Story by Patricia A. Bow

The Button

by Patricia Bow

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The point of the spade bit into the moist, dark earth. Don pushed it deeper with his foot, then grunted as he heaved it up and dumped the load of dirt upside down. Sweat trickled down the side of his face. He dropped the spade to scrub his cheek with his sleeve. It was four in the afternoon, and warm for late April.

The sun picked out the silver strands in Ellen's dark hair where they wisped out from under her red scarf. She was hoeing vigorously, breaking up the larger clumps of earth.

"I'm not so sure it was a good idea," he said, "digging up this end of the garden at the same time as repainting the living room. I feel overstretched."

"We couldn't count on this weather lasting -- oh, look!" With a corner of the hoe blade she delicately separated white fragments from the turned earth.

"What is it?"

"Look at the lovely blue pattern on this china! You know, Don, that's why I love digging in this old garden. I never know what's going to turn up. Who d'you suppose used this china last, and why out here?"

"Kids, probably. Little girls. Tea parties."

"Before your time, then."

"Must've been. I used to dig here myself, when I was a boy. Kept swiping my mother's best spoons to dig with, and kept losing them. No china, though."

"And this -- " she pounced -- "must be one of those lost spoons." She pried the metallic thing from its bed of earth. "No, it's a button. Brass, not silver." She rubbed away crumbs of dirt. "What kind of a button is this, Don? Look at the crest."

He took it in his fingers. The button was an inch across and bore a royal coat of arms, surmounted by the word CANADA.

"Looks like it came off a uniform. Wonder how long it's been there?"

"Years," Ellen said. "Maybe decades. See how corroded it is."

He stood a moment, brows knotted, teased by a whisper of memory. Then he shrugged and put the button down on a stone bench beside the shards of china. Reluctantly, he picked up the spade.

"Decades, I can believe. I don't think this bit of the yard has been turned in fifty years. We always kept it under grass, never did anything to it."

Behind, in the house, a window banged up.


Ellen sighed. "Just when we're well started!"

"I'll go see." Don dropped the spade and went in. He found his eighteen-year-old daughter, Janine, in the living room, kneeling beside an open cardboard box of books. Her older brother Michael stood watching idly. Beside him stood a stranger whom Don recognized, after a moment, as one of half a dozen of Michael's friends, engineering students, who had been in the house the evening before.

"Hello," Don said. "You were one of the ones carousing here yesterday."

"That's right, Mr. Millbrush."

"Got a name?"

"Pete Savitch." He grinned. It was a nice smile despite the obscuring beard, Don decided.

"Not launching another beer party, are you, Michael?"

"Dad, we needed a break because we'd been studying for six weeks. Exams -- "

"And two of my beer mugs also took a break. Oh, I don't blame you, Pete: you were the only quiet one. That's how I noticed you."

"Are you through?" Janine pushed between the two boys. "I'm not doing this by myself!" Her dust-streaked forehead looked cross under a crown of short, sculptured blond hair.

"What's this?" Don asked.

"I've lost a book," Pete said. "Finite Element Analysis. If I don't find it I'm dead."

"I've said I'll lend you mine." Michael's tone implied Pete was being difficult.

"No, I really need mine. It's got all my notes in the back."

"And you think it's here?" Don scratched his chin and looked around doubtfully at the rows of cardboard cartons. "Could be, I guess. Ellen just packed up everything today in no special order. Says she'll dust and sort the books when the walls have been repainted and the shelves are up again.

Pete groaned. "You must have a million books here!"

"Three thousand, four hundred and twenty-two," Janine said coolly. "I helped Mother pack and, yes, I kept track. And, no, I didn't notice your textbook."

Pete gazed around the room sadly, then looked at her. His eyes were dark, like his beard.

Janine shrugged. "Oh, well. I'll help you look for it."

"I'll give you a hand." Don opened the nearest box and began to pull books out of it. Michael edged toward the door, muttering about having to study. Janine and Pete went to work side by side.

The second carton Don opened was labelled FAMILY PAPERS-OLD THINGS-ETC. Memory teased him again. Under a stack of torn manila envelopes he found a shabby red book.

And then he remembered. He lifted it out.

"Excuse me, kids... " His voice trailed off as he left the room, opening the book.

Ellen had abandoned the hoe and was energetically digging with the spade. "What was it?" she asked without stopping work.

"A friend of Mike's, looking for a book he left here. Seems a nice boy. Ellen, look at this."

The book was bound in padded crimson silk, embossed with a design of morning glories. Traces of gilt winked from the edges of the pages. The initials, JMB, were stamped in gold in the centre of the cover.

Don tapped the monogram. "That stands for Jennifer Mary Black. It's Gran's old diary." He turned the stiff pages and the smell of age rose, dry and sad in the young-scented April afternoon. Ellen let the spade fall and sat down beside him on the stone bench.

