The Green House, Chapters 1-4 (Revised)

[Dear Reader: Having refined my intentions for this novel based on a lot of recent thinking about life and art, I have restructured and revised the first few chapters of The Green House. The two chapters I previously posted became three – 1, 2 and 4. I created a completely new chapter, which is now Chapter 3. I don’t intend to publish any more of this manuscript online. I will be completing it in the autumn and winter, following my three-week trip to Germany (see my other site in upcoming weeks for blog posts about that). I thought you might be interested in witnessing the revision that is, for me, part of the (somewhat tortuous) process of creating fiction, which is why I am including the revised sections of The Green House here. If you are not interested in that part, you can read Chapter 3 and the first sentence of Chapter 5, and wait for the book to be published. At which point you’ll probably just have to read it all again, unless your memory is better than mine. Thanks for all your words of support so far. They have spurred me on.]

Chapter 1.

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, which of course he’d put on their credit card, they’d agreed 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 the 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. She’d been afraid she would fall, too.

 At least that’s what she’d said. They’d never found his body, not the divers who’d entered the deep waters of the cliff, nor the search dogs they’d sent out along the trails, both up on top of the cliff where they’d been standing and down below, along the shore. 

No sign of him. Not anywhere.

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. 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.

That’s when she realized that Constance Browning was in attendance. She was sitting about six rows from the front and off to Sarah’s left, next to Jayda Banks – a Black poet in her fifties who was highly regarded in the literary community and who Sarah was also flattered to see because she didn’t know her personally. Constance was beautifully dressed in a beige suit with a watery pastel print scarf at her neck, and she was looking directly at Sarah, her eyes meeting Sarah’s, smiling as she applauded. Sarah had admired Constance since she’d read one of her books in high school; her appearance here, when she hardly ever showed up anywhere, aroused an almost bashful pleasure in Sarah. 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 Abrams, a bookseller and the designated emcee, joined Sarah at the podium. She 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 to late thirties: close to Sarah’s age in other words. From the demographics her publishers accumulated, Sarah knew that this was a typical fan of hers: White, middle aged, urban, middle class, probably with a university degree.

“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 might be privy – could 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 (meaning most traditionally fictional?) work to date, she’d been seething, seeking vengeance. Surging 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, she’d decided that when the inevitable question arose, she’d talk about the incident that had spawned the scene she’d just finished reading, rather than talking about the relationship from which the novel itself had emerged.

“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.

“All right then,” she said. “So, my dad was invited to speak at a conference in Prague in the summer when I was ten. 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, rain or no rain, went out by himself for walks. 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, 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 the woman who’d was staying 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 he 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 get them to say more, but I 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. He’d turned up near the bottom of the cliff I’ve described in the passage.” 

Sarah took a sip from the bottle of water on the lectern.

“Not ever knowing any details about that memory was the worst part,” she went on. “When I asked my parents what they’d learned about it after we got home, they said they knew nothing; after all, they’d been away. But surely the Thistles had told them something? They must have known more than I did.

“A few years ago I was thinking about that week in relation to something else I was writing, and for about the third or fourth time I tried to find information about the incident online. But I couldn’t find anything. I asked my parents about it then, but if they’d ever known any more details, they couldn’t remember them.

“Clearly it must have been some terrible domestic-violence situation. But there are still so many questions. Did the man fall from that cliff, or jump? Or did he end up in the lake some other way? And did he drown, or die from other causes? And what happened to the woman?”

Toby leaned in toward the microphone, smiling. “And so it goes,” she said. “In the hands of an imaginative writer, a few questions became the beginnings of a novel.“ She scanned the audience. “Are there any other –” 

But that wasn’t the point Sarah had intended to communicate about the writing process. 

“It wasn’t anything about the events themselves,” she said, leaning back in toward the lectern. “It was partly the setting, but it was mainly the emotions – the dread, the fear of not knowing what had happened. That was the important part for me: I attached those same feelings and that same place to an entirely different story. I think inspiration isn’t taken from the surface of a recollection: it comes from beneath it, from the fissures between the facts.” She stole a look at Constance Browning, and was pleased to see her nodding. 

