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Authors: Elizabeth Hay

Small Change (26 page)

BOOK: Small Change

That summer Jill turned a deep aboriginal yellow and her cheekbones rose up in her face. She was a sick Indian queen. We knocked on her door and she led us past her wine-red sofa, through the blue kitchen and into her bedroom with its big, white bedstead as high as her cheekbones. She lay there all afternoon, getting up only once to make Paul a sandwich, spreading mayonnaise on his bread and swaying on her feet, stupid and stubborn with sickness and loss. The effort exhausted her. I put a pillow under her swollen ankles, her eyes kept closing, and then a storm blew in. It knocked the curtains about, rattled the pictures and turned the air yellow. We lowered the windows against the rain and watched the branches break. It must have been noisy, but I don’t remember noise.

We remember the meaning of something when it leaves us. Or we lose something, and in losing it remember it as never before.

Jill – faded and beset by losses. When it becomes faded, but until then I just can’t imagine.


It has been warm for two days, and now the snow is in an advanced state of rot. Friday was the warmest day all spring. Crocuses peppered the downhill slope below Laurier’s statue, Colonel By held his rapier in the sunlight, Sir Somebody Head looked out at the ice-free Ottawa River.

Once I asked Jill how you make love last, and she laughed at me. We were walking down the road near her house, slowly because she was so ill. She said she felt as if a concrete block were inside her stomach, she could feel its edges rubbing against her. I asked my question and she laughed out loud. She said I was like her ninety-year-old aunt who settled herself into her doctor’s office and demanded to know
how the immune system works.

And maybe that’s the explanation. Love doesn’t last – can’t last – because we are so busy protecting ourselves from its loss. A pretty answer, and not very satisfying.

How can we maintain a steady regard towards people whose attentiveness ebbs and flows, and whose company we enjoy both more and less, and in whose company we sometimes feel more and sometimes less? And yet how uncomfortable the life – the loss – of this steady regard.

My brother’s coat. I take it out and look at it, even though it’s too warm to wear. The weather is too warm, indeed it’s raining now, and the ground under the wheels of the car has turned to mud. This slightly-too-large coat. My brother two years older than I, and slightly larger.

The weather on his gull-island is probably the weather we have now. When he doesn’t have a coat to send, he sends us weather.


The first hummingbird arrives and my mother walks down the path. We are at the cabin again: no leaves, red trilliums that smell like water, buds covered with velvet fur. We open up the cabin and it’s full of winter cold and mouse droppings. We open the windows and sweep.

Light fills the whole woods. It shines on grey rock and on maroon petals held in the palm of green sepals. My mother’s clothes are the soft green of something tarnished, her lips are trillium-red. Every morning she applies a layer of lipstick from a nearly spent tube to her upper lip, then presses upper lip against lower in one more act of economy.

We talk on the pathway. I tell her I’ve been writing about friendship and I use the phrase
the art of extrication
, saying how difficult it is to have companionship without being encroached upon: how easy to enter a friendship deeply and on someone else’s terms, and how difficult to get out except crudely and with a lasting residue. Her eyes are interested and vulnerable. Our friendship began after I left home. A late-blooming companionship that depends on carefully orchestrated tact, love, distance.

Spring comes sooner in the old New York neighbourhood. We would be down to sweaters by now, walking on streets
with trees and streets without. I remember one evening after an all-day rain, when the sidewalks were full of puddles which the kids loved. They touched everything they passed, running their hands over fences and the sides of cars. Maureen and I walked slowly, side by side, stopping to share the make-believe ice cream cones the kids bought in a vacant lot. What a pleasure her company was.

We walked over to the playground and even it was lovely, washed clean and nearly empty after the rain. A little girl with bare arms shared her candy with Annie and William – on the slide and then the swing, and later on the bars. I recognized the candy. Hard round tablets in pastel shades. She didn’t say a word, communicating with her candies, her small smiles, her recurring presence.

On the way home the old man at the Korean fruit store gave Annie a short-stemmed discarded rose. She held it erect, fully aware of its beauty and significance. She looked so pleased, and she wasn’t yet three. At home I put it in a little vase of water. She took the vase, drank some of the water, and carried it around from place to place.

In a room cooler than the rest of the house and with less light, I sit during a cold spring. A book keeps my coffee warm, gathering perspiration on its plastic underside: Elizabeth Bishop with a cigarette in her hand. The poems are about Brazil, although the one in my mind is
A Cold Spring:
the wilted crocus and something about branches.

So what have I learned? That on a morning in early May, I will be overcome by inner peacefulness, and it won’t last.
There are forces at work – weather, distance, light – that gradually smooth tension away. And other forces – memory, thin skin, fatigue – that rejuvenate old grievances and bring new ones into play. That I have arrived at middle distance in middle age with not necessarily fewer friends or better friends, but with an overwhelming desire for peaceful friends. And that all of this is temporary, and yet always the same.

May 5th. And not a crocus, but a violet. And not branches, but hesitating trees.

is the author of three highly acclaimed, bestselling novels:
A Student of Weather
, a finalist for The Giller Prize and the Ottawa Book Award;
Garbo Laughs
, winner of the Ottawa Book Award and a finalist for the Governor General’s Award; and, most recently,
Late Nights on Air
, winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Among her other publications is the short story collection
Small Change
, which was a finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the Trillium Award, and the Rogers Communications Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. In 2002, she received the prestigious Marian Engel Award for her body of literary work.

Elizabeth Hay lives in Ottawa. For more information, please visit

Copyright © 1997 by Elizabeth Hay

First published by the Porcupine’s Quill, Inc., 1997
Emblem edition published 2000

Emblem is an imprint of McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
Emblem and colophon are registered trademarks of McClelland & Stewart Ltd.

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of the publisher – or, in case of photocopying or other reprographic copying, a licence from the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – is an infringement of the copyright law.


Hay, Elizabeth, 1951—
Small Change

eISBN: 978-1-55199-434-5

I. Title.
PS8565.A875S62 2000      C813’.54      C00-931253-6
PR9199.3.H38S62 2000

We acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and that of the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Media Development Corporation’s Ontario Book Initiative. We further acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program.

Some of the stories in this book first appeared in
The Capilano Review, Quarry, Grain
, and
Missing Jacket

The author is grateful to the Canada Council for the Arts for its most generous support.

McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
75 Sherbourne Street Toronto, Ontario
M5A 2P9


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