BY SHEILA HORNE
Copyright is held by the author. This is a novel excerpt.
FROM THE beginning there were five of us: Ricky Poletti, Roy Fotopoulos, Peter Mackenzie, Julie Booth and me, Ella Shaw. In the 1950s, our respective parents took us as newborn babies from the hospital to our homes on Arundel Avenue. We played together as children, and as teenagers spent most of our time with each other. Even though we didn’t always agree and fought among ourselves, I thought we would remain friends forever. It was not meant to be. Our lives took us on different paths.
At four years old I felt Peter belonged to me and I didn’t want to share him. At 15 I promised myself I would not love or marry anyone but him. I kept the not-marry vow, but I fell in love with someone else. Not the wild, lusty, you-belong-to-me, I’m-not-sharing-kind I had for Peter. The love I had for Jim Harris was more mature and it took me to Wasaga Beach, where I lived until a curveball turned my quiet, tidy little life inside out. And I ended up in a place I never imagined.
While the woman next to me — whose name I couldn’t remember — rattled on about beachfront properties, I watched an approaching storm churn the lake into a rage. I thought of Jim. He loved the beach. He’d set up his easel on a day like today and capture the heavy clouds and dark shadows on the water. I thought of the past ten years I’d spent living with him, our life together and the plans we’d made for our retirement — travel, paint and, most important, be beach bums. But as my aunt Ruby once said, when life becomes too comfortable, out of nowhere turbulence pops up and throws everything off kilter. We might never know where it comes from or where it’s taking us. We can only go with the flow.
I realized the conversation had shifted towards me when the woman said, “Ella, thank you for showing me your lovely home. My assistant will contact you about signing papers.”
I wanted to say, “Don’t bother, I’m not signing anything. If Jim hadn’t wanted me to live in the house, he wouldn’t have left it to his daughter, Susan; son, Brian; and me. With the stipulation I stay in it as long as I wanted.”
Before the woman stepped off the veranda, she handed me her business card: Joan Sinclair, Real Estate Agent.
The minute she left I asked, “Is Joan familiar with real estate in Wasaga Beach?”
“Does it matter?” Susan replied.
She seemed stressed. Being pleasant for the past hour must have been difficult for her. But Susan had one talent: pretending she liked me.
“Of course it does, Susan. This is your father’s dream home. He built most of it himself. I would think you’d be picky about who sells it and who lives in it.”
“I am being picky,” she said, satisfaction written on her face. She was getting what she wanted from the minute I moved in with Jim—me out of the house.
“Why do you want to sell now? Why not six months ago?”
“Dad’s estate is fully settled, and Brian and I decided we’d like to buy a house or condo in Florida.”
“Your dad hated Florida.”
“That may be, but what’s the point of having a place here we can’t use.”
“You and Brian have always been welcome,” I said.
“You heard Joan, houses this size on the beach sell for a million or more.” She faked a smile. Something else she was good at. “Now that Danielle’s moved to, where is it?”
“The Caribbean,” I said.
“Ah, the Caribbean. Well, now that she’s living there, you’ll have two houses to keep up.”
She had a point: it would be expensive, almost impossible, for me to keep this house and mine in the city.
Susan picked up her purse and started down the steps. “If you agree to sell, Brian and I will share the property taxes and the utilities with you. That should take some pressure off.”
“I don’t care about all that,” I said. “I care about you selling your father’s dream.”
“It’s been over a year since Dad died. This is no longer his dream, and Brian and I are moving forward with our lives, Ella. You should do the same.”
“So you’re saying there’s a limit on grief.”
“I’m not saying there’s a limit, but it’s big house. It needs a family.”
“Susan, you know your father intended me to stay here as long as I want.”
“I know, but there’s me and there’s Brian, and together we have a majority, so one way or the other we’re selling, Ella.” She gazed at the empty planters on the walkway, then disappeared around the corner.
I walked down to the spot on the beach where I had mixed my best friend Raynie’s ashes into the sand nine years ago. It’s where she wanted to be. “Just in case,” she’d said, “I need you or you need me.” I needed her now. She would understand how I felt about Jim’s house being sold. She’d been with me the first time I saw his place. I’d fallen in love with the large, sunny home. It had reminded me of the one on the television series The Waltons. I’d imagined sitting on the veranda watching the sun go down over the lake, which Jim and I did for years until he became too sick to get out of bed.
I turned on my cell phone and called Danielle. “Susan brought a real estate agent to look at the house. She and Brian want to sell it.”
