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456 Victoria (a novel excerpt)

By
November 15, 2007

Coming home late from school Augati threw down her book-bag and listened. Her mother’s door, her office, was closed as usual and the sound of her typewriter could be heard, frenzied even in its pauses. To her “I’m home,” Mab replied, “I can’t stop.”

Augati frowned. She hadn’t asked her to stop. Not bothering to reply, she went into the kitchen and opened a can of baked beans and toasted two pieces of bread; she was careful to butter it so there weren’t any blank spots before heaping the beans on top. She sat perched on the edge of her chair and ate, staring out the window beyond the back porch below to the evening-stilled street aware that within a ten-block radius her half-sisters, Karenne and Patricia, themselves would soon be sitting down to their dinner with their other families. She couldn’t picture it: by some unwritten law she was never invited to the other houses, yet she couldn’t stop thinking about them, about the few fragmentary things she did know, like that Karenne and her other sisters “the adopted Heather and Leslie” (she had never heard them referred to as anything but) had steak and chips every Friday night, their treat, if not their choice, and always the same.

Augati licked her plate clean, then went to see if there were any more beans in the pot. Some. Dried. Wrinkled. She had forgotten to turn the flame off. She picked up the pot and wandered over to the back balcony door which was still taped shut against winter drafts and watched as a few of the other Westmount Dads arrived home from work. Each paused at the threshold of their houses, snagged by evidence of the day’s messy entanglements left out in the open. One picked up a plastic sled thrown down in the front garden and stored it away beneath the stairs. Another kicked (hopefully) frozen dog shit to the curb. Mr. Miller, the only fat father on the block, spent a long time trying to flatten the furled edge of the hemp runner he had placed along his walkway. A trip and fall for him would be disaster but even his great weight couldn’t tamp down the edge.

Into this scene, to Augati’s total amazement, walked Karenne. What was she doing on this street, Augati’s street, blocks away from her own home? It was Tuesday. It was getting close to supper-time. It was a school night. Augati, breath caught and stopped, watched as Karenne came along the street, her school uniform still on beneath her coat and her book-bag strapped across her chest. Augati felt strange, dislocated, as if she was seeing a ghost of her sister, rather than the real thing. She remembered feeling the same way once before when she spotted Karenne walking across the far end of the school playing field. A friend asked if that wasn’t her sister and without thinking she had said no. It wasn’t because she didn’t want to claim her but at that moment, the girl across the field seemed completely alien. Perhaps it was the perspective. Distance having warped her idea of what Karenne should be like.

She stood now on her tiptoes so she could watch her progress as she went past beneath the balcony. It was seeing her alone. Somehow, Karenne’s alone-ness was denser than other people’s. And to Augati’s childish reasoning that seemed unfair as if, whether walking across a field or coming down her street, Karenne was violating sister-ness.

She, herself, always made an effort. Came home from school early on Fridays so she could be there when Karenne’s mother, Maret, dropped her off. Emptied out her top drawer so Karenne would have a place to put her clothes. (But Patricia kept clothes at the flat, in the closet in her mother’s office. That too confused Augati: what if you wanted to wear something that was somewhere else?) But despite all her efforts, Karenne dragged in that dense-ness, that solitude with her. Unpacking her weekend bag—releasing to Augati’s constant fascination the smells of that other life, that other house—Karenne would put her clothes away, pin-neat, razor-folded, name-tagged so there would never be any mix-up of jumpers, without a note of gratitude for what Augati had to done for her by cramming all her badly folded clothes into one already over-stuffed drawer.

At night after Karenne drifted off, the sheets neatly pulled-up beneath her chin, Augati would lie awake, aware of their clothes. Hers were tag-less, pilled, and all acrylic because she was allergic to wool—her grandmother, Mab’s mother, sent most of her sweaters from England, Marks & Spencer—laying in a jumble, one drawer away from Karenne’s. Why were they so different? And why every fortnight did she have to give in to this invasion, have to absorb a whole other person into her room, her life, a person who, when spotted walking across a playing field had seemed completely remote, so unto herself, so un-sisterly!

