Mrs Sadler Makes Some Tea, by Stephanie Lam
artwork by Yu-jie Yu

The seagulls have started to inhabit my dreams.

This morning, the cark-cark-cark comes from a bird the size of the pier. It has a giant snapping beak that reaches, and closes, and pulls me into the dark.

Then I am awake, and the hands of the clock point to three minutes past six, and white light is shifting through the curtains.

I pull back the eiderdown. I squeeze myself into the narrow slit between bed and window ledge, and blink as I lean out. To my right is the slope of the roof, and beyond the ramshackle discoloured tiles is a shimmering oblong of sea. Above me, the birds wheel and call.

Downstairs I ready the kitchen: bald eggs in cardboard trays, an open vat of cold baked beans, bacon slippery under sheets of greaseproof paper. I prepare the breakfast room, and then light a cigarette and smoke it with the back door open, looking at the scrub of tangled weeds that will never be a garden. I drink my tea and listen to David Jacobs on the Light Programme, closing my mind to what I know the day will bring.

We only have two guests; their hands are joined over the tabletop. ‘Mr and Mrs Smith?’ I say, and a second passes before they remember, and look up.

‘Thank you,’ says the boy, a scrawny-necked thing, as I place the breakfasts in front of them.

‘How are you enjoying your honeymoon?’ I ask, smiling because they both have bleary, sleep-starved eyes.

‘Oh wonderful, thank you.’ The girl's chin is blotchy with stubble rash. I wonder whose the over-large ring is – an aunt's maybe, filched from her drawer. I go back to the kitchen, wondering why they all choose such mundane names: Smith, Jones. It marks them out by a mile. If I could re-invent myself for a weekend, I'd never be plain old Smith. I'd be Giarcanelli, Hobstrot, Fiegelmeister.

The morning passes, and after the beds have been turned and the cleaning completed, I sit in the kitchen smoking a cigarette and drinking tea, the old stink of eggs and bacon floating just below the ceiling. I leaf through an old magazine.

‘A very good morning to you, Mrs S.’

There he is, tapping up the step to the back door, the broken veins on his face becoming a smile. He rests on his cane although he has no need of it.

‘Good morning, Bill. Do come in.’

Of course he is already in. He comes the back way in pretence of servitude, just as he calls me Mrs Sadler while I only know him by his first name.

Guests have seen him; they probably imagine he is my lover, a thought that makes me shudder. He settles on the other chair and I put the kettle on, taking his special tea, the one he likes so much, from the cupboard. ‘So how's business this month, Mrs S?’

‘Slow. Very slow.’ I put his tea on the table and sit down opposite.

‘I'm sorry to hear that.’ He does look genuinely sorry, mashing his tea and swirling milk from the jug into his cup. ‘I do hope you don't regret buying the place.’

I take up my packet of cigarettes and offer him one, but he shakes his head. I light my own, remembering my arrival here in Brighton, and how I'd stood on the pavement and looked at the pale slick of blue beyond the houses and thought, At last I'm free.

‘It's other circumstances that have made it difficult,’ I say, but Tapping Bill will have none of that. He takes a sip of tea.

‘Now that is a lovely cuppa. Even better than my wife's, although I don't tell her that, of course.’ He laughs and taps the side of his overgrown, fleshy nose. ‘No, you see, your problem is with Mr Franco.’

‘Mr Franco?’ I make pretence of listening, but I am thinking instead of the moment when I must go to the cupboard, and I am mentally counting the contents of the biscuit tin.       

‘Mr Franco in Spain.’ He pulls a ready-rolled cigarette from his tin and fits it between his lips. ‘Now don't get me wrong, Mrs S, I am all against fascism but you have got to admit he has the right idea with regards revitalising the economy. Dirty great big hotels he's putting up, all the way along the coast. And that is where your holidaymakers are starting to go, you mark my words. The great British seaside is no longer good enough for them.’

If I have to listen to him any longer I will be crushed, so I pull the cupboard open. I reach for the biscuit tin, my fingers closing around the dry wad of notes inside.

‘Indeed, that's very good of you.’ He receives it as a baby seagull might receive a morsel of fish, and in one deft move releases the packet from its rubber band. He licks a dirty finger and riffles through the notes, counting. I wait, standing, my nerves slowly building to a high pitch.

‘That's a treat, Mrs S, thank you.’ From a pocket somewhere inside his coat he pulls the small black book, stuffed with scraps of paper and expanded to three times its original size. He places it onto the table and reaches into a pocket for his pen. Unhooking the lid, he shakes it to start the ink, and scratches tiny black figures into one page of his small ledger.

I breathe again. For a month, it is over. My anxiety recedes to a small place in the back of my brain.

‘Unfortunately, I am the bearer of bad news.’ Tapping Bill puts pen, book and money inside his coat and my heart begins dancing around my chest again.

I keep my face smooth. ‘What is it?’

‘I have been told your payments are to rise again from next month.’

‘What?’ I lean against the kitchen cupboards.

