“But what is an artist supposed to look like?” Geoffrey said, pushing aside his breakfast.
Normally a strict vegetarian, for the past six months he’d been taking his meals at Mrs. Crump’s little card table, eating bacon-and-two and even the odd dried-out pork chop. She was sitting across from him in her hairnet and old pink housecoat, having gotten up by herself without his help for the first time in a week. She was going to have to do that now, dizzy spells or no dizzy spells. She seemed so small, like a mouse in a cartoon.
“Oh, like anybody else, I expect,” she said impatiently, sweeping toast crumbs into a little pile on the plastic tablecloth. “There was just something about you that hinted otherwise. As a matter of fact, I thought you were a bit too dapper for an artist.”
She was irritable because he was leaving this morning without considering the lifeline she was holding out to him. He was deluded, he really was; a man who was no longer young, setting himself up for another failure when the obvious path was to stay here in her cozy little house. If he had the sense to stay, he could continue to take her shopping, even sponge off her if necessary, while he went to the mountains every so often to paint a glacier or whatever other nonsense he felt compelled to do. It was a fair offer, very fair indeed.
“It’ll be cold up there in the mountains,” she said, haughty suddenly as she gave her dining nook the onceover. “And that ferry, Geoffrey — wicked at this time of year, I should think.”
Built after the war, her two-bedroom bungalow was near the bay. On sunny days there was a magnificent view of Mt. Baker in Washington. But of course Mrs. Crump rarely ventured past Renault Street because of the bloody awful wind. People thought Victoria was mild, but the wind could kill you. She peered at Geoffrey through a pair of old silver-rimmed glasses (seldom would her tremor permit the use of her contacts), and recalled the afternoon he came back from the Salvation Army Thrift Store looking smashing in a perfectly good sports jacket that matched his soft brown eyes. And how perked up her little Buffy had been after Geoffrey had arrived. You wouldn’t have known the little dog was half-blind from cataracts.
“The weather,” Geoffrey said, smiling, “will be the least of my worries, Mrs. Crump. Besides, how can I complain about the cold after you’ve given me those marvelous boots?”
He nodded over his teacup at a brand-new pair of mukluks awaiting him by the door.
A shy, delicate man of 46, he had shown up on her doorstep with a referral from the social services. He seemed an unlikely personal support worker, but he was anxious to redeem himself. In the spring his sister, his only sibling, whom he’d loved more than all the world, died of bone cancer. During the final two weeks while Nancy rapidly deteriorated in a Toronto chronic care ward, he had not been as brave and comforting as an older brother should. Downright feeble, unable to look at her sunken cheeks; unable to visualize what she had looked like before her illness, when she taught English at a Cabbagetown high school.
“It’s like I’m Fan, in Scrooge,” she had joked during a lucid moment. “And you’ve come to be by my side, like Ebenezer.”
“Don’t,” he said.
He would be lost without her, and she knew it. After their elderly parents died, she was the one who had been there to buck him up. Lately it seemed like he had become an artist only in a theoretical sense. His Toronto gallery had dropped him, considering that for the past two years he’d barely lifted a brush. A paralysis had come over him; her death left him petrified.
“When I’m gone,” Nancy had told him, “I want you to take a trip. Maybe you could live in an artist’s shack on Vancouver Island, like Malcolm Lowry when he wrote Under the Volcano.”
“I will,” Geoffrey promised. “As soon as I sell something.”
“Don’t worry about that,” she said. “I’ve got a little packet coming for you.”
To his astonishment, she left him $20,000. So he came out to the coast, determined, for her sake, to go somewhere neither of them had been. He would try to paint again, however unnerving and unlikely that prospect seemed. On the way to Vancouver Island on the Nanaimo ferry, he glimpsed a spectacular crescent moon. The glow, a shade of orange, was stunning — more like a sliver of a sun than a moon. But even as he studied it he was intimidated by the thought of trying to properly capture it.
“Do you think you’d go back to it?” Mrs. Crump said to Geoffrey now, looking at the beat-up wicker chair where her little Buffy used to beg for a biscuit. “The advertising business, I mean.”
Geoffrey cleared his throat, annoyed that she chose the morning of his departure to recall this little tidbit: five years ago, deciding to paint full-time (while borrowing heavily from Nancy), he gave up a good-paying job with a graphics firm.
“No, no,” he said, a tight smile forming. “There’s no turning back. I’ve made a bargain with myself.”
“With yourself?” said Mrs. Crump, tapping her spoon. “If you call giving up a decent wage a bargain, at your age, then I’d say you got the short end of the stick.”
He could be airy-fairy, not at all like her Jim. He was always going on about having a peak experience, whatever that was. During such times she would remind him that she liked her carrots cooked, not chopped up into hard little sticks.
