The Grand Old Lady
Lois Cloarec Hart
This is not a conventional romance; it is, however, a love story.
“Your résumé and references are excellent, Ms Anders, and you’ve cleared all background checks with flying colours.” The interviewer, Mrs. Abigail Stanger, leaned back in her chair and regarded the applicant with penetrating eyes. “The Board really only has one further concern that they’ve asked me to address.”
“Is it my orientation?” Hailey Anders kept her tone level, but inwardly her hackles rose. It wouldn’t be the first time she had lost a much desired job for that very reason, but Hailey refused to remain in the closet.
Mrs. Stanger laughed softly. “Hardly. You’re far from the first gay woman to have lived or worked at the Peregrine. You would not have made the short list had we any reservations about that. No, indeed. In fact, Ms Anders, our concerns revolve around why you chose the Peregrine. With your experience and credentials, you could have your pick of the best hotels in the world. Why do you want the post of manager at this private residence hotel?”
Hailey relaxed. This was an easy question to answer. “In truth, when I first learned of the position, I was shocked. I had no idea that all-female residences still existed in the 21st Century. I thought they were a relic of my grandmother’s era, perhaps even my great-grandmother’s.”
“That’s understandable. The Peregrine is something of an anachronism in this age, but she has served this city, and my family, well for over a hundred years. Judging by the long waiting list of prospective tenants, she continues to provide a service that is in demand.”
“She most certainly does; that was one of the biggest draws. The Peregrine offers a safe, clean, peaceful place to live. I was intrigued by the diversity of the residents, too. You’ve got twenty-somethings who’ve barely left their parents’ nests, and long timers who’ve been here for decades. This makes for a unique and alluring place to work.”
“And live. Should you take the position, you will be living here, too.”
“And that, too, is one of the big draws, Mrs. Stanger. Renting or buying in this area costs a small fortune. To find such an elegant residence in a city I’ve long wanted to move to is more than I could have hoped for.”
Mrs. Stanger nodded approvingly. “Ms Anders, the Board has authorized me to tell you that you’re hired. Now let’s take a stroll around the grand old lady and I’ll give you some of her history.”
It took all of Hailey’s self-control to contain her delight as she rose to follow her new employer. She had secured her dream job. All the years of training, overtime, shift work, moving, and leaving behind people she loved had finally paid off. This time she planned to settle in and stay for a while.
Mrs. Stanger led the way from the corner office down the hall towards the lobby. “My great-grandfather, Zebulon Barclay, broke ground for the Peregrine in 1903 after making his fortune in steel. He was no Andrew Carnegie or John D. Rockefeller, but he pulled himself up from penurious origins as the son of a sailor’s widow to become a middling Captain of industry. He had been impressed early on by the need for a building like the Peregrine, a place where working women of good character could be safe and secure.” Mrs. Stanger stopped in front of the elevator and pushed the button. “I suppose seeing his mother’s struggles made him a proto-feminist long before the word was coined. At any rate, he established certain rules to which our family has adhered ever since.”
Hailey followed Mrs. Stanger into the elevator. “Rules?”
“Indeed. All of our residents must provide character references and proof of employment or educational status. We no longer enforce curfews, of course, but gentlemen callers still are not permitted in the elevators or above the ground floor without a staff escort. Men are allowed to linger with their girlfriends in the beau parlors, but not in the women’s rooms.”
“The courting alcoves on the ground floor—the ones with seating and coffee tables, but no doors. Great-grandfather expected and indeed encouraged women to meet potential husbands, but he was determined all liaisons would be done in a moral and public manner.”
“Do you have any difficulties enforcing the ‘no men’ rule?”
Mrs. Stanger laughed softly. “Our girls are well aware that an infraction of that rule is grounds for eviction, but of course there are always those who try to sneak their boyfriends in for the night. Rest assured, the evening supervisor, Mrs. Maude Ramsay, has an uncanny ability to detect the Y chromosome when it’s prowling above ground level. The girls all think she has vampire senses; Maude credits her Marine training and wartime service.”
“Do most of the residents stay for long?”
“Not usually more than a couple of years for the younger ones, but we have about thirty women who have lived here for decades. The resident who has lived here the longest, Miss Margaret, came to us in 1943 and never left. Many of our older residents keep very much to themselves, but Miss Margaret mingles with everyone. She is the Peregrine’s doyenne, and I’m sure even she couldn’t tell you how many of our residents she has counseled and consoled over the years. She has a truly remarkable gift of listening.”
The elevator stopped on the seventh and uppermost level as Mrs. Stanger regarded Hailey with amusement. “That is what I find so familiar about you. You remind me very much of Miss Margaret. You have the same knack for listening. No wonder the Board preferred you from the get-go. There’s not a one of us who isn’t indebted to Miss Margaret in one way or another.”
Hailey wasn’t sure how to respond, but apparently no reply was expected as Mrs. Stanger led the way out into the hall.
“This floor is reserved for our most senior residents. The rooms are larger and have their own baths, unlike the shared baths for rooms on the lower floors. Miss Margaret’s is the last room on the left, overlooking the park. I’d introduce you, but this is her bridge afternoon so she’s not in. I’m sure it won’t be long before you meet her though; she likes to walk the halls at least once a day. She claims it’s for exercise, but I really think she’s just checking on the pulse of the grand old lady.”
Hailey was impressed with how much natural light filled the hall from the skylights and sunrooms at either end of the long corridor. She was delighted with Mrs. Stanger’s next words.
“Your quarters are across the hall from Miss Margaret’s. I think you’ll be well pleased with them. They overlook the courtyard garden, and are very pleasant.”
Hailey recalled the dreary fifth floor walk-up she’d just left behind in Copenhagen, and had no doubt that her new home would be much more congenial. Mrs. Stanger stopped in front of number 702, unlocked the door, and motioned Hailey to enter. Hailey stepped inside and was immediately taken with the large, sun-filled chamber. She was aware that substantial renovations had been done over the years, but the combination bed/sitting room still reflected much of the original elegance of the Peregrine’s Art Nouveau design. The tall ceilings were set off by intricate white cornices and the large arched windows provided a sweeping vista of the city. Even the solid wood furniture had the curves and flourishes that gave the room its distinctly feminine appearance. When Hailey opened the door on her bathroom and saw the pristine claw foot bathtub with a European shower, she was thrilled.
“This is...amazing, Mrs. Stanger. Simply amazing.”
“It is rather impressive, isn’t it? Great-grandfather hired the premier architect of his time, and gave the man orders not to stint when it came to designing the Peregrine. Our family has endeavoured to live up to his standards.”
Hailey surveyed her new home with a delighted smile. “You’ve certainly done an outstanding job of it.”
“You may move in whenever you’re ready.”
“Would tonight be too soon?”
“Not at all, Ms Anders. Not at all. The Peregrine stands ready to receive her new custodian. Now, shall we continue our tour?”
Hailey cast one lingering glance over her shoulder before she reluctantly followed Mrs. Stanger out of the room. They descended the stairwell to the sixth floor. Mrs. Stanger showed Hailey a typical, much simpler room with a single bed, an easy chair, desk, chest of drawers, and a modest closet. The shared bathroom was half the size of Hailey’s, and she marveled that modern women accustomed to the spaciousness of the average home would tolerate the cramped quarters.
Mrs. Stanger read Hailey’s reaction readily. “I know it doesn’t seem like much, but for a thousand dollars a month these women get daily maid service, a hot breakfast and dinner, use of the garden and courtyard, plus amenities such as security guards, laundry, and concierge service. Most of our residents have very busy lives and don’t require much more than a clean, safe place to live for a year or two as they’re getting established. And as for the location, you’ll quickly learn that we get unsolicited offers from developers all the time. Not many of the original private residence hotels have resisted the lure of being turned into condos and the like, but our family is determined not to succumb until there’s no longer any demand for the Peregrine.”
“Mrs. Stanger, I think any woman who lives in the Peregrine is among the most fortunate in this city.”
Mrs. Stanger smiled and nodded at Hailey’s sincere declaration. “I agree. Now, let’s go downstairs and I’ll introduce you to your staff.”
Hailey signed off on the requisition order and handed the form back to Rubio, head of Maintenance. She had barely returned to her computer when Maude poked her head in the door.
“Hailey, have you got a moment?”
Hailey waved Maude in. “Sure, what’s up?”
“I could be very rude and say it isn’t Brittany Wyler’s underwear, but I won’t.”
Hailey groaned. “Not again.”
