Ian McMillan: The day tea bags struck terror into my heart

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One of my first jobs was as a labourer at the factory or Mr W and Mr F. My tasks were simple: I had to put things on a conveyor belt to get spray-painted and then take them off again. I had to put the finished items into boxes and load them up on pallets. I had to get rid of the rubbish and put it into skips. Each day was full of simple tasks which suited me because I’m a simple man.

Then one day Mr W took me one side and said: “Aye, Ian lad: could you make the tea for me and Mr F?” It seemed that the woman who normally made the tea (don’t ask me why Mr W and Mr F couldn’t make their own tea) was off having her hip done so I was handed 
the mashing job as the junior lad.

I have to tell you that the idea of making tea struck terror into my heart because, and I’m almost afraid to admit this, I’d never made a pot of tea in my life.

Think about it: I was a sixth-former waiting to go to a place of Higher Education. I didn’t drink tea: I mainly drank beer or pop, neither of which you had to use a kettle for, unless you were really drunk. At home my mam or dad made the tea for their own consumption and all I knew was there was a whistling noise, which could have been my dad or the kettle, and then there was a pouring noise, and then my mam and dad would sit glugging tea and saying things like, “By, that’s lovely…” The process, though, remained mysterious. I’d never been tempted by tea. In a competition between tea and Tizer, Tizer would always win by a mile.

Mr W indicated an area with a sink 
and a kettle. “The bags are in there,” he said, then he went off to supervise or point or shake his head or whatever 
it is that gaffers have always done.

The bags? My mind was a blank. What bags? Bags of water? Bags of milk? Bags of (and this seemed the most improbably) tea?

Now I know you’re thinking that I must be making this up. You’re thinking that nobody could ever have got this far through life not knowing what a tea bag was. Well, my hand is up; I’m the guilty one. A bag of tea? Don’t be daft. And now I had to make some tea using a tea bag, whatever that was.

I noticed some objects that looked like smudges at the side of the sink. They could have been sea-slugs or pieces 
of old ravioli. They were of course tea bags. Used tea bags.

In my naivety and/or stupidity I thought the reason the tea was in a bag was so that it could be used more than once. I also thought that I should make a little rip in the side to let the flavour in and out. Of course you know that would make the tea-leaves come out as well as the flavour, and that’s because you know a lot more about tea bags than I did at the time.

Let’s draw a veil over my tea. Let’s forget Mr W going, “Ian lad, what’s 
this? Washing up water?” Let’s forget Mr F taking a long drink then screwing his face up and spitting the tea out and shouting, “Groooh!” like somebody in a comic. Let’s forget all that and go and open a bottle of pop!

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