Cup of Tea

by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/257577.html)

“Cup of tea, cup of tea, almost got shagged, cup of tea…”

–Vampire Spike on librarian Giles’ life, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Allan was a few minutes early, no thanks to public transit, but he was used to its vagaries and had tricked fate by scheduling the appointment for after rush hour. He double-checked the address in his notebook, then snapped the elastic around the book and slid it into the back pocket of his black jeans. He made a quick all-points review of his appearance: fly fastened, tie and shirtfront free of any evidence of the blueberry muffin he’d had for breakfast, no visible cat hair on what he could see of his jacket–work drag all in place. The wind brushed a lock of hair against his temple, and he tucked it behind his left ear.

The house was a typical red brick bay-and-gable semi, shrubs and perennials taking low-maintenance place of a lawn, nothing blooming now but a pot of sunset-and-flame chrysanthemums drawing the eye up the flagstone walk to the small porch. Allan crunched through fallen leaves and up the porch steps. The door had a bronze knocker in the shape of a sleeping cat.

Response to his knock didn’t take long. He could hear someone coming at a quick walk down uncarpeted stairs, and then the door swung open.

Allan offered his professional smile and his business card. “Russell Evers?”

“Allan del Mar? Please, come in.”

Allan stepped into a front hallway that smelled of old wood and something yeasty baking. Evers shut the door behind him, and offered his hand.

It must have been all the talking they’d done on the phone of grandfathers and great-uncles, because Allan realized that he had had the image in his mind of a much older man. But Evers was around his own age, mid-brown hair a few weeks past the need for a haircut, wrapped in a green shawl-collared cardigan that was a bit too big for him, wearing those clunky black hot-geek glasses that had been popular a few years back. His hand was warm, his handshake brief but firm.

“Can I offer you a cup of tea before you start?” he asked.

“Thank you for offering, but I’d rather just get to work.”

“Sure. It’s up this way. It’s okay, you can keep your shoes on if you prefer.”

That was just politeness; Allan could tell that not too many people were walking in outside shoes on these refinished floors. He finished toeing his Blundstones off, and followed Evers up the stairs.

As was common in these Victorian houses, the staircase hugged the shared wall. Using that well-travelled space as a photo gallery was practically a requirement of home ownership, and given the collection Evers said he had, it was well-nigh inevitable. But this wasn’t a multi-generational hodgepodge or the sunsets-over-monuments variety of vacation photography. These were purposefully similar, all with clean white mats in plain frames, single-hung at even intervals and distance from the stairs so that each could be appreciated on its own merits. Allan stopped in front of a photograph of two children on a wooden sled, the dusting of snow on the girl’s calf-length skirt as sharply in focus as frost on a windowpane, the winter flush in their cheeks evident even in black and white. The boy’s wire-rimmed glasses had fogged up.

Evers came back down, stopped two steps above him. “These were some of Uncle Will’s favourites,” he said.

Allan caught a faint emphasis on the some. “It must be difficult to choose,” he said absently, attention caught by the next one up: men in jackets and cloth caps rolling barrels down from a wagon drawn by thick-ankled horses. He didn’t recognize the street, but the sign on the building behind the wagon displayed a rooster and a keg in splintering paint. A young man in an apron–a very attractive young man, in that scrubbed Edwardian way–stood grinning in the window.

“He changed them once a year, around his birthday,” Evers said. “These were the ones up when he died. I’ll probably change them eventually.” He shrugged.

“Who did his printing?” Those old glass plate negatives were heartbreakingly clear when they were in good condition, and whoever had printed these had known what they were doing.

“Uncle Will did his own. He built a darkroom in the basement.”

Craning to see the next photograph, Allan took a step up.

A group of people posed on and around a shabby assortment of ottomans and pillows and settees. Amateur theatrical, Allan thought, and then looked closer. Was that a pirate? Yes; he had a parrot, obviously stuffed, sewn to his shoulder. A young woman in white was half-turned from the camera to show off her butterfly wings. A broad-shouldered matron in a magnificent hat and cascades of frills towered head and shoulders above the rest of the party. A boy probably too young to shave sucked on a pipe, squinting at the camera from beneath his deerstalker cap.

