Tuesday, September 4

The Afternoon Tea: Part I

There was an acute ache in my bones, a sour fluid in the joints; wine, whiskey & lack of sleep. It made every movement feel exhaustive. My body was trying to sweat everything out. Mrs. Davis was coming. I had known about it for a few days. I grew more & more nervous. My mother spent all her time baking cakes and admiring a new tea-set she had found reason to buy. She was currently preparing sandwiches when I walked past – ‘What are you cutting off the crusts for? You’re going to make us look fucking retarded.’ ‘You’re supposed to cut the crusts off. Don’t you know a thing about afternoon tea?’ I went to my room to be alone and gather my thoughts. I was very anxious because I was embarrassed for my life and did not wish for Mrs. Davis to think so too; my favourite teacher from primary school who I had not seen in twenty-years; not since she mothered my chickenpox or caught me drawing or picked me up on my tiptoes. She always smelled of instant coffee & cigarettes.
I was playing guitar when I looked out of the window and saw her pull up. Instantly I flinched from the window. ‘Look at yourself!’ I thought. I edged closer to get a better look: she sat in the car for a while, reversed it a few yards, and then sat in it a while longer. I could not see what was happening in the car. Eventually she got out. She was not as tall as I remembered; perhaps I imagined that she would always be taller or perhaps my nostalgia made her a giant. Time had taken the wind from her sails, making her frail.
‘Mrs. Davis is here,’ said my brother through a crack in the door. I was absently plucking one string while staring into space.
She was talking to my parents outside, on the patio. Warm air had returned for the weekend, displacing the cold that had frightened everyone indoors.
My mouth was dry, my head was banging from drink. I got a glass of water but I was in such a nervous frenzy when I picked it up that it went down the wrong hole and I started to choke. What would she think of my life? I am, of course, very different now to how I was when I was five. Back then I was cheery, energetic, full of promise – as all children are. Now I am acne-scarred, hungover, and with little hope or expectation of life.
‘You must be –’ she said my name.
Unsure quite how to greet her, I extended my hand. I have never been good at hellos. A hello after twenty years is a big Hello. She shook it. Her teeth were still her own, gappy, dark yellow from coffee & cigarettes. Aside from the hair, very little was different.
My mum immediately told me what dogs Mrs. Davis had, which I considered unnecessary.
In my mind I had rehearsed answers to all the questions she might ask me. It was silly. How could I be so ridiculous! I knew that I had been consumed with fear of her arrival. What have I done with my life?
She had some photographs of our class. Ninety-two. I did not recognise half the kids. ‘I don’t recognise half the kids,’ I admitted.
‘I wrote the names on the back. As soon as I saw it I recognised you!’
I was sat on the front row, one of the smallest in the class. My hair was blonde.
My parents dominated the conversation with her, asking the questions. When my brothers came, they, too, were talkative, but I could find nothing to say. Words failed me. I was mute. They talked about the red tape & beaurocracy of the school system – ‘You can’t even hug a child! – she said. ‘I remember the hugs,’ said my brother. I remembered the hugs, the stench of instant coffee & cigarettes knitted into her jumper. We talked about her children, her husband’s dementia, her chickens, her trips to New York. I listened intently. Lunch was served. ‘Would you like a cup of tea or coffee?’ I could have answered for her. ‘Coffee, please.’ ‘Fresh?’ ‘No, instant. Black. No sugar. Thank you.’ Instant. Black. No sugar. I could have told her that. Someone mentioned my job – I forget who. ‘R— hates work,’ laughed one brother. ‘R— hates life,’ said another and they all laughed. I winced. I did not want Mrs. Davis to know that.
But she was there, and I could not get my mind around it. She was sat there on our patio with her cup of coffee, not eating much, taking very small mouthfuls. She, even in her frailty, was powerful to me. She would always be powerful to me. She was, what some might call, a lioness, a master of feminine potency and dignity. If I could only embrace her in some way, tell her that I thought so highly of her, so that she might forgive me the past twenty years. She was obsessed with our dog. She mothered her, stroking her constantly. I wanted her to stay all evening. I wanted to open a bottle of wine so that I could loosen my tongue then tell everyone else to leave and then I would get on my hands & knees and ask her to have mercy on someone who ran into life with the best intentions and was left disillusioned. I could tell her what I spent my weekday evenings doing and assure her that I would be OK in the end and would not dare disappoint her with the promise she had bestowed me.
None of that happened.
I just sat and listened, as I often do to old people.
My mother asked her – ‘So would you recognise them if you saw them on the street?’ Mrs. Davis stared at me. I, for a reason I can still not ascertain, stared right back at her. I stared at her so hard I thought that my eyes might dry out. I don’t know why I stared at her. She stared at me and tried, I suppose, to see in me the child that she had taught twenty years ago. Though I was very ashamed of the dark around my eyes and of my spots and of my scars I stared right back at her. I knew what she was thinking. ‘I think I would, eventually.’
The whole situation was surreal, and my hangover only made it more dangerous for me, as if I might crack at any moment, burst into tears or soil myself.
My mother took her into the house to show her photographs of my brother and I as children, and the piece of artwork I had done in her class. When she stood up and walked into our house, negotiating the step, I was in wonder at how old she had become and how she shuffled, and I felt sad.
Just before she left – ‘O, I must get a photograph with you.’
‘R— doesn’t like being photographed.’
My brothers and I stood together. I was the shortest of my brothers. Mrs. Davis stood in front of us. My pose must have been awful. The sun was shining brightly through this thick musty haze of September afternoon. It caught me in the eyes, I swear. I wanted to get my camera but who was I to take a photograph of her? I had not thought of it. I didn’t want her posing. I wanted her sat on one of our chairs that she turned into a throne, like she had done her whole life with every chair she had sat upon. She took a photograph of our dog, too.
When she said good-by my mother motioned for me to get up and kiss her. I wanted to kiss her good-by, but did not for some reason. Very much was unclear to me. Finally I stood up. I kissed her cheek and she grabbed hold of me on both arms, very hard, almost so that I couldn’t move. I felt like I might fall over.
She shuffled out of the house back to her car and I watched her go.

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