WEDNESDAY: Time for Tea

BY BEVERLEY BACHMANN

Copyright is held by the author.

“HOW LONG have we been in this house now?” Jackie tossed the question lightly over her shoulder while using the tips of her fingers to brush crumbs on the counter into a tiny perfect pyramid.

“I don’t know, Ma,” Lionel answered, his head bowed over the heavy medical volume he had brought with him to the breakfast table.

Jackie pressed the button on the coffee maker and pulled out Lionel’s mug — the one with the Maple Leafs logo on it that had been his father’s favourite.

“Let me see,” Jackie said, furrowing her brow. “It’s been about 21 years, I think.” She focused on a memory from a far distant past. “When your Dad and I first moved into this place, the boulevard wasn’t so busy,” she said. “Now there’s a constant stream of traffic, night and day. How your father would have hated that.”

“Well, it’s a good thing he’s dead then,” Lionel commented, his nose buried in the pages of his book.

Jackie wheeled around sharply. “What a thing to say! Alex had his faults — and I have the scars to prove it, but you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead — especially when he’s your father.”

Lionel grunted. He really didn’t have time for this.

Jackie considered the matter. The boy was not listening. She moved over to the table and pulled out a chair. “You know,” she said, trying a different tact, “I can’t believe we’ve lived here that long. What were you at the time? Five or six?”
“Six,” he answered abruptly without bothering to look at her. He had hoped that the woman would take the hint and leave him alone for five fucking minutes. But that wasn’t happening.

That would never happen.

***

As a child, Lionel’s first memory of his parents was of watching them moving in tandem throughout the house as if tethered by some invisible cord. At first he thought it was a game with Alex acting as the engineer of a locomotive and Jackie playing the part of the caboose. It wasn’t until he was a bit older that Lionel realized it was no game.

Lionel remembered how his mother latched onto his father from the moment he came through the door after work, and would then follow him around for hours, forever talking, talking, talking. Alex tried repeatedly to shrug her off, but always to no avail.

Once in a while Alex would start to hear this clanging sound ringing in his ears, and when that happened, something snapped inside his brain. On those occasions he would lash out like a crazy man, often inflicting serious damage on his small, fragile wife. He was always sorry afterwards, but the pattern continued for years.

It hadn’t always been that way between the two of them. When Alex first met Jackie, he was impressed. She was sweet and vulnerable, and all he wanted to do was to take care of her. He thought that by providing her with a home and a family, he was being a man. It made him feel good.

But then, as time went by, Alex’s mood began to change. His heart started to harden — first towards Jackie, and then towards himself. Ultimately he grew to hate the man he had become. Almost as much as his son did.

Lionel didn’t always hate his father. He had once loved Alex, but that love soon became conflicted by the increasing incidents of violence in the home. Lionel wanted desperately to defend his mother during those times but a little boy’s rage was no match for a grown man’s might.

And then one day, seemingly overnight, everything changed. Father and son became equals in size and strength. This new reality marked the end of Alex’s reign of terror. Thereafter he was forced to flee to the nearest pub where a cold drink would help him cope with a wife he didn’t respect and a son who despised him.

When Alex eventually came down with a crippling lung infection, he decided not to put up a fight. There didn’t seem to be any point to it.

***

Jackie stood in front of the opened refrigerator and hesitated. “What kind of juice do you want this morning? Orange or grapefruit?”

“Surprise me,” Lionel said, his indifference verging on disrespect.

Jackie heard the veiled insult, but she wasn’t offended. On the contrary, she was happy he was there. Lionel wasn’t just her son, he was her company. When the boy had started medical school, Jackie was terrified he would move out. At the time Lionel did investigate the possibility but soon had to give up. He simply couldn’t afford it.

“I know you’re a big coffee drinker,” Jackie said, standing over him as she filled his mug. “But why don’t you try some of my special tea — at least once? It’s good for all kinds of health issues — stress in particular.”

“Stress?” Lionel looked up with interest. “I’m studying a chapter right now on the correlation between stress and its effects on the heart.” He arched an eyebrow. “Would you like to read it?”

“Don’t be silly,” she said, moving quickly back to the refrigerator where she retrieved a cardboard carton from the bottom shelf. “How would you like your eggs? Over easy?”

“Sure, Ma,” he said, returning to his reading. “Over easy.” He couldn’t have cared less if she threw them on the floor and then stomped on them. Actually he would have enjoyed that.

Jackie cracked three eggs on the side of a porcelain bowl and slid them into the frying pan. She paused. There was something on her mind — something serious — and she wanted to phrase it just right.

“Um, Lionel? You remember I mentioned the boulevard — how the traffic has become dangerous? Well, a flyer came yesterday informing the neighborhood that there will be a meeting about it tonight at the high school, and I’d like to attend.” She glanced at the table to gauge his reaction. He was still wrapped up in that stupid book.

Jackie walked over to the table carrying a plateful of eggs and sat down beside him. She had to convince him to go with her. She couldn’t bear the thought of going there alone. All those people . . . .

“You will come with me, won’t you?” She grabbed a serviette from its holder in the middle of the table and started twisting it into a tight little ball. “I know you’re busy,” she continued nervously, “what with school work and all, but I get so frightened in public.”

Silently she watched him eat. After a while, she decided to make another pitch. “It really won’t take up much of your time,” she said anxiously. “If we left right after dinner, we’d be home by nine — at the latest,” she looked at him intently. “This meeting is important. The traffic is affecting property values, and someday this house will be yours.” She paused to let her words sink in. “You’re involved too, so what do you say?”

Lionel said nothing. He was mulling it over.

In his mind, he could picture the scene in the high school gym —. a tension-filled atmosphere of loud, angry homeowners shouting out their grievances hour after hour and then, one by one, leaving in frustration after reaching no consensus and resolving absolutely nothing.