“Yup. Last night I caught her trying to sneak that low-life boyfriend of hers in again. I chased him off and told her to report to you when she gets home from work today, but I thought I’d best give you a head’s up. That’s her second strike, isn’t it?”
“Third, counting the two warnings my predecessor gave her. All right, I guess I’m about to deal with my first eviction.”
Maude shot her a sympathetic glance. “You’ve done well. Rhonda had an eviction her first week on the job. You’ve made it to four months.”
Hailey exhaled in exasperation. “Why couldn’t Brittany just do what the others do and go to his place when she wants a sleepover?”
Maude rose to her feet, unconsciously flexing her impressive physique. Hailey watched the ripple of muscle with a little smile. She wondered if her friend was even aware of how imposing she looked. Brittany was one of the few who had dared cross the tough night shift supervisor. Maude and her husband Toby, the head of Peregrine Security, had left the Marines after consecutive tours in Iraq. The couple had been employed at the Peregrine for three years and everyone knew that taking on one, meant answering to both.
“Probably because her idiot boyfriend lives in a van somewhere.”
Hailey shook her head as she opened up the evictions file. “Well, Brittany is about to join him.”
Maude started for the door, then turned. “I forgot. Miss Margaret asked me to pass along to you that she’s found the book you were looking for.”
“Thanks. I’ll see her tonight. Go home and get some sleep, Maude, and enjoy your days off.”
As Hailey’s fingers flew over the keyboard, her mind drifted back to her first meeting with the elderly woman who had become a good friend. She had been on the job less than twenty-four hours and had entered the elevator at the end of the long day with a stack of files in her arms. The doors began to close when the tip of a polished gnarled wood cane stopped its progress. The door opened, and a slender, well dressed woman in her mid-eighties stood in front of her.
“May I share your elevator?”
“Of course.” Hailey’s suspicion that she was riding with the esteemed Miss Margaret was quickly confirmed when the lady held out her hand.
“You must be the new manager. I live across the hall from you. My name is—”
“Miss Margaret Coulter. Yes, ma’am, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m—”
“Hailey Anders. Welcome to the Peregrine, Ms Anders. I know it’s early yet, but I trust the grand old lady has been kind to you thus far.”
Hailey was rarely at a loss for words, but sharing an elevator with Miss Margaret felt like being in the office of the headmistress. Though not a physically imposing woman, with a slight build and mass of soft silver curls, Miss Margaret’s erect posture and incisive grey eyes conveyed a woman of substance, a woman to be reckoned with. Though Hailey had only been in the Peregrine for one full day, she had already heard numerous stories of the hotel’s most senior resident and she found herself unexpectedly tongue-tied.
“Yes, ma’am. This is a wonderful place, and I’m very grateful to have gotten the job.”
“It is a wonderful place, isn’t it?”
Not appearing to require an answer, Miss Margaret turned to face the door. The women rode in silence until they’d passed the fifth floor.
“Do you enjoy wine, Ms Anders?”
“Yes, I do, both red and white.”
“Would you care to join me this evening, then? I like to stargaze while enjoying a glass, and I would be honoured to have you join me.”
Hailey wasn’t sure whether the invitation was purely social. She suspected Miss Margaret might wish to interrogate the new manager. In either case, Hailey decided, it would be an interesting evening.
“Thank you. I’d like that very much. What time should I be there?”
“Shall we say about eight?” The elevator stopped, and Miss Margaret exited first. “I look forward to seeing you then.”
It was to be the beginning of a tradition that Hailey had come to cherish. It was a rare evening that she and Miss Margaret did not share a glass or two of wine and a good chat. Miss Margaret was a stimulating and wide ranging conversationalist. Hailey learned to catch up on the day’s headlines before they met so that she could hold up her end of their daily exchange.
Brittany Wyler was late reporting to Hailey’s office that evening, and by the time she had dealt with the eviction, Hailey was an hour past her usual meeting time with Miss Margaret.
Hailey stood outside her friend’s door, wondering whether it was too late to visit. Her concern was swiftly allayed, however, when the door swung open and Miss Margaret gestured her inside.
“I’m so sorry. I got caught up with—”
“With evicting Miss Wyler. I thought as much.” Miss Margaret gave Hailey a sympathetic look. “Come in. The wine is poured and you may leave your woes outside the door.”
Hailey smiled as she followed Miss Margaret to their customary seats in front of the big window. She could feel her stress receding as she spotted the crystal glasses and decanter set up on the small table between their chairs.
“Did you manage to find time to eat dinner? I can call down to have something sent up, if you’d like.”
“Thanks, but Peter sent a plate to my office when I didn’t show up in the dining hall.”
“Good. I told him you’d gotten much too thin and he should keep an eye out for you.”
Hailey was amused but touched by Miss Margaret’s solicitude. She didn’t doubt that under the lady’s gentle prodding, Peter had briefed his kitchen staff to ensure that the manager was fed, even on the nights she didn’t make it to the dining hall.
Miss Margaret settled in her chair with a soft sigh and took one of the glasses. Hailey allowed herself a moment to enjoy the way the crystal sparkled and reflected the red wine, then she too took her glass and relaxed. There was a long silence as the friends watched the clouds scudding across the darkened sky. This, too, Hailey appreciated. Miss Margaret had a knack for knowing exactly how much time Hailey needed to decompress before she began the evening’s conversation.
Their glasses were almost empty before Miss Margaret spoke again.
“Did Miss Wyler contest the eviction?”
“Not really. It was sort of surreal, actually. I thought she’d fight to stay here, but even though she was an abusive pain in the ass, she didn’t try to change my mind.”
“No, I didn’t think she would.”
“You didn’t?” Hailey glanced at Miss Margaret in surprise. “Why not? I checked her records when I was drawing up the eviction notice. Her parents really brought in the heavy guns when they applied to get Brittany into the Peregrine. There was even a reference from the governor, for heaven’s sake.”
“And that, my dear, is exactly why not. Living here was never Miss Wyler’s desire; it was her parents’. She complained frequently about the antediluvian ways of the Peregrine and wanted nothing more than to leave.”
“Then why didn’t she? Her initial lease ended two months ago. Why did she re-sign?”
“She didn’t. Her father did, and since he pays her bills, Miss Wyler had little choice about the matter. The only way she was going to get to leave, was to be thrown out.”
“Oh. So you think her bringing her idiot boyfriend in—”
Miss Margaret smiled and topped up their glasses. “Miss Wyler’s dalliances were carefully planned and executed. She was highly frustrated that her ploy hadn’t worked the previous two times.”
Hailey chuckled and shook her head. “Well, I guess she’s free to go live with her boyfriend now.”
“Oh no, dear. She has no intention of doing that. He was simply the means to an end, and I highly suspect he’ll find himself dumped on the nearest street corner, wondering what happened. I have it on good authority that she’s already secured much more amenable lodgings and was simply awaiting her eviction to move twelve streets over.”
“Won’t Daddy Wyler cut her off?”
“Mr. Wyler has been dealing with his daughter’s predilections since she first learned to walk and talk. Why do you think he was so keen to have her in here? Undoubtedly he will heave a sigh and, as he has always done, adjust to her latest escapade without turning off the money faucet. That certainly is what Miss Wyler is counting on.”
“At least she’ll no longer be my problem.”
“True, which is a blessing, as you are about to encounter some difficulties with the domestic staff.”
Hailey groaned. “God, what now?”
“Two of Mrs. Culver’s staff have romantic designs on the same maintenance worker. As a result, they’re more interested in rearranging each others’ facial features than changing sheets. Mrs. Culver has been handling it up to now, but I believe she is at her wit’s end and ready to fire one or both. I expect she’ll be by to see you in the very near future.”
“Thanks for the head’s up. Care to tell me which two they are?”
“No, dear. I think that’s Mrs. Culver’s responsibility. After all, I wouldn’t want to gossip.”
Hailey regarded Miss Margaret’s deadpan expression and started to snicker. Miss Margaret joined in, and they laughed together until Hailey wiped the tears from her eyes and rubbed her aching belly. “Miss Margaret, whatever would I do without you?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, dear.”
Still grinning, Hailey settled deeper in the comfortable armchair, letting her gaze drift. Her eyes stopped when they came to the bedside table. Since the first evening she and Miss Margaret had shared a glass, Hailey had been intrigued by the old silver frame turned to face the bed. She assumed it was someone dear to Miss Margaret, but since her friend rarely volunteered information about her past, Hailey hadn’t wanted to pry.
“It’s all right to ask, Hailey.”
