Monday, August 18, 2008

Will anybody notice? by Urve Tamberg

August 23, 1989
An apartment complex on the outskirts of Tallinn, Estonia

Three teenagers lay sprawled on the fragrant grass, eyes closed, their faces turned to seek the warmth of the late summer sun. Dozens of dingy grey apartment buildings with hundreds of identical rectangular windows formed a monotonous concrete maze. Tiny patches of green lawn dotted the massive Soviet built complex. Residents, dressed in ill-fitting clothes and cheap shoes, scurried along the paths. To home. To work and back home again.

Tina shaded her eyes to gaze up at the blue Baltic sky and watched the tiny clouds scatter out to sea. “Do you think the Soviets control the clouds along with the rest of our country?” Tina asked. “Perhaps with biochemical spray or electronic control?” She thrust herself onto one elbow and shoved her blonde hair aside with the other hand. Her eyes flashed her anger about the Soviet occupation of Estonia as she bit the fingernail on her thumb.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they did,” Reeta replied. She rolled onto her stomach and propped her chin with her hands, revealing nails bitten to the quick. Her brown eyes glinted with annoyance. “They control everything else. What we eat, what we write, how we’re supposed to think!”

“Their days are numbered and they know it,” Marc said as he lay on his back, hands clasped behind his head. “The political rally tonight clinches it. Gorbachev plus glasnost equals the end of the USSR and the beginning of independence in the Baltics.” He opened one blue eye. “Can you believe they finally admitted that there was a secret pact between Hitler and Stalin? Everyone knew they were lying about it for fifty years. And this week they confessed. To the world, no less.”

Tina and Reeta nodded their heads in unison. Everyone knew about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed exactly fifty years ago on August 23, 1939. Millions of lives changed as Russia annexed Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Now, half a century later buoyed by the momentum of glasnost and perestroika, the Baltic people intended to commemorate this anniversary with the largest protest ever planned.

Footsteps pounding on the pavement interrupted their conversation. Tina craned her neck to see four figures strutting along the path. She squinted then frowned when she noticed Vladimir, a Russian boy from their class, stop and glare at them. She always attempted to avoid him since he never missed an opportunity to insult anyone who wasn’t a Communist. Classmates bit their tongues since his father was a high-ranking KGB official and retaliation could be far reaching.

“Are you talking about the Baltic Chain planned for tonight? You think that joining hands and standing in a line is going to change anything. Well, it won’t!” Vladimir curled his upper lip into a snarl. “You Estonians are like fleas on an elephant. The Soviets won’t notice even if there are a million of you.” He pursed his lips as if he wanted to spit on them.

Tina stood up to face him, arms crossed. She didn’t feel brave, only tired - tired of hearing snide comments from people who didn’t see an alternative to tyrannical communist rule. Plus with her friends around, she assumed Vladimir would only spew empty threats. She involuntarily leaned back as he stepped close enough for her to see the dark stubble on his chin. She focused somewhere over his left shoulder. “We don’t care if the Soviets notice,” she said. “But the world will notice when over a million people join hands across three countries.”

“There won’t be a million people,” Vladimir scoffed. “Most people will be too scared to show up. They’re frightened of tanks and rifles and the powerful Russian army.” He took a step back and pretended to have a machine gun bucking in his hand. Tina didn’t flinch. She felt Marc and Reeta stand up behind her.

“Hey, Vlad, you’ve better things to do than talk to those losers,” one of his friends shouted. “Come on, we’re late.”

Vladimir pretended to fire a few more rounds into the air and then ran to join his buddies.

“He’s a bully, just like the Soviets. And the bully gets louder when he knows he’s losing,” Marc said, sitting back down on the lawn. “It’s just a matter of time before we regain our autonomy.”

“And we’re closer than ever. The Baltic Chain will show the world we want our freedom back!” Tina said with enthusiasm. “We’re all going tonight! Right, Marc? Right, Reeta? What time do you want to meet?” She glanced at her watch.

“Let’s meet at five to catch the bus,” Marc said. “It’ll take us a while to get into town, then we need to find a place to stand. And you know what Estos are like. Everyone will be early.”
Reeta remained silent as they chatted. Finally Tina turned to her, “You’re coming, aren’t you?”

Reeta shook her head slowly as she gazed down at her shoes. Finally she said, ”I can’t come. My dad and my uncle would kill me if the Russians didn’t do it first.”

Tina had forgotten that Reeta’s uncle was a high-ranking Estonian Communist. And that meant he supported for the continuation of communism, not independence.

“Can’t you sneak out?” Marc asked. “We need as many people as possible.”

“We know you’d come with us if you could,” Tina said. “We’ll think of you as we’re holding hands.” She cast an annoyed look at Marc. He ought to know that Reeta couldn’t risk coming with them.

“Will you do something for me tonight?” Reeta asked, looking hesitant.

“Of course,” Tina replied. “What?”

Reeta rummaged through her tattered knapsack and pulled out a well-loved scruffy teddy bear. She offered him to Tina and asked, “Could you take him along and pretend it’s me? I’d really like to be there and support you. This is the only way I can think of.”

