Making Tea in the Dark by Eric Karl Anderson

It was dark by the time Anne arrived home. She didn’t turn the lights on. Her arms were loaded with cardboard boxes and old shopping bags full of photographs, letters, clothing, books, CDs and songbooks. This jumble of personal belongings was all that was left of her son and she didn’t want to look at it. She awkwardly manoeuvred down the familiar dark corridor to Christian’s childhood bedroom, bumping against the wall and stubbing her toe on the skirting board. Once everything she had rescued from Christian’s apartment was stored in the bedroom, she could breathe a sigh of relief. They were home safe. Where they belonged. Rightfully.

The dark rooms around her were silent except for the faint bassline of the music playing in the flat above and the faint sounds of the city. The noise of cars, planes, and groups of boisterous friends used to grate so harshly but now only hovered faintly in the background of her daily life. She wanted to shut them out completely and enclose herself in this darkness. It weighed heavy around her like an enormous blanket. She breathed it in greedily, felt herself bodiless. She didn’t need to see anything because it was all there. Moving through the rooms she held out her hands to brush against the walls, her dining table, portraits, the piano which took up half of the living room, the countertops and the grooves of the door frames. In the kitchen she filled her electric kettle in the sink and set it to boil. The water slowly turned ferocious, tearing and clawing at the metal till Anne thought the kettle would explode. She took a mug from the cupboard.

‘This is how you make tea in the dark,’ Anne thought to herself:

– Place the mug on the counter.

– Carefully hold the kettle over the mug.

– Curl your finger over the cup’s rim.

– Slowly pour in the hot water until your finger feels the sting.

– Stir for several seconds until you sense the tea has sufficiently steeped.

– Pull the teabag from the mug and twist the string around the teaspoon and teabag to extract every last drop.

This is what she used to do in the early mornings before Christian awoke. Before the sun had risen sufficiently to shine through the window blinds, and while he slept soundly in his room, she made tea. But she didn’t want to wake him, didn’t want the kitchen light invading his room through the glass above his bedroom door. He was so light-sensitive that he often slept with a crumpled T-shirt draped over his face, and later, when he became a cultivated teenager, a sleep mask.

She was careful not to wake him because she liked to watch the nearly indistinguishable shape of him sleeping in the dark. As he changed and grew into a man she found her love for him changing too. One early morning while the sun was still only a pale yellow smudge on the horizon, she peeked into his bedroom and was startled by the sight of him. Sleeping soundly, wearing only a pair of boxer briefs, his beautiful dark limbs tangled in the white sheets of the bed, he reminded her so powerfully of his father.

Ever since she was a girl, Anne loved waking up before everyone else. No matter how much people might scorn or criticize her during the day, she was awake and in ownership of the world before anyone else. But as a teenager she discovered something disturbing about these mornings of solitude. She was a stranger to herself. In the dim light of her bedroom with the city so eerily quiet, Anne felt she didn’t know herself at all. During the day she ran with her friends through the streets of London, so confident in their caftans and long hair. They went to the morning pictures at the ABC cinema on Mile End Road and then down to Brixton where Anne’s friend Jan sang with a reggae group called The New Islanders. Jan’s high-pitched voice reminded people of Millie Small. It was at a New Islanders’ show that Anne met Simon. She admired how supremely confident he felt in his skin, even though he spoke about the suspicion he always felt from the police as he waited for a bus or entered a shop, the disdain he felt simply walking on the pavement outside of his community and sometimes on his own street. Their affair was quick and heated. She bit his soft ear lobe and liked the way his arms circled around her, slightly lifting her off the floor.

Anne and Simon saw each other regularly. But one morning Anne woke feeling queasy-like, as if she had just rode a roller coaster. Without giving him a reason, she quickly informed Simon she never wanted to see him again. She deliberated how to get rid of the baby. There were options, but she couldn’t bring herself to go through with any of them. Her parents were outraged to have a pregnant daughter with no husband in sight. Anne claimed she had only been with him for one night and didn’t even know his name. When Christian was born and her parents saw the colour of his skin, they threatened to expel her from their house. Anne cried and pleaded. They grudgingly supported her, though she had to contend daily with their disdain. Money was always tight and she took a job in a shop as soon as she was able. Her circumstances were only bearable because when she looked at her child in the morning light Anne knew for certain who she was.

During the day, she had to endure the looks from people on the street or on the bus who saw a white woman carrying a black child. These looks from black people and white people were different, but were most definitely looks that had something to say. “You don’t know what they’re thinking,” her neighbour Paulette said when Anne complained about them to her. But Anne knew. She’d seen enough of them. In the bedroom, in the mornings, with the stupid world shrouded and unconscious, there was just the two of them.

