Living in the Surveillance Age (and why it took a teabag and a crumpet for me to finally realise it).
I would like to have believed that the increasing climate of distrust and general paranoia that had been steadily raging in the outside world during this wave of the pandemic would not yet make it’s way to my own front door. It was undeniable that a gestapo-like sentiment was now fueling the country, causing neighbours to turn on one another, peering through blinds to check that no rules were being broken, and if they were, promptly calling the police to come and break up these illegal multi-household gatherings. Living in the surveillance age, baby, ain’t it a hoot? And all the while, I would like to have believed that this particular and startlingly omnipresent brand of insanity would not permeate the walls of my own home. That was, until the crumpet appeared, as if my magic, in the middle of our back garden.
Of course, the crumpet was not the first suspicious thing to creep its way into our locked down lives. It would be inaccurate to assume that the crumpet was the first sign of this growing paranoia. It was, instead, that the crumpet seemed to symbolise a definite crossing into enemy territory; a puckered and perfectly toasted enigma that materialised as if from nowhere, and left us all bemused, yet quietly horrified. The idea that something so incongruous would dare to lay claim to our garden was perhaps the final straw. Or, crumb, as it were. During this time, there had also been the issue regarding the teabags, or, more precisely, the lack there of. I suppose I ought to explain.
Welcome to the land of the tea.
Upon returning home for Christmas, I had quite quickly learned that my parents had perfected a routine in which their entire day revolved around the making, brewing and drinking of tea. Now, as an English person, this may come as no surprise. And as I had spent the previous year living with my friend, Sophie, whose own tea drinking habits exceeded those of anyone I had ever encountered up until that point of my life, and who was always brewing the kettle before we were due to go out, reasoning that she never knew where her next cup was coming from, and so she better get a quick one in now, I had become accustomed to a life in which I not only accepted, but had been recruited like a holy disciple, into this manic, almost religious dedication to the consumption of tea.
Despite this, I was mildly alarmed to return home for the Christmas holidays to find that my parents’ tea making habits had been blow out of all proportion, and that I had now clearly entered the land of the insane. In order to convey the exact severity of these tea-making activities, I believe I should perhaps lay out the routine as I observed it. Firstly, my father would wake, go downstairs to the kitchen, and precede to boil the kettle. When this was done, the curdling steam creeping up the wall and threatening to ruin the paint, he would begin by filling the first teapot, and his own mug, if there was any water left. Then, the kettle lid was popped, more icy water was poured in, the lid closed once more, the kettle returned to its perch and the switch flicked on, it’s alien blue light filling the kitchen. This second batch of boiled water was used to fill a second teapot. Then, a third to fill a metal flask. A methodical and reverent routine emerged, in which it seemed to me that every available vessel was enlisted in this singular mission to transform our house into one big, macrocosmic teapot. Of course, this abundance, rationalised by my parents as a logical solution to constant tea-breaks and environmental disaster, would only last until about four o’clock in the afternoon, at which time either one of my parents would announce that they were boiling the kettle, and would anyone fancy a cuppa?
Evidently, the tea itself was suffering no long-term negative side effects. In fact, I would go as far to say that the teabags in our household had a considerably greater quality of life than any of the other teabags living in the houses on our stretch of the street. For one, my parents tended to vary the flavour of their poison, fluctuating between peppermint and earl grey, lapsang souchong and licorice. This ensured that no tea felt they were being pushed out of the rotation, shunned in favour of a younger, more fragrant tea. It also became alarmingly apparent that my parents liked to pretend that they were skint students, reusing teabags, two, even three times. By that point, the poor teabag was worn out and could only summon enough energy to produce the faint memory of tea. Only then was the skeletal teabag proclaimed a lost cause, and was promptly chucked into the food waste bin to live out the rest of its earth-bound life.
Perhaps it was a Buddhist teabag, I thought fondly, upon seeing yet another lifeless teabag in the food waste. And maybe it will be reborn as a cheese plant, or a handmade ceramic tajine– both of which I considered to be substantial upgrades from life as a teabag.
