[Fair warning: spoilers for the novel Jane Eyre]
"Hi-i," I call as I walk into the house.
"Have a good last day?" Mom's in the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of what has to be one of her kitchen experiments. I cross the hall to see her standing over the stove, layering ingredients into a casserole dish.
"Yeah, they stuffed me with cupcakes, what's for dinner?"
"Shepherd's pie, I think, but I didn't have any lamb so I used turkey. And no peas, so I just chopped up some bell pepper. It's green, anyway. Oh, and the potatoes sprouted so I defrosted the puff pastry and put it on top."
"Mom, you know Dad hates it when you do kitchen experiments. Anyway I thought he was saving the puff pastry for vol-au-vents."
"Then he can come home and make vol-au-vents himself, does he think I don't have anything better to do?"
I kiss her cheek and then, because I feel a little guilty, I say "It'll be delicious, Mom." Actually it's nicer when Dad cooks; he's a great reader of gourmet cooking magazines, but since he's a lawyer he usually gets home too late to cook dinner. Mom's a teacher at the local elementary school and has the summer off. She loves to cook, but has interesting ideas about which ingredients should go with what, and doesn't shy away from bizarre experiments. Some of them turn out to be delicious-her chicken-pesto-courgette potpie is now a regular staple at Thanksgiving-but most of them are barely edible. I think Dad enjoys complaining about them more than he enjoys cooking, and sometimes I wonder if that's the secret of their (so far) happy marriage.
It's been easier getting along with my parents this summer than it has been for the entire year I've been at school. Both my winter and spring breaks last year were horribly awkward, as my parents had no idea that I was going to school to learn about magic. I couldn't tell them about it, so we really didn't have anything to talk about. Being at home for the summer, though, has gotten me used to what I can and can't tell them, and we can operate at a comfortable level.
"Did I get any mail?"
"Oh yes-something from school I think, it's on the desk." Mom starts sprinkling a mixture of cayenne and Parmesan cheese over the top of the puff pastry, while I dig through the pile of unopened junk mail that coats her kitchen desk. One big white envelope with the Iris Academy school crest lies under a stack of pizza coupons, bills and catalogues.
I hear the front door open and Dad shout, "Working girl!"
"Hi Dad," I say, digging my finger into the crease of the envelope.
"Did you have a good last day?"
"Yes-they-stuffed-me-with-cupcakes-what's-for-dinner?" A rectangular paper falls from the envelope and flutters to the floor as I unfold the notepaper inside.
"Nothing good from the smell of it," Dad says, entering the kitchen. "Is that my puff pastry?"
"It was almost to the expiration date!" yells Mom.
"Have you got a letter from another one of your school friends?" Dad swoops into the kitchen to plant a kiss on my cheek.
"From Headmistress Potsdam, actually," I say, scanning the letter. "It's shepard's pie with turkey and green pepper."
"It's only shepherd's pie if it's lamb; if it's beef it's cottage pie; so what's turkey then?" Dad strides to the stove to peer at the casserole dish. "I was going to make vol-au-vents."
"You should have made them when you bought the puff pastry last month," snaps Mom. "Eliza, what's the letter? Is it about your grades?"
"No, it's-" I stutter and then recover. "I'll read it out loud, okay?"
Dear Miss Moon,
I have to apologize for the short notice, but I hope you'll be able to take advantage of this incredible opportunity. Iris Academy has been invited to participate in a week-long symposium with several of its European sister-schools in London this summer, which includes one student for each class, as well as instructors. I had originally asked your class president Minnie Cochran to attend on behalf of the rising sophomore class, but unfortunately she's taken ill this week and won't be able to go. I'd be thrilled if you could attend in her place. Expenses will be covered by the school. I enclose a ticket from Boston to London for Monday morning. You can call me at the Academy's general phone number and let me know your decision.
P. Potsdam, Headmistress.
"London? This Monday?" Mom stands with the oven door gaping open, the casserole forgotten.
"Uh," I start, thoughts racing. I pick up the paper that fell to the floor-it's a plane ticket in my name for a flight to London on Monday morning. My birthday.
Imperative that you follow her instructions exactly
"Yeah, London on Monday, this Monday,"
"can I go?"
"London!" Dad exclaims, his eyes saucer-wide. "I went to London my senior year of high school. I ran straight into-"
"George Harrison," Mom recites with him.
And then all three of us: "I mean, literally ran into him!" Mom and I cackle, but Dad keeps on telling his favorite story.
