by Allison Symes
lemon and ginseng tea
The blonde woman over the road was painting her front door in British racing green.
‘And about time,’ Emily Shanton told herself, finally letting her brilliant white net curtains drop into their usual position. ‘Given she has visitors at all hours all week her house needs a decent spruce up. Mother said women who always had visitors could never be up to any good. Mother was so right and on so many things.’
Emily paused. I shouldn’t have thought that. Mother would’ve thought it. She relished thinking nastily. Mother was difficult. Will I ever forget about her? I won’t be like her. I won’t. She was a tyrant. I must make myself think nice thoughts.
Emily went into her kitchen. It was 4.00 p.m. and time for a cup of tea but she knew how to live properly unlike that woman over the road.
No. Stop it. Nice thoughts translate into nice deeds. Mind it was nice to be able to stop. When Mother was alive, she had the tea break. Emily had kept working, sipping at her PG Tips as she went. Usually by the time Mother was satisfied, Emily’s tea was stone cold. The same applied to dinner.
Mind, Emily thought, Mother’s heart was stone cold. I’ve often wondered what I ever did to bring this on. Mother always did blame me for her troubles. It wasn’t my fault. She should’ve asked for help. I’ve ended up lonely because of Mother. I don’t want to stay lonely. I won’t become Mother. I know daughters are meant to do that but so help me I won’t.
Sitting at her pine table, Emily sipped tea from her best china. The woman over the road always drank from a chipped brown mug. Mother would have thought that dreadfully common. She always thought mugs were for layabouts and builders and that there wasn’t much to choose between the two. Mind Mother thought almost everything was common. She was never too sure about me! Mother had no friends. I thought it sad then. I have no friends. I’ve got to do something about this. What can I do? I suppose trying not to think dreadful thoughts is a useful start. Perhaps the woman over the road is just down on her luck with regards to crockery. Emily felt pleased with herself. That had been a more conciliatory thought. And if the woman over the road visited the shop Emily now worked in two days a week, she’d find plenty of reasonably priced crockery to replace that dreadful mug. Perhaps I could offer her a small discount if she made the effort to visit. Perhaps I could get her talking to me as I served her. She does have a friendly looking face. Unlike me.
The woman over the road would support a good cause if she did update her crockery that way. Painting a door was never enough to gain respectability. Mother was wrong on so many levels. Life is about more than just being respectable. I hear the woman over the road laughing when she’s working sometimes. I don’t laugh. Okay I have had no cause to do so but do I want that to continue? What does she laugh at? Would I find it funny?
Placing the crockery by her sink, Emily went to her back door, wanting to prune her cottage garden before preparing her meal. She was pleased at the new routine she’d made for herself since being forced out of work. The only good thing about it was Emily discovering the joys of working for the Marie Curie shop. The other workers were nice and being with them for a while, rather than at home, had done something for Emily. She’d discovered she hated being on her own.
They’ve made me think about how and what I am. Emily winced at the thought. If I am going to change, I suppose I do need to face up to that. It’s a pity it’s not that pleasant. I am a sad muppet.
And the other two, more mature ladies, suggested taking Emily out for a drink. Emily had been touched by the gesture but reluctantly rejected it. It would’ve meant going right into the depths of town, coping with the myriads of shoppers racing round for the last minute bargains. Definitely not for Emily to cope with. She liked quiet.
And if I am going to change, maybe I should start with just one thing. Getting out of the shadows is no easy matter. Mother liked her Beethoven, up loud. I was always surprised the Noise Abatement people didn’t come round. Not that they’d have got anywhere with Mother. She’d have seen to that.
Emily grimaced as she recalled her last day at the office. Mr Brown had tried to be kind. All it ended up being was embarrassing. The younger staff treated her as a dotty old dear. She knew who they giggled at when they thought she hadn’t spotted them. Yet she also knew who had the most accurate and speedy typing, who answered the phone with the most professionalism and who worked the hardest. Emily wondered if she’d ever stop mentally replaying Mr Brown’s kindly tones.
