The clock on the wall chimed three o’clock. The perfect time for afternoon tea. As always Sheila was already there when Billie arrived. One day, Billie thought, one day I’ll be the first one here. May that be a long way off though.
The cafe was dark, nestled underground and completely void of windows as it was. Each table had a cluster of candles, in part to add to the eerie atmosphere, but mostly because a flickering light source showed up the ghosts best. The spooky ambience was generally shattered by the sounds of jovial laughter and shared jokes anyway.
“Good afternoon Billie,” Sheila said with a warm smile as Billie took her seat.
“Hiya Havers.” It still felt weird, not calling her by her first name, but wasn’t that half the thrill of it? Sharing cultures and attitudes with people who’d long since passed.
“Oh honestly.” Sheila tutted. “You are barely even using any words now. Would it kill you to complete a sentence, without any abbreviations?”
“Life’s too short Havers. We’ve got to keep moving. There’s too much to see, too much to do, too much to say.”
“And I still say your generation would benefit more from listening far more than you do.”
“That’s why I’m here, ain’t it?” Billie still grinned; they went through a similar routine every week, and she always enjoyed how easily she could annoy Mrs Havers. At first Billie had wondered if dementia had carried over to beyond the grave as well (a frankly terrifying thought, in her mind), but as she came to know the old woman better she saw the twinkle in the woman’s eye each time. Berating the living was something she did to keep herself fresh, there was no venom in it.
“So, how has your week been? Are there any new… ‘memes’?” There was always something about the way Havers said ‘memes’, a weird stress on the middle of the word that she refused to drop, no matter how many times Billie corrected it. It helped Billie remember where she was, and who she was talking to though.
“Just one- there’s a new dance that’s back in fashion, so everyone’s doing it online. Here, have a look.”
“That is regarded as dancing? It does not look very choreographed.”
“For us, that’s high level dancing.”
Havers sighed as she sat back and poured herself a cup of ethereal tea. “I remember the days when going to the dance was a highlight of the week. And we went for the actual dance, not for any of this hanky-panky that you lot do these days.”
“Tell me about them. All the dances you used to go to, and all the dances you used to know.”
And so Sheila Havers did, as each of them drank from their own teapots, Billie’s a solid, metal thing that reflected the candle-light, while Havers’ was a transparent fine porcelain piece with a handle as thin as her fingers. More than once Havers stood up and demonstrated some move or turn, her hands passing through the tables next to them, much to the delight of Billie who giggled and gave a silent applause. When she ran out of her own stories Havers told some of the anecdotes that she’d picked up from the rest of her group. They all waited upstairs, eager to hear the retelling of today’s cultural exchange.
Perhaps- eventually, when it was less of a phenomena- the tea room would open to more people, or would be less extortionately priced. Then everyone would be able to reconnect with the past, or to forge their own memories with the future. Until then it would only remain in the purview of the rich. Or, those like Billie’s historical society and Havers’ futurology society.
The topic of dancing filled the afternoon’s session, and before long the bell chimed for four o’clock.
“Same time again next week?” Billie asked as she grabbed her bag to go.
“Of course my dear. It was wonderful to talk to you again.”
“And you Havers. Take care!”
“Look after yourself.”
Neither of them dallied long though, not with the expectations of the rest of their societies waiting upstairs. Now they each went off and relayed their whole conversation again, teaching the others what they had learnt about the world that was or the world that is.
“So much has changed!”
“So little has changed!”
And after their little moment of importance, both Billie Jones and Sheila Havers went back to their life and death respectively, both figures of no great achievement until they touched the other side in the tea shop again.
In the beginning it had been all that Billie could think about, and she’d been terrified each week before she went. Soon enough though life got in the way and she was busy, with no time to sit and worry or even marvel at what was happening.
