Jill used to like being interviewed. Once every other year or so, it was flattering. Now that it has become a daily occurrence, it just makes her tired. “So, Jill, tell me…” (No, she wants to say. I’m not going to tell you a damned thing more.) “Now, that’s interesting, Jill! Are you saying…” (I’m saying whatever I just said.) Her questioners bulge and pulse with energy, like sails tight with wind. “In your novel, Jill, you actually…” (Yes, you annoying young thing. In my novel I actually depict two older people—older than you believe you yourself will ever be— fucking. Pawing each other. Slobbering all over each other’s parts.) “May I ask if the book is based on anyone you…” (May I ask if you have any idea how ignorant that question is?)
But Jill does not say that, or any of the other things she wants to say. Instead, she smiles charmingly at the interviewer who could be her child, or even her grandchild, and says, “Well, what else does a writer have besides her own experience? That’s not to rule out the power of the imagination, of course. True, I might take some episode from my own life as material. But then I work it. I change it. I fit it to the story at hand.” (Or sometimes I leave it raw and bloody, soaking into the page.)
“Jill, can we just get back to something you said a moment ago…”
She is starting to understand why people confess to crimes they have not committed. She read somewhere that the promise of a hot meal is enough to break some innocent suspects down. In her case, all it would take would be someone saying, “Jill, here’s the deal. If you will simply admit to the whole world that the parts of your novel in which the heroine grovels, pleads and sacrifices the last shred of her self-respect on the altar of a thoroughly unworthy man are based on fact and that you yourself are the inspiration for that heroine, we’ll let you go back to your hotel room, raid the mini-bar and order room service.”
The hotels, Jill must admit, almost make up for the airport security lineups, the podiums she must approach without tripping or dropping her book, the audiences she can’t see through the glare of stage lights. For at the end of each day’s trials there is the hotel room that is hers yet not hers. Hers the comfort of the enormous, fresh-sheeted bed. Not hers the chore of making that bed in the morning. Hers the miraculous cleanliness and order that restore themselves in her absence. Not hers the job of fishing hairs out of the sink or replacing damp towels with dry ones. Hers the magical mini-bar that grows back the parts of itself that she consumed the day before. And hers, best of all, the tiny bottles of shampoo, the elfin soaps, the doll-sized flasks of lotion and gel and ointment that reappear each day in the bathroom. She makes one set last her stay, hiding it in her sponge bag so the maid will put out fresh supplies she can take with her. In her travels so far, she has collected six sets of Lilliputian toiletries: lavender in Sackville, eucalyptus in Montreal, vanilla in Toronto, lemon grass in Winnipeg, tea rose in Saskatoon. Here in Vancouver, she emerges out of the bathroom each morning smelling of mint. She shampoos with mint, scrubs her skin with mint, anoints herself all over with minty white goo. From time to time throughout the day, while she listens to one or another of the nominees read from their works, she will raise a wrist to her nose and sniff. She smells like a breath lozenge. An air freshener. An agent of sweetening and cleansing.
Jill is one of four authors nominated for the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction. For the past week and a half, they have been flying together across the country, always assigned to the same middle row of the plane, strapped in side-by-side like babies in car seats. After their first flight, it was tacitly agreed that Philip Phelps and Jill Macklin would be allowed to sit on the aisles, in deference to their aging bladders. The younger woman, Jaya Ghosh, usually gets up only once per flight, smiling an apology as she squeezes past their knees. The younger man, Jason Rayburn, never has to go, no matter how much he has to drink or how many hours he spends in the air.
At each airport, they have been met by a volunteer holding a sign with OFAFF NOMINEES printed on it, then shuttled in an OFAFF van to their hotel. Depending on the time of day, they have either been allowed to go to bed or have been given one hour to settle in before being picked up by the same van and transported to a lunch, a dinner, a reading, a panel discussion, or yet another onstage interview, followed by questions from the audience.
“I suppose they expect us all to be fast friends by now,” Philip rumbled a day ago while they were waiting at the baggage carousel. They had just arrived in Vancouver from Saskatoon. They would have three days on the coast, culminating in the award presentation.
“Yeah, like there’s this great meeting of minds or something going on,” said Jaya. “Oh, there’s my baby!” She bent and reached for her hot pink rolling case with the panda sticker. Jill wondered if she could sense Philip’s old eyes resting fondly on her backside.
“Nope. They think we hate each other’s guts.” This from Jason as he grabbed his camouflage-coloured knapsack. “They figure each of us is plotting how to kill off the rest and get the award by default.”
“There we are, Philip,” Jill said, pointing to their identical blue cases, which always, eerily, emerged onto the carousel together. Then, as she stepped back to let the old man wrestle both bags over the barrier and onto the floor—something he insisted on doing— she said to Jason, “Do you really think they would give the award to the survivor? If one of us murdered the rest?” A common topic of conversation has been how much money they could each have made by now if they wrote mysteries, or some other genre that actually sells. “Because the winner must have been chosen a while ago, right? Philip, are you sure I can’t—oh, all right. Anyway, even with three of us dead, couldn’t one of the victims still get the award posthumously?” Just then Jaya spotted the OFAFF NOMINEES sign and they all obediently trooped toward it.
