Benton had already learned that Margaret was capable of making grand declarations but finding reasons not to put things into operation afterwards. Atop the Eiffel Tower she had agreed to make their love public, but once on the familiar ground of Chicago she had backtracked. He had bullied her (really that was the only way of describing it) into getting engaged, but he had no illusions that she would be in any hurry to put the plan into action.
He was exploring wild new territory: how to ride out the whims and complications of his beloved. What would she agree to each day or each night and what would she back off from? It was always a surprise.
Well, perhaps things are beginning to look up, Benton thought as he got into the front seat of Margaret’s white leased Lexus in the Consulate parking lot. She’s letting me climb right into her car and drive home with her, right in full view of the world. That bodes well, he mused, until he remembered that Turnbull had left work early to go to the dentist that afternoon. Was she openly letting him drive with her because that very afternoon she had committed to an eventual marriage or because there simply wasn’t anybody in front of whom she needed to be embarrassed?
Asking her would probably yield an answer that would either confuse or anger him. Best to let well enough alone. He’d accomplished a lot that day, having won her hand, or at least a verbal agreement to that effect. Why did she make things so complicated? She loved him. He didn’t doubt that. And she wasn’t a criminal on the run like Victoria; he couldn’t understand why she shouldn’t make a commitment.
Let it be, Benton, he told himself, don’t push her faster than she’s willing to go. Back off a little. Relax.
In obedience to his own thought, Benton leaned back against the soft dove-grey upholstery and closed his eyes with a sigh.
The sound cause Margaret to turn to him and ask, “Is something wrong?”
“No, I’m fine,” he answered, hoping that he sounded convincing.
“I doubt that. You haven’t even done up your seatbelt. Ergo, you’re pre-occupied.”
He hastened to snap the seatbelt into place before saying, carefully. “I was just distracted.”
“About?” she insisted.
“I was thinking about . . .” He paused, unwilling to be more specific, “. . . us.”
She reached across the front seat and took hold of his hand. “Benton, I know you’re impatient. You have this old-fashioned idea about family life. It’s great – I guess. But I need to wrap my head around this. Bear with me.” She gave his hand a squeeze.
She’s being honest with me at least, Benton thought. That’s something.
“Would you be upset if I wanted to be alone tonight?” she went on.
Benton jerked upright out of his relaxed state. Right on the same day they had plighted their troth, she wanted to be away from him? His resolve to be patient was already being tested. “Why did you let me get into the car with you if you wanted to be alone?”
“Why should you walk if I can give you a lift?”
He stared at her. Was she serious? It seemed so from her face.
“I don’t want you to be upset about it. If you really want to, you can come over, I guess.”
Benton resisted the impulse to snark back. He wanted to say “Don’t do me any favours” or something else spiteful, but he held his tongue. What was one night more or less out of the lifetime he had planned for them? He’d make it through the night with the aid of a cold shower, a long walk and another shower. It wouldn’t be the first night he’d resorted to that. He just hoped there wouldn’t be many more.
“I’ll be fine. Just let me off here, I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
Back in her own apartment, Margaret tried not to think about the conversation they had just had. While she unbuckled her belt and slid it off her waist, she wondered what to make for dinner. She remembered she still had leftover meat loaf she had made for Benton four nights ago. While shucking her dress, she thought about whether there was lettuce left in her fridge to make a salad and then pictured Benton holding the head of lettuce in front of himself in imitation of Hamlet holding up Yorrick’s skull. One of his very few playful moments.
No, no, think about something else, she told herself as she slithered out of her pantyhose. Is there something on TV I can watch tonight? She unhooked her bra and then removed it and tossed it aside. She stood in her panties and paused to cogitate over what kind of sleepwear to put on for her night home alone.
Benton liked her to wear her white nightshift, the one that made her look like a Victorian lady, all frail and waiting to be rescued. No, not tonight. The flannel jammies, she decided, and went to her dresser drawer to fetch them. She picked up the bottoms first and was about to step into them when she realized she still had her underpants on.
