“Enchanting as ever, my dearest.” Erik smiled warmly as he closed the lid of the piano at the end of their lesson. “It is as if your voice becomes richer every day, your tone more like crystal, your pianissimo purer, your low notes warmer. Oh Christine, teaching you is the biggest joy I have ever known on this earth.”
A bright grin broke on the face of Christine Daaé at the compliment. Even though she knew today’s lesson had gone well, it always felt good to be complimented but Erik’s words carried more weight than others. The way he spoke made her feel he meant every word deeply.
“Would … would you like to have tea with me …?” Erik asked shyly as he rose stiffly from the piano bench.
“Oh … erm ...” for a second Christine faltered at his request. Having tea with Erik was such an odd affair sometimes. Not awful, as they would always have a lovely conversation – Erik was incredibly knowledgeable, a delightful gossip and he could really make her laugh. But at times he could also make her uncomfortable in the strangest way: this was when he would sit and stare at her intently, his hands wrapped around his mug tightly. It was as if he were longing for something, pining even. Yearning for something she most probably could not give him. It was awkward to say the least, most of all because Erik probably wasn’t even aware that he was doing it.
“You don’t have to stay Christine ...” Erik’s dejected voice brought her back to reality. “Not if you don’t want to.”
With a hint of guilt Christine realised that she had probably hesitated on her answer far too long and made her insecure teacher think she hated being around him. The poor man looked positively crushed. Well, of course, that would not do at all, now she’d absolutely drink tea with him. If anything simply to reassure him this was absolutely not the case.
“No, no, of course I want to have tea with you, Erik!!” Christine said quickly, giving him a smile so big it hurt. “I was just wondering if I had my costume fitting today, but that’s not until tomorrow, so we have all the time in the world for tea and gossip!!
The effect of her words was startling: immediately Erik’s eyes begun to sparkle and his posture became straighter again, then a smile followed.
“Oh, that is wonderful!” Erik beamed as he walked to the kitchen and begun to potter about. “I had rather hoped you’d stay for tea. I have chamomile tea to sooth that magnificent voice of yours and made you your favourite apple pie. I think they will go well together.”
Standing in the doorway Christine listen to his babbling as he nervously prepared everything for her. It was so clear that for Erik simply having tea with her meant so much more than it would to others. In his lonely existence she had become his entire world. Hearing him go on about how he had prepared hoping she would stay made her a little tearful and she was glad she had decided to accept his invitation.
“Would you like me warm it, Christine?” Erik’s, now cheerful, voice shook her from her thoughts.
“Warm it?” Christine asked as she blinked in confusion, she had probably missed something when she was lost in thought.
“The pie, dearest.” Erik beamed lovingly. “I could warm it and … Oh, I almost forgot! I know you love custard, so I bought vanilla, eggs and cream to make some custard to pour over it.”
A warm feeling spread through Christine: one afternoon she had told him of how her father would always make her warm apple pie with custard every Sunday afternoon as a treat. It was so typical of Erik to remember such a detail.
“Oh, you don’t have to go through all that bother Erik.” Christine smiled back at him, even though she was positively salivating at the thought of tasting her childhood treat again.
With a soft, loving chuckle Erik waved her concerns away. “Nothing is a bother when it’s for you my dear.” Erik said warmly, then he swiftly began to prepare his ingredients and soon the kitchen smelled of milk, eggs, cream and vanilla. The sweet scent made Christine feel rather blissful, reminding her of cosy Sunday afternoons wrapped in a blanket on the kitchen chair.
“Can I stir?” Christine asked eagerly once Erik had finished his mixing, “My father would always let me stir. I would stand on a chair with a big spoon and whisk it round and round in the pan till the mixture bubbled.”
A kind glance and the spoon was devotedly placed into her hand.
“Of course you can stir Christine,” Erik smiled cheerfully, leaving her to it as he went to check on the pie that was warming in the oven. Then he tended to the kettle as soon as it begun it’s “I’m ready” song, poring the water on the camomile waiting in the tea pot. Everything finished he set himself on the kitchen chair to wait for the custard to boil.
“It’s so nice … this … isn’t it?” Erik said softly after watching her stir for a while. “The two of us together in the kitchen. It’s almost as if it’s a home now.”
Still stirring the custard Christine’s brow furrowed at these words. “Wasn’t this always your home, Erik?” she asked carefully.
A sigh rose up from somewhere behind her, followed by a brief silence.
