Winter Song

White Winter

In Fiction by Ruth Langner

Winter Song
Photo by Camille Brodard on Unsplash

—Come here. Closer. I know you love a good story, but the thing is...this is a long story...no, it’s not even a story...it’s a complete fugazi!

Pablo and Chica, the two bull terriers, were devoted to each other, though neither would admit to any reciprocal form of affection. Chica, the brindle one, seldom spoke, but when she did, it was usually something upscale, hoping to draw attention to her beauty. She walked slowly as if she had just come from a pedicure, placing her paws carefully lest she chip the polish. Pablo, the younger one, was highly intelligent and respected for his strength and congenial character. Together, they were ensconced on their cushy beds and had made themselves comfortable. When Pablo stretched his back next to Chica, she murmured approvingly, and they both looked attentively.

—Fix your eyes on me and listen up. I’ll tell you the abbreviated version.

In the fading light of a December day, the windows to the outside world exposed huge flakes of wet snow falling gently, turning the garden paths soggy and sloppy. The hands of the moon-faced clock stood at five, signalling the end of the workday, though no one had come home yet. It was the time when people would be out in the white dusk shovelling their driveways, shivering for not having put on a winter parka or gloves; some would stay behind at the office sharing funny stories over a drink or two, getting tipsy; and some would be lining up at the theatre to get their tickets to see the Nutcracker.  In here, the hundred or more brilliant yellow lights that draped the Christmas tree remained dark, for no one had come home to turn them on.

“Top of Happiness,” said Djinn who stood off in the corner of the room wedged between the china cabinet and the beverage fridge.

The two terriers, accustomed to being top dogs in the house, had accepted Djinn showing up now and then. He wasn’t just some guy wandering through the place looking to measure for new carpet. At first, their eyes had strained to see the image that appeared in a fog, and their yapping brought attention to something no human could see. But, eventually, the image grew clearer and brighter so they could make out every detail, and even though that changed each time Djinn appeared, they gradually realized he was not an enemy.

****

Pamela and Mike had turned the living room upside down to make room for the Christmas tree. They had rolled up the area rug and left it under the window while they swept and polished the hardwood floor. The assorted boxes from which the tree decorations had been removed stood stacked by the dining room table like a classic Jenga tower, waiting to be returned to the storage room.

Tired from all the decorating, Mike took to lounging on the sofa with a whisky on the rocks, while Pam admired her décor genius sipping a deep, plum red wine from what looked like an enormous glass bowl. She placed her left hand on Mike’s shoulder and, with her right finger pointed directly at me asked, “What would you say if we had the chair reupholstered?”

Mike was fixated on the TV mounted on the wall across from him. Watching that crackerjack player Connor McDavid of Canadian hockey fame had captured his attention. He’d focus on the question of refurbishing the chair in a bit. He’d find something substantial to say then.  He should have known better. “I hear you,” he replied, trying to be congenial.

As for me, I was seized by panic—near knocked the stuffing out of me. The very fabric of my soul bristled. I’m not a pedigree dog to be groomed and paraded, evaluated by judges, and awarded ribbons. Nor am I just any vintage chair paying homage to a bygone era. I have no need of shedding my precious fabric for some eye-popping, schizophrenic, cotton print. If you’re not considering the cost, why not focus on something cheaper like the boring, brown sofa? I held my breath waiting for Mike’s response. Surely, he would bring sanity to the question.

Mike’s head wasn’t clear enough to respond to his wife. The Edmonton Oilers just scored. There was a slight pause as he played with the TV remote trying to catch a replay of the goal, a distraction from the tricky business of formulating whatever he would have to say about the impertinent question. Frankly, he was never sold on the chair ever since it arrived. By God, the whole thought of it brought him shame and disgust while Pamela called him a snob. Why spend money on it now? Yet, to gain mental freedom, he tried this approach: “Honestly, honey, what’s wrong with the chair the way it is?”

—That was brave of you, Mike.