She was gone now. Had passed out of sight. But to where? Not here, Augati thought. Why would she be coming here? She put the bean pot back on the stove. Maybe she had a friend who lived near by and she was going over to do homework. But that was highly unlikely. Maret and Davis were very strict and only allowed each girl three hours per week for visiting friends. Augati had often seen the look of panic in Karenne’s eyes when Mab, wanting to be left alone, would shout, “Go play for God’s sake.” So no, she couldn’t be going to a friend’s house. And she couldn’t be lost.

The doorbell rang.

Augati crept down the hallway and lightly rapped on her mother’s office door. “Mum, there’s some one at the door.”

“Well, answer it. I’m in the middle.”

“Mum. I think it might be Karenne.”

On either side of the door, mother and daughter were perfectly still. Finally, Augati could hear her mother’s chair scrape back. The door opened.

“Miles isn’t here,” Mab said. “How do you know it’s Karenne?”

“I saw her walking down the street.”

Mab swept past her and opened the inside door and walked down a couple of stairs so she could see who was at the outside door. “It is Karenne. Why is she ringing the doorbell?” She came back up the stairs. “Well, go see what she wants.”

“Me?”

“She’s your bloody sister.”

“But it’s a school night.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Where’s Daddy?”

“How the hell should I know? Just go, for Christ’s sake. I can’t stop now. My column is in a state.”

Augati watched as her mother went back into her office and closed the door. She waited a moment. Karenne had not rung again, but then she wouldn’t. She would wait until you hopped down the ladder of your doubts, or enthusiasms, or wild impulses, until you arrived at her feet ready to acquiesce. Augati went down the stairs and opened the door. To her astonishment, she saw Karenne was crying. Not hard. Not sobs. Still, tears in her eyes, tears not caused by the wind or the cold. Augati realized it was the first time she had seen her cry. When Karenne fell, she tended to say “Ow” or “Damn.” Just as when she was cold she would rub her hands together and say, “Brrr,” Food was “Yum.” Sleep was “Yawn.” Frustration, “Urgh!” She was a good giggler though, so that made up for the strange-ness of her captioned emotions. Augati cried a lot, was a real sniveler. And she cried most when she had done something wrong, so she naturally asked, “What did you do?”

“I put on my coat and walked out,” Karenne said, looking back down the flight of outside stairs, icy even though the spring thaw was on.

“Why?”

“Heather wrote her name in all my school books. Crossed out mine and wrote hers in.”

Heather! Augati remembered once seeing a girl wearing the most beautiful cowboy boots and had immediately thought, ‘Heather should be wearing those.’ Beauty like that required more beauty. You just had to give into it. But what would she want with schoolbooks?

“Did she lose hers?” Augati asked.

“No, she just wants everything. So I ran away.”

“But Daddy is not home,”

“Oh.” Karenne thought a moment. “That’s okay, I’ll speak to Mum.”

Karenne called both her and her own mother Mum. Patricia, lately, had been trying to call Mab Mum, but Mab wasn’t having any of it. As for her father Miles, she preferred not to call him anything, because, Augati thought, he wasn’t her father and she was afraid of him, afraid of the coolness of his eyes and the very male-ness of his occupations. He taught flying, sold high-end cars, and occasionally on weekends still raced.

“Okay,” she said now turning and, taking two steps at a time, she went back upstairs. She heard Karenne shut the door and drop her book-bag down. What’s in it if her books were gone? She herself had really bad homework: arithmetic, spelling, drawing, and putting the planets in the right order. All things, she realized, that Karenne would be very good at.

Augati paused at the top of the stairs and hearing Mab’s typewriter, felt it was only fair to warn Karenne, “Mum’s working.” Suddenly, it felt like they had both broken into some stranger’s house and were now standing on the threshold in surroundings so unfamiliar they didn’t know which direction to turn.

On weekends, they knew where to go, what to do. They might go directly to the kitchen, open a tin of fruit cocktail and eat in-order the pineapples, pears, peaches, saving the two, small cherries for last. Or they might flop down in front of the TV, and wait for Mab to call them to dinner. But this was a school night, and Mab’s typewriter was making it perfectly clear she was not to be disturbed, so neither of them knew what to do.

