Paulie counted out Mrs. White’s change and handed her the brightly-colored tin of Bow River Breakfast tea.
“Thank you,” she said, “and do come again.” A few pleasantries later, Mrs. White made her way through the door and out into the street. It was a late afternoon on a cloudy December Tuesday in Calgary, and there was the sharp scent of snow in the air. Paulie definitely would do her best to be home before the coming storm developed. The forecast was for a significant snowfall.
But her thoughts really weren’t very much on tea or even on snow this afternoon. Last night, Ray had visited, and an evening that had begun in pleasant anticipation had worn on into one of decidedly unpleasant strife. Ray had announced another of his “business trips” and that he would be gone, as of today, for an indeterminate period of time. Of course, none of that would be so bad except that he was always away for weeks or even months, there was never more than a couple of days notice— or even less— and he was always rather vague about where he was going, and even less forthcoming about what he would be doing while he was away.
Paulie wasn’t jealous. At twenty-nine, she had full self-confidence and, with her quite solid four-year long relationship with Ray, she didn’t suspect him of anything. But she always missed him, and he would never listen to her pleas for him to look for other work, something that would let him be home more often and on a more predictable basis.
The story, as Ray told it, was that he worked for his father’s engineering design firm as a troubleshooter, and that he was often needed in remote locations on a moment’s notice to take care of various and sundry problems. Paulie suspected otherwise, but could never get Ray to admit to anything. A number of Paulie’s friends joked that he was actually in the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service. That seemed pretty far out for someone as mild-mannered as Ray, but who knew?
Meanwhile, Paulie stayed behind, spending her workdays at the Tea Trader shop, blending custom teas, shipping mail orders, taking care of walk-in customers, and every thing else that was necessary to running such a business. It was a job she liked a lot, and the owner, Ted Jones, treated her well. But despite the steady stream of customers and no lack of things to keep her occupied, it did get lonely when Ray was away, and the combination of never hearing from him while he was gone, and never knowing when he’d return, made things difficult for her. Add to that her fear— as far as she knew, unfounded— that he might at times be in danger, and it was sometimes almost more than she could bear.
But last night, while they were together at one of their favorite restaurants,, things had reached quite a state when Ray announced a next-day trip. For one thing, they had tickets to the Alberta Ballet on Wednesday night, something that she greatly enjoyed, although he didn’t seem to like it quite that much. In a moment of pique she had shaken her dark brown hair as she so often did when she was angry, and accused him of inventing the trip so he could avoid going to the ballet. “And besides,” she had added, “the tickets were very expensive.”
“Oh, you know you can sell them off,” Ray had responded, but that just added more fuel to the fire.
Things had continued to go downhill and before long they parted company, with Paulie storming off and leaving Ray sitting alone at the restaurant table. Within a few hours Paulie had regretted her actions and tried calling Ray, but he hadn’t answered his phone, either last night or this morning.
It was now just about closing time, and it appeared that Mrs. White would be the last customer of the day. But before she left for home, Paulie just had to phone and ask Ted one more time about the book.
Ted Jones had just come back from a family visit to Wales, and as he told the story, he had stopped at a favorite antiquarian bookstore, Ystwyth Books, in Aberystwyth. It was after that that the story got vague, and Ted had been reluctant to say very much, but Paulie had gotten some of it out of him the prior Friday morning.
Ted had found an old leather-bound volume on a back shelf of the store, where it had likely lain for many years. It was simply titled Log Book; it was composed of many handwritten pages in faded blue ink, and authorship was only indicated by an inscription on the fly stating that this book was the property of Admiral John Grey. The entries in the book dated from the 1870s.
Paulie, something of a British history buff, had immediately asked to borrow the book. But Ted had been hesitant, and that was quite unlike him.
Saturday and Sunday had passed, and Ted hadn’t brought in the book. The shop was closed Monday, but Paulie, very eager, had actually called Ted at home to remind him to bring the book the next day.
Now, half an hour later, Paulie had tidied up the shop, tallied the day’s receipts, and was about to pick up the phone when, to her surprise, Ted came in through the back.
“Ah, good,” he said, “you’re still here.”
Paulie didn’t need to ask if he had brought the book; it was cradled under Ted’s arm. She smiled. “Thank you,” she said.
Ted took the book from under his arm but then hesitated. “Look,” he said, “there’s something you need to know, and I really don’t think you should …”
“Oh, Ted, come on, you know how eager I am to read the book.” Then, rather than waiting for Ted to pass it to her, she took it from his hands.
A jolt like an electric shock ran through her body, and she stumbled as she stepped back. The feeling passed and she managed to right herself without falling.
