by Carole Lehr Johnson
It felt like a spring morning in England. Even though it was the end of August in Louisiana, I could not help but connect that particular smell to the day. Being a semi-fanatical Anglophile, I associate all things with England. Fresh clean air. England. Profusely blooming flowers. England. The list goes on, embarrassingly so.
Yes, I said August. It was surprising that a spring-like day in the south could have that particular ambiance. Yet, there it was.
I relished the sweet-smelling air a few more seconds. Grabbing a sprig of fresh grass for my house-bound cat, Oliver, and went back inside my "English" cottage to get ready for work. I’ve never been afraid of work. I just long to stay home and make my interests and hobbies my work.
Not that I don’t like my job at the bookstore. I meet some nice people and feel good when they are appreciative of my help. Colossians 3:23 came to mind—And do whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men. Yep, King James Version. What else?
Then it was impressed upon me that God placed me in that job for a reason. I didn’t need to know why. God doesn’t have to approve His plans with me. I took a deep breath as I steeled myself to prepare for another day.
Oliver was grateful for the grass, though miffed that my mind was engaged elsewhere, and not fully on her. Yes, her.
Driving the fifteen minutes to the bookstore gave me time to ponder my work dilemma. I liked my job, just not the convoluted office politics: nepotism, unfairness in a variety of areas, favoritism—a general consensus that most of the employees had no life away from work. We were at the beck-and-call of our employer. Or we had no job.
Punching the antiquated time clock, it emitted a startling metallic bang. I always jerked at the sound. Even after twelve years. Thirty-five years old, single. Just Oliver and me.
“Good morning, Abby.” Patrice blew by, speaking over her shoulder.
“Good morning, Patrice,” I replied as cheerfully as I could muster, remembering my newly adopted, scripturally-based attitude.
The clang of the time clock behind me caused me to jump, again. I turned to see another co-worker, Robena.
“Good morning.” She was not smiling.
“Good morning. Are you okay?” My friend, as well as my co-worker, shrugged and whispered, “We’ll talk at lunch if you’re not busy.”
“Sure, I’ve no plans.” We walked on in silence toward our routine chores of the morning.
The morning proceeded without incident for a Monday, with one exception. Our resident pain-in-the-neck customer, Mr. Davies, a middle-aged man of apparent independent means who was an avid reader. Even though Books-on-the-Corner was a substantially sized bookstore, we never could seem to please the man. We rarely had the books he requested; therefore they always had to be ordered. Next, we could not get them quick enough for him. Today was more of the same.
Mr. Davies squinted his hard, black eyes, making them almost disappear. His teeth were clenched. “Abby, I would like to know where my book order is.” He waited.
I clenched my teeth, then remembered Colossians 3:23. I relaxed. “Good morning, Mr. Davies.” Rising from my kneeling position at the book display I was creating when a loud clap of thunder and the strike of lightening caused my body to jolt into Mr. Davies as I stood. He steadied me with his hands on my shoulders, a fleeting second of compassion on his tight face.
“I’m sorry. That really startled me.” Straightening my blouse out of habit, I turned and walked toward the nearby computer. “What was the name of the book you ordered?” I tried to smile up at him.
His voice was softer than usual. “Flying Dodos.” He cleared his throat.
We were all used to the odd titles that he requested, but this one was unusual even for him. Dare I make conversation about it? Oh, why not go out on a limb? “That’s a funny title. Is it a humorous book? I thought dodo birds couldn’t fly?”
His black eyes relaxed, then the corners of his mouth moved slightly—ever so slightly—upward. Was that a smile?
“No, Abby, it’s not a humorous book.”
At that precise moment my boss, Evelyn, decided to make an appearance. “Why is this book display such a wreck? Who left this here unfinished?” Her short bleached-blonde bob was swinging with each rapid movement of her head—not a happy head either.
Mr. Davies swung around to face Evelyn, his face the color of my rapidly ripening tomatoes growing in my patio pots. “Ms. Talton, you may want to watch your temper. Abby was working on that display when I interrupted her to assist me with my book order.”
