Greenwich Tea Time

And roars out ‘Weel done, Cutty-sark!’
And in an instant all was dark
– Robert Burns, Tam O’Shanter


Maria was preparing breakfast. Mary was late again. She was a late riser and when she finally opened her eyes all she was capable of doing was to reach out and lift the plastic window-blind, and give it a slight push so that it rolled up. Then lying still without moving she would stare at the leafless tree that stood beside the party wall in the back courtyard of the semi-detached house in Greenwich. This always lasted an hour at least – possibly longer. At length the noises in the kitchen would get louder and with the buoyancy of narrow spaces where air and smells are sucked upwards they would reach her bed as though telling her that the period of grace was finally over, that this reality of food and water, conversation and cleanliness, could be put off no longer. It was the most difficult moment of the day. Parting took a lot of strength. When her feet were finally on the floor and even when still sitting on the bed with her body no more than half-upright, it was like the start of a profound and shattering change, equally profound and shattering each day. So much so that when she at last stood up and touched her clothes and shoes before putting them on she felt as if they were new or as if she came from a different country at every awakening, as though she didn’t recognize them. She had to get to know them all over again.

Going down the narrow staircase was less difficult. That is, until the first contact, the first good morning in the kitchen. The very words were foreign each time, a bit like a gaping abyss and a bridge of sounds that you don’t however want to throw across to the person on the other side because quite simply you don’t want to leave your own place. Not out of dislike, that is to say, but out of a curious withdrawal, an inner ‘localism’. How can you explain that to someone? How can you not be thought somewhat eccentric and sad, a bit misanthropic even?

What kind of smoothie are you making today? - Banana and strawberry. I don’t make the same every day, my taste is always changing, some days I don’t want one at all. By the time you come down I’ve usually finished it. - Yes, I see the empty glass in the white sink and I guess at the different proportions of the fruit from the different shades of colour on the sides of the glass. Shall I put on some water for coffee? - Yes, but not for coffee. Tea today, I really feel like keeping you company. - OK, but I haven’t got much time, I must go to the office and get ready for my meetings early this afternoon. What are you going to do, will you go and look at the Cutty Sark again? - Perhaps, I don’t know yet, for the moment I’ve decided to do some reading. Later on I’ll see, perhaps…if the weather changes I’d like to look at the masts again with a different light. I was browsing the internet all night, I found Robert Burns’s poem and read it. Cutty Sark means ‘short underskirt’ in the Scottish dialect, can you imagine, isn’t that odd? Odd that a ship that travelled such a long way should be called a ‘short underskirt’, don’t you think? Of course, it was the nickname of a witch, Nannie Dee, but it still seems almost like a kind of sacrilege. - Still, this light is better for photography, why not go and look at it again now and do your reading later? - No I must do some reading first, first I need to learn all about its history, I’ve got to write about it tonight. I think the tea is to blame for that strange meeting. - Tea, meeting, what are you talking about? -Well, it says that once the Cutty Sark was slipping like lightning over the waves carrying a cargo of 1450 tons of tea from Shanghai and the captain was in a great hurry to get home. You see he was thinking about the profit he would make if his cargo with the first tea of the season reached its destination before all the others. He had just got through the difficult seas off the Cape of Good Hope when the sailor in the crow’s nest started shouting. He had seen a whale spouting close by! The captain went up on deck and froze. He was just in time to see a vast horizontal tail plunging into the sea and leaving a gigantic trough on the surface as it dragged the waters downwards with its force. It took a long time for that trough in the sea to disappear. - What a strange story, I hadn’t heard it before. So what happened, was the ship endangered? - Yes oh yes, the whale followed them for ages and came close to them in a threatening way spouting and raising its tail so high that it reached past the top of the mainmast. The crew were in a panic, they thought that next time the tail would fall on them and crush them. They no longer obeyed the captain, some had fallen on their knees and were saying their prayers, others had gone secretly down to the hold, stolen the wine and were already well on the way to being drunk. The situation was verging on mutiny when the captain called the cook on deck and everyone wondered what was going on. In a short while water was boiling in the cauldrons of the sailing ship and all the crew were ordered on deck to be served tea. Then he ordered them to sit down and drink it quietly. Anyone who talked would have him to reckon with. He always kept a gun in his cabin and they knew it. As soon as they had finished their tea the whale began to move away. Very soon they could no longer see it spouting. Who knows, maybe it went off to frighten another ship or dived into the ocean to find its friends…

- Time’s getting on, I didn’t realize. My first meeting is at 1 o’clock, I need to read the paper again before talking to the student, I don’t remember anything apart from his irritating manner and his demands. - Yes, yes OK, sorry to have held you up. - Not at all, it was an interesting story. - Thank you, thanks a lot for the tea. - You’re welcome, shall we have tea again tomorrow perhaps? - Perhaps, we’ll see, my tastes change every day as well. - So are you going to the Cutty Sark? - No I don’t think so the light is the same as yesterday when I was there. - So you’re going to read? - Yes, I’ll do some reading. - What are you reading at the moment? - At the moment? Moby Dick.