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Return Engagement

By Diane Dees Tobiason 

My cousin Eleanor and I sat with our husbands in the undistinguished dining room of a hotel whose claim to fame is that its owners think it stands on the site of Thomas Paine's birthplace. We were in Thetford, a small, dull town in Norfolk, relaxing after having elaborately celebrated the wedding of Eleanor's only daughter. No one suspected that Thetford would be dull; we went there on a lark. But there was nothing to do, so dinner in the hotel was an event.

I had first met my outspoken, screamingly funny cousin when I was twenty-two. My mother, Hilda, a war bride, had left London when Eleanor was only four, and it had broken my mother's heart to leave her. Twenty-six years later, when I first visited my English family, Eleanor didn't remember who she was, but she took to me with an intensity that can only be called love at first sight.

Now, sitting in the Thomas Paine, Eleanor was exhausted and emotionally drained from the wedding, and feeling sad because her beloved father hadn't lived to be there. My mother, Eleanor's aunt, had died just a few months before. She had been a very immature and difficult woman, as was her sister, Ruth, Eleanor's mom. They had been born into a poor family--still children when they had lost both of their parents—and life was hard for them. Now, twenty six years after my first trip to England, here we sat, my cousin and I, tired and bored, trying to think of something to do in a town where no one ever did anything.

"Look!" Eleanor called out suddenly. "A lounge over there." On the far side of the dining room was a small, almost cozy alcove with cocktail tables. The four of us trudged over to this other space and asked the waiter to bring us some drinks. There was no piano player, no sound system, no other occupied table. The men sat quietly as they tolerated this near-pathetic attempt to change the social climate of the evening.

I have no idea how it started, but after about ten minutes, Eleanor and I were singing Victorian Music Hall songs. We got through the obvious ones: I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts and While Strolling Through the Park. My cousin was impressed that I knew all the verses to Any Old Iron, and by this time, we were getting louder, more Cockney and more animated:

But I wouldn't give you tuppence
For your old watch chain,
Old ir-on
Old ir-on!

We then moved right into a rollicking version of Knocked 'Em in the Old Kent Road:

All the neighbors cry
Who ya gonna meet, Bill?
Have ya bought the street, Bill?
Laughed, hah!
Thought I coulda died,
Knocked 'em in the Old Kent Road!

I was a very small girl when my singer-mother taught me these absurd, sometimes naughty, songs that were the seeds of American Vaudeville. Other children learned London Bridge, but I was busy mastering the Take 'Em to the Door That's All There Is There Ain't No More Blues. Though poor, Hilda and Ruth—with their dark, exotic good looks—nevertheless knew how to have a good time. Photographs of my mother show her in splendid party dresses that she could never have bought, but which were designed and made for her--Scarlett O'Hara style--by her brother Normie. Hilda sang at parties, and the sisters danced fox trots and rhumbas at the tea houses in London. By the time I was seven, I knew almost every popular song from three decades.

We ordered another drink, like we needed it, and I launched into Mary Ellen at the Church Turned Up and I Had a Row Wif Me Wife Last Week while Eleanor sat slack-jawed. Even she had never been taught these ridiculous ditties.

For my Thetford finale, I recalled one more:

When I gave her an apple,
She let me hold her hand
When I gave her an orange,
We kissed to beat the band
When I gave her a grapefruit,
She squeezed and held me tight
I'm gonna take a watermelon
To my girl tonight!

A sidelong glance at the husbands revealed a stoicism befitting their English and Norwegian backgrounds. Their wives, mad as hatters, were performing daft, vulgar songs in a public room at a respectable small-town hotel, and all they could do was grip their stouts and hope for the least humiliating consequences. About this time, Eleanor and I realized we had omitted the mother of all bawdy Music Hall numbers, Knees Up, Mother Brown, and we began clapping our hands and enthusiastically belting out the lyrics.

Then, right out of a Faulty Towers episode, came a waitress dressed in regulation hotel-version-French-maid costume, balancing a tray of cocktails and beer on her palm, high above her head. She twirled into the lounge, hips swinging, while she sang:

Knees up, Muver Brown
Your drawers are falling down!
Under the table you must go
Ee-I Ee-I Ee-I Oh

At the sight of her, I remembered why I love Brits so much.

There was a sudden silence. My cousin and I made eye contact and our thoughts connected in the way that women's thoughts sometimes do: "Oh, my God," one of us blurted out, "It's Ruth and Hilda!" And it was. We were our madcap mothers, before the horrors of the Blitzkrieg and the bomb shelters caught up with them. Before the consequences of poverty, neglect and orphanhood had cruelly refined and warped their adult personalities. We were, at that moment, the best part of them, the part we had often forgotten as we struggled to be their daughters. We looked at our husbands, and it was evident by their statements that they, too, knew they had been mysteriously transported into the presence of the long-lost Sister Act.

Hilda and Ruth Now Appearing! Together Again As You Always Wanted To See Them!
One night only.

Diane Dees Tobiason is a psychotherapist and writer in south Louisiana. Her work has appeared in Mississippi Magazine, Eclectica, QuickStorm and other publications. She is the author and co-webmaster--with her husband--of, a virtual rock and roll restaurant. Email:


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