Chapter 5 – Dr Chang’s furtive visitor

Today had started peculiarly for Dr. Chang – he had arisen from his bed at the usual time, about 5:45 – a time he liked because it often allowed him to stand on the porch and sip his steaming tea as he caught the glimmering lights of dawn as it rose over the ravine lot in front of his house.

Dr. Chang usually slept on his back and he turned in bed, as he liked to do in the morning, to fold his arm over his sleeping wife Petra’s right shoulder, as she liked to sleep on her side, and rest his hand under her chin. This way he would not disturb her sleep, but could still feel the moist warmth of her deep breaths as she exhaled. He liked how she’s hunch her shoulders a little and pull him an inch or two closer, without waking. That was his favourite moment of the day – wordless, unconscious, but so intimate.

Today, he reached over and didn’t feel Petra’s shoulder. Rather, he felt what he thought was a fluffy pillow, or perhaps a stuffed toy. For a second, he felt a wave of nostalgia wash over him as he was reminded of the fateful day of Petra’s leaving, but his reverie was quickly cancelled by a searing pain in his hand and the strangest spitting sound he had ever heard! In terror, Dr. Chang pulled himself so that he was sitting up and flung his arm upwards, only to see a frantic ball of flying fur attached to it. He heard yeowling and crying and spitting and felt little claws dig deep into his forearm just tiny fangs bit deeper into his hand.

It was then that Dr Chang realised that he was under attack. But by what? What creature could have crawled into bed beside him and slept so peacefully, only to go on a terrible offensive the moment Dr. Chang moved! What conspiracy was this?

After taking a second or two to regain his composure, he pushed his arm down on the bed and confronted a terrifying sight: two glowering yellow and green-flecked eyes staring up at him in defiance and indignation. The eyes were part of a tiny triangular grey furry face whose expression, upon closer inspection betrayed more fear and alarm than angry and reprieve. Dr. Chang’s fear subsided when he realised that he was locked in mortal combat with a cat – barely out of adolescence, and not so sure of itself.

He relaxed his hand gently, and as he did so, his grey-black tabby aggressor relinquished her grip – first with her hind paws, then her forepaws and finally loosened her jaws, letting him pull his hand away as she slowly sidled to the baseboard of his sleigh bed. They stared at each other in a silent face-off of mutual distrust and bemusement.

Dr. Chang then, in a quick movement, slid out of bed and bounded across the room, slamming the double-doors behind him, imprisoning his feline foe in the master bedroom. He heard scratching at the door and alarmed yeowling as he hurried to the middle upstairs bathroom and vigourously washed his hands and arms with soap and water several times – concentrating on the bite and scratch marks that were already swelling up. Satisfied he had removed most of the poison, he went back to the now quiet bedroom and opened the door, hoping that his interloper had settled down and was ready for civil intercourse, but when he open the door, he saw that the room was empty. No cat. He looked under the bed and behind the night-table. Dr Chang even opened his closet doors, which he knew that the errant kitty could not have entered as they were sealed closed.

It was then that he noticed the window. The lacey drapes fluttered gently in the window that he had opened the night before, seeking relief from the terrible humidity and heat. He walked over to the drapes, and, pulling them aside saw that the screen had a gaping cat-sized hole in it. He had found both the point of entry and egress. He peered out of the window for a spell, trying to see if the mysterious invader was hanging about, perhaps walking the length of the fence along its top. That was something that cats liked to do, wasn’t it? But no – the grey and black tabby was gone.

A little disappointed, Dr Chang went about his morning ablutions, then had breakfast as the day broke, listening to the news on CBC Radio 1 and thought about his angry, frightened visitor. After breakfast, and still a little bemused, he set off into town for the clinic, looking forward to talking to his patients and hearing of the goings-on in the village.

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Chapter 4: Simona drops the pickles

Simona Manelli was running down Locke St., one of the prettier streets in Hamilton, her arms full of pickle jars. She was running to the Manelli’s Fine Foods, a little green grocer’s that her great grandfather had started, after scrimping and saving for years. He had worked in the steel mills in the East End twenty years after immigrating from the Calabria region in Italy.

