Catherine’s Castle - The Story
The continuing adventures of the Colorado Girls.

Chapter 5

Catherine’s Castle © Linda Pilkington

Catherine’s Christmas

On a cold Saturday morning in January Catherine returned from a lengthy walk to find two letters in the mailbox for herself, -and one for Brittany. She ran up the steps, and into the apartment thinking how wonderful it felt not to think, or read, or talk, or sit listening to pretentious and tiresome discussions-but to:

“Remove my bottom from a chair

And walk in the clean, cold air”

-That thought formed itself into another phrase:

“How good to remove the glasses

-After a week of sitting in classes.

And Then,

How boring for many lasses…”

“And, if I went on, the next line would have to use the word molasses, or end without a rhyme- because the obvious word would embarrass my mother.”

She put coffee on to brew, went into their bedroom and dropped Britt’s letter on the edge of her bed. Brittany lay on her side with her face turned to the wall. The radio, which was always on when Brittany was home, buzzed busily beside her.

“Britt- letter for you.” And then, ” are you sick?” Catherine asked, -surprised to find Brittany- always the first one up- still where she had left her over an hour before.

“Since when are you the only one that gets to sleep in?” Brittany demanded. She sat up, and angrily pushed the letter away.

“All right- rest- it’s fine with me.” Catherine replied, and retreated to the quiet of the living room to read her letters.

Brittany had a fun loving, and sometimes an overly exuberant personality, but when she felt blue she was more than difficult. Catherine always thought of Brittany’s bad days as BAD DAYS because there was nothing lower -case about them.

She had wanted to relax- she felt that she needed it, but with Brit suffering a BAD DAY-there was little chance – because the spotlight of attention that Brittany required during normal times- had to increase in intensity or she did not improve.

When Catherine was sad, or even depressed she was quieter than usual. She tried to get better by reading, listening to music, and walking. But Brittany didn’t believe in the concept of suffering in silence-she needed to talk, and she expected special attention to help her out of a bad mood.

Catherine glanced out the window and then sat, her chin propped on her hand as she watched children playing in the yard next door. It was a cheap little house, but the yard was neat, and the children were warmly dressed in bright jackets and hats.

They were pulling each other and their dog around the lawn on a snow saucer- and talking at the top of their lungs as they did it. The dog seemed to be accustomed to rides on the saucer, and when his turn ended he ran along side the new passengers, -barking and feinting attacks at their feet.

” It doesn’t look like they have very much, but those kids are happy-I envy them.”

” I feel like Ginger Rogers did in that old movie- what was the name of it? Vivacious Lady? Anyway, she said something like, `I want a load of happiness.’ Those are my feelings, exactly. I’m due a little happiness myself.” She thought, and then turned to her letters.

The first was from Melinda, and coming from her reticent sister –it was a long and chatty letter.

January 6th

Dear Catherine,

We missed you at Christmas.

I was glad that you got to come back and see us, but it wasn’t as good as the family being together for Christmas.

After you left -the house seemed empty. It was as bad as when you left for Iowa last spring. Both times I kept thinking, “Nothing will ever be the same.” And, “Isn’t it awful to care about people when everything seems so lonely once they are gone?”

But don’t feel bad because you couldn’t be here; Christmas was good. We didn’t get piles of gifts-, which I miss. I like piles of gifts, but we got some nice things.

I got the skirt that I had shown you at The Shop!

Mother must have listened to my description for a change, because this was no substitute- but the exact skirt that I wanted.

Our mother is one of the few women on earth who doesn’t enjoy shopping, and she sure doesn’t have any talent for it.

I’ve watched her. She gets out of the car tired, as if she has been shopping for hours, and walks to the store -sighing as she walks.

She wants attention, and help-but expects nothing from the clerks-which is exactly what she gets.

If I had told her that I wanted a certain blouse she would decide that any blouse would do, as long as it fit the description of “blouse” and was in the right size. I just want her to make more of an effort.

Do you remember when she told us that the “attitude and the effort” we had put into a job-showed up in the results of our work?

Why doesn’t she apply that to her gift shopping? If she wanted a particular book, by Jane Austen- would she be satisfied with something written by another Jane-say Jane Smith?

