Cup and Saucer
(Published in The Nashwaak Review, Vol. 18/19 No.1 Spring/Summer 2007)
Harley searched for the photograph the boys had taken on the mountaintop—the one where he had his arm around Joan—but the album wasn’t where it ought to be. It was kind of Sheilah to help with the cleaning, but he wished she wouldn’t move things.
He heard Joan cough in the next room and left off his searching to go in to her. In the half-light, he could just trace her thin outline beneath the blankets.
“Will you eat something tonight?”
A hand moved, but otherwise she gave no sign she’d heard. Silence had become her best friend. The drugs helped her move into its slow warmth like a second skin.
Her arm lay across the covers, lined and worn. He rubbed the hand gently.
“Something to eat?”
“Not hungry,” she murmured, her voice thin as though she’d returned from the edge of a dream.
“I made a nice soup with vegetables,” he said. “I’ve mashed them up very fine.”
Harley went to the dresser and glanced over the list. Her 7 o’clock was past, and the 11 still to come. He knew the routine by heart, but he still reread it each day. There wasn’t much to remember, but the timing and dosages were crucial. He’d surprised himself by taking to needles as though he’d been giving them his whole life.
He picked up his teacup where he’d left it earlier. It was the chintz Henley from his mother’s girlhood in India. A few cups and saucers, plus the intricate silver service she’d brought back to England when she married, were all she’d had left in the end.
It always amazed him to think a proper English girl like his mother had been raised in India. And in a convent school, no less. She told him she’d never heard a curse till she was seventeen, and even then she hadn’t known what it meant. Her stories from that time were fascinating—tigers that killed hunters who’d shot their mates; cobras entering houses at night to search for food—but they’d merely entertained him without making him want to visit.
Lily never returned to India, though she’d wanted to. That was his father’s doing. Once Herbert had done with something, he was done. What made a place worth remembering were the people, he’d insisted, and the best ones were always gone by the time you returned.
Herbert’s only nod to the past was a colossal Indian passport, as big as a rug, that he used to unfurl when Harley was a boy. Herbert sold Rothman’s cigarettes in India, pushing the company into new frontiers, and the passport was his introduction. He showed Harley how he’d stand in the centre of it as his clients walked round reading his qualifications, which included fluency in French, Italian, Bengali and Mandarin. In time, the unfurlings came fewer and fewer until the document disappeared altogether.
His parents had been a colorful couple by all accounts. Harley must have been a disappointment to them, marrying a quiet Canadian girl and settling in the most ordinary of places.
He could still hear Lily repeating it over the phone, as though testing its sound.
“Why not Australia or Africa?” she’d asked. They were equally far away, she’d reasoned.
After the war Harley had simply wanted to be as far from England as he could manage. Had Lily ever forgiven him? She’d been quick enough to refuse his offer of a place to live after Herbert died.
“You’ve lost your accent,” his mother told him at the wedding, on what turned out to be their only visit to Canada.
And then they’d waited for the grandchild that never came. He’d been a disappointment in more ways than one.
Harley looked over. Joan’s eyes were moving beneath the lids. She was gurgling, but he couldn’t tell if she’d fallen asleep. She looked peaceful, but the morphine would do that.
His mother had gone quickly after her diagnosis, but Joan hung on. Lily had been much older, of course, but it seemed she’d just given up. After all, what was there to live for once Herbert died?
“Maybe I will have a bit of soup,” Joan said, without opening her eyes. “It might warm me.”
Harley placed his hand on her forehead. Fevers came and went, and there was little he could do but offer sympathy when she wanted it, which wasn’t often.
He took his teacup to the kitchen and returned with the soup. He carried it in and placed it on the bedside table.
Joan stirred and looked around. Her eyes were clear. “It smells good,” she said.
He helped her sit so she could hold the bowl on her lap and feed herself. She managed a few spoonfuls—he counted four—then stopped and waited, as though she could will herself through it. It was no use. She began to retch. Harley lifted the bowl just in time to catch the spill.
He felt himself gagging, along with that familiar sensation of disgust he couldn’t shake each time it happened. Needles weren’t a problem for him, but the vomiting was. As a boy in London he’d ridden the Ferris wheel with Lily when someone threw up above them. It had splattered on Harley’s arm. His mother quickly wiped it off with her handkerchief, but then Harley suddenly threw up on his own jumper, to Lily’s annoyance.
He was ashamed of his feelings now as he carried Joan’s bowl to the kitchen and dumped its contents in the sink. He stood and watched the orange soup combine with the vomit, swirling together as they ran down the drain. It reminded him of a starburst or a photograph of the Milky Way—things seen from a great distance.
Once Joan became sick it was as if they’d moved far away from everyone. Friends seldom called now, apart from Sheilah and one or two others. Everything told them they were no longer important, of no consequence to anything. Where this might once have angered Harley, now it just made him sad.
Harley retrieved his glasses and put the kettle on. He couldn’t face her just now. He refilled his tea and read the paper so guilt wouldn’t get the better of him. His mother would have been far more capable under the circumstances. Despite her Englishness and her dignified manners, she’d been practical. India had given her that. It amused Lily when he told her he did reach India, after all, but not the India she knew. The natives he’d encountered were North American Indians. She was well into her 70s by then, but sharp as ever.
