ScotiaBank Gillers

Shortlist excerpt: The Imposter Bride by Nancy Richler

imposter-bride-125.jpgIn a small room off a banquet hall in Montreal, Lily Kramer sat in silence with her new husband. It was summer and the room was hot. There were no windows and no door, only a curtain beyond which the guests -- almost none of whom she knew -- washed down sponge cake and herring with shots of schnapps and vodka. Lily and her husband sat on either end of the couch on which she assumed they were meant to consummate their marriage.

In front of the couch was a table laid with fruit and hardboiled eggs. Her husband picked up a plum and rolled it in the palm of his hand. His name was Nathan and she had known him for a week. It was his brother, Sol, she had been meant to marry, a man she had corresponded with but hadn't met, who had caught one glimpse of her as she disembarked at the station and decided he wouldn't have her. Lily watched Nathan roll the plum in his hand and wondered what his brother had seen in her that made him turn away.

Nathan picked up a knife and began scoring the skin of the plum into sections. They had not yet touched, not even a brush of hand or lip upon becoming husband and wife. She could still count the number of glances they had exchanged, the first when she'd sat on the couch at the house where she was staying, so ashamed by the rejection at the station that she'd had to struggle to meet his gaze while he apologized on behalf of his brother and entire family.

"Your brother cannot even apologize on his own behalf?" she asked. She was surprised by her shame. Disappointed. She had no time to waste -- no strength -- on a man who fled at the
mere sight of a woman. Or so she would have thought.

"Not even that," Nathan replied.

"No great loss, then," she said, forcing a lightness she didn't feel into her voice. She had crossed two oceans to marry this Sol. She had nothing and no one to return to.

"The loss is his," Nathan said quietly.

She had thought he would leave then, beat a hasty retreat from his brother's misdemeanour, but he didn't. He remained standing before her, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

"Would you like to sit down?" she asked finally.

His eyes were warm and brown; there was no pity in them. And he seemed to like what he saw. Already there was heat in his gaze.

He returned the next day to formalize their engagement.

Why the rush? Lily wondered when he reappeared at the door. It was not as if she were fielding other offers, would be taken by another if he didn't quickly stake his claim. But then she knew, thought she knew. It was the rush of colour to her face when he had first entered the room, the lowered gaze that she'd had to force upwards, her chin raised in defiance of what she felt. He had returned to banish her shame. He brought witnesses and brandy -- and the same heat in his gaze. He was a lucky man, Lily thought at that moment. His desire inclined him to acts of goodness.

"Do you speak English?" he asked her that day. They'd been speaking Yiddish until then.

"Ticket," she answered. "Bread. Cousin. Suitcase."

Her English was good, near fluent, in fact. It was her anger at that moment that made her conceal it, sudden anger at his assumption that it was she who was the more ignorant of the
two -- she who spoke five languages and could get by in several others, who had smuggled lives across borders he wouldn't be able to find on a map. Rage, in fact, that it should have come down to this: if Nathan Kramer would have her, she would have him and be grateful. She, who had held all of life and death between her two hands before dying and washing up
into this pale afterlife of her own existence.

"Freedom," she continued. "Buttons. Train."

"Buttons?" he asked, smiling.

"Eisenbergs," she said, naming the family that was hosting her, Sol's employer, whose business was buttons.

"Yes, yes, I understand," Nathan said, still smiling.

He knew she spoke English, had known from the expressions on her face as she'd followed his earlier conversation with the Eisenbergs -- all in English. He had met greenhorns before, knew their nodding at wrong moments, their delayed smiles, awkward laughter, baffled eyes. There was none of that in her. She was tired, yes, after the long journey she had made, and certainly confused and distressed by his brother's behaviour at the station, but she was not a woman who didn't understand what was being said all around her. She understood perfectly. And yet pretended she didn't. That intrigued him.

He had wanted her at once, had decided the moment he'd first stepped into the room. It was not her beauty that drew him. Not merely her beauty. He saw it, of course -- how could one not? The fine bones of her face, the smoky blue eyes . . . But it was the tension in her, a feral tension, part hunger, part fear. It was that which had quickened his blood, that -- not her
shame -- which had made him return the next day with his witnesses and brandy. He had not expected to find such tension in the living room of Sam Eisenberg, the Button King of Montreal.

He had met many girls already in the living rooms of Jewish Montreal. Nice girls and not-so-nice, intelligent girls, beautiful girls, wily, witty, hopeful girls, but this . . . no, not this.

"Please," he said now, holding out a segment of the plum, the first exchange of their married life.

He watched her -- his new bride -- as she took a bite of the fruit. Her eyes filled with tears.

"What?" he asked.

"Nothing." She shook her head, closed her eyes briefly.

"It's a good plum, not too sweet."

They had both fasted that day, in accordance with tradition. Should they have broken that fast on something else, Nathan wondered now, begun their marriage with a bite of egg, perhaps, symbolic of new life? A slice of melon, wholly sweet, without the tart edge of a plum?

"It's many years since I tasted a plum like that," Lily said in her near-perfect English. She handed the remainder of the segment back to him, took a long drink of water, then held the
glass against her cheek to cool her skin.

"It's warm," he said, and she agreed.

She moved the glass to her other cheek, though it was no longer cool on her skin. Nathan handed her a napkin and she smiled her thanks as she wiped the sweat from her brow and
upper lip. He had not seen her smile until then.

Excerpted from THE IMPOSTER BRIDE by Nancy Richler. Copyright © Nancy Richler, 2012.  Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.