Audra Poe flipped up the creaking lid of her mailbox and retrieved the single grimy envelope inside. She could sense Honoria’s spectral presence just behind her left shoulder, imagined her peering, prying eyes.
Since the diagnosis ten months earlier, Audra had gone through spells of depression, attacks of breathless fear and a parade of visitors from the realm of spirit. She’d had the cancer in her breast cut out, but no treatment beyond that. Memories of her mother, bald, skeletal and impossible to touch after a final unsuccessful round of chemotherapy, made her unwavering on that point. If her body chose to fight, it would fight alone, with its full complement of curves and hair. If the cancer emerged victorious? Freedom of the spirit would be a sweet blue dream; no hot skin and aching bone to lug from corporeal place to place. Her decision had the happy side effect of thinning out her battalion of cancer society supporters. Her name was soon taken off several mailing lists. The visitors, however, seemed to throng to her. She’d had no idea, of course she hadn’t, that her little town was so popular with ghosts.
There had been a sighting in the Katzman Theatre, Honoria said, near the little curving staircase that led up to the stage. She tugged on Audra’s long ginger braid and nipped at her ear to get her attention.
“All right,” Audra thought, “I do hear you, even when I pretend I don’t.”
She placed the ragged airmail envelope between the paws of the brass cat that perched on a corner of her desk. “Return to Sender” was stamped at a careless angle over Paul’s supposed address. If she wished to torment herself, perhaps just before bed, she could tear it open then and revisit her own foolishness.
The shade nuzzled her again. Soon, very soon, Honoria would have to be sent packing. The several before her, after a sensible length of stay, left of their own accord, but this one showed no sign of moving along. Honoria had taken to wandering the streets, lurking unseen in stores and houses, returning to Audra with bits of gossip she felt compelled to share.
It was a fine June day, so she took a stroll down the hill to the old theatre. Its new owner, Ruthie Fenway, sat on the sidewalk fanning her face with this week’s newspaper. Her kinky salt-and-pepper hair had made a successful escape from her bandana headscarf and wild strands undulated with every wave of her hand.
If anyone could save the Katzman, Ruthie could. Her mania for restoration had already reanimated a full block of the old section of town.
“Oh Miss Poe,” Ruthie said (her granddaughter had been a student in Audra’s third grade class last year), “I can imagine how I look sitting in the street. My head just took a spin while I was mopping down the floor. You can’t imagine how sticky that old floor gets.”
“You’re all right now, are you, Ruthie?”
She was up on her knees by now and more than ready to include Audra in her horrible experience.
“Come inside won’t you? Have you been in since we had the murals redone? The Heritage Society funded it, they turned out very well. Don’t mind the floor please; it’s a horrid old mess.”
She led Audra down the aisle toward the crescent of stage that now fronted a silvery motion picture screen. The murals were surprisingly effective, depicting an ocean vista as seen from a series of windows; in the distance, suggestions of smoky islands formed a misty horizon; shades of blue and green and taupe made the ocean deceptively serene.
With the lamps on full, Audra could see plainly the ridges of heavy dust on the stage side curtains, a jarring counterpoint to the fresh illusory mood of the seascaped walls.
There was a cone of chill silence just there on the little staircase, on the grooved risers that led to the nameless space behind the silver screen. Honoria huddled against Audra and stroked the small of her back. Ruthie dallied at the bottom of the stairs, pulling at her chin.
“May I sit here just for a moment?” Audra said. “It’s so cool after the sun outside. You go have your cuppa tea, Ruthie. Get your strength back.”
“Can I bring you a cup, Miss Poe?”
“That would be lovely, thank you. I’ll be right here.”
Audra waited until Ruthie had waddled up the strip of shabby carpet and disappeared into her little office. She shook away Honoria’s hand and held her breath until her chest tingled, opening and closing her eyes in a slow swooning rhythm. She was close to perfecting this ritual, one that had begun quite naturally as she was rising out of an anesthetized stupor. Like pushing on a door swollen with age and damp, this slow loosening, this gradual release, would allow her to make the visitor’s acquaintance.
