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Tale on a Winter's Eve

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Winter was cold in Nova Scotia. Rose prodded the brightly crackling logs in the fireplace and drew her shawl around her a bit more closely as the north wind shrieked around the corner of the house, bringing with it a cloud of snow that momentarily blocked the view of the churning Atlantic from her window, replacing it with a blinding whiteness that passed as quickly as it came. Not for the first time nor the last, she remembered the heat of Africa, the parching sun of midday, the moist humidity after the rains, the soft shimmer in the air above the Ulanga when heat waves danced. She had come very far from her old life.

The Great War passed in a blur after the sinking of the Louisa. Charlie and she had managed to find their way to a British outpost in Africa, no small task as word had passed from the surviving German sailors that a crazy Canadian and his equally mad English wife had managed to destroy one of the jewels of the navy. Half of East Africa seemed to be looking for them, but they had evaded troops in more than one close shave and eventually found a band of British soldiers. An argument arose at once, of course, with Charlie insisting Rosie head back to England to wait out the war while he joined up, and Rose declaring loudly that if she had managed to plan a successful assault on a German battleship, she was quite capable of doing her bit right there.

In the end, Rose did reluctantly go back to England, but only because she had found out she was carrying a child. The journey home was long, and she arrived before her letter to Mother did. Telling her Samuel had died nearly broke Rose’s heart, but the joy of expecting a grandchild after all this long time was a balm to the poor old woman’s spirit. Rose, for her part, had thrown herself into the war effort, working as a nurse for the Red Cross and rolling bandages with such fervor that the organizers of her chapter joked that there would never be enough wounded to use them all. Her only response was that she prayed to God they were right.

The evenings had been long and quiet in those years, and word from the front came scarcely. When her time came, she couldn’t have been more surprised by the arrival of twin boys. Sammy and little Charlie kept her sane as she waited. When at last the war finally ended and Charlie came home, she had to adjust once more to having a man around. The war had left him a bit more grizzled and toughened, but for all that he seemed to relish the joys of being with her and the children all the more. Still, England felt like foreign soil to him, too filled with ancient etiquette and social rules he could never quite grasp. After Mother died in 1922, the four of them had gone to Canada. Boats remained Charlie’s joy, and when he found a job on a fishing trawler in Nova Scotia, Rose knew they had found home at last.

Many years had passed since then, filled with the simple happinesses of a family, and the simple sorrows, too. They weren’t fated to see again the lovely little cove with the white flowers that had no name, but the exotic and the faraway didn’t seem very important anymore. Not to say that their lives were dull by any measure. After the children were grown, the two of them were known to sail off for days at a time, coming back with tales of seeing whales spouting and lighthouses glowing under the moon, mists rising from tiny inlets where no one ever went and the sound of the wind the sole noise to be heard, making them feel like the only two people on the earth, Adam and Eve all over again.

Rose added another log to the fire, then took the kettle off the hearth. Nothing ever compared to that heavenly, rusty brew from the Queen’s old boiler, but the soft pleasure of a cup of tea sustained her still. She filled the little flowered teapot and waited patiently for the tea to steep, passing the time by reading a few psalms, though in truth she had learned them all by heart long ago. When at last the delicate aroma of the amber brew was just right, she carefully poured the tea into a pair of bone china cups painted with little white flowers. Two spoonfuls of sugar and a dash of milk were added to one, while the other remained steadfastly black. A plate of biscuits joined the teapot and cups, seeming to wait expectantly.

The sun had set, and the wind had died down a bit, leaving the lights of the town glittering under the dark night sky. The waves of the ocean formed a constantly moving backdrop of water that connected her to England, to Africa, to the past and the present, to the Queen, to Samuel, to Charlie, to all that had come before in her life, flowing back to the wildness of the Ulanga and the peace of the Bora. The love of the water had become as much a part of her as it was a part of Charlie, and it was like having a faithful friend standing outside her window, strong and silent, powerful and permanent.

At that moment, the door burst open in a sweep of white and wind, bringing with it gales of childish laughter and a flurry of bright coats and scarves. “Merry Christmas, Grandma!” came a chorus of voices as she was overwhelmed by a crowd of little mittened hands all scrambling for a kiss and a hug. The fire crackled even more brightly in the hearth as her sons and their wives and children took up stations around the room, pouring tea and eating biscuits, the littlest one, Katie, becoming almost entirely covered in powdered sugar, making Rose wonder if anything had found its way into her tummy.

When the wild tumult of greetings and food at last calmed, the moment came that they had all been waiting for, the tradition that linked the years together and, regardless of how many times it was repeated, always brought a fresh sense of awe and happiness.

“Will you tell us the story, Grandma?” asked Jimmy, settling on his knees on the rug before her rocking chair.

At a general cry of agreement, they formed a half circle around her, Katie sitting on her lap, as Rose began to weave a story she had told many times before, the one that began “Once upon a time, far away in Africa, I met your grandfather, and this was how it happened…”

As her children and grandchildren listened once more to the tales of daring and adventure that Charlie had once assured her meant that they would never lack for stories to tell their grandchildren, the other cup of tea on the table sat silently, comfortably, a symbol of a presence in the room that would remain there for as long as his old girl lived. She may not have been “comely among the maidens,” as her brother had spoken on his deathbed, but in all her long life she wouldn’t have changed a thing.