I absolutely refuse to stand still for a full hour whilst my Grandmother fits the material around my body. Typically, the pageant only accepts children up to the age of twelve, but the number of applicants has been dropping steadily over the last few years. Nobody knows why.
I was five when Granna first entered me in my purple black robe, a dark princess, a lonely witch, a forgotten fairytale. Then, there were thirty of us. Now, eleven years on, I am one of just seven. The youngest is nine, and I am the eldest. The pin from Granna’s half-stitched together waistcoat pokes me in the ribs for the third time, so I yank the material free, sending pins and popper clasps clattering onto the floor. She looks hurt, her glasses slipping off her nose on their string and tumbling to her chest like a necklace. The gentle wrinkles on her face deepen as I tell her I am going for a walk, but I detect an air of unsurprise, as if she’s been expecting the day to come when I threw my arms up in defeat of the pageant, the festival, of all the tension it always causes in our family during the weeks leading up to it. No longer do I want any part of it, but as the festival is just days away, I don’t think I have a choice.
I grab my jacket off the stand in the hall and take the long way into town, weaving a path through the houses and past the bus station until the shops start appearing on the sidewalk. St Jean isn’t a large town, but it isn’t small either, and already it is alive with the kind of fire that brings the sleepy villagers out of their shells for a few days of the year. The harsh winters in Quebec drive people indoors, but the hot spices of the mulled cider and toffee apples seduce everyone into wrapping up warm and venturing outdoors.
Once upon a time, the festival had been held in summer. There was no last balloon, no couple of lovers flown away never to return. It was brilliant myriad of hot air balloons, a good feast, and a sea of tourists dressed in shorts and sunglasses. That’s the thing about winter - it steals things, its relentless icy fingers snatching what it can’t have and never giving it back. Nobody knows what happens to the lovers that go up in that last balloon, or if they do, they pretend not to. St. Jean doesn’t have many secrets, but this is one of them. Those who know the truth are wise enough to keep it to themselves.
It is late afternoon, the sky hanging in the kinds of grey that sap the colour from the world and make it less interesting than it is usually. The shops don’t close for another hour, and at first I consider stopping at the coffee house near the church, but then I remember that Gabriel is home for the winter so I decide instead to visit him. He and his father own the bookshop and, though they live a little way out near the aspen trees, my best friend spends a lot of his time in the old office above the shop. I head over there, knowing he won’t be out. Gabriel doesn’t go out. Preferring to live inside the pages of old atlases, he is happiest curled up in the den he keeps in the loft, and tends to speak only when he has something constructive to say.
I stop at the coffee house anyway and buy us black coffees to go. Gabriel can’t eat dairy, so he doesn’t take milk, and today I don’t feel I can quite stomach the sugary cream that Sophia always adds to my coffee when she knows my Grandmother isn’t watching over my shoulder. Maybe it’s the bother of the festival churning my tummy, and though I can’t put my finger on it, I’ve a feeling that it’s something different too.
Letting myself into the bookshop, I say good afternoon to Mr Tremblay and make my way up the narrow stairs to their apartment. I’ve been friends with Gabriel a long time, too long for his father to worry about letting me alone up there with him. I don’t know what it’s like for other girls my age, but all I have ever wanted from him is a friend, a confidant, a person to tell stories to, and he takes my friendship in return without ever asking for more.