There were two things Mrs L. M. Everland wasn’t.
She wasn’t married. Never had been.
And she wasn’t a good cook.
“It’s rabbit,” she said, putting the chipped white plate down in front of Tabatha, “or it was,” she added, turning away, wiping her hands on the old red dishcloth she so often had over one shoulder.
“I expect you’re used to much finer things in London,” she said with that glimmer of amusement in her eye as she set the tea kettle on the stove to heat up for the fourth time that evening, and Tabatha sliced a not-quite-boiled potato from a tin in half with her fork, forgoing the blackened cubes of rabbit for now.
“Not much,” Tabatha answered after swallowing.
Mrs Everland sat down on the chair on the opposite side of the table with the kettle slowly boiling behind her. She moved the jam jar of Alstroemeria flowers from the centre of the table to one side so that they could see each other better, revealing the scorch mark in the middle of the table, and the old wax pockmarks in the old scrubbed pine table where the candle had been in the winter.
“Did someone give you those?” Tabatha asked. She watched how the few wilting yellowed leaves among the green quivered slightly in the gentle breeze that came through the half open window.
Mrs Everland smiled one of her secret smiles, gave the tiniest purse of her lips and reached out to touch one of the yellow leaves that fell neatly into her palm as if she had willed it.
“No,” she said, “I gave them to myself.” She smiled again, and held the tip of the leaf between her thumb and forefinger, twirling it so that the light caught the yellow and blotched brown, turning it gold and bronze in the sunlight that stretched halfway across the table between them. “Like Mrs Dalloway. Only I picked them myself, instead of buying them.”
“Who’s Mrs Dalloway?” Tabatha asked, and Mrs Everland drew in a very long, very slow breath, and then released it just as slowly. Peaceful, calm, always. As if she half existed in a dream, but only inside the house; once outside the house she came alive only in the minds of the outsiders that mistook her for cruel and unkind.
“She’s a character,” she said, “in a book,” and then, leaning forward slightly across the table on her forearms, with both hands clasped around the leaf, she said, “a very wonderful book, written by a very wonderful woman,” with her eyes glittering, dark and wide, and full of secrets yet and never to be told.
She stood up, slowly, early spring light in the dark auburn brown of unruly hair pinned with often-falling hairpins on the very top of her head, so that it fell about her face in curls she never seemed to brush. Early spring light that cast a fleeting warmth across her cheek, her lips, her chin, as she passed, to the shelf in the kitchen—a board she’d put up herself with mismatching black iron bracket. The emerald rings she wore, three of them, on every other finger of her right hand glinting as she carefully eased a book from between another and a big, clear glass jar of golden shining honeycomb.
She set the book down on the table in front of Tabatha, next to her plate. It was a well-thumbed paperback with “Mrs Dalloway” in painted black writing inside a yellow border.
She sat down again, reached across the table and slipped the leaf between the cover and the first page. “Bookmark,” she said, then rested back in her chair, head to one side, regarding Tabatha with the faraway and yet all-seeing look that only women are ever capable of having, and women like Mrs Everland even more so.
“Do you miss them?” she asked, “your parents?” As if the question needed clarification, and Tabatha pushed the half-moon of the mealy white potato over with her fork while the tea kettle began its whistle, louder and louder, and louder until the silence came, and Mrs Everland had taken it from the stove and was pouring more tea into the big brown teapot.
“Here.” She set the little blue and turquoise glazed sugar bowl down in front of Tabatha. “Use the last of it. As much as you want. There’s always the honey.”
That was what Mrs L. M. Everland was.
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