A short story
In their eightieth year, Clémence and Constance decide to take the train west. It’s a shock of a morning, white sun sitting in a bleached sky. Clémence is in the garden, watering the knee-high tomato plants at the side of the house, and putting fresh water in the birdbath. Constance is indoors, preparing breakfast. A pot of strong tea and toast. The jar of marmalade out for Clémence, a pad of butter for herself. She takes a tube of lime-aid concentrate from the freezer, and mixes it in with cold water, stirring with a wooden spoon until all the lumps are out. Then she cracks some ice cubes from their tray and leaves them bobbling at the top of the pitcher.
She looks out the kitchen window at Clémence, her back hunched over an old bathtub that they have converted into a raised bed for flowers. Constance marvels at Clémence’s back, how you can see so much of her softness in the curve of her spine, her white hair tied back in a ropey braid. Constance has the almost irresistible urge to go outside and hold her from behind. Clémence turns back towards the window, and seeing Constance’s silhouette, smiles. Then she looks up at the sky, closing her eyes against the brightness, and takes off her gardening gloves, walking back towards the house.
In the kitchen, Constance pours the milk and then the tea. They sit on either side of the table. CBC murmurs the forecast for the week and the cat winds its way through the trunks of her legs. Clémence slices a peach in the palm of her hand using a sharp paring knife. She picks up the Saturday paper, and pulls the arts section out, sliding it across to Constance, who unfolds it carefully and spreads it out before her like a map. After a few minutes of quiet reading, the telephone rings and Clémence goes to answer it. Ten minutes later, she returns, standing quietly in the doorframe.
Trevor’s dead, she says.
He died last night. Heart attack. Killed him straight away.
Clémence goes about the kitchen, picking up breakfast things from the table and putting them in the sink.
Who was it on the phone?
It was Bradley.
And what did he say?
Well, the funeral is next Sunday. In Jasper.
Well, he says we’re both very welcome.
That’s what he said.
Gosh, Constance says. But it’s only a whisper and Clémence can barely hear her. She walks over to the sink where Clémence is standing and turns her around, holding her by the shoulders and looking her in the eye.
We should go, Clem.
I know that, she says, leaning her forehead against Constance’s bony shoulder. We’ll have to take the train all the way to Jasper though. I certainly can’t fly.
Two days later they’re on a southbound subway, heading to Union station. A young boy in headphones moves from his seat to allow them to sit together, and they are grateful. Despite being in good health, Clémence needs a knee replacement and Constance has a bad heart. They are reminded of these things regularly. Constance’s niece Margaret, an earnest new mother of twins, looked at them with bald horror in her eyes when they announced their itinerary.
You’ve seen the berths, right? She asked them distractedly while trying to nurse one of the twins.
I mean, all the way to Alberta? You have to climb up there. It’s like a bunk bed?
She looked at them skeptically.
I mean, what about Clem’s knee? And your heart?
Well, we’ll just have to manage as best we can, Clémence had replied jovially.
You know, Constance supplied. Bradley is coming down from BC. He’s picking us up in Jasper.
Oh, God! Margaret said as the baby finally took hold of her nipple and began to contentedly nurse. I had completely forgotten. And how long has it been since you’ve seen him, Clémence?
From the backyard, the dog howled, and the second twin began to cry from his crib. Constance went to the back door to let the dog inside, and Clémence picked up the baby, holding him against her until he quieted.
It’s been over twenty years, Clémence said. But Margaret, distracted by the chaos around her, appeared not to hear.
When they arrive to their train at Union, a Via employee with a kind smile escorts them to their berth. It’s narrow, consisting of two upright seats, which the rail worker demonstrates how to fold smartly up into a set of bunk beds. After he leaves, Clémence and Constance sit side by side and look out their window as the train slowly lurches forward, inching out of the station. There’s the Toronto skyline, all at once.
Skyscrapers, Constance says. I’ve always liked the word.
