Elle Fortnum - Dawton Diner Regular
Every morning, ELLIE FORTNUM reads wedding and engagement announcements, notes likely housekeeping hints or interesting recipes (lemon donuts that morning) and fusses over the obits in the newspaper, while her husband, Stewie, reads the sports and financial pages, notes down likely sale-items and takes issue with the size and placement of local ads.
Today, Ellie is prepared to review all she’s read, plus editorialize on the state of the pastor, to wit, wifeless, childless, housekeeper-less, and his clothes, especially socks, allowing her to segue neatly into the state of his church - worn carpeting in the vestry, lack of a schedule for flowers on Sundays, need to polish all candle sticks and brassware as well as the pews and finally the lamentable state of the church’s back walkway. All to distract if not amuse her friend, Sylvie, who, at present is sitting beside her on the next stool. Ellie and Sylvie are on their first cups of coffee, which they always drink in silence. Then Ellie will have a well-toasted English muffin she always tops by squeezing the contents of one of those little plastic thing-a-me’s of duck sauce that Loo-Ming’s Chinese throws in with take-out orders, a ready supply of which Ellie keeps in her bag. Ellie loves Duck sauce. With the muffin, she’ll have her second cup of coffee. Sylvie will have just coffee and nothing else. Not these days. She appears to have lost her appetite.
Ellie sits, for the moment quiet, sipping the excellent coffee and readying herself to report the morning’s findings and her thoughts about them. But she admits to herself that she’s worried about Sylvie. She’s known Sylive since they were in the same grade school. Ages now. But they’d became closer this past year when each was the chief support of a terminally ill loved-one. It had ended strangely though, with Ellie’s mother dying of emphysema at almost the same time Sylvie’s husband died of bone cancer. The concern Ellie has for Sylvie feels almost tangible. Six months since the funerals and Sylvie is staying too quiet, even with Ellie. Not a good sign and Ellie is good at reading signs. She cannot tell it’s just David’s death that has muted her friend but senses that it’s something more. Something Sylvie isn’t telling. Ellie understands that. Usually, you don’t tell what bothers you most. She understands too that Sylvie needs the safety of things and people that offer homely familiarity without demands. Ellie can do that. She’s very good it. She’s very good at comforting. She’s very good at loving. Odd, but good.
Ellie’s marriage to Stewie is testament to that. It has lasted twenty-six years and the love between them is a necessary constant for each of them. Her husband was named Stuart by his parents and is called so by all but close colleagues and friends, who, by invitation, call him Stu. Stewie he accepts only from Ellie. It is her name for him. She has called him Stewie as long as anyone can remember. Friends figure it to have a special meaning between them because Stu seems fine with it. Otherwise why would any man permit - I mean - Stewie? Stu and Ellie know this, but never address the assumption. It’s complex. And private. Stewie is just what Ellie branded him. Oh, she did. Just as surely as if she’d heated the branding iron over red-hot coals until it sizzled as it burned its way into his flesh. Ellie’d known on their second date she wanted to marry him. She didn’t particularly like the name Stuart but, more, she decided that if it got serious she could live with Stewie. And if he didn’t balk or refuse, it would brand him as hers. At the end of their third date, their first kiss turned into a long kiss, which then turned into longer kisses, leading to a kissing session that left them both breathless and knowing they were going to marry each other. She put her lips to his ear then and breathed out the name, Stewie. Said, “Oh Stewie...Stewie.” Very softly. She felt him squirm, but pulled him back for more long kisses and his failure to make it an issue of it then and there, when they were so newly lost in each other, lost him all right of refusal.
Now, it isn’t that Ellie’s a calculating woman. Well, she is. But put it this way. If Ellie’d chosen a life of crime, it would be petty larceny. The matter of Stuart as a respectable masculine name become Stewie is typical Ellie-larceny. What Ellie can do that most of us can’t is to remain impervious to any reaction on the part of others. Also she can look a flat denial of something she wants or wishes right in the face and ignore it. Makes her hell on wheels with car dealers, plumbers, electricians, bankers, real estate agents and the like. Even the minister of Park Congregational Church in all matters of church affairs.
Between Stuart and Ellie, a silent but solemn bargain was reached early on. Stuart accepts that his heart loves Ellie even as his soul has frequent cause to wince. But Ellie is not to abuse this privilege, and Stuart will not point it out unless she does. He’s swallowed the conversion of his given name to Stewie and for that she owes him big time. The truth is that he adores the majority of Ellie, which makes bearable the uncomfortable bits and bobs. When that balance becomes threatened, when she oversteps, she will know it because his eyes ice over. Only if it is a matter of something deeply personal. As on the occasion of Stewie and Ellie’s first dinner at his mother’s home and Ellie told his mother, Ruth, that her biscuits were leaden. It had taken many more of Ruth’s dinners (and Ruth, it must be said was a rotten cook) where Ellie sat mum, not speaking her mind, plus many special Sunday antiquing trips where Ellie murmured pleasantries and toted packages, before the weather warmed sufficiently to melt the ice completely from Stewie’s eyes. Ellie is sure now to step gingerly around Ruth. Perhaps not so oddly, Ruth and Ellie understand each other. Ellie recognizes that in some ways Stewie has married his mother. Witness the penance Ellie had to pay for the leaden biscuits remark. A bit of a petty larcenist herself, Ruth.
