Synopsis – The Saltwater Ghost
In the 1870s, Lainey Mercier, a young Mi’kmaq Indian girl, drowns herself off the coast of Saltwater, Prince Edward Island, after she is deserted by her Anglo-Saxon lover. In the 1980s, sixteen-year-old Garnet Macklin dies in a fall on the same stretch of coastline, after a fight with his best friend and childhood hero, Alden Jurrien. More than thirty years later, Alden is divorced, estranged from his children, burnt out in his college professor career, and trying to escape the guilt he still feels by living in India teaching street-hardened teenagers who challenge both his heart and his patience. When Alden unexpectedly gets a job offer from the college in his hometown of Saltwater, he knows it may be the only way to find the peace of mind that running away never brought. He must go home. But the ghosts of the past are still there . . . and they won’t let him rest.
In every life, no matter how great or small, there are moments when the veil between the mortal and eternal worlds is lifted slightly and the hand of God is held out. Waiting. Hoping. The hand was held out to Alden Jurrien on the first of April, in the form of a letter.
The day began much like any other, with Darshan Lal’s knock on the bedroom door and his sepulchral voice announcing as he came in, “Eight o’clock, Sahib. Time to get up. Tea is here. Very good morning.”
Alden wasn’t sure about that last bit. Even sleeping nude, with all the windows open to catch every passing breath of air, he felt as if he had spent the night in a sauna. He sat up, poured a glass of water from the jug beside the bed, drank, then emptied the jug over his head before he felt capable of standing.
Darshan, covered head to toe in his usual spotless white cap, tunic and loose pants, watched stoically. After four decades of serving as a combination valet/butler/cook to North Americans doing a tour of duty at the Church of North India School, he was used to their eccentricities.
In the bathroom, Alden turned the cold water tap in the shower on full blast and stood under a lukewarm spray for a few minutes. Somewhat refreshed, he dried off, brushed his teeth and went back into the bedroom. Darshan was setting a cup of tea and a glass of lassi on the bedside table. Alden grabbed the lassi and swallowed it, standing in the middle of the room in all his forty-eight-year-old glory, the milk white skin of his buttocks contrasting sharply against the deep tan of the rest of his body.
“Here is tea, also,” Darshan said. “I will draw the curtains, Sahib. The laws are different here in Bombay.”
“Mumbai,” Alden said automatically, knowing it was a losing battle. “No tea, thanks. I don’t know how you can drink the stuff in this furnace. And we do have laws against public nudity in Canada, you know. It isn’t quite the den of iniquity you think.”
“Of course, Sahib. A very moral country, praise the Lord.” Darshan had converted to Christianity late in life and made up for lost time by stringing what he considered appropriate evangelical phrases onto his sentences whenever possible. Alden had grown used to receiving news tidbits like, ‘The butcher walla has sent his bill, in the name of Our Father’ or ‘Jesus Christ, there is a telephone call for you.’
Darshan picked up the empty lassi glass and straightened to his full height, which was a shade taller than Alden’s five foot eleven. A ramrod of a man despite the silver hair and face like crushed cotton. “This came for you in the post.” He held out a long cream envelope. Alden took it, glancing first at the stamps. Canadian. Then he saw the return address embossed in the upper left corner— Abegweit University, Prince Edward Island. He slid down onto the bed. After a second, he slit the envelope open and read the letter. Twice.
“Sahib?” Darshan’s deep voice rose a little. He had seen foreigners look like this before. Heatstroke. Or sometimes, the hat trick of unfamiliar water, pungent food and culture shock.
Alden shook his head. “I’m all right.” He slipped the letter back in its envelope and brushed the back of his hand over his upper lip. “Leave the tea here, will you.”
It was after ten when Alden opened the gate leading to the Church of North India School and walked across the square of parched earth that passed for a courtyard. Classes had begun at nine. The minute he came through the front door into a cool dim foyer, a whiskey-cracked voice bellowed out of the first door on the left. “Jurrien! Is that you?”
Alden crossed to the office and peered in. “Good morning, Simon. I know I’m late. Sorry.”
The Reverend Simon Vikram sat at a dented metal desk. He was just over fifty but could have passed for a well-preserved eighty thanks to a fondness for fortified drinks and beadies, the brown, unfiltered cigarettes that were his trademark fashion accessories. One was clenched between his teeth now, a tube of grey ash clinging desperately to the smoking end.
