In the months following his daughter’s death, James Hillyer’s life collapsed into lethargy and meaninglessness. During those anguished nights, his mind circled around Susan’s death countless times, and he found a few scraps of sleep only after the whisky had dulled his senses.
He had endured that terrible year with her following the diagnosis of stage four breast cancer in England in October 2004. And by strange coincidence in that same fall, he had also witnessed the death of a boyhood acquaintance, Gabriel Fontaine, whom he had met by accident in London. He and Gabriel had not seen one another for over sixty years, and Gabriel was still in a wheelchair after a lifetime with polio. Over dinner he told Hillyer he had pancreatic cancer and had therefore made arrangements to be helped towards his death by a clinic in Switzerland. He pleaded with Hillyer to accompany him to Zurich as a long-ago friend, though Hillyer’s recollection was that they had not been particularly close during that summer with his uncle Chester in Gaspé, Quebec, where in his own way he had sought the affection of a young girl named Odette Huard. Yet perhaps out of sympathy for another cancer victim, Hillyer went to Switzerland with Gabriel.
But all this dying had left him with a life so bereft of meaning that he sometimes wished for the end himself, as he lay awake at three o’clock in the morning.
He and his uncle Chester didn’t like one another much; his uncle was easily irritated by a nephew who seemed deliberately contrary and sullen, while he in turn thought his uncle was a pretentious ass. Chester was a retired teacher at the Groveland School, where James was then in his second year. Or was it his third? It didn’t matter. It was all so long ago. Yet thinking about all this, he could still see Odette Huard. She was fifteen and had grown up in the slums of St. Henri in Montreal, as he would learn. She and her mother and seven brothers and sisters were renting the house across the field from where he lived. She would tell him later that summer that her father, who worked in a munitions factory in Montreal, could not find a flat for them and so they had come to this village to live in a house owned by a cousin. That first day in July 1944, he had watched Odette from his little attic room.
From my window, I could also look across a field to an unpainted house, grey from the years and weather. On that first day, even before I had unpacked my valise, I was drawn to the window by the cries of children and a persistent creaking sound, which turned out to be a clothesline pulley in motion. On the little gallery at the front of the house a girl was taking in clothes, drawing the trousers and flannel shirts towards her and stuffing them into a hamper. The wind was blowing the girl’s dark hair about her face and flattening the dress against her body. I could see the outline of her breasts. Sheer delicious torment to a boy in an age when the sight of a girl’s breasts, even the outline of them, was rare and therefore precious. Behind the house was a shed and a woodpile and an old car without wheels, which over the years had sunk into the grass, rusted and windowless. Several children were running about; a boy was trying to roll an old wheel with a stick, and a girl was pulling a smaller child in a wagon down the lane towards the gate. She was running and the dust from the lane was stirred up and snatched away by the wind. How entirely clear is my recollection of the Huards’ yard on that long-ago summer afternoon! I remember how at the gate the girl veered too quickly and the wagon overturned, spilling the child into the grass. He wailed at once and the girl picked him up and, labouring with his weight, carried him back towards the house. The others ran down the lane towards her, but the girl at the clothesline ignored the commotion, and after gathering the last sweater, settled the basket on her hip, opened the door, and disappeared into the house.
That was my first view of Odette, though I soon learned her weekly routine. Except for Mondays, she was away most of the time, and I assumed she worked somewhere. At seven o’clock in the morning, she walked down the lane to the gate. Resting my chin on the ledge of the window, I watched her through the screen. After a few minutes, an old Ford truck would stop and I could hear the voices speaking French, the quick, run-together notes of another language coming across the field on the early morning air. There was another girl with the driver and often there was laughter as Odette climbed into the truck. I used to wonder how people could be so good-natured so early in the day. In the late afternoon, the truck returned and Odette got out and waved goodbye and walked up the lane, the children running to meet her and calling out, “Odette, Odette, Odette.” A black-and-white dog ran down the lane too, barking with excitement. Like her family, I also looked forward to Odette’s return, and after she went into the house, nothing else was left in my day except dinner with my uncle and the long summer evening ahead.
When he had been there for a few days, his uncle thought he was spending too much time by himself and arranged for him to visit a boy who had been stricken with polio. His uncle told him that the boy was touchy about his disease and he was not to say anything about his legs. Above all he was not to mention the word cripple. Gabriel, he said, hated that word and would fly into a rage if it were mentioned in his company. James didn’t want to meet this rich American brat, but he really had no choice, and that afternoon they drove in his uncle’s little Willys coupe through the mountains to Percé ten miles away, where Gabriel was staying with his mother at the St. Lawrence Hotel and Uncle Chester had become her bridge partner. They played several afternoons a week in the lounge or on the deck with another American couple. The war was then in its fifth year, but it all seemed remote in that little village on the edge of the continent.
He had expected to see a thin, shrunken figure in a wheelchair, but in fact Gabriel Fontaine was tanned and healthy-looking, handsome enough to pass for the younger brother of a movie star whose name he could now no longer recall. Yes, Gabriel had looked like the actor’s kid brother with his neat dark hair and eyebrows. Later that afternoon he pushed Gabriel’s wheelchair along the main village street to the wharf, where they saw the tourist boats taking passengers around Bonaventure Island to see the birds. From that first day James could see how girls were attracted to the handsome boy in front of him. They didn’t cast a glance at James. In the eyes of the smiling girls, he thought he saw what they were thinking as they looked at Gabriel: What a shame! A good-looking guy like that, but crippled.
When they returned to the hotel, James guided the chair into the elevator and they went up to the third floor. Gabriel wanted to show him his hotel room, where they could listen to some of his big band recordings. Tommy Dorsey and Harry James and Benny Goodman. As he pushed Gabriel’s chair along the hallway, they passed an open door where two chambermaids were cleaning a room. One girl was bent over making the beds and the other, a plumper girl, was dusting the furniture. Gabriel began to joke with the girls, but they seemed to be used to him as they talked in French to one another. When the one making the bed looked up, he recognized her as the girl from the house across the field.
