Dan Powell is a full-time father and husband, a part-time teacher, and a writer as often as time allows. His short fiction has been published in the pages of Paraxis, Friction and Structo. His short story ‘Half-mown Lawn’ appeared in The Best British Short Stories 2012 (Salt Publishing). He procrastinates at danpowellfiction.com.
Prizewinner - 2013 Esoteric Contest
The cup is Alice Stout’s. It is a simple, off-white thing, one of many to be found in the cafe she runs with husband Sid. From outside comes the rumble of Bridgenorth’s cliff railway, heralding the imminent arrival of the morning trade, but right now it is not quite opening time for the Tea Cosy, and Alice sits at one of the tables she has already laid. She gulps her tea, then stops still for just a moment or two, her elbows on the table, her hands wrapped around the cup. It is empty but for a thin layer of sweet milky tea coating the ceramic inside. This is how the storm begins, as if somehow the heat from Alice’s hands warms the cup and, by conduction, the air inside.
It is important to note that there is nothing unusual about the cup itself. Today, this sunny morning in 1973, it is what is about to happen inside the cup that is unusual. A centre of low pressure surrounded by a system of high pressure is about to develop, which will result, when the opposing forces meet, in the creation of winds and storm clouds. Cumulonimbus. Literally, accumulated rain.
Even if the slowly emerging systems of the storm were visible, Alice would not see them. Her head is filled with 1951, specifically the summer of that year. In her pocket she has seven torn ticket stubs for the cliff railway. She has kept them, tucked away in the bottom of her jewellery box, for decades. She has not thought of them in years, yet this morning she woke and simply had to find them, tuck them safely into the pocket of her apron, bring them with her when she came down from the flat. Thoughts of the tickets crowd Alice’s head while her hands inexplicably warm the cup she holds before her like a chalice.
The rumble from the cliff railway grows louder and shakes Alice from her thoughts. She crosses the cafe and places the cup down on the serving counter next to the till. Inside, the air churns and swirls. Differing pressures prepare to meet as Alice gets on with laying the tables.
. . .
In the crumpled row of buildings leading to the cliff railway in High Town, the Tea Cosy huddles between a dusty antique emporium and the grease-smeared shopfront of the local fish and chip shop. A faded sign swings above the door, the ghost of a painting. A teapot upon a tray, surrounded by cups and saucers, a milk jug, and a sugar bowl. The teapot in the picture wears what must once have been a colourful cosy, now grayed and faded; its yellows turned to mustard, its blues shifting to smoke, its reds barely pink—more the muddy brown of old tea stains. A sallow net curtain hangs in the window through which little can be seen from the outside.
Sid Stout, Alice’s husband of just over twenty-five years if you count the summer of 1951, or just under if you don’t, stands in the kitchen looking out through the hatch, watching Alice lay the cafe’s seven circular tables. She looks good for her age. A much younger woman would be proud of the fall of her red hair and the way she fills her simple red dress and striped apron. It is her eyes that Sid is watching for though. Her eyes are green. He struggles for the right word. Emerald? Apple? Forest? He settles for sage, both the shade and the peppery flavour seem right for Alice. It strikes Sid that though the cafe they share is worn about the edges and, by his own admission, he himself is frayed with age, Alice still glows. But even as he takes pleasure at the way she moves about the room, the sense of unease, with him since he woke this morning, grows. This feeling, that he has forgotten something important, looms over him.
“What are you looking so glum for?” Alice asks. She is stood at the door to the cafe, about to open up, and looks back at him with an exasperation that they both know is also love.
“Still love me?” she says, and Sid does not hesitate with his reply.
She smiles. “Good. Now get back to work.”
And with that, Alice flips the sign hanging in the window from CLOSED to OPEN.
. . .
Miniature hot air currents climb the curve of the cup’s tea-stained surface, cool air drafts down in the centre of the tiny space. It is still too soon to tell what form this particular storm will take, if there will be hail or thunder and lightning, whether it will be a rainstorm, a snowstorm, an ice storm, a tropical storm, or a hurricane, if it will cause flooding or wildfires. Forgotten by Alice as she darts back and forth from kitchen to cafe, unnoticed by Sid as he stirs and chops and warms oil in the kitchen, the cup sits on the faded Formica beside the till, the storm inside growing.
. . .
Tommy sits at his usual table, having scraped together enough coppers for a full English. It will be his last visit of the week to the Cosy, as payday is still three days away. He smokes a roll-up. The twine holding his trousers in place and fastening his jacket about him marks Tommy as a man in need of a wife. A pair of yarks band his knees, holding his trouser cuffs clear of the dried mud upon his work boots. His hat, a worn cap with a well-thumbed peak, sits on the table along with his tobacco pouch and Rizlas.
