by Michelle Adams
breakfast tea from a chipped china tea-cup
The anniversary was always hard. Despite the word conjuring images of joy and celebration, this anniversary was one of sorrow for Emma. Blowing gently to cool the hot tea, Emma took a hesitant sip of her drink, the thin edge of the old china smooth against her lip. Cradling the cup, she closed her eyes and tilted her head upwards towards the warm May sun that made her cheeks feel rosy. The light breeze caressed her skin, carrying with it the promise of summer. Grief wasn’t for summer and sunny days. Grief was for winter; for the bitter cold, for harsh grey skies and temperatures that turned your bones to ice; for days when the clouds cried with you and the wind howled its grief too. Five years hadn’t eased the pain she felt at losing her mother, though she was learning to live with the constant ache of missing her.
Emma didn’t spend much time outdoors; gardening had never been her thing, and the garden was her mother’s domain. She had loved the spring, the new growth, the air alive with the sound of nature waking up and new life bursting into being wherever you looked. It had become something of a tradition for Emma to take her morning tea outside on the patio, from her mother’s favourite cup. It seemed fitting, the perfect way to remember her. She forced herself to focus on the good times, the happy times, the days of her childhood, the time before her mother became ill. ‘No good will come of dwelling on the sad times,’ her mother used to say.
As she sat in the warm garden, Emma found herself remembering the last time that she’d been outside with her mother. They’d sat together on a bench where they could appreciate the late spring blooms and the neatly clipped lawns and hedges. The sweet scent of honeysuckle carried to them across the lawn and mingled with the soft aroma of her mother’s lavender perfume.
‘What do you think comes next?’ her mother had asked tentatively, for they’d avoided the subject that loomed imminently. Her mother waited quietly, giving Emma a moment to compose her answer.
‘I don’t know,’ she replied honestly. ‘Something, I hope. Something,’ she paused, ‘like this. Peaceful.’ The question had surprised Emma as her mother had always been sceptical about the afterlife, scoffing at notions of heaven and hell. She’d supposed that her mother must finally have been questioning the idea as she came to terms with her mortality. Emma let her gaze sweep across the landscape, the peaceful and picturesque vista perfect for this type of quiet contemplation, for this place. She felt her mother’s hand settle across her own, the older woman’s skin cool and dry, in contrast to her own soft warmth.
‘I’ll come back and let you know,’ she suggested, amusement in the idea evident in her tone and in the crinkles that lined her eyes and mouth.
‘And have you scare me silly, seeing your ghost pop out of nowhere!’ Emma joined in the joke.
‘Don’t be daft, love,’ her mother had replied, suddenly serious, ‘I’ll give you a sign, something only we’d know about.’ They’d lapsed into silence for a while then, though the air around them filled with birdsong and the distant sound of braying cattle. Movement at the bird table caught Emma’s eye, and she gently drew her mother’s attention to the new occupant helping itself to the bounty of nuts and seeds. A small red squirrel sat shyly enjoying its breakfast, the evicted blue-tits chattering loudly at its cheek. ‘That’s it!’ she’d declared, ‘I’ll visit you as a red squirrel!’ Emma laughed at her mother’s delight.
‘Well, you’ll certainly stand out,’ she said, ‘We don’t see many of them in our village.’
‘Exactly,’ her mother had replied, pleased at the idea.
Emma smiled at the memory, so clear even now. As she finished her tea, she became aware of a change in the atmosphere of her garden, an unfamiliar stillness that made her shiver despite the warm day. She looked out across the small space, her gaze settling on the untidy lawn. She gasped, immediate tears welled in her eyes, and her breath caught on the lump that had formed in her throat. Sat calmly on its hind-legs, watching her with its little head tilted to the side inquisitively, was a small red squirrel, its bushy tail standing up behind it like an exclamation mark. Emma froze, not even daring to breathe too deeply. The squirrel took a few cautious steps towards her—one step, then two more. Time seemed to stop as Emma watched, waiting to see what the little creature did next. A car door slammed in the distance, and the collie at No.2 barked furiously. In an instant, the magic that held them both in place vanished. Emma started and the squirrel, quick and nimble, scurried away through the garden hedge.
Emma took a steadying breath and forced her shaking hands to still. Did she dare believe what she had seen? Could it be? A soothing blanket of calm enveloped her, and she suddenly felt a lightness she hadn’t realised had been missing. She inhaled deeply and caught the scent of honeysuckle and then lavender, fading quickly. Maybe, she thought. Just maybe.