Sheila Verruca Pratte-Smythe had asked me what the strangest gift was that I’d ever received. Sheila is my landlady, but she may have plans for me above and beyond a landlady/tenant relationship, if you know what I mean. Though one can never be quite sure with widowed expatriate Englishwomen of the upper crust. I expect it’s the accent that throws us Americans. As our very own Li’l Abner aptly once put it, “amoozin’, but mainly confoosin’.” I could be wrong about her intentions, of course. Misunderstandings do happen. One just never knows. A case in point:
We were taking tea together, Sheila and I. Sheila, you see, periodically invites me down to her apartment for tea. I don’t know if it’s considered to be high or low tea, not being English and not all that enthusiastic over tea in the first place, but her table is set with all the accoutrements, and it invariably includes crumpets, scones, or some other variety of sweetmeats, a term I had to look up later to see what it meant. It didn’t surprise me in the least, though, that there wasn’t any meat involved. I should probably be wary of her possible designs, but the woman is attractive, I grant you that, and she does have a way about her that does not fail to entice, peculiar though it may be.
“James, do have a scone,” she says. My name is James Olglethorpe, by the way, but everybody knows me by Jim. At least everybody but Sheila. Although I’ve lived in one of her apartments for the past two years, she insists on addressing me as James, not Jim.
“Sheila,” I say, “please call me Jim. Nobody calls me James, not even my own parents.”
“Nonsense,” she replies. “To me, you shall always be James. You look like a James. You sound like a James. You have the veritable demeanor of a James. You are James. Do have a scone, won’t you?”
And so I acquiesce, because there’s nothing quite like a good scone to take your mind off your name, I always say.
“Tell me James,” she said that day, pouring milk into my tea. I hate milk in my tea, but Sheila, being English, thinks that there is no other way to drink it. All things considered, I’d prefer a mug of black coffee, no milk, no sugar, but I was brought up to be polite to hosts—especially hosts who happen to be landladies. Ergo, I accept graciously whatever they put in front of me. “Tell me James,” she said, stirring in two spoonfuls of sugar, “what is the strangest gift you’ve ever received?”
There seemed something marginally furtive, a jot nervous, in her voice when she asked, a tone that I had not detected in her ever before, but enough to joggle my antennae to be on the alert.
“The strangest gift? Why do you ask?”
In an off-handed way she replied, “Oh, for some reason I was thinking about singular gifts today—you know, special occasions…that sort of thing. Usually they are pretty predictable, aren’t they, but sometimes we receive something quite out of the ordinary. I was just curious to know what might have been your strangest.”
I regarded her a moment, wondering what her motive beyond mere curiosity might be. Surely she wasn’t thinking about giving me something for my birthday, was she? In any case, it was a long way off. My strangest gift was a no-brainer, of course, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to share that with her yet, if at all. You see, Sheila, were it to come to pass that she eventually has her way with me—and I’m not saying that she will, but I haven’t completely discarded that possibility of her purposes—might not appreciate either the gift or its background. All I will say is this: it was from an old flame with a rather creative, if not unorthodox, imagination for gifts, something I expect one wouldn’t ordinarily care to pass along to one’s landlady over tea, especially a landlady perhaps entertaining designs. As such, I tried to recall a second-strangest gift, but for the life of me I could not.
“I’m afraid I can’t come up with a strangest gift, Sheila. Mmm, delicious tea,” I exclaimed then, sipping the treacly milk-infested liquid, and finding, to my sheer amazement, that it tasted quite good. Better than quite good, in fact.
She arched an eyebrow in my direction. She knew that I was dissimulating. But she did not insist.
“Thank you. It’s an extremely rare golden oolong tea specially imported from Pangborneo.”
“Yes, it’s a tropical island just off the coast of Negara Brunei Darussalam.”
“I see,” I said, not seeing at all.
“A sultanate in northwestern Borneo,” she elucidated, possibly noting my glassy-eyed expression.
“Ah…” I sipped the tea again. It tasted like tea, but not like any tea I’d ever sampled before. I actually liked the stuff. Very much. Almost too much. I wondered idly if she’d perhaps spiked it. “Well, I have to say, Sheila, this is most remarkable…extraordinary even. Dare I say superlative? It has a distinct flavor all its own, doesn’t it?”