Hailey was startled by the melancholy tone of Miss Margaret’s words. “I’m sorry?”
“The photograph. You may ask, if you wish.” Miss Margaret rose from her chair and walked to the bedside table. She took the silver frame and stared for a long moment, before turning to extend it to Hailey. “I know you’ve been curious.”
“I don’t want to be intrusive.”
Miss Margaret smiled sadly. “Hailey, my contemporaries have mostly passed away. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve even suggested to anyone about...well, about what this photo means to me. If you’d like to hear, I’d like to share.”
Hailey was deeply honoured by the offer. She knew the basic facts of Miss Margaret’s life, that she had been born into a wealthy old Southern family and had come to the city during wartime as a young woman with a thirst for adventure. Hailey knew that Miss Margaret had worked for the same company from the time she arrived until the time she retired, forty-five years later. She knew Miss Margaret had never married, and that a niece in Savannah was listed as next of kin on the Peregrine’s emergency notifications. But in all their conversations, Miss Margaret had never offered the slightest inkling of her personal life beyond those bare bones facts.
Hailey accepted the photo. “I would like to hear anything you’d like to tell me, Miss Margaret.”
“Maggie. That’s what Billie called me. I’d like to hear that name again, if only inside this room.”
Hailey gazed at the black and white photograph of two people. One was Miss Margaret, identifiable even though very young by her fine features, soft curls, and erect bearing. The other was taller, raw-boned, bare headed with poorly cut, light coloured hair. The taller figure—a wary look in her eyes—had one arm around Miss Margaret. Both were dressed in skirts and blouses, but the taller woman looked ill at ease, as if the garb were unfamiliar and ill-fitting.
“Mmm hmm. Her real name was Mary Louise Elwood, but to me she was just Billie.”
“She was your best friend, Miss...Maggie?”
“That, and so much more.” Miss Margaret sat down and stared out the window. “Billie was the love of my life.”
Hailey’s eyes widened. She considered her gaydar to be finely honed, but she had never once suspected the truth about her elderly friend. “Why didn’t you say something before? I mean, when I told you about Laurie and me...”
Miss Margaret shot Hailey a rueful glance. “I know, dear. It would have been the perfect time to come clean to you, wouldn’t it? I wanted to. I’ve questioned myself repeatedly about my omission, and I want you to know it was never a matter of not trusting you. I think it is simply that I have lived my entire life so discreetly that it is terribly difficult to be open, even about something that affected me so radically. Billie changed the course of my life, and then she left my life.”
Hailey instantly felt a rush of sympathy, imagining star-crossed lovers. “She died?”
“It was far more prosaic than that, my dear. She got married.”
“To a man?”
Miss Margaret gave a pained chuckle. “That was the only kind of marriage available in the forties, Hailey. My Billie went back to Wisconsin and became Mrs. Mary Louise Billings, or perhaps she was known as Mrs. Charles Jacob Billings. I don’t know, as I never heard from her again.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“It was a long time ago, my dear. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then.”
“Will you tell me the story?”
“You don’t really want to hear decades old stories about people you don’t even know. Why don’t we talk about the special election last night? Were you surprised by the results?”
Hailey set her glass down and knelt in front of Miss Margaret. She laid the picture on her friend’s lap. “Maggie, please tell me. Tell me who Billie was, and who you were with her.”
Miss Margaret’s eyes immediately filled with tears and she accepted the tissue Hailey offered her. “I’m such an old fool. After almost sixty-four years, you’d think I wouldn’t have any tears left to shed.”
Hailey didn’t respond. She simply took Miss Margaret’s hand and gave it an encouraging squeeze. Miss Margaret bowed her head and took a deep breath, then she met Hailey’s gaze squarely. “I think I’ve wanted to tell someone this story for a long time. Are you sure you don’t mind listening?”
“I would be honoured if you’d share with me.”
“Then you’d better sit down and top up our glasses.” When Hailey had done so, Miss Margaret stared at the glass she pressed between her palms. “It was so long ago. We met here. Billie and I had adjoining rooms and we shared a bath. Our friendship didn’t get off to a good start. Billie knocked over a bottle of perfume I’d saved for over two months to buy...”
“Look what you did! You big, clumsy ox—”
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I’ll buy you another bottle.”
Her hands indignantly on her hips, Margaret stood and watched the stranger frantically try to wipe up the spilled perfume and broken glass on the counter.
“Ouch. Darn it.”
Margaret sighed, her pique vanishing as the other young woman picked gingerly at her now bleeding forefinger. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.” She grabbed her neighbour’s arm, intending to pull her away from the glass, and was surprised when the woman flinched.
“Look, just let me help you before you bleed to death.” Margaret pulled the woman’s hand closer to the dim illumination of the shared bathroom’s light. “I see it. Hold still.” Using tweezers, Margaret extracted the tiny shard embedded in the quivering finger. “There. Now run some water over it, put a bandage on, and you’ll be fine.”
When the woman fumbled to get a band-aid out of the box, Margaret rolled her eyes and took over. She secured the tape around a long thin finger, surprised when she felt the hand tremble. In a soothing voice, she said, “I guess we’re to be neighbours. My name’s Margaret Coulter. What’s yours?”
“Mary Louise Elwood. But um, I like to be called Billie.”
The woman’s words were halting and difficult to hear. Margaret decided her new neighbour must be a shy type.
“I really am sorry about your perfume. It may take me a few weeks, but I promise I’ll replace it.”
The woman sounded so contrite and humble that Margaret’s ire vanished. “Accidents happen, right? Don’t worry about it.” She decided to casually mention the incident when next she wrote her sister. If she knew Elizabeth, a replacement bottle would be in the mail come her birthday.
Billie nodded, her head hung down. Margaret got the sense that she was not unfamiliar with being chastened. “Hey, do you want to come downstairs with me for dinner?”
Billie’s head jerked up and there was a disbelieving expression on her face. “Me?”
“Yes, you. I don’t see anyone else around. If we’re going to share this bathroom, then we might as well get to know each other.” Margaret linked her arm in Billie’s and led her out...
“I don’t think we missed sharing a single supper until the day Billie vanished. I’d wait on dinner no matter how long her overtime took. She was so bashful. The other girls had already labeled her a country bumpkin, and I’m afraid it was somewhat appropriate.”
“You said she came from Wisconsin?”
“Mmm hmm. Yesterday I was trying to remember what town.” Miss Margaret frowned and shook her head. “I didn’t think I’d ever forget anything about Billie, but I just can’t recall. I know it wasn’t too far from Madison, but that’s all I’m sure of.”
“It was a long time ago.”
“It seems like only yesterday, Hailey. Countless mornings I’ve woken up expecting to hear Billie tapping softly at my bathroom door, to let me know it was twenty minutes until breakfast. Even on weekends, she could never break her habit of getting up with the roosters.”
Miss Margaret fell silent, and Hailey sensed that her friend had gone deep into her memories.
“How long did it take for you to become...well, more than friends?”
Miss Margaret chuckled at Hailey’s reticence. “You mean lovers, dear? A month—twenty-seven days, to be exact. It wouldn’t have taken that long, but we were both so incredibly innocent that we had no conception that our friendship was becoming much more.”
“Who made the first move?”
“Believe it or not, Billie did. We used to laugh about that. She was so timid with everyone else. It made me feel special that I was the only person with whom she let down her guard.”
“How did it happen?”
Miss Margaret’s eyebrow arched. “You want details?”
“No, no, that’s not what I mean.”
“Relax, my dear, I’m just teasing you. Actually it was on the roof of this building. Billie was fascinated with astronomy, and one Saturday night at the end of July, she convinced me to go up to the rooftop in the middle of the night to see a meteor shower...”
“Billie, are you crazy? I plan to be sound asleep at two a.m.”
“Please, Maggie? I promise you it’ll be worth it. The skies are supposed to be clear tonight, and...well, I really want to share this with you. Pretty please?”
Margaret regarded Billie with affectionate exasperation. Her friend had the oddest interests. Still, it was hard to refuse those imploring blue eyes. “Oh, all right. I guess I can go to bed early to get a little sleep, and then sleep in late. But if I can’t even keep my eyes open tomorrow, I’ll...I’ll...”
Billie grinned as the would-be threat failed to materialize. She winked at Margaret and trotted back through their shared bath to her room. Margaret shook her head with a wry grin. It was so hard to resist when Billie came up with one of her hare-brained ideas, but it had certainly enlivened her first month in the city.
