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Authors: Joan Boswell

Cut to the Quick

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Cut to the Quick

JOAN BOSWELL

For Nicholas, Katherine, Francis and Trevor

I would like to thank my critiquing group, The Ladies' Killing Circle, Vicki Cameron, Barbara Fradkin, Mary Jane Maffini, Sue Pike and Linda Wiken. As always their help was invaluable. Thanks too to my publisher, Sylvia McConnell and editor, Allister Thomson, who patiently smoothed the rough edges. And love and appreciation to my supportive family.

One

S
omething
was wrong with Manon. Usually she sparkled and flashed; today she spoke in a monotone and sagged like a doll that had lost its stuffing.

“It seems as if we joined the campus French club just last week. Can you believe it was twenty years ago?” Manon pushed the restaurant menu to one side and raised her glass. “Here's to our friendship—I'm glad you're here today and even happier you'll be in Toronto for three weeks this summer.” Her warm words contrasted with her flat voice.

“And may we always be there for one another.” Hollis Grant gave what had become a traditional reply. Today the words had new meaning.
Being there
meant identifying the source of Manon's unhappiness. Better not to ask directly. Manon hated pointed questions: she said they made her feel defensive and uptight. Instead Hollis would update Manon on her own life while she decided how to find out what was bothering her friend.

“I had a hundred end-of-term academic things to attend to,” Hollis sighed. “I've held this trip out as a carrot to keep myself going. This first year as a widow has been rough, but I've reached a turning point in my life. This course will be a litmus test for my future.” She hadn't yet shared what she was about to say with anyone, but it was time she did. “When it's over, I'm deciding whether or not to give up my academic career and paint full time.”

Manon's eyes widened. “That is definitely news. Give up teaching. What a major, major change. Can you support yourself?”

“I've crunched the numbers. It's possible.”

“You're a terrific painter.” She examined Hollis. “To change the subject—you look great. I like your hair—strawberry blonde suits you.” Manon reached up and smoothed her chestnut brown chignon. “I've always envied you those curls.”

“And I've yearned for straight hair. Funny how we're never content. Next to you I've always felt like a cart horse.”

Manon's smile seemed more genuine. “Statuesque, imposing, stunning—adjectives no one applies to small women like me. And your new glasses are smashing—I'd
never
be bold enough to buy red.” As she talked, she repeatedly tapped the table with perfectly manicured crimson-tipped nails, a new nervous mannerism.

“I thought they suited a tall, big-boned woman like me. I'd look ridiculous in tiny glasses.” Hollis tucked her unmanicured hands out of sight. Did she subconsciously pick showy jewellery to detract from the leathery skin on her face and hands? But it wasn't time to think about herself.

Their warm scallop salads arrived.

Hollis risked a direct but generalized inquiry. “How are
you?”

“Mon Dieu,
is this an innocent question—has today gone okay, or has clinical depression struck again?” Irritation edged Manon's voice.

“So much for
trying
to be subtle.” Hollis tried for a light touch.

“Sorry for sounding cranky. I know you care. We've shared a lot. But you've never been subtle. You've always spoken your mind—and acted impulsively, I might add.”

“Thank God, or I wouldn't have dragged you down to the Canadian National Exhibition Midway to meet Rocco,” Hollis said.

“Or told me you planned to drop out of university to run off with the world's sexiest man.”

“He was gorgeous and exotic.” Hollis shook her head, thinking how close she'd come to ruining her life.

“And when I locked you in your room to stop you, your fury scared even you.”

“An understatement. I'd never before and have never again been that angry.”

“Or so grateful when you regained your sanity.” Manon finished Hollis's sentence.

“And realized you'd quite literally saved my life. Now it's my turn. Confession time. Tell me. How are you?”

“Since I'm taking my meds faithfully, I'll say—‘as well as I ever am', and that's not bad.”

She might be physically and mentally well, but something was wrong. Hollis removed her glasses and polished them on her napkin. That something could involve work, but more likely it related to her home life. “You said Etienne couldn't decide whether to play baseball or soccer. I bet he's doing both? Eleven's a terrific age. You're competent and independent but not mired in a hormonal swamp. He's a great kid.”

“I agree. You're right. Baseball and soccer keep him busy. He's also enrolled in a July astronomy day camp.” Manon's eyes crinkled, and her expression softened when she spoke about Etienne.

