Verna's heels clicked crisply on the sidewalk. She rounded the hedge on two wheels, and Justin suppressed a grin at the fleeting image of a siren and a red flashing light on the top of Verna's straw summer hat.
"Imagine that. Look who's home from over across," said Verna. "Well, not home, I guess. Home is ... where, again? Somewhere in BC? Katzenjammer?"
"Kitsilano. Hi, Mrs. Hextall," said Justin, pleasantly. "More flies with honey than with vinegar ... " he thought, and smiled politely.
"Hello, Verna," said the woman who now lived in Mary's house.
"Alice," sniffed Verna, dismissively. "I suppose you've heard of this young man. Fancy him showing up on your doorstep. And wasn't Alice a bit of a surprise for you?" This last to Justin.
"Well, yes, I suppose --"
"Might not have been, if you'd kept in touch with poor Mary Lou. Dear, sweet thing. I can only imagine her heartbreak." Verna was a force of nature when provoked to umbrage on behalf of others. "Still, I suppose that's how you young people do things now. Flit in and out of one anothers' lives, toying with affections, taking advantage. Shameful, I say. And now you've come crawling back."
"Actually, I think he took the bus, Verna," said Alice. Justin sensed an ally and was warmed after Verna's wilting first assault.
"I took the train up from Calgary," he corrected Alice, and glimpsed a twinkle in her eye that matched his own. "But the bus got me here from the station. I just landed back in Canada a week ago. Troop ship from Liverpool."
Verna sniffed. "Don't matter to me how you came to be here. As you've seen, they're gone. Moved away, they did. Shame. They were good neighbours ..." Verna left a delicate but palpable pause before adding a perfunctory " ... as are you folks, Alice. But of course, they were here for years."
"So you've said, many times," observed Alice, drily. "I imagine the young man is looking to find the Houttons. I suggested that he talk to you, Verna, since you seem to know so much about everything that goes on in this neighbourhood." She smiled innocently, and Justin marvelled at the surgical precision. "That one drew blood, and the old bat never even felt it," he thought.
"Won't do you much good," said Verna. "Poor Mary went off to live in a girl's residence downtown. I have no idea where. She may still be there, or perhaps she got married for all I know. She never wanted for young men, that one. Moths to a flame."
"I'm sure you'd have been invited to a wedding, wouldn't you, Verna? You've always said the Houttons were such good friends ... ," said Alice, neatly trumping the larger woman in front of her. Justin saw a flicker of annoyance in Verna's eyes. Something told him that Alice would pay for this conversation through skilfully placed tidbits of gossip in the years to come.
For her part, Alice seemed not to care. "I think the Christian thing to do is help this young man find who he's looking for, don't you? Wouldn't want to stand in the path of romance."
Verna snorted, but her fight was gone. "I would have thought the Christian thing to do would have been to write the occasional letter. Do you know how long that silly girl mooned over you, young man? She may be mooning still. I think she's well shed of you, but it's her decision, I suppose."
Verna grudgingly gave him the Houtton's new address - from memory, no less - spun on her heel with a barely polite nod to Alice, and Justin could almost hear the steam engine inside Verna roar to life as she chugged back down the sidewalk, round the hedge, and on her way.
Alice watched her untill she was out of earshot, rolled her eyes, then turned back to Justin and examined him afresh. "So, you're the dashing young pilot we've all heard so much about, are you?"
"I guess, ma'am. Kinda felt like dashing when she started in on me."
"Well, you'd best get on the bus before Verna gets home, has a moment to think, and comes barelling back to offer more pieces of her mind. Honestly. It's a miracle the woman has any left to give."
Alice offered Justin a firm handshake and a wink. "Off you go. And good luck to you."
As Justin reached the corner, his kit slung on his shoulder, he turned back to look one last time at the street; a quiet, treelined street of immaculately kept older houses, a street where families grew, where people sat on their verandahs on summer evenings and smiled at their neighbours as they walked past and all the women agreed that Monday was the day you hung your clothes on the line and all the men agreed that Saturday was the day you mowed your lawn.
