Best Served Warm
It took three days for this particular pot of trouble to brew.
Mother always liked her tea left to brew for three minutes. “Just how I like it!” she’d say, and Jayne would glow with the approval.
But mother was sick. She’d been in bed for a week, hardly eating, hardly sleeping. She looked gaunt and haunted, black swellings under red eyes. She’d lost the baby. Three months into her pregnancy, she’d thought she was safe and had told Jayne. But she wasn’t safe. He hadn’t wanted another child.
“What can I bring you, Mum? What could you eat?”
Mother closed her eyes and turned away.
“Could I make you a warm drink? Hot milk and honey?”
A smile and a tired nod.
Jayne pulled on her boots, ransacked pockets and bags till she found enough loose change to buy a jar of honey. She had checked and knew there was a little milk in the fridge. “Back in a mo’,” she called through as she sped out the door.
Her steps faltered as she neared the corner shop, remembering past errands. ‘Please let it not be him! Please let it not be him!’ her heart pleaded. She had looked up in the dictionary some words she’d heard said about him by her older schoolmates. Words like ‘leer’ and ‘lechery’, ‘lust’ and ‘lascivious’: all ‘l’ words, all pertinent. He gave her the creeps.
But mother needed nourishment. She was fading away before her eyes.
With a last deep breath, Jayne pushed the shop door open. Her heart sank.
“Aha! And what can I give you today?” He came round the counter.
Jayne stepped away, her eyes searching frantically for the honey pots, before the ‘b’ reached her. “Honey!” She slammed it on the counter and counted out the exact money as indicated on the jar’s ticket.
“Not so fast! Not so fast,” he said, stepping between her and the door. “Don’t you want your change? The honey is on special offer…to special people.” He stepped in closer. “Here!” He fumbled in his trousers and took some money from his pocket. “Still warm.” His tongue was moist and pinkish-grey as he licked his leering lips. He tried to put the money in her jeans pocket.
Squirming away, Jayne grabbed it from his hand, dodged round him and made for the door, his hand on her bottom propelling her flight. With disgust, she pocketed the warm money. Oh! That she could afford the luxury of tossing it back at him! But Father had been on the booze for too many days already: there would be no money for Jayne and Mother this week.
Mother still hadn’t stopped bleeding. At first, she’d been able to hide it from Jayne, but when the packet of towels ran out and there was no money for more, she’d resorted to getting Jayne to tear up an old, threadbare sheet into strips. Under Mother’s instruction, she’d folded it into thick pads. Mother was bleeding so heavily. Jayne was becoming concerned about how often the sodden pads needed changing. It broke her heart to see the sadness on Mother’s face each time she staggered back from the bathroom, holding on to the furniture for support, her legs shaking, her body thinner and more bent each day.
Jayne wanted to call the doctor, but Mother warned her not to, “He wouldn’t like it,” she said. “Your dad, he wouldn’t like it.” And she turned her face into the pillow.
The next day, Jayne tried to tempt Mother with a little soup. She’d made it after she came in from school. A stock cube, a carrot and a potato: it’s all she could find. Mother tried a little but after a spoonful or two, she pushed the bowl away. “Anything?” she asked her mother. “Is there anything at all you feel you could manage? Hot milk and honey? A nice warm cup of tea?”
Mother smiled and patted her hand. “Tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll try tomorrow.”
“It’s Saturday tomorrow,” Jayne said. “I’ll be able to look after you better when there’s no school. Perhaps I could help you get a bit of a wash. Perhaps you’ll feel better for a bit of a wash.”
Jayne rose early on Saturday. She knew there was little chance of Father rolling in today. He’d probably be sleeping Friday night off at Billy’s flat. It was close enough to the pub that they could both fall into it without needing a taxi. Just a lean on one another, a stumble or two and they’d be there.
True to her word, she filled a basin with warm water and helped Mother have a wash. With long, tender strokes, she brushed the tangles from her hair after helping her put on a clean nightie. “There!” she said. “Doesn’t that feel better?”
“Yes, pet, it does. It really does. But I need to sleep now.” She lay back on the pillow, her eyes closed, though tears escaped from beneath her lashes. “Perhaps, when I wake, another cup of tea? You do make a lovely cup of tea. Three minutes: just as I like it.”
Jayne waited till her mother’s breathing deepened into sleep, then she searched everywhere she could think of for enough money to buy a pint of milk. She’d used the last of what had been in the fridge in a cup of hot milk and honey she’d tempted Mother to last night.
It was not enough. She was ten pence short. No matter how many times she counted it out on the table, she was ten pence short. Another search yielded no stragglers, no odd pennies down the side of the chair, none in the tin on the shelf, none in Mother’s bag or Father’s pockets.
With steely determination, Jayne walked to the shop. She would bring milk for Mother’s drink. Come what may, she would get the milk.
With sinking heart, she saw him watch her walk through the shop door.
She took a small carton of milk from the big fridge and walked to the counter. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice as steady and strong as she could muster. “I don’t have all the money. Please, can I bring it tomorrow when my father gets home?”
He leered. It’s the only word that fitted. He leered at her. “And what guarantee can you give me of that?” he asked, his eyes upon her body, moving over it, settling on her ten-year old chest, heaving in panic and dismay. He put his hand over hers on the carton of milk. “What else can you give me?”
Afterwards, she ran home, tears of humiliation and disgust mixed with jubilation. She had the milk for Mother’s drink. That’s all that mattered.
While the kettle boiled, she went to the bathroom and scrubbed the smell of his hot breath off her as best she could. She bore her trophy, almost proudly, into Mother.
“Here you go,” she said. “Just as you like it, brewed for three minutes and nice and milky.” She laid the little tray on the table beside the bed while she helped Mother sit up. “Here, let me pull that pillow up for you.”
“What’s this?” Mother put her fingers to the mark on Jayne’s neck.
“Nothing!” Jayne drew back quickly, her hand flying to cover the mark.
Jayne tried to hide the tear in her tee-shirt.
Mother looked at the cup of tea. “Where did you get the milk?”
When Jayne didn’t answer, she asked her again.
“Where did you get the milk?” She swung her feet out of the bed. “Fetch me my coat!” she said, pushing her feet into her slippers.
“It’s okay, Mum! It’s okay! I’ll take the ten pence tomorrow.”
But mother wasn’t listening. She picked up the cup of tea and lurched from the room. Jayne followed her down the stairs and watched as Mother put the cup on the table and, pausing only to pick up the opened carton of milk, stumbled out the back door. “Come, child,” she said.
They walked, ran, staggered and stumbled to the shop on the corner.
Mother pushed the door open with all the strength a mother can muster in her child’s defence. It hit the shelves behind it with a fierce clatter.
“Hey! What’s going on!” he roared, coming through from the back shop. “Mind those magazines! They don’t come cheap you know!”
Without saying a word, Mother opened the mouth of the carton and poured the milk out on the floor of the shop, letting the empty carton drop into the spreading puddle.
Placing her hands on her hips, she stood and stared him down until he closed his mouth and lowered his eyes.
Back home, she poured the still warm tea into the sink. “It cost too much,” was all she said to Jayne’s anguished cry as the tea gurgled down the plughole.