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22 March 2004 @ 07:36 pm
story  
Remember the challenge I put to you a few weeks ago? Find a café/bar/diner/pub that you like, have a cup of whatever and write a few lines about a person of your choice. (I haven't given up hope yet that some of you might find inspiration in between two cups and share it with us ^_^)
As I lately got the chance to take out my notebook, I wanted to share the outcome with you. A fortnight ago I sat in what's probably the oldest café around our town. It is very beautiful: all cedar-wood and tall windows, with indoor-plants, pedestals and varying art at the walls. It has also got a wonderful terrace fenced by stone and ivy. In addition, the drinks are quite good. They serve fine tea, an interesting number of juices and café au lait. The light within is sometimes amber-tinged when the sun streams in from the street-side, at other times it has a green hue when beams are filtered through the ivy of the terrace.
So that's the place where the following story came into being. Though I have to admit It started out as the story of the waitress and then turned into something completely different. Many impulses flowed in: the café's atmosphere, a philosophy lecture I have recently been to and the fact that I'm almost always drinking tea while writing. Without any further ado: here you go. I'd really like to no what you think.



Pumpkin Moon
finished March 17th



Some admirer of Chinese porcelain once said that a tea-shop holds the sum of human character. Scholars and sinners met over the rim of a cup, or - which was more often the case - looked out of the same pair of eyes. Sometimes the silence of a face told a story or gave the notion of one. Frequently it happened that one who entered as a stranger would leave as a familiar of individual taste. This gentle flux of life and personalities was what charmed me ever since I started working at the shop. It was, as I remember, also the summer I met my dear Henry. Back then, the little tea-shop belonged to Miss Brown, who was fond of her puce curtains and even fonder of the heavy material's longevity. However, unlike her curtains, Miss Brown was quite prone to age and I came into possession fifteen years ago. The first thing I did was replace the curtains. By the time I settled into seniority myself, the shop had donned the peculiarity of the ancient. I employed two assistants and bought my Japanese tea-boxes in Covent Garden. We had begun serving shortbread and our speciality were dark Swiss mocca tartlets. Elaine, who had been a nurse in our crown colony introduced us to ginger biscuits and lemon oil. From her also came the rather exotic palm-plants who survived the Northern climate in pots between French tea-tables. To perfect our eccentric reputation, Elaine put a picture up the wall which showed a charging tiger in red and gold. This she did in memory of her husband's death. The decorated deceased had not only been a colonel, but also found his end eaten by a tiger. Elaine said she would honour a dauntless animal, who had retrieved an obtrusive nuisance from her Indian dressing-maids and the cricket court.

Apart from the oriental tinge, we remained a rather old-fashioned shop which clung to its heirlooms. There was a settee from the days of our queen Victoria and we insisted on Chintz. Outcome of our decades in trade was a range of goods which included the traditional Indian fusion as well as imports from China and the African continent. It took some time to get our guests used to the spicier blends, but in fact the English are quite venturesome when it comes to tea.

Work began shortly after sunrise, I loved opening the door in the clear chill of the morning fog. First task was clipping the indoor ivy, which grew relentlessly. Next came the setting out of tea-cups and the polishing of spoons. There had to be enough gas for the kettles and fresh cloths to handle them. When the first guest passed the threshold, there was a crystal-bowl with rock-candy on every table.

We had a satisfying number of varying customers - a tourist couple every now and then - but what had business going were mostly the regulars. Some had been coming here for the better part of their lives. Mrs. Berry, who enjoyed communicating her opinion on the top of her voice. She preferred pheasant feathers to her hat, but would settle for peacock, if inevitable. Her tea-table companion Miss Aberlee, a small woman with a pointed nose who did little but sipping her Earl-Grey and nodding at her friend's every word. Professor Summercrowe, a good-natured university chap who was growing a little plump now that he was in his sixties. Alfred Poutley, the tea-expert, who came everyday to inform us about new and old tea-brewing rituals. Like a pleasant flock of partridges they came and went, lounging and chatting, sharing bits and pieces of their days with the familiar personnel.

