It’s true. Bulah and Bill Brown did little more than move from the flats of the their backs to the chairs at the arse-end of the room for years. They’d been packing to go back to Jamaica when she fell down the stairs carrying a box. She had to go in for a double knee operation which took her off her feet and then he wasn’t far behind her with his leg ulcers. After that it was bed to chair, chair to bed, bed to chair, chair to bed. That’s what happens to most of them when they come home; physios attend to people who aren’t about to kick the bucket, it’s just how it is. People end up trapped and they have to carry it. So in place of walking, when they can’t just leave the room, can’t walk away from a situation, they do other things; new skills, routines, new structures – trying to make sense of being stuck.
Yu nah ‘ear meh, mi seh, ‘Come!’’
I was warned from the outset she was a bit of a nightmare, Bulah, something to be reckoned with as one manager put it. After the operation some years before I’d met her, she started to develop what the plan called as a keen sensibility for order: a neurosis. In practice this meant the placement of things and sequence of events were keys to her mood. If you happened to follow the protocol, you were treated warmly, you’d come fi see Nana, but out of line at all and you were nothing but a damn maid.
‘Ok, so once you’ve logged in with the phone let her finish with her papers or whatever she’s doing, then it’s phone-on-bed, table-down-the-bottom and then get the Stand Aid. Don’t bring the Stand Aid in first, she’ll think you’re rushing and she doesn’t like people rushing. And word to the wise, put the harness on from the back – you’ll only catch her with the Velcro.’
Looord av manna!
Yeh try tek mi eye owt!
Bill! She try fi tek mi eye out!
Damn foolishness! Owt! Yu nah know wha-fi do – Owt!’
Each slip added new scare stories to her legacy and she knew it. I could see it in her sly side glances. Crafty like a lawyer, she could make use of anything to prove her point, any point, so it was with awe and watchful caution that I began taking tea with Bulah. Bill however, I took to Bill like my granddad, he did the same quick winks. It wasn’t a useful association as it happens.
For a while I was telling myself it was the fourteenth the last time she looked into my leaves. I liked the sort of anxiety it gave me – the date being the same number as their house – but in fact we had tea on other days after that, I just can’t remember them. Tea on the fourteenth has eclipsed all other teas. It was the reading on that day that brought us the weasel blocking the seal – someone untrustworthy in the home, two figures carrying baskets, and the worst and most sickening of all the symbols in the tea leaves, the sign that eventually sent me under, a rock and a motor in conjunction with a wavy line.
‘Just forget about the remote control – don’t keep picking at it. He could have waited, the daughter was coming back at eleven, you know he could have waited. Just try to remember that. No one saw this coming, it’s nobody’s fault.’
What the seer reads is in accordance with the muscular action of the arm as controlled by the brain of whomever consults the leaves. I looked that up the day I heard the news. It means that the symbols Bulah read in the tea leaves were of me, like a trace of myself in the cup. But not like a footprint, it wasn’t an impression of me, an outline, and not containing either, not like flaked dead skin, but somehow behind things. At base, that’s what I couldn’t shake, this behindness, the code of it, what happened when the symbols were combined and how I fitted into that. A symbol of a tree means a tree, it means one tree, but two symbols of trees, three symbols of trees – well that’s something else isn’t it, that’s a place. Somehow an unlocatable woods is created through combination of two symbols of a tree. That’s what did me in the end. This thinking. I just couldn’t distance myself from the structures, from all the associations; things just kept on unpacking.
The rock, motor and wavy lines being in conjunction warned of some forthcoming alarm in connection with a motor expedition, but the episode would be in the distance, would be remote.
‘Twigs and stems! Woman yu likea chil – look-fi pichas in thee fyah!’
Bill wasn’t keen on it, there was no good in it. He told me to go on about my business, come change his catheter bag, go make him a chocolate. Bulah encouraged my interest she always called it a natural curiosity, but it’s what she said to me that day that’s inscribed the date on me like this, that gave it all more weight. She said it was my doing, the message, and she made it sound so plausible; the mind moves the arm that writes the leaf.
‘Right, so you’ve got her in bed and she’s comfortable, now it’s table-up-the-side, teeth-top-right, put the glucose tablets on the near right and the phone to the front in case of emergencies. She does wear a Life Line button round her neck – which she’s got a better chance of reaching if anything does happen – but she just feels better with the phone there.’
Before Bill died, Bulah read my leaves. She didn’t do it once he’d gone. He had pressed for the backrest to go all the way up, going for the telly button I had wrongly placed just out of reach, and he had fallen, out of the bed, down the gap between the unit and the chest of draws. His asthma attack brought on his heart attack and so he died: trying and reaching. I see him doubled, with legs in the air, stuffed down fleshy into the corner, Bulah crying out and pulling at the cord, grasping at the receiver as he had done for the remote.
TEA LEAVES was written for and first performed at
Evergreen, X Marks the Bökship, London on March 30th 2012, part of an evening of readings, performances and soup around the theme of leaves, curated by VerySmallKitchen for the London visit of Márton Koppány.
More about Claire Potter’s work is here.