Hot Island Nights
Elizabeth Mason stared at the wedding registry in her hand. Printed on expensive linen paper beneath the green and gold Harrod’s logo, it was a roll call of prestigious brand names: Villeroy and Boch, Royal Doulton, Lalique, Noritake, Le Creuset. There were two dinner sets listed - one for everyday, one for entertaining - cookware, stemware, cutlery, a champagne bucket, various pieces of barware, vases, platters, table linens...
If their wedding guests bought even half the items listed, she and Martin would have a house full of finely-crafted, beautiful things with which to start their married life. Their home would be a showpiece, perfect in every detail.
Elizabeth pressed a hand to her chest. The tight feeling was back. As though she couldn’t get enough air. She lowered her head and concentrated on regulating her breathing.
In, out. In, out.
A delicate piano sonata trickled over the sound system. A salesman brushed past, directing a customer to the Royal Worcester display. A bead of perspiration ran down her side.
She had to get a grip on these panic attacks. This was supposed to be a happy time. In just eight weeks she would be marrying the man she’d been dating for the past six years and starting a new life with him. She shouldn’t be feeling panicky or anxious.
“These are lovely, Elizabeth.”
Elizabeth looked up to see her grandmother holding a glass from the Waterford Crystal selection. Light fractured off the highly polished surface of a champagne flute that appeared to be an exact replica of the set her grandparents had at home.
“They’re beautiful,” Elizabeth said. “But I think Martin prefers a more modern look. He’s very keen on the Riedel flutes.”
She could feel heat creeping into her face. She’d always been a terrible liar. She was the one who preferred the more modern design - Martin didn’t give a fig about glassware. But she could hardly come right out and state her preference.
“Come and have a closer look, see how they feel in your hand,” her grandmother said, gesturing for Elizabeth to join her.
Elizabeth opened her mouth to reiterate her objection - then closed it without saying a word. She knew what would happen once her grandmother realised Elizabeth didn’t share her taste. Grandmama wouldn’t say anything, of course, because it wasn’t her way to express herself so directly, but her mouth would turn down at the corners and she’d be withdrawn for the rest of the day. She might not come down to dinner, or perhaps there would be some mention of her heart medication.
It was emotional blackmail, of course, something her grandmother was a past master at. Over the years she’d shaped Elizabeth’s decisions and actions both major and minor with the merest flutter of a hand or the mention of a headache or a doctor’s visit. And even though Elizabeth understood the manipulation behind the behavior, she’d always given in. It was easier that way - and, really, at the end of the day, did it really matter if she and Martin wound up with the Waterford glasses instead of the Riedels if it made her grandmother happy?
So instead of standing her ground, she joined her grandmother and held the glass and agreed that it had a very pleasing weight in the hand, perfect for special occasions. Her grandmother collared a sales woman and began asking questions about the manufacturing process and whether it would be possible to order replacement glasses in the future should any breakages occur.
Elizabeth stood to one side with a small, polite smile on her face. Around her, light glinted off polished porcelain and crystal and gilded dinnerware. Elegant sales staff glided amongst the displays, talking in hushed, reverential tones. Everywhere she looked there were exquisite, fragile, priceless things, arranged to appeal to even the most fastidious eye.
Her gaze fell on a nearby table full of cut glass whisky decanters. She had a sudden vision of herself grabbing the table and upending the whole damn thing, sending the decanters smashing to the ground. It was so real her hands curled as though they were already gripping the table edge and she could almost hear the crash of breaking glass and the shocked cries of the staff and other customers.
She took a step backward and gripped her hands together.
Not because she thought there was any danger of her actually upending the display. There was no way she’d ever do such a thing.
She took another step away.
It’s just pre-wedding jitters, she told herself. Nothing to worry about. Every bride feels this way before her wedding.
Except this wasn’t the only reckless, anarchic impulse she’d had to quell recently. At last week’s Friends of the Royal Academy luncheon she’d had to stifle the urge to throw back her head and scream at the top of her lungs when old Mr Lewisham had started droning on about the quality of the napkins in the Academy’s coffee shop and what it said about “society’s declining standards”. And yesterday she’d found her steps slowing outside a tattoo parlor near Kings Cross station, admiring the tribal rose motif snaking up the arm of the girl behind the counter. She’d actually taken a step inside the store before common sense had reasserted itself and she’d remembered who she was.
“Elizabeth. Did you hear a word I just said?” her grandmother asked.
Elizabeth snapped back into focus and realised that both the saleswoman and her grandmother were watching her, waiting for her response.
“Sorry, Grandmama, I was day dreaming,” she said.
Her grandmother patted her arm fondly. “Come and have a look at the Wedgwood.”
Smile fixed firmly in place, Elizabeth allowed herself to be led away.
It was late afternoon by the time she returned to her grandparents’ Georgian townhouse in Mayfair. Her grandmother had come back after lunch for her afternoon rest, leaving Elizabeth to keep her appointment with the florist on her own. Elizabeth had dropped in to visit her friend Violet’s boutique in Notting Hill on the way home and the hall clock was chiming six as she entered the house. She let her bag slide down her arm and started pulling off her scarf and gloves.
