Nettles
written by Alice Munro and narrated by Kymberly Dakin

 

Why did I not understand what was happening? Was there no goodbye, no awareness that when Mike climbed into the truck on that last afternoon, he was going for good? No wave, no head turned towards me—or not turned towards me—when the truck, heavy now with all the equipment, lurched down our lane for the last time? When the water gushed out—I remember it gushing out, and everybody gathering round to have a drink—why did I not understand how much had come to an end, for me? I wonder now if there was a deliberate plan not to make too much of the occasion, to eliminate farewells, so that I—or we—should not become too unhappy and troublesome.

It doesn’t seem likely that such account would be taken of children’s feelings, in those days. They were our business, to suffer or suppress.

I did not become troublesome. After the first shock I did not let anybody see a thing. The hired man teased me whenever he caught sight of me (“Did your boyfriend run away on you?”), but I never looked his way.

I must have known that Mike would be leaving. Just as I knew that Ranger was old and that he would soon die. Future absence I accepted—it was just that I had no idea, till Mike disappeared, of what absence could be like. How all my own territory would be altered, as if a landslide had gone through it and skimmed off all meaning except loss of Mike. I could never again look at the white stone in the gangway without thinking of him, and so I got a feeling of aversion towards it. I had that feeling also about the limb of the maple tree, and when my father cut it off because it was too near the house, I had it about the scar that was left.

One day weeks afterwards, when I was wearing my fall coat, I was standing by the door of the shoe store while my mother tried on shoes, and I heard a woman call, “Mike.” She ran past the store, calling, “Mike.” I was suddenly convinced that this woman whom I did not know must be Mike’s mother—I knew, though not from him, that she was separated from his father, not dead—and that they had come back to town for some reason. I did not consider whether this return might be temporary or permanent, only—I was now running out of the store—that in another minute I would see Mike.

The woman had caught up with a boy about five years old, who had just helped himself to an apple out of a bushel of apples that was standing on the sidewalk in front of the grocery shop next door.

I stopped and stared at this child in disbelief, as if an outrageous, an unfair enchantment had taken place before my eyes.

A common name. A stupid flat-faced child with dirty blond hair.

My heart was beating in big thumps, like howls happening in my chest.

 

 

Sunny met my bus in Uxbridge. She was a large-boned, bright-faced woman, with silvery-brown, curly hair caught back by unmatched combs on either side of her face. Even when she put on weight—which she had done—she did not look matronly, but majestically girlish.

She swept me into her life as she had always done, telling me that she had thought she was going to be late because Claire had got a bug in her ear that morning and had to be taken to the hospital to have it flushed out, then the dog threw up on the kitchen step, probably because it hated the trip and the house and the country, and when she—Sunny—had left to get me Johnston was making the boys clean it up because they had wanted a dog, and Claire was complaining that she could still hear something going bzz-bzz in her ear.

“So suppose we go someplace nice and quiet and get drunk and never go back there?” she said. “We have to, though. Johnston invited a friend whose wife and kids are away in Ireland, and they want to go and play golf.”

Sunny and I had been friends in Vancouver. Our pregnancies had dovetailed nicely, so that we could manage with one set of maternity clothes. In my kitchen or in hers, once a week or so, distracted by our children and sometimes reeling for lack of sleep, we stoked ourselves up on strong coffee and cigarettes and launched out on a rampage of talk—about our marriages, our fights, our personal deficiencies, our interesting and discreditable motives, our foregone ambitions. We read Jung at the same time and tried to keep track of our dreams. During that time of life that is supposed to be a reproductive daze, with the woman’s mind all swamped by maternal juices, we were still compelled to discuss Simone de Beauvoir and Arthur Koestler and The Cocktail Party.

Our husbands were not in this frame of mind at all. When we tried to talk about such things with them they would say, “Oh, that’s just literature” or “You sound like Philosophy 101.”

 

 

Now we had both moved away from Vancouver. But Sunny had moved with her husband and her children and her furniture, in the normal way and for the usual reason—her husband had got another job. And I had moved for the newfangled reason that was approved of mightily but fleetingly and only in some special circles—leaving husband and house and all the things acquired during the marriage (except of course the children, who were to be parcelled about) in the hope of making a life that could be lived without hypocrisy or deprivation or shame.

