Authors: Cynthia Flood
Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Short Stories (Single Author), #Family Life
Cynthia Flood, 2013
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Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Flood, Cynthia, 1940-
Red girl rat boy / Cynthia Flood.
Electronic monograph in ebook format.
Issued also in print format.
PS8561.L64R43 2013 C813'.54 C2013-901996-0
Biblioasis acknowledges the ongoing financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Council for the Arts, Canadian Heritage, the Canada Book Fund; and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Arts Council.
Edited by John Metcalf
Copy-edited by Allana Amlin
Typeset and designed by Kate Hargreaves
To the memory of Jane Creighton
poet, writer, graphic artist
To Be Queen
Siblings know the smell of each other’s poo
We know who’s ashamed of pimples or bum, scared of crane-flies and the dog two doors down. Thunder, too. The others overhear us scolded and ordered about, as we hear them. Who steals? Hates fatty meat? Lies to teachers? Has to take the garbage out every day for a week? Can’t use the car? We know, and know our parents’ look after quarrelling, their bedroom sounds. We know our sister Annie died. Blindfold, in a breath we’d all three recognize the air of our house, its smell on our return from summer vacation at the lake.
Bright familiar colours splashed on separate darknesses—I tried to explain to Ivan, an only child, how we were.
My big sister wanted red flowers,
I wanted a Smartie cookie, and to give orders. Two wants to one, yet my advantage: Mum would surely give me a cookie later, be my slave, but Coral needed those reds now and Mrs. in that garden scared her. Grumbling, she agreed. I knew she would.
Up she went where I dared not, that highest kitchen shelf.
Ohhh full mouth! Crackling soft chocolate, brown-sugary peany burr.
Lots. Never enough. Gone.
Out the back without brother Will seeing. Under a fence and over another (not allowed), oh oh suck poor pricked thumby, pick a flower for each finger and count to be sure. Mrs. coming! Through the hedge, along the alley (forbidden, cars), round to the front gate and Coral. She’d filled my worm-jar with water.
“Who said you could?” I didn’t care really, let her go to the dumb birthday party.
Back inside, the house cool in summer.
Will sat on the couch holding a knife and a manual, wood-shavings littered about (not allowed, only in the basement). Spotty-face. Older, nearly another parent. To a small child, the family’s a given, absolute, its spacing unremarkable: sixteen, (twelve), eight, four.
“Kenny, where’ve you been? You’re filthy.”
To the hot yard again, the tree house.
Did I see Coral come crying home?
The interrogation I did hear.
Why did you steal those roses for that girl? Why?
My sister wouldn’t make herself more trouble by telling on me; I went on playing, and later got a cookie. Mum was too tired to be slave, though. Coral knew she had to, for a few minutes at least, but she wasn’t good at it. Our mother spoke so convincingly.
“O magnificent prince, what is thy wish?”
Not another peany burr cookie, no point asking, teeth already brushed. Mostly, another storybook. Or Hangman, I Spy, Going on a Trip.
Once in a long while, “Tell about Annie?”
Mum’s wording hardly altered. “Annie got sick, and she died just before her first birthday. Time for sleep, Kenny.”
A gap, then.
Crossing the school playground with my babysitter (why? I’m not even in kindergarten), I meet Coral trailing a group of girls.
What a cute little boy! Isn’t he just?
My sister’s look unreadable. It clears. “Kenny, do a somersault!” A recent learning, this. I love performance.
Look at him go!
Another roll. Applause. Coral wavers, pleased the girls are pleased, envious of me.
Can he go backwards?
My attempt lands me flat on my back, giggling with sky above.
They’re on me. First I laugh, then there are too many eyes and fingers, open mouths, teeth. My few clothes loosen. I struggle. An older boy appears, high on his bike against the blue. His glance, contemptuous of little kids. He wheels off. I lie still, and the attack ceases.
Thus I learned that if you don’t give a shit, or credibly pretend not to, even in defeat you have power. Ivan never believed that a child so young could know that.
