This was written just recently as an exercise to my Creative Writing Fiction class. We’re supposed to write a flash fiction in the POV of a person completely different from us doing something routine. Well, I’m certainly not a boy and not English, so I figure I might as well give my fake Harry Potter accent a try at some serious fiction. It was immensely enjoyable to write. I hope it’s just as good to read.
It’s twelve o’ clock. Time to meet Julia at Ritzy’s.
We’ve been doing this since the time we played hooky at Coombe Dean. Well, not Coombe Dean exactly. School hadn’t started for that day and we were both riding on the blue bus line getting there. We were just talking, I swear it. But then suddenly she grabbed me by the wrist (and you can imagine I was quite the flustered, freckled little boy) and dragged me out of the bus. I thought she’d gone mad. It wasn’t until I found us taking the Victoria line that I started to enjoy our little escapade, and before I knew it we were at Brixton’s. The last stop.
We parked ourselves at Ritzy’s café for lunch at twelve o’ clock. We were a spectacle, two young teenagers in their school uniforms nibbling on one small slice of cheesecake (understand that I was unprepared for our adventure and didn’t have more than a few pounds in my wallet) all the way at Brixton’s in the middle of the day.
Well at least the waiters were happy.
And so it was that every Wednesday we would cut whatever it was we happened to be doing and take the blue line to meet each other at Ritzy’s. The first few lunches were filled with each other, and I found myself getting to know Julia better than I’d known most of my girlfriends (although that’s not saying much) but soon we ran out of things to say. Luckily we were both equally catty when it comes to people, and so uncomfortable silences were turned into small whispers about the fat woman in the corner, or the boy with the horrendous haircut, or the questionable person outside who’s body couldn’t decide on whether it was male or female.
Over time it turned into a fun little game for us to play well into our college years. Come graduation we swore to keep the game even after we found ourselves employed. Three years later and here I am, back in Ritzy’s café, waiting for fair Julia to arrive. Ah, here she is now, the devil herself.
“Sorry Bruce, I stopped by Stockwell to meet a curator and my God that woman just won’t shut up. Were you waiting long?” she says, taking the seat across me. Her hair is pinned up in that sloppy bun that artists wear all the time. Wisps of it land on her cheeks. She looks at me with those mischievous grey eyes, a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. She is short for an Englishwoman, and peculiarly dressed in a bright yellow poncho and white shorts.
“I might as well have gone to lunch with a cockatoo. Julia, what unearthly being has possessed you to wear shorts in spring?” I joke. But really, I’m staring at her legs.
“I’m an artist. What I wear or do does not have to make sense. To other people, at least. But if you must know, I bought these yesterday and it would be a shame to wait for summer to use them.” She gestures to the waiter. “We’ll have the usual, Arthur. Thanks.”
“So how goes the stockmarket these days, Bruce?” She smiles gorgeously, and I know she doesn’t give a fuck about the stockmarket. “Do you really want to know, Julia, or shall we start?”
“No. And yes.”
“Alright, see that couple near the counter…”
She laughs like bells and I continue to critique. Her mole is much too big, it could practically fit into one of his monumental nostrils. I talk and laugh and listen to her voice and laughter even after our cups are empty and our plates clean. And we laugh every other Wednesday, at every other twelve o’ clock, passing the hours to our heart’s content.
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“Tea” was a short story I felt compelled to write after illustrating a girl holding tea for the September 2007 issue of Chinoy Magazine. It was a reaction of sorts, a boon of an idea that rose from a simple drawing of a girl. I later named her Xia Mei, “little beauty”, after my own mother’s Chinese name. I’ve been to Shanghai a few times in the peak of summer and the old men that lie in the streets still lie embedded in my mind, although they did not do it in the main streets but in most parks and small sidewalks. The Cafe is a purely fictional idea, risen from a stereotypical anime with a nondefinite plot ending.
“How boring,” she thought, holding her tea and staring at the walls of the room.
It was empty, save the low table in the middle and the lonely fan decidedly uncooperative in the corner. There were no windows. It was the peak of summer and she, clad in her shorts in an attempt to fight off the withering heat, found herself with little to nothing to do. Her friends had left for better places.
She stood, rested the cool bottle she held to her face and breathed the hot, stale air. When night comes it would be cool again. She would have the chance to rest before another day of staring at walls. But for now, air.
She locked the windowless room behind her and proceeded down. The old woman next door frowned at her from her solitary window. The landlord sat at the foot of the stairs. His sweat made his shirt stick to his front, accentuating his overdeveloped belly. The scarce white hair on his head was wet from the sweat, making the few strands almost transparent. He peered at her through his thick, wire-framed glasses, “Where are you going, Xia Mei?”
“I don’t know.” She replied. She took a sip of her tea.
“It’s stupid to go out in this heat. It is better to stay indoors. Less sun.”
“My apartment does not have any windows. You said it was better in winter.”
“I did not say anything about summer. You can have a window if you want—“
“I don’t have the money, old man.”
“Then get a job.”
“How will I find a job like this?”
“Find a way.”
She took another sip of tea. The cold slid down her throat. Sugar and water and the weak flavor of Ginseng. She left the old man to his stairs.