Marc grinned. “Sure. We need all the people or bears we can get.”
“I’ll take good care of him,” Tina said as she gently placed the bear in her striped cloth shoulder bag.

They continued to talk about the once-in-a-lifetime event. The Baltic Chain called for people to join hands at seven o’clock along the six hundred kilometre stretch of road from Tallinn in Estonia to Riga in Latvia to Vilnius in Lithuania. This fifteen minute peaceful protest planned to show the world a massive demonstration of solidarity for Baltic independence. Momentum had been building for the last few days. Conversation on the streets, in the food shops, at the bus stops focused on the logistics of getting as many people as possible to participate.

With the mid-afternoon sun still high in the sky, Tina and Mark hugged Reeta and hurried home for a snack before their meeting at the bus stop.

Tina rushed across the compound to her building, which was virtually indistinguishable from all the others. The gloomy hallway felt like a cave after the dazzling sunlight. In the dim light of a bare bulb, she pressed the button for the elevator and waited, hoping she wouldn’t have to climb up twelve flights of concrete stairs. The building’s solitary elevator worked intermittently.

Today, the doors opened. Once inside, she felt claustrophobic since the elevator was only slightly bigger than a closet. It chugged up the shaft and bounced to a stop. Before the doors opened, the reek of cabbage and wurst assaulted her nose and she held her breath as she strode down the hallway. As she walked into the small anteroom shared by two apartments, she heard the neighbour’s radio blaring Russian music. She left her shoes in the hallway, found her key and opened the door.

She didn’t expect anyone to be at home Wednesday afternoon. Her parents had given her permission to go to the political protest with Marc and his family since they were going directly from work.

The one bedroom apartment seemed to become smaller with each passing year. Her bedroom, only a few steps from the front door, housed a single bed, a small fake wood desk and real wood bookshelf. The afternoon sun poured onto her faded green bedcover. Tina flopped onto the bed, rolled onto her back and propped Reeta’s teddy bear on her stomach.

“So, what do you think of this independence thing?” she asked the bear. The dream of self-rule in the Baltics had been whispered only amongst trusted family and friends as long as she remembered. But would she be risking her life tonight? What if Vladimir proved right and the Red tanks flattened their hopes?

Maybe life under the hammer and sickle wasn’t so bad. The black market provided most things they couldn’t find in the shops. For a dear price, of course. She’d only savoured a banana once in her life.

A slight breeze flowed through the open window and brought with it the possibility of liberty, as ephemeral and persistent as the smell of the sea.

“No, little bear, freedom is the only answer,” she said, holding the bear’s caramel coloured paws. She rolled up to sit on the edge of the bed, rested him against the pillow and patted his shabby head.

She made herself some toast, downed a glass of milk and changed into jeans. She located a candle and matches to take with her, grabbed a jacket and took a last glance in the mirror.
She drew her long blond hair back into a ponytail and grimaced at her shapeless blue and white t-shirt, baggy jeans and too tight running shoes. Maybe self-government would bring a better selection of clothing in the stores. She pulled the door tight behind her and locked it.
As she pushed the button for the elevator, she remembered she’d left Reeta’s teddy bear on her bed and sprinted back to the apartment.

Bear in hand, she rushed back as the elevator door opened. She stepped in, only to encounter Vladimir and one of his buddies. The elevator door glided shut her before she could back out. She stuffed the bear into her shoulder bag.

Vladimir leered. “You’re in a hurry, aren’t you?” He pushed the stop button, and the elevator bounced gently as it stopped descending.

Tina held her breath and clutched her bag in front of her as she considered her response. She eyed his athletic shoes - Nikes apparently but almost certainly counterfeit.

“My friends are waiting,” she said as she crossed her arms and bit on the fingernail of her right thumb.

“My friends are waiting,” Vladimir mimicked. “What are they waiting for? Do you think a couple of people holding hands along a road are going to make a difference? The tanks will roll in and shoot all of you.” Inches from her face, he reeked of garlic and she noticed his crooked front teeth.

She forced a glimmer of a smile to her eyes and lips as she considered the best way to deal with Vladimir. “Even the Russians don’t have enough bullets to stop eight million people from three countries.” She leaned against the elevator wall. “Even if I don’t go, it won’t stop anyone else from going. The world is going to know that the Baltics want independence from the Soviet Union.” She relaxed her arms and tried to breathe evenly. There was nothing else she could do.

He took a step toward her, his face only inches from hers. Sweat and garlic offended her nose. She held her breath and clenched her fists. She subtly shifted her balance to her left leg. Could she knee him in the groin? Of course she could, but then what?

“We don’t have time to waste on,” Vladimir sneered at her and turned his back. ”Next time. And there will be a next time.” As he pushed the button to resume the elevator, he said to his friend, “They haven’t got a chance.”

Tina continued to hold her breath. Once the door opened, she bolted out of the elevator and dashed outside to gulp the clean air. She didn’t care if Vladimir thought she was running from him, she needed to get to the bus stop.

