THE BARON BABY
A short story by Janis Spence
Yes indeed. The tender trap. Since time immemorial…and here Martin Mills
sighs as he contemplates the historical inevitability of woman’s devious
entrapment of unsuspecting man. Since time immemorial they have held us close
to the fires…
They’re in love, says Edna, and they wanted to have children anyway…
You foolish girl! Nobody wants to have children! Children are a by-product of
marriage! Children happen to you! Children are…children are… a gift!
Well, if they’re a gift, why are you being so mean about it?
Because they are two young people who have their whole lives ahead of them
and now they’ve gone and ruined it all! The future is down the drain! One
thoughtless animal slip, and there it all goes. And then you’re in there like a dirty
shirt! Whatever she does, you have to go and follow suit! Monkey see, monkey
do! Well, it’ll be no use coming to me saying, dad, I never meant to go getting in
trouble! It’ll be out of my hands then! Then you have to let nature take its course!
Then your mother and I’ll have to come and visit you in some scummy run-down
charity place; kids screaming; no money for food…
Margaret’s the one who’s pregnant! You’re going on like it’s me!
It could just as well be you, and don’t you forget it! And anyway, the answer is
no. No, I am not shelling out fifty bucks for you to get all tarted up to be maid of
honour at Margaret McMabie’s shotgun wedding! Besides being an outrageous
amount of money, I don’t even want you associating with those two, do you hear
me? But Edna has already slipped into the kitchen where her mother is making
Hamburger Stroganoff for supper and she pleads her case with her eyes. Juanita
Mills puts one long finger to her lips and with the other languid blue and pink
bony hand shoos off the presence in the living room dismissively, then she mimes
running fabric through a sewing machine. They both laugh and Martin Mills shifts
restively in his easy chair. Well I’m not! And that’s that! He swivels his head and
shouts towards the muffled silence of the kitchen. Any conversation he has with
his wife or one of his three children ends in discord and exasperation. This is not
what family life is all about. His own parents were always in accord, always. His
parents were paragons. They don’t make them like that any more. His father was a
self-possessed gentleman; a schoolteacher and an inventor. His mother was as
delicate and fine as a Meissen figurine with a laugh that put wind chimes to
shame, and as man and wife or mother and father, they were together. Together as
two people could or should be. Of course his father was a hard man. He had to be.
And in those days that was the way it was. Spare the rod and spoil the child. And
she always sided with him; always acquiesced, even when she knew her only
child to be innocent. That was real loyalty, painful loyalty. Oh yes, Mamie and
Joshua knew all about virtue, real virtue, harsh and unforgiving. What wonderful
people. How much he still misses them. He turns on the television and watches a
newscaster report a prediction of men landing on the moon within this decade. As
a schoolteacher he likes to keep up with all aspects of modern life and although he
thinks landing on the moon might be a great accomplishment, he privately feels
unsettled and somehow personally diminished by the thought of ‘losing the
moon’. It’ll be gone! A mystical reference point that has charged literature
through the ages; an ice-cold brilliance that has lit love and madness…gone! All
gone! Trampled and bounced over like we haven’t been given our own planet to
stomp over and plant flags on! Juanita calls out from the kitchen, Gone? What’s
gone? I just did a grocery shopping…
Ernestine McMabie has found out about her impending grandchild by accident.
Her daughter Margaret, with best girlfriend Edna Mills in tow, goes out on the
town and shows up at home well past two in the morning. Margaret drunk as a
skunk has peed herself laughing, and Edna has to half push-half carry as she
navigates her rubbery friend down the alley, across the scrubby patch of garden
and into the back porch. Ernestine has been sound asleep, but awakes suddenly,
not fuzzy with sleep but clear in the head. No particular sound has brought her out
of a dreamless sleep, but she feels a strong urge to check the house, identify the
origin of her alert wakefulness. She wonders if Edward is awake, not that he’s of
any use in a crisis or a middle-of-the-night drama, and knows he’s probably up in
the attic fiddling with the huge mosaic and decoupage artwork that he’s been
working on for seven years. Seven years of depicting the history of Christianity
and he’s only at the eighth-century monks in their stone beehives. And she
fervently hopes that Jessie Halfyard didn’t wake up. The dead of night is the only
respite from her dreary presence. The woman is an idiot: common-law husband in
jail, martyred and droopy and teary (a damp balled up cotton hanky welding hand
to nose), she drifts and moons, a soft round ghost gliding in the shadows.
