Excerpt – The Promised Land

Uncle Gavin

“What time is it?”

“Ten fifty-one. Two minutes later than the last time you asked, dear.”  Calvin was a patient man, but his wife’s anxiety was beginning to wear on him a bit. He had never seen her so nervous.

“I just don’t want to be late.”

There are times in a marriage when remaining quiet can land a husband in trouble. There are also times when there is absolutely no right thing to say. This precise moment in the marriage of Calvin and Victoria MacIsaac appeared to be a confluence of those two dark streams. At such a time, a smart man might just as well grab a handful of Kibble and head for the doghouse. Which is also the wrong thing to do. Knowing that there was no way to dodge the bullet, Calvin went ahead and did what he thought was best.

“We can leave now if it will make you feel better.”

“Don’t patronize me, Calvin MacIsaac! You know very well that the plane isn’t due until five o’clock. What would we do in Sydney, wander around the airport for six hours?”

“We will do whatever you think is best, or whatever makes you the most comfortable. As soon as you figure out what that is.” Calvin’s patience was just about at an end. She looked at him with fury in her red-rimmed blue eyes. Uh oh, he thought; here it comes.

He was in no way prepared for what came next, not even after nearly forty years of marriage. Victoria Mercer Davidson MacIsaac, the strongest, bravest woman he had ever met in his life, sat down on a kitchen chair, put her head in her hands and began to cry.

Well! Was there any right thing to be done in this situation? Calvin didn’t know, so he followed his heart. If the woman who brought sunlight to his life, who put the stars in the night sky, who had stood beside him in sickness and in health, in snow and sleet and rain, who had borne his children and raised them with strength and courage and understanding;  if this woman was troubled, he would comfort her, right or wrong.

He stood, walked over behind her chair and laid his hands gently on her shoulders. She tensed, her muscles as tight as fiddle strings stretched to the edge of breaking; stopped breathing for a long moment. Then the tension went out of her like the rush of air out of a balloon. She leaned her head back against his chest and sobbed as if her heart would break.  Calvin did the right thing. He stood steady behind her and waited, sending all the love in his heart down through his hands and into her.

After a few minutes, the sobs began to abate.

“What is it about Uncle Gavin that makes you so touchy?” he asked, pulling a tissue from the box on the shelf and passing it to her.

She nodded her thanks; blew her nose in her customary way – with enough volume to frighten the sheep and scatter the chickens. It was too soon in the recovery process to tease her about it in the way he usually did. She looked up at him with gratitude in her eyes.

“I don’t know him well, you know,” she said. “I had only seen him once before the funeral and I remember being a bit frightened. He had a gruff way about him, you know. His voice was loud and there always seemed to be an undercurrent of anger in it. Maybe that was just the impression of an eight-year-old girl but it stuck with me.” She paused for a sniffle and a wipe of the nose. “Then at Auntie Doris’ funeral he seemed so sad; smaller somehow, and I felt sorry for him. That’s when I invited him.” She looked up again at him. “I never really thought he’d come all the way to Cape Breton. I don’t think he’s ever been outside of Boston in his life, and he’s nearly eighty!”

Now we’re closer to the heart of the matter, thought Calvin. He kept a steady, comforting pressure on her shoulders.

“A couple of things are different, Victoria. The most important is that you’re not eight years old anymore. You’re a full-grown adult woman with three kids of your own and you’re a match for any man who ever walked the earth, let alone a crotchety old uncle. And the other thing is that you’re not alone. If he gives you any grief, he had better be good in the water, because I’ll toss him into the bay and let him swim home!”

His timing was perfect, catching Victoria off balance. She snorted through her nose necessitating another tissue.

“Why don’t we,” he suggested, “leave here at about two o’clock and have a late lunch at the Italian place on Charlotte Street, then go collect Uncle Dragon?”

“Good plan, King,” she answered. “I’m better now. Thanks for hanging in there.”

