The Writers’ Circle
This page features work by the Writers’ Circle, which which meets on the third Tuesday of each month at 6:00 p.m. Members and guests with an interest in writing fiction, non-fiction, poetry and drama are welcome. Please check the LAMPSletter and calendar to see whether they are taking place at the Club or over Zoom. To be put on the contact list email Martin Jones.
These four new works by members were posted as of November 17, 2021. Use the buttons, below to jump to a piece of writing.
Saying Good-Bye to Aunt Rose
by Anya Orzechowska
The two of us, my father and I, sat side by side, transfixed by the small wooden casket that the funeral director had placed on the austere mahogany desk in front of us. He delicately flicked a mote of dust from the polished lid and laid his fingers on the brass side handles as though to anchor it to his desk.
This, now, was Aunt Rose.
“Rose Louisa Baxter,” he intoned solemnly. My father hesitated and nodded. I bobbed my head also, not wishing to disagree, although wondering, at the same time, how we could really be sure that it was my Aunt Rose packed tightly into such a small container. My father’s sister had not been a big woman but surely even her ashes would have needed more room, I thought. And – when last seen lying in her coffin – hadn’t she been in one of her fancy dresses and wigs? Given her lifestyle, she wouldn’t have stood for anything else, even after death.
“You indicated that you wish to…” the funeral director hesitated, “… take care of the remains yourselves.”
With this, he gave a little push and slid Aunt Rose over to us.
My father and I had not quite decided what to do next; it was probably indecision that had made him check that box on the questionnaire, indicating that we would take the ashes with us. Now we sat in a nearby café on the Gulf Shore Boulevard, with the box in a plain paper bag on the table beside the ketchup bottle and saltshaker. We stirred our coffee in silence but both of us were drawn by the view of the waves down below the picture windows. Their gentle waves sparkled in the sun and playful foam swirled around the rocks. The same thought occurred to us and, still looking out at the beautiful blue sky and water, my father said slowly, “You know what she would have liked… ?”
“Burial at sea,” I finished for him, as it came to me. We smiled at each other in agreement. “She always loved the water.”
He nodded happily. It was decided.
The next day dawned beautiful and sunny, not surprising in Florida. We walked from the hotel to the Naples Pier and, since my father was carrying the box reverently in his hands, I had bought a bouquet of colourful daisies, all I could find in the local grocery store. We both felt solemn and purposeful, but managed to smile at the couples leaning over the railings and the children running down the middle of the pier. At the end of pier, we were lucky to be alone and, as we looked around to make sure no one was close, we both said good-bye to Aunt Rose and tossed the casket into the blue waves that stretched into the distance. I pulled out each flower separately and recalled fond memories of Aunt Rose with every stalk tossed on the waves.
She loved to dance. She enjoyed loud music, playing poker and life with friends and family. Her brief marriage at the age of 19 was to someone who did not appreciate her joie de vivre and it had ended after one year. Reportedly, she stated to her husband, “I paid for the wedding, now you pay for the divorce.”
But, in her 69th year, she met someone who she said was perfect. “He has pink cheeks and he loves to dance,” she described him to the rest of the family. And he kept her happy for the next few years until his own mortal departure. At that time, she expressed a horror of the traditional funeral customs.
So, as in the spirit of her life, thoughts of her danced with the waves.
But, oh my god, here in Naples, the casket was floating. And it was floating inland. My father and I gazed with horror at the sight of the waves carrying Aunt Rose bobbing towards the beach. I sprinted towards the bottom of the pier, ahead of my less agile father. As I paced the sandy shore, moving a little left, a little right, in order to catch the slowly-approaching casket, he caught up to me and rolled up his pants to wade out into the water to catch his sister, ignoring the people who noticed our activity. They must have been curious to know what was in our little treasure chest and would have been surprised to find out.
My father tucked the dripping box under his arm and we trudged our way back to the hotel.
