Not My Cup of Tea
By Adam Dixon
“Hello, granny! I let myself in, sorry if I scared you!”
Mary blinked and looked up, squinting against the afternoon sun. She beamed as a young woman with long brown hair strolled up the garden path towards her.
“Hello, Lottie, my love!” Mary said, wincing as she stood up from her deck chair. “Oh, don’t worry about that, it’s always lovely to see you! And you’ve brought Harry along too!” Mary gasped in delight as Lottie set down a squirming little boy in a white shirt with blue dungarees.
“Hello, my little soldier!” Mary cooed, opening her arms wide. “Give me a cuddle!” The little boy’s face lit up and he ran full pelt into Mary, throwing his arms around her knees and bouncing with excitement.
“Oof, you’re getting so big!” Mary exclaimed, ruffling his mousey hair. “What have you been eating, young man?”
“Everything!” Lottie said with a laugh. She put her arms over Mary’s shoulders and kissed her.
“Sit down, sit down, both of you!” Mary pushed Lottie gently away and untangled Harry from her legs. She waved at them until they were seated, Lottie on a second deck chair with Harry perched on her lap.
“Would you like a cup of tea, dear?” Mary asked, straightening her faded blue dress. “I think I’ve got some squash for the little one, too.”
“No need, granny! I’ve got a surprise for you…” Lottie slid a white handbag from her shoulder and rooted around in it. She found what she was looking for and held it aloft in triumph. A grin spread across Mary’s face.
“A flask? I bet I know what’s in there, you little rascal!”
“Ta-da!” Lottie gave a bow and Harry clapped and laughed. “I had to bring some, especially today!” Lottie withdrew a yellow plastic cup from her handbag and unscrewed the lid of the flask. A rush of steam burst out, accompanied by the smell of chocolate. Lottie filled a cup with a flourish and handed it to Mary, who breathed in the rich smell with relish.
“Just how my mum used to make it!” Mary sighed, closing her eyes.
“I’ll never get tired of hearing that,” Lottie grinned, and she filled a smaller cup for Harry. The boy was staring at the flask with wide, hopeful eyes.
“He loves this, too!” Lottie chuckled and blew on the liquid to cool it. “Can’t get enough of it. I’m blaming great-grandma for how much of a little chubster he’s turning into!”
“Choc! Choc!” Harry demanded, reaching for the cup. Lottie shushed the squealing boy and let him drink a mouthful. The look of joy on Harry’s face made Mary burst out laughing.
“It’d do my old mum proud to know our little ‘uns are still enjoying her recipe,” she said, and she took a swallow of her own drink. She savoured the hints of orange zest and nutmeg as it swept over her tongue, and the warmth spread into her bones. For a moment, Mary was once again a bright-eyed, curly-haired girl dancing around the hem of her mother’s dress. She lowered herself into her chair, a contented smile on her face.
“Oh, love, this has cheered me up,” she said. “I’d been thinking about how much Harold would love this weather. He’d sit out here, take his slippers off and let the grass tickle his feet while he read the paper.”
Lottie looked up from seeing to Harry. “How are you today, granny? Managing alright?”
“As well as I can, my love,” Mary sighed, taking another sip of chocolate. She probed the dull gold ring on her left hand. “Hardly seems like he’s been gone two years, does it?”
“It doesn’t,” Lottie agreed. “That’s why I brought the choc; I think I was making it for him in the back of my mind. Old habits, y’know?”
“I know,” Mary smiled. “Remember how he’d grumble because you always poured him the first cup?”
“Don’t worry about me, girl! Think of your mum and your granny!” Lottie intoned in a gruff voice, and she and Mary fell about laughing.
“He’d always drink it, though!” Lottie declared, rubbing her eyes. “Birthdays, exam results, family gatherings…he was the first to raise a cup at my graduation! He must’ve lived off it while great-granny was alive!”
“Well, he didn’t like to say no,” Mary said, her smile slipping slightly. “He was so good to my mum, bless his heart! Thick as thieves, those two!” She blinked rapidly then withdrew a tissue from her sleeve to dab her eyes.
“Sorry, love,” she said with an apologetic smile. “I miss him so. He was a wonderful man, and he’s left a big hole in this family.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Lottie replied, lifting her cup. “To granddad!” Mary sniffed and raised her own.
