Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Fiction #60: Lynda Curnoe

The Addition                                                                                       

We are often motivated by love but sometimes we are motivated by love of light.

"It needs some fixing up," said Shirley. She stood on the sidewalk in front of the house, frowning. She was a person who didn't like making decisions quickly. But, Don, her husband, seemed very keen.

"Yes", agreed Don who was smiling, his cheeks ruddy in the cold air. "But it has good bones. And look how big it is."

"What will we do with all the room?" Shirley had grown up in a London bungalow, where there was just the right amount of room, with nothing extra.

"Don't worry; we'll fill it up just fine."

The neighbourhood was called Parkdale, named for a local park. It was the remains of a town on the outskirts of Toronto, which had lost its way. Once, below Parkdale’s grassy hill, beside Lake Ontario, there was an amusement park called Sunnyside, filled with summertime delights and laughter. There were lit up fairground rides, hotdog stands, clean water beaches and boardwalks, a destination, a place of fun. Parkdale still overlooked the lake, but now no one enjoyed looking at the traffic or hearing the noise of expressways and trains below.

After years of saving, Shirley and her husband, Don, were about to make an offer to purchase the semi shown to them by their realtor. It wasn't exactly their dream home but it was a solid house they could afford, in an area they liked.

This house was only 20 feet wide but it had three floors. On the first floor were a living room, dining room and eat-in kitchen, as the realtors liked to put it. On the second floor were three small bedrooms and a bathroom, likely originally a fourth bedroom converted to a bathroom when the early twentieth century house got indoor plumbing. On the third floor were two larger bedrooms and a second bathroom.

Most of Parkdale had been built in the days when people had large families. Then it was a thriving lakeside community. But with the building of Lakeshore Boulevard and the Gardiner expressway, many of the bigger houses had been demolished or made into rooming houses. Now the area was making a comeback and house prices were rising.

*          

The Sinclairs had three children, a boy aged 11 and twin girls, aged 9 who took over the third floor bedrooms, the largest one at the front for the girls who preferred to sleep together in the same room. Don and Shirley took the largest second floor bedroom for their own. The second largest bedroom on the second floor was to be Don’s office, for he worked at home and the smallest at the end of the hall at the back became a TV room. Don and Shirley did not like having a TV in their living room.

Even before they moved in, one of the first improvements Shirley imagined would be adding an addition on the back--a solarium, a sun-filled room where she could have plants, an easy chair and look out over the garden in winter.

"We could put a big room on the back of the house, Don, with space for a main floor washroom. Wouldn’t that be a really good idea, especially for guests?"

"There you go again. Always getting ahead of yourself. We barely have enough income to pay the mortgage and do some fixing up and painting. You thought the house was too big at first."

"No it’s not too big. It’s just that being a semi there’s no light anywhere. And there’s that big tree at the front."

"But that’s one of the things you said you liked about the house."

"I do, but we bought it in the spring and I couldn’t know how much shade there would be in summer."

"We’re lucky. Look how cool it is. We don’t even have to put in air conditioning. We couldn’t afford it anyway."

*          

It took several months to adjust to the problems and delights of the house. Shirley was bothered by all the stairs because she had a bad knee from a bike accident some years ago. She asked the children to set up a routine of cleaning their own rooms on Saturday mornings before they started anything else. That became house cleaning time with Shirley doing the bulk of the work vacuuming and cleaning the two lower floors. Don was trusted with grocery shopping, something he was glad to do since he was the family’s chief cook. As a freelance commercial real estate appraiser, he put in regular hours at his desk and saw clients in the living room, or sat at the dining room table with them. Both rooms were kept free of family clutter to accommodate Don’s work needs.

Shirley was a reference librarian who took advantage of the library’s flex time to work late, because she liked time to herself in the mornings. Don worked 9 to 5 setting strict time limits on his day. After work he changed into running gear and headed out to run 5 k all around the streets of Parkdale. Sometimes he cycled along the Martin Goodman Trail east to Harbourfront or west to the edge of Mississauga. By 6:30 he had showered and started dinner. The rule was that the children had to do their homework right after school, before they were allowed to watch TV. Shirley would set the table and make a salad or dessert after returning from work.

