Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Three Spoons of Sugar

Once, when I was in college, I went over to a friend's family's place for dinner (they lived near the school). After dinner, my friend brought me a mug of tea, which I back then I liked to drink after every meal. I took a sip, and it was sweet: she'd added sugar. I always sugar my tea. I remember, at that moment, feeling so loved, that I was in the company of people who fixed my tea the way I liked it without even asking.

I recount the story not because it's particularly interesting or relevatory, but because I'm aware that I've got back to it in my own fiction, twice: both times the addition of sugar to tea is a small symbol of the relationships between my characters.

In The War That Saves My Life, Susan, an adult who's taken in my two evacuees, Ada and her brother Jamie, stays in bed for an entire day quite soon after the children come to her. Susan's grieving and this is a bad anniversary for her. The children don't mind being left to their own devices--Ada prefers it, in fact--but midafternoon Ada makes Susan a cup of tea and they take it into Susan's bedroom:

"[Susan] took a sip, and fresh tears sprang to her eyes. 'You've sugared it,' she said.

That was how she took it. One sugar, no milk. I'd watched. 'Yes, miss,' I said, ducking a little in case she tried to smack me. 'Not much, though. There's plenty of sugar left. I didn't take any.'"

You can see several things in this small exchange. One, that Ada is very, very watchful. Two, that she still expects to be smacked for everything she does. Three, that she wouldn't dare take sugar for herself. You can see she expects to do the caretaking for the adults around her, and that she's fully capable of making tea, even on a coal-fired range she doesn't fully understand. You can also see that Susan is moved by Ada's care. Susan realizes that she should be taking care of the children, not the other way around, but this is the first hint that their relationship might be mutually healing.

I've just now realized, because I read the manuscript over yesterday, that sugaring tea shows up in my sequel, too. It's now 1941: in England, rationing has hit hard, especially on sugar and tea. Ada and Jamie are still in Susan's care. It's Christmas day, the first Christmas after the death of someone they loved, and they're all trying to make the best of a very hard situation.

'At one point I took Susan a second cup of tea, and watched carefully when she sipped it. "Oh, Ada!" she said, breaking into a smile. "You sugared it!"
I had. I'd saved some back from my own ration. Susan loved sugar in her tea. I'd grown up drinking it without.'

Now there's no feeling of appeasement, no fear. Ada has her own ration of sugar which she uses as a gift. It's clear now that they love each other.

You've got to be careful around us writers. We're going to use everything you say and everything you do. You probably won't recognize it, though. We're alchemists: we turn sugar into gold.