I bought the teapot in Boots. White with blue and yellow flowers. Back when there was a Boots in Sidney Street. When they still sold a few household goods and stationery. I paid about five pounds for it. I could have paid less for a brown teapot in the Kitchen Reject shop around the corner, but I wanted a pretty one for my new room in Jesus Terrace, a small room on the ground floor of a terraced house. We were three women living there – the landlady and two lodgers – and three cats. I was starting my A-levels at the Tech, determined to get into Trinity College, Cambridge the following academic year, in October 1986.
It could fill the four small stoneware cups of tea I’d bought a few months earlier. It never occurred to me to keep mugs back then. At home, my mother wouldn’t have stood for them. Just as she wouldn’t have admitted tea bags. It’s the dust from tea leaves that’s sold in bags – cast-offs. Like my mother, I had at least three varieties of tea to offer my guests: Earl Grey, Assam or Darjeeling and always Orange Pekoe. I’d soon learnt never to buy English Breakfast because that was what people always chose and then I’d have to drink it with them.
Four people was all I could fit into my mousehole – as my friends called it – anyway. Two on the bed, one on the chair, and me perching on the small blue-stained desk, each leg resting on four squares of wood sellotaped together, to raise it higher from the floor.
Over the summer, at home, in the Roman heat, knowing I’d buy a teapot as soon as I had a new room in Cambridge, I’d made a tea cosy. Two wooden spoons tied back to back, a face painted on each: serious on one side, smiling and winking on the other. Two thick wool braids. A white shirt with a ruffled collar and cuffs over arms made from notebook spiral wire. A full skirt of fabric saved from a summer dress, with colourful stripes, lined with leftover tweed from a skirt to keep the tea hot for a long time.
Everyone who came commented on the teapot. My classmate Y., also preparing for her A-level French, and my best friend C., on a year’s exchange programme from her college in Minnesota, as I poured out my heart to them about my crushes – generally involving a choral scholar from King’s I gazed at through the flickering candles at evensong. When my New Zealand friend R. cycled over from Peterhouse in the hope that I’d translate some illegible document from Italian he needed for his Ph.D., he’d bring Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies for the tea. The night C., a tenor at King’s, unexpectedly knocked on the front door to bring me a ticket for the Christmas Eve carol service, saving me from having to queue from dawn, he drank Earl Grey, black, no sugar, as he always did, and introduced me to John Donne.
Then there was the time I served tea to a middle-aged Scot in a kilt, who’d come to lend me a copy of The Genesis of Freemasonry. A long story…
It was over an Assam with milk, three sugars, that the other C. (from Corpus Christi) – a tall, skinny, formal young man who represented perfect Englishness in my imagination – and I drafted a letter to Prince Edward, then an undergraduate at Jesus, requesting an interview for the Cambridge University French Society magazine, Le Francophile – half a dozen A4 sheets we stapled together. A few weeks later, we received a letter from Wing Commander So-And-So, apologising profusely, explaining that His Royal Highness was busy with exams. A story for another time…
Another regular visitor was J., with whom I’m still friends thirty-five years later. We met to exchange lessons: he was supposed to teach me to play the classical guitar and I to help him practise his Russian. I never learnt to play the guitar but frequently dined at Emmanuel College, he managed a First without any help from me, and I have fond memories of all-night conversations involving philosophy and Armenian Radio jokes about the Soviet Union.
By the end of that halcyon year I wouldn’t have missed for the world, Trinity College had turned me down after an interview during which I was asked if I thought I deserved to get into Cambridge, and I’d failed my A-level English after an anxiety attack that meant I just stared at the question paper for two hours, unable to write anything.
When I was packing up my room, giving away anything I couldn’t carry back to Rome, nobody would take my teapot. Oh, no, I couldn’t. But it’s YOUR teapot! I can’t bear the thought of you without this famous teapot. Etc., etc. I couldn’t believe it. Finally, my landlady offered to store it in her attic for however many years it took for me to come back and retrieve it.
A year later, she got married, moved house and took my teapot with her to the next attic. Eventually, I picked it up from her and took it up to college, at Durham, and from there back to Cambridge, then London. Now, I often use it to make tea for H. and me in Norwich.
Thirty-five years after buying it for what now feels like a ridiculously small sum, the spout has a tiny chip and there’s a barely noticeable hairline crack in the lid. It serves Earl Grey mixed with rose petals, Gunpowder tea and – still one of my favourites – Orange Pekoe. Please be careful with that teapot, I say to H. whenever he washes it, it’s the oldest piece of crockery I own and very happy memories are sealed in the glaze.
I no longer use the white teapot with blue and yellow flowers every day. I take it out of the cupboard on afternoons when I want to reconnect with that girl who dreamt of becoming a Cambridge woman, and who would sometimes cycle across the city at night, the hems of her trousers secured with cycle clips, a brown tweed flat cap on her head. And when I want to remind myself that it’s still okay to dream.