Rob was washing the dishes in the sink after tea. The radio was on, still tuned to a ridiculously sentimental station. He wanted to change it but it was what Helen had liked to listen to while she was doing the ironing, and he'd not touched it since she died. He tried whistling along for a few bars, but the lyrics of the song annoyed him so much he didn't want to join in, and he kept sliding off-key and out of tune. He put a plate in the rack, and watched briefly while soap-suds slid down the shiny white surface. Helen would have told him off for not rinsing the plate first. He fished around in the water, the surface hidden by the icebergs of bubbles, again hearing her voice in the back of his mind warning him about sharp knives hidden below the surface.
"But they're all on the side," he said out loud, not realising he was talking. He gestured with the hand holding the sponge. "They can't hide in the water because I won't put them in there to soak and warp. It's bad for them."
His hand found a cup and he pulled it up to the surface to wipe it down. He was thinking now about her argument that not rising the crockery left soap residue on it that you could taste in your food later on.
The cup plinked in his hands, and he looked down, startled. Had he managed to crack it just by washing it? The cup didn't look quite right, but he couldn't really see it clearly to work out what had happened. He turned the cold tap on, and ran the cup beneath the stream of water, only thinking as he turned the tap off that if the heat had cracked the cup then the cold water would probably only make it worse. He turned the cup round in his hands, scrutinising the surface. There did seem to be a small crack, but it might not be, it kind of looked like something stuck to the cup that was peeling away at the top. It was quite close to the rim of the cup, perhaps it was a stubborn crumb of something. He rubbed at it with his thumbnail, feeling it catch on something and then pass over again. He pressed a little harder, trying to get the nail to stick firmly behind it. He finally caught it, and pressed harder still, his fingers slipping inside the cup and pressing there to try and reduce the stress on the pottery. It would be far too ironic if he managed to break the cup because he thought he'd found it was broken.
Suddenly something gave way, and his thumb moved slowly forward, something white and firm rolling up in front of the nail. He kept pushing, not at all sure what he was seeing. He was convinced that he would have noticed sooner if there was an entire band of something stuck around the top of the cup, but that's definitely what seemed to be peeling off now. He turned the cup as he pushed, something nagging at the edges of his vision. He was determined to get this off now though and see what had happened to the cup, so he ignored it and kept turning. Finally it came back to the start and neatly popped off and fell into the dish-water.
He stared at the cup, disbelieving what he was seeing. An entire layer of china appeared to have come off the cup, uncovering beneath a second layer with some kind of pattern painted onto it. There were what looked like watercolour branches with little spring buds on, something that seemed oddly familiar. He rubbed the ball of his thumb over the newly revealed layer, and it squeaked as though freshly cleaned off.
"What?" he said to himself, slowly, letting the word hang in the air in the kitchen. On the radio, unregarded, Dashboard Confessional started up a sad tune about a cheat and swallowed the word up hungrily.
He swept his hand through the water, his fingers lightly curled like a dredge, and found the fallen roll of stuff that had peeled off the cup. Pulling it out and shaking it dry, he looked at that: rolled china, which was surely impossible? The cup had definitely been solid when he'd been drinking coffee from it during tea. He put the cup down on the draining rack so he had both hands free, and tried unrolling the china. There was no give in it now at all, no way to pull it away from itself. He tried a little harder, and realised that the china would shatter before it would unbend.
He put the roll of china down now and looked at the cup again. He picked it up, and experimentally pried at the white china that still seemed to be covering the pattern up. Almost like a hard-boiled eggshell, the china covering now came away easily because some of it was already gone, and the entire remainder of the cup suddenly slipped off, shed by the cup like a snake sloughing its skin. He put the white china aside and stared at the cup revealed by it all, his throat suddenly tight and his mouth dry. The revealed cup was one of the set that he and Helen had bought in Wales on summer. They'd gone there together on the train, about three months before he proposed to her. She'd found the cups in the window of a small shop that sold works by local artists, and paid a silly amount of money for them. All of them were now broken and thrown away, so what was this one doing here, now, in his hands? And how had it been covered up by the other cup?
He placed the cup on the draining rack. It was dry, but it seemed like the right place to put it, as though it had somehow just hatched from the previous cup. He swept through the dish-water again, and found no more dishes, so he quickly washed up the knives, and then dried them off before putting them away in the drawer. Knives were to be respected. Then he sat down at the kitchen table and looked at the cup on the draining rack, and wondered about how it came to be there.