The rail tickets were good for a one-way trip from Montreal to New Brunswick in Comfort Class. Lillian heard the train was pleasant with exquisite views and she was determined to see a bit of Canada by train before Phillip would take them all back home to London.
As they boarded, Lillian tried to persuade Philip to let the twins take the seats directly in front of them, leaving the two behind for them to hold hands. She had never been in a rail car before and was excited about the idea of a romantic voyage with her husband. Instead of acquiescing, Phillip told her he’d be more comfortable with Ida being with her in the front and Dean being with him directly behind them.
“They are only thirteen, darling,” he said, offering his version of perfect British logic. “They may quarrel once they become bored.”
“You’re right dear,” Lillian took her seat in the tall, grey upholstered chair and Ida flopped down next to her with a sigh.
“Why do I have to sit here with you?” Ida peeked through the space between the seats to see her father and brother. “I wish I were born a boy, so I wouldn’t have to sit with my mum and do my homework. You know they’ll be playing a game, don’t you? The minute we move Dad will start his game and Dean will get to play with him.”
Ida’s deep blonde ringlets were too perfect for a girl of thirteen; they belonged on a five year old, Lillian thought. She glanced out the window at the dreary landscape. The train heaved to a start and began to sway back and forth and move forward at the same time. A grey cement wall was next to the rusted, lonely rails just outside her window; the view wasn't impressive and Lillian wished for water or flowers.
“Get out your books, son.” Lillian heard Phillip direct Dean and she glanced at Ida and raised her eyebrows, but her daughter pretended not to hear. Instead, she was plugging her ears with the ear buds that connected to her phone. After she was comfortable – and after Lillian could hear some music coming from them – she retrieved a large history text and a simple spiral notebook from her back pack.
Lillian tried to smile at her daughter, communicating that she was proud of her, but Ida didn’t look up. Lillian returned to the window and the train picked up speed. She thought of holding her husband’s hand, finally squeezing her arm through the small opening between the seat and the window. She wiggled her fingers, hoping he would take them into his own. Instead she heard his voice:
“Something you need, dear?”
“No, darling,” she answered, bringing her arm back to her side. “Just saying hello!”
Lillian had to use the ladies’ room and stood up as soon as the train came to a stop. She looked over her seat to see Phillip sleeping, his head back and his mouth slightly open. It was only during sleep that her husband seemed especially young to her. He was normally stoic and preserved, but in sleep he seemed to be only a lad of eighteen. Dean, upright next to him, had his ear buds in, and his tray table down, scribbling out a report of some kind.
He looked up, and Lillian smiled. Her son’s hair needed a trim and she tried to brush his fringe back, but he moved his head to the side before she could touch him.
“I’m going to the Ladies’ room. Do you want to come with me?”
Dean gave her a look mixed with incredulity and disdain. “No.”
“Alright. Ida? Coming?”
Her daughter didn’t look up, so Lillian touched her shoulder. Ida moved forward, agitated. “No!”
“Alright, then,” Lillian squeezed her slim frame through the small space in front of her daughter and walked down the aisle. “I’m off to find it myself.”
The rows of seats were neat and Lillian marveled at how many people could fit on the train.
Passengers were in assorted positions of relaxation; many had unfolded their tray tables. Some had reclined their chairs and were sleeping, like Phillip.
She came to a sealed doorway, a blue button where the handle should be caught her attention: “PUSH”. Lillian pushed it, but nothing happened. When she pushed it again, the door made a hissing sound and opened, its glass doors disappearing into a pocketed wall.
“Proper!” Lillian walked through it, mindful of the polished stainless steel floors that soon gave way to blue carpet. The walls were covered in matching pale blue upholstery and Lillian wondered if they were padded for safety. Every wall she saw had a display of the official flag of Quebec; the fleurs-de-lis were worked into every inch of décor everywhere else.
Here and there were display cases with model trains, a plaque underneath each one described its model, year of origin and purpose on the rails. Once she had seen enough glass-covered memorabilia, Lillian proceeded to the next car where the toilet was located. The same pocket doors allowed her passage; the same hissing noises welcomed her. The Ladies’ room was grand, its lights encased in beautifully ornate wooden fleurs-de-lis and beautifully reproduced silk orchids were everywhere.