“You’d best give it back, I think.”
“Oh, Ted, please.”
Ted saw the look in Paulie’s eyes and knew he wouldn’t bring himself to deny her. “It’s not … I don’t know how to say it. Not safe, maybe. You’ve already seen that.”
Paulie, now fully recovered, said, “Ted, it’s a book. What problem can there be? I got a static shock, that’s all. It happens all the time in winter. But look, Ted, a storm’s coming, and we had better close up and get home,” Paulie replied.
Ted shrugged his shoulders. “As you wish, but … ”
“Thanks again, Ted. It was kind of you to stop by to lend me your book.”
Soon Ted said good night and went out to his car, while Paulie locked the front door behind her and went down to catch the No. 1 bus at a nearby bus stop. She didn’t have a long wait, and the ride home was only fifteen or twenty minutes, even during the evening rush. In the summer she would bicycle, but cycling weather wouldn’t return for several months.
She rented a tiny flat in Ramsay, not terribly distant from the shop. It was what she could afford, and it was enough for her. The building was an old two-story house which the landlord had somehow subdivided into four small apartments. Paulie opened the heavy wooden front door, went into the dim, drafty entry hall and checked on a little round table for mail. A couple of advertisements was all the day’s post had to offer, and she dropped them in a trash bin situated next to the table.
She walked up the flight of stairs; eight stairs to the landing, turn, six more stairs to the upper hallway. The third stair on each flight squeaked, and the landlord said it would cost too much to fix them. Her apartment was to the right. She unlocked the door and entered.
Small and plain though it was, it was her sanctuary, a place to which she admitted with few others. Being somewhat old-fashioned, she almost never brought Ray here. She didn’t have a lot of money to decorate with, but it was still hers. There was a combined sitting room and kitchen, a bedroom, and a bath; other than a few closets, that was about all there was. The sitting room had a view of the street on one side and the alleyway and a collection of rusted trash cans on the other.
But what those who did gain entry to Paulie’s home noticed at once were the books. Paulie’s love of antique books was unbridled and she collected anything and everything she could afford, especially books having to do with the 19th century, the great commercial ships of the era, and the tea trade. Indeed, it was this interest which got her involved in tea blending and led to a career of sorts at Ted’s shop.
Hanging her jacket in the entryway closet, she kicked off her work shoes and walked barefoot into the kitchen to warm up some soup left over from the weekend.
The microwave buzzed and she took her hot soup from the turntable, placing it on the little kitchen table, large enough for perhaps two people, which was all that would fit in the tiny space. She grabbed an old magazine from its storage place atop the refrigerator and tried to read a couple of articles as she ate, but it was of little use. Concentration on, let alone interest in, dated Canadian politics and events— the magazine was a good six months old— was more than she could manage at the moment. Finishing her soup, she tossed the magazine back on top of the fridge and dumped her bowl and spoon in the sink. She’d wash it later, she told herself, along with the other dishes also in the sink awaiting her attention.
She took a quick look out the street-facing window. Snow had started to fall. But now it was time for Ted’s book. She changed quickly into her pajamas and then took the book from the davenport, where she had placed it upon coming home. Again, she felt an electric jolt, almost causing her to drop the book.
She went and sat in her bed, her legs under the covers, a pillow behind her, and opened the cover of the book.
She turned to the first page and began to read.
“These are my final voyages, set forth for all, so that they may know of the strange and evil things I have encountered in my days. The Crown has never told the English citizen of these events, and I believe that they will never do so, and thus, it is for I to reveal the truth of these matters.
I am a loyal Englishman and have served our great nation for my entire life. I have been asked to keep my observations and experiences in these affairs confidential. As a military man and an officer of the Royal Navy, I have always obeyed orders; yet now, as I am retired and have relinquished my commission, I believe in my heart that these orders no longer apply, and that the greater good must be served. For all of England and indeed all of the world must know, and be prepared, for some day the evil shall rise up again, stronger and more deadly than even in my days.”
My goodness, Paulie thought, what must this be all about?
And then the room turned grey and spun in dizzy circles around her, and she was somewhere else and she was someone else and she was some when else, and from the bow of the ship that she was on, she could see the English coast, an England of long ago, an England that she had never known, as it came into view.
Copyright (C) 2018 Bob Newell. Images are either original or courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Episode 2 will appear on or about January 15, 2019.
About This Month’s Tea
Bow River Breakfast is a full flavored blend of Indian broken leaf teas. Strong, full bodied Assam BOP is accentuated by the fresh and distinctive notes of a first flush Darjeeling – a classic combination that’s been enjoyed for many years. Available at Mr Maxeys Tea.