I’m thrilled to be hosting a tale from the latest project by talented writer friend, E J Newman today. Emma has previously published a brilliantly dark short story collection From Dark Places, and 20 Years Later, a post-apocalyptic YA novel.
This is the twenty-second tale in a year and a day of weekly short stories set in The Split Worlds. If you would like Emma to read it to you instead, you can listen here. You can find links to all the other stories, and the new ones as they are released here.
Lydia walked past the dining room table, checking the position of the cutlery and inspecting the white linen. Her mother emerged from the kitchen and found her removing a speck of dust from one of the charger plates.
“You’re nervous,” she said and Lydia nodded. “The caterers are the best in Bath, I chose the menu myself, the house is spotless and you look beautiful. There’s nothing to worry about.”
“What if it’s not good enough?” Lydia said, fiddling with her bracelet, squeezing each black pearl in turn.
“If he can be put off by something trivial, then he isn’t the one,” her father said, resting a hand on her shoulder. “And I know you love him and I know you want it to be perfect, but there’s no point getting yourself into such a state that you won’t enjoy the evening, is there?”
Lydia forced a smile. “Nathaniel likes sherry before dinner,” she said. “And don’t mention anything about how wealthy his family is.”
“Lydia,” her father shook his head. “We’re not exactly peasants, are we?”
“His is old money though, you know what I told you about his ancestry.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve found something out about ours that’s bound to impress him,” her father replied and then the doorbell rang.
Her father opened the door, Nathaniel stepped inside and began to take off his coat. He wore a dinner jacket and black bow tie, the black satin strip on the outer seam of his trousers made him look even taller than usual. His wavy brown hair was perfectly coiffed, his large brown eyes made her stomach flip over.
“We meet at last Nathanial,” Father said.
Nathaniel’s eyebrows shot up, Lydia realised her father had been mistaken for the butler they didn’t have. “Ah, you must be Lydia’s father,” he said, shaking hands, a broad smile pushing the embarrassment from his face. “A pleasure to meet you Mr Dunstone.”
“May I introduce my wife, Phillipa and you know my daughter already of course.”
Nathaniel kissed her mother’s hand and then hers, Lydia smiled at him. “Would you like a glass of sherry?”
“Please,” he said, and then whispered something about how lovely she looked as they followed her parents into the living room.
As her father poured, Lydia searched Nathaniel’s face for any signs of disappointment. He was scanning the room with a detached interest, his eyes lingered over the photographs on the mantelpiece, then he took the glass with thanks.
“Did you have far to come?” Father asked.
“No, I live very close to Bath,” Nathaniel replied and walked over to the mantelpiece. “Are these members of your family?” he asked, pointing to the sepia portraits.
“Yes,” Mother replied, joining him. “Mostly my side of the family.”
“I can see the resemblance,” Nathaniel said, studying them closely. “Now I know where Lydia’s beauty comes from.”
Lydia blushed. If anyone else had said that, she’d have groaned, but his compliments just made her melt.
“I understand you’re a keen genealogist,” he said to her father, who beamed at the prospect of being asked about his favourite topic, rather than having to shoehorn it into conversation.
“Yes, I’ve turned up something rather interesting only this week in fact, haven’t even had a chance to tell Lydia, but I think you will both like it. Lydia told me that your family has some royal roots.”
“It’s not something we usually talk about,” Nathaniel replied and she knew she shouldn’t have told her parents. “It’s distant.”
“I understand the surname “Iris” comes from the Old French, meaning “from Ireland”, is that right?”
Nathaniel looked horrified. “There is no Irish blood in my family sir,” he said, then seemed to calm himself. “But my family does have French roots, a long way back.”
“Shall we go through to dinner?” Lydia said, wanting to end the conversation so clearly making Nathaniel uncomfortable.
“It isn’t ready yet,” her mother said and whispered; “the caterer will call us through.”
“From the Norman conquest, I imagine,” Father continued, oblivious to Nathaniel’s discomfort. “Well, I uncovered a marvellous fact yesterday. We’re descended from royalty! If it hadn’t been for a couple of quirks of fate, we could have been having dinner in Buckingham Palace!”
Nathaniel set down his sherry glass. “Really?” he leaned closer, fascinated.
“It turns out we’re related to William himself.”
“No, William the third, or William of Orange as he’s often called,” father replied. “I finished the family tree last night, thought you might be interested to see it.”
Nathaniel looked at Lydia, the warmth gone from his eyes, the colour from his cheeks. “Yes, I’d be very interested.”
Her father unlocked the bureau, an antique that had been in the family for at least four generations. Lydia’s nervousness had evolved into nausea, she had the terrible feeling that family was more important to Nathaniel than she’d realised.
“Here we are,” her father unrolled a large sheet of paper, covered in neat lines and writing. As he talked Nathaniel through the details Lydia excused herself, needing a moment alone in the hallway to fight the panic. She drifted over to Nathaniel’s coat, stroked the cashmere and tried to tell herself all would be well as her hand felt a bump in the pocket. She reached inside and felt a small square box covered with velvet. Her breath left her, she pulled out her hand and looked up at the ceiling, hoping her family would pass this test.
Nathaniel came into the hallway, closely followed by her parents and she moved away from the coat.
“I’m dreadfully sorry, I hate to be impolite but I think this is the best for Lydia and myself.”
“Nathaniel?” she took a hesitant step towards him. “Is something wrong?”
“I’m afraid I have to leave.”
“But, the dinner…” her mother said, but her father put an arm around her and steered her back into the living room, leaving Lydia in the hallway staring at Nathanial.
“What’s wrong?” she asked as he headed for the coat stand.
“It wouldn’t work, I’m sorry.”
“Is this because of that stupid genealogy stuff?”
“It isn’t stupid. It’s very important to my family, they would never approve of you.”
“But they haven’t even met me, how can you know?”
He put his coat on, avoiding eye contact. “It’s… it’s just the way things are. It was always going to be difficult, to get them to accept you, but now it’s impossible.”
He reached for the door handle, she stepped into the way. “Wait… are you dumping me?”
“I would never call it anything so crass, but I can’t see you again. I’m sorry.”
“But weren’t you going to propose?”
His eyes widened slightly. “It doesn’t matter. It’s best that you forget about me. And let me leave before this gets any more difficult.”
He gently pushed her to one side, opened the door and left. She watched him stride down the path and step out into the street without looking back. Her bottom lip wobbled, she bit down hard. If he was so shallow, she wasn’t going to waste any tears on him.
“You alright love?”
“Seems he’s not ‘the one’ Dad,” she said, fighting the tremble in her voice as she closed the front door. “Let’s have dinner, shall we?”
Thanks for hosting Kath!
I hope you enjoyed the story. If you would like to find out more about the Split Worlds project, it’s all here: www.splitworlds.com – you can also sign up to get an extra story and get each new story delivered to your inbox every week. If you would like to host a story over the coming year, either let me know in the comments or contact me through the Split Worlds site. Em x