They were, in fact, getting along quite well with each other. Jill’s only real fear at the start of the tour had been not about airports or public appearances or questions she would be expected to answer with intelligence and charm. No, it had been that old first-day-of-school fear. Strange faces. A group already formed and closed. No crack for her to enter.
She knows where it comes from, this anxiety that grips her whenever she finds herself in terra incognita. The constant moving during her childhood before her father settled down. Four new schools in the course of six years. Her father came back from the war with medals, then failed at one thing after another before buying the frame shop on James Street in Hamilton. Until then, every second year or so, there would be that morning of walking beside her mother through strange streets, each step bringing a new teacher and new classmates closer. Her mother—who took charge of every new community, starting book clubs, galvanizing the local little theatre—exhorted Jill to hold her head up and smile, to step forward and introduce herself, to make friends. Through instinct or luck, Jill ignored that advice, stayed small and quiet as the new girl, earning a place for herself in the middle—neither leader nor loner, just helpful and pleasant and friendly enough.
It was a relief to settle down finally in Hamilton, where she worked by her father’s side in the frame shop evenings and weekends through high school and university. The day after graduating from McMaster, she was back cutting mats and dusting moulding samples.
“You could teach!” Her mother—as exasperated with her now as she had ever been with her father. “You could travel!”
“I’m fine where I am.”
Over the years the frame shop has done more than pay the bills and make it possible for her to write. Most of her friends are former clients—people who brought some cherished image to her to beautify, and left with a sense of having been cherished and beautified them-selves. It is her niche. Her knack.
And my camouflage, she thought now, getting into the OFAFF van with the other writers, offering as always to take the centre seat because she needed the least leg room. She smiled, imagining herself crouching behind foliage, disguised in green and brown, like Jason’s knapsack.
At the beginning of their tour, each candidate received an OFAFF swag bag made of royal blue canvas. Each bag contained an OFAFF pen, an OFAFF note pad, a name tag in a plastic case on a silken string, and a letter printed on thick, creamy Olympia Featherstone Foundation letterhead. The letter began by informing them that they had been nominated for the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction. (Jaya: “Makes me feel like I’m being accused of something.”) It went on to remind them that this was not only an extremely prestigious award, but the one that, of all the literary awards in the country, offered the largest purse. ( Jason: “This week, maybe. Until the Biggar gets bigger.”) The letter finally admonished them to refer to the award both in writing and in speech neither as the Olympia, nor as the Featherstone, nor—horrors – as the OH-faff, but always and forever as the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction. (Philip: “See how even the bloody preposition is capitalized?”)
Jill smiled at each of her colleague’s comments, but made none of her own. She had noticed that, save for the hours they spent in the air or in their hotel rooms, they were never allowed to be alone. In the OFAFF vans, there was the OFAFF driver and volunteer, each potentially cocking an ear to their conversation. At every lunch or dinner given in their honour, they were never seated together, but were each allocated to a different table, where they were studied and questioned by assorted guests. These tended to be municipal politicians, an editor from a local paper or magazine, a high-ranking member of the Library Board, and sometimes even the owner of an independent book store, if any such still existed in that city. And, of course, each table would have its assigned Olympia Featherstone Foundation employee, seated next to the author. These people, Jill observed, tended to be young women, alarmingly thin, dressed and made up for maximum sparkle, and apparently on the brink of nervous breakdown. They smiled till the cords of their necks stood out. They laughed too loud and greeted the most banal comment with “Oh, yes!” or “That’s so true!” And everyone assigned to Jill had apparently not only read her book, but been deeply moved by it. Similar sparkling young things were perched at their respective tables beside Philip, Jaya and Jason. The prettiest was inevitably put with Philip to endure his courtly lechery. Every minute or so, Jill observed, she and the others would nervously check the time. They had to get their authors fed, toileted and positioned backstage for the reading or the panel discussion or the onstage interview for which an audience was already gathering.
“Yours must be a rather stressful job,” Jill murmured to the taut young woman seated to her right at the dinner in Saskatoon. There was a look of momentary panic in the heavily made up eyes, followed by a shrill giggle. Well, Jill thought, maybe there have been minor disasters in years past. Authors drinking too much before a reading—she has noticed Philip’s sparklers monitoring his every raising of a glass to his lips—or locking themselves in a washroom cubicle and refusing to come out. And if so, then there would no doubt have been consequences, though not for the author. She herself is aware of a lurking desire to sabotage the proceedings. She would never give in to it, and doubts any of the rest would. But she can tell that they all want to believe Jason when he claims that, if he wins, he is not going to get up there and say he’s humbled by the award, and that any of the other three would have been equally deserving. “Nope. I’ll say that I won because I’m the best writer and I wrote the best book. Then I’ll grab the cheque, say, ‘So long, suckers!’ and leave.”
The cheque. Whether they admit it or not, their banter has to do with the fact that in less than forty-eight hours, one of them will be wealthy, and the other three will be going home
For years, Cornelius (“Call me Corny”) Biggar— self-proclaimed ornamental sticker king of southern Ontario—enjoyed an ostensibly friendly rivalry with Olympia Featherstone—old Vancouver forestry money. Each offered a $50,000 annual prize for literary fiction.
Then, three years ago, Corny Biggar called a press conference. His wife Glacia, a woman who resembles a stick insect and was the inspiration for the prize— “Hell, Glacie’ll read anything”—apparently wanted some changes made. “She said to me, Corny, fifty thou is peanuts. If you’re gonna do this culture thing, man up and do it.” And so it was that the purse for the Biggar Prize metastasized to $100,000.
