Author's note: I just wanted to write a Newkirk and LeBeau little snapshot about tea and coffee, and typically, it ended up 2700 plus words long. So far, the only actual snapshots I've written are the first 4 "chapters" of Stalag By Starlight. I don't know where this came from exactly, whether from the cup of tea I was drinking earlier or the Best Beloved brewing himself some coffee, but there you go :o)
Disclaimer: Only the words are mine, and a few secondary characters – the rest is property of CBS and Crosby Productions. I'm ruddy well keeping Harper and his mum, though.
Agony of the Leaves
(Expression describing the unfurling of rolled or twisted leaves during steeping.)
—From the Glossary at tealand dot com.
If you are cold, tea will warm you. If you are heated, it will cool you. If you are depressed, it will cheer you. If you are excited, it will calm you.
—William Ewart Gladstone
They only started to get coffee in Stalag 13 when American prisoners began to roll in.
Before that, Newkirk, Harper, Davies, Mills and the other British men had pooled the tea from their Red Cross parcels in a mix of patriotism, homesickness, and pragmatism kicking in. How they managed to get hold of a teapot was anyone's guess, but soon they were religiously nursing their mugs of steaming dark liquid, ignoring the smirks from the Australians and New Zealanders, and enduring with remarkable fortitude – they thought – the lack of sugar and especially the right dose of proper milk.
Even when they started getting coffee (through Canadian and later American Red Cross parcels) and needing it to keep them going through excavations and later nightly missions outside the wire, the fact remained that, for a handful of the men in Barracks 2, tea was a precious commodity, a singularly efficient ally against the cold both of body and soul, and most importantly, it was a little bit of home.
Even Newkirk and Davies, who were not above a certain amount of cynicism where the Land of Hope and Glory was concerned, regarded tea as a national treasure.
This state of affairs completely baffled LeBeau, who did not understand how a beverage that had the approximate colour and texture of swamp water could be held in such high regard. He himself stuck to coffee, and since he had some skill at it – not being afraid to add a dash of cocoa or a pinch of spices when the situation called for something smoothing or energising – he soon found himself more or less officially assigned to the coffee pot.
Not that coffee pot. Not after Kinch pulled rank and enjoined him to stay away from it.
Coffee, or ersatz coffee, was soon easier to come by than tea, which remained something of a luxury as the months went by and the British food parcels grew scarce. The coffee pot acquired its own spot on the stove, and was only moved when being used or when a pot or a pan took its place, with the cook in attendance.
The teapot was rarely used these days – to the Englishmen's chagrin. There was simply not enough tea to go around.
LeBeau refrained from teasing Newkirk about it, having caught him shooting a few blink-and-you-miss-it forlorn glances at the lonely teapot, but remained curious. So one day he cornered Private Harper and asked him to explain why the English set so much store by tea.
"Well …" Harper was visibly at a loss, but made a valiant effort. "We do tend to drink a lot of tea."
"I gathered that," said LeBeau impatiently. "Mais encore?"
"Um – well, we drink tea when it's cold, to warm ourselves up, and when it's hot, to cool down. We drink tea when we're sad, when we're happy, when we're sick, or just because we feel like it. The first thing my mum always does when I come home or just when somebody comes in is put the kettle on. Don't you have something like that in France?"
"No, not really."
The conversation left LeBeau with quite a lot to ponder.
It occasionally flashed back to him the following week, during which Newkirk was laid up in the infirmary barrack with a cough and a nasty fever that obstinately refused to come down.
He would never like tea, but it obviously meant a lot to Englishmen in general and one in particular. From what Harper had said, a cup of the stuff might help Newkirk feel better, or at least cheer him up a bit.
Besides, it was only tea. How hard could it be?
All it took was a handful of black tea leaves – stolen from Klink's private stash, no less – and ten minutes for the water to boil, and LeBeau cheerfully presented Newkirk with a cup under Wilson's vigilant eye.
Newkirk took a sip, looking rather suspicious.