“Letting yourself sink into a feeling you had in childhood is a really good way to evoke feelings in your writing,” Sarah concluded, delivering one of her trade-mark nuggets of writing wisdom. “Our emotions are less complicated when we’re young.”

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 promote ableist thinking,” she said. “It’s just the way she talks. It’s the way people talk. We let down our guards in private, under stress. We use words we might not use at a lectern, for example.”

“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. She realized she was keeping her eyes away from Constance now – reluctant to see how she was reacting to this exchange. Or to know how Jayda was responding.

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 some uneasy 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. She 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. Toby concluded by saying that since the whole area had to be cleared in half an hour because of another event that was happening that evening, everyone who was so inclined could re-assemble in The Half Horseshoe a couple of 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 Abrams, she was surprised to find Constance Browning and Jayda Banks waiting the exit doors, leaning against a bank of air conditioners.

“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.” 

Jayda sounded much friendlier than she’d seemed in other contexts where Sarah had seen her, which had been mostly online and mostly in situations where Jayda been discussing political issues or her own writing, and looking somewhat fierce. She was wearing a pale green top and black jeans under her overcoat, and her long braided hair was pulled up on her head where it rested like a crown.

Sarah indicated Toby. “I imagine you both know Toby Abrams?” 

They did. 

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 other three 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 mid 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 by the magnitude of her talent. 

“Shall we?” Toby asked, pushing open the door to lead them out into the chilly late-October afternoon.

Chapter 2

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 those who’d arrived before them.

“I’d hoped we’d have a moment to chat on the way over,” Constance said as they went down the stairs behind Toby and Jayda. “Perhaps we could sit together.”

“I’d like that,” Sarah said, her curiosity piqued, “but first I have to hit the washroom. Can you grab me a seat?”

“I can,” Constance said, giving a small wave to a couple of people who were pointing at empty chairs, inviting her to sit near them.

Sarah touched up her makeup, fluffed her hair and double-checked as much as she could see of her outfit in the washroom mirror; she was wearing a dark green turtleneck, a short plaid skirt and high brown leather boots, the most expensive pair of footwear she’d ever owned. The turtleneck was way too hot and itchy, but it suited both her body and the season. 

When she came out, she saw that Constance had found a seat near the middle of the group and thrown her coat over an empty chair beside her. Jayda was across from Constance, and Toby was sitting at the far end of the string of tables. There were pitchers of beer and a lot of glasses, and it appeared that several conversations had already taken root. There were about twenty people all together.

Sarah carefully lifted Constance’s soft camel coat and placed it, along with her own puffer jacket, on an unoccupied chair behind them. As she sat down, a woman across the table, to the right of Jayda, said, “Great reading, Sarah. I’m really looking forward to getting into The Borrowed Knapsack.”

Sarah vaguely recognized her; she was a writer, a thin woman about ten years older than Sarah, with beads threaded into her hair. She thanked her, settled herself into her chair, and poured herself a beer. 

The woman to Jayda’s left said, “I though you also handled the questions really well.”

Sarah raised her glass, directed it down the line of tables as if to toast, and said, “I have Toby Abrams to thank for that.” The beer tasted cheap and a bit flat, but its immediate effect was welcome. She took a deep breath and felt herself beginning to relax.

“I’m kind of glad I’m not doing any readings at the moment,” Constance said, as a young server leaned in and put a glass of white wine down on the table in front of her. “There’s so much political correctness these days, I’d be incredibly apprehensive about finding a passage that was safe enough to read.” She rummaged around in her purse, pulled out a credit card and handed it to the server.

“You couldn’t go wrong if you tried, Constance,” Jayda said, laughing. “Your characters are paragons of humanity.”

“So are Sarah’s,” Constance said, punching numbers into the credit-card machine. “But that didn’t help her today, did it? I hope that my characters are human as well as humane, and humans don’t always say the right things.” She pulled off a copy of the receipt and handed the machine back to the server.

“True enough,” said Jayda.

