A Quiet Cup of Tea

She smelled her first. Heavy musk perfume, sweat, stale lavender and smoke. Florence ordered her nose to remain unwrinkled and glanced around the dim tea room, balancing her tray.

The cause of the pollution seemed to be the shapeless, greasy little mound of a woman at the corner table. Those thick padded coats hold on to smells like old friends. Who would wear a coat like that in August anyway? Let alone a stinking one. She must know it smelled. Surely. It was rude. Indecent.

She straightened. It was nothing to worry about.

Florence took her rattling teapot and her over-iced carrot cake to a table as far away as possible. She had to straighten her new trousers as she sat down, and tried to do so with some discretion. An irritating miscalculation on her trouser size it would seem. They had been expensive too. Still, at least they also looked it.

She settled herself in a bright window table with her back to the coated monstrosity. Her nose would not smell what he eyes could not see. It would not. She would not allow it. She breathed in her steeping peppermint tea and tried to force her shoulders down. 

She wouldn’t look. There was no reason to look. There was no reason to think it was one of them. She was here for her cake and her quiet cup of tea. She was here to rest. Recharge. Forget. She’d earned that, had she not? After the week she’d had.

Florence focused on the smell of her tea and the crumbling cake on her plate. The piano plink-plonking a bit too loud over the speakers. 

But the first forkful of carrot cake had not even reached her lips when the smell caught her again. She knew without looking that the ugly puffed up coat was standing behind her now. Stained brown loafers hovered in the edge of her vision. She swallowed. There was only so long she’d be able to ignore these things.

“Florence Mackay?” wobbled the coat.

She looked up, forced. “Yes. Hello.”

Florence took in the freckle-stained face. The moles. The low wrinkled eye bags, the angular nose. It was all so… expected. “I’m sorry. Do I know you?”

“No,” the coat lady edged herself into the opposite chair without an invitation. “But I’ve been waiting for you. I’ve seen you in here before.”

Florence watched her sit because she could not think of a way to tell her not to that would not make things worse. She knew how the script would go now. How it always went. 

The woman had huddled down inside that smelly coat, and tried to talk without moving her mouth. All her attempts to look inconspicuous had the opposite effect. Florence wanted to scold her. If she had to do it, at least be sensible about it. There was no need to draw attention. She could see without looking, the curious eyes flicking towards them. She regretted sitting in the well-lit window.

The woman muttered without looking at her, in a voice that was too high for her face. “I’m in need of your expertise.”

Florence smiled, for the eyes who were looking rather than for the woman who was not. Best they see her smiling. “You . . . may be confusing me with someone else, I’m afraid. I don’t have any expertise. At least,” she tried to lighten her voice, “none that I can imagine would be of use to you.”

The woman looked her full in the face now. Searched her. She had irises that bled like ink into her eye whites, and eyebrows that needed tweezing. She didn’t look stupid though, and that set off the heat on the back of Florence’s neck. She breathed deep. Don’t. No blush. That would not help matters.

“Florence Mackay,” she coat lady repeated, breathless underneath her words. “Florence Mackay who lives on the corner of New Road. Who owns a cat called Zebedee. Whose husband—” she dropped her voice as she, too, appeared to notice eyes on them. “Whose husband was sadly buried three days ago?”

Florence did her best to meet the watery gaze, did her best to arrange her face, her body, in the way she should. Realized that her fork full of carrot cake was still wavering around above her plate, and didn’t know what to do with it. 

“Yes,” she gripped the fork harder. “I see you have read the paper.”

“Yes,” the coat lady looked relieved. Kept studying her. “Yes I have.”

“Then, forgive me, but you’ll know that I’m in mourning currently. So—”

“I also read the one before that.”

Florence froze and unfroze. Only a second, it was only a second. She wouldn’t have seen. “There wasn’t one before that.”

“Yes there was,” the coat lady’s voice was surer now, less wobbly. So was her stare. “Only, you weren’t Florence Mackay in that one.”

“Oh?” Florence smiled, tilted a curious eyebrow. “Who was I then?”

“Juliet Leon.”

Florence set her fork down slowly. “I’m afraid I don’t know who that is.”

“Juliet Leon whose husband was sadly buried three years ago.”

It was a strange thing, the mixture in her stomach. There was relief in there somewhere, along with the sick and the flutter and the tension. She wouldn’t have expected relief. She swallowed down all of it. “Well, in that case I’m very sorry for Juliet Leon but I really don’t see what that has to do with me.”

The lady bit something back. Caught her words before they came. She chewed on her lip as she stared, tight jawed, at Florence. Then she sat back, sighed, shriveled down inside her coat. She looked smaller now, as she watched people passing back and forth across the window. Florence wanted to shake her. Into or out of what, she wasn’t sure. 

They sat in silence so long that Florence thought it might, finally, have worked. She might have finally managed to put a stop to one of them. She put the fork of cake into her mouth.

“Show me. How to do it.”

It was quiet. Her lips hadn’t moved. She had not looked away from the window.

Florence waited until she was sure her voice would not shake. “I beg your pardon?”

“Show me. Please. I’ve tried everything.”

“I’m sorry, Mrs. . . . I didn’t catch your name. But—”

“Elaine Creavy.”

“Elaine. I’m really not sure what you want me to show you.”

Elaine gave a desperate little mewl and thumped both arms flat onto the sticky table in front of her. A few drops of tea spilled from the spout of Florence’s teapot. She pushed up the filthy padded arms of her coat.

Florence blinked at her exposed skin. The raw pink flesh in stripes around her wrists. The marbled bruises. The half healed cuts. 

Elaine watched her face, holding her breath. Waited long enough to be sure Florence had registered every detail. Then roughly yanked the sleeves back down.

They sat in silence.

Elaine looked anywhere but at Florence. “He won’t stop,” she whispered.

Florence sighed from the depths of her stomach. A bleeding heart, that’s what she was. It would never do to keep doing this, keep yielding like this. Soon there would be too many. Soon someone was going to notice. Soon.

But . . . oh, the smell really was pitiful. Lavender and a smoking cauldron . . . was that actually the best effort this broken little woman could muster? She actually thought that would work? Moons and dolls and pins and spells and potions. All these ridiculous playground games and silly little trinkets. She actually thought she needed them?

Florence shook her head in tired resignation. “Elaine Creavy,” she repeated. “Of . . . ?”

Elaine frowned, confused. Then caught Florence’s hard, probing look.

“Of 61 Vinery Court,” she babbled.

Florence nodded. “Married to . . . ?”

“Dennis Creavy,” her voice rose and wavered. “Of 61 Vinery Court.”

Florence nodded. Sat back in her chair. Waited.

When Elaine remained motionless she nodded towards the door. “Have a nice day. I’m sure you will.”

“That’s . . . it?”

“That’s it. Goodbye.”

“But . . .” Elaine swallowed. 

“That’s it,” Florence repeated. Elaine’s face crumpled and watered. Oh, for goodness sake.

“Don’t invite me to the funeral.”

Elaine’s wide eyes strained to encompass the whole of Florence at once. Then her hand grabbed at her own mouth and she struggled to her feet, fumbled her way across the floor. To the door. To her house. To her dead husband.

Florence sighed. Touched a delicate finger to the dent between her eyes. The migraines afterwards were the worst part.

She really had to learn to say no.

image: Photo by congerdesign on Pixnio

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