We are sitting in the cafe waiting for our salmon fishcakes, a post-divorce papers signing lunch, not so much a celebration as a little ceremony to friendship. We are the gang who have sustained our friend Susie through the two years it’s taken to unravel the 35-year marriage, a female cabal skilled in the arts of voodoo, forensic accountancy and Alexander technique, who insured that she survived this unexpected and crummy chapter in her life. I’m about to propose a toast to her new life with the poem Love After Love by Derek Walcott that begins:
The time will come When, with elation, You will greet yourself arriving At your own door, in your own mirror, And each will smile at the other’s welcome when there is a shriek, followed by bawling. I look around and see a moon faced baby being jammed into a high chair against his will. Two other children age twoish, threeish are standing on their chairs. The two mummies are oblivious, organising the portable baby kingdom: a phalanx of pushchairs draped with bags.
The loud cries deaden my poetic impulse so I just stick to the title ‘Here’s to Love After Love’ and we raise our glasses. If the soundtrack was Vivaldi, today would be Spring. But the soundtrack is post-Stravinski: bang, clang, bawl; bang, clang, bawl. I cringe with each scream and watch as agony spreads around the room like a bush fire.
Before you say ‘Oh, heartless woman’?, let me explain. Babies have practically been born here, babies come here on their first public outing some only three days old. Many take their first steps here, staggering from the chair to the rocking hare, giggling in contagious delight. We’re practically Italian in our eagerness to scoop up fretful babies and sway them in our arms so that weary parents can finish their meal in peace. Until now. But there is a new breed of children or, rather, a new breed of mummies: Smug Mummy, who thinks that it is all right for her little ones to destroy the peace of everyone around them.
By the time our fishcakes arrive, the two year old has tipped over his chair and fallen, howled some more, and begun a mad race around the cafe. I hear a couple say: ‘I can’t stand this anymore let’s get out of here.’ I go over, meekly apologise and cancel their bill. A new wail begins.
By now, I HATE the three children. No, that’s not right: I HATE their mummies who do nothing to discourage the noise, the running about, and the screaming. I want to say: ‘Hey, you’re damaging your child’s emotional health by making sure he will be loathed by strangers.’ The resourceful cabal that got Susie through the trauma of divorce is defeated by the feral children. Some restaurants now say ‘no children’, but that punishes good children and good parents.
The Crown at Stoke by Nayland has pinned up a ‘Polite Notice: We respectfully ask parents with babies and young children to understand that other diners do not wish to be disturbed by your children. Parents who persistently fail to observe this code will be discreetly asked to leave.’ I have a sign phobia, even of those sent by The Good Food Guide, Zagat and the AA. But future visitors will see a discreet sign, inspired by the Fog City Diner, nailed up by the entrance. Its delicate lettering reads: ‘No crybabies’. And if it offends those mummies who let their little darlings whine and run wild, all I can say is: eureka.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on February 16, 2006.