“Est-ce que mon beau-frère est venu?” Justine asks. She’s one of the oldest at the senior’s residence. They are twenty ladies, at various levels of dementia. For today’s Christmas party, they’ve had their hair and makeup done, by the matronly Russian cosmetician who’s booked for such occasions. When she’s done primping them, the aides gently herd the ladies to the sitting room to listen to the volunteer guitarists, who stumble through electric versions of holiday classics. The room of freshly-coiffed grey heads nod, waiting in anticipation. Then drift. And then return with a pleased jolt to notice the morning’s festive atmosphere, to be told again that it’s Christmas and that there will soon be visitors.
Oh yes, people are coming, they remember. Deep and blurry affection rises up as relatives arrive, colouring the residents’ cheeks when grandchildren they don’t quite recall lean over to kiss them.
Justine never married. A slight woman who favours wool cardigans and pleated skirts, she retains the air of shy compliance cultivated by the nuns of her schooldays. She still wears a wispy pageboy, and recently took to petting a stuffed toy cat, Nitouche, that she carries in the bag of her walker.
Jean-Pierre, her brother-in-law, is her last remaining family member, and doesn’t visit often. When he does, the aides on duty point subtly, knowingly. Demure Justine became much more animated in his presence, almost coquettish.
With the Christian staff on holiday for the week, the Muslim workers jump in to organize the party. “Eid Sa’id!” They wink rakishly at each other under elf hats atop hijabs, rolling out the Christmas bûche and mistletoe for their mainly French-Canadian Catholic residents.
“Why is her dry cleaning bill so high?” Jean-Pierre approaches Fatma, head of the floor, waving Justine’s account record at her. “She always wears the same thing when I visit. The same thing every day.”
“That’s absolutely not true.” Fatma doesn’t add that he only comes a few times a year, so how could he know what she wears? “She cares very much about her appearance.” She gestures over to Justine, sitting daintily in a tan-coloured suit.
“She doesn’t know what she’s wearing. She has Alzheimer’s. She doesn’t remember a thing!”
Fatma tsks, turns away. How to explain to this man that losing one’s memory doesn’t mean losing one’s sense of pride, of self. Not yet. The habits one gathers throughout a lifetime, of brushing one’s hair to a certain side, or a preferred colour. These things that together make up a personality. Or the desire to look pretty for one’s guests. And that Justine asked for her string of pearls when she was told Jean-Pierre would be visiting.
Justine and Jean-Pierre sit, shoulders touching, on the plastic-covered couch. Christmas rock now blares on the stereo, filling up the silence of the crowded room. Jean-Pierre in his loose jeans, Justine with legs crossed at the ankle like a schoolgirl. She smiles timidly and laughs when he leans in and makes a comment about the music. They’re surrounded by the other residents, their walkers and awkward family members. Jean-Pierre looks around, squeamish.
He pats Justine’s hand and she turns her head to him, their faces matching in paleness. Paper-thin translucent skin. He can see the pink rim of her eyelids behind her square glasses—the same style she’s worn since she was a teenager, when he’d met her as Agathe’s little sister. He squeezes her palm. Ma belle-soeur.
Fatma announces, at a senior-friendly decibel: “We want to thank our guests for coming today, and for bringing delicious food for our Christmas buffet! Everyone’s invited to partake!”
The aides begin to lead the ladies to the folding tables they’ve set with green plastic and red plates, poinsettias as centerpieces.
Justine takes a seat and glances around anxiously as the other ladies are maneuvered into chairs surrounding hers.
“Where is Jean-Pierre, my brother-in-law?”
Fatma sees him in the hallway, standing stiffly and gazing at the pictures of Christmas scenes the residents made in art class, cotton balls glued carefully to construction paper. Displayed on the bulletin board as though this is preschool, and not the railway station between home and death.
“He’s waiting till you finish eating, and then will rejoin you.”
Justine smiles in relief, raises her fork to pick at her salad.
Jean-Pierre takes in the room of seniors, wordlessly doddering over their Christmas lunch, while the guests hover over them. He can’t stand being here for another minute. He grabs his coat and quickly leaves, marching out into the chilly snowless afternoon.