Another hiatus while Pamela focused on me. I could imagine something awful happening, maybe on an impulse, because her demeanour changed, as if she was ignoring what she just heard, or taking her time to respond. She would have the audacity to negotiate, or rather insinuate. And it would be on her terms. And she would nod, knowingly, and smile, knowingly, with her lips pursed. In which case, Mike might just as well fold his tent.

“You know what we’ll do?”

“What?”

“We’ll move the TV downstairs.”

—Yikes! Psychological torture.

For Pamela, redecorating was not just an occasional whim but an ongoing hobby, like scrapbooking or quilting. Mike worked his hand through his hair and lifted his eyes off the television for a second, long enough to notice she was serious. “So, why would you do that?” then waved his hand away as if what she was suggesting was a stupid idea. “The TV is for watching. It’s not right to have it in the damn basement.”

—Oops-a-daisy, Mike. Pay attention.

“I’ll get a quote.” She folded her arms and stared straight ahead at me, a glaring signal the matter was closed.

—Don’t look at me like that.

A whole half hour passed. You could hear the wings of a fly hum in the air. Mike’s glass was empty. He didn’t like it when she mentioned things, all casual, like it was nothing, that it was okay that the TV moved downstairs, as if he had no say, and that she thought she could talk him into it. What irritated him the most, though, was that in the end he knew that in order for the TV to remain in the living room, he would agree to have the chair reupholstered. Checkmate.

Was it not crystal clear from the start that these tyrannical humans were about to toss me off to the basement along with the TV? Remember this, you clever bow-wows: as sure as there is hardwood floor beneath my feet, sooner or later they will banish me to darkness. And you must steadfastly resist on my behalf. For who will talk to you then, eh?

Pablo cleared his throat. Chica daintily crossed her paws.

That night, I had a restless sleep. Memories flooded into my head: the parties that Louise had hosted flaunting her fashionable clothing; blank faces shaking their sagging jowls and double chins, with mouths opening only to gossip and stuff food inside; and images of busty Estelle. I trembled, secretly grasping onto these images hoping they would stay. Suddenly, I was flying through the air like an arrow that had been shot out of a bow, soaring higher and higher. Looking down on Louise, I felt inexplicable triumph. I had, after all, aristocratic blood in my veins and doors would open for me. But my flight was doomed, and I found myself falling, falling like Icarus, plummeting to the earth. I saw my feet wrapped in rags and my fabric in tatters. Guests were standing around laughing, pointing at my bare knees, and whispering to one another. The house was no longer a posh, upmarket mansion, but a ramshackle structure waiting to be torn down, and the people in it were poison.

When I woke in the morning, I had goosebumps.

****

It was a week before Christmas.

Mike poured himself and Pam a small drink. They hemmed and hawed. Something fishy was going on. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. The front door was opened and I felt the cool fresh air flow in. Outside, the wind had picked up and was blowing from the north, bringing with it a cold, arctic chill. Mike put on his black ski jacket. Pam wrapped herself in a soft grey scarf. By the time they came back inside, snow had brushed their faces and covered their woolly toques.

Then came the disaster.

Pamela put her face close to Mike and spoke in a soft and gentle tone. “We’ve talked this over before and I think it is a good idea. If you don’t take into account the cost, don’t you think the chair will look fresher with a new cover?” Pamela paused. “Anyway, I’ve made an appointment.” She wiggled her nose. She had won. The TV would stay put.

“I hope this guy knows what he’s doing,” Mike muttered. I couldn’t read his expression. He stood a few moments looking at me, then sat in my lap and stroked my arms. He rose reluctantly, but there was no avoiding it. It was settled. I was to be deported to a filthy little place where filthy hands would greet us and careless hands would paw all over me. I could have retched all over them as they shoved me into the truck.

My only hope was that this would be a reputable business and not some unscrupulous merchant out to make a fast buck. I had heard the rumours of chairs undergoing experiments that had failed miserably. Like rats in a lab. Owners could sue for everything they had, which wasn’t much, but they never did.

