A Nice Cup of Tea
Laura parks in front of the sprawling farmhouse and walks back across the yard to close the five-bar gate. The metal spring catch is warm in her hand, the air suffused with the scent of apples ripening on a half dozen sun-dappled trees.
Against her will her eyes are drawn across the valley and the gentle contours of the Chilterns towards Ivinghoe Beacon. She feels her heart start pounding. That’s where it had happened, with the Harvest Moon silvering their bodies and the chalk landscape glowing a ghostly white. That memory is all she’s had for so long now she finds it hard to remember the wonder, the joy.
“Go on!” The voice in her head is as loud as the voice she heard on that fateful day nearly forty years ago. “Get off this land, you lying whore, and don’t ever come back!”
Laura grips the top bar and closes her eyes, raising her face to the soothing early evening rays. She takes a deep, steadying breath, reminding herself that the scene has changed in two important respects: his parents are dead and she is no longer a helpless, naive teenager. But she is still unsure she’s done the right thing in coming here. Her feet are refusing to move.
“Whatever you’re trying to sell I don’t want it, so you might as well leave now.” The voice booms across the yard, its owner approaching from around the side of the house.
Laura turns slowly and looks him up and down. “You sound just like your father, Joe.”
The years have not been kind to him. Most of his once luxurious hair has gone and his big frame has accumulated fat. She wrinkles her nose in distaste at his filthy trousers and a plaid shirt that should have been added to the rag pile.
He hesitates, squinting against the sunlight to get a better view of her. “Who are you?” he says, his voice hostile.
With a wry smile she wags a finger and shakes her head. “Tut, tut, Joe. Your mother was a dear, kind soul and she taught you better manners than that. You might have had a happier life if you’d followed her example rather than your father’s.”
Joe frowns. She can see him trying to reconcile the mature woman before him with his memories of her voice. Many expressions flit across his lined face before the years melt away.
He steps to her side, turning away from the sun. Laura stands proudly, knowing her appearance passes muster. Tailored light brown trousers and a crisp white blouse are cool and smart. Her jewellery and watch are elegant, subtly expensive. As a confidence boost she’d even gone for a chic new hair style.
“You still look like Katherine Hepburn,” he says, a trace of awe in his voice. He reaches forward to touch her arm, as if not quite believing what he sees.
“I hope not – she’s long dead.”
She notices him trying to suck in his belly. Caught in the act he flushes, tugs on his wide leather belt and shifts his gaze beyond her shoulder. Painful memories hold them both in thrall, immobile, silent.
A blackbird’s liquid trill breaks the spell. Laura takes a step back.
“It used to be the custom in these parts to offer visitors some refreshment after a long journey.”
“What do you want, Laura?” His voice is harsh and a small muscle below his left eye jumps repeatedly.
“Well, a cup of tea would be nice.”
He scowls at her, opens his mouth to speak, then changes his mind. He turns abruptly, flicking his fingers at her to follow him indoors.
Laura pauses in the kitchen doorway. It takes a moment for her eyes to adjust after the brightness outside. The windows cast a checkerboard of sun and shadow across the room and she can hear the buzz of a bluebottle somewhere nearby.
For three centuries wood smoke has permeated the ancient beams and walls. The aroma takes her back to the last time she stood on that spot. The big wooden slab of a table was where she had done most of her homework with Joe’s sister, Jenny, her best friend all through their school years. Echoes of their girlish voices sound down the decades. She looks around, half expecting to see the young Laura and Jenny playing there still.
Her roving gaze halts on the fireplace. Laura feels a strange giddiness and supports herself against the stone door jamb. She remembers the night, sitting with Joe in the inglenook, when he had kissed her for the first time. For months he had gone out of his way to make her feel special. His wooing had the desired effect: she fell in love and yearned for his ever more passionate kisses. While she accepted that it must be kept secret from his father, his mother became their ally.
Laura looks across the kitchen. Yes, even the hob and sink are unchanged. In her mind’s eye Laura can still see Joe’s mother scuttling between the two. She takes a few deep, controlled breaths to slow her hammering heartbeat. She doesn’t want to take a pill, not with Joe there to witness her weakness.
She clears her throat. “You know, I don’t recall ever seeing your mother anywhere but here in the kitchen or in the pantry. Did your father ever allow her out?”
“You’re still fond of saying bloody stupid things, then,” he says and turns his back on her.
“It’s a long time since I’ve said – or done – anything stupid, Joe.”
He turns the hot tap on full and pulls dirty crockery out of the sink while the water gets to temperature. The sink is deep and the growing mountain of china and pans on the bench bear witness to how long it has been since he’s bothered to wash up.