“Costumes are…something of a theme in the collection,” Evers said.

“The Victorians did love dressing up,” Allan agreed. He had been striving to keep his expectations low out of the memory of plenty of professional disappointments, but he felt excitement began to kindle in him. Victorian photographs weren’t rare as hen’s teeth, but one didn’t come across major undiscovered collections every day either.

“Yes, there’s a lot of that,” Evers repeated.

He was looking at the photograph speculatively. Allan noticed that his own head was on a level with Evers’ shoulder, and that the green sweater, a few inches from him, smelled a little like bread baking. Side by side on the same level, they’d be about the same height… He wrenched his attention back to the butterfly wings.

Evers seemed about to say more, but then he turned and began to climb the stairs again. “I should probably show you the rest.”

Allan took the hint and followed him up, along the second-floor hallway and up another flight to the third floor.

The attic had been finished as an office, spare and bright, the south end hosting a row of windows that let the mid-morning sun spill in over a broad built-in desk. One long wall and the ell of the corner beside the stairs were floor-to-ceiling wooden shelves. On the shelves were boxes: metal index card boxes, cardboard liquor store boxes, shoe boxes, a couple of orange crates, at least one tea tin, a few plastic milk crates. Each had a label pasted to the front: dates as well as a range of numbers.

“It’s pretty well organized,” Evers said. “Uncle Will always meant to get them all into proper boxes. He said it was his retirement project. But he wasn’t exactly the kind of person who retires, so…”

Allan ran his eyes over a succession of labels. They’d all been written at the same time, in the same slightly impatient hand. A fountain pen, but modern, judging from the paper. “How are they organized?”

“By date and by number. Hugh Snelling, who started the business–my, hmm, great-great grandfather–did I put too many greats in there?–he started numbering them in 1888, and everyone else just kept going.”

Allan chose an early box at random and lifted the lid. Brown paper envelopes stood in vertical ranks. He took the first out of the box carefully, using both hands, because having a glass plate negative slip inadvertently out of an open envelope and smash on the floor was really guaranteed not to impress donors. Or prospective employers. Shaking that memory away, he read the front of the envelope: #19,982. August 13, 1905. Queen Street Methodist Football Club at Island.

He felt the envelope, then tilted it and let the contents slide into his hand. The four-by-five negative was in an additional envelope of its own. The print, larger, was mounted on a custom matboard, H. Snelling, 133 Yonge Street impressed with a tangle of flourishes into its lower right-hand corner. A row of young men in shorts and jerseys grinned into the camera, a ball resting in the crook of the elbow of one, a trophy held by its arms between two others.

“I don’t suppose your uncle compiled a subject index?” he asked, knowing the answer.

“No,” but as Allan sighed internally at the thought of all that data entry and the sorry state of the Institute’s grant applications, Evers continued, “Hugh Snelling did.”

“What?”

“Well, he started it, and as with the numbers, his descendants kept the system. All the ledgers are over here.”

Evers went to the far shelves, in the wall against the stairs. One of the shelves had been built taller than the rest, and on it was a row of large, leather-spined volumes and shorter, more modern account books. He chose two and brought them to the bare table in the centre of the room.

“There are two sets,” he said, flipping them open one after another. “The first is by number, which is by date as well. The second is a subject index. It’s…a little idiosyncratic.”

Because it would have been unprofessional to say I love your great-great-grandfather and want to give him a big kiss, Allan said, “This will be a big help.”

“Uncle Will started new volumes when he took over the collection in 1952, but he continued the numbering system. His are the ones with the green covers. They all used to be labelled, but most of that’s worn off by now.”

Allan closed one of the volumes and looked at the spine, but decades of handling and a mild case of red rot had all but obliterated whatever had been stamped there.

“What about you?” he asked. “Are you adding to the collection?”