“And your stepsons?”

“Ivan's about the same.” She thought for a moment. “Not true. He's more secretive. He's seldom home. He's still employed part-time at the Buy Right Supermarket on St. Clair. And now he's out most evenings working for Catering Plus. When he drifts in, he hardly talks. I don't blame him. Curt is always on his case.”

“You didn't tell me he had a second job.”

“Nothing to tell. I only know about it because the company phones every so often to leave a message. Anyway, Curt nags him to shape up and do something significant with his life. Ivan listens, agrees and leaves it at that. He never defends himself.”

“How come he still lives at home?”

“Good question. A year ago he said he planned to move out but something, I have no idea what it was, changed his mind.” She tapped her dessert spoon to punctuate her comments. “Since it seemed he didn't intend to leave, we converted the third floor into an apartment for him and Tomas. I think Ivan needed privacy. After all, he
is
twentythree. But I worry about him. Even though he and Tomas have always lived part-time with us, Ivan's never allowed me to get close. I know inconsequential details—how he prefers buttondown shirts, is allergic to wool, hates anything made with tofu, but nothing important.”

“What about Tomas? How did his second year at
UNB
go? What's he doing this summer?”

“He's finished exams and came home last Friday. He didn't try for a summer job relating to his engineering course—he's working at a fast food restaurant. But that's okay because he's swimming competitively, and shift work allows him time to practice.” She grinned. “He wants to swim Lake Ontario.”

“Now
that's
a serious ambition,” Hollis said. She enjoyed hearing Manon speak about her son and stepsons. Her voice and expression reflected love and affection. Whatever bothered her didn't involve them. That left Curt, Manon's husband.

“How's Curt? Painting twenty hours a day?”

“He's not...” Manon paused and laid the spoon down, “great.” She aligned her water glass with her dinner knife. Her shoulders slumped, and her voice dropped.

“In what way?”

Manon sighed and moved her plate a fraction. “It's his heart.”

“His heart,” Hollis repeated.

“After Christmas, he started taking afternoon naps. And his grey skin—it scared me.” Manon picked up and examined a fork. “I gently suggested he see a cardiologist. He not only refused, he shouted at me. He said I obsessed about health, my own and everyone else's. Told me to worry about myself and leave him alone.” She pushed the fork's tines into the table cloth. “One day in February, he was in his studio talking with Sotheby's in New York—they had three of his paintings in an auction. He gasped and stopped talking. Whoever he was speaking to heard him whisper ‘911'. She called Toronto. Minutes later, paramedics whisked him off to St. Mike's.”

“My God, what was it? How bad? How is he now?”

“A heart attack, one totally blocked artery. Angioplasty isn't an option. He's waiting for bypass surgery.” Manon stopped fiddling and looked at Hollis.

“Waiting—you're kidding.” What must it be like to cope with a heart attack threat on a daily basis? Constant worry. Every pain, no matter how small, possibly the beginning of “the big one”. What a way to live.

“He waits because, according to triage rules, he's not as badly off as others. He keeps his little nitroglycerine spray bottle at the ready. Actually, that's not true. Spray is new, but he doesn't like it because you're supposed to sit down for five minutes after you use it. He said he couldn't do that and returned to pills. He always carries them and has extra bottles stashed everywhere.”

“How awful for both of you. He must be furious.”

“You've got it.” Manon pointed a scarlet nail at herself. “He's mad at me because he didn't listen to me, and I was right.” She tapped the table. “Mad at his body because it let him down. Mad at the medical system because they can't fix him yesterday. He's mad, mad, mad. Etienne, Ivan, Tomas and I—we understand why he's short-tempered and angry. It doesn't make living with him any easier.”

Hollis reached across and grasped Manon's hand to still her fingers. “I wish you'd told me. Does he have any idea when he'll move to the top of the list?”

“Next fall.”

“That's two or three months away. The waiting must be affecting his daily life.”

“He pretends that it isn't.”

The waiter hovered, ready to remove their salads. Hollis waved him away. She released Manon's hand and plunged her fork into the last juicy scallop. She felt guilty about asking, but she needed to know.

“Is he well enough to give his course?”

“He's determined to pretend nothing is wrong and carry on with his life.”

“Another question—are you sure we won't be too much trouble? Three days, let alone three weeks, is a long time to entertain visitors, especially when one is a dog.”

