"The tea party begins at four," the old man said.
It was only a quarter past three, so he suggested we lie in wait by the bushes at some distance. "They like neither visitors nor onlookers," he grunted. We huddled behind the thicket in wonderment, determined to not irk the partygoers.
The old man squatted down beside us, scratched his scraggy beard in a moment of thought, then proceeded to narrate to us the history of the place.
"Folklore has it," he began, "that the first tea party took place even before mankind came into being but obviously there is no documented evidence of this. It was the wood creatures that established the tradition of the tea party. It began as a weekly affair.
"Back then, nectar was the beverage of choice. Wood creatures took turns at organising the party - which meant sending out invitations, laying the table, ensuring everyone has a good time, breaking up fights caused between guests intoxicated by excessive consumption, and cleaning up the after-party mess before another fellow creature assumed the host's mantle for the following day. The guests brought along nectar and exquisite delicacies, along with news from their parts of the world. Births and deaths, sightings of new creatures, the discovery of new lands, new fruits grown and new beverages concocted, news from the mountains and the seas. The visitors gave each other the lowdown on happenings in their corners of the world."
The old man paused, then looked up at the sun and down at the shadows of the hedges, and nodded to himself. "Another half an hour, eh," he said. We peeped above the hedges. All was still at the tea table.
"But the earliest credible record of the tea parties taking place as we know them today dates to the turn of time," the old man continued. "By then, the human race had existed and evolved for aeons, but it had taken man longer than it had the wood creatures to discover and share the wonders of tea and tea parties.
"At first the tradition had continued in its original spirit of social entertainment. The parties were mostly attended by residents of the neighbourhood. They were occasionally joined by travellers passing by the woods. The visitors regaled the guests with tales from faraway lands and adventures of their travels.
"It was only when the war broke out that the tea parties began to assume a more strategic significance. Soldiers and patriots and scholars assembled here to plot their defence strategies. The woods provided shelter to fugitives who brought news of the enemies' movements. Revolutionaries met in secret around the tea table where the seeds were sown for many mutinies and insurrections that were to take place around the world. There was never enough tea during the war, but the table became home to the ideas and plots and courage and bravery of the people that sat around it.
"But the enemy did eventually manage to penetrate the woods by which time most of its inhabitants had fled to different parts of the world. The ones who lived to tell the tale introduced tea parties in their new hometowns. The others who failed to escape were caught and beheaded by the enemy but the kind wood creatures rescued their souls. So they continue to live, only differently."
He wiped the sweat from his brow and a tear from his cheek. Another look at the sun and the shadows, and he gestured it was time. An excited chatter began to ripple through our group but he put a finger to his lips and shushed. Like children up to no good, we covered our mouths with our palms, stifling giggles and murmurs of excitement, and peeped over the hedges.
Somewhere in the distance the church bells pealed. At the stroke of four, a merry chatter and hoots of laughter wafted through the woods. Cups and saucers rose and clinked in mid-air, an invisible hand tilted the teapot over the floating cups and filled them to the brim with tea. Scones and pastries, buns and cakes, and bowls of cream and jelly appeared on the table and floated on to plates as if by their own free will.
Unseen voices engaged in lively conversations. The guests talked about science and technology, mankind and civilisation, endangered species and extinct ones, global warming and snowfall in summer, of hermits and spirituality.
One voice cooed with delight that humans were eavesdropping on their conversations, and some others reckoned it was alright and that we were only human and that it would do us a world of good if we followed their example and started to host tea parties such as this one.