Bloody hell, I’ve gone and done it now. I lay in a crumpled heap between a thicket of flower pots, my head cushioned in a marijuana plant, staring up into a 1000 watt light bulb. I struggled to get up. My loose shirt had caught in the pallet that supported me and the pots. The more I struggled the tighter it pulled around my throat. Was this to be my end at the age of sixty-four? Either throttled by a shirt or roasted to a crisp by a grow light?
How did I get into this mess? Two things started it: the fire at the Grizzly Grill and news of the stock market slump. Crash and burn is how my troubles began.
The Grizzly Grill on Baker Street, was within walking distance from my house. I loved the walk down the tree-lined street, past the lovely old stone church, but that day everything was grey -- the grass, the bushes, the trees -- all coated with winter gravel and dust. Patches of ice still lingered ready to topple the unwary. How nice it would be to get out of Nelson, to go somewhere warm with palm trees and greenery, to lie in a deck chair with nothing to worry about. But holidays were not for me. Not then. Not ever.
A fire truck sirened past me. Nearly deafened me, it did. Mind you, with the fire hall just round the corner and the hospital just up the road, hearing sirens where I lived was not unusual. People came out of their houses and began running down the hill. Like a fool I joined them. Why? I don’t usually follow the herd or run on an icy path, or even a clear path for that matter.
Then I saw the smoke. A huge ball of black poured out from somewhere on Baker Street and rolled upwards and towards us. I ran faster.
Next thing I was sprawled on the sidewalk. Daft bugger, you should know better than to try and run at all, let alone downhill. A couple of youngsters helped me up and I sat on a wall to get my breath and assess the damage. The young man with his baseball cap on backwards kneeled down to look at my leg. We rolled up my pants and watched the knee swell.
“I’ll be okay,” I told him. “I’ll just sit a minute. You go ahead.”
I nodded. He stood up to leave, walked a few steps and then turned to call out, “Your skateboard’s under that car.”
A good laugh always helps. My gammy knee stiffened up and let me know it was having none of it. One grazed hand dropped blood on the sidewalk. I found a tissue in my apron, pressed it on the graze and then stood up. My pants were covered in gravel. Would it be better to go to work like that or go back home to change and be late? I dithered for a minute and then carried on.
Limping, I managed to reach the back of the crowd standing in silence at a police barrier. I watched the Grizzly Grill go up in flames from a safe distance. There go my comfy loafers that I got from the Sally Ann for five bucks. I would be on the dole – at my age – but I fretted more over those loafers than my future. They didn’t pinch my bunions like my other shoes.
Dense smoke made it difficult to see where it was coming from. The smell was terrible, like singed hair, and a roaring noise, like a waterfall, filled the street. The fire truck had its ladder up and from it a firefighter directed a jet of water into the smoke. He looked so tiny in his yellow uniform and helmet standing on top of the ladder, like the toy I gave my grandson.
I’m not a gawker and my knee hurt so I began to push my way back out of the crowd. “Hey, Jess,” I heard someone say. I turned to see Swan, another waitress at the Grill. “Looks like we’re out of work.”
“Has it completely gone?” I asked her. “What happened?”
“Word on twitter that it started in the basement.” Swan looked up from her cell phone. “Electrical they think.”
“Thank goodness it was closed,” I said. “So no one but Joe would be there.” Joe was our cook and he would have started work earlier than us, setting up the kitchen and prepping food and that. “Is he all right?”
“Dunno. I just got here.” Swan looked at me briefly through her heavy mascara as she continued to text.
“I might as well go home. But I’ll wait until I know if Joe is okay.” I turned around. “I have to sit down. I fell and my knee is killing me.”
“Go sit on that bench. I’ll see if I can find Joe.” Swan helped me to one of the benches set in an alcove of low stone walls. “Back in a flash.”
