Tea connects British people. When the plumber came to fix the pipes in my home in Caddington, Bedfordshire, he would remark that it was “very hot in the house,” and that he’d built up a “powerful thirst.” I finally understood these were polite signals that I should boil the kettle for tea. Then I’d take a break with the plumber, dunk chocolate cookies, and chat.
If a construction crew dug up our road, the stay-at-home mums took trays laden with mugs of tea and biscuits out to the street for the workmen’s breaks.
Once, in London, I saw a man fall out of a second story window onto the pavement below. I stayed with him until the ambulance arrived, and then walked to the office. The first thing my boss offered me was a cup of tea.
Rosi’s The LightCatcher is an Official Selection winner in psychological suspense novels for the New Apple Book Awards.
The Victorian high tea, with its Mary Poppins images of cucumber sandwiches, no longer exists in most homes. If someone invites you to tea, it will be the evening meal at 5 or 6pm. A later, more formal meal is “supper.” The children will have had their “tea” and be dressed for bed.
When I lived in England, high tea was in such decline that china tea services turn up in second-hand shops, along with hand-embroidered linen tea napkins tossed out from grandma’s Welsh dresser.
In mourning for this lost custom I decided to host a “proper” high tea. I invited the village mums to arrive at 3pm for home-made scones, blackcurrant jam, and clotted cream which I made from Joy of Cooking, because my local shops didn’t carry clotted cream.
We sat balancing delicate, gold-rimmed cups on our knees: china for once, instead of our usual mugs. We continually consulted a little book called “The Etiquette of an English Tea” to check our manners. We spoke in pretend posh accents, and asked each other to “please pass,” dissolving into fits of giggles.
I loved tea.
My daughter’s friends, girls under five, played a manners game my mother in Seattle had made up for me when I was a little girl. I’d set the table with the china I’d picked up second hand, and put a cake and a teapot in the middle of a cloth-covered table.
“The Queen,” I announced, “is coming to tea. You mustn’t slurp, or spill, or scrape your spoon in the cup as you stir in your sugar. You must eat your cake with a fork, and wipe your mouth with a napkin.
“If you break the rules,” I said, and made my eyes big and round, “the Queen might not come back.”
I couldn’t tell which the girls loved more – to pretend the Queen was coming, or to slurp so she wouldn’t return!
As a reporter, the first thing I learned in a strange newsroom was how everyone took their tea. Strong with a little milk? Two sugars? Very milky? A finicky editor once led me into a tiny kitchen to make sure I poured water as soon as the electric kettle had boiled.
My editor quickly fished out the teabag with a spoon. “Brew not stew!” he said, and at the first sip happily smacked his lips.
But my strangest encounter with tea came during an assignment to report on a city-wide, dawn police raid. They’d rooted suspected burglars from their beds, and drove them to the station, without cuffs. After the booking sergeant checked in a grumbling crew, the police offered their charges – you’ve got it – cups of tea.
The most enduring memory of a cup of tea, the most delicious? Midwives cheered me on as I gave birth to my 9lb 10oz son with: “when you’re done we will bring you tea!” And they did – milky, with sugar, and a big stack of buttered toast.
The best cuppa ever.
The LightCatcher is an official selection winner in psychological suspense novels for the New Apple Book Awards.