Thankfully, after a minute the typewriter stopped. The two sisters, Augati rolling over on one foot and chewing the inside of her mouth and Karenne, still, steeled even, waited for Mab to appear.

“She’s run away,” Augati said, overcome with excitement.

“Karenne?” Mab said, keeping her voice even but for the first time in Augati’s life catching her eye. “What brought this on?”

“It was a final straw.”

“Heather stole all her school books!” Augati burst in.

“Does your mother know?”

“No, she’s with Leslie getting her eyes checked.”

Leslie, the younger of the two adopted sisters, had a wandering eye. Two operations, and it stilled roved.

“School books don’t seem much of an offense.”

“No,” said Karenne.

The three stood a moment. “Your father is at an auto show. He wouldn’t be coming home, not tonight.”

“Oh,” said Karenne.

Augati waited. It didn’t seem possible that her mother would throw her out. And yet, this wasn’t the natural order of things. Mab could work while she ate beans but a runaway required something else, and Augati looked again at her mother and it was obvious she wasn’t willing to give it. A deep anger flashed through Augati. This was a crisis, the world had shifted in some profound way, and all her mother cared about was going back to work.

“There’s another can of beans,” Augati offered.

“Oh good,” Mab said, relieved. “Feed Karenne will you. I can’t stop now.”

Mab went back into her office and Augati started down the hallway to the kitchen. She almost turned and said to Karenne, “This way.” That’s how strange it felt to have her sister following her into the kitchen on a school night.

The beans were not a success. She didn’t wash out the pot before dumping in the new can. Karenne claimed that some of the beans tasted “musty.” Worse, Augati had used the last of the soft butter, so she tore the toast with the butter from the fridge. Karenne didn’t even finish her meal, pushing the plate away and telling her, “Beans aren’t my thing.”

Augati felt desperate now and very sad having decided that this special circumstance needed, well to be special. She wanted Karenne to see her life, to have a secret glimpse. The first thing she did was tell Karenne to leave her dishes on the table knowing that at her other house they had strict rules about that too, had schedules drawn up and inspections of chores when completed. No, just leave the dishes: that was the first thing Karenne had to learn if she was going to live here.

Live here. That stopped Augati. What else could running away mean other than running there to live? Well, then she’d show great generosity, even if she felt very uneasy. “Come, we’ll clear out my drawer together and, and” Augati now in her bedroom swept two whole shelves worth of books and toys onto the floor, “ You can put your new school books here.” She went next to the closet and pushed all her clothes to one side. “Plenty of room, see.”

Karenne looked but didn’t seem convinced. Before Augati could empty out her stuff and put everything in the trunk, she had wandered off into the living room.

“I have a test tomorrow,” she said looking very small while sitting on the couch. “And you’re two grades behind.”

That was a problem.

“I can’t study here.” Karenne’s hand waved loosely over the room.

Augati saw the whole shabby truth of her life. The coffee table: a door, the handle still on poking up through the magazines that concealed the rest, rows upon rows of old magazines, many with missing covers, many marked and marred by grease, spilled coffee, forgotten bubble gum. Even the pillow she had picked up when she joined Karenne was bald, and it stank. How could Patricia sleep on this moldy old thing bought, as Mab proudly boasted, at the Sally Ann. Everywhere too was a riot of colors and patterns; Indian prints, Chinese lanterns, Oriental rugs, and Afghan throws. Mab had style that was the key thing. Style meant color and mess and not cleaning behind the furniture.

If Maret and Davis had schedules for doing dishes it was a safe bet that on a regular basis hidden spots were ferreted out. Behind the fridge, below stairs, the inside rim of the washing machine were attacked, cleaned and polished. Augati could see Karenne beginning to despair. Without the parental anchor of Miles, this other house was just too different, too dirty, and too wild. This wasn’t home.

Augati needed now to remind her of the reason she had come. Picking at a loose thread, she asked, “Was Heather “Heather” when your mum got her? Or did she get to rename her?”

