The Taking of Toast and Tea:
The Secret & Mostly True Story
except for the parts that aren’t
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
T.S. Eliot “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”
Elizabeth looked forward to breathing. It was her favorite side effect of the whole arrangement: no corsets. The whys and wherefores were inexplicable, so she just called it magic. Not that she would ever let anyone know that. It had been happening since she was a child and she had already accepted it with a child’s wonder before the rationality of adulthood had settled over her.
She had been so young when she first found the mirror behind centuries of left behind detritus in the attic. Marring her dress in the dust, Elizabeth crawled over the trunks, one hand already extended by the time she came within touching distance.
The dust tickled her nose and the motes distracted her as they danced lazy on the sunbeams that filtered down from the circular window. Her fingertips reached towards the ray of light and as they crossed the threshold of where sun began and shadow ended, they started to tingle.
It wasn’t painful, but more like she had been too long outside in the cold without her gloves. She moved her fingers a bit farther and her hand began to warm. Warmth like the hazy memory of a mother’s arms. Her eyes caught onto her reflection in the mirror and she stopped, arm still held aloft in light.
She wasn’t her. She was she, but she was different. Elizabeth’s eyes shot down to the pale pink dress she wore, with its tiny embroidered flowers and lace bows smudged by dust, both hands reaching down to finger the fabric in reassurance. The feeling of losing the light was immediate. Moving her gaze back to the mirror, she had become only herself again.
She took one step forward; body immersed in the basking sun and her mirror self changed again. Instead of wonder, Elizabeth this time felt the mystery. She reached for the place where the light dissolved into mirror as the other Elizabeth reached out in response. A steady low vibration began in Elizabeth’s fingertips, rambled up her arm, and slid down her spine. But it was welcoming, like when all the candles in the house are lit.
She was walking through the mirror before she knew it, drawn forward in anticipation. The world softened around her, became fuzzy and frayed around the edges. Yet, she wasn’t scared. It was as if she had become the light, speeding towards an unknown destination.
Christopher glared at the sunlight that invaded the cool darkness of his room. It had been a late night and he didn’t relish movement at this moment. He squinted harder in the direction of the light where it bounced off the mirror making the room much brighter than he preferred just then. Glancing up he saw the problem.
“That sliver of a gap,” he stumbled out of bed, rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, threw the blanket around himself, and staggered in the direction of the drapes.
“It’s far too early for this,” he mumbled right before he tripped over the edge of the trailing blanket and landed face first and tangled, his arms splayed out, ineffectual against the fall.
He pushed himself up off the floor and came face to face with his image staring back at him: his image in very odd clothing. He focused on the identical identity that stared back at him. Whirling his body into motion, Christopher stepped towards the mirror. His outstretched hand reaching for the reflected one clad in a slim black suit with thin white lines running down its length. The head that was not his wore a flat-topped hat that sat jauntily askew. The blanket fell from his grasp as the light infused him with a feel of comfort, the warmth of safety he hadn’t felt in years.
He leaned forward as if he could rub his cheek cat-like against the intangible. Raising his palm to the looking glass as if to touch the cool glass and return to his life of ink-stained fingers and late nights.
The next thing he knew, he was falling.
Eliot slid through the cracked doorway careful not to make a sound. He slipped out and followed the scent of night. Feet padding down the damp street, leaving wet footprints in his wake. A fleeting path to where he was.
A single vehicle passed by, a momentary shield of splash echoed around the alley where Eliot paused. Up ahead, across the street a circle of light beckoned him and he moved. So much silence in the city tonight. Not like other evenings where the revelry exploded from every twist and turn up and down the hilly streets.
He meandered aimlessly, following a love struck couple walking by the riverbank at sunset. Stopping to lose himself in the twinkling reflection of the lights of the city that bounced back from the water’s surface. He relaxed onto a bench facing the square he had wandered to. The bells of Sacre Coeur rang out, mingling with a single violin echoing its sad voice against a sky full of stars.
There was electricity in the air despite the solemn mood and Eliot knew there was something about to happen. Something important. So he settled in and waited.
The square slowly came to life around him as the ladies passed by, to and fro, the melody of their voices carried on the warm summer breeze.
“His use of color is exquisite,” The young brunette gushed to her slightly smaller friend, her hands aflutter. “I tell you, Sophia, you simply must go and see the Michelangelo exhibit. It will change your life.”