Ernestine didn’t want to take in boarders, but Sister Helena appealed to her sense
of charity and promised her that she would be made deaconess by Easter.
Miss Halfyard is plain and plump and down on her luck. She looked after her
parents until they died, then at forty-nine took in a single male boarder who said
he was a missionary but turned out to be a mail fraud expert. A devoted member
of the church, she sadly retired from her beloved parish when the congregation
treated her differently with a man, a stranger, under her roof. Nothing she could
put her finger on, but she felt as though she had disappointed them in some deep
way. She knew everyone felt sorry for her, but her lapse of taste over allowing
someone like Douggie Leggler in her home had cost her the respect accorded a
clean-living spinster. Now she was a soiled and possibly criminal woman heading
into old age - Don’t tell me that she didn’t know nothing… As a quiet middle
aged woman caring for elderly parents, she would some day have acquired the
sheen of celibate wisdom, the cool calm and detached authority of those
untouched by the rowdiness of married life and children. She might have become
a revered source of knowledge about dipping, dyeing, carding, all sorts of things
to do with wool, and herbs and flowers: she was already moderately well known
for an herbal drink that helped calm testy old people.
But she had entered into a union with an inappropriate man of an
inappropriate age. He was thirty-five, she was forty-nine. Tongues wagged and
heads shook like rear window car dogs.
What can she be thinking?
Sure, she’s not in her right mind!
Well, one can only imagine…
And imagine they did, but none of them imagined the truth.
Douggie Leggler, coming from an uncomfortable stretch in the Don Jail in
Toronto had a strong pull to the east, so he walked through Ontario then headed
up into northern Quebec where he hitched a ride on a trapper’s sled to Labrador,
and from Labrador he made his way south to Newfoundland. He then walked and
hitchhiked across the island under a hot sun that made every rock sparkle like
black diamond. Along the way he stopped at the odd house and offered to do
chores for food and as the mood took him he would sit for an hour or so on some
beach or on a grassy cliff and stare out to sea, completely happy to be alone and
At Leg Cove, he stayed an entire afternoon.. The beauty of the place almost
overwhelmed him and called him to stay. Ever after when he was asked where he
came from, he said Leg Cove. Just a tiny horseshoe cove dressed in short full firs
holding a skirt of silver turquoise swell: a lace train of spume strewn over racing
tumbling beach rocks singing a pre-Cambrian song under a dancing sun. And not
a house or a living soul in sight.
Douggie hung his coat and bag on a polished smooth horn of driftwood and sat
down in a little sandy dip near the tree line. A woman at his last stop had made
him a lunch of bread and cheese and pickles and molasses cake, and now he
unwrapped the food and ate his fill. There was enough left over for another small
meal and this he re-wrapped for later, then he stretched out full and watched the
sky. Perhaps he slept, perhaps not; to this day he can’t tell, but it seemed to him
that he had been drifting and floating for a few minutes or a few hours when he
looked into the lowering sun and saw a figure striding across the bay: out of the
sun and over the water. A large man wearing sneaker boots, a dungaree under a
ragged tunic, many sweaters and shawls wrapped about him and holding a
crooked carved staff, was suddenly standing over him asking for a bite to eat. In a
daze Douggie scrambled to his feet and handed the stranger what he had. He
could see the man eating heartily but he couldn’t quite make out the face. He’d
see the hand carrying molasses cake to the general direction of the mouth, then a
light, like the light left on one’s retina after a photographer’s flash, would suffuse
and obscure the features. Douggie had an impression of great good humour and
Sorry, I’ve eaten it all, said the stranger, but I know you don’t mind.
