A storm was imminent, as the new 2040 pickup crawled along the old country road that lay strewn with potholes, some deep enough to break an axle. It was now October and the sky threatened, as dark, ominous clouds gathered over the lake, yet rain would be welcomed, for the hot summer had been extremely dry. All in all it had been a good growing season, for even with the lack of moisture, the grapes hung in heavy clusters on the dried vines awaiting the huge harvesters that would soon strip them clean. As he drove along, Dr. Joseph Wychmere found it difficult understanding any plausible reason why his only sister chose to remain in what he considered a godforsaken backwoods, as he snaked his truck around the newest cataract in the road, and as he approached a huge purple arbour, heavily laden with roses in pink and white jutting among trailing ivy of lush forest green, the wind picked up. Casting his eyes toward a derelict sign swinging precariously overhead, its white chains holding only one side secure, he sighed as he shook his head.
“Em has got to get that thing fixed before it falls completely off. My God she’s totally letting stuff fall apart,” he uttered in a disgusted manner as his ocean blue eyes travelled across the lovely hand-scrolled Flower-Luvs Stables, its letters proudly displayed between two brown and white stallions etched into the aging wood allowing the observer their first sight into what awaited them.
Inching forward, his eyes soon fell upon a petite woman sitting astride a huge chestnut stallion. The powerful steed was running at full gallop across a dry field of sweet clover as the girl held fast to its well-muscled back.
“Hang on, sis!” exclaimed Joe anxiously, swallowing hard as he watched both horse and rider soar high above an old wooden fence.
His brotherly pride showed as he nervously watched her knowledge of the horse play out before him, her long blonde hair flowing in the wind, its flaxen sheen reminiscent of fine corn-silk, while her suede-clad legs clung to the animal’s heaving sides as she rode him bareback toward another jump. She was now in her middle years, yet time had not robbed her of her beauty for her cobalt-blue eyes could still command a man’s attention whenever she cared to flash them his way. Over the years she had captured the heart of many, but none could ever hold her interest like the beautiful horses she so dearly loved. The chestnut galloped on, its white feet pounding the solid earth with authority as it readied itself for what was to come; then before anyone could utter a sound, the woman briskly swung him around to charge the rickety old fence once more, soaring over it as though it was never even there. It was then her eyes caught her brother’s engaging stare.
“Hi, little Joe!” she called loudly, waving her arm high above her head in a frantic manner.
The horse suddenly charged the red truck like a bull out of the chute. For a few nerve-racking moments Joe thought they would surely collide, but just as he was ready to engage the gears and hightail it out of the way the excited rider brought her mount to a thundering halt, dust as well as a few stones flying.
“Hey! Watch it!” Joe yelled at the same instant she was shouting, “Sorry, bro! Guess he doesn’t want to quit.” Lowering her voice, she continued, “Can’t say I blame him, because the way I’m feeling right now the road’s not long enough or the wind strong enough.” Staring at him with fondness, she generously sighed, “I’m so glad you’re finally here.”
Emily slid off her mount’s sweat-laden back just as her brother slid out of his truck and they instantly embraced. For a few sweeping moments they remained that way as thunder rolled above them, and rain lightly fell.
“Looks like a pretty good one’s rolling in from the lake,” Joe said, continuing his embrace. “I watched it gathering ground all the way here, actually thought it would beat me too because I had to keep slowing for all those damn craters in the road. The few that I managed to weave around were big enough to bury a cow! Suppose it didn’t help that I got tied up leaving the city at rush hour – certainly wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done – but you know, sis, I swear Toronto gets worse every day. Wish people would try using the commuter systems a bit more. They’ve been after the public to do that since we were kids, remember?” With eyes cast toward the sky, he quickly added, “Come on, you’d best get your horse to the stable before it really comes down. Go on. I’ll be right behind.”
No sooner did he say this when lightning seared the sky and thunder shook the ancient stable, causing its old rafters to moan their complaints in its wake.
“Oh how I love this!” Emily exclaimed, briskly rubbing the chestnut down. “Nature showing its finest! I seem to remember G-ma liking it too – except for the wind that is. She said it was like a wild animal and could never be completely trusted.”
“Yeah,” Joe replied, holding a beige blanket at the ready, “I seem to recall her saying that, and she was always nervous when it blew like this. Come to think of it she had spoken many times about her fear of it, said she’d been that way from the time she was little. I’m sure she must have seen the damage it can do. It would frighten a child – and not only kids, because I can’t say I’m fully at ease when it blows like this. Are you ready for this blanket yet?”
Emily hesitantly laid the brush upon a ledge, as she answered, “Almost. Don’t be in such an all-fired hurry, bro. He’s got to be dry before the blanket’s put on or he’ll take a chill, just like you or I would. Geez, you’re a doctor for Heaven sake, you should know this. Just because you operate on people’s brains shouldn’t mean you’ve forgotten how the body’s made up.” The chestnut’s dried back disappeared beneath the blanket, as she added, “Besides, you should know by now that my horses are my life.” Then smoothing the wool over her mount’s back, her wild eyes bore seriously into her brother’s, as she sadly commented, “I can’t believe she’s gone. I mean, I know G-ma was old and it had to happen sometime. It’s just hard to accept.”
“Hey, it’ll be all right,” Joe replied, watching tears consume his sister’s eyes. “Believe me; I know how you’re feeling. I loved Gramma too, and I’m going to miss her.”
They stood quietly in the doorway watching the storm rage on. As lightning lit the windows, Emily’s gaze stared into it while she reminisced, verbally expressing her thoughts, “I will always remember the fire in those eyes of hers … and the red hair.”
Joe had to smile, as he laughingly said, “Yeah, me too, and she had the temper to match. She never let me away with anything – not like you, sis. It seemed you always had a way with her. But I know she loved me, too.”
