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The McGregors

To John the change was shattering; the house echoed hollow to his footsteps. He stayed at the farm, determined to overcome the loneliness, to train himself to do the things his mother had made look so easy, to keep the house tidy and eat with some degree of dignity. He worked late at any task he could find so that there was little time left for a lonely evening in the house, and he began to long for someone to fill the gap in his life. But for John there seemed to be no one. He had been backward with girls, and when hints had become plain enough to register even through his diffidence, he had shied away, unable to make the effort to conquer his self-consciousness, to risk a few rebuffs in order to taste the joys of female companionship. The weeks after his parents' departure slipped by, the days filled with the farm work. On a long-delayed trip to the village he entered the bank. The teller's face registered only vaguely as he endorsed his cheque.

"Hello, Johnny" - the words were barely loud enough to hear. He looked up to see first the red hair, then the creamy skin with still a freckle or two on the nose.

"Well, of all things! Katie Ryan, how long have you worked here?"

"Three months, John, but you would never look at me. Now I'm on cash and you can't help but see me."

Fortunately John saw only the impish schoolgirl; otherwise he would have quailed before the pretty young girl standing opposite him. He began to tease her as he had always done.

"What sort of a bank is this that trusts its money to the female bandit I remember - or have you reformed, Katie?"

The grin was familiar. "Butter wouldn't melt in my mouth now, John. How is it we see you so seldom? Why don't you come to the Friday-night dances? You were such a good dancer. Remember how you taught me the square dances; and the schottische?"

"Oh, no one would dance with an old farmer like me. I would be so stiff that I would fall over my feet now."

"Well, I would dance with you for one, but you had better run along now, old Four-Eyes is watching. See you at the dance, farmer."

As he went about the rest of the morning's business John could not get Katie's image out of his mind. The voice, subtly altered, the smooth, confident movements, the fastidious clothes, these belonged to a stranger. But the open, comradely look, the look that had shared a lot of teasing jokes, these belonged to the headstrong, unruly schoolgirl whom he had, and here he shuddered, on several occasions come close to spanking.

The next Friday night found John dressed in his only suit, the one he had worn before the war, examining himself in the full length mirror in the spare bedroom. He saw a man older than he had expected and, to his mind, rather nondescript - a man who would be lucky to achieve even a moderate success in life. That his dark good looks would appeal to anyone was the last thing he would have thought; that women might look at his gaunt cheeks and eyes, still haunted by the brief war experience, and wish to comfort him, he had no idea. That they might wish to be maternal, pat him on the head, and cut up his meat, would never have occurred to him.

The dance was a failure - or so it seemed to John. He took Katie up to dance, but his feet were clumsy, unused to the tight, fine shoes, and he lost step and stumbled, apologizing,, making a fool of himself. Katie said nothing. In the old days she would have called him a stumblebum and they would have laughed. Later he saw her dancing with Willie McIntosh, a boy her own age. They were close together, cheek to cheek, and he grew angry with himself. What a fool he was to think of Katie - a little older and he could have been her father. But he could not forget her, and an image of the slim figure, the green eyes, kept returning; and the feel of Katie's back under his hand, pliant and yielding, as if she had wanted his hand there. And she had looked at him in an odd way. Maybe, just maybe, he should not give up too soon.

Not long after the evening of the dance a nervous but determined John McGregor tied the driver to the hitching post in the Ryan yard and walked with firm steps toward the porch. Assorted sizes of Ryans disappeared through the kitchen door and he could hear them announcing the arrival of Johnny McGregor in tones loud and clear. Paddy Ryan came through the doorway, pipe in hand, and John's steps lost their firmness. His voice was a note too high as he greeted Paddy.

"Good evening, Mr. Ryan."

"And a very good evening to you, Johnny, and such a fine gentleman you are in the black suit. You'll be taking up the preaching now no doubt."

"I'm not much for talking, Mr. Ryan; the sermon would have to be short."

"All the better for that, Johnny boy. A man doesn't need to be bellowed at and told about the hell-fire coming. I'm not for it. I see you have a new driver, Johnny, very nice indeed, and the buggy painted fresh too. It's very prosperous you're looking."

"Yes, Mr. Ryan, and I thought about Katie and how she used to like a fast horse and I thought maybe she might come for a drive." John got this out very fast and felt that he was blushing, making a fool of himself again.

"That was kind of you indeed, John. In my younger days I felt the same, and many a lass I made happy that way, for I was a fine-set-up man in those days, though a bit plump now."

Paddy was indeed plump, and he filled the armchair snugly as he sat down. He seemed in no hurry to inform Katie of her good fortune and flourished his pipe in preparation for further conversation. This John fellow seemed to be an extra-good listener, and there weren't many, these days, who listened to Paddy with such respect.

"Pa, what do you mean keeping John standing out here and you so easy in your big chair. Come in, John, we're glad to see you."

