Introducing the first scene in the Salvation of Mary Lola Barnes.
Mary stared at the piece of cake on the decorative plate. The virgin white icing held little hint of the mile marker that had been scrolled across the surface of the portion consumed by family and friends. Its absence hadn’t erased it from Mary’s mind. If anything, it reminded her of the huge chunk of time carved out of her life. She had lived half a century, making her an older woman than she had been last week. The consumption of this last piece from the celebration cake would commit her to this age, condemn her to old age in the eyes of the incredibly young. There was no way to hold on to youth; celebrities had proven it time again when they exposed themselves to the outside world without make-up and un-photoshopped.
The ache for the past swelled in her chest. It was not that she wanted to be eighteen again; she wanted only to have a little more substance in her life. A little more laughter, a little more variety…a little more gentle contact with the man she loved. Was that too much to ask for?
She released a sigh. It was the way life went, she was told by others. Her friend, Louise, had put it bluntly: Don’t expect anything more than what you have. A woman’s role is to grow old beside their man.
Still, Mary wondered, couldn’t there be something more? Thinking of nothing changing filled her with dread. She pulled a container from the cupboard, slid the final piece of cake into it and snapped on the lid. Gripping it tightly, she descended the stairs to the basement. She opened the freezer and scanned the inside. It was half-filled with frozen foods, mostly from the freezer section of the supermarket. She pushed several things aside, digging a hole in the centre, and placed the sacred piece of cake into its depths. She filled in the black hole with frozen peas, corn and a large chicken.
Closing the freezer lid brought relief, and a spring in her step carried her to the top of the stairs. She pranced around the house, opening windows to allow the sunshine and fresh spring air to cleanse the old home. Soon the sweet smell of outdoors filled her senses.
An hour later, the laundry on the line and the dishes cleaned, she heard a knock on the door.
“Louise, great to see you,” she said, her voice higher than usual. Her long-time friend stood on the stoop, silently staring at her. “It’s a beautiful day for a walk. Let me get my sweater.”
“I didn’t come for a walk.” Louise followed Mary inside and closed the door behind her.
“But we should go just the same.”
“What about our tea?”
“Let’s walk to the café on Jasper Street. It’s not far. We’ll have our tea there.”
“Buy our tea?” Louise frowned. “That’s not what we do.”
“But let’s today.” Mary buttoned her sweater and slipped on her shoes. “It will be fun. An adventure.”
“There’s nothing adventurous about buying tea.”
“Sure there is.” She looked up from tying her shoes, her smile stretching her cheeks. When she saw the frown dig deeper into Louise’s face, she wondered if she was asking too much. Perhaps Louise hadn’t brought money. “I’ll buy.”
“I’m not charity.”
“I didn’t say you were.”
“If I knew you were going to suggest some cockamamie idea like this, I’d have stayed home and enjoyed my tea.”
“But tea together at a café sounds…sociable.”
“I don’t want to be sociable with a crowd of strangers or drink tea from a paper cup.” She shivered, and her dark blonde hair, cut in the same short fashion for more than two decades, shook. “You never know what they put in it. And the cleanliness.” She groaned. “The horror stories about cafés. And really, to pay for something you can make at home is foolish.” She tsked. “What’s got into you?”
Mary stood. Thoughts of grabbing her purse from the kitchen counter entered her mind, but she froze under Louise’s intense stare. “There’s nothing wrong with drinking with strangers,” she said, her voice losing the excitement it had carried earlier.
“Ah, I get it.” Louise crossed her arms. “It’s that fear of being fifty.”
Fear? She didn’t fear her age. At least she didn’t think she did. She wanted only to do something different, something to add a little variety to her life.
“That’s it. I can tell by the look on your face.” Louise removed her sweater and hung it on the coat rack. “Let’s make tea and talk about this. You’re not the first woman to struggle with a mid-life crisis. At least we’re not as bad as the men.”
“But…” Crisis? Was she going through one? Wouldn’t she know if she was? She watched Louise enter the kitchen, her determined steps indicating tea at the café was out. Mary’s shoulders slumped. The sunshine that had filled the front room slowly faded, indicating a cloud had obscured the nearby star. The dimmer light dragged her thoughts further into the kitchen where the sound of running water came to her ear: Louise was filling the kettle, then she set it on the hot plate and plugged the cord into the wall outlet. Maybe Louise was right: it was crazy to buy tea for two or three dollars when she could make it at home for pennies.
