HANNAH/ COLLEEN I
When Colleen finally meets up with Hannah, it’s all out of whack, wrong time, wrong place. Zellers, less than a week before Christmas, the store still packed in spite of the fact it is after nine at night.
Colleen, who has sweated it out at the hardware store for twelve hours straight, hopes to get in a little last minute shopping. Originally, she thought of waiting until tomorrow, beating the crowds and showing up at the seven AM opening but there’s not a chance she’d pull herself out of bed at that ungodly hour.
Now, trying to remember what it was that was on sale that she wanted, she’s sure she looks out of it, her polyester no-wrinkle Sears pant suit streaked with dust from boxes pulled from too high shelves, her finger nail polish chipped from gift wrapping parcels and counting out nails and bolts from bins. Why anyone would be buying the nails a week before Christmas is beyond her. She thought it was coal they put in stockings for a joke.
This morning at the hardware store, the week before Christmas rush started right at nine, customers pressing their noses to the glass door even before Art unlocked. In the rush, she threw her duffle coat on a chair in the back room. At noon lunch,employees not owners lunch, one of the part-time teenagers obviously dumped pop on it, with newspaper flyers piled on later. She didn’t notice this until, pulling on the beige coat at the end of the day, found a motley, orange-coloured newspaper pattern on one sleeve and part way down the front. As she said to Art when he pointed it out to her, “Frankly, Scarlet I don’t give a damn. “
Her arms feel like lead weights and all she has eaten since this morning is a chocolate bar and cream cheese bagel, gulped down in the back office during the two lulls when fewer than ten people were in the store at once. As she rummages through her purse for her precious list, she feels someone staring at her.
Hannah is rushing to buy a small Christmas tree to take to her mother in the morning. She left the staff party as early as she could diplomatically manouevre herself out and there were two accidents on the 401. Scanning shelves and walking too quickly, she almost ploughs into a woman head on. Someone tired and frazzled. And familiar? ”Colleen?” Hannah says, hardly believing it. “Colleen Miller?”
“Hannah?” Colleen gulps, snapping her purse shut. She pats at her half-grey hair, wondering if it, too, has store dust. “Hannah Norcroft?” Longish skirt, a suede outfit under a fancy cape-like coat, shiny straight brown hair flipped at the ends. And thin. My God she is thin.
They stare awkwardly at each other for a few moments.
Colleen, in spite of being totally whacked, comes to first. “A couple of months ago,” she begins,” Maureen at the hospital said she had seen you. I hope you don’t mind, I visited your mom a few times.“ Instant side track. Would Hannah have heard her dad yelling? Hopefully Maureen didn’t mention anything, his past sobering-up stints. Colleen flashes a theatre smile. “My dad was just down the hall.“
Hannah can’t hide her embarrassment. She has hoped, all along, that no one she knew would see her mother in such a pathetic state. Especially not someone she went to school with. “Yes, yes,” she says, as breezily as possible. “Mother had a little stroke but she’s better. And your dad?”
“He fell and broke his arm,” Colleen says, going into fast forward and edit at the same time. “My mom’s been gone for a while so dad has decided to hang out at the Lodge for a few months.“ Sounds good, maybe a bit general, not that Hannah will likely catch on.
My mother is there, too,” Hannah adds, trying to decide the vaguest way to word it. What if Colleen asks? What wing? What floor? Hannah feels sweat between her shoulder blades, anxiety creeping up from behind. Her mother is well on her way to senility. She is her mother’s daughter. She could easily follow in her mother’s footsteps. Someone at school has already suggested this. ‘It’s a joke, Hannah. I meant it as a joke’. Hannah didn’t and doesn’t see the humour. “We should get together for coffee,” she says to Colleen mainly as a diversion. “When do you usually visit your dad? Weekends?” Stupid question, Hannah. She’s right here in the same town. She can visit him whenever she wants.
“Sometimes.“ Colleen notices how up tight Hannah is. How could she forget? High strung and up tight, never standing still, talking too fast. “Dad will be at our place for Christmas, of course.“ Says it without thinking. This hasn’t even been decided, ye gods and why did she add, of course, making herself sound like a pompous ass.
“What about tomorrow? Hannah asks, seeming to ignore the comment. “I’m here, staying at mother’s until Boxing Day.” Make it sound casual, Hannah. Trapped at my mother’s; stuck in this time warp town. Christmas Day with mother in controlled access. Making the best of it. “Unless you’re too busy, that is.” Why did she say this? Some, once long ago we were friends and even though it’s obvious we have nothing in common now, let’s anyway, for old time’s sake? Not too rational. Misery likes company? Better but not realistic given the truth of the matter, or rather the deception of the matter. Mum’s the word. Monty Python irony.
Four days before Christmas. What can Colleen say? She works at the store ten hours a day? She has a trillion things to do with everyone coming home? She’s dog tired and never goes out for coffee. “I’ve been filling in at the store,” she begins, instead. “Christmas rush and everything.“
“We could wait until the New Year,” Hannah says quickly. A momentary exit sign flashing on and off. “I’m sure you’ll have family home for the holidays.“ Hannah turns to go.
