Authors: Constance Beresford-Howe
“Thank you. That’s very complimentary.”
There was a silence. Then I blurted out, “Are you married?” Too
late I regretted the blunt directness of this question, even though the answer was vital to my plans.
“I was married.”
“Oh, you’re divorced, then.”
“No. My wife died of cancer eight months ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” I said, trying not to sound cheerful. “Is that why you’re here, then? To recover from your grief?”
The twilight almost hid his grave smile. “No. I’m here on business – a conference. But there was some mix-up about reservations at the Grand; instead of a single room they booked me in with a guy from Hamilton, and I could tell with one look he was a snorer. So I came along to your hotel.”
“Rotten luck,” I grinned, diverted. “And I should know. We live there.”
“Jesus,” he said, “– if you’ll pardon the expression. Are all the meals as bad as tonight’s?”
“They used to be much better. But there’s a new cook from Athens, and he isn’t concentrating.”
Suddenly Max laughed out loud. “Anne, you make me wish I wasn’t flying back tomorrow.”
“Oh, so do I!” There was so much fervour in my voice it embarrassed both of us, and I ground my nails into my palms in an agony of self-punishment.
“Never mind,” he said cheerfully. “Maybe you’ll visit Canada some day, and when you do, be sure to look me up. Here’s my card.”
It read “Maxwell Ehrlich, Import-Export Consultant, Toronto, Canada.” I put it into an inside pocket with care.
“And now it’s time for me to return you to your mother and say goodnight. Thanks for a very enjoyable walk, Anne.”
I offered my hand and his big, warm one swallowed it. There was nobody in the lounge. I moved a little closer to him, face lifted
as if by accident to a convenient angle. He could kiss me if he liked. It might not be too awful, actually. But just then the bar door opened and out straggled the last customers, Billie among them. She had evidently been saying something absurd to one of the Americans, who was guffawing. In a shy mumble I introduced her to Max, and over their handshake she gave him her enchanting, crooked little smile. I saw his face change at once. A kind of delighted surprise lit up the experienced dark eyes as he looked at her. And there went, I realized with a pang of real regret as well as chagrin, all my hopes of a May-December marriage. For a few minutes I actively disliked my mother.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” he said. “Your daughter has shown me a bit of the town and made me forget I was lonely.”
Billie gave me a somewhat sharp parental glance, under which I blushed angrily. As soon as possible I muttered goodnight and marched upstairs with such rigid dignity my knees would hardly bend enough to climb the steps.
A few minutes later in our room Billie said lightly, “That was rather a smashing man you picked up, sweetie.”
“I did not pick him up,” I said, indignant at her accuracy.
“He told me after you went up that he thought you were a very valuable person.”
“Did he.” I flounced sulkily over to my own side of the bed. Well, that was that. Valuable, indeed. And nobody else in sight remotely available to marry except ghastly Captain Blackburn.
“Pity he’s off tomorrow,” yawned Billie.
And Canada being, to my mind, a place as inaccessible as Mars, I thought that would be the end of it. A pity in more ways than one, too. There had been something powerfully appealing about Max. And for some reason the name Canada had a vague but stirring association for me: it meant discovery, a land of wonders; it formed a fleeting image of wild birds. But it was not a place I ever
seriously expected to see. I was both too old and too young to have any real confidence in miracles.
bruptly the sun went in. I blinked, disoriented, at the piles of our dirty dishes. But in the cluttered kitchen, one of those rare domestic lulls lingered like a gift. Martha murmured, “Bugger you, Cindy,” to her doll, and Hugh, plumped down over the short V of his own legs, silently inspected a broken toy car. He turned it over delicately in his small hands, frowning with concentration and pushing out his lips. As usual when happy, he looked worried. Under the table the dog scratched herself voluptuously.
“All right, you guys, we’ll do the dishes later, and take old Violet to the vet. Bring me the snowsuits, will you, Martha? Get up, Hugh; we’re going out. Where the hell are all the boots? And Violet’s leash?”