Soon they are really off, chugging quickly along through the patchwork fields of western Ontario, dotted with baled hay. According to the itinerary that Margaret has printed off for them, they will soon pass through Parry Sound, the town outside which Constance grew up, on a lake called Loon Lake. There are hundreds of Loon Lakes across Canada, but hers was deep and green and cold. Closing her eyes to the train she can still feel the water on her skin, diving off the pink rock on a stinking hot July night. She would float there on her back, listening to the gentle song of the loons themselves, and looking at the stars smashed across the dome of the night sky. Hers was one of the few families that lived on Loon Lake year around. Her father ran the hardware store in town and her mother, the local art gallery cooperative which was always on the brink of collapse, but kept alive by the cottagers who flocked to the lake at the end of every June and left again at the end of every August. These had been her friends growing up. Transient ones. Sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers in the city who wore new sandals and overalls. There are a few that stick out in her mind even now. A girl with yellow wolfish eyes the summer she turned thirteen named Danielle who she had swam with every single day until dusk when they would go into Danielle’s cottage and play Clue with her mother and brother and cook Jiffy Pop on the stove and drink Welches’ grape juice until their tongues were so purple they were almost black.
Mine’s actually wine, they would joke. Every night the same one and it was always funny. At the end of that summer Danielle had suggested skinny-dipping and then stripped down to nothing, swatting away mosquitoes at her elbows and diving into the Lake. Constance followed shortly after and they’d circled one another warily in the water, spitting mouthfuls of the lake back and forth in long streams. Constance remembers opening her eyes for a split second under water, trying to peer through the murkiness, through the long stems of lily pads that her father told her took a hundred years to grow. But all she could see was skin the colour of the inside of an almond and she did a swan dive in the water, swimming deeper and deeper until her lungs burned and she saw white spots at the sides of her eyes.
Let’s explore, Clémence says, and they leave the berth and walk down the long corridor into the dining car.
Before they had left there was a message from Bradley on the machine confirming that he would be driving to collect them from the train station in Jasper. Constance had picked it up first, and then replayed the message, handing the receiver over to Clémence.
Trevor, although the youngest of the three siblings, had been a drinker, and a pack a day smoker since he was thirteen. He had never married, been in and out of relationships and in and out of jobs forever, and it was a surprise to no one that he was the first to go. The last time they had all seen each other was at Clémence’s mother’s funeral twenty years ago. Constance had been asked by Trevor specifically not to attend, and Clémence, despite her debilitating fear of flying, had taken a plane to Alberta by herself for a week. It was the longest they had ever been apart since they met, and Constance had missed her with a ferocity she hadn’t known she was capable of.
She had met Trevor only once, when he was passing through Toronto. They had gone for cocktails on the Danforth, sat in a back garden underneath a gigantic maple tree. Trevor had been wearing a baseball cap. He drank pint after pint of lager and talked about how much he hated the city and never once looked Constance in the eye or directly acknowledged her presence. If she asked him a question, he would look over at Clémence and answer in clipped sentences. She remembers the split veins in his cheeks and grey eyes.
Bradley, on the other hand, tried his best with her. They’d met on his turf. The cherry farm in the Okanagen where he had lived and worked since he was eighteen. Clémence had asked him about the trees, about the varieties of the cherries, when you picked them and how they tasted. Which were best for canning and which you just wanted to pluck from the tree and pop straight into your mouth. He had asked Constance shyly, at the end of their walk through the orchard, which variety had been her favourite. When she told him the staccato he grinned widely and told her that was his too. Then he turned to Clémence and said, she’s got a good head for cherries, Clem. Bradley had six boys and a daughter who he clearly loved the most. The boys had names that began with M. Marcus, Matthew, Morgan, Martin, Max, Michael. But his daughter was called Esmé.
Constance remembers shortly after meeting Clémence asking whether she came from a French family, and laughing when she found out that Clémence was wedged between a Bradley and a Trevor and that her parents didn’t speak a word of French.