Anne paced back and forth in her darkened hallway remembering all of this. Her tea had gone cold on the countertop so she made a fresh cup. Her thoughts kept circling back to the day of the bombing. It still felt to her like she could have done something to prevent his death in that pub two months earlier. She thought about this obsessively. If only she had kept in better touch with him. If only she had asked Christian and his boyfriend to come round that evening so he wouldn’t have been in Soho. If only she had called him a few minutes before the explosion so he would have stepped out of the noisy pub to speak to her on the street. She dug into the palm of her hands with her fingernails.

There was a knock at the door. Her limbs ached as she rose from the sofa to answer it. There stood her neighbour Paulette under the bright hall light. She embraced Anne and held her tight. Though Anne immediately wanted to recoil, she softened into her friend.

The great warm mass of the woman held her tight and said, “The verdict is in. I heard on the news. He was charged with murder, seven consecutive life sentences.” Anne held her breath as she tried to take this information in. It was incomprehensible. She pulled away from Paulette, who turned the hall light on. Anne squinted at the brightness of it and slunk away to her bedroom.

Paulette cautiously followed behind. She noticed a jumble of things on the floor of Christian’s old bedroom as she passed by it. “Should I leave you alone?”

“No no,” Anne replied collapsing onto her bed. “Thank you for telling me the news. I went to Christian’s flat today. To get his things.”

Paulette stood in the doorway to her bedroom, “Was Mark there?”

“Yes. I was hoping he wouldn’t be,” Anne said and then paused, rubbing her face harshly. “He tried to be nice. He disgusted me.”

“What happened?”

Anne was suddenly desperate to speak about all of the things she wanted to wrap in silence and bury.

“He tried to console me at first, but I wasn’t having any of it. I told him I was only there for Christian’s things. But then he said he wanted me to go with him to the Old Bailey to hear the verdict being given today. Journalists want to speak to us. Doesn’t he think I know that? They’ve been calling me and knocking on the door. And he said that there is a group of them committed to seeing justice done. And they want to continue on, appeal to the government to do something about the intolerance in this country. He told me all of this, but I only wanted Christian’s things.”

“Of course. You don’t have to get involved with any of that,” Paulette assured her.

“So I went to Christian’s bedroom with my box to take his things and Mark tried to stop me. He said we had to sit down and sort Christian’s things out. We had to decide what each of us would keep. And I said, ‘But this is my son! His things are mine!’ I grabbed at everything I could. Then he tried to take something back out of the box so I slapped him. He backed away, and do you know what he said to me? That I didn’t teach Christian how to love himself enough. He may have acted brave to the world and looked confident on the outside, but inside he was sad and scared. That I couldn’t respect he was a gay man. I failed to prepare him for the world as a black man. Even though he’s my son. That I couldn’t understand what my child needed and couldn’t protect him.”

The words rushed out of Anne’s mouth, even though Mark hadn’t said any of this to her.

“You should get some sleep,” Paulette said.

Anne looked exhausted lying on the bed. She covered her face and rolled on her side. Paulette quietly left the flat, turning the light off and shutting the front door behind her. She was glad to have the silence and darkness again. Instead of thinking of her son, she conjured fantasies and half-dreams of visiting the man labelled the ‘London nail bomber’ in his now permanent cell. She wanted to ask him if he was happy to have killed her son, even if it meant a pregnant white woman had to die alongside him. The bombing had killed more than just the minorities Copeland had targeted. Was her son’s blood worth it? If so, shouldn’t we all be exterminated, the earth completely cleansed?

Hours of wide-eyed darkness passed. Darkness which refused to fully accept her into it. Darkness she strove to embrace. Darkness was all she wanted to know. Here was the only place her love could exist. Perhaps this was the only place it had ever truly existed. Eyes open and searching for familiar shapes in the darkness, the barest form of a sillohouette concealed and safe. Hidden in the darkness her love. And as time passed, the darkness dissipated. Painfully, in nearly indistinguishable hints and gradations of colour it lifted slowly slowly slowly. Leaving her present. Leaving her alive. Alone…

And there was the sound of the rubbish truck and the sound of birds. The city awakening. Neighbours showering. The creak of floorboards. The drone of a passing airplane. The squeak of bedsprings, the sound of lazy lovemaking. Shadows appeared. The clock ticked on. And there was Anne. With bleary eyes, she turned to the window and saw a cold light invading her room telling her it was morning.

 

About the Author

Eric Karl Anderson is a native New Englander who currently lives in London. He is the author of the novel ENOUGH and has published fiction in a variety of publications, including The Ontario Review, Glitterwolf, Oval Short Fiction, and the anthology Between Men 2. He runs the book blog www.lonesomereader.com.