“The biggest part of G-ma was her heart and she always gave it freely, to all of us,” Emily replied, adding, “and you’re right, Joe. The bond we had was special. I really don’t know why, except for maybe the way she treated me. She was always open, totally sharing herself. I once remember her telling me that being in love is one of the nicest feelings to ever experience, but just make sure it’s with someone you can actually share it with, be together with, to hold, and to touch. I’ve never let myself get that close to just one man because I never wanted to feel what she lived with every day. I’m referring to the emptiness, and the pain in her heart.”
Joe’s expression grew sad, as he replied, “I’m certain her heart hasn’t been strong for a long time, but she’d never discuss it or let me examine her when I’d be here. I haven’t as yet had a chance to check the coroner’s report. Do you know if the condition of her heart caused her death?”
Mist clouded Emily’s eyes, as she softly answered, “I guess you could say that, Joe, because I know it was broken.” Thunder rolled low, shaking the old barn, as she continued, “I can never look at the name of my stables without thinking of her.”
Again lightning flashed, causing the horses to paw the old wooden floor as if their nerves had suddenly gotten the better of them. Emily walked to her favourite and caressed its soft nose, just as her brother’s hand lovingly rubbed her back, and he asked, “Is that why you decided to name it what you did?”
Nodding her head, she replied, “Yeah. She always called me Luvs – and for Flower. Do you remember the little brown and white stuffed horse I slept with every night for years? G-ma gave her to me for Christmas when I was about two – possibly three – at least that’s what Mom said. Oh, Joe, I adored that little horse so, and I’ve still got her, even after all these years.”
Heavy rain washed over the grapes, removing layers of dust as she carried on. “I’ve always shared her love of horses – suppose it was born into me, and when I had the chance to purchase this farm it was G-ma that helped me with it, though I could well afford it on my own. Thanks to her writing we’ve each had anything we could ever want, but I think the most important gift she gave was the constant encouragement to go after whatever we wanted, and not be discouraged by anyone. So I wanted to name my stables something unique and special, which is why I chose those two names. You know she always smiled whenever she saw it. I never told her why I did it, but I think she would like it if she knew.”
“Somehow I think she does,” Joe replied, sentiment clouding his voice as he squeezed her hand tighter.
The rain had now diminished to a trickle as the storm moved on to new ground. As they walked outside, their moist eyes were drawn to the graceful arch of a magnificent rainbow, the gorgeous colours soaring vibrant against the intense blueness of the sky.
Gazing toward it, Joe asked, “Have you spoken to Maxi? Do you know if she’s planning to come for the memorial?”
Emily shook her head, as she replied, “I don’t know, haven’t heard from her since I phoned to let her know about G-ma. It’ll depend on Grandpa, I suppose, and he’s not a bit well. It probably won’t be long until he . . . well, that’s got to happen too. His health hasn’t been too bad until recently. But I suppose the way they lived didn’t help matters much, I mean her at Wychmere, and him at their cottage up north. I hear he had a pretty good summer aboard the boat, until she fell ill, but he spends most of his time out on the lake with Max. What about you, Joe, have you heard from C-J yet?”
Joe’s blue eyes danced with delight at the mention of this unique name, and he delightfully answered, “Oh yes, you can be damn sure of that. I suppose I drove the airport official mad arranging security for when her plane arrives from Paris. Her flight was running late, and my secretary had a hell of a time clearing my calendar. I finally got to the airport in time to meet her plane but she wasn’t able come with me just then, so I arranged a private driver to bring her to Wychmere. Glancing at his watch, he stated, “Actually she should be on her way right now. Hopefully she got through to her mother. She was putting the call through when I left. I hope she wasn’t caught in the storm, but I’m sure she’s fine. By the way I’m babbling I must sound like a nurse-maid. Now I know what Mom and Gramma must have felt about us and Dad — by the way, how is he coping?”
Emily’s expression saddened, as she said, “As good as can be expected, I suppose. You know how close he and G-ma were, and I know this time’s not easy for him – any of us for that matter. I was with him the other day while he was visiting her and we managed to have a pretty good visit, but I knew he was really worried about her so I didn’t keep him, yet I was glad to have been with him for the brief time I was because you see, Joe, he was with her when she died later that same day.”
The afternoon progressed as the pickup crawled along the narrow winding road that rose toward a secluded bluff above the lake. Tall willows swayed in the breeze, their cascading fronds lightly sweeping the dry ground beneath as the pickup came to a rolling stop. Emily slowly cracked her door, trying her best to avoid the purple Cadillac parked closely beside. They had noticed it, yet their stare could not follow through for it had been drawn to the massive old house standing vigilant before them.
Wychmere Willows sat a stone’s throw from the cliff’s edge, towering high above Lake Ontario with its weathered facade revealing faint traces of the Wedgwood blue it had once proudly displayed. It was a large Carpenter Gothic, built two hundred and forty years prior, complete with batten-board and wrap-around porch on which sat two wooden antique rockers facing the lake. The house was complete in Gothic detail, boasting an old wrought iron widow’s-walk perched high above the faded cedar gingerbread trimmed gables. The graceful willows stood proud, yet in the last few days appeared to weep even more. The massive, overgrown gardens that once displayed beautiful flowers – mostly in white – now stood deprived. However, among this overgrowth, as if time itself had preserved their right to survive, stood multiple bushes of beautiful, huge white roses, their candied scent dominating the air around them. They were everywhere, though once contained in rows of elegant splendour, they now grew wild, yet still remained as white as newly fallen snow.
As Joe approached the Cadillac a well-groomed, extremely pleasant looking young man walked from around the car, tipping his hat in Joe’s direction, as he said, “A pleasant afternoon to you, Dr. Wychmere. I trust you weren’t too worried about your daughter’s safety, for as you can see, she’s just fine.”
As he opened the back door, a slender young woman in her early twenties with flaxen hair and crystal green eyes stepped forth. The driver extended his hand in a graceful fashion, and she softly relayed her gratitude in a voice rich in French culture.
