by Carole Glasser Langille

After Ed died, Charlene started drinking a bit too much perhaps but those brandies in the afternoon were lovely. Some nights, when the house was oppressively quiet, she’d take herself to dinner.  She’d heard about an excellent French restaurant near Avenue Road and Edmond that she wanted to try and one afternoon she had enough brandy to give her the courage to go alone. She didn’t have reservations but it was early, just past five. And what a lovely view. She’d had lobster and halibut poached in butter. She didn’t know it was possible to get food like this. For dessert, spiced apple cake with sour cream ice cream and pecans covered in caramel. She’d indulged herself. They did not serve wine by the glass so she’d had to order a half bottle. She’d had Sancerre, delicious but she hadn’t finished the carafe and she certainly wasn’t drunk when she’d risen to use the washroom and tripped on the step leading up to it.

She broke her arm and had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance and it had been a terrible business. But there was no sign indicating the step and she thought she deserved compensation. And Ross and Marks Associates were willing to represent her. Martha was the assistant on the case.            

Charlene liked Martha’s face the first time they met, though Martha, despite her curly chestnut hair that fell to her shoulders, was not a typical beauty. Charlene’s daughter later said that Martha had no chin, but Grace could be graceless in her observations, Charlene knew only too well. To Charlene, Martha’s face lacked all aggression and her large blue eyes were completely guileless; Charlene always felt like smiling when she looked at Martha.

Charlene’s own chin, or double chin, was ample enough for them both, she’d think to herself with a laugh. But what did appearance matter? Her hair had gone white decades ago and recently she’d cut it short so she didn’t have to bother with it but she never felt she had to worry about how she looked when she was with Martha.

During their meetings at Ross and Marks Associates, Martha was so sympathetic, so charming and thorough. They’d enjoyed talking with each other tremendously, though she was always Mrs. Rosewater at Ross and Marks.                         

One afternoon she asked Martha to come to the restaurant. ‘My treat,’ she said. ‘It will be a long lunch, because it’s a fancy restaurant and slow, but you can tell your boss you’re doing research for my case.’

‘I don’t have to explain anything to my boss,’ Martha said.

Though it was early afternoon, the waitress lit the candle on their table. Charlene thought, a great forest set ablaze by a small fire.        

Martha had the apple cake for dessert because Charlene recommended it. Charlene tried the plum tart with whiskey ice cream, sprinkled with walnuts. But Martha said she would not have wine, she had to get back to work. She said, ‘You shouldn’t have wine either, Charlene. You don’t want to trip again.’

Charlene was taken aback. She hadn’t tripped because she was drunk. But Martha had called her Charlene, not Mrs. Rosewater, and she was deeply touched. 

She did not win the case but she won more than she could have hoped for or even thought possible. Martha became a friend and that spring she’d moved in to Charlene’s house. They each had their own room, of course, and their own lives. But Martha was more than a roommate. They shopped and cooked together. This past summer they rented a villa just outside Florence for a month. Those sun-filled rooms, the wonderful meals they made. And the restaurants they’d gone to once Charlene’s twin daughters, Grace and Maisie, flew home after a week’s visit.

When Charlene and Martha returned they’d painted one wall in their living room a rich magenta, the same magenta as in the Italian villa. It was Charlene’s house but after Martha moved in they made decisions together about how the house should look.

Charlene’s daughters did not understand. They weren’t identical twins but they had similar ways of thinking. Maisie even asked Charlene if she was sleeping with Martha.

‘Do I look like a lesbian?’ Charlene asked, glaring at her daughter.

‘What do lesbians look like, Mom? Do they have marks on their foreheads?’

‘Let me remind you, I was married to your father for twenty years.’

‘Yes, but you hated him,’ Maisie responded. This was the sort of daughter she’d raised.

To a certain extent Charlene understood why her daughters were confused. Martha wasn’t that much older than they were. But the twins were grown and out of the house. What business was it of theirs who Charlene lived with?