Lillian loved each detail of the loo, nearly taking a picture of the marble sinks just so she could show Ida once she returned to her seat. She thought better of it as she washed her hands and laughed to herself. She straightened upon seeing her reflection. She was a beautiful woman of forty, slim and impeccably dressed. There was no shame in what she wore, although her children frequently accused her of looking like someone’s Gran. She wondered when she became such an embarrassment to her children. She wondered if it was the hound’s-tooth prints she loved wearing; maybe it was the accessories (mostly pearls) or the sensible shoes. Her hairstyle was simple, parted in the middle and worn tied back. For picnics or outings she would sometimes let her blonde hair down and she never once felt proud, even when strangers admired it. To them she was beautiful.
Upon returning to her seat, Lillian saw that Ida and Dean had taken the seats next to the windows. Phillip was on the aisle seat, awake and reading a Canadian newspaper, written in French.
“Oh,” he acknowledged her as she approached. “I’ve allowed the children to take the windows for the second half of the journey. I do hope this is agreeable to you, darling.”
Both children were looking at her; she nodded after a moment.
“We are not yet halfway,” she said, making herself comfortable in the aisle seat. “We will arrive in Charny soon and when we do, we can switch back again.”
Both children sighed. The train started again, swaying side to side as it moved forward. Ida had been glaring at her, but Lillian pretended not to notice.
The air was biting when Lillian went to the observation deck. Ida and Dean lagged behind her; Phillip had gone to the bar car to procure some drinks for the family. The train had stopped and the conductors were encouraging passengers who needed a smoking break to proceed to the open area at platform A. All other passengers were free to walk about and explore. The observation deck was little more than two cars -flattened on top - with a handrail all the way around them.
“This is it?” Dean moaned at the top of the stairs. Ida gave a half-hearted laugh and made a noise with her throat.
“Big fun up here!” she lifted her arms to the sky and then let them drop to her sides with a clap.
“Look there!” Lillian pointed over the tops of trees to a tall flag pole, flying the maple leaf flag – the first she had seen since she boarded the train. “I knew there was one around!” She turned toward her children, who grimaced at the flag. “Have you noticed the absence of the maple leaf flag in Quebec? Like it really isn’t their flag at all?”
Ida and Dean looked at each other and shrugged. “Not really, Mum,” Dean said slowly. Ida looked at her nails.
“So here we are, then!” Phillip was ascending the stairs with a drink carrier. Four paper cups steamed with promise and Lillian felt encouragement and hope that one may be Earl Grey Tea. Ida and Dean lunged forward, grabbing the cups closest to them. “Hold on, you two!” Philip took a step back, nearly missing the steps that he just climbed.
“Look out!” Lillian shouted. It caused everyone on the observation deck to look at them; the kids backed up, but Phillip glared at Lillian. “I’m sorry I shrieked, darling, “ she led him by the elbow until he was safely away from the staircase.
“Yes, I nearly dropped the tray,” Phillip was rigid; Lillian knew he was embarrassed.
“Yes, Mum,” Ida whispered loudly. “He nearly dropped our drinks, then where would be be?”
Lillian looked carefully at the cups, removing the one with a tea tab hanging out. “I believe this one is mine,” she said. She smelled the cup through its plastic top, even the sweet aroma of her tea brought comfort.
“This is my coffee,” Phillip pointed at the one closes to him. “The other two are hot chocolate. Go ahead, take them.”
Ida had her arms firmly crossed in front of her. “I don’t want mine now!”
“Alright if I have it, then?” Dean started to remove both cups; Ida reached over and retrieved the one closest to him. They elbowed each other briefly, then pulled their paper cups free, splashing some of the contents on the floor. Before Phillip could correct them, they walked to the rail that overlooked the flag.
“Goodness,” he exhaled, removing his own cup from the holder. “I get the drinks and this is the thanks I get! My wife shouting at me, my kids quarreling What next? Am I to endure ridicule from the passengers?”
Lillian looked over her cup at him. “The milk and sugar are perfect, darling.”
Phillip softened. “Good. I’ve been your husband for fifteen years and I’m just now getting it right?
“I thought you were going to fall down the stairs,” she said, gently. She tried to stroke his arm, but he pretended to drink his coffee just to break free from her touch.
“Well, I almost did, didn’t I? Ungrateful, that lot.”
“Now, Phillip,” Lillian half-heartedly corrected him. A man carrying a guitar ascended the stairs. He began to walk among the passengers, singing. Lillian knew he would come to them eventually and decided to go back to the bar car before he had time to reach them. The public serenading was fine for Americans and Canadians, but the British shied away from that kind of thing.