As we pulled out into traffic, I sensed we were heading north of the city, but don’t ask me how I came to that, not that it mattered one way or the other. We arrived at a grotty, shabby shop surrounded by leafless trees and a chain-link fence with posts leaning cockeyed as if they had been hit by a semi.

Mike put the truck in reverse. “This doesn’t look like the right place. Let’s get out of here.”

“No, wait a minute.”  A board hung on a wire like a picture and was flapping noisily in the wind. The letters were faded from years in the sun. “The sign says Stitchery Spa. Let’s check it out. No harm in just getting a quote. The place has a ton of positive comments online.”

“Fake news.”

The parking area had not been plowed, and there were no telltale signs of other visitors having been there. They waded through a foot of snow and Mike turned the knob on the front door.

A dangling chime made of cheap tin rings let the shop owner know a visitor had arrived. The desk sign said, Director of First Impressions. At a wide table covered with bolts of fabric, patterns, and a dozen crinkled Oh Henry wrappers, sat a fleshy little man with nicotine-stained fingers, thinning grey hair, and squinty eyes. His brows and forehead wrinkles were knotted together. He was probably on the high end of his fifties. He gleefully wiped his hands together as I was dragged into a tiny room where the distinct odor of furniture wax and solvent almost did me in.

He did not start by admiring the qualities of my form as would be expected when first setting eyes on me. He put his ten fingers together and stretched them out, shifting his focus onto Mike, assuming he was the decision maker in this deal. “Good upholsterers come and go, but I, Arsénio, am an artiste. My work is of the highest quality, I can assure you.”

The great Arsénio did not offer a handshake, thank God. Nor did he mention a free consultation, or that his customers were one hundred percent satisfied, or any other bespoke qualifications.

His conversation imperceptibly changed direction when Pamela started browsing through the fabric samples. He bantered on about how tough times were, how slow business was, how hard it was to make a living in this city, the cost of living being so high, how he was trying to pay university tuition for his son. “Young people don’t care anymore. They are spoilt. They live in a disposable world. Just junk it and buy another. Made in China. We are forced to compete with cheap commodities coming in by the container load from overseas. No place left in the world for the likes of us artisans.” With emphasis on artisans.

Pamela offered up the occasional um but otherwise ignored the shopkeeper. “What about this one, Mike?”

I gasped.

—No! Please, Mike, not that ugly...

“Army Surplus,” he whispered, at a safe distance.

The craftsman came out from behind his rostrum and waddled over to Pamela. He gave the sample a quick once over and announced that it was too thin a quality for the chair.

“Do you Scotchgard your material?” Her playful eyes danced over the hovering proprietor.

Mike snickered. She was actually serious. “Oh, come on, Honey, let’s get out of this place." The shop made his skin creep.

“You know, I don’t just take in any piece. I must take my time and examine it thoroughly. You will leave it with me?”

—How can you abandon me here? I am in mortal danger. Don’t you see that?

“You’re right,” said Pamela. “When will you get back to us?”

—Sure, I’ll send you a postcard.

****

Pamela looked up at the pewter grey sky. She wasn’t in the mood to go home quite yet. The streets were sparkling with colourful Christmas lights and filled with shoppers clunking along in their winter boots. Children hung onto their parents’ hand and begged to be swung high in the air. Lovers strolled hand in hand swept up in the most magical and romantic time of year. Days were short and a pink hue spread across the horizon signalling night was closing in.

Her senses were alert. The smell of hot chocolate and mulled wine wafted out of the cafés, as tempting, cinnamon pastries baked on an open flame at a kiosk that operated under special permit.

Ever since they had left the chair at the shop, Mike had been fidgety. Several times he had attempted to raise the topic of the hour, the red chair, and each time, Pamela had managed to successfully kill the topic like the falling blade of the guillotine.

No, she was definitely not ready to go home yet.

They walked slowly down the street and stopped in at a busy bistro where revellers waited in line for their Irish coffee, chatted boisterously about skiing the moguls on the black diamond trail and their near escape from calamity. “Jingle Bell Rock” played in the background and, from under the tables, wool socks were bobbing up and down. Mike ordered a gingerbread sticky pudding and an aromatic mulled wine; Pamela fancied a slice of warmed apple pie and hot chocolate.

