Ian McMillan: ‘Don’t re-use the teabags, Ian lad’

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It was a quiet afternoon at the little factory in Darfield where I worked at weekends in the school holidays to make enough money to keep myself in progressive rock albums from Casa Disco, Barnsley’s home of groovy records for the discerning longhair like me.

Ernest and Philip, the men in charge at the factory, noticed I’d finished sanding down the pipes that were to make us all a fortune and they looked round for a job for me. “I’ll tell you what, Ian lad,” Ernest said, “let’s all have a cup of tea!” Philip nodded, and I made my way with a heavy heart to the kitchen at the back of the factory where a kettle that had been around since Victoria’s reign sat waiting for somebody to put it out of its misery.

I’d believed that there was no point putting tea in bags unless they could make more than one cup; it made complete sense to me.

I’d been asked to make a cup of tea before and it had been a disaster; the wiser people amongst you will be shaking your heads at this point at the thought of a teenager not being able to make a cup of tea, but all I can say in my defence is that I never drank tea and so the making of tea in our house was simply a strange alchemy of water and steam performed in the kitchen by my mam and dad.

So the previous time I’d attempted to brew a cuppa at the factory I’d reused some old teabags because that’s what I thought you did. I’d believed that there was no point putting tea in bags unless they could make more than one cup; it made complete sense to me. The resulting liquid was the colour of very weak light from a fading torch and Ernest actually said the word “Groooh!” when he drank it, like a character in a comic. He offered me some advice: ‘Don’t re-use the teabags, Ian lad. Use them properly: they’re bags, remember. Tea in bags.’ Well, that was all right as far as it went but as I was about to find out, it didn’t go far enough.

I looked at the teabags I’d just got out of the packet as though they might reveal their truths to me. I could just have put the bags in the teapot and poured boiling water on them, but Ernest seemed to suggest there was something else to the ritual, and it seemed to hinge around that resonant phrase ‘tea in bags’. I furrowed my brow and thought long and hard. Well, short and soft.

Ah, that was it: I needed to empty the tea leaves out of the teabags. They were just receptacles. They were the messenger, not the message. I ripped them apart in a cloud of tea dust and sprinkled the smithereens into the teapot. Oddly, there didn’t seem to be enough dust/smithereens in the pot so I ripped open a few more and emptied them in. I felt proud of myself: if the factory ever got rid of me I could set myself up as a tea boy somewhere. The kettle boiled in a slow and stately fashion befitting an antique. I poured the water into the pot and gazed out of the window as it brewed, contemplating that I’d learned something new. I’d probably get a bonus at the end of the week and then I could buy the new King Crimson album.

Or, as actually happened, Ernest said “Groooh!” again, for much longer and in a much louder voice. Still, they never asked me to make the tea again!