“Now what does one wear to a stargazing?” Given how hot it was in her room, Margaret decided a sleeveless summer dress would be appropriate. She laid out her favourite frock and got ready for an early bedtime.
At two o’clock, a firm hand shook Margaret awake. “Billie?”
“Of course. You were expecting someone else?”
Groggy, Margaret sat up and swung her legs off the bed. “No, I was just hoping you’d fall asleep and forget our plans.”
“I’d never do that, Mags. Now c’mon, sleepyhead. Let’s go.”
Margaret rose and stretched, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Billie turned her back as Margaret shed her nightgown and donned her clothes. “You do realize if Mrs. Landry catches us, she’ll probably write us up for this nonsense.”
“She won’t catch us. She made her rounds twenty minutes ago and won’t be up here again for at least two hours.” Nevertheless, Billie pressed her ear against the door, then opened it softly to peek out. She gestured for Margaret to follow, and crept down the hallway to the stairwell.
Margaret trailed grumpily as they climbed three flights of stairs to the roof. “Remind me again why I agreed to this?”
“Because you’re my best friend and you have a hard time saying no to my brilliant ideas.”
Margaret snorted, then ran into Billie’s back as she stopped abruptly. “What the...?”
“Just give me a moment.” Billie pushed hard on the door to the roof and it slowly swung open. Margaret was surprised when it didn’t creak loudly. Billie glanced back and smiled. “I came up earlier and oiled it. I think this is the original door from forty years ago. It weighs a ton and was as noisy as a battleship.”
“What do you know about battleships? You’ve never even left shore.”
“But I do like to go down to the quays and watch them set sail.”
“You do? How come you never asked me to go with you?”
Billie ducked her head in her habitual bashful expression. “I didn’t think you’d want to. Most girls don’t like being down around the piers.”
Margaret considered that as she exited behind her friend. It certainly wasn’t something she’d have considered on her own, but Billie had a way of making the most unexpected excursions fun. “Well, you’ll never know unless you ask, will you?”
“Okay. Next time then.” Even in the dark, Margaret could see Billie’s wide grin. “Here, take my hand. It’s easy to trip up here in the dark.”
Margaret marveled at the surefooted way Billie led her around half seen obstacles and across the roof to a far corner. “You’ve been here before.”
“Many times. No one ever comes up here except the maintenance people, and then only in the daytime. It’s a great place to just watch the stars and think.” Billie went around a tall smokestack and stopped, dropping Margaret’s hand. She knelt, and turned on a flashlight, illuminating a blanket, two throw pillows, and a picnic basket.
“Good heavens, what’s all this?”
Billie sat down on one pillow and pointed to the other. “I wanted you to be comfortable.”
Margaret sat, gracefully curling her legs under. “And the basket? Did you really bring us a picnic?”
Billie nodded. “A midnight picnic. That’s my favourite kind.”
“Huh. So what’s so different about a midnight picnic?”
“You eat it after midnight, silly.”
Margaret laughed and shook her head. Billie was so literal at times. It was both endearing and annoying. She watched as Billie opened the basket and removed sandwiches, a jar of lemonade, and two cups before turning the flashlight off.
“If you move back here by me, you get the best view. Plus you can lean against the stack.”
Margaret shuffled over next to Billie, then accepted a sandwich as she stared up into the brilliant night sky. “So what are we looking at?”
“There, see those? There’s debate about whether they’re the northern branch of the Delta Aquarid shower. The war put a stop to a lot of research in the field, but the southern branch of the Aquarids was observed by German scientists in the early part of the century. Hey, did you know that the second woman ever to discover a comet was an American named Maria Mitchell? She found it with a telescope in 1847. They called it Miss Mitchell’s comet. There was an Italian astronomer who claimed the comet as his discovery, but it was proven that she found it two days ahead of him, so the king of Denmark gave her a gold medal. She became a professor of Astronomy at Vassar and the director of the Vassar Observatory in 1865. They’ve even named one of the Liberty ships after her. Talk about making your mark on history. I’d give just about anything to follow in her footsteps.”
Margaret was amazed at Billie’s unprecedented enthusiasm. She’d only expected to look at stars for a few minutes before going back to bed, but Billie was obviously enthralled by the night’s showy exhibition. Her usually bashful friend’s eyes were fixed on the sky, and her sandwich waved about as Billie illustrated her mini-lecture. “Where did you learn this stuff?”
“I like to read the Astrophysical Journal at the library.” Billie dropped her gaze and faced Margaret. “When I was a kid, I’d climb out my window and go lay on the lawn, looking up at the stars until I couldn’t see them anymore for daybreak. All my life, I wanted to be an astronomer. This is the closest I’ll ever get.”
Billie look puzzled. “Why what?”
“Why can’t you be an astronomer?”
Billie snorted and shook her head. “My parents already think I’m balmy for leaving the farm for the city. Every letter I get from my mother, she wants to know when I’m coming home to get back to my real life. There’s no way they’d ever pay for university, and I don’t make enough to go on my own hook.”
As Billie continued talking about symmetrical orbits and stream nodes, Margaret studied her profile. No clinical observer would ever call Billie attractive, but Margaret thought her friend had innate nobility; it was especially apparent when Billie waxed so passionately lyrical about her favourite subject.
Suddenly Billie stopped and looked down. “You’re not listening to a word I say, are you?”
Margaret shivered as a gust of wind swept over the roof’s parapet and threw up the edge of her dress. Instantly, Billie wrapped an arm around Margaret and pulled her close. “Shoot, I’m sorry. I forget that not everyone is a big, dumb ox who’s immune to the cold.”
Margaret slapped Billie’s knee. “Don’t call yourself that. I hate it when you run yourself down.” There are too many others that do that already.
“It’s what you called me once, Mags.”
The words were spoken lightly, but Margaret didn’t miss the undercurrent of hurt. “I called you a clumsy ox, and I was wrong. I’m so sorry, Billie. I would never say that now.”
“I know. It’s okay.”
“No, it isn’t. Billie, you listen to me. I know people can be mean, but you are one of the nicest, kindest, smartest people I know. You’re also my best friend and I can’t even imagine my life without you in it, so there.”
Billie didn’t say anything, but Margaret felt the arm around her tighten in a hug. She smiled and nestled in closer. “I think I like night picnics.”
“Good, then we’ll have to do it again some time.”
They were quiet for a while as they watched meteors flash across the sky, then Billie slapped her forehead. “I almost forgot.” She pulled away and Margaret instantly missed the warmth, even though the breeze had died down as quickly as it had sprung up.
Billie opened the picnic basket and brought out a small wrapped package. “This is for you.” She held the flashlight so Margaret could see.
“For me? It’s not even my birthday for another two months.” Margaret tore the paper off the package, exposing a bottle of her favourite perfume. “Oh, Billie, you didn’t have to do that. I told you not to worry about it.”
Billie shook her head firmly. “Nope. When I break something, I have to fix it. I can’t rest right until I do.”
“But how—Billie, this is so expensive.”
“I picked up some extra shifts; don’t worry about it.” Billie resumed her place and Margaret burrowed back under her arm. Billie glanced down in surprise, then smiled and settled back.
Margaret was well aware of how many extra shifts Billie had been picking up, and she felt badly that Billie had used her additional wages to replace the broken bottle. Yet she knew her friend would not tolerate her returning it to get Billie’s money back. Margaret had learned early on that Billie had a rigid personal code, and when her friend’s mind was made up, nothing short of a sign from God would change Billie’s course. An unfamiliar emotion swept over Margaret, and she suddenly realized how deeply she cherished her best friend.
Billie turned to regard Margaret soberly. They stared at each other for long moments as Margaret’s heart beat faster and faster. She clutched Billie’s dress and tried to catch her breath. Billie slowly bent her head; her lips brushed Margaret’s so lightly that she wasn’t sure she’d even been kissed. Then Billie wrapped her other arm around Margaret, and this time she definitely knew she’d been kissed. Somewhere at the back of her brain, the echo of her mother’s admonitions about fresh young men taking liberties resounded, but Margaret didn’t care. This wasn’t some impudent youth. This was Billie—her Billie, and she wanted nothing more than to return the kiss with all the love that overwhelmed her. They slipped down to the blanket, and Margaret knew that nothing in her life had prepared her for the explosion of sensuality that feeling Billie’s strong, warm, encompassing body gave her...
