Times Like These

She was in jail; that was the short and sweet of it. Small mercy that her parents and brother long since dead had escaped the shame. And when the police finally located her resilient young niece, the young woman would pop a few wise cracks and bounce back to blue skies. But could she, Sandra Regan, no Pollyanna, bounce back or would she continue flirting with the olden days until she ended up in the loony bin?  Would this be her last chance to switch tracks?

Grateful as Sandra was for the blanket an avuncular guard had provided, the coarse material prickled her bare arms and the combination of extreme fatigue and horror at her alien surroundings chilled her to the bone.  She gingerly shifted herself on the metal cot to find a more comfortable position.In the corridor, muffled male voices discussed her predicament:  discovered at midnight in the Victoria museum, sleeping in an exhibit room, probably Alzheimer’s.  No, probably just crazy.  And ever crazier to have misplaced her purse with her ID and to have forgotten the name of the hotel where her niece was waiting, fingernails probably chewed to the quick.Sandra had spent her adult life longing for time to roll back fifty years. No longer. Now she was desperate to roll back 24 hours. Oh, for the chance to refuse her niece’s invitation or the wisdom to heed her earlier warnings. Oh, for the familiar discomfort of the daily office grind she had grumbled about for forty years.Tied to her clerical job in a faceless insurance company, every season worse than the last, Sandra was tossed about like a non-swimmer with a faulty life jacket on a sea of technology. “Adapt or perish, Sandra, adapt or perish,” her young supervisor sang when she fumbled to figure out yet another new program.

Her apartment was her haven. Every weekday at 5:45, Sandra slipped through her door into her predictable realm. She hung her coat on the hall rack and set to work preparing supper:  a boiled potato, a steamed vegetable, a chicken breast or a chop, and a small green salad.

On the last mouthful, like a bird alert to danger, she rose quickly, cleared the table, washed the dishes, and swept the floor. She watered her plants, poking the earth to free the soil, checked the front door locks and rinsed out her stockings for the next day. Finally, she sunk into her oversized rocking chair, once her father’s, her cat Sarah Binks on her lap, and gazed out the window.

Far below the cars rumbled by; across the street the pink neon Real Estate sign flashed on and off rhythmically. Safe at last, Sandra could forget the rush and loneliness of the day and sink into remembrance of things past—the farm where she and her brother Peter grew up, her lanky cousins who helped with the harvest, the hypnotic buzz of bees in the sweltering summer fields, and the dust from the dirt road that billowed around her feet like a skirt when she went for the mail. All before cell phones and reality TV.

When the mantelpiece clock struck eleven, Sandra jerked back into time. A time when her parents and her brother were dead, her cousins scattered, when only her Aunt Tess, now hospitalized, and her young niece, Connie, were left. A rollercoaster world  with newspaper headlines about terrorists, murders, kidnapping, bizarre assaults, wars on women and children in countries she couldn’t find on the map, the onslaught from the radio and the television, about things to buy, disasters to come, ways to win, the clock screaming at her to get up, to hurry, the crowd shoving her to the back of the crowded bus, the bodies crushing her in the elevator, the clicking and hammering of the office, the queue for lunch, the tightly eaten meal, the hurried errands, the bewildering computer programs, the checking of work done, of errors, the rush to visit Aunt Tess.

Tess, imprisoned in a white institution they called a ‘Home.’ A fragile ghost who often didn’t remember Sandra, her last blood relative. Then back to her apartment, supper, and the momentary peace of her small world.

Rumours were that the landlord was selling; there was to be an office building erected on the corner. Where would she go? Maybe they were only rumours, always rumours, of the building being demolished, of more layoffs, of the world heating up at an alarming rate.

“Auntie Sandra, you’re incorrigible,” her niece Connie protested. “Like the fellow in the comic you used to read to me who had a black cloud over his head, you’re always looking for ‘fresh disaster.’ ”

“That was in L’il Abner, the writer died,” Sandra commented wryly.

“See, that’s what happens.”

Her apartment was steeped in mementoes; her small library reflected bygone days that might or might not have existed but glowed in her imagination.  Connie had tried to pull her forward into the 21st century, explaining all the wonders…but until this moment she had resisted, her heels digging in as she was dragged behind the whirl of new inventions.