Swan had only been on the job about three weeks and was still wet behind the ears. She was a bit daft -- sashaying around the Grill like a princess, standing beside a customer’s table with one hip stuck out as if she needed a replacement. She could never remember what the specials were. But waitressing doesn’t give much time for conversation so I didn’t know her very well.
I sat, with my knee throbbing, and watched the crowd – backs of people all staring at the fire and the firefighters. A policeman in a yellow jacket and bicycle helmet held the crowd back behind a barricade and another manned the next junction directing traffic. An ambulance parked on the cross street didn’t seem to be busy, thank goodness.
One section of the crowd stopped staring down the street as its attention turned to a heavily built woman made even bulkier by a puffy black jacket crowned with a felt fedora-style hat. She waved her arms and shouted, “Behold, the Lord has visited this fire upon you because of your sinful natures. Repent. Repent now before the whole town burns. Turn to Jesus for redemption. Find your path back to …”
She stopped speaking as a young woman in a red toque shook her fist at her. “Shut up you righteous nut case. Go back to your cage.”
The proselyte took a couple of steps towards red toque and pointed her finger. “Sinner,” she shouted. “Repent your evil ways before the town burns before your eyes.”
I cheered for red toque as the two women faced off. Jesus Freaks always got up my nose with their righteousness and ‘holier than thou’ attitude. The policeman with the bicycle approached them. I couldn’t hear what they were saying but there was a lot of arm waving before Fedora Hat strode away up the hill, her challenger rejoined the crowd and the policeman returned to his position.
A tall, gangly young man suddenly appeared and came over to sit on my bench. He didn’t look at me as he plonked himself down, sat with splayed legs and stared into space with the kind of dark brown eyes you see in Middle Eastern men. Although he wore a black toque, the sort that’s associated with bank robbers, he wasn’t at all threatening. In fact, he seemed quite gentle with his one earring and one of those little bits of beard they call a soul patch.
After a while he leaned back and lifted his left wrist as if to read a watch. Then he shook his head slightly when he saw his bare arm and said, “Got the time?”
“Twenty to twelve,” I said.
He went on staring into space and I looked around for Swan. A few moments later she appeared. “Oh hey, Marcus, there you are. Jess, this is Marcus.”
She sat down between the young man and me. Marcus stood up and hovered awkwardly before squatting on the wall to one side of us. “Joe’s okay.” Swan said. “They’ve taken him to hospital to check him out. He’s the one that sounded the alarm.”
“Oh good,” I said. “One less thing to worry about.”
“Marcus and I are going to Oso for a Java. Wanna join us?”
I limped up the hill behind them. My knee was hurting badly but I could still hobble. After a block, Swan looked around to see where I was, and then stopped to wait. She wore an enormous, heavy knitted poncho in light brown wool with dark green leaves embroidered on to it and from a distance I got the impression that a giant cactus was waiting for me. The poncho swirled over her usual waitress outfit – black jeans and a sweater that showed a layer of her undershirt. That was the fashion, yes, but it looked as if the sweater had shrunk. Why do youngsters wanted to show their underwear? In my young day, we did our best to hide it.
She took my arm and her support helped me the rest of the way.
Marcus walked on with a gait like a colt that couldn’t control its legs. When Swan and I got to Oso Negro’s, he was at the front of the line ready to order our coffees. The place was packed -- probably because it was out of range of the smoke. Swan quickly positioned herself so that, as soon as a group looked as if they were about to leave, she could grab their table. I waited with Marcus to help him carry our coffees and his muffin.
“Well done,” I said to Swan once we all sat down at the table she’d got.
Marcus put down the cups with hands as big as a gorilla’s, and as hairy. He pulled off his toque to reveal short blonde hair that seemed surprising given his dark eyes and complexion. Fair hair and brown eyes are most attractive and I couldn’t stop staring at him.
So far I hadn’t heard him speak other than asking the time. It looked as though I was to be kept wondering when Swan turned to me and said, “Well, Jess, now you’re not working, whatcha going to do?”
