“My wife will have the Twinings English breakfast tea, bag out, and I’ll have a coffee with skim milk, please.”
Christian is his usual commanding self.
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that, luv,” says the waitress affably. “The coffee here is shocking. I’d have tea if I were you, this being a tea room.”
We’ve come to Betty’s Tea Room in Harrogate because the guidebook says this quaint little place is a must-see during our trip to the north of England. Hanging baskets of flowers invite us into the old corner shop. The dark interior is all tiny tables squeezed together, decorated with starched white tablecloths and silver sugar tongs.
We’ve had the most wonderful morning visiting the Haworth Parsonage where the Brontë sisters wrote their books that changed the course of English literature: all that passion, all that tortured love. I never thought I’d ever really be here but Christian has thought of everything, of course. It’s the perfect honeymoon. From London we had a day trip to Stonehenge where Tess Durbeyfield finally made her peace with Angel and her short, sad life, and now we are in the county of Yorkshire, in the landscape that inspired ‘Wuthering Heights’, ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’.
“It says on the menu that you serve coffee.” Christian is bemused and a little irritated with our waitress, a short, softly comfortable woman of indeterminate age. She could be anything between fifty and seventy.
“Aye, that we do, pet,” she says, smiling kindly at Christian, “but it’s filthy stuff. Now why don’t you have a nice cuppa, like your lovely young bride?”
I can’t resist.
“How do you know we just got married?”
“Oh, bless you! It’s written all over you! And the way your hubby said ‘my wife’ with such pride… fair brings a lump to me throat.”
I grin at Christian. I just love this place. It’s so… English! I know that with just a little prompting this woman will be giving us her life story. I can’t resist a good story – I suppose that’s why I enjoy working in publishing so much. Christian catches my eye, an amused expression on his face. He tolerates my questioning but I suspect really he just wants a drink.
“Thank you. And you’re right. We are just married: we’re on our honeymoon.”
“You’re Americans, aren’t you? We get a lot of Americans here. Been to the Haworth Parsonage have you?”
“Yes, I’m a big Brontë fan.”
“Course you are, luv, all young women are: all those pounding bosoms and unruly passions. I do like a good bodice-ripper myself but those Brontë lasses were dark. A bit too dark for me. No wonder, the life they led, slowly going mad up on the moors, alone with their thoughts and all the darkness.”
Christian is intrigued. “What do you mean? I never read about any insanity in the family.”
“No, and you won’t,” states our loquacious waitress. “That’s just my opinion, of course. But I’ve lived on these moors my whole life and it’s a strange and wild place, especially in winter. It just… affects some folk more than others. The loneliness, the bleakness. Some folk just can’t take it… and it’s my opinion those young girls were addled – touched in the head. Who’d write such shocking things otherwise?” She shivers and pulls her nylon cardigan firmly across her ample chest. “No, there was a darkness in that family, that’s obvious.”
“Is it?” Christian is intrigued.
“Lord love you, yes! You only have to look at Branwell, the sole surviving son. Talented he were: a poet, a painter. But the drink took him; that and an addiction to laudanum. An addiction to the dark side, you might say – and then there were that affair with a married woman: well, ’twere the gossip at the time. I’d say that Mrs Robinson took her toll upon him.”
“Mrs Robinson!” I glance at Fifty. “You’re kidding!”
“No, luv, Lydia Robinson. She were the wife of his employer; an older woman and a younger man who worked for the family – a recipe for disaster.”
Christian smirks at me.
“But I think it were summat else that finished him.”
“Like what?” Christian leans forward to hear her answer as she lowers her voice.
“Well, it can’t be easy growing up in the perfect family when you’re not perfect, can it?”
We’re both slightly shocked by her response, by the words she’s used.
“No, I suppose not,” says Christian softly. I glance at him but he’s in the thrall of our waitress.
“All those sisters, all that talent; and he’s supposed to be the bright young hope. Hope for him to be a shining success. He’s given the best of everything: a good education with all those expectations heaped upon him. Well, who can live up to that? The darkness of despair grows in his soul whilst the light becomes dimmer. And the only job he can get is as a station clerk: he’s fired from one job after another. Tries to work as a tutor but is fired again: then he comes home to lick his wounds and the darkness grows. His sisters are all being published and Charlotte, she’s got no time for him. And yet his father, the stern heart at the family’s centre, he’s compassionate, nursing his broken son. I reckon the Reverend understood what it was to have a broken heart, having lost his own dear wife, the children’s mother.” She sighs. “They realise too late that he’s dying of the tuberculosis. And then he’s gone, snuffed out like a candle. When his light went, the darkness over took them all.”