Evelyn froze. She was not accustomed to being spoken to in such a manner, especially by one of her most profitable customers. Another loud clap of thunder tore the silence. I think I was holding my breath. Several pairs of eyes were focused on Evelyn—not on Mr. Davies.
None of us had ever seen Evelyn struggle for something to say until now. “My apologies.” Averting my eyes, Evelyn made a rapid retreat to her office.
The watching eyes now focused on Mr. Davies. His face had paled to a softer shade of red. “Now, where were we?”
My lips formed a nervous, twitching smile that verged on laughter. He recognized it, raised his eyebrows as if questioning me. Getting my thoughts back on the task at hand, I rapidly typed in the proper information. “Seems we just got an order in this morning. Let me step to the back and see if it’s in that shipment.”
“All right. I’ll browse while I wait.” His step seemed a bit lighter than usual as he walked away from me.
Once in our back office-cum-break-cum-storage room, I collapsed onto a chair. I didn’t dare laugh out loud for fear Evelyn would find me out.
Letha, our accountant and technology guru, walked in wearing a large, wide-eyed look and smiling broadly. Her tall frame loomed over me. “Not to worry, Evelyn is in her office on the phone.” She burst out laughing. “I know I shouldn’t laugh at someone else’s discomfort—but she had that coming.”
Laughter was about to erupt from me as well, then I choked. “Letha, you’re right on both counts. Evelyn needs to know how it feels to be treated that way … and we shouldn’t laugh. God forgive me.” I hung my head.
Letha said meekly, “I agree. I’ll help you look for Mr. Davies’ book.”
Pulling myself from the chair, I followed Letha to a stack of boxes in one corner of the room. It took about ten minutes to unearth the Flying Dodos book.
Letha shook her head in amusement. “Where does he come up with these odd books?”
“I haven’t dared to question him. Who knows, maybe today’s the day I should.”
“Brave girl.” Letha smirked and walked from the room.
The rain was coming down heavily, but the thunder was now off in the distance. Mr. Davies was kneeling near a stack of new books that had been placed on a cart for shelving. I approached him. “Mr. Davies, I found your book. Please take your time, and I’ll ring you up whenever you’re ready.”
“Thank you, Abby. It may be a while. I’ve found some things of interest here. Please continue with your display. I’ll find you when I’m ready.”
“Certainly … thank you.” After placing the book by the register, I resumed my kneeling position and continued the book display. My thoughts were occupied with all the odd books Mr. Davies had asked for through the years. They ranged from subjects such as religion, cooking, construction, bird watching, travel, history, archaeology, basket weaving, herbal medicine—the list was endless. He must have a large home with an impressive library. What a diverse set of interests the man had. He looked to be about forty—yet it was hard to tell. Mr. Davies was about six feet tall with black wavy hair and hard black eyes. I was ashamed to admit it but a bit creepy, actually.
Someone cleared their throat. “Abby.”
I looked up to see Mr. Davies staring down at me. He held a stack of books that made his muscles tense beneath the burgundy cotton dress shirt he wore.
Nearly toppling as I tried to stand from my crouched position, I caught myself on the sturdy display box, steadying myself with my hand.
“Looks like you made quite a haul there.” I smiled up at him.
“Yes, I do believe I have made some great progress in research material.”
This was more info than I had ever been able to glean from this customer—ever.”
“Wonderful.” I started ringing up each book, beginning with the Flying Dodos.
“And what books interest you, Abby?” The corners of his mouth made their slight upward movement.
Taken completely off guard, it took me a few seconds to respond. “Well, anything British—historical novels.” I paused. “…and how to write fiction—Christian fiction, that is.”
“Really…very interesting. Have you ever had anything published?” He reached for the large shopping bag I offered him.
“Well, no. I don’t have that much confidence in my work.” I nervously played with a paper clip.
“Are you a good typist and editor of your work?”
