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It was a building like all the others, a three-storey Georgian house. To survive he had to enter, but he was afraid. He tried to peer through the dust-covered glass in the front door, boosting his nerves by repeating a mantra he had taught himself back home in South Africa: just because you’re scared, doesn’t mean you don’t do it.

A voice broke into his thoughts. ‘Morning, mate. Alright … you going in?’

He turned to see the man who had greeted him. Mid-thirties, not so tall, brown hair, wearing old jeans, a donkey jacket, and a weather-beaten face with an open smile.

Eric,’ he replied, holding out his hand.

The man looked confused. ‘Rob,’ he said, as he offered his hand in return. He appeared uncomfortable, obviously not used to shaking hands.

Uh, what happened to ‘Firm grip and look them in the eye!’?

So, you coming in?’ Rob added.

'Yes,' Eric answered slowly. ‘The Boss said I must start today.’

Boss,’ repeated Rob, ‘you mean the Gov? He’s the boss.’

Yesterday he said I must start, the new tea boy.’

Great, been no tea for a week, gotta have a cuppa at break.’

He followed Rob inside the house. The reek of dampness hit him first. Nose wrinkling, he looked around. Gaps in the pine floorboards, plaster hacked off the walls, not a stick of furniture anywhere. It felt cold, the odd dull light hardly dispelled the gloomy shadows.

Best you see the Gov first; he’s in the back room at his desk.’ Rob disappeared down a passage.

Left alone, he felt like an intruder. Better, get on with it.

Eric took a deep breath and stepping over the gaps in the floor searched for the back room. He reached an open doorway and looked in. The room was in the same mess as the rest of the house. At the far end was a man at a desk. He appeared to be deep in concentration as he studied some papers.

Eric hesitated, unsure of himself in this unfamiliar world. ‘Morning Frank, … uh, Gov,’ he greeted.

Frank looked up. At first, he seemed confused and then his face broke into recognition. ‘Ahh yes, new tea boy. The room for tea is at the front … Hang on. I’ll take you.’

He followed Frank through the dark maze. As they reached a door opening, Frank stepped in and proudly announced, ‘This is the tearoom. The guys often like a cup before work, then tea time at 10am, lunch at 1pm and afternoon tea at 3pm. There's a takeaway down the road. Take orders and buy the guys something to eat. They gotta have their tea. When you’re not making tea, help the labourers.' Frank headed back down the passage.

Eric looked in. Generous description. The tearoom was in a mess. Cigarette butts and old newspapers lay on the dusty floor. The weak winter sun barely shone through the one grimy window. Along two walls were some scaffold boards, supported on bricks, for the guys to sit on. At the far end of the room, balanced on another scaffold board, stood a kettle and a plastic bowl piled high with dirty mugs. Next to the bowl was a soggy packet of sugar. He scanned the dirty cups. Great! Eighteen cups of tea, three times a day. Flew all the way from South Africa for this.

He had never made tea for so many people before and did not know what to do. In desperation, he thought back to his National Service days. Whilst on patrol in the bush they had learnt how to feed themselves. On those patrols, survival was important. However, that was not the main aim of the patrols. It was to teach and condition them to obey orders without thought or hesitation. To kill or be killed.

He recalled what the Sergeant would shout. ‘First, clean up all the crap.’ Well, at least it’s not a patrol and being shot at for a cause you don’t believe in. He swept the floor and as he picked up the newspapers, he glanced at the date on one of them: 25th November 1974. Almost Christmas. Deep in thought, he took the kettle to the only tap and filled it.

His trip to the United Kingdom had been labelled as the actions of an idealistic nineteen-year-old, who after two weeks, would return to the familiarity of home. But he had made his choice. This year he would be alone. There would be no presents, decorations and visiting relatives.

The sound of the water boiling brought him back to the present. He poured some into the emptied bowl and washed the mugs. As he was busy cleaning, there was a voice at the door.

Any chance of a cuppa?’

He looked across the room. There stood a man in his forties, also dressed in jeans and a donkey jacket. He had black hair and like Rob, the same weather-beaten face. Except he had a large bright red scar on his left cheek. Whew, wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

He tried to avoid staring, ‘Sorry, sorting out the mess. I’ll have it cleaned by ten.’

Okay, see you later.’

All he heard was the tramping of boots on the dusty old pine floor as ‘Scarface’ disappeared down the dark passage.

Feeling apprehensive, he continued cleaning and had just finished by the time the guys started strolling in.

Morning mate, got a cup?’ asked the first guy, looking around the room.

Yes, help yourself.’

'Nice and organised, thanks mate.’

Time to score a few points. He poured a cup of tea, and headed to the back room. Frank was still working his way through the pile of papers. He entered and placed it on the table. ‘Tea, two sugars.’