In the hotel he noticed the cast in Odette’s left eye and he liked it. He saw it almost as a beauty mark suggesting something mysterious. Gabriel said things that made the girls laugh. Life in a wheelchair had not kept him from being funny, and James could see how girls liked that in a boy. He would have given anything for the look that Odette gave to Gabriel in the hallway of that hotel. But after the girls left and he and Gabriel were in his room, Gabriel made fun of Odette’s eye. He called her something. What was it? James thought it was unkind, especially as Gabriel had also told him that Odette was his summer girlfriend and they had kissed and fooled around in his room. It was all very maddening. What had the bastard called her anyway?
Thinking about that summer of 1944 was like being diverted by an old movie that only he and Odette and Gabriel were in, and during the dark hours in the winter of 2005 it kept him from dwelling on Susan’s absence in his life. Then one rainy April night he couldn’t stop thinking about Odette Huard. Gabriel was gone, of course, but was Odette still alive? What had her life been like? Had she married? Had children? Travelled the world or stayed in one place? Getting up, he padded barefoot to the window in the front room of his apartment and looked out at the wet night. Now and then he saw a car passing along Avenue Road. For a year now he had been looking for something to do with his life. Anything to distract him; anything that would at least make his days more bearable. If Odette were still alive, she would be what? A year older than him, that would make her seventy-seven. Good Lord! But still he felt this strange excitement at the thought of doing something that no one who knew him would expect. He would try to find her.
At the window on that April night he thought about his life and how unadventurous it had been. For forty years he had been a professor of English literature, teaching the poetry of Tennyson and Hopkins and other long-dead poets to bored students. Now none of it seemed to help him with this emptiness. His son, David, had moved to San Diego with his girlfriend, Nikki, leaving a fourteen-year-old son and a sixteen-year-old daughter with their mother. They lived on a good street in north Toronto, but still David was no longer an active part of their family. As for Hillyer, his daughter-in-law, Brenda, was now his only visitor. He suspected that his glumness had scared away old friends from his university days. And Brenda was a resourceful and realistic woman who after her husband’s departure had returned to her former job as an emergency room nurse. She was getting on with her life and she urged Hillyer to do the same, with her pithy way of describing how to cope with misfortune. “Shit happens, James, and you have to shovel it out of the way and get on with things. The kids are trying to do that and so am I and so should you.” On her visit that afternoon he had wanted to ask her what was in his life now to get on with. What kind of things should he get on with? But he didn’t. She would only have frowned and told him to stop being the academic who can’t see life clearly for stepping on it. Brenda was a tonic in his life, and though she was doubtless correct about his persistent ennui, he still thought “shit happens” was a strange and rather hurtful way to describe the death of his daughter.
Brenda, however, always meant well, and her bluff manner only reflected the earthiness of growing up in straitened circumstances in a small northern Ontario town. Now she was coping with her husband’s defection, accepting the circumstances and moving on. She had met a young doctor at the hospital and they were seeing one another, though how serious it all was Hillyer didn’t know and didn’t ask. Brenda, in fact, was rather circumspect about it. But she faithfully saw Hillyer once a week, usually on Sundays, if she wasn’t working that weekend, and he looked forward to her visits not minding her bossiness, surmising that he probably deserved it. After all, Brenda watched people facing death every day in that emergency room and so we should all be grateful for life itself, etc., etc. As she told him on one of those Sunday afternoons, “Moping around the apartment all day will get you nowhere, James. Except to that whisky bottle over there,” she added pointing to the bottle of Johnny Walker Black on the mantel. “And don’t tell me it’s none of my business, because it is my business, James. You and I and the kids are family. We have to look out for one another.” He told her then how he wished he were able to be a more responsible surrogate father to Brian and Gillian, but he just didn’t have the heart for it. Not yet anyway.
“That’s not what I mean,” she said. “The kids will be okay. Don’t worry about the kids. What I’m really talking about is you, James. I don’t like seeing my father-in-law, who, by the way I just happen to love, turning into an elderly man with a drinking problem. Drinking alone is a killer, James, and I know it’s what you do to find some temporary release from your grief over Susan. But believe me, it can destroy you.” She paused, frowning. “Look. I’ve never told this to anyone else. But I saw my own father, who I didn’t get along with and didn’t even particularly like, drink himself into a stupor every day for a couple of years after Mom died. He treated her like shit all his life, but there he was drinking himself to an early death. I don’t want that to happen to you. What I think you are dying from, James, is loneliness. Somehow you have to let another person into your life. You have to relearn how to share things with another person. You’ve been a widower for a long time. What is it now, about twenty years since Leah died?”
“Twenty-six,” he said. “It will be twenty-six at the end of January.”
“Jesus, that is a long time. And now you have lost Susan. Is it doing anything for you, just sitting in this place day after day looking for something in that whisky bottle? Why don’t you consider going on a cruise? You can afford it. Go high-end. Stay away from the buffet fatties on the Caribbean trips. Go Holland America or Cunard to the Mediterranean for a couple of weeks this spring. You’ll meet a lot of nice people. Educated people. Those ships are filled with women who have lost husbands through death or divorce. And they are not all fortune hunters. Many, I am sure, are decent women in their fifties, sixties, seventies, and they are looking for companionship. You would be in demand, James.”
But he couldn’t picture himself on one of those cruises, hovering on the edge of the ballroom dance floor on Big Band Night watching elderly people try to boogie-woogie. Yes, Brenda meant well, and now that he thought of looking for Odette as a project, he could imagine Brenda’s enthusiasm when he told her. “Looking for an old girlfriend? That’s a great idea, James. Why not? Go for it.”
Odette had not exactly been his girlfriend, but she was someone in his life he had never forgotten, and how many people can you say that about after sixty years? Why was that? Was it because of her loyalty to Gabriel, who after all had not treated her well and left her pregnant that summer, a fifteen-year-old girl who would have to tell her parents? Or was it just her intrinsic vividness that had locked her permanently into his memory. It didn’t matter now because the whole idea of trying to find her had overtaken him. He saw it now as a project, a puzzle to solve. Something to look forward to each day. And when he returned to bed that night, he felt settled in his mind for the first time in months. And he slept through until morning.
