The finest cup of tea I ever tasted was made for me by Mrs. Taylor. Tiny and silver-haired when I was born, to my eyes she aged not a day until her last illness twenty-eight years later. She lived in Winchester, near the cathedral immortalized in song by the New Vaudeville Band, and it was there that I arrived by train to visit her one drear afternoon in October,
Preparation for The Taking Of The Tea (I soon realized that tea prepared with such painstaking attention to detail demanded a formal title) began in her clean but comfortably lived-in kitchen. (I should mention that Mrs. Taylor was the only person I knew whose house never needed cleaning—at least I presumed it didn’t, since it was never dirty nor did I ever once see her with a dust rag in hand.) On the tea tray went a cloth of white linen with an exquisite cutwork embroidery design, and two matching napkins. The cloth was almost obscured by two teacups of finest bone china in a delicate floral pattern, a matching milk jug, a bowl to catch the drips from the tea strainer, a teapot complete with elegant cozy, and a thermal jug whose function was as yet shrouded in mystery.
In the kitchen, I witnessed Mrs. Taylor warming the pot, then adding a quantity of tea leaves so surprisingly large that I wondered fleetingly whether she had been taking lessons from the keepers at Bristol Zoo. I was greatly relieved when, in the comfort of the sitting room, our chairs on either side of the fireplace and the tray on the small table between us, it turned out that the thermos flask was full of just-below-boiling-point water that she used to dilute the extraordinarily strong output of the teapot. There was something almost mesmerizing about watching her pour, first the milk, then the incredibly strong tea, then the very hot water, until the cup was the exact taste I preferred. Oh, I'm forgetting the sugar! Mrs. Taylor was well aware I did not take sugar, and she certainly knew that neither did she, but there was a bowl of sugar lumps, complete with tongs, to spare me the embarrassment of having to ask, "just in case" I had changed my mind.
Gradually I became aware that I was witnessing a ceremony from a bygone era. The goal was not, as is the norm today, the speedy production of a large quantity of tea to be slurped from hefty ceramic mugs, but rather the making of individual, six ounce cups of tea, each one perfectly tailored to its intended drinker.
There didn't seem to be quite enough air in the room. At least, as I sat up ramrod straight, frantically trying to avoid disappointing her expectations of a tea guest, I found it hard to breathe; in retrospect, I can relate to the female actors of Downton Abbey who described how restrictive their crushingly tight corsets were. It’s hard to misbehave when you can scarcely breathe!
The funny thing, looking back, is that it was all about love, though the word was never spoken. It was love that lay behind Mrs. Taylor’s extraordinary attention to detail in giving me a tea experience that remains vivid thirty-five years later; it was love that made me so desperately eager to please her in return. I imagine she fed me sandwiches and delectable little tea cakes, but I honestly don’t remember.
The love was in the teapot, and that’s what I recall.