She seemed quite pleased by my enthusiasm. “That it has. Most teas are white, green, pu-erh, black, and oolong. Golden oolong comes from a special sub-species of Camellia sinensis. I’m elated that you like it, James. I’ve noticed at previous teas that you showed a somewhat lack of exuberance, shall we say?”
“Nonsense, Sheila,” I lied. “Your teas are always a delight. But this… this tea simply defies adequate description.”
She laughed outright then, which I suddenly realized was the very first time I’d ever heard her really unleash. I liked it. “Oh, James, this makes me very happy indeed,” she said, and then burst out with another unabashed laugh, now with a distinct sparkle in her eye. She’d abruptly lost her aristocratic aplomb, and I must say that it became her exceedingly. Still, however, I couldn’t say with all certainly whether her intentions toward me were merely neighborly or something more predatory, if you follow my drift. So I was not ready to let my shields down just quite yet.
There was a point when her laughter subsided and she stared at me with what seemed open affection, and I also noted something of a blush, which most certainly surprised me. I’d never thought of her as the blushing type. I smiled nervously.
“What?” I asked.
“Oh, James,” she practically gushed, “you’ve made me quite cheerful.”
“Assuredly. This Pangbornean tea?”
“Had you asked, I would have said that this was the strangest gift I have ever received.”
My eyes widened. “The tea? How so?”
“Let me tell you a little story, and then you will understand.” She beamed a smile at me.
I beamed one back, uneasy but curious, and took another sip from the teacup. “Please do.”
She set aside a napkin that had been in her hand and sat up in her chair. Then she closed her eyes briefly, as though reflecting back to some earlier memory. Then she opened them again.
“Many years ago, when I was but a little girl,” she began, “my father, who was in the tea import business, decided to journey to Southeast Asia to seek out new sources of tea which he might sell in England. We—my parents and I—were living in Southampton at the time, which is an important seaport. My father had been dealing with tea exporters in India and in Sri Lanka, but he’d learned that in Indonesia and Malaya there were also some interesting non-mainstream crops that might be worth exploring. I suppose he could have simply had someone from the area send him samples, but my father—and my mother, dear soul—also loved a little adventure in their lives, and they decided it would be marvelous to travel the distance themselves and mix their business with a little pleasure as well. I was eleven years old at the time, and they felt that I was of an age where I might also properly appreciate such a trip, and so they took me with them. I was enormously pleased, because this was the very first time I was allowed to accompany either of them on an extended journey. Before, I’d been bundled off to my maternal grandmother’s house in Alcester. Don’t get me wrong. She was certainly darling enough, and we did have great fun together, but she was not what you might call the paragon of adventure. So you can well imagine my delight when I was at last permitted to join my parents to the Far East.”
“You must have been very excited,” I said.
“Delirious, James, delirious. And to make the journey more exciting even, my parents decided to go by ship instead of plane. A tramp freighter, no less.”
“Goodness,” I exclaimed, having no clue what a tramp freighter might be, though it sounded thoroughly disreputable for a child.
“I don’t know if you are familiar with tramps, James, but they are ships that do not operate on a fixed schedule. They engage in spot freight, picking up contracts as they become available.”
“Ah… Then it’s possible that a tramp might not necessarily arrive at a specific port on a specific date, but rather go from port to port depending on where cargo is to be delivered? Wouldn’t that mean one could not really depend on one ship arriving somewhere at any given time?”
“Exactly. Which also meant that a traveler might conceivably have to change ships more than once to get to his or her destination, with extended layovers perhaps at different ports. Which is why they decided to wait until I was on summer holidays, so we would have ample time for travel.”
“Your mother and father were audacious to choose this mode.”
“They were that indeed. It was a side of my parents that I had not known before, and I must say that it surprised and exhilarated me no end.”
“Please, go on. This is fascinating.”
