It turned out that the best part of their relationship was over by the time he’d suggested they get married. They’d been arguing about everything ever since – from who should officiate at the wedding to where they should go after the small reception. They’d ended up at a run-down motel in the Muskoka Lakes, two-and-a-half hours north of Toronto and a world away from how she’d always imagined her honeymoon would be. She knew better than to place any faith in convention, romantic or otherwise, but she found herself disappointed nonetheless.
After three years of squandering themselves down to the verge of bankruptcy, indulging their whims and appetites in celebration of their love, their honeymoon was like a hangover. It rained and rained, and they bickered over every cent they spent on touristy options that would allow them to stay indoors. On that day back in November when he’d gone down on one knee to present her with an engagement ring he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed – laughing over a congratulatory joint – that it was time that the two of them grew up. But it seemed that neither of them was keen to do it. At least not with one another.
Their final argument took place high above Lake Joseph on the first sunny day since they’d arrived. After talking to some guy at the front desk of the motel, Emil had decided they should take a leap from a sheer granite cliff that dropped twenty meters down into the deep blue lake. It was perfectly safe, he told her. All you had to do was jump out far enough to make sure that you were clear of the rock face. She was having none of it. Online she’d found stories of people who’d been killed or worse at this exact spot, and she said she didn’t feel like being married to a paraplegic. He’d insisted she come up with him to scout the situation, promising that they wouldn’t jump that day but only on the next if she agreed and if the sun was out again.
That’s not how it turned out of course — in part because the moss up top was slippery from the week of rain, and in part because in the split second in which she might have reached out to grab him by his shirt, that’s not what she had done.
Sarah had decided she would stop reading there and, despite the temptation to continue (she loved to read her work aloud), she respected her earlier decision; it had been based on her conviction that writers should always leave readers hungering for more. She closed the book, took a breath and looked up.
After a few moments of silence, during which it felt as though the audience were holding its collective breath, the hall erupted. A few people yelled “More! More!” and “Keep going!”
Someone near the back called, “You can’t leave us hanging!”
“Or ‘leave Emil falling,’ more precisely,” someone said, closer to the front, causing a murmur of laughter.
She smiled and dipped her head to acknowledge their approval of her writing. There were maybe fifty people in the lecture hall; as was usual at her readings, about three quarters of them were women. She nodded at a few fellow authors she recognized from conferences and Writers’ Union meetings.
She realized that Constance Browning was in the audience, off to her left, about six rows from the front. The older woman, beautifully turned out in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, was looking directly at her, and she was smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school and her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere anymore, aroused in Sarah an almost bashful pleasure. (She hoped the bashful part of it didn’t show.)
“Thank you,” she said into the mike, addressing everyone in general but meaning Constance in particular.
When at last – it seemed like several minutes but it was probably just one or two – the applause began to ebb, Toby Green, a bookseller and the designated MC, joined Sarah at the podium and asked if anyone had questions.
A few people raised their hands.
Toby pointed at a woman with short blond hair about half way back who appeared to be in her mid-thirties.
“Where did you get the idea for this book?” the woman asked.
This was a question that came up regularly at readings. Most of Sarah’s stories emerged from the fabric of her life, and when she’d been promoting her previous books she’d answered similar inquiries as accurately as she could, recounting real-life incidents and explaining how she’d woven them into imagined events to create the scaffolds of her manuscripts. Among the members of her audiences, there were often would-be writers who apparently believed that the acquisition of certain rituals or tricks – ones to which only successful writers like Sarah Elliott would be privy – might lift their own fiction from obscurity. They ate up her responses, which often turned into wide-ranging discussions involving half the audience. Indeed, over the ten years since her first book had been published, Sarah had established a reputation for being a “generous-to-other-writers” writer, largely on the basis of the thorough and articulate answers she patiently delivered at readings, talks and conferences, and online as well, when she was asked about her work or about the writing life in general.
But the spark that had become The Borrowed Knapsack – her newest novel – had been the rage and embarrassment she’d felt in the wake of a relationship in which, for more than a year before it ended, she’d invested too much hope and a stupid amount of money. When she’d started writing this manuscript, which — ironically — a couple of reviewers had already described as her most tightly-plotted work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Fomenting rage had propelled her half way through the first draft.
