They were both quite beautiful, Greta thought. Tall, limber, almost unnaturally lean, he with crinkly dark hair, she black-haired and sleek as a Madonna. When she mentioned their similarity a bit later on, they said they had sometimes taken advantage of it, when it came to living arrangements. It made things no end easier, but they had to remember to ask for two beds and make sure both got mussed up overnight.
And now, they told her, now they didn't need to worry. Nothing to be scandalized about. They were breaking up, after three years together. They had been chaste for months, at least with each other.
"Now no more Buckingham Palace," said Greg to Katy. "I have to do my exercises."
Greta thought this meant that he had to go downstairs or at least into the aisle for some calisthenics, but instead he and Laurie threw their heads back, stretched their throats, and began to warble and caw and do strange singsongs. Katy was delighted, taking all this as an offering, a show for her benefit. She behaved as a proper audience, tooquite still until it ended, then breaking out in laughter.
Some people who had meant to come up the stairs had stopped at the bottom, less charmed than Katy and not knowing what to make of things.
"Sorry," said Greg, with no explanation but a note of intimate friendliness. He held out a hand to Katy.
"Let's see if there's a playroom."
Laurie and Greta followed them. Greta was hoping that he wasn't one of those adults who make friends with children mostly to test their own charms, then grow bored and grumpy when they realize how tireless a child's affections can be.
By lunchtime or sooner, she knew that she didn't need to worry. What had happened wasn't that Katy's attentions were wearing Greg out, but that various other children had joined the competition and he was giving no sign of being worn out at all.
He didn't set up a competition. He managed things so that he turned the attention first drawn to himself into the children's awareness of each other, and then into games that were lively or even wild, but not bad-tempered. Tantrums didn't occur. Spoils vanished. There simply was not timeso much more interesting stuff was going on. It was a miracle, how much ease with wildness was managed in such a small space. And the energy expended promised naps in the afternoon.
"He's remarkable," Greta said to Laurie.
"He's mostly just there," Laurie said. "He doesn't save himself up. You know? A lot of actors do. Actors in particular. Dead offstage."
Greta thought, That's what I do. I save myself up, most of the time. Careful with Katy, careful with Peter.
In the decade that they had already entered but that she at least had not taken much notice of, there was going to be a lot of attention paid to this sort of thing. Being there was to mean something it didn't use to mean. Going with the flow. Giving. Some people were giving, other people were not very giving. Barriers between the inside and outside of your head were to be trampled down. Authenticity required it. Things like Greta's poems, things that did not flow right out, were suspect, even scorned. Of course she went right on doing as she did, fussing and probing, secretly tough as nails on the counterculture. But at the moment, her child surrendered to Greg, and to whatever he did; she was entirely grateful.
In the afternoon, as Greta had predicted, the children went to sleep. Their mothers too in some cases. Others played cards. Greg and Greta waved to Laurie when she got off at Jasper. She blew kisses from the platform. An older man appeared, took her suitcase, kissed her fondly, looked towards the train and waved to Greg. Greg waved to him.
"Her present squeeze," he said.
More waves as the train got going, then he and Greta took Katy back to the compartment, where she fell asleep between them, asleep in the very middle of a jump. They opened the compartment curtain to get more air, now that there was no danger of the child's falling out.
Excerpted from Dear Life by Alice Munro. Copyright © 2012 by Alice Munro. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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