She used to invite her women friends around – a cup of tea, a slice of hot buttered scone bread, cake if there was money to spare; mainly a ‘wee chat’. Never many friends at a time – two or three – often just the one. I was nine, ten at the time – ‘Och, ignore wee Tommy, always got his nose in a book,’ she’d say watching me. This was often on Sunday afternoons, dad was ‘out and about on his walks’, my younger siblings were playing with friends, into their toys. I was reading – I read a lot at that age. I also listened – and mammy knew that.
After the chat – who was well, who was ill, who was ‘up to what’ – came a lot of laughs, giggles from the memories of childhood – of Donegal, Carndonagh, Ramelton, the regattas – sure, they lived in the big city, Derry, but they came from the country, the hinterland, Donegal. Eventually they got down to the real business – the reading – of the tea leaves.
It’s hard to remember that there was a time when tea was made in a pot with tea leaves, poured directly from the teapot into your cup – no sieve, certainly no enclosed bags with a string on the end – and you drank until you felt the dregs against your lips. Or more often in your mouth. Now – what was polite? Swallow the bits, a surreptitious finger inside and a flick, or a polite cough as you spat the offending flecks into your hand and wiped them…somewhere.
Then came the moment. My mammy sat back – she was never the biggest talker – and then Katie, or Mary or Bernadette or whoever would say – ‘Now Ria, you must give us a wee reading, eh?’
And she would. ‘Now, I read as I see them.’ The teacup was tilted a few degrees, a last sliver of liquid rose to the top of the cup, the black specks of tea stilled, images formed. She’d squint, nod a few times, ‘Aha, aha.’ Then the specs went on. ‘Now I see it.’ They waited, breaths held. ‘What is it Ria? What do you see?’
‘A ship.’ Big intakes of air. ‘A journey,’ she’d look up.
A hand clasped a mouth, a head dropped, eyes were covered. Deep sighs, breaths held.
‘Katie. Your Kevin, he’s on the boat…’ A pause. ‘I think…it’s hard to tell.’ A shift of the angle of the cup, ‘I need to move to the light,’ – a dart to the window. She was short and plump, was my mammy – but did she move fast. Looked again into the cup, glanced up. ‘That’s a new coat, Katie, when did you get that?’
‘Ach, a bargain, Austin’s had a sale. Sure I think I’ve got a big day coming up, you know.’
Mammy excited. ‘Look, will you, see that.’ The cup was flashed under Katie’s nose. Mammy watched her face, her eyes, looked into her soul.
‘What is it, Ria, what is it?’
‘’Will I turn on the light, Ria?’
‘Oh, for God’s sake don’t do that,’ my mammy said, ‘You know what he’s like about wasting the electricity.’ She gave her quiet little smile, ‘Sure we all know Derrymen, don’t we?’
‘What is it?’ Katie demanded, ‘what do the tayleaves say, Ria?’ Her face glowed as she waited for an answer.
Mammy pored over the cup. ‘I think…Kevin’s coming home – from America, Katie…and he’s got a girl with him!’
‘Oh, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Holy Mother of God!’
I looked up from my book, up from the coal fire where I saw the pictures in the flames, up at mammy. She smiled over at me, gave a nod.