Running hard, she dodged people as she veered on and off the path. She arrived at the bus stop panting but just in time to leap on the bus with Marc and his family. They settled into seats at the back of the bus. The only advantage of living far from town was getting a seat on the bus.
Her breathing now even, Tina looked out of the grimy bus window. Even this far from the city centre, traffic was heavier than normal.

“Marc, look at all the cars heading toward the city,” she said. “We’re going to make history, I just know it.”

As the bus got closer to the old city centre, hundreds of people filled the sidewalks, walking from all directions, holding candles, some with flowers and many holding the blue, black and white flag high in the air.

Finally, the bus turned onto the main road leading to Riga. Tina gasped as she saw the continuous line of people connected shoulder to shoulder along the road. Young men still wore sunglasses despite the evening light. Old women shuffled along the road, stooped and wrinkled. Small girls carried small bouquets of late summer flowers as their mothers held candles, protecting the flame with cupped hands. Cars parked end to end on the side of the road. Countless Estonian flags of all sizes fluttered in the wind.

Police stood by as the peaceful crowd made room for more and more people. Tina continued walking for a few blocks with Marc’s family until they finally squeezed into a space.

At seven, a hush fell over the crowd.

Tina took Reeta’s teddy bear from her bag and held its tiny paw while Marc took the other one with his thumb and forefinger.

“Now I feel that Reeta is with us,” Tina said. The fresh Baltic breeze rustled countless flags and raised just as many hopes. She felt energy soar along the kilometres buoyed by beating hearts and warm hands. For an instant, the Iron Curtain rippled and parted, showing the world three forgotten countries.

Historical note: August 23, 2008, will be the nineteenth anniversary of the Baltic Chain protest. Just two years after that protest, on September 6, 1991, the Soviet Union recognized Estonia as an independent country. Latvia and Lithuania soon gained their independence, as well.
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“1999” by Surya Naidu

A gust created by a departing train tunnelled through the station. My hair swept up furiously and resettled in a new arrangement, and as it did, in the midst of the station’s dreary grey I caught a glimpse of red and decided to pursue.

It was 1999, the tag end of a British winter, that season when my plants would drown in the incessant rain and endure the raw bite of occasional frost. I had been headed to the high street to acquire a smart frock and hat for Sunday dinner at my nephew’s. I could have stayed at home that day, perusing the untouched abundance of the Sunday Best. Instead, the fates had lured me to the city shops that gloomy day. And on the way, in Northwick Park Station, I found myself obeying the womanly intuition that had eluded me thus far in my 62 years and following that glimpse of scarlet cloth. I chased it, lungs writhing from sudden action, until the illusion stilled and took form.

It was nothing but a crimson scarf, carelessly wrapped around the neck of a rather scruffy looking man. I quietly took him in. He was no more in height than me though quite a lot bulkier. Or was it just that his slipshod coat was oversized? He looked like a child stuffed into a winter coat two sizes too big because his mother planned to make that coat last two winters. He even had the meek demeanour of a boy with an overbearing mother. Benign on the one hand, beaten down on the other.

The scarf was surprisingly vivid, given its obvious state of disrepair. This man’s wife must have continually patched it with red felt in vain attempts to restore it to its original glory. Perhaps she had lovingly bestowed it upon him as a first anniversary gift, at a time when their faces still shone with devotion. The rich hue of the scarf would have accentuated his high cheekbones most attractively as they stood sipping hot chocolate in front of the town Christmas tree.

My gaze penetrated this man’s bulky coat and tatty scarf and I found his heart waiting for mine. Our souls intertwined as our bodies would some time later, awkwardly yet with genuine need. We instantly understood that we would share each other’s burden of pain and eradicate each other’s loneliness.
Like the scarf, the man seemed a tad worn with living. I would come to learn he had endured a divorce. His wife had not succeeded in restoring lustre to the scarf nor the marriage after years of raising youngsters. He only occasionally saw his children now and had not much of a relationship with them, simply sent them cards and gifts on special occasions as I did my nieces, nephews, great-nieces and great-nephews and the ever burgeoning cast of great-great nieces and great-great-nephews.

When I took him inside my cluttered home, the plants in my front window bloomed fervently as George showed me what I had missed in all these years of spinsterhood. The wellspring of womanhood burst forth like the tulips escaping from the moist soil in the jumble of my garden. Joyous love had finally come to me, and without the rigours of childbearing and childrearing. My mother and sister bore all the signs of these tiresome tasks. While they revelled in making me feel I had somehow missed out on the delights of motherhood, it looked like an uncanny trap into which most every woman I knew fell and was never freed. In the time that my sister had had her four children, I had traveled Europe four times over. When I spoke of my journeys I was met with silent scorn as if I had learned nothing that was worth a woman knowing.

But after our lovemaking, George would prop his threadbare head on his flabby hand and listen to me. He drank in my stories like pints at the pub after a long day at the factory. I was a fountainhead of adventure and he worshiped my luminous repertoire, my spontaneity. From the refuge of my bed he followed me to remote places. I only wished he had been with me in my youth when I had traveled so unencumbered, but felt so alone in my revelry.