“That first night, when we went back to my room...we were so awkward, but so passionate. I don’t think we slept a single moment. When we heard the other girls moving out in the hall in the morning, Billie finally pulled away from me. I didn’t want her to go, but she insisted we couldn’t be found together. She was right, of course. We would’ve been thrown out in disgrace had anyone discovered the nature of our friendship, but we were helpless, like two magnets pulled together. Our rooms and the rooftop became our sanctuaries. Nothing else mattered but Billie. How I even managed to hang on to my job is beyond me. The other girls in the office used to tease me about being twitter pated over some man, and I let them think that. Of course they were all convinced that ‘he’ must be married since I never brought ‘Bill’ around. It was quite the scandal. God, if they’d only known.”
Margaret laughed ruefully, and Hailey was grateful all over again for being a child of the latter years of the 20th Century. It wasn’t a perfect world, but at least she’d never had to hide who she was or who she loved.
“For three years we’d get home from work, lock our doors, and tumble into one bed or the other. We had to force ourselves to go down to eat, to interact with the other girls.”
“Did you go to lesbian clubs or bars?”
“I’m not sure there were any back then. If there were, we certainly didn’t know they existed. I think we believed we were the only women in the world who felt about each other in that way. It wasn’t lonely though, because all I wanted I had in Billie.”
“And she felt the same?”
“She did, which is why it was so hard for me to understand.”
“The end of the affair?”
“But that’s the thing, Hailey, it really didn’t have an end. One day Billie was there, loving me like I was the most precious thing in the world, and the next, she was gone.”
“You don’t have to go on if it’s too painful.”
“There’s not much left to tell. It was the third anniversary of our first kiss, July 29, 1946. Each of the two anniversaries before, we met on the rooftop, had a picnic, danced while Billie sang, and then returned to our rooms to make love. I didn’t even ask her that year, I just assumed we’d do it all again. I was late getting home from work that day so I didn’t change. I went up to the roof to our corner and waited for a long time, but Billie never came. Finally I went downstairs and into her room. We never locked the bathroom doors. The instant I set foot in her room, I knew something was terribly wrong.”
Miss Margaret stopped and took a deep breath. Hailey watched compassionately as the elderly woman struggled to maintain her composure. When she resumed the story, her voice was a low, distant monotone, as if remembering the long ago events remotely was the only way to hold back her emotions.
“I thought I’d somehow walked into the wrong room. Billie was always neat as a pin, but drawers were pulled open, the closet doors were ajar. Her clothes were gone. The bed had been stripped, so I could see her suitcase wasn’t underneath as it always had been. It didn’t make any sense. I backed out, trying to think. I decided that Billie must’ve been called away on a family emergency and hadn’t had time to leave me a note. I convinced myself that if I asked Mrs. Landry, she would assure me that Billie had to rush home, but would be back as soon as possible. So I went down to talk to Mrs. Landry, and I listened as her words destroyed my world.”
Miss Margaret’s hands clutched at her chest and Hailey grew alarmed. “Maybe you should stop there, Maggie. It’s okay. You don’t have to go on. Honest. Save it for another time.”
Miss Margaret continued as if Hailey hadn’t spoken. “Mrs. Landry told me Billie’s father had come to take her home that afternoon. He’d cleared out Billie’s room, checked her out of the Peregrine, and was on his way to pick her up at work when he left. Mrs. Landry told me with great approval that Billie—she called her Mary Louise—that Billie was getting married. That she’d been engaged to some Wisconsin farmer named Charles Jacob Billings. That’s how she said it—Charles Jacob Billings, pronounced with great relish. That was Mrs. Landry for you. She always wanted to be the one to break the news about girls getting engaged, and to her it was a great coup to talk about Billie’s nuptials, since no one had ever heard Billie mention Mr. Charles Jacob Billings.”
Hailey winced at the anguish in Miss Margaret’s voice. “She never discussed this man with you?”
“Not once. We talked about our future, where we’d go to live when we left the Peregrine. I was going to work to put Billie through university to become an astronomer. We’d spent many weekends in the library checking schools and calculating how long we’d have to save before she could apply. We talked about everything under the stars, except for Mr. Charles Jacob Billings.”
“Maybe her father was lying. Maybe there was no Billings.”
“Then why didn’t she come back, or at least write and explain? The last time I saw or heard anything from Billie was when I kissed her goodbye in my room the morning of our third anniversary. Another girl moved into her room within two days, and to everyone else Billie might as well never have existed.”
“God, Maggie, how did you cope?”
“Cope? I barely survived. All the colour and life had gone with Billie, and I moved through my days like an automaton. I’d cry every morning, then I’d put on make-up and go to my job. Everyone was so kind at work. They thought my married boyfriend had thrown me over. After a few months, it finally sunk in: Billie wasn’t coming back. I was near suicidal, but for some reason a woman who had befriended me at work made it her responsibility to draw me back into the world of the living. I’m not sure I’d have made it without Twila’s kindness. She ate lunch with me. She covered for me when I was weeping so hard in the bathroom that I couldn’t return to my desk. She invited me to join her and her family on weekend outings and during all the holidays, even though we were of different faiths. Twila died a few years ago. I just hope over the decades I was able to convey the depth of my gratitude for her compassion.”
“I’m sure you were, Maggie. She sounds like a good friend.”
“She was. But I could never call Twila my best friend. That was and could only ever be Billie.”
“Damn, Maggie. I thought my romantic history sucked. I thought leaving Laurie was just about the worst thing that could happen, but it was my choice. I can’t imagine just having your lover disappear. Did you ever look for Billie, try to find her?”
“No, dear. After I’d worked my way through grief, I became angry. I was mad as a wet hen that Billie had let anyone separate us. I’d have fought my way out of hell to be with her, and she hadn’t even had the backbone to stand up to her parents. And when the anger finally subsided, I made peace with it. I decided to honour her decision and let her go completely. But I never really did, did I?”
Margaret leaned back wearily. Hailey realized she’d never before seen the woman slouch. She reached her hand across the table, and Margaret forced a little smile as she took it. “I’m sorry, Maggie. I’m so sorry that happened to you and Billie. I wish you were still watching the stars together.”
“Thank you, my dear. I do too.”
Hailey hesitated before asking the question that sprang to mind. “Was there ever another...I mean, did you—”
“Fall in love again? No, not really. Not like that, in any case. Mind you, I had no intention of emulating Dickens’ Miss Havisham. I even let Twila set me up on the occasional date.”
“Yes. None of them ever caught my fancy, of course, and even dear Twila eventually gave up and left me to my spinsterhood.”
“But when you learned that you weren’t the only lesbian in the world? Did you not consider dating women?”
“Perhaps if I’d met someone like you, Hailey, but no, there was never anyone else. I think, deep in my heart, I didn’t want to be attached, in case Billie ever came back. I suppose that sounds terribly silly.”
“Not silly, just sad.”
“I wrote Billie letters. I didn’t mail them, but I wrote her every day for the first few months. Then I tapered off. But each year on our anniversary, I would write her a long letter telling her what was going on in my life and that I still loved her. I’d beg shamelessly for her to come back, and then I’d put it away and not look at it again.”
“You kept them?”
Miss Margaret gestured at the closet. “They’re in an old suitcase behind the clothes in the back corner. Occasionally I think I should get rid of them so my niece isn’t scandalized when she finalizes my affairs after I’m gone. But they’re all that I will leave behind to say I lived, and loved a woman named Billie.”
“Maggie, that’s not all you’ll leave behind.” It pained Hailey to have Miss Margaret think her life counted for so little. “You’re a Peregrine institution. Think of all the friends you’ve made over the years, all the women who’ve dropped by your door for a little sympathy and advice.”
“They’ve been dear, dear girls, and I’m always glad to lend an ear, but they move on quickly, don’t they? There’s not many of us old-timers left.”
“Maggie, listen to me. It’s not how long they linger, it’s what they take away with them that counts. Do you know what your nickname is, my friend?”
Miss Margaret chuckled. “I’m not sure I want to know.”
“Yes, you do. They call you ‘elephant eyes’.”
“Good heavens. I certainly didn’t expect that. I’m not at all sure I like it.”
“You should. The first time I heard it, I was angry because I thought they were being disrespectful so I stopped one of the girls who’d used it. I was going to chew her out, but she set me straight pretty fast. It’s a compliment, Maggie, one of the nicest I’ve ever heard. She said your eyes project strength, calmness, and wisdom, like an African elephant that could see to the edge of the savanna and beyond. She told me all the girls depended on that ageless, timeless quality in you. Just the way I do.”
Before Miss Margaret could respond, there was a sharp knock on her door.