But where to begin? he asked himself the next day. Yet when he thought further, was it all that complicated? He would start with the Montreal phone book. But what if she had married and was living under her married name in Chicoutimi. Or Lima, Peru, for that matter. If that were the case, he might never find her and have to accept honourable defeat. Look for something else to do. That afternoon in the public library he was not surprised to discover two pages of Huards, hundreds in the Montreal phone book. No point in even starting there. The best strategy was probably an advertisement in the classified section of a newspaper. He had seen them now and then in the Globe and Mail. Somebody looking for a son or daughter who had lost contact with a family. Does anyone know the whereabouts, etc. Reward. It was worth a try. He would explore those barren regions where someone was looking for a daughter lost to drugs and last seen in 1976. Or a son, who had drifted away one winter night twenty years ago. He decided to place the advertisement in both Montreal papers, French and English, and he called a former colleague who taught French literature to ask if she would translate an English version into French. Anne Sinclair was only too glad to help and seemed genuinely pleased to hear from him. He had last seen her at Susan’s memorial service six months ago. When he visited her office the next day, he was conscious of being back in the world again, a world where he had spent most of his life. It was nearing final examinations and the campus was alive with the noise of students. It felt good to be out and doing something. He had emailed Anne the English version.
Looking for Odette Huard who lived in Barachois, Gaspé, during the summer of 1944 when she was fifteen. She grew up in St. Henri and returned there after the summer with her family. Pls. phone James Hillyer at 1-416-006-7776.
Email at Memo@sympatico.ca
Within a day Anne emailed him the French version, and that week he phoned and placed the ads in the Saturday editions of both the Gazette and Le Devoir, paying for five Saturdays.
In that first week he felt like a child waiting for some long-sought-after mail-order package. Nowadays, he supposed, youngsters would do it all online, but he remembered, as a skinny twelve-year-old, mailing off the coupon from the back of a comic book for an exercise program that would transform him into a young Adonis. He waited for weeks and eventually gave up, until one day to his delighted surprise, the mailman took a brown package from his mailbag and handed it to Hillyer’s mother at their home on Crescent Road. What on earth was this? she wondered. “Nothing,” he said, and took it upstairs to his bedroom. Inside was a small booklet of exercises that he did faithfully for a few weeks with minimal improvement. He concluded that the best part of it all had been waiting for the magical package. Now he felt a similar anticipation as he checked his email every day. He hardly used it anymore, but each morning he had a reason for opening his little Mac.
After a month with no response, he felt a certain satisfaction in knowing that at least he had tried to track her down. Obviously it hadn’t worked, but at least he could safely assign Odette Huard only to his memory of that summer, a lively, dark-haired fifteen-year-old beauty with a cast in her eye, a willful girl with a good heart. But probably gone forever.
Then on the Sunday of the fifth week, the first week of May, he opened his email to send a message of congratulations to Gillian, who had been cast in the school play, a triumph since she hadn’t thought she had a chance. A momentous event in her young life. And there on the screen was a message from Montreal.
The Odette Huard you are looking for may be my aunt. Please confirm your identity with a reference from employer, parish priest, etc. And reasons for seeking her. McCann@hotmail.com
Hillyer emailed Anne Sinclair and told her to expect an email from Montreal and would she please verify his credentials. Anne replied,
Of course, James. Looking for an old flame? How terribly romantic!!
Good for you.
Then he replied to McCann@hotmail.com:
Thanks for getting in touch. Pls. email Anne Sinclair at Sinclair@UT.ca. She helped with the French translation of the advertisement. If your aunt is the Odette Huard I knew that summer of 1944, I just want to say hello after all these years.
This was all like a game and he could not help feeling excited. The next morning he got a call from Montreal.
The caller had a pleasant voice with a trace of French, though she identified herself as Danielle McCann. She had phoned Professor Sinclair, who had been very helpful. “She thinks highly of you, Professor Hillyer. I have to say I find it quite amusing that after all these years you’d be taking all this trouble and expense to look for a childhood sweetheart. Professor Sinclair did too. She said it surprised her. Didn’t sound like you at all.”
“Well, I suppose I always come across as a dry soul.”
“I have a notion that this sweetheart might be Aunty Odette. She’s my mother’s sister. The Huards were a large family, I think ten or eleven, but some died in infancy. I think eight survived. Anyway, Aunty Odette is the second oldest in the family. She lives in Quebec City with my aunt Celeste, who’s been handicapped since birth. In many ways she’s still a child and Aunty Odette has looked after her for years. They just bought this big house in a ritzy part of Quebec City. Only a few months ago, in January, I think. My mother told me the house cost a million dollars, but she always exaggerates. Aunty Odette was very lucky when she won the Quebec lottery last November. Some of the family said it was twenty million, but my aunt told me it was really twelve. But twelve million is a nice surprise late in life.”
“Yes, indeed. And your last name is English?”
“Actually it’s Irish, Professor Hillyer. Montreal Irish. My great-great-grandfather came from County Cork.”
“Well, I’m delighted to learn that your aunt Odette is still with us in the land of the living. I had a crush on her when I was fourteen. I was spending that summer in Gaspé with my uncle. Odette’s family lived in the house across the field from us. I used to watch the kids out playing. One of them would have been your mother, I guess. Odette was just a fifteen-year-old girl then, and we became friends but not boyfriend and girlfriend. She already had a boyfriend though, a rich kid from Boston who was in a wheelchair with polio. The two were almost inseparable. I just seemed to tag along.”
“Aunty Odette never mentioned anything about that summer. At least to me. But my mother once told me of the old white house in the field where they lived. Odette, she said, had a job in one of the hotels. She lied about her age to get the job. The family was renting the house for the summer because they could not find cheap accommodation in Montreal. It was wartime, I believe. They were very poor, my mother’s family.”
“Aunty Odette has had a rough life in many ways. She met a man when she was young. Barely out of her teens, I think. To be honest, this man was not up to much but he seemed to be a part of her life. When I was a child I can remember her bringing him to the house. He got involved in a number of things and made her life difficult.”
“Did she marry him?”