Coral always cared too much, still does. Like Mum and Dad, she’s got three kids plus one missing. Ads and agencies haven’t worked. “Yet,” she says firmly. Coral’s siblings haven’t added to the population, for reasons closely related yet not the same.
I remember. That new babysitter,
the bad woman
who made Mum get a job, had taken me for ice cream to soften me up. The playground was a shortcut home. I knew Mum judged its high slide dangerous, so I tattled, but she didn’t stop working.
Each sibling privately recalls the first sight of Mum crying.
Her shoulders heaved in that awful hurting way, like when Will and I were playing tag and laughing and I fell, ripping open my knee.
“I believed they were nice girls!”
I ran far off, to the tree house. An old tarp made its roof, and I pulled that down around me to hide everything in the world except the ragged faded plastic. After an enormous time I re-entered the house.
Dad was just home from the mill. “Coral did what, Lorna?”
“Cut herself. I had to take her for stitches. Raymond, our ten-year-old daughter carved her foot with a paring knife.”
Who? Dad was Ray.
“Why?” His lunch bucket landed on the kitchen counter. Ray and Lorna, king and queen, couldn’t sound like this. Not allowed.
“To be queen for a day.” A noise, not laughter. “In a clique.”
“What?” Impatience rising.
More noise. “Blind, blind. Just like before.”
“Lorna-a-a-a.” My father put his arms around her. She shook him off.
Years later, Coral told me that she and Mum drove to Victoria the following weekend. They stayed in a bed and breakfast, had tea at the Empress, toured SeaWorld.
“Mum was so gentle! She kept saying,
You deserve a treat
, but all the time I felt those girls talking about me. I’d have to face them, at school.”
Our parents were in their mid-twenties at my brother’s birth, nearing forty at mine. Different people. For eight years Will and Mum and Dad lived elsewhere, the site of Annie’s arrival and death. I’ve only seen photos of that home. She’s not in any.
When Coral came, everyone moved to the house I knew, which Will left before I turned ten. My small childhood’s big event: Mum’s return to work. For him, what was big?
Like our mother I sleep poorly, walk and talk while enduring wakefulness. During my childhood she’d putter in the night kitchen, musing aloud about our health and school marks, her in-laws, next day’s dinner, laughing sometimes.
Angry hissing sounded if Coral came in, late and rude.
Dad never woke. Too tired.
The one time Will’s voice rose right up the stairs—this was after the cutting, before
—he wouldn’t hush for Mum.
Take some responsibility?
Haven’t you blamed me enough?”
“You do too, Mum!” More quietly, “I wasn’t there when Coral cut herself, either. She did that.”
Our brother Will was long gone to the east coast, as far away as possible without actually exiting the country, on an autumn evening when Mum and Dad went out to play cards with friends.
Negotiations with my sister stalled, because she offered money only for the horror movie our parents wouldn’t let me see. None for popcorn.
“Okay, I’ll stick around so you and him can’t slobber, yuck.” Fun, yes, but really I didn’t care what she and her boyfriend did.
“No you won’t, Kenny!”
“Want me to tell Mum?”
She counted out the cash. I knew she would.
scared the bejeezus out of me, at age eleven. Bad nights followed. I overheard Mum ask Coral if she knew why, and my sister’s negative answer. (
also scared Ivan, a shared experience discovered soon after our meeting. We rented the movie, felt safe as we watched together.)
In late winter my sister went to visit Aunt Marlene at the lake and stayed for months.
“How come she’s allowed to miss so much school?”
“No point getting angry,” Dad answered. “Talk to your mother.”
Who said only, each time, “Coral will be home soon, Kenny,” and went on basting her perfect chicken or ironing her restaurant uniform. Her voice roiled my insides. So—frail? Not allowed. To change things, I tried the Annie-question.
Mum looked up, surprised. “She just got sick, Kenny. You know that. Annie didn’t quite get to be one year old.”