The beaded-haired woman said, “It’s ironic that writers have to worry about not being woke enough. When it came to issues surrounding cultural appropriation, the literary community was on it decades ago. Not that anyone wants to turn back the clock, but the ship we launched seems to be running over a lot of writers these days.”

“Just because we were early out of the gate doesn’t mean we fixed anything,” Sarah said. “Not even in our own community. But it’s a minefield now, for sure,”

“Tell me about it,” said a good-looking guy with messy blond hair sitting on Constance’s far side. “Sometimes I feel like I need to play the gay card just to avoid being put in the basket marked ‘young White males’.”

“Christian,” Jayda asked him, her face the picture of mock alarm. “Are you saying you’re not gay?”

He laughed, then said, serious again, “It’s just always there. You can never just be you without dragging your demographic along behind you. It affects the writing as much as it does what happens when you’re trying to get published.”

Jayda nodded and sighed. “It’s a hard time.”

“But I still hope we’re moving in the right direction,” Sarah said. “Inside the community, I mean.”

Jayda shrugged. “Depends on the day.”

“Are you tired?” Constance asked Sarah in a clear attempt to change the subject.

“Not yet,” Sarah said, taking another drink of her beer. “The adrenaline’s still going.”

A young woman had approached from farther down the table, and now she pulled up the chair behind Constance – the one in which Sarah had deposited the coats. Perching her butt on its edge, she first expressed her appreciation for Sarah’s reading, then asked Constance a question about Fire in the Trees – one of Constance’s earliest books and the first one Sarah had ever read. It was a good question, and Sarah was keen to hear the answer, but at that moment, the woman to Jayda’s left leaned across the table to ask Sarah for advice about finding a publisher. 

In no time, it seemed, it was almost six o’clock and several people had left — including Toby, with whom Sarah had earlier walked to the foot of the stairs in order to thank her again for all her work. A few of the others were deciding whether to order something from the food menu or find another place to eat. 

Sarah had at least an hour’s drive north through the city, so she extracted her wallet from her handbag, pulled out a twenty, put it on the table for the beer, then started to get her things together. Constance was also reaching for her coat. She asked Jayda if she was ready to go, and Jayda looked up with a smile and shook her head. “I’ll grab a bite with these guys and catch an Uber home. But thanks.”

As Sarah followed Constance toward the exit, the older woman said, “We still haven’t had a chance to talk.”

“That’s true,” said Sarah. “Maybe I can give you a ride somewhere?”

“I have my car,” Constance said. They were approaching the pub’s glaze-windowed exit doors, and the older woman gestured to the south. “I’m parked on College. I imagine you’re somewhere closer.”

“I’m in a lot, a block or so the other 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. “I could give you a lift to your car?”

“I need the exercise,” Constance said. “But thanks.” She paused. “Maybe we could meet for coffee sometime.”

“Sure,” Sarah replied, turning from the doors to look at Constance. “That would be great.” Clearly Constance had something specific she wanted to discuss. Sarah wondered what it was.

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 how the appearances of people who were intelligent and engaged were 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.”

“You don’t live in the city?”

“I’m out in Ajax, near the lake,” Constance said.

“That sounds nice,” said Sarah. 

“It’s a lovely spot,” Constance said, nodding. “Why don’t we meet at the AGO? I’m a member, and they have wonderful 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 than the AGO. 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.

Chapter 3.

As she drove north on Avenue Road, Sarah thought about the hug she’d shared with Toby Abrams when the bookseller had left the pub. She’d seemed happy enough, and as warm toward Sarah as ever, but there was no way of knowing for sure. It would be nice if someone invented a pair of eyeglasses that allowed you to read how people were actually feeling, rather than having to guess from their behaviour. Maybe the glasses would measure the other person’s temperature, in the way that mood rings were supposed to work. Not that she thought that mood rings actually did work — some other technology would need to be involved — but something along those lines could come in very handy. On the other hand, if the person you were looking at figured out what you were doing, they’d probably sue you for invasion of their privacy.  

There might be a short story in there somewhere.