“No. She never married. She lived with him on and off but had sense enough not to marry him. I’ll get in touch and tell her about you, but I think it should be her decision whether she wants to talk to you or not, though I can’t imagine why she wouldn’t, but she has been a little jumpy since winning all that money. I don’t want to air the details of the family, but some of them think Aunty Odette should have shared the wealth. They think she’s being selfish and that’s made her a little wary of all of us. Anyway, I’ll talk to her.”
“I’m going to write you a cheque for five hundred dollars, Miss McCann.”
“Well, that was the arrangement, wasn’t it? I won’t say don’t bother. I make a good living as a legal secretary but I’m a single woman and I can always use an extra five hundred dollars. But Aunty Odette has had her share of trouble with men. She deserves some peace and quiet now. She looks after Aunt Celeste and I want her to be contented. She’s no longer young.”
“She would now be seventy-seven. A year older than me.”
“I always liked her, but there are family members who don’t. Who thought the way she lived was beneath them. They didn’t like the company she kept. And then she wins all this money. So some are a little jealous and resentful, I think, and that includes my own mother. But I don’t begrudge Aunty Odette her luck.”
“Thanks for all this, Miss McCann.”
“That’s okay, Professor Hillyer. I hope you get together with my aunt.”
That day he paced back and forth in the apartment, sipping whisky to calm himself. But then at ten o’clock Danielle phoned back. She had been talking to her aunt earlier in the evening. “At first when I mentioned your name, she couldn’t place you.”
He was hurt but said only, “That’s understandable. It was a long time ago.”
“Yes, it was. But when I told her what you said about the boy in the wheelchair with polio, she remembered. She talked about you and the boy, Gabriel. It all came back to her. She told me the crippled boy and his mother were guests at the St. Lawrence Hotel, but you lived in a nearby village in a house right next to theirs. You would go for walks along the beach. She said you were a nice enough boy, but clumsy, awkward, gauche, maladroit.”
“Yes, I was all those things.”
Miss McCann seemed not to be listening. “My aunt said she wouldn’t mind talking to you. She began to remember you when I mentioned your friend in the wheelchair. ‘Ah, the blond boy. Yes,’ she said.”
He wrote down the phone number in Quebec City and thanked her for her trouble. Told her a cheque would be in the mail the next day. He thought of the first day he had been alone with Odette. She had Mondays off from her work at the hotel and he guessed it was the one day of the week she liked to get away by herself. Away from the other children and chores. She would tell him later how she turned her wages over to her mother. Her father sent money, but they were always short. So she needed a day off and liked the beach and the long sandbar that separated the sea from a lagoon where herons and gulls nested. He remembered her on the beach beneath the big iron railway bridge.
On that morning I watched Odette walking down the lane wearing a housedress and a cardigan sweater and those awful Mary Jane shoes with ankle socks that girls wore then. Near the gate she stopped to scold one of the younger children who was following her, pointing back to the house until the child obeyed. That too I found alluring, that blend of maternal concern and sexuality. She seemed years older than she looked, but I guessed she was no more than sixteen. The sight of her that summer morning left me turbulent with desire. Following her, I watched with disappointment as she turned in to the general store. On an errand for her mother, then. I had hoped to follow her past the village to a path along the cliff, where I imagined her stopping to gaze out to sea like some girl on the cover of a romance novel, a girl wondering what lay ahead and where was the boy who would rescue her from her life as a chambermaid and surrogate mother, a boy whose heart was also filled with longing and poetry.
Instead I took the path along the cliff by myself and then followed another down to a little cove where I liked to sit on the rocks. I had discovered the cove the day after I arrived in the village, a secluded haven where I thought I was safe from prying eyes. And there beneath the cliff I was free to indulge my dream of undressing Odette Huard. And so I did in a few frantic moments, the seed of Onan spilling once again on the ground. But as I leaned panting against the rock face, I heard something above me, a rustling among the weeds and wildflowers. Unloosed pebbles were falling through the grass. I buttoned myself hastily, but I was mortified because moments later, glancing up, I saw Odette Huard making her way along the path towards me.
Had she seen me, then? Would she be smiling at the thought of telling the other maid at the St. Lawrence Hotel and perhaps even Gabriel Fontaine? I felt like running along the shore as fast as my legs would take me. Running back to my attic room, from which I would not emerge until the end of the summer. Mrs. Moore could leave my meals by the door. But all I did was stand there watching Odette come down the path. She wasn’t smiling; she was frowning in concentration, for it was steep and precarious. As she drew nearer, I could see again the cast in one eye, a slight turning to the right. That was what Gabriel must have been thinking about when he called her his cockeyed little chambermaid.
She didn’t appear surprised to see me there. “You’re staying in the Moores’ house, aren’t you?” she said.
“I saw you last week at the hotel. You were with the crippled American boy.”
“Yes, I was.”
She had taken off the cardigan and put one hand on the cliff face. “It’s going to be hot today,” she said, as she took off her shoes and socks. I could see the swell of her breasts and the hair under her arms as she stood first on one leg and then on the other. Carrying the shoes and socks, she jumped lightly between the rocks to the little sandy beach, where for a few moments she stood in the water. Then she came back and sat down on the sand.
Looking back at me, she called, “He’s very funny, that friend of yours.”
“He’s not a friend of mine,” I said, walking towards her.
She must have caught something in my voice, for she smiled. “Why don’t you sit down and have a conversation with me? We’re neighbours, aren’t we?”
“I suppose we are, yes.”
It is not easy for a girl to sit on the sand in a dress with a boy beside her. Either she draws her knees towards her and hugs them with both arms for modesty’s sake, or else she stretches them out. Odette stretched out her legs, leaning back on her elbows and staring at the water. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sand that clung to her feet. She was looking at me.
“Do you like it here in the village? It can’t be much fun. You don’t speak French, do you?”
“No,” I said.
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter. It’s mostly English around here. I’m from Montreal. We’re just staying here while my father makes some money for us.” She was still looking at me. “What’s your name?”
“James,” I said.
“Mine is Odette.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Why is your face so red? It’s like a big tomato. Your ears are red too.” I looked away. “Maybe you don’t talk much to girls,” she said. “Is that it?”
“Something like that maybe.”
“Well, don’t worry, I won’t bite.”
“I’m not worried.”