She paused, standing there in front of her dresser drawer. A thought hit her suddenly.
I’m afraid to be exposed. I won’t get completely undressed until I’ve decided what to put on after. I’ll keep my underwear on until the very last instant. What the hell kind of way is that to be? I’m in my own home, but I’m covering up as long as I can.
She clutched the pajama bottoms to her breast and dropped her chin into the soft fabric. What am I afraid of? Why all this covering up?
Still holding the pajamas she backed towards her bed and sat down heavily on it. Always hiding. Margaret, you’re always hiding and covering up. You push away Benton when he wants to be close because . . .
She didn’t really know why.
Don’t let anybody see the real me. Don’t expose myself. Not even to the man I love. I don’t know what I’m afraid of. But there’s something. I keep pushing him away. There’s something I don’t want him to see, but what? What?
A tear came to her eye. Absently, she dabbed at it with the pajama bottoms.
I had that one session with the psychiatrist, Dr. Tung, and didn’t even stay the whole hour. Even in that perfectly safe environment, I couldn’t open up. What’s the matter with me? Why do I keep closing myself off, pushing everybody away?”*
Her own voice sounded in the back of her mind in answer. “Never mind why. The question you better think about is how much longer you can keep doing it before you scare Benton off.”
It was a sobering thought. Benton had already been more tolerant of her push/pull games than any other man in her life had been, but how much longer could she take advantage of his good nature before he rebelled? One of these days, he may snap and break away and it would be her own fault.
With a nod of resolution, she dropped the pajamas she had been holding onto her bed, rose and stepped out of her panties, leaving them on the floor like a little white puddle around her feet. I’m not going to play games with him anymore, she announced to the universe in general. Whatever hang-ups I may have, I’m not going to let them spoil my chance for happiness with Benton. He’s too good to lose.
And just to prove her new determination she strode to her kitchen, warmed up her leftovers and ate them while still naked, just to prove to herself that she was through with hiding.
“And so we wanted to get married on Canadian soil,” the cute young thing explained to Benton, while her equally young and equally cute fiancé stood beside and smiled agreement.
“We have the paperwork here to obtain a license, ma’am,” Benton told her, “but you will still need a clergyperson or some0one else authorized person to perform the ceremony and bring at least two witnesses with you.”
“Don’t you have someone here?”
“We have staff who could be witnesses, I suppose, but you’ll still need to bring someone to officiate at the marriage. We don’t provide that service. We do have a list of Justices of Peace that you could call. We also have a directory of local churches where you might find a clergyperson,” Benton told them.
The young man said, “Honey, we can ask that nice minister we talked you last week, remember?”
“Okay, honey,” the young woman simpered. Then to Benton she said, “Can we fill out the forms now and come back later with a minister or something?”
Benton refrained from pointing out that she really meant to say “a minister or someone” since her own phrasing had suggested an inanimate object might serve in lieu of a man or woman of the cloth. Instead he simply assured them that they could indeed do that, and led them to his office.
The two cute young people’s minds were indeed not on grammar. They were focused on getting as far inside the Consulate as possible to plant the plastic explosive the young woman had hidden in her purse. The two exchanged a look while Benton was turned towards the filing cabinet to get out the necessary papers. The young man stood between her and Benton while she quickly opened her purse, slipped out the explosive and stuck it under Benton’s desk.
Margaret came out of her office just as Benton was letting the young couple out. He closed the big mahogany door after them and stood there for a moment, smiling.
Such a funny little smile he has, she thought. Aloud she said, “Something nice, Constable? Share it.”
“I wish I could.”
“What do you mean?”
“They want to get married here at the Consulate. As quickly as they can. I’ve had them fill out what they need for the license and told them to come back with a preacher. We’ll have to be the witnesses, I imagine,” he said with a shrug. Then he turned to head back to his office.
“Constable, wait a minute.”
“Sir.” Fraser stopped, turned around and came automatically to attention before her.
