Some might be surprised to know, confused perhaps, that I didn’t grow up in a house of tea drinkers. In fact, it was a complete caffeine-free zone, not even a coffee in sight. To this day, I still haven’t seen my parents drink the stuff.
The first time I got into tea was at university. In the inaugural student shop, to stock up on the essentials (mainly lots of spaghetti hoops) we bought a big bag of Tetley that I expected to last my entire life. Little did I know how quickly I would succumb to the daily habit of putting the kettle on and making a brew. The first few mugs were made in the early stages of befriending flatmates but they later became the head-soothing antidote to mornings after and getting through essay writing.
I couldn’t comprehend how I had survived this long without caffeine running through my veins from 9am onwards. I mean, yes, I had drunk Coca-Cola before albeit not for breakfast. I was now a lone tea drinker whenever I came home and my returns had to be announced in advance, like I was a character from Pride & Prejudice, otherwise there would be no time for my family to add ‘tea bags’ to the shopping list.
Unbeknownst to me, the real challenge lay ahead. I was in the honeymoon period of tea drinking. ‘Who wants a tea?’ when we’re all sitting on the sofa hungover; tea with our hands in the biscuit tin; tea with mountains of buttery toast; tea by myself whilst my family look on amused, ‘you’ve changed.’
Making tea for work colleagues was a whole new game. Orchestrating mass tea rounds in the office was a secret handshake; an unspoken way of getting everybody to like you. In my work experience days, I soaked up the words of wisdom passed down to me: ‘constantly ask if there’s anything you can help with and if there’s not, offer to make everyone tea…or maybe just start tidying a cupboard.’ But it was terrifying. I was still in the infancy of tea making. I was still learning the exact accuracies of stir, squeeze, splash of milk.
Once I make the first round, they might as well shred my CV, I thought. It was that life-defining. This is what would determine how good they considered me for the job. Anything else they asked me to do seemed to pale in comparison to the importance of making everyone a satisfactory cuppa. I wrote down orders, made sure I separated the decaf one from the rest of them by at least a metre so I definitely knew it was ‘that one’ and I hovered the milk over mugs of glassy green tea thinking, ‘Hang on, this can’t be right…’
The first few I made, I fully expected people to spit them out at their desks. Or I would bump into them in the kitchen and find them pouring it down the sink and re-boiling the kettle. I imagined their concerns, ‘Have you seen the new intern? Can’t make tea, get rid of her.’ Of course, this never actually happened. But you just know, the moment you place that mug in front of people. Their eyes dart across to the circle of tea, recklessly swinging from side to side after you’ve plonked it down on the desk like you’re now a waitress serving tables. They say the words thank you but their eyes are fully fixated on that tea. Then they look up at you and that’s usually when you know. The first impression has now been imprinted into their minds for eternity like rings on a coaster.
The times I would really shudder with fear was upon hearing the words, ‘Can I actually get a coffee?’ No. Please don’t ask me to make you a coffee. Please make the tea round simple. That means I have to read the packaging in nervous sweats as though I’m solving a maths equation – how many heaped teaspoons to water? What is the ratio? Am I doing this right? Please don’t taste like cigarettes.
There’s also the judgement received if you’re not making enough tea. Especially if you make one for yourself (otherwise known as a selfish brew). Someone once remarked, ‘I’ve not seen you do a round in a while’ and I might as well have handed in my notice on the spot.
The pressure, however, of everyone having to do rounds often resulted in a conveyor belt of teas being handed out every hour. I had never drunk so much tea in the space of a day and I was beginning to become accustomed to strong tea. Teeth-staining tea. Knocking them back the colour of copper pennies, my brain the slot machine that I was desperately trying to get something out of, some kind of feeling of being more awake and alert than the minutes before.
It’s now been a while since I’ve done a large tea round. They’re now just for two, sometimes just for me. The pressure has lifted, like when you hear the satisfying click of a boiled kettle. But there’s no denying something is missing. That pause in the day, shared with others. You realise no one really cared if your tea was too milky or the colour of a muddy pond. It was the fact that you’d made them a tea. You’d facilitated a moment of comfort, whether it was to stop and chat or to fuel their way through a difficult task. People will pick up that tea and they will finally…breathe. And hopefully they’ll completely forget that they actually asked for a coffee.