I have my own suspicions about the origins of the later tea fiasco- which I will get to shortly- but I believe that it was perhaps this affinity for what some may call, a surplus production line of tea making, that prompted the downfall of our harmonious living. Any walls of trust that had been solidly and so easily built between my parents and I, in the twenty-one years that I have known them, began to come crumbling down, and all because of a teabag.
The beginning of the end.
Now, the tea incident occurred a few weeks before the crumpet so rudely made its way into our back garden. It was evening, and like clockwork, after dinner had been eaten and plates had been washed, we settled in front of the television, and my mother made the nightly call.
“Anyone want a tea?”
And, of course, a pot would be made. Admittedly, I had now been home long enough that this did not strike me with any feeling of alarm, or apprehension. I had been lulled into a tea-infused complicity.
“I’ll have some!” I called back from the sofa, trying and promptly failing to make the cat love me by tempting him to come and sit on my lap.
“You could be living the high life up here,” I said nonchalantly, patting the cushion beside me and trying to hypnotise him with my words. Soft and spellbinding. “It’s nice up here, you know. Lots of petting opportunities for you in the land of the sofa…”
Then, I must have moved too abruptly, or he must have sensed some kind of trap in my eyes, because he practically shit a brick and legged it from the room. Fine, I thought bitterly, and began to nurse the deep pain of rejection that can only ever be dished out by a cat.
The familiar white noise of the kettle boiling echoed in the background.
When my mother reentered the living room, she was exercising the skills of a mind-bending Jedi, balancing three mugs and a teapot full to the brim of tea.
It is not out of the realm of possibility to infer that I had developed a kind of Stockholm syndrome. I no longer simply endured this cultist devolution to a life of excess tea; I relished the gift that was the tea, and began to feel a fondness for it that only people who have been kidnapped and forced to spend years living in underground holes, could understand. Or, anyone who has lived through a pandemic, I suppose.
Anyway, the comparison must be made in order to truly understand the shock, the horror, the sudden jolt of a knife in the back, when I took a sip and tasted… not tea. I frowned, took another sip, just to be certain, because although I am never wrong, I am prudent above all else. Upon a second, closer inspection, my darkest suspicion was confirmed. I was drinking hot water.
“Mum,” I said, suppressing the disgust that threatened to mare my otherwise lovely, cherubic features. “Did you put any teabags in this?”
My mother blinked, as angelic as Judas might have looked when Jesus still thought he was a homie. She frowned slightly, and picked up her own mug.
“Of course I did!”
Then, the most disturbing thing happened. She took a sip, tasted the deception she had served and called ‘tea’, and proclaimed, for the second time:
“Of course I did!”
I cannot decide which is worse: the fact that my mother, dedicated cult follower of the band formally known as TEA, had forgotten that a teabag was not only a recommended ingredient, but in fact a crucial element in the tea-making process; or, the fact that she had clearly burned off every taste bud in her mouth and could no longer distinguish between tea and hot water. I weighed up the options. If the first instance was true, then I would have to come to terms with the fact that my mother:
1. walked into the kitchen and boiled the kettle
2. then, forgot to put a teabag, or anything even remotely resembling a teabag, into the tea pot (an honest mistake: forgivable)
4. and THEN, continued to fill the now useless tea receptacle with hot water, which would sadly never be able to realise it’s life ambition of becoming tea
5. AND THEN, proceeded, like a sociopath, to serve this not tea to the two people who trusted her most (unforgivable)
This was almost too much to bare. The second instance, however, was a far darker truth to face. I would have to reconcile with the fact that my mother then continued this downward spiral, and proceeded to drink this not tea (in which, admittedly, there was a slight residue tea flavour due to the sheer amount of tea that had seen the inside of that teapot) and believed, whole-heartedly, that it was in fact tea.
