Sparkling green tea baubles in Twinings tea shop tempt me. ‘They’ll look lovely on your Christmas tree,’ I’m told by the assistant, pulling one apart to show a few grey-green bags squashed inside. I sit and note the rows of forty white jugs and cups along the brown shelves with all the handles facing the same way, as I wait the regulation three and a half minutes for my sample of Christmas Cheer tea to brew. Steam is hissing from the hot water tap, clouding the air as a teapot is filled, reminding me of the false mist puffed out on the ice rink a little earlier, for a fashion photoshot.
In Somerset House I pass the large artificial tree by the rink, covered with brand labels, and follow through the shopping arcade down one side. I buy some holly paper, taking it from a fold-out crib of bright patterned rolls, but I turn down a small chocolate Christmas tree, crackling in its cellophane, that costs ‘an arm and a leg.’
I turn the corner to see the Spencer war memorial pictures full of men carrying urns to make tea, lying in winged capes (like angels) to fill water bottles at a fountain, making beds and jam sandwiches, having their wounds painted in a red flower shape patches with iodine, waiting in their trenches amidst clouds of barbed wire, and also images of red poppies and masses of white crosses. There are so many crosses cluttered together in one painting they look like building materials – window frames or wooden scaffolding.
Outside the law courts with their church-like spires, three men in hard hats and luminous yellow jackets (part of the brave army of London builders) set up a red plastic barrier. Then one leans on it, drinking his tea from a cracked white mug, as the others dig a trench in the puddled mud to lay a cable.
Round the corner other builders queue up outside a white van, labelled ‘Delia’s Kitchen’ (fuelled by red gas canisters) buying burgers and cups of coffee in white ridged plastic cups. One wears a winged apron, the left pocket bulging with a hammer, the right with a spirit level.
They remind me of my hard-hatted dad, grinning in a fading black and white photo, his talk of cleats and digging trenches for cables making me yawn as a teenager, as did his yearly November marches down the high street at Poole (and once down Whitehall) with a poppy in his lapel. Though I felt secure and full of happy anticipation as I lay in my bedroom in the holidays, listening to his movements below: the sudden rush of water from the kitchen tap, the whistle of the kettle, the fridge being opened to take out milk, the clank of china mugs against the teapot and sugar bowl as he stomped unevenly upstairs (one leg shorter than another due to a war wound) to bring us early morning tea and biscuits on a tray.
Then I remember how these same sounds made me nervous, so that I rushed to take the tray from him at the bottom of the stairs, as his limbs thinned and became wobbly, in his last year.
1. I want to wear her black t-shirt and her burnished gold apron.
“Eat here or take away?” she asks.
I’ll take it away please and go and sit on the low brick wall in the garden. I’d rather be stung by a wasp than stay inside with you.
“Green salad or mixed?” she asks. The nurse in the white smock with an upside down watch wants a glass of tap water. The paediatrician is vegan.
I leave a trail of toasted sunflower seeds on the table and when I look back through the window the girl with the burnished gold apron is wiping them away with a yellow duster. Later, when she sweeps the floor, she finds a gold drawing pin, a pink plaster and a dried worm under the table where I was sitting. Briefly.
2. While she waits for the coffee to sit she folds the duvet into quarters and crams it, still warm with her sleep, into a cupboard with no door.
3. Ginger the roadsweeper pushes his cart beneath the dripping plane trees. Ginger has a phial of glitter in the pocket of his grey waterproof trousers but nobody knows that. He sweeps up the dreadful falling leaves. They are like fish taken out of the water and still half alive with their blistering red veins. He has a brush for every possibility. Later, when the streets are gleaming, he goes home and makes an autumnal collage with stinky glue and sugar paper but nobody knows that.
4. I watch the UPS man slide open the door of his sweet paper chocolate brown and gold van and while his back is turned I climb inside amongst the parcels. All the birthdays and Christmas you missed are stacked into piles and I don’t know which one to open first.
“Sign here,” says the UPS man who, when I tell him my story, lets me take as many parcels as I can carry.
