As always, Leonard Fleming woke five minutes before his alarm.
And listened, whilst he lay there, to the well-known creaks of the family home.
Before the bedside clock could bleat, he reached over and silenced it with a preemptive click. No movement from the other side of the bed, so he snuck out of the bedroom before he woke Myra. Dressing gown swiped from the back of the door — next to Myra’s fluffy pink one — and slippers slipped into.
The stairs creaked beneath his weight in all the usual spots — the third, the fifth, and the ninth. The coffee-coloured carpet thinned out in the middle, from years of countless feet. The bannister slid beneath his palm, the white paint long since worn and aged, the surface smooth.
Leonard’s slippers padded against the laminate wood flooring of the downstairs hallway. He passed by the wall dotted with faded family photos — all in different frames, none of which matched. A patchwork quilt of snapshots and snippets from a life well-lived. Memories, forever golden. The timeline stretched from over half a century. The people in the pictures aged before one’s very eyes.
He reached up and nudged the thermostat when he passed — Myra felt the chill more in the mornings. She found it more comfortable to leave the bed if the house had warmed a little. Leonard didn’t even think to do it, he only acted out of instinct. The regular groove of life settled into over repetitions and time.
The kitchen door creaked as he pushed it open. The way it had done for the better part of a decade. No amount of oil to the hinges had managed to fix that, but — in the end — they grew to love it. The familiar groan another facet of the family home. It belonged to them, warm and cosy.
The floor underneath changed from wood to tiles, and the pat-pat of his slippers shifted in tone. To his right, the refrigerator hummed and clicked its usual mumbles and groans. The air of the room had the stale, untouched scent of a place closed overnight. Not unpleasant, the aroma somehow a sign of their home. A smell he’d grown accustomed to, the receptors in his brain triggered by a wave of nostalgia.
Leonard shuffled his way over to the windows and tugged on the blinds’ cord. The slats flicked over and ascended the glass. Bright sunlight filtered through and washed him with its warmth. He reached over and lifted the handle — thunk-thunk — and opened the window. A cool breeze wafted in, clean with an aftertaste of fresh-cut grass and the copper aroma of rain. He inhaled, deep, and smiled. The sort of morning where nothing could ruin your mood.
Leonard picked up the lipstick-red kettle and carried it over to the tap. He gazed out at the garden as the water thundered into it, a faint smile on his wrinkled lips. Green grass — lush from the rain in the night — swayed in the morning’s wind. Flowers adorned the edges around the fence. Purple, yellow, red, blue, and pink. A short plum tree, an anniversary gift, stood in the corner, the beginnings of that season’s fruit on its branches.
He clicked the kettle on and pulled out two mugs from the overhead shelf. His cup bore a bleary-eyed who muttered, in a cartoon speech bubble, Go away, I’m not awake yet. Hers had flowers and bees, with the lovely phrase Everything’s better with tea. As the kettle rumbled into life, Leonard popped open the tea jar and fished out two teabags. He plunked one into each mug. He drew the sugar pot closer and set the lid on the side. Leonard turned, the teaspoons in the drawer on the other side of the kitchen. The place they’d always been, the place they’d always be. Neither one of them ever dared to suggest they move them closer to the tea-steeping apparatus.
Next to the microwave, beneath the cabinets. It sat at the forefront of a cluster of other cards, all with pale pastels. Soft pinks, baby blues, gentle hues. Delicate. Vulnerable. The font on the front curled in ornate cursive and scratched in a bright silver hue. An image of flowers, which sprouted from a bouquet. A butterfly perched on a petal, suspended in time, wings forever still.
So Sorry for Your Loss
Leonard’s heart stumbled, tripped over inside his ribcage. His stomach dropped through the floor. A cold, metallic taste stung the back of his throat. A hot, draining sensation from every vein in his body — from the top of his head to the bottom of his toes. The blood faded from his skin, his extremities now chilled. He tried to breathe and found that someone had tightened a belt around his chest. His lungs deflated into wrinkled balloons. A short, winded gasp escaped his lips: “Oh.”
He took a step back and walked into the countertop, a small thud at the base of his spine. Leonard didn’t even feel it. His hands — wrinkled with age — scuttled across the granite, in search of a handhold to keep him upright. He blinked away the tears. The rest of the cards doubled and tripled. Warmest Condolences. Thinking Of You. Forever by Your Side. With Deepest Sympathy. Over and over and over into saccharine infinity.
Leonard stared down at his feet, unable to hold the gaze of the army of twee Hallmark platitudes. He swallowed his mouthful of saliva, a hard click at the back of his throat. Eyes still cast on the floor, the old man shuffled back around. He gripped the countertop in a white-knuckle grip, joints swollen and arthritic. With a hand that trembled, he reached out and stroked the lettering on Myra’s mug. Everything’s better with tea.
He fished out the teabag and returned it to the jar of tea. He placed Myra’s mug back on the shelf, in amongst the rest of its ceramic brethren. Leonard watched it, through bleary eyes — as if any moment she might reach over his shoulder and pick it up. Only, she never did.
His deep-creased hand lifted the kettle — with twice as much water as he needed. He poured it into his mug, the colour of the liquid stained that familiar golden bronze. Steam plumed upon contact, wafted away like breaths on a winter’s morning. The cat on the front no longer seemed comedic, to Leonard — only depressed. The rest of the boiled water he poured down the sink.
He considered the sugar pot for a moment, then returned the lid and pushed it back into its spot behind the kettle. Leonard decided to forgo his usual spoon and a half of sugar. Life had lost its sweetness. The first change to his tea since he’d gotten married, all those years ago. It would be weird — strange — but he’d have to adjust.
As always, Leonard Fleming watched the tea brew.
And listened, whilst he stood there, to the whispers of the now-empty house.