Earl Grey flew to San Francisco to speak to the Tea Congress and stayed overnight at the Fairmont so he could drive to Berkeley in the morning and speak to a toast symposium there. He was awakened at 5am by some jerk singing Gershwin and took a shower and mistakenly turned the Hot and Cold handles so that scalding water struck him in the chest, and as he recoiled, he slipped and banged his head, stunning himself, and suffered bright-red burns, and spent six days in the hospital, in a room with a boy who had swallowed an orange, a bad week for the 51-year-old Grey, the only living American to have a popular beverage named after him, Dr Dave Pepper having passed away a few years before. Though his worldly air and good haircut bespoke travel, books, wealth, he was badly burnt and his head throbbed like an agitating washer. He felt like warmed-over death on rice.

The hospital tea was gruesome, of course. They had tea-bag tea, which tasted like hot rinse water from a mop bucket, and they had obscenities like powdered iced tea, carbonated tea, and various 'natural' concoctions such as Apple Mint and Raspberry Jasmine, all useful if a person needed to vomit, but nowhere in that institution of healing was one person who cared to make a pot of tea using boiling water and decent tea-leaves. So he drank juice for a week. His chest hurt, and his head ached, and he became so despondent he turned on the TV set and watched for hours. Then he switched to martinis. When he was a complete wreck, they released him.

Earl Grey was a middle child, the third in a family of five, so he was accustomed to suffering. When he was small, his family often forgot to call him to the table for meals. He was a chubby boy with size 12 shoes, a hard one to overlook, but they did, all the time. Sometimes, they called him 'Vern' by mistake, and when he corrected them, they said, 'Oh well. Whatever.'

Pardon a digression here, but as a middle child himself, the author is moved to elaborate. In other cultures, middleness is not a losing position, perhaps because those cultures are less linear, more circular than ours. For example, in Sumatra a middle child is cherished as the bright jewel of the family, and is referred to as 'our central child' (olanda rimi mapindi) and is carried around on a litter, or pajandra, but in America the middle child is the invisible one. The first-born child is usually dutiful, earnest, the First Child, the Living Miracle, and the younger kids are disturbed, with tiny haunted eyes, they grind their teeth, they wet the beds, they strangle cats. The middle child is the normal, friendly one. In between their grievous mistakes, the parents have done something right and produced a keeper. So the middle child is ignored: because he or she is so nice and requires no special attention. Parents devote themselves to the troubled children and become close to them. The middle child, the healthy child, is a stranger to his parents. Earl Grey liked to bring a fresh pot of tea to his mom and dad as they sat in the Walnut Room of their spacious mansion in Chevy Chase and rested from the day's labours. 'Oh, thanks, Vern,' they said. 'Here's a quarter.'

Tea Note. Interestingly enough, Earl Grey's tea today is among the world's most popular, and yet hardly anyone requests it by name. The customer says, 'I'd like tea,' and the waiter says, 'Earl Grey? Is that OK?' And the customer says, 'Oh, sure.'

Earl Grey's dad was the Minority Whip in Congress, and Earl grew up in Washington, a city of broad streets and wide steps ascending to immense granite porches, a good place for a boy with a bike, and it was full of curiosities, such as the National Cold Beverage Museum and the Museum of Coasters and Napkins and the national headquarters of the American Association of Holes in the Ground. But the Grey family lived under a cloud, dreading the next election, afraid that each term would be their last. Daddy was a conservative Republican from Georgia, and his seat should have been safe, but he was careless, something of a bon vivant, and didn't bother to keep his political fences mended.

Daddy loved Washington. He enjoyed the lunches at Le Louis, the parties at the embassies where black servants circulated with silver trays of buns with pork in them. He loved the little restaurants, loved to sit in them and drink tea and read the gossip and arts sections of the Washington Post. He belonged to a madrigal ensemble and a sonnet circle. He read Proust. He was a civilised man and it was hard to get him ginned up for elections. Every even-numbered year, in spring, his wife and children begged him to please do whatever he needed to do to get re-elected, but he hated the thought. 'Oh pooh,' he said.

