Fine Bone China by Emily De Angelis
EDITOR’S NOTE: Last month the first ever winners of the Marion Seabrook Memorial Writing Contest were announced in Ms. Seabrook’s home community of Mindemoya at the Pioneer Museum.
This spring the idea for the contest was borne from the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle and the Central Manitoulin Historical Society to honour well-known Manitoulin author, playwright and English teacher Marion Seabrook, who passed away this winter.
Winning the adult category is Emily De Angelis for her work Fine Bone China, receiving $100 and a Scenic Manitoulin calendar courtesy of Jan McQuay. Zachary Car is the winner of the youth category for his piece Trouble’s Brewing. Ms. Zachary’s story will appear in next week’s newspaper, while Ms. De Angelis’ work follows here:
She packed each piece herself; wrapped each lavishly decorated piece adorned in lozenges and flowers of vibrant cobalt blue, rich burnt red, trimmed in gold. Every cup and saucer, pot, sugar basin, creamer and lid was wrapped first in clean rags, then in newspaper and finally arranged in two large, straw-filled pails she scrounged from Burrell’s General Store. The Crown Royal Derby Imari tea set her Grandmother had given her on her wedding day, only months earlier, never left her sight from the morning they set off from her grandparents’ home in Brantford. And now, hundreds of miles from home and weeks of travel behind them, Nellie and her pails of fine bone china sat atop a mound of discarded timber along the dock’s edge watching the rest of her earthly belongings being unloaded off the boat.
Two days earlier when they docked in Gore Bay, Nellie had no idea that the steamer they had travelled on from Owen Sound did not travel to all smaller ports along the Great Lakes shipping routes. In Gore Bay a crew of dock workers had very unceremoniously transferred their cargo to the Abergal. They made the last leg of their journey to Meldrum Bay aboard the uncomfortable, old, wooden schooner. Comfort was not any easier to find here in this little hamlet. There was an inn, a general store and a smattering of shacks amongst the dirt and ramshackle of the fishing and lumbering industries.
It was a hot July day and Nellie was thirsty. A young deckhand aboard the Abergal, a boy really, offered her a sip of water from a filthy, old ladle. Necessity demanded that she drink, but she was not thirsty for water. She thirsted for Grandmother Elizabeth’s iced tea, served over lemon slices in her backyard among the hummingbirds and marigolds. When she closed her eyes the oppressive heat on the open, exposed dock dissipated and the coolness of the garden memory whispered through her thoughts. She remembered the sweetness of lavender, growing along lattice fences, made sweeter with the scent of brown sugar scones Mrs. Aubrey had baked fresh that morning and served with clotted cream and raspberry compote. She remembered cucumber sandwiches and smoked salmon on toast and her stomach rumbled. Her mind’s eye travelled beyond the tea table adorned with lace and tea ware, along the stone pathway to the pond in the far reaches of the garden and to the bench where she had spent much of her girlhood reading and drawing. To where James proposed and she had accepted.
“Excuse me, Mrs. King?” Nellie opened her eyes to the young deckhand again. “I think your husband is trying to get your attention.” He pointed toward the end of the dock where the Abergal was being unloaded. James was motioning furiously at Nellie, his mother standing beside him, her mood reflected in the blackness of her mourning clothes. Her plans for a comfortable marriage in the lush farming countryside of Brant County had simply vanished. Sudden death and financial misfortune brought her to the wilderness of Manitoulin Island with her new husband and her newly widowed mother-in-law. Nellie sighed. She stood, straightened the trilby hat on her head, smoothed out the skirt of her dark blue travelling dress, and picking up her two pails of china, headed down toward her young husband. She shifted the pails attempting to adjust the weight in her nubile hands. When they were courting, on those odd occasions that they were alone, James often caressed her soft, supple hands, kissing each finger-tip, extolling the virtues of her creamy, warm skin of porcelain. As she made her way down the sloped ground toward the dock, she could feel callouses forming under the thin metal handle of the pails.
“Yes James, is there a problem?” Nellie’s eyes widened and her chin tilted ever so slightly upward and she spoke to her husband.
“We need to decide which items will go on the first wagon load to the homestead. Mother thinks we should only take the necessities. What do you think?” A derisive grunt issued from the middle-aged woman standing firmly on the dock beside James.
“Well that makes sense. I don’t know what shape this house is in, but I am certain it doesn’t come with necessities.” She smiled sweetly at her mother-in-law. The other Mrs. King smiled back.
