At only nine in the morning the sky already burned painfully blue. Hot air stirred in the yard, churning the oily fragrance of the eucalyptus trees that towered over me. Six years of drought and not a cloud on the horizon. Jack, the magpie, peered at me from the vegetable garden. He weaved and bobbed among the lettuces. Every so often he stopped and fixed his one good eye on me and I stood there mesmerized, watching him while the freshly-hung laundry baked on the line beside me.
As I twisted a rough, wet towel in my hands, the thought of reconciliation dawned. Then I contemplated what the weather would be like when we landed in Vancouver. And that’s how it started. Anticipating and remembering…
December in the Pacific Northwest: wet, dark, and cold. I longed for Christmas in a city besieged by winter rain. I wanted to see brightly-lit houses defying the darkness of winter, promising bonhomie behind decorated doors. My family had agreed to the trip readily. Greg and our two teenagers said, in tones of false martyrdom, that they would sacrifice the traditional Christmas morning on the beach for the lush snowfields of B.C.
Greg looked forward to Whistler, a kid or two in tow, and my younger sister Polly to share the driving. The two of them would provide each other with the energetic companionship denied by their less adventurous spouses. From there, my mind hopped to Polly’s gregarious husband, Claude, an associate professor at UBC.
Claude brought the old campus to mind. I could almost smell the cafeteria, the bookshop, the dry corridors of the Law School. In my mind’s eye who stands at the end of the corridor? Hugh. Hugh Matheson, charismatic teacher. An entertaining and humorous lecturer. Articulate, funny, well-dressed, lady-killer Hugh.
We met when I enrolled in his night school class. I swam into his fishing grounds, ignorant of its dangers. Shark, blue-ringed octopus, and stinging jellyfish all rolled into one, he turned on the empathy of a kindred spirit and made me believe I was the only woman on earth.
What dizzying days he orchestrated! The ballet. Football. Faculty parties. St. Honoré cake at a café on a cold autumn afternoon. Sunday drives out to the Fraser Valley. Making love in his two-seater sports car parked on the shore of an icy black lake. He gave good head; he listened when I talked. He laughed at my jokes. He called first thing in the morning to just to say hello. Then he lost his focus like a hound in heat. After six weeks of showering me with daily attention he disappeared, no longer returned my calls.
Two months later he sent me a card and said he’d been caught up in work, too busy to call but oh, how he’d missed me! Could I forgive him? Would I give him a second chance? My joy at hearing from him shamed me but I swallowed my pride and dealt myself back into his game.
He came into my life the second time and we fell into a pattern of fortnightly dates. He didn’t want to crowd me he said. When we weren’t together, friends reported seeing him at the football game with a short blonde or at the Aquatic Center with a redhead.
His generic terms of endearment – ‘pretty lady’, ‘love’, ‘sweet girl’ – should have told me all I needed to know. He rarely used my name. Tales of his dalliances, coupled with Saturday nights alone, eventually dulled the shine of his currency.
Then I met some of The Others. Hugh’s women were more like rides from his car collection than friends or companions. Some were practical economy models. Others were for show. A lean Lamborghini lived in the West End. An earthy 4x4 worked in the office next to mine. A hybrid belonged to my gym. Without exception every one I met was an intelligent, vivacious woman. Some of them knew other Others, like members of a secret society.
We compared notes. Our latter day Casanova loved the female sex but did not particularly like its individuals. What had I been thinking to buy into his manipulative nonsense? Wait. I remember! My brain didn’t make that decision; my hormones had staged a coup.
Polly, my greatest ally, stood by my side during my time with Hugh. When I finally rallied the strength to tell him good-bye, she encouraged me. When I wrote him a note and told him that I wanted more than a casual friend, that I wanted commitment, some of the words came from her mouth. I hoped he would deny all others and pledge monogamy to me. He didn’t, of course. Deep down I knew that he never would.
Eventually Polly helped me heal. She said if I ever rang the bastard, she’d throw all my stuff out on to the street and change the locks. Yep, Polly supported me through my twelve-step, love-gone-wrong recovery program.
Shortly after Hugh and I went our separate ways for the last and final time, Polly took the position of Faculty Pension Plan Administrator at UBC. When she found herself in a place where she could watch him from afar, she kept her finger on the pulse. She repeated the rumours that his career had stalled at the senior instructor rank because he hadn’t published to a satisfactory level. She told me when he married.
