The rain started on Olivia’s second round of houses, and reached its most torrential by her fifth. That day she walked more than she had ever done in her entire life, knocked on countless doors, spoke to hundreds of strangers. But things were looking increasingly hopeless. An hour before polling closed, dark clouds descended onto the suburban streets of her old neighbourhood, swallowed them up in black waters of apathy.
The last house was canvassed with no answer. Laurence, the man with the clipboard, failed to hide his worry.
‘Do you have any more leaflets?’ Olivia asked, the stack in her hand made ineligible by its running ink. He looked down at the melting campaign promises and sighed.
‘Don’t bother,’ he said.
Back at the Party office, Olivia was barely through the front door when one of the local councillors, Emma, spotted her from afar and weaved in and out of all the cold, wet volunteers to speak to her.
‘Do you think you’ll be ready to go out again soon?’ she asked, as if blind to Olivia’s whitewashed skin and uncontainable shaking.
‘I don’t know if I have it in me, honestly.’ Whatever happened, Olivia was proud of all she had done up until this point.
‘Well, go upstairs and get yourself a nice cup of tea to warm up, then see how you feel.’ Before she could say anything, Emma practically pushed Olivia through the crowd. Really, at this point she just wanted to get the first train back to London, away from this wretched Tory town. For good.
But a hot drink might make her feel better. A couple of boys around Olivia’s age stood sipping teas in front of the staircase door.
‘Move, move, move, please,’ Emma ordered. Olivia smiled weakly at them both as they stepped out of the way. She recognised them from earlier that day, having canvassed with them in the Callowlands Ward. Patrick and Ali? They had all looked a lot better back then. Before leaving the main room, she saw Emma cornering more unfortunate, pale-faced arrivals.
‘Do you think you’ll be ready to go out again soon?’ she asked them, unable or unwilling to see the dread in their eyes.
At the top of the stairs was a single open doorway. Olivia had to press herself up against the wall as a large, bearded man walked past carrying three cups of tea, two in one hand and the third in the other. Once he was out of the way, she walked through to a tiny office kitchenette, dimly lit and smelling of dampness. Half the space had been invaded by soaking coats and umbrellas. A narrow hopper window, pelted at by the storm outside, let in some of the darkness and kept in none of the warmth. In one corner of the room was an ugly yellow fridge, a white-tiled counter-top and a sink of soapy water. Opposite this was a small, round table, two chairs, and a tiny little box TV with election coverage on mute. She didn’t want to be here, she told herself.
‘Ow’d ya take it?’ an old man asked cheerfully. He appeared suddenly, as if stepping out of the wallpaper. In an ill-fitting tweed jacket, a brown knitted jumper, brown trousers and brown shoes, were it not for the red Labour Party sticker on his lapel, the man could have been the incarnation of an old sepia photograph. There was no question whose flat cap sat on top of the fridge.
He smiled at her. In fact, it was not enough to say he smiled. Truly, he was beaming. The wrinkles on his face only accentuated his genuine pleasure at being of service.
‘Black, no sugar, please.’
He nodded, then shuffled over to a pile of mugs where he found a Harry Potter cup, bearing the faded crest of Hogwarts. People always assumed Olivia was a Harry Potter fangirl. She supposed she had that look.
Wincing, she watched the old man struggle with the full kettle, pouring boiling water more or less into the mug. Then, too late to remind him that she had wanted it black, Olivia watched him almost empty the bottle of milk for her. From a glass he grabbed a dirty teaspoon with feeble, shaking hands, then let it fall into Olivia’s tea. It clanged against the ceramic, and sent splashes over the already stained kitchen top. Yet, through all this, the man smiled on, happy to be of help, completely oblivious to the mess he was making.
‘There ya go, madam,” he smiled and handed the tea over to her. Olivia was relieved to take the hot drink off the old man, his spindly arm seeming ready to snap at the tendons. The tea was a weak, milky white, but warm— exactly what she needed. It enveloped her frozen hands and travelled down her arms and body. Fragrant steam brushed the tip of her nose and condensed into warm droplets above her mouth.
