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Fire and Iron

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.

For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone

when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

Ecclesiastes 4:9 NRSV


Pushing back the sheet and blanket, Margaret urged her long, slender legs over the side of her single bed. Resting at the edge of the bed for a moment, she combed her fingers through her graying hair and waited for her eyes to adjust to the meager November sunlight making its way into the room.

Dressed in a clean, cotton work dress, she fashioned a scarf about her hair. She carried her tall straight figure with aristocratic poise as her mother had prudently schooled her years ago. Now, that graceful carriage belied her social and economic status. Before leaving the room, she paused before the mirror to brush her hair, noting the tiny tension lines etched across her forehead and the delta-like lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes.

The rhythmic pulse of a diesel engine from the nearby grain elevator, and the sporadic clang of hammer striking steel in her husband’s blacksmith shop were distant noises behind her thoughts.

She had long ago quit sleeping with her husband. In fact, she had not really thought of him as a husband for years. He was one of those figures that remotely move in and out of one’s life in the course of a day, like a person at the bus stop sharing the same space for a moment, or one with whom a rare verbal exchange takes place, but nothing more. Although they occupied the same house, twenty years of determined pride to block out memories of better times had fashioned a routine of indifference which only on occasion brought the two, now strangers, together.

She lingered momentarily at the kitchen table nursing her morning cup of hot tea and, while waiting for its stimulation, ran her thumbnail along the edges of the faded red and white checker-board pattern on the oilcloth.

“I’ve got you cornered. Mum!” She recalled the triumph her son expressed, years before, announcing the end of a game of checkers they had played on this table. At first, she had let him win sometimes, but eventually his strategy outshone hers and the games ended with her remaining checkers backed into a corner.

Hmmm…that is not unlike my early relationship with André. She had been the initiator in that relationship, much against her mother’s wishes, encouraging André’s slow awkward efforts at courtship. It had been both an act of rebellion against her mother and a personal challenge to remake this handsome plodder into something refined and polished. But she had lost the challenge and now André had her cornered too.

Finishing her tea, she glanced wistfully at the pattern of the tea leaves in her cup and then washed up the breakfast dishes before setting off for the Claytons.

Most of the women in Kenton hired Mrs. Swenson to do extra or regular cleaning because they felt ill at ease with Margaret socially if she also cleaned their homes But, because of Margaret’s reputation for cleanliness, and because it was general knowledge she could use the money, she had picked up one or two more jobs since her last child had left home.

Mondays she did washing and ironing for the Claytons, the new Anglican priest in town. It would be a long day, but she liked the cheerful interest Mrs. Clayton took in her and the generous payment she always provided.

“When is the baby due, Mrs. Clayton?”

Margaret pushed the iron across the shirt collar and then neatly arranging the shirt sleeve for pressing.

“Doctor says the beginning of February. Margaret, I do wish you would call me Diane. I’d like to think of you as a friend.”

It was this kind of easy charm and acceptance that attracted Margaret to Diane Clayton. “You’ll have your hands full when you have two little ones.”

“Dave loves children and so do I, Margaret. Pearl is old enough now to give a lot of help with the two little ones. We’ll make out ok.” Diane talked from the stove where she was stirring the makings of soup for their noon meal.

A cry from the bedroom announced that Johnny was awake from a midmorning nap and Diane scurried to his room.

Margaret hung the ironed shirt on a hanger and proceeded to the next one, her mind sorting through memories untouched in years. It was like turning over pictures in the family album. She hadn’t done that in years either. Some showed details completely forgotten, like an item of clothing or friends that had visited, and others revealed feelings staring out through the eyes or facial expressions. She lingered over a couple of distant memories. But she had grown to prefer the safety of indifference and quickly brought her attention back to the pattern of lines on the shirt.

Later Margaret and Diane talked quietly over lunch, savouring the soup that had simmered invitingly on the stove earlier. Diane confided buoyantly Dave’s ideas for new programs in the church and shared some of her own ideas for the women. Margaret felt the cheerful optimism of the younger woman push at the wall she had cautiously erected to block out the memories of André’s and her early years. Her eventual comment was quiet but pointed. “What about your nursing?”

“Oh, I’ll go back to my nursing career when the children are grown and as circumstances provide,” Diane offered.

“Better keep your nursing up. You never know when you’ll have to look after yourself.” Latent bitterness edged Margaret’s statement.

“True, anything can happen, but Dave and I hope and pray for the best.” Diane smiled and then in her disarmingly candid way asked, “Margaret, what happened between you and André?”

Margaret was not prepared for the suddenness of the question. In a small town like Kenton, what happened in homes was ferreted out in the coffee shop and the hockey rink, wherever two people met to talk longer than to exchange pleasantries. Stories were shared, versions compared, the details polished until only skeletons of truth remained. What had happened to the once happy relationship between Margaret and André Brunet had similarly been speculated on for hours and details dove-tailed together, but no one had blundered into asking either Margaret or André directly.


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