Thursday 23 November 2023

Summer Lingers, Autumn Leaves by Ong Shi Min Nicole, Masala Chai Tea

 Autumn came to the city the way Eleanor’s tea cooled forgotten on her table, slowly and then all at once. She almost didn’t notice it until she looked out the window one day and discovered that the dryad across the street had abandoned its summer clothes in favour of a vibrant red and gold tableau. There were signs of its arrival all over the city, too, now that she was paying attention. Bright fiery shades of crimson, ochre and burnt sienna swept over her home, snatching up the little pockets of verdant green in their wake; the air had turned crisp with chill, and everywhere the scent of pumpkin spice and burnt caramel permeated the air.

On Eleanor’s part, she added a timeworn scarf and warm woolly sweaters to her daily wardrobe. Beyond that, her routine largely remained the same. She still stopped at the same hole-in-the-wall café for tea every Saturday, where she would spend the better part of her mornings. It was the one indulgence she allowed herself now that Talbot was gone.

This Saturday was no exception, and she found herself at the Cornucopia diving into her latest Classics essay with a cup of her favourite masala chai blend at her side. She had only taken it to clear an elective module requirement, but she would be sorry when the term was over and she had to return to the drudgery of her usual spell-engineering coursework.

Someone cleared their throat, startling her out of her reverie.

“Would you mind terribly if I shared your table?” The woman standing before her asked. She was balancing a tray with a teapot and mug in her hands, and her long grey hair tumbled over her shoulders in loose waves. “All the other seats are taken.”

“No, go ahead,” Eleanor answered, hurriedly gathering up the papers on Greek mythology that she’d spread all over the cramped table. A sheet on the myth of Persephone fluttered to the floor. By the time she’d retrieved it, the woman was already seated with a grateful smile.

“That’s a nice scarf you’re wearing, dear,” she said.

“Oh,” said Eleanor, “thank you. My boyfriend made it for me.”

It had taken him the better part of a year, too. Eleanor remembered them well, those golden summer afternoons untouched by time. It was one of those passing fancies Talbot had been prone to. In spring, he had been determined to gift her a sweater by summer’s end; summer came and went, and as autumn turned slowly to winter he had sheepishly presented her with a fluffy yellow scarf. Yellow, he had said, for summer, and to match her hair. She still cherished the memory of Talbot’s deft, sun-kissed fingers, the soft click-clack of his knitting needles as he worked across the fabric, ebony-dark curls hiding his eyes as he sang words of love and protection into his knitting, the words falling from his lips like the most sacred of litanies.

It was one of the few mementos of him she still had.

“It suits you well,” the woman said. Her smile creased her tanned, wrinkled face, and her earthy brown eyes were warm and understanding. “A lot of love went into each stitch, I can tell. You’re very lucky to have that young man in your life.”

“Thank you, but he’s not really in my life anymore. We… broke up.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the woman frowned. “Would you mind if I asked why?”

“Oh, you know the usual reasons. We wanted different things in life. He was ready to settle down and wanted to get married after college; I wasn’t. Quite cliché, really.” The pain was months old by now, but the cavernous gulf in her chest clamoured to make itself known. Spoken out loud, the reasons seemed awfully petty, but it was important work, what she wanted to do. She wasn’t like Talbot, who had old magic in his veins. Every privilege she’d ever had in life she’d had to fight for.

“But you still wear his scarf.”

“We broke up,” said Eleanor. “It doesn’t mean that I stopped loving him. Besides,” she added, clutching the scarf close to her, “it’s a nice scarf.”

“That it most certainly is,” the woman said, smiling.

Lifting the lid of her teapot, the woman peered inside it and poured its contents into her mug; the soft scent of peppermint mingled with the heady aroma of her chai tea and tickling her nose.

“I didn’t know they added peppermint tea to the menu,” Eleanor observed.

“They haven’t,” she said with a secretive smile. “The owner owes me a favour. This is my personal blend.”

For a while, they sat together, savouring their drinks. Then, at last, the woman spoke. “You know, I’ve never liked autumn. I lost my daughter in the autumn quite some time ago. Oh,” she added, noticing of her stricken expression, “she’s not dead, just married. But she might as well be, with how often she writes to me.”

“Doesn’t she visit you?”

“Every year, sure as clockwork. She’s always happy when it’s time for her to leave, though. I can see it in her eyes, as summer drags on, her impatience to go home to her husband.” She laughed, airy and bright. “We fought terribly about it, once. The next year I almost feared that she wouldn’t come home. Oh, how the winter dragged on that year! But she did, and the scent of the spring blossoms have never been sweeter.

“Pride will do you no good, you know. It didn’t for me. I realised it almost too late to salvage my relationship with my daughter. I’d hate to see the same thing happen to you and your young man.” Nodding towards the phone on the table, she added, “You should probably answer that, dear.”

With a start, Eleanor realised that her phone had been buzzing for a while. When she turned it over, Talbot’s name was on the screen. 

About the author

An avid reader of speculative fiction, Nicole is currently working as an editor for a publishing company in Singapore. She enjoys knitting and baking in her free time. 

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