Hailey grinned and stood up. “Speaking of which, I believe duty calls. Thanks for the wine, Maggie, and thank you so much for sharing your story. See you tomorrow?”
“Indeed. And thank you, Hailey. I appreciate your...elephant ears.”
Hailey opened the door to find a young woman with red-rimmed eyes peering past her. “Go ahead. Miss Margaret is in.”
Back in her own room, Hailey booted up her laptop and Googled the Wisconsin White Pages. Within seconds she found a listing for Charles Jacob Billings Jr. in Madison, though none for CJ Billings Senior or Mary Louise Billings. She tried Billie Elwood and Billie Billings, but there were none in Wisconsin, though there were several in other states. She shook her head at the futility of it all. “She could’ve moved half a dozen times in the last sixty years. She could’ve moved to the ends of the earth for all I know...if she’s still alive.”
Hailey shut down her laptop and sighed. She didn’t know what she might’ve done, even had she found Miss Margaret’s Billie. Maggie’s former lover had had sixty-four years to come back, and Miss Margaret wouldn’t have been hard to find.
“Damn it, damn it, damn it. I’d like to pop Billie one in the nose for what she did. How could she have broken Miss Margaret’s heart like that?” Instantly an image of Laurie leapt to mind, and Hailey’s wrath towards Billie subsided. “Aww, it’s not like you were the only one, was it, Billie? There’s a few of us who could learn about devotion from Miss Margaret.”
Long after she’d retired for the night, Hailey’s mind was filled with lost loves and decisions that couldn’t be reversed.
“Where on earth are we going, Hailey?”
“You’ll find out when we get there. Now come on, Maggie. You’re hanging up your shingle for the night.”
“It’s awfully late, dear. These old bones of mine need their rest.”
“You can sleep later.” When Miss Margaret resisted, Hailey turned and took her hands. “Maggie, six months ago you told me a story that broke my heart and gave me hope.”
“Uh huh. If you could love Billie so deeply that you remained devoted to her for over half a century after she left you, then that rare kind of love actually does exist. And if it exists, maybe someday I’ll find it too.”
“You will, Hailey, dear. I just know it.”
Hailey squeezed the thin hands and smiled. “With you in my corner, how could I not? But tonight isn’t about me. Do you know what today is?”
“Of course I do, dear.”
“Well, so do I, and I want you to come with me without asking any more questions. Grab a sweater, too; you might need it. We’re going to watch some stars.”
“The roof? Oh, Hailey, I don’t know. I haven’t been back there since...well, that night.”
“I know, but it’s time you did. So either you come along quietly, or I’m going to pick you up and carry you up there.”
“Goodness, how terribly butch of you, dear. All right, I’ll go peacefully.”
Hailey made a mock muscle flex, then tucked Miss Margaret’s hand under her arm as she led the older woman out of the room. “Don’t you want your cane? We’ve got to go up a few stairs.”
“When I have your strong arm to hang on to? No, the cane’s more for reassurance than anything. Plus, it came in handy when that mugger tried to take my purse five years ago.”
“I heard about that. Didn’t he get the shock of his life when he thought he was mugging a helpless little old lady? I was told you broke his arm.”
“I’m not proud of it, but he shouldn’t have done it.”
“I’m sure he thought twice before he tried it again, Maggie.” Hailey stopped in front of the door to the roof, pushed it open, and gestured Miss Margaret through.
“Oh, my. Oh, Hailey, it’s lovely.”
Hailey beamed as Miss Margaret clasped her hands together and turned slowly, to take in the spectacle Hailey had arranged. The roof was illuminated with the soft glow of a hundred electric luminaries. A small table—dressed with candles, fine linen, china, and silver—awaited occupants in the centre of the roof. Music played quietly in the background as stars shone brilliantly overhead. Hailey flipped open her phone and sent a quick text to the kitchen.
“Our repast will arrive momentarily, m’lady. Would you like to take a seat? I’ll pour our wine.”
Miss Margaret turned to Hailey with tears in her eyes. “You did this all for me?”
“Of course. I wish Billie was here to celebrate your anniversary, but I will do my best to give you the magical evening you deserve.”
They had barely touched their wine when the roof door swung open and four of Peter’s staff emerged with covered chafing dishes. They bustled about setting things on a side table and serving the women.
“Thanks, guys. And tell Peter I owe him one.”
“Chef Peter said to tell you this is his gift to Miss Margaret, with his deep gratitude for her advice.” The server smiled at them, then shooed his fellows away. The roof door closed and they were left alone again.
“Should I ask to what Peter was referring, Maggie?”
“Oh, nothing much. He was having some domestic difficulties and I suggested a few ways he might smooth things over with his wife. Apparently they worked.” Miss Margaret tasted a forkful of the appetizer and closed her eyes in appreciation. “Mmm, Peter has simply outdone himself this evening.”
Hailey mumbled her agreement as she dug into the Coquille St. Jacques with abandon. She had skipped dinner that evening, not wanting to erode her appetite, and was starved. When they finished the first course, Hailey made to get up and serve the second, but Miss Margaret stopped her.
“No, please, Hailey. Allow me. This is so kind of you. Let me cater to you just a little.”
“But you’re the guest of honour.”
“And you’re the most honourable host I could wish for. You knew how many years I’ve dreaded this night. Yet with a single act of kindness, you’ve replaced those bad memories with an evening of enchantment. Thank you, Hailey. Thank you for being my elephant.”
Hailey tried to discreetly wipe her eyes as Miss Margaret rose to serve, but she knew she wasn’t fooling her friend in the least. When Miss Margaret set the second course down, she bent and softly kissed the top of Hailey’s head.
“You are a treasure, my dear. I am so grateful that you came into my life.”
“I just wish I’d applied for this job years ago. I can’t remember a position where I’ve ever been...happier.”
Miss Margaret gracefully resumed her seat. “I’m glad, dear, but truthfully, I hope you won’t do as I have.”
“Let the grand old lady fill the void. I’ve been content here, but I do have regrets.”
Hailey reached across the table and took Miss Margaret’s hand. “What are they? What do you wish you’d done that you didn’t do?”
“Primarily...gone after Billie. Searched Wisconsin high and low until I found her.”
“And if she was happily married?”
“She wasn’t. Whatever else happened, I know my Billie.”
“You told me once that when Billie made up her mind, there wasn’t much that could change it.”
“Except me. I could have changed it. And if I’m wrong, if she was happy with Mr. Charles Jacob Billings, then at least I’d have known. I could have left and maybe found peace. Maybe even found love again.” Margaret squeezed Hailey’s hand. “If I can leave you with any advice, my dear, it’s this. Don’t ever give up on the possibility of love. And don’t let anything substitute for love—not the Peregrine, not your career, not me. If another Laurie comes into your life, don’t let her go again.”
“I do love you, you know.”
“I know, Hailey. And if I were half my age, I’d accept that love for the treasure it is, and return it tenfold.”
“We’d go get married in Boston.”
“And live happily ever after.”
“Do you still believe in happily ever after, Maggie?”
“I do. I didn’t get mine, but with all my heart, I pray that you do.”
They stared at each other for a long moment, then Miss Margaret gently extricated her hand. “You know Peter is going to want to know how we enjoyed his feast. We’d best not let it get it cold.”
They lingered over wine after their meal. Hailey watched Miss Margaret carefully to ensure that she wasn’t getting overtired, but the night air seemed to have energized her. On the spur of the moment, Hailey stood up and extended her hand.
“Would you care to dance, Maggie?”
“Are you sure you want to risk your toes, dear? I haven’t danced since...I haven’t danced in more years than I care to remember.”
“I would love to dance with you, toes be damned. Just let me find the songs I want.” Hailey turned to her docked iPod and quickly found the music she had loaded earlier. Then she gently pulled Miss Margaret to her feet as the strains of Moonlight Serenade echoed in the night.
Despite Miss Margaret’s protestations, it was as if they had danced together for years. Hailey led smoothly as they glided across the roof. Several songs later, as Our Love is Here to Stay played, Miss Margaret stopped. She simply stood in the shelter of Hailey’s arms, listening to the words. Hailey feared she’d made a bad selection, despite the fact that she’d taken her list from the old records in her friend’s room. But when the music ended, Miss Margaret hugged her.
“Thank you, Hailey. Thank you for the kind of night I didn’t think I’d ever experience again.”
Hailey returned the hug gently, conscious of how fragile her friend felt. “You’re most welcome. It’s been entirely my pleasure.” Then something caught her eye. “Maggie, look. It’s a comet.”
