The Benevolence of a Raincoat by Veronique Bequin
By Wasafiri Editor on May 27, 2021 in
‘A raincoat?’ Ettie Pebble’s puffy fingers fumbled with the buttons of the coat. She was talking to herself as she looked at the large white plastic discs looped through their button holes. She was perplexed. Simple actions had become hard. How did that happen? The raincoat was bright yellow. Too large. All it needed was a sou’wester to complete the seafaring look. Ettie didn’t know why she was wearing a raincoat, let alone that raincoat. It was very bright! Unquestionably so. Well, that was good. One question she didn’t need to ask and find an answer for.
The swollen fingers came from water retention. That could probably be blamed on the blood pressure medication. However it reached Ettie’s fingers, it never looked good. It felt worse still. Puffy fingers were a hindrance to many everyday things. Ettie fleetingly thought she should try harder to change something in her diet. Surely, exercise could help. That may bring her blood pressure under control; help her avoid the medication. She knew the drill. It was spelled out in bold turquoise letters on the fridge door: Eat Well. Keep Moving. Ettie looked at the magnet often enough. It just triggered the same response: ‘Yeah yeah! Cry me a river…’ Ettie had cried a few. The magnet made her smile all the same.
Ettie’s nephew Clovis had brought the magnet from a medical conference somewhere in the world. She remembered that. He was a medical doctor. In research. He travelled a lot. He made his way to visit his aunt Ettie several times a year. She adored his visits. She appreciated that he cared enough to give her the magnet even though its slogan remained elusive. The last time, he had stopped for a few days on his way between London and New York (‘Who takes a detour via Toronto?’). ‘Was that last month? Maybe it had been in the spring already?’ Ettie’s grasp on time had frayed since her retirement. It was during that visit that Clovis had found out Ettie’s full name through a chance conversation about family names – not that she had been keeping it a secret, but it was true, and surprising even to herself, that she was prone to sharing long-untold titbits now. She’d think she had lost many memories, but in fact, old snippets were coming back to her unbidden. Clovis had been calling her that ever since: Etheline. He would leave her cheerful voice messages starting out with: ‘Hey Aunt Etheline!’ He drew out the sounds in the old-fashioned name, and turned it into a precious stone.
Ettie Pebble had only known one other person in the entire word who’d ever called her Etheline: Irma Archambault. Irma called Ettie Etheline and made the name sound like a precious stone. It had smoothed over the childhood hurt of being taunted with ‘Hey! Ethanol! Feeling gassy?’ That was a long time ago. The taunts were old. Right now, in the middle of a store, Ettie was trying to find out about Irma Archambault. She seemed a long time ago too.
Ettie Pebble stood still in the oral hygiene aisle of the enormous pharmacy. Since when had pharmacies turned into gift stores? Trashy looking gifts, but there they were: shelves of glittering, over-scented candles and sparkling glassware. Ettie turned another corner and found herself stranded in a toy store. A tacky toy store. There were plastic dolls and plastic cars. Even some plastic barnyard animals and exotic wildlife sets. Everything plastic and either pink or blue and all very loud. Ettie hugged the large bright yellow raincoat to her body. She was looking for something, but its name had been snatched away by the glitter and plastic somehow. ‘I should have a shopping list. Damn!’ Ettie’s voice trailed off in the empty aisle. The small blessing of having no witness to her confusion eased some of Ettie’s mounting fear. She moved on, hoping to find a way to remember why she was here.
Ettie Pebble was a tallish woman. Above average at five foot nine, but not so tall that she could have been a catwalk model had she ever wanted to. She never had. Her dress sense had always been more quirky than stylish: vintage patterned button-down shirts and tailored pants with cuffs. The colours never matched somehow. Ettie liked to wear knitted scarves and polished brogues with wool socks in bold shades. She has had the same watch for decades. She just bought a new leather strap when the time came. Ettie selected a different colour from the rack. Ettie often picked her wardrobe from the Goodwill Store near her former work place at the public library, where she had been a literacy specialist. She could recall her work life so easily. She’d been retired for eleven years already. She couldn’t recall why she’d retired earlier than planned. Work had become too hard.