“Thomas and I will be going on Saturday so you need not hen-peck with your intellectual prodding. I don’t know what I’ll do with you, June. You’ll never catch a husband if you keep insisting on educating yourself.”
“The man I marry,” June retorted, “will love for my brains as well as my beauty. And then we will eat peaches in bed, every single day of our lives and speak to each other in rhyme. It will all be incredibly romantic.”
The one named Sophia sighed and Eliot filtered them out as the clicking of their heels against the cobblestone faded away. He stretched his legs, arching his back in preparation for the movement that seemed inevitable. He could feel the night holding out a single hand, beckoning him to follow. Eliot obliged.
He didn’t have far to go before he stopped before a tiny grey and beige stone building. The centuries had worn the stone smooth, the colors blending effortlessly as the candlelight from the tables inside seeped out. Eliot felt caught in an unblinking gaze. He didn’t fight it. Simply looked in on the customers gathered around the small circular tables. Their conversations animated and yet mute to his ears.
The door to his right opened with a giggling of bells as an older couple stepped out of the cozy interior that lay before him. He moved into the doorway they vacated, pausing to take in the clattering of coffee spoon against saucer before stepping fully across the threshold.
It took some time before he found who he was looking for. A man, just barely in his twenties, tousled brown hair nursing a glass of what looked like whiskey. A small girl sat across from him. Hands folded neatly in her lap, a gaze far too old staring at the man. It was oddly like they were father and daughter, but Eliot knew that to be untrue. The glow that suffused the air around man and child gave them away.
He’d seen that light before. The people involved were new, but his mission was the same as it ever was: to ensure that whatever was supposed to pass between them occurred. Each case was different and he never knew what would happen until he joined history as it sat down to tea in the present.
As he approached them, the universe whispered their names: Elizabeth and Christopher.
Elizabeth’s eyes opened once her body felt on firmer ground again. She looked around at the small chamber where she sat on an antique dresser. A mirror showing her reflection beamed back at her. She heard a shuffling off to her left and saw a young man sprawled across the dirty wooden floor.
She waited until he righted himself before speaking. “Hello sir. I’m afraid I am not aware of who you are. If you would kindly introduce yourself, that would be lovely.”
Christopher just stared at the redheaded child before him. He had no idea what was happening, but somehow this child was involved. They needed to speak and he figured that the best way to do that would actually be an introduction.
“Lord Marlowe at your service.” Christopher bent half-heartedly, flourishing the flat-topped hat, a charming smile in place on his face.
“You are no Lord sir. Of that I am sure.”
“Well, I never!” He harrumphed out as he came to sit on a steamer trunk just in front of the child. “Fine. I am Mister Marlowe. Christopher Marlowe.”
Elizabeth hopped down off the dresser and offered him a tiny curtsey. “It is a pleasure to meet you Mr. Marlowe. My name is Elizabeth.”
Christopher narrowed his eyes at the child Elizabeth. Then at her red hair. His eyes widened in disbelief.
“No. This cannot be. You are a child. She is a grown woman.”
Elizabeth was wary at this Mr. Marlowe as he jumped to his feet and started pacing the length of the small room. The dresser was too tall for her to get back on, so she stood her ground.
“Who exactly do you mistake me for, sir?” Elizabeth was proud that her voice did not waiver in the asking.
Christopher froze in place, the imperial command evident even in the child’s voice.
“You really are her…” His words trailed off. Elizabeth folded her arms in impatience. Christopher continued, “You really are Elizabeth, Queen of England and Ireland.” He accepted the truth since this morning he was hung-over in bed and now he was standing in, what he just noticed, what was the sunset of early evening.
“No, sir, I’m afraid you are mistaken. I am simply a princess who will never be Queen. But more pertinent to the situation, do you know where we are?”
Christopher shook his head, but ambled to the window to view the world they now inhabited.
“Paris,” he called over his shoulder. “But not any Paris you or I have ever known. It has grown enormous. Nevertheless. We cannot just stay in here all evening, we’re already losing the light, and it appears we are dressed for wherever and whenever we are. Shall we explore a new frontier my Lady Princess?”