I’m looking at a scaffolding of gravestones. I stand back and screw up my eyes. As I do so, the crosses fly out like paper planes, their bombs reduce to sherbet lemons. Far away, little boys are playing on a green hillside. They’re dressed in short grey serge trousers, battered boots on their feet. In six year’s time, their game will be war. Paper planes will become their graves, poppies their memory.
I boil the water, put in two brown eggs and time them for three and a half minutes. I decide not to toast the bread. I butter the bread, cut it into strips. Two soft boiled eggs with soldiers, on a red plate.
The real soldiers have died. It’s Remembrance Sunday. Our remaining “Boys” young and old, are filing past the Cenotaph. I dip my bread into the soft orange yolk and imagine my uncle entering the room in his army uniform, the George cross pinned to his chest.
“Can I boil you an egg?” I ask.
“I’ve been dreaming of eggs” he responds. “Could you toast me a crumpet over the fire?”
“I don’t have a fire. But I’ll find you a crumpet and toast it for you” I reply.
I’ve brought him home. I’m sheltering his memory away from the mustard gas and under the comfort blanket.
Soft-boiled eggs, with soldiers.
I’m in ironing hell.
I’m in shirt irritation.
Until I switch on the television and see where real hell is
Flotsam, jetsam, stateless, homeless.
Land strewn with bulging corpses.
No water. No food, no infrastructure.
Now, I’m in ironing heaven,
Hell boxed to avoid contamination.
I’m wrapped in the luxury of the mundane.
I’m safe, and cocooned in a blanket of marmite on toast
A mug of tea by my side
Disaster switched off in the corner of the room.
The bus driver kindly waited for the elderly woman with a walking stick, who announced “I’m only going to the next stop”. Not like the one the other day, who braked really hard while I was standing at the exit doors waiting to get off; I went spinning backwards – luckily into an empty seat ! A concerned woman asked if I was alright? “I’m on the fairground of life!” was my response.
Outside Somerset House after seeing the Stanley Spencer murals “Heaven In A Hell Of War” from the Sandham Memorial Chapel. I felt these heart wrenching paintings celebrate the pleasures of ordinary life of the solders in hospital rather than dwell on the horrors of war on the front, which Spencer had experienced as an orderly at first-hand.
Two female students sat either side of me one, the on the left-hand side wearing a hijab, munching a sandwich from a brown paper bag, while texting on her phone, was completely dressed in black. On my right-hand side (also in black except for brown boots) she had a bright yellow bow in her bun-tight hair and was yellow highlighting text in the book she was studying. Both were completely “in the zone”.
Finishing my delicious Machiata, I went to Twinings Tea Museum through the lunchtime hordes, passing LSE – old haunts. While drinking “Christmas Cheer” tea from a pretty seasonal box I looked at black and white illustrations of the family history remembering how labour intensive tea harvesting still is as only 2 or 3 leaves from the top of the bush are used. I was also reminded of the taste of charcoal tea in Kenya, made with Carnation milk and boiled with loads of sugar.
In the shop a group of Japanese tourists were buying stacks of boxed teas but seemed mystified by the price. The young female assistant raised her voice as if this would help their understanding while other assistants gathered around, smelling the money they had to spend.
In Lincoln’s Inn Fields were huge trees bereft of leaves, all more ancient than the humans surrounding them. As I write there’s a middle-aged Muslim with curly hair, kneeling, facing East and praying. What a humbling sight. I used to attend church as a child but now only intermittently for weddings and more recently funerals.
The task! A habit? Say like cleaning your teeth? Or changing sheets every two weeks? Or me hoovering once in a blue moon! I used to believe a clean and tidy house was a homage to a wasted life! Rebecca West considered preparing a meal or baking a cake for loved ones was of equivalent value to writing a novel or composing a symphony but still a creative endeavor. I like that idea.
An old lady with a shopping trolley sits on a bench smiling beatifically like a Madonna. She gets up from time to time, pushing her trolley to and fro, again and again. A young Malaysian wearing only black has a heavy rucksack on his back. He leans forward, rubbing his face and eyes anxiously as if he’s being followed. A huge khaki clad ex-serviceman wears dark glasses. Behind them he has a nap.