Tea And Sympathy
Turning my phone over and pressing the button to check the time as I hear for the fifteenth time since I arrived that Elvis is coming soon.
She's sure he must be on his way by now.
Outside in the corridors I hear a woman screaming, searching for her lost cardigan that has been stolen again.
I close my eyes and imagine the minutes ticking by as she tells me again that Elvis is coming, he'll be here any minute and I mustn't take my eyes off the door for a second.
She'll never forgive me if I miss him.
I ask her if she would like a cup of tea, a game of cards, an afternoon nap but no, she only wants to wait for him.
One of the nurses pops her head around the door.
"Is she being alright today?" She asks.
I nod slowly, still tired from yesterday's shift and dreading the long hours ahead as I drift from person to person introducing myself again and again to people who won't know me the next time I see them.
The nurse gives me a thumbs up.
Looking back across the room from my chair I can see she has fallen asleep on the bed, lying in her best clothes on top of the covers. She is snoring already.
I try not to move.
Within minutes she is awake again and staring at me blankly.
"Who are you?" She asks.
I tell her my name and explain that we have met many times before and that we enjoy chatting, sitting in her room and waiting for the nurses to arrive with her tea.
"Do we?" She asks cautiously. "What do we chat about?"
I feel the exhaustion creeping over me as I swallow and try to look as excited as I know that she will be.
"We like to talk about Elvis." I say wearily.
Her eyes light up as I mention the only subject that she knows - the only one that we ever discuss, talking about the same four or five facts over and over again.
"Do you like Elvis?" She asks me happily. "He's a lovely man, he's popping round in a minute."
I tell her that sounds wonderful.
She points to a picture of him on her wall, her most prized possession and proceeds to tell me how tall he is, what his favourite colour shirt is and she sings a few lines of Jailhouse Rock to me.
"Did you know he lives in a place called Graceland?" I ask, not wanting to shatter the illusion by explaining to her that Elvis died long ago and will in fact, not be coming to tea.
"No." She says looking at me with eyes imploring, wanting every little detail I can serve up.
I nod as emphatically as I can manage.
She isn't lying when she says that she doesn't know - it doesn't matter that I told her the same thing only ten minutes ago, or that we've had the same conversation at least eight times on each visit.
She doesn't know.
The old woman who lost her cardigan shuffles in, her zimmer frame scraping at the carpet as she approaches me with tears in her eyes.
"Can you help me?" She asks mournfully. "I've just killed a man and the police are coming to get me."
I ask her who she killed but she doesn't know.
There are no nurses around and the orderlies are hiding in the kitchen. There is no reassuring the crying woman, she can already see the flashing lights outside.
I look out at the empty car park.
A bluebird is sitting on the windowsill, his head cocked to one side as if considering what it might be like to be inside this big, brickwork prison.
"Have you seen Elvis anywhere?"
I am stuck between a rock and roll fanatic waiting for The King and a octaganarian murderer about to be taken to prison.
I touch my hand to the sides of my head and rub the temples.
"Are you alright?" The slipper wearing killer enquires, forgetting momentarily about her impending incarceration. "Do you want a gin and tonic?"
She doesn't wait for me to answer before she shuffles out of the open door and stands in the empty corridor, taking an invisible purse out of her nightie and ordering two gin and tonics from a non-existant bar man.
She shuffles back in and nods at me approvingly.
"Did you enjoy it?" She asks.
I smile gratefully and tell her that I did, thanks, but we probably shouldn't be drinking gin and tonics at ten in the morning.
She shakes her head at me as if I am an idiot.
"Don't be silly." She smiles. "It's Wednesday."
Suddenly she remembers her cardigan is still missing and leaves us alone, the two of us once more sitting in the tiny room - me on the chair and my companion on the bed.
"Who are you?"
We begin the cycle again as I introduce myself and she explains to me that Elvis really should be along at any minute.
I don't mean to tune her out but I do - it's unavoidable as we monotonously go over the same conversation again and again.
I pick up a photoframe sitting at her bedside.
It's a wedding photo, a beautiful sepia image of two smiling people in the sunshine - a woman holding a bouqet of blooming roses, gypsophilia and foliage.
There are petals scattered all around them as they wave to people hidden behind the camera lens, the picture of happiness and hope for the future.
I don't know what happened to the man in the picture.
I don't know his name, what he did or how long he lived.
Neither does she.
She remembers making her wedding dress though and tells me all about it - the long hours she put into stitching the hem and adding the lace. She laughs as she remembers pricking her finger on the needle and worrying about the tiniest dot of blood.
For a moment I sit and think.
I think about how strange it is that a whole life can be forgotten but the smallest detail of the most insignificant event can linger somewhere, lost in the back of your mind until somebody pulls it from you.
