This is the third of a developing collection of longer stories. These accounts are all too common, but often fester like unacknowledged injuries, in all who were involved. All are based in truth, and are drawn from my work as a therapist, and my own life.
Sometime in the 1950s, Christine carefully backs the old Pontiac out. Her small, gloved hands are slightly awkward on the wheel, her winged spectacles catching on the sides of the tightly knotted headscarf as she peers over her shoulder. There is a knocking sound in the engine as the car comes to life. When she comes back with the groceries, the sound seems worse. Her mother is smoking a guilty cigarette with her morning coffee as Christine comes in, a heavy bag in each hand.
“Mama, we’ll have to get it fixed. We need it, and daddy loved it too, so very much.”
Sighing, mother goes to the jar in the cupboard. Reluctantly, she counts.
“No money now for a new uniform for Camille, or to pay for the fence to be painted,” she comments, flatly. She hands a small wad of notes over to Christine.
“Take it to the new garage down the road,” she says. Apparently, they do a good job.”
The sound of piano practice irritates Christine as she goes back down the dark passage. She peers into the front room at Camille. Her younger sister is ten, with papa’s long fingers, and black hair swirling. Camille will be tall, like papa was and curvaceous, like mama but right now, when she sits at the piano, she is all arms and legs, like a spider.
“But of course, the money must be there to pay for Camille’s music”, Christine mutters to herself.
At least you had him until you were twelve. Mothers voice admonishes her, inside her head.
I had him and lost him, I had to see my papa go from being jolly and then see him fall apart from drinking and then pretend to everyone that he had a heart attack, instead of drinking himself to death. And she was only two, she never knew him and may be mama that’s easier, she never had to lose him like me and you and Hugo.
Christine would never say this, she will never even think it in any articulate way. Christine is an innocent to herself and the role she will play the future that will unfold. Her lips will thin, part bite and part smile, in varying shades of pink and red, matt and gloss, even when she is old, and she lives to be very old. Today though, her mouth is nude for she has had no chance yet, to indulge herself trying and buying tubes of lip colour at the counters of perfumed department stores.
Christine glances up the stairs and her expression softens. Hugo, is there now, studying so hard at his chipped desk. As mama says to anyone who will listen, he will be off to America very soon with a scholarship to an Ivy League university. Now sixteen, with his high forehead and earnest blue eyes, he is also so like the photo of papa, proud in his graduation mortarboard, that takes pride of place on the wall in the living room.
It is so noisy in the workshop, with raucous men and the sound of the radio. Slamming the bonnet down with a huge hand, Brendan straightens to his full height. He must be six foot three.
“See it might be a Pontiac on the outside, but it’s got the heart and soul of a Chevy,” he shouts down, in an Irish lilt, “And I like to work on these girls. So little lady, give me what you’ve got and I’ll do me best.”
The woman’s youth is almost indiscernible under her scarf. Her spectacles dwarf her small face. She smiles and covers her mouth quickly. When she looks up at him, he sees she has creamy skin and blue eyes.
“I’ll drive you home if you want,” he says. “Over there’s me new Dodge. can be the first girl who rides in it.”
Blushing, Christine allows herself to be ushered into the leather smelling interior of the sleek new car.
“You remind me of the girls back in Ireland with those blue eyes and lovely complexion,” he says, as they drive.
“Oh, my mother’s side is French,” she says, a little breathlessly, “but France is quite close to Ireland.”
“Is it now?” He glances over, his mouth twitching in a one-sided smile.
Christine’s skin is her religion. She will look after it for her whole life. In years to come there will be trips to salons for creamy facials and later, for polishing with the dust of diamonds. She will swallow pearly globules from Estee Lauder promising collagen sourced from diatoms in the dead sea. It is true that even as a stout grandmother many years later, although her outfits are sensible and characteristically dowdy, her skin retains a velvety, almost unlined quality, almost like that of a person confined to darkness. And she has a moth-like quality too, with eyes that blink frequently as though the lights have just been turned on.
