A Cup Of Eternal Tea
by Cori Smelker
A green-haired boy on a bicycle barreled past me with a huge grin plastered to his face. He was literally flying down the driveway of the condo development. Puzzled, I drove my moped around the corner. My eyes took in the sight of a blue-haired lady, in a bright yellow sundress that contrasted well with her hair. She was yelling, “Derek, come back ’ere you little bugger!”
I took a second look at the address I’d been given. Yep, that’s the one. I slowly climbed off my bike, and removed my helmet. I ran my fingers through my short red hair to get rid of the dreaded “helmet head”, but also to play for time.
“Hi, I’m Corinne. I’m your babysitter.” I said confidently, although on the inside I was feeling far from poised. What have I gotten myself into?
“Cath, pleased to meet you. ’ave you met me son, Derek?”
“Uh, green haired boy?” I stuttered, trying not to stare at hers.
“That’s right. He insisted, ’cos I ’ad mine coloured. I used food colouring on his. Mine was an accident.”
Cathie sure had a challenge raising a six-year-old all by herself. After I joined her church, a friend mentioned Cath needed a babysitter so she could go for a night out — something she rarely did. I gladly offered my services because I needed the money. I had just finished high school and was on Christmas holidays before starting college in January.
Derek roared back up the driveway, skidded to a halt and flashed me the hugest smile I’ve ever seen. He had Dresden blue eyes, ringed by dirt smudges. His knees were scraped up, and I knew if I looked at his fingernails, they’d be black! He was frankly, the cutest looking kid I’ve ever met.
So started a friendship that continues to this day. I needed a place to live near the college, and Cathie needed a babysitter. It was a no-brainer to put the two together, and before long, my moped was jostled in next to her VW Golf.
We discovered a mutual love of books, puzzles and tea. We also found differences — I am extremely boisterous; Cath is more reserved. I am a procrastinator, for her there is no time like the present. She’s a research scientist; I barely passed elementary school science.
During those two brief years I lived with Cathie, she taught me a lot. Like why I believe what I do, that Christianity is intellectually credible, and scientifically sound. In turn, I taught her patience with Derek, who was, admittedly, a handful. I showed her how to have fun with him and nurture his enquiring mind.
And Derek — well, Derek taught me to see things through the eyes of a child. He showed me forgiveness when I blew it, and despite his rough and tumble demeanor, he displayed a sweet tenderness. He’s the reason I wanted to have a son
At the end of those two years, I was offered my own on-campus apartment, and Cathie, met Gordon, a widower with two little girls. I moved into my own digs, and a few months later, watched in awe as Gordon and Cathie declared “I Do”. Now I had a whole new family to befriend!
Gordon welcomed me as his wife’s confidant, and never minded that I practically lived at the house. I spent hours with Derek and the girls in the pool, hung out and watched videos, just like another member of the family.
Derek started into the terrible teens, but we remained close. I would hear a rat-tat-tat at my door and when I opened it, I would find Derek, who would flash me his famous smile, and stroll past me to the kitchen. We would sit and talk — about school, his step-dad, whom he loved, but with whom he’d a few run-ins and his “horrible sisters”!
Other times Cath would be at the door. “Hi Corinne, got time for a quick cuppa?” Her “quick cuppa” would lengthen into hours. We would drink gallons of tea, oblivious to time, until my phone would ring and a plaintive voice would say, “Can I have my wife back now, please?”
Upheaval in my life came in the way of a huge move. Prospects for single, white females in South Africa were dismal, the cost of living had soared, but my income had not. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to move to the United States came up and I jumped at the chance.
I spent my last day with Cathie and the family. We sat beside the pool and watched the kids frolic. A hot spring sun reflected off the water, and we dabbled our toes in the pool to cool off. A ring of laughter interspersed the silence, and then one of us would say, “Do you remember…” and the laughter would sound out again.
