The word "no" never boded well when it came from Anne. Had Gilbert been twenty two he would certainly have winced. But he was more than twice that age and had the salt and pepper hair to prove it. And creases at the corners of his eyes, and scores in his cheeks that had once been dimples. He liked to think he had grown into himself. Ten years ago he still had a boyish look that he suspected may have hampered his career. No doubt it would have been easier if he'd remained in Nova Scotia. The Cooper Prize carried prestige in this Province, and whenever he was introduced here the mention of his scholarship never failed to be followed by, "which wasn't awarded again for more than a decade."
Today when he took the stage he was no longer staring out at grey faced nay-sayers, but at eager young men and women who accosted him in hallways to ask about advances in blood storage or the citrate method of anticoagulation. These discussions had become the highlights of his day–and the bane of his assistant who had a schedule to keep. Halifax, Montreal, Rochester, then finally home to Boston. He lived by the Charles River because he needed to be close to the water. It was a small concession to the life he once had growing up on the Island, though not enough to make up for the fact that Boston University was a Methodist institution. A fact his Aunt Mary-Maria never failed to bring up whenever they went home for Christmas.
In moments of rare sentiment Gilbert would say there was no home to go back to now–usually after picking up a faded photograph from his desk. This invariably goaded his son into pointing out that they never had a home to go back to, before he feinted to the left, pulled his father into a headlock, and the picture of the Blythe farm out of his hand.
Will liked Avonlea enough to look with pride upon the scars he collected from his winters there. He even considered attending Prince of Wales College in Charlottetown for all of five minutes. Until his father reminded him that he was never actually a student of that school, and neither was his mother.
'I was sorry to hear of her passing,' Anne said. She stopped in the middle of the footpath and loosened her hold on Gilbert's arm. 'Katherine and I were–well, chums is not exactly the word.'
'Kindred spirits is how she described it,' said Gilbert, lightly.
He tucked Anne's hand around his elbow once more and pressed further up the street. They had demolished the bag of nuts and sent Lester with the children's luggage onto Pacey's without them. It was Anne's idea. She told herself that Royal was bound to hold fire until she appeared, and the longer she delayed her arrival the more chance Captain Blythe had of changing her husband's mind.
'Let me guess,' Anne said, stepping around a shard of broken glass, 'there was a discernible hint of sarcasm in Katherine's voice when she said that.'
'Wouldn't like to say,' Gilbert responded with a conspiratorial look. He held it a second too long and Anne began to fuss with the veil on her hat. Though wads of cloud loomed over them, he found himself asking if the sun was bothering her.
'Yes–no... Gilbert, I hate to be rude–' Anne said quickly, 'and I hope you don't mind my saying this–but Katherine Brooke was the last woman I ever imagined you marrying. I don't want to pry, it's only that I'm not sure when I will see you next and it's hardly the sort of thing one can put in a letter.'
'Oh, I don't know... if memory serves we used to share some heated exchanges.'
'Gossipy things about Redmond and home.'
It stung him to hear her describe their letters that way, but it was hardly Anne's fault that she saw the world so differently. None of this was her fault, or his. Nor Will's or Dido's. This was just another random event without meaning or explanation. The way some people succumb to influenza and some do not. The way great feats of engineering can disintegrate in an instant... If Katherine had been just one minute later. Instead she fell with thirty-three others who had been working on the Quebec Bridge, and was buried under a steel cross in her beloved Kahnawake.
The pause in conversation became a space between them, one that Anne's old self would have encouraged. Now she was filled with urgency because every step they took was one they could never have back.
'Come, we have ten short minutes to catch up on thirty years. Not that we won't have plenty to talk about at Pacey's, but that is bound to be a very different conversation.'
Anne was gazing at Gilbert the way she did when he met her at the station. He wished she wouldn't, because he had just discovered he hadn't lost the knack of seeing things in her eyes that weren't there. How was it possible for her to appear so unchanged? Naturally, Anne's look had evolved from the simple style she used to favour. Her coat was in the latest mode and draped around her like a cocoon. Her hat was in a bold geometrical shape with stiff dyed feathers and a spotted net. But underneath that same spirit glowed. She worked on him like sunlight. He couldn't help but open up.
'Ten minutes, you say?'
'Probably closer to eight now.'
'Lets go the long way then, by the rotunda. That will give us a good five minutes each. I'll go first as you are so curious, but–' he squeezed Anne's arm, 'no interrupting. After that, it's your turn.'