Turning to Joe, she sweetly exclaimed, “Bon jour, Ma père! Comment allez-vous?” Instantly switching to English, she graciously stated, “It is so wonderful to see you again, Father. It has been much too long since I have finally to return to dear Grand-mère’s lovely old Wychmere,” and tears welled in her huge eyes as she looked about in adoration.
“De rien, mademoiselle, and merci bien for your kindness,” relayed the considerate young man “Do you wish me to wait for you?”
Engulfing her lace-clad hand in his, Joe replied, “Thank you anyway, driver, but I’ll be taking my daughter home with me when we’ve finished our business here.”
“Very well then, Dr. Wychmere, I wish you a pleasant evening,” the driver stated in a gratuitous manner, tipping his hat as he climbed behind the wheel.
As the car pulled away Joe’s arms totally engulfed his daughter, as he softly said, “I’m relieved your mother allowed you to come on such short notice. I know things have not always been the best between us since the divorce, but I love her as much today as when you were born. How is she, as well as your grandfather? Did I understand you to say when we last spoke that he was not well?”
Her eyes swept to the east, as she replied, “La mère is fine, merci, but it pains moi to say that Grand-père is not to be well at all. He has been weak for quite awhile now, but on la day that Grand-mère Joy passed he collapsed in his garden of white roses, just like Grand-mère has here,” she sadly relayed, gracefully sweeping her hand toward the gardens as she spoke. “I do not know la reason for this other than Grand-père telling moi la rose – la white rose – is pure and simple, just like la new snow that falls upon la streets of Paris when we are there at Noël. He was most distraught when la news came. No one could console him. He cried forever. He is saddened that he cannot come for her, and has requested I bring her ashes home until it is time that he joins her in death. They are to fly together. This is what Grand-père had spoken about with moi just la other day. He said it is recorded in her will, as well as her diary, and that it was also her private wish. Do you know to what he refers?”
A look of confusion crossed her father’s face as he shook his head, then replied, “I don’t know about that, C-J, but I do know that Grandpa is very upset about something other than Grandma’s passing. I just don’t know what.”
Emily had been standing close by intently listening to the conversation but not taking part. She found her niece’s information a bit unsettling, yet in all fairness to the situation knew how much she adored her grandfather – even if he was somewhat eccentric – but she did remember hearing a little about the topic in question.
“I think I know what she might be referring to, Joe, because I heard G-ma speak about it once – mind you not in great detail, but I’m sure we’ll find out later when we open her private things.”
Turning to her aunt with interest, C-J asked, “Are you in charge of arrangements?” but no one made a sound as the path opened before them, welcoming them as it had countless times before, and they soon found themselves slowly inching toward the massive old house standing proud before them. Lingering among the roses, Emily asked her brother if he had his trusty jack-knife, and after rummaging in his pocket for a few elongated minutes, handed it to her as she finally answered her niece.
“Yes. I’ve taken over for Dad as Uncle Allan and Aunt Penelope are still abroad. They travel so much and it’s not that easy to track them down. You know how much Uncle Allan has always loved to travel, and it’s been awhile since they’ve been home, but I did manage to speak with him the day G-ma died. Maxi gave me a private number in Monte Carlo where he could be reached in case of emergencies, as he doesn’t carry a cell. He said they would get home as soon as he could arrange a flight, but Thanksgiving’s almost here and the flights are booked pretty solid. He asked if I’d spoken with Max, also inquired about Grandpa’s health and how he was coping. Apparently he knew he was not very well. He also knew G-ma wasn’t great either and had talked to her not long ago. By the way he spoke, she told him not to worry, but you know what she was like, I’m sure she knew then that her time wasn’t long, and now it’s obvious. I told him that Max had been staying with Grandpa and looking after him. You know, C-J, I really don’t know what we’d do without her. We’re lucky to have such an accomplished nurse in the family and she and Grandpa have always been close, after all she’s lived with him on and off for years. Not so much when he’s here at Wychmere, but at his cottage. Since Dad can’t, and Uncle Allan wasn’t sure he’d arrive in time I feel it’s up to me, besides I believe it’s what G-ma would want.”
The old lock turned, and the door slowly opened with a low squeak, almost as if it were some unseen inhabitant’s intention. Their eyes travelled over the dark panelled walls that proudly displayed portraits of family members, past to present, all lovingly sketched to perfection. They couldn’t help but stare closely at their own impish faces, and openly smiled when they realized that’s the way they had once appeared in their grandmother’s eyes – maybe they still did. Their smiles continued, as the innocent children continued to smile back. It was a large foyer, lit by a huge wrought iron chandelier holding multiple candles in white. They couldn’t help noticing the tapers had been burned recently, some of which had fallen to the floor creating puddles in odd, interesting shapes.
“Je ne comp rends pas,” C-J uttered, gingerly stepping around fallen fragments as she did. “This is truly amazing to see these candles which were let to burn this way. It is almost eerie.” She ceased speaking, but her stare held to the hardened wax.
“Why do you say that?” her father asked.
She trembled slightly, causing her father’s arm to instantly encircle her, as she nervously replied, “Because, Grand-père does this also, and with la same colours as this.”
The shutters made a mournful sound as Emily folded them against the inside ledge of the huge window, causing the others in the room to look at her in a distasteful manner.
“Sorry,” she said rather sheepishly, “they could really use a good oiling, or something. I didn’t mean to scare anyone, but I feel it’s going to get chilly tonight and I’m planning to sleep over just like I did when I was a kid. I’m even going to sleep in G-ma’s bed like I used to.” Turning to her brother, she clamped her hands on her hips, and asked, “Would you go out to the woodshed and bring some kindling along with a couple of good-sized blocks? I want to build a roaring fire.”