‘Miss Shanton, think of what you could achieve when your time is your own. You have given us so many years of your life. We don’t want you to resent us because you give us them all!’
And he couldn’t see the office had been my entire world, one of my few escapes from Mother. Mother had hated Emily working, didn’t like any outside influences, but even she accepted the need to bring in some income into the home. And all the time I was at work, I wasn’t with Mother.
Emily had been stunned by her first summons into the boss’s office in her long career. All she knew was she must leave with dignity or risk facing forceful leaving hints, which would only give those juniors more to snigger about. The one thing Emily looked forward to was seeing the interviewees so she could guess who her successor would be but she saw nobody. She refused to query this. She wanted to assume Mr Brown was sparing her feelings. And given little in life had gone her way, this was one area which would. What she didn’t want to think about… well she just wouldn’t and that was that. Mr Brown was trying to be kind. Though in reality he had been putting the boot in. The one mercy had been that Mother had gone.
I just know Mother would’ve gloated at my failure here. I am glad to have been spared that. I’d never have heard the last of it. Maybe, Emily thought, it’s good not to know every little detail. I wish Mrs Lassiter would take the same view.
Emily heard from Mrs Lassiter, such a friend, less than a week after Emily’s departing office lunch, Mr Brown had found a new secretary. A blonde aged 25, Mrs Lassiter said, who’d thoughtfully changed her bus route to bring Emily the news at the earliest opportunity, a week ahead of their normal monthly meeting at Dabtons, the cheap café opposite Emily’s former office, a 20 minutes bus ride away. Mrs Lassiter stressed how she’d gone out of her way to keep Emily informed but Emily took that point quickly and refused to laud it to the heavens. Emily had been hard pushed to find the thoughtfulness in it all despite Mrs Lassiter trying to lay that virtue on thick.
But, in fairness, Mrs Lassiter struggled with depression after her son was born and Emily, even after this awful visit, still felt some pity for a woman whose precious child succumbed to meningitis before his 5th birthday. There were no other children.
I guess it was different for me. I never missed what I never had. Yes, pity Mrs Lassiter. Just don’t take her comments seriously. She needs to have what success she can find, poor soul. It’s a pity it seems to take the form of gloating over and at other people’s misfortunes. I guess sad souls find themselves attracted to other sad souls. Emily shook her head to banish the reverie. She retrieved her secateurs from the three-tiered rack to the right of her double-glazed back door and went outside. Things were right here. She just knew the woman over the road wouldn’t know how to deadhead daffodils properly. Emily could remember her mother’s lecture over this topic every year. The woman over the road should have cleaned her windows then decorated her front door. She could’ve asked. Emily would’ve been happy to say. Mother told me repeatedly what order jobs should be done in and I could’ve shared the knowledge. No. Do that and I will be like Mother. I want to fight that remember. I want some sort of life before it’s too late. One where my inner need is not to fault find. Perhaps Mrs Lassiter and I have more in common than I thought. Everyone needed a hobby. The only good thing about fault finding was it stopped Emily thinking about life with Mother. Even now it had the ability to disturb Emily’s sleep. It was best to forget, acknowledge it was no picnic and move on.
Emily stared at her dying daffodils in the small circular border around her flowering cherry tree. The woman over the road always had visitors. The woman over the road wouldn’t have been made to feel useless because she was aging. The woman over the road wouldn’t have had a terrible time with a tyrannical mother either. The woman over the road had a husband if that gaudy wedding ring was any indication. There was a child too, which, in turn, had its friends visiting.
And I’ve got nobody, Emily thought. Mother scared off any would-be friends and as for any chance of boyfriends… ha! Mind I must admit my keeping myself to myself attitude hasn’t helped. Just as well Mrs Lassiter has never seen the woman over the road. Mrs Lassiter would probably have made a nasty comment – well several actually. On the odd occasions she saw a child playing, it seemed to bring out the worst. One way of coping with the pain perhaps… Yes, Mrs Lassiter was to be pitied. Perhaps I ought to try feeling pity for others more often. I don’t always like the images I get in my head. They nearly always involve Mother. Will I ever forget? What did I do to deserve a parent like her?
