Teacup is a new Doris story I have written inspired as ever by her creator, artist Chris Reader, who mentioned that the Art Café she ran during the London Road Festival in Stoke a few years ago is now a tattooist’s shop. To get the most from this story please read the other Doris stories in my short story collection Tea and Blood, available here free on Issuu. I hope you enjoy it.
‘Three years’ Doris thought as she got off the number 21 bus, ‘is it really three years?’.
Vera (the VW camper) had given up on her and she’d sold it to a collector in Weymouth and hadn’t bothered getting a new vehicle yet, so she was using public transport and quite enjoyed it, someone was always ready for a good chat on the buses in the Potteries.
Stoke was still as chilly, the wind scurried up the street as it always seemed to in winter. Woolworth’s had gone years before she left on her travels and the building had changed hands yet again; a huge second-hand furniture shop owned by a cancer charity had taken over from the pound shop. Doris could see that the Turkish owned café opposite was doing well, they’d taken over a Wimpy Bar and it still had its seventies décor, as she passed she looked at the perfect photographs of meals you could buy, just like she’d seen when she went to the Costa Brava.
In the doorway of an empty shop, there was a sleeping bag scrunched up and she realised there was someone lying in it, ‘…hard to believe this happens in 2018’ she thought, ‘Tudor wouldn’t have liked that’. Two doors further was her café, or more correctly, the shop where her café had been. The window was covered in a mainly black and silver picture of a snake with gaudily red mouth and massive dripping fangs, above it was a sign reading King Cobra Tattoo Shop in very graphic lettering. The glass door was also blocked out with a snakes head welcoming you and a warning not to enter if you were under eighteen, with a phone number, Facebook and e-mail contact to make appointments for piercings, and sellotaped to it, a roughly written sheet of paper – ‘Apoyntments not allwaze nessescary’.
Doris walked on and went to the charity shop where she always used to find something nice to wear. A young woman was busy hanging up stock.
“Oh, sorry to bother you, is Jean in?” she asked.
The young woman stopped and looked round.
“Jean? Sorry I don’t think there’s anyone works here of that name, I’m the only one here weekdays, maybe she comes in at the weekends?”
“Ah, no she used to be here during the week, she came to my café most days, had a strong tea and a buttered teacake or sometimes a pink coconut fancy, we always had a chat, she used to put away things for me in my size she thought I’d like…”
The young woman had already gone back to hanging coats and Doris could tell she wasn’t listening. Near the door was a pale blue Formica topped table covered in pottery and glassware, and amongst the mayhem of shapes she could see a familiar teacup decorated with a group of semi-naked people playing pipes and dancing in a line on one side and bringing gifts to a seated woman on the other, she turned it over and already knew what she’d read on the base – ‘The Spode Blue Room Collection “Greek” First Introduced c.1806’. ‘How apt’ she thought and looked through the charity shop window at the Spode Factory gates opposite, now closed and being converted into flats and artists’ studios, ‘…be nice to live there, in the middle of things’ she thought. The cup was chipped and wasn’t an antique she knew that, 1980’s probably and she thought about Maggie Machin who used to come to the café for a milky coffee and vanilla slice, talking about how many handles she’d fitted that day and how fiddly the ones on the Greek pattern were and she thought of her mother.
When she was young Doris’s mother had worked at Spode for a while, in the office dealing with invoices, she’d collected lots of Greek pattern pottery, ‘Blue Italian is too common’ her mother would often say ‘…everyone has that stuff, but select people buy Greek pattern’. Appearing common was her mother’s greatest fear, Doris often thought her mother felt that being a murderer was preferable to being common. ITV was common and whenever her mother switched the television off she made sure it was tuned to the BBC so if a visitor was there when she switched on, the BBC came on. Brown coloured and pointed shoes on men were common; not wearing a hat when you went out was common; going on holiday to Rhyl was common but going to Colwyn Bay was not, Llandudno was acceptable, but Blackpool too common to even think about; ice cream in a cornet was common but not eaten between wafers which Doris remembered always melted and made a mess down her summer dresses; tattoos like her uncle had done when he was doing his National Service in Malaya were definitely the most common thing and her mother insisted that he wore long sleeved shirts or kept his jacket on when he visited, ‘…don’t want the street to think we’re common’ she’d say. And so it went on and as she looked at the people cavorting around the cup, Doris tried to think what her mother believed wasn’t common.
‘I think I will, you know I think I will’ Doris thought.
“I’ll take this, how much is it?”
The young woman stopped again and with a sigh turned to her, took a few seconds to think.