I lived now on the second floor of a house in Toronto. The people downstairs—the people who owned the house—had come from Trinidad a dozen years before. All up and down the street, the old brick houses with their verandahs and high, narrow windows, the former homes of Methodists and Presbyterians who had names like Henderson and Grisham and McAllister, were full up with olive-or brownish-skinned people who spoke English in a way unfamiliar to me if they spoke it at all, and who filled the air at all hours with the smell of their spicy-sweet cooking. I was happy with all this—it made me feel as if I had made a true change, a long necessary voyage from the house of marriage. But it was too much to expect of my daughters, who were ten and twelve years old, that they should feel the same way. I had left Vancouver in the spring and they had come to me at the beginning of the summer holidays, supposedly to stay for the whole two months. They found the smells of the street sickening and the noise frightening. It was hot, and they could not sleep even with the fan I bought. We had to keep the windows open, and the backyard parties lasted sometimes till four o’clock.

Expeditions to the Science Centre and the C.N. Tower, to the Museum and the Zoo, treats in the cooled restaurants of department stores, a boat trip to Toronto Island, could not make up to them the absence of their friends or reconcile them to the travesty of a home that I provided. They missed their cats. They wanted their own rooms, the freedom of the neighborhood, the dawdling stay-at-home days.

For a while they did not complain. I heard the older one say to the younger one. “Let Mom think we‘re happy. Or she’ll feel bad.”

At last a blowup. Accusations, confessions of misery (even exaggerations of misery, as I thought, developed for my benefit). The younger wailing, “Why can’t you just live at home?” and the older telling her bitterly, “Because she hates Dad.”

I phoned my husband—who asked me nearly the same question and provided, on his own, nearly the same answer. I changed the tickets and helped my children pack and took them to the airport. All the way we played a silly game introduced by the older girl. You had to pick a number—27, 42—and then look out of the window and count the men you saw, and the 27th or 42nd man, or whatever, would be the one you had to marry. When I came back, alone, I gathered up all reminders of them—a cartoon the younger one had drawn, a Glamour magazine that the older one had bought, various bits of jewelry and clothing they could wear in Toronto but not at home—and stuffed them into a garbage bag. And I did more or less the same thing every time I thought of them—I snapped my mind shut. There were miseries that I could bear—those connected with men. And other miseries—those connected with children—that I could not.

I went back to living as I had lived before they came. I stopped cooking breakfast and went out every morning to get coffee and fresh rolls at the Italian deli. The idea of being so far freed from domesticity enchanted me. But I noticed now, as I hadn’t done before, the look on some of the faces of the people who sat every morning on the stools behind the window or at the sidewalk tables—people for whom this was in no way a fine and amazing thing to be doing but the stale habit of a lonely life. Back home, then, I would sit and write for hours at a wooden table under the windows of a former sunporch now become a makeshift kitchen. I was hoping to make my living as a writer. The sun soon heated up the little room, and the backs of my legs—I would be wearing shorts—stuck to the chair. I could smell the peculiar sweetish chemical odor of my plastic sandals absorbing the sweat of my feet. I liked that—it was the smell of my industry, and, I hoped, of my accomplishment. What I wrote wasn’t any better than what I’d managed to write back in the old life while the potatoes cooked or the laundry thumped around in its automatic cycle. There was just more of it, and it wasn’t any worse—that was all.

Later in the day I would have a bath and probably go to meet one or another of my women friends. We drank wine at the sidewalk tables in front of little restaurants on Queen Street or Baldwin Street or Brunswick Street and talked about our lives—chiefly about our lovers, but we felt queasy saying “lover,” so we called them “the men we were involved with.” And sometimes I met the man I was involved with. He had been banished when the children were with me, though I had broken this rule twice, leaving my daughters in a frigid movie-house.

I had known this man before I left my marriage and he was the immediate reason I had left it, though I pretended to him—and to everyone else—that this was not so. When I met him I tried to be carefree and to show an independent spirit. We exchanged news—I made sure I had news—and we laughed, and went for walks in the ravine, but all I really wanted was to entice him to have sex with me, because I thought the high enthusiasm of sex fused people’s best selves. I was stupid about these matters, in a way that was very risky, particularly for a woman of my age. There were times when I would be so happy, after our encounters—dazzled and secure—and there were other times when I would lie stone-heavy with misgiving. After he had taken himself off, I would feel tears running out of my eyes before I knew that I was weeping. And this was because of some shadow I had glimpsed in him or some offhandedness, or an oblique warning he’d given me. Outside the windows, as it got dark, the backyard parties would begin, with music and shouting and provocations that later might develop into fights, and I would be frightened, not of any hostility but of a kind of nonexistence.

In one of these moods I phoned Sunny, and got the invitation to spend the weekend in the country.

 

 

“It’s beautiful here,” I said.