It was funny Emily never spotted the child’s friends leaving though. Over the road clearly had disgusting ideas as to how long hospitality should continue. Doubtless the visitors slunk out in the middle of the night.
Emily grimaced. That was the kind of thing Mother would’ve thought. The fightback against Mother’s pervasive influence isn’t going to be easy. Perhaps I ought to get right away from here for a bit. Have a retreat or something. Maybe that would help break the cycle I’m in. I don’t want to be doomed to be like Mother. Can I ask for help? I can hardly see my GP. He deals with medical issues, this is… well something different.
Emily estimated the woman over the road to be in her early-30s. Though with such a wild lifestyle the woman over the road should look much older, Emily blamed that on the ready availability of reasonably priced moisturisers.
Emily cut back the dead daffodils. It was better to focus on the pruning… Only sad middle-aged women bitched about their neighbours all the time. The way Mother did. The way Emily had sworn she would not do. And hadn’t until the woman over the road moved in given the previous resident, old Mrs Wilkins, had been a nice old dear, the complete antithesis to Mother. Mother hadn’t liked her. Emily hadn’t been surprised.
Just what am I becoming, Emily wondered. Is it too late to change, to break this routine? Must I be like Mother? I seem to spend all my time fighting Mother’s influence even now. That influence has got to wane at some point, hasn’t it? Somewhere in here is the real me. The real me that is a bit old fashioned but means well. I’d far rather have that as my epitaph…
Emily remembered when her mother was kindly. Then depression turned Mother into something else. Emily shuddered. That something else had almost been inhuman at times. Mother’s tantrums were spectacular. One word out of line from Emily only made matters worse. There had been no Childline for Emily.
Emily stopped deadheading the daffodils. She couldn’t see through the tears. Mother would have said something cruel and always did at any sign of emotion. Mrs Lassiter would “tease” about it. Emily sighed. Her mother had had a miserable life though she hadn’t recognized it as such. This wasn’t helped by her mother’s refusal to get help.
I can do better, Emily thought. I know I can. How though? Can I get help? Who wants to listen to a sad middle-aged woman? Over the road certainly won’t. She seems lively and outgoing, the complete opposite of me. Is that why I focus on her? I must focus on something else. I must find something positive. I must be positive.
‘She peered at you all afternoon, Mum,’ Rose put her empty apple juice carton in the recycle bin.
‘I swear Miss Shanton is lonely. Now her dreadful mother has passed away, Miss Shanton only gets that vicious gossip visiting on the occasional times they don’t go to that dreadful cafe,’ the blonde, Jemma, smiled at her daughter. Jemma remembered being that earnest when she was eight. Earnestness was encouraged where they came from. What the bosses didn’t want was compassion. It got in the way of their work.
‘You will do it?’
‘Yes, Miss Shanton is ideal for our purposes. Nobody will miss her. And she’s longing for change in her life so she will get it! It just won’t be what she might expect! The phrase “Exclusive development” really is shorthand for an area where the neighbours don’t meddle. And don’t care either. That helps us. We will be well rewarded, as always.’
Rose’s freckled face twitched. ‘I know but I’ve been thinking. Is it right? I could see why we dispatched the others but Miss Shanton might like living alone. They said those humans that do should be left here as they wouldn’t serve our purposes. She is the type that might. You did say she’d had a long time to get used to it.’
‘When you are given telepathy later when you are old enough, use it well. It saves a hell of a lot of work. Thanks to it, I know Miss Shanton prides herself on doing things correctly at the right time in the right order, Rose. She is also trying to break free from her late mother’s influence. We can make sure she succeeds there. If that’s all she has to be proud of, she hasn’t had much of a life, has she?’
‘I know everyone says it but she really will go to a better place, you know that, Rose. You’ve visited the place!’
The girl nodded. ‘When will you do it, Mum?’