Ettie had a strong, square face, eyes and nose and mouth balanced and confident, though right now, wearing an oversized raincoat in an oversized drugstore, she felt only adrift and scared. Her skin was pale but the freckles on her cheeks added a wholesomeness Ettie had never felt within. Joined-up freckles and some age spots here and there. Her hair had been in transit from grey to white for several decades until finally settling on a gloriously shiny shade of hoarfrost white. It had been that way for a long time, but seemed legitimate now that she was closer to her late sixties than her mid-fifties. Ettie liked to keep her hair trimmed. It was so straight it hung in a short bob without a single kink.
Despite being short-sighted, Ettie had a habit of keeping her glasses perched on her skull like a tortoiseshell hairband. With years of practice, she shook her head just so when she needed to decode what was in front of her nose. Her spectacles slipped down, and she could see the world around her. The glasses were not helping clear things up right this moment. Ettie’s pale eyes were the colour of washed-up sea glass, neither green nor blue. She still had lips that called to be kissed every morning. Her waterlogged fingers and feet were alien limbs to her otherwise slender body. Ettie had spent a lifetime walking at a steady pace. She stayed just on the edges of fitness by chance rather than by design. Ettie would never have joined a gym or a Zumba class. She snubbed the local seniors’ fitness groups. She didn’t mind being a senior. She just couldn’t stand the crappy music. If they only dared to pump up the volume and chose a real funky play list….
Irma Archambault on the other hand was a devotee of Jane Fonda’s workouts back when they were all the rage. Ettie could remember that so clearly that its sharpness hurt. Every day, usually after work and before a night out on the town, Irma would change into shiny, apple green running shorts, and an orange cotton tank top. They glowed against her almost midnight blue skin. She had such gloriously dark skin, her eyes always shone. They were a shade of russet found in late autumn leaves. Barefoot and muscular, a few inches taller than Ettie, Irma Archambault would slip a VHS tape into the video player, flick the small television set on in the living room, and listen to Jane Fonda calmly but firmly tell her to ‘Go for the burn! Sweat!’ Irma went for the burn every time. Sweat would glisten on her skin. She kept her hair almost shaved into a velvety down. Unlike Ettie, Irma enjoyed exercising at home and at the gym. She even ran marathons right into her seventies. Ettie watched from the sidelines.
Ettie Pebble and Irma Archambault met in their first year at university. Later, they shared an apartment for one year and three months. That was back in the early eighties, after they were both done with their education. ‘Was that right? That far back?’ Somehow, Ettie could remember long ago details, but why she was standing in the space-age pharmacy in a blight yellow raincoat too big for her eluded her. Irma moved out in the spring of their second year as roommates. A job offer. The kind you can’t miss. ‘This is it Etheline! This is the job I’ve been waiting for. I’m telling you girl, this job’s going to set me up!’ Irma was on her way to being a journalist. Ettie said all the right things. She got packing boxes from their local grocery store. Bananas and oranges had left no trace in them; their bright slogans showed only countries of origin, nothing about their destination. Books soon filled them up. Pots and pans and hand-knitted mohair sweaters and well-cut skirts in dark colours. A large collection of R&B vinyl records. The biggest collection of disco music outside of of a DJ booth. Three whole boxes of shoes and boots and sports gear. Irma liked to have accessories for everything she did. And then Irma was gone.