She looks happy for a moment and I wonder if somehow she is remembering him - if there is something left of her somewhere that can be found.
But then she looks at me.
"Who are you?" She asks.
I check my phone and realise that our time is up.
I stand and put on my coat, picking up my rucksack and slinging it over my shoulders. Placing my hand on her shoulder I tell her to try and relax, to eat something if she can and I promise her that next time I visit I will bring her a new photo of Elvis.
"Will you?" She grins with her eyes gleaming.
I nod and give her shoulder a squeeze.
Before I leave I slip the photo of Mr Presley that we keep for each visit under my coat hoping that she won't see.
It isn't cheating - I don't get a budget for this kind of thing and it makes her so happy each time she is presented with it.
She doesn't need to know that I've given her the same photo six times now or that next time I see her I will give it to her again.
I walk out of the building and stand in the sunshine.
I move on.
I have other visits to complete, forms to fill in and people who need my attention, my time. I don't have time to sit and dwell as my day is filled with hours of madness, sadness, grief and pain.
Families give orders for baths, medicines and endless cups of tea and I march relentlessly on, desensitised to the sights and smells.
The mess doesn't bother me.
I've seen it all before.
But no matter how I try, I can't escape the smell.
It's not the smell of urine or anything similar.
I try to describe it to my husband when I arrive home from my shift, try to explain how it lingers long after I am sitting in my pyjamas and dressing gown, freshly showered and clean.
How it seeps into my skin and I feel it in my pores.
It's the smell of dementia.
It's the smell of death.
It's cleaning fluids, mashed potatoes, porridge and bleach.
It's a grim glimpse into a potential future for you, me, anybody who ever had a life - anybody who was ever loved or loved another.
The possible end for a teacher, doctor, builder or circus performer.
My husband, my mother, my friends, my neighbours.
Once again the tears begin to roll down my cheeks as I curl up on my sofa - my dog jumps up next to me and licks my face, his fur warm and soft.
My husband sits next to me and hands me a cup of tea.
He wraps his arms around me and kisses me on the forehead.
He tells me he loves me.
I drink my cup of tea and when I am finished I go to check the washing machine to make sure that my uniform is ready for tomorrow's visit.
I need to make sure I leave early in the morning, I can't be late.
Elvis is coming.
The wedding tea ceremony was to take place in two days. When buying longan and red dates tea, the Chinese grocer spoke of the sweetness of the red dates that symbolised a blissful life, and to have a child soon. Jia Li's sister-in-law could not wait to pass this worldly knowledge to Jia Li while giving her a gentle nudge. Jia Li's face was drained of colours of joy as she watched her sister-in-law rinsing red tea cups, saucers and teapot in hot water and then placing them carefully on a tray. Her sister-in-law was oblivious that Jia Li was not keen in marrying her brother Shuang, a widow with two young children.
Jia Li's village was on a remote hill surrounded by oddly shaped pine trees, twenty miles from Shuang's home. She had arrived early to Shuang's place to make preparations for her wedding. Her in-laws had offered their guest room to her which was immaculately clean and beautiful with crane printed crimson wall paper. She remembered her cluttered house where downstairs was the living room and also a makeshift kitchen with a ladder leading up to the one room upstairs shared by Jia Li, her parents and a brother while her granny slept downstairs. Their dog, a Tibetan Mastiff would be indoors, sleeping soundly even when there was a thunderstorm. The toilet was built outside next to a pigsty with only one piglet with a pink ribbon tied to its tail. Pin Jin, the bride's price was paid in form of two buffaloes and the entire wedding feast would be borne by Shuang. He had also found a dishwasher job for her brother in town which meant extra income for her family. Her family was indebted by Shuang's kindness.
While peeling the skins of boiled potatoes, her granny kept staring at her angelic, pale face. She knew Jia Li was not happy with the marriage arrangement. She said, 'We eat potatoes for breakfast and lunch and drink tap water before we go to bed. The weather has been unkind to us. This marriage means we could afford to eat rice, vegetables and meat, and not go to bed with an empty stomach.' It was a month ago after hearing those words, Jia Li made a promise to her granny that she would accept Shuang's hand in marriage wholeheartedly. Today, she felt differently about the wedding.
Jia Li knew of Shuang's affair with a woman whom his parents disapproved of becoming their daughter-in-law. The sultry woman was strikingly beautiful with a dewy oval face as if the moonlight glowed on her cherry painted lips and glossy black hair. Her apparels were of European haute couture. She worked as his assistant at his advertising firm and they worked late nights.