‘Cost of inflation, so I'm told. Please do not blame me, Mrs S. I am merely the bearer of bad tidings.’

‘I can't.’

When I came here I had such plans for this place – a little south coast paradise, I thought. Now I find myself haggling with the butcher for the cheapest cuts, keeping broken furniture and hazardous electrical fittings. And even this, now, is not enough.

‘Please sit down, Mrs Sadler.’ Tapping Bill's voice is warm, and I find myself sitting.

‘Why does he want to bleed me dry?’

I don't know why I ask, because surely Bill will give me an answer that is not the truth.

‘My boss is a hard man, that's the only explanation I have for it. And you dear, are an unmarried woman.’

‘Widow,’ I mumble, to try and prevent tears. I will not let him see me cry.

‘A tragedy in this modern age, is what I think. And so young too.’

‘My husband was much older than me,’ I say quietly.

‘I have a much younger wife too, Mrs S, and no doubt she shall outlive me, although unlike you I am sure she will relish the prospect. She's not a bit like you, Mrs Sadler, not noble at all. A strumpet through and through.’

I shift in my chair.

‘So a young widow such as yourself, Mrs Sadler, trying to run a business alone in this cut-throat world of ours; I know you believe the fees you pay to be insurmountable, but you buy peace of mind, and who can argue with that?’

I know what peace of mind Bill's boss can offer me. I saw the fire above the King's Arms in the spring. I saw the blackened bodies carried out, the children small lumps covered in grey cloth, the mother and father unrecognisable.

‘Didn't pay their dues,’ whispered someone to me that night, someone who recognised a fellow sufferer. ‘Landlord was a tough nut, thought if he slept with a cricket bat by the door everything would be all right.’

And I know a husband would not be enough to protect me from Tapping Bill's boss.

‘I do have influence.’ He speaks quietly, and at first I don't look up. ‘I don't believe it's fair either, if you want my honest opinion.’

‘Would you speak to him?’ Maybe all these months of tea and forced smiles will come to fruition. ‘Would that work?’

‘It might well do.’ Tapping Bill strokes his bristly chin. ‘He does say to me, the boss, what advice would you give on these
prices, Bill? I don't want to run no one out of business, after all.’

I press my hands into the tabletop and stare at him. ‘I will be out of business, I promise you that.’

Tapping Bill drains his cup of tea and gets to his feet, wincing as he touches his side. ‘Just a touch of that old dyspepsia, Mrs S. Don't alarm yourself. Now, I don't believe you've ever given me a tour of your rooms.’

I frown. ‘I'm sorry?’

‘I would be most appreciative if you could show me one of your bedrooms, Mrs Sadler. And then I can be on my way to my boss saying to him, Mrs Sadler is struggling, and to charge her as much as you would like to is simply unfair.’

He stands in front of me, and puts a hand on my shoulder, and now, at last, I understand exactly what he means. Bile rises to my throat. I do not speak; I cannot.

My nails score holes in my palm. All I hear is the steady tick-tick-tick of the wall clock, and the far-off carking of the seagulls from the wide sky outside.

His grip on my shoulder is strong, and I remember another time, another pair of hands on my shoulders, dragging me backwards from my chair, across the kitchen floor and my sobs of pain and terror.

I swallow back the acid, and twist my head to look up at him, painting on a smile. ‘I'm a little busy today.’

‘Of course, it's Saturday. His eyes narrow as he thinks. His lips move. ‘I'll drop by next Friday. Let's see - three o'clock a good time for you?’

I nod dumbly. ‘Three o'clock.’

The hand on my shoulder reaches lower, gropes at my left breast through its covering of brassiere, blouse and pinny. ‘I'll see you Friday, Mrs S,’ he whispers thickly.

I back away, stand up.  His eyes have a fiery dance in them. I go to the cupboard, pulling out the small wooden box. ‘Please take the tea with you,’ I gabble, pressing it into his hands. His eyes widen with surprise. ‘It will help with your dyspepsia.’

‘Very well, Mrs S.’ His surprise broadens into a smile. ‘I shall drink it, and think of you.’

He leans towards me, hoping for a kiss, but I am behind the kitchen door, closing it on his cane as it tap taps down the steps to the garden, tapping around the side towards his hulking black car that reminds me of a cockroach, tapping the engine to life and roaring away from my shrieking nerves.

I run upstairs, past the guest floors, up to the top, tearing off my clothes when I reach my bathroom, locking the door and running water, scrubbing at myself with soap and brush, erasing Tapping Bill from my skin, feeling that even if I were to tear the skin from my body that his imprint would still be there, down through layers of fat and blood to the organs resting beneath.


*


The days pass. The seagulls' cries shatter my fitful sleep. Mr and Mrs Smith leave, Mr and Mrs Jones arrive; even younger, even more nervous, and with a ring like a Christmas cracker surprise. I dust and polish the guest bedrooms, clean the toilets, buy supplies from the delivery men, and on Friday at three o'clock I sit at the kitchen table and wait for Tapping Bill to arrive.

