I listened and waited for Lizzie to say, ‘when’ as I poured the milk into her teacup. Adding milk was the easy part, having committed to memory the exact shade of her favourite beverage. She’d always smile and claim my expertise was more due to luck than judgement. I’d chuckle in response and put it down to my discerning eye and training with inscrutable baristas in far-flung lands.
‘Almost perfect,’ she’d say, after judging the colour of the steaming brew.
‘You’d expect no less,’ I’d say, and she’d raise a finger to curtail our exchange and close her eyes in readiness for her role in our ritual. Inhaling the perfumed aroma was the crucial realisation of our custom and the ultimate test. I’d hold my breath in rapt expectation as she lowered her face to allow the tea’s delicate scent to tease her nostrils. It was all part of the mystique and imbued the occasion with a quasi-religious air. In another universe, we might’ve been sharing sacramental wine and nibbling communion wafers at a church altar, rather than occupying our usual table in Gerry’s Café on Brighton seafront.
Only the local gulls had the temerity to interrupt our afternoon pots of Earl Grey; sometimes they screeched throughout our entire tryst. They’d hover outside and peck at abandoned scraps or dive bomb inquisitive pedestrians who dared to trespass on our hallowed ground and gawp through Gerry’s windows at his wood panelled interior, eclectic decor and ramshackle furnishings. It’s a shame Gerry couldn’t extend his domain to discourage them or insist on a silent hour for us to appreciate his decadent offerings. A discrete rope, twenty yards of course netting and a couple of stout bollards would keep the pests at bay, and the wretched birds too. Gerry laughed at our suggestion and agreed it would improve matters no end, however needs must. Without new custom, he’d have no business and then we’d lose our favourite seaside haunt.
Lizzie tolerated the harsh transient sounds invading our epicurean haven and ignored the airborne scavengers, providing I observed a reverential hush. Without my jovial remarks to entertain and distract her, she could disregard the world outside. She’d allow herself to be transported to a spiritual dimension meant for sensualists blessed with refined olfactory glands and cultivated taste buds.
Wherever Lizzie disappeared to during those indulgent encounters, she enjoyed moments that were beyond description and bordered on pure rapture. I struggled to engage with the tea in such a profound way, being more earthbound and practical, however I appreciated our unworldly time together and I’ve missed whiling away our time by the sea. Hand in hand on the shingle beach or strolling along the water’s edge, we’d wander for a couple of miles and collect stones with holes; the victims of eons of attrition. Near the North Pier’s decaying carcass, we’d rest our bones and wait for the starlings to gather on its rusting frame. Every evening as the sun caressed the shimmering horizon, clouds of soot black starlings ventured upward and swooped in one gigantic cloud; a diabolical murmuration that behaved like one entity; a living being possessed with intent and a sight to behold forevermore.
The crucial part of our tea ritual had no specific duration. It depended on how Lizzie reacted to the delicate wafting vapours. Would she be satisfied or reject the pot and request an immediate replacement? It was never ‘just so’ when we first met, but as time elapsed, I honed my skills and offered satisfaction on tap. She’d indicate her appreciation by allowing a gentle exhalation to slip past her lips, and her pale eyelids would part to reveal pools of the deepest blue. I recall catching my breath the first time I observed this phenomenon; we’d only just met, a first date or the afternoon after the night before, maybe? It was as if the clouds had parted to reveal cerulean skies beyond; the first true moment of a new day in an unfamiliar land with only a refreshing breeze to ground my shell-shocked sensibilities.
We’d visited our favourite ‘tea-by-the-sea’ enough times to know the shape and feel of every teacup available to us. It was rare to encounter a matching pair of the cups at Gerry’s Café. His selection of crockery was mismatched in pattern and design; it was part of the charm. However, we had our favourites and who doesn’t?
We both agreed that the cream cups with the blue polka dots were the best and ‘almost perfect.’ They were larger than standard teacups and boasted a wide brim, like traditional French bistro cups. Gerry said he intended them for coffee drinkers, who liked to dunk their croissants in a high roasted Velluto Nero. Regardless, we decided they were ideal for a long draught of tea and offered a greater surface area from which to enjoy the gentle fragrance. The deciding factor was that our special cups had matching saucers, another rare occurrence at Gerry’s Café. I think he must have kept them to one side, because without fail, the spotty vessels accompanied every order until our final visit together, and even after that time; when I returned by myself and requested a pot of tea for two and two cups.
It had to be full-fat milk, of course; a simple luxury we allowed ourselves throughout our relationship. We’d debated the benefits of half-fat and in balance, we’d agreed to make dietary concessions elsewhere. Full-fat milk was as close to cream as we dared to go without forgoing a slice of Gerry’s homemade cake to share. On special occasions, we allowed ourselves a slice each and ‘mixed-and-matched’.
Carrot cake and date-and-walnut were on offer that last day together; and being our anniversary, we couldn’t resist. After thirty years in training, I’d made the grade and knew how to satiate her soul’s desire. I’d learned to anticipate Lizzie’s ‘when’ and as the amber juices ran from the curved spout, I dared to look her in the eye, gauging the amount of liquid required by sound alone. Stemming the flow to a mere dribble by tilting the teapot back to kilter, I concluded by allowing a single droplet to disturb the tea’s quivering meniscus. She mouthed the word ‘when’ in a breathless whisper, and I sighed. It was as if we’d perfected a magical potion together, a divine infusion to cure all ills and soothe our bisected soul.