Olympia Featherstone, when informed of the development by a secretary who reads the newspapers on her behalf, rose to the challenge. Though she called no press conference, made no statement, she did attend a Board meeting of the Foundation that bears her name. There, she murmured a single directive. Later that year, just before the award presentation, she signed a cheque for double the usual amount.
The following year, Corny Biggar again raised the stakes to $250,000. Once more, Olympia Featherstone matched it.
This year, however, on the second of January, she stunned the cultural community by being preemptive. Through a Foundation spokesperson, she announced that the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction would henceforth come with a purse of $500,000. Corny Biggar, who for years had been investing heavily in oil, was not available for comment.
Jill cannot imagine suddenly having $500,000. She can’t even understand what it would be for. Payment for having written Late Breaking? How could she be paid for such a thing? By the page? By the word?
Maybe something karmic is going on and she’s being feted and fed and treated like royalty now because the universe wants to apologize to her for putting her through hell last year. But how could money—even five hundred thousand dollars—possibly pay for a broken heart? And if it is a case of poetic justice, why did she have to have her heart broken in the first place?
It doesn’t even make sense on a simple level. She wrote a book. Dennis Little of Littlepress, based in Stony Creek, published it. It got good reviews. All true. But she wrote five other books previous to Late Breaking, and they all got good reviews too. Critics routinely refer to her prose as “transparent” and to herself as “consistently underrated.” According to one young reviewer who adopted her as a personal cause and ended up having a breakdown, she has been “tragically overlooked.” She has never won a prize, never even been nominated for one. So why did she suddenly show up on the OFAFF radar screen?
Unlike the Biggar Prize, which trumpets both its longlists and shortlists to the press minutes after they are compiled, the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction eschews all publicity until one month before presentation. Its vetting process is a secret, and the identity of its apparently high-profile judges something they themselves are contracted to take to the grave. Rumour even has it that there are no judges, that the reclusive Olympia Featherstone, who does little but read, vets the candidates herself and either chooses the winner, or, if she decides that no book meets her ever-evolving standards, withholds the prize money for another year.
Something called “the Olympia effect” has been identified. Unlike “the Biggar effect,” (BE), which causes book sale figures to balloon, the OE attacks authors like a psychological virus. It could be the month of constant travel and performance, or the faceless judging process, or the knowledge that at the end of it all you will either have more money than most people ever see, or nothing. Whatever the reason, nominees have been known to quit their day jobs in a manner that makes it impossible to come crawling back, abandon their spouses, drop their friends, and, in one case, enter a monastery. The most common reaction, for winners as well as losers, is to stop writing. But for all that, whether because of the prestige or the size of the purse, no one has ever turned down a nomination for the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction.
Jill has decided that in her case, being up for the award is causing some erosion of her character. There is an attitude an author is expected to assume onstage while listening to colleagues read from their works. Alert. Appreciative. Verging at times on rapt. Laughter in the right places. A smile of delight over some clever phrase or original observation. For Jill, this masquerade has gotten increasingly difficult as she and the other nominees have flown together across the country, touching down to read the same passages over and over. Sometimes she is tempted to rummage in her purse while one of the other three is at the microphone, to wrestle a candy out of its crinkly wrapper then roll it loudly round her teeth, to study her shoe, lick her thumb, bend down and rub at a spot on the toe.
She has no doubt the rest are as bored as she is. They have each admitted cheerfully to not having read the others’ books and doubting they ever will now, given that they’ve heard the best bits so many times over.
Jason Rayburn’s novel, Onefeather, (Dreamcatcher Books, Saskatoon) is about a 17th century teenaged Iroquois brave who witnessed the death by torture of the Jesuits Brébeuf and Lalemant, and has since been suffering from what the modern reader will recognize as post-traumatic stress disorder. Jason invariably reads the scene in which Onefeather, having been sent on a vision quest by the tribal shaman, encounters the ghost of Lalemant, whom he secretly loved, and who advises him that it is a good and noble thing to be two-spirited.
The protagonist of Brown Bag Bride, (Arrivé, Montreal) by Jaya Ghosh, is a young East Indian immigrant named Parmindar who runs away from her own wedding to escape an arranged marriage to an elderly relative. The passage Jaya reads depicts Parmindar riding the Métro in her bridal finery until it closes, at which point seasoned bag lady Irène takes her under her wing and begins to teach her how to survive on the streets of Montreal.
Philip Phelps’s book, Michael, (Mackenzie & Fraser, Toronto) is the latest version of the book he has been writing and rewriting all his life—a coming-of-age tale set in Cape Breton Island. He reads the scene in which young Michael, longing for a life beyond the fences of the ancestral farm, is persuaded by Liam, the aging legless woodcarver who is his only friend, to be the first in his family to step onto the mainland and purchase a one-way bus ticket to Toronto.
It has occurred to Jill more than once while listen-ing to the others read that hers is the only protagonist who lacks a mentor. Which may be why she ends up dead. But who mentors the old? In Late Breaking, (Littlepress, Stony Creek) Meredith takes her first lover at the age of seventy-three. Jill originally made both characters octogenarians, but Dennis Little, who wanted them sixty-five at the oldest, compromised with seventy-three.