Are you who I think you are? asked Douggie. The man laughed a huge
rumbling laugh that shook the cove and caused a shawl to slide off his shoulders
and onto the beach rocks.
I don’t often get recognized, but yes, I am who you think I am. I spend a lot of
time here. Good to run into you, and thanks for lunch! Wonderful cake. Perfectly
dunchy, not heavy, not sticky, and the glaze was truly inspired. And the bread too,
excellent! And were the cheese and pickles homemade as well?
Douggie explained that he had simply knocked on a door and that was that.
Pure luck. Missus had bread and cakes coming out of the oven, and she had given
him what she could. He hadn’t asked about the cheese and pickles.
So, said Douggie, do you have any advice for me? I’ve done some bad shit in
my life; then again, a couple of times I’ve made an effort, you know?
Yes, I do know, said the Man. And keep it up. Use what talents you have been
given to help those around you in any way you can…really, there’s not much that
I can tell you that you don’t already know…
Douggie mentioned that his only legacy from a lonely batty uncle had been a
stack of photos and negatives of baby seals and he had turned these images into a
financially viable concern. He advertised in newspapers and a few magazines
about the cruelty of the seal hunt and asked for donations to a non-existent anti-
sealing movement, and for a sizeable donation the donor received a photo of a
baby seal. The Man said he should cut the reference to the fictional anti-sealing
movement, but that the rest of it seemed OK to him. He advised Douggie that the
profits from his scheme should always be used to help others in need, as he came
across them, at random, and that he shouldn’t make a big deal out of it. Be
modest, he said. Don’t brag; help when you’re asked. And don’t judge; that’s my
bailiwick. Thanks again for lunch, and he strode off across the cove and out over
the sea and didn’t vanish until reaching the horizon where he slipped over the
edge of the ocean with the red liquid sun.
For his photo business and for peace of mind, Douggie needed a good stable
fixed address, a clean comfortable place that ran smoothly and had regular mail
delivery. Jessie Halfyard needed someone in the house. Her parents were recently
deceased and she dreaded the night. Often she sat up until dawn before being able
to relax enough to go to sleep for two or three hours. She liked the idea of a
Douggie was a polite and gracious housemate. He fixed things around the
house and was a passably good cook. And he was home every night; working
away in what used to be her parents’ room. He never suggested, by look or word,
anything she might have felt was improper. In their own way they became cool
friends and adjusted easily to each other’s rhythm of life. She only vaguely knew
what outsiders thought of her: no one said anything to her face and she rarely left
the house. She carded and spun wool, made dyes out of lichen, then knitted
sweaters and Afghans, which she sold on rare trips to town. In the evenings she
and Douggie would share a meal of fried fish or meat with some vegetables from
their garden and bread and butter, with tea and bread and jam for dessert. At
forty-nine, she didn’t know she wasn’t twenty-nine and she was content with her
But three years later, on her birthday, the police knocked on the door and
turned the house and her life upside down. They were from the C.I.D. and had
driven out from town and they not only took Douggie away, they also took her
meagre inventory of three sweaters and two red and green Christmas throws and
all her wool. They shook their heads mysteriously and barked single words.
Evidence! Collusion! Witness! Partners! It was two years before she was to see
her woolen goods again and by then she’d suffered a few episodes. One night she
was dreaming of walking through the town in her nightgown, and when she woke
up she was standing outside the church on Cemetery Lane singing her favourite
hymn, Land of Hope and Glory, and Miss Annie Beldon, who had taught her from
grade one to grade six, was gently leading her home, saying, You’ll be fine
darlin’, you’ll come through it all…And once in church, just after a christening,
she had broken into uncontrollable sobbing. When the sweaters and throws and
her wool were sheepishly returned by a young police officer long after the trial,
she picked through them listlessly and pushed the pile away. Then she simply
ceased to move or speak. For days and nights she sat in the same chair in the same
position, eyes fixed on some intense invisible battle that creased her brow and
tensed her body with its disturbance. She heard nothing from the world around her
and she had no messages to send. She gave up everything except a steady shallow
breath. Miss Annie looked after her and would have done so for as long as she
was needed, but other well-meaning folk decided that modern medicine was
called for and Jessie Halfyard was dispatched to the city.
