Auntie Madge

Posted by Robert Godden on October 14, 2011as ,

NOTE: My Forthcoming book has 7 or possibly 8 pieces of tea-flavoured fiction included. Here’s one in draft form. Your comments are welcome.

I hefted the Britannia teapot to chest height. It seemed lighter than when I last lifted it, but then I was twelve back then.

It seems strange that all of Auntie Madge’s stuff went to Kate. Kate, whom I never really knew – I was moving out as a young man when she moved in as a sobbing pale infant, about six years after Mr Penton from New South Wales was Auntie Madge’s Gentleman Sipping Companion.

That’s always what they were called, these men who called on Auntie Madge. Maybe once or twice a year, an unfamiliar car might turn up, an Austin, or one of those new Holdens. A man in a suit and hat would knock at the door, and for a few years after I turned about eleven years old, it was my job to usher them into the sitting room, where china would be laid out.

“Auntie Madge will be just a moment” I would say. “May I take your jacket, hat and teapot, Sir?”.

I still remember the look on Mr Penton’s face. Over the years, I’ve settled on ‘bemusement’. I took his hat and charcoal pinstriped jacket, and then struggled to add the heavy Britannia teapot to my load. I was only around twelve, according to everyone’s best guess.

As always, I hung the jacket and hat, and then took the teapot to the kitchen.

Cook would be boiling the water and adding the still-warm shortbread fingers to a cream-coloured Alfred Meekins plate.

The first pot – the spotted china one – would be ready to take out. I’d gather the tray, and when I arrived back in the sitting room, Auntie Madge would be there. “Jasper”, she’d say, “What have we here?”

“Mah Jongg, Auntie Madge”, I’d recite. “From a fresh box.”

I’d lay the tray down, and Auntie Madge would always produce the same look, as though she’d just had an idea.

“Jasper, please join us, so you can tell Mr Penton about our little place here”.

“Thank you, Auntie Madge”.

They always asked a few questions, and during the exchange, Auntie Madge and the Gentleman Sipping Companion would exchange little smiles. The Gentlemen Sitting Companions always seemed to have an air of anticipated excitement.

Then it would be time for me to fetch boiling water and the pot that the Gentleman Sipping Companion has bought as a gift.

As I left on this occasion, I heard Mr Penton murmur “Remarkable, Mrs Lawson. His manners are astounding, and so well spoken. As good as I’d expect from a white boy, and better than some.”

When I got back, Auntie Madge had the usual small canister out.

“Do try this, Mr Penton. It’s my specially-blended Almond Earl Grey”.

It was always at this point that Cook would round all of us up – be it six or sixteen of us in residence at that time – for a walk to the lake. No-one left out, no excuses. It was called the “Necessary Constitutional”, and it happened at odd times, but always when a Gentleman Sipping Companion was in residence.

We would arrive back hours later with the plates and cups washed and put away, the car gone and Auntie Madge retired to her bedroom with one of her headaches.

So now, I put down the silver pot, and move to fondle a rose coloured china one. And so on – twenty-nine pots in total.

It’s over forty years since Auntie Madge died. Cook tried to flee with the money, the police got involved. Bluey Thompson from the local garage was convicted of selling at least a dozen stolen cars – the cops knew there were more, but settled for a dozen. All sixty-five of us who had ever lived at the Grace of God Home for Unfortunate Children proclaimed our innocence and lack of knowledge of these terrible crimes. Like the local public, we believed that the orphanage was wholly supported by donations. Of course, accounting standards didn’t really exist back then.

I can hold my hand to my heart and say that I did not actually know what was going on. And it was half a century ago.

But of course, I knew something was wrong. I must have.

I left the Grace of God Home for Unfortunate Children at eighteen years old with a scholarship to The University of Melbourne; a bible; some good tea; a bank book with twenty pounds showing in it, a few well-worn and lovingly repaired garments and a charcoal pinstripe suit.

Within a week of arriving in my accommodation in Melbourne, I’d departed. Catching a bus to The Alice, moving back to the tribal existence that Auntie Madge had tried so hard to save me from. I was not to emerge until a few years later, in the mid-Sixties, when I came back to the city to help in the fight for my people to get the right to vote.

Even though it is over fifty years ago, I still remember the moment that I walked from my student accommodation, with just my small wooden tea canister and my second best set of clothes. I left behind in my room in Melbourne my books, my money and my suit.

A suit that I had discovered had a label sewn into the inside of one of the pockets.

A label that said “Arthur Penton”.

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Robert Godden

Certified Tea Nutter. Blender. Author of "The Infusiast" and Tea "Stories"
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10 Comments

  • Bravo sir! Not what I was expecting when I first started to read this. I applaude you for keeping me hooked (I’ve found my attention span has run off today). I enjoyed it a lot and wish there was more! Please say you’ll share more!?

    What gave you the idea for this story?

  • A combination of ideas.

    – Britannia teapots are mentioned in Orwell’s Nice Cup of Tea (He’s against them).

    – The Gentlemen Sipping Companions were inspired in part by @hazelblackberry’s Gentleman Hippo Companion.

    – In 1967 the inherent racism in Australia’s constitution was removed, deleting the passage “The people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws” which seems remarkably recent. I wanted to use that as a backdrop, but not bang on about it. It effectively gave Aboriginals the power to vote and do a lot of other stuff.

    – And the original idea came as I pondered how, in going everywhere, everyday in a hat and suit,. I looked like a relic of the 50’s.

    Also none of these ideas fitted into the other two stories I am halfway through – one in which a man returns to 1908 from about 2050 in order to write a letter, and one about a private detective on the moon during a tea embargo and a man with a hollow leg..

  • Wow you really did pull this story from all over the map. But it really wove together nicely! I found myself scrolling back to earlier in the story at a few parts to make sure my guesses were on track.

    -I recall your post about Orwell, nice tie in.
    -So @hazelblackberry’s hippo is somewhat famous.
    -Until your story and extras here I didn’t know that there was such racism in Australia. Thank you for educating me.
    -I’m not touching that last one…really now….a relic as if.

    I really liked it a lot and I’m glad you gave just enough detail, but not enough to bore the reader.

  • Profile photo of LatteTeaDah LatteTeaDah says:

    Intriguing passage – so many places the ‘Gentleman Sipping Companion’ idea could go… Makes me wish I could sign up for one of my own!

  • Profile photo of jopj jopj says:

    Most interesting… steeped in revelation. “Please Sir, I want some more.”

  • Profile photo of Peter Peter says:

    Yes, fascinating. I’m ready to buy the book and find out where this all leads! I’m sold already.

    Well done and nicely written, though I’ve come to expect that kind of prose from you!

    • I suggest at least six months if not twelve until it’s out. But I plan to share 25% of it on Tea Trade along the way. And the 14 bonus chapters are all just reprinted blogs, mostly from Tea Trade.

  • Profile photo of Xavier Xavier says:

    I read about this racism in other “parts” and from other people.

    Intriguing piece of literature.
    I think that when it is ready, I will look at your book

  • vsopfables says:

    Cleverly woven together & interesting to know about the racial problems. You treat the reader with respect by saying just enough to let them suspect the grisly truth as the story unfolds, but not to be certain.
    Did you bring in the Britannia teapot because it was memorable/recognisable or have I missed something?
    Definitely one for the bookshelf.