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”.