The House of Tea and Mystery

Posted: Mar 25, 2012 12:43 PM ET
Cynthia Reyes

As I climbed the twenty-three steps that led to the entrance of Mandeville's grand old courthouse, I was sure the beating of my heart could be heard miles away.

"Come this way, young lady," a thin, humorless man said by way of greeting, escorting me to a dry, airless and dusty office in the old courthouse the day I showed up to begin my internship. If I liked what I learned at the courthouse and impressed my supervisors, I would likely win a scholarship to study law in England.

I needed a scholarship, but I wasn't at all sure I was cut out to be a lawyer. Still, when you're a teenager from a family that values education but has many children to support, you can't afford to be picky.

I left high school with a well-earned reputation for being a fierce debater, avid chess player, voracious reader - with a talent for picking arguments with people more powerful than myself. Perhaps that's why the student leaders chose me to co-lead the prefects' revolt.

It was a time of change, or so we thought, 7 years after Jamaica had gained its independence from Britain. We students wanted to modernize the curriculum, the way we dressed, the way we wore our hair. Above all, we wanted more respect from the school administration.

Independence hadn't changed a lot of things. We were still a society of superiors and inferiors. Those who didn't know their place got punished, one way or another. When my punishment was handed down, I looked the headmaster in the eye, refusing to blink or bow.

All of this made people call me a budding lawyer, which explains the internship at the courthouse. Now, here I was, surrounded by yellowing papers with obscure laws and precedents scrutinized wordlessly by deathly serious lawyers and clerks and an unending cloud of dust. I read a lot and sneezed even more. Within days I realized that neither wild horses nor my long held dream of studying abroad could make me love the courthouse. I lasted a few bemused weeks and left, still sneezing.

Claire White, aristocrat

With that door closed, I needed to work while figuring out my future. I applied to the local telephone company for a job - and soon found myself face to face with a beautiful woman of roughly the same age as my mother.

I was nervous and she saw it.

"Hello, my dear," she greeted me warmly. "Are you here for an interview?"

I nodded silently and added a belated "Yes, I am."

"My name is Claire," she said. "Claire White. Welcome." She seemed to imbue the word with warmth, making it sound like "well-come".

"And what is your name?" she asked.

Claire White had addressed me graciously, respectfully, as if we were equals. I was so taken aback that instead of returning her gracious behavior, I blurted out: "Claire White. Clear white. Is that your REAL name?"

She surprised me by laughing approvingly at my temerity as if we were old friends. But friends we were not.

Mrs. White and I came from different planets.

She belonged to Mandeville's aristocracy.

I meanwhile, came from an educated rural family that had owned land for generations but was under no illusions about our status. We were middle-class country people, our manners more at home on a farm than in the elegant homes of Mandeville. I had never even used a knife and fork until my early teens. The children in our family all ate their meals with spoons.

Minutes after meeting Mrs. White, I was interviewed by the supervisor of telephone operators, and minutes after that, hired as a telephone operator. I started work the following Monday.

The mystery of Miss Claire

About a dozen women sat in a long room, facing a long brown and black wooden switchboard which danced with tiny lights of different colours. In front of each woman was a panel of keys, cables and switches. The women's fingers moved nimbly, picking up slender cables and plugging them into tiny holes below each light, flicking switches forward to address the callers.

"Operatorrrr...?" I heard the women say, over and over. "Operator. May I help you?"

They sat up straight, posture dignified, and answered every call in the most polite tone. They sounded as if they had all graduated from the same finishing school.

At all times, my trainer told me that first day, we were to speak the Queen's English at a measured pace - patois, the Jamaican dialect, was never allowed - display superb attentiveness to the callers, apologize if the line crackled or a call was disconnected, and to never giggle or raise our voices no matter how stupid we thought the request or how deaf the caller sounded.

Near the end of the switchboard sat Claire White, the woman who had greeted me with such grace. Her movements seemed languid, unhurried, as if obeying her own rules without flouting those of the switchboard.

Claire White's beauty came from her smooth skin, sleek, lustrous black hair, above average height, but most of all from a kind heart and a ready wit.

Mrs. White listened without seeming to listen, watched without turning to watch, always ready to help an unfortunate telephone operator who found herself berated by the switchboard supervisor or one of Mandeville's most difficult customers.

Perhaps that's why the other telephone operators treated her with something close to reverence. All addressed her, not as Mrs. White, but as "Miss Claire"... a sign of affection and respect.