She was still furious and ashamed about everything related to Wyatt; she was not about to talk about him to anyone, certainly not to the media or the reading public. But knowing that her readers would be suspicious or disappointed if she didn’t give them something concrete, before the book had even been published she’d reached into her past and managed to come up with a true incident she could use as a response to the “where’d you get your ideas” question for this book. It felt more honourable to her… and safer… than she’d have felt if she’d invented something.
“Well, that’s another story,” she said now, her voice well modulated. “It wasn’t an incident that happened to me directly: I was really just a bystander. But it had a dramatic effect on me. The memory has haunted me ever since, but when I started to work on this”— she raised her copy of The Borrowed Knapsack — “I didn’t focus on the memory itself the way I usually do, but on the feeling the memory gave me.” She looked across the audience, noticing that a couple of people were writing down what she said. “The incident really has nothing to do with the book, but I can tell you about it if you like.”
There was a chorus of “Yes!” and “Please!” (What else were they going to say?) so she replaced the book on the lectern and, in a confiding tone, continued.
“Okay. Well, early in the summer when I was ten, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague. My mom decided to go with him, and they arranged for me to stay with some friends of theirs — the Thistles, also academics — who had a cottage in Muskoka. My parents probably figured it would be a great little holiday for me, but I barely knew the Thistles, and they didn’t have any kids, and the weather was cold and wet. Mrs. Dr. Thistle was working on a paper, and I was told that she must not be disturbed. Mr. Dr. Thistle read books and listened to music on head phones and went out for walks in the rain without inviting me to join him. I’d brought along a few things to do — books and pencil crayons and whatnot — and I was allowed to help with the meal preparation and the dishes — but most of the time I just sat around, quite bored. I considered it a catastrophe that they had no television.”
She heard small chuckles from here and there and felt the audience settling in to listen, as though she were still reading from the book. She let her mind go back to the time she was describing.
“A few days after we got up there, I woke one night to the sounds of a man and woman yelling at one another. The noise was coming from somewhere outside, at the front of the cottage which faced the road. My small bedroom windows looked out on the lake, so it was all too muffled for me to make out many words. But the tone was clear: it sounded like the people who were yelling wanted to kill one another. I was terrified — too scared to even get out of bed. I was pretty sure it wasn’t the Thistles — yelling didn’t seem to be their style — but in truth I’d never heard adults raging like that at one another so I couldn’t be sure. I remember pulling my bedclothes up over my head and then trying to peek out from beneath them. After five or ten minutes, red and blue lights started pulsing high up on the trees outside my window, and then the yelling stopped. Suddenly it was silent.
“Then I did get up, and I tiptoed down the hall. I found the Thistles in their housecoats in the darkened living room room, silhouetted against the big front window. They were standing next to one another – almost touching but not quite. The cottage across the way — a much bigger place than the one we were in – was all lit up, and there was a police car, lights flashing, on the road that ran between us and it. Behind the police car was an ambulance, its lights flashing too. I couldn’t see any people out there. I asked if everything was okay, even though it obviously wasn’t, and the Thistles whirled around like I’d scared them half to death. When they recovered, Mr. Dr. Thistle said that everything was under control and that I should go back to bed. So I did.
“I have no idea how I ever managed to fall back to sleep! The next morning I asked the Thistles what had happened. Mrs. Dr. Thistle said that one of the people who lived across the way had had an accident, and had been taken to the hospital.
“‘Unfortunately,’ she added.
“‘What kind of an accident?’ I asked.
“‘We’re not sure about that,’ she said, looking at her husband.
“‘What about the yelling?’ I asked.
“‘The yelling?’ Mr. Dr. Thistle asked, as if himself had heard nothing of the sort.
“‘They were probably just worried about her,’ Mrs. Dr. Thistle said at the same moment, and again they exchanged glances. “Sometimes people shout when they are in distress,” she added in a quieter voice.
“‘It’s nothing to worry about,’ he said. ‘They’re just renters. Not anyone we know.’
“I tried to protest this explanation but got nowhere. The next day some other friends of the Thistles showed up in a boat — they were staying across the lake, and they had a couple of kids my age. The sun came out, the lake got all blue and sparkly, and the rest of the week turned out to be a lot more fun than the first half had been. I was either too busy or too worn out to think much about the night-time shouting match until the day before my parents were coming to pick me up. Two cops showed up at the door around dinner time, wanting to talk to the Thistles. I remember being scared that it had something to do with my parents, but it turned out that the man from the cottage across the way had been found dead in the lake that morning by some other cottager out fishing. Near the bottom of the cliff I describe in the passage I’ve just read to you.”
Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.
“And that’s all I knew about it for several decades.”
“Wow,” said Toby Green, stretching up to lean into the mike. “What an awful experience.”
“Not knowing any details was the worst part,” Sarah responded, nodding. “My parents said they knew nothing about it, but I think they must have. They probably decided it was not something that should be discussed with a child. Years later I looked the incident up online, and found out it had been a domestic-abuse situation. But at the time my imagination just went wild.” She paused. “I guess nothing’s ever wasted on a writer…. or on a ten-year old who reads too many Nancy Drew books and will eventually become a writer.”
There were nods and bits of laughter here and there.
“So that’s where you got the seeds of The Borrowed Knapsack,” Toby said.
It was awkward with both of them trying to use the same mike. Sarah waited until Toby had moved back a bit, then said, “Well obviously what happens in the novel isn’t the same as what happened the week I was at that cottage. But I used the same setting for the piece I’ve just read you. It helped me keep that feeling front and centre.” She looked up at the audience, and delivered a tip in case anyone had been wanting one. “I often find that if I have plot problem,” she said, “if I just ask myself how the scene might be perceived or imagined by a nine- or ten-year old, the answer to ‘what happens next?’ will come to me.”
Toby invited another few questions. The first few were fairly straightforward and then a woman who looked to be in her sixties near the back wondered why Sarah’s main character had said she didn’t want to be married to a paraplegic. “Sounds a bit ableist to me.”
Sarah nodded, took a breath, and then responded. “It’s not intended to be,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk.”
“But don’t we have an obligation to set an example?” The woman asked. “As writers?”
“I think our obligation is to tell the truth,” said Sarah. “Even when we’re writing fiction. If people talk that way, characters talk that way.”
“Did you think about that, when you were writing it?” The woman wanted to know.
“I did,” Sarah answered.
Someone near the front turned around and said to the woman at the back, “If we are setting examples all the time, there will be no conflict. No story. Crime writers couldn’t allow their villains to murder anyone, for God’s sake.”
There was a bit of laughter.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said the woman. “That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m wondering where you draw the line. What if she’d said, ‘I don’t want to be married to a fat person’? Would that be acceptable to you?”
A few people volunteered their opinions. Sarah stayed out of it, and Toby managed to wrap the whole thing up before it could go off the rails.
Then Toby said that people could purchase a copy of The Borrowed Knapsack and Sarah’s earlier novels, as well as books by a few other local authors, at the sales table in the lobby outside the lecture theatre. She expressed gratitude to Sarah for agreeing to stick around to sign books if anyone wanted her to do that. She concluded by saying that since the lecture hall was closing in half an hour, everyone who felt the least bit thirsty could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe, a pub two blocks away.
It was more like forty-five minutes before Sarah finished signing books and as she headed out, still escorted by the diminutive Toby Green, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and another writer she now recognized as Jayda Banks waiting for them near the exit doors. Jayda was a Black poet in her mid forties who was highly regarded in the literary community.
“We figured you’d be going to the pub,” Constance said. “We thought we’d walk over with you.” She added, gesturing at her companion, “I’m sure you know Jayda?”
“I know who you are, of course,” Sarah said, extending her hand to shake Jayda’s. “We’re Facebook friends, aren’t we? But I don’t think we’ve met.”
Smiling warmly, Jayda said with a trace of a Caribbean accent, “I loved the reading. I’m so happy Constance invited me to come along.”
Jayda was much friendlier in person than she was in the photographs Sarah had seen of her online, most of which had been taken when Jayda been discussing political issues and looking somewhat fierce. She had beautiful white teeth, silky looking skin, and today her long braided hair was pulled up in a knot atop her head.
Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Green?”
All three of them confirmed that they did know one another.
Even though they had never met before either, Constance had not bothered to introduce herself to Sarah. Sarah decided that this was perhaps because she assumed that everyone knew who she was, which was probably true — she was famous by Canadian standards, and had been for more than a generation. Or maybe she’d just forgotten that they hadn’t met before.