The ice that freezes in Stuart’s eyes was much worse when he discovered that Ellie tried to have ‘Mathilda’ entered on their youngest child’s birth certificate even though she knew his heart was set on ‘Sally,’ the name of his little sister who died in her first year from a case of measles he caught and brought home from play-school. Her death introduced sorrow to the little boy that he was. The idea of being father to a little girl he could name in memory of his sister, and love and keep safe from all harm for all of her life was a magnificence to him. It was only the presence of that infant daughter, that tiny newborn snufflingly sweet-smelling fresh to the world little girl, that managed to save Ellie. The ice melted because Ellie was mother to this miracle and she was the woman he loved and his first moment of holding the new-born Sally was too precious to blight by anger. But Ellie saw the ice, was even burned by it, and Stuart knew she had. Their bargain of abuse not lest ye be cast out forever was sealed in this, Ellie’s last gaff with regard to Stuart. His passion focused first last and always on his family and was sacrosanct. Do not cross these lines again had been writ large in Stuart’s eyes as he gazed from his baby daughter to Ellie and back again. Sally, beautiful rose of his heart. Ellie nodded she understood and agreed. Family was out of bounds. Stuart nodded back that he was taking her nod as a bond she would never break. And she never has.
It is all part of what keeps them so securely tied to each other. She can mess with, poke a finger into, go for the gold when and as she wishes or wills, but she’s to leave family alone. And she does. In return for his trust and forgiveness, she had not complained that his habit of rubbing his chin on her shoulder as he passes behind her or his terrible farts after he’s eaten sardines or his compulsive need for the check books to balance to the penny, tedious to Ellie who is so good at settling accounts of another kind.
Then there are the two daughters, Sally and Mathilda. When they reached adolescence suddenly the name Stewie was a blight on their lives. Nagging, whining, even weeping at how embarrassing to have a mother who called their father Stewie. Why, they would wail, didn’t he make her stop? What was wrong with him? What was wrong with her? It only stopped when Stewie’s eyes iced over as he gave them the choice of living with it or with Ruth, their grandmother. Now grown up, they find Stewie is the name of their mother’s first and only love and as such deemed to be good.
Fire and ice, he had whispered to her once, isn’t it funny, we’re fire and ice and we do just swell. Theirs is a good love.
But now she needs to tend to Sylvie. She’s ready, armed with today’s engagement and wedding announcements buttressed by her predictions as to who would stay married and who wouldn’t. Ellie determined long ago that there are Four Watershed Moments that test a marriage. If the day after your wedding you’re still in the race it means you survived your engagement, your wedding day and, not least, wedding night and will probably make it to the first Watershed Moment, which comes at the three year mark. By which time you realize that you have made your bed and find you can lie in it despite short-sheeting and/or bed-hogging, AKA, the little lies, the bad habits and all the things forgotten that should’ve been remembered and all the things remembered that should’ve been forgotten. Above all, you’ve kept or learned an ability to forgive, mostly yourself. If these things aren’t true, then you’re ready to bolt and you should. The second Watershed Moment comes with the second child - or the first if you’ve waited. Children change the game. It’s not just you and your spouse, it’s you with them between you and your spouse. If things are going to go bad, they start then. Know it and work at it or lose the home your kid(s) should share with two adults who can take turns punting at parenting. The next Watershed Moment is when you turn forty. Turning forty means you’re looking fifty square in the eye. Your life as you know it is getting to the half-way mark. While you can fudge your gray hairs for the world’s view of you, you can’t for yourself. Any more than you can fudge the true gravity of your situation whatever it may be. If you are able to look in the mirror and smile in the face of those facts, you’re most likely going to make it to the fourth and final Watershed Moment. This comes when the kids leave home or when you hit fifty, whichever is true for your life. And if they happen at the same time, Lord have mercy. At age fifty, you’re waist-deep in denial if you haven’t realized that your personal Shangri-La is not right around the next corner because all that lies around that corner is more corners. Therefore, if hope is still hanging out in your heart and love is still looking to see your partner, you’re good for the long and final haul. Probably.
Anyway, as Ellie took the last sip of her now cold coffee and signaled Ruby for a re-fill and her muffin, she nudged Sylvie gently to see if she wanted coffee as well. Which she did. Which was also a signal for them to turn to face each other for the first time since their arrival. This was when they would begin to talk. Or, lately, for Ellie to talk. Ellie took a second to sigh first. Then she smiled warmly at Sylvie and began. “Look, look over there, Sylvie. There’s Pastor Gray. He needs someone to take care of him, he really does.