Somewhere off a certain street, up some stairs and around a blind corner, there’s a tea shop no one knows about. How the place stays in business I can’t say. Every time I went in there I was almost alone with the owner, a woman with lots of hair who smiles quickly enough but eyes you a bit tartly, believing you to be one of those tourists.
The place holds together by some miracle of plastic shelving, crammed two tins deep with teas badly labelled, so no naked plaster peeps through. Teapots of an uneasy mélange (patinated silver cheek-and-jowl with lumpy clay somethings) stand guard on top shelf, looking as if they might at any moment rain boiling water on you like the Beast’s bewitched service. As if this weren’t unsettling enough, big brassy kettles bloom overhead, dangling from the rafters like so many wrecking balls. It’s the kind of place you duck through instinctively, vaguely on edge but not wanting to be unreasonable about it.
Going in there to read, I was usually coming in from the cold. The shop was always toasty, though I don’t know how. It lacks the thick-painted radiators that cozy typical English tea parlors. Never did I discover a single heating vent, iron or aluminum or otherwise, in all my visits. So I took to imagining, somewhat fancifully I admit, that heat pipes from those dubious kettles.
But however it happens, warmth stays trapped easily enough in that close room and it never cools. For hours I could bed down there like a bird in a nest.
This certain tea shop taught me the importance of knowing at least one place no one else knows --- of keeping one very good secret.
In cities, privacy is precious. And public privacy is still rarer and still more desirable. To be out and about --- but not fussed over nor bothered --- is a pleasure without parallel. Then you’re free to engage or not to engage, whatever you want, without being exactly alone. You may take inspiration without any social cost, looting like a gypsy from the farmed field of incident and person and object. Seeing, but not seen.
That’s why, when people asked me where I went to read, the sacred name of Carnaby --- though never far from my mind --- never left my lips.