“You look… more tired,” Henri said as Ryan stepped into the shop with an uncommon heaviness. “Come, come” motioned the beaming man, directing Ryan through the shop towards the lean-to living area attached to the rear of the shop, where a low table was set for the two of them to take tea.
Ryan had not been sure of Henri’s first invitation to tea… thinking of the afternoon’s his mother entertained women from church … taking out the good china, steeping leaves in a special pot with roses painted on the side, rather than the battered metal one they took tea from usually; his mother carefully wiping out any specks of dust from the dainty matching cups she’d taken from a china cabinet; the house smelling of baking scones, his stomach rumbling with the smell and the salivia think in mouth at the sight of his Gramma’s homemade blackberry jam, pots of fresh cream; stern words to keep out of sight and trouble.
He couldn’t see himself sitting down to fine china, scones and polite conversation with Henri. And at night? How wrong he’d been about the invitation. Henri quickly took any European ideas Ryan had of tea drinking and taught him the serious business of tea rituals in China and left him looking forward to the next.
“I make special tea for you. Five flowers,” Henri said as he secured the front of the shop for the night. “Make all cares gone. Now sit, sit. Henri follow once done.”
Ryan slipped easily down and his legs welcomed the relief from standing all day and most of the night. But the first time he sat, it was more effort than it looked to to sit on the low stool accompanying the table and to remain cross legged for long periods of time (their conversations were never short). He’d looked forward to seeing Henri but not sitting at his crazy table.
Henri fussed over the tea when he was done securing the front of the shop. From a small shining urn with a tiny tap at the bottom, he strained yellowish liquid into a teapot resplendent with a red dragon curving around the contours. He placed the pot on the table between them and then sitting, made a verbal offering in Chinese before pouring the tea it into one of the cups cup and passing it to Ryan, before pouring himself one. They both raised their cups and took a small sip. Ryan closed his eyes to get the full effect of the tea, as Henri never made the same tea twice.
“You never same man twice,” was Henri’s reasoning and Ryan, if he thought about it too much late at night, Henri’s foresight into his moods and daily experiences spooked him.
Ryan took a second sip and felt a sense of ease and calm ease radiate through his strung out and exhausted body. He sighed and Henri’s faced pulled into an even bigger grin.
“Tea good, huh?”
“Indeed it is Henri. It would pain my mother to say this, but sometimes I think you know magic.”
“Henri no magic. Henri observant.”
“Observant. Aye, if I were a suspicious man, I’d say you spy on me. You always guess my mood, my feelings and what’s gone on in my day. The tea’s always just right.”
“Henri no spy,” Henri threw his head back and laughed, his slight shoulders shaking hard. “Why Henri spy on Ryan? When Henri time spy on Ryan? Not hard to know Ryan’s life. You work bad boss. Bad boss work you hard. Make you tired, sad, frustrated, resenting… no sleep bad, eh?”
“I’ve never felt so bad,” Ryan said. “It was dawn when I got to bed this morning.”
“You work all night for bad boss. You idiot.”
“Henri you shouldn’t call Mr Hutchinson a bad boss. He’s not a bad boss. He’s just… demanding.”
“Henri no sugar coat. Henri tell truth. When Bad Boss, good boss, Henri give him new name. He still take money for tools?”
“I need tools to work. I should have come with a toolkit but I didn’t. Why do we have this discussion every time I come here. I’m tired Henri. Can’t we talk about something else this time.”
“Henri tell you… save money and Henri get tools. Better price than Bad Boss. More money saved. You old boss, he make you buy tools.”
“No Messers MacDonald had a fully kitted out workshop. It was amazing the tools they had, some hundreds of years old. The ones I have here are very basic.”
“See. You have bad boss. You should be own boss.”
“Henri, you really shouldn’t call Mr Hutchinson that and I’m too young to be a boss. And I need money to set up my own workshop. Between Mr Hutchinson taking his share, and the tax man his, I’m barely making enough to eat and save a little.”
“New world here. No one too young be boss. No need money. Need investors.”
Ryan sipped at the sweet tea the idea of being his own boss more intoxicating than the strongest liquor in any of the fly grog tents. He’d never thought of asking others to risk their money on him. He’d always assumed he’d save for ten years and then set up shop for himself.
“What bad boss yell at you ’bout today.”
“Mr Hutchinson is under some strain.”
“So is Henri, but he no yell at those who work for him.”
“Henri you work in here by yourself.”
“Well I no yell at self or anger for no good reason. What upset bad boss?”
“The Higgins’s coffin was not finished quick enough for Mr Hutchinson, even though I worked by lantern last night and Jeremiah left early to go to the music hall.”
“So this why you not come visit Henri last night.”
“I’m sorry. You didn’t wait long did you?”
“When you no show after dusk I know you not coming. I go to bed. I brew five flower tea this afternoon. Know you come visit tonight. And here… Henri see far into the future.” He laughed. “Maybe Henri magic after all.”
The two men laughed and Henri topped up the cups of tea.
“These Higginses… they no happy with boxes you build.”
“No. They were pleased, as well as you can be about a coffin. They’re son died of a fever. They wanted something special. I went to bed at dawn and then back up an hour later to start again.”
“Bad boss. You no argue with Henri. Good boss know sleep important. Mr Hutchinson not just bad boss, bad man.”
“Not tonight Henri. I’m worn through with Mr Hutchinson and Jeremiah today. Especially with Jeremiah for coming into the workshop and doing naught but talk about Eliza Gauge from the moment he walked in to the moment he walked out again. Some of us were not able to go to the music hall last night.”