Mother Eartha


Chapter One

Mother Eartha took delight in informing those she met of their death day.  It was the converse of their birthday; the date on which they would die. Mother Eartha told Nathaniel that his death day was the eleventh of October. She did not specify the year. Nathaniel found this very unsettling. She told him on the first of October 1969, speaking with a gleefully rigid authority.
     “Nathaniel,” she said, baptizing and bestowing extreme unction upon him simultaneously by means of a single benevolent glare through the superior lens of her bifocal glasses.
      “That’s me,” said the teenager.
      “Eleventh October,” said Mother Eartha.
      Nathaniel smiled. He’d never shaken hands with a West Indian woman before. Her grip was warm, her skin leathered by living, her eyes liquid with blessing, her wiry grey and black hair a lush chiaroscuro cascade.  He was confused but didn’t feel he should question her. He didn’t need to. She elaborated.
      “That’ll be your death day. Eleventh October.”
     She hooked her lacquered ebony walking stick over her forearm and clamped his hand between both of hers. Her grip steadied him in his shock and she in her instability and for a moment they rocked, she in space, he in uncertainty.  Her smile creased him, her hands unleashed him. She squeezed his palm with pleasing pain, unhooked her cane, almost chuckled, staccato twirled and headed for the kitchen.
     “Don’t worry,” said Deborah, polishing the nightshade patterned plate with a sweet pea patterned tea towel. “It’s just her way.”
Her way of doing what? he wondered. 
     “She’s living backwards,” said Deborah. “If you think she looks old now, you should have seen her when she was younger.”
     “She’s inversely prehistoric.”
     Deborah was decidedly pre-Raphaelite. Statuesque and crowned with deep auburn candy floss that might not have been tinted from an art deco bottle, she moved with the studied carriage of an artist’s model, gracefully from pose to pose finding the light while curating the contrasts. It was she who had returned Nathaniel’s gaze in the corner shop, broken his heart before a word had passed between them, thrown a fated life-line with a tenuous smile, and recruited him with a request that he might pass her something from the bottom shelf.  She couldn’t possibly bend, she had said.  No, you might demean your delectability, he thought. They had exchanged verbose unpleasantries about processed pulses, and lied to each other about having read The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
     “You must come and meet Mother Eartha,” she had said.
     “That would be adorable,” he had replied,
     “Come for tea. Thursday.”
     “Deep joy.”
     “13A Bohemia Way.”
     Yes, he thought, I know that’s where you live. I’ve seen you there. I’ve always wanted to go inside.