Sheila didn’t have as many distractions. Everyone makes their own afterlife, and hers had a little house and some land to tend. It was simple work, without any pressure, yet it gave her a semblance of meaning. It also gave her plenty of time to think, and dwell on the life that young Billie was currently living. And what a life! The freedom, the connectedness, the way they’d made the world so small. With each day that passed she yearned more and more to see that world, although decorum dictated that she act properly whenever she was at tea.
What she would give to be able to leave the tea-house by the other exit, and see the world of the living once more.
As the weeks rolled on this idea festered inside her, until it became an obsession. Before long it was in control, and all it took was some research…
December rolled around, and through Billie and Havers both societies had decided on a short break in their meet-ups until the new year. This meeting in the middle of the month would be their last for a while, and Havers didn’t think she could last the break with this plan sitting inside of her. If she was ever going to try it, it was going to have to be now.
Havers got there first, as always, as she had nothing else to do beforehand. The tea cups were already out on their usual table, and it so easy for her to drop the powder she had acquired into Billie’s mug. It glittered in the candle-light, before disappearing into the shadows at the bottom. For a moment Havers thought she had missed, but there was no way to check. Once it out of the packet the powder belonged to the other world again, and it took more willpower than she had to try and move something in a different plane.
“Hiya Havers!” Billie’s arrival made her jump, and for a moment panic was clear on her face. Thankfully Billie took it as outrage at the informality, and the girl pulled up short and gave the slightest of bows. “Season’s greetings, Mrs Havers.”
“Season’s greeting Billie,” Havers replied. It didn’t take much acting to look pleased; of course she was pleased to see Billie again, the young lady was a stunning breath of fresh air. All Havers could do now was hope that her guilt didn’t show through as well. “How are your Christmas preparations coming along?”
“Urg, it’s manic.” Billie pulled out a chair and signalled to the waiter for her usual. “Mum’s in the biggest funk over the turkey-”
“Oh, um… a fuss? A fluster? Like, she’s getting in a panic about it. Basically, she wants one that’ll feed all of us, but she’s only just realised that she won’t have space in the oven for that and all the veg and other bits. So now she’s trying to get Nan to cook half of it at her house and bring it round with her, only Nan had been planning on coming round early and just drinking. She’s decided she done enough of the cooking over the years, and it’s someone else’s turn. So now Mum’s all over the place trying to work out how she’s going to cook everything, despite the fact that we’ve all told her that we’re really not that bothered. We can take a smaller turkey, or just have less of the other stuff. Mum feels like that’ll ruin Christmas though so, what can you do?”
“Indeed. I must say I still find it remarkable. In your world you’ve trimmed down life as much as you can, and made everything so fast and ‘instant’, yet you still bother to do so much for Christmas.”
“Well, it’s tradition isn’t it?”
At that point Billie’s tea turned up and Havers’ throat caught in her breath. It made no sound, as she didn’t breathe, and Billie was too distracted by thanking the waiter to notice her companions reaction. Desperate to stop herself thinking about what was about to happen Havers dug about for something else to talk about.
“Do- do you go to church? For Christmas?”
Billie frowned for a moment, a look of concern furrowing her brow as she blew on the tea to cool it. She had noticed that something was wrong, but thankfully Havers had maintained her distance enough over the months that Billie was reluctant to push the matter. That realisation hurt; after all the jokes and laughs, there was still this great void between them, something far bigger than the fact one of them had a pulse and the other didn’t.
“No, we don’t. We’re not a very religious family. Nan used to go for carols on Christmas Eve, but the church is really cold. A few years ago she had to stay in bed for the whole of Christmas Day cos she came down with something at the carols, and she’s not been back since.” Billie took a sip of tea and the fear faded in Havers. It was too late to go back now. If it worked, it worked.
“That is a shame,” Havers said as she fiddled with her own teacup. “Church was always such a community event for us. It was the time when we all got together and bonded. I guess you do not need that so much these days, with all your ‘social media’ and such forth.”