Charlene loved the way Martha rearranged the furniture. Martha had a wonderful sense of design. And she was so tidy. Never a dish left unwashed or a coat unhung.

Charlene had joked with her, ‘You don’t have to be like Martha in the bible. You can rest and put your feet up.’

It was a comfort to hear Martha practice flute in the evening and peaceful to settle into the silence that followed. When she retired to her own room it was soothing to hear Martha go to hers. Charlene didn’t even mind when, after more than a year of keeping to themselves in what felt like their own private world, Martha invited that ridiculous Mrs. Shole to play duets with her.

Charlene was gracious when Mrs Shole started coming by every Wednesday after dinner with her flute and sheet music.  She preferred that to having Martha go to Mrs. Shole’s and come home after Charlene was already in bed, which happened more than once. She didn’t mind hearing about Mrs. Shole’s home, Mrs. Shole’s husband, her two sons and her daughter.

Martha said, ‘When I first heard her name I thought she might be related to Hans and Sophie Scholl of the White Rose who were executed for trying to kill Hitler.’

Charlene knew who Hans and Sophie Scholl were, but she did not interrupt.

‘Mrs. Shole’s family is German, after all,’ Martha explained. ‘But Hans and Sophie’s name is spelled differently.’

How Martha was infatuated with stories. And with history. Charlene had heard all about the history class Martha had with Sister Gerard. ‘She was a true servant of the Lord,’ Martha had said when she spoke of the nun, her eyes filling with tears. Martha was fifteen when Sister Gerard taught her. At fifteen, Martha thought she too would become a nun.

‘I gave Sister a silver cross for her birthday that I’d saved months to buy but she wouldn’t accept it. She wouldn’t accept my gift and I just wanted to fasten it around her long neck. She was like a gazelle, so thin and graceful.’

Yes, Charlene thought, and her refusal pierced you like horns of a gazelle. But Charlene simply listened.

When Martha spoke to Mrs. Shole on the phone, often several times a week, Charlene went into the living room and watched TV. To herself she thought, the water grows darker and deeper, but I will not try and save myself.

She never said a word when Martha spent an entire Saturday with Mrs. Shole, or during the two and a half months it took her to knit Mrs. Shole a sweater for Christmas, or even when she made reservations at the fancy French restaurant to celebrate her fortieth birthday with Mrs. Shole. The very restaurant Charlene had taken her to when they first had dinner together. Martha had never been that extravagant with her, as far as she could remember. Charlene thought, Martha has her words and her dreams and her plans and either they will overlap with mine or they won’t, but she was not willing to look too far into the future.

When Grace came to visit she asked her mother if she was still crocheting and if she was going to the book club. Grace had definite ideas about the best way someone her mother’s age should occupy her time and spending it with Martha was not part of the plan. But Charlene did not feel she had to explain herself to her daughter.

Maisie was the one who hurt her most when she came home to visit for a few days. Charlene had gotten up late to use the bathroom when she heard Maisie talking about her on the phone. She’d stood outside the closed bedroom door, transfixed.              

‘I don’t know what Martha sees in her,’ Maisie had said. ‘Imagine, to get saddled with my mother.’

She wanted to scurry away, but she could not budge from the spot.

‘When they are out together I am sure everyone thinks Martha is her daughter. Her granddaughter for god’s sake. Martha looks so young.’                               

Charlene did not flush the toilet; she didn’t want Maisie to know she was up. Back in her dark room she lay staring at the ceiling. Trees had roots to still them and secure them to the earth. And she had Martha. Or she’d once had Martha. Her daughters would never understand. She’d been married to their father for decades, but he was dead. It was her turn to live as she chose.

Ed had been her boss in the hardware store where she worked but it was his wife Lois who she was close to, Lois who had confided in her that she couldn’t have children. ‘Wasn’t built right,’ she’d told Charlene. They’d worked together until Lois was too ill to stand behind the counter. She had never had a personal conversation with Ed. But when Lois died, Ed cried in Charlene’s arms. He was like a sick cat. She was nearly forty with no savings to speak of but that wasn’t the only reasons she agreed to marry him when he asked, a few months after the funeral. He couldn’t manage on his own. She felt it her duty to say yes.  