‘I must put the second coat on the door first, our cue to the bosses we are ready.’
‘Why is it green paint?’
Jemma shrugged. ‘Whim probably, though I’m told there’s supposed to be something magical in the pigment. Miss Shanton won’t want to miss the opportunity of admiring my handiwork. Secretly, of course, she will want some company and be looking for things to criticize. Poor soul. It’s a sad way of getting pleasure out of life. She hasn’t succeeded in breaking away from her late mother yet. I’m not convinced Miss Shanton could do so, without help. Still, from what I can gather from that vicious gossip, Miss Shanton’s Mother was a dragon in human form. You can see how the damage was done to Miss Shanton herself.’
Rose sighed. ‘I still wish there was a better way of collecting specimens though.’
Jemma shrugged. ‘On the plus side, it’s unlikely Miss Shanton will scream. She’ll consider that beneath her dignity. We can use that. It’ll make our lives easier for a start.’
Emily was surprised at the knock on her door at 3.52 p.m. Nobody called at her door, who wasn’t pre-planned and Mrs Lassiter wasn’t due for ten days. Emily wasn’t sorry about that. Mrs Lassiter enjoyed Emily’s misfortune a little too much for Emily to be happy about the prospect of another visit yet. Emily needed a decent amount of time between visits to ensure she was ready for the next one. Emily switched her iron off, unplugged it, went to her sensibly painted brown door, opened it and was stunned to see the blonde woman from over the road with her daughter. Emily blinked as the visitors smiled. Emily was 5’4” but dwarfed this woman and it was clear the daughter would never make it as a basketball player either. Emily was not used to being tall.
‘Good afternoon,’ Emily began.
‘Hello, Miss Shanton, I’m Jemma.’
Emily blinked. How did this woman know who she was?
Jemma smiled. ‘The postman, despite arriving at all hours these days, mentioned your name not long after we moved here. My daughter, Rose, and I often see you working in your garden.’
Emily was silent. Watching others was fine. They weren’t supposed to return the compliment. If these two did that, who else was? And how did this woman know what she was thinking so accurately? It was uncanny.
Jemma was concerned. ‘We didn’t mean to offend you, Miss Shanton. We wanted to ask you over for tea long before this but you know how busy life gets. You looked so alone when you walked down the crescent with your shopping this morning, I told myself I must finally ask you over so here I am.’
‘Please come, I’ve got homework and I must ask the oldest person I know…’
‘I’m not offended.’ Emily smiled, liking the child’s bright green eyes. They shone as hers had when happy at work or so some of the kinder girls in the typing pool had told her. And best of all this child had just given Emily a reason to be needed. ‘Could you give me ten minutes?’
‘Of course. It’ll be just enough time to put the kettle on and warm the teapot.’ Jemma smiled as Emily looked surprised anybody else still remembered to do things like that. The bosses insisted Jemma and Rose did whatever it took to encourage confidence in their selections. For them the ends did justify the means. Sometimes Jemma wondered if that was the scariest thing she’d heard but this mood never lasted long. The rewards for work well done were huge, she had a daughter to support and there were always the bills to pay. Ironically Jemma felt Miss Shanton would probably understand that, given the support she’d shown to her Mother. And Emily really would be escaping all of her cares. There would be nothing for her to worry about again. It was a service really…
Emily locked up, checked the taps were off several times and, when not doing either of those things, scanned her appearance repeatedly. She’d never been beautiful but her navy suit looked good on her and there were no excuses for untidiness. She hadn’t been invited for tea in adulthood – Mrs Lassiter visited her – and Emily was determined to do well. Maybe she’d be invited again… It would be nice to be invited somewhere. It would be a first too. Maybe she could invite the ladies from the charity shop over for tea. There’d be no crowds for Emily to contend with. The house was too big. Company would be pleasant. Emily smiled. For once she’d have news to tell Mrs Lassiter, who would be surprised. The likes of Emily were to be visited, not attract visitors. It was more than time to turn the tables.
