Jenny sighs as she places the Brown Betty in bubble wrap. Her mum’s teapot has survived six moves unscathed. The Rockingham glaze is crackled with age now and there are some fine lines appearing on the spout, but it still makes the best tea ever. The ritual of warming the pot, measuring the leaves, timing the brew, all remind Jenny of her mum, Rose. The old tea chest belonged to Rose too; transporting her own much moved possessions from India to China, and eventually to England.
Jenny feels wet on the back of her hand as she places the old treasure in the chest and realises she is crying. Well, her eyes are leaking water again anyway. She wipes them with the sleeve of her dress and chides herself for sentimentality.
‘Well, Jennifer Rose Macaulay, this is not going to get the packing done’.
Gazing around the half-packed flat Jenny smiles. She likes the light in the afternoons, streaming through the front windows, warming the place when it’s sunny; the wooden cupboards in the kitchen; the tiny balcony where she grows her exotics: Illicium simonsii with its pale yellow starry flowers and heady scent, Holboellia brachyandra with its large white, purple-tinged flowers and scent of Cantaloupe melon, and of course the Camellia Sinensis (var. Assamica) that Rose had grown from seed and smuggled half way around the world.
By 7pm Jenny has had enough. She arches her back, stretches her neck, knuckles the tops of her shoulders, left then right. She stands upright, exhaling. Bends forward from the hip, sliding the index and middle fingers of each hand between her big toes and second toes in a perfect Padangusthasana – the Big Toe pose. She straightens at her elbows, lengthens her torso, exhales. As her hamstrings start to loosen the intercom system buzzes. In a fluid upward movement, Jenny straightens and heads to the door, holding down the button.
‘Hello. Who is it?’
A familiar, slightly hesitant voice answers.
‘Hi Jen, it’s me. Can I come up?’
Mark. Mark is the last person she wants to see. She’s said all her goodbye’s days ago and doesn’t need her emotions stirring up again now.
‘Well, it’s getting late Mark. I’m still packing..’ She trails off.
Sensing the lack of resolve, Mark capitalises on her indecision .
‘Oh, go on. Please Jen. It won’t take long.’
‘Oh, OK. Come on up then.’
She buzzes the door open and heads to the bathroom to check her face. She looks pale. Stray hairs frame her face. Her up-do hairstyle is more of a down-do.
Mark pushes into the flat, nearly tripping over a block of kitchen knives. He dances about looking for a gap to place his feet.
Jenny smiles in spite of herself.
‘You clumsy bugger. Sit down before you fall down.’
Mark looks about for a chair, a table, any surface he can plonk himself on safely. Nothing obvious presents itself.
‘On the floor, dummy’
Jenny points to a small space on the carpet between the cat and a pile of books.
Mark stretches across a sleeping Jasper, almost knocking the pile of books over in an awkward half splits and manages to land sitting cross-legged like an over-grown gnome waiting to be packed. He smiles. Jenny is smiling too. He relaxes slightly. It’s a good start.
Jenny hands are on her hips and she’s staring at the spectacle of Mark in over-grown gnome mode.
‘What do you want Mark? Why are you here?’
‘Oh, yes. Well, I’ll get to that in a minute. Look, do you want to eat something? I bet you haven’t eaten anything all day, have you. Let me take you out, or get us something in. Pizza, Chinese, Indian. Whatever you want. What d’you say?’
‘I’ve got lots still to do. The removal firm are coming on Friday. Really early.’
Mark’s smile drops.
‘I thought you weren’t going for another week?’
‘I’m not. The container’s going ahead of me, although I’ll still get there before it does. I’ve got a couple of cases booked for essentials and the rest will go by boat. Most of the furniture’s staying. Jasper is going to Jilly’s. She whispers his name, not wanting the cat to hear.
‘Oh’ is all Mark can respond. He looks at a spot of sunlight on the carpet, to the left of Jasper’s ear.
Jenny hates it when Mark is all quiet and despondent. On balance she prefers him jolly and mildly irritating.