With regard to the routine, the silent young man was a habitué like them. In all other respects, he was different. He came every Wednesday and Friday around afternoon. He would slip through the front-door, quiet and unobtrusive, taking his seat at the smallest table near the window. At times he almost fused with the tawny glow basking the place, a lean shape bowed over a single cup. Between Mrs. Berry's wordy canonfire from the left and the professor's friendly conversation with Poutley, his table presented an isle of quiet. He did not escape comment, of course, but the rumours remained sparse. We thought he was a young man, around twenty, twenty-five perhaps, looking spruce enough though not striking. He had coffee-brown hair that seemed orderly cut but not overly much treaded with a comb. Some loose strands always brushed his brows.

I often watched him from the bar, when there was little to do but refilling tea-leaves. There sat his silhouette before the window, his skin fair enough to be considered white. Despite, or maybe because of his everyday appearance it was his eyes - especially his eyes that kept him locked in my memory when everything else faded. They were bright and pale green, slightly almond shaped beneath smooth brows. Their colour reminded me of jasmine tea, served in wafer-thin white porcelain. Had I been twenty years younger, I reckon it would have given me thoughts of a kind.

He never talked to the others, as I said, he was a very taciturn young man. He seemed uncomfortable around the liveliness of Elaine and I believe he appreciated my own calm when I served him. Nevertheless I, too, knew nothing more of him than what his tastes in tea would suggest. I noted that he further avoided direct glances and what fleeting glimpse I caught of those remarkable eyes was puzzling. Sometimes there was a lightness in them that made him look younger than he elsewise seemed. At other times they reflected some far-away hollow which made me uneasy about his presumed youth.

For some reason, I found him special among my customers. Perhaps because he reminded me of my late Henry and those last few days we had together. The red leaves and the scent of solar-warmed privets: pictures that I treasured and which would bubble up at the most curious occasions. At my age, the row of stills that decorate the wall back through the years is sometimes brighter than the now. You learn to take it with serenity. And I still have my shop.

Once when I came to this young man's table, I found him staring into the amber liquid of his Assam-tea as though he saw the whole world reflected in its surface. From the look on his face, it was not a pretty world he beheld. In that instant I felt compassion seize me with unusual force.

"Sad memories?" I asked him. I think it was the first time I addressed him with more than a 'What Can I Get You'. He lifted his head and turned those pale eyes up to me. For a moment, I was sure he did not know where he was. His whole bearing seemed disoriented and he himself decentered.

I believed I knew the look.

"Have you been to the war, love?" I asked him gently. He stared at me and slowly something like cognition went over his eyes. It was hardly more than the shadow of a passing cloud. He answered in an almost dreamy voice. "To the war?" he said. Then he blinked and his face shifted from my sight. His pale hands gathered on the table. He looked at his tea again, but I doubt that he saw it. "To the war," he said, even softer. "Yes. I have been to the war."



It was the time of migratory birds and wilting meadows, when one customer died in our tea-house. It was neither expected nor solved at the time, but later, when the events had retreated into talk (and details blurred), people said it fitted the season. As always during that month I wore my green coat, which I loathed to part with despite its worn seams. The weather grew balmy, and although the leaves turned yellow and fell, the light was still golden and the skies blue. It was the time for oven-warm waffles and caramel-tea with a shot Single Malt. Mrs. Berry got out her foxfur gloves and when I poured tea for professor Summercrowe, he sighed and grew nostalgic with memories of his travels to Italy. Elaine washed the windows the last time before the winter-season. I often stayed late to revise the books. These were the nights when the moon hung low above the roofs of the suburb. It rose as a white pearl on deep-purple skies, only to turn a deep, rich orange by the time it passed the chapel tower. The paraffin lamps fluttered in a breeze from the open window and from the street I heard the silver whisper of maple-leaves. I relished the silence of the shop, the mute vigil of black and ivory tea-boxes and the warm glow of lampsheen on rosewood. Perhaps it was weakness, but I felt then far too old to care. If it was eccentricity, I could afford it. It was, after all, unreasonable to prefer the emptiness and cold of a big house over the comforting enclosure of my tea-room. I loved our old home with the narrow gable, but since I had become the only inhabitant, it had lost its liveliness. I still strew lavender in the kitchen and placed the season's flowers on the dining-table, but it was a gesture without resonance. There were, of course, countless memories that haunted the house as children's ghosts might do. Naturally, it had been a while until we could afford a dwelling so close to the country. Henry had bought it with the savings of nearly five years that we had lived in a midtown ground-floor flat. The day he took me to take a first look at our new home, he put an arm around me and looked up to that sharp gable against an August sky. "What do you say, Gilly-dear," he said. "Two storeys reach a little higher to the clouds." And because he was sometimes a bit of a dreamer, he painted the shutters green.