‘I came from Outrement of course,” Mother says as though it is a careless comment about her much more genteel origins. She places the largest and moistest portion of the roast onto an ornate, flowery dinner plate and hands it to Brendan, even before Hugo gets his share.
“So you’re a little down in the world, here on Saint Henri then?” Brendan counters.
Christine blushes at her mother’s obviousness and at Brendan’s bluntness. Hugo, showing an out of character interest at human interaction, looks at his mother and takes in the cameo brooch placed artfully in the cleft where a disturbing crease in her skin emerges from her blouse. For a moment, his eyes alight on the body of Brendon, so strange and large, next to his diminutive sister at the formal mahogany table. Christine and Hugo have shared a wordless sympathy over the years since Papa died, but now, when his blue eyes seek hers, she cannot meet them. She is primly chewing, even neater in her mouth movements than usual.
How is it that Brendan is at the dinner table after such a short time, with these mannered Canadians, in their husbandless and fatherless down at heel house, next to this nervous young woman? The Pontiac has been fixed and is purring again. Money has changed hands, but not the usual fee. Brendan, in some way he does not understand has shown largesse to this family. The mother tries so hard to be elegant, flirting with him almost, neediness in her eyes. The younger son, is obviously the favourite, being the boy, so that’s not surprising, thinks Brendan. The two daughters, so very different in age, are both strangely unworldly, arousing in Brendan, confusing feelings of both protectiveness and disdain.
When was eighteen, back in Ireland in his mother’s house, Brendan’s bones were still growing, and his muscles. Coarse hairs were sprouting thick, like snakes, and he was becoming rough and shadowed on the face. He had been the man of the house right from the start, spoiled and loved by his abandoned mother. At meal times, Mamie’s starchy offerings moved down his esophagus, flavoured with her servility and squeezed with her hope. It had become awkward at her kitchen table, elbows on there as he dispatched the heaping plates of potato, gravy and well cooked meat and veg.
“Give your Mamie a kiss now darling.” She would turn her cheek up to receive a savoury peck as he took his tool case and hurriedly left the house. “I love you darling.”
“I love you too Mamie.”
“I love you more, darling.”
She would wait; head cocked. She wanted it to carry on, for him to say, “I love you even more Mamie.”
I hate men, because of what he did to me, but he put you in me, and so you are mine, and I love you, I love you, I love you. These were her unspoken words. Never forget you are all I have. This was the burden Brendan would carry. He looks after women, and so he should, but the women, they can be so demanding, so oppressive, what is he to do? Brendan severed himself from that small cottage in Galway, late in the 40s. He was twenty, strapping and ambitious and he found his way, with many others, to Montreal.
He’s so big and handsome and old for me. Look at his hairy big hands and his muscular forearms. Christine’s senses assault her, part excitement and with an undercurrent of disgust, at the nearness of this man. Does he really want me? The thought of this ‘want’ makes her blink fast and she can feel her cheeks heat.
Across the table, her sister scrapes her cutlery on the fine china. “We never used these plates before, ever ever,” says Camille with wonder. “They’re even gold!”
“Beautiful, just like you,” says Brendan. The compliment washes over Camille, intent on revealing the intricate floral pattern of the plate. Christine blinks. A small crease appears between her eyes and she sighs. No one notices, not even herself.
“Please, may I serve you some more beef?” mother asks Brendan, smiling brightly.
Goodness knows what he sees in my Christine, she thinks, fretful with hope. Couldn’t she do something better with her hair? And that dowdy little top? Ah, I have neglected to help my daughter in the art of womanliness.
She’ll do, says Mamie’s voice in Brendan’s mind, many times over the next few weeks. Brendan, you need a wife to look after you my son. She’s hard-working pet. Look at her, no trouble there.
Brendan proposes. The betrothal goes on for two years, with Brendan calling in the almost new Dodge to take Christine out and then to pick Hugo up and take him to the workshop, where he has been given an after-school job. Gratefully, Hugo earns enough money, more than enough, Brendan makes sure, to pay for his books and for Camille’s piano lessons.