Simon scowled at Alden. “Where were you? I had to get Narayana to take your class. They’ll make mincemeat of him.”
“You know what he has them reading? Lord Of The Flies. Can you believe that? Lord Of The Flies!”
“It’s a good book.” Alden sat down in the one rickety chair on the visitors’ side of the desk.
“Pah! It’s an invitation to anarchy. At least, that’s what it’ll seem like to those delinquents.” “Our students, you mean?” “They’ll be rioting in the streets by noon.” The cigarette ash gave up its fight and dropped onto Simon’s hand. He yelped and flailed his arm in the air, sending a shower of ash over the desk.
Alden shook some of it off his trousers. “Is that any way for a shepherd to talk about his little flock? They’re good kids, just a bit rough around the edges… like their home lives.”
“If I had a heart, you’d be breaking it. But enough about the little lambs, why are you so late?”
“I got a letter. I had to think.”
“Think? While that moron, Narayana, is out there being terrorized? What is this letter?”
“It’s from the dean of Abegweit University in Canada. Actually, it’s in my hometown. Saltwater.”
Simon’s eyes took on a wary gleam. “Oh? What does the dean of this university want with you?”
“The letter took a while getting here. It went to my old address and was forwarded on.”
“Again, what does he want?”
“There’s a teaching position open in his English department. He’s offering it to me if I’m interested.”
Simon rested his elbows on the desk, took a drag from the stub of beadie between his fingers and exhaled slowly. “And are you?”
“That’s what I was thinking about.”
Alden arrived at his classroom to find that, as Simon Vikram had predicted, Lord Of The Flies was having a rousing effect on the sixteen-year-old underprivileged street toughs that comprised Senior English. Three of the four girls in the class were discussing a new Hindi movie, the fourth—Anyssa Bhav, a budding Natalie Wood lookalike—was brushing her hair, a group of boys scuffled in a corner over a small transistor radio, and Kinton Lal, Darshan’s grandson, was yelling obscene invitations to a woman teacher walking past the open groundfloor window. At the front of the class, Theodore Narayana was absorbed in drawing columns on the blackboard, seemingly unaware of the chaos and the gentle spray of water on his back originating from a toy pistol.
He spun around when Alden greeted him and the sun broke out on his face. “Ah, there you are, Jurrien… so glad to see… we’ve been comparing the class system in modern day India with… well, you’ll want to go back to whatever it was you were doing… I’ll just be going along then and leave you to it.” He gathered up books, spectacles and an attaché case as he talked and practically ran from the room.
Without a word, Alden shut the door, confiscated the plastic pistol from Dev Chandran and the hairbrush from Anyssa Bhav, walked to the open window and slammed it shut with a force that rattled the panes, barely missing Kinton’s fingers in the process. In the ensuing silence, the students slipped into their seats one by one, careful not to draw attention to themselves by glancing at him directly. Only Kinton’s eyes didn’t drop.
Alden looked away from that glittering black glare and said, “The assignment today is to deconstruct a paragraph. Lord Of The Flies, page sixty, paragraph two. For the next fifteen minutes, this will be your sole purpose in life. Your concentration will be absolute. Nothing barring fire, flood or an invasion of locusts will turn your attention from this task. Begin.” He turned back to Kinton. “As for you, Master Lal, at lunchtime, you will apologize to Miss Catano for your misunderstanding of what constitutes appropriate male behaviour and wash her car to show your deep remorse.”
It was a testament to Alden’s skill as a teacher that by the end of the day, Miss Catano’s little Fiat gleamed as it never had before.
I saw two boys running along the beach yesterday, Garnet. They looked like you and me, thirty years ago. Last night, I dreamed we were back in high school. It was Sports Day. You were on the track running the mile against a hotshot from Severn who was about twice your size. It would have been me out there going up against him if you hadn’t beaten me in the heats. But you did. So, I was in the bleachers, watching. Some of the Severn kids were sitting behind me, snorting at your skinny legs and orange shorts and that freaky thing you always did when you ran… flapping your arms around in circles. The Severn guy was about two feet in front of you right up until the threequarter point. He was feeling pretty confident, what with your windmill imitation and all. But at the last turn, you pulled your arms in and began to close the gap. He saw you, caught the flash of orange nylon as you gained on his right side. It surprised him. You came into the home stretch together. He tried to juice it up then, but it was too late. In the last hundred yards you were moving so fast I couldn’t even see your sneakers touch the ground. You were flying. When you crossed the finish line, everyone was on their feet, the coach was slapping you on the back, Dana was out there hugging you, and the Severn kids weren’t laughing anymore. I was happy for you, Garnet—not jealous or angry or any of that old stuff. Just happy for you.
