English Strain

J M F Casey

Nanny always drank loose leaf tea, from a large green teapot, well-steeped, poured through a fine metal strainer, one sugar, a splash of milk. She would have five or six cups a day, perhaps an additional two or three if it was a Royal Legion cake sale. As soon as I was tall enough to reach the trolly, I was trained to perform tea making duties, timing the brew with an egg timer. From then on, I made perhaps one third of the daily pots.

One day she instructed me to pour her tea into a cup with an image of a young woman wearing a crown and the words ‘Coronation of Elizabeth II – 1952’ printed upon it in faded grey. She told me that today the Queen was turning sixty, so she wanted to celebrate. There were custard creams, Nanny and Uncle Simon both drank a tiny glass of brown liquid, of which I was forbidden. I asked if Nanny was sixty yet, she tutted and scolded me, saying you should never ask a woman her age, Uncle Simon laughed and said a woman is always twenty-one,

“Quite right, I am twenty-one,” said Nanny.

I was confused as to her age then; it didn’t seem to make sense. Nanny seemed even older than the Queen as she was on the TV, let alone how she looked on the steaming cup. Then I asked if the Queen liked to drink tea too.

“Of course, she’s the Queen of England,” said Nanny.   

Nanny took me to the allotment of her friend Margaret. As Nanny sat drinking tea upon a cast iron bench, Margaret showed me how vegetables were grown. I watched the old woman in her overalls breaking the soil with a steel hook, I looked at the lizardy courgettes and the pink rhubarb. I saw the things growing there, I examined the leaves of the plants, then I asked Margaret:

‘Does tea grow here?’

‘No dear’, Nanny interjected, ‘tea comes from India.’

All I knew of India was from a film I had once seen, elephants lived there, and a man with a white helmet and a rifle had adventures, there were tigers too and monkeys. I couldn’t seem to put it together, why we drank something from such a place. I thought again about the Queen and her tea drinking.

“Does the Queen drink tea from India too?” I enquired.

Nanny seemed slightly annoyed.

“It is the privilege of the Queen of England to enjoy tea from anywhere in the world”

We visited one of Grandad’s old friends, Grandad was dead but this man, Len, still lived, but not in a house, in a big building full of cleaning smells. Nanny told me that Len was Grandad’s commanding officer back in World War II, and that he was a very important man who had travelled the whole world.

I was disappointed when I met Len, he was even older than Nanny, he had skin like melted wax and made sounds like sucking spit. He told some stories, but they were all about the nurses and the mistakes they had made. Nanny made a pot of tea; I watched the steam rise from the leaves in the strainer.

“Have you ever been to India?” I blurted out.

Nanny began to scold me for interrupting, but horrific coughing speech erupted from Len.

“Don’t talk to me about fucking India! Discharge me?! Just for thrashing a bloody native?!”

Nanny, unfazed, called for him to be calm, a nurse ran in, but Len was rising now, spraying spit and pointing at the nurse.

“Now they’re all over here, bloody running the shop!”

I froze, terrified, staring at the overturned teapot, the stain spreading across the pale pink carpet.

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