The reading took unusually long because the
digressions of the novel were partially reflected by the discussions among the readers.
The novel is full of juicy gossip and the women were quicker to seize upon the
undercurrents and unstated liaisons.
There’s a naïve socialist-Christian sister, Laura,
in whose name the novel was penned by her older sister, Iris. The fact that
there are two stories, one of the weird Sci-Fi type, and another of the
realistic sociological type set in Toronto in the early twentieth century, did not
bother the readers. Everybody agreed the first was a perfectly ignorable
It is in the nature of sociological dramas (it would
make a good Malayalam TV serial, Sunil said) that the Canadian details are reflected
in a society as distant as that of Kerala. Molestation of minors, marriages of
convenience shorn of love, maid-servants aware of the shenanigans of the masters,
competition among sisters-in-law, dangerous liaisons, and so forth are a part
of the fabric of society everywhere; and the same kind of glossing over of
facts to present a sanitised front must also be common.
Priya, Thommo, Talitha, Zakia, Gopa, & Sunil
A wonderful gift KRG readers have is to extract every
snippet of humour from the conversations of the characters; the novel had
enough to keep us mildly amused throughout. But none could explain why the novel deserved
to win the Man Booker prize in 2000.
Priya, Thommo, Talitha, & Zakia
Here are the readers at the end. Zakia is missing as
she had to leave early.
Talitha, Priya, Thommo, Gopa, Sunil, & Joe
An exercise for the diligent reader appears just before the Readings.
Bobby (unexplained), Kavita (dinner with extended family), Sivaram
(unexplained), Mathew (off-base), KumKum (grandson at home).
future we shall select all the fiction books (six in a year) at the beginning
of the year, so all the readers have time to prepare, borrow from libraries, or
from other readers, etc. so there is never a case of a book not being available
KumKum (and Joe) have already selected the Feb 2013 fiction (Chekhov stories),
here are the pairs of readers who have to select the remaining 5 books for
Bobby & Kavita
Gopa & Sivaram
Talitha & Zakia
Priya & Thommo
submit the book selections by end Jan 2013.
next session (Poetry) will be held on Friday Jan 11, 2012. The Chekhov reading will
be in Feb on a Thursday,
Feb 7, 2012.
Royal York Hotel, Toronto
to the end pages where a story summary, a crib, is laid out in a few pages in
the Epilogue by the author, assumed to be Iris posing as her sister Laura. The
passage Gopa chose was the section titled ‘The Silver Box.’ When she finished
reading, there was a call to read more, and Gopa obliged. Talitha called it
‘beautiful.’ The line ‘When I look in the mirror I see an old woman; or not
old, because nobody is allowed to be old any more’ reminded her of the poem Mirror by Sylvia Plath:
Now I am a lake. A woman bends over me,
Searching my reaches for what she really is.
Each morning it is her face that replaces the darkness.
In me she has drowned a young girl, and in me an old woman
Rises toward her day after day, like a terrible fish.
wondered if the subsequent passage Gopa read was about the story of the blind
assassin or the main story about Iris and Laura. Laura died in 1945, according
to the novel, said Thommo. Laura didn’t write The Blind Assassin (TBA). Talitha opined that the reference to
writing in this passage:
whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture of myself
reading it over at a later time, later time having become problematical. For
some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such ambition, or no
I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are writing for, when
they scrawl their names in the snow.
not to TBA but to this book, which is
in itself a paradoxical statement. Gopa said you can interpret this any way you
like. And what’s a Malayali doing in the midst of all this with thirty odd uses of
‘simply’ in the novel, asked Sunil? The Sakiel Norn stuff could be skipped
without missing anything.
Alex’s lover Iris? Richard didn’t know, but why did Winifred, Richard’s sister,
say so. Priya thought Richard was incapable of love, a cad therefore. Was there
sibling rivalry between Laura and Iris, wondered Priya. Iris is always
protecting her sister. Did Laura make a sacrifice, or was it Iris who did so?
Aimee was Alex’s daughter.
was in the early socialist-Christian mould —
helping out at church, ladling in the soup kitchens, and so on. Laura never
told Iris about Richard’s advances, commented Gopa. Sunil replied that TV
serial guys didn’t read this book, and he went on to say that all molestation
cases (many are surfacing of late) are featured on page 3 of the Indian
Express newspaper. Joe said Gopa has raised a lot of doubts in the minds of us
readers. You can read many deconstructions of the novel on the Web, for
Mullan, a lecturer in English at University College, London.
is an idealist, said Gopa; she is ready to work as a waitress to escape from
the trauma of molestation and encourages Iris to do the same, trapped as she is in a loveless marriage of
The Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel
Zakia read the passage
where Richard proposes in the Imperial Room of the venerable York Hotel in
Toronto. After listening to the passage Sunil remarked that it is typical of
many marriages in India, where the girl is denied a choice. Here Iris did have
a choice to refuse, but thinking of the ruination of her father’s business (a
button factory) agreed to the marriage; but the business promises Richard made
to her father were not kept. Had he sought to equip his daughters with the means of
earning a living themselves, the choice to turn down an inappropriate match would
have been more viable, said Joe. As it is, her father's saying the choice was
hers, meant nothing. It happens all over the world, Gopa said. Sunil phrased
the same sentiment as “the operating systems are the same everywhere.”
second short passage Zakia read is drenched in the disillusionment of finding
herself alone in the marriage, waking up the morning after the night before.
Joe thought that education is everywhere the bedrock of liberation for women,
the assurance that they can earn a living themselves and need depend on no man.
Somebody remarked laughingly (perhaps Sunil) that he liked the way she fixed
her private tutor.
Toronto's Union Station
Talitha’s reading was from the
next chapter, the Arcadian Court, following Zakia’s reading. There is quite a
lot of humour and pathos in it, said Talitha. There was quiet laughter at the
advice that Reenie affords Iris:
“Just never show fear. They’ll smell it on you,
like sharks, and come in for the kill. You can look at the edge of the table—it
lowers your eyelids—but never look at the floor, it makes your neck look weak.”
worldly-wise advice and stratagems to overcome any opposition the sisters may
face is tart and funny. Here’s another piece of her expert counsel that amused
“When in doubt, go to the powder room, but go
slowly. Grace comes from indifference.”
second passage is about Iris’ return from Europe and discovering her father was
dead and she hadn’t been informed by Richard. Even he provides some humour in
I went upstairs to freshen up, at Richard’s
suggestion. I must have looked as if I needed it. Certainly I felt sticky and
wilted. (“Dew’s off the rose,” was his comment.)
was reminded of an old Hindi movie where Lalita Pawar plays the mother-in-law
and Meena Kumari and Mala Sinha act. Forget the title. Talitha was amused by the
newspaper report titled ‘Toronto High Noon Gossip’ describing the revels at the
bacchanal ‘Xanadu Ball’ held in the Royal York hotel.