The town of Saltwater lies on the north shore of Prince Edward Island where the Atlantic Ocean narrows into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. A stretch of treacherous looking cliffs of red-gold sand and rock separates the town from the rough sea. At the top, a wide track of unpaved red clay, unimaginatively known as the Cliff Path, runs the length of the cliffs and curves down to the shore at either side of the beach. At one end of the path is a salt marsh with a boardwalk. At the other end, is the Singing Sands Inn, named for the eerie creaking sound of the sand as the crisp maritime wind scuds over it.
In the nineteenth century, the inn had been the home of Malcolm Strachan, captain of one of the great wooden sailing ships of the era—the Caledonia. Strachan was as impressive as his ship, a red-bearded, curly-haired giant who terrorized his crew and family alike with a combustible temper, inflexible rules and unyielding xenophobia, which extended to anyone without the good sense to be of Anglo-Saxon descent. The fact that the French, Acadians, Mi’kmaq and various other groups had lived on the island for generations before the Strachan family was of no consequence. The Captain saw his own prosperity as proof that the Good Lord shared his view that the natives were created solely to serve the Strachans as merchants, farmers, ship’s crew and household staff. His wife, a sorry little creature procured from London, had died in childbirth much to the Captain’s relief and possibly her own. However, the son she left behind was healthy, lusty and strong-willed, and therefore measured up to Malcolm’s standards. Within days of entering the world, he became the Captain’s greatest pride and only weakness, the one person with the power to soften that granite heart.
Young Ewen Strachan grew from child to man in the care of Martha Mercier, the family’s Mi’kmaq housekeeper. She lived in what was then the village of Saltwater, but spent most of her days at the Captain’s house. Widowed early in life, Martha was raising two daughters of her own—Lainey, born a year after Ewen, and Ina, three years younger. When Lainey was fifteen years old, Martha brought her to work as a scullery maid in the Captain’s house. Lainey was pretty and shy, raised in the shadow of her mother’s utter respect for the Strachan family. Ewen was handsome, intelligent and confident in his ability to get his own way. The outcome was inevitable. By the time Ewen was seventeen, he had his life planned. He wanted to be captain of a ship like his father. He wanted to make his home base on the Island. And he wanted Lainey.
Malcolm, away from home as much as he was, remained happily unaware of the bond that had grown between his son and his housekeeper’s daughter. But Martha knew. She cried about it in her bed at night, knowing that nothing but heartbreak lay ahead.
Whenever Lainey mentioned Ewen, Martha would say, “Don’t talk about him, girl. Don’t talk and don’t even think!”
After a while Lainey did stop talking about him to her mother, but she didn’t stop thinking. The storm broke in the spring of 1870 when Malcolm returned from Europe with the news that he had found a bride of excellent breeding for Ewen. The match was arranged with the girl’s parents, and Ewen was to accompany him on his next voyage to England where the marriage would take place. Ewen was stunned, furious at not even being consulted, and swore he would never be forced into an arranged marriage. But Malcolm was implacable. For once, Ewen could not sway his father. The battle raged on and off for weeks, with neither side giving way, until the very day before the planned trip. Finally, in frustration, Ewen told Malcolm about Lainey. The Captain’s initial shock soon gave way to rage and his echoing shouts shook the house so violently that Martha took Lainey and fled to the village.
That night, Malcolm went to Martha’s house for the first time. He handed her a purse filled with money and a letter of referral to a family in Nova Scotia on condition that she and her daughters go to Halifax immediately. He then asked to speak to Lainey alone. When Lainey came, he didn’t look at her, he just continued gazing out of the window and said to the dark, “I think you know why I’m here.” Lainey said nothing.