But the man was insatiable. Had she only known. He apologized. Said he was hungry after being starved for so long. She’d had the twins the year she turned forty. And then she refused to sleep with him. It was her sacred duty, yes, but there were worse sins and she simply refused.

Now she was determined not to dwell on dark thoughts, though it took her a long time to fall asleep after overhearing Maisie. And the night Martha and Mrs. Shole were out at the restaurant she barely slept at all. In the morning she thought large flakes of snow were falling and then realized pale birds were flying past her window to the ground below. It was June but a blizzard would have made more sense to her than so many birds falling, one after the other.

When they’d met, Martha was only thirty-eight and she was sixty-seven, but some days she felt she was the daughter and Martha the mother. She blushed even to think these things. Hadn’t Martha told her not to wear that navy blue jacket—’dowdy’ Martha had called it—and she’d taken it off immediately and given it to Good Will. ‘Dowdy.’ The word had upset her.

But her daughter Grace’s question upset her more. No, infuriated her. ‘Does Martha need a free place to live?’ Gracie had asked.

Martha wasn’t a charity case, for goodness sake, she was a lawyer. She could live anywhere she chose. Their arrangement had nothing to do with finances. She chipped in for groceries, and with heating and electricity bills, of course. But there was no mortgage on the house. Why should she pay rent? What Martha did with her money was her business and Charlene had no interest in making money from the arrangement.

The first Wednesday after Martha’s birthday, Mrs. Shole did not show up for flute practice.

‘Thank goodness,’ Charlene thought, ‘an evening free of Airs and Duets for Two German Flutes,’ the title of the book that contained their scores. 

But Martha was upset. Charlene had to put up with those red-rimmed eyes for two days before Martha confided in her. Then she heard all.

‘Mrs. Shole told me I want too much from her. She said she had a husband and family and she does not have enough time to devote to me in the way I seem to need and demand. Those are the words she used,’ Martha said, tearfully, ‘need and demand.’

Charlene was quiet for a few moments. Then she said, ‘She is a foolish, selfish woman,’ and she hugged Martha, who was crying quietly, and patted her back.  ‘But haven’t you been a bit selfish yourself,’ she said. And then she left Martha to cry on her own.

Later that week Martha brought Charlene rose-water madeleines from their favourite bakery. The pastry had that nutty aroma that had filled her mother’s kitchen when she was young. Neither said a word about what had passed and they never spoke of Mrs.Shole again.

Charlene had plans to take them both to Iona that summer. Martha still wasn’t certain she’d be free; she said she was busier than ever at work. But Charlene was pretty sure Martha would come around before long. She was always a bit slow to commit to these holidays, but once they were in some faraway place, Martha always had fun. Charlene mused how lovely it would be when Martha was the one who made the travel plans, when Martha had some exquisite surprise for her she would not disclose until the last moment.

There was one wonderful detail Charlene had kept secret and would not reveal until the reservation was confirmed. Most rooms in the Abbey were for parish groups but a few rooms were rented to individuals and she was trying to get one for her and Martha.

In the museum they would get to see the actual cross that belonged to St. John, the only apostle who didn’t suffer a martyr’s death. And they’d visit St. Oran’s Chapel; St. Oran who was buried alive, it was said, as a sacrifice to prevent the walls from falling down. Oh Martha, Martha, they had no fear of being buried alive, anymore, had they. 

She just had to show Martha how alive they were, their lives blessed. Surely Martha knew that.

Who keeps us in life and does not allow our feet to slip. Martha must be familiar with that verse in the bible. Charlene understood it fully, could feel it in her bones only since she’d met Martha. Soon Martha would understand it too. She hoped she could help her understand.  

Carole Glasser Langille is the author of two collections of short stories, four books of poetry and 2 children’s books. She was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, Atlantic Poetry Prize, and Alistair MacLeod Award for Short Fiction. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.