Alex spent New Year's Day cycling round the city on Damian's mountain bike. Damian was jenny and Jordan's son. He was ten and his bike was scarlet, labelled 'Cheyenne -The Prairie Buster' and decorated with stickers of Hunk Hanley, a Ninja Turtle and an unidentified hero in a Viking helmet and tight underpants. Whenever Alex adjusted one of the levers to change to one of the eighteen available gears her fingers brushed against his corrugated chest.
There was no traffic and the streets were unnaturally silent. She biked up Tyrol Avenue towards the park along a narrow black track between rusty ridges of salted snow on which the mountain tyres produced a spongy sibilance. There were a few people in the park walking off their New Year dinners, bulky in fleecy jackets, their heads egg-shaped in woollen cosies. They walked down through trees scribbled black on the snowy hillside to the zoo in the ravine where buffalo and yaks and llamas stood about like so much pre-war furniture: chests of drawers, wardrobes and tallboys shaggily draped and dusted with snow. They tore without much enthusiasm at bales of hay and their breath hung about their heads in small personal clouds.
Beyond the zoo, Grenadier Pond had frozen solid and the skaters were out. Beneath their flashing feet lay a company of soldiers, drowned there during one of those interminable Canadian/American battles for the border. A few degrees of latitude here or there. Fifty-four forty or fight. Damian had told her about it. He said these soldiers were marching across the ice and it broke because they were all stamping in time left right left right and they had died. How many of them? said Alex. And when did it happen? And where are the bodies now? Damian didn't know. Sometime, he said vaguely. Somewhere. But that was why it was called Grenadier Pond gross eh? He'd taken her hand then and they had inched away from the bank, Alex's ankles buckling awkwardly on the narrow blades. 'Look straight ahead,' said Damian. But she had to look down sometimes for balance and then she knew she was moving across a tissue of frozen bubbles and that deep page 27 down in the mud eyeless sockets were turned upward to the glitter of steel. Left right, said Damian. That's cool Auntie Alex. Left right. On the way home he had leapt suddenly sideways from the path and lain full-length in the snow, arms and legs flailing. 'I'm making an angel,' he said. Then he did the hard part: the leap back to solid earth leaving no footprints, not a single clue to human intervention.
The angel lay there still beneath the trees, though its outline had softened overnight and its wings had been torn by a dog or squirrel or some small burrowing creature. Damian was back at Tyrol Avenue watching the Sugar Bowl with Jordan in the den. That morning they had watched the Orange Bowl and that evening there would be the Gator Bowl. Jenny lay on the sofa reading An Angel at My Table which Alex had bought her for Christmas, calm amidst the hoots and groans and 'Oh yes!'s from the other end of the room. But then she had always been able to exclude everything else from her attention when she was reading. Alex remembered her lying on other earlier sofas, her concentration focused for the moment completely on Trixie's struggle with the smugglers or, later, Serena's doubts over Brad Fenwick's fidelity, in one of the romances she consumed by the dozen. 'Don't you get bored?' Alex used to say. 'All those smouldering heroes and women with wild red hair?' Jenny would shrug, turn a page in Island of Dreams or Love Beyond Reason or Sweet Savage Embrace. 'It's relaxing,' she said. 'It makes a change from real life.' She had always preferred fantasy.
When they were children she liked princesses and fairies and the lands at the top of the Faraway Tree. Alex asked, 'But is it true? Are witches real or pretend?'
Jenny lay on the mattress in the playhouse reading and eating black currant grapes and being Cleopatra. Alex liked to be the maid who kept the palace tidy. Jenny wept over the Happy Prince and the dead swallow. Alex said why didn't the townsfolk melt the statue down themselves and buy firewood? Jenny said that was a stupid idea.
Alex wept over Anne Frank and Greyfriars Bobby and the girl in the Woman's Weekly who was born with no arms. Jenny said they were depressing.
