It’s been tricky choosing a final portrait for my 7 things. I considered writing about Mr Manbag but I feared it would be either a bad comedy or a love letter, neither of which would make for good reading. Then I considered Paul, an ex neighbour who was a little odd and whom we joked was murdering prostitutes and locking them in his wheelie bin (why else would anyone have a padlock on their bin?). I considered my mother-in-law, my colleague Debi and my friend Lucy. But I decided that the only person I know well enough to write about in detail is, well, me. Sort of.
7 Things : My Life in Tea
I write this with a cup of tea at my elbow. This tea is cheap rose tea bought at a corner store in Kuala Lumpur (costing 2 Malaysian Ringgits – about 50p). The leaves are like dust so that the bottom centimetre cannot be drunk else a nasty, gritty mouthful of leaves be sucked in. The smell is sweet and fragrant, the tea equivalent of Turkish Delight. Tea is very important to me - it’s a measurer of time, a haven, a bringer of peace and a marker to my life...
Tea as a child would be of the builder’s variety. Loose leaves in a warmed pot with full fat milk, in the pre-homogenised days when a pint of milk would have an inch of delicious cream on top and on top of that would be a thick meniscus of solid cream which would reward the one to open the bottle (by gently pressing on the foil top so as to remove it but not break it) with a creamy finger to lick. Two sugars would be stirred in to make the cuppa truly comforting. It would be made by my mum, my elder sister or I (my two younger sisters somehow always got away with not doing any chores) and in my memory it would often be brewed after tea (the working class name for dinner) and before an episode of Coronation Street. The cups would be arranged on the kitchen sideboard in age order, a curve of four cups with my mum’s cup in front. Our house was so cold in those days, before central heating was installed, that we soon got very good at bringing all five cups in to the front room (the working class name for lounge) in a single trip to avoid returning to the freezing kitchen, the cups clasped in rows like a waitress with steins in a beer keller.
Next in my tea life were the “one offs” as we used to call them – a single cup of tea made with a single tea bag. This was my university life. I tried rose pouchong tea for the first time – black tea flavoured with rose petals like the Malaysian tea I am drinking today. My affectation, a poor attempt at being middle class, soon became the norm for me, like the Independent crossword and microwaved baked potatoes with Marmite. I had tried Earl Grey at a schoolfriend’s house when I was 16 and at the time thought it was vile stuff. Now here I was drinking something even more ridiculous. This is when the seeds of my love affair with Twinings, a brand that to me symbolises middle class tea drinking, were planted. At the same time I discovered gin (one of my best friends in life), Pimm’s and drinking champagne out of the bottle (ideally while wearing rowing gear and slightly high from having avoided being thrown into the cold and muddy Isis). It seemed like my middle class ways became truly part of me. It wasn’t long before I was snogging blokes in tuxedos (blokes *cough* who weren’t my fiancé) at college balls and shouting out of sash windows like a budding hooray Henrietta. Sadly those days didn’t last long. For the first time in my life I was in a group of people who were my peers or better. I left university clueless and directionless, not knowing what I wanted or where I was going. I had enjoyed myself, perhaps, a little too much and returned to my suburban home and the bedroom I shared with my three sisters.
Then there were the barren tea years. I moved in with my fiancé (despite the tuxedo kisses and despite being caught by him in bed with Mr Tuxedo, asleep and naked), into a small flat in a village. This couldn’t be much further removed from my student city life despite it being only 5.2 miles away. I had a shop job and wore a drab polyester uniform, the skirt the colour of a cold foggy day or the faded edges of a paperback book. Also known as beige. I ate oven chips and oven chicken and barely drank tea at all. My fiancé (I keep calling him that and to me it sounds weird, despite the fact that we were together for 15 years and engaged for about 11) barely drank tea at all. Occasionally he would have a coffee, a drink I abhor. If I accidentally eat a coffee chocolate I would rather spit its half chewed remnants out than have that disgusting taste in my mouth a moment longer. But he was never much of a tea drinker. And he wasn’t into gin. The signs were all there really. The relationship was off the boil for a long time before the dregs were finally thrown down the sink.
Then, as you must have guessed, I met my tea-match. Mr Manbag. Gin drinker, tea drinker and child of a middle class family. This is where I belong. He enjoys a Lady Grey (something that the lovely Tooting Squared introduced us to that has now become our standard cuppa. Twinings of course) as much as I do. He likes his tea as milky as I do. He has his tea even sweeter than me. Like me he does not drink chamomile (which smells a bit like mouldy grass to me) or fruit teas (they always smell delicious but taste of nought). Like me he will occasionally have a mint (not really a tea at all. I much prefer “infusion” or “tisane” which I think it what the French call it) tea as a digestif. But really we are the same. He is the only person I know in the whole world (counting even my mum, here, now that I drink Middle Class Tea) who can make a cup of tea that I like. We make our tea the same but it doesn’t seem that we have become that way rather that we always were.
At weekends we often lunch out. Somewhere in the centre of Reading normally. Occasionally further afield if we, too, are further afield. But if the first thing that passes my lips on a weekend day is a lunch (which happens often, such is our propensity for lying-in) it absolutely must be accompanied with a cuppa. Almost always Earl Grey with lots of milk and occasionally with a side order of barista-telling-off if they neglect to put the bag in the water while it is still boiling (one of my pet hates). Probably with a sweetener and maybe with a muffin for dessert. But until I have had my tea the day cannot begin.
And next? Next for us is another trip away. It seems like we’ve barely holidayed this year. 10 days in Greece. Lots of weekends in Bristol. A couple of weekends in the Cotswolds. But, still, it doesn’t seem like much. We had hoped to go to Paris in October or November but I fear that the purse strings won’t stretch quite that far. I shall cross my fingers that we can manage that trip in the spring. But for now I shall be happy with another Christmas away, to match last year’s successful Christmas in Granada. This year our plan is to visit Istanbul for another Christmas where the shops are open on Christmas day, the weather is a touch warmer and where we can just be together, the perfect Christmas gift. And of course, in Turkey it would be rude not to partake of some Turkish tea. Not black and not with milk. But apple or lemon or mint and all served in beautiful silvered glasses. Perfect.
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