“She was Heather. Always Heather. But Leslie was “Joan.”

“Why did they change Leslie’s name?”¨

“Dad. Davis Dad wanted to name her for his father.”

“His father’s name was Leslie? That’s a girl’s name.”

“It’s Welsh and a boy’s name there.”

“Oh.” Augati thought of Leslie’s wandering eye and her mouth that always had a split bottom lip and how her feet pointed out like a duck’s. Early on, there had been some hope she might be a natural dancer but she had no arches to speak of. If all the sisters had been allowed to be friends, Augati supposed, she would have been stuck with Leslie who was closer in age, not the beautiful Heather two years older. All in all it was a relief then that she only got reports on them from Karenne, Augati being a snob in many ways even though she had been told enough times that Leslie was an incredibly sweet child. Still, being named after a man must sting. Augati was named after her father’s mother, Augusta. It occurred to her that all this naming-after might have been done to smooth down the ruffled feathers of Old World parents grappling with divorce, new wives, and second families. But that was all she had in common with Leslie except, of course their sister, who, she realized, probably knew more about Karenne than Augati did. It was all too obvious now that ten blocks away was her real home, home enough to run away from, and home enough that she’d have to go back.

Augati looked around. She wasn’t helping, she could tell that. Karenne seemed at a complete loss. If she had one assumption it was that running away should be sort of fun, action-packed at least.

“You’re really smart. You don’t need to study,” she said.

“Everyone needs to study. There’ll be trick questions.”

“What’s a trick question?”

“Stuff you forgot. That’s why you have to go back to the beginning.”

“The beginning of the school year!” It was the end of April for Christ’s sake. That was ridiculous.

“I remember the beginning,” Karenne said. “First Peoples.”

“First Peoples?”

“Eskimos, formerly. Now First Peoples. They came across the Bering Strait.”

Augati held her tongue. She wasn’t going to ask what the Bering Strait was. If Karenne remembered everything, then maybe she’d stay. That seemed important now wanting, after always assuming, her house, this house, to be better.

“Then what?”

Karenne narrowed her eyes, stared into the middle distance, and counted off on her fingers. Must be a studying method. “And then Champlainno Cabot first, then Champlain. Explorers.”

Augati relaxed a little. Champlain, that seemed local. They had crossed the Chaplain Bridge enough times. “See?”

Karenne ignored her. “Then there was a the war with the French”

“But that’s now.”

“No, that was another war. And what’s happening now isn’t a war. It’s a revolution.”

Augati sat back. It was definitely something. Upheaval was all around. She wasn’t even allowed to go the post office anymore for fear of bombs. When she forgot to write a thank-you note to grandmother Augusta for the English school-girl annuals she had taken to sending—funny how one grandmother sent clothes and the other reading stuff—she didn’t even get into trouble when she said it was because she didn’t have any stamps. And she had also heard her parents saying that Mab’s days at the Montreal Star were numbered because she was British. But she wouldn’t bring that up either.

“ Then King George but” Karenne said, stopping her litany. “There were things in-between like searching for the North West Passage and the Hudson’s Bay Company”

It was a lot of stuff to remember. A thought then occurred to Augati. “Just because,” she said, interrupting, “Heather put her name in you books doesn’t mean you can’t look in them, does it?”

“It’s the principle.”

“Then can’t you take them back and rewrite your own name?”

“I won’t win. In the discussion.”

“What discussion?”

“About what happened. About how I should have shared.”

“But that’s not fair!”

“It is fair. You should share,” Karenne said, looking at her. “You don’t know that but I do.”

Everything was getting twisted. How did it happen that now there was an implicit complaint about her in the air? She could feel it. But she was the one who did all the right things, took her clothes out of her drawer, moved her books. And, as she well knew, it was Karenne’s stuff that stood apart.

“ Don’t forget I wrote my name in the books in the first place”

Stop! Augati wanted to cry. This was supposed to be running away, not “let’s think about what I did in the first place and accept blame!” For a second time that afternoon, she felt really angry. Nobody was behaving how they ought.