a passage in which children in the school are presented with awards in various
subjects at the end of the term. Thommo
referred to his attendance at a club like the Toastmaster’s Club to encourage
public speaking and everyone is given elaborate introductions, followed by
Felicitations, followed by a Vote of Thanks – all redundant formalities and
occasions for the bores to go on and on. From there the conversation shifted to the
shiftless Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a merry feast on the money provided with no
accountability. An old Merc was spotted bearing the logo of the Biennale whose
newsletter is called the Biennale Leaf, a weak pun on Banana Leaf. The
proper pronunciation of ‘Biennale’ was cleared up; it’s Italian and the
original is the Venice Biennale. See
mentioned that a ‘ghastly’ painting by one Riyas Komu had been snapped up for
one of the Goenkas who run the HML enterprise. It depicts a person with the
face covered; Talitha claimed the painting should have been titled ‘Swineflu.’More on the feckless
Biennale and its art exhibits can be read at
SE corner of King and Spadina with the CN Tower in the background
Gopa alluded to the few pages at the end that yield a précis of the story, or
at least one of the stories. She read a
couple of passages and raised the question of whether one or both sisters were
interested in Alex, the persecuted socialist hiding in their house. They
were both interested, is the opinion offered by Priya, as evidenced by their
behavior at the picnic. Indeed Alex was 'two-timing' the sisters, said Priya. Two
for the price of one; in fact, for no price at all, since Alex had nothing to
offer, but a febrile promise of revolution, where and for what cause, yet to be
determined. Joe, genuinely mystified, asked, ‘So what’s so attractive about Alex?’
Since the novel gives no overt testimony to any sexual encounter, it’s all left
up in the air and gossip-mongers can deduce what they please. Sunil thought it makes ideal material for a TV
According to the friend of Priya who recommended the novel, there
is no sibling rivalry between Iris and Laura; the elder sister is very
protective of the younger one. Is the ‘no, NO, NO.’ and ‘X.X.X.X.’ in Laura’s
diaries at the end, any clue? And what about this: ‘Alex belonged, for Laura,
in another dimension of space.’
About bedding the two sisters Talitha offered this opinion: ‘Richard
was using Iris to get to Laura.’ The discussion then took off into the sci-fi
dimension of the novel’s other story, Sakiel Norn and the myth of TBA. Sunil complained that his elder
daughter for a while seemed interested only in vampire stories. It’s a phase, someone
reassured him. Talitha said of The Handmaid’s
Tale by the same author that it is quite weird even by sci-fi standards. Someone also
noticed that the use of quotation marks in direct speech is different between
the two stories in the book.
Offices of the Toronto Star newspaper
the hand-tinting of photographs passage. It starts with a reference to Laura’s interest
in a chap called Elwood Murray (‘such a pansy’).Returning to the interest Laura showed in Alex
Thomas, Talitha volunteered that Laura is helping Alex regain the faith he
had lost (in the Cominterm?). Iris, however, got down to brass tacks. Sunil
confessed he hadn’t thought of that perspective; only women pick up on those
faint hints; Joe is likewise at a loss to pick up on little things that KumKum detects unerringly, like a satnav system.
For lack of time, Zakia had to leave, but Talitha could not resist
reading what seemed to be her favourite passage in the whole book, the Toronto
High Noon Gossip about ‘an Abyssinian maid in green and silver.’
Mount Pleasant-Cemetery in Toronto
KumKum Joe said since we had overrun the time, he
would not read his passage but would contribute the reading chosen by KumKum, who
wrote a short appreciation:
“I have had this book since
2001, a gift from my daughter. I tried to read the book soon when I go it, but
couldn’t proceed very far into it. And it remained "unread" since
Thanks to Priya and Tommo, another opportunity came up to pick up the
book. This time, I read the whole book, though the going was just as tiresome
as it was the first time.
I found the book “The Blind Assassin” too digressive; a story of
collective dissembling and pretence. Very gossipy in flavour. Atwood's writing
here lacks that evocative literary quality. One story tagging on to another
story for no literary merit whatsoever, made the reading tedious.
I decided to read today the passage where Iris reveals her pregnancy to
Richard and then to Laura."
Xanadu - Kubla Khan's pleasure dome
Joe did not
read his piece at the session for lack of time, but here is the appreciation he
“TBA as a novel did not engage me
in any way. The writing is workmanlike, and unexceptional. It's hard to find a
passage that stood out. The device of telling more than one story
simultaneously does not work, because there is no point of contact between the
stories. I skipped all the stuff about Sakiel Norn, and I don't think I lost
much thereby. Perhaps one of you will convince me otherwise. Why it should have
received the Man Booker prize, I do not know.
The story of Iris and Laura and their difficult growing up, and the
slightly unhinged nature of Laura makes for an interesting story. We get a good
idea about the father of the girls and the family Iris marries into (Richard
and Winifred). We learn that the novel was written by Iris and published as the
work of Laura, to discredit Richard and show him up, so that Iris could get her
own back on the man who had molested her sister, and used herself to get ahead in Toronto society.
The passage I will read is the Xanadu Ball which has a bit of Coleridge’s
Maple Leafs Gardens ice hockey rink
for the diligent reader:
Characterise in about 100 words per person below, the relationship of (a) Iris and (b) Laura
reader exercise – Priya
Iris and Laura-
relationship between the sisters is the most interesting aspect of The Blind Assassin. Is there sibling
rivalry between the two? Does Iris play mother to Laura or is the role too
burdensome? Is Laura jealous of Iris? Do the sisters end up cheating each other
about a common lover? Do their love lives cross? Does Iris make Laura famous as
a writer to redeem her failure to stand by Laura and rescue her from the asylum?
Does Laura wrong Iris or vice versa? Their relationship, though fraught with
undercurrents of mistrust, survives and their loyalty to each other is
confirmed at the end.
Iris with Reenie-
played mother to both Iris and Laura, she being the housekeeper of the Avilion.
Reenie had a command over the girls. She drilled propriety into them making
them quite misfit to tackle the world in which they found themselves later.
Iris loved and respected Reenie, like a mother, but strangely Reenie always expected
more from Iris. Laura was always accepted as a different kind and Iris the more
practical, sensible, grounded girl. Reenie felt that Iris had betrayed Laura
and towards the end of the novel, she seems to take sides and is biased towards
Iris, much to her dismay and disbelief. The two therefore shared a deep closeness
that turned suspect.
Laura with Reenie
was treated as a baby by Reenie, not spoilt or pampered, but always excused.
Iris protected Laura, whenever Reenie pointed out her unconventional and
scandalous behavior that would damage the family name and reputation of the
girls. But Reenie came to Laura’s rescue when the latter disclosed her plight
at the hands of Richard and her admission at Bella Vista, the sanatorium. Reenie
readily believed Laura and held Iris suspect. Laura and Reenie also shared a
motherly relationship and her reaction to Laura’s story was a direct outcome of
Iris with Richard-
They had no relationship at all. They shared nothing and had nothing in common.
It was an arrangement right from the start, loveless and lifeless. Richard was
mean and villainous in keeping away telegrams and letters from Iris, not
letting her know of her father’s death or of Laura’s letters. He was selfish
and self-centered and Iris knew that and played along perfectly.
Laura and Richard -
Laura was the target of Richard’s lust and he indulged in child abuse. He
planned Laura’s abortion declaring her mentally unstable and kept the truth out
of Iris’s way, causing rift between the sisters. Laura hated Richard right from
the start though he tried to play the perfect brother-in-law.