(Jill: “I thought seventy was supposed to be the new forty or something.”
Dennis: “Sure it is. When it comes to travel and golf and gourmet cooking and anything else you can put on the cover of a magazine for boomers. But not—”)
Even her publisher had trouble getting over the idea of wrinkled bodies, greying pubic hair, two old people heaving together into mutual climax. So Jill, out of some perversity, always reads the defloration scene, which she managed to make both grisly and funny. It sprang fully-formed into her mind two years ago, when she and Eliot Somers went to bed for the first time. She hadn’t had sex in almost a decade, and in the interim seemed to have dried up and shrunk—a case of estrogen-starved atrophy, according to her doctor. She lay there gritting her teeth, listening to Eliot’s running commentary—Interesting. I can feel all kinds of ridges. And your muscles seem to be trying to expel me. What would it be like, she found herself wondering, if an older woman was a virgin on top of all of this? Would she pass out?
That was the inspiration for Late Breaking’s Meredith. When her lover goes back to his wife, Meredith loses her mind. She gives away her possessions, donates all her money to a feral cat rescue mission and in the final scene walks naked through the streets of Hamilton to her death in a snow bank, completely unnoticed by bustling Christmas shoppers.
It is usual for Jill to hear gasps from the audience while she reads, which may explain why she is never slated to go on first or last. The program starts with either the beautiful Jaya Ghosh or the wise-cracking Jason Rayburn. Then Jill goes up to the microphone, after which the audience is given a chance to get another drink. The second half starts with whichever of the young attractive authors has not already read. Philip Phelps is always last, because he is the eminence grise and because this allows time for his designated sparkler to get some coffee into him and walk him around a bit outside to sober him up.
The Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction, unlike the Biggar Prize, which all but calls for bets, has no acknowledged front runner. But there is a feel-ing in the air that the old man is going to win. Twice widowed and childless, he lives in a retirement home where the ratio of women to men is ten to one. (“Devil’s in the timing.”) He has survived one nomination for the OFAFF before this, and two for the Biggar. At every venue, he has teased his pretty young sparkler by pledging to do “some serious drinking” at the pre-presentation cocktail party, to continue “working at it” through dinner, then to get up onstage and deliver his acceptance speech whether his name is called or not. Whenever he weaves to a microphone to read, he clutches the podium like a drowning man driftwood. He seldom looks at his book, preferring to declaim from memory, his eyes searching the back rows as if for the faces of long-dead friends.
The morning of her first full day in Vancouver, Jill stretches luxuriously on waking, fanning her arms and legs as if to make a snow angel in the cool sheets. This day has been kept free for the nominees—no official meals or readings or interviews or panel discussions—to let them shore up strength for the award presentation the next night.
Don’t, she thinks. But by then it’s too late. She has already started the searching, the tender probing for hurt. Yes. There. Still. Not as bad as before. But.
For months, her first thought on waking, her last before shutting off her light, has been of Eliot not there. Not warming her from his side of the bed. Not turning in his sleep and reaching an arm to hook round her and keep her close. At its worst, missing him has been a constant noise in her ears, a smell she could not expel from her nostrils. Absence of Eliot. Now, at least, she can play with that phrase a little. It sounds like something she might have on hand in a spice rack or medicine chest. Cream of tartar. Oil of cloves. Absence of Eliot.
Still in her nightie, she opens her purse and pulls out her phone. She’ll just check her messages, then get on with her day. Nothing from Abdul, not that she was expecting to hear from him. Before she left he told her firmly not to worry, that he could run things and would only get in touch if the frame shop was on fire. Jill often forgets how much younger than her Abdul is. His wide-spaced eyes and jowly features, which remind her of a Boston terrier, have something settled and middle-aged about them. Well, he is the oldest son in a family of five. He lost his father in his teens and still regards his mother and siblings as his to look after.
Jill treats herself to mint-scented salts in her bath, then pulls on jeans and the green fleecy sweatshirt she bought with this trip in mind—something warm yet light enough for late October on the west coast. Once she’s finished the granola, fruit, yogurt and coffee she checked off on the breakfast card the night before, she sets out into the cool mist to walk the Granville Island sea wall.
She’s not the only early walker. A number of white-haired couples are taking their morning stroll, holding hands or linking arms, one inclining an ear to the other’s upturned mouth. Jill supposes they live nearby, in the condominiums tucked behind the trees, and start every day walking together beside this cupped and gentled sea.
There is a fantasy that she has tried to abandon in the wake of Eliot Somers. A household near the end of day. Man in the living room reading or watching TV. Woman putting the finishing touches on their dinner. Anticipation of a long, peaceful evening prior to falling asleep together. Pure Norman Rockwell, she admits. In reality, the scene might be as much slumped into resignation and habit as buoyed by love.
The mist is starting to lift. It’s going to be a rare sunny day. There is a feeling of unreality to this man-made island with its manicured path, its little lookouts and cul-de-sacs with their strategically planted rocks. Everything whispers of wealth. Jill guesses she could afford to live here for what—six months? Doesn’t matter. The day would come when, like Meredith, she would have nothing left.
Unless, of course, she wins.
There’s a park bench to the right of the path, in a little designer copse of birch trees. After a second’s hesitation, she goes over to it and sits.