With her niece tagging along, Emily puttered around the room studying numerous artefacts while she waited for her brother’s return. The two spoke little, instead rubbed their hands upon their arms to ward off the ensuing dampness.
Dancing up and down, Emily questioned, “What’s taking your dad so long? This reminds me of when we were kids and about the speed in which we did things for each other – especially if it was chores we didn’t like to do, and your dad never did like fetching wood – then again neither did I, ha-ha!”
A knock finally sounded at the back door along with Joe’s voice calling for assistance. “Will somebody open up?”
As if to further tick off her brother Emily took her own sweet time, for she had decided to have a little fun and possibly lighten the awkward mood, as she scoffed, “Well it’s about time. Geez we could have all been frozen stiff at the rate you’re moving!”
“Ha-ha, very funny!” Joe exclaimed, straining to hold the wooden load within his drooping arms. “You maybe want to help me at some point here?”
The fire’s warmth soon filled the old room, accompanied by a faint hint of dampened musk. Emily sniffed the air in a rather coy manner, as she replied, “Mm, you got to love that smell! I always have. I suppose some would think it’s horrid, but Mom always said I have a taste for rankness, but hey! What can I say? I’m me! Emily C. Wychmere, and I will never change.”
Her niece looked at her in an odd way then asked, “Are we to soon see to Grand-mère’s things?”
That sobering inquiry brought Emily’s enlightened mood to a crashing halt, as she replied, “I guess we should. It’s starting to get late, and your dad wants to get back to Toronto, don’t you, bro?” Her question must have caught him off guard, for his mind appeared to be somewhere else.
“What!” he exclaimed in surprise. “I’m sorry, were you talking to me?” but his eyes remained transfixed upon the crackling flames as they rose higher, carrying the dancing sparks up the flue, as he continued, “I guess I’m just remembering long-ago times spent here in this house. All the fun we had. She pretty much let us do whatever we wanted, didn’t she, sis?” he asked, emotion over-shadowing his voice.
A faint laugh escaped Emily’s throat. “H-yes, pretty much, as long as it didn’t bring us harm. Guess it’s not the way she was with Dad and Uncle Allan though, at least that’s what I always understood Dad to say when he spoke about their childhood. But we sure spent a lot of great times here, happy times, full of fun, and love.” The melancholy expression upon her face was suddenly replaced with a hint of joy, as she gazed at her brother, and exclaimed, “Hey! Do you remember the plays we’d put on for our enjoyment as well as for Mom and Dad’s – even Double G’s? Grandpa even liked them. Hmm, that was always nice to see too because I don’t think it was his thing, but I do think he liked to watch us more than he let on. And G-ma sure encouraged us, the more outlandish the better it seemed. She certainly had an imagination, even loved to dress up and perform with us. You know, I believe she could have been an actress if she hadn’t chosen writing. I think she missed her calling there because she really wasn’t half-bad, even if she wouldn’t admit it.”
Emily’s reminiscence must have triggered further memories within her brother, for he pridefully remarked, “I remember she loved to sing and play her music with anybody that wanted to join in – even with the limited mobility in her right arm. We sure had a lot of fantastic parties and jam sessions in this old house, and some little person might even recall a few of them,” and his eyes looked with question into the crystal green of his daughter’s, as she joyfully replied, “Oui, ma père, I do! We danced and laughed, especially at Halloween in la homemade costumes Grand-mère Joy would encourage you, Emily, and Maxine to make from la dress-up boxes she always kept, as well as helping moi create something all my own. I liked that time of year best. I feel it was her favourite, and it became Grand-père’s as well.”
As the evening might grow long, Emily suggested they make a large pot of tea to tide them over.
“I’m sure G-ma has sweets somewhere here in the kitchen,” she said as she hunted about with interest. “And you know what, C-J? I bet if you look in the freezer you’ll find Popsicles that she kept for Max when she came. Can you believe that, bro?”
“I wouldn’t doubt that for a second,” Joe replied, then casting his attention toward his daughter, added, “And for you too, little girl! She always asked when you’d be coming from France so she could have a fresh supply on hand. Come on, girls. I’ll carry the tray. Lead the way, sis!”
The wide stairs rose before them as they ascended the creaking steps, one at a time, the light from the flickering chandelier making their shadows dance on the walls as they climbed. A landing boasting a massive stained glass window in burgundies and blues greeted them halfway up, and from there they climbed the final rise which brought them to an enormous hall with interesting works displayed proudly upon polished walnut walls. The trio stood gazing at tastefully sketched portraits of family, friends – even pets. Their eyes were also drawn to photographs of numerous houses, located in different places, the largest being a huge, two-story yellow brick farmhouse peeking through ancient spruce trees towering high above the haven below.
“This was G-ma’s childhood home, C-J,” Emily announced in a prideful manner. “It’s a long way from here and I don’t even know if it’s still standing, but I hope so. Dad has taken us there, but that was a long time ago. He grew up there, as did Uncle Allan, until G-ma moved away to be with Grandpa after he found employment down here. But I think her heart always remained there, because anytime she ever spoke about it she always had the sweetest smile.” As she spoke, Emily reveled in this reminiscence, and she also smiled.
They walked along, eyes scanning the walls as they went. Before long another house caught their eye enticing Emily and Joe to exclaim in unison, “Uncle Wally’s!”
With a grin from ear to ear, Joe stared at the girls, as he said, “That was always a fun place to go. You never knew what would happen from one minute to the next. Boy we sure had a great time there. Remember his jokes, Em? Well, ha-ha-ha, maybe you shouldn’t — I mean some were a little, well, you know and I really can’t repeat them in front of my daughter’s innocent ears, but I well remember. Ha-ha, they sure made Dad and Uncle Allan laugh – even Grandpa.”