“Phillip, let’s go into the bar car,” she whispered. He was busy drinking his coffee, but he turned toward the minstrel and agreed. His attempts to wave the children over were unsuccessful, so he walked to where they stood; Lillian headed for the stairs. Before she could reach them, the man with the guitar stepped in front of her. It made her stop suddenly, and she felt cornered especially when he made eye contact and smiled. The other passengers who had seen this were smiling; some applauded. Lillian felt her face grow warm and looked over her shoulder for Phillip. He was talking to Ida, who was pointing at something in the trees.
“I have often walked down this street before,
But I’ve always felt the ground beneath my feet before,
All at once am I
Several stories high
Knowing I’m on the street where you live…”
Lillian turned back to the musician. He was dressed in a simple white shirt and black pants. She wondered if he was employed by the train; she couldn't imagine why he was singing to her. There was a small packet of sugar on the ground and she stooped to pick it up. She looked for a rubbish bin, just as she heard Phillip behind her.
“Yes, yes,” he said, leaning over his wife to stuff a five dollar note in the minstrel’s pocket. “Well done. Thank you.”
Lillian tried to walk past the singing man, who had moved on to another verse. As she went down the stairs, she could tell he was still singing to her, facing her as he sang. People in the bar car looked up the stairs and then back at her. She tried to avert their gaze, but it was no use. By the time she sat on the couch, her tea had gone cold and the passengers were all staring at her.
“I want to go back to my seat,” she said. Her voice sounded high and unnatural; her ears rang. Lillian stood and walked back through the hallway with the fleurs-de-lis and memorabilia and finally into the comfort cabin. The passengers looked up at her as she walked in; she was embarrassed, thinking they all thought she was beautiful and there was nothing she could do about it.
In ten minutes Phillip came back into the comfort cab, carrying a paper cup of tea. She looked up at him, filled with gratitude.
“Oh, thank you, darling.”
He sat next to her after she had cleared Ida’s books away and placed them on the floor. “The first had gone terribly cold and you hardly got to drink it.”
“Yes,” she said. She tried a sip and realized it was plain China black tea, not Earl Grey. “This is nice, the milk and sugar are perfect.”
“There was no more Earl Grey, I’m afraid.”
“Canadian train, you know.”
Lillian laughed quietly.
“I suppose you’ve recovered from your serenade?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“Charming chap, actually.”
“I think he fancies you, that’s what.”
Lillian waved her hand at him.
She heard a hissing sound and then the voices of her children. They appeared next to Phillip, giggling uncontrollably. Lillian hadn’t seen them this happy their whole holiday.
“Mum, Dad,” Ida tried to speak without laughing. “You must come and see these Varsity students. They are playing a game in the other sleeping car. Come and see!”
“They each take turns sitting next to someone who is asleep,” Dean whispered. “Then they pretend they are also asleep. They….” The twins broke into violent laughter, covering their mouths. “They lay their heads on the shoulders of the sleeping ones. Then they place their arms about their necks, almost as if they are snuggling…” Again the laughter overtook them, and brother and sister were doubled over, guffawing.
“Until the other wakes up, completely startled!”
Lillian and Phillip, smiling, tried to see why this made the twins so giddy.
“Is there more to this game that we’re not understanding?” Phillip blinked his eyes.
“The last chap woke up just as the student was putting his legs on his seat,” Ida giggled, regaining her composure. “Here was this chap almost crawling over to his side and the man was so polite! He told the student to wake up, and he was smiling. It was hilarious!”
“Do sit down now,” Lillian said. Ida let her shoulders drop and exhaled long.
“Please, Mum. Let us go see the strangers sleeping side by side just to get us laughing again!”
“The train is about to start,” Lillian began. Phillip interrupted her, addressing both of his kids.
“Be back here in five minutes, you two,” he said, waving a finger at them.
“We will,” Ida said before walking quickly down the aisle, Dean close behind her. There was the hiss of the door opening and then silence.
“They won’t be back in five minutes,” Lillian said over her tea.
“I’m willing to go get them,” Phillip faced her and smiled. She felt safer, suddenly. The tea was sweetened just perfectly and had the right amount of milk. It wasn’t Earl Grey, like she had hoped. Few things on the train were perfect, but they would soon be in New Brunswick and it would all be over.