Another Cup of Tea: A Personal Survival Guide to England  |  Jonathon Engels

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             The pain is sharp and sudden from the inside. It’s my first night in London, and I’m five minutes into a fifteen-minute walk to somewhere. The evening chill has cut instantly to my infinitely small blander. We’ve barely made it a block. If only I hadn’t taken that last cup of tea.
             Emma’s arm wraps into mine, and she skips along beside me, beyond content to be seeing her little brother for the first time in over a year. I, on the other hand, am tense teeth biting liquid, clenching out each step. The brother, Paul, and his friend, Adam, are maybe six steps ahead of us, and they’re going on, something about music. Paul is a bassist; Adam is a drummer.
             The wind snaps at the collar of my coat, the back of my neck, whispers tunes around my ears. My head sinks fast into my shoulders. My hands fidget inside my pockets as if I’m a pedophile overlooking an elementary schoolyard. Only I’m the one terrified.
             We stop at an intersection. My eyes search. They can’t decide where to go; I can’t decide what to do. The others chat about the location of proper British pubs, looking at me for acknowledgment. We settle on a place just around the corner. We amble in no particular rush, Paul and Adam pointing to a door, not twenty steps away, nineteen, eighteen, seventeen, sixteen, fifteen, fourteen . . .
             Opening the door, the warmth flips my bladder, defrosting it. The chair backs—draped with pea coats, scarves, the hats of London sophisticates—blockade all passages. Paul squeezes us through to the bar, asking what we want to drink.
             My hips sway, as if to a slow song. No one else is dancing. I shift again and again, become the shiftiest person in London, anywhere. “Where’s the toilet?” Emma asks, familiar with this particular tuneless tango.
             I’m hurting, frightened, wondering: What if I don’t make it before I pass this table on my way, if I don’t make it as I shuffle around the girl whose chair back is too far out to scoot by without bumping my leaky bladder, don’t make it when I reach the men’s room door, the five steps from the door to the urinal?
             I fumble furiously at buttons and zippers, holding the bottom edge of my pullover under my chin, eyes wide and tearful, staring down at my hand pinching the front of my pants. I don’t aim, but simply shoot, hoping no one is next to me. Round one goes to me.
             Sometime into the second week of our visit, after about 37 looking-for-a-loo episodes, I really became worried. I’d grown comfortable with England and Emma’s family, but my condition had worsened. “I’m going to have to get this checked out,” I’d tell Emma, tucked in some alleyway, as the droning thud of my urine still beat against the side of a church. “The stonework here is just amazing.”
             It wasn’t as if I could hide my affliction from a host of aunts, uncles, a gran, cousins, Mom, Dad, brother’s friend I’ve known since I was eight months old. Like a child, when in a state of “having to go,” I pee-pee dance; I stumble over words; I touch myself involuntarily. When members of Emma’s family noticed my nervousness, the best I could come up with were jokes: I swear I should just stand over a toilet with this delightful tea, thanks so much, so nice, I’d say, thinking, My god, Auntie Ginny, I’m about to explode.
             It was like a snake milked of a lifetime of venom in a matter of days. The dances kept coming, interpretive performances of Albert Dock or Strawberry Fields or wherever we were, followed by a mad, undignified rush to find a WC. Public restrooms are few and none between in England. In America, there are so many public toilets that you wonder why places like Bourbon Street smell like piss, but in England, you wonder why more people aren’t pissing on the street.
             I’m going to have to get this checked out, for Emma’s sake, I’d think. Imagine the embarrassment: “Here’s my new boyfriend. You’ve heard about him; he really needs the toilet.” My urination became an actual topic of conversation with each new acquaintance. Then, someone finally says something about tea other than: “Do you want another?” Emma’s fourth-cousin-third-removed informs me that tea is a diuretic.
             So, tea makes you—really makes me—have to “wee,” which makes that second issue even more puzzling: bathrooms, more appropriately (I was laughed at for saying “bathroom.”) toilets are in short supply. In England and the vast fluids that flow in, around, and through it, the notion of bathrooms and bladders became a real intellectual stump for me. We discovered those iconic phone booths in the middle of miles of empty fields, but ask for a toilet: It was like being potty-trained for a second time, and I ran into problems.
             When we stayed at Paul’s four-bedroom flat and a midnight tiptoe was in order, when we settled in at Emma’s mum’s three-bedroom “semi-detached,” when we visited Lizzie and Lizzie’s four-year old had to go, too, or at Auntie Kath’s huge stately home, large enough to fit three generations of family and still have me saddled in a bed for the weekend with a constant cup of tea or libation on my bedside table—It seemed everyone’s house had one toilet, and someone else was using it.
             Trying to duck into the facilities unnoticed for the twentieth time that afternoon, I’d catch a shoulder-full of locked door and hear the faint apology of the current, enviable occupier. Stumbling back, wiggling in place, I’d pace the hallway, groping at myself, fearful that my insides might just fail. What kind of sick culture insists on round after round of tea, then designs houses, houses for entire families, with only one bathroom? It was something out of an even-more-demented version of Alice in Wonderland.