Aunt Rose waited patiently on the counter in the hotel bar while we ordered our drinks and discussed what our next step should be. After several gin and tonics, we decided that Aunt Rose needed to be consigned to the deeper blue, further out from shore and – this was important – without the buoyant box.
At the reception desk, we made reservations for an outgoing dolphin-watching vessel for the next day, the kind that was advertised for tourists. Not usually for funerals.
The next morning, the sun was shining, the sea was choppy, the breeze was fresh and it seemed like a perfect day to free Aunt Rose from the confinement of her little box.
There were other people on the boat. Those others hoped to see some dolphins or, at the very least, to revel in the beauty of the Gulf.
My father and I, and especially Aunt Rose, could not care less about either.
While all the others crowded on the prow to enjoy the sights, I locked myself into the tiny bathroom and tried to open the wooden casket. I had not really examined it before and it seemed like a simple lid.
It was not. Screws at each corner held the box firmly together.
I placed Aunt Rose on the tiny windowsill and tried to steady her with an elbow while I rummaged in my purse for something that could be used to turn the screws. I regretted having so much useless clutter and yet no Swiss Army knife. My manicure set would have to do.
Bracing my feet against the walls in a cramped bathroom designed for undersized tourists, I used my tweezers as a makeshift screwdriver. The boat bounced with the waves and my elbows became scraped as I released three of the four screws and managed to twist the lid sideways on the remaining one.
Unexpectedly, Aunt Rose’s ashes were in a Ziploc bag.
Tired and battered from trying to keep my balance, the thought crossed my mind to dispose of the ashes immediately in one of the available bathroom fixtures. As a card player, Aunt Rose would have loved a royal flush.
But, no, that would have been too disrespectful. Tucking the little plastic bag of ashes into my purse and leaving the unwieldy box under the sink, I made my way down the narrow corridor to the outdoor viewing area. My father looked at me expectantly and I signaled that we should avoid the crowd at the prow of the boat and move to the more deserted area at the rear.
It seemed, however, a little less than reverential to mutter a few words of prayer over a Ziploc bag. Before we could think of much to say, I noticed one of the crew heading our way and whispered, “Time to say good-bye.” We each took a corner of the bag between our fingers and shook it out over the stern. Some of it floated with the breeze but most seemed to sift down and we heaved a sigh of relief.
Until we leaned over the edge of the boat and noticed that most of the ashes had caught on the outside of the bulwark.
We had not considered that the ashes would stick to the damp side of the boat. The waves removed the lower ashes but grey vestiges still clung to the higher area.
Aunt Rose did not want to let go.
We looked around quickly but could not find anything with a long enough handle to wipe off our dear relation. And then another thought occurred to both of us.
We ran back for a mug of beer being served to the crowd of tourists at the front of the boat. They were happy to see us again – or to have a chance for another beer – and raised their glasses in a toast.
We accepted those wishes in proxy for Aunt Rose.
When they were again taken by the sparkle of the waves or, perhaps, the sight of Naples or dolphins in the distance, we quickly made our way back to the stern and solemnly clinked our mugs together before splashing our beer against the side of the boat to wash down the remnants of the ashes.
With the last of the amber liquid, we toasted Aunt Rose and our loving memories of her.
by Ellen Michelson
“Miss! Remember Chrysalids?”
I nodded. We’d read that novel the previous month. Euripides was coming through the door before any of his classmates today. He smiled and kept chattering.
“Those wooden things I carved when you said we had to make stuff the people in the story could’ve used? For homework, instead of writing?”
“Yes, Euripides, I remember what you made,” I replied. “And I remember everyone recognized the doorstop but only some of the others in the class knew about shims.”
As I spoke, he modelled the doorstop’s slope with his hands, showed a shim’s thickness with his fingers.
“Thanks again for giving me the doorstop,” I added. “That was so generous. I think of you when we use it at home. We never knew we needed one.”
I laughed. He grinned at me and resumed speaking.
“My big brother’s been using the shims so I made him some more. And remember Leo made a mallet and a dibber?”
He waited for me to nod, then continued.
