The scent of Jasmine
I never stopped believing in a miracle for my friend, Pauline. It didn’t happen and she was taken away. I had to believe now, for a miracle for Harold Stedman.
Harold had all but lost his speaking voice. I began to visit him on Thursday afternoons and, from week to week, I could see the encroaching deterioration on his person. His voice grew fainter and his spoken words were becoming harder to understand. He was mutating into a limp shadow of his former self.
I picked up my pen to write –
My friend looks frailer each time I see him. His frame is heavily stooped, his limbs stick out at awkward angles and there is a transparent quality about his dry, sallow skin. His cheeks are gaunt and his features drawn. The dear enormous nose that suited his face so well has suddenly become ridiculously larger than life.
I am becoming a very able lip-reader, though it is disconcerting to have to concentrate on a speaker’s lips all the time.
My heart breaks to see him this way …
I set the pen down on the glass-topped table and leaned against the padded patio chair. The wind chimes in the apple tree began to tinkle and I paused to remember the little things.
I asked Harold one day, if he was afraid to die. He shook his head and our conversation turned to God. He was facetious at first, but his eyes regarded me soberly as our discussion progressed. They brimmed over with tears, and his face became crumpled with emotion.
We had such wonderful conversations, Harold and I. His speech was invigorating, laced with wisdom, kindness and his own particular zany brand of humour. He made me giggle like a giddy schoolgirl.
I remembered as we sat together one afternoon, the gift I’d brought. I delved into the depths of my handbag and extricated a wad of Kleenex. With eagerness and great curiosity he accepted it, parting the folds of tissue to find a creamy, slightly wilted double-petal jasmine blossom lying exposed in the palm of his hand. The heavy fragrance rose into the air.
“From my garden,” I said quietly.
Harold raised the flower to his nostrils and inhaled deeply. I read the words swimming in his eyes, the gratitude for the sense of smell that remained unimpaired. He opened the top drawer of his desk and slipped the bloom inside.
“Have you been to the Dalai Lama this week?” I enquired.
He nodded, amused, and the imp of mischief waltzed into his eyes. Our laughter was cut short when he began to choke on saliva.
When someone hinted that the radiation from his cellphone might have triggered his condition, he stopped using it. He sought the ministrations of every quack brought to his attention. The latest in the parade was a Tibetan monk with a supposedly guaranteed-to-cure acupuncture treatment. Dalai Lama was the nickname I bestowed on the gentleman.
A lawyer without a cellphone is an oddity. A practicing lawyer without a speaking voice is a greater curiosity.
Harold spread his slender hands out for inspection. I squinted, fixing my gaze on the weakest finger. It didn’t look better, so I said nothing. He seemed disappointed.
“I promised my son we would go skiing together next year,” he rasped.
“And you will,” I responded with exaggerated heartiness. “I know you will.”
Neither of us believed a word I uttered.
I opened my journal and began to read out loud –
I walked to my Enchanted Woods yesterday, along a trail I discovered recently. I love to linger in the dim, dreamy,leafy world of quiet wonder. I feel a need to go to this spot each evening. It’s become a sort of pilgrimage now. I find myself leaning against a peeling tree trunk to whisper my thoughts to God, and I linger talking, sometimes crying, until the buzz of mosquitoes and their insistent sting on my bare legs, arms and neck, constrain me to head back home. I find that this is where I want to go, to talk to God about my friend, Harold, to weep, to plead, to question.
Sometimes the pressure within me gets so heavy, I have to get away and walk as fast as I can. I reach the little ornamental bridge, my heart stills and I’m sure I can hear God. I whisper my heart out to him and my universe, for the moment, teeters into balance again …
I snapped the covers of the book shut. Harold’s eyes, fixed steadily on me as I read, were soft.
“Can you see it?” I asked. I had experienced the moments in my head as I read.
“No.” His mouth moved, then he wrote laboriously –
But I can feel it.
Click here to listen to the audio recording of Chapter One, The Scent of Jasmine.
I thumbed through an elderly copy of Time Magazine, oblivious to the murmur of voices coming from Harold’s room. The hum of weekday office noises drowned the sound of her descent down the narrow flight of stairs, so I wasn’t aware of Mrs. Stedman’s presence until she subsided into the chair next to mine. Her unexpected appearance startled me.
“Are you waiting for Harold?” Lorraine Stedman queried.
I nodded. “Yes, I have an appointment. Do you?”
She chuckled. “No. Did he tell you what happened last weekend?