“I don’t know. Look for a job, I suppose. What will you do?”
Swan gazed into the distance as she played with the one long strand of hair she had on her head, the one dyed purple to contrast with her otherwise short black stubble. “Maybe try for a job as a doctor’s receptionist. Or a dentist’s.”
With the ring though her lip, her eyes so heavy with make-up that you could hardly see them, and her extraordinary hair arrangement – you couldn’t call it a ‘hair do’ as she hardly had any – she’d frighten patients away.
“You’d be good at that,” I said trying to be encouraging. I turned to Marcus who was sitting staring into his coffee cup as if it would reveal his fortune. “What do you do, Marcus?”
He looked up with expressionless eyes. “Not much,” he managed to utter in a deep, husky voice. “Odd jobs. You know.”
“What sort of odd jobs?” I persisted.
He looked puzzled.
“Marcus is a total MacGyver,” Swan said, coming to his rescue. “He’s a whiz with electrical stuff.”
“Oh. What do you think started the fire?”
Marcus grunted “Dunno” and carried on staring into his cup. Normally I get on well with young men -- in fact, better than with men of my own age, but this one was conversationally deficient.
“Do you two live together?” I asked.
Swan laughed. “No, I share an apartment with a girl friend,” she said. “But I help Marcus out quite a bit. What sort of job will you look for, Jess?’
“I started training as a nurse,” I said. Then added, “In olden days. I got rheumatic fever. It left me with a dickey heart and I had to stop training. But I’ve worked as an aide in nursing homes so I might look for a job as a care-giver. Someone’s elderly relative perhaps.”
“Does it pay much?” Swan said.
“Not as well as a waitress with the tips.” I didn’t tell her it was a lousy job and the last thing I wanted. Sick people leading a purposeless life can be very demanding and I’d be no better than a servant. Jess, fetch this. Jess, close the window. Jess, take dear Tubby Wubby for his walkies. No thank you.
“You could just retire, right?”
“I wish I could but I can’t afford to.”
“Don’t you own a house?”
“Yes, but that’s all I own. No pension or any income.” I enjoyed the attention Swan paid me. I don’t see much of young people outside of work. Marcus just sat and brooded as though we weren’t present.
“Well it’s one more house than I own.” Swan laughed.
“We were lucky. We built a house in Vancouver before prices skyrocketed. So I was able to buy a house here when we split up.”
“You could take in renters. Lots of students looking for rooms in this town.”
“That’s a great idea. I’ll think about it.” I had thought about it but I’d once had a stranger living in the house and I hated it. Fine when you’re young but you get set in your ways at my age. I’m quite frugal, like most Yorkshire folk, and when my lodger put on the washing machine for two pairs of panties and a pair of tights, I went spare. I dramatically showed her how to hand wash. She left.
I liked solitude after being with people all day and I certainly didn’t want to wait on someone at home or cater to their needs or have the television blaring all day. Just hearing someone else moving about in my home made me on edge. But I might have to end up renting a room if I couldn’t get a job.
“Well if you do decide to rent out, let me know. I can spread the word.” Swan leant across the table and helped herself to a piece of Marcus’s muffin.
“Thanks.” I sipped my coffee and looked around. “I wonder if they’re hiring people here?” Everyone behind the counter could still be in school so I wouldn’t be eligible but Swan might.
“No chance. I inquired. There’s a waiting list,” Swan said.
Swan asked if I’d be okay getting home and I thanked her and said it was only a couple of blocks and I’d take it slowly. We parted with promises to keep in touch but I doubted this would happen. We had very little in common apart from being unemployed waitresses and most of the time I didn’t understand a word she said. Nor did I shave off half my hair or stick metal in my nose.
I plodded up the hill to my house. A car’s bumper sticker caught my eye. ‘Shit Happens.’ “You can say that again,” I said to a startled young man as he emerged from the church food bank. He looked at the bumper, then grinned. “Right.”