There was little time or money for the couple to undertake major renovations. Don had all the money under control, something which continually distressed Shirley who liked to live a little more spontaneously. With a girlfriend, the spring after they moved in, she spend a week at a resort in Cuba. Don was not pleased with the expense.

"But I don’t have any discretionary money of my own in your budget," Shirley said. "Every single penny is accounted for."

This became an all-out argument that went on for several days. Don was forced to take Shirley’s position seriously.

"What we’ll do is allot personal money for each of us." He suggested. "I’ll take our spending money, now a lump sum for the family, and divide it into five. And I’ll also take vacation money and divide that into five as well. I had my doubts about dividing the vacation money because we usually go together, but, since you decided to go on your own, you changed the rules. The children’s vacation and personal money stays together as always, although, obviously, they will receive less than we do. I’ve decided to visit my brother in Ottawa for a week in the spring. We’re going hunting together. So that money will come out of my vacation money."

At Shirley’s insistence, they further decided to separate their money by opening personal bank accounts and having budgeted amounts transferred from their main account, used to pay household bills, every month. Don began his with the cost of Shirley’s Cuban vacation, to make it even. Shirley’s account began with zero. Well, she thought, I’ll just have to curb spending on clothes for a while. Just a couple new tops for the spring. Although Don worked at home, he still needed appropriate office attire to meet clients. Even so, he hardly ever spent anything while Shirley had to hold herself back. The budget had effectively stopped their nagging financial arguments.

Still, Shirley dreamed about the addition on the back of the house, visualizing how she could take her Sunday morning coffee out there, lounging on a comfortable chair with her feet up, reading in the sun all through the winter. She created several designs and layouts on drafting paper and continued looking at home decorating magazines.

Their main floor front room was so dark, small and formal, with a large fireplace dominating one wall, and always kept so tidy that Shirley was uncomfortable there, preferring to spend her spare time in front of the TV or in her bedroom reading by the bay window.                            

Occasionally she would mention her project to Don who would sigh and trot out computer print-outs of their latest budget figures, which showed they were just barely covering mortgage and house expenses. Because Don had included a maintenance line in the budget, they were able to replace an ailing kitchen stove and install a new floor in the children’s bathroom, improvements that needed to be done.

Don was an astute manager, careful while she was sometimes frivolous. Shirley had to give him credit for that. Because he spent so little personal money he was able to keep buying photography equipment and maintain a darkroom in the basement, not just a hobby for him, as he had had some of his photographs exhibited in a gallery downtown. Nothing sold, but he was happy. And of course his files were loaded with pictures of the children.

*

But one November morning in her 48th year and the 8th year of living in their Parkdale semi, Shirley realized she was bored with Don. There was no zest in their sex life. In fact, they hardly bothered anymore, except for an occasional giggly coupling after a party, when both of them had had a bit too much to drink. Shirley had begun having an occasional lunch with an old friend from university who had said hello to her in the library, thrilled to see her again. Gordon had never married, and lived the life of a bachelor in a nearby loft, newly converted into condos from a large former carpet factory. He took Shirley there one afternoon after lunch on her day off. She was dazzled by the look of the place.

"There’s so much light." she exclaimed. "My house is so dark. Don seems to like it that way. In fact he spends a large part of the evening in his darkroom in the basement."

"I have to have light, "said Gordon.

The loft was huge, a 1500 square foot space with large windows overlooking railroad tracks that swept down from the West and ended up at Union Station. Gordon owned the whole South end of the top floor which provided views of East, West and South, all the way to Lake Ontario.

"I chose this one because of the windows and the tracks. I love to hear the sounds of trains. There are no other close buildings. And look at the view of the city. I get the sun all day long."

Gordon had an expensive telescope set in the window where he was able to star gaze and, if he wanted, people gaze. Although he had focused his lens on some apartment buildings a few times, he thought this an unethical activity and had largely stopped.

