Hotel Saint Clare
It wasn’t unusual for young girls to arrive from the outer islands of St. Clare to work in the big hotels on Grand Island. Only Nara was unusual, as was the manner in which she arrived.
Two young boys out collecting shells and coconuts on the beach early one morning were astonished to see a young woman, whose boyish figure made her appear not much older than they were, step out of the surf, shaking seaweed from her long, dark hair. They had seen her swimming, and thought at first that her dark head was a coconut bobbing on the waves until she swam close enough for them to see that she had a face. She swam with strong, practiced strokes, even though she had a tightly wrapped bundle strapped to her shoulders.
When she stepped out of the ocean, the boys assumed she had swum all the way from East Island, which was twenty miles away. They had been intent on throwing rocks and chasing crabs on the beach, and had ignored the barking of their two dogs when the seaplane had landed briefly in the blue-green sea about two hundred meters off shore.
Perhaps they could be forgiven for their lack of attention, since the waves were deafening that morning as they crashed against the offshore rocks, but a seaplane was still a rare enough sight that the boys were teased unmercifully by their friends and scolded by their elders, when they reported that a mermaid had swum out of the sea that Sunday morning. Tommy Sanders, the older of the two boys, was especially reprimanded by his mother, the head housekeeper at the Hotel St. Clare. Tommy had inherited his father’s tendency to make up stories, and his mother was determined to quash the tendency in her son, especially now that his father had abandoned his family for grander opportunities in the United States. Even so, Nara was nicknamed ”the mermaid” from the minute she appeared on the island.
Nara paid no attention to the two boys or their dogs, and did not see the two racing back toward the village to announce her arrival, their brown legs pumping and sand flying up from their bare feet. She had been promised a job as hostess in the restaurant of the St. Clare, the largest and most exclusive hotel on Grand Island, which was the principal island in the St. Clare island group, and now she set her steps toward the strip of high rise hotels that had sprung up like overgrown sand castles along the northeastern coast. Once she had convinced her father that this was the logical next step in her life, he contacted a friend of a friend from his days at Oxford who was eager to hire an intelligent young woman to greet guests at the hotel’s restaurant.
As a native of the islands, Nara had grown up in two worlds. One was the world of the wealthy, as her father’s daughter. She never lacked for anything and was sent away to boarding school at fourteen. But her sense of self was firmly grounded in the soil of the island people. She could switch her speech to the native dialect at a moment’s notice, find her way through hidden paths in the jungle, and sit comfortably drinking tea out of chipped cups in the simple tin-roofed homes of the maids and cleaning women who worked for her father. She trusted them and they trusted her. Her father was aware that she visited these women, the women who had raised her after the death of her mother, and considered it a childish, sentimental habit she would outgrow. It was something that gave her comfort, as a child will hold on to a familiar old blanket long after it serves any useful purpose. He had no idea how deeply the island touched her, held her. It was the one aspect of Nara’s mother that had disturbed him, and in a sense he blamed the island for her death. But that is going ahead of, or behind, our story.
Nara attended university in Miami and returned to the islands well-educated, well-read, poised and self-confident, but totally unable to find a job in which she could use her academic skills. She was hired as an second grade teacher at the same school where she had studied as a child, but was frustrated by the children’s lack of attentiveness, and the overbearing manner of the principal and other teachers, many of whom had taught her and still considered her to be little more than a child herself.
One morning she arrived early at the school, just as the sun was rising over the point, and let herself into her classroom. She was followed by one of the local beach dogs, who after breeding only with each other for generations, all looked alike. They were all medium — medium size, a medium brown color to their coats and eyes, fur neither long nor short, and with docile, even-tempered personalities.
“Out!” she shouted at the dog, who obeyed her only after urinating on the doorjamb. The doorway was a popular place for the local dogs, where they often received hand-outs from children who were too busy playing or too careless to eat the ample lunches packed for them by loving mothers and grandmothers.
Nara surveyed the room, uncharacteristically quiet in the early morning. The walls were stained with mildew and dampness, and the paint was beginning to peel in several places. Lizards scampered across the ceiling, and her footsteps crunched a coating of sand underfoot. No matter how often the room was swept, sand still worked its way in through the poorly sealed windows, and was tracked in on the shoes of both students and teacher. A moth-eaten flag hung on the wall next to mildewed photographs of former presidents of the island republic, as well as one of Queen Elizabeth II from British colonial days. On the wall behind the teacher’s desk hung educational charts showing the letters of the alphabet and multiplication tables, along with a map of the world. Nara had to reattach the alphabet charts almost every morning, because the dampness refused to allow the tape to stick to the wall for more than a day. Today the ”ijkl” section was hanging by one corner. Nara reached automatically for the tape, but then stopped herself. She pulled the offending section from the wall, removed the rebellious strips of tape from the back, and stood the poster neatly on the chalk ledge. The alphabet was no longer her problem.
Nara piled the graded student papers on her desk and placed her grade book, meticulously filled out and up to date, on top of them. She straightened the items on her desk, throwing a few old notes and scraps of paper in the trash. She placed her few personal items in the plastic grocery bag she had brought from home and then checked the desk drawers, convincing herself of their orderliness and the absence of anything personal. She did not want to leave any traces of herself in this room. Finally she placed dead center on the desk a pristine sheet of paper on which she had typed,” I am afraid I can no longer offer my services as a teacher at this school. I have every confidence that you will find someone much more suited to the task. Sincerely, Nara Blake.”
She weighted the paper with a large conch shell that had been on the desk when she had been a student and walked out the door with her plastic bag swinging from her arm. Nara went home and went back to bed.