Months later, when she tentatively returned into herself, she was resident in the
Hospital for Mental Diseases in town. Her mouth was dry, her vision was blurred
and she felt as though she’d had a bad case of flu. She couldn’t remember the
immediate past and she kept asking when Douggie was coming to get her. She
was medicated and released into the care of Sister Helena of The Sisters of
Perpetual Longing for God, and Sister Helena placed her in the home of Ernestine
and Edward MacMabie on Gower Street. She was given a tiny room up in the
attic with roses everywhere; massive pink and red blown roses on a dark cream
background on the walls and the low sloping ceiling and small tight red buds on
the pink chenille bedspread. For the first month Jessie Halfyard got up only to
spend the day sitting on her bed, a hanky over her eyes to keep out all those roses,
and waiting for night to fall so she could go to bed again. And it seemed as if her
life force might just ebb away.
But Ernestine wouldn’t put up with any nonsense. If you’re going to live here
then you’ve got to get up and do something. You can’t sit and drizzle all day like
a leaky faucet. Starting tomorrow I want you to collect all the dirty laundry and
sort it. And for that matter you can help me with breakfast. Margaret will show
you where everything is…
And slowly but surely Jessie began to live again. The teenage daughter,
Margaret, had heard all the gossip about her and begged for a hand-knit sweater,
but Jessie declined, saying dully that she had no wool. Margaret persisted and
handed her an ugly maroon cardigan. We can take this apart, then you can knit me
this, and she presented Jessie with a magazine photo of a busty model in a tight
sweater. Inwardly Jessie yearned to be knitting again and she knitted a close
enough copy of the sweater in the magazine and Margaret was thrilled. Ernestine
was relieved that her boarder was able to make some contribution to the
household, and now Jessie not only took second prize at the Craft Fair at
Christmas for an intricately coloured shawl, she made a few things for sale. She
also stopped wearing her one black cotton dress. She made two plain dresses in
brown and grey with high necks, belts and pleated skirts and occasionally, in the
evenings, she wore a pair of bright green suede shoes that had round toes and
Cuban heels. They were called Kitty Kelly’s Kute Kicks and she said proudly that
her mother had bought them in New York in the forties.
By the time Ernestine is on the ground floor she can hear gentle female
susurration emanating from somewhere near the pantry, and without a sound she
opens the door from the kitchen to the back porch.
Edna is lighting a forbidden cigarette, and Margaret, leaning against the wall,
skirt up, is woozily peeling off her wet underpants and laughing and muttering
under her breath. Backlit by the dim pantry light, Ernestine is a thin black
silhouette, no features or look visible. Well, well, well, she says quietly, Now
isn’t this a pretty picture. Margaret, believing that a good offence is the best
defense, gazes at her mother unblinkingly. Hi mom. I was just telling Eddy that
I’m pregnant. Knocked up. Up the spout. Bun in the…
Ernestine flies across the few feet that separates them in under five seconds;
skates, sleds, broken chairs, boxes of mason jars magically clear a path before her
righteous feet, and as she swoops down on the young women, she manages, in
one fluid motion, to pick up one of Margaret’s high-heeled pumps. Soundlessly
and gracefully she begins to beat her daughter with the heel of her own shoe.
