Outside the store, he slipped his hands into his overcoat pockets and felt the familiar knot of his keys. The pewter fob on his key ring - a gift from his mother. She was everywhere.
He crossed the street to Ashley's, the china shop, the last stop on his annual Christmas circuit in the upscale part of town. It was well past 5 now, and darkness was overtaking the short December day, leaving the city less forgiving.
He stood in front of the store's windows, perusing household wares: sumptuous plates and table settings, silver candy dishes with stems shaped like twigs, Lalique glass plates embedded with white Xs, gifts popping in and out of boxes mechanically, nickel-plated kettles, all under a banner strung across the window: "Gifts they will love forever!"
Not strictly true, he thought. His mother's voice came to him suddenly: "I hate cooking." Her forceful Suffolk accent, teetering on the edge of impatience. It wasn't so much that he missed her presence, as that her absence had become physical; there was now a space in space, the hole her departure had left in the continuum.
"What are you gonna get?" An old woman was gazing into the window beside him. She was short, and carrying a cane. His mother had refused, despite her bad legs.
"I don't know," he said. "Maybe one of those West Bend Penguin ice buckets. My parents had one."
"So did mine. Don't know what happened to it."
He followed her into the store and made a quick tour. Nothing. He thought Kate Spade had designed a knockoff (Library Lane Navy, it was called) of his mother's best china - the Minton Golden Heritage pattern plates and saucers and gravy boats that came out at Christmas with the salt cellars and the heavily wrought after-dinner-mint dishes and the matched set of 19th-century cutlery his mother had picked up at an auction. The plates she stored and protected, with their pale white centres and navy and gold rims. The good china, her yearning displayed. Where was it now? One of his sisters had it, probably. That was fair enough.
Then he saw it: a silver toast rack. He could buy his daughter a toast rack for her early-morning breakfasts before school - one like that, like his mother's sterling toast rack, the small peaked church she set out for breakfast every morning for 50 years. Just an object - but objects were all he had of her now, to hold on to in her place.
He wrote "Toast rack (H)" in his notebook, and stepped outdoors again into the now stiffer, colder wind. The H&M outlet next to Ashley's was a shock, with its tiny red bras stretched around wire mannequins in the window - bras for teenagers, really. Deeper into the store, a parade of gold bubble skirts and glittering accessories all proclaimed, "Look at me! I'm new!"
Whereas next door at Stollery's, the old-guard store, the green, loden-cloth cloaks and red, quilted Barbour gardening jackets said, "I, on the other hand, have been here a long, long time." For $395, no less. She might have worn one of those.
He pushed past them both, their insides lit and beckoning, and steered for home. The living desire of the world was all around him. For the flash of a moment, he saw her white hair again, falling back from her forehead, pale and untended.
He crossed the street quickly between two sets of traffic lights, dodging cars; he wasn't really crying, it was just the bitter of the oncoming cold. Snow was definitely on its way.
Ian Brown is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail.
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