Tommy is the only customer to have walked the cliff steps this morning, the funicular rail cars passing him at least twice as he clambered up the steep stone path. It was a choice between a ticket or breakfast, and when Alice brings out his eggs and bacon, he digs in, a grin bursting through his furiously bristling beard.
“Cheers, Alice,” he says.
“You’re very welcome, Tommy love,” she replies, already walking away.
A fine woman, a real catch that one. Tommy smiles, imagining what it must be like to have such a woman for a wife. Egg yolk runs into the thatch of his beard and he wipes it away with a threadbare cuff. Tommy sees Sid watching from the kitchen hatch, unsure if he is looking at Alice or at Tommy himself. He reddens but no one notices, his flushed cheeks too well hidden under his thick beard. The only visible sign of his embarrassment is the sweat breaking on his forehead, but everyone knows Tommy walks the cliff steps each morning, reason enough for anyone to be sweating cobs.
. . .
Emily Blakemore sits at the table nearest the window, her terrier, Clarence, snuffling at her feet. Every now and then she twitches the smoke-yellowed net curtain up and scans the cobbles leading down to the cliff railway.
“He’ll be along in a minute,” Alice says.
Emily drops the curtain as if stung. She hides her eyes by fixing them on the menu card and catches her breath.
“Tea and a crumpet?” Alice says.
The bell above the door jangles. The man entering wears a suit and overcoat, and his polished brogues snap on the worn linoleum. He crosses the cafe without a word and takes a seat at the table furthest from the other customers, his back to them.
“Tea and a crumpet, ta.”
As Emily say this, her eyes are locked on the shoulders of the man across the room, her bosom heaving beneath her dress. Alice nods and slips across to the smartly dressed man. Emily smiles as he orders tea and a crumpet.
. . .
Clarence is the first to sense the developing storm, his ears leaping forward, furrowing the fur of his brow. The dog flicks his eyes this way, that way, their frantic movement emphasised in the stillness of his body. He hears a crumpling sound and turns to face it but cannot see inside the cup from where he is on the floor. The little dog looks to his owner, but Emily’s eyes remain fixed on the back and shoulders of the suited man. The crumpling sound comes again, louder. It drags Clarence up on his paws, sends him scampering back and forth under the table.
“Clarence!” Emily barks at the dog, and, obediently, he collapses back to the floor, his head on his paws. He hears the crumpling sound again and rolls his eyes once more up to his mistress, but she is watching the man again. Clarence stares dolefully at the ankles of the others, but they are all too busy with their food or their paper or each other. Clarence drops his eyes and whines.
. . .
The bell above the door rings again and a lad in jeans and a donkey jacket steps in. His face is straggled with long hair and a largely failed attempt at a beard. He sits at the table between Emily and the suited man, causing Emily to sigh. Her huffing has the lad, David, look to his left and right for the cause of the offence she is so obviously taking, but seeing nothing of note he collapses back in the chair.
“Coffee,” he says to Alice once she makes her way to him. “Please.”
He has been awake much of the night, finally sleeping on a bench facing out over the sandstone cliffs, the rush of the Severn, one hundred feet below, reduced to an ambient lullaby. The rattle and hum of the funicular railway’s first departure from High Town woke him. Before rising from the dew-damp bench, he sat, the river and Low Town before him, the cliff railway rattling along beside him, the castle ruins still sleeping behind him, and he watched the cliff rail cars leave and arrive, leave and arrive. Now, in the warmth of the cafe, he watches Alice take in his disheveled appearance.
“I can pay,” he says, pulling a handful of coins from his pocket.
“No love, don’t fret about that.” Alice smiles and points to the rear of the shop. “You can use the basin out back to clean yourself up while I get your coffee.”
David nods, thanks her, and scuffs across the cafe and out the back.
“Oi,” shouts Sid as the young lad passes.
“Leave ‘im be,” Alice calls through the kitchen hatch.
“Not another waif and stray,” Sid mutters loud enough for Alice to hear, then he smiles. “You’re a soft one, Alice Stout,” he says.
“Must be to stay married to you,” she calls back, and right then her thoughts turn to the ticket stubs in her pocket. Something must show in her eyes because Sid stops sharp and, feeling suddenly tense but unable to say why, watches after her as she turns to see to the boy’s coffee.
. . .