She wishes she could do what Jaya and Jason seem to have done—accept the fact that Philip will likely take the prize. If she did that, she could just relax and enjoy her time here in Vancouver. But for once she can’t resign herself to being an also-ran. Something in her, something fierce and demanding, is insisting she win. One morning shortly into the tour—she thinks it might have been in Montreal—it was just there. Like a lump under her skin. Slipping about, dodging her probing fingertips. A sense of entitlement, of life owing her a debt she has every right to call in.
Well, she is sixty-eight. She’s worked hard. Maybe it’s time for something besides backhanded compliments and cheques for token amounts. And it’s been quite a couple of years. Late Breaking might be fiction, but every page of it is infused with real pain.
Looking out over—she checks her map—Alder Bay, she wonders if benches like the one she’s sitting on will ever go back to being the innocent objects they once were for her. The memory of all but making love to Eliot on one, the two of them tonguing and groping like a pair of teenagers, still causes them to jump out at her like erotic sculptures.
One afternoon two autumns ago, Eliot Somers walked into the frame shop. Abdul was off that day, so Jill waited on him herself.
He had just sold his house and moved into a condominium, he told her, and had decided to cover his kitchen walls with ancestral photographs. He had some formal portraits of his parents and grandparents, even a daguerreotype of his great-grandparents.
Jill spread the pictures out on the big work table. “No siblings?” she ventured to ask, looking them over.
He told her he was an only child. Like me, she found herself thinking. She guessed him to be about her age, too. A smallish, compact man in a rust-coloured sweater and charcoal jeans. Still-dark hair cut short, thinning on top. Immaculate fingernails, as if he had just scrubbed them with a brush.
Jill and Abdul sometimes joke about how the job allows them to tell a great deal about a person in a short period of time. As they bring mat and frame samples up close to the art, they and the customer bend toward the effect, almost sharing breath. They can catch a whiff of alcohol. Notice dandruff and sweater balls or cashmere and the scent of fresh shampoo. And of course, they can assess someone’s taste by what they choose and what they reject. Jill has learned to pick up on hesitation—an imaginary bill mounting in the customer’s mind—if she suggests a second mat overlaying the first in a slightly darker shade, or perhaps a line incised near the edge for texture. Or, as was the case with Eliot, she can sense an openness to suggestion, a willingness to pay for whatever is best for the work.
“I’ve just retired, and I’m going to be spending more time in the kitchen,” he told her. “I’ve always been a rather pedestrian cook, and I want to get a little more adventurous.” He did not babble on about himself the way some do, assuming interest on her part. He offered up details humbly, as if honoured that she would listen. She encouraged him, asking more questions than she normally did.
He had worked for the last thirty-five years for a major charity whose focus is education for disadvantaged girls. “I started out in finance. But then when my daughter was born, it occurred to me that there had to be more to life than crunching numbers.” He smiled—a bashful smile that reminded Jill of someone she couldn’t quite place.
She smiled back and handed him the invoice she had just made up. So, she thought. A daughter. No mention of a wife, but—Oh, he’ll just go now. A few weeks later, Abdul or I will leave a voicemail saying that his frame order is ready. He’ll drop into the shop, pay the balance of the bill, take his photographs, walk out the door and disappear.
“I’m a widower.” He had closed his fingers over the edge of the invoice, but not taken it. They stood holding it together. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You must get people telling you all kinds of things. I don’t know why I—”
“No. It’s all right. Please don’t be sorry. How long has it been?”
“Three years now.” His voice was calm. She suspected it was a worked-on, achieved calm.
She held his gaze—pale grey eyes, she noticed— and said, “That’s a lot of changes. Losing your wife. Retiring. Now moving.” Then she surprised herself. She released her end of the invoice and put her hand out. “I’m Jill Macklin.”
He held her hand a second longer than was usual. “Macklin’s Frames. So the store is a family business?” She told him about her father, about learning the job from him. Most people come in knowing exactly what they want, and usually it’s the worst thing for the art—a pink mat to match the drapes in the living room, a gold frame to pick out the gold of the chandelier. For years, she listened to her father gently, patiently, respectfully suggesting that it was better to frame to the art, rather than to its surroundings. Then, without a hint of reproach, offering a variety of pink mats, a selection of gold frame samples.
Did she really tell him all that? Yes, and more. About deciding half way through university to be a writer, with the frame shop as her day job. Keeping the business going all through her father’s last illness. Then—
Then Eliot Somers asked her if she had plans for dinner that evening.
Again the bashful smile. One week later, when she was tracing a fingertip round the shape his chest and belly hair made, like a capital H, she finally realized who he reminded her of. “Kevin Spacey!”
He chuckled and said he’d heard that before.
Heard it from whom? And how recently? A small, anxious voice in the back of her mind. She told it to be quiet. Began planting a trail of kisses from his nipple, down over his belly, into the springy bush where he was once more beginning to stir.
The sun has broken through the mist. The ferries have been going back and forth for some time. Jill sits forward on her bench. Decides to check her messages just one more time. Nothing again. She can imagine Abdul frowning, telling her to trust him and stop worrying.
Though he never said anything, Jill could tell Abdul was aware of what was going on between her and Eliot. She caught a bemused look from him one morning when she spun around in her desk chair like a schoolgirl because for the first time Eliot had signed an e-mail with the word love. And that day months later when she couldn’t help herself, could only sit at her desk with her hands clamped over her mouth, shoulders shaking, trying not to make noise, she took comfort in his wide turned back, his deft handling of calls and customers.