“Me? No. I’m words, not pictures. A writer.” He gave a self-deprecating shrug. “Well, unpublished. A librarian by trade. One of the reasons Uncle Will wanted to donate the collection was that he knew it had come to the end of its active life.” He stroked his palm gently over the spread-open pages. “It was more a labour of love than a business for Uncle Will, though he did contribute a fair amount of work to it. Still, I suppose three generations is pretty respectable for any undertaking.”

“This is why museums and archives exist,” Allan ventured. “So work like this can be preserved when the creators are no longer able to do it.”

“True.” Evers seemed to shake himself. “Why don’t I leave you to it?”

“I do have a few questions first, if that’s all right.” Allan tugged his notebook from his back pocket.

“I’d…really rather let you get a sense of the collection on your own. I’d be happy to answer any questions you have after you’ve seen it.”

Allan tapped his notebook against his lower lip. “Fair enough.”

“I’m not being mysterious on purpose,” Evers said apologetically. “It’s just, it’s a somewhat…special collection.”

Allan winced a smile, in appreciation of a professional pun.

“I should be honest. You’re not the first institution I contacted.”

“I was curious as to how you found us. We were only established a few years ago.” The Institute for the Study of Transformative Arts and Culture, and the museum and archives associated with it, currently consisted of a very busy university prof, a windowless storage room-slash-office already running out of shelf space, one laptop, and Allan.

“Google.” Evers smiled wryly. “Much as I hate how everyone thinks that’s the beginning and end of research. I found a directory for archives in the province, and you were among the ones I thought might be interested.”

Thus justifying the provincial association’s two-hundred-dollars-plus-HST institutional membership fee, thank you, internets. “And the others weren’t interested?”

“The municipal and provincial archives were both very interested about certain aspects of the collection, but we couldn’t come to an agreement. The national archives decided not to consider it after I sent them a description.”

Red flags began to wave in Allan’s mind. His heart sank a little. “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the sticking point in the agreement?”

“They wanted to cull–” Evers grimaced. “Really, honestly, you need to look at it for yourself.” He backed away from the table. “I’ll be downstairs if you need me.”

“I won’t make much noise,” Allan said. “I mean, if you want to work here, don’t let me disturb you.” He gestured towards the built-in desk, its bare and polished wood glowing in the sunbeam lying across it.

“It’s lovely, isn’t it?” Evers shook his head. “I haven’t been able to bring myself to work up here yet. It still feels so much his. Even more so than the rest of the house.”

“I’m sorry,” Allan said. “It sounds like you were close to him.”

“He took me in when I was in my teens, after my parents died. He was my father’s uncle, actually, so my great-uncle. He was in his sixties by then. We got along well, though.” He put his foot on the top stair. “Anyway. Enjoy.”

Allan said, “I’m sure I will,” and Evers nodded and disappeared down the stairwell.

It was sorely tempting to just go wild through the boxes right off the bat, but Allan dredged up some self-discipline and turned his attention to the ledgers first. The ones Evers had chosen seemed to be the earliest, so he started with those.

Hugh Snelling had a showy but legible hand, the sort of writing assumed to have been common in the 19th century by people who had never tried to decipher idiosyncratic spellings in Victorian chickenscratch. February 14, 1888 was No. The First–Allan assumed that was a celebratory flourish, as subsequent entries reverted to numerals–View out my front window. Number two, two days later, was Mrs. Adelaide Ancaster, portrait. Number three, a day after that, was Scottie–a person? a dog? Allan wondered. The studio did not seem to have been an instant success; days went by between entries.

It couldn’t have failed, though, or Allan wouldn’t be here. He turned a sheaf of pages, arriving at June 1889, a third of the way into the book.

Things seemed to have picked up. More than a year after the business opened, Snelling was prolific, some days taking dozens of photographs, something that required dedication in the days of cameras that weighed ten pounds. Perhaps the success of the studio allowed him rein to pursue photography as an art; there were street scenes, still lifes, parks and gardens. Oddly, some entries, although conscientiously numbered, were described only with initials. Portraits? They would have been the bread and butter of any photographic studio. Yet many of the same initials recurred, numerous times in a day, again from day to day. And there were names that could only have been pseudonyms: Pink Chrysanthemum, Mr. Humbug. Institutional customers? A code?