What I couldn't figure out was why she was working as a telephone operator. The women of Mandeville's aristocratic families did not work as telephone operators.

A town for tea

Mandeville. Ah, Mandeville. The most English of all Jamaican towns, it perched impressively on a mountaintop, looking down its nose on much of Jamaica.

Some of the town's residents claimed obscure relationships to the British aristocracy, including the royal family. They guarded their ties to Britain with a passion, and received stalwart support from the institutions of Jamaica - from the Anglican Church to the educational and legal systems. All remained stubbornly English, nearly a decade after the island had been granted independence from Britain in 1962.

The social life of Mandeville's most privileged class was also made up of British traditions: cricket, tennis, croquet, lush perennial gardens and houses furnished with English antiques, ladies who wore flowery hats. And afternoon tea.

Mandeville became so associated with its afternoon teas that people in other parts of the island would sometimes mention the two in the same breath: "Oh, Mandeville: afternoon tea."

The ladies of Mandeville hosted afternoon tea in their homes or, on special occasions, in the parish hall of the local Anglican Church. Tea was served from heirloom floral or silver teapots nestled in antique silver trays, poured into dainty cups with handles so small, the ladies who held them stuck a few of their fingers outward, whether they wanted to or not. (Of course, some of these women would have stuck their dainty fingers outward, anyway.)

The convenience of teabags, now available at Jamaican grocery stores, was first greeted with disbelief, then derision, and finally, simply ignored by Mandeville's doyennes.

"There are certain things one just does not do," I once overheard a Mandeville lady tell her friend while shopping. "Using teabags is one of them."

She actually seemed to shudder.

"And what does one have servants for, after all?" I couldn't stop myself from saying as I walked past. The women's eyebrows flew up to their hairline and stayed there.

I, meanwhile, could practically smell the cucumber sandwiches.

When Mandeville's upper class ladies had tea, it was an occasion, complete with cucumber sandwiches from which a servant had carefully removed the crust of the bread to make the sandwiches seem more ... more...

Truth is, I had never figured out why anyone would remove the crust from bread. My own family would have seen this as a disgraceful waste of food. And, in a country where many people were poor and could barely afford to buy a loaf of bread, this practice simply gave me another reason to dislike the upper class people of Mandeville.

I hated the way they spoke to their servants or anyone else whom they considered to be of an inferior class. I hated their sense of entitlement to respect from others, while giving so little of it themselves.

An invitation to another world

Other than her telephone company job, Claire White seemed to belong to that world.
"Miss Cynthia", she approached me one day during our break. "Would you like to come for afternoon tea?"

Surprised, I silently stared at her. But in her eyes, I saw the same warm welcome with which she had greeted me on the day of my interview. I accepted.

Like other Mandeville ladies, Miss Claire lived in a fine house. It was a spacious and airy one-storey home, furnished tastefully with antique furniture, English and Jamaican art and a few Chinese and Japanese figurines. Her gardens were lush with perennial flowers, shrubs and fruit trees.

Miss Claire employed both a housekeeper and a gardener. Her children had attended the best private schools. Her manners were always gracious, her use of the English language sophisticated, her public demeanour that of an English-Jamaican lady.

But that, I would soon learn, was where her similarities to the ladies of upper class Mandeville ended. Claire White was different.

My learning started on that first afternoon when she invited me to tea. It was to be the first of many visits to the private and magical world of Claire White.

Miss Claire and I shared a fondness for flowers, and on some of my visits, we would stroll through her gardens. She was particularly fond of certain flowers, low-growing forget-me-nots and the tall-stemmed agapanthus among them.

Birds and butterflies darted to and fro among the flowerbeds in Miss Claire's gardens. Occasionally, she stopped to talk to them.

"Good morning, little Mr. Bird," she would tell the hummingbird in the moment where it hovered in front of a red hibiscus, before taking off again. "Aren't you beautiful!"
"You're looking a bit droopy today," she would note to a lily. "You need to lift up your head a bit."

To an orange tree that had borne a bountiful crop of fruit, she would say 'You've done so well, my dear tree. Thank you."

It was on one of those walks that she answered the question I hadn't yet found the nerve to ask.

Her husband had been a well-to-do farmer, she told me. But he had died young, leaving her with three young children. To augment her income, she worked at the telephone company. She enjoyed the women and had become skilled at handling the high-and-mighty callers who sometimes talked down to the telephone operators. She had stopped one woman in the middle of a tirade simply by identifying herself in her calm and gracious manner. I smiled, picturing the caller eating humble pie.