An honest smile lit up his face, changes his features to boyish as he held out his hand to her. She normally would not go wandering off with a strange man, especially in the situation she was in, but given that her choice was going out and finding other strangers to help her…well, there was not much choice.
The smile swayed her. Taking the risk, she placed her much smaller hand inside his, her now pale purple dress whooshing in time with their walking as they exited the small, debris cluttered room.
They found themselves at the end of a long hallway that led to a set of stairs. Following them down, the sound of singing growing louder the further they descended. Until they reached the main level and were greeting by shimmering lights coming from the chapel in front of them. They closed the distance quickly, rushing towards the sound of a French choir of nuns. As they stepped inside the room a thousand candles cradled chandeliers bathed down on them from the ceiling. Elizabeth knew this place.
They were in the chapel of Sacre Coeur. She’d always felt that there was something magical about this place, now she knew. She smiled as she sat down reverent of the peace around her. She supposed she should probably be a bit more frantic about the situation, but she found herself too fascinated to trouble herself with worrying.
Christopher gazed around in rapt adoration. He’d always held a strange fondness for chapels and now he wondered if this adventure was the reason for it. He looked over at Elizabeth, who sat prim and proper in the wooden pew, she seemed to be taking it all in just fine. He was glad that he didn’t have to take care of a hysterical child. He was no good with children, but without knowing when they were, he had no idea what to expect. But this world did not scare him; he never lacked for imagination.
They sat for a while simply accepting their new reality. When the bells tolling the hour rang out, they stood in mutual unspoken agreement.
“We should probably figure out what is happening with the two of us,” Christopher remarked once they were free of the solemnity of the chapel. “Are you hungry?”
She nodded her head and took his outstretched hand. They glanced around as they walked down the stairs that led to the square in front of the cathedral and noticed that their world had changed, but not irrevocably so. Elizabeth could still the Paris of her time, the soft sooty lamplight that bathes the streets golden. She looked behind her. The cathedral was larger, but retained enough of itself to be familiar. It was a little disconcerting, she had to admit, but it was so exciting that she could not be frightened.
They walked until they found themselves in front of a little beige and grey stone café. It’s soft, warm light beckoning them inward.
It wasn’t until they were both settled at a table, a hot chocolate in front of Elizabeth, a glass of whiskey clutched in Christopher’s hand, that they started speaking.
“Paris. 1920.” Elizabeth broke the silence first. When Christopher gave her a quizzical look, she nodded over her shoulder at the calendar behind the counter. “I become Queen then? What year are you from?”
He looked at her shocked and shook his head. “Ah. They said how smart you were, but I never believed. You being only a woman…err…a girl.” Christopher let out a loud huff of air. “Yes. You become Queen, though I’m not sure how much I should tell you about your future. I’m not sure how any of this works, as you might imagine. And 1587, I’m from 1587.”
He leaned back in his chair mulling over the situation.
“That is quite a bit in my future then. But I imagine, that whatever the reason we were brought here, it must be important. I mean you do not just transport a girl who’s playing in the attic in 1541 to 1920. It is just not done.”
Christopher let out a chuckle. “Your issue is with them not asking your father’s permission to take you on a trip, NOT that you have been whisked away three centuries into the future where lights are not lit by flame, and carriages rumble horseless through the streets.”
“Well that is the fun bit is it not?” Elizabeth’s smile was a joyous mask of impetuousness.
“Oh I can see now why…” Christopher quickly sipped his drink and grasped for a change of subject.
Elizabeth leaned forward, taking a delicate drink of her hot cocoa, “Oh, what was it you were saying Mr. Marlowe? Please, go on.”
“You little impudent waif. You are lucky you are the Queen. But it will not change my course. I shall remain mum about your future.”
She sank back in her chair just as a golden cat jumped into her lap. Her eyes lit up as she ran her hand down his back from where the deep gold turned into bronze into a white blond around his chin, paws, and just the tip of his tail.
Eliot turned around three times on her lap; Elizabeth’s hand never leaving it’s back, and finally settled with a contented purr.
“That is just a little bit odd.” Elizabeth’s raised eyebrows belying her calm tone.
But as soon as Christopher noticed it, the look was gone and the cat was purring happily, the twitch of his tail the only movement.
“Tell me about yourself then, Mr. Marlowe. Who are you in 1587?” Elizabeth asked as she continued petting the cat.