Lionel smiled to himself. Jackie took it as a good sign.

“Of course I’ll go with you, Ma,” he said over the rim of his father’s mug.

***

It was long after 10 p.m. when Jackie and Lionel made it back home that evening. They staggered into the kitchen where Lionel flopped down in a chair, and Jackie grabbed onto the edge of the countertop to keep from falling down. She felt like a rag doll.

“My God,” Jackie declared breathlessly. “The meeting was awful! Just awful.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” Lionel said, stifling a yawn. “We probably shouldn’t have gone.”

“I have to sit down,” Jackie said, pulling out a chair. “My nerves are shot.”

“I noticed,” Lionel said, glancing at her sideways. “Listen, why don’t I put the kettle on and the two of us have a cup of that special tea you’re always talking about? I think we both need it tonight.”

“You mean it?” Jackie was touched. Sometimes he could remind her of Alex — the way he was in the beginning.

“You just sit still,” Lionel said, getting up. “I’ll do everything.” He walked over to the cupboard and pulled out two cups. Then he reached for Jackie’s cache of tea and dropped a bag into each cup. It took less than a minute for the kettle to start boiling.

“You’re taking good care of me, Lionel,” Jackie said approvingly.

Lionel poured the steaming water into the cups and set the timer for five minutes. He hung around at the counter, waiting for the tea to steep. Then he picked up a cup in each hand and moved back to the table.
“Here,” he offered. “Take the one you want.”

Jackie made her choice and Lionel sat down opposite her. He blew gently on the hot brew before taking a few sips.

Jackie wanted to keep talking about the meeting, but she was overwhelmed with fatigue. It had been an exhausting evening.

“Have you finished your tea yet?” Lionel inquired, leaning over the table to take a peek in her cup.

“I’m about half way. Why?” she asked drowsily.

For a moment Lionel seemed lost in thought. “You have a small body mass,” he said, as if thinking out loud. “Half a cup ought to do it.”

She blinked incomprehensively. “Ought to do what?”

“Kill you,” he said softly.

“What are you talking about?!” Jackie’s heart started racing.

“Well, you really can’t blame me,” he said, closing his eyes and resting his head on the back of his chair. “I didn’t know which cup had the poison in it. That’s why I let you choose first.” He opened his eyes and sat up straight. It was easier to observe her that way.

Jackie was gasping for air and trying hard to focus. Lionel could be weird at times, but this was something else. She had to think.

He was speaking again.

“Just think,” Lionel said, shaking his head in wonderment, “it could be me hyperventilating right now and struggling to breathe, instead of you.”

“Are you crazy?!” Jackie jumped up from her chair. She felt as if her heart was about to explode. “Why!” she cried. “Why in God’s name are you doing this?”

“Oh, lots of reasons,” he said calmly. “But I guess the biggest reason was to shut you up once and for all.” He let out a sigh of satisfaction.

Jackie began shaking uncontrollably. Her right arm felt like a piece of plywood. Nausea was creeping up her throat. “You’ll never get away with this,” she sputtered. “I watch cop shows. I know about poisons. They can be detected!” In spite of the overwhelming pain in her chest, she felt triumphant. “You’re going to spend the rest of your life in prison, you miserable bastard!”

“Prison? Really? I don’t see how.” He smiled slyly. “Oh look, my tea is all gone. Well, I’ll just finish yours, shall I?”

Jackie watched in horror as Lionel downed what was left in her cup and then showed it to her.

“You’re killing yourself too? What is this?” Jackie asked incredulously. “A murder-suicide!”

“No, Ma.”

He watched her movements carefully, making mental notes of every symptom.

Jackie’s legs buckled beneath her. She collapsed to the floor.

Lionel knelt down beside her and whispered in her ear. “Thanks for your special tea, Ma. It really hit the spot.”

Jackie’s eyes grew wide with recognition.

Slowly Lionel got to his feet and walked over to the phone. He waited an appropriate amount of time before dialing 911.

9 comments

  1. M Wilson

    Scary!:) I thought he was going to hit her but he poisoned her!! Didn’t expect that kind of ending at all. I wish I knew why she would latch on to her husband like that.

  2. Mary Steer

    Ummmm….no eyes growing wide with recognition here. I don’t get it? Is she supposed to recognize, when she’s dying, that she was causing him stress? And what about him drinking the tea too?

  3. Mary Steer

    Nope, you’re going to have to spell it out for me. I reread it and still have no idea what’s supposed to be going on.

  4. Georgia Dayley

    I interpreted the story as the son didn’t really poison the mother at all. He knew she was the nervous sort, and knew how stress can induce heart attacks (he was reading the medical textbook), so he took her go to that stressful meeting, then told her he poisoned her, knowing (or guessing) that the stress would induce a heart attack in her. What he would have done if it hadn’t worked I don’t know. Probably tell her that he was just kidding.

  5. JAZZ

    Is it the author’s job to write in such a way that all readers understand what’s going on?
    I struggled with “Ulysses” before retiring it to the top shelf….damn that James Joyce.

  6. M Wilson

    Oh, I thought that was what really happened, Georgia, her son didn’t actually poison her but I didn’t get if it was a revenge for his father whom he obviously did not love or his mother drove the son crazy just as she did his father with her inability to ever shut up:)

  7. Bev Bachmann

    Thanks to all who commented on my story.

    Sometimes there is a fine line between victim and villain, and I used the “cup of tea” as a metaphor to show that things are not always as they appear. Neither Jackie’s husband nor her son were real people to her, and that is what drove each man to the point of madness.

    “Narcissists can’t bring themselves to believe that anyone else is quite as real as they are.”
    Margaret Wente, The Globe and Mail Nov. 1, 2014

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