“I know about sharing,” Augati said.

“Okay,” Karenne said, but her voice was strangely flat, as if she didn’t really believe it. That was because she didn’t want any of Augati’s hysterics: She was always jumping about, crashing into things, eating too much, and laughing like a hyena. Augati stepped on a cat’s tail once. How do you do that? She was always a little bit stuffy in the nose. She scratched, pulled, and picked constantly. Picked her nose, picked at scabs. Her pigtails were uneven, even if she helped her do them, and within a few minutes, one would be coming undone. Leslie, with crooked eyes, managed to keep her pigtails straight. Karenne could feel her now agitating beside her, never sitting still, one thought bashing in on another. Watching TV with her was hell, first on her stomach, then on her back, needing a pillow then kicking it aside, always wanting to check what was on the other channel, wanting to know if anyone needed ice cream, a sandwich, a cookie, some milk. It made her dizzy. There was never any discussion. Things happened, Augati reacted, then moved on or (and this was even worse to Karenne’s mind) she didn’t take into account her actions. Consequence. She had no idea of consequence! Karenne felt sick. Really sick. That was unexpected. The room started to spin

“I think I have to throw up,” she said, getting up off the couch and walking towards the bathroom. Sick as she was, she was still a little nervous. She had never thrown up at her Dad’s house before.

Augati looked after her, her mouth agape. She couldn’t have been more shocked. Throwing up was a calamity. She had never heard of anyone announcing it before or walking calmly to the bathroom. She even heard the lock slip into place.

“What the hell is going on?” Mab had come out of her office. At least, some things were still working: a parent knew there was a sick child about.

“Karenne’s throwing up,” Augati said.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake.” Mab turned and went back into her office only this time she didn’t shut the door and Augati could hear the dialing of the phone. She could hear too that the conversation wasn’t going well. A lesson had to be learned. Davis felt that she should spend the night. Mab, though, wasn’t so easily ensnared. Dinner plans. Long standing. And Miles far away.

Mab came out of the office. “God I feel sorry for that woman. Did you know that Davis gives her fifteen dollars a week! That’s it. For everything! He’s such a cheap bastard”

Augati had no clue what her mother was talking about.

“ She’ll be here in a few minutes. Go see how your sister is.”

“Why me?”

“You fed her.”

No need. Karenne appeared at the door. “What did Mum say?”

“She’s coming to get you,” Mab said. “Apparently, she doesn’t like you to be here when your dad’s not. And it’s a school night.”

“I couldn’t brush my teeth.”

“Use Augati’s. She rarely does.”

Won’t now. Ever.

“I have a test tomorrow too.”

“Of course you do.”

The three of them sat on the couch waiting for the doorbell to ring. It wasn’t long. Maret only had to come ten blocks after all, but still it was strange. She usually just pulled up and waited not even beeping the horn. And Karenne always just somehow knew she was there and would pick up her carefully packed weekend bag, look around the room to make sure nothing was left (Augati can’t ever give a quick check around a hotel room without thinking of her sister, just as she can’t fold towels without thinking of her mother) and head downstairs where Maret would, as if cued by unseen forces, get out of her car, only to tell Karenne where to sit. Augati had watched the ritual unfold often enough times. Never though had Maret ever rung the doorbell.

Mab, not seeming too put out, went to the top of the stairs and yelled down, “Come up Maret, it’s open.”

The chatter as she picked her way up avoiding boots, lone gloves, and a pair of skates, was all about the weather and how deceptive the thaw was, with there being so much ice still about. Maret arrived to the top, a little breathless, bringing with her an outside coolness.

“He kissed her.” Augati thought of Maret kissing her father. How could he just switch? Maret lips were straight and thin. Mab’s, she looked up, had something caught in the corner. Augati crowded in around her mother showing solidarity because if the truth be told Maret definitely cut a finer figure. She was put together while Mabwell Mab looked like she’d been put through the wringer. Writing did that to her, the very lost-in-thought-ness of it seemed to smudge her, her hair was messy, breadcrumbs clung to her bosom that, to Augati’s great horror, showed no signs of a bra.