"I looked through this after she died. Now that button you found reminded me... Here it is. This bit dated Thursday, May 13, 1915."

"She couldn't have been very old then." Ellen leaned against his shoulder.

"She was sixteen, and they called her Jenny." And he read aloud: "'Today Edward brought some of his soldier friends home to tea. They looked splendid in their new uniforms, but I must say they hardly behaved like grown men! The tea table was set up in the garden and they took this as permission to rough-house. Three of Mother's best teacups were broken. She was sweet about it, but once she'd gone in I told them what I thought of their childishness. And I didn't mince words! I don't suppose they'll be back.'"

"Your Gran," Ellen murmured, "was no shrinking violet, was she?"

Don smiled and read on. "'Friday, May 14. One of Edward's friends came back today at noon. His name is Samuel Millbrush. He apologized nicely for breaking the cups -- actually it wasn't his fault, it was the others -- then told me his real reason for coming back. He has lost one of the buttons from his tunic, and says if he returns to camp without it, the sergeant will eat him alive. Probably it was lost when he and Edward were wrestling around the tea table. His spare is also lost (oh, dear, what a soldier!) Edward offered his own spare, but Sam insisted that he must and would find his own. We searched all afternoon, but we never found that blessed button.'"

Don closed the book on his finger. "Do you think that button we found -- "

The window shot up behind them. "Mother! Are those all the boxes?"

"That's the lot," Ellen said. "Didn't you find it?"

Silence. Janine had withdrawn from the window. Her parents sighed in unison, got up and went into the house. The living room was a sea of books and empty cartons.

"Now, Mom, don't look like that. Pete and I will pack up." Janine sounded surprisingly cheerful. Her hair had fallen from its perfectly sculptured state into unruly tendrils feathering around her dusty cheeks. Don thought she looked prettier that way. "He's upstairs having a wash," she added.

"And you didn't find his textbook?"


Feet thumped on the stairs and Pete appeared in the doorway. He held a book in both hands and a smile shone through his beard.

"You found it!" Janine bounded across the room and gave him a quick hug. Don raised an eyebrow.


"Of all places -- in the bathroom, in the laundry hamper. Under a bunch of clothes."

"Well. Isn't that a funny thing."

"Yes... " Janine stepped back and gave Pete a hard stare. "Why would you be rooting around in our laundry hamper?"

"Dropped my watch. No idea how the book got there." He smiled down at her. Her stare started to sparkle and her mouth turned up. Then they were both laughing.

Don glanced at Ellen, to find her studying Pete with worried intensity.

"Uh, listen," Pete said. "I've turned your house upside down and it's late. Why don't I go get some pizza? My treat. Then you won't have to cook."

"That sounds very nice," Ellen said distantly.

"I'll get garlic bread too."

"Bruschetta," Janine said.

"Right. And root beer. I guess I could use some help carrying all that," he said softly to Janine.

She had stopped laughing, but it still glinted in her eyes. "I'll go wash." A few minutes later they went out together.

Ellen watched them through the front window. "That boy is devious. I don't trust him."

"I wouldn't worry. She's got his number."

She made a dubious sound and went out to the garden. Don followed her, diary still closed on his finger. She picked up her buried treasures and scrubbed them against her stained jeans.

"Well, what happened next? To Jenny, I mean."

"Here's the last of that May 14 entry. 'Finally he had to accept Edward's spare, and I sewed it on. It was late, so we asked him to dinner. Then Sam and I walked in the garden until dark. On his own he seems much more mature. He told me why the boys were so wild yesterday. It was because they'd realized suddenly -- so he said -- they'd soon be off to England, and perhaps they wouldn't be coming back. He said he never quite understood what he was doing, until he put on the uniform. But he wouldn't admit to being frightened. For my part, I don't like to think of what could happen. He asked if he might write to me, and I said yes. And then he went.'"

Don sat silent, thinking. Ellen poked him. "And then?"

"And soon after that, they went overseas. Edward, of course, was killed at Vimy Ridge, but Sam survived."

"Of course. Or you wouldn't be telling me the story."

"And when it was over he came home and married Jenny."

"They never change." Ellen shook her head in wonder. "Do you think she suspected?"

"About the button? Oh, I'd think so. As I recall, she was a lot like her great-granddaughter." He poked her back, reassuringly.

The April evening grew chilly. They went in to wash. Ellen rinsed the button under the kitchen tap, then polished it with Brasso until it shone like gold. It must have gleamed as brightly on that May afternoon eighty years ago. She pictured him stealthily dropping it under the tea table and driving it into the earth with the toe of his boot.

Don had returned the diary to its carton. Ellen put the button into the box beside the diary. It seemed to belong there.



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