George was 55 and entering the twilight of his work life. He was a sturdy fellow whose masculinity was a welcome force in my life. He penetrated parts of me that had leathered over after years on my own. He held forth the promise of things becoming fixed. If I couldn’t, he could pry open doors to rooms in my house that concealed the embarrassing disarray of my desolate solitude.

I had always loved the city shops and all their offers of better times. I shopped incessantly and impulsively. I had quite a few years back bought a new cooker. I saw projected onto its sleek black top languid candlelit meals. George could surely move the cooker from the position it had stood in since the delivery boys had dropped it aimlessly in the middle of the back hall.

The only use the cooker had served since was as a shelving unit for my tins and packets of food. When George came into my life, I quickly learned shame for the utter muddle in which I lived. Till then, the urge to tidy had rarely overtaken me as it regularly did my mum and sister. I thought their obsessive orderliness a hollow assertion of control over their ever-frenzied worlds as mothers and wives.

Their husbands had always seemed to contribute as little as possible to household maintenance, my sister and mum were to be satisfied with the pay purse they were offered biweekly after their husbands’ Friday night pub run. I had held out for a different marital configuration.

Sometimes when I observed my young great-nieces and great-nephews with their well-turned-out spouses I saw what I had wanted back in those days. These couples balanced illuminating careers, glamorous vacations, and the conscientious upbringing of their children with seeming ease. Had I been a young person today, would that be me?

It was too late for such aspirations, but my newfound nesting instinct heartened me. I suddenly longed to invite my relations in past the front door and offer them tea in the sitting room. Up till now the only occupants of this room were a unique array of kitchenware perched elegantly on couches and cozy chairs in their original wrappings.

My plants greedily gulped the water I offered them in the sweaty heat of summer. I thirsted for a sustained transformation in my life. George respectfully did not venture into the parts of my home that were cordoned off by stacks of books intended for shelves I was yet to purchase. He never questioned the absolute shambles of my home, nor the persistent stench that radiated from the kitchen quarters. He was oblivious to the cooker in the back hall.

How awful must have been his wife that he was willing to accept this state of affairs and my wretched arms? What could an old sack of bones offer him in comparison to that lithe being he had shared his previous life with? I had seen her once. She had to be ten years younger than him, and with that age difference came high expectations of how life should treat her. Her experiences were yet to fill her with resignation.

She seemed a determined and precise sort. Her tidy hair was pinned just so above her ears. Her scarf was not mended, but new and in the latest palette. She held her features stringently and she spoke curtly. Her cursory glance in my direction showed that she was not in the least disturbed by my presence in her ex-husband’s life. I apparently posed no threat to her self-image. She had eventually discarded George when mending and tending him had not worked. She was going to move on to the better life he had never quite offered up. She would never have a cooker in the middle of her back hall, this one.

On an unremarkable spree in the green grocer one day, I responded once again to a restless impulse and walked out with a sturdy cardboard box. Once home, I attacked the cooker with fervour. I began to feel giddy in a way I hadn’t since I was a schoolgirl swooning on a crush. I entertained fantasies of George taking me against the now lustrous surface of the cooker.

Devoid of its dusty companions, the cooker looked naked and vulnerable. I rifled through the contents of my sitting room and uncovered my state-of-the-art sauce pans. On the cooker I carefully arranged the ingredients for the Bolognese sauce I had learned to prepare in Italy 40 years ago. I was hardly aware of my plump tears until they splashed the immaculate surface of the cooker. A scene from “Like Water for Chocolate” came to mind. The protagonist weeps disconsolately into her cook pot and her despair infects her guests. My tear-laced meal would drive George to ecstasy. Most importantly, he would acknowledge how painful it had been for me to confront the cooker and the mad mess I had allowed to take over because no one was watching and no one cared.

I could not connect the cooker’s electric cord to the wall outlet and so the repast I urgently wished to prepare would have to wait until tomorrow night once the cooker was moved to an appropriate spot in the kitchen. I was exhausted at any rate and yearned to luxuriate in a bubbly bath. This would be a tricky enterprise as the bathtub was overflowing with a stockpile of cosmetic products. I would have to do with a shower in the stall, which was free of debris, though a bit mouldy.

I freshened up and sorted out some make-up from the bathtub and for the first time in years applied it to my face and neck. How I had aged and yet tonight my heart raced like a teenager’s and soared with the possibilities of my spring-summer romance. I reluctantly opened the door of the guest room to face the boundless pile of garments it contained, and lifted off the mound a never-used frock. Once clad, I lay down for a quick rest-up before the night’s intimacies.

When I awoke my face felt tight and encrusted. I glanced around the room to determine the time. The clock was buried under books and creams on my bedside table. Once found, its face revealed that something was not quite right. Perhaps I had not replaced the batteries. There was no way it could be so late in the evening already and George not here. He was due around 6:00 and here it was gone 11:00. How could this be? The heavy curtains over the windows gave no evidence of the time until I briskly whisked them open. A flutter of dust and cat dander pervaded the air and temporarily impeded my vision, but soon enough the truth was exposed.

