Filthy things, tea bags, thought Cissy as she fished the sodden sack out of the water, squeezing it against the side of the cup with a spoon. She rubbed the spoon with her thumb. It was one of a set of twelve given to her and Archie on their wedding day almost sixty years ago. The tiny Apostle was worn almost smooth by years of daily use; the details of his vestments survived only in Cissy’s mind, along with her memories of Archie. Her nineteen year old husband had gone off to war, full of excitement and patriotic zeal and had come back an old man, content to sit in the window like a dusty houseplant, shrivelling in the sunshine. All she had left of him now was a set of medals and a photograph, fading slowly in a leather frame the colour of oxblood.
Cissy remembered reading somewhere that tea bags were filled with the sweepings from the factory floor and given the taste, she was quite inclined to believe it. She’d used loose tea all her life; proper leaves, Broken Orange Peko, by choice, spooned into a warmed teapot and scalded with boiling water. Occasionally she’d pressed into service a hinged, silver contraption with holes, to make a single cup, but mostly she enjoyed the ceremony of the china pot. Besides, one cup was never enough.
It was the Home Help with the big black boots, startling pink hair and loud, east London accent who had started Cissy on the bags. Much more convenient, the young woman had insisted, consigning Cissy’s Royal Doulton teapot to the back of the cupboard; so much quicker and no waste. Sandra didn’t seem to grasp that Cissy had all the time in the world to perform her little rituals. How else was she going to fill those interminable hours between Woman’s Hour and Countdown? Apart from Sandra herself and the Meals on Wheels lady, no one else came to visit.
The tea set had been replaced by a cluster of thick ceramic mugs, gathered on the draining board like a group of loutish teenagers, refugees from a works canteen, or a hospital. The translucent china cups and saucers, the delicate painted flowers and gold leaf still surprisingly bright, had been despatched to the glory hole, Sandra said, though Cissy had no idea where this mysterious place might be.
Over the past weeks, Sandra had blown through all aspects of Cissy’s life like a whirlwind, leaving the wreckage of Cissy’s well-ordered existence in her wake. She took off her titfer and asked for Cissy’s opinion on her barnet. She made them both a cup of rosie, all the while complaining about the ruby she’d had last night. It was all a bit difficult to keep up with; Cissy hadn’t bargained on having to learn a new language at her time of life.
Sandra had started upstairs. After overhauling Cissy’s bedclothes and winning the argument of duvet versus sheets, blankets and feather eiderdown, she’d gradually infiltrated the kitchen. Pot Noodles and Variety packs of cereal began to appear in the cupboards; the refrigerator was populated with rows of tiny pots of yoghurt dessert, most past their sell-by date and destined never to be eaten, and the small freezer compartment was jammed with ready meals and ice cream. Sandra lurved ice cream.
Brooking no argument, she declared that Cissy was too ham-fisted to handle her best crystal and the cut-glass sherry schooners, wine goblets and brandy balloons had soon disappeared from the glass-fronted cabinet in the dining room, substituted with a set of workaday tumblers and glasses like those offered as free gifts at petrol stations in the seventies. Cissy thought they would bounce if dropped on the tiled kitchen floor.
She studied the spoon in her hand, mentally checking the whereabouts of its companion Apostles. In a sudden burst of panic she pulled open kitchen drawers and cupboards before directing the Zimmer frame down the hall to the front room. She rarely came into this room these days; no matter how many times she recarpeted or hung new curtains, she still felt the chill presence of Archie hanging around like a bad smell. She should have gotten rid of his chair; his aura seemed to be ingrained in the very upholstery.
Cissy held her breath in awful anticipation as she struggled with the middle drawer of the sideboard. The cutlery drawer had always stuck on its runners but it eventually sprang free with none of its accustomed weight to slow it down, almost knocking her off-balance. Not a spoon or fork remained in the velvet-lined compartments. The cake knife with its ivory handle, the carver and the fiddly serving tongs with the loose hinge, the large serving spoons and the twelve place settings of solid silver flatware, had all vanished.
Cissy shuffled back into the kitchen and sat down heavily at the table, adding two sugars to the fortifying cup of Twining’s English Breakfast. (After a brief, tight-lipped standoff, she’d finally persuaded Sandra that if it had to be teabags, then at least they should be the best available.) Her mind whirred. It all made sense, of course, now that she thought about it; the insistence at modernisation, the nagging about possible breakages masquerading as concern. It was all a cover; Sandra, to use her own vernacular, was a tealeaf.