Anyway, I was shocked at actually getting the skirt that I wanted. I bet that you helped her pick it out.

When you were home you asked about Gwynie, and whom she played with. Then Manna came in, and we dropped the subject. To answer some of your questions: Gwynie hasn’t played with anyone in a long time.

Sometimes she takes a few toys into the “Queen’s parlor”, but usually, if it’s not hailing, snowing or freezing she goes out in the back yard. She plays by herself or with -Persy.

That cat is not a safe playmate. But don’t worry-Gwynie stays out of “claws reach” of the beast. Why Manna allows that wild, stray cat to have dominion over our back yard is a mystery to me-but that is another story.

But back to Gwynie-well she plays imaginary games in the back yard.

I’m not against imaginary games. I think that they are good for her. It would be fine if she played by herself some of the time, and got together with friends once in awhile. But if this keeps up she won’t have any friends or ever be invited to anyone’s birthday parties or sleepovers.

When I was little, and our parents were distracted by other things; I still had you. Before you left last spring, Gwynie had the entire family watching over her. Now, our parents are busy, worried or tired- and she just has me, and I’m not good at dealing with her- I get impatient.

I promised you that I would try to do what my big sister did for me. I’ll try to figure out what’s wrong and how to help her. I’m not good at understanding people, Catherine- but I will try.

Love, from Melinda

P.s. Thanks for the copy of The Winter of our Discontent – the main character reminds me of Popsie.

Also, who was the guy in the picture that was on your bedside table? Yes, I peeked. Why hadn’t you told me about him? He is so cute!

If you don’t answer that question I will know that you are thinking, “Melinda never tells me anything- why should I tell her?”

Even if you have a cute guy-Please- keep writing to us.

Love from M.E.

(Wouldn’t you have thought that our parents would have had more sense than to name one of their children Melinda- it is embarrassing to have initials that spell “me”.) THE END- really.

Catherine laughed with satisfaction, “That is the most that Melinda has ever revealed to me-could she be growing a heart?

And despite the denials-she is on the brink of some understanding of other people. Anyway, I wish that Mother could see this- it’s comforting to see that people can change.”

She looked over the letter with all of its under-linings and capital letters and felt a sense of gratitude and elation that mixed well with the fragrance of coffee coming from the kitchen.

As Catherine poured herself coffee she called, “Brit, can I bring you some coffee or make you some tea?”

She stood waiting for an answer that didn’t come, -and then took her own coffee back into the silent living room.

“It’s cowardly, but I’m tempted to clear out-before the storm breaks-maybe it will break over other heads than mine. No, that won’t happen- none of Brittany’s `Girl Friends’ give her much help during her rough spells-they are strictly fair weather- party friends, lunch friends or mall friends.”

She hesitated about what to do. “- Brit has been headed for this downer all week. I don’t know what’s happened to her… Probably nothing at all- some slight by a friend -a small injury to her ego that she interprets as a blow. But I’ve been there when it’s serious…well, I don’t even want to think about that…”

Catherine sighed and looked at her mother’s letter. Her sister’s letter had been generally upbeat and that foretold a newsy letter from her mother- not one full of January troubles and worries- just post Christmas family news.

She took her coffee mug back to the kitchen, rinsed it out quietly- then caught up the letters, and her purse, pulled on her jacket and as she escaped out the door, she called- “I’ll be back later- Brit.”

One of her older “Iowa Cousins” was going take Catherine to visit relatives in the afternoon. But she wanted time to read her mother’s letter and some quiet time in order to do some thinking before meeting him.

As she walked, she eliminated the coffee shops as too busy and too noisy for letter reading or contemplation. She eliminated the Study Center on campus on the basis that she spent too much time there during the week.

Finally she settled on the Public Library-although she was sure it would be crowded with students and families on a Saturday morning.

The Library was busy, but there was a quiet corner in the research section and Catherine claimed a large, high-backed chair, then turned its back on the research area so that she faced a window that looked out to the west and over the sparkling snow of the Library lawn.