The effect was immediate. He went brick-red, tears leaking from his eyes, and began coughing so hard LeBeau almost hollered for Wilson in alarm. But as the medic ran in, the cough soon died down, and the Englishman waved a shaking hand.
"Don't, I'm all right." Newkirk put the cup on the small bedside table and wiped his eyes, taking great gulps of air. "Blimey," he said in a strangled voice, "what in the name of Heaven is that!"
LeBeau stuck his hands under his armpits, and shuffled uncomfortably.
"Tea," he mumbled eventually.
Newkirk's blank stare clearly said 'Are you serious?' and, being Newkirk, he quickly elaborated on it.
"LeBeau, believe me, I know tea. I've drunk tea all my life – I was practically born drinking the stuff. This –" he gestured towards the cup "– is not tea." They both watched Wilson make a strategic retreat, satisfied that his patient was probably not in immediate danger, but still staying close in case they needed reminding that bantering had to be kept at an acceptable level. "I bet you used boiling water, for starters. How long did you leave it to brew?"
LeBeau hesitated a little, then told him. Newkirk's eyes went round, and he groaned.
"No wonder it tastes like that. That stuff could raise the dead, for God's sake." He took the cup again with great precaution – reminding LeBeau of the way the normally clumsy Carter handled explosives – and sniffed at the contents. "Puts a whole new spin on the old 'agony of the leaves' saying, don't it? Poor sweethearts, how they must have suffered." He wrinkled his nose with a smirk. "You know, this just might be salvageable if we had sugar. And milk. But I reckon we'd need the whole cow for that."
"T'as fini, oui?" LeBeau half-snapped, half-sighed, unable to decide whether he was irritated or mortified but unwilling to just back down. Newkirk looked up at him, his head slightly cocked to the side, a smile dancing in his fever-bright eyes.
"Not quite. I was thinking it's fortunate you didn't bring a teaspoon, because I think it would have eaten right through it … Oh, come on, stop sulking, will ya? You're terrible at making tea, so what? It's not the end of the world!"
That was the clincher. The annoyance gave out, embarrassment and disappointment won. LeBeau stuck his fists into his pockets and stared steadily at Newkirk to avoid letting his gaze sink to the ground.
Newkirk seemed to take pity on him, and his smirk lost a bit of its edge. Somehow this made it worse.
"Look, I appreciate the gesture, I really do. But tea is … Well, it's like one of your ruddy recipes, the soup – no, the stew – I mean, the one that begins with … Let me think …"
"Does it matter?" muttered LeBeau, almost smiling in spite of himself. Newkirk shrugged.
"If you can try to make tea, I can try to remember the name of one recipe, especially one that's half decent. You know, the one that's got bits of … Dammit."
"Okay, I see which one." It was a lie, but Newkirk was not looking too good, and more importantly, was not making much effort to conceal it. "How is it like tea, then?"
"Everyone makes it differently, but in the end it's the same thing for everyone. Our mum made it one way, Mavis' way is different, so's mine …" He yawned, and managed to avoid turning it into a cough. "Tea … makes you feel good inside. Kinda like your …" He blinked and made a vague hand gesture. "You know."
"I know." It could have meant anything, but something in his tone made LeBeau smile warmly, his earlier embarrassment forgotten. Newkirk was almost asleep, so he made to leave – then turned back. "Pierre?"
"Sorry about the … tea."
"But if you don't get better soon, I will make some more and force-feed it to you."
Newkirk opened one bleary blue eye and glared with surprising force.
"I'm pretty sure that kind of torture's against the Geneva Convention."
LeBeau just shook his head with a laugh, and let him have the last word.
To his great relief, Newkirk didn't bring up the subject of tea – and LeBeau's … tea (for lack of a better word) in particular – when he came back to the barrack, and the matter was closed. LeBeau continued to tend to the coffee pot, Kinch continued to tend to the coffee pot, and the teapot was occasionally used as British Red Cross parcels made it through to Stalag 13.