She lay on the sofa at Tyrol Avenue, as she had lain when she was a child and taking no notice of the phone or family rows or repeated requests to help Alex for goodness sake with setting the table or Michael with the washing up. It was her special gift. A skill developed over many years.page 28
Alex watched half an hour of the Sugar Bowl. Ranks of inflated humanoids heaved and embraced and grunted between commercial breaks and she had a slight headache, the combined effect of jet lag, indigestion and lack of sleep. They had gone to a party the night before. Alex had said, 'You go. I'm tired. I'll stay and look after Damian.' But Jenny insisted. It would be a good party. Jack and Hannah had just split up but Jack worked for the CBC and Hannah was a journalist on the Globe and they always had in- teresting guests and they had a beautiful house in the Annex, which of course they'd probably have to sell though Hannah was staying on there with the kids in the meantime, and there would be good music and good food: Hannah was a terrific cook So despite Jack's absence this year it would be worth going and besides they ought to support Hannah because it couldn't have been easy for her, turning forty and having her husband decide right out of the blue that he was gay after all and that the last thirteen years had all been a terrible mistake. So they went. And it was a good party. And the people did look interesting. Alex stood by a Georgian sideboard watching them all and eating tiny hors d'oeuvres: kofta, Hannah had said, and satay and burek and they were such a fiddle to make on your own Jack always used to roll the dough for me. Her eyes filled with tears. I thought we were fine, she said. I thought we were happy. Jenny poured her a brandy and took her out to the conservatory to calm down. Alex ate her burek She talked to the interesting people. They told her interesting things. True stories.
She met Sophie from Manitobawho remembered her little brother John, the tenth child, who died in infancy. It was a hot summer. Her mother had put his body in ice in the baby bath while she and her aunts baked chocolate cakes for the funeral.
She met Stan who photographed Mao in 1953for Magnum. Mao had said, 'Please. Make me look inscrutable.'
She met David whose grandfather had been a tutor for the Frontier College: a socialist and theology student who rode up and down the railway line to Moosonee teaching the Chinese navvies English and Christian doctrine and some fundamental Marxism (for they should inherit the earth). He was caught by some locals in the main street in Staunton, tried for heresy and sedition in the back of McPhails' General Store, stripped, whipped and packed on the train back to Toronto. When they were children, David said, they used to run their hands across their grandfather's shirt, feeling for the web of old welts beneath.page 29
She met Kath who had been raised on an Indian reservation near Boston. They played a game there, she said, every July fourth. A kind of football but with no cheerleaders, no commercial breaks, just two teams stripped to the waist and a ball dipped in tallow and resin and set alight so it burnt horribly if it came in contact with bare skin. That was how games were meant to be played, Kath said. Hard and fierce and till exhaustion.
Alex biked past the pond and out onto Roncesvalles, careful of the streetcar tracks which were slick and icy. Her head felt clearer in the cold air. This street too was deserted, the Hungarian bakery, the Polish travel agent, the clothing shop with its troop of solid Middle European coats and frocks closed for the holiday, the church a glum grey hump at the corner. Next to Sobieski's Discount Drugs there was a single patch of light: The Danube, its misted windows a blur of muffins, quiche and slabs of strudel. It was cold on the street and the wind blew keen off the lake. Alex propped Cheyenne the Prairie Buster against a lamp post and went in. At the counter a young woman with spiked purple hair and startled eyebrows was cutting a cross- section through a kugelhopf. Alex would have a slice of cake and a cup of coffee and give Jenny and Jordan time alone.
They needed to talk.
Sisters make such accommodations.
When Alex had sent the Christmas card signed simply 'Love, Alex' Jenny had understood immediately what it signified and phoned: Come and stay with us, have a northern Christmas with snow and fir trees and skating, like the Christmases in the books. Jenny could not bear unhappiness. When they were little she would sit on the bed while Alex curled under the eiderdown adjusting to some hurt, and set about cheering her up. 'What's red and green and goes at thirty r.p.m. a frog in a blender hey Alex are you all right? Listen: there was this Irishman, this Scotsman and this Englishman and. ..'One of Alex's earliest memories was of lying on the floor in a patch of sunlight and looking up at her sister's face which hovered above her like a bright balloon. Tickle. Tickle. Round and round the garden goes the teddybear ...
