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Gifts of Love

One

There were two dreams she had regularly. Actually nightmares.

In one she was in the ship's lounge—as she'd been in reality—sitting on a banquette nearly tucked away in a dark corner, sipping a large scotch, watching as people ran through screaming in panic. She sat watching, her legs up on an adjacent chair. Unconcerned. The ship was sinking. She didn't care.

In the other she was on the upper level of the number 73 bus—having gone up there, as always, to smoke—and stood silently screaming, not a sound emerging from her mouth.

She'd sleep through that first dream. Just tell herself, This will only last a moment. Her waking self talking to her sleeping self. Sending messages from here to there, saying, You can sleep through this one. It's all right.

But the second one had her up instantly. The back of her hair wet against her neck, the nightgown clinging, soaked, to her body. Up and putting on the light, reaching unsteadily for her cigarettes. Getting out of bed to walk through the at-last completed first floor of this house she'd bought. Going back and forth between the rooms. Sometimes hearing Mrs. O'Brian moving about upstairs.

Mrs. O'Brian claimed not to sleep for more than three or four hours a night. Saying, "I used to be a positive champion at sleeping. Could sleep the clock round. Now here I am in bed at ten, up again at three or four. Sometimes as early as two. Wide awake. So I have a cup of tea and a good read. Then nap a bit until it's decent time to be getting up."

Mrs. O'Brian.

When it sometimes seemed too silent up there, Gillian would go quietly up the stairs to stand on the landing, listening, waiting until she heard some indication of life inside the apartment. Then, relieved, go on down again and get on with her work. Mrs. O'Brian was seventy-one and although she didn't look or act elderly, Gillian couldn't help occasionally worrying about her. She was seventy-one, after all.

She had to smile every time she recalled the day Mrs. O'Brian had come around, pointing out the newspaper ad with surprisingly pretty, well-tended hands, asking, "Have you anything against old people? Because I'm weary to a fare-thee-well of looking at apartments, then having the landlords tell me sorry but it's already taken when they find out if it's myself I'm wanting it for."

Gillian had said, "Not at all," and showed her up the stairs to the second floor, where Mrs. O'Brian had exclaimed, "Oh, now! Isn't this just too lovely! All so bright. And the floors just magnificent. How much might you be asking?"

She'd planned to ask two hundred and fifty a month—as she had for the third floor—but something told her Mrs. O'Brian wouldn't be able to afford that much. And she'd liked her. So, on impulse, had dropped her asking price, saying, "One hundred and fifty a month." At which Mrs. O'Brian had turned with a look bordering on amazement, asking, "Are you sure of what you're saying? Is it you who's the landlady?"

"I own the house, yes."

"You're asking far too little."

"P … perhaps."

"Mind you"—Mrs. O'Brian had moved into the center of the living room, turning slowly as if mentally placing pieces of furniture here and there—"it's just what I've been looking for. Not that I ever expected to find it. What about a lease?"

"As long as you like," Gillian had said, leaning against the door frame, watching this meticulously turned-out woman run her hand across the newly refinished mantel of the fireplace.

"I'll take it, of course," Mrs. O'Brian had said, turning to look once more at Gillian. "But I have to tell you I think you're just the slightest bit daft. I could move in at once?"

"Any t … t … time you like."

"Done, then." Mrs. O'Brian had come back across the room to shake Gillian's hand and to ask, "Might I sit upon occasion in the garden?"

"Of course. And I've a washer and dryer, a laundry room of sorts in the cellar."

And that was how Mrs. O'Brian had come to be her tenant four months earlier. So now, when the dream got her up, had her pacing at two or three in the morning, she was always somehow reassured by the knowledge and movement of Mrs. O'Brian overhead.

Her tenants. Her house.

She'd started on the top floor and worked her way down through the house. Knocking down the multitude of partitions that had, over the years, turned the once gracious nine-room house into a fifteen-room rabbits' warren. Working with the original plan, one by one locating the supporting walls. With a crowbar, a hammer, and, at times, an electric saw. Pulling the shabbily done Sheetrock partitions down, away, seeing how the light slowly spread from room to room until the entire floor was sun-filled. Open expanses leading one into the other. Three large, high-ceilinged rooms flowing into one another. The bedroom at the rear, the living room with its fireplace in the middle, the kitchen at the front. And adjoining the bedroom, the bathroom.

