Another Hot Chocolate
Stirring my drink, I wonder whether I’d have paid for it if I’d known half of it would be froth. I hold back a grumble, pick up my pen, and try burying myself in a word search. If I were more adventurous I might try the crossword, but alas, that isn’t for me.
There’s a chill, but that’s what happens when I get the last table. It’s always the one by the door. In the summer it isn’t so bad, but this is a patriotic March. Instead of bemoaning another patron’s entrance, however, I wrap up and quietly celebrate having a seat at all.
Sure, there’s the seat opposite me, but this is Britain and no would dare sit on the same table as a complete stranger. That would be barbaric. The most hardened Brits would rather stand out in the rain than awkwardly park themselves with me, what looks to be a homeless woman giving evil eyes to a bountiful hot chocolate.
Another stir followed by the realisation that the bubbles are going to stay that way. I’m going to have to eat this thing like a yogurt. I’m halfway through when I stop.
I’ve found Hitler.
Scribbling out the dictator’s name at the bottom of the page, I’m so pleased with myself I almost don’t recognise the sound of a chair moving. Then I stop. My heart beats that little bit quicker, but I try to feign disinterest. If we just avoid eye contact then we can make it out with our esteems intact. The perfume is going to distract me.
“Evelyn?” she says, breathless and surprised. “I almost didn’t recognise you.”
I look up, bright-eyed with the biggest smile I can fake.
“Oh, what? Wow,” I say to save time as I try to remember her name. Good luck with that, since I can’t remember her face. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met a woman as striking as the one sitting in front of me. Sure she’s got a scarf wrapped around the lower-half of her face, but her eyes alone tell me she’s something formidable. Never have I seen eyes so dark, sparkle so bright. Scrambling for names has turned into scrambling for words. Any of them. One of them at the tip of my tongue. Something other than the, ‘a-bah-bah, lah. Wow,’ I’ve got going on now.
She laughs. She laughs like I’ve been telling her a sweet story about a clumsy puppy, and I’m clamming up with sweat all over. I was not prepared for this. If I wasn’t prepared for my disproportionate hot chocolate, I was not prepared for this.
“I’m Tabitha, um, Tabitha Clark from Cliftonville primary,” she says. “Do you remember?”
I do. It seems passively and actively trying to erase those memories seems to have failed, but right now I’m glad it did.
March just got very warm all of a sudden, and I catch myself removing my rain coat. I’m too exposed, but all I can think about are my stupid clammy hands resting on my bouncing knees.
Crap, I haven’t said anything.
“Y-Yes,” I say and nod into my word search, my nose burying into a list of dictators. “You’re the year below me.”
“I’m sorry, I can see that you’re clearly uncomfortable.” That’s a given. “But I wanted to say thank you,” she continues. “And I’m sorry.”
I look up.
For a moment Tabitha shifts around in her seat, and even starts to unravel her scarf, revealing her perfectly plush lips and sun-kissed skin. She fiddles with the cardboard of her takeaway cup, and then stops.
“When I was eight my sister, Denise, was in your class.” Oh, her. “From what I’ve been told she gave you quite a hard time.” Understatement of the century.
My body flushes up a new wave of a heat. A different kind with a surging passion that can only be quenched by a wicked tongue, but somehow I still it. Somehow I have it sit just behind my lips as I rest my gaze on Tabitha. As beautiful as she is now, it doesn’t render her childhood legacy mute. She’s innocent and doesn’t deserve my wrath. At least, that’s all I can tell myself as I sit back and take my half-a-hot chocolate like a shot.
“Yes,” I say. “Not that it matters.”
“It does matter,” Tabitha says, leaning forward and giving me another whiff of her light perfume. There’s no way something so earnest and sincere could be related to Denise. “I heard all the horrible things she did to you at school, and don’t tell me she didn’t.”
“All the tricks she pulled, the people she manipulated and-”
“What’s your point?” I ask, unable to stop myself. “You said you were thanking and apologising. This doesn’t very much feel like either.”
“Sorry, sorry, yes. I know.” Seeing her suddenly fumble and look grieved has me silenced. “It’s just, do you remember why she started targeting you so brutally?”
“Not really.” I’ve never really paid attention to the things said and done in primary school. It was nearly two decades ago.
Tabitha straightens out, suddenly sure of herself, and clears her throat.
“It was because of me.” The rest of the room feels strangely silent. I’m half-tempted to turn to check for spying eyes and half-tempted to run. Denise always sent people to do her bidding, to play mind games, to mess with me. The number of fake friends that were under her tutelage was beyond understanding, and I was labelled paranoid.
“Look, I don’t know why you’re here or what that sociopath wants from me-”
“Oh, I am so sorry!” she apologises, yet again. “I mean, she was picking on me first. At home. At school. Everywhere. It was atrocious but no one ever seemed to do anything about it. Adults called it sibling rivalry and the kids at school were too scared of her.”
That, I think as I check my empty cup, was the curse of being a child. The number of adults who told me Denise was just jealous was staggering. Lots of reasons but not enough preventative action.
