By Lucy E.M. Black
Grace noticed the girl’s fingers first, stubby with chewed nails that looked sore. When it was Grace’s turn in line, she pushed her groceries along the rubber belt. Grace looked down at her own nails and saw that the polish was wearing off the top edges. The girl double-bagged Grace’s bananas and milk. “In case they’re too heavy for the bag,” she said. Her thoughtfulness pleased Grace. She fidgeted with her debit card and passed it to the cashier. The stubby fingers reached across the conveyor belt and Grace recoiled to see a thick line of dirt crusting the cuticles. The manager should ensure his employees have clean hands, she thought.
Grace had chosen to walk, intending to get some exercise, even though this now meant climbing back up the steep hill to her new street. The shopping was done, and it was time to go home, store the items away, and move on to her next job. That was how Grace liked to do things – one thing after another, everything in its turn.
When she first met George, he had a good job in an accounting firm, nice manners, and a newish car. Having identified his key attributes, Grace managed the progression of their relationship: Saturday night dances at the local church, a Sunday picnic by the river, a couple of dates at the movie theatre, and then finally one tiny peck on the cheek when he walked her to the door. Hand-holding followed and, finally, a long luxurious series of kisses when they parked his Rambler at the end of a stub road, out past the edge of town. Grace began to practice writing her new name: Mrs. Grace Grant, and Mr. and Mrs. G. Grant. She loved the symmetry of it.
But George was gone now and so was the sweet little house. She had sold it and bought herself a tiny bungalow in the town of Sentinel. Sentinel was not far from Ivy Bridge where she had grown up and lived as a married woman. Grace had moved to Sentinel exactly one year after George died. By turn, she had sorted, boxed, and discarded the artifacts and detritus of her marriage. She had already disposed of George’s belongings, not feeling particularly emotional about discarding those things which would no longer serve any practical purpose. George’s walking stick she had kept, thinking it might perhaps become useful at some future point, as well as his extensive classical musical record collection. Beyond these, and his plaid Viyella house-coat, which she now wore, she kept no tokens of the man with whom she had lived for thirty-nine years.
There had been a child. She was born in the spring of their third year of marriage. A mint green and white nursery had been lovingly prepared. Before the birth, Grace sat in the newly purchased rocking chair and imagined the feel of a child in her arms. She and George had lain beside each other in bed, patting Grace’s distended belly and whispering soft words of welcome.
When the baby was finally born, after twenty-three hours of excruciating, drug-free labor, the doctor went to George in the waiting room to say that it had been a girl. George, who was watching the spring birds picking through a thatch of grass, gradually looked up with tears streaming down his face and said, “her name is Robin. My daughter’s name is Robin.” And every Spring thereafter when the first of the birds returned for the season, George would eye them silently but not give voice to their name.
They had tried again, of course, but it was not to be. Somehow the forces of nature would not give way to Grace’s planning, and the longed-for child never materialized. And so, Grace was now completely alone. She did not walk through her empty house in Ivy Bridge before leaving it for the last time; she was not mawkish in that way. Instead, she picked up her purse and marched with determination to the small blue sedan parked on the street. She did not drive by her childhood home or church, or school. She sat for a moment to acknowledge the solemnity of the event, and then simply began to drive.
The route was familiar, of course, and took only twenty minutes but the distance was far enough to reinforce the reality of her circumstances; no longer a young woman, a bride, or a wife. A widow. The word itself was disturbing and made her think of spiders and bugs and a rectangular gash in the earth, five-feet deep with the sides loosely covered in sheets of green outdoor carpet.
Feeling slightly daunted by what she had undertaken, Grace had determined to walk to the grocery store while the movers unpacked her boxes and few pieces of furniture. It was a conscious act to force herself into movement. Making her way up the street with her purchases, Grace eyed the long line of shops with an appraising and somewhat propriety nod. She planned to decorate her new home in soft neutral colors, intending to make this a priority undertaking. She had kept the maple bedroom set, as well as her mother’s tea trolley and a couple of favorite armchairs in sky-blue velvet. Beyond that, all of the rest of the furniture had been given away. It was time for a new beginning. A shoebox filled with funeral cards commemorating her parents, cousins, and some dear friends were among the items she had placed on the tea trolley in her near-empty living room. These paltry reminders of lives once lived were Grace’s one concession to sentimentality.