Surely Toby would have been pleased with the number of books she’d sold. Several people had bought copies of Time on a Leash and Miss Carr Gets a Chill in addition to The Borrowed Knapsack, and she’d sold at least fifty of the latter. Toby had also sold a few of the books she’d brought along by other Toronto authors. She’d probably regretted not having more of Constance Browning’s books on hand, but who’d have  expected that Constance would show up? 

Sarah felt like she’d imposed on her relationship with Toby to make this happen, and it wasn’t a favour she’d ever be able to ask again. She’d done it in part to prove something to her publisher, who had expressed pessimism at the viability of holding a reading on the university campus on a weekday afternoon. Toby had given it her all, offering to act as emcee as well as bookseller, and bringing along one of her staff to work the sales table. She’d said she was happy to do it: supporting local writers was part of what she considered to be her mandate. 

Sarah was happy about the turnout, which had been even greater than she’d hoped when she’d originally courted Toby to do this favour for her. A couple of Sarah’s friends taught at the university, and some of the younger people in attendance must have been their students. The review in The Star on the weekend had probably helped as well. Not that it had been all that glowing, but it had mentioned the reading, which might have helped to get people out. The response to her reading had been warm; word-of-mouth might lead to more sales at the bookstore later.

But booksellers were generally reluctant to host and service readings that weren’t on their own premises these days, even for “one of their favourite writers” as Toby had frequently called Sarah. It was a lot of work to schlep the books and set up the table and organize the necessary systems for collecting income from the sales — there were still people who wrote cheques when they bought books, for god’s sake. And others who paid cash, which meant that you needed to be able to make change. Such events usually lost money. Sarah really hoped that Toby had covered her costs and more. 

Maybe she’d send flowers to Toby’s shop tomorrow, as a token of her gratitude. Would that seem over the top? She’d already bought her lunch. But flowers were a good thing. You couldn’t have too many flowers. The other people on Toby’s staff would notice them, and so would customers. 

She’d do that.

As she crossed Lawrence Avenue still heading north, Sarah realized she was both hungry and exhausted. She had been happy enough to leave the group at The Half Horseshoe — no matter how friendly a gathering was, since the pandemic she always reached a point after a couple of hours when being alone seemed preferable to company.  But as her thoughts turned toward her destination, her reluctance to reach it also grew. Her mom had been unable to attend the reading because of a later-life learning class she was Zooming in on, and she’d be full of questions about everything she’d missed. Sarah didn’t feel like reliving it all again just yet.  

Maybe she should grab a bite somewhere before she got back to the condo. 

Sarah’s father, Sterling Elliott, had died early in the pandemic – not directly from Covid, but probably because of it. He’d been taken to Emergency by ambulance one morning in December, 2020 after slipping on a patch of black ice on the sidewalk, and had died of a massive heart attack while awaiting treatment for a broken hip. At first, Sarah’s mother, Fannie, had been furious with him: clearly, she felt, he had not made enough noise to attract the necessary medical attention during what must have been an agonizingly painful episode (“Mr. Suck-It-Up really learned his lesson that time,” she’d said sardonically at one point), but her rage had soon merged with guilt (“If I’d been with him, this never would have happened…”), then morphed to grief and an immobilizing depression. She’d lost interest in everything, including eating, her personal appearance, housekeeping, even making video connections with her friends. She’d spent entire days watching CNN, which only intensified her sense of hopelessness. Bringing in anyone to help had been impossible because of the pandemic, even if she’d agreed to let Sarah try to find someone, which never would have happened. Sarah had spent so much time driving from her place to her parents’ apartment uptown to bring in groceries and pick up after her mother that she’d finally put most of her stuff into storage and moved into their guest room. 

She’d been on the verge of moving from her own apartment anyway when Covid hit: after the thing with Wyatt had gone south she’d no longer wanted to be there. She’d been wondering about actually purchasing a place in spite of the insanity of the market: it felt to her as though doing so would be a way of announcing to herself that she was not waiting for the ideal partner to come along before she started building a strong and lasting future for herself. 