The art of making tea

One day while I was at her home, Miss Claire had an important visitor - a well-known writer. He was a tall, elegant white man, his name well-known on the island for his unabashed love of 'patois', the Jamaican dialect. Patois was not often used in 'polite company'.

"Miss Cynthia, would you please do the honours?" Miss Claire asked.

Miss Claire had once shown me how to brew tea. I didn't pay much attention at the time, but now I felt grown up, pleased to be asked to do the honours. The ritual of making and serving tea was something Miss Claire had always carried out by herself.
"How do you like your tea, Mr. Maxwell?" I politely asked our guest.

He smiled at me charmingly.

"Strong. Thank you, m'dear", he replied.

So said, so done. I went into the kitchen, and put the kettle on.

"He said 'strong' " I reminded myself as the kettle boiled. So I opened a large can of loose-leaf tea and emptied much of it into the teapot. Then I poured in the boiling water, covered the teapot, waited for the tea to steep, and neatly placed it, the tea cups, saucers and other tea-serving accoutrements on the silver tray.

I walked slowly, carefully, as I brought the tray into the living room and placed it on a small table next to Miss Claire.

Miss Claire seemed to have been born knowing how to serve tea. Hers was a seamless mixture of skill and artistry. Lifting the teapot with one hand and pouring it into a cup nestled in matching saucer before handing it to her visitor - it all seemed to be one smooth movement. Not for the first time, I found myself mesmerized by the fluidity and grace in her movements. Satisfied, our guest finally settled back in his comfortable chair and took the first sip of the tea.

"Oh, mi gawd!" he hollered, spouting tea through his nostrils, speaking in patois. "This yeah tea could kill a hoss!"

Surprised and mystified, Miss Claire and I quickly sipped our tea - and realized that Mr. Maxwell was almost entirely right. The tea was so strong that it would - at the very least - have stopped a horse in its tracks. I'd poured in way too many tea leaves.

"I am so sorry," I apologized, ashamed of my ineptitude at this almost sacred ritual of Miss Claire's: the art of brewing tea.

But Miss Claire made a gentle joke of my faux pas, invited the famous author to talk with me about my desire to be a writer, then disappeared into the kitchen to correct my error.
A few minutes later, satisfied with a well-brewed cup of tea, our guest sat back for the second time, and enjoyed his tea without incident.

A rebel of her own kind

There was no doubt. Claire White was the kind of woman I had only read about in books.
Unlike most women I knew, she smoked, occasionally drank wine and brandy, held modern opinions and often wore either long dresses or loose-fitting trousers.

Born and raised in an overwhelmingly Christian country, she sometimes spoke about other religions, but only, it seemed, to people she liked and trusted.

Descended from African slaves and English slave-owners, Miss Claire was neither English nor African, yet, somehow both. She would have been equally at home having tea with the Queen of England or learning to make a secret healing balm from one of Jamaica's many African herbalists deep in the countryside.

In some ways, she reminded me of my mother, who always said the measure of a human being is not in how she treats the powerful, but how she treats the poorest among us. Miss Claire surprised me by making a similar comment one day. She took a dim view of the prejudices of Mandeville society.

Miss Claire, despite her upper-class status, had won my approval.

Within weeks I had figured out a key fact: Miss Claire and I were both rebels. But age and loss had brought wisdom to Miss Claire's rebellion, whereas I was always ready to tilt at windmills. If the mythical Don Quixote had ever fathered a daughter, I would have been that daughter, racing off on my horse, wielding a too-short lance, ready to fight Mandeville's high and mighty every time one of them openly disparaged or otherwise ill-treated poor or uneducated people in my presence.

Since, for long stretches, I seemed to fight at least one battle a day, Miss Claire's residence became my second home before I had quite realized it. Always, she listened patiently to my war stories, occasionally asking a gently probing question or two.

"And so, Miss Cynthia.... Do you think there might have been another way to attack that problem?" she might ask as we sipped our tea, minutes after I'd arrived at her home feeling bruised after losing another fight.

It was the perfect approach to take with a girl who was often frustrated and ill-equipped to fight the inequities of Jamaican society. Instead of giving advice, instead of telling me what I should have done, Miss Claire asked the questions that gently forced me to review the effectiveness of my tactics.

And then, pouring the hot golden liquid into her best china cup, she served me tea - the same elixir most often associated with the very target of my frustration - Mandeville's upper class.