Our years were not as long as I would have wished them, but they were longer than those of most. In the end it was neither the Germans nor some tragic accident that took my Henry, but an insidious ailment that had him falling in and out of illness for the better part of nineteen months. Due to that, we had been expecting a close for some time, but in the end preparation is half as good as any illusion. I had been making chicken-broth with carrots. It was the one meal Henry's stomach would hold during this final period. The soup was still simmering on the hearth when I went to get the clergy.

There are certain episodes, which - though trifling as they occur - sink into your memory like pennies thrown into dark water. It disturbs me, sometimes, this knowledge of presences in the deep. Half forgotten and half dead, inclined to flicker as whitish moths might do. Perhaps it is fortunate that the depth is hidden and the surface often cloyed with sweet pathos.

By the time I cycled back from father Dorian, the sun had vanished from sight and the skies glowed in degrees of rose and blue. The carmine leaves of the trees gleamed even more in the rising twilight. I felt the wind on my face as I drove down the line of planes, the skirt flapping against my thighs. I returned to our street, dismounted, and there beneath the lamp-pole knew a moment when emptiness filled me as though Henry was already gone. I looked up to our sharp-angled roof and the wandering clouds above the shingles. I recall - as though it was yesterday - the shadows moving swiftly over our whitewashed walls. As slow canvas would they sailed a soundless wake. When at last I averted my eyes, my glance passed a young man, standing lonely under a chestnut-tree. It was there my glance stopped, for amidst all the slow motion, he was the only one standing utterly still. I would have called him ordinary, almost nondescript - nearly to the point where he was too inconspicuous to be grasped. In fact he appeared like a thing most times overlooked and therefore uniquely sudden if detected by chance. There was a vagabond trace to him, although his clothes were fine enough. He wore a cap on his lowered head and his long hands lit a cigarette the moment I traversed the by-street. It were delicate hands, speckled with twilight, showing the slender fingers of a violinist. Maybe that was why my silent customer reminded me of the day, for he had the same hands with such delicate wrists. Those long years ago I watched the match drop to the ground and a red spark briefly highlight the young gentleman's cheekbones. Strange to tell, but I sensed the barest notion of a connection between us. There was a sense of sadness surrounding him that strung a faint cord in my silence. It was the situation, I suppose. I crossed our gate not ten feet away from him. He never looked up.

If possible, Henry seemed even less of himself on my return. My numbness dispersed as I sat down beside him and instead I felt the tiredness of the past weeks. Henry took my hand - a feeble gesture, but there was a smile on his face that surprised me in its tenderness. I noted that the tension of his body was gone and the anguish that had resided there so long had finally left his eyes. The change confused me. Morphine, I thought, but that would not explain the clarity of his eyes beneath the sweat-moistened lashes. I stroked his hand in wonder.

"Don't worry, Gilly-Darling," he said. "The pain is gone now." I must have twitched for the grip of his hand tightened briefly. "It is alright. There's only that little to go and less to fear."