Malcolm went on. “Ewen told me about your, um… understanding. I’m sorry he led you on. It’s not possible, of course. Ewen has realized that now. He will be going with me to Europe tomorrow morning.” Still, Lainey was silent. “I’m sorry, girl. But in time you will also realize that it is all for the best. I wish you and your mother and sister well and hope you’ll be very happy in Nova Scotia.” He looked over his shoulder to show her he held no grudge, but she just turned and ran from the room.
At first light, the Caledonia prepared to sail for England. Lainey knelt on the rocky ground of the cliff top and watched the men rowing out to the ship through a curtain of mist and rain and heaving waves. When the canvases began to unfurl, she couldn’t stand it anymore. She ran down the path to the beach and waded into the freezing surf and when the water was too deep she began to swim. Malcolm stood on deck looking back at his house. Whether or not he saw Lainey’s strength give out or the arm she raised at the last minute to reach for Ewen, no one knows. But he remained where he was until the Caledonia disappeared into the fog. Lainey’s trembling limbs gave up their struggle, and with one last sigh she closed her eyes and let the powerful gulf current pull her down into its black embrace.
That afternoon, Ewen came home after walking the whole of the night, his anger spent and his only thought to find Lainey and tell her of his plans to go to the mainland and make a new life there for them both. He found the house empty, Malcolm gone and Ina wandering in the garden, dazed and mumbling. In the village, Martha’s neighbours told him what had happened. Ewen left Saltwater again that evening, crossed to New Brunswick in the morning, and never again set foot on Prince Edward Island.
Some weeks later, Captain Strachan returned to his grand house expecting to find his son recovered from the effects of a first crush and anxious to make amends. At first, he sat in the parlour every day waiting for Ewen. As the days turned into months, he took to his bed and simply waited until death claimed him at last.
Lainey Mercier’s body was never found. But the Islanders say she still walks the dunes near the Strachan house, waiting for Ewen to come back home.
Dana Varley, manager of the Singing Sands Inn, climbed the Cliff Path on her way to work. She was thinking of the wedding reception scheduled at the inn that afternoon. The breeze up on the ridge was strong and fresh, tugging at the fragile wildflowers and blowing Dana’s hair into a long, blonde flag behind her. The wild rose buds were still tightly closed, but the grape hyacinths had sprouted, sand cherry bushes were greening and the air was scented with the rich, clean fragrance of pine. Spring.
It may have been the breeze that first made Dana shudder. She hunched her shoulders and did up all the buttons on her sweater. But the cold thing came again—not an all-around cold caused by wind, more like a sudden blast that hit her in the back of the neck like a snowball. She stopped and swivelled around, but there was nothing to see but empty road against a cloudless blue sky. She turned back towards the inn and started walking again, quicker than before. The third time was at the crest of the ridge. Dana felt the thing sliding over her head and shoulders. She reached a hand up to touch her hair and it came away damp.
This time Dana didn’t turn around or even bother trying to tell herself it was the wind. She just picked her heels up off the path and sprinted the rest of the way to the Inn.
Janistha Kamal slipped her dressing gown open and gazed at her nude body in the full length mirror. As with any other actress, it was an objective, critical assessment, rather like a craftsman examines the tools of his trade from time to time. Built along the lines of a men’s magazine model, Janistha stood five foot seven inches in her bare feet. Jet-black hair pulled into a chignon, wide mouth, chin showing the first signs of deference to gravity. Not a bad figure for forty-two, but perhaps it would soon be time for a trip to the plastic surgeon. A lot of men liked her curves, but even here in Mumbai, the heart of Bollywood lushness, the western ideal of slenderness was catching on. Janistha turned away from the thought and pulled the dressing gown closed.
By the time the doorbell rang at eight o’clock, she was artfully arranged on a chaise in the penthouse apartment’s drawing room, draped in a green silk sari, her wrists clinking with gold bangles. The servant girl, Maya, opened the door. Alden came in with a bouquet of flowers in his hand. He took one and handed it to the girl, who giggled as she took it, and laid the rest on Janistha’s lap.
“For you, my queen.”
“Thank you, you are so sweet.” Janistha preened and then glared. “Are you laughing at me? You are! I can tell.”
He smiled and sat down on the chaise by her feet. “Not laughing, only mildly tickled by the atmosphere in here. Scarlett O’Hara in a sari.”
“I would have been perfect for that part, you know.”
“If I’d been alive.”
“There is that.”