“Everything on that table’s fifty pence, it’s probably cracked and there’s not a saucer or anything…”
“Don’t worry, it’s just what I’m looking for” Doris took a pound coin out of her purse and put it next to the till, “…there’s a pound, don’t worry about the change, just carry on with what you are doing”, then jauntily left the shop.
She pushed at the door of the King Cobra Tattoo Shop and to her surprise, it opened without the creak she remembered. She expected a darkened room, but it was bright and clean, and she found it hard to remember what it was like when it was her café. The stairs were still there, but where tables had been was a counter with a computer screen on it, a row of chairs and a coffee table covered in tattoo magazines (Doris hadn’t realised these even existed), and the walls were covered in drawings. Halfway down where she’d had her counter behind which she prepared food and drinks, was a curtain that looked like it should belong in a hospital.
Sitting behind the computer was a very beautiful woman, about the same age as she was, her hair was platted and spun around her head like golden twine, she had flower tattoos creating a garland around her neck which fell over her shoulder and down beneath her t-shirt. Doris was sure she’d seen that pattern before but couldn’t place it. The woman was concentrating on the screen and moving the mouse, she looked up at Doris.
“Welcome,” she said, smiling.
“You know this used to be my café, how long have you been here?”
“A while, people change you know, but not places only on the surface”
“Yes, it’s just a pattern isn’t it, like a plate”.
“Yes, that’s a lovely way to put it. This place has changed a bit I should think since you were last here… ah hang on a minute…” the woman opened a drawer and from it took out two postcards. “You don’t happen to be Doris do you?”
“Yes, yes I am”
“Some postcards came for you ages ago, I saved them for you, I had a feeling you may return one day…”
She handed them to Doris. They were postcards of the Sussex countryside, old sepia pictures.
One read in clear fountain pen writing: ‘Came to visit you but you hadn’t returned from your travels yet’, the other: ‘Visited again Doris seems your café is being sold, sorry I missed you, perhaps we’ll meet sometime in the future, phone me’ and there was a phone number. Both were signed ‘Hugh’.
“Are you OK, I think you better sit down?” the woman said coming from behind the counter.
“Just a bit surprising,” Doris said sitting down on a red upholstered chair, “…someone I met on my travels, someone…”
“I’m Justine by the way, I’ll get you some tea”, she brought a scalding plastic cup of tea which tasted of nothing, but transported Doris back to ‘life’. They chatted a bit about things. Justine told Doris about how she’d been a singer in London then travelled around the World for ten years with a bass player in a band until they had a huge split in Australia; and how she’d taken nearly twenty years making her way back to Britain, stopping at fascinating places sometimes for a couple of years and learning so many things like tattooing in Saigon, massage in Thailand, homeopathy in India then somehow ended up in Stoke.
Doris told her about some of her less dramatic travels.
“Well,” Doris said eventually, “I didn’t actually come here to look at my old café but to have a tattoo done. I want one doing of this cup” and she took out of her bag the Greek pattern cup she’d bought “…is it possible?”
“Anything is possible,” Justine said.
“Does it hurt, I’ve never had one before?”
“You may feel a little sore afterwards, it’s like someone is just pricking the skin, quite soothing in some ways, I’ve never had a complaint, it never bothers me. Where would you like this?”
“Somewhere only I know it is…”
“…and only a lover can find?”
Doris looked at Justine, reddened a little, smiled and nodded. Justine locked the shop door and they went behind the curtain.
The next morning Doris entered King Cobra Tattoo Shop, behind the counter there was a large young bearded man reading a paperback book, hair tied back under an Oakland Raiders baseball cap, he wore an oversized Megadeth black t-shirt from which the extremity of his stomach spilled out. He had a silver ring through his nose and his arms were covered in tattoos of angular crosses intertwined by snakes.
“Is Justine in yet?” Doris asked.
“Justine? No one of that name here…”, he spoke with a very posh accent which belied the image.
“But, she told me to come back this morning, to check the tattoo she did yesterday… though there isn’t any soreness, it’s a bit red…”
“We were closed yesterday, all day, I was at a trade fair in Birmingham, are you sure you didn’t go to the shop in London Road, a woman works there…”
“No, no it was here – she gave me some postcards…” and Doris stopped as she noticed the book he’d been reading, Justine by The Marquis de Sade, the cover was a painting of a woman who looked exactly as Justine would have thirty years ago; “…thank you perhaps it was…” she half whispered and hurriedly left the shop, the door creaking as it closed.
Doris reached the bus stop just as the number 25 arrived. When she got to the bus station she bought a coach ticket to Brighton and in less than an hour was back on the M6 travelling to London, setting out on another adventure.
Tim Diggles 2018