Theatre tickets, and plans to go away with your sister and husband …
“No. I haven’t met him since the weekend.” I answered. “Did you enjoy the play?”
Lorraine Stedman looked grim. “He had a fall. We took him to emerg. He had to have stitches.”
My heart constricted. “What happened?”
“We were just walking around. He said he tripped, but I know he lost his balance.”
“Mrs. Sted … Lorraine,” I began, “my heart really goes out to you.”
“Thank you.” Her eyes grew moist, the muscles in her jaw tightened.
“I recently lost a friend to ALS. I spent a lot of time with her.”
“I know.” The voice was low. “Harold told me.”
I placed my hand on hers. “What can I do to make it easier for you?”
“You are doing a lot already.” Her smile was warm. “You spend time with Harold, you come over on Thursdays and you read to him. It’s exactly what he needs. He looks forward to your visits.”
“There are going to be times when you’ll need to get away. I’m willing to come and sit with him when you feel you must have a break,” I said.
“Thank you.” She didn’t flinch when her eyes met mine. “I don’t want to think about that time. Not just yet.”
The client left.
Terri stuck her head round the corner. “Mr. Stedman will see you now.”
Lorraine and I exchanged pleasantries before she climbed the stairs to her upper floor office.
I stepped into Harold’s room. My eye paused at the armchair by the door and I remembered an incident from some months back when I began to notice a large cellophane-wrapped gift basket of assorted nuts, abandoned and gathering dust on the chair adjacent to the door. I have a penchant for nuts — cashews in particular — and wondered why such bounty remained evidently despised.
I couldn’t resist, I had to ask.
“It was a gift from Terri and Fiona last Christmas,” Harold replied nonchalantly. A wry smile quivered on his lips
My jaw dropped. It was six months since Christmas.
“So why is it still here?”
“They are not the kind of nuts I like, so I just let them stay there. This way, they’ll get the message. They won’t buy me the same thing next year.”
My eyes widened. I had made queries about the basket some months before. Terri would only say, “Do you want them? No one does.”
It must have cost a pretty penny.
“How could you be so rude and unappreciative?” I demanded. “You could have thanked the girls and taken it home. And then given it away, or tossed it in the garbage. That’s called being gracious, you know.
Harold didn’t see the matter in quite the same light.
“But if I pretended to like what they got for me, they could get the same thing again,” he argued.
I responded with a perplexed shake of my head. It was none of my business anyway.
My thoughts rolled on …
For over a year, Harold lived and breathed his glorious dream home as it took shape under his personal supervision. I listened to detailed descriptions of the custom-made front door, the stained glass windows and the transparent stairway. He told me about the tree he’d had planted in the new garden. He described the antique urn his wife picked up at an auction, and how they were hunting for a second one to make a matching pair.
I sat quietly as he took a string of calls on his cellphone, yelling himself hoarse at some hapless contractor. He had just enough voice to verbalize his displeasure. His eyes flashed fire when he hung up and I chided him for getting irate. He cooled down immediately and looked sheepish.
He was running a mad race against time.
From time to time, Harold issued an invitation. “Come with me to the building site. I want to show you how the work is progressing.”
I always declined. “I’d rather sit here and chat.”
He responded one day in exasperation, “You are so protective of Lorraine!”
He understood my qualms.
Lorraine phoned one evening, to invite David and myself to the triumphant housewarming party. She changed the original date to accommodate our calendar.
I had to find a gift — something different, unique — not flowers or chocolates. A tough challenge to shop for folks who have everything.
I spent several evenings creating a pressed flower picture out of blooms saved from my summer garden. The result was not unpleasing, I thought, and put additional effort into elaborate gift wrapping. I whipped up some mango mousse to take along with us as well.
Harold’s eyes gleamed when he relieved me of the dessert in the glass bowl. He spent the rest of the evening eating most of it himself, scooping it up from the bowl with a spoon.
The gift, with its carefully colour-coordinated packaging and card, remained where I’d set it down by the front door.
The Stedmans conducted the gaggle of guests on a grand tour of the new abode. Lorraine’s sculptures were everywhere. The pieces were gentle, nurturing, devoid of the savage passion raging through the artwork adorning the office.
Harold opened the narrow cupboard on the wall by the kitchen sink to display a mini pharmacy of drugs which were his daily fare.
The food was cordon bleu, hors d’oeuvres and bite-sized dainties prepared by the chatelaine herself.
Harold never stopped smiling, and occasionally interrupted a conversation with some quirky banter. He was mostly silent, though. Verbal communication was arduous and exhausting.
