Hugh Henry Houtton nodded to Nestor Danyluk as they passed by one another, Hugh Henry on his walk home from the railway office, Nestor ambling home from his job with the city's Department of Road Maintenance (which consisted, as far as Hugh Henry could tell, of leaning on a shovel, smoking cigarettes with a group of fellows named Alec and Metro and watching a lone worker fill up and empty out the same pothole for eight hours a day. The thought never failed to irritate Hugh Henry, whose contempt for labour unions was matched only by his deep suspicion of Catholics. )
He swung up the sidewalk of the brownstone bungalow, the western exposure bathed in sunlight, the tiny porch (how he missed the giant old verandah they used to have!) crowded with a pair of deep green Muskoka chairs. As he opened the front door, he glanced to his left - in the corner of the porch, behind one of the chairs, was a khaki duffle bag. Stencilled on the kit was: Ling, J.A. Flt. Lt.
Hugh Henry paused and regarded the kit thoughtfully, then nodded to himself and carried on. Helen was bustling around the kitchen. He dropped his black lunch box on the sideboard as he passed by on his way down to the back bedroom. There, he took off his narrow black tie, draped it over the closet doorknob, exchanged his short-sleeved white work shirt for a virtually identical short-sleeved white evening shirt, and came back to the kitchen.
"So ...," he said, as Helen pecked him on the cheek.
"How was your day, my darlin'?" asked Helen, her face all innocence save for the sparkle of amusement in her eyes.
Hugh Henry played along. "It was lovely, dear. The Prime Minister dropped by for lunch. I shared my sandwich with him. Asked me what he should do to put all these young fellows back to work now they're coming home from over. I told him I'd talk to you and call him in the morning. So, just a day. Anything unusual happen around here?"
Helen grinned. "Nothing out of the ordinary. Got the laundry out on the line - lovely to see the sun, it dried so quickly. Your Mary Lou stopped by, to say her interview went well. And ... oh, let me think ..."
" ... and she had a visitor?" added Hugh Henry, ever so helpfully.
"Ah, yes. Nice young man stopped over. They've gone for a wee walk." Helen dropped the last few pieces of beef in the stewing pot, to swim with the quartered potatoes and cut vegetables.
Hugh Henry sat at the kitchen table as Helen took some lemonade from the ice box and poured two glasses. "And how did she --"
The front door burst open and Vera barrelled into the room. "Where are they?"
"They've gone for a walk, dear," said Helen, reaching for another glass from the cupboard. "I expect they'll be back for supper."
"Did she yell at him? Cry? What did she say?"
Helen smiled. "She seemed quite ... pleased. Excited. And they went for a walk. Let's all go sit on the porch. It's such a lovely evening. We'll know soon enough."
"I can only imagine what she's saying to him right now," said Vera, rubbing her hands with a savage glee. "I wouldn't like to be in his shoes. Not with Mary's temper. I bet he's wishing he'd gone home to Vancouver. Can't you just see the look in her eyes as she gives him what for ...?"
Hugh Henry nodded. He'd spent the last quarter of a century with women who had, one by one, mastered that look. He'd seen it before.
Mary stole another adoring glance at Justin as they rode the bus in thoughtful silence, their hands intertwined. "My fiancée," she thought. Then: "Take that, Verna Hextall." She giggled.
They stepped off the bus a block from her parents' place. She took his arm as they walked, now and again stretching out her left arm and admiring the ring he had given her, how it caught the sun and sparkled and looked utterly perfect on her hand, more perfect than any ring she had ever seen, tried on, or even imagined.
They had been engaged for about one hour.
They had spent, in total, twelve hours together. Twelve hours.
Neither felt that this was crazy. In fact, to both it felt like the sanest thing they had ever done. But they were under no illusions that everybody would share their view.
"How are we going to do this?" Justin asked Mary. "I mean, we can't just blurt it out to them."
"I haven't quite worked it out," said Mary. "I'll come up with something."
