by Andrew Stiggers
Even with his diminished stature – he knew he was shorter than his son now – John still had to stoop down when he followed his wife into the thatched-cottage tearoom. Framed in ancient oak, the low doorway was as warped as the beams on the ceiling and exposed timber inside. And with a musty smell in the air, the place felt centuries old.
“Sweetie – here, let me help you.” John went over to draw back a chair from the nearest table.
“No.” Gwen squinted her eyes at him something fierce. “I can manage.” She hooked the top of the chair with her gnarled, arthritic hand and labored to sit down.
Fifty-two years – that’s how long they’d been married. And in that time they’d brought up a wonderful son, doted on two wonderful grandchildren; experienced the world in all its diverse beauty and ugliness; journeyed across oceans, deserts, mountains; called several countries their home at one point or another; and like some bright-eyed child, learned about the proud cultures of the countless peoples they’d met. They had lived, really lived. For John, though, the more distant past they’d shared was fading, and he was amazed at how Gwen could vividly remember it all, reminding him about the sweltering night spent in a longhouse in the Bornean jungle or that trip by boat to Capri through a thunderstorm. She was good like that.
And yet given all this eventfulness in their lives, every summer since retirement they’d repeated the same journey – down to the south coast, where they stayed at the same hotel by the sea and walked along the same tracks on the Downs, though these strolls had stopped lately. And every summer they would have afternoon tea at this tearoom in the small village of Wilmington.
A young waitress weaved her way between the unoccupied tables towards them.
All those empty chairs. John had thought the tearoom must be closed when they parked outside – it’d appeared lifeless through the windows. How sad. The place used to be so popular.
“Welcome. Would you like to look at our menu?” She saw the state of Gwen’s hand and put a copy down in front of her.
“Thank you.” Gwen rested her arm down by her side.
They always stared. John took his menu. “Is Margaret around?”
“Yes, the other waitress who’s worked here for years.”
“Oh, she left just before I started the job.”
“Yes, I heard she was good.…” The girl looked down at the floor. “Right, well, I’ll come back when you’re ready to order.”
After she’d gone John pushed the sugar bowl to one side. The tearoom hadn’t changed – well, apart from the lack of patrons. He recognized the patterned vase on the table, and on the walls the same blue-and-white plates were displayed alongside pictures of the local area. As Gwen had previously pointed out, this was not the opulence of high tea at the Ritz, dining at immaculately arranged tables served by immaculately dressed waiters. And this certainly was not a crowded yum cha restaurant in humid Singapore, where they’d ordered dim sum from a trolley while trying to hear each other over the noise. No, but this was their place where they came for tea.
John watched Gwen struggling to hold up her menu. He really wanted to reach over and help her out, but knew better – she can be so stubborn. Instead he trained his eyes back on his own menu. Homemade Clotted Cream Teas… Strawberries… Cucumber Sandwiches… Good – he was looking forward to a top-notch tea.
John put his menu down. “Sweetie, shall we go and see what cakes are available?”
“I’m fine. You go.”
He’d known it would be too much trouble for her but had wanted to ask anyway.
As John studied the glass-domed stands at the back of the room, the waitress hovered close by.
He pointed. “What are those things?”
“It’s like a donut and croissant combined. They’re all the rage.”
“Humph.” Sounded like a monstrous creation, he thought. It won’t last long. John remembered when someone painted the walls of the tearoom a dark shade of red. Absolutely hideous. He was glad they’d reverted to wallpaper the following year.
The waitress retreated once he started to make his way back to their table.
“Anything you fancy, John?”
He briefly touched Gwen’s shoulder when he passed by her. “No, nothing in particular. Never mind.” He considered his menu again. “Well, sweetie, shall we have the usual?”
“Yes, good idea. Should we have scones too?”
“Better not. You remember what the doctor said.” He yearned for a dollop of clotted cream and jam spread on top of a warm scone but dismissed the idea – it wasn’t good for Gwen any more.
“Are you ready to order?” The waitress prepared her pen and notepad.
“Yes…” John indicated in the menu. “We’ll have the Victorian Tea.”
The girl made a note. “With scones?”
“No, we’d better not.”
Gwen nodded in agreement.
“And which sandwiches would you like?”
“Smoked salmon and… cucumber.” Egg might be a bit too sickly for Gwen.
Left alone again, the couple chatted briefly.
Behind his wife, John watched the pendulum on the clock swaying from side to side. A slow, steady motion.
His eyes turned to Gwen. “Shouldn’t be long now.” He smiled.
After bringing out the tea, the waitress returned with a tiered stand. Each level was arranged with dainty, bite-sized sandwiches. And on the top tier John saw a cluster of small meringues dotted with raspberries.
“Delightful. Thank you.” He poured some milk into his tea.
Once the waitress had gone, Gwen leaned over. “She didn’t bring the scones, John.”
“We didn’t order any, sweetie.”
“I thought we did.”
“No, we didn’t. Don’t you remember?”
“Oh, I see.”