“This tomb was a place I lived in,” Erik said after a long moment, “but it has never felt like a home. I don’t think I’ve ever felt truly at home anywhere before meeting you.”
The custard had started bubbling now, but Christine kept stirring for a few seconds more, not wanting Erik to see the tears his words brought to her eyes. “Erik … that’s too much credit.” she choked out.
A soft gasp and Erik immediately stood behind her, having obviously detected the sadness in her voice.
“I am sorry, I must stop saying these things …” Erik said, his head held low as he took over the custard from her.
“No, don’t be silly, you don’t have to censor yourself in front of me!!” Christine quickly interjected, not wanting Erik to fall into his guilt and self loathing, especially as there was no need for it: he had not upset her at all. It had simply moved her to be reminded of how much he cared for her presence.
“The custard should be finished now …” she said softly.
A wobbly smile from Erik was her answer. When Christine noticed that his eyes seemed a little moist she felt a strange yearning to reach out to him and give him a hug. But she did not: feeling insecure about her own feelings and how Erik would respond made her hold back and all too soon the moment was gone.
“Oh, perfectly stirred my dearest!” Erik exclaimed far to cheerful, obviously trying to lighten the moment, “This will be delicious.” He paused for a second, almost insecure. “If … if you don’t mind, my dear, would you fetch me the bowl and that deep plate …?”
A smile lit Christine’s face, happy Erik asked her to do something. Usually he felt too awkward to, preferring to wait on her like a goddess or regal queen.
“Of course Erik … In the right hand cabinet, I recall?” Christine chirruped as she walked to the cupboard in question.
“Yes … I … I’m sorry to ask but it’s so low and … with my back …” Erik stuttered shyly, clearly loath to ask her. “I … it’s been acting up in the last two days ...” he continued his unnecessary apology.
“Erik, it’s absolutely fine.” Christine shrugged, kneeling to fetch the items he requested. “Here you go, bowl and plate …” she added as she rose and put them to the counter.
“Thank you, angel. Would … you mind the custard again, if … I cut the cake?” Erik gestured to the spoon and Christine happily took over, feeling glad to be treated a bit more normally.
“Sure ...” she beamed at him cheerfully.
Soon Erik had finished cutting the cake and after Christine handed him the pan, proceeded to pore lashings of custard over it.
Looking at Erik carefully poring the sweetly scented mixture into the plate and the bowl a question escaped Christine that had been on her mind from the moment he requested her to fetch these very dishes.
“Why do you have yours in a bowl Erik …?” she asked, slightly startling her tutor, who had obviously been lost in thought.
“Hmm? Oh, for my hands …” He blinked vaguely as he only just managed the custard from splashing onto the counter.
“What?” Christine almost scoffed in confusion.
“My hands …” Erik repeated, as he placed the pan on a low smouldering gas-burner, hoping to keep the remaining custard warm in case more was needed. “They’re cold Christine, so cold all the time … Holding a bowl of something warm gives some relief.” He added timidly.
“Oh, poor Erik …” Christine said, feeling sad for him.
Clearly not wanting to continue the conversation Erik turned away to fetch a tray upon which he elegantly placed his best teacups, saucers, teapot and warmer. Then the bowl and deep plate with warm apple-pie custard and two spoons followed. After that, finally, it was time to sit down with their delicious treats.
Ever the gentleman Erik helped Christine with her chair, after which he sat himself opposite her.
Sighing heavily Erik closed his eyes for a moment, upon sitting down.
“Are you alright?” Christine asked worriedly, keenly aware of her Maestro’s lack of self care where his health was concerned.
Opening his eyes again, Erik blinked slowly and gave her a weary grimace as he pondered over her question.
“A bit tired … if I’m honest, Christine.” He said affectionately, “I've been composing a lot for the last two nights and that bungling new director leaves a lot to be desired. That man has no understanding of Faust at all!!”
Sipping from her tea Christine nodded knowingly. “Tell me about it … He asked me to sing King of Thule while milking a cow!!”
A jolt went though Erik as he sat upright and nearly slammed his very expensive porcelain cup on it’s saucer, making Christine wince at the thought of it breaking.
“He did? When …?” Erik exclaimed in horror.
“Yesterday, backstage.” Christine informed him, making Erik shake his head in despair.