Not sure where this line of questioning was going, I replied. “I believe so, but I’m not too sure anyone would want to read my stories. I have no formal training. Although I do enjoy the research behind my stories—being historical in nature.”
His eyes glazed over—obviously now uninterested in my reply. Realizing that I had finished speaking, he said. “Good day, Abby. Thanks for your assistance.”
Before I could voice a ‘you’re welcome,’ he had turned and briskly headed for the door.
I finished the book display and was cleaning up when Robena approached. “Lisa’s on her way to take over your spot so we can go to lunch.”
Her briskness had me puzzled. “Okay, I’ll stash this stuff.”
“Make sure you put it somewhere Attila the Hun won’t see it. I’ll be waiting by the clock.” She had a death grip on the handle of her purse as she walked away.
I quickly put all of my supplies in a box and slid it under the counter in the break room. Reaching for my purse, I power-walked to meet Robena, passing Lisa on the way.
“Why are you in such a hurry—starved?”
I tried to be cordial—sometimes, it was difficult. She and Evelyn were the best of friends—nepotism at its finest. They were also cousins.
By the time Robena and I had reached our favorite bistro, we were nearly soaked to our panty hose. We both ordered hot tea…Earl Grey. Did I forget to mention that Robena is an Anglophile, also? One of many reasons we are such good friends. Wet clothing and air-conditioning is conducive to chills, hence the hot rather than our usual iced tea.
Sipping our tea and waiting for our lunch to be delivered, I broached the subject. “What gives?”
Robena’s eyes peered over her cup. She faltered in her speech, eyes watering. “It’s my job—I hate it.”
I reached for a tissue and extended it to her already out-stretched hand. She dabbed and I waited.
“Evelyn called me this weekend and said I would not be able to take a vacation day this Friday.” She dabbed some more.
Anger slowly crept over me. “What! You’ve had that day on the calendar for two months. It’s your long girls’ weekend with your sister.”
“I know—Evelyn knows, too. I think she enjoys doing things like this.”
“Did she say why?”
“Yes.” A new wave of tears flowed.
“Seems Lisa has had a last minute invitation to some book event in the mountains.”
Robena sat silent.
“That’s what I thought. So someone has to wait a couple of minutes to get help. Besides, Lisa doesn’t do any customer service—except when one of us goes to lunch.”
“Maybe I can talk to Evelyn. I’ll tell her I’ll cover for you.”
“Oh, Abby, I appreciate that, but you know she won’t go for it. If it’s not her idea, then it won’t happen.”
“Probably, but I want to try.” I paused and sipped more tea. “Robena…” Our food arrived, so we stopped and said grace, I continued. “Why don’t you quit and do something else?” While I waited for the usual reply, I bit into my turkey-on-wheat.
“You know why—if I don’t supplement our income, I won’t be able to travel at all. Then I would never see my family.” She looked thoughtful, then continued. “So why don’t you?”
We have had this conversation numerous times over the past few years. Since Evelyn had bought the bookstore. I decided I would not give my expected pat answer. I continued chewing.
“Well, aren’t you going to say something?” Robena had not touched her ham and Swiss on rye.
I looked her straight in the eye. “No.” Reaching for my tea, I smiled.
“Well, thanks, heaps!”
“You’re welcome.” I smiled weakly this time. “But I’ll certainly pray about it. You need to ask God where He wants you to be.” It rang hollow. Had I just given advice that I should be taking?
We ate in silence for a while. Robena looked at me. “We both need for God to drop a big ‘here’s-what-I-want-you-to-do’ bomb, on our heads. Neither of us is happy with our jobs. So why do we put up with it day after day, year after year? Let’s agree to start seriously asking God to show us where He wants us to work. Okay?”
“Okay…I’m in, but you know we’re simple-minded and we will have to play close attention to His promptings, or we’ll miss it entirely.”
