Estella had to walk around the train to get to the platform, and she watched as the Diamonds and the other passengers spilled out of the two passenger cars, thankful to have arrived and anxious to get to their beds. Oliver and his sons began to ferry the women and children in the Oldsmobile and Allen Foster’s car and Lake Claire’s one taxi, and they all temporarily forgot about Estella. In her head she was still saying, Tie tie, gravel, tie tie, gravel.
The porter had gone into the station, and when he came out again and joined her on the platform she told her teenaged nieces, who were waiting for the next ride, that she was going to walk to the cottages. Without being asked, the porter accompanied her, and she saw her nieces exchanging glances. If they had been younger, they would have chanted, Auntie’s got a boyfriend.
She easily knew the way, and she and the porter walked to the village and then along the familiar shortcut through the bush—the path that the boy Peter Boone had shown her four years earlier—and when they were into the bush and out of sight, they held hands once more, even though the path was really too narrow for two people to walk side by side, and one of them was forced to fall back every ten yards or so by a tree branch. Estella thought how completely out of character it was for her to encourage this man she barely knew, who would have to leave on the train as soon as it was repaired and would not likely return. The train from Prince Albert to Lake Claire ran only twice a week, and it was not his regular route. In fact, he had no regular route, he had told her. As a student with a summer job, they sent him hither and yon, filling in for permanent staff on holiday or away sick. That very week, he was scheduled to travel to Montreal.
When they were near the end of the trail through the bush, Estella led the porter off the path toward the lake, and they found themselves on the sandy beach. There was no moon and the black sky was full of stars. They stood listening to the sound of waves lapping the shore, and she was not surprised when Eugene pulled her to him and kissed her full on the mouth. Before she knew it she was dropping her canvas pack to the ground, letting him unzip her jacket, slip her cotton blouse out of its tuck in her jeans, and slide his hands up her back, against her bare skin. She thought perhaps she should push him away, but then she thought, What the hell, I’m thirty-one years old, why not? Instead of stopping him, she pulled his cap from his head and tossed it onto the beach, and then led him into the shelter and darkness of a sand embankment that had been created by the eroded roots of an old spruce tree. She grabbed a tree root above her head to keep from slipping down into the sand as Eugene tugged at her jeans and pressed her up against the bank.
She wanted to laugh—surely this was funny?—but she was too uncertain of the rules to risk it. But it was funny, the two of them pretending to be hidden in a spot that she knew was wide open in daylight, doing this with the other Diamonds barely out of sight, unpacking and putting children to bed. She hung on to the tree root and tried not to laugh out loud. The little moans Eugene emitted with his thrusts matched the rhythm of their steps along the railway tracks—thrust thrust, oh, thrust thrust, oh—and when it all came to a crescendo and he stopped moving, Estella was no longer able to stifle the laughter. She had sand in her eyes, her hair, everywhere, and she was clinging to a spruce tree with her clothes half off—her blouse and bra hanging from one arm, and her jeans around her ankles, prevented by her boots from coming off altogether.
Eugene appeared to agree that it was funny. He bumped his head on the root when he tried to stand, and they both laughed at the absurdity as he stood rubbing his head and trying to hike up his pants. Then he turned away from her to get himself in order again, and she got her blouse and her jacket back on, and she held her head upside down and tried to shake the sand out of her hair. She zipped up her jacket just as Eugene found his cap and adjusted it on his head.
When they were both out from under the tree and standing on the beach again, he said, “That was a pleasant enough end to a long walk.”
She slipped her pack on her back and said, “I doubt I’ll forget it, if that’s what you mean.”
“I guess I should get you back,” he said. “They’ll be wondering where you are.”
She pointed over the embankment toward the cottages and said, “We’re just up there. No need to walk with me. My family is a nosy bunch.”
He didn’t argue. “Well, goodnight then,” he said, and he walked away down the beach. He began to whistle, a song she recognized from the radio, but she couldn’t quite think what it was. She watched him go, watched his shadow merge into the darkness until she couldn’t see him anymore, hardly believing what had just happened. She’d thought he might ask for her phone number or address or some way to get in touch with her, even though she wasn’t sure she wanted him to be in touch. Still, wouldn’t that have been the thing to do: ask whether she might like to see him again, whether she might like to do that again, because he had enjoyed it, and he wouldn’t mind a repeat performance?
Oh, what the hell, she thought for the second time that night, he’s probably married anyway. She stepped up the embankment away from the lake and cut across the lawn between the beach and the cottages. Once she had thought of the porter being married, it became the most logical explanation. Almost everyone was married by the time they were her age. So, that was that, then. She’d had a very brief fling with a married man.
And that made her want to laugh again. She, Estella Diamond, thirty-one-year-old spinster schoolteacher—the one to whom Caroline had said on the train, You used to be our fun aunt—had just had a fling. She was almost sorry that her family, especially Caroline, would never know.
When she was halfway across the lawn, she stopped and looked at the row of cottages that she knew had been reserved for the Diamonds. Her father was sitting on the deck of Emily Carr, his feet up on the railing, smoking a cigar. She saw how contented he looked, so pleased with himself that he had pulled off the feat of getting every single member of his family settled into a Fosters bungalow. She looked back to the beach to make sure he couldn’t have seen anything in the darkness, and then she crossed the grass and climbed the steps of the cottage.
The Diamond House is forthcoming with HarperCollins in June 2020.