Nathaniel digested the dining room of that hallowed habitat whilst being perused by painterly nymphs slinked around the Victorian vases on the Edwardian dresser. A dislodged Turkish throw failed to hide threadbare strains of the upholstery of a pre-war armchair in the corner. The sentinel seats at the table were six in number but zero in similarity.  One of the tuberous legs of the table had an indentation where the Duke of Wellington’s footman had kicked it, Deborah testified, in the days when it groaned under the pugilism of pastry in a coaching-inn kitchen on the turnpike road. The parrot in the bell-jar birdcage had been knitted from five colours and six gauges of wool. Deborah said its posture was a miracle of fuse wire, pheasant bones, and the Saturday morning sweepings from Belinda’s Boutique. 
     Mother Eartha reappeared carrying the caddy. “Triple Gunpowder tea,” she announced.
     “Explosive!” said Nathaniel, his enthusiasm entirely demolishing the facade of his supposed knowledge.
     “My own blend.”
     “Majestic!” brewed Nathaniel.
     “Deborah – the earthenware.”
     The Ruskin-approved goddess of domestic dryness gathered up her garland of polished plates and swept into the kitchen in an excess of autumnal print.  Mother Eartha unclipped the lid of the embossed tinplate caddy and, using the tarnished brass spoon sunk within, stirred the black powder, churning out the sound of dried chuckles. The women tea-pickers on the container trembled in light relief.
     “One part tea, one part me, one part he,” she confided.
     “Magical!” said Nathaniel.
     “Oh yes,” murmured Mother Eartha.
     Somewhere, deep in the timbers of 13A, off-beat rhythms made smothered eruptions of sound: sugar cane, tobacco, molasses, black rum and seaweed. Nathaniel had no idea whence it emanated but was convinced that he heard and tasted the beat.
     Deborah returned with a rattan tray embracing glazed terracotta tea-cups, saucers and side plates, and a teapot that matched nothing but encompassed everything.  Brown and blue and green and yellow and white; it might have been the planet earth or the universe churned inside out.  Mother Eartha twisted off the lid. Debora looped up a sirocco between the unseen stove and the groan-storing table. She needed two hands to carry the black-bottomed kettle. A square cut from a camel blanket gave extra insulation to the Bakelite handle and inadequately shielded the pre-Impressionist freckles on her alluring forearms.  She tipped a triple tablespoon worth of haughty hot water into the tea pot.  Mother Eartha swirled it anti-sunwise six-and-a-half times before tipping it onto the exposed slate floor beneath the sideboard where even the rugs dare not tread. Then she spooned the gunpowder tea into the gape. 
     “One part tea, one part me, one part he,” she repeated.
     Deborah, part muse, part aquarian, part acolyte, unleashed the steaming glass serpent fluid and it dived to acrobat a speckled tumble in that queen of crucibles. Using the same long brass spoon that lived in the compost of tea, he and she, Mother Eartha stirred the brew to make an irritated whirlpool below and a bad-tempered typhoon above.
     “So, master Nathaniel, what will you be?”
     Nathaniel was so befuddled that his grammar-school superiority and baby-boomer smugness fused and imploded, leaving only a bemused grimace, suggesting that he had remembered how to soil his pants.
     “When you are a man. What’ll you be, boy?”
     Knocked off balance by this belittling in front of the woman to whom he most wished to peacock his manhood, Nathaniel’s self-esteem punched the boost button in his brain and fired-up the bullshit bazooka. He beamed wide, confident that his half-curly locks provided a pastoral halo from which he might reignite his afterglow. “I will be whatever remains of what I was,” he said, applying the first rule of vacuousness: speak smugly. 
     “What age are you?”
     “Six of innocence, twelve of dreams,” said Mother Eartha. She lined up the tea cups on the table and from behind that bowled barricade she fired her savant salvo. “Today maybe your final day, yesterday is always your last.”
     “Golden,” he said, beaming with bemusement disguised as admiration. 
     Deborah, having re-berthed the kettle on the dock of the stove, joined them at the table, breathing nature into the folds of the floral-print bodice of her frock; a living still-life.
     Mother Eartha poured the brew. There was no milk, and the only honey was to be found smeared over Nathaniel’s self-imagined golden fleece. They discussed the works of Gaugin, Paula Rego and the masks on which Picasso based his pox-skewed faces. Nathaniel knew nothing at all about these things but spoke with great insight drawing endlessly on the almanack of invention.  Mother Eartha indulged him, Deborah invigorated him.  The tea tasted of smoke, ash and burnt umber.  As he was waxing cyclical about Art and existentialism, Mother Eartha stood and spoke so loudly that a distant dog yelped. 
     “I’m going to reprimand myself,” she declared, and taking up her lacquered cane she went into the hall, not looking back, but calling, to condemn once more. “October eleventh.”
     Deborah began to tidy the tableware. Nathaniel wanted to stay, to paint her, even though he had not loaded a brush, since before he dropped art in favour of less oily O-level subjects.
     “What did she mean: one part tea, one part me, one part he?”
     “We just drank some of her husband’s ashes.”
     “Mixed with the tea. And some of hers too.”
     “But she’s not dead.”
     “She was. She’s living her life backwards.”
     Deborah took the tray to the kitchen and did not return. 
     Nathaniel waited in vain for twenty minutes or more and then went home. He circled his death date in his diary on three different pages: the day page, next year’s page, and even the page displaying the previous year.  That made him feel like he had survived the first hurdle; but he worried that the next ten days would be his last.

To be continued

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