Janistha lost interest. She called to the servant, “Maya. Maya! Where is that girl?” The girl appeared. “Maya, serve the food. Food!” She made a gesture of eating. Maya nodded her head energetically and vanished into the kitchen. Janistha heaved a long-suffering sigh. “For months I’ve been teaching her English… and nothing. It would be easier to teach a monkey.”
They ate on the stone terrace where there was a slight breeze and a view of the Queen’s Necklace, the string of streetlights glowing like pearls along Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Maya brought them seasoned avocado on tiny crackers, highly spiced kingfish, peas, rice, raita, and finally kulfi to cool their palettes. Alden ate everything and noticed Janistha did the same while telling him of her diet instructor’s teachings on controlling excesses. After dinner, Maya cleared the dishes, pleased at Alden’s obvious enjoyment of the food, and went home.
Janistha stretched lazily and asked Alden if he wanted a tiny nightcap. Her idea of a tiny nightcap was a double whiskey sour. While she mixed the drinks, Alden moved from the dining table to a cushioned wicker settee. It was almost dark now. He lit a couple of candles and watched Janistha through a window as she fiddled with bottles and ice in the drawing room. Every movement was languorous. She came outside with the glasses, her sari swishing. He caught the bit hanging down and twitched it off her shoulder.
“You’ll make me spill!” She lifted her arms out of the way.
Alden held on to the edge of the sari and reeled it in, hand over hand, twirling her around as the silk unravelled until she was only in her tight blouse and long satin underskirt. She gave in rolled her eyes and leaned over him to balance the glasses on a window sill behind the settee. The low neckline of her blouse was an inch from his face. He put his hands on her bare midriff, pulled her down to his lap, and brushed his lips a few inches below her throat.
Janistha ran her fingers over his jaw line and said, “You already had your dinner.”
“I’m still hungry.” He snapped the hooks of the blouse and slid a hand inside the skirt. There was nothing underneath.
“Not here. We can be seen from other balconies.”
“There’s no one else around.”
“In this city? There is always someone else around.”
“So, let them watch.”
The suggestion intrigued her. She let him slide the blouse off and enjoyed the sensation of the breeze and his hands on her skin. They stayed on the terrace until the candles burnt out and then continued in the bedroom by moonlight.
Later, lying on her back in the massive teak bed, Janistha said, “Appetite satisfied?”
“For the moment.”
“And now, you want to leave the table?”
“But soon, hmm? You always do.”
“Always. Sixteen months we’ve been together. You have never once stayed for breakfast.”
“I’m trying to control the excesses in my life.”
“Ah, you think of me as an excess.”
“Do you know what your name means?” Alden rolled onto his side and traced his fingertips around her navel.
“Janistha? It means Desire. ”
“Yes. That’s how I think of you. Pure desire… in the form of a walking talking woman.”
She laughed comfortably. They were on her turf now. “Good. That will keep you coming back for more.”
No answer. Janistha turned her head and stared at him in the moonlight. “Alden?”
He said, “About that. I have something to tell you.”
The assignment had been to write a short analysis of the title character in The Great Gatsby. Alden was halfway through marking the papers, hoping to be finished before six o’clock. He enjoyed this time of relative quiet—when most of the students and teachers had left for the day, the traffic noises had begun to abate and the cicadas were starting their evening serenade outside the window. He liked reading essays, liked the insight they gave him into the minds of his students. By now, he knew them well enough to identify the writer of each paper before looking at the name. He picked up one of the essays. It was closely written in a small round hand that trailed gradually downwards across the page:
“Jay Gatsby is a man who is at the mercy of fate. He tries to go after what he wants in life, but cannot resist the forces of destiny. He is a good and kind man, a man who wants only the love of Daisy. But this is denied. He does not accept that in life one cannot always have what one wants. This is what leads to his downfall.”
Anyssa Bhav. At sixteen, she was already ‘promised’ to a male friend of the family more than twice her age. Soon she would marry, move into the home her husband shared with his parents and brothers and begin raising children under the guidance of her mother-in-law. Anyssa’s mother had informed Alden of all this with glowing satisfaction. Alden had asked whether Anyssa agreed to the marriage and received a blank look in return. Anyssa had not been consulted; it was her parents’ choice, made with her best interests at heart. Of course Anyssa agreed. She was a Good Girl. Alden turned to Dev Chandran’s paper, smeared with what looked like strawberry jam:
“In The Great Gatsby, Jay is a tragic hero. He personifies all that is great and heroic. He is great because he is so generous and good to all. And he is a hero because he does not allow Daisy to take blame for her actions. He loves her and so he protects her. This is both great and heroic.”