Cyril, sits at the table nearest the kitchen and sips his tea. Between every other sip he checks the time on his wristwatch as if the act of his drinking were somehow part of the device’s workings. A newspaper rests on the table before him. He glances at the open pages, running his hand through his receding, close-cropped hair. He checks his watch again, this time holding it up to his ear, searching for the tick and tock and tick of it. Satisfied that time is moving as it should be, he half turns. Somewhere in the corner of his vision he is aware of someone watching him, and he swings his head the other way to better take in whoever it is.
His eyes lock upon the woman with the dog at the table nearest the cafe window. He recognises her from the library. They have spoken once or twice as she stamped his books, but he only knows her by her surname. She stares across at him and he back at her and he grows suddenly clammy. Feeling his face flush, he yanks a handkerchief from his breast pocket, covers both palms with the white cotton, and sweeps it over his face and up to his diminished hairline. The upward action leaves what little remains of his fringe sticking up like a poorly pruned bush. Folding the sweat-damp handkerchief, he glances across once more to find her still looking, and he turns hurriedly back to his tea. He takes a sip, checks his watch, takes another sip. When he turns in his seat once more, the scruffy boy is back at his table, and lean as he might be, Cyril’s view is blocked.
. . .
A supercell thunderstorm is characterized by the presence of a deep, rotating updraft or mesocyclone forming as strong changes of wind speed or direction set part of the lower atmosphere spinning in invisible, tube-like rolls. Supercells are often isolated from other rainstorms and, most importantly, can be any size. The one forming in the cup is picking up speed. The first rumbles of its churning clouds are too quiet for any but Clarence to hear. The cup sits where it has been left, the magnificent event taking place inside it unnoticed by the Cosy’s proprietors and patrons alike. The storm clouds brew and swirl like malignant cappuccino froth.
Outside the Tea Cosy, a blue sky promises much for the day. A few shapes hurry past the window, folk on their way to wherever, lacking the time for a cup of tea or a need for breakfast, oblivious to the extraordinary nature of what is about to happen inside.
. . .
The coffee is bitter and makes David wince with each sip, but the heat of it begins to revive his spirits. He wraps his fingers round the cup, warming his hands along with his insides. Looking up he sees the waitress looking over. She smiles and he smiles back, mouthing a thank you for the use of the washstand as much as the coffee.
Placing his cup down upon its saucer, he checks his pocket. The jingle of coins is reassuring, and he does not feel the need to count them. The weight and sound are heavy enough to assure him he has the cash to pay for his drink, a ride to Low Town on the cliff railway, and a bus to work from the stop below.
Perhaps he will try Liz from the phone box on the way, if he can think of what to say. Sipping once more at his coffee, fingers wrapped once more around the cup, he mulls over how to fix things with a girl who no longer loves him.
. . .
Everyone for the moment served, Alice steps back into the kitchen and walks to where Sid stands washing up, his back to her. She steps close in to him, slipping her arms under his, wrapping them about his chest. She rests her head for a moment on his back at the place where his neck and shoulders meet. Her hands slide inside his shirt and rest between the fabric of his vest and shirt as if between bedsheets. He turns his head toward her, and she tips her toes and lifts her lips to meet his cheek. Sid smiles, a fag balanced between his lips.
“What’s that for?”
“For being here.”
Something they always say.
Her head fills with thoughts of the tickets and what they mean. His head dizzies with another rush of unease. Sid turns his face back to the soapy water of the sink, and Alice slips from him like she’s stepping out of a dress. At that exact moment a shriek fills the near silence of the cafe.
. . .
Everyone is on their feet and looking at the counter. Light flashes and cracks from within the teacup. It trembles imperceptibly with the tiny power of the storm inside. Emily shrieks again. Clarence yaps at her feet and then begins to stalk toward the storm-filled teacup, his growls an unending curl of consonants. The storm cloud answers with a rumble that sends the terrier skittering back to the feet of his owner, yelping.
“How is it the cup ain’t moving?” Sid leans in, staring hard at the churning thunderhead. He purses his lips then blows a blast of air at the cup, and the cloud ruffles, spiraling with the updraft from within. Sid, growing more obfuscated as the clouds darken, raises a hand to the cup.
“Sid, what’re you doing?”
“Calm down, Alice love. Just gonna give it a little poke.”
Pointing a tobacco-stained finger at the dense cauliflower blossoms of cloud, he inches it forward, hesitates, then dabs it in. A flash and crack echo on the walls of the cafe.
“Bleedin’ hell,” he bellows and whips his finger out. The end is black and smoking and he blows on it for a second or two before plunging it into his mouth.
“Hmmmit bleeeebiin yuuurts,” Sid groans through the finger clenched in his cheek.
They have made a horseshoe around the cup, all except for Clarence, who lays whining beneath a table. Cyril squats, his eyes level with the cup, watching intently. “There,” he says, “see that?”
