Mr. Wolf ran his gnarled fingers along the row of jars. Reaching up to the next shelf, he picked up a jar full to the brim with what looked to be burnt leaves. He turned and placed the jar on the counter behind him. Next, he hobbled over to the shelves on his left and climbed the rickety ladder. He took his time, favouring his left leg, until he reached the very top shelf. He leant out, one hand grasping the ladder, the other wavering over the jars. Just as it looked like the old man might topple off, he swiped a jar, tucked it under his arm and began his gradual descent.
Once he reached the floor, he turned and placed this jar next to the first one. This particular jar looked like it contained shavings from a carpenter’s floor.
Carefully and with one smooth motion, he unscrewed the lid of the first jar and took a long sniff through a nose with more bends than a Backstreet cut-through.
He did the same with the second jar.
From under the counter he produced a brown paper bag and flapped it open with a flourish. Bending down so that the rims of both jars were at eye level, Mr. Wolf began to pluck pinches of the contents of the jars and dropped them deftly into the paper bag. Once done, he stood up, wincing as his back clicked and popped, spun the bag over a couple of times so it fastened tight and placed it on the counter.
“There you go,” Mr. Wolf said. “Spot of hot water in that and it’ll taste like you’re drinking morning sunshine. Perk you right up on a cold winter’s dawn.”
“Marvellous,” said the lady who was waiting on the other side of the counter. “Remind me the next time I need a refill to let you know three weeks in advance. That took bloody ages you old fart.”
“Eve, my dear child, you cannot rush perfection.” Mr. Wolf replied. “I blame myself for your lack of understanding in these matters for it is I who have failed to educate you.”
“Sod off,” Eve said, swiping the paper bag from the counter. “And why are you talking like a toff? You never used to talk that way.”
“The times they are a-changing, my girl. Plus, the customers seem to like it. Makes me seem approachable.”
“Until they get a look at your face. Then you just look ironable.”
Eve sailed out the door and onto the King’s Pass. She waved to Mr Wolf through the shop window as she headed down towards the square.
“No respect, that one. Blame myself,” Mr. Wolf muttered.
“Why do you blame yourself?” a young man said as he backed through the curtains, laden down with a stack of boxes.
Mr. Wolf jumped. He’d completely forgotten Jamie was back there. He clutched at his chest just to make sure, but the old girl was thrumming away, somewhat rhythmically.
He experienced one of those strange moments he’d been having more and more recently. A moment where he felt himself stepping back out of his body, viewing everything from a removed distance.
He’d never been one for that kind of malarkey in his younger days. He’d laughed at those who’d put any stock in what he’d called ‘who-doo mumbo-jumo’. Now he was pushing on in years and heading towards joining the spirits in the sky, he found himself doing it more and more often.
What have you become, you blithering old codger? Shrieking like a parlour maid at the sight of a stock boy. Told you this would happen.
“Sod off,” Mr. Wolf said.
“Erm, sorry?” Jamie said, turning around to face Mr. Wolf.
Or trying to.
The boxes of tea he balanced in his arms wobbled perilously.
“Never mind lad. See to it that you restock those jars below halfway full. And remember…”
“Always circulate the leaves and make sure you don’t leave old ones at the bottom,” Jamie finished, smiling and shaking his head.
“Yeah, well, mind you do just that,” Mr. Wolf trailed off.
He pushed open the curtains, walked across the stockroom and through a second doorway into a smaller room. It contained little more than a fireplace, a bookcase and a worn armchair. Mr. Wolf flopped down in the chair.
Over the years, plenty had underestimated him. He liked it that way.
He knew Jamie thought of him as little more than a doddering old fool. Worst part was, he had a tendency to agree.
The end of the week was always the busiest at Wolf’s Tea Emporium. That was when people stopped by to grab a bag or two of their favourite blend, ready for the weekend.
Wolf’s Tea Emporium had always turned a fair coin in the ten years since Mr. Wolf used his hard-earned savings to buy the place, but over the last few months sales had rocketed. So much so Mr. Wolf had taken to employing a couple of young girls from the Backstreets at the weekend.
The problem was (and this bothered Mr. Wolf more than he ever let on), his little Tea shop, the place he’d dreamt about opening on many a cold harsh winter stuck on the edge of a barren wasteland with nothing more than a sheepskin blanket and a cupful of spirit for warmth, his little Tea shop was now frequented by absolute cock wombles.
Wolf’s Tea Emporium had become… trendy.
The very thought made Mr. Wolf shudder. It was now ‘fashionable’ to frequent Mr. Wolf’s Tea Emporium, or Mr. W’s Tea Emp as he’d overheard one particularly irritating customer refer to it.
He’d heard people talk about how it was ‘the done thing’ to drop by to pick up a bag of tea, head back into Middle Calver and grab a pastry or two ready for brunch.
“What the hoo-har is brunch?” Mr. Wolf asked Jamie the first time he’d heard it mentioned.
