The Attempted Killer Who Came to Tea

teacup

After moving to London, Misti Traya was determined to bring some American neighbourliness with her. She soon learned the error of her ways…

When I first moved to London, my English husband gave me a copy of Kate Fox’s Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. This might seem like an innocuous present to you but I knew my husband’s ulterior motive. Henry was like the 1950s parent who so dreaded a discussion about sex with his adolescent that he handed her a book explaining it instead. That’s what this gift was — my husband hoping to avoid any awkward conversation about our cultural differences. As an American who has now lived here for five years, I cannot think of anything more English than that.

Fox’s chapter about introductions bothered me. The brash American approach: “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa,” particularly if accompanied by an outstretched hand and a beaming smile makes the English wince and cringe. I had never known friendliness to be cringeworthy. Suddenly, I felt sorry for Bill from Iowa. I pictured him arriving in my neighbourhood and being scorned for enthusiastically introducing himself to strangers at the pub.

While Iowa is not my home, I love it. I have plenty of family and fond memories there. When my grandfather died, people brought cakes, cards, flowers, pies, and roasts to my grandmother. Many of these people were not close friends, just neighbours being neighbourly.

Henry tried to explain. “We don’t do that. We don’t talk to neighbours. Maybe people in the country do, but not Londoners. In fact, I’d say people move to London just so they don’t have to talk to neighbours.”

I could not get to the heart of this misanthropy so eventually I quit seeking answers and accepted Henry’s words as fact. I also decided to keep neighbourliness in my heart. I resolved to knock on strangers’ doors and introduce myself while offering them slices of buttermilk chocolate cake. Because seriously, and especially as an outsider, how else do you meet people?

The house opposite ours boasts the prettiest front garden in the neighbourhood. Passers-by stop and instagram or pick flowers when they think no one is looking. Though I didn’t meet him until months later, the architect of this landscaping masterpiece was Sam. When we moved in last spring, Sam was busy in his garden. His handiwork was visible from most rooms in our flat. I wanted to introduce myself but my cake baking plans were put asunder by our two year-old running riot and me taking forever to put the finishing touches on our new nest.

When summer came, Sam was outside with a wheelbarrow of lilies and lupins and a pack of Mayfairs in his back pocket. By fall, he was digging up dahlias and repotting peonies. He switched to an electronic cigarette and went though a variety of flavours. I could smell them all when the wind blew. Eventually he settled on orange cream.

Once our flat was fully furnished, we introduced ourselves to Sam. I brought him a slice of cake. Henry gave him a bottle of wine. Our toddler stroked his cat’s fur in the wrong direction. Sam seemed pleased though painfully shy. He barely made eye contact. For the next few months, we would wave hello to Sam whenever we passed him on the street. He would return our greetings but never our gaze. That he kept fixed on the flowers around him or the dirty blue Crocs on his feet.

On Christmas Eve my family went for a cheery romp through foul weather to the pub. When we were walking home Sam ran out of his flat waving an envelope. It was a card for our family with a red breasted robin on the front. We thanked him for it and asked about his holiday plans. He said he was going to be on his own as he didn’t want to leave his cat. He sounded so lonely. We couldn’t help but invite him for a drink at ours.

At 5 o’clock when we were expecting Sam, we could see him standing in his window stroking his cat. At 5:30 he was doing the same. Eventually the buzzer rang. We did our best to serve Sam not only stilton and tawny port but holiday cheer. He didn’t say much though he did mention problems with his downstairs neighbour, a 70 year-old man Sam accused of playing the radio too loud. We thought nothing of it and offered him more hazelnut biscuits with cheese.

Our daughter danced to a Top of the Pops special and twirled like a top in her tartan Christmas dress from Scottish granny. She lavished Sam with attention showing him her books and introducing him to her toys. Some of her teddies gave him kisses. Before Sam left, I gave him a sac of dark chocolate almond brittle that I tied with red satin ribbon. He pulled me into a bear hug and smiled. We wished him a merry Christmas and told him that if he ever needed a break from his neighbour’s noise then he should just come around for tea.

In the months that followed, Sam would show up unannounced and invite himself in. He would sulk in our kitchen and complain about his neighbour. I would offer him cups of tea but he didn’t like my darjeeling. Later he would tell me he didn’t like tea at all. So I brewed coffee, baked cookies, and made supportive noises while also entertaining my toddler. The only thing that would snap Sam out of a mood was my Sarah Raven catalogue.

