She was glad to see him. The morning tour guide had left the group at Grand Place. It was the intoxicating aroma which had drawn her to the Neuhaus chocolate shop. While heading back outside with the delectable package in hand, Sophie had bumped into him. He politely asked if she minded him tagging along.
“Not at all!” she had answered, much to her surprise. She generally liked being alone.
But from the time she had boarded the tour coach in Calais, she had noticed something about this man that had intrigued her. Perhaps a long ago memory? Now in Brussels for an entire day, it might be nice to wander about with a companion.
“Will you join me for lunch at La Brouette?” he had invited.
Her feet already hurt. She hadn’t been prepared for the cobble stones. She agreed. The waiter led them to an outdoor table at the bistro’s terrace. John was a charming older man, likely pushing sixty, she considered. Safe – by her standards. He suggested the croque-monsieur and recommended she try the local beer. She thanked him for finding this eatery, from where they had a superb view of the entire square. Before he could comment, they were interrupted by another from the tour, whom Sophie unhappily recognized.
“Good to see familiar faces!” She greeted them almost brashly, plunking her exhausted body on the other free chair. “I was going to settle for a bench and a decadent waffle, but this place is far more interesting,”
Sophie was flabbergasted! Didn’t people on tours respect personal space and privacy? Hadn’t she worked diligently at avoiding this boisterous older woman, from as far back as London? No boundaries! A perfect day ruined.
Alyson was tired of tramping about alone. As soon as the city tour was finished, everyone around her headed off in different directions ‒ all to avoid her. She had no delusions. It was something she had gotten used to on these trips. Even the shared roommates, arranged through the company, were relieved to leave her on her own. It was a challenging way to travel; certainly a hell of a come down from the days of gallivanting about with Alfred, her fifth husband. He had left her nothing ‒ but the yearning for adventure. Her friends back home were far too few now: some still married, some widowed like her and others, with little income ‒ or so they said. Well too bad! An excursion a year was her annual resolution ‒ and just maybe, finding another mate. She had immediately liked the look of this man, John Knight, who had helped her with her luggage last evening. She made note of his name when the guide called out their room numbers at the hotel. What on earth was he doing with this young hussy half his age, she wanted to ask him. And such a miss snooty, snob at that! Yes, attractive by all counts, maybe even beautiful with that head of red cascading hair. She enviously remembered her own good looks, back in the day. Now it was more about being bold to attract attention, and counting on people’s good manners to include her.
He couldn’t very well tell her to leave, though it was his first instinct. His young guest was clearly uncomfortable having her there. As was he. John chided himself for having been helpful with her luggage. Dumb move. It was likely an innate habit, from days gone by. How many of these older women had he encountered over the years, feigning helplessness? Right on cue, he had performed the job – now the act of chivalry ‒ expected of him. Women seemed to recognize these types of females, for who they were. Hunters on the prowl? But men, were they destined to fall into their trap? The best he could do now was to engage them in polite conversation about the tour: the silly Manneken Pis, that had become the emblem of Brussels and about the surrounding buildings ‒ the Town Hall, Maison du Roi and the opulent guildhalls. He informed them about the magnificent Grand Place Flower Carpet that would be on display in August. All the while, what he really wanted was to spend some alone time with Sophie. He needed to find out if his hunch was correct. Had he in fact met her years before on another tour ‒ with her father? He had detected a familiarity in her lilting voice that led him to this reflection. Once free of the grappling female, he was determined to invite Sophie back in the evening, to again view Grand Place ‒ all gloriously illuminated in brushed gold.
It was a spontaneous decision. A surprise by all accounts. Wanda hadn’t the remotest notion to travel to China.
Previous trips had been painstakingly planned for months ahead. Not this time. This time she threw all caution to the wind and grasped the opportunity presented.
“Just go!” Her reckless Inner Child had commanded.
And here she was at the Great Wall. She took a deep breath, intentionally feeling the moment. Intentionally storing the feeling in her memory for future reference.
The trip was more difficult than she had anticipated. The stairs, the climbing, the smog! On the positive side, sites were grand and indescribably spectacular. The petite tour guide Gloria was informative, humble yet firm. Meeting times and locations were specific. After all, who would want to be lost in such a vast country?
As was her custom, Wanda traveled alone. For a while, she shuffled along with the crowd heading up the recommended block of the Great Wall. But what was the adventure in avoiding uneven stone slabs beneath her feet? Or avoiding the bumping and squeezing among bodies heading upwards on slippery slopes and steps? She looked at her watch. Two more hours until the meeting at the mammoth visitors’ centre. Too much allotted time! She took a quick look at what had been advised as a ‘must see’ including the flag. Gloria had given some instruction about that flag, her voice drifting far off into the wind. Wanda headed off.
