The exquisite leaf

Walter Chang knew, as soon as he opened the door, that they’d been again and they’d keep returning until they had what they were seeking. Not much was disturbed except the smell of the room. The teak shelves and cabinets that hid every inch of wall stood just as always and the tins and jars of tea of every exotic kind. There was a particular smell that came from the room being undisturbed at night and the first breath of it each morning was all he needed to get his aging bones through another day of measuring and tasting and selling.

He came as usual from the temple on the hill. As soon as he opened the shop door he knew the portents had been right. They’d been back.

Chang’s had survived through three generations, through revolutions, wars, extortion rackets, economic highs and lows and times when it seemed no one valued the teas upon his shelves and the business would die with its aging cutomers. But new generations discovered the subtle beauty and when they did Chang’s had always been there for those seeking the finest and the strangest.

Most of his teas were sold fresh or aged briefly. But there were a few that were kept like fine red wines. Some were pre-revolutionary, picked in the days of the Europeans, compressed into tight inky dark wheels like hashish and wrapped in leaves and string, they were the teas of connossiers, rare in every sense and extremely valuable.

Chang went to the safe. This time it had been opened. They’d taken some of his best. But they hadn’t found what they’d been after. The safe was his last line of protection. They would not be so discrete next time. Walter Chang felt beneath the countertop of a cabinet his great grandfather had made. He found the wooden latch that released the secret panel and the drawer within it. Inside was a centruy-old 24-inch wheel of the finest aged tea ever picked and pressed. It was the only one in existence, rumoured more than known. He knew exactly what he would do. He had been imagining this day. With the tea in a simple calico bag he headed for the train station. By afternoon he would be at the house of his most valued customer, Zhou Lu.

Zhou was a collector as well as an afficianado. He would pay any amount for the tea. But he would pay Walter only a cup made from a few of the leaves scraped from the edge of the wheel. They would drink together, for that was what tea was for. Then they’d re-wrap the wheel. Their single taste would suffice for the rest of their lives. For Walter that would not be so long, for that tea, his grandfather had told him, would be his family’s curse and their salvation. Zhou would see that Walter’s grand children, who drank only coffee and soft drinks and knew nothing of the exquisite leaf, would be well looked after. Walter would taste what had been forbidden so long and then he would be prepared for another life. This was how he had always known it would be.

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