“The Harbour Master says we can leave what we can’t take here on the dock under a tarpaulin until we are able to return to get it. I think it’s close to an hour by wagon to the homestead.” James looked out over the bay at the late afternoon sun. “It’s getting late so I don’t think we can make it back until tomorrow.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Nellie responded, a little breathlessly, a little concerned about leaving their belongings unattended and exposed overnight. James instructed the young men helping them to put the crates filled with food staples and cooking implements onto the wagon. Tools and farm implements were next, along with basic pieces of furniture, mattresses and linens and finally cleaning supplies. Nellie carried her pails behind the men along the dock and up the slight incline to the wagon and waited respectfully for one of the young men to take them from her to stow in the wagon.
“I don’t believe that tea set is a necessity Nellie.” She turned to face the other Mrs. King who had followed close on her heels. “Those two pails need to be stored under the tarpaulin until tomorrow. Here, I’ll make a place for them.” Mrs. King leaned to take the pails from her, but Nellie took a step backward, her grip tightening and the metal handles of the pails digging further into the softness of her palms.
“Oh, I think they will just fit on the wagon. They aren’t very big at all.” Nellie, struggling to keep her composure, smiled tightly. Again she waited for one of the young men to stow the pails in the wagon. The other Mrs. King grunted and headed back to the dock to James. Nellie watched her mother-in-law draw the young man aside and speak to him privately, glancing on occasion in her direction. James too, looked to where Nellie was standing, his confusion and nervousness obvious even from this distance. He nodded to his mother and headed up the slope toward the wagon. By the time James reached her, Nellie’s simmering anger threatened to boil over. She forced a smile as she spoke to her husband. “Are we almost ready to set out? I must say I am quite excited about seeing our new home. Do you think we will have much to do?” James rubbed his hands together as if over a hot fire on a cold winter’s night, stinging and burning from frostbite.
“I can’t say for certain. We will have to wait and see.” There was a pause as James looked back down to the dock, to the Abergal, to his mother. “Mother is concerned about how much we are loading on the wagon for this first shipment.” He hesitated. “Do you think these pails…”
“You mean my china?” Nellie interjected with stern sweetness, placing the pails on the ground on either side of her amongst the folds of her skirt.
“Yes, of course, your china…” He smiled apologetically. “Could it wait until tomorrow?” Again James glanced around nervously, hesitant to look directly into her eyes. His discomfort unsettled her, but not near as much as his suggestion to leave her china behind.
“No. I don’t believe it can wait until tomorrow, James.”
“But we may not have room for all of this,” he motioned to the wagon that was filling quickly, “let alone the three of us.” Perhaps we could leave your mother on the dock under the tarpaulin she thought, but did not say. She took her husband’s hands in hers.
“We will be fine, James dear. Let’s see when everything is loaded.” James seemed to accept her answer as a resolution, perhaps even acquiescence on her part, and smiled quickly as he headed back to the dock, to the last few items that remained uncovered.
Nellie stood her ground, not moving until the last item was placed on the wagon and her husband and mother-in-law were making their way up the slope. Full-fledged panic set in as Nellie realized that the wagon was indeed full to the brim with little or no room at all even for these last two, small pails. Her head ached with the heat of the sun and uncertainty that faced her. Tears threatened to spill over her eyelashes and she fought to hold them back. I will not cry. I will not cry. She repeated the words over and over again in her mind.
“James,” said the other Mrs. King, “don’t stand there rudely. Take those pails from the poor girl and have someone put them back on the dock under the tarpaulin. We will fetch them tomorrow with the remainder of our belongings.” A young man alongside the wagon helped the older woman up onto the front seat where she sat and waited for her orders to be followed. James approached Nellie with apologetic eyes, reaching out to take the pails of china from her hands.
“No, James, I will carry them.”
“I am sure one of these kind young men would put them on the dock for you. They have been so helpful today.” James smiled and nodded at the closest young man who carefully approached Nellie.
“No. I mean I will follow the wagon on foot and carry the pails to the house.”
“Don’t be ridiculous you silly girl,” her mother-in-law spat. “It’s a four-mile walk to the homestead. James?” Mrs. King looked to her son for support.
“Nellie…is that really a good idea?” Her husband, once again caught between wife and mother, looked uncertain.
“A good idea or not, James, I will be carrying this china to our new home, today.” Nellie pulled the loveliest, dark blue, kid leather gloves from the pocket of her travel coat and pulled them on. She firmly grabbed the handle of each pail and straightened up. She held her husband’s gaze defiantly. In his eyes she saw astonishment and perhaps a little anger. But she also saw admiration. He nodded to her, said his thank you to the men who had helped throughout the afternoon and pulled himself up onto the wagon. The other Mrs. King looked on disapprovingly, but said nothing as the wagon slowly pulled onto the road that lead back out of town. Nellie, her fine bone china in hand, followed behind.