Sarah Raven is the Martha Stewart of English gardening. If you want to buy Genoa zinnias or master floristry in a weekend, she is your woman. Sam would sit cross-legged with this catalogue in his lap, flipping pages, and dog-earing the ones he liked best. Tulip collections, perfect perennials, stunning alliums. He wanted them all. He also wanted to know if I put edible flowers in my salads because he was thinking about planting a bed.

After a while, Henry gave Sam his mobile number hoping this would curb the unannounced visits. It did not. Sam’s surprise visits continued until one night he had a mini meltdown at ours. I was bathing our daughter and Henry was checking work emails when Sam insisted we didn’t like him. We assured him we did. Then he apologized for being insecure. Again we told him it was alright. Neither of us wanted to upset him. Sam became frantic like a bird trapped in a house. Abruptly he left. Henry and I agreed we had to create some distance.

On April 15th Sam woke up the entire street by howling at the full moon around 4 a.m. Henry and I assumed he was drunk. Then Sam started shouting that only he knew the truth and would somebody please help him. This episode went on for twenty minutes until the cops arrived and took him away. Sam has not been home since. The following day, the police and several neighbours paid me a visit. Yes, I had tea and cake ready for them all. With full mouths they told me Sam tried to drop an axe on his neighbour in the dark from the top of the staircase but missed. Locals had already nicknamed him The Axe Man.

After being carted off by the police, Sam called or sent text messages to Henry near daily for almost 2 months. Henry never replied though Sam begged him to call him and expressed a hope that “everything is still cool.” At one point, his messages took the tone of a jilted lover. “You don’t have the heart to call me!” was the last text he sent before Henry changed his number.

Sam’s flowers have died. Grasses have grown tall and weeds have moved in. The garden beds look as if they were sown with malice. Passers-by still stop and instagram just not for the same reason as before.

My poor husband is somewhat scarred by the ordeal. I can’t blame him. He gave me a book outlining the rules of English social protocol and I ignored them. I played by my own rules and look what happened. I invited The Axe Man to tea. Still, for all that’s gone wrong, my husband and I have met four great people on the block. Our world is a little bigger. For that I am thankful. Sure I burnt my hand on the metaphorical stove but I’m going to keep cooking, not just eat cold cereal the rest of my days. Because no matter where I am in the world “Hi, I’m Bill from Iowa.”

*I changed our former neighbour’s name for the sake of this piece

Misti Traya is an actress and writer living in London. Her recipes and ramblings can be found at Chagrinnamon Toast.
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17 thoughts on “The Attempted Killer Who Came to Tea

  1. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    August 18, 2014 at 09:20

    You really should have played Misty for him, Misti.

    London is English? Well, go to the foot of our stairs.

  2. pretentiousdilettante@gmail.com'
    August 18, 2014 at 09:43

    From what I remember, his taste in music was mellow. He was a Bob Marley fan.

  3. Worm
    August 18, 2014 at 11:57

    This misanthropy also works when Brits go overseas – when I first went to Australia it took me months to get over my terror at people approaching me on the bus for a friendly chat

  4. zmkc@ymail.com'
    August 18, 2014 at 12:35

    Well Worm, I think I may be Misti’s cousin, Oz Traya. As a dual national, I’ve always been caught between New World breeziness and my father’s belief that speaking even a single word to any of the people he shared a railway platform with each morning, waiting for the commuter train from Basingstoke, would be ‘the thin end of the wedge’.

  5. andrewnixon@blueyonder.co.uk'
    August 18, 2014 at 13:16

    The American approach is much better – our absurd terror of introducing ourselves is the cause of much needless unhappiness. Which isn’t to say the Cousins don’t go too far in the other direction – I never understand why they need to tell you the specifics of their job, including their salary, during the first 10 minutes of conversation.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      Peter
      August 18, 2014 at 15:58

      Salary is just for openers. Three hours with Bill from Iowa can be sufficient to qualify you to write his biography. And if you fall under that friendly Yankee spell, for him to write yours.

      • pretentiousdilettante@gmail.com'
        August 18, 2014 at 16:48

        I did laugh when several months ago I came across The Fulbright Commission website. It listed cultural differences between the English and the Americans. About personal lives, the site states: “In general, Americans are much more open than Britons. Friends and even acquaintances discuss personal thoughts and opinions that might seem private or intrusive in the UK. Do not feel embarrassed if an American asks you a seemingly private or presumptuous question. He or she is most likely sincerely curious about your thoughts and feelings and is assuming you would like to share them.” I am aware Americans are known as over-sharers.

    • pretentiousdilettante@gmail.com'
      August 18, 2014 at 16:46

      I’ve never had anyone just tell me their salary, nor ask me mine. I’m sorry you met an American who did this to you. But if I may? It sounds more like this person’s poor conversation skills are due to the fact that he or she is an asshole and not because he or she is American.