“Good, I’m glad. It’s time you returned to the living,” Danielle said.
“It’s not the house, it’s the principle —”
“Sometimes we have to forget about our principles and do what we have to do.”
I heard a loud bang. It sounded like she had slammed a cupboard door. “Anyway, two months after Jim died you told me you no longer belonged in Wasaga Beach.”
“Did I say that?” After he died, I’d said a lot of things, but I didn’t remember most of them.
“It’s not the end of the world or like you’re homeless. You have the house on Arundel,” she said.
“I never thought I’d have to move back there.”
“Mom, get out of Wasaga and let them sell the damn place.” I could tell she was exasperated with me. “Think of all the things you’ll be able to do, like see Meg and Jessie whenever you want. That’d be nice, wouldn’t it?”
“True, but I was looking forward to spending time with Hannah here at the beach.”
“You’ll still be with Hannah, and I’m sure she’ll appreciate having one last summer in the city with friends before Josh and I send for her.” She paused for a second. “Here’s an idea. Why don’t you come for a visit to see the island? I think you’ll love it.”
“I think I should be here in case Hannah needs me,” I said.
“Hannah’s fine. She’s busy with school, and when I last checked Grams and Aunt Ruby were enjoying having her around.”
I stared at the whitecaps on the waves and mulled over her invitation.
She inhaled a deep breath and let it out. “Mom, think of it as the start of a new life.”
New life. At 66 years old, “start over” was not on my bucket list.
Two weeks later Danielle met me at the dock on Marie-Galante. It was a busy place. Everyone seemed to be either arriving or leaving or meeting someone. Until Danielle ended up there, I’d never heard of the tiny island, just south of Guadeloupe. The minute I walked off the ferry from Pointe-à-Pitre, I fell in love. I’d seen gorgeous photos of quaint, colourful houses and isolated beaches while doing research, but they hadn’t prepared me for the beauty and the stunning white sandy beaches, turquoise water and green rolling hills set against a mixture of cobalt and light-blue sky.
It had only been four months since I’d seen Danielle, but I held onto her and cried. Seeing her made me realize how much I missed her. How lonely I’d felt since Jim died, and scared to travel by myself, even to drive to Toronto.
When I let go of Danielle, she hailed a taxi. The driver got out and put my suitcase in the trunk. The ocean breeze blew through the car as he sped around the curves of the narrow roads. Without warning he slowed down and hollered in French to a man on the side of the road. Before we could ask what was happening, the man opened the door and jumped into the car.
The driver twisted in his seat and grinned at Danielle and me. “I give he a ride,” he said. From what I understood, the man was the driver’s friend. He was late for his first day on a job. The driver offered to take him after he dropped us.
Danielle shrugged. “It’s a small, friendly island — people give rides all the time.”
“I think I’ll feel safer walking,” I said when he drove through ornamental wrought-iron gates and stopped.
Other than the fact it needed work, Danielle hadn’t told me much about the property, an old plantation house she and Josh had bought with the intention of turning it into a hotel. Not about the driveway lined with croton bushes that shone orange, yellow and red in the sun. Or the hummingbirds hovering around hibiscus flowers. Or the tall wax palms at the front and side of the large white building with the red-tiled roof. I got out of the car and gazed at it. I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I knew everything about the place. The way the doors from the rooms led to the lower and upper verandas surrounding the big house. And the wooden shutters open to let the air waft in from the Atlantic Ocean to fill the place with the scent of jasmine, roses and other tropical flowers from the gardens. Aunt Ruby would say I’d lived here in one of my many lifetimes. I put it down to looking at images of old sugar estates on the Internet.
Danielle and I walked up the wide red-brick stairs, which looked as though they had recently been replaced, to the portico of what they referred to as the main house. She unlocked the door, and we entered a large foyer with a wooden reception desk on the left that needed to be rebuilt. I followed her from dim rooms to darker rooms, studying the mess: Plantation shades, some hanging on their hinges, others leaning against the walls. Dirty floors disintegrating in spots, notably in the kitchen, where they bulged as if once flooded. Missing kitchen cupboards and counter tops. Wallpaper peeling in the upstairs hall and bedrooms. A quick glance at the filthy bathrooms was all I could handle. I was no construction expert, but to me the building was crumbling from age and the effects of humidity and the tropical climate.
“Is this where you live?”
“We’re in one of the two houses at the back of this building.” She moved aside to let me out the door.