Simona’s grandfather, Stefano Manelli had been a cheerful, romantic gentleman. he was tall and thin, with light brown hair and green eyes. His cheeks had dimples etched in because of his constant wide smile. He often come home from his work at the plant with a handful of flowers he’d picked from the side of the road – sometimes even from the edges of people’s gardens – for his wife and daughter, Simona’s mother.

Stefano had also loved drawing and painting. The family house on Aberdeen he had bought after knowing some prosperity, had many beautiful charcoal pencil sketches of Simona’s grandmother and mother, on its walls and mantles. The sketches were often funny, capturing Assunta in introspective, slightly awkward moments. While Stefano had a big personality, Simona’s grandmother, Assunta, was a laconic person who loved her husband and his antics, but who kept her opinions hidden behind a discrete smile and sparkling brown eyes. She was the brains behind the business, while her husband brought in the clients and charmed them with stories of his uncle Ferrugio’s feats of strength in the old country and other tales that he could muster up on almost any occasion and on any topic.

His paintings of Simona’s mother, Maria, were very tender, capturing her as she went through her stages of life – a little girl in frilly dresses, a teenager with bell-bottom jeans and long braided hair, a young professional woman, a wife and then a mother. There was never a husband in the images – Stefano had not liked his son-in-law, he found him churlish and was happy to see him go, even though his abrupt departure broke Simona’s mother’s heart. However, he doted on “his lovely Maria” and then on his granddaughter, Simona.

For some reason these ideas were occupying Simona’s thoughts as she walked up Locke St with the box of organic kosher dills she’d picked up from the vendor’s truck. The box was flimsy though, and started to fall apart, so she removed the six one-litre jars and cradled them in her arms. She felt them slipping a little, so she held them more closely to body, pinching them against her belly. As she walked, she could here the disconcerting sound of glass grinding against glass, so she picked up the pace.

As the passed the Starbucks, which was full of the usual interesting assortment of patrons – but Simona turned her head. She didn’t have time to dillydally. She had to get the pickle back to the store before her mother left – Simona had forgotten her key in the back office, underneath her favourite mug, the one with a picture of the troubled romantic French Canadian poet Émile Nelligan, who died so tragically and so young. His greatest poem was emblazoned on the cup, opposite his photo, Le Vaisseau d’Or, the Golden Vessel. Nelligan’s poetry brought Simona back to those happy weeks she had spent in Québec City, full of warmth and passion and self-discovery.

But now she had to deliver her precious pickle jars! And she was late. Thinking and walking lead to ambling and ambling leads to… oh no! She saw her mother’s suv nosing out of the lane.

And so Simona started to run. The grinding of the glass bottles became clinking. The clinking became clanking… and then perhaps ten meters away from her mother’s car she heard a pop and then she felt something slip against her chest. And suddenly Simona was slipping and falling into a spreading salty pool of pickles and shards of glass and brine.

Nelligan and the Starbucks patrons whooshed out of her mind as she sat down, wet and miserable, her knees scratched and her pride hurt. She sank her head between her knees and sobbed.

She was frustrated. She’d done another silly thing. What would her family think of her now?

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Chapter 3 – Dr. Chang’s gardens

Dr. Joseph Chang had spent the morning working in the garden. He had dug up the flower beds, turned the soil and pulled the weeds and clumps of grass that had encroached on the green wooden boxes surrounding his townhouse and then dumped bag after bag of magical plant fertilizer in little heaps. But somehow his heart wasn’t in the work.

He sat down on the cement step, a mournful look on his face. Planting flowers had always been Petra’s favourite activity in Spring – she would start turning over the soil, and then feign an injury or extreme fatigue, then with a wide grin and sparkling eyes ask him if he could rescue her. So he would find himself, hoe and trowel in hand, sweating as she watched and planned how the beds should look in the colourful geometries of her imagination. Then she would run in the house and pop out a few minutes later, refreshed and exuberant, and drive off to the market in their old, silver Mercedes-Benz station wagon.