Alone in the quiet, Grace heard the faint ticking of her kitchen clock coming from one of the boxes. She had always hated the clock, a black cast-iron frying pan fitted out with clock works, but it kept excellent time and had been a wedding gift from George’s brother, Fred. Retired from the army, Fred also made clocks using heavily urethaned cow-pies (he thought them quite arty) and she and George were relieved not to have received one of those instead of the frying pan.
Fred’s funeral card lay preserved in her shoebox with the others. He had died of pancreatic cancer at fifty-two. Far too young to pass. His wife, Dorothy, also known as Dot, was a peroxide blonde with an affinity for wearing shockingly bright blouses. She had chosen a wildly inappropriate poem for the back of Fred’s card. Grace had intended to remonstrate with her, but George had persuaded her to allow the grieving widow to select anything at all that comforted her. George’s card was carefully laid on the top of the collection in the shoebox filled with the others. She would need to get it out shortly and find a place to display it.
Grace spent the next day in a flurry of final unpacking. Her bedroom closet was quickly organized with summer clothes on one side and fall/winter clothes on the other. This simple act of classification pleased her and she felt only a small twinge of guilt when she remembered that none of George’s things would require closet space. The time passed quickly, and Grace’s efforts resulted in a neat pile of collapsed cardboard boxes tied with twine at the end of her driveway.
She was fatigued by the time she had finished this last chore and instead of cooking for herself, she drove to the local food store where she had noticed a take-out counter. Parisian potatoes and a cooked chicken breast having been selected, she lined up in the express to pay. The girl was once again at the till, and Grace greeted her pleasantly. She realized, with a mild shock, that the cashier was the first person she had spoken to all day. Her voice croaked a little when she spoke. This won’t do, she thought, I am going to have to speak aloud more often. My vocal cords might calcify with misuse and leave me without speech. Grace didn’t know if vocal cords actually calcified but it seemed plausible.
On Sunday, Grace walked to the little Anglican Church she had seen only a few blocks away. The sign out front announced service at 9:30 a.m. Grace sat at the back and hoped that she hadn’t inadvertently taken someone’s seat. People became so accustomed to their spots, she knew, and it would be hard to avoid upsetting someone. When the service was over, Grace tentatively followed the others into the parish hall for coffee hour. A rather gracious woman of about Grace’s age strode confidently towards her and introduced herself as Millie Plover.
When she returned home that morning, she had a great sense of accomplishment. Millie had invited her for luncheon at a small café in town and had intimated that she would be glad (if Grace stood up to closer scrutiny had somehow been delicately implied) to help her establish herself in Sentinel.
On Tuesday morning, Grace woke with a sense of excitement. Her outfit had been laid out the evening before: a dun-colored linen dress with matching jacket, taupe shoes and a taupe handbag. Elegant, thought Grace, without being ostentatious. She set off in good time, allowing herself ample opportunity to find the café and browse in the shops before her appointment. At twelve-fifty-five, she saw Millie already seated at a table in the window. She moved forward, greeting Millie confidently and with a certain degree of calculated warmth.
Cupping her hands on the table demurely, Grace was aware that her rings were prominently on display. There was her engagement ring, a solitaire of not inconsiderable size. Then there was her wedding band, a circle of tiny well-cut diamonds with striking clarity and sparkle. On her right hand was her grandmother’s engagement ring, a rather large, cushion-shaped sapphire of the most delicate violet-blue.
“Lovely rings,” said Millie.
Grace looked down at the table modestly, aware that she had passed an important test. “Thank you. George was very good to me.” The luncheon went well, and Grace discovered that she and Millie had a few acquaintances in common from Hodge’s Hill. The ladies parted on the friendliest of terms. Grace walked again to the grocery store to pick up chops for her dinner. The same cashier was working as Grace lined up to pay. She looked wretched.