"He knocked me down, and I thought he was going to just walk by but he helped me up and brushed me off-"
"And you told him what a fan you were," continues Mom.
"And he signed your map of London!" I say. The map is, of course, framed and hangs above his desk in the study.
"Best wishes, George Harrison," Dad finished, starry-eyed. "It was the greatest day of my life."
"Better than our wedding day, or the day Eliza was born?" asks Mom, slamming the oven door behind the casserole.
"Oh come on, Margaret," Dad says, putting his arms around her. And all three of us chorus together, "It was George Harrison!" We all dissolve in laughter and Dad kisses Mom in a lingering way, all complaints about the kitchen experiment forgotten. And I'm thinking is this a marriage? Is this how it should be?
I go over the letter again. Minnie's not ill, and she didn't mention a trip to London in the e-mail she sent me today. This has to be the "communication" Professor Grabiner meant in his letter, and apparently I've got to do what it says, it's imperative.
The turkey shepherd's pie turns out to be a rousing success, brightening everyone's mood, and my suggestion that it be called "turkish pie" is unanimously accepted.
"So," I venture while we're all on our third helping, "can I go to London?"
"Oh, well," starts Mom, "it is a good opportunity... and your headmistress is supervising, you said?"
"Yeah, and just three other students, one for each current class, so she won't be overwhelmed or anything. It's just a school symposium."
"Symposium means 'drinking party' in Greek, did you know that?" says Dad, shoveling a forkful of turkish pie into his mouth.
"Yeah but it's not like that, it's just a meeting of schools, I'm not going drinking," I say, and can't help the pleading sound that enters into my voice. "It's a chance to meet students from different countries, I really want to go!"
"It sounds nice," says Mom, "but your birthday..."
"I can't think of a better birthday present than a free trip to London," says Dad, his usual overprotective instincts apparently overwhelmed by his nostalgia for his own trip to the United Kingdom.
"Well, Eliza, if you really want to go..." starts Mom.
I'll explain in detail when I see you next.
I'll see him there.
"Yes, please Mom, can I go?"
And that's how I find myself on an airplane over the Atlantic on my seventeenth birthday, on the way from Logan to Heathrow, and nearly giddy over the thought that I'll see my husband in a matter of hours.
It's not my first international flight, and I know that the waiting in the tiny seat spaces left to coach-class passengers is nearly unbearable. To soothe myself, I made sure to bring my favorite book, Jane Eyre, along for the flight. I've always managed to lose myself in the story of the brave and clever but plain governess who wins the heart of the temperamental, sarcastic Mr. Rochester of Thornfield Hall. Usually beginning the story is like sinking into a warm bath, but find the plot a little disconcerting this time around. Maybe it's hitting a bit too close to home, I consider, but after a look at the movies playing on the flight (a thriller that ought to have been set during the Cold War but was retrofitted to the War on Terror, a romantic comedy about a female CEO giving up her career after finding a man to love, and a children's film about friendly but irritatingly musical elves), I decide to go back to the book.
Just as Mr. Mason interrupts the wedding between Mr. Rochester and Jane with the news that Mr. Rochester's first wife wasn't dead after all, but mad and locked away in the attic of Thornfield Hall, the aircraft captain announces the final descent into Heathrow. By now the summer sunlight has turned gold and tinged the clouds that surround us red and pink-six hours after leaving Boston at eight in the morning, and it's already evening here. It's a bit like time travel, flying so far.
Descending from the clouds into the crowds that fill Heathrow is a jolt to the senses. The airport is huge and labyrinthine, with hoards of people bustling about, trying to make their connecting flights. I alternately fight and squeeze my way through the shifting mass, thinking grimly that a "transport others" spell would be extremely helpful about now. Once my passport is stamped, I glance up, squinting, trying to find signs that will point me to the baggage claim, which is where Professor Potstam told me she'd meet me after I'd landed.
"Don't worry, little cygnet," she'd said on the phone when I called her to let her know I had accepted her invitation. "I'll be right at the carousel, you won't miss me!" Her cheer was a bit off-putting, but it was completely in character. I'd never seen her dour for more than five minutes at a stretch; even at my farce of a wedding to Professor Grabiner she'd grinned and fussed as though the marriage of a sixteen-year-old girl to her thirty-something year old professor should be a genuinely happy occasion, rather than one that would have prompted most school officials to call the police.
I struggle up and down escalators and fight my way through crowds to the carousel where the luggage from my flight is circling in a sea of jostling bodies and snatching hands. I have to dive under a middle aged couple to seize the handle of my small red suitcase as it slides by. I'm heaving it away from the crush when I hear the familiar trilling voice.
