I offer her a cup of tea.
There are no names for the river under this bridge, so I make tea, stir in milk and sugar the way she always liked, let the pot sit between us filled with six months of conversations we haven’t had.
I tell her I’m sorry.
Tea is what we offer when there is nothing left for us to say, when there is so much water that we must drink it or drown in all the things left unspoken, so we fill the kettle.
There is a ritual to it, you know. To preparing the leaves – I always use loose leaves if I can get them – heating the pot and swirling the heat up the sides so that your liquor doesn’t taste like an old broom. There is a knack in letting the kettle thrumble to exactly the right pitch to turn off the heat, well before it over-boils and starts to taste off.
When you fill the pot, you hit the sides first, not the leaves or you might cook them, and let the water turn that ambery shade somewhere between good bourbon and beech leaves in October.
It reminds us of the good times, hot mugs cradled in blue fingers after autumn walks, sat in my horrible old flat with the broken heating and the dodgy fire alarm.
She sips, eyes closed on memory, swirls the liquid round her mug.
We have always come from different lanes on the same road, hopscotching cultures and languages,
We exchanged recipes over pots of cheap PG Tips, poring over the pages passed down from our mothers, the only part of our histories we happily embraced.
When the summer ripened I iced jugs of peppermint and hibiscus, and when disaster struck we sat on the grass and sipped and sunburned, and the rain felt like an age of drought away.
She swirled the liquid then, and the words came slowly, like steam.
They come slower now.
She asks if I remember Scotland.
My smile is more memory than reflex, but it comes. I tell her there’s always next year.
When there is nothing else left to offer, tea is a reassuring blanket that wraps us in better yesterdays, in the morning hikes through mountains cloaked in purple heather and the sound of pipes over the harbour with the little boats moored close.
We both know there will probably not be a next year, but the tea is warm and we sip, swirl the mugs, try to drink the water lapping at the bridge but there are leaves clogging the spout and a weir is forming in the bottom of the pot, threatening to suck us under.
I check the dregs, and there is maybe half a cup’s peace left in the bottom before we hit stone.
I want to break the silence, want to ask her all the questions that sit in the bilge at the bottom of the pot like where were you? Where did you go?
There are things in that water that are better left drowned, that do not belong in this room but the questions taste metal in the warm to sit heavy and unspoken on my tongue.
She has not drunk the remainder of her tea, and I question this instead.
‘I don’t take sugar any more,’ she says, a small shrug under the jumper.
I don’t say anything, just pour away the mug, make her a fresh one, no sugar this time.
When you read the dregs of a cup, there is a ritual to it – handle first, clockwise round the rim and spiralling down; you can read a person’s soul in the pattern of the tealeaves left from a well enjoyed brew.
I do not know what the rule is for a cup not drunk, but nothing says I no longer know you quite like not knowing how someone takes their tea.
There is Assam in the pot today. It is the first tea we drank together, and this is apt.
We drank it rich with spice and good hope, and the name itself speaks.
I do not know which applies in these circumstances, but they both describe what we were, what we have been.
The leaves hold no answers this time, and there is so much water under this bridge.
I do not know how to stem this river, and the rains have come and gone unnoticed.
There are things we have not said, things we should have said, but the words lie drowned in the dark at the bottom of the brew.
How do you drink this much water and not choke?
The pot says nothing on the matter and the dregs have gone bitter, so I follow the old ritual.
Put the kettle on.
Stir in milk but no sugar, the way she likes now, let it sit between us on the table.
I tell her I am sorry.
Swirl the amber, take a sip,
and feel the flood waters rise.