Reading the tea leaves

Miss Claire took tea seriously for two reasons. First, she loved it. Although she preferred the Chinese Oolong and Jasmine teas - believing they helped to calm the mind - she catered to the preferences of her guests, and always had a variety of teas on hand.

Miss Claire's second reason for taking tea seriously was more magical. She possessed the mysterious talent of reading tea leaves.

Visitors came from across the country to have their "leaves read" by Miss Claire on her days off from the telephone company. Some were friends of hers, and some were my own friends; she read their tea leaves as a gift. But as her readings became famous for being accurate, her visitors multiplied and Miss Claire started to charge a small fee to those who could afford it.

One day, a tall, elegant woman whom we'd never met before sat down at Miss Claire's dining table for a reading. Miss Claire's unusual mixture of old-fashioned grace and wit charmed her guest immediately and we three sat and enjoyed our tea together.

It was a beautiful day in the spring, the kind of day where clouds of pretty blue forget-me-nots are in full bloom in the garden, the skies are blue and endless, and all seems right with the world.

Inside, the house felt utterly silent, fraught with expectation, hope and a slight undercurrent of apprehension at what the tea leaves would foretell.
I decided to take a stroll in the garden, allowing the two women privacy.

"Please stay," the guest asked, touching my arm as I started to stand. Staring at her face, I realized that this confident-looking woman with the elegant clothes, long polished fingernails and glowing brown skin was nervous about the reading. I sat down beside her.
Miss Claire wordlessly picked up the pretty bone china cup the woman had drunk from.

Angling it to peer at the formation of the leaves inside, she had already started to interpret them as if there were words written in the bottom of the cup. Her large almond-shaped eyes were intent, her smooth, unlined face immobile. She finally began to speak.

"You've been married for nine years," Miss Claire observed quietly but firmly, looking steadfastly at the tea leaves. "It was a good strong marriage for some years."
The woman nodded vigorously. Miss Claire paused.

"You recently got pregnant after trying for several years."
Our visitor drew in her breath sharply.
Miss Claire continued, speaking softly.

"You miscarried."

The woman doubled over as if she had received a physical blow. Just as quickly, she straightened up. But she seemed to have difficulty catching her breath. Miss Claire paused again, allowing her visitor to regain her dignity before continuing even more softly now.

"It was a boy."

The visitor reached for my hand and held on to it tightly.

"Things have been very difficult of late."

The woman swayed slightly against me.

"My dear, you...." Miss Claire began.

I caught the change in her tone, because I now knew Miss Claire's mannerisms well. Whatever was coming was not good news.

Then, through the open window, we heard a bird start to sing. It was a most peculiar but beautiful song, and its sweet clarity pierced the silence. In that moment, the house seemed to come alive with warmth and vitality and something that felt like hope.

Almost as distinctively, a second bird replied, picking up the unusual melody. Miss Claire turned her head to look through the window, listening without speaking. Her whole body appeared taut. Even the visitor turned to stare through the window, head angled toward the sound.

For a long moment, we three women sat transfixed, caught in a still-life painting, listening in rapt attention to two birds singing a magical song.

"Ah," breathed Miss Claire at last, relaxing back into her chair as the birds ended their music. "The birds are singing. It is a sign of hope."

A whole world revealed

I had heard her perform several readings, usually for my friends or relatives. Never before had I seen her back down from something she had so clearly seen in someone's cup, deciding not to reveal its contents.

But Claire White was a woman who conversed with plants, birds and animals, believing that they too had a story to tell, if humans would only listen. The birds' song evidently brought a message that day and Miss Claire heard it clearly.

Smoothly, Miss Claire returned to the reading, giving a message of hope to a fragile woman who had just lost her only child, and whose marriage now lay in tatters.

It was the longest reading I had ever seen Miss Claire perform. By the time it was over, I hardly knew where the reading of the tea leaves had ended and the counseling had begun. But Miss Claire had obviously made the right choice. The guest left with a spring in her step, her power returned to her by a rare session with an unusual woman who saw a person's world in a tea cup but stopped to listen to the singing of the birds.

I had steadfastly refused to let Miss Claire read my own tea leaves. She knew so many of my yearnings for the future that I was afraid she might tell me what I wanted to hear.

When she finally read my leaves, it consisted of small details about friends and family and predictions about my future in foreign lands - so far off that I didn't entirely believe it - although I desperately wanted to escape Mandeville and its prejudices.

She was right about much of it, but how was I to know that at the time? I still had difficulty believing that a human being could see a person's past, present and future in the formation of tea leaves at the bottom of a cup.