In an unswept corner of her mind, she supposed she could have just as well left them alone. But she had become more at ease with the ghosts than with the living, whose bright cheerfulness was a poor mask for their ever present dread of the darkness to come. The visitors, even the clinging Honoria, had a core of calmness that made them increasingly attractive.
Audra stepped closer to the cold and filled her lungs with the gelid vapor. When she opened her eyes two figures stood before her. The smaller figure, flat-chested as a boy in her silk chemise, chewed on the long rope of pearls that encircled her neck. The taller, a gaunt young man in Breton sweater and corduroys delivered a shrug and apology.
“Did I frighten the old lady?” he said. “I didn’t mean to.”
Neither shade took any notice of the other. Audra had come to realize that the visitors were barely more aware of each other’s presence than were the living of the dead. She imagined that they felt the nearness of others of their kind as a familiar fleeting scent upon the wind, each new arrival like the half heard peal of a faraway bell. She would call this one Alastair, since it was on the stairs that he had first made himself known. As quickly as ever, the images before her shimmered and faded away.
“Come along then,” Audra whispered.
Half way up the aisle they were met by Ruthie, who carried a clatter of china and spoons on a tray. Ruthie set the tray on the arms of an aisle seat and handed over a pretty violet-patterned cup. Audra drank down her milky tea in two gulps as Ruthie scanned the stage with a nervous eye.
“Thank you so much, Ruthie.”
“You’re welcome. I’m glad to see you looking so well.”
Audra ducked away from Ruthie’s outstretched hand and strode out into the sunshine, the two shades at her heels like a pair of hounds. Already her feet were swollen and sore and a fullness in her abdomen made her breath shallow. It would not do at all to faint in the street and become the subject of conversation for a second time in a year.
“Take my arm,” Alastair said.
His touch was so unlike that of the intrusive Honoria. He seemed well-mannered and courteously aloof. Audra leaned toward him and felt supported. The ache of her swollen feet faded and she arrived quite comfortably at her apartment door.
The little building she lived in, across from the site of the old hospital, rivaled the Katzman Theater in age. Each of the eight apartments had its own covered porch and long, lace-curtained windows. The landlord (and secretary of the Heritage Society) had painted the exterior an early twentieth century blue, whitewashed the trim and planted a hedge of old roses along the sidewalk.
Audra ran her finger along the creased petals of a full blown blossom and they fell to the ground in a crimson clump. She shook off a pang of sadness. It would be foolish to take such a natural occurrence personally, as if the bloom had waited for that very moment to remind her that she too was past her prime. She stood up straighter, shrinking away from the shade’s support.
Once inside she pried off one shoe, then the other, and collapsed into a chair.
Had she felt quite this undone when Honoria had come? Not at all, as she recalled. Audra had sat on a muddy log, breathing the green breeze off Ambrose Lake . Honoria had bounced up from the lake’s rippled surface like a glint of reflected sunshine, casting a sparkle of mist at her back. Her touch had been like the insistent tug of a toddler’s hand, at first endearing, now sticky and repellent.
Audra let her swimming head loll onto the cool cotton napkin draped over the back of her chair.
So often in the middle stages of her mother’s illness Audra had arrived home and found her mother sitting like this , splay-legged and panting after nothing more than making a bed or folding a stack of laundry. It was at times like this that mother’s tears had been most bitter, her anger at her fate most fierce. She had spit out harsh, stinging curses and then dissolved into a wash of regret, all of which failed to touch her daughter’s heart.
Audra crossed her ankles and closed her eyes, summoning up the images she had seen in the theatre. It helped to have at least the memory of a face to address.
“You may have sensed,” she said quietly to Honoria’s imagined countenance, “that things are not going well between us. I’m afraid you can’t expect to stay here any longer.”
She spoke as if delivering a remedial lesson to a poor pupil, which came quite naturally after a decade and a half of teaching third grade.
The shade sat cross-legged at Audrey’s feet and blinked back a suggestion of tears. Brick by brick, the dark wall was rebuilt between them and the connection closed between being and self-consciousness. A final wave of regret shuddered through the shade as Audra gathered herself up and closed her heart.