“Hanging in is one of the things I do,” he responded. “When I’m not drowning dragons, that is.”

For the balance of the waiting time, Calvin made sure that he was handy, but not so close as to crowd her space. She was visibly more relaxed, humming softly as she tidied the already spotless kitchen.

They left just after two o’clock, crossed on the ferry and climbed Kelly’s Mountain in bright sunshine, arriving at Casa Domenico at three. Victoria took a pass on the suggested glass of wine. “I think that I’d better have all my wits available, at least at the start. Once we get him settled in, maybe. Should we be going soon?”

“The plane isn’t due for a while yet,” said Calvin. “Planes can be hours and hours late but never more than a couple of minutes early.  We’ll be fine.”

And so they were. The information monitor at the airport showed Uncle Gavin’s flight status as On Time. The screen of the monitor was not crowded, as there were only four flights listed: two arriving and two departing, and all of them to or from Halifax. In fact, all the information on the monitor related to a single plane, a DASH 8 turbo-prop nearly thirty years old that made the Halifax/Sydney round trip twice a day.

Victoria paced the waiting area, her eyes flicking constantly from the window to the flight monitor to the clock and back to the window. Her flick rate increased steadily as arrival time came closer. Finally Calvin took her by the elbow and brought her to a full stop. He put his hands on her shoulders and spoke in a firm but comforting tone of voice.

“He’s seventy-eight,” Calvin reminded her, “and no match for a couple of tough sixty-year-old Cape Breton farmers.”

She smiled at that, nodded and relaxed momentarily before tensing up again almost immediately. “He’s here,” she said, hearing the sound of a single plane in the empty sky, lining itself up for its approach to the runway. As they watched it touch down on the tarmac, the message on the monitor switched to ‘ARRIVED’. This was followed immediately by a taped announcement in English and French.

“Good,” said Calvin. “Let’s get this show on the road.” He led her to a seat outside the Arrivals area as the plane taxied to a halt outside and the ground crew wheeled a staircase to the door of the craft.

About three minutes later, passengers began to trickle through the gates. “There he is!” she said waving to an old man at the gate. “He looks smaller.”

“That’s a good start,” he said. “Maybe I won’t have to toss him in the bay after all.”

The man was fairly ordinary looking. Of average height, he wore dark wool pants, a blue shirt and a three-button cardigan sweater that was somewhere between cream and yellow. Narrow shoulders and large feet gave him a bit of a Chaplinesque appearance. His black shoes were clean but not shiny. The ensemble was completed with a Red Sox baseball cap that had seen much wear. Calvin guessed that he might don it when he woke in the morning and leave it on until bedtime. He was correct about the hatting, though the team logos – Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins and Patriots – rotated according to a fixed seasonal schedule.

The man looked up and scanned the faces in the waiting area. When he picked out Victoria, his well-used features split into a grin that lit up his face like sunshine on corn silk. He raised a gnarled right hand and waved a little-boy greeting. Calvin noticed that he swayed a bit as he walked, like a sailor just returned to land. “He has a bit of a hitch in his git-along,” he remarked.

“He had a hip replacement a couple of years ago,” Victoria informed him. “I guess that takes some getting used to. Hi Uncle Gavin,” she called as he came through the double doors.

“Hi Vic,” he said in a voice that Calvin was sure could be heard on Boularderie Island. “You must be Cal,” he said, extending his hand.

“Calvin,” said Calvin. “Good to meet you, Uncle Gavin.”

“You too, Cal. Say, isn’t this a tiny airport! And that little putt-putt plane! I couldn’t believe it in Halifax when they sent us to it. What is this, I said, Fisher-Price airlines? But we got here okay and then I thought, if they had sent a real plane there wouldn’t be enough room to land at this itty-bitty airport. Holy smokes, you should see Logan. Now that’s an airport!”

“Have you flown a lot, Uncle Gavin?” asked Victoria.

