He could still recall their last summer. Countless strolls along the Thames every morning before they both headed off to work for the day. He’d bring her a brew of the strongest black tea each time without fail. Tea, not coffee. He liked that about her. How she was one of those few remaining souls who recognized the superiority of the humble tea leaf over the mainstream coffee bean. She knew her tea too, and he liked that he could talk to her about how the Assam’s malty and bitter taste worked in harmony with the Ceylon’s piney and sour, the Kenyan’s fruity and floral, and the Keemun’s citric and smoky to create a beautiful concoction with layers of delicately powerful flavor. He liked seeing her take that first sip of warmth and watch as the drink coursed through her system, rousing her body from the lethargic morning fatigue. He’d have a sip of his own cup then too, eager to join in her delight but always reserving the first taste for her.
There were many mornings when the notoriously rainy climate of London would catch up to them before they could make their way to the office. But the showers never fazed her. She laughed in the rain, and he laughed along with her. Together, they were part of the minority population that firmly believed that the rain was beautiful. Whenever it would start to rain, they’d move away from the road that ran alongside the river to take the path that led through a nearby park sheltered by the tender cover of trees. Together, they’d hear the sweet noise of the leaves drinking in the rain. He liked that she saw only the good in the rain, never once uttering a complaint about its cool touch or how sometimes a drop would sneak into her cup of English breakfast and dilute the meticulously crafted beverage.
Other mornings they would sit down in the grass, not far from the clock tower. Those mornings, it felt like their favorite guest was joining them for tea. Like a much beloved uncle whom they knew they could always count on, but never got around to chatting much with. Big Ben was that kind of guest. Never imposing and only serving to amplify the satisfaction one receives from having company. He liked how she’d raise her cup as if to toast Ben when the clock struck eight in the morning. In those moments, he wanted to tell her how happy he was that they had met.
But underneath it all he had a fear.
He was irrationally afraid that if he dared to share how much he truly cherished her, she’d evaporate right before his eyes. Fairy tales like this weren’t supposed to be true. He felt that if he didn’t say anything, then none of it was real. And if it wasn’t real, it couldn’t possibly be taken away from him.
So he took his chance, seeing where this story led him.
They’d make their way through the tourist jam to get to their office after polishing off the last dregs of their tea. He’d often wished that they could be walking hand and hand, but the prospect of reaching out to grasp her thin, porcelain-like fingers terrified him. He was sure to shatter the delicate beauty of the moment if he so much as brushed skin against skin. Touch made the fairy tale tangible, and so he always made sure to keep a proper distance.
Sometimes they’d pop by a bakery on their way to work to compliment their tea. He liked the way her eyes had lit up the day he’d shown her his “secret” scone shop. It wasn’t really a secret of course. Just tucked away in between a row of storefronts that were otherwise unappealing to the classy London local or thrill-seeking tourist. Really, the only reason he knew about it was thanks to the blessing that is the interconnectedness of one’s community. His mum’s neighbor’s aunt’s sister-in-law owned the shoppe, so—obviously—they’d had to visit sometime. Those days when they’d go in to obtain a freshly-baked clotted-cream scone were almost better than the rainy days. The exquisite pairing of cream and jam never failed to bring his favorite smile to her face. She’d sometimes get a little smudge of cream on the bottom left corner of her lip (always in the same spot, he noticed) and he’d have to squash the urge to reach out and gently wipe it away. Instead, he’d smile politely and signal to his own lip to indicate the runaway clump of sugar. He liked how she never seemed embarrassed by this, even though it happened often. She’d laugh it off in that devastatingly perfect way of hers, and he’d laugh with her, worries far away.
Until, one day, she wasn’t there to meet him in their usual spot at their sacred time. He stood there for an hour, waiting for her. He held both their teas, not once taking a sip from his own even when it started to rain. For the very first time, he felt that the rain wasn’t so nice. It soaked through his clothes and diluted his tea. Surely, there must have been an entirely rational and reasonable explanation for why she wasn’t there. After he was positive that she wouldn’t be meeting him that morning, he made his way slowly to the office praying that this was all a nightmare and that he’d wake up and realize he hadn’t even obtained the tea yet.
But when she got to the office—late, as it was—she was there sitting at her desk, typing away furiously for whatever reason. He wasn’t sure then if he wanted her to see him. He wasn’t angry. Rather, he felt hopelessly and foolishly heartbroken.
She glanced up from her work then and saw him, and her face broke into what must have been the grandest grin he’d ever seen. She got up and ran over to him, and threw her arms around his shoulders in a hug. She’d never done this before, and he was still holding the two now-cold-and-diluted teas, which made the whole situation rather awkward for him. But this was her, and how could he ever be angry.
“Oh, I’m so sorry I wasn’t there this morning!” she exclaimed, pulling away from their embrace. “You won’t believe what happened to me though! Harry proposed! I’m going to be married soon!”
It was a miracle that he didn’t drop the tea then because he’d surely have been fired for doing so by their less-than-sympathetic boss. Married? Her? He couldn’t understand how this could possibly be feasible. They’d been having tea each morning for years now, and she’d never once mentioned that she’d been seeing someone.
He’d thought—he’d hoped—that maybe she felt the same way about him. That she felt the fairy tale too but wanted to keep it that way. A perfect feeling that didn’t need to be tied down by the obligations of reality.
She was still rambling.
“…he’s absolutely brilliant, you’re going to love him! He’s working in a bank, and he’s an avid football fan. He visits his mum every other weekend in the country, and she’s the most darling woman that I’ve ever met…oh, and of course, you must come to the wedding. There won’t be a lot of people, don’t worry. I know you don’t love large crowds and, lucky for you, neither does he. And….”
He was no longer registering what she was saying though. It was all a meaningless mash of words as he tried to comprehend how he’d been so thick as to miss this most critical of details. Harry? Why had he never met him?
He realized then the great error he’d made when he chose to preserve the fairy tale. To leave his love intangible.
He could see it all now. The moments when she’d be describing something but he’d been too busy losing himself in her eyes. The times when they’d gone out in the evenings together as part of a larger group of people, but, now, he couldn’t remember any of their faces but hers.
That, he registered, was all he’d ever really have of her.
Only memories that remain.