He kept putting off rehearsing his campaign speech, in which he said, 'Mah fray-ins, this is a tahm of great pay-ril foah owuh blovid cuntrah.' He hated that speech. He got terribly depressed when Mrs Grey made him practise it - 'Why can't I go down there and talk about federal support of the arts, Margaret? Why do I have to talk like a pig farmer?'

And then in the fall, the Greys trooped south to fight for their lives.

'Daddy's got to say some mean things, children, said Mrs Grey, 'otherwise we'll have to live here in Georgia and learn to eat lime Jell-O again and attend square dances and have clunky furniture and linoleum floors.'

For the campaign, they rode around on hay bales in the back of a pick-up truck, waving bandannas, dressed in Sears outfits, Daddy and Mom, the dull plodding Vance, the troubled Vivian, Earl, and the ill-tempered twins, Vince and Vera. The twins were spoilt rotten and stuck out their tongues at the voters and gagged. 'Oh pew] Gross] Smell those big honkers out there] Bleauggghhh]' But Earl stood and smiled faithfully and looked up at Daddy with moist rapturous eyes, as a Republican child is trained to do.

Don't slump, children, whispered Mrs Grey, her face grim, her undies all bunched up. Don't be glum. Glitter,sweet pea. Smile. Big white one - as a country singer in a blue velour suit sang 'Ain't it Grand to be an American' and 'God Bless the Good Ole USA' and other songs of the common man and then Daddy rose and spoke out for the American flag, the American family, the American family dog and cat, the American lawn, and railed against the State Department for selling out our country's vital interests abroad. 'Ah tell yew, mah fray-ins, if we c'd git thim pin-strahped ayghaids down heah t' meet yew good folks, waall, mebbe they'd have thim a bitter idee whut a gret cuntrah we got heah - the Yew-nighted Stets of Uhmurka,' he'd cry, mopping his brow with a red bandanna, sipping from a Dixie cup. 'B'lieve yew me, I look for'ard to the day whin th' bur-den of public ser-vice is lifted from muhsilf and muh dear fam'ly and we kin leave the hip-ocrisy and false valyews of Washinton and git back heah and scootch down amongst the fawnest pee-pull in the entar worruld.'

And then in November, Daddy got re-elected and the Greys made a final appearance at the victory rally at the Ramada Inn, grinning, hugging, their brown eyes glistening with tears of gratitude, and Daddy got choked up and called them 'the grettest famly in the worruld, Vance and Vivian and Vince and Vera and that little skeeter there in the middle, doggone him,' and Daddy looked at Earl vaguely - and Earl mouthed his name - Earl, my name is Earl, Daddy - but when you mouth the word Earl, it looks like you're puckering up for a kiss, so Daddy puckered back - and then they took off the dumpy clothes and packed them in a cardboard suitcase they stored in Daddy's sister Earlene's basement and made a beeline back to Washington, glad to be done with the dirty business for another two years. They put on their nice clothes, and talked normally, and Daddy resumed his lovely life of receptions and dinners.

At the Grey home, dinner was served promptly at seven o'clock, and once his mom looked Earl straight in the eye and said, 'It's supper time, Timmy. Time for you to get home. Your mother is probably worried sick, wondering where you are,' and Earl had to to tell her, 'You are my mother, Mom, and you're not worried about me at all. You don't even know I exist.

'Oh, don't exaggerate,' she said. 'I just didn't recognise you in this dim light.' But poor lighting had nothing to do with it, of course. Earl was a middle child.

Interesting fact. Today Earl Grey travels more than 200,000 miles a year, seeing to his far-flung tea business, appearing at charitable functions, and wherever he goes, people say 'Earl Grey] are you the Earl Grey who invented the tea?' and he says, 'Yes, I am he.' And they say 'Oh, good,' and turn and talk to somebody else. Once a middle child, always a middle child.

In 1956, Daddy had a real stinker of an opponent, a bullet-headed, red-necked, carpet-chewing radio preacher named Gerald K Wills who accused Daddy of losing touch with the district and being a secret liberal who intended to tax the hide off people and spend the money subsidising pornographic pictures of men with their whangers hanging out. He crisscrossed the state in a cheap wrinkly suit waving dirty pictures and yelling, 'Where's Grey, the big phoney? Why's he afraid to show his face in Georgia? Is it because he knows what I know about him and his ladida pals and the high life they live in Washington, DC?'