Jamie smiled in a way that made Mr. Wolf want to slap his lips off and said, “Mr. Wolf you are funny! Brunch is a small meal you eat between breakfast and lunch, hence br-unch.”
He said the last word very slowly as if speaking in a different language. Or to someone whose cheese had fallen off his cracker a long time ago.
“That’s just soft,” Mr. Wolf said. “Eat enough breakfast and you won’t get hungry till lunch.”
Jamie laughed. Mr. Wolf was beginning to find Jamie’s laugh quite irritating.
“No, you silly sausage,” Jamie said as he patted Mr Wolf’s arm, “you don’t need to have breakfast! You can just wait, then have brunch. Everyone in high society’s doing it.”
“Don’t have breakfast! What kind of moron purposely skips breakfast? Back in the day, I used to go months without breakfast and not because it was ‘the done thing’. No, I missed breakfast because I was poor. Now, you’ve got posh folk with more money than sense who could eat, but choose not to because it’s the latest fad. Pah!”
Mr. Wolf waved one bony arm at the incredulity of the notion.
The thing bothering Mr. Wolf the most was he’d opened his Tea Emporium so it could be a bastion of good taste - quite literally.
He loved his tea. It was his passion. He believed in his tea.
He had finally realised his dream of getting away from his past life and opening an establishment where his blends were appreciated.
Now it had been overrun by trendies who, in all reality, knew absolutely bugger all about what made a good cup of tea. Over the past few months he’d been asked to make a blend which tasted expensive, one which would stay warm for longer and one which didn’t taste of tea. One customer even had the gall to ask him which fruit teas he stocked. It had taken every ounce of restraint Mr Wolf possessed not to head-butt him.
An added twist to an already gut-wrenching dilemma was these customers made the Tea Emporium a lot of money. They often left preposterous tips and Mr Wolf had a feeling he could charge double the price for the tea he sold and this type of customer would pay it.
Jamie, however, seemed to have no problem with their current run of good fortune. He spent most of his time at the weekend playing the tea aficionado, selecting teas with an air of the theatrical. When Mr Wolf questioned him about this, Jamie shook his head and mentioned something about marketing and accommodating an ever diverse clientele.
“I’d like to accommodate my boot up your arse,” Mr Wolf muttered as he stalked off to find his favourite chair.
It was the end of another busy day. One of the girls sent a note with the other saying she couldn’t come in on account of the fact that she had to spend some time with Auntie. Having met Auntie once before, Wolf had no objections.
They’d been flat out all day. Florence, the remaining girl had, as usual, worked about three times as hard as Jamie who’d spent most of the day flouncing about trying to impress customers and generally acting like a complete tit. By the time they’d got within an hour of closing, there wasn’t a part of Mr. Wolf which didn’t ache. He’d been up and down the ladders more times than he could count and his hips, knees and back felt like they’d been stuffed with rusty nails at some point in the day. The little bell above the door tinkled as the final customer of the day left clutching two bags of a tea, and both Florence and Mr. Wolf let out an exhausted sigh.
“Now that was a proper busy one,” Florence said wiping her forehead with the back of her arm.
“You can say that again,” Mr. Wolf said, leaning on the nearest shelf.
“Really?” Jamie said, smiling. “I thought it was perfectly delightful!”
Florence blew a strand of auburn hair from her face and gave Jamie a look which, had it been a book wouldn’t have had many words but those it did have would’ve been in capitals with some symbols mixed in for good measure.
“Well, we got there in the end,” Mr. Wolf said. He turned to examine the state of the shelves.
The bell above the door tinkled.
“Sorry,” Mr. Wolf said without turning around, “we’re closing.”
“You’ll close when I tell you to.”
Mr. Wolf turned to see two men. The one who’d spoken was approaching the counter whilst the second was closing the door. After doing so, he reached up bolted it shut.
The man approaching the counter was smiling. Unfortunately, his mouth hadn’t told the rest of his face. He had the look of someone who had spent a lot of time only smiling with his mouth. His clothes were of the finest quality, and, to Mr. Wolf at least, everything about him screamed Middle Calver money. The second man finished bolting the door and made his way over to the counter. He was an altogether different prospect. He looked like a man who’d been put together by a child. His legs were thick and round, the size of tree trunks. His upper body appeared as if made of a lump of clay someone had sat on. A large head sat on a neck thicker than Mr. Wolf’s waist. Most of his facial features were in the region of where they should be, except his eyes which seemed far too small and much too close.
“I don’t think you understand, gentlemen,” Mr. Wolf said, taking a step back, “we’ve had a really busy day and -”
“If you’ll pardon the interruption,” the first man said, still smiling, “but this will go much quicker if you let me do the talking.”
“You can’t just -” Mr. Wolf started to say.
The smiling man nodded to the second man who pulled a large club out from under his long overcoat. His face impassive, he brought the club down in a neat arc, smashing the till in front of Mr. Wolf.