Jenny insisted on joy. Back in the first week of December Alex had put down the phone and looked around at the flat, empty now of Mat's clothes and books and photographs and scuba gear and exactly fifty percent of the furniture. ('Is it OK if I keep the sofa and you take the table?' 'You have the green towels, I'll have the white.' So careful, so civilised, so savage.) And now page 30 Christmas loomed. Would it be the barbecue at Piha with Michael and his family, the kids whining, Pauline commiserating, Michael with his cellphone propped by the chillybin because the market could switch in an instant, you never knew? Or lunch with Mum at Titirangi with that ghastly Stan she had picked up somehow at Social Dancing? Or chicken and a salad from Woolworths' deli and a microwave steam pudding in the denuded flat? (No. That was impossible. Mat had the microwave. She had the TV.) Alex switched on Oprah ('Stranger Than Fiction: People who have concealed their true identities for years reveal the costs of maintaining a double life'). She wrote another card to Jenny. Thanks. I'd love to come.
Jenny met her at the airport and drove her into the city where she showed her the hospital where she worked with the elderly chronics keeping them active and cheerywith spinning and weaving and painting by numbers, then took her up Tyrol Avenue to the house which was etched in red and green lights and decorated throughout with holly wreaths and gingham wreaths and angel mobiles and candles and little wooden figures of toy soldiers and reindeer and the nativity, its centrepiece a tree hung with popcorn and cranberry garlands above a tangled understorey of gifts. The air was resonant with English choirboys fluting carols. Good King Wenceslas looked out...
They had eaten and drunk and on the last day of the year, thirsty because of the mulled wine she had drunk at Hannah's party, Alex had come downstairs at five a.m., the world dark and still, and found her sister defrosting the fridge. The bench was spread with pottles and jars and plates of leftovers cocooned in plastic film and Jenny knelt by the open door in sepulchral blue light sponging the interior. 'What on earth are you doing?' said Alex. Jenny said she couldn't sleep, and the best cure was to keep busy.
Then she said she had been sitting in the bath on the Tuesday morning before Christmas when she heard the front door open. Damian was at school, Jordan was at the surgery and she was on her own, up to her chin in Foaming Bath Gel and thinking, Oh God, there goes the stereo and the silver and please don't let this intruder be some crazy with a taste for dead bodies. Especially not warm wet dead bodies. And what were her chances of opening the bathroom window (jammed against just such an invasion from the outside), climbing onto the kitchen roof (nude, her clothes were in the bedroom), crawling to the spouting (in six inches of snow) and page 31 jumping to the ground (fifteen feet onto brick paving)? She lay very still among the bubbles and listened. There was more than one person. She could hear them talking at the foot of the stairs, a couple of women and a man, and if she concentrated, above the thumping of her warm wet heart she could hear what they were saying. 'Three bedrooms,' one of the women said. 'All doubles and the master has an adjoining study. It's a good location, ideal for the smaller family. . .'Not a serial killer. A real estate agent. There had been some silly mistake. They were climbing the stairs so Jenny got out of the bath and wound herself in the only towel on the rail. (Damian's. A Superman towel.)
And do you know, it wasn't a mistake at all, said Jenny standing beside the empty fridge beneath a circlet of caroling Santas on a scarlet ribbon. Jordan had put the house on the market the day before and forgotten to inform her, let alone consult with her. The real estate agent was a bit annoyed, said she would await instructions, and off they went. Jenny waved them goodbye from the top of the stairs in her Superman towel then got back into the bath to think.
There were several possibilities. One, was that Jordan had flipped completely and was about to stage one of those mid-life thingummies: you know, where a man sets off to the office as usual, leaves his clothes in a neat pile on some beach and is discovered months later by Interpol, living in a but on Bali with a twenty-year-old.