Mrs Grey read about him and told Daddy to get down on the floor of Congress and yell and pound the desk and light into the State Department.

'I have friends in the Foreign Service,' he said. 'They're among the finest people I know. They'd think I was a creep if I engaged in demagoguery like that.'

May went by, and June and July, and in August Daddy had a tennis tournament to play in, and early September was when his madrigal group gave its big recital at the Folger Library, so it wasn't until 22 September that he and Mrs Grey and most of the kids trooped down to Georgia to do their business.

They forgot to bring Earl. He was standing by the car, about to climb in, and his mother said to him, 'You be sure and mow the lawn every week, Hector, that's what we pay you for.' Earl's eyes filled with tears, he turned to blow his nose, and away they went without him.

So he spent the next six weeks with the housekeeper Anna Tin, a nice Sumatran lady who took excellent care of him. She was dark and slender and spoke in whispers like a breeze in the banyan trees and she adored Earl for all she was worth. Being Sumatran, she saw Earl's middle-child status as blessed, a divine calling - he was a living keystone, a bridge, a bond, a fulcrum, a vital link. Every evening they sat together on the terrace and sipped tea and listened to the crickets, and she wrote poems to him in an exquisite hand: O divine child, our threeness, completing the triangle of life, we regard you with unsullied joy and thanksgiving. That sort of thing.

Meanwhile, down in Georgia, the rest of the Greys traipsed around Daddy's district trying to be wholesome and perky, bravely ignoring the polls, while Gerald K ran circles around Daddy on the stump. Gerald K's slogan was 'Honor America and Send a Real Man to Washington' and he flew hundreds of flags at every appearance, out-flagging Daddy by a ten-to-one margin. Daddy used small tasteful flags and Gerald K had flags as big as barns. He spread rumours that Daddy had only one testicle, smaller than a dried lentil, and he accused Daddy of having a secret plan to strip seniors of their pensions, and before Daddy got his drawl back, Gerald K found photos of Daddy singing in his madrigal group, wearing a foofy shirt with chin ruffles, his hair curling out around his ears, a garland of daisies on his head, his mouth open in a prim oval for a falalalala that - well, the picture did Daddy no good. But what really killed him was tea.

One hot night, in Marietta, at a debate on a flag-draped platform in the courthouse square, when Congressman Grey was waxing hot and heavy about the pinheads in the State Department and how, if elected, he'd clean them out of there and replace them with God-fearing folks with a farm background, suddenly Gerald K jumped up and strode to the podium and hollered, 'What you got in that Dixie cup theah?' And he snatched it from Daddy and sniffed it and yelled, 'Tea.'

'Tea?' the crowd murmured.

'Tea]' yelled Gerald K. 'This peckerwood is standing up here peckin at a cup of tea. Well, ladida. Ain't we fine?'

Everyone laughed, and Daddy was dead.

It was the tea that did it. Conservative men didn't drink tea, except if they were down with the flu. Tea was for wimmen, fruitcakes, pantywaists, college perfessers, hermaphrodites, and elderly Episcopalians. Gerald K held up the picture of Congressman Grey falalaing and said, 'You folks intendin to vote for a poof and a priss and a pansy? I smelt that man's Dixie cup and it smelt of tea, people. And I say ole Oolong has been in Congress Toolong]' and that was that, everyone laughed, and the election was over. Daddy yelled and he hollered and he got a flat-top haircut and he drank gallons of Coca-Cola laced with bourbon whiskey and offered to have his urine tested for tea and he cursed the State Department, bureaucrats, unions, communists, porno pushers, welfare cheats, the media, rapists, and flag burners, but he was swamped on election day by a lavish margin, and the family slunk back to Chevy Chase, heartsick and bitter.

There was Earl, dazed with pleasure, having been adored all the long summer. 'What's wrong?' he asked.