A tangible statement of that nature would have been reassuring in one sense — releasing her from the clutches of what was certainly futile expectation — but it would also have meant relinquishing some part of the anticipated life trajectory that, to women of her age and demographic, came almost as a birthright. Owning your own house meant that from here on in, falling in love with someone and planning for a future together was always going to involve a discussion about real estate. It put you in the same category as those who were divorced:  nothing could be spontaneous; legal documents would always be involved. Buying property was acknowledging the onset of middle age.

In the year and a half since she’d made the temporary move to her mother’s place, she’d been so busy with the editing of The Borrowed Knapsack and doing all the other things a working writer had to do, in addition to doing what she could to help her mother get back on her feet, that she hadn’t had much time to think about what she would do next. She was going to have to start weighing her options again soon. 

Fannie Elliott was in her mid-seventies and full of energy, and Sarah had no concerns about leaving her to her own devices. To her credit, Fannie had already called upon internal resources that Sarah hadn’t even known she had possessed to begin to pull herself out of her grief and the accompanying slump, and now she was ready to move forward. It was time that both of them got on with their lives and, if the truth be told, it would be good for Sarah to finally face the fact of her father’s death and her mother’s widowhood from her own personal perspective. She’d had some trouble doing that with her focus on her mother.

A week or so ago, Fannie had actually raised the subject of Sarah’s move herself, letting it be known that when Sarah was ready, she’d be happy to help her look at houses. She’d even offered to act as a co-signatory on a mortgage if Sarah needed her to do that.

“It’d be fun,” Fannie’d said. “If you get a place with a back yard, I could even help you with the garden. I’ve missed having flower beds to weed and fresh-from-the-garden vegetables to eat.”

“You’re asking me to take up market gardening for you?” Sarah had asked, half-joking. “You do know that writing is a full-time job?”

“I respect that,” her mother had replied. “But you’re between books now, aren’t you?”

“I won’t be forever. I may already have started something new.”

“I’m not talking about acres: just a cute little pocket garden, as it were. I’m just saying I could help.“

Sarah had turned and leaned against the counter, indicating with a sweep of her hand the open living-room-slash-kitchen area, the view of the city through the windows. “It’s occurred to me that I might be smarter to live in a place like this, that maybe I should buy an apartment instead of a house. Less upkeep. It’d need to be downtown, of course. Not way out here in the boonies.”

“No way,” Fannie had protested. “You’ve got to have a yard. It’s good for the soul to be able to get into the fresh air without having to take an elevator.”

At least Fannie hadn’t mentioned how good a yard would be for any children that Sarah might decide to have. Although Sarah’s father had occasionally thrown out comments relating to biological clocks, Fannie had never raised the subject of kids with her daughter — despite the fact that she would probably have traded her soul to have a grandchild. Sarah was no more going to make that happen just to make her mother happy than she was going look for property that would accommodate a garden.

Sarah turned into the parking lot of a pho place north of Finch where she’d eaten once or twice before. She was pulling into a parking spot, and telling herself to try something besides the pork vermicelli for a change, when her phone rang.

It was her mom.

“Where are you?” Fannie asked.

“Just about to grab a bite. I’ll be home in less than an hour.”

“Can you pick something up for both of us?” her mother said. “I’m ravenous.”

“It’s almost seven-thirty! I figured you’d have eaten long ago.”

“I’ve been on the phone wth your sister,” she said. “I’ll tell you all about it when you get here.”

“Is she okay?”

“She’s fine. But she’s got lots of news.”

“That’s great!” Sarah said. “Vermicelli bowl okay?”

“Lemongrass and pork,” Fannie said. “And get a couple of spring rolls, too. I’m starving.” 

If there were mood-gauge glasses, Sarah reflected as she got out of the car, her mother would use them on her. And that wouldn’t be so good.

Chapter 4.

Constance merged onto the 401 from the Don Valley Parkway heading east, and pressed down on the accelerator. The tiny stretch in the arch of her foot felt good, and drew her attention toward a glimmer of optimism in the grey-woolly cloud of pointlessness that normally characterized her thoughts. 

