Tea and Sympathy
Nervously, I put the spoon on the tea tray and smoothed out my skirt. I double-checked that everything was fine. I had covered my table with my only tablecloth, and arranged cups, saucers, dishes and silverware on top of it. The petite gateaux looked glorious in the porcelain dish I had borrowed from Madame Giry that morning. Beside them, a tiny bouquet of violets in a glass was the only adornment of the table.
The tablecloth was fraying at the border.
I hurried to my dresser to get my sewing scissors. I cut out a thread and hoped the fraying was not too visible.
Suddenly, everything looked poor and scarce. I sighed, left the scissors on the dresser, smoothed my skirts with another nervous movement and turned towards the mirror.
I was glad I had filled the kettle to the brim with water. Half of it must have evaporated and I had already sung throughout almost every song I knew before I sensed a presence behind the mirror.
How long had he been standing there?
I stopped singing, looked down at my hands and cleared my throat. I prayed my voice wouldn't waver.
"Angel?" I called.
There was silence.
"Are you there?"
Another deafening silence.
A strained whisper:
"Don't call me that, Christine. I'm no…"
Elated, I smiled at my image in the mirror.
"Angel! You came!"
I clasped my hands, covered my mouth with them to keep from laughing out loud. I was so relieved.
"I'm so glad you came!"
I knew interrupting somebody was the rudest of things, and never before had I dared to break in upon whatever my Angel said, but I was so relieved he was there, and was talking to me that I couldn't help myself.
"I was so afraid you wouldn't come… I thought maybe you couldn't hear me, wherever you were… You see," I chattered on, wringing my hands. "I wanted… I wanted to invite you over to tea, that is, if you are not busy, reading, or playing or composing… or such."
I bit my lip after that last sentence. I could hardly say "stalking around", or something like that, and frankly, besides reading, playing an instrument, composing or stalking around, I didn't know what else he did with his time.
"Here," I said stepping to the side, so he could see the table. "I bought some petite gateaux, and some violets, and I have milk and lemon, because I didn't know what you take with your tea. And the kettle is already boiling…"
I stopped at that, waiting for him to say something, but there was nothing but silence.
I nibbled at the side of my thumb, looked again into the mirror.
"Would you come and join me?" I asked wistfully.
"Join… Join you?"
And then, a terrible idea occurred to me:
"Unless you'd rather have coffee…"
Drat, I didn't have any coffee. But probably I could borrow some from Madame Giry. I was already walking towards the door:
"If you'd rather have coffee I can…"
The sudden, firm statement stopped me in my tracks.
What did he mean by that?
That he didn't want coffee? That he wouldn't have tea with me? That he didn't want to see me anymore?
My heart fell to the pit of my stomach.
He cleared his throat.
"Are you sure… Are you sure you would like to have me join you?" the uncertainty of his voice made me want to cry.
The mirror swung open, and there in the entrance he stood, in perfect evening dress and immaculate white shirt, even skinnier than I remembered. He was very pale, a deep dark shadow underneath the eye on the uncovered side of his face.
My heart went out to him, and my hand followed. He stared at it for a brief moment, as if he couldn't believe his own eyes. Slowly, he lifted his own hand, shying briefly when both hands came into contact.
His fingers were cold and calloused, undeniably real.
I felt an overwhelming rush of relief when I closed my hand around them. I tugged at his hand, and he crossed the strange threshold that was the frame of my mirror.
"Here," I said gesturing at the settee. "Make yourself comfortable. I will prepare the tea."
I released his hand, and he stood there, wide eyed.
I smiled an uncertain smile, bit my lip and turned around towards my little furnace. I poured the water in the teapot, put on the lid and turned around again. He was sitting at the edge of the settee, back ramrod straight, hands folded over one knee, one on top of the other. I took the teapot and put it on the table. When I sat next to him, he stiffened.
Was he so unaccustomed to having anyone near him? I opened my mouth to ask, but suddenly it occurred to me that he didn't know about Madame Giry telling me his story. Would he like to know that I knew about the horrible things he had gone through? Definitely not. He would most likely feel humiliated.
And there and then I decided I wouldn't tell him anything about it. I wouldn't ask about his past. I would wait and hope he'd someday feel comfortable enough with me, would come to trust me enough to tell me… In the mean time, I would watch, and stay silent, and learn.
But there was something I didn't know about him which would be necessary to know. He had just told me that he didn't want me to call him "Angel", and I felt "Maestro" wouldn't do, either. It was too formal.
"So… what is your name?"
He looked at me with wide eyes for such a long time that I thought I had somehow offended him again.
I looked down at my hands, which seemed to have developed a will of their own and were already clenching one another.
"That is, if you want…"
I looked up, into his eyes. I noticed they were steely grey.
He nodded. His Adam's apple bobbed up and down.
"Erik," I repeated.
I smiled, held out my hand.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Erik."
I knew that was not supposed to be a ladylike gesture, but it somehow seemed right at the moment. It was frank, and open. And it was certainly a pleasure to meet Erik at last, although it had been such a long time since I had known my Angel.
He stared down at my hand, as if it was a serpent that would bite him. I started to feel embarrassed, lowered my hand a bit.
And then he grasped it in a firm handshake, one so firm I thought he would pulverise my fingers. He shook my hand up and down, and released it almost as suddenly as he had taken it.
"The pleasure…" he cleared his throat. "The pleasure is mine, mademoiselle."
I giggled. He had never called me mademoiselle.
He stiffened immediately, and clenched his teeth.
That frightened me. Had I wronged him again? I quieted immediately, and took the teapot, hoping that he wouldn't rise and stride over to the gaping hole that was still open on the wall.
"Would you care for some tea?"
He nodded, staring at his folded hands, and I hated myself. Couldn't I sound more like a stiff-nosed, frivolous girl? How would he ever want to talk to me?
I poured the tea in the cups while I thought that he had listened to me all these years, and nevertheless he still wanted to talk to me. He had come through the mirror, hadn't he? So the only thing I had to do (besides apologising, which I didn't even know how to begin), was to talk to him like I had talked to my Angel. Which was who he was, anyway.
"I bought raspberry gateaux. Have I ever told you they are my favourites?"
He nodded, his sight still fixed on his hands.
"Do you like them as well? I didn't know which pastries you like best, so I thought…"
I fell silent when I realised I was sounding stupid again.
He bit his lip, and there was another silence. I waited, the teapot still in my hands.
"I don't know…" he muttered. Then he inhaled sharply, and looked up, directly into my eyes with an intensity that startled me. "I have never tried them."
"No?" Was the only thing my mouth uttered.
He shook his head. I blinked.
"Well, you should…" Oh, I wanted to slap myself. This was going worse and worse.
And then I noticed the faintest smile curving one side of his mouth. I smiled.
"Help yourself," I said, nodding towards the tray. "Would you rather have milk or lemon with your tea?"
He looked into my eyes, and the steely grey softened to a soft, bluish grey as he smiled a wide, frank smile.
"Lemon," he answered.
And after a beat:
"Thank you… Christine."
His smile was brighter than the stage lights had ever been.
This story is dedicated to HD Kingsbury, who found a title for it.