And with a loud groan I began the long, heavy-breathing business of stuffing the kids into their winter armour, forcing their passive feet into boots, dragging on mittens, winding scarves. As I squatted there yanking at the stuck zipper on Hugh’s jacket, it suddenly occurred to me to wonder what the hell I could or would say to Mother Graham if by any chance she did know about Ross, and was only waiting to confront me in person this afternoon with all kinds of terrible questions like Why, and How Could, and What Now. The thought of it brought a sour return of breakfast coffee into my throat; because there were no answers to such questions, except grossly indecent ones. At this point I began to cry, as from time to unpredictable time I so often did now. Tears dripped down in a loose rain on my hands and Hugh’s fine, floppy hair.
Once years ago in a museum I saw a painting of Saint Lawrence being grilled like a cheese sandwich. It was refreshing to think of it now and wonder what would be the appropriate treatment for My
Boy, after leaving me the job of telling Edwina the tale of our failure. No, I thought grimly; come what may, I will tell her not one single word about it. Some of the things I could say to the lady would provide a positively criminal pleasure, and I didn’t deserve it. He, on the other hand, did.
Though now fully dressed, Martha was pulling off her woollen hat. “Crybaby,” she said to me with scorn. Then added, “I need to go peepee.”
n the vet’s waiting-room, Violet shivered and whined non-stop, her voice rising to an occasional yelp, presumably whenever she remembered her hysterectomy. Quite a crowd of dogs, cats, and hamsters waited for attention, all of them reacting to the reek of creosote and drugs with a variety of snarls, whimpers, barks, and caterwaulings. It was easier for me to empathize with these lower animals than with most of their owners, notably a fearfully dirty old man with a loose cough, two chattering girls with gum, a fat lady leashed to an equally fat cat, and a horsy, weatherbeaten woman with two huge borzois. My children sat quietly, watching the scene with simple spectator pleasure, though Hugh had the dubious look of one not absolutely sure of getting out of there without an injection.
“… so I went Yeah, and she went That’s right, you don’t believe it? and I just freaked my
because there was this neat guy just in the next seat – man, was it ever funny.…”
These girls seemed to have no pet with them. Perhaps they’d just dropped in for a place to sit and chat. Still, they did appear to be in charge of one of those folding canvas push-chairs that hump babies’ backs. They might have brought the fat baby in it here to have his nails cut. He had been so casually stuffed into his stroller that his hooded blue coat was shoved up around his ears; but he
was sucking one of the buttons on it philosophically, with a vacant look of satisfaction.
The old man shuffled his feet. His clothes released an eye-watering smell of tobacco and onions. To evade it, I got up to choose a magazine from the rack. The talking girl paused to eye my huge form in a long, incredulous stare. Obviously she saw not the faintest connection between her conversation and my condition, of both body and soul. She couldn’t have been more than three years my junior, but because I knew the connection and she didn’t, a whole generation yawned between us. This was not a thought that cheered me up at all. Soon she was plunging on again, faster than ever to make up for lost time – “like I mean
and then Arlene went –”
Just then I suddenly noticed that the fat baby had turned a darkish shade of purple. Loose threads on his coat marked where the button had been before he began to choke on it. The girl was now leaning on her friend’s shoulder, eyes squeezed shut in an ecstasy of giggles. Reaching over, I plucked the child fast out of his canvas sling and up-ended him. A smack on the back failed to dislodge the button, so I reached a finger down his throat and hooked it out of his airway. Instantly he sucked in a deep breath and began to roar.
“Well done,” said the horsy woman briskly.
The girl, her eyes still swimming, looked at me with a dignified air of offence. She took the baby from me and doubled him up, still yelling, into his chair. I felt too intimidated to offer her the wet button, so I dropped it into an ashtray.
“Now then, Mrs. Graham next,” said the vet, poking his grey head out of the examining-room. I dragged the unwilling Violet after me, all her claws scrabbling on the polished floor.
“Here, I’ll lift her up,” he said cheerfully. “Don’t want you delivering those twins in here, ha ha ha.”
I forced a wan smile. Dr. Cook might not be much of a humorist, but he was a good vet. Without him we would have lost our cat to pneumonia the year before. It was a pity he’d never bothered to replace four missing top front teeth, because the gap provided a whole orchestra of piping, fluting noises whenever he spoke.
“H’m. There’s a nice new outbreak, eh?” he whistled, knitting shaggy grey eyebrows over Violet.
“It’s nothing in her diet, is it? She’s just a complete neurotic.”