I start folding my word search sheet, mulling over the black and white memories I have of school. Old, murky and monochrome in nature. Sure, Denise was there, but I don’t quite recall Tabitha.
“So what happened then?” I ask, unsure of whether I’m imagining the truth or if it is a genuine memory.
“You stood up to her,” Tabitha says, lighting a new spark of passion in her eyes. “I remember it so clearly. A March day like this, in the rain. She’d thrown me down into a puddle and I was crying. Kids were pointing and laughing. Then suddenly you appeared and called a teacher.” She looks down at her cup and smiles. “She got into a huff and ran away, and you helped me out of the puddle. You got awarded for it by staff, though they never asked why I was in the puddle to begin with.”
They never did. And I remember that award, the only time I ever won one of them weekly tributes to good deeds.
I scoff at the thought.
“Awarding good behaviour that should come naturally.”
Tabitha laughs. This time it catches me off guard. I remember now, she deserved her spot on the choir.
“I always thought that,” she says. “Anyway, my sister is, um, locked up now.”
Oh. My stomach knots a little.
She must see it on my face because she suddenly springs alive.
“No, no, I don’t mean in a unit or anything, I mean she’s in prison for battery.” Tabitha’s smile dies, and the room feels less alive with it. “Not that I’m proud or happy about that.”
“Oh.” I still don’t feel any better about that. If anything, I should be singing ‘I knew it!’ from the top of my lungs and laughing at Denise’s poor fortune. Yet, there’s not a single urge to be found dwelling in my bones.
If anything, there’s a strange emptiness that’s creeping up within me. A shadow of disappointment. Not only has Denise remained the same all these years but, it seems, so have I.
“Well, it sounds silly but when I was little you were my hero,” Tabitha says. It catches me off guard and my reply sits in my throat.
This can’t be right. Surely this is another trick. It’s been eight years, I’m sure Denise has moved on. Well, I was sure. And yet, Tabitha is still looking so unsure, and awkward, and polite. I need to grow and stop being wilted by the memories of an adolescent bully.
“When I was at home Denise was the villain of all my games,” she says, her cheeks blushing an amazing rosy-hue. “I could never think of how to defeat her until you did. So I wanted to say thank you.”
I stare down at my list of dictator names, aptly distracting myself by imagining Denise’s name in the cluster of letters. I’m not good at this, I’m not sure what to say, and yet words just roll off my tongue, surprising even myself.
“And you said you wanted to say sorry?” I ask, unaware I’d even remembered that bit and worried I’d made it up until Tabitha nods.
“Yes,” she says, banishing that ever-welcome smile again as she does. “I want to say sorry for never returning the favour. For never defeating her back in school. I was always too cowardly, even after seeing you do it so easily. But I remembered what you did, and I feel braver now.”
“I didn’t do it,” I remind her. “She persisted in attacking me for years, and it only stopped because we both finished secondary school.”
Almost cutting through my words, Tabitha lights with life again, eager to correct me, and I’m dumbfounded into silence.
“But you persisted too!” she says, almost lunging across the table as she takes my hands. Her warmth shouldn’t surprise me but it does, and I pull away. Her eyes don’t leave mine. “You could’ve changed school, or-or given up, but you didn’t. In fact, Denise was always moaning about how well you did.”
What a lovely bit of light to change an entire perspective of an experience. So powerful, so subtle and so pure in nature that I can’t argue it away. I’d never thought of myself as strong, especially after all those times I was dismissed by a teacher.
Tabitha smiles and plays with her scarf.
There’s no instruction manual for how to talk about things like this, how to reassure someone they weren’t at fault. It isn’t easy being a child, much less a frightened one.
I go to speak when something catches my eye. Tabitha’s scarf unravelling and loosening around her neck. While it is brief, the fading bruise I see is enough to paint a very detailed picture. A sad, but beautiful picture, guided by the words she just spoke to me, ‘For never defeating her back in school.’
“But you’ve defeated her now, haven’t you?” I ask.
Tabitha’s eyes lock on mine, wide-eyed and glistening. Her scarf is re-assigned its position and she laughs away that little bit of fear I sense creeping up her chest, like it is mine. Such horrors I can imagine.
“We out-grew the playground,” Tabitha tells me. “Unfortunately for her, police don’t like bullies.” She laughs nervously again, and clears her throat. “But thank you. If you hadn’t done it then, I wouldn’t have had the courage now. It sounds strange.” It does, a little. “But if you could do it then, for someone else, a complete stranger, then I could do it now. So, again, thank you.”
The clamminess in my hands has subsided and the knots in my stomach all but disappeared for butterflies. Despite the topic, I almost wish this conversation didn’t have to end.
I stand and stretch, taking my cup as I do.
“Oh, are you going?” she asks. For a moment she seems as disappointed, and the sweat returns in my palms.
In eight years I haven’t grown, and I’ve less bravery than my nine year-old self. Grow up, Evelyn. Grow up and enjoy this moment with this wonderful woman.
“No,” I say, gesturing my cup to her. “Another hot chocolate.”
© 2016 Lannah Marshall
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.