Sophia fussed over the locked display of the 1930’s Georg Jensen Pyramid Condiment Set. Complete with pepper shaker, mustard pot, and salt shaker with matching spoons, she had told her husband Chris numerous times that she just couldn’t bear to part with such beautiful items although she’d been offered several times the $4,000 she’d paid for them.
With a raised eyebrow and an oh please smile, he’d reply. “Right, expensive shatterproof display cases in strategic locations throughout the store has nothing to do with your need to spy on customers that interest you while pretending to fuss over an expensive item.” She’d only given him one of her coy little smiles that always made him melt and then waved the duster in his direction before going back about her business.
And so it was that, this one morning, Sophia was dusting the Jensen display for the umpteenth time in the past five minutes. She studied the woman intently, trying to get a read. Sonia sensed a mass of conflicting emotions as the woman stared at the portrait of a mother and daughter sitting on a park bench like two old friends.
The lady would not have captured the attention of either you or I. We’ve been to visit Sophia often enough to know Sophie’s Cove draws a vast clientele from every social strata who come to pick through the eclectic collection of everything that interests Sophia. And the everything that interests Sophia is . . . well . . . everything.
But most especially Sophia loves collecting people. And the feeling is always reciprocated for, once caught up in conversation with the proprietress, you will never forget her and it was known far and wide she will never forget you.
But it seldom takes Sophia long to get a read on someone. This time it took a while..
Sophia froze with the duster in mid motion when it all came together. She’d never met the lady before but a last little piece had fallen into place in the puzzle that was Sophia’s elaborate thinking apparatus. The read she had now on the lady was good enough for a start. To Sophia, it was as if the two women had known each other all their lives. And they couldn’t stand one another. But, social rituals needed to be observed that never allowed an overt expression of their mutual disdain.
Fine, thought Sophia, we can work with that.
Placing her dollar store duster atop the case containing items worth several thousand times more, she walked to the woman and, putting on her most insincere afternoon tea club smile, said, “May I help you, dear?”
The lady turned and Sophia immediately knew the lady even better.
Makeup and hair color, applied by the woman herself. That makes no sense for someone who is used to being pampered at the best spas. Even the nails are not quite right. That explains the close toed shoes.
Hurried trip not willingly taken. All local establishments, spa, hotel, even Sophie’s itself, is beneath her. The broad smile that doesn’t begin to touch the cold gray eyes. Oh, this is going to be fun!
Sophie’s smile broadened. At least they were starting on even ground.
“Oh, thank you, honey,” said the woman as if making sure Sophia didn’t forget her place. “But I am quite capable of deciding for myself what I like and don’t like. I’ll let you know if I need you.”
Sophia didn’t change her smile but made a point of looking the woman deeper in the eye until she caught a glimpse of the uncertainty she’d known she would find there.
Not from money. Married money.
“Bancha,” said Sophia.
The lady’s eyebrows were still perfect from her last trip to her favored spa and they now knitted themselves together and her eyes grew a shade darker. “What was that?”
“Bancha,” Sophia said while putting a hand on the lady’s arm in mock friendship. “Surely you know of Batch tea, dear.”
“Of course I do,” came the reply through a smile whose teeth barely parted. “But why would I care for a second growth tea over a Sincha new growth?”
“Oh we have tons of Sincha here, darling,” replied Sophia. “But the real adventure is in uncovering a Batcha so delicious, so refined, that you might be inclined to prefer it over a Sincha.”
“I doubt that!” the woman replied while taking a step back so that Sophia’s hand dropped away.
“Well, then, dear,” said Sophia. “Will you accept my hospitality and -- a challenge?”
“Hardly worth the time,” the woman scoffed. “But if you care to brew up a pot, I could use a cup of whatever a small town such as this can offer.”
“Perfect,” Sophia replied, ignoring the insult.
Minutes later, Chris, standing just inside the beaded curtain that separated the store proper from the small room in the back labeled Staff Only, peered between the hanging strands to make sure no one was close enough to hear but his wife as she prepared the tea.
He pondered the couch in the part of the room opposite his wife. Made up into a bed, it left precious little room there for anything else. But his musing lasted only briefly. The twenty plus years he’d been with the wife he adored had taught him that time would answer all questions. Turning to her, he said, “I saw that look, Sophia.”
“You know what look I’m talking about. The look you get like the one I saw when you put down the duster and disappeared back toward the art wall. Even without seeing you, I could feel the tension in the room rise. I also know a lady with expensive tastes entered and walked back that way almost 30 minutes ago. Now you're brewing a pot of squeeze a dime John’s favorite tea? What gives?
“He hasn’t paid for it yet,”
“I know that, Sophia. Now stop being evasive.”
Just as the digital readout on the kettle read 79C, Sophia picked it up to pour water into the pot but stopped and put it back down. Sighing she turned and said, “Doing this brew is too delicate to let you distract me. It has to be one degree less than other Batcha and brewed 7 seconds longer. So, I’d better fill you in. The lady you mention wants everyone to think she’s totally in control of everything but inside she’s a skinful of angst and jagged edges. I think she’s meeting someone here and I am going to find out who it is before they get here.”