The gentlemen in front of Grace spoke to the girl. “What’s up, buttercup?”
“I’m being evicted,” said the cashier. “I’ve got to find a place to live.”
“Well,” he said, “don’t worry. Something will turn up.”
“I’m sure you’ll be fine,” added Grace. “These things always work out.”
Grace had spoken out of character. It’s not that she had actually offered anything concrete; she simply wanted to reinforce the previous shopper’s message of hope. However, as the girl looked at her, Grace felt studied and appraised. Walking home, Grace reviewed her situation. Her vocal cords were calcifying. Maybe she should offer to help the girl out for a short time. What would George think? she wondered. Gracie, he would say, you just do whatever makes you happy. But be careful. You don’t want to get in over your head.
When Grace arrived home, she could hear the telephone ringing. She rushed eagerly for the phone, but the line was already dead by the time she picked it up. Disappointed, she decided to simply have some toast for dinner. Grace carried her plate into the living room and established herself in one of the velvet chairs. Pulling the cart alongside her chair, she moved the shoebox to the lower shelf and centered her dinner plate on top of the cart. She was picking delicately at the toast crust when the shrill ringing of the phone sounded again, reverberating eerily in the empty room.
It was her sister-in-law, Dot. She called infrequently, every month or so, claiming a distant kinship as both women had been married to brothers. Grace had never felt particularly close to her, but she maintained the pretense of a genuine familial connection out of loyalty to George. “How was the move? Are you settling in?”
“Yes. Fine. Thank you, Dot. Everything is fine. And how are you and Debbie?”
Dorothy, during the course of conversation, mentioned that she and Debbie had been fighting. Unable to find suitable employment, Debbie had taken to lazing about the house without offering to help with anything. Dot was tired of being nursemaid and banker to the girl.
Quite impulsively, Grace found herself blurting out a solution. “You should send her here for a while. I have a suite downstairs in my basement that she could use. A change might be good for both of you.”
And so, without planning it, Grace had offered to share her home with her twenty-something not-really-niece. Realizing the enormity of her suggestion, Grace now needed to make preparations. Her hasty offer had not considered the lack of furnishings. At least, reasoned Grace, there might be someone to talk to.
The past year without George had been challenging in so many ways. The bureaucracy of death had much occupied her. Multiple copies of the death certificate were required by so many individuals and for such obscure reasons. She had to return again and again to the funeral home for additional copies. The house of mourning was cushioned in silence and the staff were professionally solemn. Their faces fixed firmly in stoic and sympathetic grimaces. Their frozen features were meant to be compassionate, and she understood this. Still, she wondered if they ever broke form.
After the banking and insurance aspects of her loss were dealt with, there was the sudden decision to sell her house. The house which had previously been a comfortable extension of their compatible lives now felt injurious. The sink in the upstairs bathroom sprung a leak, the dishwasher had begun to growl when she ran it, and the hot water tank refused to produce hot water. A dozen or so such tiny offences accumulated until Grace finally accepted that the house missed George and would not cease its assault on her. And Grace, for her part, desperately missed his good-natured, affectionate manner. Her longing manifested itself in imagined glimpses of him, seated at the dining room table, watering the lawn, sitting in his chair after dinner. And she had often closed her eyes for a few seconds when these glimpses occurred, in an attempt to help the imaginings linger.
A few days after her conversation with Dot, Grace arrived home to find Debbie sitting on the verandah with two large garbage bags.
“Is that all you’ve brought?”
“Yeah, my shit’s all here.”
Grace pursed her lips at the language but did not respond. Instead, she unlocked the front door and welcomed Debbie into her new home. “Your room is downstairs. I’ll show you the way.” The walk-out basement had been finished by the previous owners as a small in-law suite. Newly purchased bedroom furniture was placed at one end of the room. Grace had made up the bed and left a small pile of fluffy towels on the dresser.
“I thought we should buy a microwave,” offered Grace, “and then you could be independent.”
Debbie dumped her garbage bags on the bed and looked around slowly. “It’s nice.”