I expected shacks of some kind. And surprised to find both were modern, stucco bungalows, painted yellow and built in the style of Spanish villas, with the same red tiles on the roof as the main house. Inside, the sun shone through glass doors leading to the courtyard. I pointed to the walls that didn’t reach the ceiling.
“It allows air to circulate through the rooms,” Josh said, walking into the dining room, a towel in his hand. Water dripped from his hair. “What do you think? The plantation house has potential, doesn’t it?”
I’m not sure what he envisioned, but from what I saw, it was not even close. Only a blind optimist would think it had potential. It was far beyond the fixer-upper Danielle had implied. I smiled. “I suppose with a bit of sprucing up it’ll be okay.”
“Sprucing up” was being charitable. Even Love It or List It wouldn’t touch it. It needed a magician.
“I’m going into St. Louis,” he said. “Meeting a few of the guys. If I drink too much, I’ll get a hotel room for the night.”
Danielle’s demeanour changed from easy to rigid.
All she said was, “Of course.”
Once he was out of hearing I said, “Josh has friends here?”
“So he says.”
“It sounds like you don’t believe him.”
She shrugged and showed me to a large room with a double bed, armoire, dresser and sofa chair.
“The ex-owners didn’t take the furniture. Too much of a hassle to ship, I guess. But our good luck.” At the door she said, “The bathroom is down the hall, the hot water tank is broken and as usual we’re waiting for a new part. So if you plan on showering, do it around three or four in the afternoon when the water in the pipes is warm.”
“Is everything okay?” I asked. She’d always been slim with slight curves. In a T-shirt and jeans she seemed thinner than when I’d last seen her.
She tucked strands of hair behind her ears and lowered her eyes. “It’s all good.”
I didn’t believe her.
In the morning, the heavy dew on the grass wet my feet as I walked to the beach. Pushing through a mass of overgrown bushes, I stepped onto powdery white sand and stopped. Coconut trees rustling in the breeze, some leaning towards the water, lined an endless stretch of the most magnificent beach I had ever seen. I strolled along the water’s edge, keeping my eyes on the waves. The woman saw me before I noticed her.
“Well, hello, sugar,” she said with a southern drawl. “Can I help you?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was on someone else’s property,” I said.
“Mine starts at that coconut tree with the heart painted on it, but please don’t ask where it ends.” She extended her hand. “I’m Stephanie. Since this side and that side of the tree are private, you must belong to Danielle and Josh.”
I shook her hand. “I’m Ella. Danielle is my daughter.” I pointed to the tree with the red heart on it. “And again I’m sorry for trespassing.”
“I’m glad you did. Company is always welcome.” She raised a bracelet-covered arm and twirled a blondish curl around her index finger. “Gets a little lonely at times.” Her suntanned skin glinted in the sun. I pegged her at being in her early 60s. But even in shorts and crumpled top she oozed sex appeal, and she had the wildest, most gorgeous hair I’d ever seen. From her playful smile I knew she would be a lot of fun.
When I walked away she yelled, “Take no mind of lines —”
I spun around. “Lines?”
“Property lines. Stop by whenever the notion hits you.”
On my walk back to the house, a huge grasshopper jumped onto the back of my leg. By the time I reached to brush it off, it had hopped away. I twirled around, taking in the mountains in the distance, the grass dancing in the breeze, the lemon and lime trees by the roadside. I revelled in the wildness of nature and the rich reds, pinks and yellows of the flowers growing everywhere. I inhaled a scent I couldn’t quite place — a little like Earl Grey tea — earthy but sweet with a touch of citrus. Everything about the island was pure, bewitching and almost curative.
Behind the house Danielle was sitting in what appeared to be a vegetable patch, pulling out dead plants. She looked as forlorn as the dirt and weeds.
“Reminds me of our garden on Arundel Avenue,” I said and bent to yank out a creeper.
“Want to talk about it?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. I’m tired, that’s all.”
“From the way you reacted to Josh going out last night —”
“So, it annoys me. It doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong.”
“Have you told him that you don’t like it?”
“Mom, if you came here looking for problems, stop — because there aren’t any.” She strode away towards the house.
It was my cue to stay out of her way. While she and Josh spent their days ripping up the old floors in the main house, I relaxed on the beach, visited old sugar plantations and took tours of rum distilleries. There wasn’t much to do on the island, especially at the hottest time of the day when the stores closed. Once the sun moved across the sky, they opened and it was business as usual. But I soon found out Marie-Galante had the best baguettes, croissants and café au lait I had ever tasted—thanks to their French colonial heritage. Before I knew it, my week was over.
