Sometimes you just have to make your own happiness!
One such time is the subject of this ten-minute thriller…
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“Only Ten Hours Till Happiness”
by Stephen James
What a fantastic but sometimes elusive word happiness is. I’m sure you would all agree. I have written this gripping little narrative around the very meaning of this most powerful of words. Many people wait all their lives for it — others watch it come and leave and come yet again. Some are engulfed with an oversupply, to which they mistreat its value, perhaps losing it forever. Either way, whichever one you are; never think it is too long, or too far away, or simply not worth the wait…
In the early part of December, here in the small town of Rigolet on the St Lawrence Seaway side of Canada, your breath practically freezes before it leaves your mouth. Rigolet is in the province of Labrador, which lies to the east of Quebec — a mere handful of kilometres below 55° latitude. Daylight hours are short. Unquestionably a beautiful setting and nestled in a sheltered cove, on the banks of Hamilton Inlet — gateway to gorgeous Lake Melville, the once fur-trader outpost of Rigolet is the most southerly Inuit community in the world. The modern era’s population hovers around the three-hundred to three-hundred and forty mark, depending upon how many visitors stay after the magnetism of its beauty is replaced by the repulsion of unbearable chill. There are no main roads leading into this tiny town, in fact, the only land-based accessibility is via a web of snowmobile trails. By sea, it is connected seasonally via a coastal ferry from Happy Valley-Goose Bay. A tiny airport sits just out of town. Although there are still coniferous trees surrounding the village, a few kilometres northeast into Hamilton Inlet, the terrain changes drastically to a sub-arctic tundra. The fifty-fifth parallel has few sympathies for the timorous…
First established in the year 1735 by a French-Canadian maritime merchant, explorer, and seigneur around the fur seal industry, Rigolet’s remoteness was its own Achilles heel for preventing rapid development. These early times were hard, and the indigenous people of the land were meek but protective. As a result, many of today’s families in Rigolet are descendants of European settlers and the Labrador Inuit. In this town, everybody knows your name.
One such person was thirty-eight-year-old Marjorie Vitello-St Claire. This woman may not have been the most beautiful woman in the world by any stretch of the imagination, but her heart certainly could have been. She was well proportioned and kept her jet-black hair long. Her accent had a French flavour — her looks had an Italian one. Marjorie always hated her first name and had even considered changing it to something far more exotic, like Marjella or Marjonique; to keep in tone with her stand-out surname. But out here in the snow-lands, it didn’t really matter all that much. Being one of only five per cent of the population who wasn’t an Inuk — I guess she felt fairly diverse or exotic anyway. From birth, Marjorie had lived here in this outpost of the Canadian wilderness with her mother and father who had forged an alternative lifestyle since the early 70s. He’d taught in the primary school where young Maj had learned to read, write and become multi-lingual in French, English, and several of the native Eskimo tongues known as Inuktitut, used by the locals. Her mother once worked at the local co-op store — both parents died in an avalanche five years ago. It took over a week and a party of sixty-two townspeople to locate their frozen remains and buried snowmobiles. Always having been a hard worker, a trait she adopted from her father, Maj had not taken a sick-leave day from work for eighteen years. The two weeks she was absent, when she had to find and lay to rest her parents, was naturally considered as bereavement leave. Her boss, Gerald Struper had often told her to take a break now and then, perhaps go to visit one of the big cities like Toronto or Montreal. Marjorie would always answer; “Big cities are for people to hide in! Gerry, I have nothing to hide. You knew my father and you also knew his motto. ‘If you can still walk… you can still work!’ My evenings and weekends are for quiet pleasure.”
The stalwart stood by what she said. She’d worshipped her father and lived by his code of ethics. She had retained his name and sported it proudly, as a badge of honour. Marjorie’s world had come apart on that cold January day when their fractured distress message came through, then faded out completely. Time, as always, moves quietly on…
The tough intelligent woman had only ever travelled as far away as Happy Valley-Goose Bay, roughly one-hundred kilometres due west. This journey took several hours by winding snowmobile trail, or five to six on the once-a-week MV Northern Ranger ice-breaking coastal ferry, season and weather permitting. Marjorie had a younger cousin, Emily Kutak-St Claire, who lived in this nearby Canadian military airbase township. At eight-thousand people, to Marjorie, this was a huge bustling town. Four times every year she would visit for a day, by catching the ferry, then, drive her Ski-Doo back home via the wilderness trails. She even knew her way in the poor sub-Arctic light. Many are the times, dissident Maj would overextend her return snowmobile trip, to stop and observe The Great Northern Lights — arriving late, but invigorated, by their magnificence. She would only do this if the climate was placid and kind. In contrary, Emily showed no interest in Rigolet. After her uncle and aunt passed away, the tiny hidden hamlet held very little interest for her; a senior flight instructor at 5 Wing Goose Bay for the Royal Canadian Air Force. She had married into the forces and lived by its motto “Working Together” thus, gave it her everything. Emily often commented about meeting Maj’s husband, John and why he avoided her. Marjorie’s reply was always, “If you wish to know him, you’ll have to come to Rigolet, cousin, he’s as stubborn as you are.” Faithful Marjorie held little hope for this to ever eventuate — but did not mind.
