Snow was rare in London, but one gloomy afternoon, pristine white hid the usually coal-streaked walls and trash-strewn streets and alleys. Shop windows and doors were framed in pine boughs, smudged windows washed clean so passersby might better gaze at the wares within.
I had spent the previous Christmas season on my own, free from the prison of my parents’ home at last, a lonely, contemplative time that had actually strengthened my resolve to become my own man. This year, I had Teddy and could truly enjoy the bustle of shoppers, carolers, and bell ringers. For weeks, I’d collected small gifts for my beloved in preparation for the holiday, but that particular afternoon, I’d purchased a paintbrush Teddy had gushed over, an expensive addition to his art supplies.
“Buy a nosegay, mister?” A little girl swathed in a woolen shawl offered a bedraggled bunch of cloth posies. “Only a penny.”
I bent to examine her basket full of equally pathetic flowers before choosing some violets. “Here you go, my dear. I’ll give you a shilling for such a large and lovely bouquet.”
Her eyes grew to saucers as I placed the coin in her cold palm. “Thank you, sir.”
I pretended to smell the flowers. “Mm, a touch of spring in the heart of winter. Lovely.”
She giggled at my joke. I wanted to take the skinny little thing someplace where she could warm her feet and get a good meal. Instead, I bought her a small bag of hot chestnuts from a nearby stand. They’d serve to warm her hands as well as her stomach.
Suspicion narrowed her eyes. “I’m no down-the-alley Sally, y’know.”
“I didn’t think you were, miss. Happy Christmas to you.” I continued to offer the striped sack.
Her gaze shot back and forth between the bag and my face before she snatched it from me. “Thanks, mister.”
She darted away as if fearing I’d change my mind or drag her someplace private for a poke. The grim facts of city children’s lives never ceased to make my chest ache. Teddy had told me I would go broke if I kept giving out pennies, buns, or boiled potatoes to every urchin who approached me on the street, but such small kindnesses were only a drop in the bucket of their miserable lives.
“I love your generous heart, Phin,” Teddy once said as he held me close and kissed me. “My greatest goal in life is to follow your example and become more giving.”
I had pointed out how generous he’d just been during lovemaking and our talk led to another bout in the bedsheets.
In those first months together following our separation, we could scarcely keep our hands off each other. Every moment was precious since it must be carved out of our busy lives. It did not help that I lived at Mrs. Pettigrew’s boardinghouse and Teddy in rooms on his uncle’s property. Lord Peter Worthington’s former carriage house had been converted to a garage to hold a shiny new Wolseley gasoline carriage. He allowed his nephew to use the chauffer’s quarters above for a studio and bedroom. Teddy and I could not cohabit under his uncle’s very nose, but we were saving to buy a small house.
Soon. By spring for certain. I pictured a little brick home on a quiet street with neighbors who were not curious about bachelors sharing living quarters. An idyllic life I’d never dared to imagine was within my grasp all because wonderful Teddy had looked past my ungainly appearance and deformity to see me, Phineas Abernathy. The day he’d arrived at Everdale, my family home, to paint my sister Rose’s portrait was the day my life had changed forever.
Lovely fat snowflakes had turned to cold rain by the time I reached Miss Dolly’s tearoom, where I was to meet Teddy. I entered the warm, steamy shop, which smelled of cinnamon and currant buns, and greeted the portly woman behind the counter with a nod and a smile. Only a few of Dolly’s regular customers knew that underneath her feminine clothing was a man’s body. I, of all people, understood the parts one must keep hidden in order to survive in the world.
I spotted Teddy at a table in the corner and hurried to join him. He smiled and stood up to greet me with a handshake. We would have kissed if we were someplace private, but even Dolly’s, a haven for men of our sort, was too public a place for such a display.
He gave my hand a warm squeeze. “How was your day?”
I shed my coat, and we both took our seats. “Busy. I have a new client, a German girl named Greta. Her parents want me to erase her accent to give her a better chance of landing a British husband. With a last name like Schultz, there’s little hope of that.”
Teddy shook his head. “Ah, the things parents do to ‘improve’ their children’s lives. What a sorry world it is.”
He pushed a half-eaten bun toward me and poured a cup of tea. “But no lamentations today. I have a surprise planned. It’s a gift for us both, but I can’t keep it hidden until Christmas as you will need to take part in it.”
“What is it?” I bit into the soft, cinnamon pastry that melted into sugar on my tongue.
“I’m afraid to tell you until we get there. You might not agree to do it.” But he didn’t sound worried. Teddy knew very well he could convince me to do almost anything.
“That sounds ominous. What do I have to do?” A sip of bitter tea was a wonderful chaser to the sweet bun.
“I want to have a tintype made. A keepsake, something we can look at years from now when we are old that will help us recall our youth and all the wonderful times we had.”
I stopped drinking. “But you’ve already painted a portrait of us.”
“Photographs are different, a brief moment preserved forever. The camera captures a likeness exactly, which is why portrait artists must do something more or become irrelevant. That is what the old school realists refuse to accept!”
As always when speaking about art, Teddy grew passionate. He could go on a tangent for minutes at a time, but I loved his passion. Actually, I loved him in every mood, even when he was frustratingly stubborn, pushy, or impulsive.
“Will you pose for a tintype with me?” he wheedled. “It will be a perfect Christmas gift we can share to celebrate our first year together.”
“If that is what you want, I’ll do it.” I’d become more comfortable with my body and modeled for Teddy in the privacy of his studio wearing fewer clothes than I would wear for this tintype, but posing in front of a strange photographer would be difficult for me. My aversion to my appearance was a battle I might never completely win.
Dolly stopped by our table, her square, ruddy face beaming above her high lace collar. “May I refill your pot, gentlemen? Or perhaps you’d care for more buns.”
“No, thank you,” Teddy replied. “We’re off on a holiday errand. I’ve got Mr. Abernathy to agree to a tintype. What do you think of that?”
Her low voice dropped to a murmur. “Wonderful. You make a lovely couple, if you ask my opinion. Ah, how I miss my dear Harry during this festive season. I wish I had a tintype of him.”
Dolly’s love had died almost a decade ago, but she continued to hold vigil for him in her heart. When she spoke, one would think he had passed only yesterday. I imagined I would feel the same if I ever lost Teddy. The very idea made me ill.
“Have you someone with whom to spend Christmas, Miss Dolly?” I enquired, thinking to invite her to pass the day with us if she would be alone.
“I’m afraid I’ve promised to spend the season with my brother’s family. The teahouse will be closed while I don trousers and waistcoat and conduct myself as a jolly old fellow.” She shook her head.
“We shall celebrate the holiday when you return,” Teddy said. “The three of us and some of our other friends who enjoy a more unconventional sort of gathering.”
“Sounds divine, my dear. I shall look forward to it while I’m suffering suet pudding and my brother’s memories of the good old days.”
We bid Dolly goodbye and donned our outdoor clothing.
I unfurled my umbrella to shelter us as we hurried through the drizzle. Already the white blanket had melted to dingy gray, and the snow would soon be gone. But it had certainly been pretty while it lasted.