“I have an idea.” Robena perked up and I got caught up in her enthusiasm. “Let’s agree to have lunch twice a week. We’ll bring our lunch and go to the park and pray together. We’ll ask God to reveal to us, vividly, what we are to do. Surely He’ll answer. Do you think He really wants us to be miserable in our jobs?”
After giving it some thought, I answered. “No, but through difficult times one learns faith and patience.”
“Downer!” Robena laughed.
“Sorry—that’s not why I said it. I just know that God never promised us an easy life.”
“Tell me about it!”
The remainder of the week was uneventful. Robena and I met again on Friday for lunch and began our prayer lunches. Just as we were leaving work for the day, the second thunderstorm that week decided to pelt us as we walked across the parking lot.
Raising our voices over the heavy downpour, we said good evening. Remembering that I had planned on getting gas after work, I reprimanded myself for putting it off until I could avoid it no longer. Pulling up to the pump at a convenience store near Books-on-the-Corner, I unsuccessfully attempted to stay away from the horizontal rain. I practically hugged the gas pump which was barely covered by an overhang. Just as I replaced the nozzle, I noticed a man huddled under the hood of his car adjusting something frantically. He was soaked to his skin which gave away his physique under the cotton shirt. I definitely did not know any man that muscular. Slowly moving my car toward the exit of the store, I stole a quick glance to see him slam down the hood, shaking his head in exasperation. After getting into his car, he rested his forehead against the steering wheel. My car was now parallel to his. His profile was immediately recognizable—Mr. Davies.
I rolled down my window, but he did not see me—his head not moving. His black hair was plastered to his head, somehow making him appear younger, more vulnerable. I reached through the rain, drenching my arm, and tapped on his window. He jerked his head back as he turned toward me. Before pausing briefly, he rolled down his window.
“Mr. Davies, if you’re having car trouble I can give you a ride home.” Now where did that come from?
The stunned look he returned should not have surprised me, nor his response. “Abby—I was about to call a cab, but my cell phone has died. That was kind of my straw-on-the-camel’s-back for me today.”
“Yes, I’ve had those kind of days. Not fun.”
“No, they’re not. I hate to impose, but I’ll take you up on that offer.” He got out, locked his car then hesitated. “Let me run into the store and tell them my car is broken down so they won’t have it towed. I’ll be right back.”
He placed a shopping bag on the floor of my car and sprinted away. He was back in no time. Settling himself with the seat belt, he turned to me and asked if I knew where Richmond Street was.
“Yes, I think so. Isn’t it near the Rachel Welton Museum?”
“Just a few blocks east of the museum.”
We chatted about the history of the museum and the wonderful artifacts that Rachel Welton had collected in the early 1900s. She brought back from around the world a wide variety of architectural pieces, paintings, books, manuscripts, antique furniture—the list was endless. Upon her death, she bequeathed her home to be turned into a museum, displaying all she had collected.
“She was a fascinating woman.” Mr. Davies was smitten by a long deceased woman. “Ms. Welton never married. She was a wealthy heiress to her father’s international tapestry business—having no siblings.”
“Really? I’ve been to the museum, but have not read her bio.”
Mr. Davies actually laughed. I turned my head sharply to stare at him. “Did I say something funny?”
“No, Abby—it’s just that only a writer would use the term bio. At least I’ve never heard anyone but, a writer use that word.”
“Are you toying with me, Mr. Davies?”
“No—and please call me Mason.” He pointed. “Turn here, please.”
Making a full stop, I pulled into a long, curving drive. The rain and trees obscured much of the house. The closer we got, the more I was amazed. It was like something out of my Anglophile imagination—an English manor home. Not extremely massive, yet it would definitely fit in on the English countryside. The grounds weren’t formal, but they were manicured and immaculate…much like our Mr. Davies.
Finding my voice now, I said. “You have a lovely place, Mr. Davies…Mason. It looks exactly like it was transported from England.”
The smile reappeared—broader this time. “Thank you, that was the reaction I always hope for. I seem to be more at home when I feel I am in England. It’s …” He stopped.