Ernestine growls like a dog. You whore! You filthy little whore! Edna begins a
fine all-over trembling that makes her teeth chatter. She wants to call for help but
her throat is paralyzed. Margaret has been taken unawares and at first has folded
into a crouch with hands and arms protecting her head and face, but as Ernestine
begins a rhythmic thrashing, Margaret, in one quick sure movement, rises up. She
grabs the shoe from Ernestine’s hand and for a split second the two face each
other in white-hot hatred. Then in an instant Margaret dips her head and throws
her full weight into a head butt to her mother’s midsection. Ernestine hits the
stone-flagged floor of the porch with a nasty crack and a dull whooshing moan as
the air leaves her angular body. When Margaret lunges forward and sinks her
teeth into Ernestine’s stringy thigh, Edna is sure that murder will be committed
and she flees to find Mr. McMabie. Running through molasses on leaden legs, her
breath ragged, she passes through the kitchen, across the cracked black and white
marble checkered hall, past the bronze lady on the newel post and up over the
huge staircase. Still unable to speak or call out, she is now afraid for Ernestine’s
Without knocking, she runs into Mr. McMabie’s room and manages to croak
out, Mr. McMabie, come downstairs, for God’s sake! Margaret and her mother
are…But Mr. MacMabie is not there. Edna stops in confusion. Where is he? He
couldn’t be out, he never goes out…She runs across the hall to Miss Halfyard’s
room. She flings open the door then stops dead in her tracks. There are two hefty
humps under the rampant roses, and a gentle snore emanating from the sagging
single bed where Edward McMabie and Jessie Halfyard lay spooned together. His
arm is out of the covers and resting protectively across her rump. The two are
dead to the world and the life or death struggle taking place in the back porch.
With a queer pitching and gurgling sensation in the pit of her stomach, Edna
shakes them awake. At first they don’t understand what she’s saying, then as they
come to, and comprehend that something is wrong, they begin fumbling for
dressing gowns, all the while mumbling and muttering.
They shouldn’t be under the same roof.
This was bound to happen.
Oh God, where’s my slippers?
Ed, hand me one of my pills…
Edna knows then, that this is not their first time together. This is the tender rule
and not the exception.
The three of them, Jessie Halfyard leading the way with a dim wavering
flashlight beam, Edward clutching his bible for comfort and moral support, and
Edna still trembling, make their way downstairs, and it isn’t until the second floor
landing that they smell smoke. At the first whiff Edna remembers that she started
her journey for help with a lighted cigarette in her hand and there is a red flashing
explosion in her head and she breaks out in a cold sweat and has to sit down
abruptly on the stairs.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Ernestine - badly bruised and bitten - and
Edward MacMabie and their daughter Margaret - sober, white and dazzlingly
unrepentant - Jessie Halfyard the boarder, and Margaret’s friend Edna Mills, stand
across the street and watch the gracious old house on Gower Street burn to the
ground. The only thing the firemen are able to save is the bronze lady from atop
the newel post.
Ernestine sails over the park and across Circular Road, to the Baron house and
screams loudly to its occupants to bring out their only misbegotten whoremaster
of a son. Walter Baron lets her in pretty smartly and a wedding is arranged. It will
be in the Basilica of St. John The Baptist and Bishop Joe Linehan will officiate.
Margaret will take some condensed religious instruction before walking up the
At the Baron’s, curtains are drawn, blinds lowered and shutters folded in. Lola
has a dreadful headache and can’t bear even the smallest chink of light to seep
into any room. She lies on various divans, couches and daybeds with a cool cloth
soaked in mineral water and witch hazel over her eyes and weighs the options.
Vern is a good boy, well, a weak boy; he’ll do whatever his father wants him to
do and not very well at that. There isn’t an ounce of rebellion in him. No doubt he
needs a strong woman as a wife, but not Margaret MacMabie for heaven’s sake.
