SOMETHING HE SAID .....
My mother died in 1977 in springtime, a few days before her birthday. She had been sick for seven years, and we had seen her fade from able-bodied and mobile to substantially non-ambulatory, though up till a few days before her death, still vibrantly alive, and alive with stubbornness.
For long after she passed away the evidence of her life still surrounded us. Her vast book collection, in every room of the house. Her objets d'art. Her antique Bohemian crystal. Her Waterford. And the collection of exceptional teacups and saucers.
Her tastes in colours, textures, and literature, had been bold. It was from her that I learned to read Beowulf in Old-English, Gretir's Saga in Old-Norse. Both of those languages are a bit beyond me now, but I can still hack my way through the Green Knight and several other oddities.
The collection of teacups and saucers lived on the tea trolley in the dining room, in the corner. The dining room was my brother's realm (we never actually ate there). His chess books lined the walls, his Dickens and Proust were on the table. Odds and ends which fascinated him were on the mantelpiece. We did not enter save by his leave.
But the tea-trolley was hers. And the teacups and saucers breathed age, grace, a style of living.
I had my own favourite tea cup and saucer in the sera, where I often sat until deep at night reading and smoking. It was not antique, and not even very nice, being a rather pedestrian blue and white pattern mass-produced in kilns from Yokohama to Tierra del Fuego. But it was bowl-like, deep and broad, and showed off the green-amber glow of jasmine tea nicely, cooling it down to drinkability in moments. My teacup. In imitation of hers.
In retrospect, I spent the better part of my adolescence zipped to the gills on caffeine. Whacked out of my mind. No wonder my classmates did not consider me sane, I bounced from the walls and gibbered. But caffeine is a drug that blesses the addict. Just as Doctor Johnson stayed up till all hours while off his rocker on tea, so likewise did I explore science fiction, English and Dutch poetry, Kipling, Maugham, Nabokov, mediaeval history, and everything I could lay my hands on that spoke of Afghanistan, Samarkand, India, South East Asia, and China, till far far past midnight.
I learned much of the world, and absorbed entire empires. Tea and books - boruch Hashem.
That summer I moved my reading and tea-drinking out to the patio. When it rained one could sit under the broad corrugated overhang and enjoy the cooling humidity. My pipe smoke would curl back and into the house through the French doors, and eventually my brother might come out and join me, or merely move from the dining room into the sera, where in silence he moved the pieces across the board, pondered, leafed through his book. We did not speak much. We really had less in common at night than during the day, though both of us were night people.
He hated my pipe, and thought the jasmine tea an affectation (which it was).
I did not obsess over chess (a failing, I admit), and preferred devouring the printed page at great speed, rather than dawdling over it at length as he did.
He would sit for hours in the stillness and in thought.
Click. Hmmm. Click - another move. A rustle of paper as he read the analysis of the game. Long pause, click again.
In the silence of the night, when the conditions are right - dry Latakia tobacco, humidity in the air, and a certain light - I can still hear the clack of chess pieces, hear the flick of one page, as he reviews the games of the masters.
Tobias passed away in 1992. And I miss him.
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