I waited for him to finish, listening to my windshield wipers slapping at the heavy raindrops I asked. “You were saying?”
“No matter, I was merely thinking out loud. Not a good trait. Would you like to come in for a cup of tea and dry out a bit?”
Now I was astounded. Where was the agitated, grumpy man I had spent years avoiding—hoping a co-worker would get him, rather than me?
“That’s very kind of you, but I don’t want to impose.”
“It’s the least I can do. You have saved me a lot of time and probably another thorough soaking in this downpour. Please come in.”
I had to admit that my curiosity of what the interior of this cottage was like. It was sucking me in, but what if he was a secret axe murderer or something? None of us knew anything about this man.
I was certain that he could see I was struggling. “Abby, if it would make you feel more comfortable, know that my housekeeper is here.” He pointed to a blue car parked to our right, about twenty feet ahead of us.
“Certainly, a cup of tea sounds nice.” He was out of the car with umbrella opened and at my door before I could gather my purse and remove the keys from the ignition.
He held the umbrella over both of our heads as we walked to the front door. We kept bumping into one another. I mumbled an apology each time. It seemed to take forever to reach the stained oak door. Inside, I felt like I had stepped back to seventeenth century England.
Exposed beams looked down on a large wood-planked floor which was darkly stained. Long windows flanked the wall opposite, looking out onto a brick walled garden. The flower beds were of the traditional English cottage style. I was entranced.
With the umbrella now stored in an elaborately cut iron stand, Mason said, “There is a powder room down that hall, first door on the left, if you would like to dry off. Fresh towels are in the cabinet. I’ll go ask Lisa to make us a pot of tea. Please make yourself at home.”
I stammered a ‘thank you’ as he walked away. Making the trip to the powder room, I was again amazed at the period detail. Locating a fluffy white hand towel, I attempted to dry my hair. I then combed and pinned it up. A few wavy strands of hair would not stay put. Fresh lip gloss applied, I went back to the living room. It was empty, I sat in a heavily overstuffed arm chair covered in a muted blue chintz fabric.
Immediately, I imagined a cold evening, a warm fire in the huge stone fireplace to my right—book in hand with a Scottish plaid throw over my legs. I’m not certain how long I daydreamed that scene … I heard a voice emerging from a long distance.
A hand was on my shoulder, gently shaking me. My eyelids flew up like a rolled window shade.
“I am sooo sorry. This chair is so comfortable, it lulled me to sleep.” I apologized again as I pushed myself up, using the arms of the chair.
The hand lightly pushed me back into the plush chair. “Please don’t get up. The tea is almost ready.” He rapidly left the room and was back before I could come up with an excuse to leave.
Mason came back carrying an immense tray laden with what looked like a full meal. He placed the tray on the large square table centered among the two matching arm chairs and sofa.
He smiled down at me. “Hope you are hungry.”
I looked over the tea arrangement. There was a gorgeous floral teapot with matching tea cups and saucers with dainty spoons. Several china plates held lemon wedges, scones, tea cakes, small sandwiches, and fruit.
Mason was pouring the tea as he offered me sugar, milk, and lemon. “Please help yourself to whatever you would like. Lisa is a marvelous cook.” I selected lemon and a touch of sugar.
“Go on, you!” Lisa entered the room. She was no more than five feet tall and weighing all of about ninety pounds, she wore a wide grin, flashing the most perfect teeth. Her hair was bound near the nape of her neck into a tight, nearly gray, bun. Small pearl earrings dangled slightly from her lobes and she wore a tiny strand of matching pearls around her neck.
“Oh, Lisa, there you go again—trying to deny your talents.” His eyes shone with pride.
“Talent—poppycock!” She turned to me and said with what I now realized as a slight British accent. “Good day to you, miss.”
“Have a nice evening, Miss Lisa.” I replied, attaching my southern title to her first name.
Mason gave me an approving glance. “See you on Monday, Lisa.”