But the country we were driving through meant nothing to me. The hills were a series of green bumps, some with cows. There were low concrete bridges over weed-choked streams. Hay was harvested in a new way, rolled up and left in the fields.

“Wait till you see the house,” Sunny said. “It’s squalid. There was a mouse in the plumbing. Dead. We kept getting these little hairs in the bathwater. That’s all dealt with now, but you never know what will be next.”

She did not ask me—was it delicacy or disapproval?—about my new life. Maybe she just did not know how to begin, could not imagine it. I would have told her lies, anyway, or half-lies. It was hard to make the break but it had to be done. I miss the children terribly but there is always a price to be paid. I am learning to leave a man free and to be free myself. I am learning to take sex lightly, which is hard for me because that’s not the way I started out and I’m not young but I am learning.

A weekend, I thought. It seemed a very long time.

The bricks of the house showed a scar where a verandah had been torn away. Sunny’s boys were tromping around in the yard.

“Mark lost the ball,” the older one—Gregory—shouted.

Sunny told him to say hello to me. “Hello. Mark threw the ball over the shed and now we can’t find it.”

The three-year-old girl, born since I’d last seen Sunny, came running out of the kitchen door and then halted, surprised at the sight of a stranger. But she recovered herself and told me,

“There was a bug thing flew in my head.”

Sunny picked her up and I took up my overnight bag and we walked into the kitchen, where Mike McCallum was spreading ketchup on a piece of bread.

 

 

“It’s you,” we said, almost on the same breath. We laughed, I rushed towards him and he moved towards me. We shook hands.

“I thought it was your father,” I said.

I don’t know if I’d got as far as thinking of the well driller. I had thought, Who is that familiar-looking man? A man who carried his body lightly, as if he would think nothing of climbing in and out of wells. Short-cropped hair, going gray, deep-set light-colored eyes. A lean face, good-humored yet austere. A customary, not disagreeable, reserve.

“Couldn’t be,” he said. “Dad’s dead.”

Johnston came into the kitchen with the golf bags, and greeted me, and told Mike to hurry up, and Sunny said, “They know each other, honey. They knew each other. Of all things.”

“When we were kids,” Mike said.

Johnston said, “Really? That’s remarkable.” And we all said together what we saw he was about to say.

“Small world.”

Mike and I were still looking at each other and laughing—we seemed to be making it clear to each other that this discovery which Sunny and Johnston might think remarkable was to us a comically dazzling flare-up of good fortune.

All afternoon while the men were gone I was full of happy energy. I made a peach pie for our supper and read to Claire so that she would settle for her nap, while Sunny took the boys fishing, unsuccessfully, in the scummy creek. Then she and I sat on the floor of the front room with a bottle of wine and became friends again, talking about books instead of life.

 

 

The things Mike remembered were different from the things I remembered. He remembered walking around on the narrow top of some old cement foundation and pretending it was as high as the tallest building and that if we stumbled we would fall to our deaths. I said that must have been somewhere else, then I remembered the foundations for a garage that had been poured, and the garage never built, where our lane met the road. Did we walk on that?

We did.

I remembered wanting to holler loudly under the bridge but being afraid of the town kids. He did not remember any bridge.

We both remembered the clay cannonballs, and the war.

We were washing the dishes together, so that we could talk all we wanted without being rude.

He told me how his father had died. He had been killed in a road accident, coming back from a job near Bancroft.

“Are your folks still alive?”

I said that my mother was dead and that my father had married again.

At some point I told him that I had separated from my husband, I was living in Toronto. I said that my children had been with me for a while but were now on a holiday with their father.

He told me that he lived in Kingston, but had not been there very long. He had met Johnston recently, through his work. He was, like Johnston, a civil engineer. His wife was an Irish girl, born in Ireland but working in Canada when he met her. She was a nurse. Right now she was back in Ireland, in County Clare, visiting her family. She had the kids with her.

“How many kids?”

“Three.”

When the dishes were finished we went into the front room and offered to play Scrabble with the boys, so that Sunny and Johnston could go for a walk. One game—then it was supposed to be bedtime. But they persuaded us to start another round, and we were still playing when their parents came back.

“What did I tell you?” said Johnston.

“It’s the same game,” Gregory said. “You said we could finish the game and it’s the same game.”

“I bet,” said Sunny.

She said it was a lovely night, and she and Johnston were getting spoiled, having live-in baby-sitters.

“Last night we actually went to the movie and Mike stayed with the kids. An old movie. Bridge over the River Kwai.”

“On, “Johnston said. “On the River Kwai.”

Mike said, “I’d seen it anyway. Years ago.”

