The horror story: literature’s darkest quality, the evil twin of the fairy tale. Horror, particularly in the form of literature, intrigues me. Because to persevere with a horror novel is a conscious acceptance, even an invitation of fear into one’s mind, a planned disturbance.
As my friends and I ordered afternoon tea at The Royal Albion, the only thing we had consciously invited to our table was a refreshing tray of teas to compliment our quintessentially British day in Brighton. What arrived, in a tea sense, was more bewildering than Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, more confusing than an Edgar Allen Poe mystery, more gruesome than a ‘Real Life’ Take A Break article… And so as the rain mauls my window panes, as my bedside light becomes the sole bastion of light in my house full of growing shadows and as I nervously glance around the room, longing for a cup of tea but terrified to attempt the eerie voyage downstairs to the kettle, I think it’s about time I told a little horror story of my own…
Miss Havisham’s dining table
The Royal Albion in Brighton is a curious hotel. Its flaking paint, its out-dated sign and its crumbling steps allude to a hotel that is no longer what it once was. Inside, the managerial position could feasibly belong to Miss Havisham: the furniture has traded its flamboyance for tiredness, its colour for drab stains, its elegance for decay. The bustling ghosts of the hotel’s heyday now scream “Mayday!”. Slumping into a musty and torn armchair, I couldn’t help but feel this place had resigned itself to the void: not quite shabby chic, a world away from antique, merely old-fashioned. And yet I was nonetheless consumed by a tinge of fondness for this garish hotel with its blood-red carpets and chipped mahogany tables. Wear and tear aside, the existence of such dated furniture fostered a glimmer of hope: this was evidently an establishment that had once affirmed its status and values in the hospitality sphere and still strived to maintain them with pride, albeit in a spooky manner. So the afternoon tea should be steadfast, reliable, classic… Right? Wrong.
I have long accepted that European hospitality simply fails to understand the concept of the classic cup of tea, more often than not surrendering its tea identity to bulk orders from Lipton. But I would expect a thoroughly British hotel to thoroughly comprehend the importance of a good tea bag. At a glance, our afternoon tea was as neutral as a post-match reaction from Andy Murray (ahem, excluding the final). Would it be good, would it be bad? I just couldn’t tell. But it didn’t take me long to find out. Swooping for the milk jug first (of course), my effort at pouring resulted in an irritating milk stain right across my coral-coloured jeans. But I needn’t have feared: the unfathomable uselessness of the teapot ensured all traces of milk were washed from my knees… with dingy tea-infused water. The tea itself? Weak, limp and lifeless, Cheryl Cole couldn’t have put it better.
But what was so scarring, so horrific, so spine-chilling about my tea experience at The Royal Albion was not the wimpy concoction they called tea, it wasn’t even the unwelcome second shower I received as I set about making a cuppa… It was the fact that (and picture this in slow motion) as I turned my gaze to the sugar pot, offering my good friend Gabs a sugar cube, my eyes were met by the sight of not one, but two ants enjoying their afternoon sugar fix… In the sugar bowl. “Sugar?”