“This isn’t a criticism,” Mrs. Crump said. “But what will do up there in the mountains, Geoffrey? Where will you go? When I think of you leaving this nice warm house, when you could easily stay on as a boarder, and instead going up to all that … snow.”
She stifled a gasp. Mrs. Crump disliked the snow most of all. Though it was fairly safe in the past, she often mentioned the fact that her late Canadian husband, a cattleman, decided to settle in Alberta after the war when she agreed to come from England. Alberta! Imagine what that was like after good old Lancashire. And it wasn’t until after they sold the farm that they moved to Victoria, don’t forget. Then, after three short years in a decent climate, her Jim was taken from her. A stroke, that’s what happened. Three short years, and boom. After she’d been through bloody hell for nearly half a century in that dreadful, awful cold. Her only son lived in Calgary, and hardly ever came to visit. When he had noticed her tremor last year, he suggested she start thinking about an old-folks home.
And then, like a bloody miracle, Geoffrey came, and didn’t they have such nice times together? Like that afternoon when they were walking back from an exhibition he admired. Not her cup of tea — abstracts — but it had been nice out, and she had taken the liberty of buying him a glass of red wine at a cafe he fancied.
“I could have had all that,” she recalled him saying, a reference to some friends in Toronto who had done well for themselves, financially speaking, by hanging on in the ad business. The sun had been quite warm on her face during the walk home (she had taken his arm), and before she knew it she was revealing something when she should have kept her mouth shut, telling him about the time her son came home to find her daughter-in-law in bed, not with a man — but a woman!
“Rather disgusting, I should think,” she’d been forced to add, since Geoffrey had made no reply. Perhaps he was queer and she had put her foot in it. But too late, too late. She had opened her big yap. And then to top it off she went on about her son and his new wife, that they hardly ever came to visit, and that she wouldn’t go to Calgary because of the damn cold. She could never find boots that would keep her from slipping. Her neighbour, a Mrs. Flewellyn, had broken a hip last winter.
Mrs. Crump bundled her housecoat around her shoulders, looking very tiny indeed as she allowed Geoffrey to pour her more tea.
“I shall repeat my offer,” she said. “If it doesn’t work out up there in the mountains, or wherever you’re going, then you’re more than welcome to come back. You could stay on as a permanent boarder.”
Despite making this generous invitation, she regarded him suspiciously, as if anticipating an inquiry about her Savings & Trust account.
Geoffrey gulped some tea, washing down some beans, which were stone cold.
“You’re very kind,” he said. “But as I think we discussed yesterday, I never planned to stay beyond my contract. I believe I made that quite clear.”
“I know, I know,” she said, losing her patience. “It’s just that many people in your position would be grateful to have something to fall back on — a cushion of some sort. You’ve been kind, too, and I’m trying to reciprocate, don’t you see? It’s a fair offer, a very fair offer indeed.”
And she thought about her contact lenses, and how he had come up with the idea of using a Q-tip to shift them back when they slipped. She couldn’t do that by herself because of her tremor, could she? She loathed wearing her glasses outdoors because they made her look like an old fuddy-duddy. She remembered waiting for the bus that time and being confronted by a very rude young man, obviously a few bricks short of a load.
“Any complaints?” he had barked in a threatening tone.
“No, I shouldn’t think so,” she had replied, flustered and terrified. When she mentioned this incident to her son, he used it to re-visit the issue of the retirement home, which was certain, he pointed out, to provide a free shuttle service when lodgers needed to go shopping.
Geoffrey was putting on his big beaver hat. He didn’t like it when people spoke of doing him favors, and as he got up from the table he recalled that no matter where he had stayed over the past five years, his hosts always acted as if he never thanked them enough.
“I’d best be on my way now, Mrs. Crump,” he said. “The ferry’s in Nanaimo.”
Mrs. Crump got up too, then, with difficulty.
“Wait,” she said, surprising him by taking his arm. “Just a moment, please.”
She began to tremble, blinking up at him through her old-fashioned glasses as he stared at her.
“I know something terrible has happened to you,” she said. “A shock. With your sister, Geoffrey.”
Geoffrey stiffened. He seemed very tall in her little dining nook. He attempted a smile, but his eyes blinked rapidly. Slowly, he sat back down.
“My sister passed away in March,” he said quietly. “She had bone cancer, Mrs. Crump.”
“I know, Geoffrey. I know all about it, dear.”
His soft brown eyes, which had begun to water, looked down at the leftover beans on his plate.
“Who told you about this?”
“The social services,” Mrs. Crump said anxiously. “A very nice lady who works down there — a Mrs. Moorehouse, I recollect — telephoned the other day when you were out getting the Colonist. And she said, ‘How’s our Geoffrey, Mrs. Crump? Is he being kind to you?’ And I said, ‘Oh yes, Mrs. Moorehouse, Geoffrey’s been the world to me, good as gold.’ And she said that she was very glad to hear it, considering you’d had such a hard time with your sister.”
