The Movie is Here in Thunder Bay. Don't Miss it.

The Movie is Here  in Thunder Bay. Don't Miss it.
Indian Horse, the movie based on the book by Richard Wagamese

Monday, August 23, 2010

The Children's Home. A Story by Joan Baril

This story was previously published in Room Magazine in July 2009.

The Children’s Home

By Joan M. Baril

I stumble up the long stairs, wheezing loudly. My school bag, heavy with books, swings against my thigh; my long hair falls over my eyes. It is late October in 1969 and a blustery afternoon. I’m five minutes late, perhaps more. I must think, think, of some kind of excuse.

My mother opens the door, the wooden spoon in her hand. Snap! I feel a sharp sting burn my forehead. Snap! Another sting, worse, on my bare legs.

“I’m sorry,” I cry. “I -I got a job. I met this girl and she gave me a job.”

Snap! The spoon catches me on the arm as I unload my grade nine text books on to the kitchen table. I feel my shoulder blades hunch waiting for the next blow.

“Liar!” My mother’s breath is on the back of my neck. “Bloody liar! This is the last straw, Francie. I’m going to see the Policeman right after supper. When I tell him what a liar you are, you little brat, he’ll send you to the Children’s Home. He’s told me a dozen times to get rid of you. He’ll come tonight and take you away. And you know what they do to liars in the Children’s Home.”

I cover my ears. I do not want to hear about the black cellar and the rats. My eyes seek my brother Alex who is sitting across the table, his text books spread in front of him. He gives a tiny shake of his head and only then do I remember what he whispered to me last night. The unbelievable thing. He’s mouthing the words now. No Policeman. There is no Policeman. No Children’s Home.

Still I can’t stop pleading. “Please, don’t send me away. I won’t be late again. I promise. I couldn’t help it. I met this girl outside the school. This rich girl. Really, really rich. She’s in grade thirteen. She made me stop and talk. She lives in Rosedale and she was asking if any of us grade niners wanted a job. So I said I’d take it.” My voice trailed away to a mumble as I opened my history text and hunched my face down into the familiar pages.

I hear the wooden spoon clatter into the drawer, the drawer slam shut.

“Rosedale?” my mother says. “You’re telling me a girl from Rosedale goes to East King Collegiate?”

“No, no,” I say. “She came to visit a friend, a friend in grade thirteen.” My brother’s mouth opens, his eyebrows pucker. “This friend can’t baby sit anymore so this rich girl asked me if I’d do it.”

My brother nods as if to say, good one. Once again he has positioned his chair by the window, ready to bolt out to the fire escape as soon as she gives us some supper.

“I’ll go to her mansion,” I say.

“Liar,” my mother says flatly. I hunch my shoulders listening for the sound of the opening drawer. “What’s this girl’s name?”

I look down at my grade nine history book. A drawing of Lord Selkirk in a kilt takes up half the page. “Selkirk,” I say and see my brother’s eyes roll. He shakes his head in disbelief. “Louisa Selkirk.”

“And why doesn’t this Louisa babysit the child herself?”

“She has dance classes,” I say. “And music lessons. It’s not one child, it’s two. They’re twins.”

My brother leans back in his chair, nodding and making a face that says, not bad kid. Keep it up.

“And how are you supposed to get all the way up to Rosedale?”

“The chauffeur will pick me up. In a limo.”

“A limo? Coming here?” I can tell my mother would love to have a limo arrive at our building but, on the other hand, she would be ashamed too. Our apartment is right on East King Street, above a convenience store.

“No,” I say. “The limo will pick me up at school.”

“And bring you back home?”

My imagination is running down. “I-I don’t know. “

“I’ll have to discuss this with the Policeman,” my mother says, putting a plate of Kraft Dinner in front of me. “How often would you have to go?”

“Every day after school,” I say not looking at my brother’s face. “Two hours only. I can do my homework when I get home.”

“Every day? What about the kids’mother?”

“Mrs. Selkirk has to go to society meetings. It’s for the opera.” I spoon in the macaroni fast, praying it would fuel my imagination. “But I’ll be working for her, for the Selkirk family, actually.”

