The Golden Hour - Beatriz Williams

Part I


December 1943


In the foyer of the Basil Hotel in Cadogan Gardens, atop the tea-colored wallpaper, a sign advises guests that blackout hours will be observed strictly. Another sign reminds us that enemy ears are listening. The wallpaper’s crowded with tiny orange flowers that seem to have started out life as pink, and they put me in mind of a story I once read about a woman who stares at the wallpaper in her room until she goes batty. Although that wallpaper was yellow, as I recall, so I may have some time to go.

I consult my watch. Three twenty-two.

Outside the windows, the air’s darkening fast. Some combination of coal smoke and December fog and the early hour at which the sun goes down at this latitude, as if the wallpaper and the signboards and the piles of rubble across the street aren’t enough to make you melancholy. I check the watch again—three twenty-three, impossible—and my gaze happens to catch that of the desk clerk. He’s examining me over the top of a rickety pair of reading glasses, because he hasn’t liked the look of me from the beginning. Why should he? A woman shows up at your London hotel in the middle of December, the middle of wartime, tanned skin, American accent, unmistakable scent of the foreign about her. She pays for her room in advance and carries only a small suitcase. Now she’s awaiting some no-good rendezvous, right in the middle of your dank, shabby, respectable foyer, and you ought to telephone the authorities, just to be on the safe side. In fact, you probably have telephoned the authorities.

The clerk’s gaze flicks to the window, and then to the clock above the mantel behind me. He steps away from the reception desk and goes to pull down the blackout shades, to close the heavy chintz curtains. His limbs are frail and stiff; his suit was tailored in maybe the previous century. When he moves, his white hair flies away from his skull, and I catch a whiff of cologne that reminds me of a barbershop. I consider whether I should rise and help him. I consider whether he’d kill me for it.

Well. Not kill me exactly, not the literal act of murder. It seems the killing of people has got inside my head somehow. War will do that. War will turn killing into a commonplace act, a thing men do to each other every day, every instant, for no particular reason except not to be killed yourself, so that you start to expect it everywhere, murder hangs darkly over you and around you like an atmosphere. The valley of the shadow of death, that’s war. Killing for no particular reason. At least in regular life, when somebody kills somebody else, he generally has a damned good reason, at least so far as the killer’s concerned. It’s personal, it’s singular. As I observe the feathery movement of the clerk’s hair in the draft, I wonder how much reason a fellow like that needed to kill someone. We all have our breaking points, you know.

A bell jingles. The front door opens. A blast of chill air whooshes inside, along with a pale woman in a worn coat and a brown fedora, almost like a man’s. She brushes the damp from her sleeves and looks around, spies the clerk, who’s just crossing the foyer on his way back to the desk.

“I beg your pardon, my good man,” she begins, in a brisk, quiet English voice, and the light from the lamp catches her hair, caught up in a blond knot just beneath the brim of her hat. She’s not wearing cosmetics, except maybe a touch of lipstick, and you might say she doesn’t need any. There’s something Nordic about her, something that doesn’t need ornament. Height and blondness, all those things my own Italian mother couldn’t give me, though she gave me plenty else. There’s also something familiar about her. I’ve seen that mouth before, haven’t I? Those straight, thick eyebrows soaring above a pair of blue eyes.

But no. Surely not. Surely I’m only imagining this, surely I’m only seeing a resemblance because I want to see one. After all, it’s impossible, isn’t it? Margaret Thorpe won’t receive my letter until this evening, when she arrives home from whatever government building she inhabits during working hours. So this woman can’t be her, cannot possibly be my husband’s sister, however much the sight of those eyebrows sets my heart stuttering. Anyway, her head’s