Today I am meeting my husband for the first time. He is in the drawing room talking with my mother and I can hear muffled voices as I prepare tea. I watch as the pearls unfold in the water and a fragment of jasmine petal drifts amongst the unravelling leaves. From a neighbouring house a radio is playing a recent hit and I sing along quietly.
I enjoy making tea, a skill I learnt from my aunt, and I take pleasure in the attention to detail that is needed. I know, for example, that for jasmine the water should not be too hot but instead should have crab eyes. It was my aunt who taught me how to judge the temperature of boiling water from the size of the bubbles. Shrimp eyes the coolest, and then crab eyes, fish eyes, rope of pearls and raging torrent. I smile at the memory and wish my aunt was here to help me today.
I concentrate on the tea to try and overcome my nerves. I know how important this day is and I didn’t need to be told to use our finest teapot. According to family tradition it was given as a gift by a Court official who had been stranded in our village in bad weather. Like all the best it is made of Yixing clay, a lustrous red-brown with no frivolous decoration or ornament, just fine calligraphy. Sitting on top of the lid is a delicately crafted turtle. The teapot is one of the few precious items that came with us when we fled to Macau after the war.
Mother told me last week that a marriage had been arranged. I wasn’t surprised and I had had my suspicions for some time. Hushed conversations partly overheard behind closed doors. I don’t mind. I know I could refuse if I wanted to, but I won’t unless he turns out to be completely hideous. I know what’s expected of me. I don’t think I am vain, but I am lucky that my looks will help get the good match that’s needed to restore the family to prosperity. Lam Fung – that’s his name – is the son of a wealthy business man. I just pray that he’s acceptable.
When the tea is ready I place everything on a tray and carry it into the room next door. I try hard not to look directly at him and keep my head bowed as I place the tray on the rosewood side table. I turn to leave the room but my mother asks me to stay.
‘Lei-Wai, please sit down.’ I do as she asks and take the chair next to her. I keep my head bowed but I cannot resist looking aside to see the man I will spend the rest of my life with. I catch a glimpse of fine features and I feel overwhelming relief. ‘Lei-wai,’ continues my mother, ‘this is Lam Fung.’ I take my mother’s cue to look at him properly and my initial impression is confirmed. He is a handsome man.
I am a little tongue-tied. What do you say when introduced to your future husband? ‘It is a pleasure to meet you,’ is all I can manage.
‘The pleasure is all mine.’ He is gracious in response.
I pour the tea and we make polite conversation: The weather is poor for the time of year, but business is good. We discuss mutual acquaintances and the latest films from Hong Kong. I am becoming more at ease with the situation when my mother brings the conversation to an end.
‘Lei-Wai, I have matters to discuss with our guest. Would you please take the tea things away?’
As I get up he also stands and that’s when I see the darkness in his eyes. I feel uneasy and I try not to look. Try not to stare. Try not to say anything at all.
My mother brings me tea and places it by the side of my bed. She pours a cup and I lever myself up until I am partly sitting. Oolong. The tea has been well prepared and it’s a good choice. I know that it will help me recover.
He has only been to see me once since it happened. Even then he could barely look at me. It was as if I had let him down. As if I had betrayed him. Mother tells me that he is just upset. She says he will come round in time. That we can try again. I’d like to believe her but I don’t know. She is trying to reassure me but I have an uneasy feeling that nothing will be the same. In the meantime though all I want to do is sleep. I am so tired that I don’t even dream. I prefer it that way.
I wake when the maid knocks on the door. She collects the tea things before leaving silently. She doesn’t want to talk to me either. I’ve never trusted the girl and more than once I’ve seen the way he looks at her. He thinks I don’t notice but I’m not blind.
The bruises are healing at least. I guess I was lucky that I didn’t break anything. How did it happen anyway? As my strength slowly recovers I’ve been trying to remember but it is coming back only hazily. The only thing I know for certain is that I found myself lying at the bottom of the stairs. A sharp pain gripped my belly and a line of blood ran down the inside of my left thigh.
