The Perfect Hostess by Anum Tahir

Maheen could always tell by the gleam of her mother’s dark glossy lips how lavish the monthly tea party would be. The house would be in a flurry the day prior to the tea party; the halls would echo with her mother’s yelling at the maids and there would be pandemonium in the parlor room to get it into respectable order. All the china ornaments on the mantelpiece would be thoroughly dusted and the silver cutlery would be polished scrupulously.

Despite the tumult, her mother’s tea parties always turned out wonderful. The parlor was immaculate, with gleaming marble table tops and sparkling porcelain decoration pieces. Fresh red roses from the garden filled the ivory vase by the east window and the pink chiffon curtains were aired out. The Turkish kilim rug was vacuumed meticulously and the sequined sofa cushions from Jaipur were fluffed and aligned perfectly against the red and gold sofas.

The tea trolley was decked with crisply ironed table covers trimmed with white lace and the food on it was always delectable. There were raspberry jam tarts, fluffy creampuffs, biscuits and scones. Homemade egg and mint cream sandwiches cut in tiny squares lay in a long glass tray along with plump meat samosas garnished with a splash of green chutney. Mother’s signature strawberry muffins were nestled inside a cane basket and placed next to the vintage tea set made of cream coloured bone china with pink rosebuds outlined in gold.

Mother was the perfect hostess, gliding across the marble floor, as graceful as a swan. She held the trays of food with poise and offered them to her guests graciously. Conversation always flowed beautifully, the tea was perfectly brewed and the muffins ever so hot and crispy.

Mother had been hosting these tea parties ever since Maheen was a little girl. She was never invited inside though and was always shushed away from the parlour room with her mother’s pet phrase “Little girls must be seen and not heard”. Peeping through the crack in the parlour door, she spied on these elegant ladies sipping tea and talking about ‘grown up things’.

Maheen was an only child, a scrawny little girl with big bright eyes and thin arms and legs, browned by playing in the garden under the sun. She enjoyed solitude and learnt to grow up herself with a series of Ayahs. She had come to terms with her mother’s busy, social life. As a teenager, she was a dreamer, engrossed in romantic novels. She has two best friends and always got the perfect grades. She had a comfortable life at home, despite her parent’s peculiar relationship. They barely spoke, hadn’t slept in the same room ever since Maheen could remember, but both seemed perfectly content.

The Khans lived in a large, red brick house surrounded by lush green Eucalyptus trees situated in Gulberg, the poshest area of Lahore. They had a multitude of servants. Delicious lunch and dinner was prepared daily by a cook and the house remained spotless thanks to half a dozen maids. Her mother spent hours out shopping in the bazaars buying lavish decoration pieces for the house and silks and jewelry to adorn herself with while her father, a meek, quiet man, accountant by profession, was always in his study taking his meals on a tray.

Maheen’s father entered through the door as she clambered down the stairs one day. His face was dotted with raindrops and strands of wet hair were plastered across his forehead.

“Summer rain is extremely beneficial for the roses,” he said in a jittery voice, scratching his chin.

Maheen nodded jerkily.

“Uhh, dear, where might your mother be?” he inquired, looking around fearfully.

“Her room. She’s not well.”

He closed the door gently and tiptoed inside, like an intruder.

“In his own house!” Maheen muttered unbelievably.

Sometimes, Maheen wondered how things would have been different if her mother had put in as much effort into her family life as she put into sewing lace onto table-covers.

Her father’s first wife had died due to lung cancer. After loneliness got the better of him, he met Maheen’s mother, Laila through an acquaintance. She was a perky, attractive girl with soft brown eyes and lived in the walled city of Lahore, near the ancient Mochi gate. Her father owned a small sweetshop in Akbari Mandi, an old bazaar famous for it’s spice and soap shops. Being a poor man, Laila’s father was impressed that such a rich, affluent man was taking an interest in marrying his daughter and so, without a moment’s hesitation, he gave away her hand to him.

It was the monsoon season in Lahore. The dark streets glistened under the sheets of rain plunging from the inky blue sky. Billboards flashed by; mostly of beaming, white-faced women holding bars of soap or ice cream sticks. ‘Paan’ shops twinkled, crowded. Piles of fruit shone along the road. Street children danced in the rain, wet, happy for the escape from the sticky heat. The street lights threw golden ribbons on the road as donkey carts went by at sluggish speed while the big, shiny cars whizzed by pompously.