A sad look crossed his face before he could hide it. “More trouble than I’m worth I imagine,” he mumbled as he shifted in his seat. “A playwright. I write plays.”
“Are there adventures in your plays? I always liked the stories with adventures in them.”
He considered. “Yes, I suppose there are some adventures in them.”
Elizabeth smiled and studied his face. There were lines around his eyes that betrayed him. It wasn’t that he looked old, just tired. She wondered what made him so sad.
“Are we friends when I grow up?” Elizabeth asked innocently.
“No, no we are not.”
“Well then we should be. I like you.”
Eliot’s head turned his sight towards her. She couldn’t tell, but Eliot was smiling. The universe was right to have chosen this one. It would be a difficult road for her, he sensed, but none of those whose paths he crossed ever had it easy.
Elizabeth ran her fingers absently under his chin, his eyes closing in feline rapture.
“I do not see how that can happen Your Majesty. What use does a Queen have for a scribbler of plays? How would it look to the court? You are already perceived with suspicion.” He gasped realized he’d said too much.
Eliot straightened himself from his contented position and hissed. Christopher was startled by the human look that was focused on him by the cat that seemed to be protecting Elizabeth, if he wasn’t mistaken.
He calmed again when Elizabeth’s hand came to rest on his back, lulling him back to a curled up cocoon on her lap.
“TS does not care for this idea anymore than I do.”
“TS?” Christopher was confused again.
“TS, like the sound he makes when he hisses at you. I named the cat. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” His head dropped into his hands. “I think I’m going mad.”
“Oh don’t be silly. You most certainly are NOT going mad. You are my spy now, so, you see, you can’t go mad.”
“Your what? Your spy? How am I supposed to do that? I’m a writer. What should I do, write plays that are thinly veiled satires about you in hopes that people will tell me their secrets? And then write those secret into my plays?”
“Why yes. That sounds like a fine idea. You can let me know what my enemies are planning so that I can be prepared. They’ll never know and you can be my invisible Knight in Shining Armor.”
Eliiot sat up again; his movements slow and deliberate this time, until he could watch Christopher’s face. If he blew this now, well Eliot would probably scratch him. At least one good scratch. That would teach him. Right down the side of his face. He licked his paw in anticipation, and raised a single eyebrow waiting to see how this next move played out.
Christopher’s face rippled with conflicting emotion. Pride, terror, disbelief, intrigue. Intrigue won out.
“It does seem that the universe has worked quite hard to get us together. Who am I to argue with the universe?”
The second real smile Elizabeth was graced with appeared on his face. As if something had just fallen into place for him. She supposed it was true. She had no idea what to expect of her future. He did. He seemed relieved.
TS, or Eliot as he called himself, smiled a satisfied cat smile that neither Christopher nor Elizabeth missed. They shared looks of bemusement as Eliot jumped down from Elizabeth’s lap. He stopped a few feet from the table before he turned and offered a little head nod to the two of them. He would see them again soon. It was always sooner for him than for them. They would be back.
Elizabeth and Christopher watched as the golden cat wound its way through the café like yellow fog, disappearing and reforming around a chair leg and then on the windowsill. Perching and surveying his kingdom before the door opened and he sauntered off into the night.
She and Christopher had met many times over the years. She could feel the change in the air when she was about to stumble into the light again. Time passed slowly for Christopner. For him, he told her, their meetings came monthly. One moment he stood alone, always alone, in the past and the next he was falling into the future.
It had always been of a choice for her, since that first time. She enjoyed stepping outside herself. But the opportunity never arose more than once a year. She knew what to expect now, but never precisely when. A sense of anticipation would come over her, a prickling at the nape of her neck. She found herself searching around corners for beams of light.
Having Christopher as her “spy” had worked out enormously well once the future merged into the present. But it was his lifelong friendship, born on a random day in her childhood, which she cherished. Neither of them had known how they would get back to their respective times. They walked around all night and at sunrise she felt a fluttering and then she was back in the attic, hand outstretched in the fading evening sunset.
He seemed sadder with her last few visits. As if the world were weighing on him. She stood, worrying about him as she stared at the mirror that reflected the grey sky full of the promise of rain. A shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds as she came up with a solution. One she hoped he would accept. She’d talk to him about it in Paris. The familiar tingling was back. It was time to go.