It wasn’t that it was late in the evening but late in the morning. Things were worse than they had seemed a moment ago when George was five hours late. Now the effort of calculating how many hours he really was late was too much for my mind to manage. I lay back down on the bed and waited for the spinning to stop.

One day it did.

It was a day not unlike that blustery winter one in 1999. I caught my reflection in the mirrored window alongside the platform. An old lady at 71, wild in the eye, and hair flying from the slipstream as the train entered the station. And then, once more I saw that streak of red cloth. I veered toward the tracks, desperate to keep my eye on that vibrant crimson tinge over there. I ran towards him, arms outstretched. George!

Then red splattered everywhere.
A clutch of family members gingerly step through the backdoor, having made their way through the tangle of metre tall mange in the back garden. It has taken two strong men to break in the door as the frame is swayed and buckled with water damage. They are greeted with a powerful waft of pong as the door gives way. Rodents scuttle off fretfully into the snarl of the garden foliage. Everyone grasps scarves to their faces as the wretched stench of the kitchen reaches their quavering nostrils. Mixed with the dankness of the murky garden, the odour permeates the mood of the group and tension rises.

“How could we have let this happen?” sobs a great-niece, breaking the sombre silence. Guilt joins tension, and the collective head of the group lowers in shame and distress. How indeed?

“But really how were we to know?” comes the sullen reproach of a great-nephew. The nephews who have broken down the door remain soundless in dismay. This was the home o their mother’s sister, the auntie they have diligently invited to dinner every Sunday and who always presented herself in fine attire and joined in pithy conversation. She was the eccentric spinster auntie who would never let them past her front door but never missed sending a birthday card and thoughtfully chosen gift for their children.

Two nieces have wordlessly entered the kitchen collars turned up, scarves still pressed to noses. One picks up a jar of tomato sauce, another a package of pasta. Their eyes meet as they shuffle through the items sitting on a filthy never-used cooker in the middle of the back hall. All the fixings for a nice Italian meal it would seem. The rodents have long since emptied the packages of cheese and meat of their contents. They have even gnawed through a packet of candles and left hefty teeth marks in the wax.

“1999,” says one to the other in a bare whisper. They are beyond mortification and they have just entered the home. They fear what they will find as they move further in.

“Sorry, what was that?”

“It says Sep-02-1999 on this jar of sauce. That’s the expiry date,” explains the first niece. She pauses as the gravity of her observation settles.

“Mine too, or thereabouts. Definitely 1999.”

“How bizarre! 1999! And nothing to eat since then? Whatever is that about? Well, wasn’t she just the daft one!”

“I keep telling Amy to set up nicely with that fellow of hers before she turns into this lot!”

Flabbergasted by the kitchen’s disuse, the nieces attempt to move forward into the house, but are met with a precariously erected blockade of books. With a shrug the one leads the other out the back hall, primly circumventing the cooker, they retreat to the garden. They will have to hire some men to clean out this lot.

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Sunday, August 3, 2008

My Schedule

Fri, Aug 15: “Writing and Revising,” Orillia
Sat, Aug 16: “Writing Your Life and Other True Stories,” Burlington
Sat, Aug 23: “How to Build Novels and Short Stories,” Woodstock
Wed, Sept 3: “Writing Short Stories,” St. Catharines
Sat, Sept. 13: “How to Get Published, with guest Martha Magor of the Anne McDermid Literary Agency,” Mississauga
Wed afternoons, Sept 17  - Dec 10: “Intensive Creative Writing,” Burlington
Sat, Sept 20: “How to Write and Sell a Romance Novel,” Kingston
Sun, Sept 21: “How to Get Published,” Ottawa
Mon afternoons, Sept 22 - Nov 24: “Welcome to Creative Writing,” Oakville
Thurs, Oct 2: Blue Pencil Room (one-on-one: me, you, and your best piece of writing), Stouffville
Sat, Oct 4: “Real Characters, where to find them, how to create them,” Guelph
Wed evenings, October 15 - Dec 10: “Welcome to Creative Writing,” Mississauga
Sat, Oct 18: “Writing Your Life and Other True Stories,” Stouffville
Sat, Oct 25: “How to Build Novels and Short Stories,” Georgetown
Sat, Nov 8: “Dialogue - the writers’ most important tool,” Burlington