She continued blinking up at him.
“I would have thought you’d mention something like this, Geoffrey. I’m not a stone.”
“I didn’t see the need,” he faltered, feeling a hole in the arm of his sweater. “I came here, looking for a bit of work until I could resume my painting. The job has been completed. Now I must move on.”
He fumbled with his big hat. In his mind’s eye, suddenly, was the orange crescent moon he’d seen on the ferry. He would never get it down.
“I expect she was a lovely girl,” Mrs. Crump said, picking up her teacup. “It’s bloody awful when something like that happens.”
When her son found his wife with a woman all those years ago, he completely broke down. And for a while Mrs. Crump got her way on everything. Oh yes, after that mess everybody came out to Victoria for Christmas.
“The truth is,” Geoffrey said, smiling sadly, “I haven’t been able to sketch a bloody thing in nearly two years. I can’t seem to interpret anything. It was like Nancy’s face at the hospital. As she got more and more ill, I couldn’t see her face.”
“You must have a picture,” Mrs. Crump said, not used to being a consoler. “Before the cancer, I mean.” She groped in her housecoat pocket for her cigarettes, but they weren’t there, and she slapped her hands down on her knee.
“It’s not like that,” Geoffrey sighed. “Of course I have pictures. It’s when you’re just sitting there: her face should be plain as day. I loved her deeply my entire life. But I don’t see anything.”
Mrs. Crump looked at him. She was not daft, and yet he was talking to her as if she was.
“You won’t see her face,” she said sharply. “That’s one thing that will not happen, Geoffrey. Remember, I lost my husband. I know what it’s like.”
Satisfied that he was paying attention, she smoothed the lapels of her housecoat.
“No,” she went on, “they may never come back the way you think. Why, I remember one night, about a year after my dear Jim died, I woke up crying in my bed. And do you know what? Well, there was this light shining on the wall above my dresser. Directly above my little clock. And within this light there was a figure of a man — a very old man, you see — and he told me not to worry, that somehow everything was going to be all right in the end, even without my poor Jim. And do you know, Geoffrey, I believed him. Yes, I did. And I thanked him, and I still put faith in whatever it was to this day.”
She swept more crumbs, a little embarrassed but entirely certain of her memory.
Geoffrey leaned forward, suddenly interested.
“Can you describe that light?”
He said this in the matter-of-fact tone he used when he asked not her not to smoke when she was making a meatloaf, in case the ashes should fall into the mix.
“The light?” said Mrs. Crump, fidgeting with her lapels. “Why, what a question. I can’t say as I recall, exactly. It was just some sort of glow over my little clock. It was only momentary, you see.”
Geoffrey was nodding.
“It was your Jim.”
“Well, I’m not sure about that,” she said. “I mean, it was an old man, yes, but Jim never looked that old. I suppose it could have been him. But I should think I would have been a little frightened if it was.”
She was becoming uncomfortable talking about it.
“Do you not believe me, Geoffrey? You think I’m daft.”
Geoffrey put on his hat.
“On the contrary,” he said, emerged from his melancholy. “I would suggest you had a peak experience. And I think you saw your husband, which means there’s hope for me in terms of being able to see my sister and visualize in general.”
Her hand hit the table hard.
“Then why are you leaving!” she shouted, choking back a sob, her tremor quite noticeable. “Why is everybody leaving me?”
And she looked at the wicker chair for her little Buffy. “Mrs. Crump,” Geoffrey said gently. “Nobody really leaves anybody. You are here because this is what fate has decided. You are part of the fabric. I, on the other hand, am on a new journey.”
And with that he went over to the new pair of mukluks and started pulling them on.
“I see,” said Mrs. Crump, defeated. “And where will this journey end, Geoffrey? In the snow, with no coat?”
“My sister wanted me to see the mountains,” he answered resolutely, making the long brown laces wrap around. “When I arrive at my destination, wherever that might be, I will send you a card.”
“Lovely,” Mrs. Crump said quietly.
Soon they were out in her carport together. Mrs. Crump came out with only her housecoat and slippers, despite the crisp October air.
“It very likely was my Jim,” she said quietly. “Now that I think about it.”
He said nothing, so she patted his arm.
“You don’t have to go,” she said. “You can come back anytime you fancy it. Remember my offer.”
“It’s very kind of you,” he said.
Then she gave him some meatloaf sandwiches she’d made the day before. Geoffrey took the tiny rolled-up paper bag, thinking he would toss the bread at the seagulls that trailed the ferry.
“Goodbye,” she murmured, starting to tremble as she watched him turn smartly on the sidewalk. “Goodbye.”
He waved back to her. But his image was a blur; she couldn’t see his face. All she could make out was a glimpse of his big hat through the brown leaves of the trees.