The cars are coming in left right and center. Brendan is genius at this, he looks the customer in the eye. They know he does not cut corners and they are loyal. Soon there are more staff too. He is on their case like a ton of bricks if he sees them mucking around. Off they go!
Although he philanders right from the start, he feels less and less guilty for it and as the years go by, he doesn’t even try to hide it. He accepts he is a bad husband, and who wouldn’t be, with that snooty saint of a woman, although of course he loves her too. She is a conscientious wife, who cooks beautifully and devotes herself to motherhood and home. But at the beginning, it is still confusing for him, especially with that prostitute, he visits, who calls herself Lisette. With her curly hair and blue eyes, so small, she looks much younger than her years. Dressed in a girlish costume, at his request, the animal thatch underneath those demure flounces is madness making.
The family are so grateful for everything he offers. He calls one autumn morning, when they are at breakfast. Already in his overalls, he is clean shaven and with shining, slicked back hair. He holds a basket in his hands,
“Customer gave me these and I thought you would like them.” Head charmingly tilted, he smiles, most specially at mother. His eyes meet Hugo’s, slide over Christine.
“Thank you so much,” Mother gushes, taking the basket of crab apples.
“Mama I could make a few jars of jelly with that,” says Christine, from a small well of silence.
“I love crab apple jelly so much,” says Camille happily.
“I was thinking, I could take the little lady to school if you like.”
Tall and lean, her plaits bouncing and her pleats swinging, Camille skips to the car and slides in.
“Oh, it’s so big inside your car!” she exclaims.
“Brrr, its cold isn’t it?” says Brendan. “Let’s heat her up shall we?” He drives down the road and pulls up at a stop sign.
“Now let me see if that heat is coming out the vent down by your feet.”
He leans over her, and she can smell the oil in his hair, the soap on his skin.
“Warming those nice legs up?” His voice is close and bristled, and now his hand transgresses. It is high on her thigh, where the woolen stockings end and the ugly school suspender belt begins.
It is like in one of those dreams, when you wake with a gasp from the deepest sleep Something has happened, and it is not right, but you cannot quite grasp it. The print of the hand is on the thigh, but now it is gone, and did it really happen at all?
That afternoon the Dodge is lying in wait after school, low and gleaming, with Brendan’s muscular, overall covered thighs wide on the leather seats and his big hands ready on the wheel. The trip home goes via the beach, and the Dodge pulls in by the water. The wind whips the waves and there is snow on the ground. Planes from the nearby Montreal Dorval roar overhead, drowning out the calls of the birds. The car is toasty warm, and the windows soon fog. Now the smell of spirits combines with the remnants of his toiletries and the feral oils on his skin.
“Shall we sit in the back?” he asks with feigned casualness, motioning to the wide expanse of the seat and of course she obeys, for it was never an invitation, it was always a command. In that fogged space, the maneuvering is possible. There is his muttering, tight and pleading, that he cannot help it and that she made him do it and it is not fair, that her sister is just too good, for god’s sake. There is a swelling and slickening in her own tissues, for the first time ever, that alters, without her knowing it, the trajectory of her life. She will remember in years to come, in flashes, his words, anxious and the tone of his voice, close to tears. The surprise will never leave, of it prodding her, gentle as it was, her neck bent under the ceiling of the Dodge, the leather of the seat yielding slightly and just cracking under the weight of her knees. The gusts of wind carrying the high, thin wails of gulls, outside.
“I’m not hungry,” says Camille later, when dinner is served. And she is not, because they have gone to the drugstore after he has finished, and she has vanilla ice-cream that floats in cherry cola, and the fizz and cream fill her stomach with sweet clouds.
“No gratitude at all, that little sister of yours,” says Brendan a few days later, as he and Christine eat steak in the local Italian restaurant.
“Well, she has been a little spoiled by our mother,” Christine replies, carefully sipping her Chianti.
“Your brother, now he’s got real future with his studies. I could even give him a job. But all that piano playing, what’s she going to do with that? A waste of time.”
“But, but music is important too Brendan,” Christine stammers, “and, ah, the arts. I wanted to be a painter, but, but I had to give it up.” Bitterness tinges her voice. “Mama does seem to think that just because Camille was so young when our father died, she should always get special treatment.”
