Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Chapter 4 - Poppy


The divine fragrance of bright orange tea roses and sprigs of spicy scented Jasmine mingled in a plain mason jar on the window sill. Heavenly. The breeze through the open kitchen window dispersed the yummy scent throughout the kitchen better than the most expensive atomizer.

“I definitely prefer nature’s perfumes,” thought Poppy as she arranged the napkin and tea cup on the tray next to the fresh raspberry scone. “There,” she said out loud. “Nearly perfect…”

She broke off a small spray of Jasmine and one of the unopened rose buds from the arrangement on the windowsill, and placed them in a tiny bud vase. Settling it next to the bright orange teapot she smiled, satisfied. No matter that her mother would not appreciate the touch, or in fact any part of the beautiful arrangement. Poppy was long past caring about that sort of thing. It was years now since she came to the realization that living life on her mother’s dark and dreary terms was soul suicide. Having reached that conclusion, she had determinedly moved forward from that day on with an unstoppable sense of optimism and cheer. Perhaps in some small way to spite her mother, she also applied her natural artistic flair at every opportunity, and turned a deaf ear to her mother’s discontented muttering.

Turning her back on the tray, Poppy swished back to the counter next to the sink where the electric kettle lived. It was nearly boiling so she quickly switched it off and turned back to the tray to fill the teapot. Her mother liked her water ‘scalded, but not boiling’. Poppy had never discovered what the difference between these two were, so sometimes she let the water boil and sometimes she poured it just before it boiled. Her mother never seemed to notice any difference as long as Poppy assured her mother that yes, she had scalded it, so that was ok.

Squaring her shoulders, Poppy lifted the tray carefully and carried it through the sitting room into the solarium. Her mother was in her customary spot in the corner, with her back to the view, knitting as furiously as a 82 year old woman with fairly advanced arthritis could. No matter that it must really have caused her considerable pain, Catherine would just as soon be dead as without her knitting. Since her hearing was also diminished, she did not hear as Poppy stopped just inside the door and watched her. Catherine was small and frail, and for the millionth time, Poppy wondered how a tall, large-boned woman like herself had come from such a tiny woman.

Much later, after the tea things had been cleared, and her mother settled with a lap rug tucked tidily around her spindly legs, set to watch her favorite show, Poppy let herself quietly out the back door into the garden. An easterly wind was up and long silky tendrils of dark red hair pulled free of the knot at the nape of Poppy’s neck and danced wildly about her face. Her hair was truly beautiful and she was quite proud of the fact that, at 44, there was still no grey in it. Though she’d been told once by a boy in her class, on the eve of her 17th birthday, that she was the most beautiful girl in the world, Poppy had no illusions about her physical beauty. She knew she was considered plain by most of the folk in her hometown, and this bothered her not the least. In truth, while her features were not really remarkable in any way, time and experience had added a certain dignity to her face, and her naturally good nature added sparkle to her bright blue eyes and a spring to her step. She was among the precious few to be blessed with a sense of self so profound that she affected not the least bit of artifice. Of course, Poppy would have been amazed to hear such things about herself, for although she was quite the daydreamer, she was tremendously practical as well.

Poppy hummed as she futilely tucked the strands of hair behind her ears and surveyed the garden. Lots to do to get the garden in order. She was lucky to have Magnus Fahey, a still spry seventy something gardener and the local Jack of all trades, come every year to help with the cleanup in the fall and spring. The tying up of perennials, transplanting, and most of the weeding she could handle herself. Pruning the hedges and fruit trees was another matter. It wasn’t that she didn’t know how. But knowing how to do something and enjoying it were two different things. Poppy was more than content to pay Magnus twice a year to take care of this for her. In the fall, he pruned the fruit trees, often bringing his grandson Liam along, and Poppy always gave them a hand with barrowing the limbs and detritus off to the lower garden to be heaped for a late Spring bonfire. Come spring, the hedge trimmings were added to the already dry fall limbs and left to sit for a couple of weeks. Finally an appropriate afternoon, free of wind and rain, was settled upon and the bonfire started. This was perhaps the only perk of the entire process. A thermos of tea, jam sandwiches wrapped in wax paper, and she and Magnus could chat for hours, poking errant sticks back into the fire and gassing about the garden, local gossip, and the political suicide currently being contemplated by the Prime Minister and his cabinet.