Without anyone's knowledge, Jia Li took a stroll on a bridge where the moon rested on the shimmering river flowing beneath the bridge. The full moon was partly veiled in a wisp of clouds and the night breeze swept by as she leaned against the bridge rail. She could hear croaking of frogs and chirping of crickets that made her feel calm and relaxed. Jia Li had seen Shuang and his lover entering a bar with his arms locked in hers earlier that evening. The feeling of a sting of seeing both of them in loving embrace had disappeared. She saw a shadow hovering close to her on the bridge.
'Hi sister, I saw you leave Shuang's bungalow and I followed you here.'
'What a wonderful surprise. I haven't seen you since you left home to work in town.
Are you happy working here?'
Jia Li's brother stared at his coarse hands and he felt his body aching all over but he just said, 'It's a good experience. The pay is good. I don't have a high education to earn better. This will do for now. Tell me, are you happy to marry Shuang?'
Jia Li sighed and then quickly masqueraded her real feelings, "Oh, I'm lucky indeed to marry a rich man.'
After a brief conversation, Jia Li returned to her room. She combed her long silky black hair in a pensive mood while seated on a cushioned stool in front of an octagon shaped mirror. Her eyes fell on the high neck red cheongsam with golden dragon embroidery, and a gold dragon and phoenix bangle. Shuang's parents had presented them to her and their kindness overwhelmed her. They had explained to her that the dragon and phoenix symbolised a yin-yang balance in creating marital bliss. She smiled contemptuously at the thought of finding true love as she peered into the svelte figure in the mirror. The thought of speaking to Shuang made her body tremble; being only nineteen and he, forty. But she decided to speak to Shuang that very night. Her courage blossomed by the minute.
'What are you doing waiting up so late?'
'Shuang, I need to talk to you. Who was that I saw in your arms this evening?'
He laughed and revealed his stained yellow teeth. His breath smelt of beer.
He said, 'Oh you poor thing, Ai Bao is my sweetheart and she'll always be right here in my heart. Your job is to cook for my family and care for my children,' and his speech slurred, 'wash dish-es, sweep-the-house, yes-ss-and stay clear of--of my love life!'
Jia Li's eyes swelled in tears. No sympathy would ever wash away the hurt she felt in her heart. Meanwhile, Shuang had collapsed on his bed and slept soundly like her Tibetan Mastiff as the clouds spread her story over the sky. The gray clouds carried a storm and soon poured out its burden of an heartache.
The morning of the wedding day arrived. Soon, she would dress up as a bride and in the corner of her eyes, she saw her soon-to-be step children tying a pink ribbon to their father's hair and painting his cheeks with a rosy blush. Shuang was a dead log, not even waking up to the noise of tumultuous relatives who had just arrived. Jia Li smiled and tiptoed to her room.
Ai Bao stormed into Jia Li's room in Ennio Mecozzi heels without an invitation and hissed at Jia Li, 'You worthless thing, how dare you come between Shuang and me?'
Jia Li's sister-in-law who was in the room retorted, 'How dare you come into the house in your heels?'
Jia Li replied calmly, "Ai Bao, he is yours. You can have him. He's waiting for you in his room but wait, take these with you." She handed her two things.
When Ai Bao entered Shuang's room, he was waking up to a splitting hangover and saw pink ribbons and pressed powder blush compact in her hands. Jia Li heard some screaming and saw Ai Bao rushing out of the house with her piglet chasing after her.
Laughing, Jia Li's sister-in-law scuttled to the kitchen to prepare longan and red dates tea for the tea ceremony.
Molly put on her green hat, the one she wore to Sheila's wedding, and locked the front door. It was just a short walk to the teashop but she took her time. Had it been a good idea to choose a spot so close to home? Anyway, too late now. He wouldn't know that and the shop was nice, she felt comfortable there.
What was his name? She wrote it on the back of her hand but she forgot as soon as she did so. Yes, Derek, an author. Quite a surprise, actually. His email looked written by a cultured person, he wrote well and seemed to have a sense of humour.
Mam always said 'You need a man with a sense of humour.' The only man Molly had known was the man she married, that Harry Picken, and he was no joker. Twenty four years of drudgery proved that. After he died, she never thought of a male companion again till Betty at the Social Centre talked about it.
"So easy to join up! Within a minute you can see who's online! I can show you how." Betty loved interfering; meant no harm but she did annoy sometimes.
Two days later Molly went to change her library books. She saw the internet machine by the front desk.
"It's called a P.C." Said the girl behind the counter. "Do you want me to show you how it works? She fiddled with the keyboard and a picture appeared on the screen.
" Now you can find what you want on Google" The word stared at her in a bold way. Below, a section with a blank space lured her on.
"Go on" said the girl, "type in what you want."
Molly sat down at the desk and waited till she'd gone. Typing had been her forte; thirty years in Mister Althorp's office taught her that, but she wondered what to write. The blank space challenged her. Her fingers hovered over the keys, awaiting commands. Before she knew it, the word 'meeting' appeared in neat script on the screen. She looked round quickly. Did anyone see? No, so she tapped Enter just like the girl had done.
