Three women in a South-West London kitchen, on a scorching summer afternoon. The only cool room in the house. Only the red setting sun peers through these windows.
Three women in a South-West London kitchen. One, in the early Spring of her life; the other two in the late Summer of theirs. The first, a fragrant English rose; the second, a translucent shell from the China Seas; the third, a colour-changing orpiment from the Caucasus Mountains.
Three women in a South-West London kitchen, bound together by their different femininities. Laughing, telling stories, counselling, preparing food. A man steps into the kitchen, for a glass of water from the running tap. An honest man, who has nothing to fear from these women, who see him as the brother with whom they share a roof. He shies away from the blaze of this impromptu coven. “Come and join us,” says one. “Pull up a chair,” says another. Yet he retreats, on tip-toe, followed by a chorus of shrill giggles.
“I’ll make Turkish coffee,” says the Caucasus woman, hazel eyes full of tricks. “My grandmother taught me to read fortunes in the cup.”
Limpid blue eyes look up at her with youthful expectation, then she meets the stern gaze of her peer in years. Almond-shaped, jet eyes that say, you should know better than to fill the child’s head with nonsense. The woman from the China Seas stands by the sink, chopping vegetables on a heavy, wooden board. Vermillion peppers, ivory potatoes, emerald spinach and glistening white onions. She takes no part in these childish games. She is the mistress of the house, and a wife.
The copper pot with the long, wooden handle is placed upon the stove. It whispers, hisses, and finally gurgles. The froth slowly curls up from the edges of the pot, and rushes to the middle, like sea foam to the shore. Bubbles brown as earth rise up, boiling. The air is filled with the rich aroma of coffee. “Quick! Get the cups!” the older woman tells the young one, then pours the earthy liquid into the small, porcelain cups, whilst the woman from the China Seas looks on, her steel knife a steady rhythm against the wooden board. Her sisters, seated at the table, purse their lips and blow on their cups, to cool to coffee.
“A tale my grandmother used to tell,” says the woman from the Caucasus. “Three sisters once sat in their kitchen, sewing a tablecloth. The first said, ‘If the King would marry me, I would embroider for him the most beautiful shirt the world has ever seen.‘
‘If the King would marry me,‘ said her sister, ‘I would bake for him the finest bread the world has ever seen.’
‘If the King would marry me,‘ said the third, ‘I would give him an heir – the strongest and handsomest knight the world has ever seen.‘
Unbeknown to the three sisters, the King was riding past their window, and had stopped to listen…”
The English rose and the shell from the China Seas listen, as the Caucasus woman tells the story, then picks coffee grains from her lip with the tip of her tongue. “Now turn your cup upside down on the saucer,” she says. “Like this.” Playful, entertaining her young companion. “I am scared,” says the latter. “What will you see in my cup?” she says, blue eyes clouded with hesitation.
The Caucasus woman avoids the challenging gaze of her peer. “Only good things,” she reassures. “Only the road that lies ahead of you, should you face the direction you’re facing today. Turn away, and a different road lies ahead of you.”
They wait, as the earthy liquid spreads down the sides of the cup, leaving swirls and patterns. The young woman is impatient. “Is it ready, yet?”
The cups are turned up, again. The woman by the sink puts down her knife, and watches, her curiosity attracted. Cups are turned, angled and held up to the light. Patterns emerge. A tall tree bearing fruit, and a song bird spreading its wings. “Freedom,” says the English rose.
“Then be it so,” replies her companion.
A man and a woman, linking arms. A child holding the woman’s other hand. The young woman giggles, the bloom on her cheeks deepens. “A child may represent a fruitful venture,” warns her friend. “Something new and wonderful.”
“Let’s see yours, now,” says the English rose, eager for the game to continue.
It has been a long time since the Caucasus woman has read her coffee cup. A long time since she has known hope. But she knows she cannot allow her hopelessness to taint the excitement in the bright blue eyes that are staring at her. She angles her cup to the light from the window.
A figure standing at the foot of a tall, steep mountain, with sharp, jagged edges. On the peak, the firebird. The prize, if the figure can reach the top, and claim it. A figure sitting at a desk, writing on a scroll. A man next to her. “Angle the cup,” entreats the young woman. The man and woman stretch out their arms to receive something. The English rose claps her hands. “It is, isn’t it? That’s what it looks like,” she says. The woman from the China Seas smiles. The Caucasus woman stares. Then she stands up, picks the cups and saucers from the table, and washes them in the sink.
She cannot tell her sisters what she has really seen in her cup, for she does not dare believe it. She turns her back to them, smiles to herself, and feels her heart quicken in her breast.