Looking off to the distance she thought, “No matter where I live, I will never stop looking for the mountains- that much of Colorado and my past will always be with me…but Iowa is a part of my past…at least it is full of relatives, and it was my parent’s first home. It is a part of them… “

January 6

Dear Catherine,

It is 4p.m. on Epiphany day and we have finished putting the Christmas decorations away. Afterwards, we took an hour or so to dust and to vacuum – and so the house looks clean and comfortable again.

It all takes lots of time; before Christmas it took an hour to get down the boxes of ornaments then three or four hours to decorate, and then after Christmas-four or more hours to take them down and put them away again.

Before the holidays, in order to spur us on, I kept reminding your father and myself that the decorations bring Christmas past, present and future into the house with them. I told him that the oldest decorations are a part of the family too- even if they just visit us for part of December and January. So you see, sometimes Sentiment can be of use to a writer! As you can see, neither of us wanted to do the work that was needed.

When I was young I couldn’t understand the older people who didn’t decorate; their houses seemed so bare during the holidays. But now I’ll admit that I have reached a point in my life in which it seems like a lot of work. But I forced myself- for the girl’s sake and possibly for my own.

Right now, Gwynie and your father have taken a walk, Melinda is reading, and I’m in my bedroom, sitting in the rocking chair with my feet up, a warm throw over me- and the little writing table in front of me. After I finish your letter I will listen to the Animals’ Christmas. I never seem able to listen to that until Epiphany- this is the last day within the Christmastide-and I need the music to soothe my soul for the days ahead.

No one in the family enjoys that music except you and me. And so I will listen to those high sweet notes, and the fast- flying lyrics about the “incredible Phat, the Innkeeper’s cat” and the sheep with the curly horn…and I will hear my father’s voice-from the mists of the past- quoting the poem of “The Friendly Beasts”-an amused and self-conscious look on his face. And I will think of the times that you delighted in listening to the music with me-and so I will have the company of two generations as I listen.

In general, we are all fine -which means that we are all feeling good about something: 1.Melinda is still buoyed up by the spirit of Christmas and so hasn’t been grumpy since before Christmas Day. 2. Gwynie is playing some game of her own that I think relates to the story you have been writing for her- 3.I have been looking forward to spring and the warm evenings to come, and of once again-working on my own writing out in the writing room. I remind myself of my blessings by looking at our most recent pictures. The one of my “Colorado Girls” is so pretty that it brings tears to my eyes. (I have enclosed some of the pictures for you.)

4. Your father hasn’t started to grapple with the post Christmas bills yet (the real ghosts of Christmas Past). He remains light-hearted, and so he has been making up “Arthurian” lyrics of the silliest kind to sing to me. He accompanies these with a dance that makes me laugh. He has reserved these entertainments for when we are alone- so to save Melinda from the embarrassment of seeing us actually having fun- something that she sees as “out of character for parents”- I think.

I must close and listen to our music.

Love from your own-”Manna”

P.s. I’m glad, and Melinda and Gwynie are jealous -because you are going to see my family, especially my sisters- “The murmuring Aunts” as you and Melinda called them- (or was it the “whispering Aunts”?) –whichever-they are always fun to see. If you see them after receiving this letter- I send them my love.

Catherine folded the letter, looked through the pictures and then sat looking at- but not seeing the view from the window.

Liam had gotten back from his Christmas trip the day before. He had knocked at the door and when she had opened it they had stood facing each other, hands touching-not even kissing-absolutely silent.

They had stood-simply looking at each other with a delighted solemnity that was more significant than any endearment.

Then Brittany had come around the corner and interrupted them and they had blushed as if she had caught them in an embrace. So they had gone out for a light supper and talked about the holidays.

There had been two difficult moments. One had been when Catherine had turned to get out of his car and had seen, by the interior car light, a pile of French travel brochures on the back seat. The other had been when she had told him that she was going to visit her cousin Natalie’s family that Saturday.

Liam had tried to persuade her to reschedule the trip. He had said that he didn’t want her to leave when they hadn’t seen each other since before Christmas. The request had puzzled and surprised her. It had seemed uncharacteristic…and she had the feeling that he had wanted to say something more.

“Liam, I really can’t cancel it- it would upset too many plans…I’m sorry. I will make it up to you by taking you to the Chamber Concert at the end of the month.”

“Let’s talk about it later.” He said, standing with his back to her-staring out the window of her living room-into the darkness.