Margaret felt the same way as she had last night, when she had stood resolutely in her underwear and made her commitment not to hide from life anymore.
“How quickly could we get a Justice of the Peace over here, Benton?”
Benton raised his eyebrows at the change in nomenclature. Using his first name meant this question was not in the course of consular business. Even so, he was cautious and formal in his response. “That would depend on the price we’re willing to pay. If we offer sufficient compensation, I can get someone over here within the hour, sir.”
“Hm. We haven’t talked much about the kind of wedding we want.”
Benton cleared his throat. “Actually, we haven’t talked at all about the kind of wedding we want.”
Margaret pressed her lips together. “Do you feel strongly about religion? I know your grandparents did missionary work. Would you insist on having a wedding in any particular church?”
Benton’s forehead crinkled. “Why are we talking about this now?”
“Because, if you’d rather have a priest or a minister, we could get one of those.”
“What I’d rather do is to understand what you’re getting at, Margaret.”
She squared her shoulders and stood up as straight as she could. “Here’s what I’m getting at. How would you like to make ourselves out a marriage license and get married right here and now. We’re authorized to do that kind of paperwork and I’ll spring for whatever it takes to get somebody qualified over here in a hurry to preside. What do you think?”
He approached her cautiously. Peering puzzled into her face he asked, “Who are you and what have you done with Meg Thatcher?”
“I’ve replaced her,” she answered back promptly. “And I intend to marry you right under her nose. Are you game?”
Benton continued to regard her curiously. Finally he said, “In all fairness, I should see if I can catch up with that young couple who were in here before. They’d probably want to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“Always the do-gooder,” but there was a smile behind her sigh.
“I’m not the one who has changed.” With that he dashed to the Consulate door, opened it and looked out to see if he could find the youngsters who had been there before, but they were not visible on the street.
“I suppose they must have come and gone by car. Well, at least I tried,” he said, shutting the door and then turning his attention back to Margaret. “You’re serious about this?”
“Absolutely. Let’s do it.”
“Then I don’t care who officiates as long as he or she is duly authorized. I’ll call Justice Pear. She can be counted on to do anything at short notice for sufficient price, a failing I of which I would normally disapprove, but under the circumstances I won’t scruple to use it my advantage.” With that he dashed off.
“Well, I’m in for it now,” Margaret said to herself.
In less than an hour Benton and Margaret stood in the main foyer of the Consulate before Madame Justice Pear. Turnbull and Ovitz were pressed into service as witnesses but first sworn to secrecy about the nature of the upcoming ceremony. Margaret’s new sense of abandon went only as far as the impulsive nuptials. She decided she’d rather break the news of their marriage in a more controlled manner.
They needed to improvise something for a ring. Turnbull came up with the idea of removing all the keys from a small key ring on which he kept the keys to his filing cabinets. It would serve for the ceremony but he was adamant about needing it back afterwards.
Madame Justice Pear repeated the marriage formula in a most business-like tone of voice and the two Mounties, without really thinking about it, picked up on her lead and mouthed their vows in a like manner.
Just an instant after they were duly pronounced husband and wife, the bomb in Benton’s office exploded.
She was standing beside Benton and he, just as she, was craning his head in various directions and trying to get his bearings. A moment ago they had been in the Consulate, hearing Justice Pear pronounce them husband and wife. There had followed a loud bang and a sudden pain that seemed to burst Margaret’s whole body apart. She was blind, deaf and weightless – floating in some universe made only of pain. As suddenly as it had come, the pain stopped and Margaret found herself and Benton standing upright and totally unharmed in a place she couldn’t identify. Every time she looked in a direction, the scene she saw changed: a grassy riverbank wavered and became a wide-open prairie; trees turned into lamp posts and then back into trees before her eyes. She looked up to the sky to see it was pink and then green and then blue.
“Do you know where we are?” Margaret asked her new husband.
“No, do you? Sorry, that was an unnecessary question. You wouldn’t have asked me if you already knew.”
