Tasseography, a short story by Dominic Rivron at Spillwords.com
Tree standing alone in mist



written by: Dominic Rivron


I drop into The Corner Café most afternoons, on my way home from work: not only does it serve up a generous pot of black tea for one, but also it’s warm and bright and softens the blow of going home to a cold, empty flat.

It’s an old-fashioned sort of place: varnished, wooden chairs and tables, oilcloth table coverings, photos of local places by a local photographer on the wall for sale that never sell. If I hadn’t been sat there one afternoon nursing an empty cup I’d finished some minutes before, the old man sat at the next table would’ve had no reason to strike up a conversation with me. Not that I think he needed much excuse. He had a lonely look about him. If I’d not given him the teacup to latch onto, I’m sure he would’ve come up with something else.

He was tapping the top of the table with his fingernails and looking around as if he expected something out of the ordinary to appear at any moment. Then his eyes lighted on my teacup. He stopped tapping the table and looked up at me. He smiled.

“Want to know what it says?” he said, pointing at my teacup.

Laura, who ran the café, was wiping down a table under the front window.

“Leave him alone, Jeff,” she said. “He’s probably come in here for a bit of peace.”

This was not true. Like Jeff, I was desperate for human interaction, only not quite desperate enough to show it quite so openly.

“What what says?” I said.

“Your teacup. The tea leaves.”

Laura tutted, as if to say ‘not that again.’

Jeff beckoned to me, as if to suggest I move over to his table. I did so, taking my cup and saucer with me. He held out his hand and raised his eyebrows, as if to say ‘pass me the cup’. I pushed it across the table to him. He looked down at it, as eagerly as if I’d just passed him one of Laura’s Eccles cakes. He promptly tipped the dregs out into the saucer.

“There you go, making a mess,” said Laura. From her tone, it was obvious she was quite fond of the man.

“It’s the only way to do it,” said Jeff. He leaned a little closer. “Never believe anyone who doesn’t drain the cup.”

“I won’t,” I said.

He peered into it, at the leaves that remained there, stuck to the sides, for what seemed like a long while. His breathing became slower. He tilted his head to one side.

I said nothing. I didn’t want to rush him. Laura had gone back to the counter. She was polishing the glass case where the scones and brownies sat. Finally, Jeff looked up. He smiled.

“Now is not a good time to make changes. Stick at what you’re doing now and everything will come right,” he said.

For a moment, I felt as if he were reading my mind. I was getting pretty fed up with my job. I was spending too much of my time, I knew, trying to dream up schemes to get out of it. But, of course, he wasn’t. It was just the sort of general observation that might apply to anyone at anytime. I told him so. He shrugged.

“Does that make it any less true?” he said.

“I suppose not,” I said.

“I mean,” he said, “what you say begs the question, do you think of yourself as Mr Ordinary or Mr Special?” He smiled.

“A bit of both, I suppose,” I said. I smiled, too. “Doesn’t everyone?”

“Well, there you go,” he said.

Jeff had long been a regular at the café, but since he never used to drop in late in the afternoon, our paths had never crossed before. Some change in his routine meant that he now did, and so we ran into each other most days. He always greeted me like a long-lost friend and I took to sitting with him. He didn’t read my leaves again, though, for a while: it didn’t do, he maintained, to do it too often. To do so, he said, diluted the insight one might gain from it.

As we spent more time together I began to wonder, was he as old as he looked, or was he merely worn down by alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, or perhaps just life in general? From the way he talked he seemed younger. He was a skinny guy, despite eating one of Laura’s fry-ups most days. He always dressed the same: a pair of well-worn trainers that seemed to cling together out of long habit, black jeans and a short, black waterproof overcoat. He had a longish white beard which he kept neatly trimmed. The way he looked at you and spoke suggested a sharp intelligence. It was hard to imagine what he might’ve done during his life, though. I wondered if he’d worked as a teacher, but found it hard to imagine him imposing his authority on others. Perhaps work had never been particularly important to him and he’d spent his life working away at a menial job while pursuing his real interests in his spare time. If you tried to talk to him about the past, he’d steer the conversation, in the nicest possible way, onto other things. He was so adept at doing this, a stranger meeting him for the first time might not notice. In an unguarded moment, he did let slip that he’d once been married but, he said, he was through with ‘all that malarkey’, as he put it. He was knowledgeable, but in unconventional ways. He could talk about anything from Greek Civilisation to quantum theory but might then offer to read your tea-leaves. It crossed my mind that the tea-leaves thing might be a joke, but doubted it as, although he had a sense of humour, I got the feeling the destiny of himself and the people around him wasn’t something he tended to joke about.

The second time he read my leaves he didn’t ask. He just pointed at my teacup and raised his eyebrows, gesturing for me to push it over, as before. As before, he tipped the dregs out into the saucer. He looked down into the cup, then up at me, then down into it again. He seemed tense, concerned. Finally, he relaxed.

“Everything that went wrong for you will come right in the end. It’ll all turn out to be for the best,” he said, “even though, right now, it doesn’t seem as if it ever will.”

I smiled. I felt a bit uncomfortable about this, but said nothing. We’d just been talking about the unfortunate series of events which had led to me moving to the area and how I’d been lucky to find the job I then had, for all that it was getting me down. Another possible reason for his interest in tasseography occurred to me. Perhaps he found some things difficult to say and used the tea leaves as a prop, much as one might use a ventriloquist’s dummy?