He turned to the subject index volume, with its lettered tabs. The entries were both varied and odd. Plenty were places Allan recognized–Opera House, King Street, Hanlan’s Point. And people’s names, of the regular Mr. John Smith type as well as initials and aliases. Quite a few amateur theatricals, as Evers had mentioned. But what was Haycart? What was Skirts? And Ropes? Did Snelling perhaps do some industrial photography on the side? And what was he to make of Anticipation? Or Secrets?

Start with what you know being a valid research principle, Allan flipped to the As and chose Allan Gardens, his go-to test topic based on the superstitious symmetry of his having the same name. There were several numbers in a row, and muttering the first under his breath, he went to the shelves and found a shoebox, originally someone’s size nine brown brogues, now June 12-26, 1890. He brought it over to the table and lifted the lid.

A girl dipped her hand into the pool around a cherub-encrusted fountain. Two boys knelt on the grass, embracing a shaggy, panting dog. Women holding parasols wandered along a gravel path, a glass pavilion in the distance.

He continued through the box to see what else Hugh Snelling might have been up to during that early summer week in 1890.

The next several photographs were equally innocuous. Portraits, as anticipated, and some pictures of kittens. A murky sunset, some lilacs in a vase. Then Hamlet–Ophelia: a pretty young woman standing against a painted backdrop of fluffy clouds, her hands set together in front of her in an aspect of prayer, wearing a draped pseudo-medieval gown and a crown of what might have been meant to be rosemary and rue, but looked more like daisies.

The next was the same young woman, in the same pose, with the same backdrop, wearing the same flowered garland. And nothing else.

Allan snickered. Seriously, this was what had the government archives all worked up? A little Victorian cheesecake?

The next photograph showed an aspect of Ophelia and Hamlet’s courtship that Shakespeare had never seen fit to depict on stage. Allan raised his eyebrows.

The next…Allan looked from the photograph to the envelope and back again. He felt the tips of his ears grow warm. I…had no idea that Hamlet and Laertes had that kind of relationship.

And then the next was someone’s living room, encrusted with bric-a-brac, a parlour piano and loud wallpaper and a fern on a three-legged table all testifying to solid middle-class respectability.

Allan ran a hand through his hair, suspicions of what Skirts and Secrets might mean popping into his head.

He glanced at the index volumes. He looked towards the boxes on the shelves.

A finding aid was only a map, and the map was not the territory, and he was here to look at the photographs, right? Right.

At some point he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. Later he wondered briefly whether the windows over the desk opened, before he was distracted by coming unprepared across Knots, which–well, he had never been entirely comfortable with that being one of his buttons, but he’d have plenty of time to get used to it now that that particular image was branded into his mind’s eye, top hat and all. And he might be developing a bit of a crush on E.L., who had extremely attractive shoulders. And it must have been warming up outside, because the room was getting strangely stuffy….

All right, he admitted after shoving Correction back into its envelope and taking a steadying breath, he totally understood why no government archives had been willing to get anywhere near this. And yet.

By all standards other than does-not-contain-porn, it was a significant and valuable collection. Hugh Snelling had an eye for composition and a clear gift with people, able to arrange victorious sports teams and costumed orgies alike with flair. His son, Arthur, had a sense of whimsy that permeated even his portraiture, not to mention a fetish for bespectacled, narrow-skirted librarians making out with one another that could probably fuel someone’s Ph.D. thesis all by itself. And Evers’ Uncle Will had documented the city’s now-disappeared early built heritage and post-war revitalization with affectionate thoroughness, as well as created what had the potential to become iconic shots of clean-cut young men enjoying one another’s company.

Dr. Hansard was–what was that word she liked to use?–she was going to squee.

It was a good thing that Allan wasn’t holding a glass plate negative when he heard the shuffle of a slipper on the staircase, because he jumped a foot in the air. His pencil bounced on the floor.

“I’m so sorry,” Evers said. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just wondering how things were coming.”