And, finally, Kinton Lal’s analysis:
“jay gatsby was an idiot who got what he deserved. first, he fell in love with daisy, a worthless piece of trash. then instead of thanking his lucky stars when she married someone else, he was obsessed with trying to win her back. he let her use him and play games with him until finally she got him killed. gatsby didn’t understand. He was not born into daisy’s world and he would never be accepted into it, no matter how hard he tried or what he acheeved. he should have lived in india. Then he would have understood.”
At the bottom of the page was a cartoon drawing of Jay Gatsby, floating in a pool, his body riddled with bullet holes. Alden leaned back in his chair, twirling his red pen around and around between his fingers. Then he leaned forward and wrote in the margin, ‘An interesting point of view. Watch the spelling and punctuation, though, and give up on e.e.cummings. Capital letters are your friends.’
The next day, when Darshan brought the morning tea, Alden said, “I’ll be going home soon. Back to Canada.”
Darshan was used to goodbyes. His face didn’t change. He said, “I am sorry to hear that, Sahib. I much enjoy working for you. You do not want to teach anymore?”
“I’ll still be teaching… at a university. It’s a good offer.”
“When will you go?” “Two weeks, I think.”
“Yes. There’s a lot to do and I want to be settled in by the beginning of the fall term in September.” Alden turned his attention to the morning paper, but Darshan was still standing there, hands clasped together, looking at the floor. “Is there something else?”
“It is my grandson.”
“Kinton? What about him?”
“He is much impressed with you. He works hard in your class. This is something he does not always do even though he has brains.”
“He certainly does. If he applies himself, he’ll go far.”
Darshan raised his eyes. “That is the problem, Sahib. He will not be able to go far here. He must leave India if he is to make anything of himself. That is what I want to ask you about.”
“What can I do?”
“You are going to teach at a university. I… and my family… want Kinton to go to university. I pray for that each night. Perhaps you can get him a place at your school.”
Alden put down the paper and sighed silently. “Darshan, you have to understand, it isn’t that easy. I can’t do anything except put forward his application and give him a recommendation. He may get a place, and I could work out living arrangements—he could even stay with me if necessary—but tuition is very high. There aren’t any scholarships or subsidies available for foreigners at this school. Even for Canadian students, it’s expensive. Foreign student fees are astronomical. You understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Sahib. It was a thought only. I did not want to ask, but… for Kinton… ”
Darshan picked up the used tea things and turned to go, his back slightly bent with the weight of the tray. Yes. For Kinton. For Kinton, the old man had put aside his dignity and lowered himself to ask for a favour. Alden took a deep breath and rubbed his eyes. If that brat only knew how much he was loved.
In 1967, Marshall Pike, a Prince Edward Island potato farmer and aspiring entrepreneur, astonished his family and friends by winning twenty-five thousand dollars in a sweepstakes. Then he amazed them even further by announcing he was getting out of the spud business and setting up a newspaper to serve the town of Saltwater and surrounding area. Over the pleas of his wife and the dire warnings of his neighbours, he sold his farm, moved his family to a new house closer to town and established the Saltwater Herald. Marshall had visions of national proportions and ran his paper accordingly, with emphasis on stock markets, wars in Asia and Africa and political scandals in London, Washington and Ottawa. The residents of Saltwater— more concerned with the weather, fishing quotas and crop prices—reacted with complete indifference. Marshall grew more and more discouraged and eventually was more than happy to turn the enterprise over to his son.
Within six months of taking over as editor, Mitch Pike drastically reduced the international news content, added a feature section and an arts page and dropped the stock market listings entirely. More than twenty years later, the Herald had earned its reputation as a respectable journal, winning awards for its excellent feature writing and in-depth coverage of Island news. So when a young woman named Wynn Stowe turned up at his office looking for a part-time job with no qualifications whatsoever, Mitch’s first instinct was to tell her to take a walk. But his years as an editor had taught him that first instincts weren’t always right. Besides, the paper had just gone to press and the girl wasn’t bad looking—jet-black hair, falling to her waist and contrasting with deep blue eyes.