A smile came to my own face and only then did I feel the pressure of tears. There was a knock on the door and I left to give Henry his moment with the clergy. I had the feeling, though, that consolation had come to Henry before the God's man. It was beyond me. There were stories that told of people who found an inexplicable peace before they left our earthly shores. Was that what had happened to my husband? Such serenity on his brow, such gentle humility - the fear that had palled his very being had been gone at last. He was relieved. I leaned back against the wall, covered my eyes with my hand and for one ugly moment I envied Henry the peace he had somehow found.

Was I happier for him in the years to come? More often than not, I was. He had been given a good life and gentle death, if there is such a thing. For my part, I continued and time lessened the sting. Between the steam of kettles and absent smiles over cherished cups little sadness prevailed. Still. I thought it was a mercy to only once watch so close the passing of a loved-one.



Then the orange moon of autumn again brought death to my doorstep. He chose to drift in on a mild afternoon at the end of the week. He brought with him the scent of nasturia from the market and some town's folk in Tweed.

I had just received a carton of African tea and the new blend filled the air with a faint vanilla scent. The gramophone turned in the background, lifting the voice of an American lady singer barely above the rasp of the needle. Elaine was chatting with a new customer, the elderly man responding good-naturedly to her clever banter. I smiled at her and she winked at me over the spry gentleman's head.

I had just exchanged our silent young man's cup for a new one and caught him daydreaming once more as I swept the empty dishes on my tablet. I watched him briefly, without him taking any notice. As usual he sat with his lower-arms on the table, his back bowed under an invisible burden. His hair had grown and now reached down to the white collar of his shirt. Between his fingers, he held a cinnamon-waffle and turned it gingerly as though it were some kind of jewel. The gentle hum of voices swept past and divided around us. Tiny crumbs trickled onto the table.

"It's a biscuit, dear," I said on impulse. "It won't bite, you know."

He looked up, obviously surprised to see me there. At my words, and here the surprise was entirely mine, he actually smiled. It was but a small lifting of his mouth, but there were definitely signs of mirth on his else so sombre countenance. I returned the kindness in full as he looked back down and started to pick up the biscuit's crumbs with dedicated precision. The white-haired gentleman next table laughed at some joke of Elaine and I thought the young man's smile widened a little. For the shadows on his lowered face I could not be sure.

I returned to the bar, Mrs. Berry's lectures on sable following me through the room. One of the kettles was whistling into the air and I put down my tablet, reaching for a cloth. Water trickled into waiting pottery as Mr. Poutley - his longish face hidden behind the Spectator - shifted in a rustle on his stool. Without any transition at all, Elaine's tablet crashed to the floor and the clear crack of porcelain shattered the room. A high scream shrilled from Mrs. Berry's table.

"Gillian! Gillian!" Elaine's strong voice, fringed with a tremor. "Gillian, come quick!"

My strides were quicker than my thoughts. When I hurried past the centre palm-bush, a broken tableau rose to me from the depth beneath our placid surface. The gentle old man lay fallen on the floor, his face contorted in rolling pain. Elaine knelt beside him, her skirt slid over her knee revealing a glimpse of her silken under-skirt. Her unringed hand lay on his heaving chest.

"God bless us!" Mrs. Berry pressed her gloved hand against her bosom.

I pushed two chairs away from the struggling. My own back creached in defiance as I lowered down. Somewhere above, Ms. Aberlee was sobbing, a fragile keening at the verge of sound. All the while I felt the flaring stare of eyes bearing down on us.

"Elaine, an ambulance." My own voice, detached from my mouth. Despite her blanched cheeks Elaine gave a firm nod and sprang to her feet. I placed my own hand on the gentleman's chest, distantly knowing I should look for his pulse. Else I had not the slightest idea what to do. Beneath my fingertips, his weskit felt coarse and warm. I saw the glittering fright beneath his lashes as he looked at me.

"Mrs. Grover." The urgent address swept haltingly against my ear. "Gillian?"