“To Harold!” The two women drained their chocolate and lapsed into a sad silence.
“I was thinking about our wedding,” Mary said after a while, tracing a finger along the lip of her cup. “I was so full of nerves, I thought I might be sick at any moment. Then I saw Harold standing at the altar, waiting for me; there he was, handsome and patient, with that same silly grin on his face, and all my worries melted away. I couldn’t’ve guessed that he’d not slept a wink that night, either.”
“Was he nervous as well?” Lottie asked, hugging Harry to her chest. Mary chuckled.
“He might’ve been, but we’ll never know!” she said. “No, he’d been up all night with my mum at the hospital. She’d had a fall and my dad couldn’t get her up, so Harold took care of her. She was terrified of hospitals, so he stayed with her all through the night and made sure that she got to the church the next morning. My sister told me they’d arrived only ten minutes before I did!”
“That’s lovely, granny,” Lottie whispered. Harry protested and tried to wriggle from her grip.
“Yes, it is,” Mary said, and a wicked grin appeared on her face. “He was exhausted, though, so we had to put off the wedding night, unfortunately for me!”
“Granny!” Lottie’s mouth fell open.
Mary cackled and slapped her knee. Harry stopped fidgeting and giggled in imitation, and then sucked chocolate from his fingers. Lottie cleared her throat and gave the flask a shake, sloshing around the liquid inside.
“More choc?” she asked, raising an eyebrow. Mary thrust out her cup and Lottie refilled it. She dutifully filled Harry’s cup as well, tutting as he slurped it greedily.
“Oh, look at that, he’s got it all round his face now!” Lottie fished in her handbag for a wet-wipe.
“He’s a delight!” Mary chuckled. “He loves that old recipe, no mistake!”
“Just like granddad, eh, granny?”
Mary didn’t answer but stared into her cup as Lottie cleaned Harry’s face.
“I’m going to let you in on a secret, Charlotte,” Mary said softly. Lottie’s head jerked up in surprise. Mary cleared her throat and leaned close, her rheumy eyes fixed on Lottie’s.
“Harold always hated that recipe, ever since the first time he tasted it.”
A breeze whistled through the silent garden. Lottie blinked, then smiled broadly.
“Oh, come off it, granny!” she laughed. “You’ll have to do better than that! Granddad used to guzzle it down!”
“Yes, my dear, but he couldn’t stand it! I think it might have been the orange zest, but I can’t be sure. Not my cup of tea, that’s what he used to say to me.” Lottie’s smile slipped under the intensity of Mary’s gaze.
“But…I brought him a flask every time I saw him in the hospital!”
“You did, and he loved you for it,” Mary said with a happy sigh.
“Granny, if that’s true…” Lottie was crestfallen. “Why would granddad lie about that?”
“Because he understood how much that recipe means to us,” Mary said patiently, reaching out and squeezing Lottie’s hand. “It’s our heritage. Nothing meant more to my Harold than family, you know that.”
“Does mum know?”
“Of course, dear, but she’s been sworn to secrecy. It’s my responsibility to spill the beans!”
“He never liked it…” Lottie said in a small, childlike voice. Harry sensed the change of mood and craned his neck to look at her. Mary spoke up hurriedly.
“No, my love, but he never complained,” Mary patted Lottie’s hand, and blinked as her eyes grew moist. “He once told me that he’d drink a barrel full of the stuff just to make you and your mum smile.” Lottie couldn’t help but smile at that, and she shook her head.
“The old sod!” she said, and her voice cracked. She lifted her half-full cup again, a single tear trickling down her face. “To granddad! I bet he’s up there having a right laugh at my expense!”
“I’m sure he is, my love!” Mary said, raising her own cup. “To Harold! Two years gone, but never forgotten!” Both women tipped their heads back, and sunlight glinted on their damp cheeks. The sweet taste lifted their sadness, and soon they were reminiscing about Harold and his many quirks. The afternoon stayed warm and the breeze caressed their faces like the gentle touch of a loved one.
Little Harry was set down on the ground, and unbeknownst to the older women, he wriggled out of his shoes and his socks. He sat there on the grass, letting the slender blades whisper across the soles of his feet. He giggled and squirmed in delight, feeling happy and safe and loved. Just how Harold would have wanted it.
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Photo courtesy of pixabay.com