Professor Potsdam's walking toward me. Instead of the diaphanous robes she usually favors while at school, she's wearing a shocking pink summer suit and matching stiletto heels, her pale hair streaming behind her. She was right-I couldn't miss her if I tried.
She seizes me in a bone-crunching hug. "So glad you could come, duckling! Now come on, driver's waiting." She snatches my suitcase and strides off, leaving me to jog behind her.
"Professor!" I pant. "Can you just tell me what-"
She turns back with a finger on her lips. "Shhh! Not with all these people!"
The faster we get out of here, the faster I'll find out what's going on, I decide, so I just weave my way through the crowd as quickly as I can.
At one of the exits, Professor Potsdam stops in front of a man in a black suit and cap, who's loading an enormous pile of matching shocking pink luggage onto a trolley. "Just add this one, dear," Potsdam says to him, tossing my suitcase on top of the lot. "All ready now?"
We exit to the curb, and the driver begins to load the bags into a shiny black sedan while Professor Potsdam and I climb into the back seat.
"Here we are, dear, isn't this exciting?" Potsdam gushes. "It's been years since I've been to London, have you ever been?"
"No, just to Paris once, with my parents," I say, looking with curiosity at the steering wheel on the right-hand side of the car. "There isn't really a symposium, is there ma'am?"
"No, of course not," she says with a giggle.
"Shh!" The driver opens the door and gets in. "Not now, dear, there'll be plenty of time to talk when we get there."
"Get where?" I ask with rising desperation.
"Hieronymous' house, of course; it's right near Hyde Park, you'll simply love it."
"You've been there?"
"Once or twice," she says with a wink, then changes the subject.
The car makes its way through a complicated series of ramps and streets, winding into the heart of London. It's full dark now, and the lights of the city throw a great, misty penumbra over the buildings and into the night sky. Even at night the traffic's stop-and-start, so it takes over forty-five minutes for us to make the journey. Professor Potsdam chatters constantly about her flight, the lovely weather, and how happy she is to see me, but says nothing to elucidate what we're both doing here in the first place. I start the drive trying to contribute to the conversation, but as the car creeps further into the city, an excited-sick feeling rises from my stomach into my throat, and all I can manage are a few words and nods. I look out the window instead, watching the blazing white shops, the orange of street-lanterns, and the aqua glow of television sets behind curtains as we pass from street to street.
Finally we stop at one darkish street corner, and Professor Potsdam calls "here we are!" We all exit the car. The driver (who hasn't said a word through the entire trip) crosses to the trunk to retrieve our luggage, while Professor Potsdam bustles up a small stoop to a narrow door that I would have overlooked otherwise. "Come on dear, come on," she says, and knocks.
A moment passes, and then the door is opened by a plump woman in her mid-twenties, wearing a plain white blouse and dark skirt. "Good evening!" sings Professor Potsdam. "We're expected."
"Oh-yes madam, good evening," says the woman, and holds the door wider for us to pass through. Professor Potsdam charges down the hall as if she owns the place, the woman scurrying after her, and me trailing behind, taking in the interior of the house. It has a small foyer with a staircase, and a narrow hall with closed doors on either side, and is elegantly but sparsely furnished. Professor Potsdam stops by one door, behind which I can hear someone speaking in a deep, resonant voice. My stomach drops.
"Madam, he's on the telephone just now, so may I show you into-"
"Nonsense, he needs to see us immediately, come on, Eliza!" Potsdam says, shoving the door open with one hand, and pulling me into the room with the other.
It's a sitting room with large windows that face into the street at the front of the house. And he's pacing in front of a writing desk with a mobile phone pressed to his ear and a sheaf of papers in his other hand. He's not wearing his wizard's robes and hat, but a charcoal-grey suit-which is too plain and fits him too well to be anything but extremely expensive. Otherwise, he's just the same as when I'd seen him on the last day of term-the same shaggy black hair, hawkish nose, and irritated expression.
"I gave you all that information on Thursday, I don't see what's so difficult-no, no, I told you, the second file-do you understand I need this finished and ready to sign by tomorrow morning?" He turns toward the door as we enter, covering the bottom of the mobile. "Not now," he starts, and then he sees me. He freezes mid-pace, expression flashing from irritation to shock. His eyes flick to Professor Potsdam, to me, then back to Professor Potsdam.
"What the hell is she doing here?" he shouts at her.
"Surprise!" says Professor Potsdam.