“Hannah, no,” Colleen says in a rush. “I’ll tell Art we’re getting together for coffee, that we went to school together, worked together at the Britannia, that I haven’t seen you in a dog’s age. There are three of them at the hardware store besides me. The place won’t fall apart if leave for an hour. “
“Pinser’s hardware Store?”
“Art Pinser is my husband.“
Hannah grins, her face taking on a younger look, impish almost and she leans into the end of Colleen’s cart. “Mar-i-on, Madame li-brar-ian,” she whisper sings.
“ The Music Man,” Colleen almost squeals. “And Moira Jackson. Remember her?”
“She was... doing props,” Hannah says,” among other things.“ She laughs. “Oh God, Colleen, it’s been a long time.“
The Music Man. Franklin Theatre Guild. One of those out-of-the-blue connections. Like yesterday. A nasal sounding voice cuts in on the PA. The store will be closing in fifteen minutes. Thank you for shopping at Zellers.
“Tim Hortons?” Colleen says quickly. “On Garland, just off the 401. Did you come in to town that way?” There are a couple of things Colleen really needs to buy.
Hannah nods. “Tomorrow at ten? You’ll be able to get away?”
Colleen nods back and watches Hannah march off, shiny hair swishing, coat flowing out behind.
As if to set Colleen off first thing, they sleep in the next morning. Because one of them, and she has no idea who in her muddled state, pushed the wrong button or didn’t push one at all. Colleen wakes and, seeing light coming through the curtain, bolts to a sitting position. Seven forty-two glows at her from the clock radio.
Today, Colleen has to be ready to go to the store with Art at nine. The twins, out late last night, have wangled use of her car so as to miss the early bus ride to school. After their first and only class that day, they are due at the store by ten. Good plan unless they’re late in which case she won’t be able to leave. She should have told Hannah ten thirty. Colleen can’t bring herself to phone Hannah, not so early. It would seem like a last minute thing and look as if Colleen isn’t interested. Hannah might cancel. Colleen attacks her closet, pulling out three or four outfits, throwing them onto the bed.
“I thought you two were meeting at Tim Hortons,” Art says, watching her as he buttons his shirt.
“We are,” Colleen snaps,” but I don’t want to look like some old washerwoman.”
She looks at the blue top but it’s too flashy especially for the store. She was going to wear a red sweater with her Christmas tree earrings but now she thinks that would be too gaudy, cheap-looking. She needs something more elegant, something she could wear if she weighed thirty pounds less. She sits on the bed, a familiar weight pressing against her chest. Chest wall pain the doctor called it. Anxiety. You should relax more, Mrs. Pinser, especially at your age. That really ticked Colleen off, at your age. What age? Rocking chair age? Fat old matron age? Tears run down her cheeks.
Art sits beside her, his arm firmly around her shoulder. “Whatever you wear,” he says quietly. “You’ll look wonderful. Really.“
Colleen stiffens. It’s all very well for him. He loves her, that forever blessing/curse. Didn’t her mother sound off about it enough when she was alive. So lucky to have a good man. “Yes, yes,” Colleen says, jumping up. “And we don’t have much time. We’re late and I haven’t made the lunches and... “
Art sighs and leaves the room. She hears him downstairs, opening and closing the fridge probably checking the state of lunches. The boys could buy lunch but Steve, especially, won’t. He saves every cent. She looks in the closet again and finds a black jumper she hasn’t worn for ages, straight up and down with silver buttons, slimming if she can get into it. And a black turtleneck sweater. Silver earrings. Why is she doing this? They will probably have zip in common after all these years. She hardly saw Hannah after that summer at the hotel. Different friends. Different plans. Different lives.
As she screeches into the parking lot, fifteen minutes late Colleen sees Hannah’s silky head at one of the window tables. Colleen is starving with no time for breakfast at home and no time for anything once the store opened. Almost a dozen customers working over the shelves when she left, frantically picking up items, often putting them back in the wrong place. Cranky last minute shoppers ready to be ticked off, especially if what they wanted wasn’t there. And always, a shop lifter. Art went on a prayer and a song at this time of year. Everyone was too busy to keep tabs on who came in and out, what bags they were carrying.
Colleen waves to Hannah as she pushes open the big glass doors. Hannah smiles and waves back. She is reading, probably something high class.
“Don’t rush,” Hannah calls, heading for the counter. “I waited to order. Had any breakfast?”
Colleen shakes her head.
“Me either. We should have something decadent. What would we have ordered at Roamers? Remember Roamers?”
“Restaurant and confectionary. Best chocolate eclairs in town.“ Colleen glances at Hannah. She even looks thin in her jogging suit. One of those exercise fanatics, Colleen thinks. Probably runs miles every day.