Who then was the real wife? Two such different women couldn’t possibly have made the same man fall in love with her. One had to be an impostor. It would be obvious to assume it was Maret. After all, Miles had left her high-and-dry with a baby and, Augati heard in hushed tones, a collapsed uterus. Although, looking at her now, she seemed better suited for her father—what with his RAF posture, and his love of order, of cars, of engines, of flying high in the sky, spouting technical terms about altitude, bearings, and wind velocity, while Mab hated anything that belched noxious fumes, hated speed, hated, Augati had heard her cry enough times, being strapped-in beside a man no better than a monkey at the controls! She could she why, Mab was expansive and messy and very clumsy constantly stabbing herself with scissors, slipping on ice, losing control of her typewriter ribbon. All things that drove her father crazy. In he would storm, demanding of her: what have you done to yourself now? Standing—bleeding or covered in ink, Mab didn’t have much of a defense.

Augati shifted to another foot. Still, each night it was to that house that Miles came home to where after first having his first drink, he would go into the kitchen with Mab where he would chop and sauté and make dishes such as brains, lamb’s kidney soaked in milk, calves livers, and kippers while Mab—still knocking back vodka—told him about what she had written, the latest goings on at the CBC, or what she had been reading. Maret couldn’t have done that. She didn’t write. The only thing she did was live on fifteen dollars a week and make her girls share every little thing. What was that? Nothing. And, because even by the age of ten, Augati already had a keen interest in anything to do with sex, she didn’t even look like she slept naked, not like Miles and Mab.

The wives were talking. Taking advantage of this rare opportunity. No men about. Each, willing on this strangest of days, to let their respective lives crash up against each other. They had, after all, shared so much. Maret asked how Mab’s work was going. Mab shrugged, sighed, groaned, everything but throw herself on the ground and start wailing.

“Well, no matter. I loved the last column. Really, you’re at your best when writing about small details.”

“Small to you maybe,” Mab laughed. Maret did have a way of making a compliment sting.

“Will you be writing at all soon?”

“Why? What have I done to the French except support them all along? They should have blown up the Queen’s picture years ago. And so should we have.”

“Oh Mab! That barbed tongue. It will get you in trouble one day.”

“Not barbed enough,” Mab said. “And you? How are the girls?”

“Leslie’s eyes. Another operation. I’m beginning to think that she likes the attention. Heather’s such a sparkplug. It’s hard for her to compete.”

Augati could stand it no more. “She stole Karenne’s school books.”

A pause. A considered pause. No rash reaction ever from Maret. “With three girls, we all have to share. Remember Heather and Leslie come from great poverty. We want them to know a different future.”

“Nobody owns school books,” Mab said. “At least not in my day.” Her hand was on Augati’s shoulder, the drop-the-subject squeeze imperceptible to others but she felt it keenly enough.

“We have to go. Davis doesn’t like his dinner later than seven.”

“No, he wouldn’t.”

“Easier that way. Miles”

Mab picked up the thread. Even after ten years, she still felt proprietary. Anyhow, Maret was a lousy cook, that’s why a thousand years ago she could never get Miles to the table on time. To eat what! Steaks on Friday, over-cooked most likely, with frozen French fries, not homemade like hers, made for her famous fish and chips, served just as in England, on newspaper. “ Always his own man.”

The two women nodded. His own man.

Maret told Karenne to go gather her coat and asked pointedly where her book-bag was. “Thrown at the bottom of the stairs!” Wide-eyed disbelief. “Kids,” she said. “Kids.”

“Yes,” said Mab.

“Ready?”

Karenne nodded. And they went back down the stairs Maret chatting brightly. Mab closed the door.

It didn’t seem possible to just go back to the evening that had been there waiting before Karenne arrived so unexpectedly. And yet what else was there to do? On Sundays when she left at least there was the Walt Disney Show to watch. Mother and daughter stood in the hallway.

“Why don’t you take a bath,” Mab said finally, as if that solved everything.

Bex Brian divides her time between New York and Quebec. Her second novel 456 Victoria will be completed in the spring.

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