« To Queen Elizabeth », the words echoed in my ears and rippled along the hall as two hundred arms lifted in unison for the toast.
I sat back down and placed the glass next to the other three, silently thanking my ancestors for their heroics, which allowed me, 350 years later to attend such a prestigious event. In 1666, or so legend has it, they saved lives by rowing citizens across the Thames in the Great Fire of London. Their reward was the Freedom of the City and entry into one of the 12 Livery Companies. This honour has been passed down through countless generations of our family; giving me the right to take a hundred sheep across London Bridge, should I ever feel that way inclined, and an invitation to The Luncheon every two years.
I dug my spoon into the Elderflower ice-cream, eying the champagne jelly next to it with suspicion; British fondness for the wobbly stuff apparently hadn’t changed since I’d left the country. I had last attended this luncheon 15 years ago and had also forgotten about the delicate food, antique silver water jugs and the linen serviette that felt so heavy on my knees.
We dined beneath gold gild and vast originals of various scowling dukes and earls, who would probably turn in their graves if they knew that they were currently funding lunch for their old French enemy. Out of the corner of my eye I could see my husband tucking into his jelly, enjoying the pomp and ceremony of it all and more importantly, the presence of the waiters whose vintage wines were only a sip away. He stood out like an exotic bird in his mustard yellow jacket and deep tan, amongst the dark suited and pale skinned English upper crust.
My father, sitting opposite, looked distinguished and completely at ease, chatting to the small remainder of what had once been a large family; and when our surname was read out in the main speech, between prayers and toasts, we all cheered naughtily, instantaneously reducing the ambience to the level of a school canteen.
On the flight back to Marseille, we talked about what had made the day so memorable and our insight into how the other half live. High on the list, along with the quantity of champagne, was the recollection of a piece of glass strategically placed at the bottom of the urinals in the Men’s room; presumably so that the English gentry don’t splash their shoes.