She tucks her phone back into her purse and snaps it shut. She did tell people she would be away. There is no need for this small disappointment, like the pang of a single plucked hair. But every time she boots up her laptop or checks her phone, she still looks for a certain sender name. A subject line reading something like, Friends? Or, Sorry. Or, Could we possibly talk?
And whenever she enters the lobby of her building, the sight of a narrow white edge peeking through the metal grille of her mail box still puts her on alert. Will it be the envelope she self-addressed, stamped, folded and tucked inside another envelope addressed to him? Will it hold an answer, finally, to the letter she toiled over for weeks?
She stands up. Brushes the back of her jeans and hooks the strap of her purse over her shoulder. The boutiques and galleries will be opening up. She has gifts to buy. She’s hoping to find something in ceramic for Abdul, who throws pots in his spare time. She has a set of mugs he made—thin handles and pedestal bases, glazed in dove grey. It intrigues her to think of his thick brown fingers producing such delicacy. She wants to get something for her friend Harriet, too.
And she’s going to look for a gift for herself. Something special to have and to keep. A treat. No. A comfort. Still.
Jill has gone over and over what happened, reciting it to herself as she would a fable or myth. She was loved, then not loved. Eliot was there, then gone. The part of the story that eludes her is the moment just before the then.
Up until that moment, Eliot would pull her into a doorway as they walked down the street, needing to kiss and caress her in the middle of a sentence. He read all her books in a single week, practically reciting his favourite passages back to her. He complimented her tiny feet, her tilting, humorous eyes, the way her hair curled round his fingers like a live thing, the way her breasts exactly fit his cupped palm. Every Monday he sent her an e-mail listing the times he would be free that week. She would tell herself not to agree to every suggestion, to hold some of herself back for friends and writing. But then she would capitulate, saying yes and yes and yes.
The sex had gotten so much better—as she joked to Harriet, it couldn’t possibly have gotten worse—with the help of an estrogen cream called Oasis. She would start to throb down there the second she opened the door and saw his smile, would stand close to catch a whiff of him as he took off his jacket in the hall. “My God,” he said the second time she came, long and loud. “You really need this, don’t you?”
Need. She decided it was a compliment. Once more told the small voice to be quiet.
She did a reading in a library with some other local authors. Eliot came and sat in the front row. “I was making love to you the whole time you read,” he told her afterwards. Then said his daughter Mary would probably have enjoyed the event. So next time maybe Mary could come? And meet Jill? And he was thinking that the two of them should go to England, where his parents were from. He had cousins there he was still in touch with.
Yes, she said. Oh, yes. To be presented to his family.
To be so acknowledged.
He told her about his late wife. The breast cancer that killed her. But before that, the deep insecurity that threatened their marriage. He had tried and tried to build up her confidence, to assure her of his love. The constant effort had ironically chipped away at that love. By the time she got sick, he was just going through the motions. All he had left, at the end, was pity.
Jill held him, absorbing his guilt and regret, feeling brave and strong. And deserving. Yes. Why shouldn’t this good thing be happening for her, finally? Why shouldn’t she be given exactly what she had almost stopped hoping for?
“What’s so great is that you were open to the experience.” This was Harriet, raising a glass of white wine after Jill first told her about Eliot, tumbling over her words and grinning like a girl. The small voice had warned her against telling anyone, for fear of jinxing things. But she had dismissed that as a silly superstition. And Harriet was right. She had indeed been open. Courageously so. Willing to take a chance on things being different this time.
She had had six lovers in her life, the first in university. Each time, being seen naked, being touched intimately, had wakened a craving for more and more touch, deeper and deeper intimacy. She would come to need her lover’s attention the way she needed air or water. In time, even when he was with her, holding her, she would get anxious, anticipating his letting go, getting up and leaving. And so of course he would leave. Permanently.
But that wasn’t going to happen this time. Not again. Not with Eliot.
She did another reading a few weeks later, in an art gallery. Waited for Eliot to suggest inviting his daughter, then suggested it herself. He looked away. Said something vague about Mary being busy.
She reminded him brightly of his idea of going to England. Maybe they could plan the trip for this summer? When business was slower? And she could safely leave the frame shop in Abdul’s hands for a few weeks? He smiled. Changed the subject.
“Just take a step back, Jill.” Harriet again. “Give him less importance. Less power. Get busy with your own good life.”
But that was just it. Eliot was her good life. Her best life. She had been content enough with work, writing, friends. Had made a point of counting her blessings, reminding herself of how much better off she was than many women her age. Then Eliot took her hand in his, and everything became secondary to his touch. Besides, it was easy for Harriet to talk. Her husband drowned years ago in the lake up at their cottage while she was in the kitchen getting their lunch. She was left with happy memories of a long marriage that ended through no fault of her own. It was one thing to be a widow. Another to be—
Eliot was too busy (doing what?) to see her as often. He was too tired (from what?) to make love. He had once said he couldn’t wait to show her his new place. Now, each time she asked, he put her off, saying it was still too much of a mess from moving in. But hadn’t he been moved in for months now?
“I could help. I could flatten the boxes.” She hated the way her voice sounded, stretched thin, fake-hearty.