They passed several open doors before coming to one which revealed a set of narrow stairs leading to the attic, and one to a rather small bathroom resembling a French boudoir with only three clues revealing its identity, for the appearance of a claw-foot tub, pedestal wash-basin, and toilet, each in soft pink, gave it away. They proceeded down the hall, past a huge dark walnut armoire with its doors wide open until they reached the last door on the left. It too stood open, as if to beckon them inside when C-J suddenly realized that each interior door remained that way, enticing her to comment on this fact.
With a knowing smile that made one think one should already be aware of the answer, Emily replied, “G-ma liked them that way. I suppose you could say she was a tad claustrophobic, but she never liked closed doors or tight places, so she always insisted they remain open, unless of course guests were staying where privacy was needed, but only then.” Emily then swept her hand in a graceful manner toward a set of lace-covered French doors, as she stated, “No doubt she would have had those open too, if it weren’t for the fact they lead to an outside balcony that almost hangs over the cliff. Still, I know she did on hot summer evenings to allow the air to come in from the cool water,” and as she finished her explanation, she opened them to reveal the stunning vista beyond. The waves could be heard smashing against jagged rocks below, the recent storm having turned the usually calm lake into a raging tempest. It would be quite some time before it became passive, and they couldn’t help but wonder if their grandmother would find it soothing, or somewhat unsettling.
They cast their eyes around the huge room until they came to rest upon an old fireplace, its ashes now cold but its mantel warm with vases of white roses, and the smiling faces of family and friends, as well as numerous pictures of a dashing young man with exotic eyes of emerald green and hair as black as ebony. On the wall directly above the mantel hung a beautifully painted landscape of a French farmhouse, surrounded by lush green vineyards with clusters of red grapes peaking through the well-laden vines. Their eyes travelled over them, following the endless rows which reached the edge of the deep blue Mediterranean. With affection in her eyes, C-J smiled as she gazed at this desired landscape her great-grandmother had painted so many years before.
“It is so beautiful there,” she softly commented, her eyes tasting the flavours before them. “And I have wonderful memories of playing among la pretty vines, while dear Grand-père sat reading or painting. I believe Grand-mère Joy would have loved to have lived there. But as long as I have memory, she has always to live here at la Willows, and it is with both sorrow and happiness that I am to be here with you both, for what we must now tend to.”
Honey lemon tea quenched their throats as they settled upon their grandmother’s huge four-poster bed, gazing upon two, pastel pink octagonal boxes, one large, one small, both encrusted with dried white roses, which Emily had painstakingly transported from her grandmother’s over-stuffed closet.
Looking at them, Emily hesitantly said, “I feel like we’re, well, intruding upon her privacy if we open these.”
“I agree, sis, but it must be done if we’re to know what she wanted. I’ll open them for you if you’d like,” Joe suggested, his fingers gingerly removing the lid of the larger one.
With intrigued amazement, their eyes fell upon a man’s aged black suit, much like those worn in Victorian times by gentlemen of higher standing. Within the silk waistcoat lay a rather delicate white-laced trimmed shirt with a high collar, now yellowed with age. It was obvious the outfit had not seen the light of day for decades, as it appeared faded with time, making them fear that it might crumble entirely if handled, and resting side by side upon the aged suit, lay two old video tapes of the kind used long ago – one baring a faded label in lavender – the other in blue. Upon closer examination they could detect one simple word etched upon each container: birth on the lavender lid, and ours on the blue. Located beside the tapes was a small, black velvet bag accompanied by a heavy-braided silver chain, and looking at the others as if to ask approval, Emily finally removed the little pouch, and gently pulled the drawstring. They could barely believe what their vision beheld, for displayed in the palm of Emily’s hand was a sterling silver hair clasp, its entire centre encrusted with diamonds. Shards of pink and silver fire danced before their eyes as the diamonds sparkled in the room’s overhead light.
“Wow!” exclaimed Emily. “Look at this! I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this before. G-ma sure had some exquisite jewellery, but I never once thought she owned something like this! Wonder how she got it?”
The diamond’s fire made C-J’s eyes glisten, while she coyly suggested, “Maybe it was a gift from a secret admirer. You know, like in la movies!”
On closer investigation, Joe stated, “Yep, they’re real alright. Boy, this piece must have set somebody back a few pennies, but it’s really nice, isn’t it? Come to think of it, I remember seeing Grandma wear it just last Christmas, don’t you, Em?”
Emily pondered in thought, then grinned, as she replied, “Now that you mention it, I do. Yes! I remember asking her when she got it and she just smiled and said she always had it. It intrigued me, and when I asked if anyone gave it to her, she again smiled and told me she got it in a very special place by someone very dear to her, but she never told me who. I’m sure she meant Grandpa, then again, maybe not.”
“This chain is solid silver. Wonder what it was from, or held?” Joe inquired, rolling it between his fingers, feeling the cool mineral roll back and forth.
“I don’t know that either, bro, but I’m sure it must have held something at one time, possibly a Pendant – or maybe a ring!” exclaimed Emily, hurrying to her grandmother’s nightstand where two rings sat atop each other. She stood gazing upon a gold wedding band lying beneath another ring, also in gold, but boasting a one-of-a-kind emerald in the shape of a shamrock. Her finger quickly went to her lips, as she silently mused, hmm, G-ma did like to keep things to herself and I guess this must be one of them, then said, “Here’s her wedding band, yet she always wore this other one along with it. Dad said he took them off her finger and laid them here after she … well … I always wondered what this shamrock meant. Now I guess I’ll never know.”
“We’d best carry on, don’t you think?” Joe inquired, proceeding to open the smaller box. “That is if we’re to go through these things tonight. It’s starting to get on, and I don’t want to be too late getting back.”
“Grand-mère Joy had quite a few old hat boxes, did she not?” asked C-J with interest as she eyed the contents within. “That one is very lovely, and such a nice place to keep her papers and such.”