On the most recent visit to Happy Valley-Goose Bay, in September 2018, Marjorie had to make the roundtrip completely by snowmobile. The thirty-year-old-plus MV Northern Ranger, which was due for decommissioning at season’s end, had been stranded by mechanical problems at Makkovik, on Newfoundland’s northern coast. Season upon freezing season, she had hauled her passengers and cargo with tireless esteem, in workhorse fashion, where lesser ships would fail miserably. Like a grand old lady, she lay proudly with a broken gearbox, in the subzero water, still commanding the full respect of her faithful twenty-one-strong crew. They stayed aboard for three days, till she once again groaned into action. This inconvenience to the community cost valuable time and money, in this highly susceptible municipality. In the same vein as the old ice-breaker, dogged mainstay Marjorie, navigated her snow scooter towards her cousin Emily’s house unaccompanied. Highly unrecommended is the practice of solo travel of any kind, especially when some of the surrounding slopes are reaching that critical 40° angle, which is what causes these icy landslides. A warning had sounded on the radio for all travellers to be careful. But this was one stubborn Arctic mule who had made it clear to all that she owed her cousin a visit. This particular Saturday morning fell on 15th September, which was Emily’s birthday — and simply couldn’t be missed. After saying goodbye to John, next, she crouched in front of her pure white miniature Samoyed dog, to pat him good-bye. “Now listen here to me, Igloo. Take care of everything whilst I’m away, and don’t you go chewing on any of the furniture, okay!” He was curled up in a ball on his mat with his black nose extended — resembling exactly his namesake.
The four-year-old ball of fluff did not like early starts to his day. He accepted his pat, poked out his pink tongue, whined his acceptance of her instructions, and went back to sleep.
“Be like that if you must,” she said, smiling, “there are some treats in your bowl for later. And I have filled three water dishes. I love you.” Igloo reopened his eyes and blinked away some dust. He huffed through his nostrils — because the affectionate dog did not enjoy being without her.
She started off at daybreak and headed for the trails. Hours later, Emily and her husband Phillipe, met her at the Birch Brook Nordic Ski Club at nearby Gosling Lake. After hearing that she would have to do the marathon effort, for what was now the sixth time, this was considerably closer geographically, therefore gave them more time together. The other five occasions were due to it being mid-winter, which is non-seasonal for the ferryboat. By the time Marjorie had arrived, her cousin and Phillipe had finished seven ski-runs each and were ready for lunch. It had just finished snowing and the sun had materialized. They enjoyed a feast in the mist at Trapper’s Cabin Bar & Grill, catching up on all the local Goose-Valley gossip. The group spoke for several hours but Marjorie’s frown seemed to linger between discussions. Her eyes continuously glancing down towards her smartphone at the photograph of her handsome Samoyed dog. He was the screensaver…
“You don’t seem to look very happy Marjorie. Is everything alright?” asked Emily, her hand cupped on top of her cousin’s. “You appear as if you’re waiting on a call or something. No problems at work or anything? How is the old crew from school going these days?”
“No, no, thank you for asking, Em’—” Their eyes reconnected. “Everyone in Rigolet is doing just fine. I am just a little concerned for Igloo. He frets whenever I leave him.”
“John is there for him,” interrupted Phillipe. “Why don’t you simply give him a call? You could ask how the little fella is doing!”
Maj grinned. “I might do just that. Do you mind?” Both sets of shoulders shrugged, and both heads nodded, as they finished off their lunch.
At that moment a newsflash interrupted the music which was accompanying their meal. It mentioned that a severe snowstorm coming from the west was about to strike the vicinity. The announcer began alerting all cross-country skiers to stay close by for at least six hours.
“Maybe you should stay overnight with us, Marjorie,” Phillipe offered. “You can always return in the morning… after it settles down. Why don’t you let him know right now?”
Marjorie stood up and wheeled away from the table — her fingers slipped out of her gloves then swiped her phone into life. She paced around muttering into the device for a few minutes. The other two finished their meals and prepared to escort her back to their Four-wheel-drive. There would be just enough room to fit Maj’s ageing Ski-Doo in its rear, if they stored their skis on the roof rack. She pressed the logoed end call button and turned to face their smiles.