"There’s not much to see," he said, "a couple sitting down to dinner, people reading, doing exercises, kids fighting over a TV program, the usual kind of domestic stuff. I’ve never seen a sexy woman taking off her clothes and getting into the tub or a couple making love on a balcony. I’ve heard those things happen but I’ve never seen it. The whole thing is a bit voyeuristic, it seems to me."

Shirley and Gordon went to bed in Gordon’s king size bed that afternoon, something she was hoping would happen.

The light from Gordon’s windows had penetrated Shirley’s being. She thought she could not face her dark living room and bedroom again. When she returned home she told Don she had been out shopping but had not bought anything.

"You know I don’t have much money left in my personal account," she complained when Don asked why she hadn’t bought anything.

"Well maybe if you were a little more careful with your money. You’re always shopping."

"The mortgage was paid off this year. What are you doing with the extra money?"

"It’s all going into savings and the kids’ university funds. You know that’s going to take a while and we’ll need quite a bit of money to get them through."

"What about my addition?"

"Oh Shirley, not that again. You know we can’t afford it. It’ll cost about $50,000 to do it right."

"But I’ve been wanting it ever since we moved in. My wishes have to be considered too."

"Listen, you know I’m self employed. I don’t have access to a pension as you do. And even when you begin to receive yours it won’t be enough for us to live on. We need about $200,000 dollars to live comfortably when we are retired."

"How much do we have now?"

"About $25,000."

"How on earth did you manage to save all that while we were paying off the mortgage?"

"You can look at the budget anytime you want. You know I kept a little aside for investments and I’ve done rather well with them."

Shirley was plagued with guilt in the weeks following her liaison with Gordon. When he next came into the library she said she wouldn’t see him anymore. But after about 6 months she agreed to meet him in a Roncesvalles coffee shop, late on a Wednesday afternoon. After sitting down, she began to weep.

"I can’t stand it anymore. I’m in love with you and I don’t know what to do about it."

"Come back to my place. I need to see you"

"I can’t."

"Just call Don and tell him you’re going to the movies with some friends from work."

Back in Gordon’s bed Shirley said she would like to leave Don and move in with him.

“Are you sure?” asked Gordon.

"But I don’t know when." Shirley said. "I have to look after the children first."

Shirley maintained her marriage to Don in the Parkdale semi for another two years, all the while conducting a clandestine affair with Gordon in his loft. The afternoon of her mid-week day off, when Don thought she was out shopping, was reserved for Gordon who left work at noon, picking up wine and take out Indian food or dim sum before they spent the afternoon making love in the sunlight.

*

Shirley was about to turn 50. Don had planned a big surprise party for her, inviting all their friends and relatives. John came home from university in Guelph and the girls, who still lived at home while attending U of T and George Brown College, helped with the secret preparations. Shirley was delighted on entering the house and finding it filled with people. But also horrified, because there was Gordon standing in the centre of the living room. He gave her a peck on the cheek and wished her happy birthday.

"Why are you here?" she whispered.

"Don got my number from your phone book and invited me. I’ve seen him around and he knows we went to university together. Besides, I wanted to see what would happen."

The party was a great success, filled with librarian friends, old school friends, even public school friends from London, Shirley’s home town. Her father was there, along with her aunts and even some first cousins. Don and the girls had covered the dining room table with food. There were streamers hanging from the ceiling and balloons everywhere.

Don led Shirley to a small table at the back of the dining room where a set of plans were laid out.

"Look," he said, pointing to the drawings.

It was a plan of a large windowed semi-circular addition.

"This is my present to you, darling" said Don kissing her on the cheek. "We’re starting work next week."

Shirley died at that moment. Don was grinning broadly, clearly delighted with what he had done. Gordon was standing in a corner of the room looking over at her. She knew that in the following week she must show some courage. She didn’t know if she had it in her.

 *

Lynda Curnoe enjoys writing short stories and poetry and anything else that appeals to her. She lives in Toronto.

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