I was disturbed beyond belief. This tea thing had officially gone too far. My mother’s senses were now so accustomed to the taste of tea, that her brain had actually stopped registering it as a distinctive entity. It had come to replace the status of water in her tea-addled brain. She could no longer tell the difference between tea, and plain old hot water. And so began the bubbling sense of paranoia. A plague had settled itself on our house; it festered in the walls, settled like dust on all the surfaces, and had me questioning, every time my mother made me a tea, whether it was truly as she claimed, ‘a cup of tea’, or just a pale imitation, masquerading itself in my letter B mug.
Anyone who has suffered such a betrayal can perhaps empathise with the apprehension I felt. Trust had been breached, and sure, it may have been a mistake, but even so, every cup of tea was a gamble. Could I trust it? Or would I be burnt by the nothing flavour of tea-less hot water. The drink of a man who has given up on life.
The magical mystery of the trespassing crumpet.
So, you can probably see how this fostered an environment tainted by fear and suspicion, all of which was only exacerbated, weeks later, by the appearance of the crumpet. To make matters worse, I had all but forgotten about the tea incident when that browned, circle of fear laid itself out on the slate garden tiles, and forced the malignant and suppressed memory of the tea to come flooding back to me. It was Sunday, of all days, the proclaimed day of rest, of recuperation, of family and of God. That morning, I came into the kitchen and made myself a coffee- practically an act of dissidence, of bold-faced civil disobedience in this kitchen, which had long ago sworn to serve tea, and only tea.
It is pertinent to note, that on that particular Sunday morning, my father was already seated at the kitchen table, eating his homemade cereal and, of course, drinking his freshly brewed tea. I could not say for certain how long he had been eating his cereal and drinking his tea, but he was reading the news, and this is the only logical reason I can imagine to explain why he hadn’t already noticed the crumpet. I, on the other hand, was busy watching my traitorous coffee bubbling away on the stove. I was briefly hypnotised by the whooshing sounds and rising smell, bitter and wonderful, God’s own nectar. I will do just about anything for coffee. Like any self-respecting addiction, mine is one of wilful servitude. It is like drowning at sea and spotting a life raft; it croons seductively with its smooth warmth and intoxicating scent. You decide that drowning is not ideal, and climb aboard the life raft, thanking your lucky stars that you spotted the only pirate-free water vestibule around. But then, once you are safely inside, foolishly believing this to be the end of your troubles, the life raft turns on you, strapping you down and refusing to let you go without making sure you drown first. That is what loving coffee is like. But I would happily bite off my own arm before giving it up, and if that ain’t love, then I don’t know what is.
Anyway, after I had grown bored of undressing the moka with my eyes, and impatient to get my kick for the day, I set about convincing myself that I would show some willpower and only have one coffee today. They say that addiction is a disease and relapse is part of the recovery process; luckily, I went to Catholic school, so I know a thing or two about unrealistic purification and good ol’ guilt. Anyway, if Dante’s anything to go by, I’ll just end up in the 89th circle of hell, swimming around in all the coffee I ever drank on earth and thinking of all those suckers upstairs, who actually repented for their sins.
There I was, raving like a madwoman, compelled and convinced by my own chaotic pre-coffee interior monologue, when I reached the back door, and saw through the hazy light which streaked the glass, what can only be described as a crumpet. In the garden. There was a crumpet in the garden. And not an old crumpet; it wasn’t withered or wayward; it couldn’t have been lost or searching for it’s crumpet brethren. Neither was it in any particularly sorry state; it wasn’t passed out drunk or stoned- though, yes, it may have been naked, but I don’t think that food has evolved to be as prudish and bound by capitalistic societal norms as we humans are. At least, not just yet.
Well then, I thought, staring dumbly out to the garden.