Turning to me, he offered a plate of enticing pastries. I helped myself to a couple of them, not wanting to appear greedy. My stomach was announcing that I was past my usual dinner hour. Either Mason pretended not to notice, or I was becoming overly self-conscious.
“Abby, tell me what your future plans are. I’m sure it’s not working with Evelyn until you reach retirement age.”
His question was so straight-to-the-point, that I nearly choked on a cinnamon scone.
“Well,…I’m not sure.” Reaching for my tea, I sipped to buy some time.
“Tell me about what you have written.” A sheepish grin emerged.
“Written! Sorry, I didn’t mean to speak so loudly.”
“Don’t sound so surprised. You did tell me you have written stories. One would assume you want to have them published.”
I looked into my cup. Fearing he would think I was trying to read tea leaves, I replied. “I suppose so—but I wouldn’t have a clue on how to go about it. I have no connections.”
His reserved grin returned. “I may be able to help you with that.”
“Are you attracted to a good challenge?” Suddenly horrified at my poor choice of words, I added. “You haven’t even seen any of my writing yet.”
His dark eyes flickered. Opening his mouth to say something, he then hesitated and turned his eyes toward the window. “Looks like the rain has slowed down”
Following his gaze to the dreary-looking dusk shrouded in mist, I made a move to stand. He reached across the table and placed his hand on my forearm.
“Please don’t do so soon. Finish your tea and I’ll tell you how I may be able to help you.”
Curiosity got the better of me. “All right. I suppose one more cup won’t hurt.” I settled back into the amazingly comfortable chair. We studied each other for a moment.
Finally, he said. “Abby, first I want to apologize.” He paused, choosing his words carefully. “I know I have not always been cordial when doing business at the book store. I have my reasons which I now feel compelled to tell you.”
“Mr. D…Mason, you don’t have to tell me anything. Some people merely like their lives to be private. I understand. Sort of like me and my writing. I honestly don’t know why I told you about it.” I stopped, then abruptly started speaking again. “Yes, I do—I believe it was because you were so persuasive. It was the first time you had ever been deliberately kind to me.”
Mason said nothing in response. I felt lower than dirt. It was not my intention to hurt him.
“I’m sorry, I should not have said that.”
“No—you’re right—I’ve not always been kind. You see, my past has been painful and it’s difficult for me to get close to people. You are the only person I have come in contact with that has been kind to me in spite of …well…me.”
Feeling more embarrassed than ever, I felt the need to comfort this man. A man I had been running from for years. I didn’t know what to say.
“Let me explain further. My wife left me before I moved here and I just have not allowed myself to get close to anyone. I cannot handle that kind of pain any longer. It’s easier to alienate people.” He tried to smile, yet his face was grim.
Now almost whispering, he said. “Until I met you.” His eyes refused to meet mine.
Speechlessness was all I could wrap my mind around. Since he could not look at me, I chose to study him. Now realizing that his apparent past rudeness had clouded my judgement of him, I reassessed what I knew of him. He had never been obviously rude, just distant. He gave no ‘good mornings’ or ‘how are you.’ It seemed he always sought me out to wait on him. Had he been seeking me out all this time?
Blinking myself back into the present, I found him staring at me. “Abby, I didn’t mean to shock you. It’s just that your behavior toward me has been different than everyone else. Also, you are very attractive.” He said the latter more meekly.
It warmed my heart—I had to admit that I was flattered, yet I felt compelled to change the subject. “Mason, what did you mean when you said you may be able to help me?”
“Oh, that. Please don’t share this with anyone. I am an author and a literary agent, but I prefer to remain anonymous. I work under a pen name and not publish my novels with a photo of myself. I would like to help you with our work. If you will allow me.”
The next six month passed quicker than any other time in my life. I spent most evenings with Mason at either my house or his English cottage. We read, edited or simply brainstormed over story lines. He was an amazing man. Within weeks into our new friendship, he had accepted Christ and the healing of his past hurts began.
Our wedding will be in five months. His wedding gift to me—Books-on-the-Corner. We honeymooned in England—where else?