My brother is stroking his chin, trying not to smile. He has already finished his supper. Now he bolts his milk and, at the same time, grabs most of the bread, shoving several slices under his ragged sweater. He leans back in his kitchen chair, his eyes watching my mother at the sink behind me. At the sound of water pouring into the dishpan, he half turns in his chair, slowly raises the window, and then, he is gone. On the fire escape, he blows me a kiss and I hear his feet clatter down.

“Every night, the same thing,” my mother says. “That’s boys for you.” She sighs as she slams the window shut. “The Policeman wanted to arrest him but I said no. I must have been crazy but I don’t want him taken to the Children’s Home yet. They beat kids like that with big whips.”

I clean my plate slowly and try to gulp all the milk. Surely the Policeman will discover there’s no family named Selkirk living in Rosedale. Then not even brother Alex will be able to save me. But once again I remember last night. When my mother had rushed out to the police station to get the Policeman to cart both of us off to the Children’s Home, my brother had actually laughed.

“What a load of beans,” he said. “She makes this stuff up. There is no Policeman. No Children’s Home either.”

I stopped sobbing and looked at him. What?

“Come up on the roof a second,” he said. “I’ll prove it to you.”

I shake my head. “No. She’ll send me away forever.” But Alex opened the window, grabbed my sweater and pulled me over. “Don’t be such a scardy cat.” He shoved his face into mine. “There is no Policeman, Francie. There is no Children’s Home. Get it through your thick skull.”

My arms and legs felt like cooked spaghetti as I climbed the iron rungs that lead from the fire escape to the roof. Behind me, Alex kept urging, “Come on, come on. You can do it. Only a few more.”

The roof was bumpy with tarry gravel that stuck to my shoes, but above me, the dark sky stretched to a jagged horizon where a long streak of sunset, like a yellow scarf, swooped across the city of Toronto. A bright flash below made me grab Alex’s hand. It was only the street lights coming on all together.

Alex pulled me to the little wall that ran across the front of the roof. “Look down there,” he said. “At the donut shop.”

I stared at the bright glass squares across the street looking for the one that said Gertie’s Donuts. It took a minute to make out my mother sitting inside, in a booth next to the window. Was it possible there was a cigarette in her hand? She lifted something to her mouth. A cup? Yes. She set it down and laughed up at someone. It must be the Policeman, I thought, but no, it was a waitress, whose arm came into view holding a carafe of coffee. My mother was laughing at the waitress, talking and dragging on the cigarette. It was like watching the opening scene of a television show. Soon the Policeman would arrive but the minutes went by and the same mute program filled the frame.

Then, I saw him. I clutched at my brother’s sleeve and pointed, unable to speak. The Policeman walked along the far sidewalk, his stomach jutting in front of him, his flat-top hat hiding his face. But he did not turn into the donut shop. He did not even look in the window. He went right by. I stared, waiting for him to turn back. My brother said, “You go down now, Francie. I’ll stay up here and if the policeman talks to her, I’ll tell you, I promise. But he won’t because he doesn’t know her. She doesn’t know him. It’s all a big lie.” He was whispering. “A big lie.”

Every morning my mother leaves a half hour before us to go to her job at the laundromat. This gives my brother time to rifle the cupboards looking for more food to add to his lunch bag. “You’d better get a good story figured out,” he tells me as he shakes dry cereal on to a piece of wax paper and twists the corners together. “She’ll want to hear all about your mansion and your twins.”

The twins take over my brain even in math class, my favourite. But I can’t picture the Selkirk house at all. Or a Rosedale street. Or the inside of a limo. At noon, I run the half block to the King Street Library and ask the librarian for a map of Toronto. I often go there at lunch hour and Miss Curtville, who is my friend, never says anything when I nibble my peanut butter sandwich, breaking the No Food rule, as I leaf through Seventeen Magazine. Now, on the wire shelf, I see what I want—a copy of Toronto Life. I flip the pages. Just as I thought. Plenty of mansions. Another magazine called Architectural Digest looks promising. I slip everything under a pile of Toronto Star newspapers on the bottom shelf and run back to school. I’ll return at three-thirty, take out my binder and pen and start my new homework.

Two weeks later my mother sets a sausage sandwich before me. To my surprise she adds a piece of celery with bits of cheese squashed along its length. I’d told my mother that Rita, the Selkirk’s maid, says it’s a healthy snack. She often makes it for the twins. Brendan loves it but Brenda picks out the cheese and just eats the celery.