My mother just liked the name, Clémence had told her. I think she read it in a magazine somewhere.
In the dining car, they order coffees and chat with a young man named Carl who has made an environmental pledge to himself never to take a plane again. He is going to try and cross the Pacific Ocean on a cargo ship, so he can eventually get to Indonesia. He rolls a perfect joint underneath the table as they talk, almost without looking. When they pull into their next stop for a fifteen-minute break he holds it up and says:
Sorry ladies, gotta go get a breath of fresh air.
Hours melt into one another as the train rocks back and forth, careening past lake after lake circled by the knotty spines of pine trees. They’re up in the true north of Ontario now and the light is different, an orange glow comes in through the west facing windows. Constance reached beside her and touches Clémence’s back, feeling each vertebrae one by one all the way up to the base of her neck. She’d like to kiss her in that spot. The soft pad of skin above the bone. But they are still in the dining car, and there are other people around. Instead, they sit together in silence and sip merlot from plastic glasses until night falls, and they cross the border into Manitoba where the forest becomes thick as fur on either side of them and all they can see when they look out the window now is their own reflection.
I think it’s time for bed, Clémence says, and they walk back down the shaky corridor to their compartment, and manage to maneuver the bunk bed into place. Clémence, with her knee, stays on the bottom and Constance climbs the precarious ladder to the top bunk, where, stretching her arms up she can touch the ceiling. She feels almost giddy up there, drops her arm down and wriggles her fingers around until Clémence reaches up her own hand and clasps her fingers tightly.
When was the last time you slept in a bunk bed, Clem? She asks, staring up at the ceiling. Even though she can’t see her, she can feel Clémence shaking her head slowly.
Gosh, I just couldn’t quite say. It’s been ages, really. Summer camp? Could it possibly have been that long? That’s the memory that comes to mind though.
And did you prefer the bottom or the top?
Oh, I always preferred the bottom. Because I wet the bed, you know. And I would get so fearful and embarrassed about it that I needed the bottom bunk in order to make my escape in the morning with my wet sleeping bag. I would clump it up in a foul little ball and hide them underneath our cabin in the morning. Finally the stench of urine got to be so intense that my counselor noticed and after that she would just come and take my sleeping bag to wash every morning and bring it back before bed. No questions asked.
Did the other girls ever find out and tease you?
If they knew, they didn’t say anything. They were a nice bunch I suppose.
It makes you feel like a child again, doesn’t it? Being up here, I mean.
Clémence doesn’t say anything. Which is something that happens sometimes when she gets caught up in a thought or a memory. Constance knows better then to ask what Clem is thinking about. She’ll tell her when she’s good and ready, if she wants to. She enjoys these conversations, lying on her back in the dark. Not having to negotiate body language, or eye contact.
In the morning, they go for breakfast in the dining car. Plastic tasting croissants and cups of tea. It’s early, and they are the first to arrive. The kind faced Via employee from yesterday is behind the counter and remembers their names. He asks how they slept and Clémence says,
Like a baby.
There’s something about train sleeps, isn’t there? All that rocking back and forth. I’ve had some of my best sleeps on this here train, he pats the countertop resolutely.
In mid-morning they arrive in Winnipeg, for an hour-long stop. Constance and Clémence exit the train for some fresh air, wandering down the platform arm in arm, watching people greet each other. A nine-year old boy leaps into the arms of his grandfather, almost knocking him to the ground.
I don’t even know what Bradley’s children look like anymore, Clémence says. All grown up. My niece and nephews.
Has he taken care of all the arrangements for Trevor’s funeral? That was good of him.
There was no one else to do it, really. I don’t think they were even in touch over the last few years. After the time Trevor tried to start a fistfight with him over some ridiculous thing.
Trevor, Constance says slowly, shaking her head back and forth. The train releases a massive burst of steam beside them like a sigh, and they clamber back on board.