This winter had been harsh, but short-lived. It was only March, but already the crocus and hyacinths were fully up and starting to show color. Daffs and tulips were clumped randomly throughout the borders, cheerfully heralding the news: ‘Spring is here!’ The trees were tightly budded and one or two were even beginning to leaf out.

While fall was Poppy’s favorite season, spring ran a close second. The promise of new life invigorated everything, like a freshly plucked bunch of orange lilies in a stark white room. Stepping into the garden for the first time each day felt, at least to Poppy, like a secret admirer had stolen into the garden in the night, and left little treasures for her to find. It was lovely.

With most afternoon spent outside, winter’s pallor, the result of too many cold months inside, quickly disappeared. Outside now more often than not, her fair skin freckled endearingly, smattering a light dusting over the bridge of her nose and forehead.

Her mother, never much of a gardener, had historically left the gardening to Poppy, and in Poppy’s opinion, that was just as well. Occasionally, Catherine could be found watching critically through the conservatory windows as Poppy cleared out beds, pulled weeds, and spread rich dark mulch from the compost pile over all of the beds, but for the most part she just left Poppy to it. Had she known what a gift she was giving Poppy, Catherine most likely would have found some excuse to insert herself more forcefully into the garden’s design and upkeep. As it was, she was content with an occasional critique or suggestion.

The garden in the spring was a place of solace for Poppy.

Here the northern wind wound fancifully around her, the sun darted in and out of the variety of seemingly ever present clouds, and the potpourri of blossomy smells emanating from the first blooms of spring was like having a perfumery in her very own back yard.

Here she allowed herself to remember long-ago summer evenings, rainstorms and summer houses, candlelit parties and afternoon teas. She lost herself to the memories of her brief and solitary experience with love, a girlhood tryst with a dashing boy that ended too soon.

And here, amongst the weeds and blossoms alike, Poppy dreamed.

Chapter 3 - Norma 'Juliette'


12 years ago. COLLEGE. When you start college it’s like taking out a clean, crisp sheet of white paper. No marks, no mistakes. And hopefully, by the time you start college you are old enough to appreciate that fact. I was. I started college with a new name. Even though very few people know this, my full name is actually Norma Juliette Harcourt. Norma. Heaven help me. My mother was a devoted fan of Agatha Christie’s novels, and having just completed the novel ‘The Third Girl’ the day before I was born, she decided to name me after one of the main characters. Leave it to my mother to choose the most insipid character in the book. In fact, having read everything Dame Christie has written as well, I believe my mother chose the most colorless, uninteresting character in any of Christie’s books. It’s my opinion that she followed my plain first name with the rather extravagant ‘Juliette’ out of some last minute remorse. My first name followed me painfully throughout my school career and caused me considerable grief, right up until I found out Marilyn Monroe’s birth name was Norma too. Suddenly ‘Norma’ didn’t seem nearly as terrible as it had. Of course, when I started college that didn’t stop me from telling everyone I met that my name was Juliette Harcourt. Even Norma Jean saw the marketing value in a name change.

With my new name all sorts of possibilities opened up, and I was ripe to take advantage of them. I was a woman with a Plan. So ‘Norma’ became ‘Juliette’ to her professors, ‘Julie’ or ‘Jules’ to her close friends, and once ‘Jewel’ to a lover that I would have gotten serious about, except he didn’t fit in with my Plan.