Although no one could fault her long-term memory, Gwen was becoming more forgetful about day-to-day things. Their son had talked about a rest home again. It’s only going to get worse, Dad. Maybe he was right… No, I’ll look after her. He handed Gwen a sandwich. Oh, God. He still couldn’t get the accident out of his head. She’d forgotten about the toast again and the kitchen almost burnt down. He remembered waiting by her side at the hospital, feeling helpless while she lay in the bed, the fluorescent lighting menacing his eyes. He’d feared the worst, and kept a vigilant lookout for the next approaching nurse whilst in the adjoining cubicle, inches away but invisible behind a curtain, a cough was hacking away.
The blue-and-white plates rattled on the walls – a heavy truck had just rolled down the road and the whole room shook. It never used to be this bad, John thought.
They ate and drank in silence, John checking on Gwen’s plate and cup from time to time.
And the room darkened as rain clouds gathered outside.
“How’s your tea?” The waitress had returned.
“Lovely,” Gwen said, a parsley leaf stuck to a front tooth.
John signaled to his wife.
“So where do you come from?” The waitress addressed them both.
“High Wycombe. But Gwen was born in India.” John proceeded to explain their life history and how they always came here every year –
“John, you mustn’t bore her.” The parsley had gone.
“Yes, yes of course.”
“That’s quite all right. It’s always interesting listening to our customers.” The waitress picked up the teapot. “I’ll fetch you a fresh pot.” She left the table.
“Nice girl,” said Gwen.
They both sipped their tea.
John stared out the window and could just make out the top of the hill above the treeline in the distance. Although he knew it was out there, he couldn’t see the Long Man – that solitary figure carved from the chalk on the steep hillside. He still had a vague memory of that first trip they’d made here, just before they got married. Going for a walk down the lane towards the Long Man. A leaning tree propped up in the church graveyard further along the way – an ancient, giant skeleton of a tree.
A car zoomed by outside.
It was a shame Gwen could no longer make the walk down the lane, or any other lane for that matter. They used to enjoy their strolls together.
John waited feebly at the lifted-up toilet seat. The tea had gone straight through, and he would probably have to stop off on the way back to the hotel.
At the sink, he stared at his tired, old face in the mirror. Gwen was right – he looked very much like his brother now. Sagging skin and thinning white hair. John squeezed tightly on the tap to stop it dripping. Poor David. His brother was on his own now that Izzie had passed away. John brushed some crumbs off his blazer. How could David cope? It must be tough – frightening, even, to live alone.
He took a deep breath and opened the door.
Where is she? Her chair was empty.
“Where is she?” he said aloud.
The whole place was empty.
Fearful images flashed in his mind. Preparing a lonely tea in the kitchen, placing a single biscuit on a plate beside a single cup. Hoovering the carpet in front of a disused sofa. Pictures of old memories propped up on the side table, no new ones ever to be made now.
“She went out into the garden, sir.” The waitress had appeared and indicated the side door.
John rushed out onto the gravel path. How could he have forgotten about the garden? They’d sat out here on their first visit to the tearoom. He saw another couple taking tea at one of the tables out on the lawn.
“There you are, sweetie. You had me worried.”
A smile on her face, she was standing at the end of the lawn near a blackberry bush that hung over the fence. “Do you remember the bramble down the lane, John?”
Yes, he did. And he also remembered her then. The beautiful girl he’d fallen in love with a lifetime ago, skipping in front of him, laughing at how he’d torn his finger on a thorn when they ate berries from the bush. God, they were so young. He could see the reddish stains on their fingers, the pips in her teeth when she grinned at him – and taste the tart fruit on her lips when they kissed. Boy, did she tease him as she held up his cut hand and kissed it to make it better. What would you do without me, John? You’re so hopeless. Yes, he was hopeless, he knew, but he’d never admitted it to her. John smiled. And nor had he ever mentioned the state of her teeth that day.
“Yes, I remember.” He gazed into Gwen’s eyes and realized there was no point in worrying so much – all that mattered was they were together. And whatever happens, he would take care of his girl. Be at her bedside, do the shopping, hoover, prepare her tea. Bathe her. Dress her. Make it better. Make it all better.
“Did you enjoy your tea?” The waitress returned to the table to provide John with his change.
“Yes, very much, thank you.”
The girl accompanied them to the door. “See you next year.”
“Yes, see you next year,” said John.
Gwen nodded and smiled.
John turned to his wife and held out his hand. “Come on, sweetie, let me help you.”
“…Yes… all right.”
Placing his arm around Gwen’s waist, John stooped down under the low doorway, and together they descended the step outside the tearoom.
About the photographer: Molly Engel is a Philadelphia native who now lives in Portland, Oregon where she is studying nursing. When not at school or in the hospital, she likes to eat donuts, play with her cat, and climb with friends at the local bouldering gym. She has been taking pictures since she was 13, and after an introductory photography class in college she fell in love with 35mm film. Her digital camera has collected dust ever since. Find her work on Instagram @mollyonfilm.