Laura does not try to speak over the din he is making. She checks there is enough water in the battered kettle and puts it on the hob. She knows exactly where the brown earthenware teapot will be, the cosy, the tea caddy, milk and sugar. Not a cupboard has changed, and everything lives where it always used to.
Joe fishes in a drawer for a tea towel. He wipes two cups and saucers dry and puts them on the table, then sees what Laura is up to.
“Make yourself at home, why don’t you?” he says.
Laura just smiles and warms the pot. She opens the caddy and her eyes widen. “Tea bags, Joe? Your mother wouldn’t like that.”
“Well she’s not here, is she?” His colour is rising rapidly.
“Nor is Babs,” Laura says, “or your boys.”
He makes a guttural noise like a wounded animal. “Have you had your spies reporting back to you, then?”
“Your mother told me. It broke her heart when you just let them go.”
“You weren’t here,” he shouts. He stops, seeming shocked at his own vehemence. He half raises an arm towards her. “You have no idea what it was like,” he says.
“I know what it was like for us, but we were so young, we had so few options. It was different for you and your wife. Why didn’t you stand up to him, Joe?”
He glares at her, fingernails tight into his palms, his knuckles white.
“Your mother understood about parental responsibility. She loved you and Jenny so much – she stayed here for your sakes. Your father ordered you to stay here for the farm.”
He stands in front of her, shaking his head. “Woolcotts have been here since 1705. That’s worth something, too.”
“And will a son of yours be prepared to take over?” She shrugs, pretending indifference to his pain. “Your mother kept in touch. She thought that one day I might need to know what my daughter’s father is up to. You know, the daughter who would have been aborted if her grandfather had had his way, the daughter whose father was too scared to fight her corner.”
She gives herself a moment to let the ancient anger subside. Sharp chest pain tells her clearly that her heart will not take more confrontation. She gestures around them, feigning nonchalance. “Anyway, I don’t need ‘spies’. A woman would just need to look at the dirt in this kitchen to know only a man lives here.” She takes a dishcloth between two fingers, gingerly sniffs it and changes her mind about wiping the table.
He grabs it from her, slooshes it through the washing up water and defiantly wipes the table himself. “I’m a farmer, not a housewife.” He throws the cloth back into the sink and the water splashes over onto the windowsill.
“I wasn’t surprised when I heard she’d left you,” Laura continues. “It would’ve taken a saint to live with your father.”
She turns back to the hob and pours the boiling water into the pot, pops the lid on, snuggles the cosy over it and carries it to the table. “My grandmother swore that only tea made with water that had percolated through your native soil ever tasted quite right. Mum hated going to an area without our chalky water for the same reason. She used to check the area’s geology before deciding where we were going on holiday. Tea just doesn’t taste the same in Somerset, she says, but we’ve got used to it over the years.”
Joe slams his hand on the table. “You didn’t come here to discuss cups of tea, Laura! Now answer my damn question: what do you want from me?”
Laura puts her elbows on the table and steeples her fingers. “I realise I had a lucky escape, not getting landed with you as a husband.” She holds up a hand, palm towards him when he starts to speak. “And you’ve taken no interest in your daughter – do you even know her name?” She pauses, eyebrows raised. “No, I thought not. Anyway, despite that, she still wants to know about you. She wants you to know you’ll be a grandfather next month.” She stops and looks across the table. “Could I have a teaspoon? The tea needs a stir.”
Joe turns back to the sink and suddenly thrusts his face towards the window. “It’s that bugger back again!” He dashes to the wall rack, grabs his rifle, then stealthily opens the back door.
Laura goes to the window and sees a stag down at the edge of the wood. As Joe raises the gun to his shoulder she barges against him, sending him reeling. As he falls the gun goes off and the stag leaps away, back into cover.
“You stupid cow! That’s how accidents happen.” He gets to his knees and jabs a finger towards the wood. “I’ve been after that one for weeks. I’d have had him this time, but no, you come swanning back and find another way to screw up my life!”
Laura raises her chin, her eyes disdainful as she watches him clamber back to his feet. “I’m telling you about your grandchild but a stag is more important to you?” She turns on her heel.
He watches her walk away then goes to replace the gun in the rack. His work-roughened fingers caress the stock.
Laura sits back at the table, cradling her temples with both hands. She looks at him sadly. “Your father turned you into a clone of himself. Why did you let him do that, Joe?”
Joe stands hunched over in front of the gun rack while the wall clock loudly ticks off the relentless, painful seconds.
“Daisy,” he says. “Her name’s Daisy.”
The words sound wrenched from him. He hides a sniff in a loud harrumph and fishes around in the drawer underneath the rack. He returns to the table and sits down heavily, shoulders slumped.
“They were always your favourite flowers; open, guileless you said.”
“And strong,” Laura added. “It doesn’t matter how many times they’re chopped back, they carry on and flower again.”