Coins and notes exploded upwards, as did parts of the till. Springs, bits of metal and numbered keys clattered down around Mr. Wolf who did his best to shield himself with his arms over his head.
“As a said but a moment ago, this will go much quicker if you just let me do the talking,” the smiling man said. “Besides. I can’t really afford to damage anymore of my new Tea Emporium.”
Mr. Wolf began to say something then stopped himself.
The smiling man smiled even more.
“There’s a good chap. You remembered. Now, on to business. As of right now, I own this Tea Emporium. It will make a nice addition to my business portfolio as I’ve been reliably informed it turns a pretty decent coin. Your services Mr. Wolf, are no longer required. All I need from you is to toddle off into the back and get me the deeds from your safe. You know, the one behind the bookcase in the very back room. I’ll send George with you, just in case you get forgetful and want to head out of the side door for some fresh air. In the meantime, I’m going to have a chat with this fire-headed young girl. Don’t be long, old man, or I may get bored with simply talking and move on to… other forms of communication.”
Mr. Wolf paused. He looked first at Florence, who was looking at the smiling man with barely concealed hatred.
He looked at Jamie who looked surprisingly calm. He would’ve put good coin on Jamie dissolving into a pile of tears and urine in this type of situation.
And Mr. Wolf knew.
And Mr. Wolf shook his head.
And Mr. Wolf felt it then.
A feeling he thought long since gone. A feeling as old as time itself. A feeling he’d felt many, many times before. Too many, in fact, to count. It started in his chest and with each heartbeat, pulsed outwards, flushing his body with a burning fire. His breathing slowed. Head lowered, he looked out from under grey eyebrows with dead eyes.
And now it was Mr. Wolf’s turn to smile.
Eve pushed open the door to the Tea Emporium and took in the wonderful smell of shelves upon shelves of varieties of tea. The little bell tinkled, announcing her arrival. Mr. Wolf poked his head through the curtains. She tried to hide her pleasure at seeing him but after what she’d heard, she feared the worse.
Mr. Wolf hobbled over to the first ladder and began to climb.
“Same as always?” he asked.
“Yeah, why not,” Eve said. “Maybe this time you’ll get the blend right and it might end up tasting half decent.”
“Tsk. Youth of today,” Mr Wolf said with his back to her.
“So,” Eve said. “How is everything?”
Mr. Wolf shrugged.
“Same old, same old.”
“Is that so?” Eve said.
“You know how it is. I’m in the tea business. Hardly high stress and action-packed.”
“Is that so?” Eve said.
“That is so,” Mr. Wolf said as he slowly made his way down the ladder.
“It’s just that the rumour on the King’s Pass is that you had a bit of an interesting weekend.”
“Well, you know how rumours are. People will talk. Tongues like to flap.”
“And I suppose that your boarded over front window had nothing to do with that?”
“Accidents happen. Strangest thing, really. Some poor soul was trying to get a closer look at my teas, you know how eye-catching and desirable they are, and I think he must have tripped over a loose cobble on the King’s Pass and bashed into the window. Really hard. Possibly more than once.”
“Yeah, I can see how that could happen. Bit confusing though as there’s still some glass left on the King’s Pass. Which is strange given they fell into your window.” Eve said. She shifted her feet, “and, if I didn’t know better, I’d say there appears to be some blood stains on your floor. They’ve been scrubbed but you can still see them if you know what you’re looking for.”
“Oh that,” Mr. Wolf said, plucking some tea from one of the jars. “A customer had a nose bleed shortly after he tripped over his smile, got a bit disorientated and cracked his teeth into the counter. Quite a calamitous turn of events really.”
“Be a while before that customer smiles again,” Eve said.
“Indeed,” Mr. Wolf said.
“And where’s that stock boy of yours? The one who talks a lot of cobblers.”
“Not sure,” Mr. Wolf said. “Last I’d heard, he made a poor choice of friends and as such decided he didn’t really have the legs for the tea business after all. Probably crawled off into the shadows somewhere.”
Eve smiled and shook her head.
She walked to the counter to collect her tea. When Mr. Wolf handed it to her she took his hand and turned it over. It was covered in cuts, scabs and bruises.
“I’m glad you’re okay,” she said. She looked from his hand into eyes which had once been the most vibrant of blues but were now starting to fade.
“Still life in the old dog yet,” Mr. Wolf said, patting her hand.
Eve smiled, patted Mr. Wolf on the cheek and walked to the door.
She turned as she opened it. Mr. Wolf had turned his attention to fixing his till. Most of it was in bits on the counter.
“You’ve still got it Wolf Dangerpunch, you old fart,” Eve said as she walked out, the little bell tinkling behind her.
Mr. Wolf continued to fix his till.
And Mr. Wolf shook his head.
And Mr. Wolf knew.
And Mr. Wolf smiled.