Or perhaps the twenty-year-old was closer to home? She had run a bit of hot and eliminated the known possibilities: Helen the receptionist? Too bossy. Dani from next door? He'd always fancied her, made a performance of kissing her and so on when they came over for dinner. But Dani was besotted with her partner Tom. They held hands under the table, entwined ankles. Dani was an unlikely candidate for infidelity. Some woman she had not met? But there were none of the usual signs: unexplained phone calls, sudden trips out of town, no hint of subterfuge.
Jenny wiped a frozen smear of cranberry jelly from the butter cooler. 'I'm so scared, Ally,' she said. She wrung the cloth in a basin. 'I'm so scared of everything going wrong.' The water ran cloudy.
Alex hugged her sister then in the darkened kitchen and said shh shh there was no need to be scared, there was bound to be an explanation, she should just talk to Jordan. 'I can't,' said Jenny. 'Not right now. Not at Christmas. I want Christmas to be perfect. I want everyone to be happy.' page 32 'Well, after Christmas,' said Alex. 'In the New Year.' Jenny prodded doubtfully at a dry block of cheddar. 'It's so weird of him,' she said. 'So out of character. I don't think I know him any more.' Alex wrapped her feet in her nightie and perched on a kitchen chair. The santas turned and turned on their scarlet thread. 'Who knows what's in character? she said. 'People do the most unexpected and curious things. Particularly in middle age. They'll suddenly abscond with the funds or have wild affairs or go off on pilgrimages or take up surfing or sky-diving. It's documented. Lots of famous people go odd around thirty-seven. Titian, Shakespeare, Mozart, only of course he died. Like Keats. It's part of getting older, recognising mortality.' 'That's depressing,' said Jenny. 'No it's not,' said Alex. 'That's real life. Talk to him.' Jenny replaced the cheddar in the cheese conditioner. 'Not yet,' she said. 'Maybe it'll go away."It won't,' said Alex. 'Stop bossing,' said Jenny. 'You always boss me around.' 'It won't go away,' said Alex.
She knew because of Mat. Mat with whom she had lived and worked and slept for eight years. Mat who had the office down the corridor at Lowe Ellison Reid. Mat with whom she had gone on holiday to Bali. Mat with whom she had planned to have a baby, just as soon as he'd got a partnership. At thirty-seven, Mat had suffered a seachange. Diving off Jackman Point he had snagged badly at twenty metres. He had been drawn to the surface and revived but as he lay on the white bed at the Base he took hold of Alex's hand and said he had seen his father. His father, the fisherman from Kohukohu, dead for twenty years, drifting in the shadows around the wreck of the Star of the East. He had felt his father's hand touch his shoulder and heard him speak. Something in Maori, Mat said. Something he couldn't understand. Something that had been lost in the scramble for exams and degrees and qualifications and promotion. Mat wept at the recollection.
He went up north to recuperate, visited Auntie Jo, his father's eldest sister who showed him photographs and talked to him, and when he returned it was with a piece of bone like a fish leaping from the water which his father had carved at Cassino.
One night he stood at the mirror fixing his tie. 'I want out,' he said suddenly. 'Out?' said Alex. The Ellisons were due any minute. She had to turn down the casserole and she had lost her silver fan ear-rings. 'Out of what?' Mat's hands moved automatically right over left and under, the mirror image in perfect but opposing synchrony. 'This,' he said. 'Everything page 33 I can't breathe.' He tugged the knot tight, folded the collar over, and Alex in the stillness between them said, 'If that's what you really want. Are you sure?' They looked at each other in the bedroom mirror. Alex had on one silver fan. The other must have fallen somewhere, disappeared some- time when she had not even noticed. The man in the mirror was tense and unfamiliar. 'Absolutely,' he was saying. Alex remembered that when Mat said Absolutely, that was that: no debate.