Even in her confusion Margaret couldn’t avoid a brief flash of annoyance at this statement of Benton’s. “That’s very civil of you, but hardly helpful.”
“I’m afraid I’m at a loss,” Benton admitted. “At first I thought we were in a submarine, but then we were in a movie theatre and after that I could have sworn we were floating in outer space.”
“What do you see right now?” Margaret asked, trying to force her environment into focus. She fixed her eyes on a tall cactus plant, hoping that her concentration would make it stay solid and identifiable, while tumbleweed rolled past across what she was now experiencing as a desert.
“We’re under water,” Benton said in amazement. “How are we breathing?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d swear we were in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and in the middle of Infinite Improbability Drive.” Margaret’s attempts to make her surroundings coalesce through the sheer force of her will were less than effective. The desert vegetation blurred and wobbled. The passing tumbleweed turned into large fish and Margaret found herself under water too.
This was a little bit promising in that she and Benton were now in the same place, even if it were a place it was impossible for them to be.
“What’s happening?” Margaret whispered even though she shouldn’t have been able to speak under the water.
Benton this time was wise enough to realize the question was rhetorical.
They were somehow standing upright on the ocean floor watching fish swim by but able to move and breathe as though on land. Margaret looked first at Benton and then down at herself and found that at least they looked normal – if being perfectly dry while under the sea could be considered in any way normal.
With a lack of other better options, Benton reached for his new wife’s hand and the two of them stood there watching marine life go by and waited for something to happen.
Then they heard a voice coming from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Margaret knew it only as a man’s voice – one she did not recognize. Benton knew he was hearing his father’s voice.
“Damn. I can’t seem to get the hang of this.”
A woman’s voice was heard next, unknown to Margaret but Benton knew the voice of his grandmother on his father’s side, the one who had raised him. “Concentrate, Robert. You’ve got them under water. That will never do.”
Reality changed for Margaret again and, thankfully, remained stable. She found herself on a mountain meadow vaguely reminiscent of the opening credits of “The Sound of Music”. To one side, in the distance, were scenic mountain peaks. On another side she could look down over a quaint village scene. All the geography was the correct colour – the meadow was green, the sky blue, the clouds white. It was comfortably warm with a gentle breeze blowing.
“Well, that’s better. At least now they are on dry land,” said Benton’s grandmother.
“Who are these people?” Margaret wondered aloud.
This time Benton was able to answer her. “My father and my father’s mother – my grandmother.”
“The one that raised you?”
“With my grandfather, yes. But I haven’t heard him yet.”
A third voice out of nowhere and everywhere was heard to say, “That’s because your grandmother never let’s me get a word in edgewise.”
“That’s just silly, George,” the invisible grandmother admonished.
“Grandmother? Are we dead?” Benton ventured.
“No, dear. Just unconscious.”
“Where are you?” Benton asked, looking up into the sky.
Now Robert Fraser’s voice came from a recognizable direction towards the mountains. “We’re over here, son.”
Benton started walking, pulling Margaret along by the hand he was still holding. She had no choice but to follow.
Robert Fraser came out from behind a slight rise in the terrain and into their view.
“Dad! Where’s Grandmother? Where’s Grandfather? Is Mum here too?”
Robert strode up to them and, to Margaret’s amazement, grabbed her in his arms. He felt quite solid even though Margaret knew he must be a ghost. On the other hand, she herself was somewhere impossible so perhaps she was also a ghost? No, Benton’s grandmother had said they were merely unconscious. It was all too confusing so she just gave in the sensation of being hugged by the older Mountie and the itchy feeling of his dress reds against her skin.
“The rest of the family’s down there,” Robert waved an arm in the direction of the little village. “In that little inn with the red slate roof.”
“All those buildings have red slate roofs, Dad,” Benton pointed out.
Robert paused and actually looked in the direction he had before just been pointing in vaguely. “Oh, that’s true. Not much imagination in the architecture, eh? Well, that can be remedied.”