Iris and Alex Thomas-
Iris was in love with the strange mind of Alex Thomas. It seem to cast a spell
on her as she met him over affectionate long story telling sessions. Alex’s intensity
of love is not revealed except that he kept in touch with Iris despite long
separations because of the war. Iris found comfort and affection and fun in her
meetings with Alex, something that she desperately missed in her marriage. This
relationship comes out as two-sided and balanced.
Laura and Alex-
Laura seems to have been infatuated with Alex Thomas. It is not clear whether
he was in love with Laura.
(d)Winifred - omitted
reader exercise – KumKum
Iris and Laura-
the protagonist of Margaret Atwood's TBA, is a weak character. She is fragile,
unsure of herself, yet the demand is on her to carry a novel as complicated and
as digressive as TBA. Everyone lorded over her: Laura, Reenie, her
father,Richard, Winifred, Aimee, and Alex, too. Though the entire story revolves
around her, she remains a distant observer of the happenings.
the younger sister of Iris, had a mind of her own — a stubborn,
wild, precocious woman. This is how Iris once described Laura: “But even as a
child, Laura never quite agreed. Was this the problem? That she held firm for no
when yes was the thing required? And vice versa, and vice versa.” (p
537). Laura took responsibility for her actions. Of course, she could not
shield herself from harm; there were mightier forces that managed to throttle
her to some extent. Even they were scared of Laura's fighting Spirit.
relationship between the two sisters is an important part of the story. The
mother at her death-bed wished Iris to take care of her kid sister, Laura. So
did Reenie, their house-keeper, care-giver, and substitute mother of the two
waifs. But, Iris had no power over Laura, emotional or intellectual. Laura
always had her own way. In fact, often it is Laura who showed Iris the better
the sisters love each other? No, I do not think so. Iris definitely cared for
Laura. But to love a girl like Laura, one has to be an emotionally mature
person or an all -forgiving mother. Iris was neither.
Laura love Iris? Never. She pitied Iris for her stupidity, her trusting ways
and her lack of adventurous spirit.
there any sibling jealousy between the two? Not very pronounced, I would say.
She was a very capable house keeper. She managed the Avilion household through
the mother's sickness, after her death and, continued in that role till the
family had no money to pay her salary. Reenie did care for the family she
served. Especially, for Iris and Laura. Often she stood in for their dead
mother. Reenie took care of the father too. She overtly disapproved father's
new girl friends for one reason or the other. It transpires she also serviced
his sexual needs. We learn much later in the book that Reenie's daughter Myra
is actually a half-sister of Iris and Laura.
and Laura both appreciated Reenie's admirable service to their family and they
cared for her. The three formed a relationship that remained above pettiness.
And yes, Reenie’s love held them together.
An ambitious, conceited, selfish, upstart person. He was a pervert, too. He
chose to marry Iris, who was many years younger to him, for her youthful
innocence, but violated her minor sister, Laura, when she was under his
diddled the father in a business deal that ultimately killed the father. Richard
then owned their father's button business, and the manor, Avilion. A trick he
played gave him power over the minor, Laura, as well. He abused Iris
emotionally and abused Laura physically. Both sisters became his victims. Laura
killed herself to get out of his clutches. Even the timid Iris ultimately found
strength to run away from Richard. There was never any love in the marriage
between Richard and Iris. Laura who was shrewd enough to guess how fake her
sister's marriage to Richard was, never liked him.
The most deplorable character in the book is that of Winifred's. There was
nothing nice about her. Richard and she are of the same kind. Richard got some
of his evil projects done by conniving with her. Surely, Atwood introduced
these two characters to enhance the gossip elements of the novel.
hated Winifred from the time she first met her. But she was too timid to stand
up to her. On page 534, Iris observes how grotesquely Winifred used make up to
hide her age : “She was done up to the nines as usual, but despite this she was
looking tatty. Well, she must have been pushing seventy, and after certain age
her style of maquillage does tend to make you look mummified.”
never tolerated Winifred. She was blunt in her disapproval.
He remains a veiled mystery throughout the novel. He barely steps out of his
cocoon for the readers to see him, and he is only talked about by the two
sisters. I felt his shadowy presence more in the Iris's tale than in Atwood's
novel. The author definitely did not wish to make Alex a living, perceptible
was more infatuated with Alex's ethereal personality. The male lover in her
book resembles Alex, the woman could be Iris herself. Their encounters are described
in a titillating, yet vague way.
too was attracted to Alex, for a different reason. She admired the fact he was
prepared to struggle for his cause.
reader exercise – Joe
Towards both sisters Reenie
was the mother they missed. Although she is only a cook in the house, she
offers advice on etiquette, deportment, men, sex, and sundry matters. She
determinedly keeps the sisters out of trouble as long as she can, and rescues
them from their follies, including hiding Alex, the tatterdemalion
revolutionary. She is the only loyal ally the sisters have while growing up and
Richard uses Iris as his
ticket from new money to old world prestige, in his ambition to get ahead in
society and become a political bigwig. He loves her not, and denies her a
woman’s freedom within marriage, circumscribing her with an expense account and
offering little else. Was he really attracted to Laura as a minor, or was it
just the working of his baser instincts arising from the coldness between Iris
and him? He denounces Laura to a lunatic asylum when she becomes pregnant by
him, to save his reputation.
As the collaborator and
defender of Richard, Winifred is determined to preserve her ascendancy in the
household, even after Richard marries Iris. She thwarts Iris at every stage,
and shows a faint contempt for her. She knows about her brother’s villainy
toward Laura, and helps him send Laura away to an asylum. If Richard is a cad, a
reprobate scoundrel in high-society disguise, Winifred is the Lady Macbeth of
Laura, the untutored
girl, felt her first frisson of sexual attraction, masked by a Christian
concern for the unfortunate, when she met Alex at a picnic. Iris immediately
wanted to protect her from Alex’s dishonourable intentions. Perhaps he had
none, but Iris too is in a way drawn to him. The sisters collude, Iris
reluctantly, in hiding the chap on the run from the interest the police had expressed
in him. “Tending Alex Thomas brought Laura and me closer together than we had
been for a while,” says Iris. It is unlikely that Alex had either of the
sisters, in my opinion, though he got as far as undoing the buttons of Iris’s
blouse, on one occasion. But Laura nurses a forlorn love for him and expects
Alex to return from the war and look for her.
Princess Margaret Hospital, Toronto
The silver box(a suggestive passage from early on when Iris is
writing the book that she publishes under Laura's name to spite Richard, her
The orange tulips are corning out, crumpled and raggedy like the
stragglers from some returning army. I greet them with relief, as if waving
from a bombed-out building; still, they must make their way as best they can,
without much help from me. Sometimes I poke around in the debris of the back
garden, clearing away dry stalks and fallen leaves, but that’s about as far as
I go. I can’t kneel very well any more, I can’t shove my hands into the dirt.
Yesterday I went to the doctor, to see about these dizzy spells. He told
me that I have developed what used to be called a heart, as if healthy people
didn’t have one. It seems I will not after all keep on living forever, merely
getting smaller and greyer and dustier, like the Sibyl in her bottle. Having
long ago whispered I want to die, I now realize that this wish will
indeed be fulfilled, and sooner rather than later. No matter that I’ve changed
my mind about it.
