Charlie studied the cup of tea before him, focussing particularly on the crystalline sail boats struggling to stay afloat on the top of a tempestuous tawny ocean. The sugar captured the light from the solitary candle, sending a hasty streak of distress against the cup before capsizing, at mercy to the spoon that gleamed malignantly as it stirred indolent chaos in the sea. He inspected the infinitesimal scene of violence, enraptured, before he was wrenched from his trance by an irksome voice.
“Aren’t you going to drink your tea?”
Jenny’s voice always seemed to pull a trigger of irritation in his brain. Charlie often secretly likened her voice to someone who was always on the edge of a coughing fit; it was an ugly note of chagrin and disquiet.
Charlie elevated his dream-like gaze from the teacup, placed untouched on the table, towards Jenny through a curtain of steam, observing as always her tight bun which stretched her light wrinkles– which were etched into her face like delicate constellations of age - taut and transformed her lipstick-smothered lips into a grimace instead of a smile. He noticed that the lipstick was always bold, as if to distract from the frown she inwardly wore. Her watery eyes were magnified to twice their size by eccentric circular spectacles, rimmed by red plastic that didn’t quite match the maroon of her lips. Her cobalt blue eyes were a stark contradiction to her raven hair and were seemingly always tearful. Her smile faltered as she considered Charlie, her eyebrows knitted together in an odd appearance of concern. Lately, her 40 years looked doubled, owing to the intense shadows settling beneath her eyes and an abundance of coffee that caused her hands to shake and stained her crooked teeth yellow.
“Sugar,” Charlie stated eventually, disengaging from his daydream and recalling that she’d asked a question. “Usually we save our share of sugar for Sundays, baking day, remember?”
Jenny appeared disconcerted, her grimace wavering for a second. “We don’t have to wait until Sunday to bake! I could pop to the shop and get sugar anytime. What would you like to make?” Her tone was annoyingly patronising.
It was Charlie’s turn to be patronising. “Jenny… how could you forget? The rations of course! Sugar is a luxury to which the soldiers could never get in the cold trenches; you shouldn’t waste it in tea.”
Jenny was stunned, before an element of realisation dawned on her features. “But… you always have sugar in your tea, darling. Isn’t that what you want?” Impossibly, her voice had risen three octaves. “I put two sugars in there, just the way you like it.”
Charlie hesitantly sipped his tea, as if confirming to himself that he liked his tea bitter, with little milk and no sugars. Sure enough, the taste was unfamiliar and far too sweet. “No, Jenny, you must be thinking of John, I’ve never liked sugar in tea.”
A horrified expression moulded her face and Charlie watched helplessly, almost as if it were in slow motion, as the expensive china cup slipped out of her waning grasp and sent sharp shards of lethal shrapnel soaring in all directions, joined by the scathing attack of boiling tea. Jenny jumped up off her seat, suddenly flustered. She cursed, a hand pressed to her forehead as if checking if she was ill; Charlie wondered if she was. He looked at her curiously, before getting to his knees and scraping the china shards into his hands, his soft skin vulnerable to the sharp-edged pieces. He deposited them impatiently in the bin. Jenny was still cursing, staring forlornly at her tea-stained apron and the liquid seeping into the floorboards, her lip wobbling.
Charlie sat back down and waited for Jenny to do the same.
“Yes, John. I must have been thinking of John,” she said uncertainly, pacing and finally fetching a mop and sorting out her apron, angrily dabbing it at with a sponge. She shrieked in frustration and threw the sponge back in the sink
“What’s got into you, Jenny? You can’t forget about the sugar again we’ll run out. In times like these we can’t afford you breaking down and forgetting again.” In times like this he couldn’t afford to sugar-coat things; his words were harmful.
Jenny opened her mouth to speak but decided against it and tried again: “What times might they be?” She whispered the words, like she was afraid to hear the answer.
And she should be.
They were times where small children were programmed to fear stars that dropped from sinister shadows slicing through the sky rather than wishing on them, stars that devoured homes and and took the lives countless people and terrorised a countless amount more. Times where people were constantly in a state of trepidation for their loved ones, similar to Jenny’s own son fighting somewhere; anxious wives, also, waiting to hear news of their husband, dreading to receive that telegram. Times where rations left people to reminisce of easier times where food was plentiful and people could eat until they could eat no more without worrying about anything but a full tummy. Children were forgetting their childhoods, too afraid to play in the streets, terrified every waking minute in their own homes.
“It’s war, Jenny.”
“What’s the date today, Charlie?” She asked, a note of unusual curiosity in her tone.
“It’s the 15th of November.”
Charlie laughed uncertainly in a pointless attempt to lighten a forever dark conversation. “Are you alright, Jenny? Surely you can’t have forgotten?”
“What year,” she stated more firmly, letting Charlie know through the dictatorial tone of her voice that she wasn’t allowing Charlie to run away from this.
It was a simple question, the year, a subject most people answer immediately without thought.
“It’s 1942, 1943 in a month or so.”
For some reason, this simple fact had Jenny ruffled. Her hand flying to cover her mouth and sucking in a sharp intake of breath. She finally stumbled to collapse onto the wooden chair that creaked under her sudden weight. Charlie watched as countless tears spilled out of her eyes, distorting the candlelight as the sugar did and reflecting the world in each teardrop.