'We got our butt kicked,' said his

mom. 'We've got to put the house up for sale and go be powerless. And it's your fault. Why weren't you there?'

Believe it or not. Earl Grey tea is now the most popular tea in Georgia. It outranks bourbon among males between 25 and 60 and is steadily gaining on coffee, Coke, beer, and orange juice. It is the fastest-growing beverage in the Atlanta area.

The Greys did not return to Georgia. They spent a last Christmas in Washington - Earl's mom gave him a rod and reel, a Bob-Bet Bait Box full of Sassy Shiners and Can-Do Lures and a Bang-O-Bet bait and two Lazy Ikes and a Worm Hotel, though Earl had never fished in his life and had no desire to. In January, Daddy took his remaining hundred thousand in campaign funds and they motored west to California, where Daddy would have a job at the Hoover Institution, thinking about great issues. They stopped in Minneapolis, where he delivered a speech on campaign reform at the Stassen Institute, and the following afternoon they stopped at the Lucky Spud restaurant in Platt, North Dakota, for lunch, and half an hour later they went off and left Earl there.

The Spud specialised in mashed potatoes: there were 24 varieties on the menu, including Big Cheesie, White Cloud, Land O'Gravy, Tuna Whip, and the Elvis Parsley. Earl, a slow eater, ordered a Big Cheesie and a White Cloud and sat and savoured every bite, while Daddy paid the check and went to the car with Vance and Vince, and Mom, who had been in a sour mood for months, said, 'We're going, Earl, and we're not going to wait for you, and I mean it,' and then she disappeared with Vivian and Vera. Earl finished up the last four bites in a big hurry, but when he ran out the door, the car was gone.

The waitress tried to comfort him. 'They'll be back in a jiffy, snuggums, just you wait and see. Here. Have some more spuds.' But the family never returned. Never called, never wrote, never filed a missing-child report. They cruised on to Palo Alto, enjoying the scenery, without a peep out of his brothers and sisters as to the empty place in the back seat. But he had taken up so little room in their lives, why should they notice his absence?

Does this story strike you as far-fetched, dear reader? Then you are not a middle child. Middle children have similar experiences all the time. You go to your family's for dinner and your mom is put out with you for some reason, won't look at you, just talks to your brothers and sisters and their spouses, not to you, so you take her aside after you've washed and dried all the dishes and ask her, 'Mom, what's wrong?' and she bursts into tears and says, 'Why didn't you come to our 40th anniversary party last summer? I can't understand it. Everyone was there except you and you never called or wrote or sent a present or anything]' So you explain to her: 'Mom, I organised that party. The party was my idea. I put up the decorations, I bought the chocolate cake and ice-cream, I hired the polka band, and I cleaned up afterward. I was there for 16 hours, Mom.' And she says, 'But then how come you're not in any of the photographs?' Because middle children are invisible. And because we're the ones who take the photographs. (That's why there are coin-operated self-portrait booths in bus depots - for us, so we can be in pictures.)

None of the Greys ever said, 'Hey, where's Earl? Gotta get Earl in this picture]' Never. And if they had reported him missing to the police and the police had asked, 'What does the boy look like?' the Greys would've looked at each other and said, 'Now, what did he look like? He was medium height, wasn't he? Didn't he have brown hair? I seem to remember that it was brown.'

Tea facts. Earl Grey tea has been used as a wash by numerous prominent artists to lend a rich but subtle brown tone to watercolours and drawings. But Earl's hair is, and always has been, blond.

So Earl grew up in Platt from the age of 15. He was raised by the owner of the Lucky Spud, Jack, and his sister Paula, the waitress. They lived in the apartment over the Spud and Earl bussed tables and washed dishes. The Spud was two rooms, a back dining-room with brown plastic-top tables and a green carpet, and the front room with the counter and stools and vinyl flooring with a pattern of large maroon chunks. The Spud was full of patrons all morning and afternoon, old guys grousing about the government, the weather, fishing, farming, and their wives who sat and chain-smoked, eyes straight ahead, saying nothing.