So he leaned back in his desk chair, brushed the crumbs from his lunch off his expansive belly and said: “You say you’re new to the Island.”
“Yes, I’ve just moved here from Quebec. I’ll be going to the university in September.”
“And you want a job.”
“Yes. I can continue part-time even when school starts.”
“What made you come all the way here from Quebec? Lots of good universities there.”
“I needed a change of scene.”
“Why?” He didn’t really care, but asking nosy questions was second nature.
“I wanted to get away from my husband.”
“Oh? You’re married.”
“I was… for seventeen months… and for seven of those he was screwing around on me. I’m twenty-five years old. I didn’t want to spend the next fifty years looking the other way. So I left.”
If Mitch was taken aback at getting so much information in response to his idle query, he didn’t let it show, just asked why she’d chosen P.E.I.
“My mother and her family are from this area. They talked about it a lot and it sounded nice. I quit university with only a couple of courses to go to get my B.A. After Paul, my husband, and I broke up, I applied to Abegweit. If all goes well, I can get my degree by spring. I’ve a bit of money of my own but I need a job. That’s why I’m here. I’m a pretty good writer.”
“What have you written?”
“Some short stories, poetry, that sort of thing.”
“That’s creative writing. Journalism’s different.”
“Hemmingway was a journalist.”
“Have you ever published anything?”
“Have you had any sort of training in writing— communications courses, creative writing courses, anything?”
“Ever worked as a writer in any capacity?”
“I see. In other words, you have no training, no experience and you’ve never written anything that another soul has seen, but you have a gut feeling you’re a writer. Have you ever even met a writer?”
“I’ve met you.”
Mitch laughed. “Tell you what, I’ll give you a test—a few bullet points and a couple of quotes. You see what you can put together in twenty minutes and I’ll have a look at it.”
A half hour later, Mitch read the first paragraph of Wynn’s test article:
The Celtic Music Festival got a bit more exposure than it expected at the opening ceremonies in Charlottetown yesterday. During the bagpipe solo, a high wind lifted the piper’s kilt and revealed he was wearing the traditional form of underwear— nothing at all. The incident shocked the audience, which included many young children, and embarrassed festival organizers. The piper, Jimmy Mann, said he ‘… felt a bit of a breeze but didn’t know the sails were flapping.’
“Not bad. You got the lede right,” Mitch said. “Okay, I’ll give you a chance to cover some minor community events none of the other reporters want to handle. If those articles are good, I’ll take you on full-time in the summer—when we’re short staffed—and part-time once you start school in September. How’s that?”
“Perfect. Thanks Mr. Pike.”
“The name’s Mitch. Start on Monday. Nine sharp.”
Well, that was the problem of cash flow taken care of for a while at least, Wynn thought. Now to the matter of finding a place to live. Staying at the Singing Sands Inn was putting a serious crack in her small nest egg. She swiped a copy of the Herald off a rack by the newsroom door and went back to her room at the inn to pore over the classifieds. Out of five classified advertisements for rooms to let, three had already been taken and one was a farmhouse several miles out of town. The last was a house rented by three university students looking for a fourth partner. After some haggling over rent and responsibilities, Wynn agreed to take it sight unseen. She hung up the telephone and flopped backwards on the bed, crushing the sheets of newspaper around her. Eighteen-year-olds away from home for the first time, all night pizza and beer parties, roommates pouring out their romantic dilemmas at four in the morning—it was going to be a long year.
Wynn gazed up at the wall. A framed charcoal drawing hung halfway to the ceiling. It showed a wooden ship pitching deeply on the waves, the captain standing at the bow. Behind the ship, a girl was swimming, fully clothed, her long skirts trailing behind her. Wynn knew the story. There was a card on the reception desk in the lobby giving the history of the inn and the Strachan family.
She smiled at the girl in the picture and said, “Well, I guess I won’t be seeing you anymore, Lainey. Wherever you are, I hope you find your Ewen someday. Love breaks us all in the end, but we never learn, do we?”
A gust of air coming in the open window ruffled the papers on the bed. Wynn got up and shut the window. Her second floor room looked out onto the beach, deserted now except for a cormorant landing on a rotting log. A movement in the dressing table mirror caught her peripheral vision. She turned and saw the papers moving. But the door to the room was heavy and well fitted, there was no draught.