It was Tuesday, which meant Martin would be arriving for dinner any minute. He always came for dinner Tuesday night. Just as he always played squash on Wednesdays and took her out for dinner on Fridays. If she hurried, she’d just have time to freshen up before he arrived.
The housekeeper had stacked her mail neatly on the hall table and she flicked through it quickly as she turned toward the stairs. An official looking envelope caught her eye and she paused. Martin had asked her to order a copy of her birth certificate so he could apply for their marriage license, since he was unable to request the certificate on her behalf. She tore the envelope open to confirm that it had finally arrived. One more thing to cross off her To Do list.
She unfolded the single sheet of paper, glancing over it quickly to check everything was in order. Elizabeth Jane Mason, born August 24, 1980, mother’s name Eleanor Mary Whittaker, father’s name -
Her scarf and gloves slipped from her fingers to the hall floor as she stared at the name beneath the box clearly marked "Father’s Forname and Surname”.
Who the hell is Sam Blackwell?
Her father was John Alexander Mason. Born January 16, 1942, killed in the same light plane accident as her mother twenty-three years ago.
This had to be a mistake. It had to be.
Elizabeth’s head came up. Her gaze focused on the closed door at the end of the long hallway. She started walking, certificate in hand, an uncomfortable tightness in her belly.
The sound of low masculine laughter could be heard from behind the door of her grandfather’s study as she drew closer but for the first time in her life she didn’t both to knock.
“There’s been some kind of mistake,” she said as she barged into the room.
“Elizabeth. I was wondering when you’d get home,” Martin said.
Her fiance stood and came forward to kiss her, his grey eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. As usual he was dressed immaculately in a tailored three piece suit and conservatively striped silk tie, his dark hair parted neatly.
Instead of offering her mouth for his kiss, she thrust the certificate at him.
“Look. They’ve made a mistake. They’ve got my father’s name wrong on my birth certificate.”
For a split-second Martin stilled. Then he shot her grandfather a quick, indecipherable look before focusing on the birth certificate.
“I thought you were going to have this delivered to the office so I could take care of the marriage license?” Martin spoke mildly, but there was an undercurrent of tension in his voice.
Elizabeth looked at him, then at her grandfather’s carefully blank face and she knew.
It wasn’t a mistake.
“What’s going on?” Her voice sounded strange, wobbly and high.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Elizabeth?” her grandfather suggested.
She allowed herself to be ushered into one of the button-back leather chairs facing her grandfather’s formidable mahogany desk. Her grandfather waited until Martin had
taken the other seat before speaking.
“There is no mistake, I’m afraid. The man you know as your father, John Mason, was actually your step-father. He married your mother when you were two years old.”
For a moment there was nothing but the sound of the clock ticking. Elizabeth started to speak, then stopped because she had no idea what to say.
She’d been devastated by her parents’ loss when she was just seven years old. For the first months after she’d come to live with her grandparents she’d cried herself to sleep every night. She treasured the small mementos she had of her childhood - the vintage Steiff teddy bear her parents had given her when she was four, the rock fossils they’d found together on a family holiday, the empty perfume bottle that had once held her mother’s favorite scent.
But now her grandfather was telling her that her parents weren’t both dead, that it was her step-father who’d died. That her real father - the stranger whose name was listed on her birth certificate - might still be alive and well and somewhere out in the world.
“Why has no one ever told me this before?”
“Because it wasn’t necessary. I won’t go into details, but Sam Blackwell is not someone we want involved in your life and since John Mason was your father in every other way, we didn’t see the point in bringing up something that was best forgotten,” her grandfather said.
There were so many assumptions in what he’d just said, so many judgements. And all of them made on her behalf, with no consultation with her whatsoever.
Elizabeth’s hands curled into fists. “Is he alive? My real father?”
“I believe so, yes.”
Her mind was on fire with questions. She leaned forward. “Where does he live? What does he do? Is he in London? How can I contact him?”
"Elizabeth, I know this is a shock for you, but when you’ve had a chance to process I’m sure you’ll agree that it really doesn’t change anything in any substantial way,” Martin said.
Elizabeth focussed on Martin for the first time. “You knew.”
It wasn’t a question.
“Your grandfather told me after I proposed.”
“You’ve known for six months and you didn’t tell me?”
“Don’t be angry with Martin. I requested that he respect my confidence. I didn’t see the point in getting you upset over nothing,” her grandfather said.
"I’m thirty years old. I don’t need to be protected. I deserve the truth. And my father being alive is not nothing. It is very decidedly something.”
Martin shifted uncomfortably. Her grandfather placed his hands flat on the leather blotter on his desk and eyed her steadily.
“We did what we thought was best for you.”
This was usually the point in any argument with her grandparents when she backed down. They’d taken her in when her parents died and bent over backwards to ensure she had a happy childhood. They’d sent her to the best schools, attended every school play and recital and parent-teacher night, taken her on holidays to France and Italy - all despite her grandmother’s heart condition and frail health. Elizabeth had grown up with a strong sense of obligation toward them and a determination that she would never be more of a burden than she had to be.