"One day I'm going to live on a street like this," he thought.
Then Verna burst out her front door and Justin turned and stepped quickly to the bus stop. The bus roared up and he was on board before she'd even reached the corner.
The truth was, Mary had mooned over Justin for a long time and would still think of him from time to time with a real sadness. But life did go on. There were dances, and days at the beach and a succession of young fellows, some duds, some with promise, but none who could make any real headway against the memory of her "dashing young pilot".
Vera would roll her eyes as Mary dismissed suitor after suitor. "Oh, for cripes sake, kiddo," she'd say. "You're not wearing black. You're not a war widow. Time to find a new fella. Maybe one who actually cares enough to write."
Gradually, Mary was coming around to Vera's way of thinking, and yesterday's trip to Sylvan Lake was another step along the path. A handsome boy from St. Albert, a few miles north of the city, had asked for the phone number at her block, and Mary had obliged. Ken something. MacDonald? McGregor? Something Scottish.
"Maybe he'll call," thought Mary as she looked out the bus window. She smiled to herself as she pulled on the signal cord indicating her stop was approaching. "Oh, come on," she thought, "He'll call. No maybe about it."
They always called.
Mary got off the bus and walked the two blocks to her parents' new home, a smallish, red brick bungalow that always reminded Mary of a poem about a young woman with extravagant tastes:
Little I want, my needs are few,
All I want is a simple house
(A simple Brownstone house will do) ...
She would often tease her mother about living in their fancy brownstone mansion, now that the kids were gone and they could finally open up the hidden safe filled with all the money they never spent on ponies and summer homes in the Rockies. Helen and Hugh Henry would be the toast of the town, attending elegant soirees wearing shimmering evening gowns and top hat and tails. Helen would giggle as Mary Lou would waltz her around the tiny kitchen.
No waltzing today, though, as Mary added her hamper with a week's worth of laundry to the pile in front of the wringer-washer. She helped Helen take the sheets off the line (skilfully clipped on the line inside each sheet were Helen's "unmentionables". Helen had once had a neighbour who had actually hung those out in plain view of passersby, including children. That had been straightened out very quickly.). The two women chattered away happily, more like sisters than mother and daughter.
Mary cranked as her mother fed the soggy, soapy clothes through the wringer. Helen was glad of the help, and the company. She'd missed having her Mary Lou around, but that was what happened, wasn't it? Birds do finally leave the nest, as God intended.
Her laundry on the line, Mary went inside to wait for it to dry. With Hugh Henry out for the morning, she took his chair by the window - the light was better for reading. She opened her book and as always, fell inside it. Now and again she'd glance up as something outside would catch the corner of her eye - a dog patrolling for cats, two boys on bikes, a pregnant woman pushing a stroller, shushing her squealing child.
She first saw him quite a distance up the block. She'd looked out, absently noted a young man walking along carrying something on his shoulder, then returned to her reading. She looked up a few minutes later - the young man was still quite a ways away, but now it was clear that the "something" he was carrying was a soldiers' duffel - anyone could recognize that. She cast her eyes back to her page, but the words suddenly weren't making any sense.
It was like reading a Jumble.
She looked up one more time, slowly, knowing exactly who she would see. Knowing.
How many times had she played this scene out in her imagination? How many times had she rushed into his arms and into a magical, neverending kiss? Or stood stolidly, coldly resolute and unforgiving as he grovelled and begged forgiveness? Or walked boldly up to him and slapped his face?
How many times had she rehearsed what she would say, how she would spit venom at him for the misery he'd inflicted on her; or stand regally silent and force him to explain himself; or collapse into tears ...?
And now, he was here.
Mary pushed herself out of Hugh Henry's chair, stood still for a moment to will her knees to stop shaking, and opened the front door at the same instant that Justin's foot hit the bottom step.