It was a still morning and a haze lay across the water. Gulls wheeled and squawked. Now and then, over the wash of the sea, we could hear a car passing on the road above the cliffs.
“Do you like it here?” Odette asked.
“Yes,” I lied. “It’s very beautiful.”
“I thought you might say that,” she said. “Everybody who comes here says that. And it’s true, I guess. But do you really like it here? You don’t do anything but stay in that house and look out at me.”
Shocked? Yes, of course, though flustered would be more like it. All along then, she had known I was watching her, my hapless moon-like face at the window.
“Yes,” Odette said, “I’ve seen you looking out at me through your little window.” Then she did a wonderful thing. A miraculous thing to me. She sat up as if we were already old friends and gave me a quick hug. “Oh, don’t take it all so seriously,” she whispered. “I’m just teasing you. I don’t care really. It’s nice to be looked at.” Her warm breath in my ear. I had never been that close to a girl. Again she leaned back on her elbows. “I knew your name before today. Gabriel told me.”
“Did you tell him that all I do is look out the window at you?”
She laughed. “No. Why would I do that?” I shrugged and she said, “He wonders why you haven’t come back to see him. He mentioned it one day. He likes you. He doesn’t get much company.”
I was imagining the both of them talking about me.
“That Gabriel,” she said, “he’s always making fun of Pauline and me, but he doesn’t really mean it. It’s just his way. He’s very generous. He gives us things.”
“Like what?” I asked.
She was sitting up now, hugging her knees, looking out at the water. “Cigarettes. Coca-Cola. He gave me a book last week. I said I liked reading, so he gave me this book.” She laughed. “It’s got some dirty parts in it. He underlined them.” I was looking at the turning in her hazel eye. I liked it. “Gabriel’s funny,” she said. “He plays his dance music when Pauline and me are cleaning his room. He sits there conducting the band, and I always find that . . .” She stopped. “There’s a word in English meaning ‘very funny.’ It starts with the letter aitch.”
“Yes. Aitch like in hill or hat.”
“Yes. Hilarious, that’s it.” She said it slowly, pronouncing all four syllables. “It’s hilarious when he does that.” I didn’t say anything, and then she said, “But he’s brave too. Gabriel will never dance to that music, and that’s very sad when you think about it.”
“I guess so,” I said. “I don’t know him very well. I just met him that once. That Saturday you saw us together. My uncle wanted me to meet him. It was all his idea.”
She was looking sideways at me, resting her head on her knees. “You don’t like Gabriel?”
“He’s all right.”
Odette then took her sweater and made a little pillow behind her. She lay down and, using a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, looked up at me. It was funny but it all seemed so natural to be there with her. We’d really only known each other for ten minutes, but she had that way about her, a forthright nature that allowed her to enter your life almost immediately. With only a handful of scattered facts to go on, she led the way so that in no time at all you felt free to comment or argue with her.
“Your uncle writes books, doesn’t he?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Books for children. They’re not very good. Silly, really.”
She was staring up at the sky with the little roof of her hand across her eyes.
“Well,” she said, “it’s something to write books. Any kind of books. I would like to write a book someday. You should be proud of your uncle.”
Proud of Uncle Chester? The thought had never crossed my mind.
I may have shrugged again or she saw something in my face, for she said, “Why are you such a sorehead anyway? You don’t like Gabriel. You think your uncle writes silly books. And all you do in this beautiful place is stay up in that room and peek at me when I’m hanging out the family bloomers.” Sitting up again, she gave me a little push, which caught me off balance. I very nearly toppled. “I think you are just not used to girls,” she said. “How old are you anyway?”
“Sixteen,” I said.
“Ha. I’ll bet not. You don’t sound like sixteen to me.” She lay down again. “More like fifteen, I’d say. Maybe even fourteen . . .”
“Gabriel told you how old I am.”
She smiled. “Maybe.”
“So why ask if you already know? Just to make fun of me?”
“Anyway, how does sixteen sound? Like Gabriel, I suppose.”
Odette had closed her eyes and now I could look at her as she lay there. “Gabriel,” she murmured, “sometimes sounds more like twenty-one.” She lay as though sleeping with an arm across her forehead, and this lifted a breast inside that flimsy housedress. She spoke as if in sleep. “Gabriel told me you were only fourteen. So you see I have already caught you out in a lie. The first time we talk and you lie to me.” Then abruptly she sat up. She knew that I had been staring down at her. I was angry.
In bed that Monday night, Hillyer wondered what he would say to Odette the next day, and he went to sleep thinking of the sky and the sea and the sand and Odette’s pale calves in the water. In case she was a late riser, he waited until nearly noon and then called the number. When he heard a voice say, “Allo,” he offered his badly pronounced French. “Je veux parler avec Odette, s’il vous plaît?” There was silence and then the voice yelled “Pour toi, Odette,” and a moment later the voice whispered, “Anglais.” Then he heard, “Oui? Yes?”
The voice was not exactly unfriendly but brisk, a voice wary perhaps of spam calls and other nuisances. “Odette,” he said, “this is James Hillyer. I’m calling from Toronto. Your niece, Danielle, said she was talking to you about me and she said you agreed to let her give me your number.”
“Oh, yes. Danielle called me about you. She said you advertised about finding me in the Gazette and Le Devoir. I couldn’t believe it. All that trouble and expense after how many years?”
“My God. Yes, it must be.” For a moment there was silence and then she said, “Yes, I told Danielle to give you my number. I said I didn’t think you would be after my money.” She laughed and so did he. Hints of the old Odette. Temperaments never change. We are what we were, only in old bodies, he thought.
“No, I don’t want your money, Odette. It’s just good to hear your voice.”
“Nice of you to say that, James. I remember you now. I have been thinking of you and Gabriel and that summer in Gaspé. Poor Gabriel. Is he still alive, do you know? Do you keep in touch?”
“No. We didn’t keep in touch, but then—I know this is hard to believe—I met him by accident in London, England. Two years ago.”
“England, eh? Does he live there now?”
“No, no, Gabriel died that year.”
“Ah, I see.”
“And how are you, Odette? How has life treated you over the years?
