August 1943 - Late Sunday Afternoon
Hugh Henry Houtton grinned into the mirror as he scrubbed the oil from the creases and calluses in his rough, working-man's hands.
Hugh Henry took great delight in tormenting the fellows who came calling for one of his four daughters. He was of the firm conviction that teasing served three purposes: it tested a young man's sense of humour and confidence; it poked holes in any strutting rooster's puffed up demeanor (the better to let the girls see the real man more quickly); and - best of all - it was just simply great fun. It played perfectly into the quiet, dry, deadpan humour that the Irish in Hugh Henry so favoured.
He chuckled to himself as he dried his hands, imagining Mary Lou and Justin downstairs, replaying every sentence, every word, every gesture and nuance from the night before, dissecting every exchange in search of "that unpleasantness" and of course, not finding anything. How long to keep them on tenterhooks ...?
Hugh Henry Houtton was born in Northern Ireland and came to Canada with his parents as a young boy. Fate being nothing if not whimsical, he had taken the identical route to Canada as one Nils Lennart Ling (Justin's father) had taken on arriving in the New World: landing in Boston, train across the U.S. to Minneapolis, then north into Saskatchewan. Both men had ended up in Saskatoon, Nils to buy his first bakery, Hugh Henry to join the railroad as a crewman and later Station Agent at remote outposts like Naikum and Climax and Kindersley.
It was during a short tenure in Biggar (true motto, still posted on signs at each edge of the town after 100 years: "New York is big, but this is Biggar!" ) that Hugh Henry and his bride Helen welcomed their third daughter, Mary Lou. A few years later, the Houttons and their four girls moved to Edmonton.
As a father, Hugh Henry Houtton was an odd combination of remote and loving, rock-hard and yet doting. The girls had strict rules to follow, but forgiveness came easily in the Houtton household, especially for the two younger girls, Mary Lou and Edna, who could do little wrong in their mother's eyes and none in Hugh Henry's.
Hugh Henry glanced into the mirror one last time, put on his gravest face, and came back downstairs into the parlour. He glared severely at this young pilot. "Well ...? What have you got to say for yourself?"
Mary Lou began to speak, but Justin squeezed her arm and said solemnly, "I think we both know who deserves the apology here."
Hugh Henry stopped in his tracks, taken completely aback, and searched Justin's face. "We do ...?" he asked cautiously.
"Yes, sir. What you said last night was ... well ... it went beyond the Pale."
Mary was baffled, looking from one to the other. "What did he say? Daddy? What did you say?"
Hugh Henry didn't answer for a moment or two, still looking at Justin - locking eyes, searching that stolid face with the intense blue eyes for a clue, some sort of sign --
It flickered past for just a moment, just a tiny twinkle. Hugh Henry saw it and recognized it for what it was. He fought to suppress a smile, but Justin saw that, too, and in that long moment there was a silent exchange - an acknowledgement between the two that each knew the other's game and each was more than ready to play along.
"Will somebody please tell me what's going on?" Mary pleaded.
Justin winked at Hugh Henry, conceding, and Hugh Henry chuckled and clapped him on the shoulder. "Welcome to our home, young man. I should tell you the girls were up all night talking about you."
"They were?" Justin asked. "Mary didn't mention that. I got the sense I hadn't made much of an impression at all."
"Justin! I said no such thing!"
"Oh, no, she's been quite giddy about you all day. Hard to live with, really. It's why I had to go out."
"Will you stop!"
"I see. So she's been staring longingly out the window, then ...? Mooning ...? Sighing ...?"
"Oh, much worse than that. You seem to have cast quite the spell over her."
"It's the uniform, I think. The truth is, I stole it." The two were having a grand time now.
"So you're not a pilot?"
"I mostly clean latrines. I'm expecting to get promoted, though. Right now I'm doing the Enlisted Men's facilities. The fellow who cleans the latrines in the Officers' Mess has just been shipped overseas. It's a much better class of - well, you know. So here's hoping."
"There we go, Mary. A young man with prospects. You can't beat that."
Mary shot the two a withering look and stomped off to the kitchen to help put the final touches on the meal.
Hugh Henry grinned at Justin. "We'll pay for that."
"I suppose," said Justin with a chuckle. "But really, it's always worth it."
Dinner was a feast in every way.