For the first time, I pushed. “But what did she die
“Meningitis.” Back to the chuckling fat in the roaster.
The word stopped me. How to spell it, past
? (Ivan thought my reaction strange, dearly strange.) Nor did I present another long-hoarded query,
Why isn’t Annie in the albums
? Mum was queen, her intention to keep silence palpably stronger than my curiosity. Finding the word didn’t bring the usual dictionary-satisfaction, either. In the decades since, I’ve read about the disease. It’s tricky, wears masks. One symptom is cold hands.
That summer, Will made a visit home. With our parents we went to the lake for a family vacation, as usual, and to retrieve Coral, unusual. She and Will spent hours together. Much later, learning the word
, I recognized how our brother had been with her.
When he flew back to Nova Scotia I went with him, for a visit. What did this cost our parents? I loved the flight.
Will was already building his house, by the shore. I helped. His workshop and its sweet smell of wood fascinated me. Amazingly, his hands and the buzzing machines formed bowls, plates, lamps, tables.
We talked of childhood. Trying to sound grown-up, I told how hard I’d taken Mum’s return to work.
e laughed, not meanly. “For me, the biggest thing was the strike at the mill. Just like the song!
First we walked out, then we were locked out, then by a foul we were all but knocked out
“Giving orders, are you? It lasted months. Dad got even more quiet. Meals got skimpy. Kenny, do you hear Mum talk in the kitchen at night?”
We moved on to that.
Another long gap.
When I was in high school Coral told how she’d once named a doll Annie. “I made her die, Kenny. Mum found me in the side-yard, burying.”
“She got mad?”
A shrug. “Went into the house.”
“Do you know what happened?”
“Just the doctor said it was too late.”
We resumed Monopoly. Such gleeful laughter. For years Coral beat me, I beat her at checkers, at Scrabble we were well-matched. She didn’t enjoy chess, my favourite. “It’s like war.” Exactly. In my later teens, Mum appeared the powerful queen and Dad the king, his moves so limited.
After Coral too left home, for an unapproved marriage, the concerns of Mum’s insomniac monologues deepened. Or I understood them better. (
shocked me, though.)
Why don’t Will and his girlfriend live together? Poor Coral, with that man. What’s wrong with Kenny?
The queen was free to speak more loudly, too. The prince had won a scholarship to university, while the king still slept heavily and had grown nearly deaf.
During law school, on one of my visits home she swore at length about Dad’s heart, his doctors.
For once I knew what the big kids didn’t. I told Coral, phoned Will.
At the funeral, he and I got past the awkwardness of brothers not often present to each other. Oh, I’d flown east, he’d flown west, but twelve years is a long way. Will was forty; I’d just passed my bar exams.
We cried for our father.
“And hasn’t Mum got small, Kenny? Old.”
I agreed, though in fact our queen was just getting started on those two projects. For some time we didn’t notice her aging, preoccupied as we were with surveying the enormous blank in our lives shaped by our dead father. My need for Dad shocked me. (When Ivan to his surprise found that I was inessential, even in my rage I understood, knowing how ignorant one can be. What a pair.)
Soon after that death, Coral’s guy dumped her at last. Her kids were teenagers, she their queen.
My brother and I found we’d both wanted to say
You’re all better off without that loser,
but neither of us did, knowing our mother would issue that judgment. With Coral’s children, I played all our old childhood games.
By then I’d started in labour law. Union work began to take me across the country; Will and I connected. His small house, long since finished, of course, looked beautiful. His partner—younger than he, definitely not a loser—lived with her kids in the nearby town. Earlier, I hadn’t wondered about Will’s choosing such an isolated site, didn’t ask other questions either.
Now I did, still feeling privileged to watch him use the drill-press, the lathe.
“Why stay here? Partly this, Kenny.” He waved towards the shavings on the floor, his wall of tools, the soft sheen of bowls. “And Jeanie’s here. Dad didn’t approve,” another wave at all the wood, “of course. He always said—”