Paula believed that by smiling and brushing her teeth and keeping her underarms dry and her home as neat as a pin, she could stay on God's good side and avoid disease. Every day, she brushed every hair on her head into place and then sprayed it shut and put a net on it. Jack was big and clunky and lay on the couch with his cat Kathy on his chest and drank Old Crow with raspberry Kool-Aid and chortled at the dumb things said by celebrities on television: 'Ho, ho, ho, get a load of that. Look, it's Myron Gumball, the big dummy. What is he supposed to be, funny? Look. C'mere] He's got a big booger in his nose. You call that comedy? I heard better jokes from a Swede. And look, his barn doors're open.'

Paula didn't like to hear bad things said about people. 'What goes around, comes around,' she said. Paula was a tea drinker at heart, though sometimes she backslid when coffee was offered. 'Oh, all right,' she'd say, not wanting to make a fuss. But tea was her preference.

'We don't get good tea in North Dakota,' she confided to Earl. 'That's the main reason for our meanness. Coffee makes people ornery and they go out and kick the dog and throw trash in the creek. Tea brings out the best in people.' North Dakotans, she said, prefer their coffee bitter with a rainbow of oil slick on top.

It wasn't only tealessness that cursed the prairie, Earl thought. The land was bleak and windswept, the people were like Canadians, vague, boring, not clearly delineated. Canadian migrant workers, or 'frostbacks,' flocked over the border to pick broccoli and soybeans, bringing their boring culture with them. It offered no possibility of self-esteem, no sense of irony, not even many good crossword puzzles. And for spiritual comfort, the church offered even less. The very sight of the Platt Lutheran Church made Earl's skin clammy. Christianity taught that humanity is worthless and vile but that if we agree to hate ourselves God will forgive us. Earl longed to leave; he dreamt that a silvery spaceship descended from the sky, a ship shaped like a fish, and it smiled and he entered its mouth, stepping over sharp teeth, and was carried to California.

Earl wrote numerous letters to his dad at the Hoover Institution, which were answered by an assistant who thanked him for his interest and passed along the Congressman's best wishes. Earl didn't fare much better at the Platt Public School, where he was regarded with disgust and amusement, perhaps because he brought a teapot to school with him. For that, he was nicknamed Potty, and boys drew pictures of him wearing a dress, with snot pouring from his nose, and a petunia sticking out of his butt.

But Earl couldn't survive a day without tea. To him, tea represented civilisation and the spirit of caring.

He found a book in the Platt Free Lending Library, Wild Teas of North America, and from it learnt to make dandelion tea, sassafras, rhubarb tea - each one delicious and comforting. Paula thrived on the teas he made, became lovelier and more self-assured. 'They are even better than a high colonic,' she said. Her colour improved. She let her hair hang loose and told her boyfriend, Butch, to get lost.

Butch was a grizzled old trucker with weak kidneys who came through town once a month or so and got a ten-dollar room at the Bronco Motel and drank six beers and called her up and said, 'Paula? Come on over. Let's party. We'll order a pizza, and watch a video. Come on over, have a Coke] See if you don't have a good time - if you do, great] And if you don't, that's OK, I'll bring you right home. I promise. All you have to do is say, Butch, take me home, and I'll take you home. No questions asked. It's a deal.' By the time he reached Platt, he was desperate for company.

So Paula would put on her best dress and doll herself up and go to the Bronco, expecting a social occasion, and there was no party, no pizza, the video was one of trucks at truck pulls, and there was Butch, alone, groping toward her in the dark, drunk.

This time when Butch called, Paula told him to stick his head in the toilet and flush it.

Butch hung around the Spud for two days, grovelling in a purposeful way, and Paula wouldn't give him the time of day. She slapped his mashed potatoes down on the counter in front of him without a word and didn't say thanks when he left her humongous tips. Once he left her a twenty on a bill of dollars 2.12. No smile did he get.

Butch told Earl, who was washing dishes at the Spud after school, 'You don't get what you want in this world. Keep that in mind and you'll be a wiser man than me, boy. People are no damn good for the most part.' He said it so Paula could hear, and she still said nothing.

