As he prepared to clamber stiffly out of the car, and surveyed the muddy field before him, Charlie began to have second thoughts about having agreed to the excursion to the top of the hill. He had reassured his daughter Carole and her husband Jarvis that he was still able to climb as long as he had his stick with him and could, with pauses for breath, walk between them for occasional support, and he did not want to disappoint them. The twins, in the thoughtlessness of youth, had already descended from the rented SUV, and were running heedless towards the hill, shrieking with joy at being released from the confines of the vehicle. Jarvis, whom Carole called Javey, cast an anxious look in their direction.
It was an unexpectedly warm Thanksgiving Monday morning after overnight rain, one in an almost unbroken series of sunny days under cloudless pacific skies whose equal in sunlight and warmth few could recall. Thanksgiving was late this year, and by rights the trees should have been virtually leafless by now, but because of a wet summer, the maples surrounding Charlie’s deck at home were still all green, and the drive up Quebec Autoroute 5 to the Old Chelsea exit had been a revelation, as a forest of red and gold and yellow up and down the shoulder of the escarpment under a benign blue sky drew appreciative cries from the family, as the vista unfolded before them, blazing defiantly in the sunlight in its last brave stand against the inevitability of change and decay, and the remorseless stripping of fall finery that would leave trees mere ‘bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang’ for the months of snow when death would have dominion.
‘Are you sure you can manage this, Dad?’ Carole bent solicitously forward as Charlie struggled grunting to his feet, waving away her concern. She turned to her husband, clad impressively in breathable Spandex, and clearly impatient to climb.
‘Javey,’ she said, ‘you go catch up to the twins. Tabitha and I will follow.’ She did not add “with Dad” for which Charlie was grateful. She offered an exculpatory explanation.
‘Javey wanted to run to the top of King Mountain by himself, but when we found that the NCC has closed the trail off for repairs it was too late to change clothes.’ Charlie nodded his understanding.
The climb between the chair lift and the ski slope was far less taxing than they had expected. Missing their mother’s company, the twins shortly raced back to them, with their father sheepishly behind, the prodigal returned to help his wife with his father-in-law.
The family adjusted itself to Granpa’s pace. The sun shone in an empty cloudless sky, and a light warm breeze caressed Charlie’s thinning white hair. All around them, in the dense forest on either side, a riot of red and flaming orange and gold and yellow, ochre and terracotta paraded itself beneath the open heavens.
‘I’ve never seen a fall so beautiful,’ said Charlie. He placed his feet carefully on the gravel path, and moved forward purposefully, conscious of the limitations of his age and condition, but loth to draw attention to them. He leaned into the incline, testing each tentative purchase with his stick. The twins ran off to find sticks to use as swords. Tabitha stayed with him.
‘You know,’ he said, pausing for a moment, ‘I think it’s the contrast between the blue and the sparkling yellow that I like the most,’ a comment which provoked rivalry about the merits of colours between the twins, who had returned, brandishing short sticks. ‘Red is best.’ ‘No, gold is more valuable.’ ‘Red is for rubies.’ ‘No, red is for BOOBIES!’
‘Don’t be silly, now’ was Carole’s mild reproof. She turned to Tabby and her father.
‘ I know that all things must pass,’ she said, ‘but what a way for leaves to go!’
At his side, Tabby inserted her hand into her grandfather’s.
‘I love you, Granpa,’ she whispered shyly, all round eyes and adoration. ‘I don’t want you to die.’
Charlie acknowledged her by pressing her head gently against the rough Harris tweed of his jacket, knowing how much she loved the feel and smell of it.
‘It was lovely to have you all together this weekend,’ he said, ‘even if it passed too quickly. You and Laura were a great help. I could not have managed on my own.’
There was an unspoken recognition of the imminence of departure. His son Rob and his family had left for Victoria in the dark, earlier that morning.
‘It is a pity we all live so far apart,’ Carole acknowledged. ‘But you know you could come and live with us…’
‘Yes. I do. But this was your mother’s country. I love it because she did. And I can’t leave it now.’
‘I miss Noemi. She was a good woman.’ This, from the normally taciturn Jarvis, came as a surprise. It drew a respectful silence.