The new easy, happy Edward faltered. "No. I don't think they care for that here. I'll be back in ten minutes. I'll order you some tea."
"It's a strange betrothal," Betty told the lily-leaf-shaped tray, the shallow cup, the tiny piece of Battenburg cake and the cress sandwich so small that a breeze from the fountains might blow it away. A trio behind her was playing Mozart. Two Chinese, one Japanese, very expert and scornful. She remembered how people in England used to say that no Oriental would ever play Mozart. Just like at school when they used to say that there would never be Japanese pilots because they were all half-blind behind dark glasses. She was all at once overcome by the idiotic nature of mankind and began to laugh. "God must feel like me," she thought, "Oh, I love Hong Kong. Could we live here? Could Edward?"
Here he came now, washed and shaved in a clean shirt and linen jacket, loping over from the lift, smiling like a boy ("I'm going to be with this person all my life!") and he dropped a little cloth bag into her lap and she took out from it the most magnificent string of pearls.
"Yours," he said. "They're old. Someone gave them to me when I was sixteen in the war. Just in time. She died a few minutes later. She was lying next to me under a lifeboat on deck. We were limping home up the Irish Sea everybody sick and dying. She was very old. Raj spinster. Whiskery. Brave. Type that's gone. She said, 'One day you can give them to your sweetheart.'"
She thought "He's not cold at all." Then "Oh, OH!! The pearls are wonderful. But they're not what matters."
"There's a condition, Elisabeth."
"About the pearls?"
"Certainly not. They are yours for ever. You are my sweetheart. But this marriage, our marriage."
"Hush," she said, "People are listening. Later."
"No NOW," he roared out in the way he did, like other cured stammerers; and several heads turned. "This marriage is a big thing. I don't believe in divorce."
"You're talking about divorce before you're proposed."
Mozart behind them sang out, "Aha! Bravo! Goodbye!" And the trio stood up and bowed.
"Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That's the condition. I've been left all my life. From being a baby I've been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I'm unusual there. And it's supposed to have given us all backbone."
"Well I know all that. I was one too. My parents suffered."
"It will all be forgotten soon. What our parents did for an ideology. And there's no doubt we were mostly damaged even though we became endurers."
("May I take your tray, Madam?")
"It did not destroy me but it has made me bloody unsure."
"I will never leave you, Edward."
"I'll never mention any of this again." His words began to stumble. "Been left all my life. Ages couldn't speak. Albert Ross the saviour. So sorry. Came through. Bar a test. Must meet Ross. Bad at sharing feelings."
"Which, dear Eddie, if I may say so, must be why you haven't yet proposed to me."
"I thought I had "
"No. It would help." (She was happy though.)
"Marry me, Elisabeth. Never leave me. I'll never ask again. But never leave me."
"I'll never leave you, Edward."
A waiter swam by and this time scooped up her tray though she called out "Oh, no!" "Bugger," she thought, "I've had nothing all day but that rice at Amy's." Then "I shouldn't be thinking of cake."
In the lift on the way up to the judge's party, her bare toes inside the sandals crunching the sand of Aberdeen Harbour, she thought, "Well, now I know. It won't be romantic but who wants that? It won't be passion, but better without, probably. And there will be children. And he's remarkable and I'll grow to love him very much. There's nothing about him that's un-lovable."
Excerpted from The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. Copyright © 2009 by Jane Gardam. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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