Tuesday, 24 January 2023

The Preservation of Fire

A decade ago or so, a visitor from Ireland summed up our TLM community with a dismissive "not a young parish." On the contrary, we had a goodly collection of university students by then. Of course, it was true that we did not have many children or young couples. The tea table was presided over by elderly ladies, two of whom now feature in my prayers for the dead and one of whom is now confined to a wheelchair. The oldest woman in the parish, who was 90 or so, would signal that she was done drinking her tea by taking a linen cloth from her handbag to help with the washing up. She, too, now features in my prayers. 

The tea, incidentally, was strong enough to leap out of the pot and throttle you, and the coffee was the ashy mud for which Britain was once so famous. The biscuits sat on plates, and sometimes they had exciting names like Bourbon or Jammy Dodger or Jaffa cake, and sometimes they were plain, but I never took more than two--at least, at first. Possibly I would sneak back after drinking my tea or coffee and see what was left. Crucially--it seemed--there was always a tea lady to pour the tea or the hot water into the cups of ash. Pouring your own tea was Not Done. 

In fact, the Tea and Coffee of Peace was a sedate affair, and I took the ministrations of the Tea Ladies for granted. It was generally (but not universally) held by the Gin and Tonic Set (to which B.A. and I and Polish Pretend Son belonged) that setting it up and cleaning up afterwards was the privilege of the elderly. Week after week we sauntered off for our gin, shouting thanks to the Tea Ladies over our shoulders as we passed the minute kitchen on the way out. 

One of the Gin and Tonic set was unusually kindly for us, and she began to help the Tea Ladies and, in fact, became the Tea Lady when the others died or became too infirm. Unfortunately, our friend herself was losing her sight, and when an unkind--but probably insane--woman from the NO Mass found this out, there was an unholy fuss. It was, in the Catholic sense of the word, a scandal, and our friend, a recent convert, never returned. 

So, despite being well under 60, I became the Tea Lady and began to duck out of Mass at the first moment B.A. and I deemed allowable ("Chalice veils") to set up the tea. By then our numbers had increased, and as the Francis pontificate gathered steam, they increased even more. The church thronged with young families, which themselves grew and grow, and more and more young people filled the choir pews in the back. 

This expansion brought minor revolutions. For the first time I can recall, someone under 18 was allowed to serve at the altar. Women even younger than I volunteered to make the tea and wash the cups. Parents brought children's birthday or First Communion cakes to share. Men hoovered the parish hall floor. There was even a rebellion within the Tea Lady ranks against the instant coffee of our ancestors and we began to brew real coffee with a machine. We also took to moving the tea table across the doorway to the kitchen, both to create a better crowd flow and to stop children from crashing into us when we returned with hot refilled pots. 

Then our new priest arrived and our old priest retired to the background. I discovered that the former says Mass faster than the latter, which means that to get everything on the table in time, I really have to keep a weather eye on the chalice veils. 

This Sunday, in fact, hosting as organized and sedate an After-Mass Tea as my predecessors was simply impossible. First of all, my trusty second-in-command was absent. Secondly, for some reason, a spirit of chaos reigned. The crowd of children gave up all restraint and made such frequent raids on the biscuits that a 700 gram Tesco Variety Pack was gone in minutes. I put out more biscuits, only to see an empty plate when I emerged from the kitchen with a pot of coffee or a refilled jug of milk, or whatever it was. I put out more cookies although I feared someone would eventually throw up. Sadly, there were no longer any plain ones, and our poor new priest--who always comes late to the table--had to make do with a custard cream. Graduate students were helping themselves to the tea and coffee (anarchy!) and then a blond giant invaded the kitchen to demand to know why I had not told him I was going to Vienna. 

As a matter of fact, I had informed the blond giant by Facebook message, which he had not read, and answered further questioning by saying that I was going to a Conference-and-Ball, although not the Ball.

"Warum nicht?" demanded the blond giant. 

"Because I can't waltz," I said, or words to that effect. 

Then--I'm not sure exactly how this happened--I received an impromptu lesson in the basic waltz step in the hall, and afterwards was dancing in circles in the carpark. I cannot remember a single occasion in which any of my predecessors abandoned their duties to waltz outdoors in the cold. 

But then I had a revelation that although I am a Tea Lady I am not actually ancient, and the social rules for the over-40 set in 1818 do not apply in 2023 anyway, and there is nothing wrong in accepting invitations to waltz in the carpark, or even in Vienna. Also, parishioners may certainly help themselves to tea and coffee, and the children are welcome to eat as many biscuits as their parents allow. For after all, we have become a young parish, and the spirit of youth is upon us. 

(I will, however, keep a stash of plain biscuits back for the priest.)


  1. I would like to confirm that the rude Paddy was not me. And I would have brought biscuits. :-) Sinéad

  2. Of course you weren't! And I am sure you would bring biscuits! (Mrs McLean)