E.’s in a shed and M.’s in her bed and A. has put her makeup on especially for it. There is no money exchanged, no offers of, ‘do you want half of my scone?’ and there’s certainly no overhearing what the couple at the next table are talking about. Because at the virtual tea shop, there is no next table, only your own kitchen table, or the pillow on your outstretched legs upon which your laptop is propped, or a garden chair resurrected from winter storage, cobwebs still clinging to the rusted hinges.
It’s E.’s idea (brothers can come up with stuff too) and the meet-up time is flexible – dictated by when his baby sleeps. The tea shop can accommodate four comfortably, five at a push, but if all five talk at once (which is normal in my family) we sound worse than a murder of crows roosting at dusk. Occasionally, technology lets us down and someone disappears – then again, maybe it’s not the failure of technology but the online equivalent of sneaking out the backdoor of a party without saying goodbye.
Although it’s a tea shop you can drink what you want: coffee, hot chocolate, herbal infusions, or something stronger – as the old song goes, it’s five o’clock somewhere! Bringing your own food to the tea shop is de rigueur (me: digestive biscuits) and all is forgiven if you come in your pjs, although any effort to dress well is commended.
‘I want to discuss Queen Medb of Connacht,’ says E. from his shed. He pauses, then, in a quick aside, tells us he says he can hear the frogs croaking in his pond. ‘She was the first woman in Ireland to address the gender pay gap. Basically, she said to her husband: “right, big man, we both do the same job, but you’ve a fine bull and I’ve don’t, so I’m away off to buy the brown bull of Cooley, Ulster’s prize stud, and that should even things up a bit.” And off she went, but they wouldn’t sell it to her (her being a woman and all) so she had to steal it; muscle her way into even up the pay gap. Are you with me?’
For once everyone stopped talking, maybe even the frogs stopped croaking, and it was up to our mother to adjudicate and agree that, although technically the brown bull wasn’t ‘pay’ as we know it, and Queen Medb is of Irish mythology and not a real person, this was, indeed, an interesting take on an early challenge to the gender pay gap.
‘I want to discuss how to get my child out of his onesie by three in the afternoon and have him open a book,’ says A., pouting into the screen, reapplying her lipstick. In one bright red slick she has dismissed Medb’s unconventional means of smashing the glass ceiling. Nobody knew a way out of her onesie predicament and so we moved along, seamlessly, to spuds.
‘How’s everyone getting on with planting their earlies?’ I ask. Mine (Sharpe’s Express), I tell them, are still chitting on the windowsill, balanced in old egg boxes, blunt end up, sprouting whiskers, ready to go in this weekend. A. says she put hers in on the first of the month, dug the earth through with grass clippings and some shredded newspaper. E. says he accidentally left a few Kerr’s Pinks at the bottom of the bag and they’ve started to sprout so he’s going to try those.
‘Forget spuds,’ says M. from her bed, ‘I want to discuss how Joe Wicks has broken me along with all the other middle-aged women in the UK.’ A soft groan punctuates her speech as she adjusts position. ‘He reels us all in with his glossy, bouncy curls, and his Andrex-puppy enthusiasm, bubbling on the spot like a just-poured Prosecco with his wee Easter bunny hops, and I think – how hard can a few star jumps be? And then he has me high kicking like a pom-pom shaking cheerleader, and I feel great! I’m out of my body with distraction as I admire his minimalist front room and his baby blue electric guitar hanging on the wall. There I am climbing my invisible rope and punching the air like I’m Nicola Adams and before I know it, I’ve done twenty minutes and I have no idea that he has secretly broken me. I’m in shreds today. Can’t climb the stairs without screaming. I’ve told the kids they have two things to do over the next few months: Don’t touch old people and don’t break themselves on the trampoline. And then I allow Joe Wicks to destroy me.’
She falls back into a pillow of pain, and we raise our far-off teacups in sympathy and solidarity.