I sat beside her on the train, noticed her hands shaking like a sycamore leaf. Outstretched, sturdy but still shaking, clasping her paper cup of Starbucks coffee. The train was shaking too. A great, grey rattlesnake clanking its way through the Canadian countryside.
“Does the landscape get more interesting?” I asked.
“No,” she asserted. “It is boring. In Canada everything is boring.”
Irma came to Canada when she was three from Austria. Her parents were attracted by the post- war publicity drive – wide expanses of unowned, open land for the taking – that is if you discount the rights of the already disenfranchised Indians.
“So you won’t remember it then. “
“Oh yes I do,” she said, shuddering with displeasure. “I had chicken pox so on arrival in Halifax they locked me up in a windowless room and banned my parents from seeing me. “
The train screeched to a stop in sympathy.
“ I even remember the colour of the walls, “ she added. “ A murky beige.”
The train lurched forward again and the narrative moved on.
“After three days my mother managed to break through the security and popped all my spots so the puss would come out.”
Perhaps Irma’s ambivalence to her country stems from such inauspicious beginnings.
Irma became an air hostess, was swept off her jumbo jet wings by those of desire. A rich suave passenger persuaded her to leave her job and accompany him around the world for 18 years.
“So what was your favourite place to live?”
“Saint Moritz,” she replied, a smile creeping over her lined face, remembering.
I stole a sideways glance at this one time jet setter – high cheek bones, dyed brown hair to match her dark brown eyes, peering through mascara laden lashes – a beauty once no doubt.
“But we never married so there was no settlement.”
Irma reinvented herself as a fine art photographer – taking polaroids of flowers but manipulating them, etching the chemicals before they dried and then rephotographing the images with a medium format camera.
“I exhibited all round the world, but it wasn’t profitable so I got into real estate. “ She showed me images of the flats she bought and sold overlooking the harbour in Toronto, She now takes photographs, not of etched flowers, but of ideal home interiors with views over the CN tower.
“Canada is so boring, “ she repeated, “So backward, Look at this train. It is from the arc.”
She fell asleep beside me. The great, grey rattlesnake lumbered its way towards Montreal.