We’re delighted to publish the winning entry from Dragonfly Tea’s ‘Story in a Teacup’ competition, in association with the Henley Literary Festival. From over 650 entries, the judges voted this ethereal tale of music and memories from Karen Martin the overall winner in the adult category. So, put the kettle on, get comfortable and let your imagination wander in ‘Moonlight Jasmine’…
She walked with determination down the old path. The terracotta bricks were broken in places and moss crept in every crevice. She knew it was down here. She was certain. Or at least she thought that she was. She had been certain. Once. A fly buzzed across her face and startled her. She lost her balance momentarily but then managed to right herself by clutching onto an ancient trellis. She pushed a cobweb from her face with a frail hand whose veins stood out like rivers mapping her life.
The breeze was cooling and Stella shivered a little. She ought to be getting back. They would be worried about her. She looked around her, noting the climbing plant, the invading passionflower tendrils and the faint damp smell of neglect. She couldn’t quite remember what she was doing here, though she had a vague sense of having a purpose. She pushed her hair away from her face and sighed. This was becoming too familiar, this sense of unfamiliarity. She turned back the way she came, halting this time, looking about her a little wildly, as if expecting to be caught out.
“There you are, Stella,” a friendly voice called. “We were wondering where you had got to. Have you been taking a turn in the gardens?”
Stella turned towards her and smiled, all tension disappearing . “Yes, dear. It’s such a lovely evening. I wanted to smell the roses before I came in for supper.”
The navy clad woman nodded assent and took Stella’s arm. “Shall I take you in then?”
“Yes please, dear. I could do with a cup of tea.”
The tea was duly brought in a delicate china pot with matching cups and saucers. Milk was in a tiny pitcher jug and they had remembered to bring extra hot water to keep the pot brewing. The sugar was in cubes in a bowl and Stella tonged in lump after lump and stirred repeatedly. The pattern on the cup was a single green stem with the smallest of leaves and the most gentle of flowers. Its white petals opened out against the pale yellow china and evoked the scent of a summer evening.
Stella sipped and whilst her hands were not as steady as she would have liked, she smiled to herself. A good cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit were balms that never failed. Her earlier uneasiness banished for now, she leaned back in the wing chair and let fatigue take over.
That night as she stepped into the long white cotton nightdress and brushed her hair, Stella heard a piano playing through her open window. She put down the gold backed hairbrush and looked outside, straining to hear the melody. Her fingers moved in time against her thighs as she looked deep into the night. She looked back at her own piano gathering dust in the corner of her room. She looked at her old hands and wondered. The notes drifted through the evening, the quiet pentatonic scale evoking flowers and a time long buried.
The music stopped and Stella moved to her piano stool and lifted the lid. Her fingers stroked the keys and she began a tentative, simple repeated melody. Her fingers remembered and her feet followed, depressing the pedals to elongate the sound in the bass accompaniment and she echoed the sound of a summer’s fragrant flower across the quiet courtyard behind her room. As she finished, and her room reassembled itself around her, she heard the other instrument once more. She moved again to her window but could see no lights in anybody else’s room, no movement behind any curtains. All seemed still and quiet. She strained her head towards the notes, seeking their player. The music swelled and fell in waves and seemed to be coming from that remote corner of the garden. She shook her head; that was impossible. There couldn’t be a piano down there. As far as she knew, she was the only one who had a musical instrument of any kind. Once again she sat at her own spinet and repeated back the melody that had been carried through the stillness.
She fell into bed that night, rested and whole. Mended by broken chords and gentle harmonies.
She walked with determination down the old path. The terracotta bricks were broken in places and moss crept in every crevice. She knew it was down here. She was certain. Or at least she thought that she was. She had been certain. Once.
The sun shone weakly overhead. It was early and the dew was still wet around the white hem that dragged in the moss. She was determined not to forget. She would find the music. She would find the pianist. She didn’t notice the cobwebs this time, and she walked and walked. She needed to find something. She had lost something. She was lost. Panic threatened. Stella took deep breaths and looked about her. She was wearing her nightie. She was outside. Where was everybody else? A small whimper, like that of a small animal escaped her bluing lips. A rose thorn tore at the lace around her wrist and she tugged at it impatiently. She turned round and started to run, slowing only when the sharp brick tore into the soles of her carpet slippers.
She found the door and crept in, ashamed. She made it to the corridor before she was spotted, “Stella?” The concern was evident in her tone and Stella stopped, her eyes full of tears as she faced another navy blue lady.
“Stella?” the tone was gentle now, noting the older lady’s distress. “Don’t cry. Don’t worry. You have just been for a lovely morning walk. Now I’ll get you to your room and bring you a nice cup of tea to warm you up before breakfast.”