Miss Margaret looked up, and together they watched the brief luminous streak of light.
“How perfect, Hailey. You arranged everything.”
“I don’t think I can take credit for that.”
“No? Then perhaps Billie can.”
“Perhaps.” Hailey liked the fanciful notion. It fit the night and the occasion. “I think I’d best take you back to your room.”
“It’s all taken care of. I’ll let the kitchen know they can pick everything up.”
“Hailey, before we go, I have a huge favour to ask. But please know that I understand completely if you want to decline.”
“If I can do it, I will.”
Miss Margaret looked to her left, beyond the ring of lights. “Over there.”
Hailey offered her arm, knowing exactly where Miss Margaret wanted to go. The day after she’d first heard the story of Maggie and Billie, Hailey had come up to the rooftop in the frigid February air, and gone to the corner by the stack. There was nothing there except worn concrete, but she had spent an extended time staring at the long ago lovers’ rendezvous spot until, shaken with cold, she’d had to retreat. Hailey had returned many times since, often at night. It comforted her to stare at the stars and know they were the same ones Maggie and Billie had once watched.
Now Hailey and Miss Margaret leaned on the parapet and looked out over the city. Hailey waited patiently for her friend to speak.
“When I’m gone—”
Hailey started to protest, but Miss Margaret stopped her.
“No, dear. At my age there is far, far less time ahead of me than behind. Please hear me out.”
Hailey acquiesced sadly, though the last thing she wanted to think about was a time when her dearest friend no longer lived across the hall.
“When I’m gone, I’d like you to take a trip to Wisconsin. I’d like you to take two things with you.”
“Yes, and my ashes. If Billie is alive, please give her the suitcase. If she’s dead, please scatter my ashes over her grave.”
“But what about your family?”
“You’re more my family than any blood relations, dear. My niece very kindly agreed to take care of my final affairs, but she won’t care what happens to my mortal remains, or the letters. I’ll add a codicil to my will stipulating that you have custody of both, and leaving you funds to cover expenses.”
“Maggie—” Hailey’s voice broke, and Miss Margaret wrapped a comforting arm around her waist.
“I know I’m asking a lot, Hailey. I don’t even know where you would start, and I certainly don’t expect you to devote much time to it, but I have the strongest feeling that this is important, so if you can find it in your heart to grant an old lady her last request...”
“A grand old lady,” Hailey murmured, tightening her arm around Miss Margaret’s shoulders. “I would be honoured to carry out your final wishes. You can count on me.”
“I’ve known that since the first moment I met you, dear.” Miss Margaret smiled up at Hailey. “After all, you have elephant eyes.”
Hailey stood in the brisk November wind and watched as leaves whipped across the graveyard. She shifted the polished wooden box under her arm and glanced down at the map she had picked up from the office at the entry to the old cemetery.
“It should be right around here.” Hailey started walking the rows, scanning
each headstone. She found the right one
halfway down the row under a towering, albeit leafless oak tree.
Mary Louise (Billie) Billings
15, 1925 – July 29, 2006
Hailey knelt and set the wooden box down. “Billie, you don’t know me, but Maggie did. She was my friend, and I loved her. She never stopped loving you. But hey, she’s probably beside you right now. I sure hope so anyway. I only got to know her the last year of her life, but she was one special lady. We’re all going to miss Maggie more than we could ever say. The Peregrine will never be the same again. I’m not sure I’m going to hang around there much longer.”
The sound of a throat clearing behind her startled Hailey. She lurched to her feet and spun around. A tall blond woman in a dark trench coat stood watching her.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to scare to you.” The woman pointed at the headstone. “My dad told me someone had come looking for Gran. I’ve been waiting for you for a long time.”
“I overheard you mention Maggie. Gran told me the day might come when Maggie, or someone on her behalf, would show up.” The woman held out her hand. “My name is Daena Billings.”
“Hailey Anders. You know your grandmother’s story?”
“You mean the love story of Billie and Maggie? Yes, Gran told me. She also gave me a bundle of letters to hold for Maggie.”
Hailey felt a wave of sadness sweep over her. “Maggie would’ve given her right arm to have those, to know that Billie hadn’t forgotten her.”
“Gran never forgot her; I can assure you of that.”
A gust of cold wind whirled around them and Hailey shivered.
“Look, why don’t we go for coffee and we can fill in some details for each other.” Hailey glanced down at the box and Daena followed her gaze. “Maggie’s ashes?”
“Uh huh. I promised her I’d spread them over Billie’s grave if she’d passed away.”
“I’m pretty sure Gran wouldn’t have appreciated them being spread over her if she hadn’t passed.”
Hailey couldn’t stop the grin that erupted at Daena’s irreverence. Maggie would’ve liked you.
“Besides, you don’t need to spread them. Gran left space, just in case. We can inter them anytime you’re ready. She also left room on the stone to add Maggie’s name.”
“She did? Billie expected Maggie to join her?”
“I think it’s more that Gran hoped they’d finally be reunited. I don’t think there was a day in her life that Gran didn’t long for that.”
“I know you have a million questions—I did too when Gran told me—but it’s damned cold out here. Bring Maggie’s ashes and come with me. I swear to you, we’ll carry out Gran and Maggie’s last wishes—Gran would haunt me if I didn’t—but right now I’d kill for a hot cup of coffee.”
They started walking towards their cars, Hailey’s rental and Daena’s small silver Hybrid.
“We can go to a restaurant if you’d like, Hailey, but if you’re comfortable coming to my home, there are some things I’d like to show you.”
Hailey didn’t have to think twice. This was Billie’s granddaughter and she held the answers to all the questions Maggie had. Hailey could hardly wait to sit down and listen. “I’ll follow you.”
“Great. I live over by the university, so stick close.”
Less than ten minutes later, Hailey followed Daena into the driveway of a lovely old two-story house. As she got out of the car, she hesitated over bringing the old suitcase full of Maggie’s letters. She didn’t want Daena to think she was soliciting a room for the night. I’ll leave it up to her.
“Daena, I’ve got over sixty years of letters that Maggie wrote Billie, including the last one she wrote, a few months before she died. Are you interested in seeing any of them?”
A broad smile broke over Daena’s face. “Are you kidding? God, yes! Gran first told me their story when I was fifteen, and for the last twenty years I’ve wondered about the woman who held Gran’s heart so tightly.”
With an answering smile, Hailey opened the trunk and took out the ancient brown suitcase. She followed Daena to the front stoop.
“Nice place you have.”
“Thanks. Most of the houses along here have been turned into student residences, so it can get pretty noisy at Halloween or when the Badgers are playing at Camp Randall. But this is the home Gran bought thirty years ago, when she moved into the city after her husband died. I’ve lived here since I was fifteen, and she left it to me. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
“Do you work around here?”
“Over at the university. Why don’t you take a seat in the sunroom and I’ll get the coffee on.”
“Thanks.” Hailey walked through the arched doorway in the direction Daena had indicated before disappearing down the hall. The first thing that caught her eye was a photograph on the fireplace mantel. It was of an older Billie, with her arm around Daena. Though both women were smiling, Hailey fancied she saw the permanent stamp of sadness in Billie’s expression. She studied it, and was so lost in her perusal that she wasn’t aware of Daena returning.
“That was taken the day I graduated UW. I’d never have stayed in school if it wasn’t for Gran.”
“She encouraged you?”
“Encouraged me, tutored me, subsidized me, and rescued me when my parents kicked me out.”
“They kicked you out?”
“They’re pretty religious. They had a hard time accepting me coming out at fifteen, but they’re cool about it now. I think going to live with Gran saved our relationship all around.”
So Billie’s granddaughter is gay. Huh.
In her arms, Daena had a large cardboard box with several old photo albums piled on top. “There’s more, but I thought these would be a good start.”
She sat down on the leather couch and Hailey took a seat next to her, Miss Margaret’s suitcase at her knee. “I’d love to look at all these, but I really want to start with the big question...”
“I know—why. Why, when Gran loved Maggie for decades, didn’t she stay with her in the first place, or go back to look for her once Gramps died.”
“Exactly. Maggie never moved from the Peregrine. I think that she always hoped against hope that Billie would come back for her some day.”
Daena sighed deeply and leaned back in the couch. “I’ve always been torn. On the one hand, I wish Gran and Maggie could’ve been together always. The love they shared was amazing. I should be half as lucky. On the other hand, if Gran’s father hadn’t dragged her away from the city, my dad and my whole family wouldn’t exist.” She shot Hailey a wry look. “Given that I’m pretty grateful for my life, I’m glad that Gran made the decisions she did.”