The newlyweds looked down at village waiting for all the roofs but one to change to different colours. It only seemed the logical thing to happen next. Instead, all the buildings faded and dissolved until only one was left standing, nestled in the surrounding hills.
“That may have been a bit drastic. Oh well. Follow me, children.” With a sigh, Robert started walking down the hill towards the inn with Margaret and Benton trailing after, still hand in hand.
After a pleasant walk down the hill they came upon the inn. Robert pushed open a solid wooden door and gestured for the newlyweds to step inside. Margaret crossed the threshold expecting to see a rustic tavern interior. Instead she saw a huge, elegant ballroom. It was all white and gold rococo. A dozen crystal chandeliers hung from the ceilings, classical statutes lined the walls and floor was highly polished marble. Margaret gasped at the opulence and at the unexpected size of the interior of the small building.
“I’m sorry, I love surprising people like this,” Robert snickered, “That’s one of the fun things about the after-world – the sizes of things don’t have to match. Teeny building, huge interior, it always shocks the living.”
“Dad,” Benton admonished the older Mountie. “Since when did you get so playful.”
“Since I died, son. In the after-world you don’t have to be serious. Nobody cares.”
Margaret and Benton wandered about, feeling dwarfed and dowdy in the huge and elegant ballroom. Margaret, as she moved, felt strangely encumbered and weighted down but she didn’t think that was much weirder than the other things that were going on. It was only when Benton cried out, “Meg! Your clothes!” that she thought to look down at her own body.
She was no longer wearing the tweed suit she had put on in the morning. She had felt heavy because she was wearing a wedding gown with a monstrous train that trailed a good fifteen feet behind her along the floor. The bodice of the dress was of heavy brocade, embroidered with tiny pearls. The skirt was of white satin and the lace of the sleeves so delicate that the decorated rather than covered her arms.
A bouquet of two dozen white roses materialized in her hands so suddenly that she almost dropped them.
Then her vision blurred and she realized it was because she was looking through a gauzy veil.
She looked at Benton to see if he, too, had changed his appearance. He was out of his red serge, indeed, and in the outfit of a Renaissance courtier. His tights, doublet and cape were all of different shades of blue and a sword in a jeweled scabbard hung at his hip. It was an outfit she had fantasized him in so often. She stared.
He was staring back at her. “Oh, Margaret. I’ve seen you dressed like this a dozen times in my dreams!”
As they stood there admiring each other they heard a scattering of applause. Now there were other people in the room besides themselves and Robert Fraser. Benton recognized both sets of grandparents. Margaret saw her father, dead for twelve years, and the three grandparents that she had lost. Her mother and grandpa, she noted, were not there. Forcing herself to think logically she realized it was because her mother and grandpa were still alive.
“I guess we’re all here,” Margaret’s father’s mother said. “We can get started.”
The others made agreeing noises, smiled and nodded – all except Robert who seemed suddenly upset.
“Mother, where’s Caroline?”
His mother’s mood sobered and she approached him and looked into his eyes. “I’m sorry, Robert. I know this is difficult. There are things you have to do before you and Caroline will be together again.”
“But, mother. That’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry, dear. Now, please try to be happy for the sake of Benton and his bride. You’ll see Caroline when the time is right.”
Robert wiped a tear. “Promise?”
“Promise,” his mother answered, in a voice that was tender for the first time since Margaret had begun to hear her.
Robert turned to face his own son. “I’m sorry, Benton. I thought your mother would be here too.”
Benton’s eyes had also started to tear up. His tiny grandmother came to him and stood on tiptoe so that she could kiss the cheek of her six-foot grandson. “You’re father’s not allowed to see her, Benton, but your mother IS watching. And she’s very happy for you.”
Benton burst into tears and reached down to hug the woman who had raised him. Everyone fell silent waiting for them to finish crying together.
Finally Margaret’s father spoke up. “Folks, I think we should get this show on the road. The kids are going to be regaining consciousness soon.”