“I like carving wooden things, and I remembered the dibber. I made one on the weekend, and my granddad and I planted seeds in his yard with it.”
As he spoke, he marked rows with his invisible dibber in the soil he imagined on his desk top. Most of the boy’s classmates hadn’t yet arrived. I leaned back, stretched out my legs, crossed my ankles under my desk, and admired the pictures of growing plants he was creating for me.
Euripides was a delight. He’d told me he was named for his grandfather. He knew his was a playwright’s name, and he knew I knew he was uninterested in literature. But he was interested in all of us, and was happy to do whatever it took to keep his marks middling. Unlike most of the others, he loved to talk in class. Somehow, his older sister’s achievements at Harbord Collegiate (the academic high school up the street), his family’s restaurant, his grandfather’s vegetable garden, were relevant to our English lessons.
“What are you going to grow?” I asked.
“We planted spinach and carrot seeds. Tomatoes and eggplant and cucumbers are growing in pots in Granddad’s basement. We’ll plant them in a few weeks, when it’s warm enough outside. We’ll know it’s not too cold when the oregano and mint are green again. Those herbs are perennials. We use them at the restaurant.”
His hands continued illustrating his words. He opened his mouth to go on but saw others now seated, looking toward me. As we launched into our lesson, got to get to their restaurant crossed a different part of my mind.
On Sunday evening, my husband and I did. Several years before, one of my students had told me he worked at a café. He was failing my course. He refused my help. He took whatever I suggested amiss, was grumpy and loud in class. He seemed proud of his job, so I asked him if I could go, hoping my interest might change his attitude in my room.
This obdurate blusterer stared me down every day. Now he looked away, replied, “Not sure, Miss.” I realized he thought I was expecting a free meal.
I didn’t dare make my suspicion explicit. Instead, I chirped, “I’ve heard your café gives good value for money. I can afford to go.”
“Right,” he said, sounding doubtful.
Persisting, striving to hide my lie about my knowledge of his workplace, I requested its exact name and address. After my husband and I had lunch there on the weekend, the fellow was less grumpy in class. He completed too few assignments, though, and failed the course.
Most of my students didn’t talk about their paid employment. Getting the car tuned at all the uncles’ garages students bragged they helped at would have been absurd. Nobody with a warehouse or babysitting job could be visited. I still thought seeing students where they were prouder of what they did than in English class was worth trying. When, every semester or so, someone mentioned a food service job, my mouth watered. We’d eaten Asian and Central European meals and snacks. We’d spent an evening at a watering hole beyond our normal price point. We’d experienced unfamiliar, intriguing parts of the city. Sometimes when we arrived at an establishment, my student greeted us. Often she or he hadn’t appeared by the end of the meal. Those times, I introduced myself when we’d paid, asking after and praising my student. Sometimes he or she was working in the kitchen, or off duty that day. Coming up with something nice to say was always possible, even for a weak student. Almost always, students’ work in class improved.
At Euripides’ family restaurant, we were the first dinner guests of the evening. Euripides, setting tables when we arrived, made my anonymity impossible. He introduced us to everyone else in the room. He shepherded people from the back, one at a time, and presented them—chef, assistants, clean-up crew. He tugged each toward our table, crowing, “Come! Meet my teacher!” and explained to us how each was related to him. The attention was both embarrassing and delightful. He assured us we’d met every single person there.
Our conviviality then turned sour. His father offered us our meals “with the family’s compliments.” Unwillingly, he accepted my insistence that I appreciated his offer but couldn’t let him. I feared the whole family would feel insulted.
Euripides served our dinner. Taramosalata smoothed out the awkwardness. Tangy avgolemono soup and steaming melt-on-the-tongue eggplant moussaka followed. After my student served each course, he waited till we tasted it, asked what we thought, and beamed at our enjoyment. Generous portions made dessert inconceivable. Quality and quantity were the rule for Greek food in Toronto. Outstanding here was the cosy care of a large, loving family.
