The old girl likes her beauty sleep. Not that it does anything for her these days. She descends the stairs well after nine, in her dressing gown, still bleary, peering through half-lidded eyes. He, on the other hand, was up before dawn. Already he has cooked himself breakfast, worked on his article for the anthropology journal, and even dipped into the book they sent him to review.
“You look a fright,” he tells her. “You’re enough to wake the dead.” It’s the old-man pyjamas she wears. It’s the way her yellow-white hair tapers to a wisp somewhere near her waist, so nearly girlish, and yet not.
“Eh?” she says, then just smiles and nods.
She never wears her hearing aid this time of day. It amuses him to say whatever he likes. Sometimes he’ll say, “You’re looking especially lovely today, my dear.” Other times, “You’re looking very witchy this morning, my sweet.” It doesn’t matter which. She smiles, showing worn teeth and gaps. She makes herself a pot of tea and disappears with it back to bed.
There was a time when he took tea up to her, on special days or holidays. The habit slipped. He can’t remember when. He wonders, as the body turns repulsive, reptile-skinned and spotted, do some couples still touch? Do they gum each other with tortoise mouths?
He’s washing up his breakfast plate. The floor creaks overhead. She’ll be dressed and down soon. He hears her cross the landing, and there’s something odd and slow about her tread. He waits for her at the bottom of the stairs. When she appears she seems tall, and stately, even allowing for the fact that he’s beneath her looking up. Her posture reminds him of the Yoruba women. He takes off his glasses and cleans them on his sleeve. She is wearing something on her head, some sort of wide flat hat, something she must have dug out of a cupboard, some remnant of her flighty youth. Then he realises it’s the tea tray, and as she descends, the teapot comes into view, then the teacup, and he hears the gentle rattling of it on its saucer. She’s done her hair up in its usual French pleat. She’s still slender as a young girl. He stands and gapes. He hardly dares to breathe. She is looking straight ahead, not holding on to anything, feeling the edge of each step with a foot.
She learned this trick from those women. Fifty years ago or more, in Nigeria, she learned to do this, after watching the women carry those loads on their heads. He remembers how she showed off her new skill to him one day when he got home from the university. How she put the heavy jar down and caught his hands and danced around the room. What a girl she was then.
Three steps to go. Two. She’s done it. Her eyes meet his, a tiny smile on her face.
“Allow me,” he says. He reaches with both hands to take the tea tray from her head. She stands still and straight, her shoulders back, long-necked.
“You’re beautiful,” he says.