“It was pretty good,” said Sunny. “Except I didn’t agree with the ending. I thought the ending was wrong. You know when Alec Guinness sees the wire in the water, in the morning, and he realizes somebody’s going to blow up the bridge? And he goes berserk and then it gets so complicated and everybody has to get killed and everything? Well, I think he just should have seen the wire and known what was going to happen and stayed on the bridge and got blown up with it. I think that’s what his character would have done and it would have been more dramatically effective.”

“No, it wouldn’t,” Johnston said, in the tone of somebody who had been through this argument before. “Where’s the suspense?”

“I agree with Sunny,” I said. “I remember thinking the ending was too complicated.”

“Mike?” said Johnston.

“I thought it was pretty good,” Mike said. “Pretty good the way it was.”

“Guys against the women,” Johnston said. “Guys win.”

Then he told the boys to pack up the Scrabble game and they obeyed. But Gregory thought of asking to see the stars. “This is the only place we can ever see them,” he said. “At home it’s all the lights and crap.”

“Watch it,” his father said. But he said, Okay then, five minutes, and we all went outside and looked at the sky. We looked for the Pilot Star, close beside the second star in the handle of the Big Dipper. If you could see that one, Johnston said, then your eyesight was good enough to get you into the Air Force, at least that was the way it was during the Second World War.

Sunny said, “Well, I can see it, but then I knew beforehand that it’s there.”

Mike said, the same with him.

“I could see it,” said Gregory scornfully. “I could see it whether I knew it was there or not.”

“I could see it too,” Mark said.

Mike was standing a little ahead of me and to one side. He was actually closer to Sunny than he was to me. Nobody was behind us, and I wanted to brush against him—just lightly and accidentally against his arm or shoulder. Then if he didn’t stir away—out of courtesy, taking my touch for a genuine accident?—I wanted to lay a finger against his bare neck. Was that what he would have done, if he had been standing behind me? Was that what he would have been concentrating on, instead of the stars?

I had the feeling, however, that he was a scrupulous man, he would refrain.

And for that reason, certainly, he would not come to my bed that night. It was so risky as to be impossible, in any case. There were three bedrooms upstairs—the guest room and the parents’ room both opening off the larger room where the children slept. Anybody approaching either of the smaller bedrooms had to do so through the children’s room. Mike, who had slept in the guest room last night, had been moved downstairs, to the foldout sofa in the front room. Sunny had given him fresh sheets rather than unmaking and making up again the bed he had left for me.

“He’s pretty clean,” she said. “And after all, he’s an old friend.”

Lying in those same sheets did not make for a peaceful night. In my dreams, though not in reality, they smelled of water-weeds, river mud, and reeds in the hot sun.

I knew that he wouldn’t come to me no matter how small the risk was. It would be a sleazy thing to do, in the house of his friends, who would be—if they were not already—the friends of his wife as well. And how could he be sure that it was what I wanted? Or that it was what he really wanted? Even I was not sure of it. Up till now, I had always been able to think of myself as a woman who was faithful to the person she was sleeping with at any given time.

My sleep was shallow, my dreams monotonously lustful, with irritating and unpleasant subplots. Sometimes Mike was ready to cooperate, but we met with obstacles. Sometimes he got sidetracked, as when he said that he had brought me a present, but he had mislaid it, and it was of great importance to him to find it. I told him not to mind, that I was not interested in the present, for he himself was my present, the person I loved and always had loved, I said that. But he was preoccupied. And sometimes he reproached me.

All night—or at least whenever I woke up, and I woke often—the crickets were singing outside my window. At first I thought it was birds, a chorus of indefatigable night-birds. I had lived in cities long enough to have forgotten how crickets can make a perfect waterfall of noise.

It has to be said, too, that sometimes when I woke I found myself stranded on a dry patch. Unwelcome lucidity. What do you really know of this man? Or he of you? What music does he like, what are his politics? What are his expectations of women?

 

 

“Did you two sleep well?” Sunny said.

Mike said, “Out like a light.”

I said, “Okay. Fine.”

Everybody was invited to brunch that morning at the house of some neighbors who had a swimming pool. Mike said that he thought he would rather just go round the golf course, if that would be okay.

Sunny said, “Sure,” and looked at me. I said, “Well, I don’t know if I—” and Mike said, “You don’t play golf, do you?” No.

“Still. You could come and caddy for me.”

“I’ll come and caddy,” Gregory said. He was ready to attach himself to any expedition of ours, sure that we would be more liberal and entertaining than his parents.

Sunny said no. “You’re coming with us. Don’t you want to go in the pool?”

“All the kids pee in that pool. I hope you know that.”

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