She was swathed in black. All I could see were her eyes. She asked if she could have my used tea bag. I nodded and gestured that she might sit down. She said she could wait. Asked, could she wait. I nodded again and sipped my tea.
We were alone in the old cafe. Alone except for the elderly waiter who now approached us. Just water, she said. Plain.
Plain she was not. At least not those eyes.
Why do you want my tea bag, I asked.
I´m an artist, she said. I recycle.
I had a vision of a woman in a burka on a bike, swinging old teabags.
The waiter placed a tumbler of water before her on the small round table separating us. She took hold of the glass and lifted her veil. She drank and placed the glass, one-third empty, or two-thirds full, back on the table.
I dry them and create collages with the tea and the scraps of bag. I even use the staples and the string.
It wasn´t my opinion of art.
My works are beautiful. And they sell, she said.
I´d like to see.
But can you? Her eyes were laughing.
I lifted the teabag from my cup. Laid it on the side of the saucer.
Squeeze it, she said.
With the back of my spoon I squeezed as much liquid as I could from the teabag and placed the spoon back on the saucer. There was a slight tinkle before it became still. I slipped my hand under the table and gripped my knee.
With two fingers she took the teabag by the string and held it to her nose. Darjeeling, she said, and pulled my paper napkin to her side of the table and placed the teabag onto it.
I shrugged. Tea was tea.
Oh, no. There are all different sorts, she said. Generic is an illusion.
I mean, all in black.
You mean, my burka?
Yes. I had been avoiding any mention of the black garment. I was open-minded. I had nothing against burkas. If that was the way these women wanted to dress. It did draw attention to their eyes. She did have lovely eyes. In a way, it was a change from the exposed breasts and tight pants, short skirts, and teetering heels that had become daily fare on my way to the office at the Ministry. I didn´t agree with the ban in the works. No burkas in public. Funny, that. Their men welcomed no burkas at home, I imagined. They wanted to see their luxurious hair, their bodies, their smiles. I would have liked to have seen her smile.
You mean my burka? She repeated.
Yes, I said.
Does it excite you? Make you wonder?
Do you think that all women who cover themselves are the same?
I hesitated. They all did look the same. All that black. Just the eyes. But her eyes, they were lovely. They glistened and there was something provocative, teasing, in their look.
I cleared my throat. With a fingernail she was dislodging the tea from one end of the bag.
What do you imagine?
I shifted in my seat. I imagine that you have long luxurious hair.
Is that all?
Yes. Of course.
Because. I cleared my throat again. I read somewhere that your hair is sacred. In your world, I mean.
Suddenly she looked around. The cafe was still empty. The waiter was nowhere to be seen. She quickly pushed back the black material from her head and slipped open her veil.
Cancer, she said. But I´m on the mend. Then she readjusted her burka and veil.
My heart was thumping so loudly, I was sure she could hear.
Your face is flushed, she said. Your heart must be pounding.
I thought. I imagined. I mean. I´ve never actually spoken to …
A woman like me?
Would you like another cup of tea?
I breathed steadily. Will you join me?
I do need the teabags, she said. Her eyes were laughing again. Perhaps mint, this time? For the contrast?
The contrast? I´d had about enough contrast for one day. I looked into her eyes and then nodded weakly. I motioned the waiter to bring two mint teas.
My name is Hawwa, she said. It is like your Eve.
I started to laugh and then stopped.
What is so funny?
Nothing, I said as the scent of mint wafted to our table.
We squeezed our teabags and I passed mine, now steadily, towards her saucer and gently laid it down.
My name is Adam. Generic is an illusion, I thought.
It really is, she said.
I stared at her.
I see you can see now, she said. Then she slipped a business card from the folds in her burka and pushed it across the table to me. My exhibition will be next month. This is the gallery. I would love to see you there.
I would love to see you, I thought as I took the card and put it in my wallet.
There´ll be refreshments, she said. The only teabags will be in my art.
Then she placed a small metal box on the table and slipped the three teabags inside it, nodded at me, rose and left.
I watched her black sillhouette leave the cafe; watched her disappear. Then I brought my cup of mint tea close to my nose and breathed in deeply.
This story has previously appeared in print in 100 Stories for Queensland and Offshoots 11 – Writing from Geneva, and online at Letras Caseras and Fictionaut.
My favourites are Janette Turner Hospital (Australia) and the late Timothy Findley (Canada). But I´m just back from a short story conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, and was blown away by the flash fiction of Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Tania Hershman, Sandra Jensen and Robert Olen Butler. And there´s also the work of Paddy O´Reilly, Darcie Hossack and Adnan Mahmutović that I can recommend.
I´m thrilled to be having some new flash fiction in the September issue of World Literature Today, and am self-publishing a new collection of stories this year and hope to complete my novel, Ambergris. More on writing, including my own, can be found on my blog at Merc´s World – writing and ruminations (www.mercsworld.blogspot.com)