“Is it good?” Mike asked nodding to her fork as it dove into the pie.

“Yummy,” she smiled.

Finally, having swallowed a portion of the pudding, Mike started, “Are we going to ignore the topic, or shall we talk about it?”

The temperature dropped six degrees. Arguments are like candy. You choose the ones you want. But, once bitten, you can’t put the praline back in the box. Pamela paused before replying. “If you’re going to start on about upholstering the red chair...in answer to your question...I’m going to ignore the topic and not talk about it again until we have the quote.”

—Clean up in Aisle 2!

****

I was scraped across the plywood floor and shoved into a warehouse of abandoned furniture. Arsénio slammed the door on my life.

The only light came in through a clerestory window that had dusty pink curtains gathered at the corners and tied back. At first, everything in the room appeared hazy as if I had developed cataracts or something. I had to blink several times for my eyes to adjust. To my surprise over in the corner sat a Cabriole sofa with her carved wood frame and exposed, curvy, shapely legs, looking sexy in all her frenchness, the envy of every man in town.

A Queen Anne perched delicately in her snobbish way and watched, not missing the flinch of an eyebrow. She was covered in exquisite tapestry embroidered with a scene from the Middle Ages, with silk threads of gold woven at precise intervals where, instead of a button, a jewel glistened. It was apparent she wanted nothing much to do with the others in the group. Or was it just me? Her facial expression suggested I was simply not worth sullying her reputation over.

I saw a Chesterfield, a rich leather piece with several of his tufts missing and springs popping up, sitting humiliated, for he is typically very particular about how he looks. I imagined he had probably been abused, poor fella. I suspected a divorce.

But wait! Hiding behind a couple of bar stools, in all her glory, was a red velvet Divan with cute little tassels hanging along her braided trim. You haven’t seen beauty until you’ve set eyes on this divan. Even in the semi-darkness, I could make out her rather extraordinary, ahem, figure. She was exotic. Like Elizabeth Taylor or Sophia Loren is to movies, this divan is to furniture. Her eyes had a pout to them, as did her lips, and her skin revealed the cutest dimples when she smiled. She was giving off pheromones like a codling moth trap trying to get the males all agitated. I bet she teased and flirted with all the new arrivals. It wasn’t right, but I was in love.

Of course, there was the geriatric crowd consisting of several stuffy, old armchairs who had their backs up against the wall in the shadows, hanging out in God’s waiting room. Their faces were all scrunched up and they looked kind of skittishly at me through milky, old eyes. I reckoned their gnarled arthritic hands would barely be able to take out their dentures. Their lights had gone out long ago. Why were they still here?  Had no one come to claim them?

I watched them all and studied their faces carefully, for I was amazed to find such quality here in this place. Do they have any psychiatric history I should know about? I know they are all wondering about me as well, so I pulled myself across the dusty floor to be a little closer, as if I wanted to be a part of their group. I had to be a bit cagey though. What’s their story? Therapy?

The air was oppressive and so were they.

—Come on, lighten up a bit. If we’re going to be stuck in here together, might as well make the most of it. Did you ever have an Estelle who hoisted her skirt and flopped herself across your lovely coverings?

No one laughed.

—A cheery bunch, these ones.

We sat there in silence for ages. I thought about giving them my spiel about having been tossed out onto the street by Louise. But they had their own stories and they weren’t sharing. My eyes scanned the room and landed back on the stunning Miss Divan.

—I’d love to smooth her skirt one day!

Two chairs had put their heads together and were talking in low voices, glancing at me, from which I made a few deductions. I’d steer clear of them, though I could be friends with the bar stools.

—The name’s Ruby. As in “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”.

I thought I’d start the conversation by introducing myself to see what comes of it. If only they would open up and start talking.

—Djinn! Djinn! Where are you? Come and find me! I’m dying in this place. Pul-eeeze, Djinn, I beg of you. Don’t let me down in my hour of need. Djinn, can you hear me? Give me a sign.

