To read / 15 April 2019

Tea Dial

A Diary of Tea Drinking

5:45am. Violet is leeching through a charcoal sky over London’s perpetual sparkle, and I am standing in my crow’s nest kitchen while the kettle rumbles, impatient for today’s very first cup of tea. Yorkshire Gold is my brew of choice for this all-important dawn drink – marked out from your bog-standard Yorkshire with its violet-flowered box that happens to match that now-pinkening patch of sky. But that’s not why I’ve chosen it. These tea leaves earn their extra pennies. I roll the crispy grains between my fingertips, wondering who picked them when they were still shiny and green, and where – a velvety plantation in Malaysia, perhaps? Warm the mug, drop in the teabag, pour in the water, jiggle the teaspoon, add a slug of milk. Full cream. I only started drinking full cream while fattening up small children, being too lazy to buy multiple varieties, but it has now ingratiated itself into my top taste drawer, making the skimmed milk of my twenties seem like the skimpy crop tops of that long-distant version of me. It means I don’t need to add much, and too much would dilute the tea’s flavour – a flavour that really does have a golden quality, branding guff aside.* Dark juices seep out, marbling the liquid, until it reaches a mellow shade of ochre-brown, signalling my moment to ditch the teabag. And now, finally, I can introduce the tip of my tongue to that rich, chestnut silkiness that slips down my gullet and radiates into my veins, filling them with a voice that says: yes, it wasworth dragging yourself up in the dark, for this hit alone. While the rest of the household slumbers, it’s almost as good as a morning hug. I should really become a vegan to help save the planet – but THIS.

6:35am. I am waiting under fluorescent strip lights at the counter of the caff up the road – the only one open at this hour. Two builders in their fluorescent waistcoats are sitting at the table at the back, all set for scaling dizzy heights, scrolling on their phones as they wait for their fry-ups. I accept my mug – white, straight-sided, no-nonsense – then take it to the table by the window, slip into a plastic seat, and jiggle the second teabag of the day. The woman at the counter had added a small splash of semi-skimmed, and the tea’s colour rapidly darkens to a rich amber – like a Californian redwood, I think, having just finished a novel that described the magical characteristics of these trees, and their mass slaughter by greedy logging companies. Another group of builders walks in as I get out my notebook and pen for my first writing stint of the day, which I like to keep screen-free. I get some curious looks. And fair enough. This is the antithesis of the type of café – with an acute accent – where most writers like to loiter in this city, to get them out of their pyjamas and make them feel connected to society. I love my hipster hangout up the hill as much as anyone, with its exposed wood floors and extortionate leaf tea, served in vintage enamelled teapots with cups-in-saucers. But this builders’ caff makes me feel more connected to society. Writing is just another form of labouring, after all. Plus, the tea is cheap.

9:15am. Back home, family dispersed. I miss seeing them, but this is the only time of day I have space to think – and to spur that on I’m about have my third cup of tea. I choose chai, and an earthenware mug made by my Mum’s late friend. The warm tinge of cinnamon, cloves and pepper makes my synapses glow like embers, readying me for my first phase at the desktop. It reminds me of the chai I had in India – before I got dysentery and nearly died – where roadside vendors would boil up each portion with condensed milk in a blackened pot above flickering flames, until it was thick, sickly and energizing. I wonder what my parents would have done if they’d picked up their corded phone to hear that their only daughter had collapsed on arrival at an ashram, and the only meditation she had ended up doing was upon the thousand-and-one things she’d hoped to experience in life and now never would.

11am. I’ve been in a flow but it’s ebbing now. I take a break to stretch my hunched back and hamstrings, then get the kettle going. Lady Grey, this time, for a light refresher, a mind cleanser, a flash of orange peel, a waft of bergamot, and a tinge of existential threat... that film they showed us in history class at school, the one about Lady Jane Grey, remember? – so slim, wan and delicate, she was, waiting to be hanged. A bone china mug is called for; I choose the one I bought on a whim at the British Museum after Grayson Perry’s splendid exhibition of pots responding to artefacts. This design was based on a Balian tapestry, as I recall. Budded fronds on blue.

12:30pm. Lunch eaten, and I’m sorely tempted by a nap – that Achilles heel of work-from-homers – and at this point the creamy comforts of milk seem too soporific. What I really need is a cup of matcha green tea – not too strong; you have to catch it before the bitterness sets in. I need to be infused by its clarity, like a veined blade of grass, luminous emerald in sunlight. I need to be cleansed of palette, and cleared of brain fog. I like to drink green tea from one of my little handleless cups. Duck-egg blue and hand-painted with indigo flowers, they are some of my most precious possessions – I found them after a perilous, helmetless motorbike ride up a misty mountain, on a stall in the tiny hamlet where Thailand, Myanmar and China meet. It was a miracle I made it back down alive, with my skull and all six cups intact.

2:30pm. After a decent stint of thinking and writing, rounded off by admin, it’s nearly time to collect the kids. One more cup of tea is needed for the final stretch, and it has to be lemongrass. Lemongrass. That word alone is so redolent of limpid summer delights, isn’t it? I grab the nearest mug, the one that announces: ‘O happy day’, take a pinch of the sage-grey straw, drop it in the teapot…. and the instant the hot water meets it, the scent sends me skittering back to Zanzibar. Those months I spent with a fisherman, whose friend took us inland to his spice farm one day – and there, cross-legged in a circle of smiling women, I tasted my first ever lemongrass tea, and felt my spirit zing. 

8:30pm. Kids asleep. Time for one final cuppa. The last mug is chipped, but oh well. I choose rooibos – or ‘rubbish tea’, as a friend affectionately calls it – that maple-hued, caffeine-free nightcap nectar. In my crow’s nest kitchen I savour the taste, as nutty and smooth as cocoa butter on skin, and silently commune with the hazily hanging moon.

* I’m not getting a cut, I promise. Yet.


Ellen Wiles

is an author of novels and non-fiction, a live literaturist, researcher and mama of two, based in London. Her debut novel is The Invisible Crowd (Harper Collins, 2017). It is a polyphonic novel about immigration and asylum, and tells the story of Yonas, an Eritrean asylum seeker, his experiences in the UK after he's smuggled over in a boat, and the motley collection of people he meets during his quest to remain.