Several weeks ago, Peggy Doyle had called to invite Rebecca to join her and two other former girl friends (Margie Blatchford and Heather Morris) for lunch at the Château Laurier Hotel on a Monday afternoon. Peggy was one of the few people among the tiny populace of Burnstown Village where all the girls had lived who had succeeded in distinguishing herself, other than by getting married before twenty-two years of age and having children within a year thereafter. Peggy, who had come from the same modest family background as the other girls, had the one thing the others didn’t have in abundance – brains. While Rebecca had her feet solidly enough on the ground to avoid confusing honest work with shallowness or inadequacy, she nonetheless also recognized that Peggy Doyle had done a lot to advance herself through University to become a qualified professional (she did something in the financial sector, that was all Rebecca knew or cared to know for that matter). Whatever it was that Peggy did, Rebecca knew it wasn’t cleaning other people’s toilets.
Peggy, it might usefully be observed, had the same respect for Rebecca and the other girls, though of course for other reasons. Peggy had an eye for what is commonly called the salt of the earth, and she wasn’t ashamed or hesitant to admit it, though she fully suspected that the girls would be surprised to learn of her high regard. Margie worked as a Clerk in the Becker’s store in the Village, and Heather worked as a Manager in a nearby Giant Tiger store. All of them, except Rebecca, were married. Marriage just never appealed to Rebecca, and she had yet to meet anyone who interested her enough to steal her away from her favourite pass-time of canoeing, which in the winter was replaced with snow shoeing. Rebecca was distinctly the out-of-doors element of the crew. This also explained why Rebecca had nothing to wear to the Château Laurier Hotel. Her private industry and solitary life merited little requirement for the more effeminate accouterments. She had got along quite well with only blue jeans and flannel and denim shirts.
As Rebecca contemplated her predicament, her mind wandered to a consideration of what had prompted Peggy, after all these years, to call the former girl friends together. True, they had been stuck to one another like glue in high-school, but that relationship had quickly dwindled upon graduation. Actually, Margie never graduated; she left two years earlier than the others, forced by necessity into the work force. Oddly, neither had any one of the girls been to the wedding of the others. By strange coincidence, each of them had decided to have a very small and intimate wedding, and Peggy’s was even in Barbados, which would have been out of the question for the others to attend in any event. Peggy had married “up” or “well” as some like to say. In spite of this, the girls were such close and true friends that they maintained equal affection for one another even after all the years had passed; and, more significantly, they retained their genuine curiosity to know what and how each of them was doing. Conversation was never lacking among these four, no matter what the interval of correspondence between them! Still, Rebecca couldn’t figure why Peggy had orchestrated this reunion. Was she going through a divorce and feeling the loss of companionship? Was she becoming sentimental for her rural roots? Did she just want to show off her urban and professional status? Was she just being a friend? Whatever it was, Peggy hadn’t betrayed her purpose. When Peggy had telephoned each of her girl friends, she almost jokingly teased them about the motivation behind the call, simply saying they “would see soon enough”.
As so often happens when ancient friends have not seen one another for a long time, there is an inclination to want to present a favourable impression of oneself when the acquaintance is renewed. Of course, for any who consider the point for but a moment know, the impression is quickly forgotten and replaced with the depth of knowledge which the other friends already have of you, so in that sense the effort is entirely wasted. But, still, there is that tendency. It did, however, perturb Rebecca that she should be obliged to spend some of that money which she was always so reluctant to part with upon an adventure which might, at the most, last no more than three hours. Rebecca was not the type to derive any particular thrill from making an entrance. First, she was too self-effacing for that, and besides her practical nature mitigated against anything as obviously superfluous as looking pretty for the sake of it. And yet, she didn’t want to disappoint Peggy, nor the others for that matter.