The chair was warm and soft and Audra let herself rest for a moment, thinking of the serene painted ocean on the walls of the Katzman Theatre.
Her feet had fallen asleep. She knocked them together and rotated her ankles until the unpleasant but inevitable pricking began.
Across the room, Alastair sat at her desk, reading the letter she had written to Paul. She jumped up and stumbled toward him, forgetting to wonder why, although frayed in spots, he had some apparent substance.
She tore at the sheet of paper he held between thumb and forefinger. Her stomach heaved as she realized her hands were numb and that her feet hovered several centimeters above the carpet. The letter remained in Alastair’s hand.
She awoke gasping, cramped in her armchair, but alone. The letter on her desk was undisturbed, her feet firmly planted on the wine and green swirls of her mother’s Persian rug. She flexed her fingers and welcomed the twinge of sensation. She massaged her throat until breathing came more easily again.
Eighteen years here, she thought, examining the walls, the floor, the sticks of furniture. She barely remembered living anywhere else. Some people changed houses nearly as often as others changed socks.
She picked up the letter to Paul and crushed it in her palm. Why had she tried to contact him now? It had been ludicrous to expect that he would still be employed by the Hotel Saint-Jean, where Audra and her mother had spent a damp fortnight almost a decade before. The tour had been her mother’s desperate whim, booked through an indifferent agent. She had yearned for a Monet watercolor come alive with dappled pastel light and creamy gentility. As with every other wistful fantasy of her adult life, her mother was doomed to disappointment.
Audra’s delight in capturing Paul’s attention had pleased Mother a little, but not enough. Audra had fallen in love, but Paul was not quite wonderful enough to heal both women’s wounds. When Audra accompanied her mother home for another disastrous round of treatment she soon realized she had chosen badly. An uncomfortable suspicion took hold that somehow she might have fulfilled the roles both of lover and daughter. Ultimately she had managed neither one.
She unfolded the returned letter, read her own passionless words and was thankful they had never reached him.
“I wonder if you remember me,” she had written, trivializing herself and their affair in one sentence.
A cool breath touched her hair.
“Do you still love him?” Alastair asked
“That would be ridiculous,” she said.
Why had she written the letter? She had been clearing out drawers and cupboards and chanced upon the abruptly abandoned journal of the trip to France . Perhaps if she had written to him ten years ago, shared the helpless sadness and repulsion of watching her mother shrink to bone…? Instead she had interred it all, the uncremated remains of both her mother and her lost love.
She stole a nervous glance at the desk, wondering if Alastair was aware of her thoughts. His image, as it had appeared to her, had a lanky ease, an angular face so suited to stage or screen that could be lit and costumed as sophomore, rake or philosopher. He certainly knew how to play the silence, creating a space for Audra to fill.
“Love can die, just like anything else,” she said.
She rose stiffly from the armchair. In the kitchen she melted a little cheese on toast and cut an apple into measured sections. As she ate she wondered what Alastair might be doing in the other room. Touching her things, judging her taste? She stood up quickly. Might he already have gone? She stretched her neck around the little doorway and sensed him at the window, looking out at the darkening street. She returned to the kitchen table and sat, perusing the massive sheaf of the previous Sunday’s Globe and Mail.
She skimmed over strong opinions of books she would never read, films she would never see, accounts of overwhelming loss and hope in every desperate corner of humankind. Her mother’s face hung between her and the columns of print like a wasted moon in a pallid sky. At last she tossed the papers aside in a whispering heap and went into the sitting room, to the window.
The lot across the street was empty and fenced now, all trace of the old hospital obliterated. Before the building had been taken down, she had often seen people film the spot with their video cameras. Sometimes whole families, generations coming together for a final look at the place where they had come into the world.
“There was a hospital there,” she said to Alastair.
“What’s there now?” he asked.
Audra thought of the nights she had spent in her mother’s room on the third floor, the final night when she had finally asked the nurses to give her mother more morphine. They had refused, confident of Audra’s ability to endure her mother’s pain. Somehow she had fallen asleep sitting upright in the hard chair. She dreamed of a sea of fragrant roses and when she awoke her mother had passed away.