The food bank. I had only seen it as a place to contribute -- what would it be like to have to go in there? When I was younger and married and had more money, I volunteered in Vancouver’s downtown east side, working with drug addicts, people with mental health problems, Native Indian lost souls and plain old poverty victims. These were the sort of people who used food banks. Not me. What would it be like to be hungry all the time or to live as a bundle of clothing in a cardboard box or not to have a daily shower? The thought of ending up like that in my old age – well bugger that for a lark, not while I had my wits. I could always find a job.
The phone rang as soon as I got in. “Mum, are you okay?” Jason said. “I just heard that the Grill went up in flames.”
“I’m fine, luv.”
“Thank goodness. I was really worried when I heard, though they did say no one was hurt.”
“I hadn’t arrived when it happened. Good thing it wasn’t half-an-hour later. Did you hear how it started?”
“Something electrical in the basement, they said on the news. What are you going to do now?”
“Look for a job, I suppose.”
“Why don’t you come for dinner? We can talk after the kids are in bed. You know they’d love to see you.”
“That would be nice.”
I put the kettle on and went upstairs to change. I liked to look neat at work so I wore tailored black pants, a smart shirt and a short black apron with a large pocket. And flat comfy loafers, of course, that I left at the café. My work clothes went into the laundry basket and I pulled on loose pants and a sweatshirt that were anything but smart. I fished out my Edwardian cameo brooch, the only valuable thing I own, and hung it round my neck from its ribbon. I believe in using things, not hiding them away in safe places. Like most cameos it had a carving of a woman’s head, the woman representing Ceres, the goddess of the harvest. It’s my Good Luck charm. My grandmother left it to me. I rubbed it and called on Ceres to bring me abundance; abundance of anything, but money in particular.
I decided to soak in a bath, something I rarely did, especially in the middle of the day. Mainly because once I got my body into a bathtub, it was a helluva job to get it out again. But the idea seemed deliciously wicked. I needed to have a good think and my knee would like a rest in nice, warm water. At the back of the bathroom cupboard I found a bottle of bubble bath someone gave me for Christmas two years before. I turned the tap to ‘hot’. A squirt of rusty water came out. Then to ‘cold’. Fine; clear water. Back to ‘hot’ and more rusty muck.
I pulled on my sweats again and went down to the basement. On the bottom step I was safe from the pool of water that would have made a duck happy. “That tank wasn’t even ten years old,” I muttered as I waded across to turn off the water and the gas. How much did bloody hot water tanks cost? That would take care of my holiday pay.
With soaking feet I slopped upstairs to have a cup of tea and turn on the radio. The CBC News relayed the information that the Dow Jones Industrial index had fallen by some horrifying percentage resulting in the collapse of many companies. “When it comes to wealth suddenly disappearing, the stock market can be diabolically frightful,” the newscaster said. “Usually this happens in October but not this year. This year it’s February with its Black Tuesday.”
Serve the greedy buggers right -- that’s what you get when you care more about dollars than people. The amount of money some people made by doing nothing was … what’s the word, obscene. Oh bugger – what about Nordwall Enterprises?
“Safe as houses” my financial advisor had said. “By the time you’re ready to retire, you’ll have a nice little profit that will yield a comfortable income.” Right. At my son’s urging and against my better judgement, I had put my small nest egg into the hands of a friend of his, a financial ‘expert’, when I should have followed my instincts and put it under my mattress. Now, my only retirement income was likely to be Old Age Security.
Maybe Nordwall Enterprises hadn’t been affected. I needed to ask Jason. I quickly dialled his number. “Oh hello Amy, it’s Jess. Is Jason there?”
“He’s busy at the moment, Jess. Can he call you back?” Amy’s tone was distant, as though she was dealing with a demanding client.
“It’s important that I talk to him. Is he there?” I could hear the family clatter in the background.
“Nicholas, stop that. I’m talking to Granny.” Amy’s voice became louder. “He’s just going down to his office. He has a really important project to deal with. I’ll tell him you called.”