‘Thank you so much,’ Olivia said, before taking her first sip. Something soft and heavy pressed up against her top lip. He had left the teabag in. The old man, assuming Olivia would now be on her way like all the others before her, shuffled over to the sink to tackle the pile of dirty mugs. She could hear the lively conversation, the laughter, the debates, all happening downstairs. But, she didn’t want to leave him alone. Gradually, the noise from downstairs receded, when the little kitchenette filled, instead, with the sound of the old man whistling. Olivia recognised the song, but the sadness was new.
I think that people are the greatest fun,
And I will be alone again tonight my dear.
All the while, the closing of the polls loomed.
‘I can’t go out there again,’ Olivia whispered, not sure if she even wanted the old man to hear. ‘I just… can’t.’ The man stopped whistling, reached up and latched a clean mug onto a hook, then began scrubbing another.
‘Why you think I’m on tea duty?’ At this, he chuckled to himself. ‘Still, it’s nice t’ be of some use.’ A head popped in through the door. It was Emma looking even more frazzled and desperate than before.
‘Last call. We’re doing Mycenae Road. Are you ready to go out one final time?’ she asked, tapping the side of the door frame impatiently.
Mycenae Road. Olivia shuddered. She had promised herself she’d stay away from Mycenae. Besides, she had barely started her tea. The burning pain in her fingers and toes had not yet subsided. She wanted to say no, but found herself stuttering.
‘Emma.’ It was the old man, politely raising a finger for attention. ‘I’ve asked this young lady to ‘elp me. My old fingers ache, see.’
‘I see,’ Emma replied with a frown. ‘Very well.’ At once, she was stomping back down the stairs, too busy to argue. The man returned to washing the dirty mugs silently. She was thankful for his intervention, but there was hardly enough room for both of them to clean mugs.
‘How can I help?’ Olivia asked, stepping around the wet coats. The man waved his soapy hand towards the little table in the corner.
‘Don’t worry about that jus’ yet, sit down there and finish ya tea. Lord knows ya need it.’ Olivia thanked him and sat down. A dark, reddish hue was dispersing from the teabag, eating into the milk-white tea. Very soon, it had become a colour much closer to her usual brew, with a satisfying astringent taste. The more she drank, the stronger the tea became, the better she felt.
Soon, her aching joints, her burning fingers and toes, her deep exhaustion, all of it was gone. Could she do one last round of canvassing? After all, it was only one house on Mycenae road she had to steer clear of. 9:35pm. 25 minutes until polling closed. A fresh bout of determination took hold of her. She could still probably catch Emma. The old man sat opposite her at the table, now with his own cup of tea. He simply shook his head.
‘What’s wrong?’ Olivia asked, not knowing what else to say.
‘Only one door you should be knocking tonight.’ It was said with a seriousness Olivia had not expected of the old man. Remembering a hurt from long ago, she ventured to see if he somehow knew, somehow had a window into the deepest depths of her soul.
‘I will, after the exit poll.’ At this, the old man smiled sadly and slurped his drink.
For the remainder of the night, the two of them took turns making teas for drenched volunteers. The old man continued with his sloppy technique, sending out exclusively milky teas, while Olivia did not want to take over the job completely, seeing how much he seemed to enjoy it.
They worked to the sickening sound of election coverage from the TV: Party leaders and their spouses voting in the early hours of the morning; reports on the weather and its impact on turnout; journalists counting down to the time polls closed. As they neared 10 o’clock, fewer and fewer people came upstairs, having gone home or to the counts. Bit by bit, the pile of coats had shrunk to nothing more than a wet patch on the carpet.
It happened, finally, when Olivia and the old man were alone. So, here we are. It was time. Just seconds away from the result of the exit poll. This was it. Our first prediction of the potential outcome of this election. Olivia held her breath. Big Ben was now on the TV.
We are standing by with those crucial exit poll figures. Here they are.
The old man stepped back into the wallpaper, as the bell tolled. Go home, she thought she heard him say.
About The Author
Spencer is a London-based aspiring writer working in Ecommerce as an Online Operations Manager. Spencer’s writing takes inspiration from religion, spirituality and superstition, things he makes sure to avoid fully in life outside of storytelling.
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