I’ve wrapped myself in a shawl in order to sit outside, sheltered by the
overhang of the back porch, at a scarred wooden table I had Walter bring in
from the garage. It held the usual things, leftovers from previous owners: a
collection of dried-out paint cans, a stack of asphalt shingles, a jar
half-filled with rusty nails, a coil of picture wire. Mummified sparrows, mouse
nests of mattress stuffing. Walter washed it off with Javex, but it still
smells of mice.
Laid out in front of me are a cup of tea, an apple cut into quarters,
and a pad of paper with blue lines on it, like men’s pyjamas once. I’ve bought
a new pen as well, a cheap one, black plastic with a rolling tip. I remember my
first fountain pen, how sleek it felt, how blue the ink made my fingers. It was
Bakelite, with silver trim. The year was 1929. I was thirteen. Laura borrowed
this pen—without asking, as she borrowed everything—then broke it,
effortlessly. I forgave her, of course. I always did; I had to, because there
were only the two of us. The two of us on our thorn-encircled island, waiting
for rescue; and, on the mainland, everyone else.
For whom am I writing this? For myself? I think not. I have no picture
of myself reading it over at a later time, later time having become
problematical. For some stranger, in the future, after I’m dead? I have no such
ambition, or no such hope.
Perhaps I write for no one. Perhaps for the same person children are
writing for, when they scrawl their names in the snow.
I’m not as swift as I was. My fingers are stiff and clumsy, the pen
wavers and rambles, it takes me a long time to form the words. And yet I
persist, hunched over as if sewing by moonlight.
Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto by architect Frank Gehry
1 - Richard proposes to Iris in the Imperial Room of
Richard proposed to me in the Imperial Room of the Royal York Hotel.
He’d invited me to lunch, along with Father; but then at the last minute, as we
were walking through the hotel corridors on our way to the lift, Father said he
couldn’t attend. I’d have to go by myself, he said.
Of course it was a put-up job between the two of them.
“Richard will be asking you something,” said Father to me. His tone was
“Oh?” I said. Probably something about ironing, but I didn’t much care.
As far as I was concerned Richard was a grown-up man. He was thirty-five, I was
eighteen. He was well on the other side of being interesting.
“I think he may be asking you to marry him,” he said.
We were in the lobby by then. I sat down. “Oh,” I said. I could suddenly
see what should have been obvious for some time. I wanted to laugh, as if at a
trick. Also I felt as if my stomach had vanished. Yet my voice remained calm.
“What should I do?”
“I’ve already given my consent,” said Father. “So it’s up to you.” Then
he added: “A certain amount depends on it.”
“A certain amount?”
“I have to consider your futures. In case anything should happen to me,
that is. Laura’s future, in particular.” What he was saying was that unless I
married Richard, we wouldn’t have any money. What he was also saying was that
the two of us—me, and especially Laura—would never be able to fend for
ourselves. “I have to consider the factories as well,” he said. “I have to
consider the business. It might still be saved, but the bankers are after me.
They’re hot on the trail. They won’t wait much longer.” He was leaning on his
cane, gazing down at the carpet, and I saw how ashamed he was. How beaten down.
“I don’t want it all to have been for nothing. Your grandfather, and
then…Fifty, sixty years of hard work, down the drain.”
“Oh. I see.” I was cornered. It wasn’t as if I had any alternatives to
“They’d take Avilion, as well. They’d sell it.”
“It’s mortgaged up to the hilt.”
“A certain amount of resolve might be required. A certain amount of
courage. Biting the bullet and so forth.”
I said nothing.
“But naturally,” he said, “whatever decision you make will be your own
I said nothing.
“I wouldn’t want you doing anything you were dead set against,” he said,
looking past me with his good eye, frowning a little, as if an object of great
significance had just come into view. There was nothing behind me but a wall.
I said nothing.
“Good. That’s that, then.” He seemed relieved. “He has a lot of common
sense, Griffen. I believe he’s sound, underneath it all.”
“I guess so,” I said. “I’m sure he’s very sound.”
“You’d be in good hands. And Laura too, of course.”
“Of course,” I said faintly. “Laura too.”
“Chin up, then.”
Do I blame him? No. Not any more. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but he was
only doing what would have been considered—was considered, then—the responsible
thing. He was doing the best he knew how.
Richard joined us as if on cue, and the two men shook hands. My own hand
was taken, squeezed briefly. Then my elbow. That was how men steered women
around in those days—by the elbow—and so I was steered by the elbow into the
Imperial Room. Richard said he’d wanted the Venetian Café, which was lighter
and more festive in atmosphere, but unfortunately it had been fully booked.
It’s odd to remember this now, but the Royal York Hotel was the tallest
building in Toronto then, and the Imperial Room was the biggest dining room.
Richard was fond of big. The room itself had rows of large square pillars, a
tessellated ceiling, a line of chandeliers, each with a tassel at the bottom
end: a congealed opulence. It felt leathery, ponderous, paunchy—veined somehow.
Porphyry is the word that comes to mind, though there may not have been
It was noon, one of those unsettling winter days that are brighter than
they ought to be. The white sunlight was falling in shafts through the gaps in
the heavy drapes, which must have been maroon, I think, and were certainly
velvet. Underneath the usual hotel dining-room smells of steam-table vegetables
and lukewarm fish there was an odour of hot metal and smouldering cloth. The
table Richard had reserved was in a dim corner, away from the abrasive
daylight. There was a red rosebud in a bud vase; I stared over it at Richard,
curious as to how he would go about things. Would he take my hand, press it,
hesitate, stutter? I didn’t think so.
I didn’t dislike him unduly. I didn’t like him. I had few opinions about
him because I’d never thought much about him, although I had—from time to
time—noticed the suavity of his clothes. He was pompous at times, but at least
he wasn’t what you’d call ugly, not at all. I supposed he was very eligible. I
felt a little dizzy. I still didn’t know what I would do.
The waiter came. Richard ordered. Then he looked at his watch. Then he
talked. I heard little of what he said. He smiled. He produced a small black
velvet-covered box, opened it. Inside was a glittering shard of light.
Passage 2 – Waking up
spent that night lying huddled and shivering in the vast bed of the hotel. My
feet were icy, my knees drawn up, my head sideways on the pillow; in front of
me the arctic waste of starched white bedsheet stretched out to infinity. I
knew I could never traverse it, regain the track, get back to where it was
warm; I knew I was directionless; I knew I was lost. I would be discovered here
years later by some intrepid team—fallen in my tracks, one arm outflung as if
grasping at straws, my features desiccated, my fingers gnawed by wolves.
I was experiencing was dread, but it was not dread of Richard as such. It was
as if the illuminated dome of the Royal York Hotel had been wrenched off and I
was being stared at by a malign presence located somewhere above the black
spangled empty surface of the sky. It was God, looking down with his blank,
ironic searchlight of an eye. He was observing me; he was observing my
predicament; he was observing my failure to believe in him. There was no floor
to my room: I was suspended in the air, about to plummet. My fall would be
dismal feelings however do not often persist in the clear light of morning,
when you are young.