             I’d find myself sweeping through my girlfriend’s mother’s side door en route to the back “garden,” searching for a shadow and a bush, praying for only thirty seconds, sure someone would step out for a “fag” and find me hidden in the hedges with my willy out, wondering how to explain that someone had been in the bathroom for at least fifteen seconds.
             Or, “We all do this in America.” Would they buy that?, I pondered, until finally the track of my zipper whished back up, and I returned to the party with beads of sweat on my forehead, pretending nothing had happened.
             In the case that one does manage to procure a toilet in England, it seems that the commodes are all equipped with anti-flushing devices. The handle goes down, but there is only a silent, lazy-river-like current of water. There was not one place in England where I didn’t wind up wandering into the bedroom to ask for Emma’s help. I felt mocked, finally relieved, but now stuck with the results. Imagine my dismay when my battle with tea and pee turned into a war with pie, the disappointment of standing over a toilet watching it all swimming in a circle. Helpless.
             After learning of tea’s diuretic qualities, suffering the indignity of my girlfriend having to flush for me (a childlike call from the depths: “I’m ready.”), and dashing to back gardens and semi-vacant alleyways, I backed off the tea. Unfortunately, this new resistance was only effective until about dusk, when the lot of us (whomever with and wherever located) made way for the pub.
             I’d been to “English pubs” and “Irish pubs” in America, where next door in the strip mall was Hooters and, on the other side, some low-dive Mexican restaurant. But in England, pubs are naturally (not thematically) quaint and cool and better bloody well have Guinness on tap, and not just some pull-the-lever crap, but one where the bartender pumps and pumps to get your beer into a proper pint glass that matches the brand.
             That’s right. Old fashioned pump taps, appropriately labeled glass, a shamrock drawn in the foam—things done with a certain British sophistication and class. So, everywhere we went and everyone we saw offered a new, official, proper pub experience. I don’t know if beer is a diuretic, but everywhere we went and everyone we saw there got to witness my bladder ramble on incomprehensibly. Up and down, I’d go, to and fro, as if the drink simply dropped down my gullet and into launching position.
             When I accompanied Uncle Jim to watch a Liverpool football match, Emma and Auntie Ginny left us imbibing pint after pint, eyes glued to the TV, Uncle Jim fielding amateurish football-ing questions from me. Eventually, he sighed, his eyes following the “lad” who’d gotten up for the third or fourth time to take care of business. “Watch this,” he said, hiding his mouth a bit under his hand. “That lad goes to the toilet more than anyone I’ve ever seen.”
             I sat squirming. When Liverpool scored the second goal, I broke for the loo in a bout of celebration. I took a little detour when getting us another round (This one’s on me, Uncle Jim.). But, once you break the seal … I got up again and again. Will I replace that other guy as the most prolific urinator in all of Lancashire? Is that a title I really want? By the time Liverpool had won, there was no doubt that a new, undisputed water-weight champion had come to town, my belt in a permanent state of being loosened.
             The truth is my struggles with tea, beer, and the English began well before I ever set foot on that island. My sorrows began with Emma in my apartment in South Korea, some astronomical distance from any scent of the Atlantic Ocean or the British Isles and long before any plane I was on set down in London.
             “Do you want a brew?” she’d say at the onset of our relationship. “Sure,” I’d tell her, kicking my feet up awaiting a frosty mug of Hite, Korea’s national beer, when minutes later she’d arrive with a steaming cup of milky tea. Setting it on the table in front of me with a pleasant grin, she’d sit and blow the steam from her own cup. “Do you fancy a brew?” “How about a brew?” Brew, I learned, ain’t beer in England.
             Then, by the time I’d adjusted to the whole “brew” debacle and learned to enjoy a cup of tea (What was I supposed to do? Not drink it after I’d said, Yes, that’d be great?), “Are you ready for tea?” she asks. I say, of course, “Yes, that’d be great.” I kick my feet up awaiting a hot mug of tea. Half an hour later, having watched her chopping vegetables, I feel cheated, as if she has forgotten the agreed-upon beverage. Then, I found out: “Tea” ain’t tea.
             “Tea” is dinner; tea is a “brew.” A “brew” is a tea—but not “tea” as in dinner—tea as in the rest of the world’s version. And, if you want a beer just say “beer,” don’t try to be catchy and spout off some yuppie quip about a brew. But, to the point, when your “tea,” “brew,” or “beer” has coursed through your body, ask where the “toilet” is—forget about the “loo,” bathroom, restroom, men’s room, water closet, or any such decorative terms and go for the gusto: toilet. Because, lord knows, if you need to relieve yourself in England, there is precious little time to quibble over appropriate nomenclature.
             After our trip, Emma had anxiously awaited me to write something about England, and when I told her little jokes about the English tea-pee situation, she’d been able to laugh in retrospect, without the awkwardness of me dancing and steaming from the ears. Finally, I wrote this, feeling I’d all but uncovered the true motivation behind America’s Boston Tea Party, and she hit me with: “Is the whole thing going to be about you peeing? Why don’t you just hold it? I do.”
             It seems so simple.

♥ End ♥

Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp. He has lived, worked, and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them. Currently, he is in Antigua, Guatemala, where most mornings he can be found tucked behind a computer in the corner of a coffee shop.

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