Mr. Chesterfield rolled his eyes up to the ceiling as if there was a chandelier up there. Then he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out. All the furniture looked and waited. His voice, when I heard it, was pained, but he smiled at me. He began telling how, when he first arrived in this country, he was settled into a rather large mansion where gentlemen of standing stopped by to drink a pint or two, spend time playing billiards, light their pipes and blow smoke up into the great high ceilings. Overall, he was highly regarded and his leather was polished weekly with mink oil.

He began mimicking the manservant in a squeaky, English highbrow tone. “Oh, Sir Jeremy wishes you all to stay for dinner. The cook has prepared a delightful Wellington. Oh, pardon, Sir Jeremy is feeling unwell. He won’t be able to see you today.”

His voice became solemn. “But that all ended abruptly when Sir Jeremy dropped dead of a heart attack.”

After that, there remained a ghostly aura hanging about, and the manor went rapidly into disrepair. Bills were left unpaid and one by one the staff were let go. Then, one late April afternoon when the scent of the corpse lingered still, his worst fears were realized. He was sold off like a cheap steak and cast out beyond the sights of glamour into a dilapidated place where his legs were cramped, and he would never smile again.

Apparently, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Olivier, the couple to whom he had been consigned, hadn’t been married long before the varnish started peeling off the thin veneer of their relationship. What would begin as a disagreement over some trivial matter, inevitably escalated into a full blown quarrel with shouts, screaming and obscenities exchanged, each claiming victory and neither willing to concede. In a hysterical rage, Mrs. Olivier had screamed at her husband accusing him of all manner of adulterous acts, tears flowing liberally down her cheeks, stabbing into the heart of his cushion with a serrated knife, vehemently claiming how much she had loved him, the now persona non grata Mr. Charles Olivier.

“What little dignity I had left is gone. I haven’t been able to gather together my strength to regain my ruined life. It’s over.”

—Oh, good Lord! Sweet night in heaven! Do you suppose Mr. Chesterfield here could use a pick-me-up...a little drink...gin and tonic?

It sounded very much to me like Mr. and Mrs. Charles Olivier were five hundred horsepower psychopaths. Louise was looking pretty good.

Miss Cabriole piped up from her place amongst the furniture in the salon. “Oui, oui. Story of my life. My husband thought I was the sexiest thing going until la chaise showed up. I mean, when one’s figure starts to go, bang, they leave you for someone prettier and younger. How you say, a hussy? Cette poufiasse! You know...the ones...with their chests popping off their buttons, Brigitte Bardot pouty lips and seductive smile. Probably not even legal.”

—I get it. He went out painting the town red, is what you’re saying.

Miss Cabriole did not find that one bit funny. “Bourgeoisie,” she hissed at me.

The bar stools turned around. “Oh, grow up! Face it, Miss Cabriole. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. Where we work, we’ve seen it all. Front-row seats.”

“So, why are you here?” inquired Mr. Chesterfield whose vision was obstructed by Queen Anne.

The bar stools were identical twins. They had got a job at the Marley’s Pew and started out at single tables before being promoted. The back wall behind the bar was covered in mirrored glass that reflected an inventory of every kind of liquor under the sun with all the bottles arranged on glass shelves lit from above. The only other notable feature hung on the walls was a series of James Lumbers’ memory prints with ghost images.

It wasn’t the place for lovers. Nor was it the ballroom gown and starched tuxedo crowd. You couldn’t tell apart the country girls from the uptown ones or those who had money and those who didn’t. Every night the place was packed. Every night, at the end of the evening, the twins were turned upside down and put on top of the beer-soaked tables while the floor was mopped.

This one night, when the party was in full swing and everyone was having a little hanky-panky, the stools noticed a pipsqueak of a man, a gentleman though he was, decently dressed, but emotionally wounded, enter through the stained-glass, front door.

—Oh, oh, the husband. One fly in the evening’s insidious ointment.