“I don’t know. I think we kinda miss things like that, actual time to meet up in person and-” Billie stopped short and she wobbled in her seat.
Was it already taking effect? Havers glanced around quickly but no-one around them seemed to have noticed. The one advantage of seats costing so much was that people tended to mind their own business. She leant across the table and slowly reached for Billie’s hand.
When her transparent hand made contact with flesh both of them caught their breath. Havers looked up into Billie’s scared eyes.
“I am sorry. I just had to know. I have to know.” And with that Havers let herself get pulled into Billie’s body.
The effect was like being incredibly seasick at first. Their vision spun and the little tea that they’d drunk threatened to come up again, but it quickly settled down. There was some double vision as both of them looked out of the same set of eyes.
“Wow,” Havers breathed, actually breathed, having control of Billie’s lungs and mouth. Keeping her hands on the table she pushed them upright.
There was some noise in the back of her head, like a nagging thought or a forgotten task, which had to be Billie. “I am sorry,” Havers whispered. “I just have to know.” Walking slowly she guided the body over to the stairs leading up and out of the dingy tea-room, up to the glorious shiny new world.
“Ma’am?” The attendant at the doorway caught her eye. “You still have the table for another fifty minutes.”
“I will be back. I just need some fresh air.” Billie’s voice sounded different from in here. The attendant paused for a second, but took the wobbling as nausea, and if she threw up on the street then he wouldn’t have to deal with it.
The stairs were a challenge, and for as long as she thought she could get away with it Havers used both hands to pull them up the handrail. Before they had even reached the door onto the street she could hear the sounds of life. With a rush of adrenaline she swung the door open.
The air was cold and icy, and while it stung her face and her lungs it was so refreshing and real. Never before had Havers realised just how hollow the afterlife felt.
And there were so many people. Just… so many people. She tried to count them, but they moved too fast and too aggressively, and there were always more behind them. On and on they came, tutting as they weaved past this strange woman standing on the pavement, racing to get somewhere but not looking happy about it.
And the lights. Overhead, hanging from every window and across the street, bright, stark blinding lights. They were too harsh, too solid.
And the noises. Between the people all talking or cursing and stamping their feet, there was a low humming noise. It filled the air and bounced off the buildings that cocooned the world.
There was just so much-
The dizziness at taking Billie’s body was nothing compared to the sensory overload that Havers got out here. It was too bright, too loud and too alive. She couldn’t take it, and now she couldn’t breath and her vision was going blurry-
There was a mental nudge and Havers’ fracturing mind crumpled under it. With sturdy steps Billie took a deep breath of refreshing polluted air and headed back down stairs.
At their table she took her seat again and laid her arm out across the table. The candle flickered, there was a rush of warmth down her body, and Havers appeared again.
The pair of them sat in silence for a while.
“I’m sorry,” Havers said at last, so softly that Billie took a moment to register it.
“No, I’m so sorry-”
“It’s fine. No harm done. You could’ve asked though. You can trust me.” It was something Billie had been warned about when she’d first started coming to the cafe. Sometimes the dead got overkeen and took the living for a ride. No harm could come of it, not really, and it didn’t take much to reassert control over your own body. It was an idea that had haunted Billie though; she didn’t think she’d be strong enough to just sit on the other side of the table and just listen. She’d have to see as well. Part of her knew that she’d have done exactly what Havers just did.
“I- I did not want to scare you away. I… I like being your friend.”
Billie broke out into a grin. “And I love being yours. But there has to be trust there, okay?” She paused as Havers nodded and took a sip of tea before she spoke again, the edge to her voice completely gone now. “What did you think of it, our world?”
But Havers couldn’t find the words for it. “I think… I think I prefer the version I hear through you.”
“I think I’d have the same reaction to your world.” Billie raised her teacup in a toast. “Here’s to a rose-tinted past.”
“And a rose-tinted future.”
The cups clinked as the friends smiled at each other, both a little wiser and both a little happier in their own worlds.