Tea is the limit of my intimacy when someone unexpected calls to the door

Michael Harding: In the old days everyone got a mug – apart from priests and high-ranking nuns

‘I don’t know why I chose cups and saucers. Maybe because he was driving a Mercedes. But it was a mistake.’

‘I don’t know why I chose cups and saucers. Maybe because he was driving a Mercedes. But it was a mistake.’

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I heard a knock on the door one night during the winter. I heard it twice before getting up from my armchair. I didn’t dare wait for the third knock because it is said that the third knock on a door may herald a visitation from another world. So at the second knock I was on my feet.  

I turned on the outside light, and opened the door and there before me was an old friend from Cavan.

“I was just passing,” he said. So I said, “Come in.”

That he had driven 30 miles with no notion where he was going, and happened to pass my door and then suddenly decided to stop, was a claim I couldn’t dispute. Such is life.

He sat on the sofa, admiring the stove, and I boiled a kettle and brought out a pot of tea on a tray with two dainty cups and saucers. 

“I have no biscuits,” I confessed.

I don’t know why I chose cups and saucers. Maybe because he was driving a Mercedes. But it was a mistake.

He stared at the ensemble of crockery, like they were ornaments from the Tang Dynasty in China and I knew instantly that a single drop of tea from those cups would never pass his lips.  

“I ought to have given you a mug,” I said. But it was too late. He grimaced, and shook his head, and muttered that it didn’t matter.

In the old days everyone got a mug – apart from priests and high-ranking nuns.

Fancy crockery sat on the dresser in country houses for decades. Or was stored in glass cabinets in the sitting room. People resisted china cups because they were usually covered with a layer of dust or grime which, ironically, accumulated from lack of use. Because there was grime, they weren’t used. And because they weren’t used, there was grime. Cups and saucers remained unloved, like brandy glasses on the top shelf in Lizzy Buggie’s bar in Dowra. 

Nobody drank brandy in Dowra in 1972. When I asked for a Hennessy one night, Lizzy took the appropriate glass from the high shelf and wiped it with her polka dot apron, which only made matters worse, and then she settled the glass on the counter and poured in the brandy before I could stop her. The locals waited for any signs of posh equivocation. All I could do was swallow it in a single gulp. 

But I learned to be careful about what I drank in public after that.   

I’m careful about food too. Sometimes when I’m going to meet someone important for lunch, I have my lunch before I go. So that when I get to the restaurant I’m not hungry. Because when I’m hungry I eat emotionally. I horse the food into me with a sense of unfocused terror. 

I remember meeting a theatre director for lunch in an Italian restaurant in Dublin. He asked me what I’d like and I said I’d like the spaghetti bolognese. But he ordered a bruschetta for himself, which turned out to be no more than a lump of cheese on toast.

“I’m not hungry,” he explained with a wave of his hand, as he gazed at me like a dentist thinking about teeth, and we began to discuss my new play.

  I was ravenous, but I tried to sustain a coherent conversation while sucking in long worms of spaghetti and by the time we were finished exploring any possibilities of working together there were flecks of red sauce all over his white silk shirt.

Needless to say, we didn’t have another meeting. But at least I had learned how dangerously intimate eating with strangers can be.

Which is why I didn’t offer my friend from Cavan a sandwich. Tea is the limit of my intimacy when someone calls to the door unexpectedly. 

But in he came, and I sat him down, and the tea went cold. 

“That cup is quite safe,” I protested, eventually. “I have a dishwasher.”

“Ah right,” he said, “you have.”   

But he wouldn’t touch it. We chatted about everything from surfing in Bali to what Ballyhaise will look like after Brexit, and eventually I lifted the tray and headed for the kitchen.

“That’s gone cold,” I said. I’ll make a fresh pot. 

He was silent. But when I returned with mugs of tea as black as tar he smiled and said, “Well fair play to you.” 

And he looked relieved now. As if he could finally get to the point. He took a sip of tea and began.  

“Actually,” he said, “there was something I was meaning to say to you.”

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