Prologue: The Cousins
Nicholas Young slumped into the nearest seat in the hotel lobby, drained from the sixteen-hour flight from Singapore, the train ride from Heathrow Airport, and trudging through the rain-soaked streets. His cousin Astrid Leong shivered stoically next to him, all because her mother, Felicity, his dai gu cheh —or “big aunt” in Cantonese—said it was a sin to take a taxi nine blocks and forced everyone to walk all the way from Piccadilly Tube Station.
Anyone else happening upon the scene might have noticed an unusually composed eight-year-old boy and an ethereal wisp of a girl sitting quietly in a corner, but all Reginald Ormsby saw from his desk overlooking the lobby were two little Chinese children staining the damask settee with their sodden coats. And it only got worse from there. Three Chinese women stood nearby, frantically blotting themselves dry with tissues, while a teenager slid wildly across the lobby, his sneakers leaving muddy tracks on the black-and-white checker board marble.
Ormsby rushed downstairs from the mezzanine, knowing he could more efficiently dispatch these foreigners than his front-desk clerks. “Good evening, I am the general manager. Can I help you?” he said slowly, over-enunciating every word.
“Yes, good evening, we have a reservation,” the woman replied in perfect English.
Ormsby peered at her in surprise. “What name is it under?”
“Eleanor Young and family.”
Ormsby froze—he recognized the name, especially since the Young party had booked the Lancaster Suite. But who could have imagined that “Eleanor Young” would turn out to be Chinese , and how on earth did she end up here? The Dorchester or the Ritz might let this kind in, but this was the Calthorpe, owned by the Calthorpe-Cavendish-Gores since the reign of George IV and run for all intents and purposes like a private club for the sort of families that appeared in Debrett’s or the Almanach de Gotha . Ormsby considered the bedraggled women and the dripping children. The Dowager Marchioness of Uckfield was staying through the weekend, and he could scarcely imagine what she would make of these folk appearing at breakfast tomorrow. He made a swift decision. “I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t seem to find a booking under that name.”
“Are you sure?” Eleanor asked in surprise.
“Quite sure.” Ormsby grinned tightly.
Felicity Leong joined her sister-in-law at the front desk. “Is there a problem?” she asked impatiently, eager to get to the room to dry her hair.
“ Alamak , * they can’t find our reservation,” Eleanor sighed.
“How come? Maybe you booked it under another name?” Felicity inquired.
“No, lah . Why would I do that? It was always booked under my name,” Eleanor replied irritatedly. Why did Felicity always assume she was incompetent? She turned back to the manager. “Sir, can you please check again? I reconfirmed our reservation just two days ago. We’re supposed to be in your largest suite.”
“Yes, I know you booked the Lancaster Suite, but I can’t find your name anywhere,” Ormsby insisted.
“Excuse me, but if you know we booked the Lancaster Suite, why don’t we have the room?” Felicity asked, confused.
Bloody hell . Ormsby cursed at his own slip-up. “No, no, you misunderstood. What I meant was that you might think you booked the Lancaster Suite, but I certainly can’t find any record of it.” He turned away for a moment, pretending to rummage through some other paperwork.
Felicity leaned over the polished oak counter and pulled the leather-bound reservations book toward her, flipping through pages. “Look! It says right here ‘Mrs. Eleanor Young—Lancaster Suite for four nights.’ Do you not see this?”
“Madam! That is PRIVATE!” Ormsby snapped in fury, startling his two junior clerks, who glanced uncomfortably at their manager.
Felicity peered at the balding, red-faced man, the situation suddenly becoming abundantly clear. She hadn’t seen this particular brand of superior sneer since she was a child growing up in the waning days of colonial Singapore, and she thought this kind of overt racism had ceased to exist. “Sir,” she said politely but firmly, “this hotel came highly recommended to us by Mrs. Mince, the wife of the Anglican Bishop of Singapore, and I clearly saw our name in your registry book. I don’t know what sort of funny business is going on, but we have traveled a very long way and our children are tired and cold. I insist that you honor our reservation.”
Ormsby was indignant. How dare this Chinese woman with the Thatcheresque perm and preposterous “English” accent speak to him in such a manner? “I’m afraid we simply do not have anything available,” he declared.
“Are you telling me that there are no rooms left in this entire hotel?” Eleanor said incredulously.
“Yes,” he replied curtly.
“Where are we supposed to go at this hour?” Eleanor asked.
“Perhaps someplace in Chinatown?” Ormsby sniffed. These foreigners had wasted enough of his time.
Felicity went back to where her younger sister Alexandra Cheng stood guarding the luggage. “Finally! I can’t wait to take a hot bath,” Alexandra said eagerly.
“Actually, this odious man is refusing to give us our room!” Felicity said, making no attempt to hide her fury.
“What? Why?” Alexandra asked, completely confused.
“I think it has something to do with us being Chinese,” Felicity said, as if she didn’t quite believe her own words.
“Gum suey ah!” † Alexandra exclaimed. “Let me talk to him. Living in Hong Kong, I have more experience dealing with these types.”
“Alix, don’t bother. He’s a typical ang mor gau sai! ” ‡ Eleanor exclaimed.
“Even so, isn’t this supposed to be one of London’s top hotels? How can they get away with that sort of behavior?” Alexandra asked.
“Exactly!” Felicity raged on. “The English are normally so lovely, I have never been treated like this in all my years coming here.”
Eleanor nodded in agreement, even though privately she felt that Felicity was partly to blame for this fiasco. If Felicity wasn’t so giam siap § and had let them take a taxi from Heathrow, they would have arrived looking far less disheveled. (Of course, it didn’t help that her sisters-in-law always looked so dowdy, she had to dress down whenever she traveled with them, ever since that trip to Thailand when everyone mistook them for her maids.)