by Katherine Wheeler
Jean lifted the cup to her lips and took a sip, clinking her teeth against the bone china edges. The tea was cold, a little stale from some time on the mantelpiece. She’d picked the leaves herself, when she’d still believed in health kicks and quick fixes, an age ago. Beside her an armchair rocked a whispered beat into the ground, pushing dimples into the carpet. Outside, a hot light glazed the windows, smothering a bright hand over the house to strangle its air. So foul and fair a day I have not seen. She stirred her cup, glanced downward at its cold bone handle, making her fingers busy to spite the silence.
The tea was stone cold; the spoon she had used to stir it had been stained so often its silver sheen looked rusted and superficial like it had been caught in a lie. She’d thought about the faded picture on the mug a dozen times: a punchy cartoon of a builder, hammer in hand. Underneath was a joke she could never recall how to laugh at, the letters had mostly worn off leaving just the outline of a happy emotion. Jean fidgeted.
There was a stirring outside. Something clattered against the gravel path. With a cheery wave Mr Grevelly passed by the window in front of her, puffing his round cheeks into a smile so large the sun shone a circular streak across his face, shouting aside a greeting she couldn’t hear. As he spoke, he threw into his post bag a glut of letters. Jean watched the bag, silent as the envelopes spilled to the floor. One had once been hers, addressed to a trench without a name to a man in a country she had never seen. In recent times the gloom had eased in again and she’d stopped writing, lacking the strength in her hand. On it, she’d always noted the address of her bungalow –62 Hampton Road, (Hotel Alfa Mike Papa…) – in case they’d have to send it back. There had been a problem each time and the letters were beginning to make an unsightly pile in the back room. The pile had grown to the size of a small animal, one that liked to glare and stalk about the place and to tread mucky pawprints across the upholstery. She had no real desire to feed it nor to leave the bungalow to source more envelopes, hence why it slobbered across the floor dripping her writing from its paper maw.
Mr Grevelly disappeared around the corner. Jean waved back, unseen, as the man set off on his bicycle, its wheels spitting grit from the path against the window. A small bird darted after the bike as if tethered by a rope, its colour trapped in still air like it had paused mid-flight. She closed her eyes, waited until the colour had gone. With the street dull, Jean found her fingers against bare mahogany, tracing the ring of moisture left by the tea. There was clearly nothing to do but wait on her chair and watch the window, time had gone slower than she’d reckoned. Her hand wavered over empty space, chewed nails against hard wood tracing a slow path from the ring to the bare edge. The biscuits were in the kitchen, too far away to grasp with her hand. Jean rose, shuddering upwards to an arrhythmical pulse. Once upright she cast a strained eye to the mantelpiece, bare now. Nothing to show.
For a time she plotted the path to the kitchen, shuffling around dropped clothes, stumbling a little on the unfixed carpet. He’ll do it later. The back of the house faced away from the sun, groaning at her under the strain of the dark about this or that. The milk has run out, it said; the cheese has gone off now, you’ve forgotten again. How could she –what was it, that word? A book, a film, sounds like… Nothing came. The biscuits hid. Jean looked for something, made herself busy until enough time had passed to return to her seat.
She walked a while up and down the hall, forgetting and remembering what she’d come for before pausing at the window, grasping the curtain tight to shield her eyes from the gleam of the afternoon sun. Sit here a while and you could watch the seasons change. Today it was Spring and the kingfishers had come to dance on the river, flitting their carnival wings against the water to seize upon the worms and the annelids. At noon, the tempestuous sun would gleam on their backs a topaz blue and Jean’s eye would strike the nest at the crown of the bank. In the hollow, two birds twined together in spite of the roaring sun on a floor of broken eggs. They mate for life, she thought.