Not to be ruined by the dilemma, Rebecca intently canvassed her options for getting a new dress (even though it burned her up that she might never use it again). Among her immediate thoughts were, not surprisingly, the discount clothing stores, but Rebecca felt that anything she might get at those emporia was likely to be identifiably discounted goods. As much as Rebecca did not spend her money on clothes, her proximity to women with money (whose homes she cleaned) had educated her eye to what was good and what was bad in the women’s fashion industry. Rebecca never failed to open the closet doors in the bedroom on the pretext of cleaning the tops of the doors, to examine surreptitiously and often wistfully the contents. Besides, Rebecca found she enjoyed the wafts of perfume which frequently flowed from the racks of clothing, a smell quite different from the antiseptic cleaners she employed to fulfill her duties. Rebecca knew of several stores in the City where she could search to find something within her budget, but she knew that a good deal of her reluctance to do so was not just the expected high price of the goods, but also the whole process of doing what she considered to be foreign to her. Rebecca was not a shopper by any stretch of the imagination, and she certainly didn’t appreciate the prospect of being mollycoddled by some matronly shopkeeper who would invariably seek to impress upon her what she considered to be her superior views of fashion, as though Rebecca were, by her folksy appearance and mannerisms, obviously in need of guidance. Rebecca’s instincts told her that in matters such as these one had to be able to stand one’s ground to avoid complete capitulation. As a result, the regular commercial options did not appeal to Rebecca. There was, however, one further option which only came to her mind as an after-thought, and that was her recollection of a store in the Village which had recently opened. The store sold vintage clothing (which Rebecca thought was a significant departure from used clothing). While Rebecca had never been compelled for any reason to examine the items which had been displayed in the window, even her cursory sight of them as she passed on the street informed her that the articles were of good quality, some in truth being virtually brand new and never used but once or twice.
The time before the reunion passed quickly. Unbeknownst to the other girls, each of them was doing her very best to make the event memorable, which is to say that each of them was working hard to prepare herself for what promised to be a remarkable and unprecedented outing at the Château Laurier Hotel, putting her best foot forward. Without disclosing to one another what they planned to wear, or even hinting that the subject was of a pressing nature, the three girls in Burnstown Village arranged to travel together to the City on the appointed day. There was no need to take separate cars, and besides they could catch up with one another along the way.
On the other side of the proverbial coin, Peggy Doyle was busy making her own arrangements, the least of which was booking a table for the four ladies at Wilfrid’s dining room. Peggy could hardly contain herself in anticipation of the event! Never before had she done anything like this (nor decidedly would she ever do so again), and it was all she could do to restrain herself in the weeks and days leading up to the affair. Peggy’s husband, Jamie, who imagined that he knew all about the arrangements, saw his petite wife positively elevated off the floor for the entire time.
When the day of the luncheon finally came, it was a brilliantly sunny day, highlighting the glistening new copper roof additions to the Hotel. The doormen appeared in long, dark coats and blazing brass buttons. The nearby sight of the grand structures on Parliament Hill added to the formality of the experience and the fairy-like nature of the buildings. When the girls from Burnstown Village arrived beaming at the front of the Hotel, they were so overwhelmed by the day and the attentiveness of the staff that they permitted themselves the indulgence of valet parking (though it must be owned that Rebecca, who sat in the back seat, considered it an unnecessary extravagance, and she had some trouble accepting that the door was held open for her). What followed – the glide through the Grand Lobby, the ecstatic greeting by Peggy at the podium outside Wilfrid’s, the luncheon, the gossip and the desserts – all that pales in comparison to the moment when Peggy slipped each of her girl friends an envelope, which she invited them to open. Words cannot begin to describe the heart palpitations and cold sweats on the brow which immediately followed thereafter. The other guests in the dining room all looked up in unison from their gilt-edged plates as the crescendo of excitement rose at the table where the four girls sat. It took the longest time, and rapid interjections from Peggy, to explain what had transpired. To the credit of the girls, it never once was asked by the beneficiaries why they were entitled to such largesse from Peggy; somehow they each knew they would have done the same for the others, given the opportunity. What, however, they didn’t ask, and didn’t know (nor did Peggy’s husband, Jamie), was that nine weeks ago to the day, Peggy had been told she had an inoperable cancer and that she had three months to live.