St. Simon the Apostle Anglican Church, Toronto
I nodded and smiled, unsure of where I myself was assumed to stand. Was
I one of the sticky entanglers? Perhaps. On the surface of things however I was
being led to understand that Richard had a high intrinsic value, and that I’d
better mind my p’s and q’s if I was to live up to it. “But I’m sure you’ll
manage,” said Winifred, smiling a little. “You’re so young.” If
anything, this youthfulness of mine should have made managing less likely,
which was what Winifred was counting on. She had no intention of giving up any
Our Waldorf salads came. Winifred watched me pick up my knife and
fork—at least I didn’t eat with my hands, her expression said—and gave a little
sigh. I was hard slogging for her, I now realize. No doubt she thought I was
sullen, or unforthcoming: I had no small talk, I was so ignorant, so rural.
Or perhaps her sigh was a sigh of anticipation—of anticipated work, because I
was a lump of unmoulded clay, and now she would have to roll up her sleeves and
get down to moulding me.
No time like the present. She dug right in. Her method was one of hint,
of suggestion. (She had another method—the bludgeon—but I didn’t encounter it
at this lunch.) She said she’d known my grandmother, or at least she’d known of
her. The Montfort women of Montreal had been celebrated for their style, she
said, but of course Adelia Montfort had died before I was born. This was her
way of saying that despite my pedigree we were in effect starting from scratch.
My clothes were the least of it, she implied. Clothes could always be
purchased, naturally, but I would have to learn to wear them to effect. “As if
they’re your skin, dear,” she said. My hair was out of the question—long,
unwaved, combed straight back, held with a clip. It was a clear case for a pair
of scissors and a cold wave. Then there was the question of my fingernails.
Nothing too brash, mind you; I was too young for brashness. “You could be
charming,” said Winifred. “Absolutely. With a little effort.”
I listened humbly, resentfully. I knew I did not have charm. Neither
Laura nor I had it. We were too secretive for charm, or else too blunt. We’d
never learned it, because Reenie had spoiled us. She felt that who we were
ought to be enough for anybody. We shouldn’t have to lay ourselves out for
people, court them with coaxings and wheedlings and eye-batting displays. I
expect Father could see a point to charm in some quarters, but he hadn’t
instilled any of it in us. He’d wanted us to be more like boys, and now we
were. You don’t teach boys to be charming. It makes people think they are
Winifred watched me eat, a quizzical smile on her lips. Already I was
becoming a string of adjectives in her head—a string of funny anecdotes she
would retail to her chums, the Billies and Bobbies and Charlies. Dressed
like a charity case. Ate as if they’d never fed her. And the shoes!
“Well,” she said, once she’d poked at her salad—Winifred never finished
a meal—“now we’ll have to put our heads together.”
I didn’t know what she meant. She gave another little sigh. “Plan the
wedding,” she said. “We don’t have very much time. I thought, St. Simon the Apostle,
and then the Royal York ballroom, the centre one, for the reception.”
I must have assumed I would simply be handed over to Richard, like a
parcel; but no, there would have to be ceremonies—more than one of them.
Cocktail parties, teas, bridal showers, portraits taken, for the papers. It
would be like my own mother’s wedding, in the stories told by Reenie, but
backwards somehow and with pieces missing. Where was the romantic prelude, with
the young man kneeling at my feet? I felt a wave of dismay travel up from my
knees until it reached my face. Winifred saw it, but did nothing to reassure
me. She didn’t want me reassured.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” she said, in a tone that indicated scant hope.
She patted my arm. “I’ll take you in hand.” I could feel my will seeping out of
me—any power I still might have left, over my own actions. (Really! I think
now. Really she was a sort of madame. Really she was a pimp.)
“My goodness, look at the time,” she said. She had a watch that was
silver and fluid, like a ribbon of poured metal; it had dots on it instead of
numbers. “I have to dash. They’ll bring you some tea, and a flan or something
if you like. Young girls have such sweet tooths. Or is that sweet teeth?” She
laughed, and stood up, and gave me a shrimp-coloured kiss, not oh the cheek but
on the forehead. That served to keep me in my place, which was—it seemed
clear—to be that of a child.
I watched her move through the rippling pastel space of the Arcadian
Court as if gliding, with little nods and tiny calibrated waves of the hand.
The air parted before her like long grass; her legs did not appear to be
attached to her hips, but directly to her waist; nothing joggled. I could feel
parts of my own body bulging out, over the sides of straps and the tops of
stockings. I longed to be able to duplicate that walk, so smooth and fleshless
I was not married from Avilion, but from Winifred’s half-timbered
fake-Tudor barn in Rosedale. It was felt to be more convenient, as most of the
guests would be from Toronto. It would also be less embarrassing for my father,
who could no longer afford the kind of wedding Winifred felt was her due.
He could not even afford the clothes: Winifred took care of those.
Stowed away in my luggage—in one of my several brand-new trunks—were a tennis
skirt although I didn’t play, a bathing suit although I couldn’t swim, and
several dancing frocks, although I didn’t know how to dance. Where could I have
studied such accomplishments? Not at Avilion; not even the swimming, because Reenie
wouldn’t let us go in. But Winifred had insisted on these outfits. She said I’d
need to dress the part, no matter what my deficiencies, which should never be
admitted by me. “Say you have a headache,” she told me. “It’s always an
She told me many other things as well. “It’s all right to show boredom,”
she said. “Just never show fear. They’ll smell it on you, like sharks, and come
in for the kill. You can look at the edge of the table—it lowers your
eyelids—but never look at the floor, it makes your neck look weak. Don’t stand
up straight, you’re not a soldier. Never cringe. If someone makes a
remark that’s insulting to you, say Excuse me? as if you haven’t heard;
nine times out of ten they won’t have the face to repeat it. Never raise your
voice to a waiter, it’s vulgar. Make them bend down, it’s what they’re for.
Don’t fidget with your gloves or your hair. Always look as if you have
something better to do, but never show impatience. When in doubt, go to the
powder room, but go slowly. Grace comes from indifference.” Such were her
sermons. I have to admit, despite my loathing of her, that they have proved to
be of considerable value in my life.
Passage 2 – Postcards from
A note from Winifred was propped against the telephone in the front
hall. “Hi kids! Welcome home! I got them to finish the bedroom first! I hope
you love it—so snazzy! Freddie.”
“I didn’t know Winifred was doing this,” I said.
“We wanted it to be a surprise,” said Richard. “We didn’t want you to
get bogged down in details.” Not for the first time, I felt like a child
excluded by its parents. Genial, brutal parents, up to their necks in
collusion, determined on the rightness of their choices, in everything. I could
tell already that my birthday presents from Richard would always be something I
I went upstairs to freshen up, at Richard’s suggestion. I must have
looked as if I needed it. Certainly I felt sticky and wilted. (“Dew’s off the
rose,” was his comment.) My hat was a wreck; I flung it onto the vanity. I
splashed my face with water, and blotted it on one of the white monogrammed
towels Winifred had set out. The bedroom looked out over the back garden, where
nothing had been done. I kicked off my shoes, threw myself down on the endless
cream-coloured bed. It had a canopy, with muslin draped around as if on safari.
This, then, was where I was to grin and bear it—the bed I hadn’t quite made,
but now must lie in. And this was the ceiling I would be staring up at from now
on, through the muslin fog, while earthly matters went on below my throat.