In fact, the only time the subject ever came up again was a few months later, following a cave-in in the tunnel underneath the dog kennel.
It had been one of those stupid accidents that would just have been a nuisance if nobody had been standing there when the walls collapsed. Some of the earth, weakened by the last week's relentless rain, had given in under one of the key beams, and everything had come down on LeBeau and Newkirk who were returning from a mission.
Newkirk got off with a broken ankle and a lungful of wet, sticky earth – making Wilson watch him like a hawk for a week, just in case; LeBeau, who had been walking two metres behind him, had woken up a few hours later with a dislocated right shoulder and a couple of cracked ribs, as well as a lingering urge to scream and a very painful sense of wonder that they were alive after all.
Hogan had reacted immediately, sending teams below to dig and retrieve the two men, then when they were found conned Klink into believing they had fallen off a roof while trying to fix a hole.
Needless to say, both were out of commission for a long while. It got especially trying when missions rolled in and they had to sit them out.
LeBeau knew Newkirk tended to go stir-crazy when confined to one place for too long, but at least he could hop around on a makeshift crutch and lie down on his bed (well, Carter's) without too much trouble. Newkirk retorted that at least LeBeau could walk around without any help, and didn't have to look like an old codger.
Truth was, both had been scared out of their minds – not least for each other's life – and LeBeau knew he was not the only one who spent a sizeable portion of every night since the cave-in blinking at the ceiling and listening to the reassuring sounds of steady breathing, snoring and snorting around him. The pain in his shoulder and chest was only part of the reason.
What made him really miserable, though, was that he couldn't cook. Colonel Hogan's orders until Wilson said different. Going to the mess hall with everyone and eating what passed for food was sheer torture, but even that didn't compare to watching his barrack mates – his friends – have boiled potatoes and cabbage for every meal and knowing he could have done so much better than that. He wasn't even allowed to make coffee, for Heaven's sake. Coffee pot duty had fallen to Floyd, who did make a decent cup, but it was little consolation.
LeBeau honestly couldn't remember feeling so down since he had been captured.
And then, three days after he got back from the infirmary barrack, while the rest of the Barracks 2 men were out on a work detail with Sergeant Schultz – supposedly, anyway – Newkirk put a steaming mug in front of him, and limped back to his chair. There was something definitely smug about his crooked grin.
LeBeau raised an eyebrow, and looked down at the liquid. It smelled a lot like coffee.
"Well, go on, then. I didn't make it just for show, y'know."
Behind Newkirk's satisfied grin he could read a slight tension, as though the Englishman was not so certain he'd like it. As far as LeBeau knew, he had never made a single cup before, so the apprehension might not be completely unwarranted.
Come on, it's only coffee, and he obviously made an effort. It can't be that bad …
LeBeau took a leap of faith, and drank.
And burst out laughing.
Newkirk had made coffee the only way he knew how: like tea. Tea was most probably a lot stronger than that, though. His grandmother's tisane had been stronger than that. How on Earth he had come to that result using a percolator, LeBeau had no idea, but it was the blandest, most insipid coffee he had ever tasted.
It was absurd, but for some reason, he felt better than he had in a week.
He howled with laughter for all of five seconds, then just plain howled as a searing pain stabbed his chest, reminding him why he was sitting in the barrack instead of being out on work detail like the others. The tears stinging his eyes were still mostly from laughter, though.
"Aah … Quel con, non mais quel con …"
Reality gradually came back to him in the form of a hand gripping his good shoulder, and a pair of worried blue eyes just in front of his. LeBeau managed a smile he hoped didn't come across too much as a grimace.
"Sorry, Newkirk, I – I meant me. That was s—stupid."
The blur in front of him cleared, and Newkirk's voice – typically, half angry and half anxious – made it past the cotton in his ears.
"Yeah, not 'arf!" he snapped while LeBeau panted and wheezed, trying to resist the reflex of doubling over. "What was that about? Are you all right?"