What happened today?” my mother asks.

“I think Brendan is getting a cold,” I reply. “He didn’t want to play with his Tonka trucks. I just sat him on my lap and read him his Velveteen Bunny book.”

I take a long drink from my glass of milk. “Brenda got a new dress for Thanksgiving. It’s red velvet with a lace collar. She got new white tights too and Mary Jane patent leather shoes. Mrs. Selkirk took her to the hairdressers’ this morning. No more ponytail but short bangs and a bob right to her ears.”

My mother pours me more milk. “I never liked ponytails,” she says. “Did you talk to the maid? “

“Rita? Yes. She says Mr. Selkirk is arriving from Washington tomorrow. He’s in the Secret Service but you can’t tell anyone. Rita says he always brings the twins presents when he comes home from Washington. And he brings jewellery for Louisa and Mrs. Selkirk.”

My brother is leaning forward on the table, his face on one hand. Every once in a while he gives me an eye roll.

“What was Rita making for dinner?” my mother asks. I’m ready with the answer. I have added Gourmet Magazine to my library reading. “Duck a l’orange.” I say. “It’s a braised duck with a creamy orange sauce. Caesar salad, and peach Melba for dessert. Mrs. Selkirk drinks Harvey’s Bristol Cream sherry before dinner, but Mr. Selkirk drinks crème de menth. That is when he’s home.”

My mother sighs as she clears away. “I hope the little ones don’t get sick,” she says. “Check them for spots. They often get chicken pox at that age. Or measles. Did you see Louisa?”

“No,” I say. “She stayed on at her private school for a rehearsal. Romeo and Juliette. She’s playing Juliette.” I open my geography text and study the map of the United States. I’m planning to send Mr. Selkirk on another trip.

All the members of the Selkirk family are very busy that autumn. Mr. Selkirk goes to Washington to see President Johnson and almost gets caught in an anti-Vietnam War riot outside the Capitol building. He barely escapes with his life. Louisa is a big success as Juliette. The family eats beef Wellington, lobster thermidor and duck flambé. Mrs. Selkirk finishes tennis for the year and buys skis for everyone including the twins. They will ski in Switzerland during the Christmas holidays. But in early December, both twins get chicken pox. I’m asked to babysit them one Saturday afternoon.

“Chicken pox is itchy,” my mother says. “I hope they’ve got plenty of calamine lotion for the poor wee tykes. If not, ask Rita for buttermilk to put on their spots.” She hands me a paper bag. “I baked them cookies,” she says.

My brother and I eat the cookies as we wander Yonge Street. It’s the first time I’ve been downtown. The revolving display of Santa’s workshop in the Simpsons Department Store window makes me giddy as if I were spinning in air.

My brother pulls a piece of cloth out of his trouser pocket and ties it around his head. “I’m a hippie now,” he says. In the evenings, he often goes to Yorkville to listen to the folk music. “Next summer, when I finish grade twelve, a bunch of us are hitching to Vancouver.”

My breath drops in my chest landing near my stomach. If Alex leaves he might never come back. The dancing figures in the window melt into slashes of colour. I grab his sleeve, helpless with tears.

“Come on, Francie.” Alex puts his arm in mine and turns me into the crowd. “Don’t cry. I’m not gone yet.” We cross Yonge Street and walk east on King. He reaches into his pocket and hands me five dollars. “Give this to her. A Christmas bonus from the Selkirks.” I had long ago convinced my mother that Mr. Selkirk was putting my regular babysitting wages into a special account for my university education, but I knew she would grab at any extra money. “And this is for you.”

I clutch at the fiver he puts in my palm. The first money I’ve ever had. “You’ve earned it.”

I watch his stocky figure with the red headband weave back toward Yonge Street. In the last month he’s been staying away from the apartment more and more. On Saturday nights he has a job as a runner for one of the strip clubs. I’m not sure what the job is but he gets lots of tips.

