“Nothing, thanks Nan.”
“How will you have it?”
“On a plate.”
A silly, private family joke bellowed back and forth; the answers passed from room to room. She said, “Nothing, thanks Nan”, and so on. Each family member now a messenger, my given responses echoing. The lengthy pause as the preparations get underway in the kitchen. The clatter of cups and saucers. The whistle and steam as the kettle is boiled and the teapot warmed. Milk poured into a small serving jug and white sugar cubes topped up in their container. Tins and packets opened and cake cut into Nan-sized slices: not delicate and yet not manly. The tea stewing in its pot and everything set out on rectangular trays to be carried through to the sitting room, where we've adjourned after our leisurely walk to the sea front. As this goes on, the adults perch in cosy seats and continue their idle chatter. In this languid manner, they pull side tables out in readiness for the refreshments. The children, (my cousins and I), lounge semi-listening or absorbed in our own talk or mischief. Nan's imminent entrance is given away by her steady tread on the carpet. She walks in balancing a tray and presides over the service. Tea poured and milk added according to the recipient's preference; a brief hesitation in proceedings each time with the line: “One sugar lump or two?” It was almost a crime to refuse. The teacup was then passed around until it was in the hands of the drinker, while another female relative portions up biscuits and cake on individual plates as requested. A digestive, a rich tea, an all-butter finger, or a slice of home-made Madeira. There would eventually be ample opportunity to pinch a couple of biscuits or another piece of cake from the larger plate circling the room.
The earlier joke, if I had refused, at some break in this ceremony would be followed through to its conclusion. Nan would approach and present to me, with a curtsey, a piece of empty crockery. A china plate which would be bare except for the solitary scratched and faded flower. My acceptance gesture would be, of course, required: a roll of my eyes, a big sigh, and an exaggerated grimace. I'm not really sure when or why this joke started, but under this roof it persisted. I think it was when I reached that 'Kevin' stage, when I grew bored of being asked if I wanted tea and what I would have with it. The joke must have developed from this teen attitude and the oddity of it, as it played out, has stuck in my memory.
Now I've matured, I firmly believe that my Nan's obstinacy about eating with tea runs in the family, perhaps even as far back to unconfirmed rumours of Jewish ancestry. Food rationing and sibling hand-me-downs also figures somewhere in her reasoning. As a hostess, she was relentless in her offer of food. The question was never, “Would you like anything?” It was always, “What will you have?” This stipulation implied you must never turn down the offer of food, you must have something! Serving an empty plate, as far as my Nan was concerned, was better than nothing. This question has now been passed down the female line and my mother asks it with the same entrenched opinion: You can't possibly enjoy a cup of tea without having something to go with it!