I held both his hands in mine when we said goodbye. “I am so proud of you,” I said. “This is an incredibly beautiful home. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Eyes glowing with tears he looked at us both, swallowed a lump in his throat and whispered hoarse, tremulous words, barely distinguishable. “I love you both.”
Harold phoned the following week to tell me how pleased his wife had been to receive the thank you card I’d sent.
He never mentioned the gift.
December galloped in with winter weather on its back. Christmas was around the corner. I dropped in at the office with presents for Harold and his staff. There was a coloured-glass tree angel for Terri, tins of assorted chocolates for Ronald and Fiona, and for the Stedmans a sizeable container shaped like an old fashioned milk urn filled with different flavours of popcorn. I hoped the artist in Lorraine would find the packaging whimsical.
Dinner preparations were in full swing when the phone rang the following afternoon.
Harold’s voice dragged on slurred words. “What are you cooking today?”
A sauce bubbled on the stove as I chopped onions and garlic with the receiver wedged between my ear and shoulder. “Salmon. Salmon in a phyllo pastry thing-y,” I said.
I heard a chuckle. He relished the use of thingy – my daughters’ favourite word — and often bandied it around himself.
|“Lorraine loved the container. So thoughtful of you.” Harold’s effusion was lathered with rhapsodies about the popcorn tin, which I didn’t think was that special at all.
He made no reference to the handcrafted housewarming gift.
I squirmed inside and experienced a prickle of bitterness. My gift was of as little consequence as the basket of nuts from the office ladies. I should have purchased something more generic and predictable. Like flowers. I probably realized this the moment I stepped over the threshold of the grand new abode, when Lorraine’s magnificent artwork stared me in the face and my puny offering shriveled into shabby, homemade insignificance.
A huge wedge hung between us, but only I was aware of it. Harold didn’t have a clue. The thing grew in my head with each passing week, mutating into a nagging monster. It gnawed ceaselessly.
Tired of my murmurings David finally snapped, “If it’s bothering you so much, you should talk to him about it.”
I visited the office two days before Christmas to discuss new developments in my case.
Harold and I sat in the library. I loved the formal feel of the room. Wooden shelving lined one wall from floor to ceiling, crammed with volumes of dark leather or vinyl-bound legal tomes, their titles etched along the spines in gold leaf. A spiral fire escape-style stairway on wheels made the upper shelves accessible. Wide picture windows encompassed the wall facing the door. They looked onto the street, counteracting the somber effect of the dark wood paneling. Judicial men with hawk eyes and round eye glasses glowered down from ornate frames. A heavy carved conference table of dark wood dominated the space.
We dealt with the business at hand, and lapsed into desultory conversation.
Harold made a trite reference to the wretched popcorn. “Lorraine attacked it right away,” he said.
I replied, “I had a feeling the container would appeal her.”
The festering sore was ready to burst.
I glanced at my watch. Harold observed the gesture and leaned forward for a farewell hug. His chair rolled towards me on its castors.
Unbidden resentment oozed into my voice and leapt to my lips. “You hated my pressed flowers, didn’t you?”
The boil was lanced.
The moving chair screeched to a halt, inches away from mine. The look of blank non-comprehension in his eyes turned to stricken horror.
He had no chance to comment as I sped down the tracks on a runaway train.
The words came fast. “I wanted to do something special for you, and you didn’t even have the decency to acknowledge it.”
Harold began to bluster, slurring badly. “I was just trying to find the perfect spot for it. Maybe in the office.”
“It’s probably in the garbage by now, and I know how Terri and Fiona must have felt about those wretched nuts.”
I went to the hall closet for my coat. He followed unsteadily and hovered behind me.
Ronald looked up from his seat at the front desk. “Thanks for the chocolates. Nice of you,” he said.
Buttoning up, I muttered sourly, “Next time, it’ll be a potted plant.”
Harold reached for the phone as I turned to go, mumbling, “Where’s Lorraine?”
I stepped outside. The door beeped as it shut behind me.
David was right. It certainly helped to talk.
… xx … xx …
The house phone rang around seven o’clock in the evening.
“Selina, this is Lorraine Stedman speaking.”
Damage control. My hackles rose ever so slightly. “Hello, Mrs. Stedman.”
“Do call me Lorraine. I called to tell you how proud I am of you for speaking up.”
I experienced a needle of annoyance. “David suggested I talk about it. I was driving him crazy.”
“It’s very professionally done. And it has your signature on it.”
I felt patronized. “This was between Harold and me,” I replied.