The telephone beside the bed was white. It rang. I picked it up. It was
Laura, in tears. “Where have you been?” she sobbed. “Why didn’t you come back?”
“What do you mean?” I said. “This is when we were supposed to come back!
Calm down, I can’t hear you.”
“You never answered!” she wailed.
“What on earth are you talking about?”
“Father’s dead! He’s dead, he’s dead—we sent five telegrams! Reenie sent
“Just a minute. Slow down. When did this happen?”
“A week after you left. We tried to phone, we phoned all the hotels.
They said they’d tell you, they promised! Didn’t they tell you?”
“I’ll be there tomorrow,” I said. “I didn’t know. Nobody told me
anything. I didn’t get any telegrams. I never got them.”
I couldn’t take it in. What had happened, what had gone wrong, why had
Father died, why hadn’t I been notified? I found myself on the floor, on the
bone-grey carpet, crouching down over the telephone, curled around it as if it
were something precious and fragile. I thought of my postcards from Europe,
arriving at Avilion with their cheerful, trivial messages. They were probably
still on the table in the front hall. I hope you are in good health.
“But it was in the papers!” Laura said.
“Not where I was,” I said. “Not those papers.” I didn’t add that I’d
never bothered with the papers anyway. I’d been too stupefied.
It was Richard who’d collected the telegrams, on the ship and at all our
hotels. I could see his meticulous fingers, opening the envelopes, reading,
folding the telegrams into quarters, stowing them away. I couldn’t accuse him
of lying—he’d never said anything about them, these telegrams—but it was the
same as lying. Wasn’t it?
He must have told them at the hotels not to put through any calls. Not
to me, and not while I was there. He’d been keeping me in the dark,
I thought I might be sick, but I wasn’t. After a time I went downstairs.
Lose your temper and you lose the fight, Reenie used to say. Richard was
sitting on the back verandah with a gin and tonic. So thoughtful of Winifred to
lay in a supply of gin, he’d already said, twice. Another gin was poured ready,
waiting for me on the low white glass-topped wrought-iron table. I picked it
up. Ice chimed against the crystal. That was how my voice needed to sound.
“Good lord,” said Richard, looking at me. “I thought you were freshening
up. What happened to your eyes?” They must have been red.
“Father’s dead,” I said. “They sent five telegrams. You didn’t tell me.”
“ Mea culpa,” said Richard. “I know I ought to have, but I wanted
to spare you the worry, darling. There was nothing to be done, and no way we
could get back in time for the funeral, and I didn’t want things to be ruined
for you. I guess I was selfish, too—I wanted you all to myself, if only for a
little while. Now sit down and buck up, and have your drink, and forgive me.
We’ll deal with all this in the morning.”
The heat was dizzying; where the sun hit the lawn it was a blinding
green. The shadows under the trees were thick as tar. Richard’s voice came
through to me in staccato bursts, like Morse code: I heard only certain words.
Worry. Time. Ruined. Selfish. Forgive me.
What could I say to that?
TSO - the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
Myra took me backstage and asked me if I’d like to use the Ladies’—she’s
good about remembering that—then sat me down in the dressing room. “You just
stay put now,” she said. Then she hurried off, bum lolloping, to make sure all
was in order.
The lights around the dressing-room mirror were small round bulbs, as in
theatres; they cast a flattering light, but I was not flattered: I looked sick,
my skin leached of blood, like meat soaked in water. Was it fear, or true
illness? Certainly I did not feel a hundred percent.
I found my comb, made a perfunctory stab at the top of my head. Myra keeps
threatening to take me to “her girl,” at what she still refers to as the Beauty
Parlour—The Hair Port is its official name, with Unisex as an added
incentive—but I keep resisting. At least I can still call my hair my own,
though it frizzes upwards as if I’ve been electrocuted. Beneath it there are
glimpses of scalp, the greyish pink of mice feet. If I ever get caught in a
high wind my hair will all blow off like dandelion fluff, leaving only a tiny
pockmarked nubbin of bald head.
Myra had left me one of her special brownies, whipped up for the Alumni
Tea—a slab of putty, covered in chocolate sludge—and a plastic screw-top jug of
her very own battery-acid coffee. I could neither drink nor eat, but why did
God make toilets? I left a few brown crumbs, for authenticity.
Then Myra bustled in and scooped me up and led me forth, and I was
having my hand shaken by the principal, and told how good it was of me to have
come; then I was passed on to the vice-principal, the president of the Alumni
Association, the head of the English department—a woman in a trouser suit—the
representative from the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and finally the local
member of Parliament, loath as such are to miss a trick. I hadn’t seen so many
polished teeth on display since Richard’s political days.
Myra accompanied me as far as my chair, then whispered, “I’ll be right
in the wings.” The school orchestra struck up with squeaks and flats, and we
sang “O Canada!,” the words to which I can never remember because they keep
changing them. Nowadays they do some of it in French, which once would have
been unheard of. We sat down, having affirmed our collective pride in something
we can’t pronounce.
Then the school chaplain offered a prayer, lecturing God on the many
unprecedented challenges that face today’s young people. God must have heard
this sort of thing before, he’s probably as bored with it as the rest of us.
The others gave voice in turn: end of the twentieth century, toss out the old,
ring in the new, citizens of the future, to you from failing hands and so
forth. I allowed my mind to drift; I knew enough to know that the only thing
expected of me was that I not disgrace myself. I could have been back again
beside the podium, or at some interminable dinner, sitting next to Richard, keeping
my mouth shut. If asked, which was seldom, I used to say that my hobby was
gardening. A half-truth at best, though tedious enough to pass muster.
Next it was time for the graduates to receive their diplomas. Up they
trooped, solemn and radiant, in many sizes, all beautiful as only the young can
be beautiful. Even the ugly ones were beautiful, even the surly ones, the fat
ones, even the spotty ones. None of them understands this—how beautiful they
are. But nevertheless they’re irritating, the young. Their posture is appalling
as a rule, and judging from their songs they snivel and wallow, grin and
bear it having gone the way of the foxtrot. They don’t understand their own
They barely glanced at me. To them I must have seemed quaint, but I
suppose it’s everyone’s fate to be reduced to quaintness by those younger than
themselves. Unless there’s blood on the floor, of course. War, pestilence,
murder, any kind of ordeal or violence, that’s what they respect. Blood means
we were serious.
Next came the prizes—Computer Science, Physics, mumble, Business Skills,
English Literature, something I didn’t catch. Then the Alumni Association man
cleared his throat and gave out with a pious spiel about Winifred Griffen
Prior, saint on earth. How everyone fibs when it’s a question of money! I
suppose the old bitch pictured the whole thing when she made her bequest,
stingy as it is. She knew my presence would be requested; she wanted me
writhing in the town’s harsh gaze while her own munificence was lauded. Spend
this in remembrance of me. I hated to give her the satisfaction, but I
couldn’t shirk it without seeming frightened or guilty, or else indifferent.
Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper
The war ended officially in the first week of May—the war in Europe,
that is. Which was the only part of it that would have concerned Laura.
A week later she telephoned. She placed the call in the morning, an hour
after breakfast, when she must have known Richard would not be at home. I
didn’t recognize her voice, I’d given up expecting her. I thought at first that
she was the woman from my dressmaker’s.
