Few people would care for our sugar spoon as we did. But when we had to share out the family possessions, the sugar spoon was the only item – not the diamond ring, not the grandfather clock, not the antique silver – upon which we could not amicably agree. It was not even electro-plated nickel silver, but it was our sugar spoon.
“Do you take sugar in your tea?” we were taught to ask. It was the 1950s and in Belsize Park coffee had not yet become a regular morning drink. It was never seen in the afternoon. Tea was made in a teapot, with leaves and water from a kettle that blew steam to a height of 18 inches. It was the drink that cheered but did not inebriate. Or, “My God, I need a cup of tea,” as Mum would sigh on entering the house.
The battered tin sugar spoon was always in the sugar bowl, which never matched anything else, perhaps because it was so often broken and replaced. A variable cook and an atrocious housekeeper, Mum did love tea and teatime. So we did, too. One of our favourite reading books was Grey Rabbit gives a Party by Alison Uttley. For Mum, just like Grey Rabbit, whom she resembled more than a little, a party was always a tea party. I can still hear her voice breaking with excitement and pleasure “Shall we have a party?” The next step might be to haul out Concerning Cake-Making or the awe-inspiring red tome of Constance Spry, aprons, mixing bowls, weights and the other archetypal spoon in our house: the oversized tablespoon which we always without fail used to measure a spoonful of flour or sugar. I have it now, and it is too large for recipes, but it shows as she would have said, a generous nature.
I like to make her mistakes sometimes. It’s a way of staying in touch.
Though spoonsful for cakes could err on the side of fullness, spoonfuls for tea were strangely precise. One was a bit meagre, two was normal, three excessive. I never heard of anyone taking any more apart from builders, who were a special case to be indulged. When slimming came in, to my mother’s vexation, she who had always been slim, sugar went out. But she still liked to have the sugar bowl on the table, as a measure of hospitality. Then she became fatter herself, slowing down with age, and stopped taking sugar except for “special occasions, I’m a bit tired, it perks you up.”
Teatime at the battered formica-top table was the best time of our day; bringing home people from school for tea was the main social interaction of our days. As school food was so ghastly and supper late (never begun cooking before The Archers on the Home Programme), we were ravenous at teatime. I once ate thirteen slices of toasted, buttered malt loaf, in competition with my sister. Mummy would sit by the toaster, having fun with it popping up and tossing it to us to be buttered. It was an absolutely feminine domestic scene (all our friends were girls) with giggling and jam and butter licked off fingers, silly conversations about horrible schoolmistresses and classmates , into which my Mum entered with shock and delight (“She didn’t!” “Why did she do that?”) and, later, clothes. It was, I think, one of the few times in her life that she felt in charge of her home, rather than bullied by it.
Another tactic for reducing housework, and hence her servitude to it, was reduction in washing up. I was 28 before I was disabused of the notion that “There is no good washing up the dark marks inside teacups: they don’t come off.” It was 1979, and my flatmate Mary looked at me in disbelief before grabbing a scouring pad and showing me how easily teastains could be removed. A great wave of shame washed over me from neck to hairline. She laughed. “Honestly, Victoria! Who told you that!” Ididn’t grass my mother up but when I told her, she flatly refused to believe this startling news. I showed her: “Look, Mum, look!” but she simply turned her head away.
When she died and we had to sell the house, I had the windows cleaned. They hadn’t been cleaned for 35 years. Not long after my father died, our then window cleaner retired and mum couldn’t bring herself to hire anyone else (“So expensive!”). It took the firm – two men working with pressure hoses – a whole day, or 16 man-hours. They said it was “a challenge”. I could see what they thought. The amazing thing was that for decades, both before and after my father’s death, Mum had complained that the house was “too big, too gloomy, too dark”. She pleaded with him not to buy it, she complained about it while he was alive and she referred to it as an unalterable and unpleasant fact of life thereafter. “It is depressing,” she explained. When she became ill in the last years of her life she changed her tune and wanted to have the curtains drawn, to make it even more depressing. But, lo! The magic hoses played on the encrusted glass and the house was revealed as perhaps my father had seen it, an airy palace, full of sunlit squares falling from the generous windows on the parquet floors. How powerful my mother’s feelings were. She made the house into a monster which darkened her days and ours, yet it was a pussycat of a dwelling which only wanted to purr with light.