The streets of Shanghai are rarely deserted. People flocked to roadside café’s, now packed with pretend-customers vying for free air conditioning. Men and children in their underwear spread themselves across street benches as an alternative to their warm beds at home. Cars stopped in the middle of the road, puttering and complaining as the heat overwhelmed their sensitive engines.
But Xia Mei saw none of these. She walked in the alleys to avoid the sun, playing a game of hide-and-seek with herself. She held her tea to the side of her body.
Her foot bumped into something big. She looked down. Someone had fainted in the alleyway. She smelled something pungent and rotting.
“Hey. Hey, you. Wake up. This is no place to sleep.” She said. She kicked him. He didn’t stir.
“Hey. Are you dead?” She kicked him again. He might as well have been. Perhaps he was the source of the horrid smell?
“Hey!” She poured half of her tea over him. He jolted awake, eyes blinking wildly as he touched his face for more of the cold that had washed over him.
“Can you give me your tea?” He asked, laying back down on the cement.
“Why are you on the ground?”
“The cement is cooler than inside. Give me your tea.”
She handed him her tea. Her hands felt empty. He drank it all.
“Thank you. Your name?” He asked, throwing the now useless bottle to the side of the alley, narrowly missing a large garbage heap. Xia Mei blinked.
“Ren Li Feng.”
“Thank you for the tea, Xia Mei.” He said, standing up. He towered over her. The back of his white shirt was dirty and yellowing. He wore black pants under the waiter’s apron, now stained from the spots where the tea had spilled. She stepped back cautiously, her frown deepening.
“Let me repay your generosity.”
“I thought you were dead.”
He shrugged, opened a nearby door and went inside. She followed, her footsteps slow, her hands folded across her small chest. Suddenly she was fearful of the dark alley with its shadows and horrid smells.
But the room was brightly lit and warm. The airconditioner sat despondently in the corner of the room. A wide glass window showcased the cars beeping outside and the children in their underwear scampered through the streets. There were seven tables, each with four chairs surrounding, each with empty center trays for cakes and pastries. There was a bar at the right side of the room. This is where he stood, picking out small boxes and tins from the shelf behind it. She sat.
“There is no one here because the air conditioner broke down,” he reasoned, still picking out boxes. “The boss is out to find someone to fix it.”
“You were tired of waiting, so you slept in the alley?”
“I was tired of the heat, so I slept on the cement. The boss says business is slow in summer.”
She gazed at the boxes and tins on the shelf. There were no bottles of alcohol. No clear glass with liquids and scorpions or snakes in it. No shapely things that caught the light and made strong men as weak as the dead flies on the windowsill. “What is this?” she asked.
“A tea shop. I work here for the summer. When September starts I come here every other day after school.”
“This is the tea shop my friends were talking about. The girls from school come here in the afternoons sometimes.”
He laughed. Some of his teeth were ugly and rotting. “And you?”
“I don’t have time and money to waste on leaves in water.”
He laughed again. She noticed the blackness of his hair and his almost nonexistent eyes. “Try this.” He said, placing a tall glass of cold liquid in front of her.
She held the glass to her face first. The ice burned her cheek. She breathed the coldness. She placed the glass to her lips and let the liquid run over her tongue and down her throat. It was water and ginseng and lemongrass and mint and ginger and a sweet aftertaste that rested upon the base of her throat, bringing memories of summers in Dongyin, of the many seagulls and the taste of sweet sea-salt, and of her mother calling her like the sound of bells…
And then she heard bells from the door. “These damned men are all incompetent. They won’t fix an airconditioner! A customer, Feng?” The woman asked, fanning herself with her hand. She held a blazer in her other hand, and her pink bra was showing through her white shirt, wet from the heat.
“No, boss. She saved me from heatstroke in the back alley. I’m letting her try the cold tea.”
“Ah. Thank you for saving him, then.” She laughed like the bells that had previously rung. Like mother, Xin Mei thought. The woman took a seat beside Xin Mei. “He’s the only reason why I even get customers. Most of them are girls, of course.”
“Your tea is very good.” Xin Mei replied, taking another sip.
“Of course! But then business is slow in summer. Men don’t like tea much, and its mostly men who roam about the city in summer. The women gather in shopping centers.” She sighed and scanned Xin Mei up and down.
“We could always use more waiters. And then, a cute girl like you might get me lots of high school boys as customers.”
She blinked and put the glass down, half empty.
“Thank you for the tea.”
She left the shop through the front door. She walked the streets. It was noon and the sun was at its highest. People cowered in shadows, entering the nearest buildings that offered shelter from the hazing air.
She stopped by a corner shop and bought a bottle of commercial tea, pressing it against her cheek. She walked up the stairs to her building, the landlord still peering at her through his thick, wire-framed glasses. “I can give you a window anytime.” He called out to her.
The old woman was now nowhere near her window. She sat in front of the television, watching the Beijing Operas in black and white. The sounds were shrill.
She opened the door to her windowless room. The low table sat in the middle. The fan was still broken. She kicked it and suddenly it whirled, the hot air in the room now circulating. She sat as she did before and took a sip of her tea. Sugar and water and nothing else. She thought about the lemongrass and the mint, and of the bells like her mother’s voice.
She returned to the tea shop the next day.
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