“Don't worry dearest, the Phantom will take care of this.” Erik asserted so cockily Christine quickly took a spoonful of apple-pie and custard to stop her from laughing. “A note will be going his way soon.” He added forcefully, adding some course swearwords under his breath cursing the directors very existence in a way it almost made Christine feel sorry for the man. Almost.
“You know I don't usually agree with your methods … but this time …” Christine said thoughtfully as she stirred her spoon through the custard, enjoying how the clear lines she made slowly filled with yellow again.
“Understood.” Erik nodded, clearly already aware on her usual feelings on the matter.
Something was still bothering her: the fact Erik had just casually mentioned being up for over two days. Also, she didn’t have to be a genius to know that the apple pie they were having was probably the first thing he had to eat in a long time. In the silence she noticed how her Maestro’s eyes fell shut and his head slumped a little, before he shook himself and sat up straight again, hoping she had not noticed.
“There are no rehearsals tomorrow, my costume fitting is from twelve to one, you can easily sleep or at least rest before and after. Promise me you will.” Christine insisted.
“Oh, to have found someone to care enough about me that she wants me to rest.” Erik sighed with a hint of bliss in his voice. “I … I'll try, I can promise you that ...” Erik nodded his agreement.
After that Christine decided not to press on the matter any longer: somehow she’d make certain to hold him to his promise one way or another. They chatted a little longer, about Opera gossip, literature and Christine's concerns about Erik’s non existent eating habits. Then another lull fell in their conversation, as Christine noticed Erik had started doing the … thing again. For some strange reason he sat before her holding his hands round the cup of warm tea and stared at her with that sad longing that made her uneasy. For a few moments she tried to ignore it, as always, but somehow, this time she couldn’t.
“Erik … please … stop doing that ...” Christine said in what she hoped sounded like a friendly remark, not a snapped comment. But Erik immediately startled and looked at her with fright.
“Doing what?” Erik panted with worry. “Christine am I doing something wrong?” he urged.
Poor Erik’s reaction immediately made Christine regret commenting on her Maestro’s odd habits. Technically he had not been doing anything wrong. But there was no way back now.
“Not really … but …” she hesitated, unsure how to explain what it was that made her so uncomfortable.
Clearly seeing her flustered made Erik feel more anxious, as his shoulders tensed and his breathing started to come very fast all of a sudden. It made Christine regret commenting on whatever it was he had been doing even more. It had been such a delightful afternoon and Erik had been so cheerful, it was rare to see him feel good and now she had ruined it for him.
“But what is it Christine?” A clear panic began to rise in Erik’s voice. “Please let Erik know and he will punish himself for it.”
Oh no!! Christine’s mind exclaimed, knowing that she had to intervene the moment he slipped into the third person. Quickly she smiled a, hopefully, reassuring smile to stop him from falling deeper into a meltdown.
“No, Erik, that’s not necessary at all!!” She said in the gentlest tone she could manage. “I just … just mean … stop staring so strangely, that’s all.”
A silence as Erik looked at her in utter confusion, then he blinked a little.
“Staring?” He asked slowly, as if the word was alien to him.
Christine nodded sagely, still trying to bring her message as gently as possible. She had somehow forgotten that Erik wasn’t like others, the poor man was prone to damage himself when he thought he had upset her in even the slightest way.
“Oh, I guess you don’t even know you’re doing it but … You hold your mug and you stare at me so strangely.” she offered.
A deep unhappy moan escaped Erik at her words and he hung his head in shame.
“Oh … you … you noticed?” he choked out miserably.
A shock went to Christine: so he was doing it on purpose?
“Yes ...” she said tersely, now worried about what was going on inside that strange mind of his.
Noticing her change of tone Erik burst into tears.
“I’m sorry … I won’t … won’t do it any-more ...” he wept.
“Do what?” Christine insisted, her voice now tense. If this was his reaction, what was it what he was doing?
“I’m … I’m imagining …” Erik hiccuped between moans. “No, nothing, it doesn’t matter.” He then added, in a sudden attempt at composing himself.
But Christine wasn’t having it, she needed to know what he was imagining: could she still trust him to be a gentleman? “It does,” Christine exclaimed urgently, “as you’re doing it to me Erik. What are you imagining? Tell me.”
Seeing his utter terror and shame Christine would have normally drawn back, but this was too important to let go.
“Nothing, I swear ...” Erik whispered brokenly.
“Please Erik, just tell me, you’re making me worried.” Christine tried one more time, praying for the moment to be over.