Constance was taller than the three other women by half a head — a full head taller in Toby’s case. She must have been five nine or ten, Sarah though. She was wearing a full-length camel coat over her suit, ankle-high leather boots and a crocheted cloche hat that matched her scarf. Now in her late sixties, she’d lost none of the unique Browning aura that made it seem – even when she was in the middle of a crowd – as though she stood alone, isolated from the rest of humanity by the magnitude of her talent.
“Shall we?” Toby asked and the four of them pushed out into the chilly late-October afternoon. There was a stiff breeze and they put their heads down and walked quickly. Leaves scurried about their ankles. When they reached The Half Horseshoe, they paused together just inside the door to gather themselves again before heading down to the lower level. There, several tables had been pushed together by others who’d arrived before them.
“I’d hoped to have a moment with you on the way over,” Constance said to Sarah as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit next together.”
“I’d like that,” Sarah said. “Could you grab a seat for me? I’m going to hit the washroom first.”
“Of course,” Constance said. Several of those already at the table were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.
When Sarah came out of the washroom, where she’d touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked her outfit — a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots that exactly matched her attache case and were the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned — she saw that Constance had found a seat near the back of the group against the wall. There was an empty chair beside her. Toby was sitting at the opposite end of the group of tables, and Jayda was about half way down on the side across from Constance. There were several pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses on the tables, and several conversations seemed to have taken root. There were about twenty people all together.
Sarah put her steel-coloured puffer coat and her attache case on a chair that faced a table behind them, and sat down next to Constance.
“Are you tired?” Constance asked.
“Not really,” Sarah said. “The adrenaline’s still going.”
“It does that,” Constance said with a smile. At that moment a waiter came over to see if they wanted anything besides draft beer. Constance asked for a wine spritzer. Sarah, drawing a clean glass and one of the pitchers toward her, said she was happy with the beer.
Over the course of the next hour, several self-declared fans of Sarah’s or Constance’s or both leaned across the table to talk to them, or got up and came around to chat. They wanted to discuss specific books that Constance or Sarah had written, or to tell Sarah how much they’d enjoyed the reading, or to chat about their own manuscripts. In no time, it was almost six and half the people — including Toby — had left. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or to find another place to eat.
Sarah had at least an hour’s drive across the city, so she extracted her wallet from her attache case, pulled out a twenty to put onto the middle table toward the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also getting ready to leave.
As Sarah was helping Constance into her coat — which was as lovely to the touch as it was to the eye — she asked Jayda if she was ready leave as well. Jayda smiled up and said she’d stay and grab a bite with the others.
“Thanks for suggesting this,” she said to Constance, then added to Sarah, “It was nice to meet you.”
As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said over her shoulder, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”
“True,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere.”
“I have my car,” said Constance. They were approaching the pub’s glass-windowed exit doors, and Constance gestured to the south. “I’m on College Street. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”
“I’m in a lot, a block or so that way,” Sarah said, pointing north. It was dark now but the wind was still blowing leaves and litter around outside. Snow was in the forecast. “Do you want a lift to your car?”
“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime soon.”
“Sure,” Sarah replied, surprised, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.”
Constance was looking evenly back at her. She had lovely grey eyes with dark lashes, and a faint brushing of aqua on her lids. The lines that age had added around her eyes and mouth didn’t diminish her attractiveness. Sarah had noticed before that the appeal of people who were intelligent and engaged was often somehow enhanced rather than diminished as they got older. Their lines added gravitas, she supposed.
“How about Thursday?” Constance asked, now rooting around in her handbag for her keys. “That’s the next day I’m in town.”
Obviously Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah was curious, but she didn’t ask.
“You don’t live in the city?” She asked instead.
“Ajax, near the lake,” Constance said.
“That sounds nice,” said Sarah.
“It’s a lovely spot.” She said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have lovely pastries.”
The Art Gallery of Ontario was right downtown, difficult to get to on a weekday afternoon. If it had been anyone else, Sarah would have insisted they meet somewhere else — Ajax itself would be easier for her to get to. But this was Constance Browning.
They agreed to find one another near the coat check at three p.m. on Thursday, and exchanged cell-phone numbers in case there were any changes. Then they headed off, in opposite directions, into the early night.
© Mary W. Walters