I wrote a story once, years ago, as part of a novel-in-waiting. I don't think now it has a place there, but a friend recently wrote about what tea means to her in her blog (yet to be publicly shared, so I was lucky). And just by chance I found this old story tonight. Serendipity, I think it's called. "The discovery of things not sought." But, of course, it's so much more than that.
And I thought, Let us have tea together, you and I. Your tea story and mine. With their little fingers crooked, and the steam curling over the cups. That seems only right…
A cup of tea.
First I fill the jug and switch it on. While I wait for the water to boil I have to make some decisions. Which tea? Which mug? I am thinking Rooibos. A bush from a tiny province in South Africa. It has no caffeine but you can drink it with milk and sugar, so it’s like a regular tea in disguise.
If I had caffeine I would go crazy. I was at a friend’s house the other day and drank two cups of English Breakfast. I never drink black tea, but this day I thought, Goddamn, I’m tired of depriving myself. I’ll just have a little. After the second cup, I told her my life story. It took about five minutes, the words leaping over each other like animals in flight, animals trying to outrun a fire. My head buzzed, my skin tingled. I couldn’t stop talking. When I left, I had to walk out backwards because I was still going, my words ricocheting against the walls, the windows, tangling up in my friend's hair. And the stories were sad and dark, all of them, and her eyes went wide.
Afterwards, when I came down, I thought, What have I done? I apologised the next day, and she said, No. It was okay. I didn’t mind at all. But perhaps she was merely being kind. In that gentle way you might treat a feral cat stuck up a tree.
The kettle makes a murmuring sound that grows louder, an approaching train.
The mug. We have two enormous, truly gigantic mugs from a trip to a tourist shop in San Francisco. They are a committment. You have to be ready for a lot of liquid. You have to be prepared to get up to pee over and over again. If I know I will be writing upstairs for a long time, I think, The big mug. But then they are in the dishwasher sometimes, or still with my husband’s coffee on the bottom, the sediment like tar. Washing a mug this size takes time, more time than I might like to spend.
So I might pick one of the mugs I have been given for Mother’s Day, one for each of the last five years. They show my childrens’ evolution. The first has my daughter at six months old, holding a watermelon rind and peering over it with her big eyes. On the other side is my son who, in this photo, is nearly three. He is playing a toy guitar, but the guitar is huge and heavy, so the strap bears him down and he bends his knees. He is strumming a serious rock riff—his face is contorted with effort, or joy, or both.
Another mug shows the children lying over the dog, smiling up at the camera. The dog lies placidly. He is so gentle, so smelly. On another, the children hold up home-made signs saying, Happy Mother’s Day. I love you. And their eyes squint, because the light is bright outside, so they look worried even though I am sure they were happy. Another mug is fading, the smiles of the children holding fast like Cheshire cats, but the detail becoming blurred. And I think, One day, they will turn white.
The last cup doesn’t exist. Now I remember—my husband missed a year. The shop closed down and he searched through the Yellow Pages with no luck. So he bought me a plastic vase that looked like wood and a box with leather squares on the top. I thanked him but I knew I didn’t want these things. How to explain that it wasn’t things I wanted on this day, but him, and my children, around me, adoring me, keeping me alive.
The kettle has boiled. Today, I choose a butterfly cup given to me by my mother. I put the teabag in, and pour the water. I put in a spoonful of sugar and I stir, with one hand wrapped around the mug. I love this moment. It is pure, here, the time slowed. The cup starts off cool, and as I stir, the tea brews and the cup warms, the china slowly absorbing the heat. Until the delicious moment when the cup is too hot to hold, and I have to move my hand away. I don't mind the almost pain, and sometimes, I see how far I can travel into it. I go with my eyes wide open and I am not afraid.
Once, I burned my fingers badly on the stove. I held them under running water for forty-five minutes. While underwater, my fingers felt fine—in fact, they felt nothing. But I couldn’t stay there. I knew at some point, I was going to have to turn off the tap and face the pain, get in the car, be driven to the doctor to dress the burns.
I took my fingers away. The pain was breathtaking. It hit me as a solid wave, enough to knock a person over, enough to make a person scream. But then something curious happened: I let the pain in. I embraced it. As the pain took over my body I felt I was on the sea. I lifted and floated and held the pain close. So it could not scare me. So it owned nothing. It was almost beautiful.
The tea is ready for the milk. I take out the bag. I pour in just enough milk so the tea is creamy, not too dark. Not too light. Then I sip it. Because it might need more sugar, more milk, more…something.
But today it doesn’t. Today, it is perfect.