“I’m all right, James. I can’t complain. I’ve had rough times but also some good fortune. I’m sure Danielle has told you about our lottery win, Celeste’s and mine.”
“Well, you know, it’s just luck. Blind luck. But for sure I needed some then. And how about you?”
“I’m okay. Retired now, of course. I was a professor of English literature for forty years. I’ve been retired for five years.”
“That’s good, James. I’m not surprised that you were in teaching. I remember how you liked reading as a boy. You were the only boy or man I ever knew who read poetry. I remember you had a book of poems down in Gaspé that summer and you loaned the book to me. I said I wanted to read some of it but I didn’t get very far.”
“Yes, a book of Tennyson’s poetry. Well, he was a bit old-fashioned by then, and many of his poems are not easy to read.”
“You know, I don’t think I ever gave that book back to you.”
“No, you didn’t, but that’s all right.”
“Well, I’m sorry. People should give things back if they’re loaned to them. I don’t think I understood much in that book, but it was nice of you to loan it to me all the same. You were a good friend to me, James. A little awkward and unsure of yourself but nice to me even though we had little quarrels, as most friends do.”
“You gave me some money before you went home that summer. I needed money.”
“Yes. I was glad to help, Odette.”
Neither spoke for a few moments. She was pregnant at the end of that summer, and he wanted to help her. Fifteen years old and pregnant. And Gabriel did nothing when he told him. Odette wouldn’t say anything to Gabriel, but he had. And Gabriel did nothing about it. Nothing to help her, the bastard.
He didn’t expect to tell her. But maybe it was there all the time behind his memories of her. “I’m planning a little trip. A little holiday for myself,” he said. “I’m a widower and have been for many years. And then two years ago I lost my daughter to cancer. She was only forty-six. I have a son but he’s settled in California with another woman, and anyway we’ve never been close. So, I’m planning this little trip and I thought of going east towards the Maritimes and possibly on my way stop over in Quebec City. I have only been there once and that was when I was six or seven. I went with my parents. So I was wondering if we might have dinner together one night. My treat, of course. I’d love to see you again.”
“Well, I suppose so, yes. Why not? If you’re coming this way. What year was that anyway? That year in Gaspé?”
“Yes, the war was on. My father was working in a munitions factory. He couldn’t find a house he could afford in St. Henri for ten people. That’s why we went to Gaspé that summer. When do you think you’ll be taking your holiday?”
“I thought next Monday I would leave. And maybe we could have dinner on Tuesday.”
“For sure. Why not? I don’t know if Danielle told you, but I live with my sister, Celeste, who sometimes gets a little confused about things. Her mind has never been strong.”
“I’ll give you a call next Saturday to confirm all this. I think I’ll come by train. See the countryside in this early summer weather. I’ll give you my phone number in case something comes up and you can’t make it.”
“Okay. Good. I’ve got a pen and pencil here by the phone.”
“If you give me your address, I could come by taxi from the hotel and we could go out to dinner on Tuesday.”
“Okay then. We live at 8085 Avenue Wilfrid Laurier. A big brick house with a white verandah. We only moved in last January. Where will you stay?”
“I’ve booked a room at the Chateau Frontenac.”
She laughed. “Good for you. I’m told the Frontenac is very nice, but it’s not cheap.”
“It doesn’t matter. This will be an occasion for me. I need a change of scenery. Something to freshen up my life.”
“Ah. Your life now is—what do you say in English, stale? A little stale.”
“Yes, stale is a good way to describe it.”
“In French we would say perhaps banal.”
“That works for me too.”
“Neither of us will look anything like what we can remember, eh? Do you still have all your hair, James? I remember a boy with all this blond hair piled up. Or falling onto his face.”
“Yes, but it’s now white, as you might expect.”
“Yes. Good. What does it matter? We’re both still here. Poor Gabriel. And he died in England? I hope he didn’t suffer at the end.”
“I’ll tell you about it when we see one another.”
“Good. Very good.”
“I’ll phone from the hotel when I arrive.”
“Okay then. À la prochaine. That means ‘see you!’ ”
“Thanks, Odette. À la prochaine.”
When he phoned his daughter-in-law about his trip to see an old friend in Quebec City, Brenda was delighted. “Good for you, James. Male or female?”
“Female,” he said. “I saw her last when I was only fourteen.”
“An old girlfriend. How romantic.” He didn’t bother to correct her. What was the point? Everyone seemed to have the notion that he had some old girlfriend tucked away.
“Well, it will be interesting,” he said. “To see what she has done with her life.”
“Yes. And it will get you out of that damn apartment for a while. This is great news, James. I’m happy for you. The kids will be too when I tell them.”
For the rest of that week he kept busy preparing for his holiday: tidying up the apartment, packing his clothes and paperbacks for the train; he went to the bank for money and told them to expect charges on his credit card from Quebec; he bought his ticket and by the weekend he had trained himself to take more care with shaving. Like many elderly men who live alone, he had grown lazy about personal care. He kept himself clean enough, but often he shaved only two or three times a week, now and then cutting himself under the chin in his haste to get past the tedium of it all. Isolation will do that to you, he thought as he carefully stroked his under chin with the blade. By Saturday afternoon his clothes were laid out on the bed and he had put his suitcase out on the little balcony for airing.
That night around ten o’clock he was watching television when the phone rang. The sound of a ringing telephone at that hour was unusual and mildly alarming; he feared bad news; perhaps one of his grandchildren had been in an accident. But when he picked up the receiver, he heard Odette’s voice. “Allo. Is that you, James? Have I got the right number?” She sounded agitated.
“Yes, Odette, it’s me.”
“I’m very sorry, but something has come up. I don’t think it will be a good idea for us to be together next week.”
“I’ve got my train tickets and hotel reservation booked, Odette.” He was aware that he sounded too quickly aggrieved. But he had always hated changing plans. The bother of it all. And now at his age he hated the idea even more.
“James, I’m very sorry but I can’t see you. It would be just too complicated. Difficult.”
“Forgive me for asking, but are you all right?”
“I’ll be all right, but the next few days is not a good time for you to be here.”