Another shiver runs through her. “Oh, someone just walked over my grave. Now, what I can I get you, petal?” she says to Christian. Would you like to try my buns? I’ve got currant or plain, or maybe you’d like the Yorkshire Tea Loaf – that’s our speciality.”
Christian shakes his head. We’re both bemused by her change of pace. And I don’t think anyone has called Christian ‘petal’ before. “No, thank you.”
“Oh, you must,” she says, firmly. “A young man like you is all hollow legs and big appetites.” Unexpectedly she winks at me. “Perhaps I can tempt you with a nice, toasted teacake and homemade strawberry jam, dear?”
Christian succumbs, as I knew he would and we both opt for toasted teacakes, whatever those are, with strawberry jelly, er, jam. Christian is gently bullied into having Earl Grey tea, which seems apt, with fresh lemon. Our waitress frowns slightly: I don’t think she approves of tea without milk but, as we’re American, she tolerates our eccentricity with fortitude.
She returns with our order on a huge tray: two miniature teapots, complete with individual tea strainers; cups and saucers with white paper doilies; two small plates with our toasted teacakes; and two miniature pots of strawberry jam with silver spoons.
“There you are, my dears,” she says, setting down the enormous tray. “Nothing like an afternoon tea for fortifying the spirit.”
She smiles again and trots off to serve another table.
“She was interesting, wasn’t she,” I say to Christian.
“It’s you,” he says, smiling. “You have a way of getting people to talk to you. You beguile them, Mrs Grey, just like you do me. But you’re right: I didn’t know that about Branwell Brontë.” He frowns and I can guess what he’s thinking, but I won’t bring up the spectre of Mrs Robinson. She’s ancient history as far as I’m concerned.
“I could have ended up like Branwell,” he says thoughtfully, “drawn to the darkness.”
“No, Christian,” I say, gently resting my hand on his thigh.
He shrugs. “But you drew me into the light.” He lifts my hand and gently kisses my knuckles.
“And then you married me, Mr Grey,” I say, to lighten his somber mood.
“That you did, Mrs Grey. I like being married to you.”
“How much do you like it?” I say, raising an eyebrow.
“I’ll demonstrate later, when we’re alone,” he says, a gleam in his eye. There’s a world of promise in his words and look, and all my muscles clench in a deep, delicious way.
He releases my hand, giving me a salacious smile and we work our way through our afternoon tea.
When we finish and are ready to head back out into the grey and damp English afternoon air, Christian fishes out a couple of twenty-pound notes which, disconcertingly, are purple.
We stroll out into the cobbled street but are hailed suddenly.
“Excuse me, dears!”
Our waitress is chasing after us, breathless and flushed. She’s waving one of the twenty-pound notes at us.
“You dropped this,” she wheezes.
Christian hides his smile. “That’s your tip,” he says gently
She gapes at him. She seems even shorter now she’s standing next to Fifty, gazing up at him, perplexed.
“Twenty pounds? A twenty-pound tip! No, dear, that’s far too much!”
Christian cocks his head to one side. “To thank you for your entertaining and informative story.”
She shakes her head emphatically. “No, I can’t possibly accept this.” Then a thought occurs to her. “Well, perhaps I could donate it to charity, petal.”
“Certainly,” says Christian, waving away her thanks.
“Thank you, dears,” she says, happily. “I’ll donate it to the NSPCC.”
“Which charity is that?” I ask out of curiosity.
“Oh, that’s the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.” She smiles at me broadly. “Cheerio, sweetheart!”
“Good choice,” I say softly, glancing up at Christian.
She waves at us and trots back into the tea room.
Christian smiles down at me. “Come on, sweetheart,” he says.
“Alright, petal,” I say, grinning.
He raises an eyebrow. “God, you’re challenging, Mrs Grey.”
“That I am, Mr Grey. What are you going to do about it?”
“I’ll think of something, Mrs Grey.”
“I can’t wait, Mr Grey.”
And he bends down to kiss me, softly and sweetly.