mock them and have her revenge on them for reporting her when she was ASM. But they surely knew that being mocked was the entire point of the programme, so if they hadn’t wanted to be glooped/ mocked, why had they agreed to come on the show at all? She knew why, of course. They had a tour to promote, and Ssssaturday Ssssslamerama! was top of the ratings, so at that moment they needed her more than she needed them.

But they couldn’t possibly admit that.

And then, stupidly, still intimidated, at the after-show drinks, out of mere habit, Sally had felt obliged to apologise over and over.

As she sped along the autoroute she could feel her face getting hot with fury and embarrassment. Why on earth should things which happened so long ago still cause her to feel so low?

Anyway, so what? She’d bumped into them today, and now, with any luck, that sharp dose of the Markhams was over and done with, forever.

Sally was almost home before she realised she had not actually bought any fish and now had nothing to contribute to tonight’s dinner.

She hastily turned back towards Nice and drove to the large hypermarket to buy some fish there.

After getting the fish, she wandered up to the back of the vast shop and put two luscious-looking gateaux into her shopping basket. Eggy might go for English stuff, but for Sally nothing bettered French patisserie for comfort food. Quite unnecessary, really, but a huge chocolate cake was just what she needed as an antidote to her chance meeting with the monstrous Markhams.


From A Nice Cup of Tea, by Celia Imrie. Used with the permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Celia Imrie.

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