Hazel rocks herself up from the chair, launching herself on the count of three: “one, two, threeeee,” she grunts. Once she gets her balance, she shuffles to the kitchen to flick on the kettle.
Her daughter, Kelly, bought the newfangled electric kettle in April, right after Hazel’s stovetop model boiled dry. She’d been snoozing in her green rocker when she heard a crash through the side door, followed by her son-in-law Enos yelling through a haze of smoke.
“I was just resting my eyes. I would have noticed in time,” she’d said, scowling at him from the step. He had ushered her outside with an afghan around her shoulders, blowing everything out of proportion. Him and Kelly were always making a fuss when one wasn’t due. “You’d better fix the door frame too, yah neanderthal,” she’d said, swatting Enos with the back of her hand.
It wasn’t because she was old that she forgot the kettle. She had always been forgetful, curled up with a mug of tea and a book while dinner burned in the oven. Richard never minded. He would laugh and open the fridge, looking for what they could eat instead.
It’s now August and Hazel’s had some time to get used to the new kettle. She likes it more than she cares to admit. It boils the water fast and she can’t taste the difference in the tea. Although she claims she can, unwilling to give Kelly the satisfaction.
The tea at the funeral home was another story. It was steeped within an inch of its life and hot enough to scald the mouth off yah. It came from one of those dinged, dingy coffee urns, reserved for church basements and low-grade hotels. Nothing like the cuppas she’d shared with Richard every evening.
Richard insisted on everything being done with military precision: the proper mug and temperature, the correct amount of steeping time and cream. Once, she got distracted when her sister Violet was visiting and gave him a cup of tea, lukewarm and pale with milk. He sent it back. “What does he think this is, a restaurant?” Violet murmured.
Her sister always questioned Richard, and their marriage. “Why can’t you have your own teabag, Hazel?” she hissed when Hazel scooped Richard’s out of his mug and put it into a second cup for herself. Her sister didn’t understand. He didn’t make her reuse the teabags; sharing with him was all she ever wanted.
There were a lot of raised eyebrows when she announced her intention to marry Richard when she was 17. He was ten years her senior and had a reputation of gruffness: barfights and harsh exchanges at the hardware store. Townsfolk either pelted her with advice or went silent when she entered a room. But she and Richard had proven them all wrong. He was never cruel, unlike many husbands at the time. And he built her this house with his own two hands.
Now that he’s gone, Hazel boils the kettle over and over but rarely drinks the tea. Enjoying it doesn’t feel right, although making it does. The spent teabags, tawny and crumpled, lay to waste along the counter, little offerings to the dead.
No one knew Richard like Hazel did. Once when they were newly married, he came into the upstairs washroom where she was bathing, a mug of tea balanced on the lip of the tub. He stripped off, and angled his burly frame into the bath, the faucet digging into his back, and his knees practically in his ears. Hazel’s peals of laughter echoed off the subway tile. They lay there for the better part of an hour, bodies contorted and tub threatening to overflow; the water milky with soap and sloughed off skin. Then they tumbled, still wet, into their bed, where they stayed all afternoon.
Hazel hasn’t slept in their bedroom since Richard died. She hasn’t been able to face the upstairs at all. She just stops at the bottom of the staircase on her way to the kettle and stares upwards. On her better days she forgets the house has a second floor at all.
Richard’s arthritis got so bad near the end that he could barely get up the stairs. They couldn’t share a bed anymore, her every movement painful to him. “You’re like a rotisserie chicken, always turning,” he complained. The galloot of a son-in-law muscled in two twin beds and wrestled their double mattress down the narrow staircase. “Fine dance partner you got there, Enos,” Richard crowed. Hazel chuckled from the kitchen, where she was making the tea.
They’d always danced, at the community hall when they were courting and much later, at the seniors’ centre. Something else the arthritis took away. Hazel remembers being pink-cheeked and breathless after each set, everyone enjoying paper cups of tea and Peek Freans from plastic sleeves. Their golden years. She had expected many more, but now she’s facing life’s final season alone.
Their love and their life were nothing extraordinary, but they were as comfortable as curling up with a mug of tea. Same as this house, nothing special but comfortable. It was hers and she wouldn’t leave it, no matter how much Enos and Kelly blathered on about the new nursing home. Top of the line me arse. It’ll be a cold day in hell before I move in there.
Hazel heaves herself up from the armchair again: “one, two, threeeeee.” She shuffles to the kitchen and flicks on the kettle again. This little routine is the closest she comes to dancing these days. She makes her way back to the living room, sits down in the armchair with another cup of tea to go cold.
Kelly caught her sleeping in the chair last week, early in the morning. ”Mom, are you sleeping down here?” she trilled after waking Hazel. Clucking like a mother hen, she went into the downstairs bathroom and found Hazel’s clothes hung along the shower curtain rod. Kelly made a show of parading upstairs and exclaiming over the perfectly made bed, and the room, dusted over and stale. “This is too much house for you, Mom. You obviously can’t manage the stairs, or the cleaning. Enos and I are worried.”
Hazel reaches down for her cup again, frigid, and full to the brim. She takes a sip and winces; it’s barky and bitter from over-steeping. She rocks herself out of the chair, “one, two, threeeeee,” and shuffles toward the kitchen, leaving a trail of drops in her wake. Must flick on that kettle again.
While she is waiting for it to boil, she pours the current cup of tea down the sink. It splashes, a momentary fountain in the modest kitchen. She drags a dishcloth over the spilled droplets and notices it’s gray from overuse. A sour smell wafts up and she wrinkles her nose. When is the last time she changed it? Richard would have pitched a fit at her for that. She wonders if Kelly is right.
She decides to put a teabag in Richard’s old mug and pours it full of boiling water. She steeps it, extracts the bag, and adds his customary splash of cream. Next, Hazel clangs the spoon against the insides of the mug, brings it to the dining room, and lays it where Richard used to sit. Then, she returns to the kitchen and repeats the ritual, reusing the bag to make a second cup.
This one she drinks without sitting back down. It’s just as she remembers: not too strong, not too weak. Just perfect.
After she finishes the tea, she turns towards the staircase. She hasn’t used it in months, and it looms larger than she remembers. Hazel thinks of all the things at the top: their twin beds side by side, Richard’s clothes hung neatly in the closet, his dentures filmed with dust on the high boy, his comb in a cup by the sink. There is a whole lifetime of artifacts up there, evidence of a life shared, now over.
Hazel clutches the handrail and begins hauling herself up, hand over hand, one foot in front of the other. It takes her a few minutes to get to the top. When she gets there, she is once again pink-cheeked and breathless. She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, leans back, and lets go.
She sails for a second, airborne, before her shoulder connects with a stair, then her head, opposite shoulder, and hip, as she pinwheels down. She rotates and twists during this, her last dance. Before the lights go out, she wonders if there will be tea in heaven.