“Thank you dear. A morning walk. Yes. For my paper.” She glanced down at herself again, and once more saw the torn nightgown and the dew- stained hem. “But, I’m not even dressed.” Her lower lip trembled and tears threatened to free themselves from her lashes.
“Don’t you worry about that,” Clare murmured reassuringly. We can sort all of that out. And I think your paper has just been delivered. I’ll go and see once I’ve settled you in.”
“Thank you dear. Yes. I feel a little bit strange. A bit unwell perhaps.”
“That’ll be the shock of finding yourself out in the cold so early. Don’t worry about a thing.” Clare guided her into her room. The sun was fully up now and streaming in, catching the dust particles dancing in the light.
Stella followed the sunbeam to the dusty piano top and exclaimed, “Someone has been playing my piano! Look! The lid is up.”
Clare closed the lid gently and called to the kitchen for a cup of tea whilst she busied Stella out of her wet clothes and into a pair of cotton trousers, a t-shirt with a flower motif and a blue cardigan to keep her cosy.
She sat with Stella, pouring from the china pot and handing her the pale yellow cup with the delicate white flower.
“I love these cups.” Stella declared. “They remind me of something. A garden I once had. When I was a child, my father grew a great garden. It was in the war mind, and most of it was vegetables, but he insisted that Hitler was not going to take away all my mother’s flowers. They all had a scent. Roses, of course, everyone loves a rose, but there was another scent. These cups. The flower. It reminds me of the other scent.”
Clare smiled, the incident forgotten, the distress erased. The past was a safer country by far. “I think the flower is a jasmine,” she replied.
“Yes!” Stella clapped her hands. “Yes, the jasmine; that’s right. She loved it, especially in the evening.”
Brushing her hair again that night, Stella stood once more at her window. She breathed in the fresh air that the open fanlight allowed in the room, and she glanced down at the cup left behind from this morning’s early tea. She breathed again and sensed a smell of jasmine wafting into her room, freeing her to remember. Jasmine Flower was the name of a tune too, she was sure. She turned to her piano once more and saw the sheet music on the stand, and the dust of months disturbed by fingers that had lifted the lid. She sat down and began to play. As her fingers did the remembering across the keys, her mind found a grateful freedom. She was in her father’s garden, picking the flowers to take to her mother, her father admonishing her gently that if you pick too many, they will not bud again next year. The gentle scale filled the evening even after she had closed the lid. Sitting quietly, her head resting in the tips of her hands Stella heard once more that echo of her own playing from across the garden. This time she would find it. This time she would remember.
She walked with determination down the old path. The terracotta bricks were broken in places and moss crept in every crevice. She knew it was down here. She was certain. She hummed the tune as she walked, hugging her nightgown around her, walking towards the sound. She could hear the melody swelling as she brushed pass shrubs and trees, ignoring their insistence that she turn back. She walked further than she had been before. The ground became soft and springy, no longer uneven and treacherous. The notes became clearer and she lost herself to them. She parted a delicate green tendril from the pathway and was flooded with fragrance. Yes! Jasmine; that is what I’m looking for. She picked at the white flowers, gathering an armful of them. She moved through into a small clearing and sat on a mossy mound. She hummed to herself and stoked the flowers, releasing more scent into the air. As she did so, a piano melody drifted across the clearing. She looked up and saw him clearly.
“Stella. You came,” he said.
“Of course I did,” she smiled.
The moonlight danced across her father’s face as he smiled back at her. “Flowers for your mother?” he asked.
“Of course,” she replied.
“Off you go then,” he reached out to her as if to embrace his daughter, but she was gone, skipping lightly across the grass.
Stella’s fingers came to rest on the final chord and she smiled; made whole by the moonlight music falling into her fragrant evening.
A large vase of tumbling jasmine was in front of the window and the scent drifted over her as she slept. At rest. Whole. Complete.
Since 2007, the Henley Literary Festival has established itself as one of the top five in the country, with events on everything from cookery and current affairs to showbusiness and sport taking place at venues across the picturesque town. Over the years, speakers including Ranulph Fiennes, Rupert Everett, Irvine Welsh and Michael Palin have enraptured audiences, with interviewers Michael Parkinson, Anne Robinson and Emma Freud having taken the chair.
The Henley Literary Festival marks its 10th anniversary in 2016, and you can be sure of a celebratory line-up. To receive announcements, join the mailing list at www.henleyliteraryfestival.co.uk.
Dragonfly is a British, family-owened company with over a hundred years of expertise in sourcing and blending the very finest of teas. Find out more at www.dragonflytea.com.
Illustrations by Harriet Lamb, courtesy of Dragonfly Tea.