Locality, time and social circumstance are the setting for the scenes, the action in a story. As a reader I want to envisage the place where this alleged scene unfolds.
The tea things, the china teapot (England), the gaiwan (China), or the decorated glass (Turkey), even though the character handling the cup be exiled, can place the reader Somewhere. The delicate gaiwan decorated in gold bamboo pattern found in grandma’s attic, or the Cornish mug resting on the shelf above the fire are illustration of the setting. They say just enough and no more.
And time: Is the kettle singing on the coal range or beeping beside his lap-top? Circumstance: Clay or Bone China? Chipped or gleaming?
There’s more. The tea scene is where dialogue happens, especially sympathetic dialogue, gossip and bad news. Writers such as Jane Austin and Katherine Mansfield, and more recently Alexander McCall Smith, use the morning and afternoon tea ritual as a convenient pre-packaged setting for dialogue. In ‘Morality for Beautiful Girls’ Alexander McCall Smith uses the tea break to begin a conversation between Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, two of the main characters in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. The tea break provides the setting for a humorous exchange which, by its end, gives the reader more information about the two characters; their strengths and foibles, and the reader cannot help but wonder ‘how will this [dilemma] be resolved?’.
Mma Ramotswe is the harbinger of the sort of news that must be handled with sensitivity.
“Mma Ramotswe cleared her throat. “Mma Makutsi”, she began. “I have been thinking about the future.” Mma Makutsi, who had finished her rearranging of the filing cabinet, had made them both a cup of bush tea and was settling down to the half-hour break that she usually took at eleven in the morning.”
During the same tea break (half an hour long) Mma Ramotswe notices the branches of the thorn tree reflected in Mma Makutsi’s glasses. She has time to wonder … “What was it like, thought Mma Ramotswe, to be Mma Makutsi, graduate of the Botswana Secretarial College, with ninety seven percent in the final examination, but with no body, except for some people far away in Bobonong.”
The tea scene is not all sugar and spice either. I love the tea scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S.Lewis) where the faun, Mr Tumnus, exposes his ulterior motive.
“Then Mr Tumnus stooped and took a flaming piece of wood out of the fire with a neat little pair of tongs, and lit a lamp. “Now we sharn’t be long”, he said and immediately put the kettle on …. And really it was a wonderful tea …”
Yes, the tea scene is where the mysterious charmer gulps his scorching brew in haste (Hmm) and where the Duchess exposes her lineage rather than her cleavage (Ah-haa!) And really, with all it symbolises, the tea ceremony can say so much more than ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ – although these are both good words to repeat often.
Alexander McCall Smith; Morality for Beautiful Girls, Abacus, 2003, page 9-11
C.S Lewis; The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Harper Collins, 2001, page 242.
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