Even as she wondered about that, one page of the broadsheet suddenly flew off the bed to the ceiling—crackling as if it was on fire. Then a second page swept upwards. And another. Faster and faster, the sheets of newspaper lifted off the bed and whipped about the room, snapping against walls and lampshades, whirling themselves into a bizarre frenzied fan dance. It was over as suddenly as it had begun. The papers stilled and dropped gently to the floor, rocking back and forth as they floated down in front of Wynn’s staring eyes.
After a long day at the Herald, Mitch Pike was ready for a drink. As soon as he got home, he changed into chinos and a sweater, snapped the top off a Coors Light, and settled into a wicker chaise on the front porch. A green coupe pulled up on the other side of the wide tree-lined street. A man got out of the passenger side. Mitch watched him turn and look at the house.
It wasn’t a particularly imposing house, just a basic Cape Cod two-storey, similar to many other houses around Saltwater. But it had long windows and an elegant wooden wraparound porch and stood on top of a lightly treed hill that fell away to offer a view of the countryside and the sea in the distance. Both line and setting were pleasing to the eye. The man came around to the driver’s side, but the door jerked open before he got there, and a woman bounced out. Wanda Montgomery, from the real estate office in town. Mitch knew that profile—five foot ten even without the heels, greenish blonde hair with grey roots, tight cherry red suit and a bosom so jacked up and surgically enhanced he had once almost lost an eye bumping into her. The man was harder to place. A stranger. Or was he? Mitch squeezed his eyes closer together to try to focus.
He stood up and squinted harder. Then he ran to the screen door and yelled through to the kitchen, “Christine! Honey, come out here!” He pressed his face against the screen, squashing his nose. “You’ll never believe who’s over at the Jurrien’s old place.” Christine appeared in the hallway. “I give up. Who?” “Alden Jurrien!” “NO!” “Yup.” Mitch grinned and smacked the door jamb loudly. “He’s back… after all this time.”
Alden stood in the centre of his childhood bedroom and stared past the green and white striped wallpaper to a bright yellow-painted room decorated with posters of the Rolling Stones and Janis Joplin, the steering wheel of a boat and a small print of a woman sitting on a bedroom balcony, her chair facing into the room rather than towards the view beyond. Matisse had painted the original. Thirty years ago, he hadn’t known that, or cared. The house was different now of course — basement rec room converted into a self-contained flat, Swedish furniture instead of his parents’ mellow antiques, taupe and white linen colour schemes replacing the browns and golds of his youth — but still… the stone fireplace squatting in the library was the same, as were the barn board floors. And in the yard, the spindly ash he had planted had matured into a beauty of a tree, its branches whispering a welcome to him.
He went downstairs to the living room where Wanda Montgomery was yelling into the telephone. “I don’t care if he’s a good driver. And I don’t care if you’re planning to stay with his cousins. You’re not going to Halifax with him… he just got his licence two minutes ago! End of conversation.” She slammed the receiver down and grimaced at Alden. “My daughter. Teenager! You got any?”
“Two. Cara’s fifteen and Kevin’s eighteen.”
“Ah, well then, you know what it’s like… ”
“Actually, I don’t. My wife and I are divorced. I’ve been living in India. I haven’t seen my kids in two years.”
“Oh.” Wanda looked uncertain for a moment, but then she recovered and said, “Well, anyway. You’re here now. Perhaps you’ll even get your old house back.”
“The owners are interested, then?”
“They weren’t at first. Said they’d been here a long time, didn’t want the bother of moving, where would they go, etc. But I worked on them—told them they would have to think about retirement soon and could they keep up such a large house and garden. I also warned them they may not ever get an offer as good as this again. I can be veerrry persuasive, you know.” She winked at Alden.
He felt a bit sorry for the owners and grateful that Wanda was on his side. “Is it a good offer? Will they be able to afford a new place?”
“Oh my, yes. They’ll do very well for themselves. You’re offering a lot more than market value and they know it. They’re just gonna hold out for more out of sheer bloody-mindedness.” Wanda grinned to show him he didn’t have to worry.
Alden smiled back. He had a good smile. Slow and warm and more in his eyes than his mouth. It made Wanda feel about sixteen, and good looking at that.
He said, “Well, then, let the games begin.”