She located a clearing, away from the throng and took the road with a familiar name, which she thought she recognized from her ride in the coach. There was a sign with a picture of food near a low building. She decided to enter. It was dark, long and narrow with concession booths on either side, selling every Asian food concoction never seen on this trip. Each vendor tried to snatch her attention. She walked on and on, descending steep steps every few yards. At last relieved to see daylight, she found herself in a parking lot filled with coaches bearing Asian names. Was this where her driver parked the coach?
“Now, that was some adventure,” she mumbled to herself as she headed back on the road with the name she recognized from before.
It was quite the climb. Reaching the top of the road, she looked around and saw a sign with a picture of people. And off she went in that direction – only ‒ to find herself at an all too familiar entrance. How could this be? An utter, if not eerie surprise! She was once more in the same long food building ‒ and this time she noticed she was the sole Caucasian. Her steps down the stairs were quicker than previously. At the parking lot she knew she had taken a wrong turn. A man approached her and asked, “Taxi?”. Well that would have been nice. But how could she explain – to where?
Determined to trace her way back, she spotted a towering lumber entrance to her right, with animal carvings at the top. Had she seen that before, perhaps from the coach on the way to the visitors’ centre? She was delighted to find various different buildings as well as families walking about heading towards a place around which crowds had already gathered. People smiled. They let her to the front of the group, as she again realized these were all Asian tourists. For the time being, however, her attention was drawn to the small black bear cubs scampering about within the enclosed area; there were also several larger bears, looking quite harmless.
“Another adventure!” her Inner Child reassured. Then reality and a hint of fear hit hard. Where was she?
Out of the gate she went. And up the road with the familiar name. And back to the same people sign – and yes, back into the same food building. There is some quote about the insanity of doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. Yet, that was precisely her hope. How could she be in this same place ‒ again? No surprise that this time the Asian vendors looked at her quizzically. All she wanted was to be out of there, in the sunlight, in the parking lot and finally finding the right road. Perhaps third time lucky? She was. Reaching the top of the road, an older couple from her group meandered into sight.
Wanda slowly approached. With as much nonchalance as she could muster through her quivering heart, she greeted them.
The woman was friendly. “Yes. We’ve been looking about, but keeping track of the flag. Time to head back to the visitors’ centre.”
Oh that frigging flag! There it was, now in full sight. She had taken the opposite turn from what had been instructed. She remembered, as she followed the couple.
Back on the couch, her seat partner remarked. “The Great Wall is as I recall twenty years ago. But this colossal tourist centre is new. Must have been designed to impress us Westerners. When I was here before, we were dropped off at a large wooden archway with carved animals on top. And there was a pit with black bears! Too bad all that’s gone.”
Wanda smiled. Hearing this story was the best surprise of the adventure, or was it synchronicity ‒ which she decided to share with no one.
Friday at last! It had been a long, hectic week at work for Marlie. End of the fiscal year. All programs were directed to account for their past year’s activities and spendings. What a relief finally to be home, in solace with Owen.
On most Fridays he would meet her at the local hang out for wine and dinner, but she had begged off with a phone call that afternoon.
“I just want to put my feet up, order in and have a some wine, alone in peace with you.”
He had agreed of course, as she knew he would.
“I’ll be waiting on the balcony with the wine!” She pictured his smile and glistening sky blue eyes, as his mellow voice reassured her.
She called out “Hello!” as soon as she entered their apartment. There was no response! That was troubling. He always greeted her. Marlie dropped her hand bag, slipped off her heels and headed down the hall to his office which opened to the balcony. The early spring sun blazed through the overhanging branches, waiting for the buds to form. It was surprising to have such warmth this time of year and late afternoon at that. Owen’s shut eyes opened wide in surprise as she repeated “Hello” and bent to peck his forehead. He had been dozing, she concluded.
The bottle of Merlot they enjoyed, along with two wine glasses were waiting at the side board. The small table beside his deep wicker chair held her mother’s opened Bible, which they both shared. Also within reach was the large amber ashtray he had purchased for her, because she liked amber and also because of its size, as a tease that she smoked too much.
“I only smoke at work and only out here on the balcony. It’s large enough to share with your pipe.” She had reminded him.
Just then a loud shatter! The massive ashtray cracked before them in countless wedges from the centre, hurling his pipe to the floor.
“Oh my goodness!” Marlie was startled. “It must have been caused by the heat of your pipe and the blazing sun hitting it simultaneously in the centre.” She was pragmatic.
Owen slowly stood up from his chair, reached for the wine bottle and poured the lush, maroon liquid into each glass. He handed her one, took the other, motioned for her to sit down as he did likewise.
“Marlena, I was asking for a sign…”
She remembered that day for years to come. She remembered her pseudo scientific explanation as to what she considered to be an ordinary experience. How different the experience had been for Owen, the seeker for answers to universal questions about the mystic. She remembered that day because that was the last day in which she smoked cigarettes. And she remembered that day also because she knew that was the night in which their precious daughter Amanda was conceived. But mostly she remembered that day, because it forever changed how she looked upon her own universe.