He left soon after, saying he had things he had to get done, before it got too late. The nights were drawing in and, although there was a while to go before sunset, it was a damp, foggy afternoon. It was already beginning to look dark outside. Laura came over to clear the table. As she did so, something on the floor caught her attention. She stooped to pick it up. She tutted.

“It must’ve fallen out of his pocket,” she said. She brought up a largish leather zip-up wallet and put it on the table. She unzipped it. There was a five pound note in it, some loose change and a key on a bright-green plastic fob. A number seven, continental style, with a line through the middle, had been written in black Biro on the cardboard insert. She zipped it up again. “Be a good ‘un, and run after him? He might get home before he realises.”

“Where’s he live?”

“In the old people’s flats on the corner, by the main road. Number seven presumably. Do you know them?”

I did. I nodded. I picked up the wallet and set off after him.

He can’t have been that far ahead of me, but though I jogged all the way, I never caught up with him. The flats were a low, two-storey block, built out of bright, terracotta-coloured bricks that stood out from the grim, stone terraced houses that lined most of the street. When I got there, I soon found where number seven was and knocked on the door. There was no sign of life. Wherever he’d gone on leaving the café, it wasn’t home. At this point, I was overcome by an urge to take out the key. I knew it was quite wrong but, to my surprise, found I just couldn’t resist it. And after all, I told myself, he might have got the warden to let him in. He was an old guy: he might be in there, unable to answer the door, in need of help. It was highly unlikely, I know, but it seemed like a good enough excuse at the time. I took it out and, after first looking over my shoulder to check there was no-one around, put in the lock. I turned the latch, opened the door and went in.

The air smelt cold, with a hint of dampness. I switched on the light in the hall.

The door into the living-room was open. I went straight through. I turned on the light there, a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling, but didn’t need it to see that the room was empty, save for a group of large cardboard boxes, neatly arranged in the middle of the room. Perhaps he was moving out? He’d not mentioned he was moving, but then he was under no obligation to. He had said, as he left the café, that he had ‘things to do’: perhaps he had last-minute arrangements to make. Somehow, though, I doubted it.

I took a look around. The place had an unlived-in feel to it and there wasn’t a stick of furniture anywhere. In the kitchen, the sink was dry and dusty, as if it hadn’t been used for a long while. The same, in the bathroom. There, on the back of the sink, I found a well-worn, cracked bar of soap, with dirt in the cracks. It looked like it hadn’t been used in years.

I went back to the living room. In the silence, I could just make out the sound of a TV – gunshots, music – coming through the wall. Again, I knew I shouldn’t, but I just couldn’t resist taking a look inside the cardboard boxes. The flaps on top of them hadn’t been taped down. I went over and opened one. There were books, paperback novels, mostly, by novelists I’d never heard of. There was a shoe-box full of audio-cassettes, the music on them – all classical, as far as I could see – listed in tightly packed, spidery handwriting. There was a battery-operated wall clock, stopped at 4.46. There were wads of old printed letters about insurance and the like, addressed to a Mr J.T. Stanley and, underneath them, a biscuit tin. I took it out and removed the lid. It was full of old photographs, all of places and people I didn’t know. Mostly, though, they were of featureless moorland and looked as if they could’ve been taken on a wet day at any number of locations in the North of England.

It crossed my mind with a jolt that I was taking too long. I don’t know why it hadn’t occurred to me before, but it suddenly struck me that – whether he lived here or not – Jeff might turn up, only to realise he’d lost his key. He’d see the light on or hear me moving about and realise there was an intruder in his flat. The ramifications didn’t bear thinking about. I put everything back as I’d found it, turned out the light, and left.

As I opened the front door, I poked my head out, looking up and down the loggia to check no one was around. It was a good job nobody was: it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better impression of a furtive intruder making his getaway. And as soon as the door closed behind me, I realised the enormity of what I’d done. I felt ashamed of myself and resolved there and then to pretend it’d never happened. At least, from that moment on, if I ran into Jeff, I could simply state my mission and hand over his wallet. I hung around outside the door for a couple of minutes, then realised this probably wasn’t the best strategy. If Jeff noticed he’d lost it, he’d most likely remember the café was the last place he’d used it and go back there to retrieve it. I looked at the time. Laura would be closing up any minute: the best thing I could do was hurry straight back.

When I got there, the sign had been turned round to ‘closed’ but the light was still on and Laura and Jeff were sat at a table, chatting. They both laughed when I came in. It turned out everything had happened just as I’d imagined it, and Laura said they thought I’d turn up, sooner or later. Jeff got up and, taking his wallet, thanked us both and said he better be getting off. I said I better, too, as I’d things to sort out. As it happened, I hadn’t, but I wanted to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Outside, it was still foggy, and quite dark. I could just make out Jeff through the murk, heading off in the direction of the flats. I set off, following him at a discreet distance. We were about halfway there when he crossed the road. There’s a church there, built by some Victorian philanthropist. He turned in through the sandstone gateway, into the churchyard. I followed him down a path, that led to a monument, which loomed up out of the mist. Once he reached it, he veered off across the wet grass, towards a tree. He walked straight up to it as if – improbable though it sounds – he intended to climb it. At this point, I must’ve blinked, or my mind must’ve wandered momentarily, because all of a sudden I realised I’d lost sight of him. The only way I can describe it is, it was as if the tree-trunk were a crack in the whiteness of the fog and Jeff had walked straight into it. But, of course, that’s impossible.

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