With heartfelt thanks to PorterGirl for the loan of her characters, Charles Dickens because Sydney Carton is awesome, and apologies to Lewis Carroll for mangling his dialogue and mistreatment of a scene from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Mad Tea Party
For some reason, the sky was mauve. It wasn’t even sunset. The sky was just… mauve. The roses were chartreuse, giving the Queen of Hearts something else to scream about. And the lilies were electric blue. (As anyone who has gardened or studied horticulture much at all can attest, certain flowers are not ever naturally blue. You can see at once how strange this was.)
Deputy Head Porter admired the gardens as she passed. It wasn’t every day that you saw chartreuse roses and electric-blue lilies, though lime-colored zinnias were becoming more common. She ducked under an abnormally tall sunflower with bright red petals and nodding faces and came to the gate in the hedge. The gate led to a path, which led up to a charming little house, with a tree growing next to it. And under the tree stood a huge dining room table, on the grass. Curiously, Deputy Head Porter pushed the gate open.
Senior Tutor, Junior Bursar, and the Dean were all seated, scrunched together, at one end. As soon as he saw her, Junior Bursar thumped on the table with a large spoon, bellowing, “No room! No room!” The Dean was too busy trying to keep his toothpick-and-card tower from collapsing due to Junior Bursar’s enthusiastic table-thumping to say much, and Senior Tutor, who, Deputy Head Porter thought, must be more than a little deaf, was asleep.
“Do you ever talk at less than a bellow, old boy?” the Dean asked. Junior Bursar ignored it.
“There is plenty of room,” Deputy Head Porter said firmly and sat down a few seats away from the others.
“Have some wine,” the Dean said, absentmindedly, as he added turrets, battlements, and a cornice to his tower.
“I don’t see any wine,” Deputy Head Porter replied, staring at the other end of the table. There was one other person at the table; she had missed the fourth person before, due to the other’s position hidden by the hedge. The fourth person at the table was dressed like Sydney Carton, complete with cravat and a damp towel wound around her head like a turban. Stranger still, though, was the fact that she had a partially unfolded card table set up around herself like a screen. She was scribbling away busily.
“Don’t mind me,” this strange apparition said. “I’m not important.”
“Would you like some tea?” Deputy Head Porter said, politely.
“Oh, yes, please,” the stranger said. Deputy Head Porter began to prepare a mug for her.
“There isn’t any wine,” said Senior Tutor sleepily. (1) Junior Bursar snorted.
“What is the velocity of an unladen swallow?” he asked. (2)
“It is in direct proportion to the wind direction and momentum and indirect to the number of minutes the swallow has been flying,” said Miss Sydney Carton. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“You’ve spilled ink on both,” retorted Junior Bursar.
“Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,” Senior Tutor interjected sleepily.
“Is he drunk?” asked Miss Sydney, who apparently was spending less of her attention on her writing than she had been before. (1)
“No,” said Deputy Head Porter, with solid conviction. Sydney flicked a rock at the carafe full of pink lemonade, toppling it over and drenching Senior Tutor.
“Eh, what?” said Senior Tutor, before collapsing back into dreamland. The Dean completed his tower, and Deputy Head Porter obligingly took a picture of it with her cell phone. Sydney flicked another rock at the tower, which for some reason, did not collapse. Then she threw her pen at it. It stuck there, leaking ink over the playing cards. Everyone promptly forgot about it.
“What a dull bunch of layabouts you are,” the Dean said, staring purposefully around the table. Vindictively, Junior Bursar squeezed lemon into his tea. The Dean didn’t notice. “What was happening before?”
“Nothing,” said Sydney Carton.
“Let’s play a game, then,” said the Dean. “Deputy Head Porter, what would you like to play?”
“Truth or Dare,” Deputy Head Porter said, feeling adventurous. Sydney Carton coughed, though whether to disguise a chuckle or her own surprise may never be known.
“Miss Carton,” the Dean said, “would you like to go first?”
“All right,” said Sydney. “Truth.”
“Do you ever stop writing?” Junior Bursar interposed, before anyone else could speak. Sydney leaped to her feet and hurled her card table off the dining table with a loud bang. It disappeared in a flash and puff of smoke, and Sydney snarled an imprecation at no one in particular.