Up came a list of names, and she clicked on the first one. The screen changed and a title ‘Partners Choice' took over; all the rest of the items disappeared. From then onward it became simply a matter of following the instructions and picking the name. She clicked on. Such fun! She was on the 'Internet' like Betty and by typing she could make things happen! When the name of Derek came up, the description ‘author’ intrigued her and she tapped a message so the meeting was arranged.
Sitting in the teashop, she felt it may have been a mistake. She didn't know Derek. Why had she done it? Perhaps the excitement of trying something new? Or was it a subconscious wish to make contact? Any contact? She fidgeted and crumpled a serviette beneath her fingers.
"What you want, Love?" A voice shattered this reverie. The waitress stood arms akimbo at her side. "Is it tea for one?"
"No I'm waiting for someone. It's tea for two."
The girl repeated the order as if she found it unusual, but Molly looked away and ignored her. The café began to fill up with mothers and children, older couples and a few single people. A quick glance at each single man was all she could do. She longed for the tea to arrive, at least then she could busy herself with preparations but she couldn’t catch the waitress's eye.
Then she noticed the blind man treading carefully through the maze of tables. He wore dark glasses and he held his stick in front of him like a waterdiviner. He tripped at one point and she saw the need to steady him as he approached.
"Are you alright? It's very crowded in here isn't it?" She felt a fool; how could he see ?
He nodded and said "Can you put me near a table with a single lady please? Are you the waitress? I'm looking for a Mrs Molly Picken."
She froze. Her mind went blank. She hesitated while she did her best to make sense of it. How did he write the internet entry? Why didn't he say he was blind? An author? He waited patiently by the table. He made no complaint but just stood there with his empty eyes fixed on her.
"Mind your back, Love!" The waitress lifted her tray high and put it down between them on the table. Then she looked at him for the first time and took his arm and sat him down in the chair facing Molly.
"There you go! Just make yourself comfortable and the lady will pour for you, won't you?"
She looked at Molly in a deliberate way as if to oblige her to speak or do something, then she marched away to deal with someone else.
"Are you Molly?" His voice was low and pleasant. He leant forward but she sat back in surprise.
"Yes. I'm Molly Picken and you are Derek?"
How banal her reply sounded! and added quickly,
"I wondered what you looked like!" She felt even worse.
He grinned. "I can't help you with that. Maybe you can tell me!"
He put one hand out gently to feel for the tray. "Would you like a cup of tea?" His hand touched the cups and traced the outline of the teapot and jug.
"Oh, Please let me!"
Like a spell, it woke her from inertia and eagerly she set about making tea and arranging plates for them both. He smiled and put his hands back on his lap.
"You're wondering why I didn't say I was blind aren't you? And how did I manage the internet?"
"Yes" She said and was surprised how easy it seemed to chat with him.
"Well, I knew if I said so, no one would reply, so I got the Warden to write it for me and see what happened. Maybe I did wrong?
"Yes I think you did wrong! But never mind now, here's your tea."
He took the cup and they sat for a while without saying a word. Molly examined her mixed feelings of surprise and recrimination . He was here and real. What was the point in brooding over what had passed?
She looked at his clothes, the grubby jacket had buttons missing; his trousers were frayed old cords; he was a mess. It didn't matter. She felt glad she'd come.
They talked about the town and the way things had changed; he told her he had been a sailor and a deep sea diver. How he spent years in the Far East and lost a fortune in India. She wondered at the contrast between her life and his, the wealth of excitement he had found and her quiet homespun history. He never told her how he’d become blind and she was too embarrassed to ask. It seemed unimportant as they chatted together.
The tea grew cold as they talked on and when the waitress came back, clearing the table, she looked at Derek.
"Nice cup of tea, my Love?"
She ignored Molly. Molly took out her purse and paid the bill. No tip.
There was some activity at the door of the café and two men moved purposely towards their table. They stood next to Derek and one of them said
"Come on Derek, you can't keep running off like this. You're causing grief at the ward. You'll lose you Leave-outs after this."
They pulled him up by his armpits and began to move to the door. He turned towards Molly. His face was bright as a happy schoolboy.
"See you Molly, thanks for the tea!"
She watched as they led him to a van outside and carefully guided his head into the back seat. He sat quietly as the vehicle moved and never looked back.
The key made that familar rusty noise as she unlocked the front door. The hall was dark and cold. She hung her coat and went into the kitchen to finish the washing up. Everything was as she had left it. She dried the dishes and for a moment, just one moment, she pictured his worn smile and frayed clothes that needed repair. Her eyes softened as she recalled the stories he told and how she had believed every one of them. Then she sighed.