Uttering a cry of regret Erik threw himself of his chair so suddenly it startled her. Then he crawled towards her slowly, mumbling pleads begging her to forgive him. Then, seconds later, he was on his knees before her and looked at her with big, tearful eyes.
“I … I’m so cold Christine.” Erik wept before her as he lowered his head in shame, “and when I’m holding something warm I’m … I’m just imagining …” but once again he didn’t finish, his voice choking.
“What?” Christine almost shouted. “What is it Erik, what are you imagining?”
For a second there was silence. Then, at last, his answer came.
“A hug ...”Erik whispered softly his head now bowed so low it nearly reached the floor. “When I’m holding this cup it’s warmth is like holding a hand and … my hand’s are always so cold and I am imagining it’s you warming them and then, when I just sit and hold it long enough … it’s like being given a hug. Well, what I think that might be like … It’s something I did when I was a child, dreaming of someone to hold him and thanks to you I can dream again.”
His words finished Erik briefly dared to looked at Christine pleadingly, clearly waiting to be rejected, laughed at, scorned. Perhaps even thinking she would find him disgusting.
Unfortunately for him Christine was momentarily unable to speak. A hug? That was it? Here she was dreaming up the most terrible scenarios and all the poor man wanted was a hug?
The answer had shaken her more than a confession of him longing for her on a far more baser level could have. The thought that Erik had wanted to punish himself for craving a simple kindness. To think she had already wanted to hug him on so many occasions but had drawn back. Poor Erik, of course there was no shame in yearning for human warmth.
“I am sorry, I had hoped you would not notice this must be so embarrassing for you.” Erik’s voice made her return to the present, to the broken man still sobbing at her feet. “It’s just … sometimes I … I have never been hugged and I know I never will be. Christine, please understand I would never ask you to do something so terrible.”
And these were the words that made Christine want to do exactly what he dared not ask. Erik would be hugged, deserved to be hugged and it would happen right now!
“No, my poor, dear Erik. You’re wrong ...” Christine said strongly, trying to keep her voice from wavering as she slid of her chair to kneel next to her Maestro. “Erik, there is no shame in what you told me. All it means is that you are human.” Carefully she tried to reach out to hug Erik’s thin, shivering frame, but he shook his head in fear.
“Christine, you don’t have to.” Erik whispered.
“I do and not because of what you said just now, but because I have wanted to for months.” Christine said in a tone that was not to be argued with and Erik didn’t, all he did was stare at her in disbelieve. With a breathy chuckle Christine took his two hands in hers.
“Oh, your poor hands ...” she said softly as she felt them in hers, “They really are cold.” Then she smiled at him reassuringly and begun to rub one of Erik’s hands between hers to warm them, making him gasp with joy.
“Is that better?” she asked and took to work on the other, Erik could only nod.
“So, how about that hug?” Christine asked, after rubbing some circulation back into his other hand as well.
Still no answer from the clearly overwhelmed man, but this time he did not draw back.
“Oh, it’s al right, come here.” Christine inched closer to Erik and gathered him in her arms, hearing soft whimpers and gasps as she did so. “There you go, come to Christine, it’s al right.” she could feel Erik shaking against her as sobs began to course through his body again.
“Never … never …” Erik gasped. “Must … dreaming.”
Hearing the shaky mutters Christine started to hold him even tighter.
“No Erik, I am really here,” she soothed, “you are hugged and you deserve it ...”
Somehow that made Erik stiffen a little. “Erik deserves … nothing ...” he croaked softly.
“Well, Christine thinks he does,” Christine insisted as she ran her hands over his back, “and you better believe that there are more hugs coming up. And next time Erik; you’re hugging me back!!”
A breathy chuckle from somewhere near her shoulder.
“Oh … Christine … I will …” Erik wept. “Thank you so much ...”
Christine carefully leaned her chin on the top of his head.
“No need to thank me for giving you what you deserve, sweetie. Just relax and enjoy it ...” she muttered warmly, into his hair.
And so they sat there, for most of the afternoon, locked in an embrace that continued long after Erik had fallen asleep in Christine’s arms.
The next time Christine hugged him Erik kept his promise and hugged back, tentatively but with all the love he felt for her. The embraces turned to kisses over the weeks that followed. Kisses that led to a blessed marriage filled with love, warmth and lots of hugs and cuddles.
Thanks to Christine, Erik was never truly cold again.