Startled momentarily awake, Senior Tutor asked, “are you really a mathematical genius?” Sydney sat back down and sighed, smoothing her trousers out.
“We may as well make the rule that Truth answers a question from the field, so long as any question—but not all questions—may be refused, but everyone must agree on a Dare,” she said, much calmer now.
“Was it Junior Bursar who made the card table disappear?” Deputy Head Porter asked.
“Have you ever won a game of chess,” the Dean said, thoughtfully. Sydney grimaced.
“No, no chess victories,” she said. “Junior Bursar did not make the card table disappear; that was my doing. It was an accident!” she protested. No one contradicted, but no one particularly believed her. “As to being good at math, yes, well, according to the tests. But after a point, it’s all a muddle, and I lose interest.” She fixed Junior Bursar with a stern eye. “As to writing, no, in fact, I don’t ever stop writing. It’s addictive.” She leaned slightly back in her chair. “Your turn, Junior Bursar.” However, Junior Bursar seemed to be distracted. He had pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and was staring at it, hitting various icons and then holding it up to his ear. Deputy Head Porter looked at him oddly.
“Is there a problem, sir?” she asked.
“I suppose,” he snapped. “What day is it?”
“It’s the fourth.”
“Two days slow,” the Dean marveled, looking over his shoulder. “Whatever have you done to that poor mobile, Junior Bursar?”
“Senior Tutor is asleep again,” Junior Bursar commented with interest.
“Red herring,” snapped Sydney impatiently, at the exact same time as the Dean. “Jinx! You owe me a soda!” Sydney shouted. (3) Everyone ignored her.
“Wait. It says the exact same time as it did five minutes ago,” the Dean noted. “It’s stopped.”
“That’s impossible, it’s a mobile,” said Junior Bursar.
“Maybe it’s broken,” said Deputy Head Porter, helpfully.
“My watch broke once,” remarked Sydney. “It’s always six o’clock now.” Satisfied with her witticism, she stood up and recited her party piece.
Twinkle, twinkle, little bat,
How I wonder what you’re at.
Up above the world you fly,
Like a tea tray in the sky! (4)
Suddenly, the gate flew open and in marched Lewis Carroll himself. “Are you enjoying yourselves?” he asked, cheerfully.
“Very much,” said Deputy Head Porter politely. Sydney busied herself with her pencil, as her pen was still stuck to the Dean’s card tower.
“Good,” Mr. Carroll said. He glanced at Sydney. “Charles Dickens is looking for you, you know. You’re going to catch it when he finds you!” With that, Mr. Carroll left.
“Hasn’t anyone heard of cosplay?” Miss Sydney grumbled, as the others leaned back, aghast. Lost for words, the Dean picked up his cup and tried to sip at his—now overly sour—tea.
The mad tea party dissolved in absolute chaos a moment later.
- See “The Committee for the Prevention of Drunken Behavior.”
- I have never seen Monty Python. I just thought this quote was hilarious.
- This is something my dear friend Iris says when we say the same thing at the exact same moment.
- This one is actually a bit more complex. To quote “Lewis Carroll: Photographer”, by Helmut Gernsheim, Chanticleer, 1949 (found in “The Annotated Alice,” annotations by Martin Gardener, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2000,) “At Christ Church the usually staid don relaxed in the company of little visitors to his large suite of rooms—a veritable children’s paradise. There was a wonderful array of dolls and toys, a distorting mirror, a clockwork bear, and a flying bat made by him. This latter was the cause of much embarrassment when, on a hot summer afternoon, after circling the room several times, it suddenly flew out of the window and landed on a tea-tray which a college servant was just carrying across Tom Quad. Startled by this strange apparition, he dropped the tray with a great clatter.” Frequent readers of Secret Diary of PorterGirl will catch the reference, and why I included this particular piece of trivia.
For those who were wondering, yes, I am the bashful, impatient, ridiculous Sydney Carton cosplayer. It wasn’t an intentional self-insert. At first, it was actually supposed to be Lewis Carroll himself in the fourth chair, but then the card table made an appearance (and eventually disappearance) and it turned out to be me… Aslan save us all. (Does it count as Mary Sue-ness if the self-portrayal is deprecatingly honest?)