The maid is back with soup. She has a cold look that is at odds with her seventeen years. I wish we’d never taken her in. I was too sentimental and fell for a sob story about her parents. She’s useless at her job and I’ve often said that we should get someone else, but he always speaks up for her. She’s young, he says, give her a chance. Oh she’s young alright, I’m well aware of that.
Lying in bed there is little to do but listen to the noise of the street. The area is quiet but there are still the hawkers who shout out their wares. I hear sounds in the house as well. Doors opening and closing, comings and goings. I hear voices too. Sometimes I think I hear the two of them talking and I strain to make out words. My imagination fills in where my ears fail me.
They say I must have slipped on the stairs but I have no memory of how or why. I wasn’t carrying anything and there was nothing on them to make the steps slippery. How could I have fallen?
Mother comes every day and makes tea. I’m touched as I know that the tea she has brought is expensive. It has good health-giving properties and I can feel my strength slowly returning. As my body starts to recover my memory is slowly filling in some of the gaps. I remember that I was on the landing talking to the maid. No, not talking, remonstrating about something … about what I’m not sure … when she brushes past me, knocking me off-balance…
The tea gives me the strength I need. Pu’er has a dark maturity that matches my mood these days. My husband, on the other hand, prefers alcohol. In the past it was just rice wine after a banquet, or a European wine if he was trying to impress buyers from Hong Kong. I don’t know when it was that he started with whisky but now it seems to be all he drinks.
I tried hiding the bottles at first but he soon put a stop to that with his fist. Trying to be more subtle I took to pouring whisky down the drain when he was out. Not to empty the whole bottle, he’d be suspicious of that, but to try and reduce the amount he drank. It didn’t work. He didn’t say anything but pretty soon he started locking the bottles away in his study.
I don’t go out much these days. He doesn’t like me to and unless I can shield my face I don’t want to either. I wish my mother were still alive. She’d know what to do.
He’s never forgiven me for not giving him a child. It doesn’t seem to occur to him that I also felt the loss. The doctors said that the internal injuries were probably too bad, but also he stopped sleeping with me so I don’t know how he thought it could happen anyway. It’s been years since we shared a bed. He takes his pleasures elsewhere of course but at least to begin with he had the decency to be discreet about it. Now he seems to enjoy making sure that I know who he’s seeing. Once when I was laid up in bed with flu he even brought someone home. I think he did that on purpose. Perhaps it gave him a thrill. Sometimes I think I should never have kicked out the maid, at least then I could have kept the shame within the house. I made sure that every maid we had after her was older than me. Something else he has never forgiven me for.
The tea is dark and earthy. There is a complexity in the taste that I would never have enjoyed when I was young.
Perhaps I was always destined to have this tea-shop even if it took a long time to get here. The irony is that I probably wouldn’t have it if it wasn’t for his drinking. It was liver failure apparently. I can’t exactly say I was sad even if there was a small part of me that wondered what might have been. If things had turned out the way my younger self thought they would. Of course even at the end he had a final joke at my expense. Where I thought that there would be money to live comfortably instead there were debts. When everything was finished there was just enough money to buy the tea-shop.
A love of tea seems to run in the family and I remember the lessons that my aunt taught me. I have found my vocation at last and I get to drink all sorts of different teas: creamy White Peony, delicate Silver Needle, fresh Dragon Well. I still drink simple jasmine and I don’t mind being reminded of my naïve younger self, I’ve forgiven her now, but as I get older I more and more return to Oolong in a bid to keep both my cholesterol and blood pressure low. So much more pleasurable than the pills the doctor gives me.
And what am I drinking today? Nanjing Rainflower tea. It comes from the hills around our village and I can’t drink it without thinking of my aunt. I make sure that I prepare it properly. Shrimp eyes, always shrimp eyes, she tells me.