“Daisy… she’s a bit old to be starting a family, isn’t she?” he says.
Laura doesn’t tell him why Daisy needed to be as resilient as the flower she was named for; her anguish each time she miscarried is still too painful, too personal.
He watches her for a while then pushes a pad and pen towards her. “Put her address and married name down there,” he says gruffly. “I’ll think about it.”
“You’ll think about it?” She crosses her arms and sits back in her chair, studying him with narrowed eyes.
He squirms sideways, making the beech stretchers creak within the chair legs. “You are going to tell me, aren’t you?”
“All these years you’ve made no effort to contact me, no effort to get to know your daughter. Can you give me one good reason why I should let you into our lives now?”
“Because that’s why you came here? Isn’t that what she wants?”
Laura sits forward and stares at him for a long time.
“I’ve kept my promise to Daisy,” she says eventually. “Now then, shall I be mother?”
She reaches for the teapot and holds it aloft, letting the questions hang between them in the dust mote laden air.
“I know what hell would be like: it would be a life without books,” says author Jay Howard. “I can’t remember ever feeling lonely or bored as there are so many wonderful characters willing to share my mind. Like all young people I went through a period of reading trash but quickly realised I was wasting the most precious commodity of all: my time. I reverted to reading good literature, having given myself permission to unceremoniously dump a book I’d started if it didn’t live up to the publisher’s promises. That probably sounds strange, but I’m a bit of a terrier and don’t like to let go of something I’ve started, not until the rat’s neck is broken and it’s good and dead.
“Filling my world with the works of the giants in literature was both good and bad for me. I absorbed the rules of English purely from reading so many good examples of it. I remember being taught, in a very offhand ‘modern’ way, the basics about nouns and verbs, subjects and objects, but when you get to participles, the future perfect tense and other grammatical stuff (lovely word, ‘stuff’, so useful… but I digress) let’s just say my Latin and French teachers were not too amused at having to first teach me English. I’m still not sure about much of the terminology, but you don’t need to be able name every part of a sentence to be able to write well. The down side is that I hid away my attempts at writing for decades as I knew my scribblings could in no way compare to my heroes: Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, Maeve Binchy, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Isaac Asimov, Elizabeth Goudge, Mary Webb, Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell… the list is very long and very intimidating to a novice writer.
“My husband gave me the kick in the butt I needed to finish my first novel; he secretly took my half-written book in to work for the women there to read. They demanded to know what happened next. I had little option but to retrieve the file that had been lurking on the hard drive in various stages of writing for the previous eight years and finish it off. They loved it but I couldn’t find an agent who agreed with their opinion so I learned the indie publishing process. Oh boy was I unprepared for how much work is involved in assessing the opinions of beta readers, rewriting, editing, proof reading and formatting! It was tiring, frustrating, time-consuming, but ultimately fascinating and rewarding. My first novel was launched with champagne from my son.
“Then I got a taste of reality. I had some very good reviews then one at just 3*; I was horrified to see that it had been down-rated because it required editing and I’d left proof errors in it. How could that be possible after all that work? That’s when I learned that it is extremely hard to edit one’s own work; the brain just isn’t wired to work on the two different levels needed for writing and editing the same words. This article by Nick Stockton explains it very well http://www.wired.com/2014/08/wuwt-typos/ . It is possible to trick your brain into switching from one mode to another, but you first have to be aware of the situation.
“I have since written a sequel to Never Too Late and many short stories which have been reasonably well received. I am currently working on the full novel version of my short story A Nice Cup of Tea. The novel, A Strong Brew, tells Joe’s side of the story as well as Laura’s. The really exciting thing for me is that I am working with a co-author; Ryan Stone is a very talented Australian poet and he is writing all of Joe’s poetry for the novel.
“My latest venture is as an independent editor; it appears that I have an unexpected flair for it. I suppose it’s that terrier instinct kicking in again, gnawing away at the ragged bits until clean white bone is revealed in pure, elegant lines. For the last few years I have been editing books for authors I’ve met online and whose work impressed me. It has been an honour indeed to be let loose on the novels written by such talented writers as Ali Isaac, Patrick de Moss, Mark Bell, K.A. Krisko and many others. My thanks to them all for such enjoyable times, and their encouragement and support in starting my venture into professional editing. And thanks, Ali, for this invitation to join you here on your very impressive site.”
You’re very welcome, Jay, it was a pleasure and an honour to have you on my blog!
You can buy Jay’s books here and here. You can find her on Smashwords, and connect with her on Goodreads. Last, but by no means least, if you would like to avail yourself of Jays excellent editing skills, and I heartily recommend and endorse her services from personal experience (she worked on both my Conor Kelly books), please contact her via her website.
If you are an author, and would like to feature on my Friday Fiction, please CONTACT ME… I would love to hear from you!