Copyright © 1982 by Guy Vanderhaeghe
Afterword copyright © 2004 by Leo McKay.
I SUPPOSE it was having a bad chest that turned me into an observer, a watcher, at an early age.
“Charlie has my chest,” my mother often informed friends. “A real weakness there,” she would add significantly, thumping her own wishbone soundly.
I suppose I had. Family lore had me narrowly escaping death from pneumonia at the age of four. It seems I spent an entire Sunday in delirium, soaking the sheets. Dr. Carlyle was off at the reservoir rowing in his little skiff and couldn’t be reached – something for which my mother illogically refused to forgive him. She was a woman who nursed and tenaciously held dark grudges. Forever after that incident the doctor was slightingly and coldly dismissed in conversation as a “man who betrayed the public’s trust.”
Following that spell of pneumonia, I regularly suffered from bouts of bronchitis, which often landed me in hospital in Fortune, forty miles away. Compared with the oxygen tent and the whacking great needles that were buried in my skinny rump there, being invalided at home was a piece of cake. Coughing and hacking, I would leaf through catalogues and read comic books until my head swam with print-fatigue. My diet was largely of my own whimsical choosing – hot chocolate and graham wafers were supplemented by sticky sweet coughdrops, which I downed one after another until my stomach could take no more, revolted, and tossed up the whole mess.
With the first signs of improvement in my condition my mother moved her baby to the living-room chesterfield, where she and the radio could keep me company. The electric kettle followed me and was soon burbling in the corner, jetting steam into the air to keep my lungs moist and pliable. Because I was neither quite sick nor quite well, these were the best days of my illnesses. My stay at home hadn’t yet made me bored and restless, my chest no longer hurt when I breathed, and that loose pocket of rattling phlegm meant I didn’t have to worry about going back to school just yet. So I luxuriated in this steamy equatorial climate, tended by a doting mother as if I were a rare tropical orchid.
My parents didn’t own a television and so my curiosity and attention were focused on my surroundings during my illnesses. I tried to squeeze every bit of juice out of them. Sooner than most children I learned that if you kept quiet and still, and didn’t insist on drawing attention to yourself as many kids did, adults were inclined to regard you as being one with the furniture, as significant and sentient as a hassock. By keeping mum I was treated to illuminating glances into an adult world of conventional miseries and scandals.
I wasn’t sure at the age of six what a miscarriage was, but I knew that Ida Thompson had had one and that now her plumbing was buggered. And watching old lady Kuznetzky hang her washing, through a living-room window trickling with condensed kettle steam, I was able to confirm for myself the rumour that the old girl eschewed panties. As she bent over to rummage in her laundry basket I caught a brief glimpse of huge, white buttocks that shimmered in the pale spring sunshine.
I also soon knew (how I don’t remember exactly) that Norma Ruggs had business with the Liquor Board Store when she shuffled by our window every day at exactly 10:50 a.m. She was always at the store door at 11:00 when they unlocked and opened up for business. At 11:15 she trudged home again, a pint of ice cream in one hand, a brown paper bag disguising a bottle of fortified wine in the other, and her blotchy complexion painted a high colour of shame.
“Poor old girl,” my mother would say whenever she caught sight of Norma passing by in her shabby coat and sloppy man’s overshoes. They had been in high school together, and Norma had been class brain and valedictorian. She had been an obliging, dutiful girl and still was. For the wine wasn’t Norma’s – the ice cream was her only vice. The booze was her husband’s, a vet who had come back from the war badly crippled.
All this careful study of adults may have made me old before my time. In any case it seemed to mark me in some recognizable way as being “different” or “queer for a kid.” When I went to live with my grandmother in July of 1959 she spotted it right away. Of course, she was only stating the obvious when she declared me skinny and delicate, but she also noted in her vinegary voice that my eyes had a bad habit of never letting her go, and that I was the worst case of little pitchers having big ears that she had ever come across.
I ended up at my grandmother’s because in May of that year my mother’s bad chest finally caught up with her, much to her and everyone else’s surprise. It had been pretty generally agreed by all her acquaintances that Mabel Bradley’s defects in that regard were largely imagined. Not so. A government-sponsored X-ray program discovered tuberculosis, and she was packed off, pale and drawn with worry, for a stay in the sanatorium at Fort Qu’Appelle.
For roughly a month, until the school year ended, my father took charge of me and the house. He was a desolate, lanky, drooping weed of a man who had married late in life but nevertheless had been easily domesticated. I didn’t like him much.
My father was badly wrenched by my mother’s sickness and absence. He scrawled her long, untidy letters with a stub of gnawed pencil, and once he got shut of me, visited her every weekend. He was a soft and sentimental man whose eyes ran to water at the drop of a hat, or more accurately, death of a cat. Unlike his mother, my Grandma Bradley, he hadn’t a scrap of flint or hard-headed common sense in him.
But then neither had any of his many brothers and sisters. It was as if the old girl had unflinchingly withheld the genetic code for responsibility and practicality from her pin-headed offspring. Life for her children was a series of thundering defeats, whirlwind calamities, or, at best, hurried strategic retreats. Businesses crashed and marriages failed, for they had – my father excepted – a taste for the unstable in partners marital and fiscal.
My mother saw no redeeming qualities in any of them. By and large they drank too much, talked too loudly, and raised ill-mannered children – monsters of depravity whose rudeness provided my mother with endless illustrations of what she feared I might become. “You’re eating just like a pig,” she would say, “exactly like your cousin Elvin.” Or to my father, “You’re neglecting the belt. He’s starting to get as lippy as that little snot Muriel.”
And in the midst, in the very eye of this familial cyclone of mishap and discontent, stood Grandma Bradley, as firm as a rock. Troubles of all kinds were laid on her doorstep. When my cousin Criselda suddenly turned big- tummied at sixteen and it proved difficult to ascertain with any exactitude the father, or even point a finger of general blame in the direction of a putative sire, she was shipped off to Grandma Bradley until she delivered. Uncle Ernie dried out on Grandma’s farm and Uncle Ed hid there from several people he had sold prefab, assemble- yourself, crop-duster airplanes to.
So it was only family tradition that I should be deposited there. When domestic duties finally overwhelmed him, and I complained too loudly about fried-egg sandwiches for dinner again, my father left the bacon rinds hardening and curling grotesquely on unwashed plates, the slut’s wool eddying along the floor in the currents of a draft, and drove the one hundred and fifty miles to the farm,
My father, a dangerous man behind the wheel, took any extended trip seriously, believing the highways to be narrow, unnavigable ribbons of carnage. This trip loomed so dangerously in his mind that, rather than tear a hand from the wheel, or an eye from the road, he had me,
“You’ll love it at Grandma’s,” he kept saying unconvincingly, “you’ll have a real boy’s summer on the farm. It’ll build you up, the chores and all that. And good fun too. You don’t know it now, but you are living the best days of your life right now. What I wouldn’t give to be a kid again. You’ll love it there. There’s chickens and
It wasn’t exactly a lie. There were chickens. But the