I couldn’t deny it, this crumpet looked quite lovely. It was not pale, but sun-kissed: evidently, it had seen the toaster in the past few hours and had taken on the radiant glow of someone who had spent a couple of blissful weeks parading around the south of France. Maybe I was blinded, and thus mentally inhibited, by the overall glowing health of the crumpet, but I did wonder for a second if I should attempt communication with this alien intruder, and if so, should I try speaking to it in French? Alas, this would have been motivated by a conceited desire to escape doing any actual university work, as I could have so easily spent five minutes chatting to the crumpet, in what I assumed to be it’s mother tongue, and call it revision.
Momentarily, this seemed viable. Until I remembered that my theory hindered on the assumption that the crumpet had simply been on holiday in the south of France, and was not a born citizen of the country, and could very well just as easily been, say, German or Icelandic.
I decided to follow a different line of thinking, and voiced my discovery to the room, like I was Christopher Columbus ‘discovering’ America.
“Urm… there’s a crumpet in the garden.”
“Huh?” My father looked up at me, and then out to the garden, and then back to me.
“Yes. There’s a crumpet. And it’s in the garden. Look, there- right in the middle of the garden.”
“What? A crumpet?” He laughed and peered out, as if I was joking. As if I were the kind of person who would joke about a crumpet being in the garden.
But then, after a more thorough inspection, he, too, saw that yes, there was indeed a crumpet in the garden. After all, it was quite easy to spot; it stood out like a sore thumb.
“Jesus, what’s that doing there?” he chuckled, as if it were entirely reasonable for a crumpet to have found its way across our fence and onto the garden floor. Undoubtedly a logistical nightmare for an inanimate food item, possessing neither limbs, nor the conversational skills to sweet-talk one of the neighbours into opening the back gate.
I, too, found this quite amusing. Or, the frightening lack of caffeine in my system, combined with the sudden crumpet discovery, was contributing to my sudden downfall.
“AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!” I whooped, making the house’s already quite precarious structure rattle with my outburst.
Not long after, my mother came downstairs, clearly disturbed by the axe-wielding maniac that had broken into her house and was now threatening it’s inhabitants with ritualistic, pagan shrieks. I was still laughing as she entered the kitchen in her oversized dressing gown, looking like a fuzzy penguin that had been dipped in ultraviolet dye.
“There’s a crumpet in the garden,” I explained, blinking through tears of hysteria.
My mother looked confused. A crumpet, her face seemed to say, in the garden?
She walked to the back door in thick-socked feet and looked out onto the frosty morning. She stood like that for a minute, surveying the scene like a lighthouse watchman, scouring the obscured seas for some sign of unseasonable disturbance. A crumpet-shaped incongruity. She turned around slowly, looking between the two of us. Her brow furrowed in accusation, like she was certain this was all some sick revenge scheme after the whole tea incident; my father and I accomplices in this last, great act of retribution. An eye for an eye, in this day and age, apparently loosely translated as: a cup of hot water pretending to be tea for a toasted crumpet planted in the middle of the garden, for no reason at all.
I think this new crumpet enigma somehow supplanted the tea incident in all of our minds. Collectively, it seemed that the mistakenly brewed tea-less tea had divide us, fostering an atmosphere of guarded mistrust, while the crumpet now banded us together. As a family, we were once more united. (Minus the addition of my younger brother, who had recently jumped ship and fucked off back to London to be edgy and live his artiste life. He was the only one who had been spared this tumultuous odyssey, and so would likely be the only one not to be scarred by the sight of either tea, or crumpets, in the near future.)
And they all lived happily ever after.
Anyway, in the end we decided that the crumpet was probably a result of next door’s dog, who has developed a knack for Houdi-ing his way into our garden during lockdown, and maybe this was his version of hush money, to stop us from grassing him up to the feds for getting within a two meter distance of our physical beings.
Whether we liked it or not, the crumpet brought us back from the depths of suspicion and foreboding. We were once more a unit, content to mistrust the rest of the world so long as we were safe in the knowledge that, above all, we trusted each other. The tea-trust was restored. My mother has been extra careful since then; I think the crumpet really was the wake up call she needed.