“Her father forced her to leave?”
“Uh huh. And he intercepted every letter Gran tried to send Maggie. Gran didn’t find that out until the black hearted son-of-a-bitch was on his deathbed.” A ding could be heard from the kitchen and Daena jumped to her feet. “How do you take your coffee?”
“A woman after my own heart. I’ll be back in a moment.”
Hailey picked up the topmost photo album. It opened on pictures of Billie’s wedding day. She scrutinized the expressions on Billie’s face, which ranged from anguish to resignation. Billie’s groom looked nervous and apprehensive. The only smile on the whole wedding party was a triumphant one on an older man who stood directly behind Billie and Charles.
“Not exactly the picture of wedded bliss, are they?” Daena set a cup next to Hailey and resumed her seat.
Hailey pointed towards the smiling man. “I’m guessing this is Billie’s dad?”
“Yes. He died long before I was born, but reading between the lines with both my dad and Gran, Great-Grandfather Elwood was a mean, nasty old bastard that couldn’t abide anyone not toeing his line. That’s really how the end for Gran and Maggie came about. Gran’s mother ended up in a hospital with a number of broken bones. The official word was that she fell down the stairs at the family farm, but Gran always had her suspicions. Anyway, old man Elwood wasn’t about to get stuck paying for help during his wife’s recuperation, or with caring for the younger children in the family. He knew his oldest daughter had no intention of ever returning, so he set out to New York to bring her home.”
“He kidnapped her?”
“Yes and no. He played on her love for her mother and her siblings to coax her to come home until her mother was well again. Then once he got her away from her work and into his truck, he wouldn’t stop at the Peregrine so Gran could leave a note for Maggie. He’d already collected all her things and signed her out.”
“But what was this stuff Elwood told the manager at the Peregrine about Billie getting married?”
“Gran didn’t know anything about that until much later. Apparently her father had been reading the letters she sent to her mother, and decided she was much too close to this Maggie person she kept talking about. He’d probably been suspicious for years, since Gran wasn’t exactly feminine or conformist. Anyway, he took it in his head that he was going to marry her off to the only son of one of his fellow farmers. He even agreed to pay a dowry of sorts, as long as the wedding took place as soon as possible.”
“A dowry? In 1946?”
“Well, they didn’t call it that, but Gramps’ father had been lusting after this piece of Elwood’s land for years, and he put a lot of pressure on his son to agree to the marriage. I never knew my grandfather, he died when my dad was just a boy, but I’ve heard he was essentially a good man. Gran always said, though, that his spine was made of putty.”
“But even so, I can’t imagine Billie agreeing to get married. I’d have thought she’d have gone back to New York the moment her mother had healed.”
“Me too, Hailey. But this is where great-grandfather’s underhanded ways worked against the lovers. Remember they were out in the country, and Billie was overwhelmed with caring for her mother and siblings. She’d write letters and put them in the mailbox to be picked up. Elwood made an arrangement with the postman to intercept any outgoing or incoming letters to Gran. The odd thing is, he saved every one of those letters and gave them back to Gran when he made his deathbed confession. But since Gran never heard back from Maggie, she thought her sweetheart must’ve been so mad at her for leaving that Maggie didn’t want anything more to do with her. As her mother recuperated, she too brought pressure on Gran to marry Gramps. Finally, Gran just gave in.”
“Did she say why? I can’t imagine simply giving up on such a love.”
“I asked Gran that the first time she told me the whole story. She told me she didn’t see any other option. I really think it was a combination of pride, pain, and Gran’s own nature. Once she set her mind on something, she was hard to persuade differently. She thought Maggie didn’t want her anymore, that Maggie had moved on with her own life, and Gran was damned if she was going to beg.”
Hailey’s heart hurt all over again for her friend. “That’s so unbelievably sad, Daena. I remember Maggie telling me that she was about the only one who could change Billie’s mind about anything, but thanks to the machinations of Billie’s father, Maggie never got the chance to try.”
“She wouldn’t have had to try very hard. The way Gran told it, if she’d had one word from Maggie, she would’ve abandoned her family lock, stock, and barrel and flown back to her lover’s side.”
“Did Billie ever think to try to find Maggie in later years? Maybe after her husband died?”
“By then she had four kids under the age of eleven; it was all she could do to keep the farm going and care for her family. When the kids were grown and out on their own, Gran figured too much time had gone by.”
“Talk about star-crossed lovers. Billie and Maggie just couldn’t catch a break.”
“I agree, but Gran said she considered the three years they spent together to be the best of her life. She said she was the most fortunate woman in the world to have known and loved Maggie Coulter, even for such a short time. Gran claimed the memories of those years sustained her through a lot of bad times. Do you know she actually passed away the evening of what would’ve been their sixty-third anniversary?”
“I noticed that on her grave marker. How very appropriate.”
Daena regarded Hailey curiously.
“Maggie wrote Billie every year on their anniversary. This year I even threw her a small celebration on the roof of the Peregrine.”
“The roof? The roof where they watched stars? Where they fell in love? That is so sweet.”
Hailey nodded with a smile, then looked up as the grandfather clock in the corner tolled the time. “I should probably go find a hotel for the night. I went right from the airport to your parents’ place, and then to the cemetery.”
“Hey, if you’re not booked in anywhere, why not stay with me? I’ve got tons of room. You could even have Gran’s old bedroom.”
“I wouldn’t want to impose.”
Daena waved her hand dismissively. “No imposition at all. Stay as long as you like. I can hardly wait to dive into Maggie’s letters. Come on, let’s get your things out of the car and get you settled, then I’ll order take-out. Good thing I don’t have any early classes tomorrow, because I think this may be a long night.”
Before Hailey could register any further objections, they’d retrieved her luggage from the rental car and Daena was showing her Billie’s bedroom.
“Why don’t you take a few minutes and get settled? Bucky’s Pizza is two blocks away and I’ve got them on speed dial. You like it all dressed?”
“Sure, that’s fine.” Hailey chuckled quietly as Daena exited the room. Talk about a force of nature.
Hailey turned slowly and took in the bedroom. It wasn’t hard to picture it as Billie’s room. There was nothing fussy about the décor; everything was plain and orderly. An old brush still sat on the dresser, as if Billie had just set it down. A picture frame was on the bedside table, and Hailey was delighted to see that it was the same photo Maggie had kept beside her bed. Several photos hung on the wall and she walked over to examine them.
There were no pictures of Billie and her late husband, but there was one of Billie surrounded by her children and grandchildren. Turning the picture over, Hailey read the inscription—My 80th Birthday, 2005.
“I’m glad you weren’t alone, Billie. Maggie wasn’t either, even though she didn’t have family nearby like you did. We were her family, and we all loved her.” Hailey looked at a large photo of Billie and Daena; Daena was in her teens. She turned it over. My first, beloved grandchild. “I’ll bet she was your favourite, wasn’t she, Billie?”
“I was, but don’t tell the others that. My brothers and cousins were always jealous of how close Gran and I were.”
Hailey turned to see Daena leaning against the doorway. She tapped a finger against the other large photo, one of Billie and Daena smiling widely and hugging each other. “What’s this from?”
“That was the day I got my job. Gran was so happy, she just about jumped out of her skin.”
“That’s right. You said you work at the university. What do you do?”
“I’m an associate professor in the Astronomy Department.” The doorbell rang and Daena glanced at her watch. “Huh, new record. Pizza’s here. Come get supper.” She hurried off, and Hailey paused for a second to turn over the photo.
“Astronomy, eh? Billie must’ve loved that.” The inscription on the other side brought tears to Hailey’s eyes.
My dearest Daena—she’ll go where I could not.
“If she does, Billie, I think it’s probably thanks to you.” Hailey stepped back and closed her eyes. “Billie, I really hope you and Maggie know that even though you didn’t get to be together, neither of you wasted your lives. As one of so many people you two touched, I am deeply grateful. And Maggie, I’m going to do everything I can to live up to your example. I may not stay at the Peregrine, but I’ll always remember the grand old lady who befriended me there.”
“Hey, Hailey, I can’t guarantee there’ll be anything left of this pizza.”
Hailey smiled and opened her eyes at the words hollered from downstairs.
“Okay, I’m coming.”
Hailey walked to the door, and as she turned to shut it behind her, for just an instant, she was certain she heard the sound of two lovers laughing together.
© Lois Cloarec Hart