She did try, delicately, cleverly, to get him to talk about the growing distance between them. He ducked the subject, dismissed her worries, denied that any-thing had changed. And so, appalled at herself, telling herself for God’s sake not to do this, she fetched her diary. Showed him the date, weeks ago, of their last love-making. He grimaced. Pushed away the shaking book. Muttered something about pressure.
His daily e-mails had dwindled to one, and that only in reply to one of her own. Then he stopped even replying. Stopped returning the voicemails she composed in her mind and rehearsed aloud before picking up the phone.
“Are you prepared for how he might answer this?” Harriet had just finished reading the four-page letter Jill had crafted to be warm but not clingy, upbeat but not flippant, exerting absolutely no pressure, presenting herself as wanting nothing at all save to know what place, if any, she occupied in his heart.
Yes, she said. She had prepared herself for any possible response. Now all she had to do was wait.
Over the next week, two weeks, three, she kept checking the duplicate invoice she had on file in the shop. Yes, she had addressed the envelope correctly. And in any event, she had put her return address on it, so it would have come back to her if it hadn’t reached him. A dozen times, she reminded herself of the little joke she had made in the first paragraph about including a stamped, self-addressed envelope. Surely that wouldn’t have irritated him. Surely it didn’t constitute pressure. Again and again, she convinced herself that a reply to a letter such as she had sent could not be dashed off. It would require thought. Take time. A month, even. Two months. Longer.
She haunted the spots where they had walked hand in hand together, looking for a certain set of shoulders, a particular stride. Then one day, when she was not looking—
“Jill! How are you?” No guilt or dismay in his eyes. No strain in his voice. Just that same smile.
She had managed not to stop in her tracks at the sight of him. Them. The two of them, walking arm in arm toward her. She had forced herself to maintain a steady pace, to keep her face still as the distance between them shrank.
Now she made herself smile at him. At the other woman too, who was her height and basic type and looked to be around her age.
“This is Selena. Selena, my friend Jill.”
Jill put out her hand. “How do you do, Selena?” She did not say, Enjoy it while it lasts. A few months ago, he was fucking me. She did not slap Eliot’s face. Neither possibility even occurred to her until much later, when she was curled up in bed with the blankets pulled over her head.
She let her hand drop. Told Eliot it was nice to have seen him. Told Selena it was nice to have met her. Wished them both a pleasant day. Continued on in the same direction. Not looking back. Trying, with her shredded mind, to remember where she had been going in the first place.
Was it just a week later that Dennis Little e-mailed her? Her sense of time gets muddy at this point, the two events—seeing Eliot with his new lover and hearing from the publisher of a tiny start-up in Stony Creek—conflated in her memory. She recalls numbly reading Dennis’s message about having admired her work for years, considering her to be underappreciated and wondering if by any chance she had a manuscript on the go. What she had was two pages of notes about an elderly woman named Meredith falling in love, having sex and breaking her heart for the first and last time. But with the recklessness that comes of not caring whether one lives or dies, she e-mailed back to say that yes, she was working on a novel.
She wrote Late Breaking in a kind of trance—an almost uninterrupted flow. Given the subject matter and the way she had just dashed it off, she expected Littlepress to reject it. Instead, she received a letter full of compliments and apologies—the latter for the enclosed cheque, whose amount made her smile.
When the reviews started to appear, she could hardly recognize the work they were praising, barely identify with this “author Jill Macklin” person. And when her nomination for the Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction was announced, all she could think was, Will Eliot see this in the paper? Will he wonder how I am? Will he wish he hadn’t—
It’s the evening of the award ceremony. The whole time she’s getting ready in her hotel room, Jill fights an urge to just put on the jeans and sweatshirt she wore yesterday. But then, when she descends to the pre-dinner cocktail reception and sees Philip in his tux, Jaya in her yellow silk sari and even Jason for once in a jacket and tie, she’s glad of the filmy blue-green caftan and silver pants Harriet bullied her into buying weeks ago.
It’s a grudging, sulky gladness. She is in fact furious. With herself, with all this award nonsense, with every-thing. She spent most of yesterday roaming the Granville Island market, trying to persuade herself to buy the one thing she wanted—a white ceramic plate with a beautifully articulated raven on it, each black feather picked out in detail. She had no trouble spending money on Harriet, getting her a palette-shaped brooch in copper, or on Abdul—a white bowl with a black feather motif by the same potter who made her plate.
No. Not her plate. Because she didn’t buy it after all. And now here she is, all dolled up for the sake of a prize she can’t make herself believe she has a hope in hell of winning. Whenever she tries to work up a little excitement, something in her swats it like a fly and she’s left with nothing but preemptive jealousy of Philip Phelps.
And oh, the icing on the cake. Here comes one of the designated sparklers, who must have caught sight of her moping in a corner with her glass of wine, and has been trained to zero in on any author who appears to be even momentarily less than ecstatic.
“I’m fine by myself,” she assures the girl before she has a chance to ask how Jill is, or offer to refresh her drink or bring her some more hors d’oeuvres or do anything else that might make her stay on this planet more pleasant. “But poor old Philip over there looks like he could use some company.” So the sweet thing floats off in Philip’s direction, obviously happy to have a mission. And the old man’s face lifts at the sight of her. Soon the two of them are engaged in grinning, flirty conversation.
