The Lesson by Benjamin McCulloch

A newly arrived expat in Brno wanders down a city centre lane and discovers a tea shop. They hope to buy black tea so that they can enjoy a homely British cuppa, but the shopkeeper isn’t going to let that happen until she’s satisfied with their Czech.

Ding Ding went the bell as I walked in the shop. The sign above the door said ‘Čaj’ and I had learned enough Czech in the weeks I’d lived in Brno to know that meant tea. I’d been for lunch in the Zlatá loď to celebrate my first ‘Work From Home Wednesdayand then wandered off náměstí Svobody thinking I was going to an Albert supermarket and then – how did I get here – ­­ended up in some little lane that lead to a shopping arcade in a courtyard between buildings.

The tiny shop was a cornucopia of jars with handwritten labels on each of them and, much to my dismay, everything was on shelves behind the counter. I would have to interact to earn my cuppa.

The shopkeeper looked startled when I entered and was now staring at me, leaning over the counter with both palms pressed down onto its surface. Perhaps it was unusual for her quiet shop to be disturbed by customers. I doubted many people came down this lane. She was an old lady with grey hair pulled back into such a tight ponytail that it seemed to stop her face from drooping down to her chest. She was not a smiler.

‘Dobree Den’ I offered.

‘Dobrý den.’

I was sure I heard her tut before she spoke, and anyway shouldn’t she have followed with ‘how can I help?’. I realised I would have to do the heavy lifting here. Thank God I’d had a few lessons.

‘Chai tea’ I said, hoping for the Indian spiced tea I loved to drink back home in England.

She looked at me expectantly.

‘Oh….err….pro-seem’

‘Is not čaj tea! Is either čaj or tea! čaj is tea. Czech don’t say čaj čaj!’

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck bristle, not knowing how to continue. My eyes scanned the various jars behind the counter. They were all made of brown glass, and of course the tea inside was a certain shade of very very dark brown. I wasn’t sweating yet, but only just.

I mouthed the names on the labels to speed up my brain, hoping it would spot something familiar. All I wanted was some black tea. I love a fancy cuppa, but I was ready to settle for any basic tea; ‘builders’ as we called it back home. If there was Tetley’s in this shop then it had been stuffed into a brown jar with a handwritten Czech label on it.

‘Earl grey?’ I asked.

She shook her head.

‘Lady Grey?’

She shook her head again, which wasn’t a great shame as I never saw the point in Lady Grey tea– isn’t it just Earl Grey but with more lemon in it?

I mouthed another of the names to myself.

“Co?” she asked.

“Nyitz, par-don” I replied, trying to use some vocabulary from my classes.

“Ne ne ne, you said words slowly like me-dunk-ovy čaj. Is not correct. Say after me; meduňkový.’

‘Meh-doonk-oh-vee’ I said slowly, enunciating every single syllable, feeling like a complete idiot.

‘Good, not great. Faster now – meduňkový.’

I tried again, but a little faster.

‘Is ok…. but not good yet. We say – meduňkový čaj. Now you’

‘Medoonk-ohvee chai’

 ‘Oh oh! Is not better. Where you from?’

‘England.’ I wasn’t ready to offer more detail than that.

‘Ah, work at IBM?’

I nodded, taken aback, studying her face. I wondered if I had met the world’s strangest shopkeeper. She had the look of someone who wouldn’t run out of a burning building, instead she would just walk slowly, saying to everyone she was missing her favourite TV show, and anyway she had seen buildings burn hundreds of times so why worry. I bet she had a hobby like squirrel taxidermy.

The thought stopped dead. She was staring at me – her grey eyes piercing through my head to the back of my brain.

I quickly searched around the shop to see if she had something within grabbing distance. I would simply pick it up, pay, and then get the hell away from her. Oh, how great that would be!

But there was nothing. Think again.

I knew that I needed an escape plan, and every second I spent there felt like a year closer to death. Time! I thought of my watch. I glanced down at it, thinking I could pretend to be late for an appointment and escape from this bizarre bazaar with its dominatrix tea lady.

‘Kolik je hodin?’ She asked.

‘Oh, eh sorry?’

‘Kolik. Je. Hodin?’ she tapped her index finger on her wrist to show what she had meant. ‘Time – what is time – kolik je hodin?’

My class had started learning ‘time’ vocabulary the night before, but I had been exhausted from work and found it too hard to concentrate. I gulped.

Toh yeah…uh….yeah-deh-nat-set….. um….oh….pyet.’