One day, Miss Claire confided the likely source of her uncanny power: she had, she said, been born with a 'caul' over face. In Jamaican mythology, a baby born with the amniotic sac over the top of its face will become a mystic, a person able to foretell the future. Some people were afraid of such a person, and so Miss Claire was very selective in sharing the story.

"From childhood, I seemed to see or sense things that others didn't," she explained. "It frightened me at first. Then, one day, I looked into a teacup after someone had finished drinking from it. There seemed to be a whole world in the pattern of the tea, but no-one apart from me seemed to see it."

This explanation was suddenly good enough for me, and the reading of tea leaves became as normal a part of our lives as drinking tea.

A point to prove

One day we had our one and only fight. I announced to Miss Claire that I planned to invite her gardener to go with me to the movies that Saturday. His name was Albert Jones, and he might have been somewhere in his mid-thirties. Miss Claire called him "Mr. Albert" or "Mr. Jones", and so I did the same. He was a gentle man.

I fully expected Miss Claire to be surprised, even shocked by the idea. This was, after all, Mandeville. One did not invite a friend's gardener to the movies.

From the neutral tone of her voice, I might as well have brought news about the weather.

"And why do you want to do that, Miss Cynthia?' she asked, in that deliberate... almost formal way of hers... head angled to one side, looking more curious than anything else.

"Because I'm disgusted with the way these upper class people in Mandeville treat the poor uneducated people," I huffed ...with all the self-righteousness I could muster. "They treat their dogs and cats a lot better than the people who work in their homes!"

It was, of course, a gross overstatement against a whole class of people. And with it, I'd just brashly proved myself guilty of the very thing I hated in Mandeville: prejudice.

But Miss Claire didn't bat an eyelash.

"So, Miss Cynthia. You're doing this... inviting Mr. Jones to the movies... to make a point about class discrimination here in Mandeville?"

"Yes, I am. And what's wrong with that?"

Miss Claire's opinion mattered hugely to me, though I'd never have admitted it at the time. Perhaps, deep down, I was also pushing her to admit a weakness: that when push came to shove, she was really just another upper-class Mandeville lady, like all the rest. With their hats and gloves and tea parties and servants and class prejudices.

Miss Claire, however, seemed entirely unfazed by my outburst.

"And, Miss Cynthia...have you given any thought to how that would make Mr. Jones feel? Being seen in public at the movies with a teenage girl who's not a relative?"

I hadn't thought of that. Come to think of it, I hadn't a clue as to whether Mr. Jones even liked going to the movies. I started to squirm in my seat.

Holding my gaze, Miss Claire went on: "Like it or not, Miss Cynthia... you're somewhat privileged yourself. Even upper class, compared to Mr. Jones. By going to the movies with him... in front of all of Mandeville ... you'll make a public spectacle of yourself. And ...much more important... you'll make a spectacle of him."

Miss Claire continued in the same reasonable tone. "And I suppose that's the point."

I finally found my voice.

"I am not privileged," I protested. "And I do not belong to the upper class!"

I wasn't exactly lying. But I wasn't telling the whole truth either.

Yes, I belonged to a middle class country family. But my family valued education and I had excelled in the British-Jamaican school system. Many Jamaicans were fluent in one language. I spoke three. At the drop of a hat, I could quote Shakespeare, Dickens, Balzac, Moliere, Cervantes.

On top of all that... my family owned land. In the stratified society of Mandeville, all of this meant that I belonged to a quite different economic and social class from Mr. Jones, the gardener.

And now Miss Claire...the friend who had always given me approval... someone who I thought was also a rebel at heart... was telling me I was being thoughtless... even selfish.

But I was too young... too proud... and by now had too much invested in my own rebellion to back down. Raising my voice, I told Miss Claire that my mind was made up.

"I'm going to the movies and I am inviting Mr. Jones to come with me!"

Miss Claire was silent, and for a moment, I thought I had won. When she finally spoke, she was more formal than I had ever heard her. I had to lean in to hear.

"You are a guest in my home," she said. "Mr. Jones is employed by me. I will not have him used to make your political point."

Miss Claire taught me several lessons that day.

That I was not as under-privileged that I had thought

That I needed to be more considerate of others

And finally, that one does not have to shout to score a point.

- The End -

Cynthia Reyes is the founder of Jamaica Homecoming. Her non-fiction book "Home: Lost and Found" will be published in 2013. Serendipitously, Claire White's novel "Astramana" will also be published in 2013.

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