It had been a month since the older woman had installed a bell in her store to let her know when she had a customer, but its pleasant jingle still had the capacity to surprise her.
For Kimi, the closest that she ever got to showing surprise was a slight raising of her eyebrows, which she did as she looked up at the door. The woman who entered the store was younger than her, but not by a wide margin. She looked to be in her late thirties, with straight, blonde hair kept back in a ponytail, and a neon pink jacket that women of a certain age and background always seem to gravitate towards.
‘Hello Mrs Hashiji,’ she said.
‘Hello Beth,’ Kimi responded with a slight smile, leaning on the counter, her book open in front of her, ‘And how are you this morning?’
Beth entered the store and made her way towards the counter, arms laden with plastic shopping bags, ‘Well, not too bad. I can’t complain. And how are you?’
Kimi shrugged a little, her face resting against her hand, ‘Likewise, I cannot complain.’
Beth grinned a little as she walked to the counter, ‘I bet I’ve caught you catching your breath after the hordes of customers left this morning?’
‘Perhaps you have,’ said Kimi, smiling a little back. She closed her book, and stood upright. Kimi’s store had been empty all morning, saving for a pair of tourists that had walked around for several minutes without buying a thing. ‘And would you like the oolong this morning, Mrs Clayton?’
Beth shook her head, ‘No, I think I’ll have the jasmine tea, if you have it,’ she paused a moment, ‘With honey.’ She started eyeing the baked goods that had been placed out on the counter.
‘What are these?’
Kimi glanced through her own wares, trying to remember what she had laid out.
‘Higashi,’ she said at last. Beth looked at her perplexed. ‘It’s a Japanese candy. Goes very well with tea,’ she added, trying a little salesmanship.
‘Did you make them yourself?’
‘Not long ago, yes.’
‘I’ll take two.’
Kimi prepared the tea with easy, practised motions. Her hands measured out the tealeaves, arranged the teapot and cups, and poured the hot water with no conscious effort. It was a pleasant, predictable task that she could perform with her eyes closed. It cleared Kimi’s head. As she worked, she thought about Mrs Clayton. She clearly was going through a challenge. Choosing the jasmine tea with honey was clue enough, but opting for the higashi may as well have been a cry for help. Kimi guessed that it was something to do with Jason.
A distant, wry part of her own mind contemplated how ridiculous it was to extrapolate someone’s mood from a tea order, but Kimi knew she was right.
The room quickly filled with the sweet smell of jasmine. Beth was sitting down at one of the four small, circular tables that had been arranged in one corner as an open tearoom within the store. Kimi brought the tea and the higashi and set them down on the glass tabletop with a click.
Beth watched her do so in silence. But as if the click of the tray had been a signal, she suddenly began speaking quickly. ‘Do you have a moment to talk, Kimi?’
First name before I’ve even set down the tea, thought Kimi, Something big must have happened. She glanced around the empty store.
‘I believe that I can spare a few moments, yes.’ She walked over to a doorway at the back which led to a stockroom, and beyond that upstairs to the apartments. ‘Corsac?’ she called through the bead curtain that separated them, ‘Would you mind watching the store for a few moments?’
A lyrical voice called back, ‘Of course, Mrs Hashiji. I will be at your side momentarily.’
She returned to the table Beth was seated at, her hands clenched together. A moment later, a young woman with a curtain of thick, pale-blonde hair that went down to her waist entered the store with a dry rattle of beads. Corsac smiled at the two women, and then took her place behind the counter.
‘So, how are things with you?’ said Beth, her smile only slightly strained.
‘Oh,’ said Kimi, shrugging a little as she sat down, ‘Nothing out of the ordinary. I’ve been considering purchasing a coffee machine. I think that it might be about time that I expand the business a little.’
Beth smiled expectantly.
‘And yourself?’ Kimi continued, ‘How have things been with you recently?’
‘Well, things have been a little difficult lately,’ Beth said as she stirred the tea listlessly, ‘It’s Jason.’
Kimi made a low, wordless noise of understanding, ‘As I recall, he was struggling at school recently, is that right?’