She’s just plain bad and she doesn’t mind who knows it. Bold with the looks to
carry it off, and saucy. Saucy with a crazy mother in tow. What will the child be
like? Maybe these flashy trashy people have strong unbendable genes. Maybe this
girl is a shot of hot sauce that the family needs. Oh how unfair life is. All she
wants for her son is a stable contented life with a stable pleasant woman of good
stock. Really. Is that so much to ask? And she realizes of course that it is too
much to ask. Nothing should or can be asked. Her granddad always said, It’s all a
crapshoot! Watch the other fella and watch yer back and hope for the best – that’s
my philosophy of life. Old man Jarvis was ninety-seven when he went to meet his
Maker. On Monday he wasn’t feeling well, on Tuesday he took to his bed and on
Wednesday he was dead. He was buried on Friday. Lola felt as though he had
arranged his death down to the last detail to give everyone a week’s holiday, but
not a minute more. She wondered what advice he would have given her but really
knew deep down what he would have said. Get on with it and make sure the
priest don’t rob you blind!
The marriage goes ahead and is a moderate success. The bride doesn’t look at
all pregnant and Walter manages a good deal with a champagne supplier from
Montreal and not many guests remember anything about the wedding at all. The
couple goes on a short honeymoon to St. Pierre et Miquelon, then move into the
Baron’s basement apartment that has been built for Vern’s adopted sister Nina.
Ernestine calls on her cousin Baden Leckie and he gives her the use of a
construction trailer out on the Indian Meal Line and with donations from all over,
she turns it into an eccentric but comfortable home. Edward and Jessie Halfyard
help her. They put in some insulation where her room is going to be and they do
some dry walling, plastering and painting. They pick up and arrange furniture,
they dig flowerbeds and they paint the outside of the trailer bright yellow with
black trim. Edward and Jessie Halfyard work side by side wordlessly. They do not
exchange glances and it is as if neither one acknowledges the other as even being
on the same plane of existence, yet there is a oneness to all their work; each
knows exactly which end of a sheet of plywood is to be picked up, each one
knows what tool the other needs with no discernible signals. It comes as no
surprise to either of them when the trailer is up and running and a decent outhouse
has been built, that Ernestine brings them out tea, out onto the little patio they
have built with scrounged concrete slabs, and tells them that they have to leave by
nightfall. Just like that. Pack your things and get out. Both of you. Neither Edward
McMabie nor Jessie Halfyard looks at Ernestine, and they don’t look at each
other. They both blush a deep beet red, and by tacit agreement Edward makes it
clear with the tiniest gesture that Jessie should go first. Jessie blinks and almost
nods her thanks, then collects her things. There is no conversation between
Ernestine and Edward. When Jessie comes out of the trailer with her cardboard
suitcase and her best jacket over her arm, Edward gives her a brief look and he is
sure she will wait for him and they will walk out through the scrub to the highway
together. He goes into the trailer and picks aimlessly at donated books and knick-
knacks. He takes a borrowed winter coat from a coat tree he has made, and then
puts it back. He isn’t sure which suitcase he should take and he doesn’t really
know what to put in it. Then he settles on his much read and beloved bible. He
picks it up and opens it at random. The bricks are fallen down, but we will build
with hewn stones: the sycomores are cut down, but we will change them into
cedars. He sinks his face into the pages and inhales the woody perfumed dry book
smell and he caresses the satiny pages and the soft leather cover. He can’t take it.
What if something happened to it? Momentarily, he doesn’t know what to put it in
to protect it from the rain or dirt. He decides to leave it where it is. He puts on an
extra sweater and his old checkered sports coat, checks his cash - $4.29 – leaves
his keys (mostly to long gone locks) and leaves the trailer. Ernestine, in tight lime
green Capri pants and a hot pink sleeveless top, sits drinking tea and smoking a
cigarette in a long white holder. Jessie is nowhere to be seen. He wants to ask his
wife how long Jessie has been gone, but it doesn’t seem appropriate. Nothing
seems appropriate, so Edward gives a little nod and sets off down the path. That’s
that. He knows Ernestine will never take him back. The shock is making his feet
heavy and his head light. Where will he go? He feels himself to be tumbling like
a feather over rocks out into blank space with not even his bible to comfort him,
and when he gets to the highway there is no sign of Jessie Halfyard.
