The Great Tea Wars (2001) – A Modern Parable

36 Reporter

It would be an over exaggeration to claim that Ian was delighted when Linsey offered him a cup of tea. Delight was really not the word. Nevertheless Ian was at the very least pleased with the offer: he was new to WMP and Linsey was tall and busty. It was far better than being ignored. Even when the beverage in question arrived and it was rather less than steaming and tasted more like rusty puddle water than anything that had allegedly originated in the exotic Chinese sunshine.
Ian was careful to drink the tea with a cheery smile. Whenever Linsey looked happily towards his desk he raised the cup to his lips and gave the thumbs up like Paul McCartney announcing the breakup of Wings. It was his first day in his new job and already he’d made a friend.
However, little over an hour later Linsey’s happy demeanour began to change. Her smile rotated 180º and the crease of a frown was seen to distort her features. It took a while for Ian to comprehend the sudden change. And when he did he could have slapped himself around the head for being so dim. Of course! What an idiot! Linsey wanted him to return the favour! She wanted him to make her a cup of tea! What a delightful place to work this is, thought Ian, everybody friends together; everybody making each other cups of tea. Why there’ll probably be a biscuit run soon.
Linsey introduced Ian to Sally, a small hunched figure, whose attempts at surgically removing 20 years from her age had left her with a face like a burns victim. Wouldn’t it be lovely, said Linsey, if Ian made Sally a cup of tea as well as making one for her? Wouldn’t it be lovely indeed, agreed Ian. Heading to the kitchen to undertake his side of the bargain.
Ian certainly put some effort into it. He really wanted impress his two new friends. He washed the scum off the cups, warmed them, made sure to use the freshest boiling water and was able to deliver quite possibly three of the best cups of tea that had ever been made in this country since Catherine of Braganza forced Charles II to drink some back in the seventeenth century.
And then it was four: soon Maggie was added to the little rota, and Tom. And Lucy. And Malcolm from the picture library. Debra from accounts. The tea rota quickly became a living, breathing entity. It was like Woodstock all over again. Everybody loved one another and delighted in the creation and consumption of sacred tea. It was a branch of Communism that actually worked. Karl Marx would have been proud – and he would have been delighted with the unremitting quality of brew that was served up. But like all self-perpetuating systems there was a flaw in its flue. And in this case the flaw’s name, amongst others, was Jon.
Jon was in middle management and the wrong side of forty. Like a lot of people of that age he had a face that he deserved, which looked like it had had three previous owners. Like everyone else at WMP Jon was impressed by the exotic flavour of Ian’s tea. And he was also happy to join the rapidly growing ranks of the tea rota. What he wasn’t happy too do, however, was actually make the stuff. Why should I? thought Jon. Somebody else can do it.
Within a fortnight the tea rota had begun to swell out of all proportion. It was beginning to reach an unmanageable size.
The unlucky person whose job it was to make tea for everyone now had to patrol the office with a notepad, writing down the particular likes and dislikes of the tea rota’s members.
Some wanted sugar. Some no sugar. Some wanted milk. Some no milk. Some wanted almond milk, some soya. Some wanted decaffeinated tea, some wanted Earl Grey. Some liked their tea hot, others liked it tepid. Sandra from production refused to drink her tea unless it was in the cup with ‘You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps…’ emblazoned on the side. Murray the maintenance man would only drink coffee. It was a logistical nightmare. Something had to give.
Clever, devious people such as the aforementioned Jon from middle management sought to circumvent the tea rota. Whenever it happened to be his turn to make the tea he would arrange it so that he was engaged in a long telephone conversation. ‘Sally, would you mind getting this,’ he would mouth, with his hand cupped over the telephone receiver, ‘I’ll do the next one.’
Of course, there was never a Next One for people like Jon. And he was not the only one displaying a peculiar talent for avoiding tea rota duty. Ian could not help notice that Linsey was always doing something in the Ladies whenever it was her turn. He felt betrayed. It irked him that the person who had been his tea rota co-creator was always in absentia.
Ian began to hate Linsey. It was a gradual thing. Suddenly it did not seem to matter that she was tall and busty. That was purely incidental. The important thing was that the ugly cow never made tea. And as for that wanker Jon in middle management…
The weeks went by and the hatred and resentment swelled like an unlanced boil. The once jovial atmosphere at WMP was replaced by an atmosphere of mistrust and loathing. Woodstock was over and all that was left were empty Coke tins and plastic bottles full of piss. Utopian Communism had been replaced by grim Conservatism in which those who had exploited those who hadn’t. A fuse had been lit. An explosion was imminent.
As always, alcohol was the catalyst for the looming explosion. At the office Christmas party Linsey danced with Jon and neither of them stood their round. Drinks were bought for them with nothing in return. The office separated into two distinct factions. Them that did. And them that didn’t.
After the Christmas break the dids studiously ignored the didn’ts. The didn’ts merely shrugged, as if to say they didn’t care a hoot for what the dids did. Needless to say the dids didn’t make tea for the didn’ts. Civil war was a whisper away.
And then one morning Ian had had enough. Although nobody could have guessed that it was to be the very last time, Ian made one final tea round.

Clutching his notepad he made one last circuit around the office and took down everybody’s last orders:

Linsey, tea, white with no sugar
Sally, tea, black with two sugars
Jon, tea, white at no more than 70º in temperature
Malcolm, tea with lemon
Sandra, Darjeeling, microwaved for precisely 16 seconds and then gently fanned for six minutes
Chris, cream tea with scones made from Yak cream
Trevor, decaffeinated latte with a lactose free chocolate dusting in the shape of a heart with an arrow going through it

And so the list went on. Each person an individual. Every person making their own particular demand. For one last time Ian put the kettle on. He’d been hoping to ask Polly from editorial to do this for him, but she’d gone away somewhere.

Ironically, Jon was the first to notice that something was wrong. He’d already drunk more than half of his cup of tea before he began to cough. At first he thought it was just a tickle but the cough quickly grew worse. And then he felt a painful burning sensation in his throat. As he climbed to the feet in absolute agony, Jon could hear other people coughing. The noise was accompanied by the sound of groaning. One by one the entire second floor of WMP fell to the ground. Within five minutes every staff member was dead.

Everyone, that is, except Ian. Who stood alone, silently impressed that Amazon had been so efficient with his cyanide order. It had only taken a day to arrive and they had posted a card through his door telling him to pick it up from his neighbour when he got home. Ian would certainly use Amazon again.

Naturally the papers couldn’t get enough of it. The story of the  serial killer who wiped out an entire floor of co-workers dominated the headlines for more than a week. At the trial the judge looked at Ian like he was a cross between Ted Bundy and Tony Blair. He was given a life sentence, as well as a lucrative advertising contract with P G Tips.

*****

Life in prison was even grimmer that Ian had imagined. Locked alone inside his cell for 23 hours every day, Ian had plenty of opportunity to reflect on his behaviour. And then, on his seventh day in captivity Ian was finally allowed to interact with another human being. In the exercise yard, a young prisoner approached Ian with a welcoming smile: ‘It’s not so bad here,’ he said. ‘You really do get used to it after a while.’
‘Is that right?’ said Ian grimly.
‘Listen,’ said the other man. ’The name’s Brian – fancy a nice cup of tea?’
’No I fucking do not!’ replied Ian.

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