Her father, Jack Blake, was eating his breakfast sometime later when there was a pounding at the front door. Clara, their maid, hurried to answer it, since Nara’s step-mother Kelly liked to sleep late and would make everyone’s lives miserable for days if she were awakened by such a violent noise.
“Where is Nara?” The voice at the door was not much less loud or violent than her pounding had been. Mrs. Wolff was a large woman with graying dark hair that sprung from its bun when she was excited, which was most of the time. She was wearing a black flowered dress with buttons down the front, several of which had escaped their buttonholes on the strenuous walk up from the school, and her large chest was heaving with exertion.
“Nara has gone to the school,” Clara answered innocently.
“Nara is not at the school, and will not be at the school,” the woman answered.
By this time, Nara’s father had come to the door. Jack Blake found Aurelia Wolff amusing and never missed an opportunity to torment and tease her when she was angry, and especially when she was angry with Nara, whom he considered to be a girl after his own heart. In his mind, he and his daughter were always right.
“Aurelia, Aurelia, why all the racket so early in the morning?” he drawled. “I was just sitting here enjoying my coffee, watching the birds flying around, offering a prayer of thanksgiving to God for the beauty around me, when I heard this banging and shouting. This is most unpleasant. Please come in and tell me what’s wrong. Perhaps I can help, even though I don’t usually assist people this early in the morning.” His voice had risen and developed an edge as he finished.
Mrs. Wolff sputtered. She was always disconcerted by Jack Blake, and thought that only she knew that she had considered him attractive since he had first returned to the island after his education in England was completed. She waved the incriminating paper in his face. “She has left the school, and who knows where she is now. I knew this would happen. She has left us without a teacher and the children are running wild.”
Jack Blake took a sip of coffee from the mug he held in his hand. “Come in, please, Aurelia. Let me get you some coffee, perhaps with a little brandy in it to calm your nerves. This isn’t good for your heart.” He took her elbow firmly in his hand, an action that sent sensations other than anger coursing through her body. She stopped talking and allowed herself to be guided to the patio where Clara was ready with the coffee pot and a bottle of brandy. The patio had the advantage of being on the opposite side of the house from Kelly’s bedroom, although it was directly below Nara’s room.
Jack had no doubt Nara had left the school because she was fed up with everything about it. It had surprised him when she had taken the job. Aurelia Wolff had always been overbearing and self-important. The school was underfunded by the government, understaffed, and falling apart. It was only a matter of time before the ministry closed the place. If Nara had left — good for her. The girl had spirit.
When the two of them were seated at the table, and Aurelia Wolff had taken a sip of her laced coffee, Jack took the letter from her, smudged now with the woman’s fingerprints.
He read it twice and chuckled. “She doesn’t seem to leave any room for doubt, does she?”
This set off a fresh tirade from the woman. “This just shows her lack of responsibility. I should never have hired her. She has no control over the students. Playing games with them all the time, that’s all she does. They are running wild now, no discipline. And I will have to teach the class; there is no one else.” She paused for breath; her chest heaving only slightly less violently. Jack made a supreme effort to keep his eyes focused anywhere but her breasts.
“She is too much like her mother,” Mrs. Wolff continued. “She will never grow up. I thought there would be more of your influence, Jack. That’s why I agreed to hire her.”
Jack Blake was a tranquil man, who would give in to a woman in order to preserve peace in his life, but there were some things he would not tolerate — ever. And an insult to his first wife, Nara’s mother, was one of them. Kelly, his second wife, with all her self-centeredness, knew this. Aurelia Wolff knew it, too, but Aurelia was too hot-headed to know when to stop once she warmed to a tirade.
He stood calmly and turned his back to her, staring out at the ocean until she wondered if he remembered she was there. She knew she had gone too far, but did not know what else to do but wait. It was out of her range of experience or character to apologize.
When Jack turned around, his dark eyes were pin points and his lips set tightly. “You will leave this house, Aurelia, and begin to seek new employment. I do not take insults to my family lightly. It’s time that school was closed, and I will contact the ministry today. Take the beach path,” he added. “I don’t want you walking through my house.” He inclined his head to the wet sandy path that wound through the trees down to the beach, the path the dogs used on their forays around the neighborhood.
Aurelia knew better than to argue. She had seen Jack’s anger before, but being a stupid person, she generally forgot until the next time. She stood up, and with what was left of her dignity, headed down the slippery path to the beach, leaving Nara’s letter of resignation on the table. Jack picked it up and smiled; then movement above caught his eye. The shutter on Nara’s bedroom window had shifted ever so slightly.
“Nara,” he called softly. The window opened and a dark head with his own dark eyes twinkling with amusement, looked down at him. Jack jerked his head indicating that she join him on the patio. It wasn’t an order. Jack Blake never ordered his daughter to do anything; they were too much alike. In seconds she appeared on the patio, dressed in an ankle-length flowing dressing gown, her long hair cascading down her back, her feet bare. His eyes took in every aspect of her appearance, her slim figure, her small childish feet, her wide awake eyes.
“Coffee?” He poured her a cup without waiting for her answer, adding hot milk from a small china pitcher just the way she liked it.
“Thanks, Dad.” She took a sip and then looked at him questioningly.
“Congratulations. You have taken a wise step, and forced Aurelia Wolff to do some work for a change. What are you going to do now?”
Nara looked steadily at her father. “Leave the island.”
Jack Blake was silent for a long moment, while both he and his daughter sipped their coffee. “I’ll make some calls this morning. A change of scene would be good for you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Her eyes twinkled above her coffee cup, and Jack knew he could never deny her anything.