“Well, initially the journey for me was just that…fascinating. I had never been aboard a ship before, and I was captivated. Fortunately, I had no trouble accustoming myself to sea travel, although my parents, ironically, suffered from motion sickness for the first few days. I won’t burden you with the details of the voyage, but after many days of travel, with stops along the way, we arrived at the first stage of our journey in Cape Town. The ship was to remain there a fortnight awaiting cargo from another ship, and its subsequent destination was uncertain. So we sought out another freighter, and learned that in three days one was bound for Toamasina, the main port of Madagascar. We arranged to sail on it. And so on and so forth. Galle, Sri Lanka; Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia; Kuching, Sarawak; and finally Kuala Belait, Brunei. It took us weeks and weeks to reach our final destination of Pangborneo. An exhausting, dreadful trip, all in all, though I must admit that had it not taken place, I possibly would never have received this gift of tea. Timing can be everything sometimes.”
“I agree,” I agreed.
“Pangborneo was a tropical island paradise. Think of Tahiti, Hawaii, Fiji, the Seychelles and the like, all rolled into one, and that’s what Pangborneo was.”
I cocked an eyebrow. Why hadn’t I heard of the place before?
“We three were delighted with the place and instantly fell in love with it. In particular, I expect, because we had been on the sea and in seaports for over a month, and sandy beaches, mountain peaks, and swaying palms of any kind seemed a godsend to us. The capital city, Ibu Kota, was more a town, but every inch a picture postcard. And the people there, simply charming. Warm, friendly, and most accommodating. We found rooms at the only local hotel—the quaint kind you usually associate with remote tropical islands—and after a day of rest and a bit of poking about town, my father made contact with the tea plantation people he wished to do business with. It was arranged that we be taken on a tour of the tea fields and the processing plant the following day. Although everyone seemed to be native islanders, the manager and several others spoke passable English, and so we had no trouble communicating. As for me, I was introduced to children my own age, and in no time at all we became fast friends.”
I smiled then, trying to imagine the scene, trying to imagine anyone by the name of Sheila Verruca Pratte-Smythe as an eleven-year old girl playing with brown-skinned island small fry. Hard to do. Sheila, now in her early fifties, did not seem to me like she had ever been a child, much less one cavorting with native Pangbornean children—but then again, appearances will fool you every time.
“What?” she said quizzically, noting my smile.
“No, nothing. Please continue.”
“This is getting far too long, and it doesn’t really address the gift.”
I shook my head, “Oh, please do finish what you started. This interests me.”
She nodded, complying. “We spent three, perhaps four weeks on the island. When my father concluded his business and a contract was agreed upon and signed to export Pangbornean tea to England, he made arrangements for us to set sail for Muara, one of the port cities of Brunei Darussalam. We’d all had quite enough of tramp freighters, and so the trip home was to be by plane this time, and we would be leaving from the Brunei International Airport at Bandar Seri Begawan, a short distance from Maura. We said our farewells, and I found myself suddenly and inexplicably devastated that I was to leave my new friends behind, and probably forever. We’d only known one another for a short time, but they had quickly become my bosom companions.”
Sheila’s voice broke slightly then, and I saw that she’d lost somewhat her composure. “Are you all right, Sheila?”
She tried to smile, but didn’t quite achieve it, and a tear slowly trickled down one cheek. “Please excuse me, James. Odd… it has been, what?, forty-one, forty-two years? And still….”
I couldn’t help myself. I reached out and placed a hand upon hers and patted it. Probably a mistake, I thought, but who could resist?
She dabbed her cheek and cleared her voice a couple of times, struggling to regain her poise, and finally managed a short laugh. “Goodness, how silly of me. But…but you know, James, since that time I have never had friends that I loved and cherished so deeply. Four decades later and I still miss them. The day before my parents and I were to leave, the grandfather of three of my friends invited me to his house. He spoke no English, and so his grandchildren translated. He said, ‘Daughter, you have become in this short time a member of our family. You are one of us.’ He then presented me with a package. He said inside was a very special tea, grown only in a very small part of the family tea plantation. ‘This tea,’ he said, ‘holds marvelous powers. I don’t know why, but it does. It will protect and reward you. Use it sparingly and only for occasions that are most special to you.’ He then embraced me, paused, a thoughtful expression on his beautiful face, caressed my hair, and then left the room abruptly. His grandchildren gathered round me, all awed, and told me that the old man had bequeathed to me something that he had never ever given anyone else, not even to the closest members of his family. It was therefore a gift of great value and should be considered a high honor.”
