The Bottom of the Mug

The fairground had been bustling, teeming, crawling with people. Now they trickled, bouncing from stand to tent like pinballs. There were barely any of them left, and they were outnumbered by the bottles and cups and straws and plates and napkins and balloon animals littering the ground, tossed and crumpled on the withered grass. Penelope was walking, staring at nothing in particular, down a path trodden between games and tents. She was walking toward the tent at the end.

Her day had been a long crowd of bewildering events with strange faces. She’d only just gotten to the fair after missing two trains and losing her phone. Now she walked with purpose toward the gray tent, the plain one with scarves for a door and a solemn sign outside. It read, “MadamE Clara’s TEa REadings” in a blue scrawl. She kicked aside paper cups and empty bottles as she walked.

Once Penelope reached the tent, she hesitated. One hand paused at the scarves. Even barely touching, they whispered against her skin. She took in a breath, pushed them aside, and stepped in.

Inside the tent, she blinked with surprise. She had been expecting MadamE Clara to be something else. The picture in her head of a tea leaf reader was that of an old woman, perhaps with a turban. Knowing this, she’d expected MadamE Clara to be very young, or a man maybe. The inside of the tent was dim, a lantern scattering yellow light onto the dark colorful walls of cloth. In this sparse light she could see a wrinkled face, lines etched around blue eyes, and indeed there was a turban threatening to fall off the wispy white hair. She opened her mouth to speak, and MadamE Clara handed her a mug without a word.

It was a mug, not a proper teacup at all, and she sipped without thinking. The tea was sweet, lemony and strong. It must have been made a minute ago, for in the chill night air it had already cooled to the solid warmth that didn’t burn her tongue at all. She drank, looking over the rim of the mug at MadamE Clara, who nodded at her. Penelope drained the mug, feeling the leaves float over to tickle her lips, and then she handed it to the old woman.

MadamE Clara took it, folded her hands around it, and looked inside. She stayed like that for a while, making a moue with her mouth and squinting this way and that. Then she spoke, in a startling gravelly voice.

“Try to avoid strong brews, my dear. You’re probably more of a mint sort of person, perhaps chai? Certainly not assam, I’m sorry to say.” She said this in a kind way, her eyebrows stretching up as if trying to soften the blow.

Penelope stared at her. “Pardon. What? What are you talking about?”

MadamE Clara shook her head, seeming impatient. Her turban swung back and forth, but clung on despite all odds. “Tea, dear. You ought always to add milk, but you could probably really do without lemon, and I get the sense you don’t like too much sugar. Just do, for the love of all that is holy, do avoid awful bagged tea and make it the proper way with a strainer.

Penelope nodded, her mind tumbling. She must have looked as bewildered as she felt, for MadamE Clara patted her shoulder with a gentle wrinkled hand before pulling the scarves aside to let her out of the tent. Penelope walked through, somewhat numb and very confused.

She half-turned when the old woman called out after her, “And you should really put the milk in first, then pour the tea. It’s not how it’s meant to be done but it’s more sensible. Otherwise you scald the milk.”

Penelope managed a smile and walked with her head down until she reached the edge of the fairground. It had been a very long day. Perhaps she just needed a drink. Not a hot one.


The Missing Friend

The air was heavy with the sweet dark scents of the shop, weighing down Nicole’s lungs. The jars were stacked to the ceiling all across one wall, silver-handled scoops peeking invitingly from their mouths. The one Nicole was looking at was labeled “Valerian green tea good for headaches. Migraines healing very beneficial!” She fingered the scoop, picking up a little pile of the leaves and letting it fall back down. Maybe, she thought, they should bring some back for Lauren.

A Chinese Herbal Tea shop (涼茶鋪) in Wan Chai , ...

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Tony walked up to her, navigating the narrow aisles of the store with a turn of his shoulders and a dodge around a hanging pan. He said, “Hey, what’re you up to?” She turned to him, letting the scoop clank against the edge of the jar, and watched his eyes catch on the label. His mouth flattened into a thin line. He never liked to go anywhere without Lauren, and Nicole had already caught him fiddling with his phone a couple of times. He was probably sending texts to ask if she was okay every chance he got. That wasn’t particularly helpful, she thought. Lauren was probably curled in her room with the lights off, trying to ignore things that buzzed and lit up every time Tony wanted to remind her how thoughtful he was.

From the end of the left aisle, a round teapot gleamed a bright dark blue. Nicole ducked past Tony and picked it up. It was just big enough to fit comfortably in both palms. She stared at it for a moment, just looking up to see Drew turning from the next aisle over. He flinched, nearly bumping into her, and then he kept walking, calling, “Tony, listen, I’m really hungry. Let’s get out of here already, right?” Nicole’s lips scrunched into a frown and she put the teapot back on the shelf with a thump. She liked the shop, and wanted to stay. Usually Lauren would have shot a comment over to the boys, something that sweetly knocked them off their superiority complex and down to earth with everybody else. They tended to drag people behind them without noticing that they were going too fast, and Lauren had a way of pointing that out. Nicole never knew how to do that, though.

She said, “Wait, guys, I want to buy some tea.” Neither of them turned around, so she repeated herself, louder. Tony swiveled to face her and crossed his arms over his chest, clearly impatient. Nicole found the tea she’d been looking at and hastily scooped some into a bag, sprinkling a bit of it on the linoleum as she did. She paid and hurried after the boys, already outside and walking down the sidewalk. Maybe it would make Lauren feel better.

The next time they went out, then, Lauren would come. Then, Nicole thought hopefully, she wouldn’t get left behind. She tucked the paper bag into her purse and caught up with the boys, tucking herself next to them. Tony nodded at her, and Drew kept talking. The sidewalk was full of jostling elbows and shoulders.

Nicole felt the air loosen around her now that they were out of the shop, away from the shelves and packages that closed them in together. The scent of the tea, flattened under her arm, drifted up to her along with the smells of the city – the pizza place at the corner, the perfume drenching some woman walking by, the ever-present flat smell of the street. The boys were arguing now, in loud voices, about a video game or something like that, she thought. Nicole clutched her purse closer to her, curling her fingers around the top of the bag of tea. She would be back soon enough.