"You might want to move that forward on your 'to-do' list. There they are. On the porch."
"Don't worry, silly. My dad doesn't own a gun," Mary said with a giggle, quickly slipping her left hand into her jacket pocket. She didn't add "... but he does have an impressive collection of antique hunting knives."
'You remember Justin," she said as they stopped on the porch. Hugh Henry had stood immediately, shuffling awkwardly as he waited for them.
"Of course," said Hugh Henry, stiffly. "Good to see you home safe."
"Thank you, sir," said Justin. He smiled at Helen, who beamed back at him happily. He turned to Mary's sister.
"Hi, Vera," he said.
Vera hoped she struck the perfect balance between dismissive and correct. "Hello, Justin," she said. "Welcome home."
It was Mary who tied the bell to the cat.
"Justin and I talked about a lot of things," she said. "Including about why he didn't write to me. He says he didn't think I'd wait around for him, that if he wrote me it would never work out, that instead he thought he'd wait till he got home and we could do this right. I've thought about it and I think it was the right way to go. If I were mad at him, I'd expect you all to be. But I'm not. Is that okay with everybody?"
Of course they all deferred to Mary's challenging posture, as she knew they would. She smiled inwardly. "Here we go ..." she thought.
"In fact, Justin and I have talked about it and decided that we're in love. And that we ought to be married," she said, simply.
She took her hand out of her pocket, intending to casually let it dangle at her hip, but Vera was on it like a jungle cat on a wounded gazelle. Mary winced as Vera squeezed her hand, inspecting the ring.
For once Vera had nothing to say. She slowly turned to Hugh Henry. Mary and Justin turned to Hugh Henry. And finally Helen turned to Hugh Henry, her delight and excitement barely hidden.
For his part, Hugh Henry could not take his eyes from Mary Lou's face. She had always been a joy of a child - his bright shiny penny. He knew he allowed her latitude the other girls would never have, but he found it utterly impossible to resist her smile, her giggle, the way her eyes shone when he could do something that made her happy.
And now this.
Mary turned to look at Justin, and the expression of happiness and love on her face made it all so easy.
Hugh Henry cleared his throat, looked at his wife, wiped his hands on his pants, and thrust his right hand towards Justin. "Well, young fellow, Mary Lou has said it's all clear between you, and if she's of a mind to forgive, then who am I to question it? I guess she's thought this through a bit, and I reckon you have as well. So congratulations, and over supper maybe we can talk some more about how this will all unfold."
Vera gaped, open-mouthed. She'd seen Mary get away with murder in the past, but this ... this was insanity. She drew a breath to say something, but felt a sharp pain as Helen's fingers dug into the soft flesh above her elbow.
"Come, Vera," Helen whispered. "I'll be needin' some help in the kitchen. So you just come with me. Now."
That night over an Irish stew, Justin regaled the family with stories of life in wartime Britain, of air raids and dogfights and the privations he witnessed and the spirit he so admired in the Brits.
He talked, too, about his plans for the future - about the bakery in Haney, B.C. that his father was ready to turn over to him, about his plans to prepare a place for Mary out there and how they would build a life together. He spoke plainly and honestly, from the heart, and if Hugh Henry had doubts in this young man they quickly fell away. Helen beamed, her smile the smile of a woman who knew something all along.
Even Vera found herself won over by evening's end. When Helen offered Justin the use of their sofa that night (the girls would share their old room), she had no objection; in fact, it was she who kept him up long after he was bleary-eyed, asking for yet one more story about his adventures overseas.
Soon, though, even Vera had reached her limit of stories and wandered off to bed. Helen had long since retired, leaving Justin, Mary, and Hugh Henry in the tiny living room.
"I suppose Mary Lou and I ought to let you sleep," said Hugh Henry, pointedly but good-naturedly.
"I'm fair beat," Justin admitted. "It's been quite a day." He squeezed Mary's hand gently.
