Howard met her at the arched doorway, a Russian blue cat winding itself round his left leg. “It’s good to see you again, my dear. Do come in – and we’ll do the introductions in the courtyard.” He was tall, with a slight stoop to the shoulders. He had prominent jowls, and a complexion mottled with liver spots, unusually early for someone in his mid-fifties, she thought. Salt and pepper hair was long and covered his ears, falling to his open-necked shirt collar. His eyes glinted blue-green.
He led them along a short warren of passageways hemmed in by high walls and moments later emerged onto a much narrower passage, dimly lit; then through an arch they stepped into a covered courtyard, its walls decorated with intricate arabesques and glazed zellij tiles. The floor tiles were a mixture of blue and ochre patterns, representing the sky and the land. A little way along the edge of the wall, earthenware pots stood crammed full with gum and false pepper trees, jacaranda and creepers and assorted thick shrubs.
A large empty bird cage stood next to six metal chairs that surrounded a large round table; on it lay a big brass tray, a steaming kettle, a pewter basin, three bowls for sugar, mint and tea leaves, three brass tea-pots and five glass cups. One chair was occupied by a tortoiseshell cat, dozing.
The introductions were over quickly.
“Time for mint tea.” Howard gently lifted off the cat, put it on the floor; it pranced away. “Please sit! Gerard will do the honours, won’t you, old fellow?”
“I always do, Howard, dear,” Gerard responded. Cat noticed he was familiar with the tea ritual. If offered a glass of tea from a prepared pot, you’re welcome. If the tea was made in front of you, you were very welcome.
Gerard poured a little hot water into the three teapots, rinsed them and discarded the water in the basin; then he added the tea leaves and hot water. “I let it steep for about two minutes,” he explained.
“It is worth the wait,” Howard told Rick.
Then Gerard swirled the teapots and discarded only the water. Finally, he added sugar and mint leaves to each teapot and then boiling water, and closed the lids.
Rick licked his lips. “I can almost taste it already,” he said.
“Soon,” Gerard said, smiling. “Five minutes.”
“I think we’ve lost something in the modern world with all this instant coffee and teabags, don’t you think?” Howard said.
“Yes,” Rick said.
“Too busy to savour life,” Gerard added.
“Quite so, my friend,” Howard replied.
Finally, Gerard poured the golden liquid into the glass cups, letting the stream fall from a reasonable height to cause slight froth.
“Delicious!” Rick enthused, sipping his drink.
Cat noticed that Abdel seemed at ease. Howard had that effect on people; or maybe it was the tea?
“What happened to your parrot?” Cat asked.
At that moment, two black cats rushed up to Howard and jumped onto his lap. Automatically stroking them, he wrinkled his nose. “One of our feline companions ate it – I don’t know which one was the culprit, though.”
She eyed Rick. “My point exactly. Cats make ideal predators,” she purred.
***Not far from our home here in Spain is a place we call ‘The Arab Tearooms’ – Carmen del Campillo o de los Moriscos – which is a pleasure to visit. All manner of teas are served, as well as soft drinks (no alcohol!) amidst the mature gardens – or within an ornately decorated building with many nooks and crannies. The place is an antique collector's paradise.
The admission is eight euros per person, which includes tea and sweet pastries, most of which are daubed in an excess of honey.
Here too can be found a peacock roaming the grounds, together with cats and dogs and pigeons. All overseen by exceedingly tall date palms. At night, the gardens are subtly lit by lanterns, and we never seemed to be troubled by mosquitos or flies – perhaps the various plants deterred them.
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