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   Chapter 5 Teapot

Attention Span and Other Stories By PaulineWiles Characters: 9818

Updated: 2018-01-11 12:02


It was the mountain of plump, shiny gooseberries which first caught Joan's attention. Piled in an old-fashioned wicker basket, each had veins so delicate, they might have been painted on by hand. Then she noticed the man, sitting in the shade, bent over his task. Methodically, he topped and tailed the glossy fruit: slice, slice, then dropped them into a huge stainless steel tub at his side – plink. He was dressed in chef's whites, but his head was bare, his hair no more than a few wispy strands of grey.

Joan had spent the first part of the morning exploring the walled vegetable garden, where eager beans climbed wigwams to the sky and plump marrows lazed on the soil. The garden was well-tended: patches of damp earth and a faint peaty smell told her the crops had been watered early in the day. The sweet peas had been well-picked, as is necessary, to encourage fresh growth. She wondered who was the lucky recipient of the scented blooms. But as the sun had climbed higher, the imposing orange brick walls had blocked any hint of breeze. Her hip was troubling her; she was in need of a sit-down. Where better than the tea room?

With her handbag slung inelegantly across her body and walking stick hooked awkwardly over one arm, Joan managed to carry her tray outside to the terrace. That's when she saw the fruit, and its handler. From the speed he was working, she hoped the gooseberries weren't intended for today's lunch.

'They're keeping you busy this morning, ' Joan said to him as she shuffled by. She never used to start conversations with strangers, but, recently, she'd found entire days could pass in silence.

The chef lifted his head and looked in her general direction. His face was round and weather-beaten. 'It's all I'm good for, these days.'

There was precious little shade on the terrace and Joan didn't fancy the indignity of grappling with one of the furled umbrellas. A small round table next to him was vacant.

'I'm going to sit here in the cool, if you don't mind.' She leaned her stick against the stone building before lowering herself carefully towards a narrow wooden chair. Her joints shrieked and she had to allow gravity to handle the last couple of inches. Fortunately, the chair held. One of these days, it wouldn't.

'You help yourself, my dear.' He reached for a cloth to wipe his fingers. It was lying on the table next to his hand, but it took him a couple of pats to find it.

Joan looked more closely, nodding as she understood. He was almost blind.

She poured a careful splash of milk into her cup, then added the tea, served, as it should be, in a proper china pot. 'It's going to be another scorcher.'

'It is, ' he agreed. 'I don't know who's going to want a hot pudding on a day like this, but there you have it.'

'Are they going in a pie, then?' She sipped her tea gratefully.

'Crumble. So I'm told.' Slice, slice, plink. 'I don't decide the menu, not any more.'

Again, he looked in her direction and she saw his cloudy eyes. Cataracts, almost certainly.

'But you used to plan what to cook?'

'I've worked here since before the house was given over to the National Trust, ' he said. 'Before the family ran into problems, couldn't pay the inheritance tax. It was a different place, back then.'

Joan had the luxury of being able to observe, without him knowing she was staring. She guessed he was in his seventies too. Apart from his eyes, he seemed to be in good health.

'Oh yes, I've cooked for the rich and famous, ' he continued. 'Made lunch for Elizabeth Taylor, once. Trout, it was. Trout with almonds.' He stared off into the distance for a few moments before resuming his work. His fingers were still nimble, just slow.

'But now you can't cook, because of your eyes?'

'That's right, lass. A blind chef isn't much use to anyone.'

She liked being called lass. That hadn't happened in a long time. 'Have you had your cataracts looked at?'

'Oh, no. Nobody's taking a paring knife to my eyeballs.' He sniffed. 'I don't trust hospitals. Too many folk die in those places.'

Joan laughed. 'I don't think they do.'

'My mother died, for starters. Having me.'

'I'm sorry.' She coughed awkwardly.

He shrugged. 'My father never forgave me.'

'It was hardly your fault.'

'No. But he never came to terms with it. He couldn't talk about her, drunk or sober. I spent the next forty years trying to apologise for being born.'

'Then what happened?'

'He died.'

Joan said nothing, but drank her tea and listened to the steady rhythm of his work. The plink of falling gooseberries had changed to a plunk: he had filled the bottom layer of the tub.

'Then, there was Billy Morse, ' he continued. 'The boys at school, they either ignored me, or poked fun. Being ignored was better, obviously. I got by just fine with no friends: found a corner of the playground and kept my head down. But

one day, out of the blue, Billy Morse shared his lunch. There was never much food around at my house, you see. I had to find it myself, or go hungry.'