“Well, kids, here’s her diary!” Emily exclaimed, hardly believing her eyes at its immense size. “Would you just look at how thick it is? This is amazing. G-ma must have been recording things in here forever!” After moving a couple of items in the box, her eyes shot to her brother, as she announced, “Here’s her will, Joe. I’m sure it’s a copy as Dad’s lawyer has the original, and look—look here. What’s this?”
They all watched in fascination as she carefully lifted a rather large worn school binder out of the box.
“I don’t know, open it,” Joe ordered, his excitement growing, as C-J added, “It appears to be an old manuscript or la like. My, my, do you think it could possibly be one of Grand-mère’s first novels in rough draft?”
Looking closely, Emily stated, “That’s what it looks like alright, but it’s so old, I’m afraid it might disintegrate if we handle it too much. But I’d love to read it.” She continued to exam it along with the journal, taking great pains to handle them gently. “I think we should read this old diary first, because it appears to contain the same contents as this story, at least judging from the beginning lines,” Emily openly mused, thumbing through the pages with care as she spoke. “The majority of the entry titles in her diary appear to correspond with different chapter titles, so does the content. And the manuscript appears to be written in first-person, present tense, as if she were there.”
“What about these old tapes?” Joe asked. “Maybe they’ve got something to do with the diary, Em, or possibly the manuscript. Couldn’t hurt to have a look, what do you think?”
Cradling the ancient tablets against her chest, Emily replied, “Maybe they do, then again maybe not, seeing they were stored away with that old suit. They could contain almost anything. Years ago people used those kinds of tapes to record all kinds of different things, ranging from movies to correspondence, but whatever they contain I’m sure it must have been very special to be kept locked away like this. I’d rather read her written words first, then later, if we still have reason to, we can have a look at the tapes, besides there may be no further need to intrude on her privacy. The will and diary, as well as this manuscript might tell us all we need to know — or wish to.”
They all agreed to wait, and Emily gently laid the opened diary and manuscript side by side upon the lace bedspread. Taking a deep breath, each wondering what the past would reveal, they gathered round, and began to read.
A One in a Million Chance
Another lost morning spent gazing into the worn mirror wondering who the hell I truly was, and where I really belonged. It was a cold, early December Monday in 1999, my usual day off from the design centre, as I had not been working Mondays in quite some time, and as Christmas was soon to be upon us I was trying my best to get my mind set on the fast-approaching holidays. I’d planned to put this day to good use, decorating the house, and hopefully getting some more shopping done as I was fast falling behind. “How could Christmas have come so damn fast?” I asked myself in disbelief. “It seems like Halloween was just yesterday, huh, one would never think the new millennium will be upon us at the end of the month.” With impending thoughts of the milestone, I couldn’t help wondering how incredibly fast time flies when one is suppose to be having fun. After all, is that not the term one’s supposed to use when trying their best to be flip? I decided to have another cup of coffee and just be lazy a little longer. Hell, the work’s not going anywhere, that’s for sure, and I’ll get to it in due course.
The morning continued to drag with little motivation from me, as the more I thought about the approaching holidays, the more I thought about those no longer here to share them. Truth was I had not been happy in a very long time, in fact I was feeling particularly down this year as I had lost a family member just prior to Halloween, and things between Dean and I were – with the exception of the weekly roll in the hay to satisfy the need – anything but great, so there was not much to celebrate. At least that’s how I felt, and the more I dwelled upon the deteriorating state of things, the more depressed I became. What I needed was a little Christmas music to cheer me up. There must be some playing by now, and it always puts me in good spirits, so I switched the stereo to my favourite FM station with hopes of hearing what I wanted, but got more than expected. No sooner had I tuned in the station, than the classic White Christmas began to play. Always one of my favourites, it brought tears to my eyes as I listened while its lovely melody transported me back to childhood, and my heart ached with the memories it evoked. The piece had no sooner died away when I was instantly drawn to the lilting sounds of a fiddle playing a rousing rendition of the French Can-Can, to which the announcer, in his best French accent, was trying his utmost to capture people’s attention, not only to Paris’ over-the-top millennium celebrations, sure to dazzle any onlooker still desiring to breathe, but to a promotion for the upcoming movie Parisian Truffles, which I was dying to see as it starred my favourite actor/musician – not to mention fantasy lover, Cullen Malone, that was being promoted, or so I thought, by one of the most successful confection companies in Toronto whose delectable candy was to die for. As the movie’s short trailer concluded, the over-the-top announcer was enticing everyone to hop aboard his imaginary jet, and then began his pitch involving two tickets to be won to attend the premier showing in Toronto when it opens in January.
“It’s le final day! There is yet to be a winner of le top prize! Now is le time to try your luck! Be the ninth caller to win front-row tickets to Toronto’s exclusive Premier showing of Parisian Truffles, along with the grand prize of an all-expense-paid trip to Paris, France. There you will personally meet and spend an evening with Mr. Cullen Malone, star of Parisian Truffles and the Shamrock Mystery. This inclusive trip for two includes airfare and hotel accommodations — plus — are you ready for this, ladies? An intimate, one-on-one private dinner with the dashing star all to yourself! Hurry to your phone, and as Cullen himself says, “May the luck o’ the Irish be with ye!”
“Did I just hear right?” I questioned aloud. “I don’t stand a chance. Every female within earshot will be on the line.” But something told me to try. I could barely hold the receiver, let alone push the right numbers for my fingers were sweating so bad they kept slipping off the keys. Obviously I had somehow managed because I heard the disc jockey’s enthralled voice congratulating me! I could not believe my ears, but a voice inside my head kept assuring me I had won. I had never won a thing in my life, yet here I had just won an all-expense-paid trip to the most exciting, romantic city in the world, but more importantly, I was going to meet the man who made my blood rush like a dammed-up river let loose with the sheer mention of his Irish name. “A one in a million chances, who would have ever thought?” I mumbled aloud, still finding it hard to believe what had just happened. It was almost surreal, but I needed to get hold of myself so I could listen to what the DJ’s assistant was telling me. God forbid I mess this up! After gaining all the particulars of when and where to claim the tickets, I hung up the phone in a daze, but I knew it was real, and even though things were strained between us, I could not wait to call Dean at work to tell him the astonishing news. I hardly thought he’d believe a word; in fact I could just about hear him: ‘Yeah right, Joy. I’m sure you won tickets to Paris to meet Cullen Malone.’ Hell! He’d probably split his sides laughing.