"T'en fais pas, ça va. 'M'okay." He took a long, still shaky breath, and smiled again. "You have to promise me one thing, though."
"Sure," said Newkirk distractedly, still peering at him and obviously not believing one bit that he was okay. Since he absolutely was not, LeBeau didn't really mind.
"Promise me you'll stay away from coffee, and I swear I'll never try to make tea again."
Newkirk let go of his shoulder, his stare an interesting mix of quizzical and still slightly alarmed. Then he grinned.
"It's not that bad, is it?"
LeBeau felt laughter bubble up in his throat again and bit his lip to keep it down, wiping his eyes.
"Oh, yes. Yes it is." No matter how much it hurt, he didn't regret it one bit. He had needed that laugh badly. "Pierre, it's the most wonderfully awful coffee ever."
The look on Newkirk's face was priceless. Apparently, he couldn't quite decide on whether he was dumbfounded, offended, or amused. LeBeau watched him pick up the cup, squint at the contents and take a small sip. His expression didn't change one iota for the next ten seconds. LeBeau had a feeling he was putting a lot of effort – and experience at poker – into it.
Finally, he slowly put the cup back on the table, gave a shrug that was almost a slight shudder, and settled on a small smile that made his eyes crinkle slightly.
"Deal. You handle the coffee, I'll stick to tea." Then, as a relieved LeBeau made to rise from his chair, he quickly added with a pointed look, "Not now. Ruddy pig-headed …"
The rest of the muttered sentence was lost on the Frenchman, but not its meaning. He knew it was practically an invitation to another heated discussion, and in any other circumstances he would have taken the bait in no time, and gladly. But he felt tired, and almost decided to let it drop.
"Maybe if you put some milk in it, and a lot of sugar …"
Newkirk shot him a mild glare, and rolled his eyes. LeBeau grinned blithely.
And only realised much later that the Englishman had let him have the last word.
Things went back to normal eventually – though not nearly soon enough for LeBeau's liking. The matter of coffee and tea was closed for good, and if anybody in Barracks 2 noticed that there was one subject that Louis LeBeau and Peter Newkirk almost never discussed, bantered nor fought about directly, nobody ever commented on it.
Mais encore?: "What else?". Note that the two words taken separately mean "but" and "also" respectively.
T'as fini, oui?: "(Are) you done yet?". Correct/full form is Tu as fini? The (…), oui? is never used when you ask for a confirmation, as in "But you saw him, yes?"; we generally say Mais tu/vous l'as/l'avez vu, non? with the (…), non? working like a "didn't you?" tag. Forgive the messy explanation; I was always absolute rubbish at grammar, French and English.
Quel con, non mais quel con: Basically, he's calling himself a bloody idiot. The phrase could also apply to another person (grammatically, it can refer to both first and third person), hence the later clarification.
Not 'arf: "not half", "damn right".
T'en fais pas, ça va: "Don't worry, I'm okay" (more precisely "it's okay" in a general sense). Correct form should be Ne t'en fais pas.
British Red Cross parcels contained tea (2 ounces and/or 1/4 pounds – I read both) but no coffee; American parcels had 4 ounces of coffee; Canadians got 8 ounces. So far I haven't been able to find a list of contents of the French food parcels, but I keep looking. I do have a sneaking suspicion that there was no tea in them, though.
In That's No Lady, That's My Spy, Newkirk points out to Schultz, "Well, you don't think I'm gonna let Frenchman here make the tea, do you? He hasn't got a clue", so I assumed he knew what he was talking about :D Incidentally, I love tea. I probably make it wrong, though, because I often let it brew longer than the required 2/3 minutes, and I don't usually put milk in it (I do love a splash of honey, though). As for Newkirk's coffee, well … English coffee, rightly or wrongly, is considered by some coffee lovers as somewhat lacking both flavour and texture. Let's just say that LeBeau's tea-making skills are non-existent, and Newkirk's coffee is rubbish :o)
Hope you liked!