What was the point of pushing it? She was obviously in some kind of distress and she didn’t want to draw him into it. He remembered Danielle saying that her aunt had sometimes led a rough life. Or perhaps it had something to do with her family and the lottery win. He had read somewhere that winning large sums of money could often attract interference and troublesome behaviour from family members.
“Please don’t be angry with me, James. Things in my life are now a little difficult.”
“I’ll change my plans, but I would love to see you when it’s convenient.”
“If you could visit in, say, two weeks, I’m sure things will have settled down here. And it will be early June then. A nice time to visit Quebec. You’ll like it. Is that okay with you? ”
He was looking at the wall calendar in the kitchen.
“I’ll call you from the hotel when I arrive on, say, June sixth. And we’ll meet for dinner on the seventh. That’s a Tuesday.”
“Good. And you don’t have to pick me up here. I’ll come to the Frontenac. I’ll meet you in the dining room at seven o’clock.”
After he hung up, he poured some Johnny Walker into a glass and got into bed. Something was certainly going on in her life. He waited for the whisky to calm him. Two weeks was not so very long to wait, and on Monday he would make new travel arrangements. Then he would have to do something in the two weeks that lay ahead.
Staying in the apartment now made him anxious. And so he played the good grandfather and on Saturday took Brian to a movie. He and his grandson had been remarkably close for the first dozen years of Brian’s life. He had been a funny little boy, constantly amused by the adult world and eager to play checkers or be read to by his grandfather. Hillyer thought he could see a good deal of his younger self in Brian. But over the last couple of years, the boy had become more distant, more closed in. He had never really been close to his father, but now he seemed to be distancing himself from everybody; Brenda seemed at a loss as to how to reach him. And so at her request Hillyer had taken the boy to a Saturday afternoon movie where they watched a young woman, who was really a vampire, lure the handsome young man to her apartment. At age twelve, Brian would have laughed at the clunky plot and bad acting, but now two years later he just seemed restlessly irritated by it all. There was a little sex in the movie, just enough to entice the young teenage crowd without alerting the censors. It didn’t matter. Both grandfather and grandson were bored, and they left early for a visit to Tim Hortons.
At the end of the day Brian thanked him politely. Hillyer could see that the boy, while trying to be happy, was finding it very difficult. Still his good manners never deserted him. Brenda said he was terribly sarcastic around the house, but at least with Hillyer he was polite. He was just the age Hillyer had been in 1944 when he had met Gabriel and Odette. Brian’s sixteen-year-old sister, Gillian, missed her father more. She had visited him the year before in California but phoned after only a week to say she wanted to come home. She couldn’t stand Nikki Martin, the young woman her father was living with. This summer was supposed to be Brian’s turn to visit, but as yet he hadn’t revealed any great enthusiasm for the trip.
In the second week, Hillyer visited an old friend and former colleague, John Matheson, who was almost the same age as Hillyer. He had been a specialist in Coleridge, but he was now in a nursing home with an oddly twisted face, recovering from a stroke that unhappily had also left him speechless, deprived of words: a cruel fate for a man who had devoted his life to language. He had made his living with words, but now it seemed he could only scribble them on pieces of paper. There were pages strewn on the floor by his bed, the letters half an inch high. BED PAN PLEASE. Another with HELLO JAMES. That afternoon Hillyer sat by his friend’s side as he held up a piece of paper that said TALK TO ME. I AM LISTENING. But after an hour John had reached for another sheet of paper, TIRED THANK YOU FOR COMING. Then he had turned his face to the wall, and Hillyer left. John had always been such a polite man. Now he was reduced to grimaces and gestures and bits of paper with scribbled words upon them.
When a few days later Hillyer boarded the train for Montreal, he was grateful to be leaving Toronto. The stroke that had felled John Matheson, however, bothered him, and as the train moved eastward he sat by the window in business class with a cup of coffee thinking of his friend in the nursing home. Anything in life can happen, particularly in the late years. There is never a shortage of personal catastrophes. For the elderly, disfigurement, decline, and death. It was all out there waiting and he knew it. Hillyer in some way was still fortunate. Was this schadenfreude? Maybe. Like his grandson, Brian, he had always been fascinated by misfortune. When Brian was nine or ten, he liked to read accounts of people with terrible diseases. They seemed to fascinate the child. Was it the same with him? Had his visit to the nursing home actually made him happier, more grateful for his own health? He wasn’t sure. He only knew that looking out the window at the green fields and trees and the early summer sunlight, he felt somehow grateful. He could still do this. He could still get on a train and visit a woman who had once been a lively and vivid presence in his life. It was, he thought, a small miracle that she had even remembered him. He thought back to how angry he’d been on the beach the first time they had actually talked.
“You’re French,” I said. “Where did you learn to speak English?”
“In Montreal,” she said. “I grew up in Montreal. I’m only here for a while. My father lives in Montreal. He works in a factory where they make gun shells and bombs. He earns good money after being out of work for a long time. This is only our first year here. My father moved us here last October because it’s cheap. A cousin of ours owns the house. He works at the same place as my father, but he doesn’t have as many kids, so he moved his family up there. I have seven brothers and sisters. Try to find a house in Montreal to rent for ten people. My father is saving money for us, though.” She was shaking the sand out of her sweater. “He’s coming for a visit next month. I can’t wait. He’ll bring me some books. Maybe a new dress or a skirt. My father can actually buy clothes for a woman. He buys all my mother’s clothes. Not many men can do that.”
I felt chastened by her story. Wanted to compliment her. “Your English is really good.”
She looked at me as if I’d insulted her, and of course I had. I’d patronized her with my remark, though I hadn’t meant to. “I speak good English,” she said, “because my father taught me. I also speak good French, but my father says that you need English to get ahead. The English run things in Quebec. They run the banks and the railways and the big stores, Eaton’s, Simpson’s, Morgan’s. You have a better chance if you speak English . . .” She stopped and then said, “My father is an interesting man. I am very proud of him. He speaks English, French, and Latin. He learned his Latin in a seminary. Are you a Catholic?”
I shook my head.