“It’s me,” she said.
“Where are you?” I said carefully. You must recall that she was by this
time an unknown quantity to me—perhaps of questionable stability.
“I’m here,” she said. “In the city.” She wouldn’t tell me where she was
staying, but she named a street corner where I could pick her up, later that
afternoon. In that case we could have tea, I said. Diana Sweets was where I
intended to take her. It was safe, it was secluded, it catered mostly to women;
they knew me there. I said I would bring my car.
“Oh, do you have a car now?”
“More or less.” I described it.
“It sounds like quite a chariot,” she said lightly.
Laura was standing on the corner of King and Spadina, right where she
said she’d be. It wasn’t the most savoury district, but she didn’t seem
perturbed by that. I honked, and she waved and then came over and climbed in. I
leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. Immediately I felt treacherous.
“I can’t believe you’re really here,” I said to her.
“But here I am.”
I was close to tears all of a sudden; she seemed unconcerned. Her cheek
had been very cool, though. Cool and thin.
“I hope you didn’t mention anything to Richard, though,” she said.
“About me being here. Or Winifred,” she added, “because it’s the same thing.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” I said. She said nothing.
Because I was driving, I could not look at her directly. For that I had
to wait until I’d parked the car, then until we’d walked to Diana Sweets, and
then until we were seated across from each other. At last I could see all of
her, full on.
She was and was not the Laura I remembered. Older, of course—we both
were—but more than that. She was neatly, even austerely dressed, in a dull-blue
shirtwaist dress with a pleated bodice and small buttons down the front; her
hair was pulled back into a severe chignon. She appeared shrunken, fallen in on
herself, leached of colour, but at the same time translucent—as if little
spikes of light were being nailed out through her skin from the inside, as if
thorns of light were shooting out from her in a prickly haze, like a thistle
held up to the sun. It’s a hard effect to describe. (Nor should you set much
store by it: my eyes were already warping, I already needed glasses, though I
didn’t yet know it. The fuzzy light around Laura may have been simply an
We ordered. She wanted coffee rather than tea. It would be bad coffee, I
warned her—you couldn’t get good coffee in a place like this, because of the
war. But she said, “I’m used to bad coffee.”
There was a silence. I hardly knew where to begin. I wasn’t yet ready to
ask her what she was doing back in Toronto. Where had she been all this time? I
asked. What had she been doing?
“I was in Avilion, at first,” she said.
“But it was all closed up!” It had been, all through the war. We hadn’t
been back for years. “How did you get in?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “We could always get in when we wanted to.”
Our coffee arrived. It tasted of burned toast crumbs and roasted
chicory, not surprising since that’s what they put into it. “Do you want some
cake or something?” I said. “It’s not bad cake here.” She was so thin, I felt
she could use some cake.
“Then what did you do?”
“Then I turned twenty-one, so I had a little money, from Father. So I
went to Halifax.”
“Halifax? Why Halifax?”
“It was where the ships came in.”
I didn’t pursue this. There was a reason behind it, there always was
with Laura; it was a reason I shied away from hearing. “But what were you doing?”
“This and that,” she said. “I made myself useful.” Which was all she
would say on that score. I supposed it would have been a soup kitchen of some
kind, or the equivalent. Cleaning toilets in a hospital, that sort of thing.
“Didn’t you get my letters? From Bella Vista? Reenie said you didn’t.”
“No,” I said. “I never got any letters.”
“I expect they stole them. And they wouldn’t let you call, or come to
“They said it would be bad for you.”
She laughed a little. “It would have been bad for you,” she said.
“You really shouldn’t stay there, in that house. You shouldn’t stay with him.
He’s very evil.”
“I know you’ve always felt that, but what else can I do?” I said. “He’d
never give me a divorce. And I don’t have any money.”
“That’s no excuse.”
“Maybe not for you. You’ve got your trust fund, from Father, but I have
no such thing. And what about Aimee?”
“You could take her with you.”
“Easier said than done. She might not want to come. She’s pretty stuck
on Richard, at the moment, if you must know.”
“Why would she be?” said Laura.
“He butters her up. He gives her things.”
“I wrote you from Halifax,” said Laura, changing the subject.
“I never got those letters either.”
“I expect Richard reads your mail,” said Laura.
“I expect he does,” I said. The conversation was taking a turn I hadn’t
expected. I’d assumed I’d be consoling Laura, commiserating with her, hearing a
sad tale, but instead she was lecturing me. How easily we slid back into our
“What did he tell you about me?” she said now. “About putting me into
There it was, then, right out on the table. This was the crossroads:
either Laura had been mad, or Richard had been lying. I couldn’t believe both.
“He told me a story,” I said evasively.
“What sort of a story? Don’t worry, I won’t get upset. I just want to
“He said you were—well, mentally disturbed.”
“Naturally. He would say that. What else did he say?”
“He said you thought you were pregnant, but it was just a delusion.”
“I was pregnant,” said Laura. “That was the whole point—that was
why they whisked me out of sight in such a hurry. Him and Winifred—they were
scared stiff. The disgrace, the scandal—you can imagine what they’d think it
would do to his big fat chances.”
“Yes. I can see that.” I could see it, too—the hush-hush call from the
doctor, the panic, the hasty conference between the two of them, the
spur-of-the-moment plan. Then the other version of events, the false one,
concocted just for me. I was docile enough as a rule, but they must have known
there was a line somewhere. They must have been afraid of what I might do, once
they’d crossed it.
“Anyway, I didn’t have the baby. That’s one of the things they do, at
“One of the things?” I was feeling quite stupid.
“Besides the mumbo-jumbo, I mean, and the pills and machines. They do
extractions,” she said. “They conk you out with ether, like the dentist. Then
they take out the babies. Then they tell you you’ve made the whole thing up.
Then when you accuse them of it, they say you’re a danger to yourself and
She was so calm, so plausible. “Laura,” I said, “are you sure? About the
baby, I mean. Are you sure there really was one?”
“Of course I’m sure,” she said. “Why would I make such a thing up?”
There was still room for doubt, but this time I believed Laura. “How did
it happen?” I whispered. “Who was the father?” Such a thing called for
“If you don’t already know, I don’t think I can tell you,” said Laura.
I supposed it must have been Alex Thomas. Alex was the only man Laura
had ever shown any interest in—besides Father, that is, and God.
Zakia with Gopa reading
Laura told me what she was doing vis-a-vis Elwood Murray; she also told
Reenie. I expected a protest, an uproar; I expected Reenie to say that Laura
was lowering herself, or acting in a tawdry, compromising fashion. Who could
tell what might go on in a darkroom, with a young girl and a man and the lights
off? But Reenie took the view that it wasn’t as if Elwood was paying Laura to
work for him: rather he was teaching her, and that was quite different. It put
him on a level with the hired help. As for Laura being in a darkroom with him,
no one would think any harm of it, because Elwood was such a pansy. I suspect
Reenie was secretly relieved to have Laura showing an interest in something other
Laura certainly showed an interest, but as usual she went overboard. She
nicked some of Elwood’s hand-tinting materials and brought them home with her.