At Pointe-à-Pitre airport in Guadeloupe Danielle said, “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”
“Spend time with Hannah until you send for her.”
I didn’t have an answer. “Turning the plantation house into a hotel seems more work than you and Josh can handle. Maybe you should consider selling it,” I said.
She shook her head. “Hard work is exactly what Josh and I need. It’s what I need.”
I wasn’t sure she was right, but I knew enough to not say anything.
Roy Fotopoulos waved and crossed Arundel Avenue. I put the box I had taken out of my car on the sidewalk.
“Hey Ella, what are you driving these days?”
That was Roy, obsessed with cars since we were teenagers, the more expensive the better. No domestic makes for him. He was all about Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar and Ferrari.
“It’s a 2016 BMW 1 Series hatchback,” I replied, proud that I could give him that much information.
Roy stroked the hood and tapped it with his fingers. “Looks good in burgundy. How’s she drive?”
“I have no complaints.”
He pushed his black-framed sunglasses up on his head. “Are you moving back?”
“Yes, we’re going to be neighbours again.” I gave him a quick hug. Roy had always been shorter than Ricky and Peter, but now he seemed slighter than I remembered and he’d lost most of his thick curly hair. When we were kids, he’d been the mischievous one but knew how to pretend he did nothing wrong. Everyone’s parents loved him and considered him the perfect child.
I touched the diamond stud in his ear. “You’re getting funky in your old age.”
“Gotta keep up with the young dudes.” He laughed, then turned serious. “I heard about Jim. I’m sorry.”
“Did you ever think you and I would end up widowed?”
“I don’t really consider myself a widow since Jim and I never married. But no, I didn’t.” My attention wandered over to Mrs. Kwong’s house across the street from mine. Then, by habit, to the Mackenzies’ place next to hers. The last time I’d come down before Danielle moved to Marie-Galante, I noticed a sale sign on the lawn. It had been removed and a contractor’s truck was parked in front of the house. “Looks like whoever bought the Mackenzies’ place is renovating it,” I said.
“A surprise, eh?”
“I thought Peter would move back. Especially with Ricky here now —”
“Ricky’s here? Why don’t I know?” I said out loud, even though the question was meant for me.
Roy pointed north and answered, “Because you’ve been hiding up there.”
“When did he get back?”
“Six months ago. He gutted his mother’s house. With the crazy housing market here, it’s worth over a million now, not as much as mine but it’s getting there.”
Of the five of us who grew up on Arundel Avenue, Roy was the only one who stayed on the street. He even moved his wife, Lynn, in after they married in the eighties. Sometimes in the summer he and I would sit on my front porch with a glass of beer. We’d talk and laugh about long-ago days. Then he stopped coming over — Lynn didn’t understand long-time friendship. After his parents died, he inherited their house and money. He became fixated with wealth, and his fixation seemed to have gotten worse over the years.
“I bet you could get a bundle for yours if you renovated,” he said, and jingled coins in his pants pocket as if the idea excited him.
I shielded my eyes and surveyed my home. The porch, the trim around the windows and the front door needed painting or replacing. “Maybe when the house in Wasaga sells, I’ll do a major renovation. What about you, are you thinking of moving?”
“Nah, not until I can get two mill or more,” he said, “then I think I’ll travel. Maybe buy a boat and sail to somewhere in the West Indies in the winter.”
I chuckled. “Not sure you’ll get that much, Roy, but I suppose it’s worth a try.”
“Lynn always wanted to travel, but we never got around to it,” he said, as he lifted boxes out of the BMW’s back seat.
Once we finished unloading the car, I told him I was sorry I hadn’t attended Lynn’s funeral. Jim and I had spent three weeks in Spain and I didn’t know she’d died. The minute we returned our life changed. The annoying pain Jim had complained about for two months turned out to be more than a pulled muscle or a fractured rib. And our life became tests and the terms exocrine tumour and morphine pump, and the words “six months to live; sorry, there’s nothing we can do.”
Roy slammed the trunk of the car. “I wasn’t always nice to Lynn, but you know I loved her.”
I patted his arm. “Yes, you did.”
“Anyway, I’m glad you’re back on the street.” He gripped my shoulders and stared at me. “Between Ricky, you and me it’ll be like old times.”
I shuddered and pulled my sweater around me. The way he said “back on the street…like old times” made me feel I’d been running on a treadmill in reverse.