Everything about Constantine Jollee was brighter, louder and more alive than anyone else in Gyle Crescent. Where our mothers were as thrifty with words as they were with their hoarded coins, Miz Jollee was profligate with her expressions, lavishing smiles and conversation on any of us who were near enough to be caught in her mischievous hazel gaze. Where our village was redolent with the stink of farms, orchards, honest sweat and hard work, Miz Jollee smelt of soft blossoms and long, lazy summer afternoons on far away islands, even when it was fierce winter cold. She was the new chemist’s assistant, and straight out of school she was, full of university learning and all the newest methods. The old women in the village were ever so glad not to have to ask Mr. Campbell to whisper across the counter to them about their constipation and bunions anymore, and the younger farm wives timidly asked her advice on matters even more discreet. Miz Jollee was forthright and no-nonsense in her profession, but her kindness was a breath of fresh air in our quiet town. It didn’t harm her any that she was a handsome woman, tall as a man with a head of thick, shining brown hair and fine, clear skin.
My Uncle Santry was the first to be mired in the maze of her warm, low voice. He was an old bachelor who lived on the hill above us with only his herds for company. Mam had pounded it into us that he, being Dad’s older brother, was our duty, and we
were to see after him for charity’s sake. She was as crossed as two birch switches when she sent Marla and me up after him one Sunday for supper, and he not sitting there, awaiting for her last minute invitation as always.
“He was what?” she asks us, sharp-like, when we tripped back down the hill to tell her.
“He was up to Miz Jollee’s,” Marla says again, giggles caught in the back of her throat. “He was washed and slicked and everything, Mam.”
Then she did laugh, a bright chortle that danced like birdsong, ’til Mam smacked her on the bum for no reason that I could see.
“Get away to your room with that nonsense,” she snapped, and went stalking to find Dad,leaving the gravy congealing in the pot, the roast drying out in the stove. And whatever Mam had said to Dad had sparked off such a row that we none of us got dinner, not for long hours, ’til it was all ruined, and my stomach was tight with knots and worry.
I liked my Uncle Santry, with his thick rumpled eyebrows, and his wild thatch of wiry hair, and it had given me a turn to see his his homely jug-eared head shorn and slicked into submission, as if to go courting he’d had to wrestle down his wilder,
woollier self. Seeing Uncle Santay so had filled me with anxiety. Is that what it
meant, to have a boy go courting? Had our Dad had to go all meek and humble himself to come courting our Mam? And if so, had it been… worth it?
Neither Marla nor our brother, Nigel was bothered by Mam’s fusses like I was. Nigel, being a boy, was Dad’s problem, and Marla had been having go-rounds with Mam since she’d turned fourteen. She was sixteen now, and I asked if she minded the smacks and the sharp words, Marla just shrugged and said that soon enough she’d be out and gone, and she wasn’t about to let Mam’s old-lady clucking get under her skin.
It got under my skin, though. Everything did. I didn’t know why Mam sounded so angry, and the silence in our house after all the shouting only made it worse.
The village postmaster was the next man Miz Jollee’s coils of curly hair captivated. He wasn’t a bachelor, though, and it was the talk of the downtown busybodies, how Mr. Cullen made eyes at Constantine Jollee, his wife not five feet away, sorting the mail. Going in to get a stamp or send a package after that was a
dicey proposition. The postmistress felt that you were either for her, or against her, and expected loyal Gyle Cresent women to step up and take a side. Mam sent me to check for a package one day, and when I went to Mr. Cullen’s line instead of Mrs. Cullens, it practically sparked an international incident. Apparently Mrs. Cullen said something to Mrs. Airdrie, and she let slip to our neighbor, Mrs. McAuley, that she thought that the McIntyre’s youngest, Avril, would grow up wild.
“Just like that Constantine Jollee,” Mam had finished, eyebrows fairly crackling with lightning as she glared me down, storms brewing in her eyes. “Just what have you to say for yourself, Avril McIntyre?”
“Leave off, Janice,” Dad had intervened, his rare attention surprising. “She has no idea what you’re on about.”
And I didn’t, but Mam started giving me wary looks after that, as if I were soon going to commit some unimaginable wrong.
The men in our village fell head over heels with Miss Jollee, but I no longer cared. I had been betrayed, and felt a deep uneasiness that Mam would take up with the likes of Mrs. Airdrie against me, when she always said that Ethel Airdrie would rattle her tongue past Judgment Day, when a good woman would know to be silent.
I was only fourteen, and not ready to brave the constant battling Mam and Marla went through on a daily basis. I didn’t know how, but I was trying to avoid conflict the best way I knew how. Unfortunately, for Mam, the only thing I could have done to keep the peace was not grow up…
At the Spring Faire, Gyle Cresent was dressed to the nines and filled with little ones running around, begging change from their parents for pony rides and taffy candy. Each year, the local businesses employed their workers to pass out lollipops and balloons, thanking the village for their business and laying the foundation for another good year. The primary school kids worriedly practiced their words for the town spelling bee, and those of us who were older stood behind tables, selling coleslaw and slabs of pie to support school clubs. The air was thick with the savory smells of meat; the 4-H club roasted hundreds of chickens on
spits, and the Greek Orthodox group had a whole lamb being slow basted for the all-county picnic. The Vestry Committee of the Gyle Cresent Episcopal Church set up their yearly cakewalk on the far side of the square, just to the left of the podium where the mayor “blessed” the Spring Queen and her court.