Neither of them had felt comfortable after that – and soon he had left with a hasty kiss, and a whispered, “Oh, Catherine…” that had wrung her heart.

She brushed away a tear from the corner of her eye. “This will never do; I can’t cry in the Public Library-it’s probably against the rules. They might call the police or something…I must think about something else.”

She looked through the pictures that her mother had sent her. They showed the interior of the “Castle in the City” –as it had been- garnished and shining –for Christmas.

There was the dining table with the crystal and the red glass dishes-set for four- ready for Christmas dinner.

There was the nativity set, the child-angels grouped around the baby and Joseph and Mary looking down at the manger-peaceful expressions on every face.

That was one of the oldest of their decorations, and Catherine could remember playing with it while waiting for her mother to find the “perfect place” to display it each year.

For a moment she imagined seeing through her mother’s eyes, as through the years, she had watched each daughter play with the nativity set-while waiting for the “perfect place” to be found.

First there had been Catherine, trying to make a pretty background for the family. Gathering together pine cones or bits of ribbon to place around the pieces- an extra bit of ribbon to serve as a cover for the baby.

In later years, Melinda putting the Holy Family in peril by painting Mary’s fingernails a bright red, -losing the baby Jesus, and finally riding them down the stairs in a Tonka truck

But they had survived it all, until finally there had been Gwynie, fair-haired and quiet, kneeling before a chair-the nativity scene placed on the seat -surrounded and dwarfed by Gwynie’s favorite stuffed animals. Elephants, dogs and cats- all there to bring welcome-truly her own Animal’s Christmas.

Her mother had sent several pictures of the Christmas tree- as if she had tried to preserve the memory of its beauty as assurance that the next Christmas would again bring them the gifts of beauty, family and love.

” Another Romantic thought. My mother and me-pure Sentimentalists-we will never be rid of it. And everyone keeps saying that Sentimentality is fatal to writers. Well, not everyone can be a Hemingway-besides there has been a Hemingway. I can only be myself- whoever that is.” Catherine thought -as an aside- and sighed once more.

And then there were the pictures taken before Christmas, Catherine and her sisters-all slightly smiling into the camera.

“I chose the one on the left-definitely the one on the left. The girl with the haunting smile and the beautiful eyes.”

Catherine turned in surprise at Liam’s voice behind her.

“What are you doing here?” She asked, although she could see that he was wearing the white serving coat that was his uniform for the catering company.

“I’m serving lunch to some unhappy employees. Their boss has hired a room here in order to do some company training. As I left they were being trapped into a ‘team-building’ exercise. They all looked tired, and like they would rather be anywhere else on the planet. This, on a Saturday-the poor dopes. I never saw such miserable looks on anyone’s faces. At least the lunch will be good- even if their boss is a jerk.”

“I’m done working-just have to return the van on my way home-do you have time to get something to drink before you get ready to meet your relatives?”

Catherine glanced at the clock.

“I have to be back at the apartment and ready by one o’clock. So I have an hour-where can we go in an hour?”

“There’s a quiet little place across the street, and I’ll keep an eye on the time and drop you off home-so if we move now we will have a few minutes together.”

Liam had looked through the Christmas pictures lingering over the ones of Catherine, until the coffee had been served and the waitress had moved on.

Then, with a serious look he took her hand and said, “We don’t have any time to talk, and we need it…there’s so much that I need to tell you…about before we met. There’s so much I need to ask you-like what you want out of life-although I can guess some of it… I need to tell you how I feel…”

“Liam, is something wrong? You are making me nervous…”

He sat looking down at her hand.

“Liam, if there is nothing wrong- then we can talk about all of these things later… ” She said, and then stopped.

“But if there is something wrong you have to tell me now…please.” She said, trying to keep her voice calm.

“Catherine of the haunting smile and the sweet, sweet eyes, there is no time to lead up to this- you are going to be gone over-night and back late tomorrow, and so I have to break it to you now.”

Catherine waited, feeling as if her breaths were being cut in half. She felt frozen by the words, “I have to break it to you now.”

He took a breath, and then looked into her eyes.

“I’ve been accepted by the Foreign Study program- I’m going to France. I’ve got barely two weeks before I leave.”