As my husband paid for our meals, I spied small pastries, gooey and golden with honey, on glassed-in shelves by the door. The clerk, a cousin, we recalled, wrapped two for us. My husband was reaching for coins for them as Euripides’ dad hurried over. “Please! Compliments of the house!” he urged. I thanked him — a sweet compromise.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline
by Michael Cole
The Suicidal Caller – Hello, is this the suicide prevention hotline?
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – Yes, it is.
The Suicidal Caller – Boy, am I ever glad I finally reached you. I was getting desperate. I’m right on the edge here. Your line’s been busy for over an hour.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – I’m sorry, it’s been a madhouse around here. We’re short-staffed.
Suicidal Caller – I’ve never called before, but I’m afraid what I might do to myself. I’m having serious panic attacks.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – I know all about anxiety attacks. I’ve had them since I was 8. I couldn’t go out of doors for six years. I had to quit university. It’s made my life a living hell.
Suicidal Caller – I’ve thought of suicide before, but now it’s all I think about. I’m so depressed….
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – You think you’re depressed!? I’m so depressed I can’t get out of bed in the morning. I feel hopeless. Everything seems bleak. I can’t sleep, can’t concentrate on anything, and I just lost my job.
Suicidal Caller – It’s all made worse by my obsessive compulsions. My doctor can’t help me. I wash my hands every five minutes. It’s driving me crazy.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – You think you’ve got obsessive compulsive disorder!? I vacuum 20 times a day. I put in a new filter bag every single time. I brush my teeth constantly, up and down one time, back and forth the next time, then just uppers one time, lowers the next. I check that my door is locked every 10 minutes and it’s 12 locks. OCD dominates my sad life.
Suicidal Caller – I’m so depressed. That’s why I’m calling for help. What should I do? I’ve got a new psychiatrist. It’s very hard starting again with a new doctor.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – You’ve got that right! I’ve had five shrinks in six years. Some of them are nuttier than I am. One of them came on to me. Another fell asleep during our first session. It’s impossible to find a good one who can help you.
Suicidal Caller – This doctor has me on a new anti-depressant, but it has bad side affects. I have no hope. I’ve given up.
The Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – Oh god, don’t talk to me about pills and side affects. Every doctor tries you on a new pill. I’ve been on eight different pills. Some make me sweat, others upset my stomach, and one made me hallucinate. Nothing helps. I’m up to here with pills. And most pills lower my libido, which affects my sex life, not that I have much of a sex life.
Suicidal Caller – I’m so desperate I think I’m going to kill myself. That’s why I’m calling you for help. Last week I took a bottle of pills trying to overdose, but they found me before I could die. This time I’m going to swallow several bottles. I want to be sure this time.
Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – I could tell you some stories about failed attempts! I tried to hang myself once but the knot broke and I just fell and broke my ankle. I also tried to overdose once by with pills, but by mistake I picked up the wrong ones. I swallowed a whole bottle of Flintstone Vitamins. Then I tried to slit my wrist with a butter knife but the butter made my wrist too greasy so the knife just slipped off. I know all about suicide attempts. A little overdose like yours is nothing!
Suicidal Caller – Is there some place I should go? Should I call an ambulance?
Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – They’ll just take you to the hospital. They’ll throw you in the psych ward, sedate you, keep their eye on you for a few days, and then just send you home again, back to the same old bull shit. That’s what happened to me. There’s no real way out. And at least you’ve got somebody to talk to. You can call here. But what about me? Who do I talk to? Who can I call for help?
Suicidal Caller – Well…….I guess you could call me later…..here at home…..
Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – Ya, sure…….
Suicidal Caller – Maybe I could help…….
Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – What do you know about helping people contemplating suicide? I’ve been trained for this.
Suicidal Caller – I don’t know…. I could try…..