Catching movement in the corner of his eye, Chris turned to see a young bearded man holding the door open for a very pregnant woman. “Too late, Soph. I think we already have your answer.”
At the edge of the door in a shot and, as unlikely as it was that anyone could see her, bending at the waist to peek out just past the door jam, Sophia took in a quick breath. Her hand rubbing her cheek and then her chin, her eyes growing wider and then narrowing in thought as they searched in every direction for past clues, she whispered, “I never would have guessed it but now it makes all kinds of sense. I only just caught a glimpse of David. He seemed tense. How was Barbara?”
“Pent up anger and frustration in a massive ship of the line charging down the aisle ready to do battle,” Chris said.
“Her mother then,” Sophia replied. “And don’t ever call her massive to her face. If David doesn’t punch your lights out, she will.”
“Oh don’t worry.”
“Hmm,” Sophia considered. “I think I know now where Barbara got that Amazon warrior streak I’ve sensed in her.”
“You’d better get that tea ready, babe,” Chris said. “Something tells me they’re going to need a referee.” Shaking his head, he said, “You bring them in like bees to honey, Soph. But this time they’re more like killer hornets.”
By the time Sophia had backed her way through the beaded screen carrying the tray of teapot and cups, snarling whispers were already making their way to the front of the store. As she walked past the art wall, she could see in her peripheral vision the woman she’d spoken with earlier with her arms folded and a glare determined not to look at her pregnant daughter. A daughter who was pacing back and forth on the other side of David who was serving as the demilitarized zone. It was obvious to Sophia that both sides were recharging weapons in preparation of an all out attack. She needed to act quickly.
Without a glance in the direction of the combatants she said in a chipper voice, “Hurry while it’s hot. This is an extra special treat that one of our most distinguished and richest guests has flown in on a biweekly basis from Japan.”
Sophia had long ago sworn off lying. Now she was diplomatic.
Before she lost sight of them from the corner of her eye, she saw the older woman break away to follow Sophia. Barbara uttered a grunt of utter frustration.
Score one for mama. Be the first to turn your back to leave the other to stew in her juices.
As Sonia poured out, the older woman sat primly in one of the four comfy chairs around the circular table. Presently, Barbara came in and, making an effort to plop down in a posture of disgust, failed miserably in the attempt so swollen was her belly.
Only a half point, Mom. Daughter gets the other half point for attempting an impossible double twisted belly flop while maintaining her dignity.
To her credit, the older woman didn’t display any sense of triumph at her daughter’s discomfort.
“Now,” Sopia said after everyone had their cup and their chance to take a sip, “I’d like everyone’s opinion of the tea. Barbara, you go first. I know you’ve been having some tummy troubles.” Sophia noticed that Barbara was still fuming too much to notice her mother’s quick look of concern. A look that the older woman made an effort to cover up by taking another sip of tea. But, she was pretty sure David had picked up on it.
“It’s fine,” Barbara answered, still too angry to elaborate. Sonia waited expectantly as if she really needed Barbara’s approval. Finally, the young woman said, “It actually seems to be soothing to my stomach and the taste is, to my mind,” she looked sharply at her mother, “fabulous!”
Oh, so Mom had taken a chance while Sophia was in the back room to put down her choice for a midmorning libation. Well, scoffed Sophia inwardly, score two points for Barbara’s loyalty to a friend. Even if somewhat motivated by the opening salvos of The Great Mother/Daughter War.
Sophia raised an eyebrow in the young man’s direction. “David? Your opinion of the tea?”
Clearing his throat twice before speaking, he said, “You know me, Sophie. I’m at a disadvantage when it comes to anything but organic foods and my own home brewed beer. But I think this is delicious.”
Turning to the older woman, Sophia said, “Forgive me, I never got your name.”
“Charlene,” replied the woman. “Call me Shar.”
“Very well,” Sophia said. “And the tea?”
Taking a delicate whiff of the brew and then a careful sip, Shar replied, “Surprisingly good. A little more earthy than I’m used to but I actually don’t mind it.”
Translation, you like it. Probably a lot. And the way your daughter’s head snapped back in surprise, something tells me your tiny bit of open mindedness has surprised her. A full point for liking my tea and another point for showing your daughter a glimmer of hope. But now, the show must go on.
Taking a sip and closing her eyes, Sophia took in a large breath, let it out slowly and forced her shoulders to relax. She was grateful that all present had the good manners to let the host take the lead.
“Now,” Sophie said. “What shall we talk about?”
“Well,” Shar said putting her cup and saucer in her lap, “if I may be permitted to start -- “
“Sorry, Shar,” Sophie said with a slight movement of her hand. “Hostess prerogative.” Turning to Barbara’s boyfriend, she said, “David, perhaps you’d be good enough to tell me what good honor allows me the pleasure of having the three of you to my little shop.”