Over the next twenty minutes, Beth described in excruciating detail everything that had recently been happening with Jason, her son. He had been struggling with focusing at school, which meant of course that he was acting out against the teachers and other students. He was a bright child, Beth reassured Kimi multiple times, but he wasn’t being engaged enough by the teachers and the classes. He just needed a chance to prove himself. To show them how special he was. But at the moment, all that the teachers talked about was how argumentative he was, how unruly, and how unkind to the other students.
Kimi let her words wash over her. Much of it were things that she knew either from Beth saying it on previous visits or by intuition. Though she hadn’t seen Jason since he was small enough to be sitting on his mother’s lap on this very chair, she felt she knew exactly the kind of young man that he was growing into.
Kimi noticed that she was losing the thread of what Beth was saying, having heard it all so many times before. She looked up, and saw Corsac gazing at her. The young woman was resting her chin on her hand, a vulpine smile on her lips. Corsac indicated Beth behind her back with the barest movement of her eyebrows, and then stifled a small yawn.
Chiding herself for ignoring someone, Kimi brought her attention back to what Beth was saying. Luckily, Beth was so wrapped up in her own words that she hadn’t noticed anything amiss.
‘So now, the school is saying that if Jason’s grades don’t improve, there’s a chance that he could be held back a year.’ She sounded hopelessly defeated, ‘I don’t know how to make them see that he’s really a very smart boy, he just needs a better environment.’
Kimi was nodding sympathetically, just letting her talk. ‘I’m sure that it won’t come to that,’ she said, soothingly, ‘If he’s as smart as you say he is, I’m sure that he’ll be able to recognise the consequences of his behaviour and adjust his actions accordingly.’
Beth was looking down at her tea, but was listening and nodding attentively to every word that Kimi said. ‘You’re right,’ she said after taking a sip, ‘And he is very smart. You know, his piano teacher says that he’s one of the most gifted students that she’s ever worked with.’
Kimi nodded approvingly, then indicated the plate between them, ‘Try one of the higashi.’
Beth blew her nose on a napkin, and then reached for the candy. She chewed it thoughtfully, with small and dainty bites.
‘In my experience,’ said Kimi, her voice unhurried and soothing, ‘Children of Jason’s age are still discovering what is and what is not acceptable. As long as you’re there and you’re able to guide him, I’m certain that things will turn out fine.
Beth was nodding. Holding a hand to her mouth to mask that she was still chewing, she said ‘You are so right, you are so right.’
Beth’s shoulders sagged and she slumped into the back of the chair, as if being released from some restraints. She finished the higashi.
‘That was amazing, Kimi,’ she said after wiping her mouth, ‘How are you so talented?’
Kimi laughed warmly, ‘Practise.’
The two talked for a little while longer while Beth finished the tea. They spoke of Beth’s other friends and family members, and Kimi noticed that the anxiety was no longer present in Beth’s voice. They once or twice even spoke about Jason again, but when she did her tone was merely vexed instead of upset.
This, Kimi had often reflected, was her store’s major selling point. It was relatively small compared to the others on the street it was situated on, and it was one of those stores that seemingly had no fixed product. One wall was lined with flowers, houseplants, and even a few indoor vegetable plants. Another corner of the store carried gifts, fixtures, candles, and other such knickknacks. In the corner next to the counter, Kimi had arranged numerous garden chairs and tables, to create a small space where customers could enjoy a cup of tea and a snack. The conversations were what brought people back though.
‘Well, I’m going to have to go,’ said Beth, after finishing the last dregs of jasmine tea, ‘There are a thousand and one things I need to do downtown before I pick up Jason from school.’
She payed Corsac and left the store with a chorus of goodbyes, well-wishes, and promises that she would be back again soon. Kimi didn’t doubt it.
When she had left, Corsac turned to Kimi with the same smile that she had worn earlier. In her lilting, lyrical Japanese, Corsac said, ‘You know, from what I hear of him, I think I like that boy of hers.’
Kimi barely looked up at her, ‘And why is that, Corsac?’
‘I have an admiration for a boy who, when told he is gifted and good, proceeds to defy expectations and behave like a brute.’
‘It is a difficult age,’ said Kimi, as she stacked up the plate and cup, ’Children are learning their limitations, which is never a pleasant discovery. He shall grow out of it.’
Corsac chuckled slightly, ‘I should hope so. For as long as he finds more limitations, I predict you shall find yourself short of jasmine tea.’