“No, hon, this is the first time. It wasn’t too bad, you know. The waitresses looked after me pretty good, especially the one on this plane. She talked a bit funny, but pretty smart all the same. She was always handy when I wanted something, you know? Like coffee or some peanuts. Say, that guy doesn’t look too busy!” He pointed at a young man sitting at the desk of one of the car rental counters. There were only three booths, two of them dark. The kid looked up from his texting device for a moment before resuming his communication with someone somewhere.

“Pretty nice pictures there!” Uncle Gavin had already switched topics from the clerk to the wall murals. “That rig is about the same size as the one I just got off!” he joked, pointing to the picture of the Silver Dart. The little bi-plane had been the first aircraft to achieve flight in the British Empire more than a century before, lifting off from the ice of Bras d’Or Lake in 1909.

Calvin led the way outside. Three weeks, he thought, loading Gavin’s suitcases into the trunk of the Honda. That’s a very long time.

There was no improvement in the short-term outlook on the way out of the city. Cape Breton University was “no bigger than an office building back home”; the Mayflower Mall had “not much to it”; downtown Charlotte Street was “like a back street in Saugus”; the rusting hulk of the Cap Ann III – on her side in the mud at the foot of the harbour  – was “an eyesore”. The view from the Seal Island Bridge, though, was “kinda pretty”. His response to Kelly’s Mountain; “I thought mountains were big!” They stopped a few moments at the St. Ann’s Lookoff and that storybook vista actually met with Gavin’s approval. When Victoria pointed below to the spit at Jersey Cove and told him they would be crossing on a ferry, he said, “You need a ferry to get across that? Tinker Bell could hop that without hardly flapping her wings.”

The tide was an hour past the turn, running at perhaps twelve or thirteen knots, when they boarded the Torquil MacLean. Gavin got out of the back seat and, like many other tourists, went to the starboard rail to look out at St. Ann’s Bay. The line of mountains of the Highlands on the west side marched in stately procession, changing from green to blue and finally to grey where they faded into the horizon past Cape Smokey. “Say,” he said to Victoria, who had come to join him, “that’s pretty. Just like a postcard.”

Alex MacDonald, the deck hand, passed behind them. “Hi Victoria,” he said. “Not a bad day.”

“Just fine, Alex. This’ll be good for the potatoes.”

Alex nodded agreement. “Some weather coming in on Tuesday; better enjoy the sun while it’s here.”

“Alex,” said Victoria, “this is my uncle Gavin. He’s up for a visit from the States.”

The two men shook hands. “How are you enjoying your visit so far, Gavin?” asked Alex.

“Just fine. It sure is a pretty place. But what do you do for excitement around here?” asked Gavin.

“Oh,” replied Alex, “we try not to get too excited around here.”

Gavin laughed, thinking that the man was making a joke.

“I guess it must be pretty boring, just going back and forth,” said Gavin, “back and forth; nothing to do but count the seagulls.” He laughed, not noticing that MacDonald’s face had darkened slightly. “Well,” he said, turning to get back in the car, “thanks for the little ride.”

Alex could have told him about MacDonald MacLean Cape Breton Sharma, but decided against it. For one thing, it was too long a story for a four-minute ferry crossing. Also, though the man was Victoria’s uncle, Alex didn’t know enough about him to offer a story that was important and very personal to him.  Maybe later, after he had seen him a time or two.

“Yeah,” he said, “we must seem pretty quiet after Boston.”

“I’m not from Boston,” retorted Gavin, “I’m from Cliftondale! Boston’s miles away.”

‘Yes,’ thought Alex to himself, ‘maybe I’ll tell him later. Or maybe not.’

“Oh,” he replied aloud. “Well, have a nice day, Gavin,” he said. “Enjoy your stay in Cape Breton.” He moved forward to direct traffic off the boat; waved to Calvin and Victoria, and nodded to Gavin. There was not a lot of warmth in the gesture.

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One response to “Excerpt – The Promised Land”

  1. Roderick says :

    I look forward to hearing about the award dinner

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