Margaret herself started to tear upon hearing her father’s familiar expression. He was always saying people should “get this show on the road” when he was impatient. It really is Pop, she marvelled. He’s really here. She sniffed away her tears. None of that, now, she told herself.
Then out from behind the gathered relatives came Madame Justice Pear, wearing heavy ecclesiastical robes.
“What is she doing here? She’s not a relative.” Benton’s paternal grandfather spoke up, getting an opportunity to get a word in.
“We need someone to perform the ceremony,” Benton’s maternal grandfather, whom Benton barely remembered, supplied this explanation.
“Well, I like that!” declared Fraser’s other grandfather, in an annoyed tone that made it quite clear that he did not “like that” at all. “I used to be a minister of the cloth.”
Margaret’s father answered him. “The key words, Reverend Fraser, are ‘used to be’. We need a live person to perform the service or it’s not legal.”
Robert Fraser, man of the law, pointed out that without live witnesses the proceedings weren’t going to be legal in any case.
“Robert,” his mother chided him, “didn’t you think I would think of that. Really, now.” She beckoned towards the far end of the hall. Ovitz and Turnbull approached, fearfully.
At seeing more of her staff Margaret felt she should be responsible for them and said, “It’s all right, Constable, Ovitz. These are relatives of Fraser’s and mine. You’re perfectly safe. Just come over and stand beside Constable Fraser and me.”
The secretary and the Mountie were too confused to argue the matter. They simply complied.
Benton’s paternal grandfather protested that the young couple were already married in the land of the living, so why did they have to go through all this rigamarole in the first place?
“Because the kids didn’t get a proper wedding. My little kitty is entitled to a proper wedding with a proper gown.”
“Little kitty?” Benton asked Margaret.
“He calls me that. Called me that. I don’t know.”
Can we get on with this?” Margaret’s father demanded. “They’re going to be waking up any minute now.” He grabbed his daughter’s arm and put her beside Benton. “Stand up straight, young man. You’re marrying my daughter.”
Benton complied and was too polite to point out that he had already married her once that day.
“You! Snap to it!” Margaret’s father barked at Justice Pear.
In a state of her amazement and too stunned to resist, Justice Pear began to intone the marriage ceremony by rote.
“Put some oomph into it this time, woman!” Fraser’s paternal grandfather put in. “In my day when we performed weddings we did it with spirit.”
Justice Pear did her best under the circumstances and the second exchange of vows was barely completed before Margaret began to feel dizzy and the scene all around her shimmered and was replaced by white blurs in every direction.
“She’s coming around,” Margaret heard a voice say. The white blurs solidified into people in white uniforms wearing name-tags. The lights were bright all around her.
“You’re going to be okay,” said one of the white-clad people. A woman.
“Benton? My people?”
“They’re all fine. You were lucky all of you were far away from the explosion. Even so, it was a close call.”
“And Justice Pear?”
“She’s fine too. We’ll be keeping all of you overnight for observation but I don’t think any of you are seriously hurt.”
“Thank God,” Margaret sighed.
“You just rest now,” the white-clad woman told her.
“No, I want to see Benton!”
The woman smiled. “He’s been saying the same thing about wanting to see you. We’ve been trying to keep him quiet and resting, but he’s a determined man. I’ll let him in now.”
The woman moved away from Margaret and Margaret focused a little further away from herself and was able to see that the doctor was going towards a door. The door opened and Benton came in. He was in a hospital gown. So was Margaret herself, but she paid no attention to her own condition. Her whole being was focused on her new husband walking unsteadily towards her.
He came up beside her bed and took her hand. Both their hands were shaky. Benton’s voice was also shaky as he said, “I had the strangest dream. You were wearing this incredible gown.”
“I know,” Margaret assured him. “And you were wearing Renaissance garb. And my father was there, and your father, and . . .”
Benton stared at her in amazement. “How is it possible? How could we share the same dream?”
“Because it wasn’t just a dream,” she told him. “It was a dream come true.”
* See “Meggy and Benny Get Their Heads Shrunk” for the story of Margaret’s visit with Dr. Tung.