The bathrooms had driven her half mad. Four of them, counting the spiderwebbed, foully filthy one in the cellar. She'd started out thinking she'd simply strip them back to the walls, retile, and use the original fixtures. But had seen almost at once how impossible that would be. Upon pulling up the moldering linoleum, she'd discovered ancient leaks had rotted out some of the underflooring. And newer leaks were compounding the damage. So she'd called in a plumber, received what she thought a satisfactory estimate, and set him to work tearing out the fixtures in all four bathrooms. Then, with nothing more than exposed pipes awaiting reconnection to the new fixtures she'd ordered, she'd set to work removing the rotted sections of underflooring, replacing them, laying down a new subfloor. Then started in on the walls and ceilings. Ripping them back all the way to the lathing. Replastered. And had a tiling man come in to do each bathroom, floors and walls. So that they, too, were sunny and gleamed with freshness.

She'd come to know the men who worked at the lumberyard. And after their initial mix-ups—amazing how people all speaking the same language could manage to misunderstand one another so completely—had come to know them by name. And could speak to them more easily, without falling over every word. Going back time and again for lumber, nails, huge sacks of plaster of Paris. Any number of items. Had the dressed lumber cut to size where possible, then delivered—first to the third floor, then to the second, and lastly to the main floor. Another mix-up there, too. Because she'd automatically called the third floor the second, as they did at home. And had to shift all the delivered materials to the third floor herself. Quickly learning to rethink her numbering. Along with all sorts of other new pieces of information. Lumberyard terminology.

Two-by-fours, Spackle, and so forth. Still, it all served to keep her very, very busy. And so exhausted at the end of each day she was able to collapse into bed and sleep. Something she'd been unable to do for well over a year. Months when she'd paced out the nights, getting through them as best she could. Selling off the house, most of the furnishings, then living in that tiny flat off the Fulham Road, waiting for her visa to come through, waiting until her papers were in order and she could leave, get out, try to put it all behind her.

Except that she couldn't. The dreams came over and over and over. Initially she'd tried returning to sleep afterward. But couldn't. Eventually giving up, giving in. Getting herself some tea, taking a bath, pulling on some work clothes, and then sitting down at the dustcloth-covered escritoire—Mother's, she'd steel herself not to think about it—to note down her list of the continuing expenditures in the small ledger book she kept throughout her year-plus redoing the house. That done, she might write a letter to Uncle Max, telling him of her progress. Or to Michelle. Occasionally to Hugh. Not feeling anything, just staying in touch. Mechanical exercises of good manners.

She'd rented the third-floor apartment to a young, unmarried couple. Genevieve, who called herself Jenny. And Harold, who was nicknamed Sandy, claiming a great feeling of fondness for some comic-strip dog of that name. To Gillian it was all amusing nonsense. But they were reasonably considerate tenants. Frequently entertaining their friends but keeping the noise level bearable. Jenny worked as a window dresser at Hamilton's, downtown, and took painting and drawing classes at the art college three nights a week. She aspired to fashion design. Or perhaps to one day being the head of the window-dressing department. She was small, even slight. With that long, dark straight-hanging hair that so many of the girls seemed to have. But fine features and exceptionally long-fingered hands. And lovely, cascading laughter.

Sandy was very tall, massively built. And he, too, had a wonderfully infectious laugh that bubbled and built and spilled like music. She liked to hear the two of them laughing upstairs, liked to see Jenny—always dressed in some fairly outrageous outfit—come skipping down the stairs on her way to work in the mornings.

She'd only just finished her own flat—apartment, she kept telling herself to stop calling them flats—the month before. The smell of newness still clung. The varnish on the sanded and refinished floors. The fresh paint on the newly plastered walls and moldings. And with the rear bedroom windows open, garden scents from the minimal planting she'd done. With plans for next summer to lay down a proper patio, acquire some garden furniture, put in beds of flowers and a small vegetable patch off to the side there. A compost heap she'd started with her preliminary weeding, clipping.

She loved the garden. With its four huge old trees and the expanse of grass. A very English garden, really. It so reminded her of home. Nicely so. Not like so much else that seemed to stab at her. Needles piercing her chest and arms, her throat, a clamp applied to her lungs, her heart. But certain things were quite comforting. Her cache of Twinings. English Breakfast, Earl Grey, and orange pekoe. Twelve half-pound tins that should last years before she'd have to begin buying replacements from the imported-foods department downtown at Hamilton's. The old teapot she'd carried along in her hand luggage, wrapped in three linen tea cloths. Idiotic, some of the things she'd chosen to bring; items that comforted, reminded, yet mercifully revived no particularly painful recollections.

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