“Right. Keep her spread out like this and I’ll rub in some ointment. That’s it.” Violet rolled up her eyes and groaned with pleasure as the tarry stuff eased her itch. “Do this a couple of times a day, rub it in well, and she’ll settle down. I’ll give you a mild tranquillizer, too, for the nights.…”
One of his vein-roped, freckled hands accidentally brushed against mine. And this produced in Mrs. Graham a sexual urge of exquisite, ludicrous urgency. In my present state of unwelcome celibacy, I sometimes had these spells, brief and irrelevant, but severe, and always at times and in places where no relief was remotely possible. There was no dignity in a fate like mine, I thought angrily. Could there be anything more ridiculous than feeling horny about a toothless old vet? It was either tragic or wildly funny. I had to bite the insides of my cheeks hard to hold in a lunatic grin.
“Now stop that, you silly bitch,” he said to Violet, who was trying to lick off the ointment.
“Yes; cut it out,” I added severely. But I was talking to a different bitch.
e paused to peer wistfully through the frost on Jennifer’s Craft Shop window with its bright patchwork quilt and spinning-wheel,
trying to find an excuse to go inside. None came to mind, but I steered the kids in anyway. Jennifer, otherwise known to us as the Loom Lady, had opened for business about a year before. She stocked wool, thread, buttons, and so on, but chiefly sold wall-hangings, cushions, and fabrics woven by herself on a loom in the back room. She appeared now in the doorway, a tall figure in a caftan, and at once ducked back inside.
“Oh, it’s you, Anne. Come on through.”
She knew I loved to watch her weaving. Her brown, pink-lined hands moved the shuttle and lowered the bar in a kind of slow, dancelike rhythm that fascinated me. And there was something important about that simple web of material, its pattern emerging in a sequence as simple as cause and effect, each related to the other in the most satisfactory possible way. She was creating something both useful and beautiful with a sort of meaning one hopes without much confidence that life itself may have. These feelings had some months ago made me very much want a loom of my own; but when I proposed it to Ross, he instantly said, “No.”
“But why not, love? Think of all the lovely curtains and bedspreads I could make, and tweeds for coats and suits –”
“Well, I know the initial outlay’s pretty big, but in the long run it would be really econ –”
“No. No. And
! Is that clear?”
“Not so loud, you’ll wake the kids. But for pity’s sake, what’s wrong with wanting a loom? It’s not all that hard to operate, once you get the hang of it. Jenny’s been teaching me how.”
“Anne, I said no and I mean it. For Christ’s sake, what next? There isn’t room now to move around the dining-room table since the sewing-machine moved in there. That’s all we need, for God’s sake, a goddam six-foot
cluttering up the place.”
“Well, of course, if that’s how you feel about it.” I disentangled my legs from his with dignity, shifted to my own side of the bed, and subsided into a huffy silence.
“Yes, that’s how I feel about it.”
“Fine. Forget it, then.”
“I already have.”
But ever since then I’d seized every opportunity to drop in and watch Jenny working, her long back straight as she sat on the bench. Though her ancestors had come generations ago from Ethiopia, she herself had been born on Queen Street, and somewhere along the way a little white or mixed blood had lightened her colour to milk-chocolate and given her nose a bridge. I thought the total effect very handsome, with just the right touch of the exotic; but Jenny once told me dryly that her own people considered her a sad comedown from the ideal, while of course people of my race had the same opinion, for different reasons.
“Made something new since I saw you last,” she said now, gesturing at something on the floor beside her. With considerable astonishment I saw a carry-cot down there among the cartons of wool, with a sleeping infant in it. He looked prematurely resigned and old and his small hands were clenched defensively.
“Why, Jen, you sly fox. I had no idea you were –”
“Well, I’m large. Always been large. Always will be. It has its advantages.”
I longed to ask her a dozen questions, but couldn’t. There were some people, like Max, you could ask almost anything; there were a few like my dim-witted neighbour June you could ask absolutely anything; and there were private people like Jennifer Mugabwe whom you could ask nothing at all. Occasionally I’d seen men of various colours fleetingly come and go about the shop, but she never referred to them, verbally or any other way. I vaguely
assumed she was or had been married, because she wore rings on all her fingers; but I never asked. Quite possibly the rings were just a send-up of the whole matrimonial scene.