The doorbell rings. It cannot be him; he never comes the front way. I walk along the hallway and open the door.

She is all backcombed blonde hair and pale lipstick, matching handbag and boots. Too well off for here, is my first thought, and then she says in a voice common as muck, ‘You Mrs Sadler?’

‘I am.’

She holds out a hand. ‘Laura Haines.’

As I shake it, bemused, she adds, ‘Bill Haines's wife.’

So that is his surname, and this is his wife. ‘Come in.’ I stand back. ‘Come in.’

‘He's been ill this week,’ she says as she follows me down the corridor towards the kitchen. ‘I know he got an appointment to come and see you. It was in his book.’

The kitchen is as I left it, but everything has changed. ‘Please sit down,’ I say. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

Mrs Haines pauses. ‘Go on then. I been on me feet all morning.’ She sits at the table, in the same place Bill does, and I feel dowdy suddenly, in my old pinny and raggedy hair. ‘He just collapsed. Doctor reckons it's too much of the sauce.’

The kettle whistles; I warm the pot and make the tea. Mrs Haines offers me one of her French cigarettes, and it tastes of exotic urban places. I cannot imagine what strange combination of circumstances pushed her and Bill to stand side by side in a church one Saturday morning.

‘I don't owe any money, not until next month,’ I say as I sit down. ‘Your husband was coming – um – to talk about the new charges.’

I wonder how much she knows of his trade, if he asked her to drop by, if she has finally decided to discover the secrets scrawled in his thick black book.

‘New charges?’ she says sharply, and I have the feeling she's not as airheaded as her bleached blonde hairdo would make her seem.

I pour the tea; it hisses into our cups. ‘I was having trouble paying. He wanted to… to negotiate.’

She picks up her cup, and looks over its rim at me. ‘He wanted to negotiate with you?’

I nod slowly. ‘Yes.’

She drinks; her huge false eyelashes bat. She swirls thoughts around her mouth with the tea, and then swallows. ‘I know things about my husband,’ she says.

I frown at her, my heart clattering around my chest. ‘Things?’

‘I know he was creaming you. You, and half a dozen other single women around town.’

‘Cr-creaming?’

‘Charging you more than the boss was asking for. It's been going on for months. You see, the boss ain't got no interest in seeing your business fail, Mrs Sadler. My husband, on the other hand… I believe he had a very great interest in seeing you so desperate you'd do anything. Anything.’

I hold my hands in my lap. ‘I honestly have not compromised either my position, or your husband's.’

‘Well, that's what he was coming round here today for, ain't it?’ She laughs again. Mirthless laughter. Cold laughter. She grinds her cigarette into the ashtray. ‘What I always thought about Bill was, he's a shit through and through, but he gets the job done. Turns out it's a different sort of job he wants doing.’

She falls silent, watching me, waiting for me to speak. The minute hand of the clock moves. ‘He called you a strumpet,’ I say eventually.

‘I bet he did.’

She stands up, walks towards the kitchen door, looks through the window at the weeds. ‘The thing with Bill, he's a dinosaur. He's pre-war. He ain't modern like you and me, Mrs Sadler.’

‘Call me Betty,’ I say.

‘Elizabeth Julia Sadler.’ She turns to me. ‘Née Faircourt. Late of 24 Washmore Drive, Guildford, Surrey. You see, Mrs Sadler, I know some things about my husband, and I know some things about you.’

I sit very still on my chair. Somewhere above, a floorboard creaks as a guest moves across the uneven carpet of their bedroom.

‘Bill... ‘ she says thoughtfully. ‘He's very ill, you know, Mrs Sadler. It's going to be a long time before he recovers. Half his guts been ripped out by this sickness he's had. I think he might have to take early retirement, it's that bad.’

‘I'm sorry.’

‘You ain't sorry, so don't start with that, and neither am I. He only married me for my money, you know.’

She dips into her handbag and takes out a small wooden box. ‘Your tea,’ she says. ‘I thought you might want it back.

I take it from her; it is lighter than before. ‘Thank you.’

Laura Haines opens the kitchen door, and I follow her down the hall. I reach around her to pull open the latch on the front door and she nods her thanks.

We walk down the steps. The black cockroach car is parked outside, squashing all passing traffic onto the other side of the street.

‘By the way, Mrs Sadler.’ She is unlocking the car door, and turns towards me. ‘Can I ask you something?’

I breathe steadily, holding the wooden box close to me. ‘What is it?’

‘That tea – was it your husband's favourite too?’

I nod, and Mrs Haines smiles.

‘I thought so.’

She waves at me and climbs into the car. I wave back and listen as the engine roars. She drives towards the end of the street, turning left onto the seafront, past the seagulls as they wheel and dive, their sharp beaky noise filling the air.





wordpress twitter facebook 


      BROWSE BY:
   Volumes

   Writers

   Artists

   News

home

   About

   Contact

   Submissions

   Help us
   raise money
   for charity