The Plan was, and had been, to travel. It really didn’t matter where; I just wanted to see the world. I remember exactly when I realized there was a great big world out there just waiting for me to explore it. Our family went on a camping trip to Victoria B.C. when I was seven. While I was there, I met a French girl named Celeste, and a brother and sister from Quebec named Jaques and Adele. Jaques and Adele spoke a little English, so we all managed to communicate fairly well. At one point, I was trying to explain something to Celeste but I just couldn’t make her understand. In stepped Adele and a stream of French bounced back and forth between the two with much waving about of hands and animated facial expressions. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever witnessed. Celeste’s eyes lit up with understanding as Adele explained what I had been trying to say. I ached to be able to jump in and speak that beautiful language. As the weekend progressed, Celeste and Adele tried on a few of my ‘American’ phrases, and I parroted their beautiful language at every turn. I may not have known what I was saying most of the time, but yes, they assured me, I was pronouncing it correctly. By the end of the long weekend, I had mastered counting to ten in French, but more importantly, I had found something I really loved. Languages.

As much as I loved the exotic sounds of other languages, soon it was the cultures and customs attached to other countries that became the fascination. I knew whatever I ended up doing to make a living had to involve travel. In high school I studied French and Spanish with travel in mind. In my senior year, I met with my guidance counselor, Mrs. Whitney, to prepare my applications for different colleges.

“Have you any idea what you want to do Norma?” she asked, peering at me over her reading glasses.

“No ma’am,” I replied quietly.

“Your grades are excellent, and I see you have done well in your Spanish and French classes.

“I love languages,” I volunteered.

“Mhmmmm.” She made a note on a piece of paper and looked again at my transcripts. “Mr. Thomas tells me you are quite the writer as well. I read the piece you wrote in the school paper about our exchange students from Japan. You captured the challenges of coming to a foreign country very well. I appreciated learning about some of the differences between school in the United States and schools in Japan too.” She smiled encouragingly at me.

I tapped my fingers nervously on the binder in my lap. “I have always wanted to travel,” I blurted out suddenly.

Mrs. Whitney sat back in her chair and removed her glasses. She towered her fingers in front of her and rested her chin on them. “Have you considered Journalism?”

I hadn’t.

“I think you should,” she said thoughtfully. “You have a unique voice. Depending on what you write, you could pair that with travel.”

Gradually, I let this new idea wash over me. I loved writing. I wanted to travel. I had never considered a career that involved both of them. In the pit of my stomach I felt the first flutters of excitement. “How do I find out about that?” I asked her eagerly. Mrs. Whitney put me in touch with the head of the Journalism department at the University, and after meeting with him, my course was set. Juliette Harcourt had a Plan.

Fast forward twelve years. My Big Plan is a reality. I am 34 and busy. BUSY. In my work as a feature writer for various magazines, I spend several weeks a year travelling and then writing about it. Great life. Still, sometimes I wonder if I am the only one in the universe that operates at warp speed all the time. Then I talk to my best friend Laura and I realize it’s not just me…for most of us life is just a collage of moments crammed up tight next to each other so we can fit as many into a day as possible. I’m not sure what our motivation is for living like this, but at some point, I decided I wanted off the ride. At least occasionally. The quintessential queen of ‘Plans’, I found myself without one. I just knew I needed to humanize my life a little and slow down, so I could actually feel the moments I was in while I was in them. I needed to find a way to take some time out and let myself just be.

I had this vague idea of joining a book club or knitting group or taking a gardening class – I was pretty unfocused to begin with. But once I made the decision to steal moments from my own life, I couldn’t let the idea go. The intrigue was irresistible. I started to feel like a secret agent planning an undercover op., except the op was my own life. I kept living my life at the same frantic pace, but just under the surface the idea had taken hold, and I walked around every day hugging it tight to my chest.

As it turned out, just opening myself up to a change in my life was liberating.

Still, I had no idea that my life was about to change in ways I couldn’t have imagined.