“They’re not that good here,” Hannah says. “But the cinnamon raisin dutchies are ummm good.“
“Ummm good, ummm good, that’s what Campbells soups are, ummm good,” Colleen sings right behind her. Hannah turns and they have an attack of teenage giggles. The woman at the counter is not impressed.
Cosmo, Colleen notices, as she sits across from Hannah. She’s reading Cosmo.
“Do you ever buy this?” Hannah asks, stabbing at it with her forefinger. “Same old propaganda recycled every fifteen to twenty years, only twenty years ago, I believed it. What about you?”
“Pam, my daughter, used to get it all the time,” Colleen says. “That and Elle. She spent a fortune on magazines. The summer she landed her first real job.“
“She’s grown up now, Pam?”
“Married with a daughter, Emily.” Colleen hears herself inhale. “They live in Sudbury so we don’t see them often.“ Colleen doesn’t want to get into the Mother Hubbard list of child naming. Their older daughter Janet, and her husband, two kids in Guelph. Artie, the eldest, still a swinging bachelor and selling real estate in Costa Rica. Sore point with Art, not that he ever mentions it. Not in so many words. Then the twins, great at the store but neither into the small business thing, long term. Both of them out of the nest after this summer. The whole thing is too complicated, too boringly domestic. Hannah wouldn’t have a clue; wouldn’t want to. Colleen, the brood sow. That’s what her dad called her after the twins. Colleen looks at Hannah’s manicured nails. “What about you?” she asks.
Hannah presses her fingers together and stares out the window. Where to begin? Her career and teaching make her sound pompous, too academic. Her private life is an undiscovered soap opera, Peyton Place revisited. “I’ve been teaching English in a Toronto high school,” she begins guardedly. “And I have two small books of poetry published.“ Sure fire diversion from her personal past.
Colleen reacts predictably.“ Books published? Hot damn. Franklin girl becomes best-selling author.“
“Not exactly,” Hannah says, smiling. “Not many people ready poetry.“
“But you did,” Colleen went on. “I remember. Every poetry book in the school and then every one in the town library. Way to go. Where can I buy them?”
Hannah tries not to sound cynical. “They were for sale in a few Toronto book stores, years ago, in the late sixties. I still have copies at home.“
“But you’ve kept writing?”
Another sore point. After the pregnancy, her thesis, teaching, marking, years slipping into decades. “A bit. Mostly at home. Scribbled on bits of paper here and there.“ She stops not knowing what else to say. People don’t like too much detail, especially about something as esoteric as poetry writing.
“How long have you been teaching?”
“One more year to retirement. I can’t believe it, not yet. It seems as if I’ve been teaching forever.“
“Things are so different now,” Colleen says. “It’s been so much tougher with the twins. Everything fast forwarded. They think they’re grown up before they get to high school.“
“You have twins?” Hannah asks, leaning forward. “How wonderful. A daughter in Sudbury and twins. Must be a huge gap between the two. The twins. Boys? Girls?”
“I think you were in our store,” Colleen says quietly. “Steve waited on you.“
“That good looking, red-headed young fellow? He’s one of the twins?”
Colleen nods. “Cal is quieter; he does more work in the back.“
“Then I saw Art, too,” Hannah says, remembering, puzzle pieces falling into place.“ I thought I remembered seeing him in the hospital but I dismissed it. I saw both of you in the Clarence Ridley Wing.“
“Oh, look at the time,” Colleen says, jumping up. “Got to get back. Christmas rush and all. When are you leaving on Boxing Day?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll visit mother that morning I guess and then head out. Why don’t I call you the first weekend I’m down in January. I’m aiming for every weekend providing the weather isn’t too awful.“
“Love you and leave you,” Colleen says leaning over to give Hannah peck on the cheek. “Merry Christmas to you and your mom.“
Hannah watches her rush out to the parking lot and disappear. Three kids. Well, at least three. She watches a young family at the adjacent table. Youngbeing the quintessential word. The parents look like teenagers although they’re probably in their twenties. How old was Colleen when she and Art married? Why is this important? She vaguely remembers a wedding invitation, first or second year university. She used it as a bookmark for one of her text books; made comments at the study table about her former high school friend, flippant, smug comments made from that barely dry vantage point when the screen is mostly skyline. She sees it every semester in the graduating class, baby birds ready to fly straight into the sun. Some of them do. And thrive on it, in it.
Like she did, does. Anyone looking at her would think she hasmade it, even down to Russ. The chic thing for a woman to do these days, have a younger lover. Not that she planned it that way, not this last one at least. A wave of loneliness spirals through her. Russ is in Europe with his parents, somewhere in northern England, all of them stomping through the moors, warming themselves in fire-lit pubs. She was supposed to be there too, to get to know his parents. That’s what Russ had said. With whatever connotations that meeting held. None now. All of it idle chaff in the wind, scattered in the twinkling of a TIA.
The young father picks up his baby as Hannah moves toward the door. She hears him singing something, the baby chortling and gurgling, infectious optimistic sounds that follow her out into the parking lot.