A tiny flash, like the spark of a flint lighter, illuminates the cloud from beneath. A roll of thunder follows, a sound like fingers tapping on a table top.
“A proper storm then, lightning and everything,” Cyril says, a surprised chuckle shaking him for a second. “Remarkable.”
No one speaks for a time, mesmerised by the adumbrating swirl of air. They lean in as one, lulled to silence and stillness by the tiny ferocity of the wind escaping the cup, and, together, they begin to see.
For Alice it is her love for Sid she sees twisting itself inside and out, a dense cloud of emotion that rolls and thunders. It is the love that had her say nothing when she found, all those years ago, Sid had been “taking tea” with Reeny Moseley from Low Town. He was seen and word got back to Alice, but she never spoke of it. Before the gossip found its way to her ear, she knew he’d been up to something because she found the ripped ticket stubs for the cliff railway in the pocket of his trousers. Always one ticket. Not the two half stubs still joined that she put in her purse as they made their way home from The Black Boy Inn down on the Cartway on a Friday night. Love held her tongue though, long enough for the single stubs to stop appearing. He stopped going and that was all she needed to know. But she kept the tickets. There were seven. They marked the number of visits her Sid made to Reeny Mosley. Alice sees all this in the turn of the tiny storm, and her hand reaches into her pocket.
David pushes his fringe from his face. “It’s beautiful,” he says. It is Liz’s face that forms, for just a fraction, in the clouds and mouths the memory of her words, spoken just the night before, words that sent David wandering the streets of High Town long after the last bus carried her home, words that left him sleeping on a bench. As the cloud-face mutely shapes the words, David speaks them aloud. “I don’t want to see you anymore,” he says, and like that the face is gone as quick as it takes to tell—quicker—and the storm turns and David smiles once more at the tiny beauty of it. Already beginning to forget Liz Layton, his thoughts turn to other girls.
At the same time, Emily speaks. “A miracle,” she says, the words muffled by the hand covering her mouth. To her the roil of the cloud is the energy and flare of feelings she has kept too long locked up within her chest, her form forced to quake with unexpressed longing. Emily Blakemore, librarian and spinster, has watched Cyril Renshaw from afar for many years, her feelings for him buttoned tight inside her like a child’s treasure in a secret pocket. If one were to check her borrowing history against that of Mr. Renshaw, it would show she is long in the habit of borrowing each of his selections upon their return to the library. Each book Cyril borrows he decorates with marginalia, his thoughts scribbled with HB pencil in the white space of each page. Emily, taking the books home, pours over his comments, rubbing them from page after page to save him the fine. She writes the best of his thoughts down in her diary, replies to them in ink on bound paper, scripting imagined conversations in the soft light of her reading lamp, knowing that speaking to him would really be the most impossible thing in the world. It takes the turn of the storm to move her eyes to Cyril’s. He too has seen her love for him in the motion of it, and he returns her gaze. Her knees buckle. She gasps and staggers to a chair, Clarence leaping to her lap as she lands on the seat.
“Are you all right, Miss?” Cyril asks, stepping to her with eager concern.
“I…it…I…yes” Emily squeaks, her eyes wide and darting as a hare’s.
With all eyes on Emily, no one notices the colour drain from Sid’s face or hears him whisper to himself, “Bloody fool,” as he stares into the dark insides of the clouds. There he sees just how much he loves his wife, and each thunderclap is a reprimand. He is surprised to find he has forgotten the name of the woman. He didn’t expect that, to forget someone who had once seemed so important. He thinks how lucky he is Alice never found out just where it was he slipped out to those Saturday afternoons in the summer of ‘51. He never thinks of those moments, but he is thinking of them now, watching the storm. Inside Sid, a low pressure of gratitude meets a high pressure of relief, and his heart thunders at the sordid stupidity of his younger self.
“That thing ain’t right,” Sid bellows. He marches into the kitchen returning with the heavy fireplace tongs, waving them in front of him like a toy sword.
“Sidney Stout, what in giddy goodness do you think you’re doing?” Alice says, stepping into his path. “You leave it be for a minute.”
“Quite right,” Cyril says and places himself alongside Alice between the cup and Sid.
“That thing ain’t natural,” Sid shouts, trying to sidestep the pair.
“I must insist you stop.” Cyril moves to once more block Sid’s approach.
“This is my cafe, so it’s my say so.” Sid waves the tongs in Cyril’s face. “Get out me way or I’ll wrap these round your noggin.”
Cyril takes a step to Sid. Their heated breath mingles in the air where their cold stares meet.