Marla had already run off with her classmates by the time we got to the Faire and met Uncle Santry. Mam stiffened up and went quiet when she saw him, since Miss Jollee was with him, arm linked with his. Dad stopped to chat, while Mam stood in awkward silence, looking across at the Ferris Wheel set up in the field next to the high school.
I couldn’t help comparing them, my small, rumpled mother with her plainly braided hair and her plain white blouse with the embroidered cuffs and the tall, vibrant woman standing proudly at Uncle Santry’s shoulder, her chestnut hair piled high on her head. Next to Miss Jollee’s vivid peacock silk blouse and high-waisted bolero slacks, Mam’s quiet outfit made her look provincial and countrified. Though my own blouse and clamdiggers were plain, I had never stopped to consider that other women my parents’ ages didn’t dress like Constantine Jollee. She looked like she was in costume. I realized that almost every woman that glanced our way looked at Miss Jollee, then looked at her again. Across the square, a group of women were staring at her.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed.
“Janice!” Mrs. Airdrie rushed up to us, her fair skin flushed with high color. “I’m gathering all the ladies. It’s time to prepare the Spring Queen’s court.”
“Oh, no you don’t,” Mam said immediately, stepping back. “I’m too old for that nonsense, Ethel Airdrie.”
“It’s all in good fun,” Mrs. Airdrie insisted, beaming brightly at all of us. “You’ll come, won’t you Miss Jollee?”
Mam’s mouth turned down. “ Ethel,” she began.
“’Course I’ll come,” Miss Jollee smiled. She trailed after Mrs. Airdrie. “What do I need to do?”
“Come on,” Mam said to me, dragging me along after them. “We’re coming too.”
I wasn’t any too interested in the Spring Queen or the Court. Every year before the Mayor “blessed” the court, the townsfolk lined up the Court in all their finery, and sprinkled them with a bit of water from a bouquet of roses. The rosewater was supposed to symbolize dewy youth or fresh beauty or something, but the meaning had been lost years ago, and now, once the Queen was crowned, she was doused with champagne. Inevitably,someone took the “sprinkling” bit with the roses bit a bit far before the main event, and then it was a free-for-all, and the water fight generally left the Court in sopping disarray which the mothers bemoaned all afternoon, even though most of their daughters didn’t bother to change clothes, preferring to drag around their watermarked gowns, disheveled and amused. As far as I knew, Mrs. Airdrie had never bothered with the Court, leaving that to the younger folks, and Mam had never gone anywhere near the whole thing.
“What’s going on?” I asked, as Mam towed me along, but she said nothing, just picked up her pace. Mrs. Airdrie was hurrying Miss Jollee right up to the foot of the platform where the Mayor would make his speech. As I watched, women from the village gathered around, as if by some prearranged signal.
The first splash of water that landed on Miss Jollee came from Marla, flinging her roses enthusiastically. “Hey, Miss Jollee,” she shouted. “Happy Spring!” Her face was gleeful as she liberally sprinkled the people around her with water. There were squeals as mothers straightened their daughters’ tiaras and gowns, and cameras flashed as proud grandmothers and aunties recorded the day.
“Now girls,” one of the mothers called, “don’t mess up your gowns before the picture!”
“Marla,” Mam remonstrated, and Marla turned toward us, grinning and dunking her roses in the little bucket she was holding. I squealed and ducked as the water spattered onto my unprotected neck, but I stood up, fast, as I heard Miss Jollee’s shockingly loud scream.
Mrs. Cullen had hold of her on one side, and Mrs. Robinson from the bank held her wrist on the other. Mrs. Airdrie aimed a full bucket of water into her face, and Miss Jollee screamed again, flinging her thick hair to the side as she struggled between them. The buckets were small, but there seemed to be no limit to the number of women pressing close to douse Miss Jollee. The butcher’s wife, Mrs. Lomond,dumped one on her from behind while the choir director’s fiancée came at her from the front.
Mam sucked in air between her teeth as the water roughened the silk and made it hang limply from Miss Jollee’s shoulders. From across the square, I heard Uncle Santry’s laugh cut off abruptly. It seemed as if all activity in the entire village held its breath, as Miss Jollee fought her way free from the postmistress and the bank manager’s wife, and, holding a hank of her sopping wet hair away from her eyes,
blinked at the women gathered around her.
“Am I the Spring Queen, then?” Miss Jollee asked blearily, wringing a handful of water from the hair around her face.
There was an awkward silence. I turned to catch Marla’s eye. Miss Jollee didn’t know it wasn’t a joke. Shouldn’t somebody tell her?
Mam chose that moment to quickly reach for my sister’s bucket, sloshing its contents all down her blouse.
Mam’s scream of murderous rage galvanized everyone in the square. Every eye was on her, as Marla stumbled backwards on reflex. Girls with roses quit sprinkling and began dousing, laughing at what Marla had started. Miss Jollee got her hands on someone’s bucket,and sloshed half its contents full into Mrs. Cullen’s face. Half the Vestry Committee hightailed it into the church, and cries of “sanctuary!” came from the women running toward the doors.
“Marla!” My mother bawled, fastidiously wringing out her blouse. “You can see right through this blouse when it’s wet. Whatever has gotten into you? So help me God, when if I catch you, girl…”
Marla was still bewildered, had only moved away from Mam’s furious screams by reflex. Now she caught on, and a sly little smile lifted her face. Quickly, she sloshed the last of the water into Mam’s surprised face.
“Now, you’re the Spring Queen, Mam,” she
hollered back, and ran for her life.