That made sense, with no mother and a father gone to pieces.

'Yes, Billy scuffed up to me in his short trousers, sat down and offered me half his ham sandwich.' Slice, slice, plunk. 'We were friends for life.'

Joan poured extra hot water into the pot and hassled the bag with her teaspoon. Loose leaves would have been preferable, but one couldn't have everything.

'Last winter, they took Billy into hospital for his prostate. Routine, they said. A couple of days, they said.'

She murmured, so he would know she was listening.

'You won't get me near those places now.' He stopped slicing for several seconds.

'I'm sorry about your mother and your friend, ' Joan said. 'But I can tell you, hospitals aren't as dangerous as all that.'

'Hmmph. What are you then, a doctor?'

'No, a nurse, ' she said crisply. 'Retired, I mean.'

'And I suppose you worked with eyes.'

'No, paediatrics.'

She hadn't started off in paediatrics. That was the most popular ward, and Joan wasn't pretty or funny or persuasive, like the other new nurses. So they sent her to oncology. There, she witnessed white pain and dark suffering that twisted her stomach and sent her running to the toilet to retch. After the first year, she learned to see without remembering, to touch without feeling, her emotions for her patients as starched as her uniform.

Joan's thirty-seventh birthday turned into thirty-eight and then thirty-nine, and she still hadn't had a child. Fred stammered words of comfort, but the gap in their family threatened to swallow her. She went to the hospital administrators and told them that unless they transferred her to paediatrics, she would leave and train as a teacher. Within three months, they moved her to a children's ward and that's where she stayed for the next two decades.

'I saw hundreds of operations, ' Joan told her gooseberry friend. 'I know what I'm talking about.'

'And how many of them died?'

'Not many.' She paused. 'Well, not many who weren't going to die in any case.'

He chuckled. 'Thanks, but no thanks.'

Joan pursed her lips but changed the topic. 'I just came from the walled garden. Beautiful-looking vegetables.'

He nodded. 'Yes, it's a fine plot. A grand kitchen garden. I used to stroll down there in the early evening and eye up what might be ready the following day. In summer, this estate was darn near self-sufficient.'

Joan thought of the pitiful tomato plants in the back garden of her house, the home Fred and she had bought when they were first married. Her vegetable bed was growing more weeds than food this year. Darned hip. She'd waited stubbornly until it was unbearable, before seeking help. Foolish mistake.

'What's your favourite dish to cook?' she asked him. 'If you could, I mean.'

'Ah, that's easy.' He smiled. 'Game pie.'

'Game pie?'

'From scratch. Rabbit, venison, pheasant. Carrots, potatoes, pastry, everything from scratch. I'd prepare the game myself. No shortcuts.'

'I don't often see that on menus, these days.'

'No, folks are too squeamish to make it – or too lazy, I don't know which. But I bake a wonderful game pie. Of course, you have to plan ahead.'

'And it's not really a dish for a day like today.' Joan's patch of shade was shrinking and she scraped her chair back a fraction.

'No, no, it's an autumn dish, winter, even. October, November, when the nights are getting chilly and there's mist in the air. November's best.'

He paused in his work, his head lifted, as if he were looking out across the estate, to where the deer were grazing peacefully.

'You know, ' Joan waited a few moments and then said carefully, 'I need a hip replacement and there's a six-month waiting list. My vegetable plot will be a jungle when I eventually get back to it.'

'I'm sorry to hear it, ' he said.

'The wait's much shorter, for cataracts.' She hoped she was right. 'You'd see your GP, who'd send you to a specialist, and then they'd probably do it in day surgery. You'd be in and out in less time than it's taking you to humiliate those gooseberries.'

'You're a cheeky lass.' He gave a chuckle.

Joan finished her tea and gathered her things together. She found her stick, then hoisted herself up, using the edge of the wobbly table for support.

'Who knows, you might be making game pie this autumn, ' she said.

'I might, ' he said slowly. 'I might.'

'Well, I'll look for it on the menu, then. In November.'

As she hobbled away, she tried to read his expression. But with his eyes so foggy, there were no clues, just the gentle nodding of his head in time with his work.

Slice, slice, plunk.

~~~

>> Author's note: Summer Fruits was originally published in Toasted Cheese Literary Journal.

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