While even one bright spot was welcome, over the past several years of increasing desolation, she’d experienced such glimmerings — sometimes they were sharper, more like “sparklings” — before. She had even occasionally (as in this case, if she were honest) taken to engineering their appearance herself, rather than just waiting for them to show up unexpectedly in the post or by phone or email. They made her feel good for a moment, in the manner of a first infusion of good scotch into her system, but she knew better than to put much faith in them. After a time they’d burn themselves out or scatter beyond her reach. 

Constance considered it a sign of health or at least of life that she hadn’t entirely given up on hope: she still sought out those little sparks, or worked to make them happen. Perhaps she was “hopelessly addicted to hope,” as some song had once said – or should have said. She believed hope to be an essential attribute of a certain kind of writer – the kind she was herself. But, given their temporary nature, seeking or engineering such bits of optimism was not enough: you had to do something that would breathe them into viable life, and do it quickly before they vanished. And that required energy. That she had summoned enough of it today to get herself properly dressed and out into the city was worth celebrating of itself: it had been months since she’d done that. But now she had to figure what she would do next. She needed to make a plan.

About half an hour from home, snow began to fall and Constance’s thoughts turned to the winterizing Bart still needed to do before their annual parting glass (which would probably feature the aforementioned scotch: Laphroaig or something like it, hers straight up, his humiliated through the addition of ice and ginger ale). That’s when they would do their bi-annual settlement of accounts, and she would hand him an envelope with a few hundred dollars in it – money that he would use up over the winter as he cleared her snow on his own schedule and paid himself at whatever rate he found appropriate. Before then, the last of the garden pots and tools would need to be stowed in the shed behind the house, and he’d want to bring the snow shovels and brooms out into the front and back verandahs. She’d thought he was intending to dig up some of the glads and dahlias and wrap and store them for the winter, but he hadn’t mentioned that again since they’d talked about it in early September; maybe he’d forgotten about them or perhaps he’d changed his mind.

There used to be a final raking to do at this time of year as well, but a couple of years ago the two of them had agreed that they should leave the organic detritus for the comfort of insects over winter. Long ago, when she’d first bought the house, there’d been storm windows to put in each autumn as well, but the royalties from her books had been steady and substantial then and early on she’d installed all-season windows.

With the amount of snow coming down, increasingly as she left the highway and headed south toward Ajax, it looked as though it was too late in the season for raking anyway. Bart Samoil, an unkempt man with a raggedy long beard and ponytail who resembled either a leftover hippie or a lumberjack or possibly even a homeless person depending on the day and context, and whose strength in his late fifties exceeded that of most men in their twenties, worked his several odd jobs on his own timeline, getting to her place either when he could or when he felt like it – she was never sure. In an ideal world, he’d have done the final work of the season at least three weeks ago. Now the ground had grown cold and this new winter was not likely to retreat again. But he was as irascible as she was, and she let him have his way in most matters, out of fear of losing him.

As she pulled into her driveway, she was pleased to see that the timers for the living room and bedroom lights had functioned properly. Especially now, with the snow falling through the darkness onto the trees and lawn surrounding it, the two-story house with its grey-green siding and white porch posts and shutters looked occupied and inviting. Her heart did a little turn of satisfaction at the sight of the little nest she’d created for herself. If anything, the bouts of imprisonment during the pandemic had affirmed the rightness of her long-ago decision to purchase property this far from the city.

She gave a small grunt of discomfort as she reached into the trunk of her car for the few things she’d picked up in town: they included a new queen-sized bedspread and two brightly coloured pillows for the couch in the rental suite downstairs. The suite had been empty since a month or so before the first lockdown started, but she’d posted the unit again on Craig’s List earlier in the week: she couldn’t afford to leave it empty any longer. The house needed new shingles and a few other repairs and updates, and her writing income had been waning for too many years. She told herself that it would be nice to have the sounds of another human in the house, and might even prove practical if she should take a tumble down the stairs or in the shower. Not that she intended to do those things: she may have some arthritic moments, but she wasn’t old enough yet to lose her balance and be unable to recover.