“See you in March, kiddo! Unless of course… you come to Rigolet for Christmas this year, that is!” said Marjorie, giving her young cousin a hug. “Got to head back I’m afraid. Haven’t got time for a lengthy explanation.” Her eyes flicked at the outdoor speaker.
“Are you crazy?” answered Emily.
“No, I mean it. Come for Christmas this time.”
“That is not what I meant, Maj. I was referring to the snowstorm, you silly thing!”
“Old Bess will outrun it. I’ve had Hiern Kuitkon from the local service garage tweak her up a bit.” She walked over to her 2001 model MXZ 700. Its battle-scarred black faring and bodywork proudly highlighting as the backdrop for the caricature white wolf her father had painted on it. “I’ve had this reliable dog up to over 200 kph. On the flat of course!”
“Even more crazy!” spiked Emily. “Okay, okay, we might come to Rigolet this year… if you stay alive! But no promises though. You do understand, cus’ — work and everything.”
“Of course,” she replied, but had little faith. “See ya!” She strapped-up her helmet.
Marjorie wasted no time, the Ski-Doo fired into action. It disappeared from sight in seconds. She had no intention of doing that speed, but it was nice to know her machine was capable. After two hours she had forgotten all about the newsflash — preferring to enjoy nature’s pictorial gifts.
Suddenly it all changed…
The thundering roar came down the slope faster than a speeding freight train. It resembled a bleached pyroclastic flow. Marjorie twisted the grip off the MXZ’s throttle to extract maximum power, then realized that in her hast to leave, she had not refuelled. More speed meant a thirstier engine, but the dice had to be rolled. Marjorie’s heart was bursting from her chest, as she glanced over her shoulder, at the metres-deep avalanche chasing her tail. Above her engine’s roar, her ears clearly heard the sound of giant conifer trees popping like matchsticks. The strong memory of her parents’ tragedy began hammering her mind. Bess quickly reached 190 kph — but the gaining wall of snow was not far away. It was coming from her left at an angle and she could see a steep uphill ridge in front of her. On its slanting face, the trees were more plentiful, meaning a slower pathway for the Ski-Doo but possibly less momentum for the charging snow-slide. Her emotions were in tatters. Her body was perspiring despite the cold. Her brain raced: Do I head for higher ground like mum and dad tried — or do I risk turning right to go around where the gradient is steeper?
She knew, if the snowmobile ran out of fuel on that downslope, it would mean Christmas for her this year would be spent with her mum and dad. “Gotta go for the higher ground!” she shouted inside her helmet. Marjorie weaved upward through the trees with needle-threading precision. The vehicle was on fumes. It began to splutter. “C’mon Old Bess, don’t die on me now!” she pleaded, rocking it from side-to-side to milk the last few drops from her. “Just a few more hundred metres, please!” Bess conked out and Marjorie turned to face the terror. She now knew she’d made the correct decision, but just how correct was it?
Within three minutes of the earth-quaking racket catching her, the snow had covered her neck-deep but swooshed on down to her right taking the steeper route. Black Bess was completely covered. Marjorie hauled herself free and swiped her cellphone to life. She gasped, “Help me please!”
A thick Eskimo accent replied, “Hiern Kuitkon speaking. Is that you Marj Vitello-St Claire?”
“It is, Hiern. I’m afraid I’ve had a very close call. The old girl saved me… but she’s buried in the ice, and I am a bit lost. Can you get a GPS bearing off my phone? I think I am somewhere near Silver Horse Pass. A fair way up the mountain. I’ll try to dig her out, but I’ll need fuel or a tow or…”
“I heard about the avalanche. You’re damned lucky. Be there in less than thirty minutes, Maj. Hold on!”
Hiern Kuitkon kept his word. He arrived with three others and some fuel, to bring her back to town. Although she wasn’t badly hurt, the ordeal had shaken her to the very core. As if nothing had happened, the strong-minded woman fronted for work on the following Monday morning. She played down the trauma to her boss, never even mentioning what had been so important that it had made her leave Trapper’s Cabin Bar & Grill in such a hurry and risk the blizzard.
Once again as it always does, the days moved on…
Gerald Struper had nothing but praise for her but knew little else about the woman — her private life was almost an undisclosed story. He and the townsfolk knew her husband’s name, but few could describe his nature or what he did to earn a living. Whenever their noses poked in her direction, Marjorie would always deflect them answering; ‘John is a very quiet man who needs very little attention. He is productive on the inside and hates crowds. We are kindred spirits. You know — twin flames. Soul mates. In it for life, like the beavers and the whales!’