“I didn’t think so,” she said. “Most English people aren’t Catholic. That’s why they own everything, my father says. He has no love for the Church anymore. I’m the only one he talks to about it, and it makes my mother mad because she’s very devout. You can see that for yourself when she takes my brothers and sisters off to Mass every Sunday. I work on Sundays, but I still go to Mass when I can, but I’m more like my father than my mother. My father was going to be a priest, but he quit. He told me it didn’t work for him. He didn’t like what he was being told. He liked to read books too and there were a lot of books that he was not allowed to read, and he didn’t think that was right. Books on religion and science and philosophy. My father is interested in all that stuff, and they wouldn’t let him read about it, so he quit. And his mother and father, his brothers and sisters, none of them will speak to him now. The whole family is against him.” She was leaning forward, hugging her knees again, rocking a little. “It will be good to see him and have a talk. It opens up my brain when I talk to him.”
It was hot by then on the sand. We looked out to sea and watched the clouds moving in from the southwest. Farther down the beach we could see children playing under the railway bridge where the water was warmer. The big iron bridge above the children crossed a river to the sand bar that formed a natural barrier between the sea and the lagoon, a large tidal pond where seabirds rested and fed on little islands of marsh grass. On the seaward side of the bar was a long crescent of beach that stretched around the bay almost to the village of Percé.
Odette stopped gazing at the children and looked at me. “You should go and see Gabriel,” she said. “He needs a friend for the summer and so do you. The boy is in a wheelchair. It wouldn’t be any skin off your face to take him out and have a look at the girls and the tourists, would it? That mother of his is too busy with her friends, playing their card game. What do you call it? Bridges?”
“Bridge,” I said. “Singular, and the expression in English is ‘skin off your nose.’ ”
“Oh, yah?” she said. “Well then, it would not be any skin off your big nose to be a friend to that boy. And you need a friend too, Mister Sorehead. You can’t stay inside Madame La Plotte’s house all summer.”
“Please don’t call me that,” I said.
“You don’t have much humour in you.”
“I don’t like to be made fun of, no.”
“I’m only teasing you. Don’t take it so tough.”
“Hard,” I said. “Don’t take it so hard.”
“Okay. Don’t take it so hard.”
I shrugged again. She was right. I took myself too seriously, and if I wanted to be this close to her, I would have to learn to parry her mocking remarks and adjust to her offhand manner. I didn’t know how to talk to a girl, but I vowed I would learn. I knew sitting next to her on the beach that day that I would never be her boyfriend. I was too young, too callow for her; I had already been relegated to the role of harmless eunuch, the platonic friend, the younger kid who just hangs around sniffing. But it was better than nothing. Being close to her like that, I could still enjoy her slightly rank smell, the sight of a mole on her not quite clean neck, and that cast in her hazel-coloured eye, the sand between her toes.
As we started back along the shore, she was carrying her shoes and socks and sweater. Walking slightly behind her, I could admire how her feet in the sand lent a shapeliness to her pale calves. I asked her why she called Mrs. Moore Madame Something-or-other.
“Madame La Plotte,” she said. “The old bag doesn’t like us. She thinks we’re just a bunch of ignorant French Canadians with too many kids under one roof. We’re always running around the house yelling at one another. She thinks she’s better than us, but I’ll bet she hasn’t read as many books as my father, goddamn her eyes.”
“But what does the word mean?” I asked.
Laughing, she turned around and began to walk backwards. “What does it mean? I don’t think you’re old enough to know that.”
I sprang forward and pushed her, the schoolyard impulse of a fourteen-year-old boy who feels challenged or insulted, even in jest, and I regretted it the moment I touched her. She stumbled backwards and fell. “I’m sorry,” I said reaching down for her. “I didn’t mean it.” But as she was getting up, she knocked my hand away.
“What a bully you are for your age, already beating up girls.”
I must have looked contrite enough, because she laughed. “Forget it. If I really felt like doing something, I would kick you in the balls. Just see if I wouldn’t.”
“You can kick me,” I said, “but not there, please.” We both laughed at that and I felt a rush of exhilaration, for I knew we were going to be friends. I had picked up her shoes and was knocking the sand out of them.
“Tell your uncle,” Odette said, “that you want to go to Percé with him this afternoon. Tell him that you want to see Gabriel again. That you want to be his friend.”
“He already has a friend,” I said. “He has you.”
“Me?” she said. “A friend?”
“Sure, he told me you were pretty good friends.”
“He did, eh? Well, that’s his opinion. We kid around when I’m cleaning his room. But don’t forget that I’m cleaning his room. That’s not what friends do. That’s what people like me do. People like me are just servants to Gabriel and his mother. And to you and your uncle if you were staying at the St. Lawrence Hotel. You’re all rich.”
I wanted to say that I wasn’t rich, that the rich were in another camp where I didn’t belong or want to be. But I had come to Gaspé from Ontario by train in a sleeping compartment reserved for me by my father. My uncle wrote books and played tennis and bridge and drove a car. I went to a fancy school like Gabriel’s. I badly wanted to be on her side, but how could I? That morning I had to settle for the notion that at least I had established a beachhead, a word I learned from reading the newspapers in the Groveland library after D-Day.
He hadn’t travelled by train in years, and as he saw the sign for another small Ontario town, he thought of those Sunday train rides to Groveland School after a holiday. The onset of nerves as the train stopped and he and other boys were met at the station by the driver and a teacher who stepped down from the school bus. Ahead lay another two months of dormitory life with its smart alecs and bullies, and the endless farting. The long talks into the night, the murmur of voices. The prefect’s flashlight in their faces. “Get to sleep, you guys.” A kind of desolate sadness taking over as he stood in line to board the bus, already missing his mother.
Now so many years later he sensed that he had reached some kind of turning point. Or was it just the green fields and the trees under the early summer sky or the thought of again meeting Odette Huard? Nothing in his life had changed in the last two weeks. Susan was still gone forever. But perhaps those grief counselors he read about were correct. In time deep wounds heal and people pick up parts of their lives and try to put them together again. He knew that Susan and her absence would always be there, embedded in his memory. How could she not be? But perhaps he could learn to live with his loss. When the pretty attendant came by, he ordered a Bloody Mary, and the salmon for lunch with a glass of white wine. Or maybe two? She smiled at him. “We’ll look after you, sir.”