by Cynthia Costain
November in an industrial city in the north of England. Fog drifting up the river from the sea, and the muffled sound of riveting from the shipyards like far away guns. The smell of smoke from coal fires and industrial chimneys. The mournful wail of the fog horns from the ships on the river.
I was seven years old, trailing home from school along the main road with hurrying people pushing past and streetcars clanging on their tracks. It was a long school day for me, leaving home at eight in the morning and not returning until five… At last I turned up a quiet residential street lined with small neat houses enclosed in gardens surrounded by clipped hedges. Each one had a closed gate and some had bare-branched trees from which cold drops fell on my head as I walked by. So thick was the fog and so quiet the street that it seemed to me as if the houses were melting away and all the people had disappeared. It was quite dark by now and the mist was damp on my face and beaded on my coat, and the sidewalk was wet and greasy. I was chilled and cold and it seemed a long way home and what would I find there? As I plodded past each gate from the glow of one dim street lamp to the next, I came to a house that shone brightly. The light over the door was lit and you could see through the side windows into the hall. Although the curtains were drawn they glowed warmly red and pink as I stopped and looked through the gate at this vision of cosiness. Slowly I realized that the house looked vaguely familiar. In the nineteen twenties it was still the fashion among older ladies to have an ‘At Home Day’ every month and my Mother had once taken me with her to visit two elderly sisters, Mrs. Carrick and Miss Gill, on just such an occasion. Shivering in my damp clothes, I remembered the two kind ladies and the warmth of their welcome.
I was a shy child but that glowing memory drew me slowly up the path. All the lights must mean that the ladies were entertaining so I stood on tiptoe and rang the bell.
After a few minutes the door was opened by the older of the two sisters, her white hair shining in the light and her eyes opening wide in surprise.
“Yes, dear?” she said in a puzzled voice.
“I’m Cynthia,” I replied, “I have come to your At Home.”
“Why Cynthia, of course. Come on in. Mary,” she said to her sister who had come to see who this late caller could be, “Cynthia has come to our At Home.”
With no hesitation the gentle ladies took my hat and coat and showed me upstairs to their drawing room. I was in awe, as I had never had my tea upstairs before and what a sight that drawing room was! A blazing coal fire flickered over the brass andirons and the cream carpet; warm pink velvet curtains shut out the dark night; rose patterned sofa and chairs, soft silk cushions and shaded lamps. A small table drawn up to the fire was covered with a delicate embroidered cloth and set with china teacups and gleaming silver. The ladies had probably planned to sit down and have a leisurely tea on their own after their earlier exertions as hostesses in fact Miss Gill was carrying the silver teapot with fresh tea as she came in and Mrs. Carrick took the cover from the dish of buttered scones which had been keeping warm by the hearth.
Miss Gill brought me a special little teacup of cambric tea and we all enjoyed the remains of the feast. The two sisters chatted quietly together and I sat on the stool by the fire, entranced in a fairytale of golden light and warmth. At last the tinkling chime of the clock on the mantelpiece pricked the bubble and I stood up and said, “I think I’d better go home now.”
Downstairs I put on my hat and coat and remembered to say thank you for a lovely time, with a kiss.
I do not remember whether I was scolded for being late when I got home, or if my parents had been worried. But looking back over all those years I can still see the lights and feel the warmth and happiness in that cosy room.