Bloodshed at the Nell Gwyn Tea-rooms

Jason Rudland - 23rd Oct, 2023

What could be better on a rainy Saturday afternoon than an all-day Full English and a pot of tea in a 16th century tea room? Little did I know when I ducked my head to get through the crooked door what a seething hotbed of life I was entering.

By the time I left I had been taught a lesson, and the tea room had a winning lottery ticket worth thousands…if they chose to cash it.

As I sat with my wife, reeling from the cost of the eye tests we’d just taken, and the new glasses we each required, I started to look around and make up stories about the people sitting near us, covertly communicated to my wife in cryptic whispers and nods (that will happen after 20 years of marriage). The elderly couple sitting in the corner: clearly this was an illicit affair. His first wife was under the patio, while she still kept the empty bottle of arsenic that years earlier dispatched her other half. They each sleep with one eye open. The two women deep in conversation, one of whom looked exactly like a surprised owl, were dissecting each other’s love lives - their mutually assured confidentiality was good for about as long as the tea remained warm. Finally, the three young lads on the big table by the window. They were more difficult to work out: a bitterly cold day with lashing rain, and one of them wore shorts - scaffolders after a job? They didn’t look hungover from last night. What was their game? They sat in silence, each mesmerised with their phone.

Then it happened; my preconceptions took hold of me and made me an idiot. They looked like thugs. What were these three louts doing in here? Surely they wanted Wetherspoons? How odd they were, not talking to each other, in favour of mindlessly gazing into their iPhones. I was no longer making up absurd rubbish for our entertainment, I was actually judging them. The owner, whose haircut revealed a recent brush with cancer, approached and asked for their order. Instead of the illiterate grunt from behind their screens I was expecting, the middle one looked up with a pleasant smile and in perfect received pronunciation ordered three full English breakfasts, with tea and orange juice. P’s and Q’s perfectly paced, placed and sincere.

Shame descended upon me harder than if one of the ancient oak beams overhead had finally succumb to the woodworm. What if they had been reading The Guardian in silence, instead of staring at their phones? Would I have judged them so harshly? Who is to say they weren’t reading The Guardian on their phones? My self-loathing was broken only by my wife, who asked if I had any cash on me. “Cash? No. Of course not!” I said.

She pointed to a sign reading: ‘We are a small family business: Please pay in cash if you can - card fees cost us a fortune.’

I was out of my seat faster than an unladen European Swallow. I ran to my car to get a leaflet. I was back seconds later, just in time to place my order. As the owner was about to leave us, I pointed to the sign, and handed her the leaflet, “This will solve your problem.” I said.

Instantly she recoiled, “What is it?“

I took a breath, the tea-room-tables had turned; I was now the one being judged. “It’s where I work.” I said, “It costs 1p per transaction. Take a look at the website.”

There was a flash of interest, but quickly stifled. Her eyes became slits: where’s the catch? What’s this really going to cost me? How am I going to deal with this snake-oil salesman (Oh, the irony! If only she knew). She started walking away mumbling about the contract with the card machine she was tied into.

“Have both”, I called after her. She stopped dead and looked back. “There’s no contract, you can have both.” I said. She left, looking thoughtful.

There it was. I had judged, and I had been judged. The tiny tea-room was a hotbed of human failings, contradictions, prejudices and suspicion. My preconceptions caused me shame, and time will tell if it makes me a better person. Time will also tell if the owner gets over her preconceptions. If she does, it will save her exquisite family tea-room, in a tiny doomsday village, in the Garden of England, a couple of thousand pounds a year.

How much are your preconceptions costing you?

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