  6. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    August 18, 2014 at 13:55

    Geordies tend to, once the pleasantries are out of the way, want to know intimate details, which night do your toenails get cut, is that your lass, how long has she looked like that, you vote Tory then, you look like one. This can cause consternation, especially among the more reserved home counties tribes, don’t be offended people, it’s just Geordies.

  7. stripper@rtsco.com'
    August 18, 2014 at 17:28

    Brit, I have to side with Misti on this.

    An extroverted American might well regale you with the gory details of all his or her lovemaking experiences in those first ten minutes. However, based on my thirty-five years in this country, salaries as conversation subjects are off-limits, even with close friends. We only talk about that subject with the IRS, and then most of us lie with abandon.

    • peter.burnet@hotmail.com'
      Peter
      August 18, 2014 at 23:10

      Alan, I would have to agree that Americans don’t actually discuss their salaries with perfect strangers at first meetings The details of their surgeries, childrens’ divorces and self-help groups, maybe. I recommend a perfect Canadian compromise. We are more open and friendly than the anally-retentive Brits, but we do retain enough old-world reserve to signal ambiguity about whether we actually like or care about you.

      • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
        George
        August 19, 2014 at 01:03

        Once on a commuter train from Baltimore to Washington, a man opened a conversation with me and a friend. Neither of us had ever seen him before. In the fifty or so minutes between stations, we learned about the importance of the firm where he worked, and we learned his salary. In his defense, I’ll say that he was apparently a little drunk.

        But most of the intimate secrets I learn from perfect strangers is through their cell phone conversations on the bus. Those I could do without, but there is no acceptable way to forestall them.

  8. davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
    David
    August 18, 2014 at 19:51

    I think that American v. Brit willingness to discuss income is actually a pretty complex phenomenon. It is not, in my experience, true that Americans will disclose our adjusted gross income with near stranger. As Allan suggests, we share that information only with the IRS and try not to overshare. The self-employed and professionals will also be relatively private about their pay.

    Americans making an hourly wage, on the other hand, will tell you their hourly wage at the drop of a hat. This is because, within their workplaces and even more generally, these aren’t secrets. Whether they work for the government, or are union members, get minimum wage, or just have a job with a good amount of churn, their experience is that wage information is pretty much known to everyone. This summer, my daughter is working 3rd shift at McDonalds (11-7). Everyone she discusses this with asks, pretty quickly, how much she’s earning because they’re interested in how much of boost you get for working 3rd shift.

    Finally, the movement in the US seems to be towards more openness about salary. A not insignificant number of companies (particularly in high tech) have started disclosing everyone’s salary to all employees, and even to the public. This isn’t (just) that we don’t care about privacy, it’s because we don’t care about privacy as much as we care about fairness/justice and companies want their employees to know that others aren’t being paid more or less because of race, sex, age, handicap, etc.

    • george.jansen55@gmail.com'
      George
      August 19, 2014 at 01:29

      Just to reinforce the stereotype, what is the differential? In my McDonald’s days, most of us got minimum wage, and I don’t think we were open particularly late. I did hear the manager offering a particularly skilled burger flipper a slight raise in pay. Nobody would have considered me particularly skilled at anything, though.

      • davidanddonnacohen@gmail.com'
        David
        August 19, 2014 at 18:55

        She gets $8.25/hr, about a $1 over minimum wage.

  9. johngjobling@googlemail.com'
    malty
    August 18, 2014 at 20:04

    It would appear, as if we didn’t already know, that stereotyping social mores is a minefield, apart of course from the Swedes who, as has been proven in previous posts, are a bunch of back stabbing tossers and are never, ever to be trusted, hence poor, poor Julian, banged up in a diplomatic under the stairs cupboard.
    If it all comes down to personal experience then we are all in a majority of one although I would say that Brit’s cousin syndrome is fairly commonplace, relations who, in theory, are shagable, an act that generally attracts no more than wagging tongues and yet they consider themselves to be close enough to share intimate information of the salary variety although the one that works for Northern Rock has been notable by her silence of late. Personally I would bung in brothers in law ‘my profits are bigger than yours’, he implied, this from a bloke the double of William Hague.

  10. Gaw
    September 12, 2014 at 21:01

    I enjoy meeting Americans and getting on friendly, open terms very quickly. But as it’s unearned it doesn’t seem to mean as much. When you get to that degree of sharing with a Brit you’ve probably established enough trust to be friends for life (or receive pleading texts on a daily basis if he’s off his head).

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