A year after Hugh and I parted company, just as I was reconciled to my single state, Greg came into my life. We found trust and joy with each other, and he proposed. Within a few months, I quit my job and followed him to Australia. After that, Hugh was consigned to history, just a phase of bad judgment. A practice guy.
Suddenly I wanted to know: how bad had my judgment been?
Jack’s long trilling song dragged me back to the present and I pegged out the last towel before heading into the cool house. I found Hugh on the university website and e-mailed him, asking if he would he like to catch up when I visited Vancouver. I hit send and tried to forget about him again. But the moment I returned from my appointment, I rushed to check my mail. Hugh had answered.
“What a blast from the past!” he wrote. “I’ve thought about you many times. I even remembered that one of your sisters was a vet in Langley. One day I sat and phoned them all, asking for Dr. Johnson. I couldn’t remember her first name and I never found her. Do you know there are two women vets called Johnson in Langley and none of them have a sister called Debbie?”
“Lunch or dinner? With or without partners? Yep. I finally did it. I got the old life sentence, no time off for good behaviour. I was married five years ago.”
The rest of his e-mail read vaguely boastful, talking about his fabulous new holiday house on Galiano, his minimal working hours, his vacation in Costa Rica. Still I was curious. And I wanted to show off a bit: my family, my career, my happiness.
We agreed to meet at the Teahouse in Stanley Park. Reservations with such short notice, so close to Christmas, might be difficult but Hugh assured me that he’d manage. One thing about him hadn’t changed: he liked people to think he had contacts everywhere, friends who smoothed his life into an endless series of effortless days. Yikes, I had forgotten that trait. Or maybe I thought he would have grown out of it by now? Did I really want to do this?
Two days after we landed in Vancouver, Hugh and I met for lunch. At noon I caught a taxi to the park. The sun broke through the clouds and people emerged from their homes and blinked like moles against the unaccustomed brightness. On the sea wall and on the paths rollerbladers, cyclists, family groups, mounted police and solitary walkers jostled for position.
I arrived early and spoke with the maître d’. Hugh walked in only fifteen minutes late. I was flattered. If I were someone unimportant, he would have been at least another half-hour. I folded my magazine and put it under my handbag. As he approached the first thing I noticed was his gunfighter entrance. He scanned the room for faces he recognized, for people who might recognize him.
He was stouter than I remembered. His hairline receded slightly and a peppery cloud floated over his forehead. The once boyish grin had hardened to a smirk and remained as mirthless as ever, exuding leering narcissism, not the rakish charm he used to trade on. His finely-fitted sports jacket and well-cut trousers said he still used a good tailor.
We exchanged air kisses and sat, both a bit nervous. He ordered escargot, followed by New York steak. I could have ordered for him! In nineteen years the man’s palate had not changed. I selected the Famous Teahouse Mushrooms as an appetiser. To Hugh’s horror, I ordered potato-crusted Coho salmon for main. He flinched at my appetite but I couldn’t tell whether he was afraid he’d be paying for it or because he was in the mood for a dainty lady. It didn’t matter. The maître d’ had my credit card. I wouldn’t be obligated to Hugh for anything.
Hugh made perfunctory inquiries into my life, barely listening to the answers, before he recounted the victories of his. After we ordered coffee Hugh ran out of glory tales. I let silence creep up between us. Outside the window a raven strutted cross the frosty lawn.
As we waited, a young woman arrived and worked her way through the crowded foyer. The maître d’ discretely pointed to where Hugh and I sat. She slipped off her gray woollen cape and revealed a lovely figure accented by a red crepe dress. Chestnut hair raced down her back and her smile eclipsed the winter sun. I felt a terrible pang of envy at her poise and youth, and an even stronger one of loving admiration. Hugh sat a little taller and licked his lips.
She reached our table and kissed me. We held hands for a brief second and her fingers felt cool and soft in mine. The maître d’ brought another chair and the waiter delivered coffee and withdrew, trying not to look at us too overtly. I turned to Hugh.
“Hugh Matheson, I’d like you to meet Joanne Johnson, my daughter. Joanne will be starting at UBC next September.”
Hugh grinned. His eyes had not left her since she sat down.
She laughed self-consciously and I squeezed her hand. The two of us had talked about this moment for a long time.
“Joanne,” I said with a smile. “I’d like you to meet your biological father.”
© Maggie Bolitho
Photos from Wikimedia Commons:
1. Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen ) Samsonvale Cemetery, SE Queensland, Australia by Aviceda
2. Common Raven (Corvus corax ), Kugluktuk, Nunavut, Canada by D. Gordon E. Robertson