A string of merry silver bells jumped and jingled as the north wind shook the evergreen wreath on the heavy wooden door. Overhead a painted shingle swung from two metal arms, declaring this place of business to be the Tea Cosy.
As I peered inside through the thick-paned window, I could see a cheerful amber fire in the hearth. Tables were set for two with china cups neatly positioned on crimson tablecloths. Swags of green foliage trimmed the mantel. Dotted across the room, on the tables and on shelves, were a dozen red votive candles. Each tiny light flickered, sending out promises of warmth and cheer, inviting me to step inside.
Another more determined gust made a swoop down the lane, this time taking my breath with it into the darkness of the December night.
This trip was a mistake. A huge mistake. What was I thinking?
I knew the answer as it rode off on the mocking wind. The answer was, I wasn’t thinking. I was feeling.
Pure emotion last Friday nudged me to book the round-trip ticket to London. Blind passion convinced me that the answer to my twenty-year question would be revealed once I reached the Carlton Photography Studio on Bexley Lane.
Sadly, I was wrong. I had come all this way only to hit a dead end.
I took another look inside the teahouse and told myself to keep walking, back to the train station, back to the hotel in London where I had left my luggage. This exercise in futility was over. I might as well change my ticket and fly back to San Francisco in the morning.
My chilled and weary feet refused to obey. They wanted to go inside and be warmed by the fire. I couldn’t deny that my poor legs did deserve a little kindness after all I had put them through when I folded them into the last seat in coach class. The middle seat, by the lavatories, in the row that didn’t recline. A cup of tea at a moment like this might be the only blissful memory I would take with me from this fiasco.
Reaching for the oddly shaped metal latch on the door, I stepped inside and set the silver bells jingling again.
“Come in, come in, and know me better, friend!” The unexpected greeting came from a kilt-wearing man with a valiant face. His profoundly wide sideburns had the look of white lamb’s wool and softened the resoluteness in his jaw. “Have you brought the snowflakes with you, then?”
“The snowflakes?” I repeated.
“Aye! The snowflakes. It’s cold enough for snow, wouldn’t you say?”
I nodded my reluctant agreement, feeling my nose and cheeks going rosy in the small room’s warmth. I assumed the gentleman who opened the door was the proprietor. Looking around, I asked, “Is it okay if I take the table by the fire? All I’d like is a cup of tea.”
“I don’t see why not. Katharine!” He waited for a response and then tried again. “Katharine!”
No answer came.
“She must have gone upstairs. She’ll be back around.” His grin was engaging, his eyes clear. “I would put the kettle on for you myself, if it weren’t for the case of my being on my way out at the moment.”
“That’s okay. I don’t mind waiting.”
“Of course you don’t mind waiting. A young woman such as yourself has the time to wait, do you not? Whereas, for a person such as myself . . .” He leaned closer and with a wink confided in me, “I’m Christmas Present, you see. I can’t wait.”
What sort of “present” he supposed himself to be and to whom, I wasn’t sure.
With a nod, the man drew back the heavy door and strode into the frosty air.
From a set of narrow stairs a striking woman descended. She looked as surprised at my appearance as I was at hers. She wore a stunning red, floor-length evening dress. Around her neck hung a sparkling silver necklace, and dangling from under her dark hair were matching silver earrings. She stood tall with careful posture and tilted her head, waiting for me to speak.
“I wasn’t sure if you were still open.”
“Yes, on an ordinary day we would be open for another little while, until five thirty. . . .” Her voice drifted off.
“Five thirty,” I repeated, checking my watch. The time read 11:58. The exact time I’d adjusted it to when I had deplaned at Heathrow Airport late that morning. I tapped on the face of my watch as if that would make it run again. “I can see you have plans for the evening and that you’re ready to close. I’ll just—”
“Che-che-che.” The sound that came from her was the sort used to call a squirrel to come find the peanuts left for it on a park bench. It wasn’t a real word from a real language, but I understood the meaning. I was being invited to stay and not to run off.
“Take any seat you want. Would you like a scone with your tea or perhaps some rum cake?”
“Just the tea, thank you.”
I moved toward the fire and realized that a scone sounded pretty good. I hadn’t eaten anything since the undercooked breakfast omelet served on the plane.
“Actually, I would like to have a scone, too. If it’s not too much trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
Her smile was tender, motherly. I guessed her to be in her midfifties or maybe older. She turned without any corners or edges to her motions. I soon heard the clinking of dishes as she prepared the necessary items in the kitchen.
Making my way to a steady looking table by the fire, I tried to tuck my large shoulder bag under the spindle leg of the chair. The stones along the front of the hearth were permanently blackened from what I imagined to be centuries of soot. The charm of the room increased as I sat down and felt the coziness of the close quarters. This was a place of serenity. A place where trust between friends had been established and kept for many years.
A sense of safety and comfort called to the deepest part of my spirit and begged me to set free a fountain of tears. But I capped them off. It was that same wellspring of emotion that had instigated this journey.
Settling back, I blinked and let the steady heat from the fire warm me. Katharine returned carrying a tray. The steaming pot of tea took center stage, wearing a chintzquilted dressing gown, gathered at the top.
Even the china teapots are treated to coziness here.
“I’ve warmed two scones for you, and this, of course, is your clotted cream. I’ve given you raspberry jam, but if you would prefer strawberry, I do have some.”
“No, this is fine. Perfect. Thank you.”
Katharine lifted the festooned teapot and poured the steaming liquid into my waiting china cup. I felt for a moment as if I had stumbled into an odd sort of parallel world to Narnia.
As a young child I had read C. S. Lewis’s Narnia tales a number of times. In the many hours alone, I had played out the fairy tales in my imagination, pretending I was Lucy, stepping through the wardrobe into an imaginary world.
Here, in the real country of Narnia’s author, I considered how similar my surroundings were to Lewis’s descriptions of that imaginary world. A warming fire welcomed me in from the cold. But instead of a fawn inviting me to tea, it had been a kilted clansman. Instead of Mrs. Beaver pouring a cup of cheer for me by the fire, it was a tall, unhurried woman in a red evening gown.
An unwelcome thought came and settled on me as clearly as if I had heard a whisper. Miranda, how much longer will you believe it is “always winter and never Christmas”?