He splashes more wine into his glass and hers, saws and chews. “I certainly won’t be offering any more rides in me car.” His voice is muffled by meat.
When the first of their children is born three years later, Brendon buys Christine a ruby ring, surrounded by small diamonds. She wears it all the time, even when pruning her roses in their leafy, suburban garden in modest but up and coming Verdun. She is a s good wife and stays deliberately naïve to his affairs, becoming greedier over the years for the luxuries with which he buys her silence. Her son and daughter love her because her mothering is beyond reproach, but it can be overwhelming too, in a way they do not understand.
It is in her garden ten years later, on a benign day in late summer, when the leaves are just starting to flutter down from the crabapple, that Camille approaches. Christine gardens in a large hat, wearing gloves, slippery on the inside with moisturizer, that is becoming more expensive by the year.
It is 1966. Camille is twenty-two, tall and curvaceous. Their mother’s frame has arranged itself in squat proportions on Christine, and somehow, by adding four inches, on Camille, the same sloping shoulders, fine breasts, and generous hips are voluptuous. She is standing close to her sister, awkward and graceful at the same time, in a white, seersucker dress that has been discarded by Christine. Onto it Camille has sewn a border of fabric daisies, transforming it from sensible, to fey. It is short on her, well above her knees. Her hair cascades in an unruly way down her back. She is a flower child of the 60s, recently married in a barefoot ceremony to young, softly spoken, bearded Jack.
“I wanted to talk to you about something before Jack and I leave for India,” she starts.
“Are the children alright?” Christine cuts in.” You can’t leave them in the house on their own for more than five minutes. Joel tried to climb on the kitchen counter last week to get the crackers and nearly fell.”
“They’re playing with their train set. They seemed happy,” replies Camille quickly.
The grass is green and dappled light plays on the sisters, one housewifely and middle aged before her years, the other tall, robust and at the same time, unworldly. The garden is luminous with bright marigold and velvety pansies. The smell of alyssum is in the air.
‘I wanted to tell you why I think Brendan doesn’t like me,” continues Camille hesitantly.
Her sister raises her eyebrows.
“One time he took me to school, and I don’t know why, but we went to the beach on the way home. And I don’t know why but he, you know, he did things to me.”
The shears in Christine’s hand are frozen in the air. Her expression is inscrutable.
“And after that he was horrible, and he always has been. You know how he says I’m lazy and vain? And that I have no gratitude? And that I play the victim and make people look after me?”
Camille winces, opens and closes her mouth. How much more does she have to say to bridge this gulf? Will her words reach the other side, or will they tumble in falling so far that they will cease to exist before they reach the bottom?
“I tried to tell mama, but she said I should just forget it. But Brendan has been mean to me ever since you got married. And it makes me sad because I love the children.”
Christine turns away and begins to deadhead, silent.
“I tried to tell Hugo too, but he just thinks the sun shines out of Brendan because he helped him get to university.”
Horror and disgust shimmer between them. And the deep bond of a shared story, in which their characters have been cast as enemies, by scripts that were written long before they were born of their mother. With effort, Christine turns round.
“It was sexual,” Camille cries, finally, her voice high and thin as those gulls from long ago, but this time, incongruous in the still and sunny garden.
“Look Camille,” says Christine, looking her sister in the eyes, guilt, anger and a strange tenderness playing across her face “You have a nice husband now. And you are free as a bird. You are still so young. Just go to India with Jack and do these things you want to do. You can do anything with your life.”
“Joel broke the train,” Bridget, calls, as the sound of children squabbling erupts from the house. “Please Auntie Camille, come and fix it again.”
“The children will miss you.” Christine’s voice comes from a long way away. “They love you. By the time you get back, who knows, they might be grown up.” Her voice trails away and she turns again. Snip, snip.
“Ok, bumble bee,” Camille calls back, using her special nickname. “I’m coming now”.
“You are the lucky one,” murmurs Christine, so low it is almost inaudible, even to herself, as her sister goes back in the house.