David gave Sophia a look that reminded her of Chris’s look whenever he doubted her excuse for spying on customers. “Little, Miss Sophie,” David replied with mock formality. “No one I know would ever refer to Sophie’s Cove as little.”
Sophia gave David a faint smile as if to hint the subject was one that was entirely beside the point and he cleared his throat and began again. “Okay, Sophie. You’re right. Okay.” He cleared his throat again and the words came now in a rush as he threw up his hands. “To be honest, I haven’t a clue why this has become such a big deal. No, my family doesn’t have money but Barbara and I are together and that’s our side of it. Barbara’s mother, Mrs. Collins, can’t stand me because I don’t have money and that’s her side of it. We’ve moved up from LA so we will be no embarrassment to the Collins name. I have asked Barb to marry me, oh, about a million times but she keeps turning me down because she doesn’t want me chained to, what she calls, her insane family. That’s it, end of story, finito!”
“Barbara!” Mrs. Collins interjected.
“Shar . . . .” The tone of Sophia’s voice had changed to one that made it clear enough to everyone in the room that she would not brook any interruptions. Shar glowered at her cup, raised it and drained it in one angry gulp but said nothing more.
“And why here?” Sophia asked David. “What brings this little drama to my door.”
“Because,” Barbara said, ignoring Sophia’s raised eyebrow at the interruption she had not allowed her mother, “we learned soon after moving here that you serve informally as the best therapist on the entire coast with or without a license. We had no idea my mother would track us down and, when we found out she was coming up here, whether we liked it or not, we said we’d meet her here because of your reputation for fairness. It’s widely known you have saved dozens of good relationships and helped people ease out of dozens of bad relationships with a minimum of pain.”
“Please.” The plea was one of genuine pain.
Sophia turned to Barbara’s mother. “Shar?”
“You’ve been a gracious host,” began Mrs. Collins, “and the tea has been very good. But . . . “ turning to Barbara, she continued, “do you really want to end your relationship with me?”
The sob that erupted from Barbara’s soul nearly tore Sophia’s heart from her chest but she maintained her composure as she waited to see who would move first. It was, as she suspected, a tie. Both Charlene Collins and David Pierce jumped up in the face of Barbara’s pain to help but Charlene held herself in check.
Two points go to Mom for thinking first of her daughter and realizing that David, given the history, probably knows better how to comfort Barbara whose face is twisted into one of such overwhelming emotional pain.
Standing helpless before her daughter, tears streaming down her face, Charlene waited for her daughter to give her the signal the mother so desperately needed to see.. Barbara held out a hand while David, kneeling next to Barbara’s chair, still held her other hand. Charlene took the hand with obvious gratitude and kneeling down next to David and brushing the hair back from her daughter’s forehead, said without taking her eyes from her daughter's. “Miss Sophie, I think you made a convert of this family. We’ll take every ounce of bancha tea you have in the store.”
Chris handed the woman a bag with two pounds of Bancha tea. “Thank you Mrs. Collins. We hope to see you again soon.”
Smiling the woman said, “It’s Charlene. Call me Shar, and I intend to visit often.”
“Awesome,” replied Chris. “Quite a distance up from LA isn’t it?”
Looking outside the store where David was helping Barbara figure out a dignified way to get into the car, Shar said, “It’ll be worth it.” Waving a hand at Chris, she opened the door. “David, can I help?”
Sophia walked behind the counter and put her arm through her husband’s. They watched as both David and Charlene did their best to help Barbara get comfortably seated in the car. The young woman’s face was blissful contentment every time she looked at her mother.
“I’d bet anything,” Sophia said, “that Mom’s going to be staying for a while to welcome her new granddaughter.”
Chris looked at his wife, his head cocked to one side. “Okay, Soph, I’ll give you that you’re better at reading people than anyone I’ve ever known. But how do you know it’s a girl?”
Sohpia shrugged. “Just a hunch.” Chris’s eyes narrowed while he waited his wife out. “And,” she continued, “Barbara told me it was a girl weeks ago.”
Chris emitted a contented sigh. “Well, Soph, you did it again. From the looks that were on those two lady’s faces when they first walked in, I’d have thought we were in for World War Three. How’d you pull it off this time?”
Sophia leaned over and kissed her husband on the cheek.. “Any daughter who’s that angry cares far more about what her mother thinks than she knows. And any pampered rich lady who comes this far and lets herself go out in public looking like that is hoping on some level for a miracle. I only needed to prevent them from saying anything that would cause anymore damage until that miracle showed up.”
“And it only took one cup of tea,” mused Chris.
Sophia’s broad smile reached the bright spark of sly intelligence that lit up her eyes. “It seldom takes two, darling. After all this is Sophie’s Cove where it’s miracles while you wait. Care for a cuppa bancha?”
“You going to use the last of squeeze a dime John’s favorite tea?”
“He hasn’t paid for it yet.”