“Oh?” her voice climbed half an octave.
“I really didn’t expect him to bother you with it.”
Not true. I knew he would. Why wouldn’t he?
“But he’s just sick about it.”
“Please, don’t embarrass yourself and me by saying something just because you feel you should say it.”
I had to put an end to the excruciating conversation.
“Oh, okay.” Lorraine sounded taken aback. She paused for a beat, then gathered her wits and queried briskly, “Do you celebrate Christmas?”
Just go away …
“Yes. Yes, we do.”
“Well, Merry Christmas.”
“Thank you. And happy Hanukkah to you, Mrs. Sted … “
“Call me Lorraine.”
The line went dead. Lorraine Stedman never said thank you for the pressed flower picture. I had no idea why she called.
Running shoes and car keys
I taunted Harold about being a typical man. “So your wife takes care of your messes for you?”
“Oh, you are such a woman,” he countered. “I knew something was wrong. You were so aloof, distant. But of course, you had to be a coquette and refuse to tell.”
“And how would you have dealt with me crying all over you? You’d have sent for Lorraine and her mop and smelling salts, I suppose!”
“I found a spot for your picture.”
“You can put it in the garbage or the shredder for all I care. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
My words were devoid of malice.
His voice was warm with affection. “You are so perfect, aren’t you?”
The thank you would never happen. The omission ceased to erode my peace of mind. Things were back to normal.
My lip-reading skills improved rapidly
… … … … …
I arranged to meet Harold at his home at eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning in August, almost three and a half years since my ordeal began. He would drive me downtown to the Federal Court to attend pre-trial on my case.
Harold was watching for me through the window. The ornate front door opened, he stood at the threshold as I pulled up and got out. Eyes sparkling when he saw what I had in my hands, he called out for Lorraine to come and get the bowl of mango mousse I carried.
Lorraine appeared in sports bra and spandex shorts, hot and damp from exercise. She wished us luck and reached for the glass bowl. I sensed from the tone and expression, her apprehension about the day ahead. It felt like a foolhardy field trip.
It was a long time since I’d seen Harold in formal attire. He looked frail in the lightweight grey suit with a yellow and brown-splashed tie knotted at his throat. Lorraine would have had to help him with the shirt buttons and the tie, and with the laces on the brown running shoes he wore. The latter struck a discordant note in the ensemble, an odd fashion faux pas.
Harold carried my legal file and his amplifier in a bag slung over his shoulder.
“You look eighteen years old,” he said. “What size do you take? A zero?”
My lips parted in a tense smile. The twins had recently turned twelve.
We were silent for most of the drive downtown.
“Let’s go somewhere afterwards,” he mouthed.
“Where? To the circus?”
He smiled and didn’t answer. Spoken words were a drain on his stamina. He used them sparingly.
The traffic was heavy and I was thankful for the early start. I was taken aback to realize that I wasn’t nervous about Harold being at the wheel. He made deft lane changes and drove, at times, with a single hand on the steering wheel. He took his eyes off the road from time to time and squeezed my hand. I kept my eyes fixed on the road ahead, blinking away errant teardrops.
The ache in my heart was a familiar companion.
Traffic crawled. The drive took longer than anticipated. We circled the block, hunting for a parking spot. Seconds ticked by and I cast anxious glances at my watch. Exasperated, Harold finally turned into a full lot, swung into an undesignated area, and parked across the path of another car. He staggered ahead of me to the booth. Responding to the grunting noises, the parking attendant began to talk down to Harold, assuming he was a mentally challenged. I ran to help. The man asked why my friend was unable to speak. Harold was unperturbed by the patronizing tone of the unwashed individual. He handed the car keys over, gesturing to indicate that the vehicle could be moved if the necessity arose.
I was incredulous. “You leave the keys to an expensive car with a scruffy stranger?”
Harold shrugged. There was a dead look in his eyes. I resigned myself to a catastrophic day.
We walked out of the parking lot together. I adjusted my pace to suit Harold’s stumbling gait. I noticed how much weight he’d lost in the past few weeks and how transparent his skin appeared. His clothes were several sizes too large for him. They hung on him like an old sack flung over a clothes horse. I resisted the temptation to grasp his arm to guide him over the uneven surface of the sidewalk, but my hand hovered casually beneath his elbow. Just in case.
A grim sense of foreboding took possession of me and formed a knot in the pit of my stomach. Directly ahead of us, up a short flight of steps, loomed the Federal Court of Canada.
