August, 1943 - Sunday Afternoon
As Mary took Justin's arm, she glanced up to see Verna Hextall bearing down on them, cutting off their angle to the house as skilfully as any quarter-horse. There was no way around Verna (literally and figuratively; Verna was a woman of considerable substance) and no way out of making introductions.
Verna looked the young pilot up and down. "Ling, you say," said Verna. "That's an interesting name ..."
"I think it's a perfectly fine name," said Mary, bristling. Verna glanced at her, vacillating idly between "mildly offended by the impertinence" and "vaguely amused". She mentally swatted the young girl aside and turned back to the matter at hand. Her eyebrows arched inquisitively.
"It's Swedish, ma'am. My Dad came here from Sweden."
"Mary says you're from Vancouver." In fact, Mary hadn't said a single thing to Verna Hextall, and was becoming more and more annoyed at the woman's treasure hunt. She knew this would all turn into one of Verna's stories, and she wasn't ready to surrender it just yet.
"Well, Kitsilano, actually. It's part of Vancouver," said Justin.
"And where --"
"We should be getting in the house, now. My mother is so excited to meet Justin." Mary tugged firmly on Justin's arm and smiled sweetly at Verna. "I'm sure if you call her later, Mom will have all the news that's fit."
Verna huffed away and Mary giggled. "Nosy old spider," she said.
"I was about to start reeling off my name and rank," Justin chuckled. "That's what they teach us to do if we're captured and being interrogated by the Germans. Ling, Justin Alfred Leonard. Flight Lieutenant, Royal Canadian Air Force." He snapped off a salute.
Mary giggled and in her best Cher-man accent, said: "Und verr dos dis Link name come from, hein?"
"Ah, so, China, sir. Don't ret bronde hair and brue eyes fool you. I come flom a rong rine of Chinamen. My name is rearry "Ring"!" They were both laughing as the porch door swung open.
"So this is the young man who is joining us for supper," said Helen Houtton, wiping her hands on her apron. "Mary Lou ...?"
Mary stopped laughing long enough to introduce Justin and watched, delighted, as her mother and he fell into easy conversation.
"I hope you don't mind, but there were no stores open today," said Justin. "My mom always told me you never arrive for a visit - especially a meal - empty-handed. So I was trying to figure out what to bring ..."
Helen was pooh-poohing any responsibility he might have to bring something to dinner (although she herself would never show up at someone's house with empty hands) when Justin reached into his pack and brought out a small booklet of coupons.
In 1942, ration books were introduced in Canada. Each booklet contained coupons for staples such as sugar, coffee, tea, butter, fat, and preserves. Eleven million ration books were issued - one for every adult. They allowed the bearer to purchase, for example, 8 ounces of sugar a week. Having an extra ration book was a godsend for any family.
"But ... but ... you can't," Helen protested. "How will YOU eat?"
"Well, the RCAF sort of takes care of that, ma'am," said Justin. "in fact, this isn't even my book. My Dad gave it to me as I was leaving."
"Well, if you're not going to use it, shouldn't you send it back to your father? Surely your parents need it ..."
"My folks own a bakery," said Justin. "They get exemptions from most of the restrictions so they can make bread and other baked goods. So they don't need it. And since I'm shipping out tonight, I don't need it, either. But - do you suppose it might come in handy around here?"
From that moment onward, right up until the very last day of her life, Helen Houtton adored Justin and would claw the eyes out of anyone, man or woman, who would dare speak a bad word against him within her earshot.
Helen beamed. She said, "Come into the parlour," and turned to walk along the hallway.
Mary tugged on Justin's sleeve. He bent his head down to her and she pressed her lips against his ear. She whispered, "... said the spider to the fly," and giggled.
Helen didn't turn around. "I heard that," she said over her shoulder.
"So did I, ma'am, and I'm deeply offended on your behalf," said Justin, and Mary punched his shoulder as he smirked at her. "Ow! Is she always this mean?"
"Oh, you wait," said Mary. "I have not yet begun to be mean to you, Flight Lieutenant SmartyPants."
The two sat on a chintz love seat in the parlour, drinking lemonade and learning more and more about one another with each passing second.
"I have to know," he asked. "Is it Mary or Mary Lou? Or both?"
"It's sort of both," she said. "On my Birth Certificate, it's "Mary Lou Houtton". My Mom calls me Mary, except when she's being proper, then I'm Mary Lou. My sisters usually call me Mary. My Dad would never dream of calling me anything but Mary Lou, ever. Teachers, Mary Lou. Friends, usually Mary."
"And what do you want me to call you?"
"I want you to pick," she laughed. "It's a test."
"Okay, then. I'll call you Mary L --" Justin stopped as her face changed ever so subtly. "Mary. Just Mary."
She beamed. "I like that best," she said.
They talked for an hour, Justin hungrily devouring her every word, his eyes never leaving her face.
He was pretty sure this was the most beautiful girl he'd ever laid eyes upon.
For her part, Mary was enchanted by Justin's quick wit and dry sense of humour, his ease and confidence, how sweet he was to her mom and her baby sister Edna. From the night before, she knew her older sister Vera already approved, albeit grudgingly. There was just one more jump to clear.
The front door opened, and Hugh Henry came in. His hands and shirt were oil-stained from helping a neighbour fix his car.
"Hello again, young fellow," said Hugh Henry Houtton as Justin rose from the chair. "I'll not shake your hand just now or you'll never get the oil off. I'll be down in a few moments. Then we'll have a good old chat, we will. See if perhaps we can't make up for that unpleasantness last night."
He disappeared upstairs. Justin looked at Mary. "Did I say something wrong last night ...?"
Mary shrugged, baffled. "I didn't think so. No, I'm sure you didn't. Did you? He's joking. I'm sure he's joking."
She smiled and patted Justin's arm reassuringly. "Yes, I'm positive he's joking. Probably."