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The Visit, 1950, Donna Kirk

My mother didn’t approve; I could tell right away. It was early Saturday morning and we were eating breakfast at our tiny kitchen table when the front doorbell rang, and rang again insistently. I followed Mom to the door. Pat Ross burst into our foyer, her voice breathless, her expression wild, and in obvious need of comfort. This puzzled me. Pat was married to Mother’s second cousin Derrick, but Mother was not the comforting type. She didn’t approve of the Rosses. They were spontaneous, laughed out loud and never sat up straight on chairs or sofas. The Rosses were the kind of “elbows on the table” people I would have liked if not for my mother’s authoritative ideas about what was orderly and proper.
Mother closed the front door, resigned to the reality that company was here and would be staying for a while at least. Pat threw her luxurious fur coat across the landing at the bottom of the stairs, where it lay like a huge pelt. Heavens! Pat was wearing her nightgown, a silky, clinging, hanging thing, which revealed nipples and hinted at her dark pubic triangle. My mother raced up the stairs, slipping on the supine animal, and returned with her tattletale grey bathrobe which she forced on our guest. Whatever Pat had come for she would now have great difficulty chipping through the icicle that had become my mother.
Mother ushered me away upstairs as Pat sat on her coat and burst into loud sobs, sniffing (something my mother hated) and wiping at her nose with one hand while making a vain attempt to clutch the gaping robe with the other. Dad, unaccustomed to Saturday distractions from his paper, emerged from the kitchen, butler’s door flapping behind him, his glasses balanced on the tip of his nose. After a glimpse of the scene, he did an abrupt one-eighty to the kitchen, where he snapped on the radio to shield himself from the intrusion.
From my post at the top of the landing I sensed my mother’s quandary about where to lead her guest. Surely the living room was out of the question. I had never seen pajama clad people in our living room, except for Christmas and Easter morning, and then it was just family. Luckily for me, that left the dining room, where voices would drift clearly up the staircase.
“Coffee, Pat?” my mother mustered, as she ushered her guest to a dining room chair. “Toast?” Pat didn’t want anything but that did not stop Mother from striding to the kitchen anyway. I could only imagine what she and Dad said to each other. It seemed like a long time before Mother emerged with coffee, toast, jam, butter and napkins, all arranged beautifully on her everyday tray. Mother was seated pouring coffee when the doorbell sounded another double insistent ring. Pat leapt from her chair.
“That’s Derrick! I know it!” she cried.
“Ed!” mother shouted over the radio, “Answer the front door!”
She needed back up, knowing that this second caller could only be Pat’s husband. I watched Dad emerge once again, make his way to the front door ready to do business, glasses pushed to the top of his head.
“Is Pat here?” asked Derrick the second the door opened. I thought surely he’d noticed their family car in our driveway. Without speaking, Dad removed his glasses and placed them, folded, in his shirt pocket while he ushered Derrick through the foyer, past the sprawling coat to the entrance of the dining room.
Derrick’s attire was the opposite of his wife’s. He wore a rumpled black suit with shiny panels on the jacket front. His bow tie hung loose and dangled at uneven angles down his chest. The white pleated shirt gaped open where it was missing several buttons.
Realizing that I would never be noticed, I descended to a more advantageous position halfway down the staircase. Derrick rushed towards his wife, who had risen to her feet and joined the crowd in the hallway. In all my eight years I’d never witnessed anything like the scene before me.
“Whose bathrobe have you got on?” he asked stupidly, staring at Pat. “What are you thinking?”
I assumed he was referring to her attire. My mother securely fastened the belt of the bathrobe around Pat’s waist.
“What was I thinking? How could you?” Pat blurted.
Funny, I thought, she’s the one dressed in the nightgown. Dad, glasses in hand once again, glanced wistfully at the kitchen and then back to the business at hand. Mother was counting on him to take control of this situation.
Unfortunately, Dad had left the kitchen door open, with the radio blaring, but didn’t dare descend further. My position midway down the stairs would just have to do. I tucked my skirt around my knees, something young ladies should always do when seated, and with my chin resting in my hands, readied myself for a glimpse of the adult world with all its mysteries and complexities.
Dad, ever in command, ushered everyone to a place around the dining room table while Mother returned to the kitchen for more coffee cups, toast and fixings, silencing the radio during the process. It was another eternity before she returned with the extra provisions. All the while Pat sobbed into the tissues Dad offered her, and her husband mumbled things I couldn’t hear, to no one in particular.
Everyone sat in silence as Mother poured coffee, asking politely what condiments each preferred. No one dared refuse. Toast, butter and jam were passed around. Everyone ate and drank without uttering a word. The only sound was the Rosses slurping their coffee, something both Mom and Dad hated. I was impatient for this superficiality to end so the good stuff could begin.
The petit dejunier finally over, Dad rose and went to the French doors connecting our dining room to the front hall. Glancing up the stairs, and with great ceremony, he closed the doors with a loud click, leaving me to watch the pantomime from my vantage point.
I could see Pat Ross crying, her expression angry as she spoke and gestured at her husband. His back was facing me but I could see that he held his head in his hands. My parents took turns uttering words that would never be known to me.
In no time chairs were pushed back. The French doors opened. My parents and the Rosses spilled out into the foyer. Derrick attempted to help his wife with her coat, which she snatched out of his hands and threw around her shoulders, its glossy elegance mocking mother’s dingy bathrobe.
Nothing more was said. My parents showed the Rosses to the front door and slowly closed it after they went out. I heard the car doors close, the engine start and the Rosses drove away up the street. Dad, his glasses perched once again at the end of his nose, headed for the kitchen to resume his Saturday morning routine with mother in tow.
My mother was never reunited with her bathrobe, and come to think of it, I never saw the Rosses together again either.


Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

A Pickpocket in Paris, Sherry Isaac

Abby’s nimble feet darted back and forth across the gritty Parisian sidewalk, a well-cultivated anxiousness painted across her delicate features. “Parlez-vous anglais?” she pleaded again. “Please, anyone! Does anyone speak English?”
“Mademoiselle?” A smooth voice rose up behind her. “May I help?”
Abby turned to see a suited gentleman, his head tilted inquiringly at her. She sized him up with a practised eye. Mid-thirties, custom tailored, crisp shirt, silk tie, Italian leather shoes. She shifted her focus to his hands. She swore by the hands, always the hands. Any man could buy a sharp suit, any woman a designer dress or a reasonable knock-off. Unlike her peers, Abby hadn’t wasted time learning labels. She took in his hands. What she saw impressed her: manicured nails, with a clear coat of polish. Hands that counted money – and lots of it.
She hesitated only a second, as if wary, then locked eyes with her prey.
“Yes, please,” she answered. Leaning closer, she entrusted him, showed him the slip of paper, the address she was looking for. A tourist map of Paris was twisted into ruins in her other hand. It didn’t matter; she had dozens of them back in her room.
“It’s supposed to be here,” Abby insisted. A small pout of worry emerged on her pink lips. Men were easier. She bounced a little, like a five-year-old not getting her way. “I have an appointment. Please! I can’t afford to be late. They’ll kill me if I’m late!” No one had ever asked Abby who “they” were.
“Calm yourself, my dear girl. Let me have a look.” Her mark stepped in closer, as she unfolded the tattered remains of the city map. “I’ve never heard of this address,” he shrugged.
It would have been quite a surprise if he had. Abby had given him the address of her public school in a northern suburb of Toronto. She was smart enough not to use her old street address. For one, her parents still lived there - as far as she knew. For another, no sense giving away such an obvious clue if she were ever caught.
“Here, let me,” Abby said, taking hold of Monsieur’s paper coffee cup to free up his left hand. He smiled at her, and then averted his eyes, his concentration focused back on the map. She knew she looked young, and suspected that this mark might have morals. Not all of them did. Her slim figure, almond eyes and high cheekbones drew men in, while her pert nose dusted with soft freckles kept them at bay. It worked well. They could linger with her, stand close while puzzling over her map, without ever doing anything improper. Little did they ever suspect that at twenty-two, Abby had passed the age of consent years ago.
She let her chin rest on his shoulder – subtle flirting never hurt – but more than that, the clean fresh scent of aftershave gave nearly as good a clue as a pair of smooth, uncalloused hands.
He peered at the map. “Oh, yes, here. Right here.” He took on an authoritative, yet friendly tone – so much better to impress her with than a simple, albeit honest “Je ne connais pas.” “It’s just up this way,” he said. “I’m going there myself. I could walk you. Buy you an espresso, perhaps? Me, I could use a fresh one,” he said, taking back his cup, and her opportunity with it. But she was no stranger to compromise.
Abby lowered her eyes. “I’m afraid I don’t have time, but if you’ll see me to the right corner?”
“Of course!”
Abby fell into step beside him. She cast him a sideways glance from under thick lashes. He smiled, displaying beautiful, even teeth. At the corner, he saw her off. “This way,” he pointed without the slightest hint of apprehension, as if he misled pretty young girls everyday.
She turned to leave, then swivelled back on her heel. She laid her hand on his arm. “About that coffee?”
His eyes lit up. “Oui?”
She let her fingers caress his forearm. “What if we made it a drink? Later? A glass of wine? There’s a bar at my hotel…” She let the suggestion fall. He picked it up in a heartbeat, even after betraying her to the city, a ginger waif who’d lost her way.
He smiled and leaned in closer. Perfect. She swayed to the right; let her breast brush his arm. After agreeing on the time and place, Abby’s fingers traced their way down his left arm, lingered at his wrist. “Bye,” she whispered.
She turned and made her way through the morning crowd of pedestrians. A few metres later, she ducked into a doorway and peered after him. Sure enough, he had looked back. She grimaced with regret. He was handsome. And he smelled so good. Still, she had people to rob, wallets to lift. She checked the time on the gold watch that had slid so easily from his wrist to her own. Rolex. Some labels were worth knowing.
When the morning crowd had thinned, Abby rewarded herself with a cappuccino and a chocolate croissant, and settled at a small, shaded table at the corner of the patio to make her calculations. Not bad for a morning’s work. She paused mid-tally as a new wave of nausea washed over her. She’d applied hand sanitizer from the tiny plastic bottle in her purse, washed her hands three times in the restroom before ordering her coffee, but still she couldn’t wash away the image of the greasy, heaving banker. At least, that was what he’d pretended to be.
She knew right away that he thought she was a hooker, but played along when she caught a glint of sun reflecting off his signet ring. Shivering in revulsion at his sweaty palm, she allowed him to take her hand and press it to his cracked lips so she could appraise the stone. A fake. She regretted the move. The Hope Diamond wouldn’t have been worth getting close to that repulsive blob of perspiration. He set his free hand on her hip and all but drooled into the narrow crevice between her breasts. Beady eyes bulged out of his red face, and Abby quickly took flight, tripping over the curb in her haste. She’d heard him take a few stumbling steps in feeble pursuit before giving up, presumably to have a heart attack.