By the time they sink into late afternoon, the train has entered the heart of the prairies.
The colours, Clémence says, and Constance nods vigorously beside her.
They are in the bubble car, all the way at the back of the train. The caboose. It’s made entirely of glass, a conservatory. Wheat grows forever in every direction, tall as the train, waiting to be harvested.
The palette is rich reds and browns. Nothing like the blues and greens and grays that they had left behind the night before. It’s like being on another planet. Mars. This is what Constance imagines it would be like. As a child she’d been certain she’d one day go into space. She’d imagined it wouldn’t be so different than her world in northern Ontario. Outer space would be like the lake. You’d be able to float and all the other creatures you’d encounter would be different from you and it would be cold if you stayed for too long.
In the bubble car with them are two traveling musicians. That’s what they call themselves. A boy with an accordion and another with a violin. They are wearing strange clothing that looks like it was made one hundred years ago. They tell Clémence and Constance that Via pays for their ticket so long as they provide music for the train on the journey to Vancouver.
That’s where the girl he loves lives, the accordion player says, pointing at the boy with the violin, who blushes.
Can we play for you? The fiddle player asks and they beam of course.
The boys play klezmer music, sad and slow. The violin player closes his eyes, and they watch his hands, shaky vibrato on the fingerboard. Constance isn’t sure, but she thinks they are very good. It is Clémence who is the musical one, can play any instrument just as soon as she picks it up.
Here’s what no one ever asks but is a story she’d like to tell. How she fell in love with Clémence. It was an act of God, really. She had just moved to the city and was looking for a teaching job. A friend of a friend got her a temporary placement at an elementary school in Regent Park, taking over from a colleague who was going on maternity leave. Her first day in the school there was an assembly and the choir sang. A woman in a horrible floral print shirt was accompanying them on the piano. Constance remembers the exact pattern of the shirt to this day. It was the shirt she saw first. And then Clémence’s face had turned from the keys to look back at the children, beaming. Constance saw the face and she thought, oh. She was done for. Simple as that.
When the boys finish their song they look up sheepishly at Clémence and Constance, who are still the only two people in the bubble car.
I guess people don’t really know that this exists, the accordion player says, gesturing up towards the glass ceiling. Too bad, ‘cause it’s really beautiful.
Do you take requests? Clémence asks.
We’ll do our best.
Do you know any Leonard Cohen tunes?
The boys smile at each other and grin. The accordion player nods to the violin player, who begins to play “Take This Waltz.” The accordion player sings, his voice sticky and slow.
Constance looks at Clémence and knows what they are both remembering: a late night in the kitchen a few months ago. This song came on the radio and Clémence had pulled Constance up from her chair and spun her around the kitchen, slowly. A clumsy dance beside the dishwasher to a song they both knew well.
The accordion player can’t remember all the verses, but it is beautiful anyway. When it’s over, they both clap, heartily, and the violinist tips his hat at them.
They stay in the bubble car until nightfall, reading in the dusty light. Then they have strange chicken casserole in the dining car and go back to their compartment, falling once again into the thicket of sleep.
In the morning, Constance climbs carefully down from her bunk, and peeking past the blind, her breath catches. There they are in the distance, the impossibly high peaks protruding jaggedly before then, surrounded by smaller grey shoulders. Constance looks down at the bottom bunk. She kisses Clémence’s forehead, a soft good morning, and holds out her arm to help her out of bed.
Clem, look where we are, she says, drawing back the curtain fully to expose the staggering Rockies.
Almost home now, Clémence says.
They stand side by side by the window in their nightgowns for a long time. Nothing left to do but wait. The train is rushing towards the mountains now. There they are. They aren’t going anywhere.
“Constance and Clémence” was originally published by Irish arts and literature magazine The Moth in Fall 2014
Charlotte Bondy writes short fiction that has appeared in both Irish and Canadian journals. She lives in Toronto
Image by Jonathan Dyck