“IjustwonticketstomeetCullyMalonepinPariscanyoubelievethis!?” I spit out in one jumbled mass.
“What are you talking about? Just slow down, I could barely understand a word you said. Now, what did you do?”
I tried telling him again, though somewhat slower but still garbled.
“What’s this about Paris, and him?” Dean asked, sounding both surprised and miffed.
My composure had finally returned, allowing me to relay the entire story.
“Wow!” he stated in total astonishment. “We’re going to Paris!”
“Well I’d say you’re pretty sure of yourself if you think I’m taking you,” I said, trying my best to tease him.
“Well, my hot-assed wife, you’re sure as hell not going by yourself or with anyone else but me!” he boldly announced, somewhat sarcastically.
I didn’t want to make him doubt me, though taking into consideration the way things were between us, it was kind of neat to make him squirm a little. Actually the thought of this made me chuckle.
“For crying-out-loud, Dean, just simmer down, yes, I’m taking you with me – I mean do you really think I’d go anywhere, especially Paris without you?”
“Weeell,” he growled in a snide manner, sounding rather sceptical of the entire scenario.
“Apparently you’re going to meet him and I have a pretty good idea how you feel about him. Remember what’s been happening in the bedroom lately because of those feelings? And now you’re going to spend an evening with the guy!”
Now in actuality I’d like to think Dean was jealous of Cullen – even of me – might even lend a bit of a kick-start to a sagging twenty-eight-year-old relationship that was fast going down the tubes – but regardless of how he feels, I hardly think he has anything to worry about. True, I am in love with the Irish scamp, that is as much as I can be without ever meeting him in the flesh and it’s strange, I’ll admit, but regardless of this unexplained mystery I feel it none-the-less. It might also explain the reason why I married a guy who resembles Cullen. Yet in all fairness, I must add how tolerant Dean’s been of my feelings, probably because he figured I’d never meet the guy, but now that was about to change.
One of the stipulations for the trip was to be able to go within a short time-frame, so with a few hurried arrangements we were booked on a Paris flight the following Friday night. It was paid return, as well as open to whenever we decided to come home, which made it all the more spectacular. It was like a dream come true. I was finally going to Paris, even welcome the new century there, and I couldn’t help wondering if I would ever want to come home and I sighed longingly with this thought. We had a few extremely busy days, but when Friday arrived, we were ready with suitcases in hand as the Airbus arrived at our door. The flight was for seven o’clock our time, which meant it would be six in the morning when we would arrive in Paris. I remember thinking I’d have major jet-lag for sure, for here I was finally going to meet the man I’d obsessed about for eons, and I might not even be able to keep my eyes open long enough to look at him.
It was the first time I’d ever flown but I must say I liked it, probably because it was so smooth, hardly any turbulence at all, in fact Dean said it was one of the best flights he’d ever had and was even getting excited about seeing Paris when I inquired if he was sorry the time wouldn’t allow much sightseeing.
“Awe, not really. I’m sure there’ll be another time. Besides, Fran’s new gallery is there,” he answered with a strange, but assured confidence. I had to admit I found it somewhat puzzling that whenever he referred to my best friend I could detect an audacious tone in his voice, but I said nothing.
I quickly reminded him about his love for Quebec, but he winked as he said, “Well, we’re going to France. They’re civilized there.”
Laughter rang forth, even though it was something I knew we should both feel a tad sheepish about, but I had to agree with him. Neither of us spoke French very well – phrases mostly – at least I’ve heard some choice ones from Dean. We sat discussing the magical city we would soon see, and all the while I was secretly thinking of whom I would soon see. We did manage to get some sleep, as who knows when we’d next be able to, especially me; after all I didn’t plan on missing a single moment while I was in the company of the person I never once dreamed I’d have a chance in meeting. Now that was only a few hours away.
After a lifetime of sitting, and stretching whenever possible, the pilot announced our descent into Charles de Gaulle. By this time I was so nervous I could barely make my fingers work around the buckle, so Dean had to take matters into his own hands and fasten me in. I knew it had been a good idea to bring him along. Seasonal music filled the air as we approached the terminal’s main entrance while people rushed past every which way, dragging their belongings behind them, as my eyes stared toward the terminal’s main doors in hopes of whatever they might find waiting there. Now I was not daft enough to think Cullen might actually be there in person, still one could hope, but as we walked along I could not help noticing a pleasant-looking man, who I judged to be in his early sixties, wearing a black and grey pin-striped suit, topped off with a gray beret, standing erect against the wall. He carried himself with an air of pride and sported short, silver hair with a close-cropped beard which gave him a most distinguished look among the crowd. He stood quietly, almost blending into the wall as he watched passengers dart about in search of whatever they hoped to find, then quickly depart. He never approached anyone, which made me realize as we moved closer to the main doors that he must be looking for someone in particular. Catching my glance, his eyes appeared to light from within, as though he suddenly recognized the person he’d been waiting for. His refined French accent preceded him as he kindly approached me, and extended his white-gloved hand.
“Bonjour, you are Madame Wychmere, I believe?”
“Yes, I am, and you are?” I asked as politely as I could while something tugged at my heart.
“André Des Jardin, and I am here on behalf of Monsieur Cullen Malone, so will you and your companion kindly come with moi to my awaiting car, as I am to escort you to your hotel.”