It seemed to Ettie Pebble that her heart had stopped beating for a while back then. Sure, she still breathed. She still pumped blood through her body. She still put one foot in front of the other foot to get to work, to meet friends downtown, to go to her first meeting of a newly formed women’s liberation group. A tiny woman with the largest afro Ettie had ever been close to had stopped by the public library to pin up a poster about it on the display board by the door. Ettie just happened to be returning from lunch. They talked for a while. The woman would become a close friend. That woman was the first person Ettie Pebble ever told how she missed Irma Archambault with the same intense ache as from a phantom limb. ‘What was her name? Ariana? Elina? Candida? It was something with an ‘a’ at the end… Something like bandana? Nobody was called bandana! Get a grip Pebble!’ But Ettie let the thread go as she stood between rows of toothpaste and the largest array of toothbrushes she’d ever seen. She couldn’t get hold of the memory of Adrianna Moore’s memorial service two months prior. Ettie had read the eulogy she had written as a sonnet. Gone. Adrianna and the sonnet.
Ettie paused by the rows of bright orange foam ear plugs, close to racks of reading glasses with garish plastic frames. Ear plugs like the ones Irma wore in bed when she’d had too many night shifts in a row. That’s how she got to sleep in the daytime. Irma had come back. She had returned to their home town when a position arose at one of the large broadsheets. She didn’t mind the nighttime crime beat. ‘I had to come back Etheline. Disco music was too sad without you’. She too had missed her roommate. She too had felt the pain from a phantom limb. She wanted to be with Etheline and kiss her morning lips. That’s how it was for them from then on: Irma Archambault and Etheline Pebble. They didn’t need to pretend the guest room was for anyone but guests. They chose the widest bed and only wore out its central springs. Ettie remembered the day her parents came over for Sunday lunch and she left the bedroom door open with books and water glasses on both bedside tables, and the two dressing gowns hanging in a tumble from the ottoman at the foot of the large bed. Nothing was said for another decade or so, but years later her parents and Irma’s brothers came to see the two women wed.
Ettie could recall the joy of the day; the laughter; the disbelief and wonderment that she could be married to Irma Archambault. Now, she couldn’t work out how to get past the ear plugs and the toothpaste in order to get home. She couldn’t find Irma and she felt so frightened again, she kept kneading her painful puffy fingers in the large pockets of the bright yellow raincoat. How had she ended up in the store? Did she come here for a specific reason? She didn’t know how long she’d been wandering around the seemingly endless aisles. It seemed it had been hours. Fear rushed within her and flooded her lungs like an icy storm at sea. She was stranded alone in a pharmacy that might as well be the Titanic. She would never get home. She could not remember where home was. How could she find her way there? Ettie Pebble had never cried in public, not even in school when the taunts were thrown: ‘Hey! Ethanol! Got any gas?’ And now, the tears came and drowned her freckles and brown age spots silently. Ettie would never find her way back home. Irma Archambault’s benevolence was gone.
When the strong arms wrapped around her, Ettie heard the crunching of the raincoat’s waxy skin first. It sounded oddly familiar in the ocean of her isolation and panic. ‘Etheline! Sweetheart! Here you are! Goodness me, I was looking for you by the shampoo aisle! You were with me one moment and then, you were gone.’ Ettie Pebble looked up. Irma Archambault was looking right back at her. The tiny wrinkles crowded around her dark eyes took nothing away from her beautiful midnight blue skin. Her closely cropped hair had turned from dark chocolate velvet to a soft silvery grey. ‘I am so glad you decided to wear my old sailing raincoat! There’s no way I could lose you in that! Come on funny girl, let’s go home’. Ettie felt Irma’s fingers tenderly wipe away the tears. She felt the gentle kiss on her lips.
Etheline Pebble took Irma Archambault’s hand as she had done many times over the decades. She would not forget how well they fit together. Not when she could feel it. And she could feel it still.
‘The Benevolence of a Raincoat’ was shortlisted for the 2020 Queen Mary Wasafiri New Writing Prize for Fiction.
Enter the 2021 New Writing Prize here – deadline 31 May.
Veronique Bequin lives and writes in southwestern Canada. She has been a speech language pathologist for several decades, and has also lived in France and the UK. Her work has been published in Canadian, American, and British journals and anthologies. She has won the Alice Munro Short Story prize, and has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and commended for the Hippocrates Prize. Her writing is often inspired by themes of loss, grief, and her experiences of moving across cultures, languages, and countries.