She Takes Her Tea Black
by Elizabeth Lovatt
Kay stands over the sink, the water as hot as she can bear it and runs the scouring pad around the mug, barely scratching the surface of the stains. They are darker at the bottom, almost black, turning light brown towards the top, stopping at a tide mark made in tannin. Stains from countless cups of tea built on top of one another.
Kay had texted her after a week, after seven mornings in a row of seeing the mug by the side of the sink and still no news from her.
Keep it she had texted back.
Kay works harder at the insides, wearing away the stains, each pass of the scouring pad erasing more layers of tea. She scrubs and scrubs, peeling away weeks and months worth of stains.
One week ago and she is late home again. Kay has cooked dinner, eaten and is halfway through doing the washing up when she hears her come home: the slam of the front door followed by a scuffle of discarded coat and keys.
‘Here,’ Kay calls and waits for a kiss on her cheek that never comes.
‘Are you hungry?’ Kay says, wiping suds off a dinner plate. She twists awkwardly to face her, ‘There are leftovers, I can heat them up for you.’
‘No I’m ok,’ she says standing in the doorway to the kitchen, ‘I ate at work.’
‘Yeah a few of the guys went to the pub after work. We ate there.’
She appears suddenly behind Kay, jolting her arm and running the cold tap for a moment before shoving the kettle under it. Kay frowns as her dishwater turns cold. Finishes washing up her one plate.
‘I thought you said you’d work late tonight?’
‘Well we were done early so had drinks to celebrate,’ she says shifting to the other side of the kitchen to plug in the kettle.
‘You should’ve said, I would have joined you. I’ve never met your work friends.’ Kay pulls the plug from the sink and watches the water swirl down the drain.
‘I didn’t want to bother you,’ she says over the building rumble of the kettle.
‘You shouldn’t leave your mug on the side if you don’t want it washing up.’
Kay leans back against the sink and watches her make her tea, strong and black. She wonders how a kitchen this small can feel so vast.
‘Kay,’ she says, her tone serious and unlike her, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’
In the morning the mug is by the sink, the dregs adding to the already deep stains at the bottom of the mug.
One month ago and Kay’s Mum is standing in the kitchen, drying and putting away the last of the dishes.
‘What about this?’ Kay’s Mum asks picking up the mug from the side of the sink. Kay notes the way her Mum holds it, forefinger and thumb pinched around the handle, dangling it at arm’s length.
‘That,’ Kays says reaching for the mug, ‘That stays there.’ She puts it back on the counter.
‘At least it doesn't go back in the cupboard looking like that!’
‘That's just how she has her tea Mum.’
Her Mum clears her throat in a way that reminds Kay of being sent to her room, ‘It’s disrespectful, is what I think, to leave it looking like that in your kitchen.’
‘Our kitchen,’ Kay says more forcefully than she intends.
‘I'm surprised she's not here is all.’ Kay’s Mum folds the tea towel into a neat square and hangs it on the oven handle.
‘Don’t start Mum. It’s not like before, that was different.’
‘People who leave can’t be relied on, Kay.’
‘That was one time,’ Kay starts, ‘A silly mistake - we both agree.’
Her Mum waves a hand in Kay’s direction, ‘If that’s what you say it is then that’s what it is.’
‘It is. It’s different this time.’
‘I’m sure you’ll figure it out on your own. You always do.’ Kay’s Mum turns back to the sink to wipe down the tap and Kay thinks about how many times she has watched her Mum turn away. The rest of the visit they talk about work and Kay’s Mum’s garden and they don’t mention her again.
Three months ago and she slams the door to the flat, ‘I’m back!’
‘How was it?’ Kay shouts from the kitchen.
‘Fucking freezing. And I got snow in my eyes and I think some guys in a car catcalled me but I couldn’t hear it over my music and it was too late to swear at them.’ Kay hears the annoyance in her voice. She imagines her expression, the frown between her eyes and her pose: standing on one leg to unlace her running shoes rather than bend down. The steady stripping off of layers.
She walks into the kitchen bringing cold air and dampness. Reaches up and places a cold hand on Kay’s cheek.
‘Bloody hell!’ Kay says as she jerks away. Kay doesn’t need to turn around to feel her smile.
‘I wasn’t lying.’ She leans past Kay to flick the kettle on and rescues her mug from the stack of dirty dishes by the sink.
‘Hey, you weren’t going to wash my mug were you?’ she says peering into it.
‘Of course not.’
‘Certainly not after the debacle it caused last time,’ Kay says unsure if it is too soon to joke about it. The memory flashes up unbidden: the scrape of her key in the door, their empty bed, her silent phone. The argument bursting out of something so stupid.
‘I told you, it messes up the flavour.’ She is mock serious.
‘It’s disgusting.’ Kay moves the rest of the dirty dishes into the sink, ‘If you don’t want it washing you really shouldn’t leave it on the side.’
She finishes making her tea in silence and leaves the kitchen. A moment later Kay hears the shower running. Kay knows by the time she’s out the tea will be lukewarm and she will complain and then drink it down in two large gulps anyway.
Six months ago and one night Kay feels her slip slow and quiet out of bed. When she doesn’t return Kay gets up and wanders into the living room. She is sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, nose almost touching the screen and playing a videogame with the sound turned off. Kay sits down behind her to circle her legs with her own and presses her face to her back. She breathes deeply, still tangled up in sleep. She doesn’t speak and neither does Kay. Together they watch the figure on the screen run and jump and Kay marvels at how her fingers fly across the controller and translate instantly into jumps and turns. Kay watches for a while longer before rising to make her a cup of tea. Strong and black. She goes back to bed.
In the morning Kay finds her curled on the sofa, the mug of tea still on the floor, forgotten and cold.
One year ago and Kay says, ‘This one is yours and yours alone,’ as she hands over the mug, a red ribbon tied round the handle. They had said no gifts but Kay thinks one practical moving-in present is allowed.
She has chosen it with care, nothing too cutesy, but not plain either. The mug is hand-thrown: thick-rimmed and made from grey-green earthenware with a bright white glaze inside. A joke for just the two of them. It’s small and squat in shape but with a handle large enough to fit all four fingers. Kay doesn’t want it to be the type of mug easily dropped or broken. She wants it to suit her. An idea which in the shop seemed important but now feels silly standing here in front of her, as if a mug could ever capture a whole person.
She hugs it close to her chest when Kay gives it to her, rolls up and down on tiptoes in imitation of childish glee and leans in to kiss her lightly on the lips. She spins away only to turn on the kettle.
The water has turned cold and the suds are all but washed away. Kay pushes the scouring pad one last time around the rim of the mug, erasing the final faintest smear of tea stain: opposite the handle, right where her lips used to press against. She places the mug on the drying rack upside down so she can no longer see the clean white inside. She checks her phone but the message is still the same.
Kay pulls the plug from the sink, dries her hands and leaves.