Special Contest issue #1, AUGUST 2005

First Place Winner

The Centrepiece
By Doris Riedweg

So breathtaking was the sight of the sugar maple in the afternoon sun that Kate, carrying hot pumpkin pies to the back porch of the farmhouse, almost dropped the tray.

“How perfect,” she breathed, “and just in time for Thanksgiving.”

She set the pies to cool on a table, then turned again to the tower of brilliant red leaves. She would cut a few to go along with the last of the dahlias from which she planned to make a centrepiece for their holiday dinner table.

Kate picked up her garden gloves and scissors, pushed the screen door open and stepped outside. As she approached the tree she smiled at the memory of Jim planting it when she was pregnant with their first child.

Laden with leaves and big, bronze dahlias Kate returned to the house. She was arranging the centrepiece at the kitchen sink when she heard Jim come in from the barn. He peered over her shoulder.

“Whatya doing, darlin’?”

Darlin’. After fifty years of marriage he still called her that. She looked up and smiled into his eyes.

“Making a centrepiece for our table tomorrow.”

She saw his face cloud ever so slightly. “You don’t need to go to all that trouble, Kate, not for just the two of us.”

She drew away from him a little. “It’s no trouble. It’s Thanksgiving, after all. And I thought maybe ... the boys .....”

“Katie, Katie.” Jim placed both hands on her shoulders and bent his head to hers. “How about if we go to a restaurant in town for Thanksgiving dinner? Save you a lot of work.”

She stiffened. “It’s not a lot of work. Anyway,” she added after a moment, “I thought I’d ask Ellen and Robert. They’re neighbours, after all, and none of their kids are here.”

Jim released her shoulders and turned away. “Very well, darlin’, you do whatever you want.”

Her hands shook as she cut the dahlia stems. Why couldn’t he have faith that the boys would come this year? So they hadn’t come last year, nor at Easter. So what? This Thanksgiving would be different. Anyway, she had to be prepared. And if she asked the neighbours....

When she had the centrepiece arranged to her liking she carried it out to the cool porch, then returned to the kitchen to check on the buns baking in the oven. They would need a few more minutes to turn the crusts a golden brown. Taking her old cardigan from a peg near the back door Kate went outside again and lowered herself into the porch swing. A nip in the air foretold the winter ahead but, for October, the day was perfect.

She looked through the screened windows towards the gravel driveway and beyond, to the outline of their neighbour’s house visible through the apple trees. She hadn’t called them yet ... oh dear, it was probably too late now.

How many would there be for dinner tomorrow? She counted them on her fingers - the two boys and their wives, the grandchildren, two of whom were married, and ... oh yes, a couple of great grandchildren now.

Would they come together? They would need more than one car. Unless they had those ... umm ... USV’s or whatever it was Jim called those big new vehicles.

The door opened and Jim poked his head around it. “Like to go for a walk before I start the chores, Katie?”

Kate rose stiffly to her feet and stood for a moment to get her balance. “Yes dear, just let me take the buns out of the oven first.”

“I’ll do that while you put your boots on. It’s probably a little damp on the trail.”

Within minutes they were walking through the woods, sometimes hand in hand, sometimes with Jim leading the way. Sammy, their border collie, ran on ahead, sniffing under every fallen branch and bough.

Kate loved the woods in the fall with the pungent smell of leaves crunching beneath her feet. And she loved this walk just as well in the early spring when she would try, to Jim’s amusement, to avoid stepping on the myriad of wild flowers - bleeding hearts, lilies, tiny blue violets and purple trillium.

To Kate, the woods were a panacea for loneliness. Even the crows and stellar jays, usually so annoying in the back yard, did not disturb her with their raucous scolding in the woods.

Jim had been whistling tunes from the fifties, but he broke off in the middle of Memories are Made of This, and turned to look at her. “Remember the walks we would take through here in the spring when the boys were home? And we’d see who could spot the first robin or ducks in the pond.”

Her heartbeat quickened. The boys. “Yes,” she said, smiling up at him, “and Richard always won. He was so alert.”

Jim drew his brows together in a frown. “Richard? Don’t you mean Andy always won?”

With a pang she realized he was talking about his two young brothers who had lived with them the first few years they were married.

A wave of anger swept over Kate and she withdrew her hand from Jim’s. Sure, he could talk about his brothers but not about their own children. It was as if he didn’t want to mention them. Steven the eldest ... Richard the baby ... just the sound of their names would have been such joy to her heart.

Sensing her displeasure Jim reached out and drew her close. “I love you, darlin’,” he said. “We’ve had a good life, haven’t we?”

Her anger dissipated, and she leaned her head against his shoulder as they walked on.

