Laura McPhee-Browne and her bag of Ruth Rendells.
for Ruth Rendell
Laura turned her key in the lock and heard the familiar click of home, to warmth, to Adnan and to rubbing moisturizer into her nose to calm the wind-chill burn. It had been particularly direful out there this evening, and her walk from Dundas Street East to King Street West had been hunched, eyes watering and balaclava itching at her neck like a forgotten noose.
Entering the living room she saw Adnan, his sturdy brown legs up on the coffee table in long socks and his curled head bent forward. He was reading. The two of them did a lot of that and had been doing almost nothing else since the nights had become too cold for walks home after drinks at bars or dinners. After they ate she would pull on her pyjamas and crawl under the doona in the bedroom, leaving Adnan to sink down low on the Craigslist couch, his eyes moving forward-back, forward-back in their natural state. It was quiet in their apartment most nights, with the occasional sound of paper touching skin as a page was turned, or a shout from room to room of “Hullo over there! I miss you!” This small life suited Laura. She knew now that she grew pale and small in the cold months.
The last two library excursions had been strange experiences. Instead of choosing books that would enlighten or inspire her, Laura had chosen a pile of Ruth Rendells, dropping them deep into her canvas bag as if she was buying packets of Doritos for tea at the supermarket. She had heard of people getting lost in crime fiction, and the prospect of escaping this cold dead winter was irresistible. After borrowing the first three Inspector Wexfords and reading them in as many days, she could not wait to get back and borrow more, and was now “addicted,” as she told the girls she worked with, who loved crime fiction, too, and clapped their hands in delight. Since then she had finished off five more, and had to admit to herself, late at night with Adnan sleeping beside her and the light of the broken reading lamp her only company, that she loved popular literature—loved it more than anything else she had ever read, for its ability to take her flying above and away from her life.
She had stopped cooking dinner, stopped brushing her teeth, stopped stopping by Adnan’s place on the couch to kiss the top of his head. Tonight was Thursday and Laura had suggested they order takeout the last three nights in a row. She couldn’t bear to think of waiting until after she had made a meal or washed the dishes to start reading, and when she suggested takeout again, Adnan asked her what was wrong. It was infuriating, the way he seemed not to understand that she was just enjoying the reading, that she simply wanted to know what happened at the end of The Speaker of Mandarin. She didn’t tell him she had seen a leg poking out of every snow pile she had walked past that afternoon on her way home and that she was so in-tune with Wexford in China that she felt like she was walking his steps as she hurried down Spadina Avenue in Chinatown. He wouldn’t believe her, and there was work to be done.
Laura woke up early on Friday, and slipped out of the condo in a pair of Adnan’s chinos and his favourite cream-coloured blazer under her fur coat. Since reading the first book, she had pictured Wexford wearing a suit and tie even on holiday, and this was the closest she had been able to get, after spending an hour trying to tie one of Adnan’s ties in the mirror with the help of a YouTube video. It was ghastly down on the street and her bare ankles between the brogues and the cuffs were numb as she walked headfirst toward Spadina.
It was important to ignore the body parts Laura saw as she moved along, beneath the countless piles of rotting, blackened snow. These were not hers to question and she knew everyone else was ignoring them, and would feign shock and confusion if she asked them to help her dig one of the bodies out. The particular body she needed to find again was on the edge of Kensington Market, near where the little old Chinese women sat from late morning until dusk with their 50-cent bunches of bok choy and aloe vera plants for sale and their serene faces waiting. Even in the depths of winter they would persist and Laura had often wondered if the yin choy and cucumber leaves would get frostbite. The body she needed to uncover was just down St. Andrew Street, opposite the cheap Korean cafe she went with Adnan most weekends for too much breakfast. She knew it was the one Wexford had been looking for, and since he was on holiday in China, currently tackling the Great Wall, she would have to be the one to examine it and to alert the police who were available to come and assist her.
Laura could see that the Chinese women were not yet at their stoop as she stood at the Dundas Street lights below the giant pixellated TV screen showing the morning news with Cantonese subtitles. It was desolate where they sat. She passed by the grey ground skewed with darkened vegetable leaves and wished they were there so she could smile at them. She turned the corner of St. Andrew Street and saw the snow pile she needed to approach, its darkened, cratered surface decorated with slices of Pizza Pizza and Starbucks coffee cups. She saw the leg, always the leg, as if the victim had been pushed head first into the snow by their assailants, and knelt down with a rush of blood to her head. The leg was attached to a poor, cold, lonely body, and Laura was certain it was someone Wexford was looking for. Taking the soup ladle she had placed in her pocket for this very purpose, she went to work, digging up scoops of the slush to uncover the crime she was meant to solve. It was cold but it no longer sat inside of her like a curse. She had purpose, something she had lost when the winter had come. She could feel that purpose inspiring the blood in her veins. Laura stopped to wipe her brow, lightly beaded from the activity. Looking down, the leg flashed on and off before her eyes.
Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker from Melbourne who spent the two years she lived in Toronto complaining about the weather. She is currently working on what she hopes will be her first book, a collection of “homage” or “echo” stories inspired by the short fiction of her favourite female writers. You can find her at lauramcpheebrowne.squarespace.com.