Earl said, 'Butch, that's a coffee philosophy. I could make you a cup of tea that would change your way of thinking. This tea could turn on the porch light in your eyes. If you drank tea, Paula would love you to pieces.'

Paula, her back to them, snorted.

'Truck drivers do not drink tea,' said Butch. 'It does not happen. Only thing that could put a light in these eyes would be if Paula pulled up her dress and gave me the green light. And that's not going to happen either.'

'You're right,' she said softly.

Tea bulletin. Truck drivers now drink tea by the thousands, and not only the ones hauling loads of frozen quiche or lace curtains either. Guys hauling steel beams, cars, even hogs and steers - more and more, they request tea at truck stops and tell the waitress how to make it correctly. NEVER bring a trucker a cup of hot water and a fresh tea-bag lying next to it on the saucer. NEVER. The tea must ALWAYS be put IMMEDIATELY into the bubbling boiling water. And a tea-bag is vastly inferior to fresh LOOSE tea wrapped in a tiny CLOTH tea-bag that can be tightened with drawstrings.

For a few years, Earl kept checking the Personals section in the Platt Pilot, hoping to see: 'Lost: our beloved son Earl Grey, at a restaurant. Call home, honey, and we'll come and fetch you. We love you so much. Mom and Dad' But no such ad ever appeared, only ads from men seeking younger women (Married guy, 57, seeks single woman 18-19, must be a real looker pert and perky, and have a thing about bulky fellas who don't say too much. Send photos.)

'Your folks're sure missing a good thing, not watching you grow up, honey,' Paula told Earl six years later, when he was 21. It was January and the arctic winds swept the frozen tundra and moaned in the weather-stripping around the front door of the Lucky Spud and whistled in the chimney. It was cold and dark and a heavy pallor hung in the air, the aroma of burnt coffee.

And then a beautiful thought occurred to him: I don't have to stay. I can go.

(Middle children often suffer from stationariness as a result of being crunched in the middle with siblings on either side, and many of them take years to realise that choice is an option - that a person can, if he wishes, have a will of his own, decide things, and act.)

Earl withdrew his savings from the Platt State Bank, dollars 420, and arranged a ride with Butch, who was hauling a load of soybeans to San Francisco.

'God bless you, Earl Grey, for making my life a lot less dingy,' said Paula, and they had a last pot of tea together. It was delicious. So calm and good. While Earl was rinsing the cups, the phone rang. Paula answered. It was Butch.

'Just come and spend twenty minutes with me, Paula honey,' he said. 'That's all I ask. Twenty minutes. If you don't like it, I'll bring you right back. Just say, Take Me Home, and back you come. I promise. Twenty minutes. Find out what kind of a guy I am. When I'm relaxed. When I'm being myself. Try it out. What do you have to lose? After twenty minutes, if you want to stay half an hour, great, I couldn't be happier. Otherwise it's hasta la vista, and you never have to see me again. All I'm asking is a chance to make you happy. Twenty minutes. If you don't do it, you'll spend the rest of your life wondering, what if? So give me a try. Not asking for a night or even an hour. Just twenty minutes. What do you say?'

'I say go put your head farther down the toilet,' she said.

'A man can't get what he wants in this world,' Butch told Earl as they cruised west in the big rig. 'Don't you forget that.' Earl dropped off to sleep and when he awoke, the truck was in Palo Alto, parked in front of the Hoover Institution, a Spanish-mission edifice like a California bank.

'Well, this is as far as you go, I guess. Hope you enjoy your family. See you around,' said Butch, anxious to get going.

'Goodbye, Butch,' said Earl, knowing he probably would never see him again. He climbed down from the cab and a moment later the big rig pulled away and disappeared over the hill.

