Read The Tea House on Mulberry Street Online
Authors: Sharon Owens
Tags: #Fiction, #General
THE TEA HOUSE ON MULBERRY STREET
Sharon Owens was born in Omagh in 1968. She moved to Belfast in 1988, to study illustration at the Art College. She married husband Dermot in 1992 and they have one daughter, Alice.
Published by the Penguin Group
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First published by Poolbeg Press Ltd 2003
Published in Penguin Books 2005
Copyright © Sharon Owens, 2003
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Many thanks to everyone at Poolbeg and Penguin for all their advice and kindness. And also to my husband Dermot, for his love and support.
Daniel Stanley came hurrying down the stairs from the first-floor flat, and flicked on the lights in the tea house. The room was cold, and he shivered as he crossed the floor of the shop, and pulled open the blinds. The sky was still dark.
It would be another couple of hours, at least, before sunrise. He hurried around the cafe, switching on the small yellow table lamps, and the room was suddenly filled with a warm glow. For a brief moment, the old place looked almost cheerful. The dusty curtains, the faded linoleum, the cracked furniture and the flaking walls were bathed in a golden light.
Daniel peered at himself in a small mirror beside the door. His eyes were large, blue and intelligent-looking, with worry lines settling in around the edges. Well, that was understandable: running a small business was not easy. He was winter-pale, and he needed a haircut. But the fine bone structure he had inherited from his mother – the straight nose and high cheekbones – was still evident while other men’s faces had softened and blurred as they filled out into middle-age. Yes, even at forty-seven, he was still passable, in a neat and tidy sort of way.
He opened the front door and carried in the day’s delivery of milk. He began to switch on the appliances in the kitchen: the toaster, the water-heater, the old oven that still worked perfectly although it made a rattling noise when the temperature exceeded 200 degrees. He filled the kettle and switched it on. He looked at his watch. It was half past six. The ancient central heating system rumbled into life, then, and Daniel breathed a sigh of relief that it was still working.
While he waited for the kettle to boil, he wandered back to the front window of the shop and surveyed the comings and goings on Mulberry Street.
The city was waking up.
Lorry-drivers were already moving along the Lisburn Road with their deliveries. At half past seven, the early commuters would appear. Daniel watched a lorry-driver waiting patiently for the green light, tapping his fingers on the dashboard. He seemed to be listening to a song on the radio, too distracted to toot his horn when the car at the front of the line moved off too slowly. Daniel rarely played music in the cafe. He liked the peace of the early morning, and the familiar sounds of the kitchen. The silence helped him to concentrate on his cooking. Today, he would bake a luscious cherry cheesecake, and a moist coffee-cake with toffee-coloured cream piped around the edges.
Across the road, the willowy florist with red hair was arranging a selection of white flowers in the freshly polished bay window of her shop. She handled the stems gently, almost with love, trailing her slender fingers through lush green leaves that were still wet with dew. Her name was Rose. Daniel could not have guessed but she had chosen white flowers that day as a kind of memorial, to mark the end of her short marriage to John. She was single again, and all alone in the city that locals called The Big Smoke. She surveyed the orderly show of ghostly blooms and then, satisfied, filled the kettle to make a cup of tea. Since leaving her husband, she’d been waking up earlier than usual, but the shop had never looked better.
Daniel watched from his cafe her leisurely progress, thinking what an easy job it must be to sell flowers: no lightning hygiene inspections to worry about, and no risk of poisoning the customers either. Red roses for Valentine’s Day, fir-trees for Christmas, and nothing else to do all year except potter about, arranging steel buckets in the window. Yes, a real soft number. Although the smart, metal containers looked well, he admitted. Rose always put on a good display. They acknowledged each other with a nod, sometimes, when Rose came into the tea house for a sandwich at lunch-time.
Lunch-time! Daniel was awakened from his daydream of an easy life as a florist, and remembered all the work that had to be done before the first customers of the day arrived. And when there was work to be done, he thought of Penny. It was time to make the first pot of tea of the day. He hurried back to the kitchen.
He flicked open the lid of a little steel teapot and added one tea bag and a tiny deluge of boiling water from the kettle. The water-heater gave off a puff of steam at that moment and it startled him a little, as it always did.
“Are you there, Penny?” he called. “Tea’s in the pot! Hurry up!”
“I’m up,” said his wife, slowly descending the creaking stairs. “What’s the rush? We’ve over an hour, yet, before opening.”
She was wearing a long white dress and cardigan, pretty blue shoes, a gold-coloured belt with decorative coins on it and big hoop earrings, not to mention full make-up and sparkling, butterfly hair-clips. That was Penny, always holding things up with her little bit of glamour.
“What do you think?” she said, giving a little twirl. “Do you think the butterflies suit me? They’re new.”