At the teatable, though, Mum was in charge. “Let’s give them a good tea,” she would plan. This never included anything of a northern tea variety, like kippers or sausages or soup or an egg, though egg sandwiches were definitely tea-party food. This was afternoon tea like the Ritz or Claridges, where the courses are in ascending order of sweetness. So you start with sandwiches, or they could be bridge rolls, with egg mayonnaise or crab or smoked salmon (only bat mitzvahs) or ham (not bat mitzvahs) or cheese or, for my grandmother, cottage cheese (“awful stuff like vomit” sniffed mum); toast with marmite or jam (Tipton’s blackcurrant, strawberry or raspberry if feeling flush, otherwise Hartley’s New Jam which tasted of nothing) and rarely honey, which Mum seemed to regard as a purely fictional substance which had escaped from the pages of Winnie the Pooh. Peanut butter was only for boys, sulky teenagers who were just dying to get into the bedroom with one of her lovely daughters and snog but had to endure a full tea experience with Mum first and ended up guzzling vast quantities and being filed under the rubric, “I do like a boy who likes his food.”
Next culinary level was malt loaf, teacakes, crumpets or scotch pancakes, all bought at Sainsbury’s. These had to be “finished off” and toasted. “Never stint on the butter,” Mum counseled. We never did. Nor did we ever descend to margarine, however infatuated others’ mothers were with Stork or Blue Riband. You can tell the difference, we agreed, and we didn’t like it. Toasting cheese was a remote possibility at this level but only if mousetrap.
When Dr Who hit the screens we all developed a fetish for syrupy preserved fruit from Balkan countries ladled over Nutella on cholla, that sweetened eggy bread which Jews eat for Sabbath. Dr Who was on Saturday afternoons so there was a fair bit of cholla left over from Friday night. It was our top favourite tea treat for a year, but one we never revealed, even to boyfriends. It was just too disgusting, though deeply satisfying.
Then, biscuits. Mum knew it was possible to make biscuits but she couldn’t see why you would when the shops had so many kinds. Everyday ones were squashed fly with currants, ginger nuts and fig rolls. Your bread-and-butter biscuits, so to speak. A step up might be the shiny glazed Café Noir, chocolate bourbons, to be made gooey in cups of tea, jammie dodgers which seemed like a two-for-one-treat and custard creams, similarly. Then there were party biscuits: pink wafers, chocolate fingers, party rings with squiggle icing, chocolate mallows. You couldn’t have very many of those, because others wanted their share. Then there were shiny wrapped ones with special names that were only for picnics: penguins, jaffa cakes, kitkats. And finally, ones we only got when my dad went shopping: pfeffernusse which are cake-like ginger sponge round a nut of jam encased in dark chocolate, orange madeleines with aromatic crackly icing, Bahlsen curly wafers. “Continental,” Mum said with satisfaction. It showed how exotic my Dad was. But also, how spendthrift. He bought them in the delicatessen.
Whatever biscuits there were, they lived in a biscuit barrel and absolutely had to be arranged on plates. There isn’t much arranging you can do with one kind of biscuit on a dinner plate, but we tried.
Next, cakes. Little ones first, then big ones. Fairy cakes, brownies and butterfly cakes were for parties but might be left over. Big cakes were what Mum and me made at weekends, sometimes for birthdays but mostly for the smell and the togetherness. If we made them ourselves, we ate them. Specially if they were from Constance Spry and involved ground almonds. They might be billed as “cut and come again” but we generally just cut. The four of us could easily demolish a cake in a tea time. If we bought them, they often stayed around longer than was good for them — or us. We liked Battenburg, Jamaican Ginger and Walnut Slice because you could never make them yourself. Likewise Swiss Roll which we tried to make but it broke in the rolling.
Finally, there might be fruit. Probably just because we loved fruit but also because strawberries and cream were only available for a few weeks and you wouldn’t want to miss any chance to eat them. Then you definitely needed the sugar spoon to sprinkle “ooh, just a little!” on the “strawbers” .
The sugar spoon was a triumph for Englishness. My dad brought a sugar delivery mechanism to the marriage too. It was a cut-glass sifter with a silver top. We never used it. Too ridiculously posh. I imbibed this attitude so deeply that many years later at an upper-class dinner party I began to mock the sugar sifter as it was passed to me, before realising that Mum’s hierarchy of tableware was not universally shared.
Few people would care for our sugar spoon as we did. But when we had to share out the family possessions, the sugar spoon was the only item – not the diamond ring, not the grandfather clock, not the antique silver – upon which we could not amicably agree.
We stared at each other across the dining room table.
“I can’t just say you have it,” I confessed.
“Me neither,” she replied.
“Shall we toss for it?”
We both got up and paced round the garden. I resolved not to be so petty. After all, the memories were the thing, not the actual spoon. I looked at her. She was thinking, clearly. We both went back to the table.
“You have it,” I said hollowly.
She was pale. “No, you.”
“No, you, Vic, you have tea parties, I don’t.”
A great feeling of relief washed over me. I would have the sugar spoon, make cakes and be my mother’s daughter.
“OK.” I saw her disappointment, but I took the spoon anyhow. She can use it when she visits. And besides, she doesn’t take sugar in drinks either. Plus, she’s a nicer person. Sweet enough.
Do you take sugar? And how about some malt loaf?
Never mind about the washing up.