“How fascinating!” I exclaimed, feeling a queer prickly sensation begin on the back of my head and neck. A tea with marvelous powers? To protect and reward? What could that mean? She had called it her strangest gift. I gazed down into my now empty cup.
“I never saw any of them again, much to my enduring regret,” she continued.
I raised my head and nodded. She fell silent for a moment. I finally said, “But why do you call this tea the strangest gift you’ve ever received? I mean, by far it is the most delicious and oddly alluring tea I have ever tasted, but why would you consider it ‘strangest?’”
Sheila regarded me uncertainly, as though she were deciding whether or not to reply.
“James,” she said, clearing her voice slightly, “this is the very first time in all these years that I have ever felt moved to serve this tea.”
I blinked. That queer prickly sensation on the back of my head and neck descended slowly down my spine. My right eyelid began to twitch. “The first time…?”
I knew in an instant that I was being set up. I smelled impending doom. Sheila Verruca Pratte-Smythe was making a massive move on me!
“Not even to your late husband?” I blurted.
She looked momentarily surprised, then stifled a laugh I sensed slightly flurried. “Well, no, not really. Ahem. You see, well…he detested tea.”
“Detested tea! And married to a British tea baroness?”
Sheila sputtered, now laughing out loud. “Oh, James, hardly a tea baroness.”
“But your father….”
“My father would have laughed as well. He was a very down-to-earth man, believe me, and baronage…well, if you understood British peerage, that was quite out of the question. He was a commoner through and through.”
Her smile lingered, still amused. I raised my eyebrows. She wanted to say more, I realized, but hesitated.
“But…?” I urged.
She nodded, blushing lightly. “Well, all right, if you must know. He was knighted for his many years of distinguished services to the Crown.”
“Ah! There, you see?”
She gave me an embarrassed wave of the hand. “James, it doesn’t make me a baroness. I’m merely the grateful daughter of a tea merchant.”
Of course, I was insane to continue along this vein. I should have stopped there. I was only digging my own bachelor grave, you might say. I felt it in my bones but couldn’t help compliment the woman, if even through her parents. The special tea that she hadn’t even served to her late husband could only spell one thing. I realized that I needed to grasp the nettle, as the British might express it, and deal with the situation American man to Englishwoman.
“Uh, Sheila,” I began, wondering…fearing the outcome, “w-why would you serve me such a unique tea that you did not even proffer to your own husband?”
Sheila’s smile faded. Her blush deepened. Her eyes flitted away from my gaze. A slight twitch now appeared in her own right eyelid. She began thumbing nervously the beads that rested upon her generous breast. It seemed a somewhat bizarre twist from what I’d perceived as prior overtures. But perhaps I had unwittingly precipitated what she was building up to and caught her off guard. On the other hand, when in the clutch, one often must gird up one’s loins, as they say. Any second now she’ll cast her cards on the table, and I’m as good as toast.
Instead, she reached for the teapot. I noticed that her hands were trembling ever so slightly.
“Please have some more, James!” she cried.
I raised my hand, holding her off. “I would be delighted, Sheila. It is truly olympian in every sense. But…but you haven’t answered my question. There seems something that you perhaps wish to tell me, but you seem now somehow reticent.”
She set the teapot down slowly. She finally looked at me again. Most uncomfortably.
“I-I don’t know quite how to say this. I-I must confess that I have plied you with most precious gift I possess, hoping it would appease…hoping…. Oh, God, I-I’m abashed and so mortified! I so wanted to prepare this just right.”
It was the first time I had ever seen the woman in such a pathetic state of misery and chagrin. And all along I had thought that I was the one ill at ease! Strangely, my heart went out to her.
“Just say it, Sheila, whatever it is. Blurt it out. Go ahead.” Why? Why on earth would I encourage her? Was it her tea with its supernatural attributes? It had to be! Why else would I insist? I was trapped!
She looked as though she might burst out in sobs.
“Oh, James, I feel so wretched. Do forgive me, I beg you! But… I…I need to up your rent!”