Kate popped the bowl of cranberries into the refrigerator, then glanced around the kitchen. The vegetables were ready - all from her summer garden. The turkey, still with hours to cook, smelled delicious - a wonderful holiday aroma that always brought on a wave of nostalgia.

She looked at the clock. Lots of time for a walk. Jim had started the chores early as he always did on holidays. If the boys got here in time, they could help him finish up.

She removed her apron, threw it over the back of a kitchen chair and went to the hall closet for her jacket. Not the old farm coat she kept for the yard, but her good quilted one which she put on over her best blouse and black slacks. She had been dressed since noon, just in case.

She would walk up the hill east of the house. From there she could see the main road. She wouldn’t be watching, certainly not, but it was a lovely day for a walk.

She was out of breath when she reached the top of the hill. Panting slightly, she sat down on an old stump in the sunshine and looked towards the road. She could see the Mertons’ house in the distance, and the entrance to their driveway. She had a clear view of Ellen’s and Robert’s drive. Next to it she could see their own driveway lined with the maples Jim had planted years ago.

The road was quiet today. Most people would be home celebrating with their families. That was how it should be ... families ... together.

A car came into view and appeared to slow down. Kate held her breath. Could it be? It was only a small car, but could it....? When it turned in to Ellen’s and Robert’s, she let her breath out on a sigh that resembled a long sob.

So Ellen was having company for dinner. Kate was glad she hadn’t called to invite them over. They would have had to refuse, and that would have made Kate feel bad because when you’re anticipating something.... She looked back to the road. There were two or three small figures running to and fro on the Mertons’ drive. They must have their grandchildren there for the holiday. Well, her own grandchildren would be here soon.

Another car, going east, sped by so fast she couldn’t even identify the colour.

“Foolish driver,” she muttered. “Too much speeding these days.”

Two more cars came from the other direction and disappeared into the western horizon.

Kate shivered and looked up at the sky. The sun was low, the shade had spread to her resting place. But still she sat. She raised a hand and pressed it to her chest where the familiar ache of loneliness and disappointment began to take hold.

Then suddenly there they were. Two vehicles ... UV ... no, no, SUV’s. They were coming from the west, close together, and they appeared to be slowing down. Yes, they were slowing down.

Kate stood up. She clenched her hands together, her heart pumping fast, her face alight. They were here, they were really here.

For several moments after the first car passed the driveway entrance Kate could not grasp what had happened. Then, chuckling indulgently, she murmured, “Oh, that must be Steven, he’s always been absent-minded.”

Any minute now he would realize he’d gone too far. Certainly Richard wouldn’t drive by, he was too alert.

Kate was so intent on watching for the first car to come back that she didn’t notice the second one pass until it, too, was almost out of sight. For several minutes she stood and stared. Then her hands rose to her chest ... pressing ... pressing away the pain. A wailing sound rose from the hillside as she sank to the ground and lay still.

It was there that Jim found her an hour later. Tenderly, he lifted her in his arms and carried her back to the house.

Kate opened her eyes and looked around. She was alone in the room, in a narrow bed. This was not their bedroom at home. The walls were bare and white, no pretty wallpaper, no pictures. Even the cover on the bed was white.

She was in the hospital. But why?

She remembered falling, and she vaguely remembered being carried in Jim’s arms. Oh ... she must have hurt herself when she fell. She hoped Jim had thought to turn the oven off before they left the house.

But the boys and their wives would be there to look after things. Kate hoped they would set the table with her best china, and put the centrepiece on. She and Jim had better get home so they wouldn’t hold up dinner.

The door opened quietly and Jim came into the room. She started to reach out to him but then she saw he was not alone. A shorter man, balding and wearing a white lab coat, followed him inside and closed the door.

Kate shut her eyes. She didn’t want to talk to any doctor now, she wanted to go home. And she didn’t know this one. He was not their family doctor.

She heard Jim speak. “Thanks for coming out, Doctor. Our family physician is away, and I didn’t know what to do except bring her to the hospital.”

Another voice now, low and gentle. “You did the right thing, Mr. Symonds. Tell me, has your wife had these ah ... attacks before?”

Kate could hear Jim’s sigh clear across the room. “Every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter and Mother’s Day, I’m afraid, but never like this. Between those times she’s not too bad.”

“Yes, I can understand her distress on the holidays. She was telling the nurses ....” A short pause. “But it really is too bad the family doesn’t visit more often. Is there a reason, Mr. Symonds? I mean, has something happened between you and your sons to ....?”

“Oh no, Doctor.” Jim’s voice was so loud that Kate’s eyes popped open. “No, no, I’m afraid you don’t understand. Kate had only two pregnancies, and both of them miscarried.” His voice broke. “You ... you see, Doctor, we never had any children.”

Kate saw both heads turn sharply towards the wailing sound that issued from the vicinity of the bed.