Fatma doesn’t notice him go. She’s made bastillah, a Moroccan chicken dish, and is doling it out for the guests, who praise the fine pastry shell she decorated with cinnamon and almonds. She’s also brought her gold-embossed tea glasses, and fresh nana from home. It’s not my holiday, but this is my party too.
“Justine, would you like some tea?” She holds a smoky pink glass out to her.
“Non, merci. Ou est mon beau frère?” Justine asked, prying herself up from the table and leaning on her walker.
“I’ll go find him.”
Fatma hands the teapot to Hind and goes down the narrow hallway, peering into every room.
“Monsieur Fiquet? Jean-Pierre?” Perhaps he’s resting on the second floor, in Justine’s room?
Upstairs she finds Adel at a table with Madeleine, who’d become agitated and was led away from the party.
“No, I don’t want lunch. My husband is home waiting for me, and I need to eat with him. I don’t want to ruin my appetite, you know.”
“But just a bite, Madame Bonhomme.”
“No, he’ll be upset if we don’t eat together.” Madeleine gets up and stomps to her room.
Adel and Fatma exchange looks. Madeleine’s husband died three years earlier, a fact she often forgets.
“Adel,” Fatma switches to Arabic. “Where’s Jean-Pierre?”
“I saw him take his coat about twenty minutes ago. He left.”
Fatma’s eyes widen in dismay. She knows what Jean-Pierre would say if she called to confront him: ‘She won’t remember anyway, that I was there, or that I left.’
She feels his leaving settles something she’d suspected. He may be over ninety, but he still wears his clothes with casual finesse. Laugh lines etch his face in a way that affirmed his good looks from long ago, a knowledge he still carries. A man who was never careful with women’s emotions, she’s sure of it.
Justine sits on the plastic-draped couch again, her cardigan lank and her feet crossed. Her small face perks to attention every time someone enters the room.
“Who doesn’t know that expression?” Fatma thinks, putting a hand on her heart. I’ve known it, the hope and dread. I hate that man, she thinks, only vaguely acknowledging who she means.
“Est-ce que mon beau frère est revenu?” Justine asked Hind, who’s circling with homemade shortbread cookies, two per resident. Justine has pulled out Nitouche and perched him on her lap, strokes his ears lightly.
“Not yet. I’m sure he’ll come soon.”
Fatma remains in the kitchen, tsking, hoping Justine will soon forget he’d been there.
Jean-Pierre strides outside. It’s frigid but not slippery, thank goodness. Little Justine, now at that place. He’d married Agathe and loved her, enough anyway. Together for almost fifty years. They never had children, but the house was full of family.
Justine, la petite. He doesn’t know why she never married. Her primness, perhaps. Maybe she should have taken the veil after all, like they all used to joke.
But that one Christmas Eve, when he’d had too much wine at dinner and come into the kitchen to see her washing dishes at the sink. He’d wrapped his arms around her from the back, kissed her neck and then dropped his empty glass into the soapy water. He left the kitchen and never mentioned it again, nor did she. Warmed by the wine it was a passing urge, seemed the right response to the sight of her delicate nape, her hair bobbed neatly in the middle. Like Agathe’s.
And now Agathe is gone and Justine is tucked away, her mind fading fast. Perhaps a blessing. His own senility is seeping in like fog, but he still has enough lucidity to see what a ruin lies ahead for him too. The shuffling seniors, the forced revelry, the ammonia-scented floors.
No, he would rather preserve that recollection as long as he can. When he’d strayed into the kitchen looking for his wife, and found her apron tied around her sister’s slender back. The sweet longing, the heated adoration of those sealed seconds.
With the fear that his own memory is crumbling quickly into rubble, he doesn’t want to impose sad new images on this fragile wistfulness, doesn’t yet want to say goodbye to that lovely young girl. His belle-soeur.
Justine lifts her hand to smooth her hair, touch her pearls. Jean-Pierre is coming to the Christmas party today. She turns her head to the side, hiding a trembling smile.