Fiction: Tongs

A flower blooms inside her teacup. It starts out very small, as a coiled ball with streaks of colour, and as it warms and softens in the water, tendrils start to trail out and it opens, revealing meticulously arranged tea leaves. Through the water, it looks like a dried flower seen from very far away; the colours are ever so slightly dull, the petals off just enough that you know it’s not a real flower, a fresh one.

The flower trembles when she gets up and the table shakes. Currents eddy around it and the small flecks of dark debris that shook down from the petals when the flower opened stir up from the bottom again, and start drifting to the top of her cup. She doesn’t seem to notice. I am fascinated, watching it through the glass.

‘I think your tea is going to be oversteeped,’ I say, pointing to the cup to draw her attention to the astounding things happening inside. She glances, briefly, and narrows her eyes at it.

‘Then I suppose you should take the tea out,’ she says. I am not sure when the flower in her cup became my responsibility but I shrug and go to the kitchen, wondering what you use to fish a dried flower that is not a dried flower out of a tea cup. Tongs, I suspect, but I don’t know where she keeps the tongs and I can tell she’s getting annoyed as I rifle through the drawers. She huffs and sighs in the living room and I can’t bring myself to ask her where the tongs are.

I’m supposed to know because I was supposed to live here, in this house with her, and then I would have known where the tongs were. I probably would have unpacked them. I spin around the kitchen on the balls of my feet, trying to imagine where she would have put the tongs. I hear the feet of her chair scrape back on the tile floor and I’m desperate to find them before she comes in and says ‘do I have to do everything myself,’ like she does.

I realise that I am going about this wrong. I should not ask where the tongs are, but rather, where she thinks I would have put the tongs, if I had been the one moving into this house. I reach for the one drawer I didn’t look into, the one next to the stove, because she doesn’t cook, so she would have no use for that drawer, alone in the corner of the kitchen, and there they are, tongs.

I fish them out from the detritus of the drawer, cringing as a bag of skewers upends and rains bamboo sticks all over the drawer, but I know she’ll never open it, and if I try to round them up, she’ll get impatient, so with a twinge of guilt, I close the drawer and imagine someone else looking for tongs in this kitchen and playing pickup sticks with the skewers. The thought of someone else in this kitchen doesn’t bother me and she’d probably be angry to know that.

There’s a small saucer in the dish drainer and I take that, too, and go back to the living room, where she paces impatiently. ‘I was wondering what you were doing in there,’ she says, with a tone that says she wasn’t wondering at all, that she had moved past wondering and into infuriation. ‘What’s taking so long,’ she always used to say when I was cooking. ‘You don’t have to be such a perfectionist, you know,’ but I did.

I wordlessly hold up the tongs and she looks puzzled. She watches me while I take the flower out and drop it on the saucer. Out of the tea, back in gravity, the petals start to sink into each other and it looks less like a flower than a sodden pile of tea leaves and string. The flower’s secret is revealed, the careful stitching holding tight bundles of tea leaves together. All a pastiche. Not a flower after all. She appears to have no interest at all and I think about the dust on the packaging and suspect she’s never brewed a cup of tea in this house, ever, but thought she had to because I was coming.

She didn’t offer me a cup, of course.

She glances at the ruined flower with disinterest and lifts up the cup to pick at the handle. I don’t think she knows she’s doing it and I try not to cringe at the sound, the grating of her nails against the seam of the cheap glass mug, the ‘tink’ when a finger overshoots and the nail clacks against the side of the mug. I know she won’t drink the tea, will fidget with the cup until the tea is cold and then will pour it down the drain, probably long after I have left.

I want to say that she will lean up against the edges of the sink with a sigh when she’s done, staring dully at the dirty cup and the tongs and the saucer and the tea flower, but I know she won’t. She’ll wander back out to the living room with the same expression she has now, like she doesn’t know how she got here, and she’ll eat cold Chinese food out of the carton while she stares blankly out the window, until the sun comes up again.

‘I’ll just put these in the kitchen,’ I say, picking up tongs and saucer.

We are both avoiding the inevitable.