‘OK then. Let’s have a pizza. Here, if you don’t mind. I don’t have the energy to go out’
Mark brightens instantly and pulls his phone from his jacket pocket, dialling a number from memory.
Jenny hears the phone pick up at the other end.
‘Hello! Geronimo Pizza. How can I help you?
‘Ah yes. Right. A 16” Mushroom pizza’ Mark looks a Jenny, who nods.
‘Wedges with garlic sauce, a dandelion and burdock and a raspberry lemonade.’ He holds the phone away from his ear and looks at Jenny again.
‘Yes right. Be 20 minutes mate. What address?’
As Mark gives the address Jenny walks the five paces to the kitchen. Mark. Confident. Making assumptions that she’d still want the same things to eat 6 months on. Well she doesn’t want the same things, that’s why she is moving nearly 5000 miles away. To do something new. Make a new start. She clatters the cupboard door open and realises she’s packed the china.
Mark is staring down at her across the hatch. Jenny looks up and catches his gaze.
‘No plates. We’ll have to eat out of the box and use our fingers.’
Mark beams. ‘Like the first night we moved into Warwick Park, eh. Do you remember?’
Jenny remembers. Mark bought Prosecco and Pizza. They greased up their fingers and drunk out of the flask lid. They used the tea chest for a table and sat on the dodgy grey carpet, not caring much because it was their first home and they were drunk on excitement and possibility.
‘Yes’ is all she says and the conversation stalls.
‘So Mark. Tell me. Is it a secret why you’re here?’
Mark almost cracks his head on the hatch as he backs into the living space.
‘No. No secret. I wanted to see you. I wanted to ask if there’s anything, anything at all that would make you stay. You can’t run forever Jen. At some point you’ll have to stay still and face what’s happened. Why don’t you stop now? You’re still young. We’re still young. We could try again, make a new start together. I know we could.’
Jenny is looking at Mark. She turns away, and walks back into the living room to face him. Instead of rage and anger she feels calm and peace. She touches Mark on the shoulder, and then she takes his head in her hands and looks up into his face. Her words are gentle but firm.
‘No, Mark. We’ve been through this. It wouldn’t work. It didn’t work. We’re different people now. What happened, it changed me. It changed us. I’m sorry’.
She kisses him lightly on the cheek and notices the rivulet of water leaking from his eyes.
‘Hey.Hey. It’s all right. Come on. Don’t let us part like this. Please.’
Mark sniffs loudly.
‘But I love you, Jenny. I don’t understand why you have to go.’
‘Like I said, we’re not the same people. I love you too. I always have. I always will, but we can’t be together. Not anymore. I have to go somewhere there isn’t a reminder of the pain everywhere I turn.’
The intercom buzzes and Jenny heads to the door to let the delivery person up.
A teenage girl in a red baseball cap appears at the open door carrying a cardboard box and a paper bag. She hands the receipt across to Jenny. Mark takes a £20 note out his wallet and hands it across to the girl.
‘Keep the change’
He walks through the open door without saying anything else. He doesn’t look back.
The pizza delivery girls shrugs and hands the food to Jenny who’s staring at Mark’s departing form, speechless.
The pizza delivery girl has gone. Mark has gone. Jenny is still standing by the open doorway with pizza and drinks and wedges in her arms. She clicks the door shut and crumples to the floor, crushing a shoebox of her mothers’ letters as she lands.
As she starts to wail, Jasper dashes from the room, heading for the bedroom. She’s still on the floor at 10pm. She’s stopped crying. Her stomach gurgles in noisy protest at the lack of food and she reaches for the unopened pizza box. Cold, greasy congealed cheese and slimy mushrooms do not appeal, but she eats a slice anyway.
On the morning of her departure Jenny is up early. She checks the time on her phone: 3:43am. The car is due in half an hour. There’s nothing to do other than dress and wait. It won’t be light for almost an hour yet, but the birds are already warming up their vocal chords. It will be a long day. The Austrian airline was the cheapest flight she could find. 2 stops. 17 hours. She wonders, not for the first time, how long it took Rose to come by ship, on the liner Chusan, in the 50’s. More than a month she thinks. Less than a day to fly. She shouldn’t complain.