At the Baron’s, Margaret’s waistline becomes an indirect but constant focus.
Mrs. Coveyduck is called in to measure the new bride for maternity tops and
dresses and remarks under her breath that this will be a tiny baby indeed. My
God, she must be almost five months and that belly is as flat as a pancake…
But Margaret dare not tell her new in-laws the truth. She dare not tell them that
she spontaneously aborted her foetus at her wedding shower three days before the
wedding. She and Vern know that the Baron’s will have the marriage annulled
immediately, and Margaret cannot bear the thought of living with her mother in
that yellow trailer out on the Indian Meal Line.
Well, I’m just going to have to lose the baby all over again, and that’s all there
is to it!
Margaret, Vern, Edna and Nina make plans to go away for a few days. Vern
knows a guy over on the Port Au Port Peninsula who has a fishing shack and he’s
willing to let them use it for as long as they want so off they go. They leave town
on a Friday afternoon, gathering courage with every mile away from the Baron
The tiny cabin sitting in a gently sloping field of tall soft golden grasses and
overlooking the sea makes their weekend almost too perfect considering the
enormity and nature of the lie they plan to tell on their return. They drink tequila
sunrises, smoke hash, drop acid, eat steaks and chicken legs with bread and butter
and no vegetables, laugh and roll in the grass like puppies, build fires on the
beach when the fog rolls in, and sleep, the four of them snuggled side by side, on
two horsehair mattresses pulled together in front of the wood stove. On
Wednesday, or perhaps Thursday, they feel they have sobered up and straightened
out enough for the long drive back to St. John’s. Vern does most of the driving
and he is nervous and irritable.
Margaret says, OK. We get in late, so everyone go to bed. Vern will break the
bad news to Lola and Walter. Vern, don’t go fucking this up! Don’t be overly
dramatic, and don’t tell them one more word than you have to. Let them ask you
questions, then just get confused and depressed. It’ll be fine! Stop worrying!
But Vern is afraid of Walter, a man who belittles his son and most young men;
a man who withholds approval in the belief that apparent unconcern and cruelty
hastens the onset of manliness.
They get home at three o’clock in the morning and Vern refuses to get his
parents out of bed to tell them the bad news. Margaret doesn’t berate him or try to
force him up over the back stairs. Instead, she says quietly, It’s OK. It’s probably
better if I do it myself. She goes into the bathroom and when she comes out she
has red-rimmed eyes with dark circles under them. Is this too much? What do you
think? You don’t look pale enough, says Edna. Maybe your hair should be a bit
greasy too, says Nina. Nina hunts down the Crisco and Edna the baby powder and
Margaret is all set; a wan undine poised on the threshold of performance. Up the
stairs she goes and Vern, Edna and Nina settle into waiting. Vern rolls a joint and
they smoke to try to rid themselves of the terrible unease that has descended on
A few minutes later they hear a loud grief-stricken wail. Lights are turned on,
and Vern and his sister and Margaret’s friend hear Walter Baron’s even,
Get up here right now. We’re in the dining room.
They begin to giggle and get paranoid at the same time, but they scuttle
upstairs and file into the dining room. Walter, in blue Bon Soir pyjamas and a
mauve quilted dressing gown, sits in his usual seat at the head of the table;
Margaret stands at the other end, and Lola, in yards of pink nylon, circles the
room wringing her hands and screeching.
I want Father Joe over here right now and I want this ridiculous sham of a
marriage annulled this minute! Nina for God’s sake don’t just stand there, go and
make some tea!
Nina doesn’t move.
Did you get some medical attention? Should you see a doctor? asks Walter.
I’m OK, replies Margaret. I just need to rest.
Get Doctor Fish on the phone right now! I want her examined! Oh yes! I’m
going to have you examined my girl…screams Lola and she raises her hand to
Margaret grabs her hand in mid air and holds on to it. Don’t you ever raise
your hand to me, and if you think that I would consent to be examined by you or
one of your minions, then you’re crazier than a bedbug!