Later, Jill will look back on this moment and wonder if she might have been an agent of something. Culpable in some way. But for now, she drains her glass of white wine, finishes off an exquisitely tiny quiche and wipes her fingers on a paper napkin. She has one more dinner to get through. Then the award ceremony, where she will smile the smile of the good loser. And waiting for her at the end of it all will be the one thing she can count on. First smooth and cool, then gradually warm and comforting, the fresh sheets on her wide, wonderful hotel room bed.
The seatbelt sign has just come on. Jill stows her tray, tucks her purse under the seat in front of her and buckles up. She loves flying, and in the last month has done more of it than in her entire life. She especially enjoys takeoff—the revving of the engine, the speeding down the runway, then the amazingly delicate lifting into the air. In five hours, she will be in Toronto. Abdul, bless his heart, is meeting her at the airport and driving her home.
It feels odd not to be flanked by the other—no, not candidates. Not any more. Jason is on his way to Saskatoon, Jaya to Montreal. As for Philip—
Toronto? Or Cape Breton Island? Where he was living, or where he was from?
“Gotta hand it to the guy,” Jason said just an hour or so ago, once the three of them had found each other in the departure lounge. “He got the girl and the money.” “Jason, have some respect for once!” Alone of the candidates, Jaya had shed tears at the award ceremony the night before. Then, as the audience reacted to the news, she had stripped off her bracelets and pulled out her earrings—a traditional act of honouring the dead, Jill supposed.
Once she got the whole story, Jill had asked herself if having wafted that young woman toward Philip at the pre-dinner reception made her some kind of accessory. But to what? It wasn’t a crime. Still, did she, as Jason would say, speed the plow?
“What I can’t understand,” Jaya said now to Jason, her tone softer, conciliatory, “is what got into that girl. I mean, how could she just throw her career away like that?”
“Maybe she knew old Phil was going to win, so she made him name her in his will before he got his leg over.”
“Jason!” She punched his bicep, hard.
Just then Jill’s flight was called. “You two should get married,” she said as she gathered up her coat and purse, enjoying the astonished look the young people gave first her, then each other.
The plane has levelled off, achieving that illusion of stillness it will maintain for the next several hours. After takeoff, flying is a bit of a bore, Jill must admit. A thing for which she should be grateful. After all, what would make it exciting? A sudden silence. Flickering lights. Then that plunge, which she has read can take several minutes. Several minutes of knowing the thing you spend your life trying not to know.
Did Philip have an inkling? And where is he now? Not in the hold, surely. Jill tucks her feet up. Then she puts them flat on the floor again. Silly. The logistics involved—body, box, paperwork—would take more than one night.
She slept well, and still feels remarkably rested and refreshed. Some burden seems to have been lifted from her. It solves a lot of problems, she remembers her father once saying about death. But what connection could there be between her lightheartedness this morning and what happened the night before?
Olympia Featherstone had just been introduced, and was about to make one of her rare public appearances to announce the winner and present the cheque. As they all applauded, an OFAFF employee pulled the edge of the maroon velour curtain aside. There emerged, slowly, the tip of a cane. Then the polished toe of a custom-made orthopedic shoe. The audience kept applauding, waiting for a knee, a hand, the gleam of silvered hair. Instead, there was a pause. The shoe withdrew. Followed by the cane. The employee holding the curtain appeared to receive some direction from backstage. Then he also slipped out of sight behind the rippling velour.
The applause petered out. A minute passed. Two. Finally another, older OFAFF employee emerged and went to the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen, there has been…Mr. Philip Phelps is…that is, he would have been…the recipient of this year’s Olympia Featherstone Award For Fiction. However…unfortunately…Mr. Phelps met with…Mr. Phelps died. Suddenly. We are deeply saddened. Please—” The audience was beginning to murmur. The employee had to raise his voice. “Please…we ask you to proceed back out to the reception room. Coffee will be served.” At this point the younger employee re-emerged and whispered something to the older, who announced, “And dessert. Has also been assembled.”
It was over coffee and their second dessert of the evening, which everyone was suddenly quite hungry for, that somebody leaked the story that must never be told. Sometime between dinner and the award ceremony, Philip and his sparkler slipped upstairs to his room. From there, the front desk received an hysterical call. Staff found the young woman wrapped in a sheet, and Philip on his back on the bed, a look of unmistakeable joy shaping his stiffening features.
Joy. Is that what this is, Jill wonders, not for the first time. This feeling of lightness she woke up with? She has, of course, felt joy before. But it’s been so long that it seems a new thing. Actually, it’s more like an absence. Of an absence. Does that count as a presence? She is still aware that Eliot is gone. She just doesn’t care anymore. She doesn’t care about the award or the money either. Is perfectly happy to be going home with nothing.
No. Not nothing. She opens her purse. Pulls out her wallet. Yes, she did keep that business card. “You can always order it through my website,” the potter, a tall Dutch woman, told her the other day when she was deciding for the ninth time not to treat herself to the raven plate. The potter was not much younger than Jill, and seemed to understand her hesitation. “I can ship to anywhere in the world.”
Jill decides she will order the plate. It will be fun to imagine it travelling the breadth of the country, arriving at her door miraculously intact. She looks out her tiny window, happy as a child to see that they are flying above the clouds.
For the story behind “Late Breaking” check out K.D. Miller’s Afterword entitled “January” on tnq.ca.