'Me? There's nothing to tell.' Gilbert's face said it all and Anne gave a relenting laugh. 'All right. But you first!'
'Right, ah,' Gilbert paused and bit his lip as he used to when he was muddling out a math problem. 'Shall I start with Katherine or before that?' It was Anne's turn to give him a look. 'Before it is. So, when did we last see each other?'
He knew the answer to that and almost believed she did, too. But instead of waiting for a reply he took a breath and began. After the fever, medical school. Then a relapse. His supervisor recommended a specialist in Pennsylvania. A six week visit became a year. Then back to Redmond. Graduation. Three job offers: one from Halifax, one from Philadelphia, and one from Glen St Mary–
'You mean you might have returned to the Island?' Anne asked him.
'I did return for a short time–stop interrupting. So then it was back to Philly, then Boston, then a brief stint in Montreal. That's where I met Katherine. She was Doctor Landsteiner's secretary back then, at St Mark's. You might have heard of him?'
Anne had heard of him. More than that, she knew he specialised in haematology. She also knew Gilbert had forgotten to mention the six months he spent in Vancouver. But she didn't say any of that, instead she shook her head.
'No? He received a Nobel Prize for the immunological response to incompatible blood types?'
'Let me guess,' Anne said, 'you're an A.'
'Nope, just a plain old O, Mrs Gardner. You?'
'I thought we weren't doing questions.'
'True, so what year am I up to... 1897. That was a big year for young Doctor Blythe, finally finished my doctorate and Katherine and I were married. Will was born in England. After that it was back to Montreal, more for Kat's sake than for mine. She was studying anthropology, indigenous languages, Iroquoian especially... She didn't really take to motherhood.'
'It's harder than it looks.'
Gilbert turned to her and smiled. One of his generous, open smiles that were as much a part of him has his hazel eyes and curly hair.
'Thank you, Anne. Most people say how sorry they are.'
It was hearing him say her name that did it. That and the thought of all the children Anne was so sure would be his. Dozens of brown limbed brats spitting spruce chews at unsuspecting Pyes, rambling over the Blythe homestead, and teasing the life out of the latest Avonlea school master. She let go his arm and raced ahead to the rotunda, fighting hard against the ache behind her eyes. Cry, now? How sentimental would that look–not to say unhinged.
Gilbert seemed to know, in any case he took his time walking over to her. His unbuttoned coat flew out behind him accentuating muscular thighs and slim hips. She remembered hearing that he was once on the rowing team, but couldn't think of a way to ask him without it becoming obvious she had been following his astonishing career from the beginning. Before Medical school, before the scholarship, before the Medal, to the days when his name topped hers in their one roomed schoolhouse. Anne knew it all, the way she knew her own hand or her child's face. She thought of her daughter and brimmed with gladness that Dido would know Gilbert, too.
He ascended the stairs of the rotunda and gripped hard at the railings, rocking back and forth while he took in the view. This time of year offered little more than some pruned back roses and an empty fountain.
'I wish it would rain,' he said, so softly she was not sure she was supposed to have heard him.
He turned and caught Anne looking at him. She was thinking of the storm that passed the night she was told that Gilbert was dying.
'Remember when–' she began.
'Uh-uh,' said Gilbert. 'I'm not spending our last five minutes playing do you remember.' He offered his arm and lead her down the stairs to a path that followed the river. 'Time for you to tell me everything I don't know.'
'That would be a short conversation,' Anne said, elbowing him.
'All right then, tell me how it is that you and–Mr Gardner decided on a ten year engagement?'
'Ten years?' Anne laughed. 'We were only engaged for three days. I know Island gossip can be unreliable, Gilbert, but surely even Fred knew that.'
They walked on a few steps before Gilbert stopped, releasing Anne's arm from his own. He pulled off his fedora and began to pinch at the teardrop crown. Anne waited for him to look at her but all his attention had gone to his hat.
'I didn't know you didn't know,' she said. What she wanted to say was: What about you? You were supposed to marry Christine.
Gilbert rubbed his mouth as she spoke. His eyes passed over her, then back to the rotunda as though he thought he had left something behind.
'My mistake,' he muttered, and tilted his hat low over his brow. 'We should hurry, Mrs Gardner, I'm sure our children will be wondering where we are.'
* the Quebec bridge collapsed twice, I am referring to the first collapse in 1907
* Kahnawake is Mohawk territory
* Dr Landsteiner is Austrian, but I moved him to Montreal