No Time to Waste: a John Dunn story

Even though the calendar said it was Sunday, January 12th, the first day of the new week had shown very little charity to anyone. Truth to tell, ever since we had returned from church in the morning the day had offered nothing but gristle, and towards four o’clock, deep into the shank of the afternoon, its only vestige of virtue left was the surprisingly good daylight remaining. Quite enough to permit going for the walk.

Gray skies glowered from under leaden features, and a tough, menacing wind drove out of the north-east with a piercing cold: it’s that kind of wind that prompts people hereabouts to call it “a wind that cuts right through you”. Understandable too: the thermometer stood at fifteen below at four o’clock, the same as it had shown at sunrise at seven-thirty. It hadn’t budged all day.

In such a hostile climate, I’m tempted to look out the window, give a moment’s thought to going for a walk, and return to the easy chair to watch tongues of flame lick up and around ironwood billets in the grate of the fireplace. That temptation I resisted, but hardly heroically: fact is, I didn’t even look out. It was time to go for a walk, while yet there was light in the sky.

I was wearing the wonderfully comfortable, user-friendly flannel shirt that Mary Ann had sent from Guelph from Santa Claus, and over that an all-wool sweater from Cathy, made in Madagascar. From the hall-tree, I lifted the all wool scarf from Thailand and then swung down “The Coat”, fitted arms into the sleeves, and zipped it up.

“The Coat?” You bet. It’s the ultimate winter coat for use in the Ottawa Valley, only because Margaret, eldest daughter, lives in Yellowknife amongst people accustomed to “the wind that cuts right through you” too. Aware also of father’s prescription to go walking every day since quadruple arterial by-pass surgery rebuilt his heart, she saw this remarkable coat at The Bay in YK, and enquired if there might be one in Extra Large. Indeed there was. She had it sent on.

Without a doubt, this coat is the invention of the collective genius and inspiration of the Company of Gentlemen Adventurers Trading into Hudson’s Bay. Neither the fierce hostility of the north wind, the snarliness of a gale from the east flinging icy pellets into the face, nor even the thermometer in a free fall can prevail against one wrapped inside the parka-topped coat from YK. From within its quilted palisades one laughs at the terrors of wind and cold on a shrieking January, Sunday, the 12th.

In fact, I’ve gained such confidence in “The Coat”, that I even dare consider it a match in these latter days for the buffalo combination, buffalo overcoat, buffalo hat, buffalo gauntlets and robe that my father used when he set off with the horse and cutter to see country patients in those Januarys three-quarters of a century ago. Inside “The Coat” these days I merely generated a lot of body heat, but it puts one in the proper frame of mind to enquire about hot chocolate on returning to the barn.

I stepped out of the house on Cameron Street on the first mile. Where the town ends and the country starts at the end of Union Street, I stopped to gaze with unremitting wonder at the mystery of the Mississippi, and the depth of the valley which the river there makes as it carves out a way through Lanark limestone. Even more of a mystery there rose up, and this was the mystery of the groundhog in this landscape, and how that hibernating houri could, as legend says, venture to surface again in this boreal climate in little more than a fortnight from the womb of the earth to rejoin the quick.

Turning away from the twin mysteries of water and earth, I bent a little inside the fur-fringed parka and set off to walk directly into the teeth of the wind. Two blocks east, the route went, then two blocks north towards the high school, where I knew that as I turned the corner on to Martin Street I’d feel again the sharp snap of the north-east wind.

Not another person was about. I alone walked the streets of the Mitcheson section of Almonte. At the high school I turned the corner and squared off with the enemy, looked up, and then slowed perceptibly, for behold, a lady approached. Indeed. In truth. In this weather? Wondering brought no answer to my silent why.

Mrs. Charlie Scanlon and I met at the intersection of Wilkinson Street with Martin Street. Her house, just another hundred yards down Martin Street has the most magnificent climbing rose bush in three townships, with hundreds of all-yellow blooms in June, a glorious riot of sun on the east side of the house.