“Uh, good.” Allan bent to retrieve his pencil. His face was flaming. “I’m, uh, I think I’m about finished here.”

“I guess you’ve seen a good cross-section of the collection?”

“Yes. Yes, I have.”

Evers looked sheepish. “Maybe I was wrong to not give you more warning.”

“No, it’s okay, it’s fine. It’s always good to, uh, make up my own mind about these things.”

Evers came over to the table. “Are they in good condition? Physically? Uncle Will was worried that the older material would start to deteriorate.”

“I was going to mention that.” Allan had put a box aside on the corner of the table; he pulled it towards him now. “Some of the 1950s negatives are beginning to develop vinegar syndrome.” He slid a negative out of an envelope and held it up by its edges; Evers leaned closer. “See how it’s beginning to buckle? It’s not yet severe. But you do want to get these into cold storage as soon as possible. But the glass negs seem stable, and at least I don’t see any nitrates. Without proper storage, those have a tendency to–” Evers reached out to take the negative; the edge of his finger and thumb brushed Allan’s. Allan had to clear his throat. “–spontaneously combust.”

“It sounds like the timing on this is good.” Evers handed the negative back to Allan. “I also came up to see whether you were interested in taking a break. The coffee cake is out of the oven, and I just made a fresh pot of tea.”

What Allan really wanted was a cold drink. And possibly a cold shower. Still. “I’d like that, thanks. Let me just tidy up here, and I’ll be right down.”

“Whenever you’re ready.” Evers returned to the staircase. “Feel free to use the bathroom on the second floor if you want to wash your hands.”

Allan put the boxes back on their shelves, descended the stairs, and found the little white-and-black-tiled bathroom. He splashed his face and let cold water run over the insides of his wrists. His expression in the wavering glass of the antique mirror looked a little glazed. Cool. Professional. Nonchalant, he advised his reflection. The porn you just spent an hour and a half looking at was all in the line of duty. Just doing my job, sir.

He followed the smell of cinnamon to the kitchen at the back of the ground floor. Evers, at the table with a teacup and a book, waved him into the seat opposite and pushed a china cup and saucer towards him. “Please, help yourself,” he said, indicating the teapot and accoutrements and slices of what turned out to be a truly luscious coffee cake.

They made small talk while they ate, about how Allan had gotten into his career (random life-changing elective in his second year of university), about how Evers had gotten into his (change of heart one term into organic chemistry), about the history of gardening Evers was reading, about other books they’d recently read. Warmed by the oven and the sun, walls butter-yellow with walnut cabinets, the room was a haven, cozy and bright at once. Evers fit in as though he’d grown there, the green of his sweater picking up painted ivy leaves spiralling around his teacup, his fingers long but precise on the small china handle. Allan accepted a second cup of tea and another slice of cake. He felt his shoulders relax, his professional focus blur. He felt as though they could stay there talking until the sun went down. It had been longer than he could remember since he’d had such a good first da–

Wait. Not a date. NOT a date.

He blushed as though he’d caught himself imagining Evers in one of Hugh Snelling’s inventive tableaus. Maybe wearing suspenders. And a top hat… He blushed hotter. “Sorry, could I possibly have a glass of water?”

“Sure, let me get you one.”

Evers rose and fetched a pressed glass tumbler out of one of the cupboards. He turned on the water and let it run cold, then filled the glass. When he passed it over, Allan imagined he could feel the heat of Evers’ fingers, a tingle of warmth against the chill of the water.

Evers leaned against the counter, his back to the sink. “Do you usually find it difficult to decide whether to accept a donation or not?”

“Most of the time it’s a pretty clear gut feeling. I mean, we have a mandate and appraisal criteria, but to be honest, a lot of the time, they’re retrofitted into the decision Dr. Hansard or I has already made.”

“So do you think you’ll be accepting the collection?”

“That’s what I’m going to recommend to her, absolutely.”

“And you won’t need me to be involved in any way, once the papers have been signed and so forth?”

“No. Er, did you expect to be?” Allan asked, a little alarmed. He’d met donors who struggled with the concept of giving things away.

