Friday, April 4, 2008

Tea time

The quilting ladies came for the day last week.

Here is how it works: each week, the quilting ladies meet at a different house. The hostess of the week provides coffee and cookies, ahem, biscuits, when everyone arrives, usually around 10.30. The ladies settle in, take out their sewing, and work for an hour or two. Around 12.30, the French ladies decide that it is time for lunch, and take the sandwiches, salads, and leftovers that each has brought from home into the kitchen or dining room. The hostess, meanwhile, has opened bottles of red wine and laid out a cheese platter and a basket of assorted breads--as well as glasses, plates, knives for cheese, and napkins. She hovers while the French ladies eat, making sure that everyone has enough wine and showing them how to use the microwave. When the French are finished, the English ladies come next: same procedure. After lunch: coffee, again, and maybe a bit of chocolate. Then: more sewing. Sometime just past three, it will be time for tea and cake. The French ladies prefer thé ordinaire, the English, Earl Grey.

I had to borrow wine glasses and tea cups from Jules. I laid in a half dozen bottles of red and five varieties of cheese. I vacuumed and dusted and knocked the cobwebs down from the ceiling. I baked a cake. The French ladies colonized the living room and the English ladies took over the kitchen table, and I filled the sink with soapy water and washed coffee cups and then washed wine glasses and cheese plates. I forgot the after-lunch coffee service, which made the English ladies laugh. At 3.15 I put the kettle on for tea, set out tea cups on their saucers, and took the boxes of tea out of the cupboard. While I waited for the water to boil I put a teabag in each cup.

Agatha came to survey the field. She is about six feet tall and given to quelling, the residue of a lifetime spent first teaching French to English children and, latterly, English to French children. When she comes into a room she draws herself up to her full height and makes a Statement, such as, I was almost Swept down the Hill by All This Rain, and expects everyone to stand to attention. There is frequent dissension in the ranks of English ladies about this: there are insurgents who believe that conversations that, well begun, should in fact be allowed to continue and even be completed when Agatha enters, and those insurgents have been known to insist that anyone speaking carry on and disregard the commotion. But that is difficult to do. As annoying as it may be to be interupted mid-story, it is practically impossible to ignore the sense of importance and adventure that sweeps in the door along with her.

So there I was arranging my teacups and tea bags, and there was Agatha peering over my shoulder. Getting ready for tea, are we, my dear?

I mumbled something about it being tea time.

Agatha looked at the teacups and then around the kitchen, evidently missing something. But my dear, where is your teapot? You can't mean that you are going to make all these single cups of tea.

Yes, I explained, I am. I have a teapot, but it holds only three or four cups, so it would be useless...

Don't have a teapot big enough! She turned to the English ladies, who were, of course, mid-conversation. Girls, she doesn't have a teapot! My dear, Lizzie here has at least six teapots, and I know she would be glad to have you come and choose one, wouldn't you, Lizzie?

Lizzie looked up for her stitching and twinkled, divided between being irritated--she was in the middle of a particularly funny story about a vicar in a posh church who was drunk for Christmas Eve services--and amused. You have but to ask, my dear.

The water came to a boil just then, and I began to pour it over the teabags in their cups. Agatha watched. Are you using one teabag for each cup? Her voice almost cracked from shock.

Yes, I replied. Isn't that how you make tea, I thought to myself. Teabag, cup, boiling water, wait three minutes?

Oh, no no no no no, my dear. She turned to the English ladies, who had now given up on hearing about the drunken vicar and were riveted on Agatha and the tea cups. Girls, she's using one teabag per cup! This tea is quite strong, my dear, and it is really unnecessary to use one bag for every cup. One teabag will do nicely for two, even three cups, won't it, girls?

There were murmurs of acquiescence from the table. Oh, yes, one was enough for two, certainly, it did get quite strong quite fast, didn't it?

I began rearranging teabags, moving quickly before I ended up with too-strong tea. Agatha supervised happily, pointing out that, really, one would go through a whole box of tea rather quickly if one used so many bags at once!

I passed out teacups and slices of cake--American pound cake, filled with French cream and spread with English raspberry jam--serving Agatha first. She carried her plate and saucer back into the salon, where she was sewing with the French ladies. A minute or two later I followed her in, bearing more tea--ordinaire, of course--and cake. When I came in, Agatha had the French ladies in rapt attention. Elle n'a pas une théière assez grande! She doesn't have a teapot big enough! They all tittered politely and sympathetically: the French, they don't all have teapots big enough, either.

Back at the kitchen table, the ladies teased me about Agatha and my strong tea, and Lizzie finished her story about the vicar. I poured second cups and offered second slices of cake. Then it was time to wash again. Before I threw out the used teabags, I asked the English ladies if anyone would like to take them home to reuse. They laughed--and then Ginny said, gently, you know, if you reuse them later, the tea is very bitter. So out they went.

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