Always, Joseph would watch her hop in the car and wave frantically to him, as she drove off to on an expedition to scout flowers and shrubs at the local nursery, just down the hill on Wilson St. Then he would return to his digging and weeding and sweating, happy in the thought that she would come home full of excitement and that they would go together after Church on Sunday to actually make the purchases. Again, he would follow her as she charmed salespeople, flit across aisles to snag the freshest looking alyssums while other lumbered toward them and help people reach pots that were a little too high for them. He was always the quiet one, watching and helping her out. At the end of the day, when she was exhausted from running and chatting and laughing, they would make dinner together quietly, and then sip a glass of wine on the couch. Sometimes she would crumple into his arms after the warmth of the wine would calm her and he would rub her back and hum songs that she liked.

A tear welled up in Joseph’s eye as he remembered those days. They were gone, and wouldn’t come back. Gardening wasn’t the same without Petra. It just wasn’t the same. It felt dead and hopeless.

He put the tools back in the garage and went into the house. He made himself a cup of tea and sat, with the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal and tried to read and opinion piece about the neurological effects of Internet use. He didn’t last long, though, and just sat with his plain lavender tea in his favourite yellow cup, with the plaid pattern on it and stared out the window at his cedar deack, with black metal railings. He was lost in the lush gardens of thought and memory.

He tried to think about which patients he would see on Monday and reflected on how best to chat with each of them. He ran a small family practice and knew all his patients and their families by name. He looked forward to seeing them on Monday. The families with children cheered him up and he liked the grumbling old men who came in and pretended that there was nothing wrong with them, ever. But he couldn’t concentrate – questions swirled in his mind.

What had he done wrong? Why had she left?

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Chapter 2 – Alicia takes a train

After kissing her father lightly on both cheeks, Alli entered the foyer of Chatham train station.

Her family had always lived, at least during all of her 17 years, in the small Southern Ontario town of Chatham. Her father was born in Windsor and her mother in Picton, but they had met at the University of Windsor while at business school. Alli’s father had studied accounting and her mother marketing, and while his field was well-chosen for both his personality and his demeanor, her mother was never really very comfortable in the business world. She was an artist, an original – she had an anxious streak and a fine eye for beauty. She had decorated their country home tastefully, in a French provincial style with Spanish colonial accents.

So Alli had been educated, her nose deep in books, hunched over the dark chesnut table in the living room and lying on the chocolate brown leather couches in the family room. Winters were pleasant for Alli, for she would sit by the fire with her mother, and put her feet up close to the brass grate, sometimes resting her feet lightly upon it until the heat got too intense through her thick lumberjack socks. Then she’d cross them underneath a stripey burgundy and gold polar fleece. Sometimes she’d pretend to read, but really, she was looking deep into the flames – finding stories in their flickering theatre of light and shadow. Once in a while, her mother would bring green tea and they would sip quietly from the earthen cups and listen to her father play on the old Estonia grand piano across the room.

Now Alli was on her own, boarding a train in Chatham station, on her way to Hamilton, the Steel City, as her father had called it. She had passed by Hamilton on the way to Niagara-on-the-Lake on a school trip once. They had gone to watch Pygmalion at the Shaw Festival and Alli had the window seat. She was felt a little withdrawn and spent most of the trip looking out the window, taking in the changing scenery as it rolled by – suburban malls, forested ravines and then the rolling vineyards and orchards of Niagara. Seeing the vineyards and orderly rows of fruit trees surprised her – she had never though that Southern Ontario could be so beautiful, so foreign, so distinctly French or Italian.

On the way back from the play, which she had enjoyed thoroughly, the weather had changed. The clouds had gone a steely grey and lightning flashed through the twilit gloom. Darkness fell as they left Niagara – the lake was a dark forbidding mass to their right. The sky was devoid of stars.