He’d tried to describe it, but he was never good with words. The cliffs were as high as a 30-storey building, maybe higher, he’d said. Yet somehow that didn’t convey their splendor—how you could just raise your arms and feel as though you were floating over the trees and the water glinting far below.
“Manitoulin,” she’d repeated over the telephone. “It sounds lovely!”
It reminded him to continue his search for the album. He hadn’t told Lily about the boys, of course. And he never mentioned the photographs. His mother would have thought it idle gossip, and you didn’t gossip about such things. You spoke of them in whispers and forgot them quickly afterwards.
The strange part was that no one would have sensed anything unusual about them. They seemed so normal, so right, as if they were exactly the sort of people you met on a mountain trail. The older one was smiling, joking. The younger one was quiet behind owlish glasses, his eyes wide as though he’d suffered heat stroke coming up. It had been a hot day, Harley remembered. Very hot.
Later he’d handed over the negatives to the police when they questioned him, but he’d kept the prints. And now Sheilah had gone and moved the album. He’d look in on Joan again, then make another search for it.
He didn’t need to see the photograph—he remembered it well enough. The older one was tanned and good-looking, but both of them were striking. They might have passed for our sons, he told Joan later. She’d quietly agreed. Even though they were queer. Gays, he reminded himself. That’s what you called them now.
He’d never had anything against that kind. He was the first to say you can’t help what you feel. He’d known boys like that in public school. And Shirley Milk, who always wanted to play on the boy’s football team, wearing Levi’s and tight T-shirts. She’d been one, too. A girl version of it.
Harley and Joan had gone to Manitoulin at the suggestion of a neighbor who told them how peaceful the campground was—how unreal it seemed. That night, falling stars flung themselves overhead while the campfire burned quietly on the shore, reflecting in the still water. They’d felt like newlyweds again. They’d felt at the very center of the universe.
It was there they’d come across the brochure that brought them to the trail. The name intrigued Joan: “Cup and Saucer Trail,” she read. “What on earth?”
Harley shrugged. “We’ll have to find out.”
The climb had looked shockingly difficult from the foot of the mountain. Harley was 60 by then, and Joan 49. He wasn’t sure they could make it, but once they began it was relatively easy.
The heights were sheer, the drops dazzling. There’d been no guardrails as they looked out across far reaches of sky, the lake below. He still remembered how Joan had waltzed out to the cliff’s edge, jubilant, liberated in a way he’d never seen her. He’d stayed farther back. Heights made him dizzy.
It was when they were on the way down that they met the boys, where the higher plateau joined the lower. The younger boy held out his camera. “Will you take our picture?” he’d asked. “We’ve got nothing to prove we were here.”
They offered to take his and Joan’s picture in return. Then there’d been the mix-up with the cameras, so similar in make. Harley wondered later if they’d done it on purpose, to leave a record so the world would know. It was the older one who’d mixed them up, and somehow they’d ended up with both their own picture and the picture of the boys on the same camera.
That was the entire exchange. Once Harley and Joan reached the bottom, they drove on to Honora Bay. From there they could see the whole mountain—the lower part flat like a saucer, the higher part like a cup perched on top. That was how he thought of himself and Joan after all these years: two dissimilar objects that made sense only when you put them together, one serving and giving purpose to the other.
They’d stood at the side of the highway marveling at the view. Later, he wondered if that was when it had happened.
Harley heard the cry. He started, knocking his empty cup into his lap. It was terrible to hear the cries and not be able to help, though he knew Joan tried not to let him see her suffer.
In the room, she lay curled beneath the blanket. The fading sun covered the walls with a honeyed glow. Had she cried out, or was it his own fear he’d heard escaping? Perhaps had it simply been a bird calling in the dying light.
She would never go into the hospital—he’d promised her that. Lily had spent her last days in a hospital and it had done her no good. Harley had managed a few days with her toward the end. When they wheeled her out to the ambulance, he’d been there. She looked up and pointed a bony finger at him. “Jesus Christ!” she’d declared. He’d wondered if she were having a little joke. “No, Mom,” he said. “It’s only me.”
Harley went back to the kitchen and washed the dishes. Then he returned to the bookshelf. There was the album, right where he’d looked for it earlier, only pushed back a little. Sheilah hadn’t moved it after all. He flipped through to the photo the boys had taken. Again it struck him how relieved he appeared to be going back down, while Joan looked exhilarated from the climb.
Then he turned to the other photograph, the one that he’d taken of the boys. They weren’t really boys, of course, but he thought of them that way. He regarded the older of the two, wondering at that disarming smile. It was unbelievable, when you thought about it.
Behind them the light had caught on the trees, burning away all trace of what lay below. One of them had been sick, he remembered. Which? To look at them, they both seemed so healthy.
He still recalled the evening news report. It had shocked them at the time. The next day all the papers had longer accounts. One had been 35, the other only 24. Surely the older hadn’t sacrificed the younger? No, he remembered now. It was the younger one who’d been ill, the one who’d asked him from behind his owlish glasses to take their picture. That was it. It had been the younger, after all.
Harley stared at the two faces a moment longer then he closed the album and returned it to the shelf. In all these years since, he’d often wondered whose idea it had been. Did they jump together or was one pushed? It seemed important to know. And had they decided to do it while the younger one’s health still remained, before it all turned to fear and disgust? But if he could ask just one thing it would be this: had they both been brave in that final moment or had one of them cried out?
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