She’d excelled at school, then at university. She’d never stayed out late and come home drunk. She’d never had a one-night stand. Even her husband-to-be had come with their seal of approval, since he worked at her grandfather’s law firm.
She owed them so much - everything, really. But she also owed herself. And what they’d done was wrong.
“This was my decision to make. You had no right to keep this from me.”
Because she didn’t trust herself to say more, because rage and a bunch of unwise, unruly words were pressing at the back of her throat, she stood and left her grandfather’s study. She’d barely made it halfway up the hall when she heard Martin coming after her.
“Elizabeth. Slow down.”
He caught her elbow. She spun on him, pulling her arm free. “Don’t you dare tell me to calm down or that this doesn’t matter, Martin. Don’t you dare.”
Her chest was heaving with the intensity of her emotions and he took a step back, clearly taken aback by her ferocity.
“If I could have told you without breaking your grandfather’s confidence, I would have. Believe me.” He was deeply sincere, his eyes worried.
“You’re my fiance, Martin. Don’t you think you owe your loyalty to me before my grandfather?”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Under ordinary circumstances, yes, but your grandfather and I have a professional relationship as well as a personal one.”
“I see.” And she did. Martin was hoping to be made partner in her grandfather’s law firm this year. The last thing he wanted was to rock the boat.
He reached out and took her hand, his thumb brushing reassuringly across her knuckles. “Elizabeth, if we can just go somewhere private and talk this through, I’m sure you’ll understand that everything was done with your best interests at heart.”
Her incredulous laughter sounded loud in the hall.
"My best interests? How on earth would you know what my best interests are, Martin? You’re so busy telling me what’s good for me, you have no idea who I am or what I really want. It’s like those bloody awful Waterford champagne flutes. No one cares what I think, and I’m such a pathetic coward I swallow it and swallow it and swallow it, even while I tell myself it’s because I want to do the right thing and not upset the apple cart.”
Martin frowned. “Champagne flutes? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
She knew he didn’t, but it was all inextricably entwined in her head: her anger at her grandparents and Martin for this huge betrayal of her trust, her feelings of frustration and panic over the wedding, the suffocated feeling she got every time her grandparents made a decision for her or Martin spoke to her in that special, soothing tone and treated her like she was made of fine porcelain.
“I can’t do this,” she said, more to herself than him. “This is a mistake.”
It was suddenly very clear to her.
Martin slid his arm around her shoulders, trying to draw her into a hug. “Elizabeth, you’re getting yourself upset.”
The feeling of his arms closing so carefully around her was the last straw. She braced her hands against his chest and pushed free from his embrace.
“I want to call off the wedding.”
Martin blinked, then reached for her again. “You don’t mean that. You’re upset.”
She held him off. “Violet has been saying for months that I should stop and think about what I’m doing, and she’s right. I don’t want this, Martin. I feel like I’m suffocating.”
“Violet. I might have known she’d have something to do with this. What rubbish has she been filling your head with now - the joys of being a free and easy slapper in West London? Or maybe how to get a head start on cirrhosis of the liver?”
He’d never liked Violet, which was only fair, since her best friend had taken a violent aversion to him from the moment they first met.
“No, actually. She pointed out that I was going to be thirty this year and that if I didn’t wake up and smell the coffee I’d be fifty and still living the life my grandparents’ chose for me.”
“What a load of rubbish.”
She looked at him, standing there in his Saville Row three piece suit, his bespoke shirt pristine white. He didn’t understand. Maybe he couldn’t.
She knew about his childhood, about the poverty and the sacrifices his working class single-parent mum had made to send him to university. Elizabeth’s life - the life they were supposed to have together once they were married - was the fulfillment of all his aspirations. The high-paying partnership with the long-established law-firm, the well-bred wife to come home to, the holidays on the French or Italian Riviera, membership at all the right mens’ clubs.
“We can’t get married, Martin. You don’t know who I am,” she said quietly. “How
could you? I don’t even know who I am.”
She turned and walked up the hallway.
“Elizabeth. Can we at least sit down and talk about this?”
She kept walking. Her grandparents were going to be upset when they heard she’d called off the wedding. It wouldn’t simply be a case of her grandmother having a headache - this would be full-scale damage control. They’d use every trick in the book to try to talk her around and make her see sense. They’d make her feel guilty and stupid and wrong without actually saying any of those things. And she was so used to not rocking the boat, to toeing the line and doing the right thing that she was terribly afraid that she might listen to them and wind up married to Martin and unpacking all those expensive Harrod’s homewares in her new marital home.
She needed some time to herself. To think. To work things out. Somewhere private and quiet. She thought of Violet’s apartment above her shop and quickly discarded it. Even if it wasn’t only a one bedroom, she wouldn’t find much peace and quiet in Violet’s hectic world. Plus it would be the first place her grandparents would look for her. Then she remembered what she’d just said to Martin - I don’t even know who I am - and the answer came to her.
She would go to her father. Wherever he might be. She would find him, and she would go to him, and she would start working out who Elizabeth Jane Mason really was, and what she really wanted.