The Black Tea House

Jess Green and Amy Barrett. Current locations: Bristol, England.

She comes in carrying bags bursting from the seams.
“What have you brought me?” I ask her.
“Give me a minute, let me sit down” she says.
I follow her to the table, her Dad close behind.
He doesn’t quite understand why I’m always asking her to come
straight after she is back.
He wants to know she is well, she was safe,
I want to know what she has brought me.

“This,” she says, “is a silk skirt, handmade.”
It floats on the air as she pulls it from the bag
the great crashing wave made of colour thread
rippling before me.
“It’s beautiful,” I say.
“You actually wear that?” he says.
I finger the cloth,
she nods to him as he watches us.

“And look, here look at this,”
I pull my eyes away, towards the clinking sound coming from the rustling bag.
She hands him something covered in bubble wrap
and cling film.
“Careful,” she says, as he places it on the table.
She nods to me, and I begin to open gently
like I am taking a present from under the tree
and shaking it cautiously for signs of its contents.

The little tea set is marble grey
with bright red flowers and thick black lines
that apparently mean words,
though I can’t read them.
“Do you know what they say?” I ask her.
She begins to speak as he donkey laughs.
“I’m learning”
He laughs again.

“It’s something that my dolls would use,” I comment
because I have something similar upstairs, in pink plastic.
“This is for real people,” she says softly.
“But it’s so small”
And she smiles, takes the pot by the thin handle
and places a cup in front of me and him.
Pouring invisible tea
for us all to enjoy.

“At Xiangkou, the Black Tea House, they hold what is called a ‘tea ceremony’. It’s a temple, and they take you underneath the floor, where they have a tea room. We sat down low, and they brought us all these different pots filled with herbs and spices and place it on the floor. They tell you what each tea does, why people drink it, at what time of day.”

I take a sip from my cup
wondering what it will do to me on this late Sunday afternoon
I look over at him
but he isn’t drinking.

“Some of the teas have medicinal properties. Some are to help give you strength, some will soothe your anxiety – that’s when you’re feeling worried about something, or nothing. Some teas will wake you up, and some will help you sleep.”

“They take things from the different pots and mix them all together in front of you. It might be flower petals or spices, all being grinded up in a little bowl. Then you get to try; they tell you when to add water, and when not too. Some are hot, some cold, some you have to knock back like a shot as it will burn your throat.”

I go to ask
but he coughs so she can’t hear my question
and she rushes on anyway
and I don’t want to interrupt the story.

“They can tell you what tea you need if you tell them your ailments, what’s wrong with you. They said I seemed to have some liver issues because there were these things on my tongue. So that meant I should drink jasmine or chamomile tea. The shop had over 500 different types of tea, and they can tell you what each one is for.”

I hold out my cup
and say “This time I want tea that will make me big.”
And she laughs as she pours
“Why do you want to be big?”
I take a sip.
It’s hot and spicy as it slides down my throat
and warm as it travels through my mind.
“So I can come with you next time you go to the Black Tea House in Beijing.”

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