As they neared the Burlington Bridge, Alli looked out and saw the closest approximation of what she thought the Inferno might look like. Flames belched from dark spires in blue and red and brilliant orange. Great plumes of smoke snaked across a flashing sky punctured by grey smokestacks, some mute and others sporadically piping out toxic exhalations. Mountains of lustrous black slag rose like temples between abandoned railcars and sea-faring tankers that traveled the Great Lakes. Alli had poked the teacher sitting in the seat in front of her and asked, “What is that Mrs Thorne? What is that place?” Her teacher replied, with a bemused smile: “That? Oh, that’s just Hamilton, Alli. It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Alli had nodded and then watched the mad-looking, weird place drift past as they rolled up and down the Burlington Bridge and back into the comforting scenery of suburban normalcy.

Now it was a sunny morning and she was dumping her giant duffle bag on the rack near the door of the VIA train and settling into her seat. The car was almost empty, so she could sprawl across a couple of seats, her thin bejeaned legs crossed in front of her and her back against the window.

She took out her copy of The Walrus, that headiest of Canadian literary and current affairs magazines, and settled into the long, cozy ride ahead to her new home.

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Chapter 1 – Alicia leaves home

Alicia had hugged her mother a little awkwardly that morning. She felt that being too intimate felt a little odd, just before she started an important journey into a new part of her life. Now they stood in front of one another, on the stoop of their white, gabled home surrounded by evergreens. It was windy and there was an azure blue sky above. This was a moment of parting between mother and daughter.

Alicia’s  mother gazed down at her, through deep brown eyes that glowed hazel in the sunlight, and Alicia looked up at her but then down at her shoes. She felt a little sheepish at not meeting her mother’s emotional look, and compensated by reaching up and holding her close, shoulder to shoulder, just so, and kissed her on the cheek. At least she meant to kiss her on the cheek – she actually kissed her ear, because her mother leaned in and grabbed her quickly. She didn’t feel right about an awkward embrace and wasn’t going to miss an opportunity to feel her daughter’s warmth close to her one last time. As she held her close, Alli’s mother smelled the slightly floral remnants of yesterday’s perfume spritz on her sweater and in her hair, and felt the warmth of her daughter’s breath on her neck.

“I’ll miss you, Alli,” said her mother, her eyes brimming with tears of pride and sadness all at once. “You’re ready to go now. I hope you have a safe trip. Make sure you send a text message when you get to the flat in Hamilton. I will call your Aunt Veronica to make sure she meets you at the train station in Aldershot.”

“I’ll be fine mom, it isn’t so far – just three hours away or so.” And then, looking at her mother’s liquid eyes, she added “But I will text you. I am excited about the trip.”

Her father’s voice called from the car. He spoke slowly in a confident, measured and gentle tone, as accountants often do. “Come now, you’ll miss the train, Alli! You can always talk on the mobile!”

And so, the slim, tallish golden-haired girl hefted her suitcase into the trunk of dark blue Volvo station wagon and lithely slipped into the passenger seat. Her father looked over and smiled. He was proud of his fiercely independent daughter, who was so pretty yet so awkward. He thought to himself that underneath the body hardened by running and the gym and countless hours of volleyball, was a sentimental girl who played the piano sweetly and emotionally. Who still looked with wonder at a night sky littered with stars. Well, at least she did when no one was watching.

He watched her as she checked her appearance in vanity mirror. Mascara – check. Brimming tears hadn’t smudged it. Straightened hair, with hazel streaks – check. She was ready for travel.

Alli’s father started the car which grumbled gently as it rolled down their gravel drive towards the main road. Alli looked back and watched her mother’s figure get smaller as she receded into the distance. Her mother’s white capris and yellow linen blouse fluttered in the stiff breeze – and the white aluminum-paneled house with yellow gables shrank and eventually disappeared behind the oak trees lining the front edge of the property.

The Volvo picked up speed and soon, the feel of motion lulled Alli into calm. Her father was listening to a talking book about Pierre Trudeau’s life on the stereo. The sun was warm on her shoulder and on the right side of her face. Alli would soon be making her own way in the world for the first time. She was on her way to a new life at McMaster University in Hamilton. She felt a little anxious, but sitting in a sunbeam with the golden fields rolling by – Alli was happy.

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