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Just my cup of tea

By Hayley Clews

“Have you ever counted them all?” Alice asks chirpily as she stretches up to flick a feather duster over a teapot on the top shelf, the one shaped like a chocolate-box cottage, complete with its own thatched-roof lid. I’m sure there used to be a milk jug to match— it must be up there somewhere, out of my reach now.

Teapots. They’re a funny thing for a twenty-one year old girl with pink hair and a tattoo of a bird of paradise on her wrist to be interested in, but she asks about them every time she’s here.

I tell Alice, proudly, that there’s sixty seven in total, holiday mementoes from every conceivable seaside resort and national heritage house in the British Isles, now gathering dust behind the glass cabinet doors of two slightly bowed Welsh dressers, purchased in a stock clearance sale in 1968 – the year Harry won the Pools and we were feeling a bit flushed. It’s rather grand furniture for this little room, but Harry insisted I have somewhere to store my collection. If it’s got a soggy promenade and decent fish and chips, then we’ve been there and bought the teapot to prove it, he used to joke – and I let him. Those tea pots are my life’s work, but I can guarantee they’ll be the first things to go to the charity shop when I shuffle off this mortal coil. I wouldn’t know who to leave them to anyway.

Alice’s generation don’t have time for teapots, certainly. She just dunks a teabag in a mug, squashes the life out of it with a spoon and then catches the drips in the palm of her hand as she whirls around to dump it smartly in the peddle-bin. Harry flatly refused to drink the stuff the first time she did it.

It’s not the stroke, I told her, he’s been like this all his life. His objection to teabags is verging on the zealous, and at one time it was loose tea or nothing – I remember once watching him snip the corner off the tea bag to pour out its contents into the pot, replacing the empty bag neatly back into the box. He claimed ignorance but I know he did it on purpose; I think the last time he boiled the kettle was when Charles and Diana got married. Alice says she’ll win him round eventually, but he was exactly the same when we finally admitted that I might need a bit of help —he’s suspicious of anything that might alter our calm and steady course after all these years.

“We’re alright as we are, Bea,” he’d mutter grumpily, and I’d bite my tongue so as not to let him know that my legs had started to let me down, or that I dreaded it every time he needed my arm to get up the stairs or off the toilet. Lacking the strength to lift him, I was terrified I might slip and send us both tumbling down. We were loathed to admit defeat, despite the doctor, tactful as ever, telling Harry, “Your wife’s exhausted, Mr Simmonds. It’s a lot for someone of her age.”
I’m ashamed to say that I pulled a face behind his back, and Harry had to hide his smile in a cough. We’ll show him, I thought, but it’s a hollow victory when you can no longer unscrew a jam jar lid, or rip the plastic top off a carton of milk.

Our wedding photograph lives on the mantelpiece and I move it whenever Alice attacks the place with the duster, giving it a more prominent position that she can’t fail to notice. She lifts it, gently, rather taken with Harry in his suit and comments on the way his eyes sparkle and crinkle at the edges in laughter, as though he couldn’t quite believe his luck. Harry’s eyes are rheumy now and cloudy with cataracts, but they were bright like liquid starlight back then.

Those were the eyes I stared into when I promised to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for as long as we both shall live. But those eyes couldn’t see how old age and infirmity would look.

“The mind is willing but the flesh is weak,” Harry would say when he could no longer bend his fingers to grip a fork, or button up his shirt. We manage the best we can, increasingly reliant on Alice and the other girls, because there’s no chance of Harry using the bathroom unaided now that I’ve been awarded with a pace maker and a walking frame—my badges of honour for years of long service.

Wiping her fingerprint off the photograph frame, Alice chuckles, “I can see why you fell for him, Beatrice!”

Harry doesn’t hear her; these days he sits in silence for hours staring out of the window at the neglected garden; picking off bits of imaginary fluff from the front of his jumper. It seems cruel to leave him where he can see the vegetable patch gone to seed, but I can’t lift the wheelchair over the lip of the door frame to get him outside. Mind you, I always was a martyr to his tomatoes in the summer.

Finally, Alice has ticked off everything on her list. “Shall I put the kettle on before I go?” she asks, one arm already thrust into her coat sleeve.

In a few minutes she returns with a mug and a plastic, two-handled beaker on a tray, carefully balancing the biscuit tin. It would have taken me half an hour to do that, and I couldn’t have carried the tray.

“I’ll see you both on Tuesday then,” Alice shouts cheerily, slamming the door shut behind her and the latch clicks shut.

There’s just about one thing I can still do unaided. Before Harry can lift the beaker shakily to his lips, I’m there with the sugar bowl.

“You do look after me well,” he grins.

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