I first learned to make a proper cup of tea (with milk and, sometimes, sugar) when I was 20 years old and working in a small office in London. Karen, the receptionist, who was 26, but seemed to me about 40, taught me how to do it, so that I could bring her proper cups of tea throughout the day whenever she asked. This was not part of my job (in fact, as a sort of secretary I was definitely higher ranked), but it made perfect sense to me.
Karen commanded authority. Partly it was her accent. She was a true cockney, born in East London within earshot of the “Bow bells” (the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow church), which, she informed me, made her authentic (look it up, she’s right). I can easily conjure her up simply by saying aloud what she regularly said to me as I placed yet another cup of tea in front of her (“Oh, fanks, swee’art! You’re an ain-joo!”) (“Oh, thanks, sweetheart! You’re an angel!”). She even taught me some cockney slang, but sadly all I recall is “trouble and strife” (this is the slang for “wife”) (I know).
The other thing about Karen is that though she called everyone sweetheart, even strangers, I was a tiny bit afraid of her. She was that commanding. I wanted so much to please her that I confess that as I was first learning to make proper cups of tea for her in the break room I would secretly take a tiny sip to make sure I had gotten it just right. This is how I developed a taste for tea with milk (or, even more luxuriously, half and half) and I have never looked back.
She drank tea all day long, which may be what fired her up so much. Never was I more aware of this than when I spent an entire weekend with her and her boyfriend Billy, who was a bit older, in his 30s, and looked and sounded pretty much like Billy Bragg (though he was actually obsessed with Led Zeppelin, as he spent a good 45 minutes going over their entire oeuvre with me after I indicated that sure, I liked them). He drove a black cab, which if you didn’t know, is (or was?) a highly respected job in London, as the streets are insanely meandering, and you must know them by heart and are not allowed to use a map.
I ended up spending the weekend with them because I had by then already left my flat and was headed for somewhere else (possibly Ireland) and needed a place to stay before my plane was scheduled to leave. Over this weekend, we basically drank tea and watched television for about 8 to 10 hours each day.
Ordinarily this would have driven me insane, but with them, it was actually a total delight. First of all, one of them would say (what seemed to me every half hour), Hmm, did you hear someone put the kettle on? Yes, I’m sure I heard someone put the kettle on. That was my cue to put the kettle on. Then I would serve us all proper cups of tea.
Wired as we all were, watching television was a total blast. We mostly watched MTV and to hear two very opinionated and hilarious cockneys go on and on about the videos never got tired. We also ate a couple of meals, the kind of meals that could be easily eaten in front of the television (the one I remember most was “eggs and soldiers,” really just boiled eggs and toast cut into thin strips, but you can imagine how delicious it was under the circumstances). Do you do this every weekend? I asked at one point. Yeah, they said (Did you hear someone put the kettle on?).
The first night, they did go out to a party and came back quite late (but since I was sleeping on their couch, I ended up waking up, and then was treated to the Led Zeppelin lecture), but I would say that was not entirely the norm. The tea and the television were the norm.
Unfortunately, that weekend turned out to be the last time I saw Karen. Once I returned home, we completely lost touch. Email wasn’t a thing then and I’m not sure I’d even know what to write. But I will say that, 25 years later, if I heard that voice asking if someone put the kettle on, I would leap up to fix her a proper cup of tea, just as I did back then, if only to hear her call me an “ain-joo” one more time.