“How is your mother?”
“Always on my case, bitching about something.”
Again, Grace tried not to show her shock at the language.
“Well, let me give you time to get settled. I’m having dinner at 6:30 and you are welcome to come upstairs when you’re ready.”
“Do you have internet?”
“Not yet, dear.”
Grace went upstairs and sat down heavily in one of her blue velvet chairs. Oh dear, she sighed to herself. The girl’s attitude made her feel that she really had been rash.
The next day, the sun was shining when Grace awoke. It was nearly 8:00 a.m., and Grace was astonished by this. She rarely slept past 6:00 a.m. and wondered what had happened. She sat on the edge of her bed, put on her glasses, and went to slip her feet into her slippers, but they weren’t where her feet expected them to be. Somehow, one of them was under the bed and not neatly at the side where she liked to leave them. I must have kicked it there without noticing, thought Grace as she knelt painfully on the floor to retrieve it. Her head felt a bit thick, as though she had drunk too much sherry. Grace steadied herself and saw that her bedroom door was tightly closed. She always left the door ajar so she could see the hall light on if she got up in the night.
Ahh, Debbie must have closed it, said Grace remembering. She must have been up early and was afraid of disturbing me. Smiling at the idea of Debbie’s consideration, Grace continued with her morning routines. When she went to the kitchen, she saw a freshly washed plate in the dish rack, and the toaster slightly askew. Oh good, she made herself some breakfast. Grace had prepared her to do list the night before, on a little flowered pad she carried in her purse. It was a pleasant list and made Grace smile. The box store at the end of town was her first stop of the morning where she purchased a tiny microwave.
Over dinner that night, Grace asked Debbie where she had gone to school.
“Here and there. You know my old man was Forces. We moved a lot.”
“Yes. That’s a hard life for children, I think.”
“Not so bad. The shit kickings my mum got were harder.” Debbie grinned at this as if she had made a small joke. Responding quickly to the look on Grace’s face, Debbie’s own countenance changed to a more somber one. “He was a mean bastard.”
Increasingly, Grace felt thick-headed in the mornings. Waking much later than her usual 6:00 a.m. was now a common occurrence. She wondered about this but the mystery of it was soon lost in the busyness of her day. Debbie was an obliging boarder, cleaning up after herself and always ensuring she completed her chores. Grace continued to gently probe Debbie’s “growing up years” and Debbie, for her part, continued to assault Grace with more direct interrogations. “Do you have kids? Why not? Didn’t you like your Old Man? Did he beat you?”
Grace was often shocked by the questions but occasionally while doing the dishes together, she would find herself wondering if life with Debbie was like having a daughter. She tried to imagine what Robin would look like now. She’d be thirty-seven and probably married, with children of her own. Would she have gone to university? Would she have George’s snub nose or his cleverness? It didn’t hurt to think about such things anymore.
When Debbie returned home at the end of the day, Grace heard the front door shutting. “I’m just starting dinner. Why not come up at 6:30 and I’ll have everything ready.”
“Can you make potato-leek soup?”
“I thought I would do a stir fry with some of these vegetables.”
“I feel like soup. Is it a lot of trouble?”
“No dear, of course not. Let me just see if I have everything I need.”
When Debbie went downstairs, Grace realized that she didn’t feel like making soup. However, she began to peel the potatoes and carrots and mentally inventoried the other ingredients she would need. Leeks. Chicken stock. Pepper. Parsley. She did have everything in the house, and it wasn’t really a lot of trouble.
Debbie was ebullient at dinner. She complimented Grace on the soup and amused her with a funny story about one of her job interviews. Grace was pleased that their equanimity had been restored. She wished Debbie “sweet dreams” and went down the hall to get ready for bed.
“Tomorrow for dinner, I want salmon.” Grace was surprised to hear Debbie speaking to her and looked up from cleansing her face to realize that Debbie was standing in the middle of her bedroom.
“What are you doing in here?”
“Telling you what I want for dinner.”
“I want you to leave my room.”