That’s enough! barks Walter. Lola, you’re hysterical. Sit down. Sit down all of
you. Vernon, if you have nothing better to do, get me a drink. Now. I want some
sensible person to tell me just what the hell is going on. I want to know
everything that happened since you all left this house last week.
There is complete silence.
Vern sits in an occasional chair by the door, legs stretched out in front of him,
chin on his chest and staring at his fingers lacing and unlacing in here’s the
church and here’s the steeple…Lola sits rigidly upright, palms flat on the table,
glaring at Margaret. Edna sits still as a hunted mouse, hands folded in her lap and
staring unwaveringly at the tastefully arranged floral centrepiece. Nina, head
buried in her folded arms on the table is either asleep or in another world
altogether. Margaret looks noble and exhausted, her head tilted back slightly and
her eyes closed. Then simply and quietly she says, I had a miscarriage in a cabin
out on the Port Au Port peninsula. It happens. Then looking directly at Walter, I
had no idea that I would be treated like a criminal and that some crazy person
would try to beat me up.
Walter frowns in embarrassment.
Vernon, pour her a drink. Not the Bell’s, the single malt.
Lola springs up from the table, puts her hands on her head as if to hold her
brains inside her skull and starts growling, You fool! You fool! Don’t you see?
Can’t you see anything? She never was pregnant! She’s just made all this up! She
sidles over to Margaret with a crafty look on her face. If you had a miscarriage,
what did you do with the body? At four and a half months it would have arms and
legs! What did you do with it? Did you go to a hospital? Did you bury it? Did you
throw it off a cliff?
These are questions that will never have to be answered; questions that will
never be addressed again, because at this moment Nina raises her head, and like a
medium in a trance, begins to speak in a low monotone.
Yes. He had arms and legs. And a head. And quite a big penis. But I only saw
him upside down. He was all covered in wet stuff. And streaked with blood. He
didn’t cry. I only heard him cry after they shut the door. Just off in the distance I
could hear him cry…
Nina sits staring into space completely unaware of the effect she’s having on
the room. No one moves a muscle. Time stretches and a thick soft silence falls.
Vern stands up in slow motion and Margaret stiffens delicately like a pointer and
becomes alert with wonder and knowledge. As she turns to look at Walter and
Lola, so do the others. The Barons know exactly what Nina is talking about. Lola
sits frozen with horror, and Walter’s mouth opens and shuts silently. Like a pair
of chameleons they turn the colour of their night attire.
Now Lola is an old woman and any troubling family memories have been
buried with Walter years ago. She lives in the same house but the basement
apartment hasn’t been used in years and the upstairs has been blocked off to
conserve heat and because she has trouble with the stairs. For the last year Nina
has been living with her because they say she puts the stove on, then forgets about
it. Mother and daughter never talk about the past.
One day, recently, maybe today or yesterday, when Nina is at the grocery
store, a tall young man with an angular face and deep-set hazel eyes, comes to the
May I speak with Mrs. Baron? he says. I’m Mrs. Baron, says Lola. I’m sorry. I
meant Mrs. Nina Baron, and he grins and is so pleasant Lola invites him in and
they sit and have tea and she revels in the unaccustomed warmth of male
company. They talk for what seems to be a long time, about the weather and how
he comes from out west where spring comes so much earlier than here. Then there
is a lull in the conversation and suddenly he becomes confusing and he starts to
say foolish things.
You see, I tracked her down because of the new law. Now there’s access to
this kind of information…
And slowly a worm of fear begins to wriggle in Lola’s belly. She hears herself
say, I have no daughter. My daughter was taken from me. She’s dead. You must
understand that we cannot sully her memory…
Yes, he looks so familiar as he walks down the driveway, gets into his car and
drives off without waving goodbye. But by the time Nina gets home with the
groceries, Lola has forgotten all about him.