Besides Mother never had visitors except for health professionals over the years. I think having people here would be another way of breaking my splendid isolation. It has become normal for me to be isolated and that can’t be right.
Nervously, Emily knocked on the green door, inhaling the smell of fresh paint. Jemma opened the door, smiled and waved Emily inside before closing the door.
It was the last time Emily was seen on Earth…
Emily blinked. ‘Where am I? What happened?’
Emily found herself sitting on a comfortable sofa in a spacious lounge. In front of her was a tray of cakes and freshly brewed tea. To her right was a gentleman, who was around her age and “being Mother”. He smiled. Emily’s heart fluttered. Was it his smile or was age finally getting to her?
Mother used to have heart murmurs, Emily thought. Now I’ve got them or I’m being silly over a man’s smile. And at my age too. Mind, Mother wouldn’t have dreamt of that. Always said I was far too ugly to get any man. Maybe I am beginning to shake off Mother’s influence.
Embarrassed, Emily looked around again. The setting reminded her of an upper class nursing home with its high-backed leather armchairs, plush red carpet and low lighting. Opposite her was a British racing green sliding door. Emily sniffed. Yes, there was a faint whiff of new paint in the air. Emily and her companion were alone. And she wanted to be alone with this debonair man. She smiled. Mother would never have approved. Emily liked that too.
‘You’re in a better place, my dear. Will you try the Victoria sponge or could you force yourself to eat an éclair? Both are excellent.’
‘I’m dead? This is heaven? I remember visiting the woman over the road then something strange happened and I felt peculiar! And I find myself here.’
‘You’re not dead. This isn’t heaven but it makes a great stand-in. Lovely Jemma dispatched you. Such an efficient, well girl is not the right term, I’m not sure what species…’
‘Species? She’s as human…’
‘Miss Shanton, what happened after you went through the green door?’
‘I felt as if something scanned me and then my body tingled. Then that feeling vanished quickly so I guess I thought I might have imagined the whole thing.’
Emily took the pro-offered plate of Victoria sponge and an éclair. It had been a tough day. Mother was no longer around to disapprove. It would be nice to “let go”.
I should’ve reached that conclusion sooner, Emily thought. I should’ve let go earlier at work. They took advantage of me and my honour and hard work. I should’ve made friends with my neighbours. I could have had a life then. I’ve wasted so much time. Now I don’t know if I’ll have any time at all. Just what is this place?
The blue-eyed man (who still had a full head of dark hair, Emily noted) smiled. ‘That was the transportation device. There’s something odd about the door’s green paint. Jemma has to use this special green on her furnishings when her bosses want fresh specimens.’
‘Don’t worry, my dear.’
The gentleman patted Emily’s right hand. She was surprised to find her heart rate increased. Romance at her time of life? Whoever would have thought it? Not me for a start, Emily thought.
‘You won’t be experimented on or experience anything crude. Forget the science fiction nonsense on television. Our hosts are not brutal. Nor are they bug eyed monsters. They’re studying life on Earth with their David Attenborough. We’re the exhibits. You’ll be called for questioning soon. I’m your welcoming committee! I’ve been here ten years. They select those of us who won’t be missed.’
‘I’m Ronald.’ Ronald patted Emily’s hand again. ‘Some things are better here. You’ll soon find out I’m telling the truth. On Earth, I kept aloof, especially as I aged. I’m told you’ve done the same. Here you’ll soon know you’re in an alien environment. You’ll prefer it.’
‘How can you say that? This is abduction!’ Emily’s plate shook. ‘The kind of thing you do see in those awful science fiction movies. Or so I was told.’ She added. Privately she’d liked the movies given in the ones she’d seen the acting was so bad they’d made her laugh but Mother would’ve been more difficult than she already was if she’d known. Emily had soon discovered keeping secrets was easy enough.
Ronald steadied Emily’s plate. ‘I see it as the happy ever after ending of a fairy tale. Yes, you were abducted. You won’t return to Earth but one major factor, my dear, may change your views as it did with mine. They like the elderly here.’