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© Jean Jardine Miller 2006.

Alison pulled the bedclothes over her head in a futile attempt to drown out the sound of the telephone ringing. When it reached the ninth ring, she’d know it was her mother. Anybody else would have rung off by then. On the eighth ring, she could stand it no longer and reached out, picked up the instrument and put it down again. The sound of the connection and disconnection would be enough to satisfy her mother that she was still alive.

She lay looking up at the ceiling without really seeing it, then turned over, curled herself into a foetal position and closed her eyes. The two dogs, making themselves comfortable again after being disturbed by Alison stretching out to pick up the phone, buried themselves into the comforter alongside her. If only she could go back... ten years back to when she’d first had Charlie and Angel, to the summer days she and Terri had spent training the puppies, playing at being grown-up, trying to get their hair to look like Farrah Fawcett’s and imagining exotic lives for themselves in the years ahead. Now she scarcely had a life, let alone an exotic one! Perhaps it was her charmed childhood that had caused her problem. She had never learned to handle fear. That didn’t explain why she had suddenly become afraid, of course, but it could be the reason that the fear was completely destroying her. No, it wasn’t the fear that was destroying her. It was the embarrassment that was doing the destroying or... maybe, the energy it took to keep mending the bridges created by the fear and embarrassment, the energy she had given up trying to find and maintain now. She’d worked so hard, during her second year at university, at fighting the fear that threatened to keep her out of lecture halls, forcing herself to interact with fellow students and professors and battling the constant overpowering self-consciousness that accompanied every movement. She’d tried – tried so hard until it had finally beaten her into submission.

God! She was wallowing in it.

“This won’t do, Angel,” she said to the dog nearest to the head end of her bed. Angel wriggled closer and licked her cheek. “No, we have to get up. Do something to get the endorphins moving...” The dogs jumped to the floor as she quite violently forced herself to get out of bed.

She went downstairs to the basement exercise room thinking that five miles on the stationary bicycle would help her break through the depression that had engulfed her since – yes; it was a week ago – since the evening when Terri and Ian had visited her.

She sat on the bicycle, adjusted the tension and began to pedal.

She had enjoyed the evening. It had been quite wonderful, really to have her childhood friend back and to have her boyfriend – sort of boyfriend, anyway, around. What did you call someone who had been your boyfriend and seemed to want to remain your friend even when you never actually went anywhere with him? Anyway, it had felt good talking to Terri again and then having Ian drop by to be introduced to Terri and to have sat chatting with them both like a regular person...

Come on, endorphins, do your stuff...

Yes, she had felt – well, not at ease exactly... but, pretty close. Terri had done most of the talking, telling them about the huge success of her aunt’s chain of stores in the UK and how phenomenal the move to natural products was likely to be over the next few years. Not just the skin-care products manufactured and sold by Envirodermics, but food and cleaning products, clothes – everything. Natural products stores would be springing up all over the place once North American consumers caught on to the trend. In Britain, she said, the idea of buying only products derived from natural sources was no longer equated primarily with hippies and environmentalists. It was fast becoming a mainstream thing. Of course, many stores like Envirodermics had been born out of sixties’ hippie counterculture and seventies’ New Age ideology. Terri’s aunt was the first to admit that her youthful passions, of twenty years before, for living off the land and demonstrating against vivisection, pollution and the agricultural use of insecticides were what had fuelled her interest in developing natural products, but the general population was far more environmentally aware now and was creating a demand for purity in processing.

Alison wondered about some of the things Terri had talked about. What exactly was New Age? She supposed, being in university, she should know more about trends than someone who wasn’t, although it sounded more like a Boomer thing than a youth trend from what Terri was saying. It was said that students in the eighties were more serious about their studies than their predecessors. Maybe that was why she hadn’t come across it. Of course, she knew about theosophy, transcendental meditation and the Age of Aquarius idea. She just hadn’t realized that so many people were into transcendence, self-realization, yoga, meditation and things like that... well, not to the extent that it was creating a whole new retail arena, anyway. Terri sounded as if she was very much influenced by her aunt which, of course, was hardly surprising considering she had lived with her for most of four years – until she had moved in with Mark, anyway.

She remembered Terri’s aunt from that first and only Christmas she had spent away from home...

It had been her last year in high school. Terri had gone to England in the summer and Alison had felt rather lost without her. They’d been in different courses all through high school but had remained best friends and it had felt strange to be going to school by herself instead of with Terri, breaking the pattern of twelve years... Terri must have been feeling just as lost because she had almost begged Alison to come to England for Christmas. They’d had a lot of fun. In fact, it was one of her best-loved Christmases, although that might have been because Christmas becomes a bit of a bore during the teenage years and this had been an opportunity to do something different. Alison had been surprised by Terri’s aunt, however. Having known her brother, Terri’s father, for most of her life, relating him to his younger sister had been a major challenge. Just the very fact that she had always addressed Terri’s parents as Mr. and Mrs. Lydford, while Terri called her parents by their first names, spoke volumes. Terri had introduced the aunt by her first name and Alison would never have connected the – well, almost hippie – lady with the solid, dependable Mr. Lydford. She remembered her staying at Terri’s house once, years before, when they were still in public school, but had not known her well. Apparently it was soon after she had returned to England that she had been married in a very non-traditional ceremony in a farmer’s field somewhere and she and her husband had started what was then a soap-making operation in a deserted factory in the East End of London. Opening as strategically located boutiques at first, Envirodermics had soon become a franchise operation.

For the two eighteen-year-olds, away from home for their first Christmas, it had been almost a coming-of-age. Terri had been given the two weeks off and they had explored London and the museums and taken train trips to the coast in the daytime and gone to the theatre on a couple of occasions and out with a group of kids Terri had come to know on some of the other evenings. Terri’s aunt had had a New Year’s party and they had, en masse, taken the Underground to Trafalgar Square to see in the New Year.

Alison kept pumping the pedals through six miles and on to seven as she recalled the fun of that Christmas. She and Terri had grown apart after that. A few months later Terri had met Mark and decided to stay in England and Alison’s own life had become focused on getting accepted at U of T and then on adjusting to university life. It had all been part of growing up, of course, but she had somehow lost confidence in herself along the way or something like that...

She turned back the tension dial and got off the bike. She had been peddling fast at quite a high tension and was feeling a bit wiped. Dizzy, too. Probably need something to eat, she thought, as she stumbled to the stairs. Well, things were looking up – she was actually quite pleasurably anticipating making herself a boiled egg and toast after she’d had a shower...

Jardine Miller