Debbie took her time leaving the room. First, she stopped to stroke the quilt folded neatly at the end of the bed. Before leaving, she turned to Grace and said, “just do it!”
Grace was trembling by the time Debbie left her room. Lying awake for a long time, she found herself speaking to George.
Be careful, Gracie. This girl’s getting too comfortable. Don’t let her take advantage.
Exactly, thought Grace.
When Grace woke the next morning, she sat up in bed and reached for her glasses, but they were not there. Squinting, she looked down at the floor to see if they had fallen. She could not see them. Putting on her slippers, she went to the bathroom and saw that her glasses were on the counter. How did you get here? Grace reached to slip on her rings automatically. She looked at her right hand sharply. It felt funny. Spreading her fingers, she saw that the sapphire ring was missing. She was wearing only two of her three rings. Grace looked at the ring holder on the bathroom counter and saw that it was empty. She looked in the sink, and then on the floor. Her ring was gone. Someone had moved her glasses.
Tying her bathrobe tightly about her waist, Grace went to the top of the stairs and called for Debbie. Hearing no response, she went downstairs into Debbie’s room and was surprised to see her bedroom quilt carefully spread across Debbie’s bed. She was in my room again.
Going upstairs, Grace set the kettle to boil. This would not do. The girl was clearly taking liberties. George was right. Grace stayed indoors for the day, catching up on laundry, and doing some light housework. She made no preparations for dinner and sat stiffly in the kitchen waiting for Debbie to return home. Debbie came in just after 4:00 p.m. and walked straight to the fridge.
“Debbie, I want to know what you were doing in my room last night.”
Debbie looked surprised. “I was cold. I came upstairs, and you gave me your quilt.”
“I did not give you my quilt.”
“Ya’ you did. It’s downstairs on my bed. Go check.”
“I did not give you my quilt because you did not ask for it. You are lying.”
Debbie walked up close to Grace and clenched both fists, looking down at her. “No one calls me a liar, bitch.”
Grace felt the heat of Debbie’s breath and pent-up anger. “I want my ring back and I want you to leave my house. You are not welcome here any longer.”
“Who’s gonna’ make me? You gonna’ call the Po-Po?”
“I will call the police if I need to. Now I’m telling you again – give me back my ring and leave.”
“Fuck you, bitch. Just fuck you!” Debbie stepped sideways away from Grace and stomped down the stairs. A half hour later, she came back dragging two stuffed garbage bags. “You are a fucken old hag, whining about your dead daughter and talking to your dead husband and pretending life is all rosy and crap but you’re a scared old bitch and you’re gonna’ fucken die alone.”
“Give me back my ring and my key.”
“Fuck you.” Debbie left and slammed the front door.
Shaking, Grace collapsed into a kitchen chair and burst into tears. She cried for several minutes, and then called Millie. Millie arrived quickly. With some effort, Grace told her about her fight with Debbie. Grace locked the house carefully when Millie was gone. Methodically, she secured all the window locks and took the trouble to wedge a broom handle in the patio doors. In the morning, she awoke feeling oppressed. She opened the kitchen window and turned on the kettle for her morning tea. Reaching for her handbag, Grace saw that her purse was on the floor by the telephone and not on the kitchen table where she usually left it. Opening her purse, she pulled out her flowered pad and began to contemplate the things she would do for the day. She was still dressing when the phone rang.
“This is Larry Todd from Burwell’s store. Mrs. Grant?”
“I’m calling about your order of furniture, Mrs. Grant. Your cheque didn’t clear at the bank. So we’re calling to ask if you would like to make payment another way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Your cheque bounced, Mrs. Grant. Insufficient funds.”
“Well, there must be a mistake. I will go to the bank and clear this up at once.”
Grace felt her cheeks with both hands when she hung up the phone. They were flushed red hot. It didn’t make sense. How could the bank have made such a mistake? And on top of all the upset she was already dealing with. Grace sat for a moment to compose herself, and then finished dressing. She drove to the bank and parked. Once inside, she walked to the customer service window and asked to speak to the Manager, “in private.”
