Of tea and morality

Managing rations of my favourite tea makes for something low-key and soothing to worry about to put me in the holiday spirit
Image of Susie Boyt

On holiday this week, the devil made work for an idle mind. There was a complex legal situation unfolding back home, not to mention a small theatrical impasse, and then one or two people who are cross with me (I think unfairly, but I would say that) whose harsh words I could not quite dismiss.

It all played pinball in my brain. Updates came through every now and then relating to some of these matters, which didn’t help the arrival of the holiday mood. I tried not to think about any of it but the little rat-a-tat-tat of dismal dramas would not go away.

An acupuncturist I occasionally visit told me recently that in times of stress I should focus on the image of a needle sticking out of my head. It did seem, as a relaxation strategy, severe in the extreme. I changed the needle to a feather, and then to a rose. I saw the rose petals beaded with dew and imagined the scent, which was a bit synthetic, like Fry’s Turkish Delight. I thought of the sweet shop where I once bought this puce-foil wrapped bar circa 1976 in Barnsbury, Islington. Fred’s it was called. Fred in my memory wore a navy-and-white striped half-apron and a flat cap, which doesn’t seem at all likely. My imagination is filled with characters from musical adaptations of Dickens’ works.

In the afternoon I woke excitedly from a nap with an idea for a new book with a strong revenge theme. But when I sketched out a few paragraphs, it too closely resembled Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Menacing and gritty turned into madcap Ealing capers, the whole thing on the page, turning camper by the second, the men effeminate, the women even more so. I used to think, though I was not brilliant with faces or names, that I never forgot a grudge but, perhaps, this isn’t true any more . . . Things are changing.

. . .

Ineeded something new to worry about, something a bit low-key and soothing to put me in the holiday spirit. I imagined preparing a dinner for 24 of my nearest and dearest, a mental exercise that usually calms me – but before I knew it there was only half an hour to go and no food in the house, and I was hiding behind the sofa praying for an act of God.

Then, suddenly, the perfect thing to fret about presented itself. My principal challenge for the week, would be mathematical and beverage-related! I had snatched up 27 of my favourite tea bags as we left home for the airport and I was conscious that the pile was dwindling rapidly, day by day. Managing these rations would become my focus. I put the stash in a glass jar with a screw-top lid but I did not put the lid on firmly, just to show the world I was treating the whole business with a fairly light touch, a suggestion of a shrug even. Watching the ebb and flow of the tea soon became a ritual, reminding me of teenage fascination with bathroom scales, or waking to the cry of the baby in bed beside you for the fourth time and hoping desperately that it’s 5.30am and not 3.15am, or was it the other way round? (Of course, sometimes it’s the baby who wakes to find you crying . . . )

Henry James wrote that the English take in their morality as they drink their tea, and there was a small moral challenge involved here. I was determined that what I had would prove enough. It was a little caffeine parable, a good lesson for me – although I could not help wondering if, to pass this challenge with flying colours, I ought, perhaps, to end up with more tea bags than I had started out with. (“God bless the child that’s got his own, that’s got his own,” as Billie Holiday sang, and all that . . . )

This tea husbandry, even I could see, marked me out as a textbook example of an idiotic English person. This hurt my pride a little bit. I always identify as a Londoner rather than English, liking double-decker buses and grime and a café on every corner and 10 languages being spoken in the sandpit and a street with seven theatres on it. I have a fondness for Marble Arch and other great traffic hubs that steam and roar, where I find the atmosphere fresh and exhilarating. And, of course, I have never much gone in for cricket or Morris dancers or taking people down a peg or two, which I think of as national rather than metropolitan pursuits. I have always tried not to be too interested in gardening and deliberately never learnt what makes someone your second cousin twice removed.

Still, on the last day when I downed a quick cup made with the very last of the tea, just as we were about to head for home, I felt a great stab of success. It does not, these days, take much . . . 


susie.boyt@ft.com, Twitter: @SusieBoyt

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