At night she would often snuggle in front of the warm fireplace clutching a glass of red wine, beside her would always be Igloo, panting gently. A smile would adorn her character-filled face. Her husband’s love letters sitting in a shoebox beside her. He was in the office at the converted fisherman’s shed, which was attached to the far end of the property. From here, in summer, a clear unobstructed view brought the fabulous Hamilton Inlet’s pristine water into perspective. It is a hypnotic vista. Many were the hours that she had spent sitting in the office doing her own form of literature. Her weekend leisure time was usually spent hiking or visiting the Net Loft Museum. Marjorie loved being able to stroll the eight kilometres along one of the longest Boardwalks in North America. All the way to Double Mer Point. She would walk hand-in-hand with her hubby, observing the Humpback and Minke whales breaching in the nearby inlets of these waters.
Each Monday to Friday morning, following breakfast, Marjorie sees herself peeping through the double-glazed glass front window of her ancient fisherman-style home in Wolfrey’s Lakeview Drive. She meets her reflection with a smile before letting go of the curtains, made for her by her mother. Next, she kisses her loving husband goodbye, before venturing out, to face another lengthy day’s work at the Strathcona House Interpretation Centre. He works from home. Her commencement time is 7.00 am sharp and she finishes at 4.00 pm. With a thirty-minute stroll each way for exercise, it means her daily ten-hour routine begins and ends in the dark for the most part of each year. The attractive woman says every time after kissing him goodbye. “It’s only ten hours till happiness—” then adds. “I’ll be home soon, darling.”
She has gone through this mid-week routine, for the entire five years, ever since she became involved with John, subsequently meeting him at the wake after her parent’s funeral back in 2013. He and Igloo had become her saviours, in what was the gloomiest period of her life.
Today was no different. It was 16th December 2018. A hearty breakfast was followed by her favourite brand of coffee — sipped from her favourite mug. The one with a cartoon of a patient at his doctor’s surgery. Beneath it the caption reads; “I’m not that worried, Dr Jingleberry… X-rays always look so negative!”
Marjorie always grins at the joke — as her coffee brightens up her morning. Lunch is prepared and placed inside the snap-seal box which fits so neatly inside her knapsack. She quickly wipes the benchtops and washes the breakfast dishes by hand. The local radio station is barking out a weather report, suggesting an extra layer of clothing because a cold front has moved in overnight and dropped it to minus 20° Celsius, with a wind-chill factor, which by 9.00 am is most likely to push that to minus 35°. Marjorie crinkles her nose through the steam, rising from the sink’s hot water thinking; it is nothing I haven’t endured before — but I may skip my exercise this morning. Perhaps even leave a little later than usual!
Sadly though, the truth remains that this extremely honest and devout woman holds a dark secret, after all… Marjorie Vitello-St Claire is living a lie. She’s a victim of extreme loneliness. There is no loving husband standing beside her — there never has been. Marjorie has been dreaming the same dream almost every night throughout her entire adult life. She carries the façade into her everyday life. She even talks to the fresh air filling that void beside her. Maj’s love letters are written in her own hand. The name John is simply her favourite. Her mother’s hand-me-down bed pillows suffer from the constant crush of her pleading embrace. She even lays the breakfast table for two…
Twenty minutes later, after patting Igloo, Marjorie shouts, “Goodbye sweetheart!” and blows a fake kiss. She walks out her front door — getting bitten by the arctic wind. It slams behind her. “Not another Christmas alone…” she whispers out loud to herself.
A fur-circled face greets her from across the street. It’s a man standing by his front gate. It squeaks shut. The stranger is tall and straight. She has never seen him before. He smiles and waves then says… “It’s only ten hours till happiness.”
Stunned by his echoing words, Marjorie stops in her tracks, then, rushes over to say hello. Her fawn-like eyes welded to his. “Where on Earth did you hear that term?”
“I just made it up, moments ago,” he replied, with a deep Saskatoon timbre. “My name is Johnathan Liberator. I’m a novelist — from near the South Saskatchewan River.” His mitten grasps hold of hers. “Only moved in two weeks ago. I’m looking for a bohemian life. I was considering using it as a title for my latest book. Who are you?”
This man had a warm friendly persona. It matched his deep rich voice.
“Well,” she said, with a grin that could charm a rattlesnake, “I guess you could call me Miss Bohemian!”
He pulled away his fur-lined hood. His jawline was masculine. His eyes were perfect and sincere. “So, is this Miss Bohemian married?”
“Oh no…” she answered, then, reinforced. “Not anymore!”