“It’s unhealthy,” Connie warned.  “You’re going to be pulled into a black hole, like Alice,”  From the confines of the jail cell, she acknowledged the danger.  She had romanticized the past as much as others were romanticizing the present. Connie and other clever young people were now in the drivers’ seats.

Still it was Connie who had put her in temptations way. It was her niece who had opened the door; all she had done was slip through.

Three weeks earlier, when Connie suggested she join her on a business trip to Victoria, Sandra had not foreseen the risk. “You’ll be over the moon at the museum,” her niece had insisted, “The old town exhibit is right on.”
When they arrived at the museum, Connie hurried Sandra up the escalator and ushered her to the exhibit:  a replica of a 19th century street.

Enjoy,” her niece had said triumphantly indicating the display with a flourish. With an affectionate squeeze, she reminded her aunt that the museum closed at five and to meet her at the restaurant for dinner at six sharp.

Sandra hardly noticed her niece’s departure; she was mesmerized. It was exactly as Connie had described: a ghost street from the past. Of course, it was only an exhibit but in an unsettling, exciting way it drew her in: the clang of the blacksmith’s hammer, the wail of a distant train, and kitchen just like her grandmother’s. She leaned against the wooden rail enthralled, her chest tight with yearning.

The flimsy yellow kitchen curtain fluttered in the breeze. A smell of spice, what was it? Cinnamon, yes cinnamon, wafted through the air. The heavy wooden table was covered by a scrubbed clean, flowered linoleum cloth. Glass spice bottles, pastry dough, a rolling pin and an open cook book awaited the cook’s return. Sandra could taste her grandmother’s warm blueberry pie.

Drifting blissfully from exhibit to exhibit, Sandra was impervious to the jostling of excited children. Finally, exhausted, she sunk unto an upholstered bench in a corridor above the main exhibit and rested her head against the floral wallpaper. She heard the train arrive at the station, the engine chug to a standstill; from the blacksmith’s shop, the clang of the anvil and the whinny of a horse. In the distance, the music from the hurdy-gurdy drifted through the murmur of voices.

“Five o’clock,” a voice said. “Five o’clock closing.”

Who was that? Not Mr. Perrault, he never mentioned closing. He just waited patiently until the customers noticed it was past six then followed the last straggler to the front door, locked up  after them, and pulled the blind down. Soon the shop was in shadows; the only light was the neon ‘Coke’ sign in the window.

Dusk, the gentle sigh of day just before the streetlights popped through the darkening night, had settled in. Sandra’s fingers relaxed and her purse slipped from her grasp, jerking her hand as it fell. She jumped forward. Where was she?

As her eyes adjusted to the dim light, Sandra was drawn to a wooden gate opposite her.  Behind it was a bedroom like Grandma Violet’s at the old farm.  Her grandmother’s high metal bed with a thick mattress and a blue eiderdown stood against the wall.

Sandra smiled. How cozy once again to slip under the comforter, the soft duck feather pillows enclosing your head as you sunk into the crisply ironed pillowcase. The elderly woman moved closer, leaned into the room, and climbed awkwardly over the gate. The soft light from the dressing table lamp flickered in the breeze. Timidly Sandra approached the dressing table and reverently touched each object: ornate silver set with a brush, comb and mirror; several red and blue glass bottles and a silver powder jar with a plump white puff.

Drawn to the bed, Sandra gingerly ran her hand along the eiderdown comforter which was as soft as she remembered. But she wasn’t ready for bed yet; she’d rest awhile on the small rocking chair. She picked up the leather bound book with Poetry printed in faded gold across the cover and flipped through the yellowed pages to find a familiar poem. There it was: her mother’s favourite.

Before she married and bore five children, her mother had taught one to seven in a one room school in a small Quebec village. On a winter evening she would bring out her old school books.  By the wood stove, wind howling outside, she would recite “How do I love thee…” until the children demanded the Shooting of Dan McGrew, and with a sigh she would comply.

Sandra placed the poetry book on the table, dragged the footstool closer and covered her legs with the pastel afghan left folded at the end of the bed.  The soothing rhythm of the rocking chair and the flicker of tiny roses on the wallpaper lulled her to a quieter place. The last thing she saw as she drifted off to sleep was a picture of a cherubic boy smiling from a golden frame.

~ Melodie Corrigall

Originally published at: http://www.halfwaydownthestairs.net/index.php?action=view&id=291