Everyone heard the crunch of his boots and the snap of aggravated fingers. By the dim light, he scrutinized everyone closely like a ravenous beast that had just been trapped. The room grew hot and sweaty.

“All at once it turned into an orgy of smashing, ripping and tearing, mixed in with a generous amount of broken glass, and the rapid breathing of two men, one of whom had been a guest in my lap.

“In the fray, my leg had been broken. I limped over to the end of the bar. I looked back. There was my twin, the rug swept out from underneath him, hanging on to the bar...hope you don’t mind me sayen bro’...in a come-to-Jesus pose...on the verge of tears.”

“The police had been summoned and I heard their sirens wailing, coming closer,” the other stool added morbidly. “No ambulances for us. And sue? They claimed we hadn’t got a leg to stand on.”

—Groan.

“So, here we are.”

Suddenly, the door flew open and everyone strained to see what lie beyond the dark, empty space. Nothing. My fingers and toes tingled. All around me were sparkles swirling in circles and a surge of happiness welled up inside me. A twenty-first century miracle. Djinn had found me!

I eased up my grip and my eyes shifted back and forth over all the inmates to see if any of them noticed Djinn. From the look they gave, it appeared we were all on the same wavelength, and no one seemed particularly put out by his arrival. Immediately, their voices dropped down two octaves and slowed to a larghetto tempo. Djinn stood motionless, silhouetted in the doorway, looking like some sort of valet offering white glove service. He shielded his eyes with the back of his hand and scanned the room.

“Ruby, Ruby! For the Heaven of sake! How on this planet have you become here, Ruby? You are a sore sight for four eyes.” Djinn shuffled his feet like he was doing a tap dance. I thought a napkin was about to come out of his vest and he’d start sanitizing me.

I invited Djinn to come closer. “Here’s what happened.”

When I finished explaining, Djinn stood erect, contemplating. He got up and went out to the proprietor’s desk and rummaged about in the papers and pulled out a fine-nib pen. With the artistry of a calligrapher, he wrote,

Dear Madam,

I am pleased to having the opportunity of reviewing your lovely chair. My fee for recovering can be only $3,500 with the finest fabric. I’m afraid to have much work awaiting my services and cannot undertake to commence before one year. My apologies, with understanding if you cannot wait this time.

He signed the letter, Director of First Impressions, and having repeated the words one more time, folded the paper neatly and replaced the pen.

****

The fat man with a beard and a red nose like a sugar plum had chortled his ‘ho-ho-ho’ at midnight on the eve of Christmas and left in a flash all covered in tinsel. The humans had the week off and family, scheduled to visit, had arrived. In a whirlwind, they had been lavishly fed—the food was superb and in excess; the important crystal and glassware displayed on pressed linen; and everyone crowded into the living room abandoning their half-eaten scones and chocolate-laden calories, all babbling at once, and amusingly toasting and raising their glasses at any opportunity.

—Getting the flock to be quiet would be like sneaking the sunrise past a rooster.

The disappearance of leftover turkey, the smell of sage and rosemary, and cinnamon-scented candles marked the end of the celebrated season. Come the second week of January, the glass ornaments, the gold garland, the ribbons and bows, and the twinkling reindeer in the garden all vanished.

Pamela and Mike were sitting at the island in the kitchen, pecking at a salami and cheese charcuterie platter, a few crackers, and an opened box of chocolates. Mike had poured a Scotch and she had her wine. They were chatting about Christmas, family and their recent visit.

“I’m not used to having so many people around,” piped up Pamela. “It’s good to have the house back to normal.”

Pamela picked up the letter, looked at me and shook her head in disbelief. “I still can’t believe that old codger wanted $3,500 to recover the chair! It’s ridiculous. As if...” She started laughing and popped an olive in her mouth. “Well, now...shall we move the TV downstairs?”

About the Author

Ruth Langner

The author is retired and lives in a winter city in British Columbia, Canada. She has published two novels and five of her short stories have been published in The Write Launch. She enjoys connecting her creative mind with everyday life experiences.

Read more work by Ruth Langner .