Suicide Distress Centre Hotline Worker – Well…… I suppose it wouldn’t hurt…..OK, what’s your number?
by Carolyn Taylor-Watts
The evening with Daniel is brief but exciting. At nine next morning I remain in bed, my eyes closed, holding onto his smells, to images of his ruffled curling hair, his eyes sparking with warmth and gratitude. I’m not yet willing to face my own apparition in the bathroom mirror. Smeared make-up, you don’t remove it at my age when you go to bed if you plan on spending the whole night with your lover, I’ll later tell Helena. At nine-thirty, still exulting in glories of the night, reluctantly I get up and pull aside my window drapes, pretending it’s not a brick wall six feet distant looking back at me. My nerves are razor sharp. Lucky me, lucky me, I repeat, but now in doubt. Daniel had gone in a taxi early, and I stand in my small bathroom looking at my thirty-something face illuminated only by grey light that seeps through a crack in the blinds.
Glowing with his night’s extravaganza Daniel had kissed my lips, whispered thanks, it was great, great. He’d grabbed me in a final embrace, whispered, “Both wanton and sublime you are … love you … love you,” and a flight down the stairs and he was gone.
Love you: where is the ‘I’ in that statement? It’s a distancing, not fully intimate, and feeling an edge of disappointment I pad downstairs, open the front door to the street and grab the Globe & Mail thrown against it. Briefly I register the day as cool and drizzling. Putting up a notice that says my shop will open at noon, I return upstairs and sit with my coffee, re-living all the details of the night before, pretending Daniel is with me still: in the bedroom, the kitchen, the dark living room, beside me, chatting to me, reading aloud bits of news from the Globe. But I’ve never been able to keep him long enough for his presence to seep into the flat and leave a residue. He comes and he goes, a flutter of sunshine, a brief glimpse of blue sky. During the night, I’d obliterated my daytime watchful persona and abandoned myself to a night of eroticism. Now I relive my delight in it until I hear the doorbell ring. Can’t you read, damn it Helena? I’m not open! The knocking is insistent and I trek downstairs. Under the doorframe sheltering from the rain, stands Andrew.
“Meghan. I suppose you forgot I was coming. You’re still in your dressing gown – is something wrong? Why is your shop closed?” His mild grey eyes rest on my caramel-coloured gown, my disheveled hair tied loosely in a ponytail. “Why haven’t you returned my phone calls? Seriously, is something wrong? Don’t you remember we were to have lunch?”
I have a sudden vision of myself and how I appear, the afterglow of Daniel all about me. Can Andrew detect the smell of sex? The face of the lover just departed floats beside the would-be lover in front of me. Daniel had gone too soon, promising and comforting as he’d run down the stairs. Andrew stands in the doorway, aloof as well as dogged, hanging on to threads, not sure he wants the whole.
“No, no, I’m fine,” I say, pulling the belt of my gown tighter, smoothing my wayward hair in a useless gesture. “Just a poor sleep, that’s all, noise in the laneway so loud it woke me.”
Andrew frowns and hunches his narrow shoulders. “I’ve told you, it’s not a place you should be living. You can afford somewhere much better, much safer.”
“Not as noisy as Shuter Street,” I interject lightly, immediately rejecting his familiar assumption of ‘man-knows-best’ role. “Thank you so much, so thoughtful. Oh, how are you doing? We’ll talk later, got to run, got stuff to do …”
“I have got to run. I have things I must do.” Although he’s merely correcting my lazy grammar, it reminds me of the missing ‘I’ in Daniel’s statement. I’m thinking about this as I watch Andrew’s frown deepen, as his shoulders hunch further as he turns away.
Six months pass without any word from Daniel. I’m frantic to contact him, to tell him I’m going to a book fare in Long Island, New York and can stop in Boston, spend a night with him. I leave a brief message on his work phone but hear nothing.
It’s seven, and dark already. Throwing off my clothes I wrap myself in a dressing gown, boil the kettle to make instant coffee, munch on a handful of almonds, and sit down at my computer. Evening passes into night and I’m wrapped in the story lines Helena’s daughter Georgia has written. Damn, there’s a draft from somewhere. Hate this cold. Hate winter … Oh! Catching sight of a red light blinking on my phone, my thoughts flit immediately to Daniel. Where the hell are you, lover-boy? Why do you never pick up the phone? But it’s not my phone ringing into the silence of the flat that startles, but the doorbell.
