A Cup of Tea is a short story by Katherine Mansfield. First published in 1992, it remains one of Mansfield’s best known stories. The plot is fairly simple:
It is a cold and wet day in London. After a visit to the shops, Rosemary Fell is about to get into her chauffeur-driven car, when she is approached by a penniless young girl, Miss Smith, for money that would buy her a cup of tea. Rosemary is intrigued as she cannot believe that a person cannot have money to buy a cup of tea.
‘… It’s a cup of tea I want, madam.’ And she burst into tears.
Inspired to do more — she persuades the young Ms. Smith to come home with her — she visualises transforming the poor girl’s life, and becoming the talk of the high society she moves in. When she reaches home, Philip, Rosemary’s husband, is surprised to see Ms. Smith and also hear about Rosemary’s plans for the girl’s future. He leaves Rosemary and Ms. Smith, but not before mentioning to Rosemary that the girl was
‘…so astonishingly pretty.’
Sometime later, Rosemary goes and tells Philip that Ms. Smith has insisted on leaving, and that she had no choice but to let her go but only after she accepted a little ‘present of money’. Rosemary then asks:
‘Philip,’ she whispered, and she pressed his head against her bosom, ‘am I pretty?’
I was about 13 years old when I read A Cup of Tea and it had quite an impact on me. I had not tasted tea till then and the Miss Smith’s desperation for a cup of tea was something that mystified and intrigued me. I also understood feminine insecurity for the first time, as I did shallowness of the human nature. The anonymity of the poor shook me — what sort of a name was Ms. Smith? I even wrote a rather impassioned critique of the story and shared it with some of my classmates, who thought I was making too much of a chapter in my English textbook ! After all it was just a story !
But what a story it was !
A Cup of Tea was the beginning of a lifelong love for the genre of short stories. Over the years, I have read short stories from all over the world as translations, or in the original English or Hindi, discovered writers and explored whole new worlds with them. From O’Henry, Saki, Premchand, Oscar Wilde, Gitanjali Shree, Jhumpa Lahiri, Masti Venkatesh Iyengar, Rabindranath Tagore, Ramanujam, Ismat Chugtai, Manto, Kalpana Swaminathan, Edith Perlman … it is a love that has been sustained and nurtured and there are still so many writers and short stories to discover and read 🙂
For me a short story is a cup of tea and a cup of tea, a short story; they are synonymous with each other. Each cup of tea or a short story retains within it a complexity and freshness that is invigorating. This Sunday, on #TSBC, we discuss short stories and I am very excited about the event. I looking forward to connecting with those participants who love this genre and get recommendations on short stories to read and writers to follow. And for a change, instead of my regular cup of coffee, I’m going to participate in the event with a freshly brewed cup of tea. Rose tea, my favourite 🙂
@sudhagee is one of the founders of #TSBC. She is an editor and communications professional and also blogs on travel, books, music, Mumbai and sometimes, social issues.