I looked up and found Professor Summercrowe staring down at me, his mouth helplessly twisted amidst his beard.

"Mrs. Grover, the door ... ."

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a hazy move and heard the rustle of a cloak. My hold on the was replaced by another's and I rose. Past the shock-white Mr. Poultrey and his abandoned newspaper I hurried to the entry at the far end of the room. Two boys stuck their heads into the shop, curious about the sudden ruckus. A potential customer, transfixed on the doorstep, gripped the jamb with wide-open eyes.

"What happened?" he asked breathlessly.

I lowered my head and reached for the door, shoving the children gently outside as I did.

"An accident. Please do go on."

Over the small groups' heads I caught a glimpse of maple-blur and the flicker of black jackdaws on the opposite roof. A passing wheelbarrow stirred them into a flutter. I closed the door, blocking out the noise from the street. The ensuing silence dropped like dead foliage. Someone had muted the gramophone.

I walked back across the room which, with its fanning plants and defusing columns of light, revealed tables and persons like islands. None of them moved. Vitality had washed from the place like water from a stranded thing. Behind the leafy parapet of the philodendron, Professor Summercrowe bent over Ms. Aberlee patting her tiny hand. Her sobs had ceased behind the lace of a kerchief. Mrs. Berry turned around from what scene there must be with an almost resenting look. Her plumed hat cast auburn, almost roseate shadows over her round face.

My steps slowed as I circled them, until I was finally past their backs and looked down at the stilled scene.

The silent young man knelt on the floor, the elder's head resting in his lap. His long hands held the sides of the gentleman's face almost tenderly. And what a face it was ... . Anguish had shrivelled like wilted leaves from his countenance, leaving a face, blank and smooth, as those of chiselled sculptures in twilit church-aisles. There was no trace of life, no memory, not even of the pain effaced from these features.

I went down on one knee and reached for his wrist. It was lax against my touch. The gnarled, clawing fingers had eased in death.

Then I looked up and my eyes were met by those lucent green orbs beneath dishevelled hair. A lightning pain, clear as glass, pierced through my own heart. There was no shadow to mask the ivory face before me. No gratifying veil of unawareness to hide what had been formerly disguised. He was bared to me and his expression was filled with fathomless grief. It showed neither in lines or cares, it was a distortion that went beyond the visible. His skin was unmarred, which made the ancient anguish only more terrible. The agony of the dying had passed to the silent man, only on his smooth features it was a thousandfold intensified, fragmenting like impure glass. That face, taken out of time and marked with the sheen of torment.

At the sight such fear and pity rose in me as I have never felt before. As a slender flame of a dying candle I was before his gaze.

The irises were the colour of ancient copper, reflecting ripples as shallow water might do. And inside these rings of restlessness, the jet-black pupils gaped as gates to the abyss. The human part of me shied away from those eyes and the light which brimmed them like tears. Only then did I recognise he was pleading.

"I thought he had let me go," he said in a voice that cracked like thin ice on a winter lake. "I thought I was free."

There again he seemed young, younger than the earth, burdened by a despair as old as transience. He did not move, but it seemed as though his slight frame was vibrating like a reed in the day's last breeze.

Around us, blinking dust-motes settled like dandelion-seed. Time removed to the oak-panelled ceiling and then resumed in the dwindling light of the afternoon. How shall I forget this moment when I had seen the face behind his face. It has been a while, but now I think I can give half a name to the sadness I perceived. My mind still shrinks from it, although it is haunted, and returns in bittering dreams to this pariah creature. There I know what the revelation of passing did to him and then I recognise what I had seen in his eyes. This rift in sheer whiteness. It had made him look as though he had fallen for a long time through darkness.


finis


And now my charms are all o'erthrown
And what strength I have's mine own
Which is most faint: now t'is true
I must here be released by you

But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,

Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer

Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults
As from your crimes would pardon'd be
Let your indulgence set me free.

'Prospero's Speech' from W. Shakespeare's 'The Tempest'
 
 
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