“You
know
I love dogs. Etienne has pressed me to buy a puppy since Beau died.” Manon paused. “Visitor?” She raised her hand with her palm facing Hollis. “I officially adopt you. You
are
family. If God had given me a sister, I would have wanted one just like you.” A lilt had returned to her voice. “I need an escape—something to look forward to. We'll see a million movies—foreign films, chick flicks, whatever takes our fancy.” She grinned. “And jazz at Hugh's Place. They have a great summer line-up. Maybe Shakespeare in High Park. And it will do Curt good to have you there. He's always liked you. When will you and MacTee arrive?”

There was no question any longer of refusing such a heartfelt invitation. “We'll arrive on Tuesday morning, in time for me to make it to class at two.” Hollis leaned forward. “And it will mean that…”

A shrill cell phone rendition of “Mon Pays”. Manon dove for her handbag and fumbled for her phone. A fanatical Canadian Federalist, she'd agonized over using “Mon Pays”, the Quebec separatist anthem, for her ring. Her love for the song overruled her reservations about its political associations.

She pushed “talk”, said “I'll call you back” and excused herself. Other diners glared at her as she left. Prominently displayed notices requested patrons to turn off their cell phones. Hollis checked her purse—hers was off.

While she waited, she picked a second roll from its napkinwrapped nest, bent forward and inhaled the yeasty fragrance. She should resist temptation, but who could ignore the siren call of warm rolls? After buttering a small piece, she raised her eyes, gasped and shot to her feet.

Manon's hand anchored her to the frame of the doorway from the hall. Her skin, always pale, was ashen. Her eyes appeared unfocused, as if she couldn't quite remember where she was.

Hollis rushed to her friend, who stood rooted and apparently unable to move.

“He's dead,” Manon said.

“Curt's dead?”

Manon slowly shook her head. “Ivan.”

Sure she had been about to learn about Curt's death, it took a second for Hollis to reorient herself. “What happened?”

“A motorcycle crash. That was Curt at Sunnybrook's trauma centre.” She shook her head and blinked rapidly. “I'm going right now. Poor Ivan. I can't believe it. He always drove so cautiously. And I'm afraid for Curt. What will this do to his heart?”

“It certainly won't do it any good, but if something goes wrong, he's in the right place.”

But what about Manon? She coped badly with stress. Ivan's sudden death. Curt's heart. If ever there was a time to be a friend, this was it. “I'll come with you?”

“No.” Manon approximated a smile. “I'll need you later. Go to our house.” She glanced at her watch. “Etienne should be back at school by the time you arrive. Break the news to Nadine. She'll be devastated. Ivan was her favourite. They spent hours cooking and talking about food. She needs to hear the news before the others come home. I don't know what we'll have to do at the hospital, but we'll come home as soon as we can.” She bit her lower lip. “I hope I'll be the one to tell Etienne, but you'll have to do it if I'm not back.”

Hollis liked Nadine. She was much more than a housekeeper—she was a strong right arm and emotional support for Manon. Sharing the news would be horrible, but it had to be done. “I'll wait with you until you get a taxi.”

Manon grasped Hollis's arm as they huddled together in warm early summer sunshine. “Stay with us until this is over?” she pleaded. Her voice quivered.

What would a stay in Toronto involve? Nothing that couldn't be arranged with a few phone calls. She knew firsthand how much it helped if a friend assumed some of your responsibilities. Elsie, a church stalwart, had taken over the day-to-day running of the manse following Hollis's husband's murder. She remembered how grateful she'd felt. But it was more than that. Hollis had never believed she'd adequately repaid Manon for saving her from running off with Rocco.

“As long as you need me,” she said.

Hollis returned to the restaurant after Manon had slipped into a taxi and headed to Sunnybrook. She retrieved her suitcase from the cloakroom. Outside again, she hailed a cab, hoping the cabbie wouldn't want to talk. She needed time to pull herself together. Her hands shook, and she felt nauseous. Although she hadn't been close to Ivan, learning that anyone you knew had died violently shocked you. Seeing her husband lying murdered on the road in the opening moments of Ottawa's National Capital Marathon flashed onto her mind screen. Sudden death—she knew all about it. She locked her hands together and breathed deeply. To be useful, she'd have to use jogging and meditation to maintain her composure. It wouldn't be easy, but she'd do her best.

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