“Mary, are there any lemon tarts left?” Louise shouted from the kitchen. “Never mind. I found them.”
The sound of cups and dishes brought out of the cupboard and arranged on the table came to Mary. They were as familiar as her own heartbeat: slow, steady, predictable. She removed her sweater and returned it to the coat rack, slipped off her shoes and turned towards the kitchen. Perhaps they could go to the café another day.
Mary took a deep breath and entered the kitchen. Louise had the cups, saucers and cutlery set out as usual on the table. Several tarts rested on a larger plate, ready to be eaten when the tea was ready.
“Did you hear the news about old Mrs. Turple?” Louise dropped a tea bag in each cup. “She was rushed to hospital; they think she had a stroke or a heart attack. Her oldest daughter is going to let me know when they find out.” She looked up and smiled. “We’ll visit her in the hospital. I’ll pick up a card. Maybe some flowers. She liked flowers.”
Mary nodded. “Poor Mrs. Turple. Such a lovely lady. I often saw her walking in the park. She was so full of energy.”
“She’s almost eighty,” said Louise. “She’s lived a good life.”
Almost eighty…she was only seventy-six, thought Mary. Four years was a huge amount of time when the years passed quickly after children were born. They should not be casted off as if nothing. “I’m sure she’ll be fine, and she’ll be home before long.”
“We can always hope, but one never knows when the end comes.”
That’s why one should jump at the chance of tea at a café. The kettle whistled and the switch flicked off. She picked it up and poured steaming water into the two teacups.
“The last time I saw Mrs. Turple was in the grocery store,” said Louise. “That woman loved to shop, or at least she loved to have plenty of groceries. More than once I’ve been to her home and saw the overflowing pantry. She always said you never know when the store will run out of food.” She placed the sugar and cream dishes on the table. “I think it’s because of the depression and the war; it’s like she’s still living in the past. Like there’ll be rations again.” She plopped into her regular seat and stirred the tea bag in her cup with a spoon. “She doesn’t know there’s an endless supply. The shelf empties and trucks bring in more.”
“Unless the truck breaks down,” said Mary.
“Then they’ll get another truck.”
“What if there’s a storm and the roads are closed?”
“The trucks don’t stop.” She squeezed the bag against the side of the cup and dragged it up and out of the water.
Mary sat. “But what if they do stop?”
Louise gawked at her. “Why would they stop?”
“Maybe for reasons we don’t know.”
Louise waved her off, dropped the tea bag onto the saucer and spooned sugar into the dark tea. “They won’t stop. Anyways, if they did, we’d just go to another grocery store.”
Mary picked up her spoon. “Mrs. Turple is a wonderful lady. I hope she’s home soon.”
“If she can’t get to the grocery store for a while, she’ll still have plenty to eat.” She poured cream into her tea, stirred it again, then took a sip. “Mmm, there’s nothing like homemade tea.”
“From the grocery store,” said Mary.
Louise held the cup mid-air, staring across the table with an eyebrow raised. Her face flushed slightly. “But still homemade.” She put down the cup and dabbed her face with a napkin. “And hot just like these hot flashed. Phew.” Her face grew redder.
Mary didn’t agree, but she silenced her opinion about what she considered homemade. She began having hot flashes two years ago. They were mild compared to what Louise complained about. She reached for a tart. “These are homemade.”
“And delicious.” Louise nibbled on the crust as she usually did. Soon she’d surrender and take a bite, consuming half the tart as was her routine. “We should take some to Mrs. Turple. It will make her feel at home.”
“When she comes home, maybe I’ll take her to the café.”
Louise frowned. “What’s so important about the café?”
“Different?” She squished up her nose. “Different isn’t always better.”
“It isn’t always worse.”
Louise sat silent, sipped the tea, then set the cup on the saucer. She glanced around the kitchen, her expression bland and eyes set deep in lines of concentration. When she turned back to Mary, she smiled. “George stopped by yesterday. They’re forming a committee to plant the garden in front of the community centre and Legion. Let’s sign up. It’ll be fun.”
Mary had been on the committee to plant the garden for seventeen years. With old Miss Wallace telling everyone what to do, it was far from fun, and it was far from different.
the Salvation of Mary Lola Barnes
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Release Date: October 27, 2020