Camellia sinensis. Two Latin words, one plant. Five minutes to make it, four ingredients with which to do so.
A tea junction. A tea injunction.
A meeting of the family, a meeting of minds.
Boil the water, take down the big pot, throw in the teabags – one extra for the pot – a small jug of milk, a few teaspoons, saucers and cups, sugar, and… a treat? A treat! I am in control, I will decide. Rusk or biscuit? Hmmm, rusk before dusk! Whatever, any logic will suffice. All onto the tray, off to the lounge, up on the table, and we begin.
“Sugar and milk?”
“I want to do it myself!”
There is always one…
I sit. The verbs become a team effort. Stirring, sipping, slurping, dunking. Sighs of satisfaction. A look passes round the room; the tea is as it should be. And so, despite any number of imaginable catastrophes going on outside this room, everything will be alright.
The family that I grew up in, being steeped in English tradition, met for tea at exactly 10h00 and 15h30, religiously. Over the years many things have changed, but those two half hours, cast in stone, are immovable in my mind. I welcomed the end of apartheid, I partook in the rise of the digital age, I even forgave the de-planetising of Pluto, but teatime, you take that away and I am finished.
Good families begin the day with prayer; bad ones end it with dinner in front of the television. The best families meet for tea, twice daily, Monday to Sunday, irrespective of mood or season.
Breakfast is important: laden with excitement and hope for the day ahead, wisely we fill ourselves with the energy needed to get through it. Dinner is pleasant: a time for relaxation and reflection, for the exchanging of stories. Neatly sandwiched between those times is lunch. Nothing happens at lunch. It has the solitary purpose of inducing the siesta. The meal should be large, the conversation trivial. Get your meat, starch, and three veg, and then find a suitable place to nap, preferably in a strand of weak afternoon sun.
And where lunchtime conversation barely manages to venture, teatime discussion begins. What is superfluous and too tiring for the mind to comprehend – whilst distracted by your midday feast – will quite easily emerge, in lively debate, when armed with a cup of tea. Hardly the time for idle chit-chat, the mind becomes more awake than at any other hour of the day. Like a sort of daytime stargazing, our bodies relax, anxieties float away, and we can finally think clearly, unimpeded by distractions and deadlines. Often bracketed by work, it has this odd feeling of being both a break and a meeting, like planned leisure.
There also exists at teatime a sort of “spirit in the air”. Likely the same type of spirit that would have been present when Einstein apprehended his theory of relativity, or when Churchill decided to declare war all those years ago. I have no need to research just when great men and women made their inductive leaps, for I’m convinced they would have occurred whilst sipping a cup of tea. And, just as we do not find ourselves staring at light bulbs but rather at fires, you will see that with a steaming cup of tea in hand, all the problems and complexities of man’s invention become simple, silly, solvable.
It was primarily in these times that our family would laugh and joke. Wit was common, though sarcasm too. There was a freedom to say anything: to dream, to challenge, to imagine. Wild ideas would be thrown out, or plans for the day. Democracy could not have been better represented: everyone would listen, anyone could speak; we were all equals each with our one cup of tea.
Of course as life went on, and we each went our separate ways, it was not so easy to meet for tea. But, ingrained in each of us, at those precise times, our minds will lift from this busy world and its affairs, and we begin to drift towards the nearest kettle like a somnambulist.
My mom made the best tea. I guess it was her methods that we all grew accustomed to. When she used a tea cosy you knew it was a serious occasion – a signal that there would be visitors, cake, or both. The dogs would even wag their tails at twice the speed.
There was nothing more unanimous than a response to teatime with cake. Dinner brought us down the stairs irregularly. Lunch was a slow and individual affair. Breakfast a chore. But teatime was that special half-hour in the day that was not to be missed. The sugar spoon was shaped like a shovel. The kettle would whistle. There were no place settings, or napkins, or need for manners. Venues could change with the weather. One tray contained all the happiness required. It was a child’s idea of a mealtime, and it was all a sort of magic.
In retrospect, those two precious half-hours probably shaped my life more than any other “hour”. More than Science lessons, or surfing, a TV program, or a friendship. Well, much as a kite only flies when anchored, perhaps the supremacy of teatime can only be fully comprehended when it conforms to certain parameters.
One, laughter and conversation are essential, hence, it requires good company. Two, you must all be relaxed and content. An adult sprawled out on a couch is good proof of this. Three, one should feel a sense of belonging and be completely unaware of the time. This sacrament allows you to transcend the troubles of the day. Four, you should be fully present, yet aware of “another world”. Like you are on holiday, but at home. And, armed with those ingredients, you are sure to succeed.