“No, no, once it’s yours, it’s yours,” Evers said, and Allan felt, contradictorily, a twinge of disappointment. At least it would have been an excuse to see Evers again. “And I won’t be needing a tax receipt, so that’s not an issue.”

“You won’t?” Honesty compelled him to add, “You know, it could be a fair amount of money.”

“No, Uncle Will believed in people contributing to the society they live in. Including paying their taxes.”

The tumbler was empty. It was time to wrap this visit up and go, but indulging himself a little longer, Allan stood up and went to the sink to refill it. Evers shuffled to the side a bit, not far, so that Allan had to move closer than was casual to reach the faucet. He stared with resolution at his own hands on the ridges of the glass, at the white porcelain of the sink, thinking of ice and arctic winds and snowballs down the back of one’s neck.

“So I suppose that means there’s no problem,” Evers said, “I mean to say, no ethical problem, if I were to, say, ask you out?”

Allan put the full glass down in the bottom of the sink. He turned to looked at Evers. Evers titled his head at him.

“I…don’t see any problem with that, no,” Allan said.

Evers pivoted slowly, his hip against the counter, until he was angled towards Allan. “You know, if I asked you out, I would probably also….”

He leaned in. He smelled, and then tasted, faintly of cinnamon. He kissed with gentle confidence, unhurried, open to suggestions. When he put a hand on Allan’s hip, the touch was so light that it took long seconds for Allan to become aware of it, and then Allan felt the ridge of the counter against his backside and realized that he had been pressed back against the cupboards with such delicacy that he hadn’t noticed it was happening.

“And if I did that,” Evers said, close, voice low, “I would also want to….”

His glance flickered up to Allan’s, and down again, and he put a hand flat against the hard front of Allan’s jeans.

After an instant of silence, they both exhaled. The tension in the room broke and reformed. Evers undid Allan’s belt and then, one-handed, the buttons of his jeans. Allan reached back blindly and clutched the edge of the counter.

Evers leaned closer–not to kiss; closer still, his body pinning Allan’s in place with no force at all, lips to Allan’s ear. “You have no idea,” he whispered, “how distracting it’s been,” and his fingers slipped under the elastic of Allan’s boxer briefs, “thinking of you up there looking at those pictures. I got no work done this morning at all.” His hand wrapped around Allan. A stab of pleasure vibrated through Allan, cock to breastbone, and he heard himself moan into the sun-filled silence of the kitchen.

“Did you see Haycart?” Evers began to stroke him, firm and slow. “It’s a sunny day, and the barn is lit by the shafts of sunlight coming through the cracks between the boards. There’s, yes, a cart heaped with hay. A man and a woman are lying in it. They’re fucking. But there’s a man standing by the back of the cart. He’s not watching them, he’s looking at the camera. He’s clothed but his trouser buttons are undone. He’s showing us his cock. He’s touching himself, exactly the way I’m touching you. He knows he’s being watched and he’s hard, he’s fucking hard as a rock because he knows it’s going to make us feel the same way.”

Allan made an involuntary sound in the back of his throat. He had closed his eyes by reflex, sometime during that, and although he hadn’t seen that photograph, he could imagine it now, half-seen, half-felt through Evers’ words, a jumble of images and sensation: the grip of a hand on him, the smell of dust and hay in sunlight, a man’s eyes watching him from a century’s distance…. His hips jerked forward, and Evers tightened his grasp and breathed into Allan’s ear.

“And Study, did you see that? Two young men in sloppy student tweed suits and ties, and they’re mostly still dressed, Hugh Snelling obviously had a thing for clothes. They’re in a dorm room. One’s got the other bent over a wooden desk. I don’t think they’re just acting. The one who’s getting fucked–” Evers’ voice hitched; Allan heard him swallow. “He looks like he’s coming, I think he’s–it’s the look on his face, his eyes are closed and his mouth is–you can almost hear him, he almost looks like he’s in pain, but it’s just that the feeling is so strong–I’d love to see you like that, will you let me see that, come for me, please, come–”

Allan lost all control and plunged over the edge, shuddering, one hand clenched on the edge of the counter and the other fisted desperately in the shoulder of Evers’ sweater. He wasn’t usually loud, but it wrenched a cry out of him. Evers groaned, and Allan panted and shook with the aftershocks as Evers continue to stroke him, still firmly but the rhythm getting ragged now. When he opened his eyes and forced them to focus he was vaguely surprised that he was still standing upright.