When she reached home from school one day, she found out that her Ayah had been sacked for stealing silverware and her mother was in bed, with an allergic reaction to the fluoride in her toothpaste. Mother had red, pus filled rashes all around her lips and cheeks.

“The dermatologist says I have perioral dermatis! Tea party is on Wednesday! It better heal by then” Mother burbled as she slathered copious amounts of medicated cream on her face

It was Maheen’s fourteenth birthday on the day of the tea party. She tiptoed around the house trying to discover where her mother might have a placed a charming little gift or if she had stashed a delicious cake with buttercream icing in the fridge but found nothing.

She then shuffled miserably towards her Mothers room and peeked inside. Mother was sitting by her dressing table, humming and fiddling with her jars of cream.

Maheen hadn’t expected Mother to forget her birthday. Feeling sorely injured, she clambered down the stairs. Her bitterness turned to despise and a wicked plan unexpectedly formed in her mind.

Without a moment’s hesitation, she flounced to the kitchen and announced to the maids that she was in charge of setting the tea trolley. They gratefully left, twittering like sparrows.

After gathering the required supplies, Maheen rolled up her sleeves and put her plan in action. She pumped spearmint toothpaste into the creampuffs and slathered the jam tarts with fiery Tabasco sauce, mixed with dirt fresh from the garden! The scones were loaded with marbles, hard enough to break the teeth off of any unsuspecting person and the sugar in the sugar pot was switched with salt. Finally, the sandwich bread was lathered with beauty cream instead of mayonnaise!

The eight guests arrived at five, clad in glitzy attire and sporting lurid shades of lipstick. Her mother greeted them, dressed in a shimmery tangerine orange dress. With her hair tied up; jeweled pins stuck aggressively in her bun, she walked around, giving everyone a peck on the cheek and warm words of welcome.

“How lovely to see Maheen joining us!” their neighbor, Mrs. Khan exclaimed. With bright red cheeks, she resembled a walrus in many respects.

“But oh, what sticky weather we’ve been having lately!” noted Mrs. Lalarukh, her bony face shining with sweat.

The maid scuttled in, dragging in the tea trolley.

“Serve the guests, darling,” Mother said to Maheen.

Maheen took hold of the platter with the creampuffs and walked up to the guests. Feigning confidence, she couldn’t help but feel as if her legs were wobbling. Mother made the tea rapidly, asking how much sugar they all took, her arms flying about. Mrs. Khan reached forward and took an exceptionally large creampuff. Her eyes narrowing greedily; she brought it closer to her mouth. Her fleshy lips parted.

“Laila. Sit by me and try a creampuff. It looks divine.”

Mother smiled and took a seat on the plush velvet armchair.

Tasting the toothpaste in the creampuff, Mrs. Khan spat out the bite in her mouth onto the carpet, grabbed her flabby neck and screamed, “Poison!”

Mrs. Lalarukh started choking violently on the tampered jam tart. Mrs. Anwar made gurgling noises after chomping on the beauty cream smothered sandwich, her perfectly powdered nose wrinkled in distaste. And the rest, bewildered, spat the food out in their lacey napkins and dribbled their salty tea into their tea cups. The soggy creampuff ejected by Mrs. Khan stood out offensively on the carpet like a bird’s dropping.

“What is the meaning of this, Laila?” Mrs. Lalarukh demanded, baring her horsy teeth encrusted with chunks of dirt. A single blade of grass jutted out hideously from one of her yellowish molars.

Mother had turned pale. She grasped the arm of a sofa and took a rasping breath. Maheen stood in the middle of the parlor, the silver platter clattering ominously in her trembling hands. The creampuffs quivered.

Mother collapsed on the carpet, her face twisted.

Her eyes became bloodshot red and watery. Her mother’s chest began to heave and she broke out in appalling hives.

“My God, she’s having a heart attack!” Mrs. Khan screeched.

Maheen felt the blood drain from her face. Her mother’s face twitched.

“She’s having an allergic reaction! It’s an anaphylactic shock! What on earth was in that creampuff, child?” Mrs. Lalarukh shrieked.

Specks of spit appeared at the corner of Mother’s lipsticked mouth and as her tongue began to swell grotesquely, she took a shaky breath and croaked,

“Please stay for a bit, ladies. Maheen will see to it that you get a decent cup of tea. And don’t forget to try the coconut biscuits.”

About the Author

Anum is a language arts teacher based in Lahore, Pakistan. She has a one year old baby girl and is an avid reader and bibliophile. She also enjoys baking and doing cake art in her free time.

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