I found this out by accident: I was in the library, dipping into the books at
random, when I noticed the framed photographs of Grandfather Benjamin, each
with a different prime minister. Sir John Sparrow Thompson’s face was now a
delicate mauve, Sir Mackenzie Bowell’s a bilious green, Sir Charles Tupper’s a
pale orange. Grandfather Benjamin’s beard and whiskers had been done in light
That evening I caught her in the act. There on her dressing table were
the little tubes, the tiny brushes. Also the formal portrait of Laura and me in
our velvet dresses and Mary Janes. Laura had removed the print from its frame,
and was tinting me a light blue. “Laura,” I said, “what in heaven’s name are
you up to? Why did you colour those pictures? The ones in the library. Father
will be livid.”
“I was just practising,” said Laura. “Anyway, those men needed some
enhancing. I think they look better.”
“They look bizarre,” I said. “Or very ill. Nobody’s face is green! Or
Laura was unperturbed. “It’s the colours of their souls,” she said.
“It’s the colours they ought to have been.”
“You’ll get in big trouble! They’ll know who did it.”
“Nobody ever looks at those,” she said. “Nobody cares.”
“Well, you’d better not lay a finger on Grandmother Adelia,” I said.
“Nor the dead uncles! Father would have your hide!”
“I wanted to do them in gold, to show they’re in glory,” she said. “But
there isn’t any gold. The uncles, not Grandmother. I’d do her a steel grey.”
“Don’t you dare! Father doesn’t believe in glory. And you’d better take
those paints back before you’re accused of theft.”
“I haven’t used much,” said Laura. “Anyway, I brought Elwood a jar of
jam. It’s a fair trade.”
“Reenie’s jam, I suppose. “Out of the cold cellar—did you ask her? She
counts that jam, you know.” I picked up the photograph of the two of us. “Why
am I blue?”
“Because you’re asleep,” said Laura.
KumKum could not come - she had to stay home to care for Gael
KumKum’s piece (read by Joe in her absence):
I waited until the end of October to tell Richard that I was pregnant. I
said I’d wanted to be sure. He expressed conventional joy, and kissed my
forehead. “Good girl,” he said. I was only doing what was expected of me.
One benefit was that he now left me scrupulously alone at night. He
didn’t want to damage anything, he said. I told him that was very thoughtful of
him. “And you’re on gin rations from now on. I won’t allow any naughtiness,” he
said, wagging his finger at me in a way I found sinister. He was more alarming
to me during his moments of levity than he was the rest of the time; it was
like watching a lizard gambol. “We’ll have the very best doctor,” he added. “No
matter what it costs.” Putting things on a commercial footing was reassuring to
both of us. With money in play, I knew where I stood: I was the bearer of a
very expensive package, pure and simple.
Winifred, after her first little scream of genuine fright, made an
insincere fuss. Really she was alarmed. She guessed (rightly) that being the
mother of a son and heir, or even just an heir, would give me more status with
Richard than I’d had so far, and a good deal more than I was entitled to. More
for me, and less for her. She would be on the lookout for ways to whittle me
down to size: I expected her to appear any minute with detailed plans for
decorating the nursery.
“When may we expect the blessed event?” she asked, and I could see I was
in for a prolonged dose of coy language from her. It would now be the new
arrival and a present from the stork and the little stranger,
nonstop. Winifred could get quite elfish and finicky about subjects that made
“In April, I think,” I said. “Or March. I haven’t seen a doctor yet.”
“But you must know” she said, arching her eyebrows.
“It’s not as if I’ve done this before,” I said crossly. “It’s not as if
I was expecting it. I wasn’t paying attention.”
I went to Laura’s room one evening to tell her the same news. I knocked
at the door; when she didn’t answer, I opened it softly, thinking she might be
asleep. She wasn’t though. She was kneeling beside her bed, in her blue
nightgown, with her head down and her hair spreading as if blown by an unmoving
wind, her arms flung out as if she’d been thrown there. At first I thought she
must be praying, but she wasn’t, or not that I could hear. When she noticed me
at last, she got up, as matter-of-factly as if she’d been dusting, and sat on
the frilled bench of her vanity table.
As usual, I was struck by the relationship between her surroundings, the
surroundings Winifred had chosen for her—the dainty prints, the ribbon
rosebuds, the organdies, the flounces—and Laura herself. A photograph would
have revealed only harmony. Yet to me the incongruity was intense, almost
surreal. Laura was flint in a nest of thistledown.
I say flint, not stone: a flint has a heart of fire.
“Laura, I wanted to tell you,” I said. “I’m going to have a baby.”
She turned towards me, her face smooth and white as a porcelain plate,
the expression sealed inside it. But she didn’t seem surprised. Nor did she
congratulate me. Instead she said, “Remember the kitten?”
“What kitten?” I said.
“The kitten Mother had. The one that killed her.”
“Laura, it wasn’t a kitten.”
“I know,” said Laura.
Joe’s piece (not read for lack of time):
Ball p. 411-412 (533 words)
The snow fell, softly at first, then in hard pellets
that stung the skin like needles. The sun set in the afternoon, the sky changed
from washed blood to skim milk. Smoke poured from the chimneys, from the
furnaces stoked with coal. The bread-wagon horses left piles of steaming brown
buns on the street which then froze solid. Children threw them at one another.
The clocks struck midnight, over and over, every midnight a deep blue-black
riddled with icy stars, the moon white bone. I looked out the bedroom window,
down to the sidewalk, through the branches of the chestnut tree. Then I turned
out the light.
The Xanadu ball was the second Saturday in January.
My costume had come that morning, in a box with armfuls of tissue paper. The
smart thing to do was to rent your costume from Malabar’s, because to have one
specially made would be displaying too much of an effort. Now it was almost six
o’clock and I was trying it on. Laura was in my room: she would often do her
homework there, or make a show of doing it. “What are you supposed to be?” she
“The Abyssinian Maid,” I said. What I would do for a
dulcimer I wasn’t yet sure. Perhaps a banjo, with ribbons added. Then I
remembered that the only banjo I knew about was back at Avilion, in the attic,
left over from my dead uncles. I would have to skip the dulcimer.
I didn’t expect Laura to tell me I looked pretty, or
nice even. She never did that: pretty and nice were not categories of thought
for her. This time she said, “You aren’t very Abyssinian. Abyssinians aren’t
supposed to be blonde.”
“I can’t help the colour of my hair,” I said. “It’s
Winifred’s fault. She should have chosen Vikings or something.”
“Why are they all afraid of him?” said Laura.
“Afraid of who?” I said. (I hadn’t considered the
fear in this poem, only the pleasure. The pleasure-dome. The pleasure-dome was
where I really lived now—where I had my true being, unknown to those around me.
With walls and towers girdled round, so nobody else could get in.)
“Listen,” she said. She recited, with her eyes
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ’twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
“See, they’re afraid of him,” she said, “but why?
“Really, Laura, I have no idea,” I said. “It’s just
a poem. You can’t always tell what poems mean. Maybe they think he’s crazy.”
“It’s because he’s too happy,” said Laura. “He’s
drunk the milk of Paradise. It frightens people when you’re too happy, in that
way. Isn’t that why?”
“Laura, don’t keep at me,” I said. “I don’t know
everything, I’m not a professor.”
Management - Learning from Experiences by Reflection