He left. He took the microwave and his books and clothes and he abandoned contracts and conveyancing agreements and went to Dargaville where he dug swimming pools for a contractor. He said it gave him time to think. Alex stayed on in the half-empty apartment. She drove every morning to Lowe Ellison Reid and sat in her office reading in deeds and settlements the fine print of human interaction.
So, on New Year's day, a fine snow falling on Toronto, she spooned the froth from a cappuccino and decided to write some postcards. There was a stand by the till: the CN Tower, a trillium in full flower, a Mountie shaking hands with an Indian in moccasins, feathered head dress, leather suit and beads, a movie Indian. Kath had said at the party that one of the tough things when she was a kid and finally permitted by law in 1956to attend public school in Boston was being called Tonto all the time, or Squaw. Heap big joke, she said. The Indian and the Mountie smiled for the camera and the PR department, symbols of racial harmony. It was easy when you were a symbol.
She bought the CN Tower ('the tallest free-standing structure in the world!') and cleared a space on the table. She found a pen in her bag. Outside, Roncesvalles shimmered in static. 'Jan 1,1992,' Alex wrote. 'Dear Michael, Pauline and children. ..'A man sat at the other end of the table. It shook slightly beneath her pen as he stirred his cup of coffee. 'Would you mind passing the sugar?' he said. She handed him the bowl. Snow feathered the scarlet frame of the Prairie Buster. The man said it was cold out. Alex said yes it was. 'Having a great time with jenny and family,' she wrote. 'Damian looks a lot like you, Michael, but he's less obnoxious.' The man was saying it was good to find a place open, it being New Year's. She said it was. 'Went to Niagara Falls last week,' she wrote. The man was saying was that an Aussie accent (he pronounced it Ossie not Ozzie) and she said close and he said New Zealand? And she said yes and he said they'd visited New Zealand only last year, walked the Heaphy and the Routeburn and the page 34 Milford on the way back from India and Alex said that was quite a detour. The man said his name was Howard by the way and they'd have liked to have gone even further south, to Antarctica. His friend was mad on explorers: Amundsen, Shackleton, Scott, all that stuff. But they couldn't organise a flight. They'd gone to Quail Island in Lyttelton Harbour instead and slept in the but Scott used while they got ready for the last expedition and that was as close as they could get.
Outside the street faded from high contrast to grey to blackout. They sat in the warm window to watch it go and Howard said New Zealand was beautiful and Alex said this was too, in its own way. Howard cut a slice of strudel in half, then in quarters, then in eighths. He said he didn't like the winter. He couldn't stand the snow. He said his friend, the one who'd gone to Quail Island, had died in the snow. Only a couple of weeks ago. At least they assumed he was dead. He'd been sick. That's why they had gone travelling. They wanted to see everything before it was too late. And when they got back he simply disappeared. All they had was a card from Moosonee with 'Greetings from the North' and a polar bear on the front, and on the back he'd written, 'I may be gone some time.' He didn't believe in quack cures-barley grass, vitamin injections, all that kind of thing-so it looked as though he might have just walked out amongst the trees in some ravine and lain down. The strudel was crumbs beneath Howard's fork. He sighed. 'You never know what people might do,' he said. 'Even the people you love and know best.' The snow flurried. 'It's rough out there,' he said. 'Fierce.'
A man lying on the snow. His wings torn. No trace of the leap back to solid earth.
Alex rode back down Tyrol Avenue between houses pricked by light from the surrounding darkness. The snow lay about her sister's home, deep and crisp and even, and in the den Jordan and Damian were eating turkey sandwiches and popcorn and waiting for the Gator Bowl. Jenny had put aside An Angel at My Tablein favour of Forever My Darling, the Sizzling Best Seller. A man and a woman clung to one another on the cover in a backbreaking embrace against a flaming sunset. She looked up briefly as Alex came in.
'How was your afternoon? said Alex.
'Quiet,' said Jenny. 'How was yours??
'Interesting,' said Alex.
Jenny turned the page.