She went up the steps to the verandah, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, stamping the snow off her shoes. She felt a moment of relief at being home again. She’d been worried about going to the reading and had nearly reneged on her arrangement with Jayda to attend. For almost a decade — probably since around the time that her agent had stopped pretending to represent her — readings and writers’ gatherings had left her in despair, even physically nauseated. After attending one, it would take her days or weeks to recover enough that she could write again. The pandemic had provided a welcome reprieve from such encounters — it had been more than two years since she’d felt obligated to go anywhere, especially to an indoor gathering. But now she had, and this time she felt almost certain that a connection had been forged that could be constructive, even beneficial, to her future. 

She surveyed the inside of her head and found the bit of optimism she’d noticed in the car. It was safe until Thursday, when she and Sarah had agreed to meet for coffee and after that, who knew? It was in part up to her what happened next, and she had two days to think about it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to make such an arrangement with Sarah until the moment before she’d done it, just as she hadn’t realized that talking with the younger writer might be a brilliant idea until half way through the reading. But she had done it, and she was pleased. This itself could be seen as a corner for the better, turned.

It was almost seven thirty and she was ravenous. After hanging her coat in the front closet, she pulled a leftover serving of tuna casserole from the fridge, along with some romaine lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato. But before she started turning the assembled food items into her evening meal, she was distracted by the sight of one of her notebooks on the table – the one most like a traditional journal, although it was far from a diary. She sat down at the round kitchen table, pulled the notebook toward her, opened it, picked up the ballpoint pen that she kept inside it like a bookmark, and started to record her thoughts.

Chapter 5.

Sarah had arrived fifteen minutes early and was, not for the first time, admiring the serpentine pale-wood -framed access ramp inside the doors of the Art Gallery of Ontario — a work of art in itself — when Constance materialized at her side.

[….]

_______

Note: Publisher and agent inquiries are welcome

The Green House, Chapter 2, Scene 1

[Note: If you want to start reading this novel from the beginning, go here.]

As Constance merged onto the 401 from the Don Valley Parkway and headed east, she pressed down on the accelerator. The tiny stretch in the arch of her foot felt good, and that feeling in turn directed her attention toward a glimmer of optimism in the grey-woolly cloud of pointlessness that normally characterized her thoughts. 

While even one bright spot was welcome, over the past several years of increasing desolation, she’d experienced such glimmerings — sometimes they were sharper, more like “sparklings” — before. She had even occasionally (as in this case, if she were honest) taken to engineering their appearance herself, rather than just waiting for them to show up unexpectedly in the post or by phone or email. They made her feel good for a moment, in the manner of a first infusion of good scotch into her system, but she knew better than to put much faith in them. After a time they’d burn themselves out or scatter beyond her reach. 

Constance considered it a sign of health or at least of life that she hadn’t entirely given up on hope: she still sought out those little sparks, or worked to make them happen. Perhaps she was “hopelessly addicted to hope,” as some song had once said – or should have said. She believed hope to be an essential attribute of a certain kind of writer – the kind she was herself. But, given their temporary nature, seeking or engineering such bits of optimism was not enough: you had to do something that would breathe them into viable life, and do it quickly before they vanished. And that required energy. That she had summoned enough of it today to get herself properly dressed and out into the city was worth celebrating of itself: it had been months since she’d done that. But now she had to figure what she would do next. She needed to make a plan.

About half an hour from home, snow began to fall and Constance’s thoughts turned to the winterizing Bart still needed to do before their annual parting glass (which would probably feature the aforementioned scotch: Laphroaig or something like it, hers straight up, his demeaned through the addition of ice and ginger ale). That’s when they would do their bi-annual settlement of accounts, and she would hand him an envelope with a few hundred dollars in it – money that he would use up over the winter as he cleared her snow on his own schedule and paid himself at whatever rate he found appropriate. Before then, the last of the garden pots and tools would need to be stowed in the shed behind the house, and he’d want to bring the snow shovels and brooms out into the verandahs front and back. She’d thought he was intending to dig up some of the glads and dahlias and wrap and store them for the winter, but he hadn’t mentioned that again since they’d talked about it in early September; maybe he’d forgotten about them or perhaps he’d changed his mind.