At the end of the day, Cathie walked me to her front door. Jacaranda trees were dropping their purple blossoms, and the smell of Forever blooms filled the air. We stood in the doorway, reluctant to say goodbye. For two people who could talk a hind leg off a donkey, we were strangely silent.
We hugged long and hard, laughed at the sudden tears that came to our eyes and knew, somehow, it would be all right. Although I’d be moving 6,000 miles away, our friendship would remain true.
Cathie is a deplorable letter writer! For the first five years, I wrote to her, and if I got a response once a year, I was lucky! Instead, I got calls. In the middle of the afternoon, the phone would ring. Rushing to answer, I’d hear, “Hiya Corinne, wotcha up to?” She always said the same thing, “I got your letter, wrote one back, and it’s been sitting in me ’andbag for six months.” Thank God for email though! Once she got her account set up, we wrote busily, regaling each other with all the latest news.
The first weekend of September (2003), I just had to call Cathie. However, she had just moved, and had no forwarding number. I had a cell phone number, but the wrong area code. Frantically I tracked down the right one, and finally spoke to Bronwyn, Gordon’s eldest daughter.
“Hi Bronnie, it’s Corinne. How are you?”
“Oh, Corinne, nice to hear from you.” She sounded surprised. I normally only call at Christmas and for birthdays.
“Is Cath there?”
“No, she went out with my Dad.”
“ Are you sure everything’s all right? Is Cath ok?” I must have sounded insistent and probably a little nuts.
“Ja, everything is all right.”
“ Ok, let her know I called. I love you all. Bye.”
I replaced the receiver thinking how foolish I sounded, but feeling compelled to pray for Cath. It was late afternoon my time, mid-evening theirs. I knew I wouldn’t hear from Cathie, especially since the rates are so high.
Monday morning I opened my email programme and saw Cathie’s name in the “From” line. “Great,” I thought, “Bronnie must’ve told her I called.” But as I read, it was with a growing disbelief: “Derek has been involved in a hit and run and was taken to hospital in a serious condition. He never regained consciousness and died 2 hours later from internal injuries.”
What? This couldn’t be true! This is my Derek, my towhead, my blighter who kept me laughing with his antics and keen observations. Derek couldn’t be dead, he’s too young, only 25. Derek hasn’t married, he’s barely lived, how can he be dead?
I immediately phoned Cathie.
“Corinne, it’s true.” I heard her say.
“Cath, I’m sorry. I wish I were there.” I cried.
“I know. I understand. But now I know why you were trying to contact me on Saturday. He was killed three hours later.”
We spoke about the funeral, family, and coping. I felt so helpless, so far away from my best friend. But I know the Friend who has brought us together, the Best Friend of them all is with her.
I’ve been gone from South Africa too long. I’m planning a trip, and Cathie has already told me I’m staying with her, no questions. We talked the other day about Derek, and what heaven is like for him. In the midst of the chat, Cath said, “All I know is we’d better ’ave mansions right next to each other, with connecting doors, so we can ’ave our tea together.”
When I put the phone down, I realized it doesn’t matter how far apart we live from one another; although I cannot physically share every crisis their family experiences, neither she mine, our friendship is rooted in God.
Distance may limit us physically, but one day we will see each other forever. When we do, I can imagine us sitting on the front porch, drinking our tea with Derek, who will flash that wonderful smile eternally.
My name is Cori Smelker, a transplanted Brit/South African, now residing in Texas, after 10 long winters in Michigan. Nothing against Michigan, 4 of my 5 kids were born there, but I’m not used to being bundled up for 8 months of the years, and eaten alive by mosquitoes for the rest! I came across your site, and thought I would submit a couple of my stories.
I am the moderator for the board on Faith Writers, work from home as a writer for several clients, doing a variety of writing from credit union information, relocation material, technical writing and devotionals. I also enter several contests a year, and with my first one I placed in the top 10 and the story will be published later on this year. I also wrote for the Weekly Challenge for the Faith Writers site. The challenge has run for 23 weeks now, I wrote for the first 14 weeks, and never placed below 4th.