The door entry buzzes and Jenny breaks from her reverie.
‘Down in a sec’
She grabs her cases and bags and trundles out of the flat. She doesn’t check anything. She doesn’t look back.
In the car she checks in her hand luggage for the envelope. There’s no rose named for a Rose. All roses are her descendants – Rosa is their Latin prefix whatever else they are called. She feels the seeds through the plain brown covering, prodding them reassuringly. The best she could manage was the St Swithun Rose: an English rose; a large, many petalled variety with saucer-like flowers of pure soft pink and a strong fragrance. It’s described as ‘tough and reliable’. Like her mum. Like her. She hopes it will travel well. She hopes her other plants will survive. It took an age to get her Phytosanitary Certificate, and it doesn’t cover her tea plant. She can only hope.
The driver offers a greeting. He doesn’t seem to want to chat and she’s thankful for that. She feels the solemnity of her departure like a weight on her head, pressing her into the seat. She is speeding to an unknown future. One of her own choosing. Nevertheless, she is apprehensive about all that is unfamiliar and unknown. Her Mandarin is passable. She can’t speak Cantonese. She hopes she’s still young enough to pick things up. She hopes that working with young people will heal her rather than hurt her.
They’re at the airport already she realises, as the car stops in the drop-off parking zone. She pays the driver and takes her luggage from the back of the vehicle. Thankfully a trolley is handy. Her phone rings as she’s piling bags onto the trolley. She ignores it.
Inside the terminal building, she heads for check-in, wanting to get through security and into the departure lounge where she can relax. She tries to look calm. She hopes they don’t scrutinise her luggage. She always feels like a criminal, even when she’s done nothing wrong. Today she’s smuggling seeds. Taking rose seeds to another continent like Rose bought tea from India to China, to England.
Nothing bleeps. They don’t want to check her. They don’t want to check her bag. She’s safely through. Her phone buzzes a text and Jenny glances at the screen. Missed call. She checks the incoming number. Mark. She should have guessed. She doesn’t call her voicemail. She pockets her phone and heads for somewhere to buy coffee.
Two hours and her journey to her new life will be underway. She’s never been to China before. In fact, Jenny has never been anywhere outside of Europe before. The fact that Rose travelled from Hong Kong to England, on her own in the 1950’s, gives her some strength. She sips her coffee and decides to check her email. She’s disconnected her Facebook page. Various friends sent her links on how she could get access, but she’s decided to live without it. She’ll email. Or maybe write letters. Or phone if she needs to hear a familiar voice. There are still good luck emails popping through. Everyone’s been positive and understanding about her decision. Everyone except Mark that is. She rings voicemail. Enters her pin. Listens to the familiar voice of her husband.
Hi Jen. I know you don’t want to speak to me. I’m sorry about last week. Really. I know you need to do this. Just don’t shut me out OK? Please. Look, I’m going to text you.
She presses 3 to delete the message. Mark is her old life. The life she is trying to get away from. The memories. The terrible, terrible memories.
Jenny checks her texts: Marlene, Ruby, Donnie. All saying pretty much the same thing: ‘Safe travels. Let us know when you get there. Keep in touch’ Great friends, well-meaning friends, friends who have absolutely no idea why she wants to travel so far away; why she wants to leave her good job and her good husband for somewhere new; somewhere so far flung.
She checks the board. Her flight has been called. She sips the last of her now cold coffee and heads to the gate. There are business men, Chinese families, students, a few older couples. No single women her age that she can see. Not that she’s really single. Not divorced either. Her phone buzzes again and she checks the screen. A text. She thumbs in the code and flicks to her messages. Mark. Again. 2 texts:
Jenny’s phone is nearly out of charge now. She remembers she left her charger in the socket by the bed and curses silently. She switches off the phone, wipes her eyes with her dress sleeve and waits to board the plane.