On certain weekday evenings, the UK National Grid has a sudden demand for power which is peculiar to this little group of islands.
As one of our top soap operas, Eastenders, draws to a close, the grid takes the strain as 1.75 million kettles are switched on for a post-drama cup of tea.
It is second nature to this nation to punctuate life with tea. Our household runs on a rhythm of kettle on, teabag in, brew, add milk, sip and chat.
Tonight, though, we have not taxed the grid. This evening my husband arrived home early for a bank holiday and fired up his trusty chimenea for hot dogs and a cup of tea.
The tea demands a very specific kettle indeed. Because these days even camping kettles from rugged outdoor huts have insulating material on the handle. And in a chimenea this burns away in no time.
No British kettle could do the trick. But eventually, I found one from half way across the world which was perfect for the job.
It had already done its travelling by the time I espied it, crouching on a shelf in a charity shop. It was blue, covered in shiny enamel, and had the most perfect teapot-form one could wish for: an upright spout which safeguarded every drop as it went to join its teabag, a firm, no-nonsense, thick-waisted rustic middle, a sensibly weighted lid and- essentially – a wide overarching handle which hinged so that the kettle swung back and forth in its thrall.
While it was uncompromisingly utilitarian, it had a beautifully framed poise, like a rotund babushka regarding me with Eastern European sardonic silence from its perch.
I gasped with all the delight of a foolish decadent Western capitalist and forked out for it, second-hand, probably twice as much as it cost when it was new.
It fulfilled its allotted purpose with resigned fatalism, becoming stoically blackened in the smoke from the forest-stocked woodpile. It has never faltered once in its task and tonight, after a year, I washed its exterior to discover the cheap little transfer of a while flower which adorned it before the flames.
When I got it home, all that time ago, I discovered a small piece of paper folded inside, covered in Russian Cyrillic text, which was indecipherable to me. Phil chatted to workmates and came home with a more enlightening update: “They’re everywhere in Russia”, he informed me. “No self-respecting kitchen is without one.”
They swing on their little hinge-handles above the fire or the workspace. And like old women themselves, they weave their way through the folklore of that vast country.
Once upon a time, an old Russian tale goes, a handsome prince married a stunning princess. But they had no time to enjoy together before he was called away urgently.
He gave her some advice perfect for the scheming politics of the Kremlin: stay within your quarters, he said. Avoid the company of wicked people, and do not, under any circumstances, listen to wicked talk.
One might ask, Darling, what have you to hide from me? But one didn’t. One nodded and sent one’s husband on his way.
So, inevitably, along came the fly in the ointment, in the shape of a simple and kindly old woman. The Babushka felt as we might about the Prince’s directive. “Why should you stay shut up when outside the world is glorious?” she questioned. “Step outside and stretch those legs, get some fresh air in your lungs.”
The Princess refused repeatedly; but it was so dark and hot in the palace. After some persuasion she stepped down to the pond, and with a considerable amount of coaxing from the woman she stepped out of her clothes and into the pond.
Whereupon she felt a blow to her back. The woman’s voice changed: “Be a white duck and swim in the water!” she shouted.
And the Princess found that indeed, she was. The witch-for that is what she was – assumed the Princess’s form and charmed the Prince on his return.
The little white duck laid three eggs. Out hatched two sturdy ducklings and a tiny third.
They would wander, though: and one day they went too far, straying into the Prince’s courtyard and the waiting arms of the witch. The enchantress tucked the three of them up in bed.
And then she lit the fire; and sharpened the knife; and hung those distinctive hinged kettles.
Twice she enquired whether they were asleep, but the tiniest duck sang a chilling refrain straight from the Steppes:
We cannot sleep for the thoughts that chill us;
We dare not sleep, for they mean to kill us-
Fires are being kindled,
Kettles are being hung,
Knives are being sharpened!”
Cold and hard, this song they taught Russian children as they dandled them on their knees.
In the end the mother saved the day by singing with a human voice to her beloved, a song which let slip the Witch’s dastardly deeds. The children, though dead, were resurrected in florid style, and the witch was tied to a horse’s tail and dragged through a field. Wherever a limb fell off, something grew.
Sometimes it is the familiar objects, the comforting paraphernalia of a kitchen fireside, that serve up the most cold-blooded stories.
My little blue enamel kettle lowers by the fire, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.