The sharp jangling continues. Damn again. Muttering silent imprecations, I limp down the stairs and impatiently open the door.
“Oh! You again. Whatever are you doing out on this … horrible night?” Fat snowflakes glisten orange under the streetlamp, slanting as they are blown by the wind. The figure on my step has his collar turned up and hunches in the cold.
“Nice to see you too.” Andrew flicks bits snow off his grey winter coat with one gloved hand, the other in his pocket.
“I’m sure you didn’t come out in this weather just to drop in on me unannounced, so?”
A half smile and small frown crease my ex-husband’s face simultaneously. “Well, in truth,” he says, “I’ve been out on business not far from here, Yonge and Dundas actually.” His eyes briefly meet mine. “I … took a chance you’d be home and might offer me a drink, maybe some hot chocolate?”
Surprised, I shake out my hair and tighten the belt about my waist. “Well, I don’t know, there’s a mess upstairs. You’ll tell me I should − oh, all right. Come on up. Just don’t look at the mess – been busy. No time to clean up.”
I have been busy. I have had no time to clean up. Andrew runs a gloved finger along the banister as he climbs the stairs after me, frowns as he reaches the top and looks about. While he slips off his long woollen coat and drapes it over the back of a chair, hurriedly I sweep papers to one end of my desk, shove dirty dishes in the sink and move newspapers off the horsehair chair in the kitchen. I see the flat now through Andrew’s eyes. To me, the pale mustard walls and amber-shaded lamps represent cozy warmth. But now, suddenly, they look tired, shabby. My tabby cat Martha hisses and slinks sway. Andrew, all but wrinkling his nose, dusts hairs off the chair and seats himself.
“You think I’m a slob,” I say, rummaging through cupboards in search of hot chocolate. “I’m busy you know. No one comes up here anyway…” Damn. What am I saying about my social life? “When I entertain, it’s in the shop,” hastily I add.
“So, you kept it.”
“My old dressing gown.” There’s that tone in his voice. I turn away, opening drawers to look for crackers. Andrew’s eyes glance again about the flat.
“The interesting thing about you Elizabeth,” he says with renewed formality, “is once you liked elegance. It was important to you. What happened? – other than the obvious, that …”
“I no longer have to please you.” I shrug.
“I thought you wanted it – elegance I mean − for yourself. You were always working to move up in the world.” Each of us looks briefly at the other.
“No,” I say, my words coming slowly, “I wanted my own business. To have an oasis of books and ideas and dreams and fantasies of other worlds …” Suddenly, in my mind, an image of Daniel rises alongside Andrew and my voice trails away. Next to Andrew, my lover is a garden of trailing vines reaching everywhere and nowhere; of exotic flowers heady with perfume that bloom one minute and are gone the next. Andrew is full of hidden ponds, faceless, leaden, unfathomable. I’d once thought of him as the perfect partner for my book empire, he dealing with the business end, books purely as objects and the cold realities of rent, insurance, book subsidiaries, publishers, sellers, authors, and I …
Oh yes, Andrew. I look away from him, my eyes roving randomly over my dusty, gloomy flat, to settle on Martha who sits with her back to Andrew, and an old pain swells up between us. Eventually it will subside into the dull ache of a larger bruise, as it’s always done before. But this time feels different, I know Andrew’s expressions, and tonight he’s come with something particular on his mind. To distract him I say, “Who’s the woman you had on your arm the other day?”
“I introduced you to her at the time.”
After a silence, I say, “Okay,” as I spoon Cadbury’s hot chocolate into two mugs. “If you’re here for a social visit, can we talk about the Greeks? – my big project right now. I’m writing about those living for centuries in Asia Minor − here’s your drink. The question is: were they really Greeks, or did they become more like Turks because they lived among them so long? There’s this fellow back in Asia Minor…”
“True story, or one of your imaginings … what’s that music you’re playing?”