"I'll be off then," said Hugh Henry. "Mary, I'll be done in the washroom in about ... two minutes." No doubt hung in the air about when Mary was expected to join Vera in the back bedroom. Hugh Henry wandered off down the hall, leaving the two of them alone.
Mary admired the way the light from the table lamp danced off her ring. "How did you know I would love this ring?" she asked.
Justin took her hand in his. "Some things you just know," he said.
For sixty years and more, that has been his answer to questions of the heart. "Some things you just know." He just knew that this woman he'd only spent twelve hours with would be the love of his life. He just knew it was right to ask her to marry him. He just knew, the first moment he laid eyes on it, that this particular ring was perfect.
"Some things you just know."
As Mary wandered off to bed, Justin lay on the sofa, covered by a drably coloured woollen blanket, his head still buzzing with the events of the day. He made a note to call his mom and dad the next afternoon; they'd want to know. They would tell his sisters. Maybe he'd call Paul to give him the news.
It was just as he was drifting off into sleep that he remembered. He winced, awake again.
"Eva," he thought.
He drifted off. Plenty of time to tie up that particular loose end, he supposed.
But he never did get around to it. In fact, she remained a loose end for 27 years.
Winnipeg, Manitoba - August, 1971
Sunday dinner was always important in Justin and Mary's house. It was, as much as anything, the best way to keep tabs on the comings and goings of their two sons and four daughters.
Six kids in nine years (the running joke was the nurses at the Maternity Hospital had, after a while, suggested he stop visiting). The bakery fell by the wayside early on and Justin had stepped easily back into the military. He and Mary and the family had bounced from post to post around Western Canada, finally ending the journey with his retirement in Winnipeg.
Mary glanced out the window at Justin, sweating in the August heat as he pushed the ancient rotary mower around the yard. She shook her head once again at his stubbornness. "Cheap bastard," she thought with an affectionate grin.
She had been after him for years to buy a gas mower (or one of those new electric ones!) but he insisted he preferred to wrestle with the rotary. He pointed to the exercise it provided him, but she knew it was more about the money; specifically, that he would never stretch the budget to buy a luxury for himself. Luxuries for her were a different matter; she'd long since despaired of talking him out of buying her anything she wanted. He was relentless in trying to please her. He always had been, and she knew he always would be. There were, she suspected, worse faults a husband could have.
Mary checked the steaks as she walked past the charcoal grille. Almost done. She poked Justin, who was muttering under his breath as he tried to un-jam the locked blades of the mower ("Goddamn twigs") and handed him an ice-cold bottle of Carling Black Label Beer ("Yoo-hoo, Mabel! Black Label!").
Justin touched the stubby bottle to his forehead, letting the condensation mix with the sweat, and blessed her with a grateful, loving grin. All these years and his eyes still made her weak in the knees.
By the summer of 1971, the two oldest daughters had left the house, but with the inevitable boyfriends, girlfriends, and hangers-on their kids attracted, that still meant a good-sized crowd would be gathered around the giant table in the dining room. As Mary unwrapped the foil around the carrots fresh off the barbecue, the youngest of the clan burst through the front door, a tornado in reverse, strewing clothing and sandals and a wet bathing suit and towel and other effects from her weekend up at a new boyfriend's cottage across the foyer and down the hall. Mary rolled her eyes.
Dinner was, as always, chaotic and noisy. The rest of the family listened, amused, as their baby sister chattered on about her new beau, about waterskiing and swimming and the palatial cottage in an exclusive resort area. Halfway through the main course, she suddenly remembered:
"Oh, Dad. There was this nice lady there, visiting from B.C., a friend of Greg's parents. When I told her my name she got really interested. And when I told her your name, she just smiled a weird kind of smile and said "Tell your father "Hi" from Eva C --." But the funny thing is, that wasn't her name. Greg introduced her as Mrs. Anderson or somethng like that. Anyway, she says "Hi"."
Justin's fork stopped in mid-air. He became suddenly aware that every eye in the room had turned to him.