In June, Louisa graduates from high school and enters the arts program at the University of Toronto, majoring in drama. The entire family goes to their summer cottage on Lake Rosseau in Muskoka but I baby sit whenever they come into town. On these days I wander Holt Renfrew picking out clothes for everyone. My mother lets me take a baby sitting course at the King Street library. I read the Globe and Mail whenever I can because I want to keep up with Mr. Selkirk’s foreign travels. I convince my mother is would be a good idea for me to take first aid at the St. John’s Ambulance. But when fall comes at last, and the family returns to Rosedale once again, I feel the pace of my life quicken. The twins enter kindergarten. The chauffeur and I pick them up after school every day. A wonderful year of freedom begins.

But one day, in early April of the following year. I arrive home ten minutes late because, after school, I ran downtown to check out Eaton’s Toy Land. The twins’ birthday is coming up and I want them to get the most wonderful presents. Now, pounding up the stairs, I hunch my shoulders in the old way, even though the wooden spoon has not come out of the drawer for weeks.

My mother is standing in the centre of the kitchen. “Liar,” she yells. My brother, in his old place at the kitchen table, looks up from his homework, his face puzzled. “Lying brat. You weren’t babysitting. I know where you were.” I could barely force my hands to hang my coat on the hook by the door.

“What?” I say, feeling the kitchen waver as I turn around. I see my brother stand and move toward me.

“Mr. Selkirk phoned me,” my mother screams. “He wanted to know where you were. And you, you liar, told me the Selkirks had an unlisted number and it could not be given to anyone. Well I asked him right out. He gave the number to me. I can phone you there anytime.”

“I was there,” I say as firmly as I can while scrambling frantically for a response. “Mr. Selkirk didn’t even come into the nursery. He didn’t see me. Ask Rita. Phone Rita and ask her. She’ll tell you I was there.”

My brother sits down again, a look of admiration on his face.

My mother is putting on her coat. “I’m going to talk to the Policeman. He’ll beat the truth out of you.” She slams out.

I stand irresolute, my heart fluttering with the old fear. Then anger. “This is ridiculous,” I say to Alex. I grab my coat and run down the stairs to the sidewalk. From across the street, I see my mother in the donut shop. She is settling into the booth by the window. At once, the waitress appears with a cup of coffee. My mother takes out a pack of cigarettes, chooses one and lights it. She leans into the booth, flipping her hair back with one hand and says something to the waitress. Framed in the square of light, she looks remote, unfamiliar. The waitress does not move away and I can see they are talking. My mother shrugs her shoulders, waves her cigarette, laughs.

I open the door of the coffee shop and step inside. There are two people paying their bills at the counter and I stand to one side of them, using them as shields. I want to watch my mother unobserved. I wait for the waitress to leave the booth and move to the other customers.

My mother’s face is in profile to me. The fluorescent light makes the sharp bone of her cheek stand out as she looks up. She must have put on lipstick before she sat down. Her long fingers turn the cigarette package over and over on the table. I hear the word Rosedale and then limo and then the waitress says something. My mother waves her cigarette, laughs and I distinctly hear, the twins. The waitress leaves and goes behind the long counter. My mother stubs out her cigarette and straightens her scarf. She leans her head sideways so that her long brown hair falls over her shoulder. She rubs her forehead with one hand, back and forth. Her eyes are closed, squeezed shut. Then she gives her head a little shake and reaches for the cigarette pack.

I want to run up, grab her boney shoulders and shake her till her lipstick blurred. I want to yell, Shut up. Shut up. You never told the truth. Years of lies. You’re a liar. A liar. But instead, I stand mesmerized behind the line at the cash register, watching her. The people beside me suddenly turn toward the door. I walk out beside them, screened from the room.

Alex is waiting for me in the kitchen. “What happened down there?”

“She wanted a cigarette,” I say. “I watched her from the counter. She tells the waitress about the Selkirks. It’s pretty hilarious, when you come to think about it.” I throw my coat over a hook. I’m still angry, but at the same time breathless, as if I had escaped a trap.

My brother passes me his half-eaten plate of spaghetti. He starts laughing then, throwing himself back in his chair. “Far out,” he says, whooping and pounding the table. “Far out.”

‘Too bad for her,” I say as I get myself a big glass of milk from the fridge. “Tonight, I was going to tell her all about Louisa’s engagement.”

“ Louisa’s engaged?” my brother quiets, looks at me, his eyes wide. “No kidding. She has a boy friend? Tell me about it.”

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