“Nothing,” she said, “nothing there, not even ghosts.”
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” Alastair said and she sensed his smile.
“Well, that’s funny,” Audra said, “because I don’t believe in people.”
She felt as if a toad, wet and bitter, had hopped from her lips. The air in the room grew colder, the warm golden light from the glass shaded lamps turned grey and dull. She wanted desperately Alastair to stay and felt him slipping away.
“Rocamadour…” the driver said.
Most of the passengers stretched upright, readjusted their jackets and spectacles. A few strode urgently to the front, then waited for the driver to release the pneumatic door.
Audra and her mother joined the middle of the procession and stepped out onto the cobbled street.
When their turn came, Audra pulled her mother’s dripping suitcase out of the compartment. The rich aroma of amber rum suggested a tropical air, quickly overcome by diesel from the coach’s exhaust.
Back in London, the grainy tang of rye whiskey from a shattered pint bottle in Mother’s over night bag had become, to the two travelers, the great city’s signature scent. They had joked repeatedly that at least the toothbrushes had been disinfected.
Audra was determined that her mother cast off the gloom that had poisoned her body; that once settled in their rooms they would laugh together at the scarf chosen carefully at Harrods, now ruined, and the sugary golden stains on their nightclothes. At dinner they would drink a toast to incontinence with the fiercest, Frenchest red procurable.
Audra sighed. First, they would wait in a line of English and German tourists with whom they had made the interminable crossing of the Channel.
A game and toothy pair from Leeds had taken charge of Audra and her mother when seasickness struck, but as they all waited together on the wet sidewalk in front of their hotel, even their enthusiasm seemed to fade.
“There’s a smell, isn’t there,” the Mister suggested, to which the Mrs. nodded “yeah,” and pulled a mint and a pack of Silk Cut from her bag.
“Drains,” the man elaborated, again with the accord of his wife, who continued to nod as she held a match to the tip of her cigarette.
Audra and her mother stepped backwards into the street and looked at up the plastered façade of the Hotel St. Jean. In a few weeks the window boxes would be bright with geraniums just as in the brochure. And she would be here to see them. A month in France had been budgeted and paid for. When in a day or two the coach headed south, she would wave them off as did the natives, just as glad never to see them again.
At last they reached the head of the line. Audra received a key and led her mother up to their second floor room. A maid, hardly taller than a child, dressed in a long tunic and squashed lace cap passed them in the narrow hallway. Her bright eyes took them in with unfeigned interest. She ducked and curtsied at Audra’s mother and skipped away.
The older woman squawked in Francophile delight.
“Such a poppet!”
“Quite sweet,” Audra agreed.
The door to their room surrendered at once to the key. She swung the suitcase onto the nearest bed and emptied it of its sodden contents.
The bottle of Bacardi was only cracked, not shattered. She fixed them each a very small drink with the dregs of rum and a splash of Orangina and they sipped noisily, sitting side by side on the other bed.
A tap at the door.
“Oui?” Audra said.
The little maid peeked in and held out a stack of clean towels. Audra’s mother gave her an affectionate nod of thanks and took the towels from her. The girl refused the proffered gratuity with a shy smile.
“When you go away,” she said,” then you decide if you give me something.”
Audra’s mother touched her arm and asked her name. Gabi, Madame, she answered and pulled the door shut as she left.
They were examining their damp clothes when the little maid returned and presented them with a pot of violets.
“Thank you, Mesdames, for the long stay. M. Paul and I say thank you.”
Her voice was high and fervent. She went up on tiptoe to meet Audra’s eye.
“Already les anglaises complain and they barely stay long enough to warm the pillow,” Gabi gossiped happily.
Mother baited her hook. “How do you know we’re not English?” she asked in her most Canadian accent.
The little maid took a long look at her, taking in her gaunt, lightly painted pallor, her downy cap of new-grown hair, the sweep of creased silk she wore, spared from the flood of rum in her bag. Audra was suddenly aware of the elegance of her mother’s illness, how finely it had pared and sculpted her face and body.
Audra, too, had taken to ignoring meals in favor of cocktails. The image of her own wastrel appearance in the mirror was oddly pleasing.