“Very nice,” he said gently. “Not a very practical outfit for working in, of course, but nice, yes.”
“We’ll have to take down the Christmas decorations, tomorrow,” she said. “I’ll really miss them.” She straightened up some tinsel on the tree.
“The food won’t make itself,” he reminded her, gravely. “Oven’s on.”
“We’ll get it made in time. Don’t we always?”
“I suppose so… What kind of muffins do you fancy for today? Blueberry? Chocolate? They’re still popular with the office people. For the time being, at least.” He was checking the containers on the counter.
“What about banana muffins, for a change? Where’s that American flag? I’ll stick it in the window and we’ll have a Coffee-and-Muffin promotion.”
She found the flag at the back of the storeroom and crossed the shop, yawning, to hang it in place. Daniel told her his baking plans for the day, and Penny wrote it all down in coloured chalks on the blackboard and set it out on the footpath. Then she sat down at a small table and gazed out at the few people going past the window at that early hour. She waved at the florist across the road. Rose was dragging a large topiary tree across the floor.
“Rose is up and about, already,” she said. “Have you noticed she’s been doing that a lot recently? She’s changing the window-display, I see. It looks nice, don’t you think?”
“Mmmm,” said Daniel, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. Penny had a hankering for pretty things and he didn’t like to encourage her.
She turned away from him. It was a cold Monday morning in January and her back was stiff already, just thinking about the day ahead. Penny Stanley had worked in the tea house since she was a child, and could have cut sandwiches and brewed tea in her sleep. She knew the sagging cupboards and the leaking taps in the cafe better than she knew her own body. She had drifted along through thirty-five years of nothing in particular, like a leaf in a stream. Her life had been uneventful, to say the least, and most days she was just grateful it had not been filled with tragedy. There was her parents’ car accident, of course. But apart from that, there was nothing at all to write home about. Somehow, she felt ashamed of her ordinary life. There was a resigned stare in her big brown eyes, and her hands were rough and reddened from twenty years of baking bread.
But today, in her humble heart, Penny Stanley felt the stirrings of a revolution. She wanted things to change, and she knew that she was the only one who could change them. It was no use making wishes and waiting for another day. She had done that all her life.
She could not explain it. It might have been a conversation she’d heard on the radio, about the approaching Millennium. One woman was spending thousands of pounds on a beach-party, which would take place in Australia. She was paying the travel costs for her entire circle of friends and family. Then, there was a man who was taking his wife and children to an isolated cottage, on a remote Scottish island, with enough food and water to see them through a nuclear disaster. Penny did not want to do anything so extreme, but she wanted to do
. The Millennium was only twelve months away. The earth was a thousand years older, and so was Penny. A thousand years older than she was on her wedding day.
She found an upmarket interiors magazine on a chair and began to turn the pages. Daniel carried a cup of tea and a plain, buttered scone over to her on a tray, and frowned when he saw the magazine. He blamed glossy magazines for most of the unhappiness in the world. They filled people up with dreams of things they could never have.
“Thanks, love,” said Penny, and she took a sip of the tea. “Now, here,” she said, “is the way a home ought to look! It’s a dream house! Look, Daniel, it’s a hotel, down south. The Lawson Lodge, they call it.”
He peered over her shoulder at the pictures. “That’s some inherited mansion full of priceless antiques, Penny. You’ll only upset yourself, wanting a house like that.”
“There’s nothing wrong with dreams. Dreams cost nothing,” she said. She put down her cup and rested her pointed chin in her hands. She gazed down at the pictures with longing in her dark brown eyes.
Daniel went back to the kitchen.
“Dreams are what keep you going when real life lets you down,” said Penny to herself. Her eyes scanned the photographs, taking it all in.
A stately home on the south coast of Ireland, built in the nineteenth century by an English lord. Nowadays, the lord’s descendants had returned to London, where they lived in tiny overpriced flats, and the house was a hotel. Outside: grey stone facade surrounded by ornamental hedges, neatly clipped. Cracked urns on the doorstep, with fresh herbs spilling over the top. Two pedigree dogs with sleek black coats lay on the lawn, which was mown in neat stripes. Inside: rustic kitchen with dozens of copper saucepans hanging from racks above the massive blue stove. Cookery books stacked neatly on a painted Welsh dresser. Pots of home-made jam cooling on the windowsill. Dainty blue gingham curtains at the windows.
And best of all, the huge sitting-room, painted a deep dark sinful red. A perfect backdrop for the comfortable white sofas, the ornate white table lamps, the heavy white brocade curtains, the plump white cushions with fringing round the edges. Original oil paintings hung on the red walls – of dreamy landscapes, in gilded frames. And on the occasional tables, there were pretty bowls of potpourri and handmade chocolates, thick books on modern art, fresh flowers in glass vases. Luxury at every turn.