Frank did not look up as he mumbled his thanks.

By the time Eric got back to the tearoom, it was full of guys all shoving to get their cup of tea. The room was loud with conversation. He listened to the usual clichéd discussions - football, sex and politics. Except for the odd thanks, they mostly ignored him. They either chatted to each other or read the daily paper.

Hey guys, have you read this?’ asked the old man in the corner.

What’s it now?’ asked Rob.

With the miners being on strike the power stations are running out of coal. The P.M. reckons that in a few weeks we'll only be allowed to work for three days a week.’

Three days a week in this dump. Can’t wait,’ Rob muttered.

The old guy continued. ‘But it also says, all TV channels will be switched off at ten every night.’

That’s okay, just stay in the pub.’

The rest of the crew seemed unconcerned. They continued chatting and admiring the naked girls in the newspaper. When the allotted time for tea was over, the room suddenly emptied. Eric cleaned until everything was tidy. Time to explore, take orders for food. He cautiously made his way around the site, making a mental note of the dangers. Never been on a building site before, better watch my step. It seemed that in every dark corner, a man was working. Fortunately, a lot of them did not want food from the takeaway.

He spotted Rob working on the scaffold, laying bricks.

Hi, want something from the shop?’

'Naa, brought my lunch … So what part of Oz you from?’

Not Oz, South Africa.’

Ah, you’re the guys with all that Apartheid stuff. Reckon them Boers got it right.’

Shit, thought this country was non-racist. Came all this way to get away from that shit. ‘Where’s the takeaway?’ Eric asked.

Front door, turn left, two blocks, it’s on the left.’


He continued taking orders until he had been around the whole site and written down what each person wanted. Then he walked to the takeaway. As he stepped in, his glasses steamed over. All he could see, were the silhouettes of more workers as they sat eating their food. The aroma of cooking bacon made him realise that he was hungry. He reached for the clean, ironed handkerchief from his pocket, but his pocket was empty. The days of servants and privilege are gone, but old habits die-hard.

Holding his glasses, he snatched a serviette from the counter and meticulously cleaned them. The windows had also steamed over with condensation but nobody seemed to notice. He placed his order, with an extra bacon sandwich for himself. After patiently waiting, his order was eventually ready. By the time he got back, the tearoom was beginning to fill up. Lunchtime was also chaotic but the half hour passed quickly. He looked at the tearoom – messed up once again. But he was relieved. Teatime and lunchtime had passed without any major mistakes.

After cleaning up again, he sat down for a much-needed smoke. His emptiness began to overwhelm him, he felt alone, abandoned and exposed. There was a burning sensation in his stomach, out of habit he placed his hand over his stomach and started to gently rock. He thought about his departure from home. It had been evening. His friend with the car had been waiting outside. His father had been busy painting a wall in the barroom and had managed to say ‘goodbye’ without missing a brushstroke. As for the stepmother from hell, she just smiled, a happy smile. Home was no longer home; he had been banished, cut adrift. Never to receive any assistance.

He sat looking at the makeshift tearoom. South Africans were not legally allowed to work in the UK. However, after a few pints in the pub, he had learnt that building sites were very relaxed about formalities. Not having to pay taxes was a national pastime. He had drifted into the twilight world of illegal immigrants. Of course, he had to lose his name and become a non-person. Nevertheless, he was earning money, which was the main aim. In fact, the only aim.

The day finally ground to an end. On his way home, he stopped off at the local pub for a beer – strangely served at room temperature, not ice-cold like people drank it at home. After the third pint, he stopped thinking about the day and stayed until closing time. The next two days passed in a blur of washing up and making tea.

After lunch on the fourth day, he cleaned everything once again and then sat down to enjoy his smoke. It had been the usual rush, and going to the takeaway shop was proving to be a painful experience. It was too busy and sorting out everybody’s change took time. He thought about the life that he’d been groomed to lead, back in South Africa. Private school, the obligatory National Service, and then a desk in his father’s business where he had been served tea from a silver tray. Back home, serving tea was a menial job for the less fortunate.

He felt a sense of achievement that he had worked for four days, but at the same time, he felt demoralised by the fact that his survival depended on making tea. He looked at the walls and decided they needed cheering up. Using a lost carpenter's pencil, he began to write.

A voice broke his concentration. Frank was at the door.

Eric, there’s a delivery of sand on the pavement. Must be in by five. Help the guys to bring it in.’

Great, learn to shovel. He stopped writing and walked to the door. Before stepping out, he glanced back and read his graffiti.

Will have to do.

To tea or not to tea? that is the question.

Is it better to surrender your own morality,

Be cherished and enjoy an outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, be banished into a friendless void?


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