Ian McMillan: Tea bags stir up memories from the depths

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Each morning I stand there in our kitchen wreathed in steam and clutching a tea bag; I wait until what we tea aficionados call “the actual boiling moment of boilingness” and then I pour the water in the mug and drop the teabag in at the same time. There’s a satisfying splash. The teabag floats around, half-submerged like a shipwreck or a walrus in the mating season. Some fainthearts will take the teabag out after a while. Not me. I leave the bag in so the tea gets stronger and stronger as I drink it. Sometimes, when the mug’s empty and it’s just me staring at the beached bag at the bottom of the mug, I’m tempted to pick it up and eat it, but that would be going just that little bit too far. One day, though. One day.

Of course the tea bag is a fairly recent invention; when I was little we had loose tea, what we used to call “tilly leaves”; I guess we must have had a tea strainer, too, or possibly we were experts at leaving the leaves in the cup as we slurped. Then one day my mam came home from the shop with a box of teabags. She opened the box and tipped the bags out onto the kitchen table and we all stared as though she’d found ancient Aztec artefacts in the compost heap. We weren’t sure about them, to be honest. My Dad said, with the manner of one trying to comprehend a complex mathematical formula. “So they’re bags. And they’re full of tea?” My brother was more practical: “Won’t the tea taste of bag?” he asked. My mam looked excited; she was always one for the modern invention. “I like the look of them.” she said, going to fill the kettle at the sink. “I think we’ll give them a try.”

I just stood there turning and turning a teabag in my hand, trying to remember where I’d seen one before. It definitely looked familiar. Then I remembered: that camp site in the Borders! Those kids! That shallow stream!

Our family had been on the site for a couple of days when another family pitched up next door. The bloke had forgotten his mallet to hammer the tent pegs in and was pounding them with his shoe so my dad lent him ours and a temporary holiday friendship was formed. Me and the two lads of the family went to play in a stream. We had fishing nets and overactive imaginations and we were on the lookout for mermaids. The boys had an odd accent that sounded like a record on at the wrong speed so I asked them where they came from. “Sutton Coldfield” they said, and I remember telling my mam that they’d be used to camping because they lived in a field. A cold one at that.

The next day, when fishing, I found something at the bottom of the stream. I held it up: it was round and soft and malleable. “I know what that is,” said the older of the two Sutton Coldfielders, solemnly, as though he was David Attenborough; “It’s a mermaid’s egg’.” We held it up to the light. I reached down again and pulled up another one. And another, and another. A whole cache of mermaid eggs!

They weren’t, of course. You know what they were. And maybe that’s why I like teabags so much: there’s that little bit of magic about them!