She was wearing a long quilted nylon coat in blue. Her hands were hidden inside double mitts with figured designs knitted into their backs in yellow and blue. She wore a white cap, blindingly white, with ear flaps that tied under the chin and an admiral’s peak in front to ward off the sun should it ever get out again. She carried a stout aluminum cane in case there might be hidden ice in the route. We stopped to talk, each turning a quarter turn to annoy the bared teeth of the gale.

“It’s cold if you’re walking into the wind,” I remarked, a bid condescendingly perhaps, as if I were thinking that having ventured only a hundred yards from home, she might be unaware of the true hostility of the day.

“Yes,” she agreed, “It’s the kind of wind that cuts right through you, but I find that I just have to get out for a walk, wind or no wind.”

“When you get into the habit of walking, you become so accustomed to it, you’re like the dog. You just have to get out, regardless of the weather,” I said.

“That’s right,” she agreed again, and explained a common sense approach she took. “When you’re properly dressed for it, there’s no reason for not going out.” With that element of science settled, she turned her attention to the only other person on the street. “What brings you out today?” she enquired.

“Well, I’m obliged to be out,” I said.

“Why’s that?” she enquired.

“A rebuilt heart has to be taken out and exercised,” I said.

“Of course,” she replied. “I see you sometimes on this street too. We think we know all about the people we see on the street, but we forget. How long ago was your operation?”

“Six years come March 19th.”

“Goodness, how the time flies. And I know you’re busy as well, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yes, indeed, every day is full. And you?” I enquired, “What about yourself?”

“Oh heavens, yes, I’m busy and well too. I do go out for a walk often. I find it makes me sleep better. At least I think so, and that’s all that matters.

“I’m sure it does. It makes all the systems want to go.”

“But you’d never guess what I’m doing now,” said she, laughing at the very audacity of the idea which had seized her.

“No, I suppose you’re right: I’d never guess,” I conceded. “What are you doing now?”

“Taking up music.” Audacious or not, the idea was out, and the laughter at her own flight into seeming foolishness went into a crescendo.

“Really?” I exclaimed, astonished to find an idea which might have been novel as a New Year’s resolution well alive and well in mid-January. “Is it the piano?” I asked.

“Piano, yes,” she said, her voice rising in an ascending scale with that lifting lilt which the Welsh give to ordinary words, as if they want to imply that all the wonder of creation lies at the end of simple statement of act. It only encourages more.

“I had started to work on the piano when I was just a girl,” she explained with the lilt still tickling her tongue, “And, well, after all the fuss of Christmas and the New Year, I got right to work with the housecleaning, and there was the piano. I gave it a good dusting off, and put Windex on the keys, and all that sort of thing, and then I just looked at it by itself there in the living room, and I said, “I’m not just going to let that piano sit there like that. I’m going to get it tuned. And I did.”

“That’s the right start,” I offered, as if I were remembering the story of the Little Red Hen in the first reader of that other time.

“And then, I said to myself that there’s all that fine music on the radio in the afternoon, and here I am all alone since Charlie died, with this piano in the living room, and it’s all tuned, and ready to go. So what to do? I just decided I’m goin’ to take up music again, and get busy and learn to play the piano.”

“A great idea,” I said, ready to call for three cheers for approval. In a deep recess of the mind came a welling wonderment that asked if she’d be ready to play duets in June with the smell of a thousand yellows roses in bloom coming in through the open window of the living room.”

“So you see,” she went on, “I’ve got no time to waste. Piano’s all tuned up, and I’ve begun the business. I’m taking lessons and it’s goin’ just fine.”

“You’re taking it at the regular pace, I suppose,” I said. “Not in any kind of hurry?”

“No hurry at all. I’m only seventy-seven now, but in spite of that, I figure there’s no time to waste. Of course, I’m only in First Grade yet. But, what do you think of that?”

“Heartiest congratulation,” I said. “Being in First Grade, you’ll be deserving a star too. It’s so nice to see a lady act her age.”

A crashing crescendo of hilarity burst over her as she turned to continue west. It rippled off the stones as she turned the corner at the high school. I whistled the “Internationale” on the way past her house. Only because I’d stopped on the street on a Sunday afternoon in January to pass the time of day, hardly long enough to cool the mules.

On the calendar it was January 12th, four-thirty in the afternoon, and darkness comin’ on.

John Dunn
January, 1992.