 I breathed out a little sigh, proud of my efforts.

‘Je jedenáct set pět? Ježišmaria! To neexistuje! Jsi idiot? Ježišmankote! Ne, ne, ne. Tak. TAK TAK TAK. Listen, you say elf. Nein. You say eleven hundred, eleven, five! To neexistuje – it not exist – it not time’.

I was starting to lose the thread of it all. Why was I in this shop? Who was she? Where was I?

‘Tak. So you said eleven hundred five. Is crazy. Try again. Hour is eleven yes?’

‘Yes.’

‘Ok. We say jedenáct.’

‘Jeh-deh-natst’ I repeated.

Her face contorted and flashed red like a deep-sea fish. I thought she would reprimand me for being a moron, but she didn’t. She took in a deep breath and kept her gaze fixed on me. Perhaps she was enjoying this.

‘Tak, je jedenáct…?’ She let the words hang in the air; waiting for me to finish her sentence.

‘Tak, je jedenáct…’ I froze but then my brain, oh yes my beautiful brain (I owe you a cuppa mate), latched the right word like I once hooked a plastic duck from a paddling pool at the funfair and won a goldfish when I was a young boy.

‘Tak, je jedenáct PADESÁT pět.’ I said, beaming. I was so happy to send my new word out into the world, like someone shows off their new puppy to people in the park.

She just looked at me with a frown and a mild look of disgust.

‘To není dobré. Is not good. You say ‘tak’. Itis not word for this sentence, and now is wrong time too!’  

Ježišmaria I thought to myself. She’d said that. I’d liked it. I marvelled at how nice it felt to say those words. The intonation – so final and resolute, as if nothing in the world could possibly ever make the situation better, not even by 1%.

I looked at my watch again; 11:58.

I took a deep breath.

‘Je jedenáct padesát osm hodin.’ I said.

‘Ne, ne, but is better. Je jedenáct padesát osm.’ To highlight the abrupt stop at the end of the sentence she sliced through the air with her hand downwards. Final – like an executioner’s axe.

‘Je jedenáct padesát osm’ I said.

‘Good! Very very good!’ She didn’t quite smile, but something was there – maybe the mirror reflection of the tiniest ray of sunshine had approached the landscape of her soul. I felt I saw a glimpse of her beauty; an all-mother who only wants the young to succeed.

She broke my gaze by saying: ‘But now you must say again. Three times.’

I repeated the line three times, mantra-like, not feeling I got better but at least I didn’t seem to get worse.

I realised I had to take action or I would never leave. I considered my options; running away seemed cowardly so the only way out was through. I would have to work with her to find a resolution. An image flicked into my mind of the prize that awaited me if I succeeded – a beautiful mug of hot milky black tea that I would drink lounging on the sofa in my apartment. It would be worth it. Then I pleaded: ‘Please I need to buy tea. Any tea. It can be loose or in bags or anything. Just. Black. Tea.’

She raised an eyebrow.

Ježišmankote I thought.

‘Proh-seem, chair-knee chai. YEN CHAIR KNEE CHAI.’ I said.

With that, she turned to look at her tall shelves full of jars and whispered to herself the same words I’d used:

‘Prosím černý čaj. Jen černý čaj.’

Then she said it again. And again. She was just staring at the jars and repeating my words over and over. Her arm reached out for a jar…. hesitated…. and went back to her side. This happened another two times. Finally, she reached up and her hand connected with a jar from the top left shelf which she opened – smelled – then put back on the shelf and shook her head.

‘Ne, ne, ne.’ Is all she said.

Suddenly a look possessed her face – aha! – and she leaned across to select something on her right. She smiled with an expression that suggested ‘oh wasn’t I silly, of course it should be this one’. And then the war began.

I froze, terrified. An air raid siren blasted at full volume, seemingly from all directions. My feet skipped on the spot, unsure where to turn – do I hide under the counter? Run out into the street?

She saw my fear and tried to calm me.

‘Is ok, no worry, is normal.’ She said in honeyed tones that surprised me.

I shook my head in disbelief. What was going on? A war? The Czech Republic was further East than I’d ever been before – and all that stuff that happened recently in Ukraine…

I turned and started for the door.

‘Hey’ she shouted, ‘is ok, no worry.’

I pulled the door open as she called after me:

‘Fine, you worry – is ok – but you practice Czech and next time you buy tea here we have second lesson.’

I had already learned my lesson; I decided right there that if I survived the war I would never, ever, walk down this lane again.

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