There used to be a final raking to do at this time of year as well, but a couple of years ago the two of them had agreed that they should leave the organic detritus for the comfort of insects over winter. Long ago, when she’d first bought the house, there’d been storm windows to put in each autumn as well, but the royalties from her books had been steady and substantial then and early on she’d installed replacement windows, double-glazed.

With the amount of snow coming down, increasingly as she left the highway and headed south toward Ajax, it looked as though it was too late in the season for raking anyway. Bart Samoil, an unkempt man with a raggedy long beard and ponytail who resembled either a leftover hippie or a lumberjack or possibly even a homeless person depending on the day and context, and whose strength in his late fifties exceeded that of most men in their twenties, worked his several odd jobs on his own timeline, getting to her place either when he could or when he felt like it – she was never sure. In an ideal world, he’d have done the final work of the season at least three weeks ago. Now the ground had grown cold and this new winter was not likely to retreat again. But he was as irascible as she was, and she let him have his way in most matters, out of fear of losing him.

As she pulled into her driveway, she was pleased to see that the timers for the living room and bedroom lights had functioned properly. Especially now, with the snow falling through the darkness onto the trees and lawn surrounding it, the two-story house with its grey-green siding and white porch posts and shutters looked occupied and inviting. Her heart did a little turn of satisfaction at the sight of the little nest she’d created for herself. If anything, the bouts of imprisonment during the pandemic had affirmed the rightness of her long-ago decision to purchase property this far from the city.

She gave a small grunt of discomfort as she reached into the trunk of her car for the few things she’d picked up in town: they included a new queen-sized bedspread and two brightly coloured pillows for the couch in the rental suite downstairs. The suite had been empty since a month or so before the first lockdown started, but she’d posted the unit again on Craig’s List earlier in the week: she couldn’t afford to leave it empty any longer. The house needed new shingles and a few other repairs and updates, and her writing income had been waning for too many years. She told herself that it would be nice to have the sounds of another human in the house, and might even prove practical if she should take a tumble down the stairs or in the shower. Not that she intended to do those things: she may have some arthritic moments, but she wasn’t old enough yet to lose her balance and be unable to recover.

She went up the steps to the verandah, unlocked the front door and stepped inside, stamping the snow off her shoes. She felt a moment of relief at being home again. She’d been worried about going to the reading and had nearly reneged on her arrangement with Jayda to attend. For almost a decade — probably since around the time that her agent had stopped pretending to represent her — readings and writers’ gatherings had left her in despair, even physically nauseated. After attending one, it would take her days or weeks to recover enough that she could write again. The pandemic had provided a welcome reprieve from such encounters — it had been more than two years since she’d felt obligated to go anywhere, especially to an indoor gathering. But now she had, and this time she felt almost certain that a connection had been forged that could be constructive, even beneficial, to her future. 

She surveyed the inside of her head and found the bit of optimism she’d noticed in the car. It was safe until Thursday, when she and Sarah had agreed to meet for coffee and after that, who knew? It was in part up to her what happened next, and she had two days to think about it. It hadn’t even occurred to her to make such an arrangement with Sarah until the moment before she’d done it, just as she hadn’t realized that talking with the younger writer might be a brilliant idea until half way through the reading. But she had done it, and she was pleased. This itself could be seen as a corner for the better, turned.

It was almost seven and she was ravenous. After hanging her coat in the front closet, she pulled a leftover serving of tuna casserole from the fridge, along with some romaine lettuce, a cucumber and a tomato. But before she started turning the assembled food items into her evening meal, she was distracted by the sight of one of her notebooks on the table – the one most like a traditional journal, although it was far from a diary. She sat down at the round kitchen table, pulled the notebook toward her, opened it, picked up the ballpoint pen that she kept inside it like a bookmark, and started to record her thoughts.

© Mary W. Walters

The Green House, Chapter One

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.” 

“You, too.”

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