Evers was tugging down his own fly with shaking fingers, and Allan pushed his hands away and dropped to his knees, and damn if Evers didn’t talk all the way through that too:

“And, um, what is it, Office–one’s on his knees, and he’s half-dressed–ah–his suspenders are hanging down, his tie is unknotted–and–and–ah, his shirt’s unbuttoned, and his pants, like he’s been touched all over–ah–and his lips are wrapped around the other man’s cock, and they’re both–and–ah, ahhhh–”

Allan wasn’t sure which of them was the first to move after that; he himself could probably have stayed on the warm cork floor of the kitchen and taken a nap. But eventually he got to his feet, and Evers handed him some paper towels, and they cleaned themselves up and tucked themselves back into their workday facades.

“That’s…going to be some description project,” Allan said.

The corner of Evers’ mouth quirked up. “Some intern’s going to get lucky. So to speak.”

“Seriously, are you sure you want to give them away?”

“Oh, yes. As I said, three generations is long enough.” He made a small, courtly wave at the doorway, and Allan preceded him through the dining room and into the entrance hall. “Though I will confess that several months ago I bought a very good scanner.”

Allan bent down to pull on his boots, and looked up sideways at Evers. “You may not be a photographer, but I thought your, um, prose interpretation of the theme was fairly spectacular.”

“I enjoyed having an appreciative audience.” Evers cleared his throat. “I have your work number, but do you have a cell? Because I’m still hoping to ask you out.”

“I’m still hoping to be asked out.” Allan pulled his notebook out of his back pocket, scribbled his number and email address on a page, tore it out, and handed it to Evers. Then he took one of his business cards out of the pocket in the back of the notebook, and handed it over as well. “I’ll be in touch about the donation agreement. It shouldn’t be more than a week or so.”

Evers folded the paper around the card, and tucked both into the pocket of his jeans. “Would you like me to send you some scans for your report? A variety, not just the, um, specialized ones.”

Allan paused. “Yes. Yes, I would. That would be helpful.”

“Anything in particular?”

“You know the collection better than I do. Four or five that are representative would be fine.”

Evers opened the front door. “I’ll send them this afternoon, then. Thank you for coming.”

“Thank you,” Allan said, wondering if Haycart would be one of them. He felt himself going a little red, and was grateful to step into the cool autumn air. At the end of the walkway he turned and waved, and Evers smiled and shut the door.

As good as his word, Evers sent five images to Allan’s work address by midafternoon–Haycart indeed among them. The message to Allan’s personal email came a few days later. Allan felt his phone vibrate when he was on the run between a reference interview and a deputation to the university’s Space Allocation Committee. Waiting for the elevator, he thumbed open the phone, saw the email address, looked at the little digital paper clip, and felt his heart speed up. That attachment was going to be so NSFW. Summoning a masterful amount of self-control, he waited to open it until he was in his office, three hours later, with the door shut.

Under trees in full summer leaf, blankets had been spread. The women were in white lace, the men in striped jackets and pale ribboned boaters. Wicker baskets stood in a line at one edge of the group; china plates were balanced on knees, teacups poised in gloved hands. Someone held a teapot aloft. There were cloth napkins in evidence. It must have been the most demure photograph in the entire collection.

It was the accompanying message that warmed him like a cup of tea taken in a sun-flooded kitchen, like someone’s hitched breath against his ear:

Dear Allan,

I very much enjoyed your recent visit and our conversation. This Sunday afternoon is forecast to be sunny. Would you be interested in a picnic lunch in High Park?

Sincerely,

Russell Evers

P.S. The dark-haired young man on the left, holding the fork, is also in Library. Did you see it? It’s one of my favourites. I look forward to telling you why.

 

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