On another street, another corner, restored by caffeine, sugar and another application of sanitizer, Abby prowled again. It was half-past eleven when she braced herself for the lunch hour traffic. Like bees buzzing from flower to flower in search of nectar, they criss-crossed over the courtyard.
In a split second a look of desperation supplanted Abby’s calm confidence as she worked the crowd. She had other ploys in her bag of tricks, and usually switched gears from mark to mark, but today, she was stuck on the map. “Please, please, can anyone help me?”
Abby spun around, and smack into a solid chest. She looked up and swallowed hard. The man was more than good looking; he was beautiful, a work of art chiselled from stone. Abby stared, open-mouthed, into stormy dark eyes that fell to the wrinkled map of Paris clutched in her grip.
“You’re lost,” he said, his voice as smooth and warm as honey. The words dripped slowly off his tempting pink tongue.
Abby nodded. She was accustomed to improvising, but she’d never encountered a Roman god before. She pointed to the buildings along the street then turned towards the clock tower, to signify the urgency of her request.
A quick mental slap upside the head, and Abby regained her composure. She took a quick inventory: Clean-cut, twenty-five, maybe thirty, casually dressed in tan chinos, jean jacket, and a black-buttoned shirt open at the neck, exposing sun-browned skin and a mass of curly hair, sandals, no socks. If not husband material, he’d certainly do for a romping good roll in the hay. Perhaps several. Perhaps a lifetime’s worth. No jewellery, no watch, although he might have had a credit card or two in his wallet. It didn’t matter. There were some things money couldn’t buy. She had a knack for getting what she wanted. The poor guy had no idea what he was up against.
Abby bit her lip, considering her next move. When in doubt, there was always body language. In the past two years she’d spent in Europe, her lack of fluency in the mother tongue had never been a barrier. She was a seasoned pro. The fact that this male hunk of perfection left her tongue-tied was a mere technicality. She blushed, set her hand against his chest, and moved in closer. She stopped short of nuzzling in the depths of his muscled chest, resisted the urge to feel his rippled abs tickle her fingertips through the thin fabric. She lifted her eyes and her chest. Before she could speak, the stranger took her hand, held her fingertips between his warm, sturdy palms and looked into her eyes. Abby melted. Images from the covers of countless paperback romance novels danced in her mind. Soon the seams of her flimsy cotton dress would betray her heaving bosom.
He squeezed her hand. To Abby, it felt like an innocent gesture, fatherly even. Her heart fell. He wasn’t trying to seduce her. He held her hand in his left, and lifted her chin with his right. His look was steady. “I know how you feel. I’m new here myself.” He dropped his hands to his sides. “What’s your name?”
“Abby.” A slip. She’d used so many others, her own name felt foreign on her tongue.
“I’d like to get to know you better, Abby.” His eyes fell to the slender curves of her body. “Would you come sit with me?”
Abby perked up and smiled her agreement. This was a pick-up after all.
Abby felt the palm of his hand resting on the small of her back as they walked to a bench nearby. Her hips swayed with each step, coaxing his hand to dip ever so slightly toward the curve of her bottom.
They sat together in the quiet of the park, the view of the bustling city street before them. A sensation of coolness flitted across her back where his hand had been. He had a gentle touch. She quivered at the thought of his touch in other places. For Abby, the hunt had always been more about the chase than the catch, and like a cat with a mouse, she wanted to draw out this tantalizing game as long as possible.
Her stranger stretched out his hand, carefully lifting the strap of her bag from her shoulder. When he moved to set the bag beside him, Abby leapt forward and pulled it back. He lifted his brow.
“It’s heavy, that’s all. I’ll just leave it here,” she explained, and set it at her feet. Abby hoped she hadn’t roused his suspicion, but there was a small fortune in stolen trinkets secreted in the lining. She couldn’t risk a petty purse-snatcher lifting it while they sat canoodling on the bench.
His smile was broad. “You know, greed is a sin.” He leaned forward. His breath smelled of cherries. His hand disappeared into his pocket. Effortlessly, he pulled out a shining red apple. He lowered his voice. “There are many sins, Abby.”
Sin? Abby thought. Oh, yes, please. Right here on the grass, if you wouldn’t mind. Instead, she said, “I believe it was Eve who did the tempting,” and she took the apple from him, sinking her teeth into the tender white flesh.
“You’ve read the Bible?”
“Sunday school every week,” Abby smiled, and took another bite. She wanted to take a bite out of him.
His fingers trailed though her long loose curls as he leaned in closer. While Abby concentrated on the sensuous curve of his lips, he deftly produced a colourful pamphlet. “Tell me, Abby,” he purred in his smoky, honeyed voice, “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour?”


Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.