Our bags were carried to a large black limousine then placed inside the trunk as our driver opened the back door and motioned us inside the spacious interior. It was lovely, almost as if we’d been invited inside a posh bar back home. The driver told us to have anything we fancied and Dean, always up to the challenge, thought this a bit of all right and even though it was early morning, immediately fixed himself a rum and Coke. He offered me one, which I really could have used, but I was far too nervous and would have choked to death right then and there – that is if I didn’t spill it all over myself first.
The limo arrived at the Plaza Attrèl, a Second Empire era hotel overlooking the River Seine in east Paris. Beauty was abundant – even on this cloudy December morning – for everywhere we cast our eyes they were greeted with wonderful treats as the early morning began in Paris. The doorman tipped his cap when we entered a very old, yet elegant foyer, which at the moment was under renovation in one corner, but did little to detract from the room’s elegance. Besides the expected millennium hoopla, our glance was caught by ormolu-encrusted mirrors suspended between floor-to-ceiling panels of rich, dark walnut, while our footsteps echoed upon vintage marble as we walked to the registration desk where we were greeted by an astute-looking gentleman, somewhat older than our driver, but fully as kind. He ceased humming a familiar Christmas melody as we approached, then proceeded to say good morning in broken English, but still distinguishable enough to understand. He requested we sign the register then informed us we would be staying in a top-floor suite overlooking the river at the request of Cullen Malone.
The suite was in keeping with the hotel’s opulence as we entered to the intoxicating strains of a Viennese waltz, and my eyes simply drank in the Second Empire flavour of the room with its heavy, dark brown tapestry valances capping the windows, while delectable, wispy cream marquisette sheers covered the bevelled glass beneath them. A rather large, plush, gold and deep maroon tapestry sofa pulled the eye to its presence, promising comfort to whoever sat upon its pleasurable offering. A French armoire, washed in antique white featuring splashes of burnished copper, stood between two large windows, and embraced within its spacious interior was a huge television. In all of this luxury we were surprised to find an old-fashioned, high-fidelity stereo system, reminiscent of the one my parents had long ago, resting to the left of the entrance door. A rather small, but fully functional kitchenette was found through a door leading from the left of the salon, and to the far right was the bedroom door.
The bed dominated this room with its size and adornments, for it was beautifully draped in exquisite burgundy and black satin, with piles of pillows of every size, texture, and colour, providing the illusion you had just entered a sultan’s palace. The bathroom was also a dream, featuring a huge, burgundy-coloured soaker tub, sitting atop a slightly raised platform in the middle of the room surrounded by ferns, and dozens of roses in assorted colours that were, as I later learned, sent by Cullen. As if this wasn’t enough, the elegance surrounding the tub was accompanied by a huge sterling bucket containing a vintage bottle of champagne, tied with black and green satin ribbons entwined with burgundy lace. Surrounding the base, was a carousel tray of French and Irish truffles nestled among freshly baked croissants. Dark, as well as white chocolate lay scattered among fresh strawberries, pineapples, kiwis, and grapes. Now that was a breakfast fit for a king, and his queen.
My date with Cullen was to begin at five o’clock, when André would call for me. As Dean and I sat in the tub, enjoying the delightful treats, I decided to once again ask if he had a problem with the evening that lay before me.
“I think you know by now the feelings I have for this man,” I openly admitted, “I have never kept it a secret. I’ve even dreamt about being with him but, if you really don’t want me to go, just say the word and I’ll stay away. Truth be known I shouldn’t even be thinking about this let alone getting ready to meet him, after all he’s been involved with the mother of his daughter ever since the child was born and, I’m sure isn’t interested in anyone else. I’ll admit I’m not overly stuck on her, but I still respect their relationship, just like I do ours, funny as that might sound. Surely by now you know how I feel about you, don’t you?”
He briefly studied me as he lit a cigar. After pouring another glass of champagne, and sucking smoke to his toes, he answered, “If you don’t go, you’ll end up hating yourself and probably me along with it, so I can’t deny you this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” I sat listening to my husband try to convince me about something I’m sure he wished was not about to happen, as he shrugged his shoulders, took another drag from his cigar, then continued, “Sure I’ll wonder what’s going on and if you’ll even come back, because believe it or not, I do know how you feel about him. But I know how you feel about me. I haven’t forgotten how strong we used to be — still could be — if we truly let ourselves feel our strength. Hey, don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.” Gesturing toward the salon, he added, “Besides, look at the size of that screen out there. Maybe there’ll be a Malone film on, or maybe, if I’m real lucky, they’ll be running a Bardot festival. Now I’d like that! Or maybe I’ll just take a walk and look at some sights – might even meet some pretty ones.”
Inwardly admitting relief to hear him say what he just did, I still found myself somewhat hesitant as to why he said it; furthermore I could not help wondering if he was planning, as the saying goes ‘to screw around on me while I screwed around on him,’ if, in fact the remote possibility should present itself. After all I was doing it openly; well maybe not exactly in front of him, but he knew where I was going to be, at least who I was going to be with, still it made me wonder if he said what he did just to make me ponder all night as to his whereabouts, what he’d be doing, and with whom. I wasn’t sure, but whatever the intended reason, it bothered me.
The morning continued as we lay relaxing, trying to shed the jet-lag from our bodies. I knew I must get some rest in order to hold myself together later, and not make a complete fool of myself, yet Dean’s remark chewed at my brain and I could not stop thinking about it. I remember telling him the last time he fooled around, that if it happened again I’d be gone, but then how do I explain what I’m getting ready to do, especially if allowed? All these questions, but no satisfying answers, except for the incredible feeling I felt for Cullen. I had to see it through. I knew in my mind Dean was right and I would hate myself – probably him too if I didn’t go – so after a few more bouts of guilt my mind had been made up. I would throw caution to the wind and follow my instincts. Live for the moment, and the rest be damned.
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