“You desperate for a beltin?” Sid waggles the tongs at Cyril once more, his head pecking back and forth like a furious pigeon, but Alice steps in and yanks them from his hand.
“You daft apeth, give me those.”
Sid squeals as Alice takes his ear in her fist and pulls him toward the kitchen.
“Your cafe is it? Do as you please will you, Sidney Stout?”
“Alice, let me loose right now,” he blusters, which only makes her twist all the harder.
Cyril turns to find Emily standing beside him, gazing at him as if he’s just fought off a lion.
“Don’t let him fluster you, Mr. Renshaw,” she says, her face puffed with admiration. “Violence is the desperate act of the fearful, the cowardly, the uncivilised.”
Cyril recognises the words as his own scribbled, marginalised thoughts. His head is a flurry of confused realisation, and Emily, in a moment of unforeseen bravery, takes his hand in hers.
Cyril watches her smile. He has not seen her do this in all his visits to the library, their brief blurted conversations punctuated instead by the thump of the date stamp.
And the flush of feeling bursts about them both, pulsing with the rising shouts of Sid and Alice in the kitchen and the call and reply of the lightning and thunder bouncing out of the cup.
. . .
None of the others notice Tommy pull up a chair and seat himself next to the counter, his eyes level with the cup. The furious churn of the storm grips him. He hears a hurried tinkling as tiny fists of hail sugar the bottom of the cup. For the first time in years he does not think of Alice. The storm’s rumble elongates, thunder and lightening overlapping. A tinny crescendo rattles inside the ceramic shelter of the cup. Tommy looks about the cafe as he rolls himself a fag. The suit and the wallflower lean into each other, gripped in some picture house fantasy of love. The young lad sits back at his table drinking the last of his coffee, a stupid grin upon his face. The shouting from the kitchen rolls along, fueled by years of the same air rolling about the system, throwing up the same arguments and the same passions, the same lows and highs.
Tommy thinks of the low pressure deep inside him, heated by years of watching Alice with Sid. Feeling the storm inside him building, his eyes rest back upon the teacup, and he tucks the finished roll-up behind his ear for later. Lightning illuminates his face like a lightbulb filament overpowered by a surge of electricity: a flash and then blackness. Tommy doesn’t think at this point. He simply raises the cup to his lips and drinks down the storm, rain and hail and all. Cloud moustaches his top lip. A ragged fork of lightning numbs his tongue, filling his mouth with the taste of metal.
A silence falls over the cafe, and all heads turn to him as Tommy drains the last of the storm from the teacup. He licks his lips, wipes them with the back of his hand to remove the last of the cloud.
“What did it taste like?”
It is Alice who asks. Tommy stands mute for a moment then burps, an invisible cloud of ionized air spreading from him, charged like the sky after a storm.
“Like falling in and out of love,” he says.
. . .
They sit around a table, all eyes on the once more empty and unremarkable teacup placed in the middle. The atmosphere, the hush, the shared quiet, is fresh and speaks of change and clear skies and new beginnings.
Cyril and Emily hold hands beneath the table, fingers wrapping and unwrapping each other as if checking and rechecking they are still there.
Alice thumbs the ticket stubs in the pocket of her apron, rolls each one into a tight ball.
David runs his fingers through his hair, pushes his fringe from his eyes, still smiling.
Sid breathes deeply and, pulling Alice’s hand from her pocket, he holds it tight.
The storm winds through the complicated path of Tommy’s digestive system, the cold simplicity of it overwhelming the frazzling heat of his unrequited love. He picks up the cup from the table, slips it into the pocket of his tattered jacket and, taking the roll-up from behind his ear and lighting it, he leaves without a word. He will not think of Alice at all when, later, he remembers back to the day he swallowed a storm.
Sid strokes the back of Alice’s hand with his thumb and she turns to him.
David’s eyes close, and his head folds into his arms on the table. He dozes in the sun that beats through the yellowed net across the cafe window.
Alice whispers “Still love me?” in Sid’s ear. She knows his reply before he gives it.
Cyril and Emily, still holding hands, slip out into the day going on outside. He will walk her to the library this morning, though it is not on his way to work. This evening he will select six books and wait for the library to close, then walk her home.
Sid moves back to the kitchen, but not before pulling Alice to him. Their kiss feels, to both of them, like the old days. For just a moment their lips, if not the rest of them, are young again and innocent.
Alice waits until Sid is back at the sink before she begins to clear the tables. She scrapes leftovers from butter-smeared plates. Looking up, to be sure Sid is not watching, she takes the balled-up ticket stubs from her pocket and, one by one, drops them into the bin.