Justin sat nearest Hugh Henry's end of the table. The two men discussed, debated, and argued through the main course. They talked about the war and how it was being conducted; about shortages; about politics and economics and the bakery business and how the railroad figured into Canada's future.
"It's a big country, and people will always need to get around," said Hugh Henry.
"One day, we'll fly them around it," said Justin. "Coast to coast in a day or two."
"Nonsense," said Hugh Henry. "People aren't like bombs or cargo. They need creature comforts. And too many people are afraid of heights. But don't you worry, young fellow. I'm sure there will be lots of work for you after the war. You come to me - I can get you in at the railroad. If you can pilot an aeroplane, I expect you might do just fine driving a train."
Mary listened, enthralled - contributing from time to time where she had convictions, but mostly letting the two men jaw comfortably. Now and again, subtly, almost imperceptibly she would brush up against Justin.
As she passed a plate across the table or filled a water glass, the back of her hand might linger just a moment longer than absolutely necessary against his arm. When she rose to clear the table and stopped to ask if anyone wanted some freshly-baked apple crisp (a question that made Hugh Henry smirk; who ever didn't want apple crisp?), she casually rested her hand on Justin's shoulder.
Each touch was electric to her, because she knew the touches were not accidental and she was pretty sure he would not know. She smiled to herself as she imagined the oh-so-subtle web she was weaving. She carried the dessert plates out into the kitchen, where Vera was scraping the plates and Helen running the water into the sink.
"Mary, dear," said Helen. "He's a lovely young man. Do try to stop mauling him. He's not a new puppy."
"Why, I'm not ..." Mary began to protest. She stopped as Vera snorted in amusement. "Fine. I'll leave him alone."
Helen nodded. "I think that's best, dear."
Justin came through the swinging doors a few minutes later, and offered to help with the dishes, but Helen would have none of that. "You're a guest," she said simply. "We can't put our guests to work, or nobody would ever come by. No, you run along out of the kitchen, young man. And take Mary with you; she's done enough today getting this meal ready."
Vera began a feeble protest, but a warning glance from Helen sealed her lips.
"Do you like ice cream?" Justin asked Mary.
"I love it. And there's a little dairy bar over on 118th. It's a beautiful night for a walk."
"Does anybody else --"
"No," said Mary, quickly and decisively. "They're busy. Looks like it's just us chickens. Let's go."
August 1943 - Early Monday Morning
As the train rolled through the night, Justin elbowed Paul to stop his snoring and remembered again the walk along the quiet, tree-lined street. He remembered what they talked about, what they laughed about, those moments when she would look up into his face and he could feel himself drawn into the deep brown pool of her eyes.
He thought about that moment when he reached down as they walked and held her hand - how awkward it felt at first until the two hands got acquainted and melted together into one - then how perfect the world seemed.
They'd stopped at a playground along the way, and she'd gotten on the swings and he'd pushed her, gently at first. Each time he closed his hands on her waist and pushed her away she would return to him. She'd asked for more and more, and he pushed her higher and higher until she'd launched herself off the swing, landing gracefully in the sand and bowing to his applause.
He remembered the walk to the train station and how, on the impossibly crowded platform amid all the hubbub and tears and and whistles and barked orders, they'd turned to one another. A whispered goodbye, an embrace, and a kiss - chaste, innocent, polite, but so much more. He'd felt his life unravel in that kiss.
He sighed as the flat prairie rolled past, hour after hour, each click of the wheels taking him further and further from this amazing girl.
He elbowed Paul. "Hnnhhh ...?"
"It's like I've known her all my life," he said. Paul shifted in his seat and pulled his cap lower.
"You asleep?" Justin poked him again, hard in the ribs.
"Ouch, ya crumbum. Leave me be. Fine, fine. She's perfect. Good for you. How many is that you got waiting for you?"
"I count two, at least. You better hope you get killed over there. 'Cause I wouldn't wanna be you when it's time to come back. Did this one get a ring, too?"
"No, but ..."
"Well, maybe you'll be lucky and she'll "Dear John" ya before you have to do all the explaining, eh? Now, do you mind? Tryin' to sleep."
As Paul slumped further down, Justin looked out the window at the darkness drifting by. Yeah, he thought. I guess I sort of forgot to mention a few things ...