We made it up the steps to the courthouse, one-pause-one at a time. I was accustomed to the wide-eyed glances and rapidly averted gazes that our appearance aroused. We made a curious spectacle. A pair of ill-matched socks, an odd couple.
Harold’s briefcase and my handbag went through the X-ray machine, and we extended our arms for further scrutiny under a hand-held electronic device. It beeped as it swept over my friend’s belt buckle. The uniformed security officer waved us on.
Harold tottered forward and I followed, one hand protectively at the ready, lingering where he could pretend not to see it. A threesome bore down on us — a youngish man, an elderly woman, and Trish.
Trish ignored me pointedly when we stepped into the elevator together. I noted her careless attire with some surprise. She wore a nondescript dress and plain summer sandals. Her hair hung unwashed and lank about her face. Deliberately drab and dowdy.
The man was uninspiring, both in appearance and carriage.
He made an awkward half-bow and shook Harold’s hand deferentially. “Mr. Stedman, I am Paul Barlow. And this is …”
He introduced his second female companion. The name rang a bell. Of consequence in certain circles, I recognized it from conversations at my former place of work.
Harold nodded and smiled. Barlow didn’t acknowledge me.
Paul Barlow was a stand-in this morning for the head honcho of his firm. The boss would show up for the final curtain. Trish’s manner – reprehensible as it was – was remotely excusable, I supposed. Such ill-bred behavior from a lawyer, however, was unexpected. The man behaved as if he had a personal vendetta against me.
The atmosphere inside the elevator was chilly. The ride to the seventh floor felt endless.
The sight Trish triggered off loud memories. They played out noisily in my head.
… … … … … …
The last time Trish and I talked was when I told her I’d been dismissed over the phone, the night before.
Our mutual employer’s stalwart henchwoman protested. “Surely not. It must be a mistake. Maybe you misunderstood.”
“No misunderstanding at all, Trish. She meant every word.”
“I don’t understand. You’ve been good friends. Why?” she persisted.
My erstwhile employer claimed copyright ownership and authorship of the musical play I created.
“Because I refused to sign over my rights to my play, in exchange for a cheque for three hundred dollars.”
Thirty pieces of silver, worth ten dollars each. Harold’s words.
Trish refused to believe me.
… … … … … … …
The woman accompanying the grim duo addressed me. “It’s a nice day, isn’t it?”
We hadn’t been introduced. I smiled, grateful for the kindness. A reluctant warmth slunk into the chill in my veins.
The elevator doors beeped and opened. We all filed out, an odd flock of sheep.
A court clerk ushered us into an informal meeting room. The proceedings were casual. Conference table, no robes or wigs, presided over by an impeccably groomed Frenchman with a hint of an accent. His ease and youthful demeanour were out of keeping with the lofty seat he occupied.
The callow Mr. Barlow went out of his way to insult me. His attitude of courtesy and respect towards Harold bordered on the unctuous and the contrast was glaring.
Trish, who until now had avoided eye contact, hissed, “You are wasting your time. You’ll never win.”
I met her flinty stare head on, never taking my eyes off her face until she squirmed and looked away. I maintained my unblinking scrutiny, not deigning a response.
It was evident from the outset that Harold would not be able to make himself understood, in spite of the amplifier he wore strapped around him. The agony of his plight was unbearable as he sat unruffled, smiling while everyone talked down to him and over and around him.
I had to speak up. “Your Honour, could I help?”
I was aghast at my temerity. The judge nodded.
The garbled grunts from my lawyer’s lips fell like leaden weights into the tense silence. The constriction in my chest grew.
My lip-reading skills failed.
In a courtroom with a voice-less attorney. Who but an idiot would find herself in this predicament?
A jerk of the head from the bench. The court clerk rose and placed a sheaf of paper and a ballpoint pen in front of Harold.
The judge addressed me. “Madam, the court will hear you read aloud what he writes.”
I had difficulty deciphering the wayward scrawl.
The judge cleared his throat. “This session is adjourned. A trial date will be set for the spring.”
Harold’s lips moved. “Your Honour, I don’t expect to be alive in the spring.”
A strangely surreal moment. The words emerged impossibly loud and clear and rang out like a gunshot. Everyone in the still room heard him.
There was a split second of awkward silence before the judge spoke. “Mr. Stedman, we wish you well. We hope you will have a safe return to health.”
Necessary inanities. Harold smiled and bobbed his head in acknowledgement.
The session was adjourned. Harold jerked to his feet. I picked up my handbag and stood up. I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
This is my new novel, Next Week On Thursday.
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