TEA AND SYMPATHY • by George Maxwell

Emily and I sat in Emily’s front room, sharing an uncomfortable silence.

Emily had her hands clasped around her tea-cup and her head bowed. The change that had come over my old friend was shocking.

We had known each other since we were toddlers. We had grown up together, sharing our lives: girlhood, school, college, the joys and sorrows of our first few relationships. Later, there were marriages, children, careers, the deaths of our parents, retirement. Finally, we were sharing our old age together.

Of the two of us, Emily had always been the strong one: facing everything with a vivacious good-humour and gentle determination, even bearing the loss of Mark (her husband of 40 years), which had happened last March, with a sort of loving resignation. She had seen it as a time to remember the happiness they had given each other. And she had grieved and moved on. We had been even closer since her widowhood, and rarely a day passed when we were not visiting each other for tea, cake and gossip — the three things that had always been a part of our friendship.

But now, Emily was miserable, afraid and vulnerable. Sat before me now, she looked utterly broken.

The problems had begun when her youngest son, Edward, had started making regular visits to the family home following Mark’s death. Edward, now 41, had always been somewhat distant from the rest of the family, and so initially, Emily took his visits for a new-found kindliness on his part. Perhaps, she thought, they were a reaction to the loss of his father. In any case, she welcomed them.

But after a few months, she had confided in me that she was concerned: a number of small items were disappearing from the family home, and after careful thought, she had concluded that only Edward had had the opportunity, or the motive to have taken them. The items themselves were of a sentimental, rather than a financial value: photographs, ornaments, pictures and the like, which only reinforced her suspicions.

For the first time in her life, Emily had not known what to do. Without conclusive proof, she could not accuse Edward outright of theft, for that would have destroyed the contact that she had re-established with him. At the same time, she could not cope with the constant loss of things that meant so much to her. Torn by two equally difficult potential courses of action, her personal strength had failed her, and she had been reduced to the silent, teary nonentity that sat before me now.

There was very little that I could do or say to resolve things, but I could (and did) offer my quiet support. I touched the top of Emily’s hand, and she looked up at me with reddened, tired eyes.

“Let me make you a fresh cup.” Her tea, undrunk, had long since gone cold.

Emily smiled up at me and let go of the cup.

As I walked through to the kitchen, she returned her gaze to the floor, and I was struck again by how her misfortune had aged her. She was a spent force.

In the kitchen, I filled the kettle and switched it on. The gentle low rumbling of the heating water echoed round the small room.

I stood by the sideboard, waiting for the water to boil.

I reached out, took hold of a small gilt-framed photo: Emily as a young girl.

I pocketed it.

I smiled to myself.

“Tea’s up,” I said.

George Maxwell writes in Notts, UK.

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