“I’ve just heard some bad news and I wanted to talk to him about the investment he suggested. Have you heard of Nordwall Enterprises?” The prolonged silence told me Amy had hung up.
Trust Amy to try and stop me talking to my son without her being in on it. She never passed on my messages so I dialled Jason’s office number.
“Hi, Mum. What’s up?”
“Have you heard the news?”
“About the Canucks? Don’t tell me you watched?”
“No. Not the Canucks. The stock market.” Why would I be interested in the bloody Canucks?
“Oh that.” Jason sounded bored. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
“Well it is for me. Remember Nordwall Enterprises?”
“No. Should I?”
“Well you suggested I go to Robert.”
“Oh. Right. I’d forgotten about that. Is Nordwall involved?”
“I don’t know. That’s what I want you to find out.” As he’d been the one to suggest I invest he should know who to contact.
“Okay, Mum. I’ll phone Robert right now and get back to you. Don’t worry. I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
I tried to enjoy my tea but I found myself pulling my ear lobe, something I’ve done all my life despite my mother slapping my hand away. Would Jason be able to find out anything? Perhaps Nordwall wasn’t affected? I washed up, wiped the counter tops again and watered the poinsettia that refused to die after its Christmas glory. I couldn’t understand why it lived when I tried all means to make it unwelcome other than dumping it out. I even cursed at it as I’d heard that plants understand when you talk to them. It should have shrivelled from lack of self esteem after I’d finished but no, it continued to bloom.
What would I do if I’d lost all my savings? I wouldn’t be able to retire, that’s all. Not the end of the world when I still had some get up a go left in me. At least I had a house.
Count your blessings one by one, I found myself humming. It was a favourite song of my mother’s. Gracie Fields used to sing it during the war, evidently, in an effort to cheer up people whose houses had turned into rubble. My major blessing was the family home that Frank and I built in Kerrisdale after we’d emigrated to Canada. Little did we know, when we saved $10,000 for the lot, that property values in the neighbourhood would sky rocket. Those were good days -- both working, planning and building the house, getting ready to have children. I can never remember when it went sour. But the house turned out to be a great investment. I ended up with enough money to buy a house in Nelson with something left over to live on in my old age. Or so I thought.
The phone rang and I slopped tea down myself. “Not good news, Mum, I’m afraid.” Jason sounded like a doctor telling a patient he had inoperable cancer.
“Tell me, Jason.” I can’t stand waffling.
“Nordwall stocks are down 85%. But they’re still in business. And the good news is …you still have fifteen percent.”
“Fifteen percent? That means there’s hardly anything left.” I wanted to cry. I also wanted to thump Jason for being so cavalier about my money.
“This is going to be a problem for Robert. He’s pretty bummed.”
“Oh deary me. Poor Robert.”
“They may come up again, Mum. It might be a temporary setback. It’s a good company.” Jason’s voice had a ‘there, there,’ tone about it.
I didn’t answer.
“Mum, are you okay?”
“I’m fine luv,” I managed to say. “I’ll do what Brits always do in bad times – have a nice cup of tea.”
“Amy and I can help out, you know.”
“Thanks, but there’s no need. I have my job. And the house of course. I’ll be fine. Old Age Security kicks in on my birthday.”
“We’ll see you tonight and talk about it then.”
I had got out of bed in the morning, feeling cheerful, looking forward to the day and then, a few hours later, I was unemployed, facing poverty, suffering from an injured knee and had no hot water.
I went on to my small balcony and bellowed at the world, “Bugger you. Bugger you all. You won’t get my house, you know. You won’t get my house.” With my fists clenched and holding back my tears I began to sing, “There’ll be blue birds over, the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow, just you wait and see.”
A small girl making a snowman in her yard across the lane looked up. I waved. She smiled, waved back and carried on digging. I went in to put the kettle on.Start writing here ...