Tea lore. Tea is a part of farewell ceremonies in many cultures more advanced than our own. Americans, especially American men, don't go in for emotional goodbyes and like to pretend it isn't final, even if it obviously is. Breaking up with a wife, for example, they are liable to stroll away as if going to the corner store for a pack of smokes. In other cultures, people say goodbye by sitting around a table and enjoying a last pot of tea together. They believe that tea gives their tears a bittersweet flavour. They wait as the tea steeps, recalling lovely incidents from their years of acquaintance, relishing their common history feeling the tug of time's passage, and then the tea is poured into each cup and doctored with sugar or milk or lemon and slowly savoured, followed by a second cup, and then:

1. Standing

2. Bowing

3. Embracing and weeping

4. Exchanging sorrow and remorse

5. Closing the door and bursting into sobs

6. Keening and rending garments

7. Facing the future bravely

The Hoover Institution was locked. He pushed the buzzer and a voice came over the intercom: 'State your name, your business, and whom you wish to see.'

'My name is Earl Grey, and I am here to be reunited with my father, Congressman Grey,' said Earl, looking into the intercom speaker as if it had eyes he could appeal to.

'The Congressman is gone,' said the voice. Earl asked, 'Where?' The voice said it did not know, nor did it know when he would return. Furthermore, it said, he had never mentioned a missing child.

Earl asked if he could leave a message for his dad. 'Go ahead,' said the voice.

'Tell him,' said Earl, 'to go and get stuffed.'

Once he found out once and for all that he was abandoned, Earl Grey was free to go and make his own life. And he did, with one stroke of rare good fortune after another. He met Malene Monroe, who was then singing with the Tommy D'Orsay Orchestra, and he made her a pot of Earl Grey tea that cured her croup and enabled her to go on and record 'Tea for Two.' His royalties from that paid for three years in Sumatra, where he perfected his tea blend and also had two children by Anna Tin. He set up shop in London, promoted his tea, and developed a nice accent, and when he arrived back in America in 1970, people assumed he was English nobility, and his tea took off.

But success didn't affect him. He knew that middleness is an inner quality and you carry it all your life, in all circumstances. A middle child can become a star, stand on a stage in a gold lame suit with six spotlights trained on him and his beautiful pectorals, and sing his heart out and people in the audience will be looking at the band, the third saxophonist from the right, and thinking, 'He reminds me of somebody, but who? A guy who was at my wedding . . . but which marriage? The third, I think. Was he one of the caterers? Was he Barb's brother? Or was he in the orchestra? Of course. He was in the orchestra] And he played saxophone, didn't he? Yes] He did. It was him] That man played saxophone at my wedding]' - meanwhile, the middle child has just wound up a version of 'My Way' that traversed six octaves of vocal dexterity and is now about to sing the Sextet from Lucia, all six parts, but the audience is unable to focus on that golden figure - his essential middleness deflects their attention to the decor, the candle in the lamp on the table, the waiter - doesn't he remind you of someone who was in a movie once?

Once Earl thought he had found a sacred Shoshone tea-leaf that gives one the power to transcend middleness, but it was only parsley, and Shoshone Indians did not make parsley tea. They put parsley on their fish and they made tea from tea-leaves wrapped in very thin paper that the white men gave them in exchange for Idaho.

Earl and his folks were reunited on a cable TV show called Bringing It Home in 1987. His mom and dad grinned, and the host of the show, a smiley man named Brant whose hair was as big as a breadbox, said, 'I think all the folks out there are ready to see a good hug right now, aren't we?' and the studio audience clapped, and Earl joined in the hug, but without pleasure. He didn't hug hard or long.

Oddly, Brant participated in the hug too, though he had met the Greys only 15 minutes before. His eyes glittered with tears, he whooped, and he grinned like a house afire. 'Earl Grey,' he cried, 'today your tea business has made you a multimillionaire, your name known around the world. Wouldn't you have to agree that maybe, just maybe, your being left behind in North Dakota may have been the best thing that ever happened to you?'

Earl looked at him in disbelief. 'No,' he said, 'of course it wasn't. Don't be ridiculous. Children should never be abandoned by their parents.'

Brant was not perturbed. He looked at Mrs Grey and said, 'He's quite a boy. You must be proud of him.' And Earl realised that his answer was going to be edited out of the programme and that they would edit in a 'Yes, you're probably right' he had uttered earlier. But Earl was a middle child and there was nothing he could do about it.

From 'The Book of Guys' a collection of tales fron the troubles frontier of the American male, to be published by Faber on 10 January at pounds 14.99

Copyright Garrison Keillor