Life wasn’t only about waiting for the weekend. It was about holding onto every single day as important, with potential learnings and revelations. It was about accepting mysteries without attempting to explain them away by some latest scientific attempt at reasoning. It was about reconnecting to the universal consciousness that had guided mankind throughout the eons, yes with new insights, but anchored in fundamental truths since the dawn of creation. It was about recognizing, acknowledging and accepting signs that gave direction and encouragement.
From that time onward, Marlie became open to signs. There were signs that came to her in church, though not in any obvious way; it could be a hymn that held particular words she had thought of the day before, or a mention of an incident to which she had related. Other signs were often about friends who called or sent a note at precisely the moment she had thought of them. Sometimes, signs were simply memories that hung in the air like veils revealing themselves in moments when she needed comfort.
And thus it was ‒ when she waited for Owen to walk through the door of their home on that ninth day, of the ninth month, in the ninth year, as the rainbow arced for hours over their street, that Marlie knew her beloved had died. She knew that he had sent the rainbow as a sign of his covenant: he was and would continue to be with her throughout time and space and eternity.
Waiting for the words to flow
One of the treats of living in the country for Marlie, was her beloved geese. Going for a drive with Owen always meant that she might see them. To her great disappointment, however, there were no geese to be seen anywhere on that particular day. Marlie chuckled to herself. It made her think of the blank screen on her computer, as she waited for the words to flow from her mind to her fingers ‒ but nothing.
“Perhaps the geese got tired of being stalked,” she had told Owen. “They can’t keep away from us indefinitely.”
Just as with her writing, she hoped that they would reveal themselves to her, maybe even tomorrow.
How Marlie had wished that she could just transfer thoughts and feelings to paper as she experienced them. In her head, she had written many chapters, connecting each phrase with precision as though indeed someone was going to read it, nay, proof read it, and therefore ‒ it all had to be just so. She was very good at writing this way in her head where everything flowed without effort. She particularly loved the beginning of chapters or paragraphs. She knew the importance of simple provocative phrases to grab the interest of the reader. Whenever she was alone with her thoughts, a lead phrase would pop into her mind and off she would go. Her chapters were not linear but circular, always returning to that one subtle foreshadowing comment, tucked away some pages before. Once she transferred her mind-work to the computer, she could cut and paste as she wished. But ‒ before all that ‒ she had to get these thoughts out into a tangible form and obsess about the wording later.
Perhaps a small recording device would help. Instead of the silent head-thoughts, she could instead speak into the machine. Afterwards, the audible thoughts could be transferred to a visible state. She would spend time alone and write her book that way, the first draft being the spoken word. But, she realized that profound thoughts tended to come to her during long afternoon drives with Owen. Therefore, a recording device, didn’t seem to be the solution. If only she could go straight home to the computer and just get on with writing.
Being a meticulous planner, Marlie had set herself a time to begin her work. It would be in early September. Others may think of new beginnings as January, but for Marlie, it had always been September. She associated the going back to school as the time for reorganizing with new books and new clothing. There was a freshness to this naive way of thinking. It brought her back to her school days when she had really believed that she was the master of her own fate and that she could do anything she set her mind to. Without a whole lot of effort, she had always done well in school. She was never a fanatic; she didn’t ever go out of her way to excel. But if she liked a particular subject, or a special teacher, she would give the subject her all, which of course was a useful way of being at university where she had an astonishing experience. It was here that she finally became her own person. And it was here that she had met Owen, that first time.
But enough of daydreaming. It was September now and Marlie acknowledged that she hadn’t written anything. She couldn’t quite grasp why it was so difficult for her to start. She had always written. She remembered writing from the time she was at least ten. She had written poems in grade school and throughout her life, in fact: there was one about the garden which she had recited in grade six; she remembered the teacher had asked her who had written it, and to Miss Taylor’s surprise, Marlie had nonchalantly said, “Oh, it was me.” All through high school and university she had written poems. Then, everything had been easy. Everything just flowed from her mind onto paper. Her favourite continued to be “The River’s Tale”. She had switched to short message stories during the first few years of her marriage. They had become part of an annual tradition and printed in a newsletter. She had compiled a dozen of these and sent them off to a publisher. The rejection letter wasn’t a bad one, but enough of a deterrent. She didn’t try again. She remembered now that her last manager had asked her: “‒ and have you published?”‒ to which of course she had to say “No!” She had taken the question as a not so subtle put down and knew instantly that it was meant to impair her. Is that what had happened? Would she ever be able to convey her creative silent thoughts to the tangible visible state?
Then one day someone with whom she had worked had telephoned her. In later years, Marlie remembered this happenstance as a sign. Miranda had also written unpublished stories and continued to do so. When Marlie asked her how she got past the blank screen in front of her, Miranda let out a full, hearty laugh:
“If I knew the answer to that I would market it and it would be worth millions ‒ Marlie, you just have to keep trying and waiting for the words to flow!”