Mr. McLean was a tall, austere looking man. He ushered her into his small cubicle and waved vaguely at the guest chairs. Grace sat down and adjusted herself comfortably. “I placed a furniture order and this morning, the store called and told me that there was a problem with my cheque. I was quite surprised. Your bank has made a terrible mistake.”
Mr. McLean looked at her without expression, and then leaned forward and clasped his hands together in a child-like prayer position, the fingertips touching.
“I see,” he said. “Well, I’m sorry for any trouble we may have caused you. Perhaps I could just ask you for your bank card and we could pull up your accounts.” His hands stopped praying and one of them reached across the desk expectantly.
“Yes, of course.” Grace reached into her purse and pulled out her wallet. She slipped out the bank card and placed it in the waiting hand.
Mr. McLean swiped the card through a reader and looked at his computer screen. “There were some very large cheques that cleared in the last week, Mrs. Grant. Perhaps we could review those? I’m going to print off your account and we will go through it together. Perhaps you could show me your cheque book?”
Shock was quickly replaced by panic. Grace reached into her bag for her cheque book.
“It’s not here,” she whispered. She systematically emptied her purse onto his desk and pulled out the lining of her bag.
“It’s not here. I always keep it in here,” she said.
“This is where my cheque book lives. In this zipped pocket.” She showed him the empty compartment.
Mr. McLean looked concerned. “It’s all right,” he said. “We’ll sort this out.”
“Last week Monday, a cheque cleared for $20,000.” He clicked something on his screen and turned the monitor around for Grace to see a digital image of the cheque. There, in her handwriting, was a cheque written to Debbie Grant for $20,000. The signature was Grace’s own signature. On the description line it read for your education.
Grace inhaled sharply.
Mr. McLean looked at her. “Did you write this cheque, Mrs. Grant?”
No. Grace shook her head. “No, I did not. I don’t think so. But it looks like my writing. But I didn’t. I know I didn’t.”
Mr. McLean nodded and circled the item on the bank statement. He clicked something and the sound of the printer started.
“There is also a cheque for $3,313.28.”
“For kitchen shutters. I ordered them last week.”
Good, nodded Mr. McLean, checking the item. “And the third cheque cleared yesterday, also payable to Debbie Grant, for $85,000.” He turned the screen around. The notation on the bottom read, for your birthday.
“Did you write this cheque?”
“No! I didn’t. How dare she?” Grace burst into tears.
“Do you know a Debbie Grant?”
“Yes, she is my niece, by marriage. I asked her to leave. I think she stole my ring.”
“We should call the police.” He left the cubicle and returned a few minutes later. “An officer will be here shortly. Is there someone I can phone for you? A friend, perhaps?”
“Millie Plover. But I don’t have her number with me. Do you know her?”
“Mrs. Plover? Yes. Give us a minute.” He left again.
The entire interview took two hours. Grace had to fill out forms for the bank and swear affidavits that she had not written the cheques to Debbie. She also had to sign a number of releases for the police. The officer and Mr. McLean were very kind but also matter-of-fact. Grace embarrassed herself by weeping intermittently. Millie drove Grace home afterwards. She suggested that Grace have a rest and guided her down the hall to her bedroom. Grace laid down upon the bed in a bit of a stupor. The room looked unfamiliar to her. Where was George’s suit stand? Who had painted the room a different color? Why were pictures missing from the bureau? Grace struggled to sit up but then remembered what had just transpired. She needed to speak to George. He would know what to do.
Lucy E.M. Black is the author of The Marzipan Fruit Basket, a collection of short stories (Inanna Publications) and Eleanor Courtown, a work of historical fiction (Seraphim Editions). Stella’s Carpet (Now or Never Publishing) was released October 2021. Her award-winning short stories have been published in Britain, Ireland, USA and Canada in literary journals and magazines including Cyphers Magazine, the Hawai’i Review, The Antigonish review and others. The Brickworks (Now or Never Publishing) will be released Fall 2023. She is a dynamic workshop presenter, experienced interviewer and freelance writer. She lives with her partner in a small lakeside town north-east of Toronto.