A Christmas Mystery

 Wintertime in London, where siblings Tess and Max are spending their holiday.

Wintertime in London, where siblings Tess and Max are spending their holiday.

Exerpt from "The Other Side of the Wall" by Amy Ephron

The first thing Tess saw when she walked into the dining room at the Sanborn House, the boutique London hotel she and her brother Max were staying in for the Christmas break, was a boy, a little older than Tess, maybe 14, sitting at a round table covered with a white tablecloth. All the tables were set with elaborate dishes, silver forks and knives, linen napkins, individual teapots, and lovely china teacups.

The boy was having tea by himself. His plate was full, arranged with a combination of tea sandwiches, petits fours, and small scones with whipped cream and raspberries ladled on top. Also in front of him was a full cup of tea, the color of which seemed to indicate he’d added a touch of milk. It was the way Tess liked her tea, too—the English way.

The boy seemed lost in thought. Tess couldn’t tell if he’d taken even one bite of a sandwich or a nibble of a scone. He was just staring straight ahead.

Tess, Max, and their Aunt Evie sat down at the table just in front of him. Tess tried hard not to turn around and look at him. The waiter was on his way over to take their order. Tess had noticed the boy was elegantly dressed, with a black jacket and a white dress shirt, its cuffs visible, and what seemed to be silver cuff links in his sleeves.

“We also have a kids’ menu,” the waiter was saying, starting to wheel over another cart.

Tess jumped in. “We’ve been to England before,” Tess said brightly, “and we’re fine with the grown-up version. Are there petits fours and scones and Devonshire cream?”

“Yes, of course,” he said. “Grown-up it is. We also have a selection of éclairs and chocolates.”

“Really?” said Max. “That’s very exciting, isn’t it, Tess?”

But Tess wasn’t paying any attention to him. She had turned her head and was distracted by the boy at the table behind them. He smiled at her, which made her feel a little shy, but she smiled back. And then he proceeded to—almost as if he was an artist on view—with a magician’s sleight of hand and an architectural eye, pile petits fours onto petits fours, using éclairs as walls, tea biscuits as windows, and tea sandwiches as roof tiles. He added a blueberry for a doorknob and a sprinkling of Devonshire cream on the rooftop, as if it had just recently snowed. It was quite a remarkable creation. And it seemed to Tess to be a show for her.

A warming afternoon tea

 A warming afternoon tea.

Tess smiled and quietly laughed and turned away so as not to draw attention to him. She didn’t point it out to Aunt Evie or Max. It was kind of like it was their secret, hers and the boy who was sitting at the other table.

“The curried turkey is delicious,” said Aunt Evie. “Really, you should both try it.”

Tess turned back for a second to the boy sitting alone at the table. It was almost as if she’d imagined the house which was made of confections and tea sandwiches. The entire concoction had disappeared and everything was back in its place, the sandwiches laid out on the silver platter and set out on his plate as they had been at first.

The waiter arrived again to see if everything was to their satisfaction.

Tess obediently took a bite of an egg-salad sandwich and declared it “delicious.” Max just nodded, his mouth full of éclair.

After the waiter left, Tess couldn’t help it, she turned back around to catch a peek at the boy at the other table.

Now he seemed to be staring at her, except he wasn’t really. His eyes were looking in her direction and she was looking at him, but it didn’t seem like they were making eye contact. Maybe he was just spaced out. The silver three-layered tray was still on the table with more sandwiches piled high and petits fours, scones, jam, and cream, in addition to the amazing assortment already laid out on his plate, not constructed, just laid out for eating. But he didn’t seem to have eaten any of them. Not a bite.

“Do you see that boy, Max?” Tess asked.

“It’s not nice to stare, Tess,” said Aunt Evie.

“What boy?” said Max.

“That boy sitting over there.” Tess nodded her head back in the direction without looking, as Aunt Evie had admonished for staring.

“What boy?” said Max again.

“That one,” said Tess, and she turned around to look at him. But there wasn’t anyone there.

Just a white tablecloth and four settings, as if no one had been there at all.

 

Adapted from The Other Side of the Wall, by Amy Ephron, published by Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin.

Photos: Bettmann/Getty Images; Picturelux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy; Jamie Davies/Unsplash; Tim Macpherson/Getty Images

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