Katie stood in the doorway, younger Ryans peering from behind her. Her eyes were dancing. "It's extra smart you look, John, and a new driver no less. You'll be on your way to call on Hattie Ferguson perhaps." Hattie Ferguson was a well-known local spinster, often pursuing but seldom pursued.

"I thought you might come yourself. Katie, being such a good judge of horses. You used to say my teams were all too slow."

"I might at that, John, just to see what the horse is like, you understand. Sit down a minute while I change my dress."

Paddy led the way to the front room and John sat cautiously on the edge of the settee, a squarish, forbidding piece of furniture, resplendent in green and black plush. As John sat twirling his new felt hat around the fingers of one hand, he tried to pay attention to Paddy's flow of eloquence. Mrs. Ryan entered and sat nervously on the sofa so that she could hide the place where the springs showed through. John was grateful for Paddy's conversation as Katie's minute dragged on and on. It was becoming harder and harder to ignore the furtive peeks through the door of the kitchen; he could hear smothered comments and partly suppressed giggles, and it was only too plain who the subject of all this mirth was.

Katie came leisurely down the stairs. To any eye she was a lovely sight, but to John she seemed exquisite, as far away from the snub-nosed schoolgirl as a butterfly from its cocoon. First he saw the buttoned shoes, then his eyes rose reverently from the shapely leg in its buttoned perfection to the slight flare of the pale green dress which hugged a slim waist and rose to cover the shoulders with puffed sleeves and to button tightly at the neck. She wore a white picture hat cocked at a careless angle which had taken a full ten-minutes consultation with a mirror. A green velvet ribbon circled the hat to end in two small tails at the back, and bright yellow daisies were spotted at the front. As a final touch she carried a light-coloured duster to wear in the buggy. John instantly forgave her for the discomfort her delay had caused him.

He helped the vision, which seemed substantial enough when he grasped it by the arm, into the buggy. They left, with the admiration and approval of the entire Ryan family. "If I see things right," Paddy removed his pipe to assert, "that man is a goner."

With Katie conversation was never difficult, and John settled back to listen to her chatter.

"What became of the little hackney mare, John, the one that was so stylish?"

"Oh, she was too stylish for me, I traded her for Sid here and got a little to boot. That mare was so stuck on herself it was all up and down, we never seemed to get anywhere. Old Sid, now, he has the speed." He flipped the lines and gave Sid his head for a minute and they flew along, the horse seeming to squat lower as he moved into top speed.

Katie clutched her white hat and squealed with delight. When Sid grew tired, they all relaxed. The evening summer air was balmy, there was the smell of new-cut hay and the click-clack of a mower laying flat a field to cure over the Sabbath. They talked in the old, friendly way of the man and the schoolgirl, but now, to his surprise and, gradually, to his pleasure, John found it was different. The heedless youngster with the sharp tongue was gone. John opened up, cautiously at first. He talked of his troubles, his fears, and his hopes, and Katie was quieter than he had ever known her to be. He found, as many quiet men do when they have a sympathetic audience, that he was doing most of the talking. He flipped the reins and startled Sid out of his easy jog.

"And here I am, boring you to death with all my troubles, and we seem to be about ten miles from nowhere. Let's head for the bright lights and maybe some ice cream."

They made good time to the village, tied the horse to the hitching post in front of the variety store, and entered in search of ice cream. The ice-cream parlour, situated at the back of the variety store, was discreetly dim, lighted only by shaded bulbs and carpeted in dark magnificence. Spindly tables and shaky chairs filled the small room, and John and Katie were served their ice cream on small, flat ironstone dishes by the proprietor himself. As they were on their way out they stopped at the candy counter and John bought six coconut balls, deliciously and stickily covered with a maple-flavoured icing. With the candy safely stowed in a paper bag, they emerged, mounted the buggy, and took off behind an impatient Sid.

Across the street on a bench in front of the Town Hall sat three of the seniors of the village, Abner Scott, Orton Hands, and Jimmy McNab. Faithful occupants of the bench in any weather, they were known as the "Three Wise Men". Orton stretched a long neck to follow the buggy's passage.

"Isn't that John McGregor I see with the Ryan girl?"

"Looks like," agreed Abner.

"What's come over the man? I never seen him look at a girl before."

Ort shifted a cud of tobacco. "Must of got the whim-whams out there on the farm by himself. Old Paddy will be set up. He's a good catch for the girl."

"But old." Having introduced this angle, Abner dropped the matter.

"Yep, the man should have been safe enough. Must be thirty-five if he's a day. Only shows how foolish a man can get running around with a woman half his age."

"Good-looking girl." This from Jimmy McNab.

There was silence for a moment. Then, as he gave the ball of conversation another push, Abner lay back again. "Might be, but you can't count on looks. My old lady was a queen till she lost her teeth. Sure was a disappointment."

"Well, you ain't no hell either, Ab."

Ort rose hastily before Abner could think of an answer. "Gotta get going. See you tomorrow maybe."

Abner waited until Ort was out of hearing. "Hasta wind the clock. All he does in the day."

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