“You are both too chic, Madame,” Gabi said, and lingered wistfully in the doorway.
Audra felt the room grow small around them. “Is it safe to walk here in the evenings?” she asked.
Gabi nodded doubtfully and Audra closed the door.
“Are you up for a stroll?” she asked her mother.
They pulled on their very un-chic hooded rain jackets and tottered downstairs.
The bus was a leviathan in the narrow street, still emitting diesel fumes and radiating metallic heat from its undercarriage. As they passed, the doors wheezed open and the driver stepped out.
Audra was surprised at his demeanor. Behind the wheel he had hunched like a troll, navigating the steep narrow roads up to the town. With his duty done and burden lifted, he walked with a loose, casual gait and flexed his long arms behind his head, casting fond looks over the little terraced facades of the many hotels that lined the avenue. He fell into step beside the two women, his presence a buffer between Audra and the appraising stares of the other men in the street.
The driver happily took on the role of guide, indicating which café was advisable and which to be avoided, which shopkeeper least scornful of foreign trade. As they neared the corner, Audra pointed to a blackened storefront, inadequately hidden by a wire mesh screen.
The driver shook his head, “Bombe,” he said. “A very small one,” he amended, “there are much worse in London .”
Audra tried to appear reassured.
“I’m finished with London ,” the driver continued, gently taking her arm. “I go there for the theatre, but for what? They want me only to play the Frenchman.”
“You play the bus driver well,” Audra said. “Very well cast.”
“True,” he agreed, “Encore performance tomorrow.”
“We are staying on here,” Audra said “not continuing with the tour.”
“Ah,” the driver said.
Her mother stared into the café windows as they strolled along, taking in the little dramas there.
Soon they returned to their little hotel. The driver re-boarded the bus for a final check of security. Audra did not bring up the subject of bombs.
The empty lobby was cool, if a little damp.
“I could eat a little something now,” her mother admitted at the foot of the stairs. Audra crossed over to the desk to ask about the possibility of a biscuit.
M. Paul, the young man behind the reception counter, smiled and shrugged into the phone. His English was excellent, Audra noticed, as he repeated a set of directions.
“Not at all like England , madame,” he said to the person on the line, making a face into the receiver. Audra laughed and shook her head. He set down the telephone, laughed in return. And so it began.
Audra’s breath was cold inside her chest. How many years had it been since she let good, strong liquor warm her? She remembered the syrupy concoctions she and her mother had shared and the heavy Bordeaux that left a ruby slick on the bowl of the wineglasses.
Her mother’s suitcase was still on the dusty top shelf of Audra’s closet. It rattled as she pulled it down, reminding Audra of broken glass and damp nightgowns. Inside, a very faint redolence of rum remained. She ran her palm over the stained satin lining and discovered the source of the rattle, a little cylinder containing at least a dozen tablets. She held the brown plastic tube to the light and it glowed amber.
“Salut,” Alastair whispered. She felt him take her hand, then let it go.
She poured water into a plastic bottle and sat down at her desk. She smoothed the edges of a leaf of lined paper and sketched a simple garland of flowers down the margin.
“I could have enjoyed you more, dear Paul,” she wrote, “but I enjoyed you very much. I love you still.” She blushed and let a few tears drip from her eyes, then slipped the folded paper and the little cylinder into her bag.
Audra slipped on her coat and went outside. She swung the water bottle as she strolled down the sidewalk, feeling the weight of water slosh gently with each step. She felt Alastair walk beside her on the street side, measuring his stride to hers. When she reached the front of the Katzman Theatre, the ticket booth was empty and perhaps half an hour remained of the featured film. She pushed the lobby door open a crack; Ruthie paused in her cleaning of the ancient popcorn machine and waved her in.
Audra joined the dozen or so patrons in the semi-darkness and waited for her eyes to adjust. Alastair sat beside her, seat, his long legs stretched out into the aisle.
Soon she could make out the panorama of murals, the vista of the gentle sea. She could not imagine a more wonderful place to spend the night.
Carol Reid lives and writes on the west coast of Canada. She is a contributing editor to Emprise Review.
© 2008, Carol Reid