‘Say a special prayer for Ruth’s father in your mind—silently, Loretta—and be nice to her if she comes in today.’ It was good when the teacher gave us permission to check out of the classroom and be in our own heads.
We were already starting on the first exercises of the day when Ruth arrived. After she got her books and pens out, she lifted her eyes. I frowned to look sad but also smiled a tiny bit to make sure we were still friends.
At lunchtime we stood together in the schoolyard and Loretta asked Ruth how her dad was doing. It sounded like something she heard from grown-ups. Loretta was a shadow adult, always knowing the right thing to say.
‘Well,’ Ruth paused, ‘he’s hanging on to his life by a thread. I was listening outside the door and I heard the nurse tell my sister.’
We repeated the phrase in our heads. But before it had taken, she interrupted our thoughts.
‘No wait, that’s not right. He’s not on the thread, his life is. What the nurse said was my father’s life is hanging by a thread.’
She emphasised the word life like it was an important correction. We soaked this in, replacing the first phrase with this one. A thread maybe tied to a branch, life, his life, dangling on the end like a tyre swing in a breeze.
We hung on to Ruth’s words because her ear hustling had a habit of yielding staggering facts from the grown-up world. She told us before the holidays the truth about Santa.
James said, ‘Not true, I got two separate bags of presents, one from my parents and one from Santa.’
‘That’s why your parents get money from welfare. They have to get you two sets of presents or the social worker will put you in a home,’ Ruth answered.
Another time she said ‘Jesus Christ’ right out loud. The teacher didn’t hear but after class one kid told her she’d go to hell for that.
‘I’ve already been to hell and back,’ she said, ‘so I don’t think so.’ To hell, we thought about that—and back, back to us.
And she could spit and whistle at the same time. She would whistle to get you to turn around and then spit in your direction without moving her head or even her lips. But you would prefer to be spit at any day than have Ruth put you in one of her stories. Her stories held us. Her words could trap you like a fly.
Although I had been with the agency for two months now, this was my first time working with Frankie. She was a qualified nurse and I was just an aide; they needed two here because of the weight. We had a hydraulic lift with a little swing seat to move the woman from the bed to the wheelchair. Earlier, Frankie and me had taken turns hoisting each other up in the seat and then letting it down quickly.
I got the job because the sister of a guy I knew had worked in that agency and had left to be an entertainer on a cruise ship. Right then I was wearing her old uniform, with the pants rolled up into a cuff because of my shorter legs.
‘So wait, she actually said his life was hanging by a thread or you dreamt she said it, hon?’
‘No, Ruth said it alright but in my dream it was my aunt she was talking about. She said to her, your life is hanging by a thread. But like I said, in real life when we were kids she said the same thing about her father.’
The dream had started in a back yard, a washing line with bed sheets and a sandpit with a set of crockery half buried. The sand blown into ridges, like a movie desert with spouts and china handles sticking out. But the scene I was now describing had taken place inside. My aunt was sitting down; her hands interlocked around a cup on a saucer in front of her. There was something hot in the cup, coffee maybe or soup. Actually I didn’t know what was in the cup; I only started to wonder after the dream.
My aunt said, ‘I’m back home.’ She sounded happy but her voice rose up at the end like a question. I know I was a child in the dream, because my feet were swinging.
‘So,’ Frankie says, ‘what next?’
‘Then, like I said, Ruth was in the seat next to me and she said that thing about the thread to my aunt. Nothing much else happened in the dream but I remembered back to what happened years ago. What that kid Ruth did to my aunt nearly killed her. Some people still believe there’s more to it than what came out.’
‘Remember the summer all about the garbage strike, the unions?’
‘Tell me about it, hon. Who could forget that summer? Stinking bags on the streets, the heat. And then right in the middle of it all, those train bombers. A living nightmare. I lost my cat to food poisoning because of it, rotting meat.’
‘The council was handing out big fines for burning trash in your own yard. You were supposed to pay for collection. So what happens, my aunt goes down to the bus depot with an old suitcase. Then when the bus is nearly ready to leave she puts the case in the hold with the others. She told me later, this young man helped her push it to the back to make room for his rucksack. But he never came forward.’
‘Jesus, your aunt was one of the bombers.’
‘God, no. So she hadn’t even told my uncle what she was doing. He was at work. I suppose we were all in school. Anyways it would have worked out okay. Except for Ruth.’
‘You lived with your aunt and uncle?’
‘Yeah. At different times for different reasons. Ruth was skipping school, hiding down on some seat in the bus depot or maybe behind a pillar, watching with her racoon eyes.’
‘She had some problem with her eyes?’
‘No, it’s just I can’t remember her kid face. Her blue school bag and her ponytail I can picture but when I look in her face, always I see her eyes lined with kohl. I mean she didn’t wear make- up when we were kids, that came later. On that day, she saw what she saw. My aunt got in the car and drove home. She had to pick up some birdseed at the pet store on the way but she was still home before we got out of school. She always had a treat ready for us.’
‘What did the kid see?’
‘Even talking about it reminds me of the heat. The dogs ripping the bags open at night and vegetables and meat spilling over the street. It felt like your own innards were putrefying. It put an edge on everything, even breathing.’
‘And the paranoia, hon. You spilt talcum powder in a home, some old lady was shouting anthrax.’
A buzzer sounded right then, over the door. ‘She needs us to get the bedpan,’ Frankie said. ‘You left her on the pan that long?’
‘She’s fine, she falls asleep for hours and thinks she’s just nodded off for a minute. Look at my arms from lifting this one every day. I get my workout right here on the job. It’s a fringe benefit, right Hon?’
Frankie got the coffee going again. This was her world, I was her guest. Even the patient was a guest on Frankie’s show.
‘So,’ she said, ‘the suitcase?’
I felt like I owed her the end of the story because I had given her the beginning.
‘Well, while it was making its journey, my aunt is sitting at home, thinking she’s got rid of her suitcase and it’s travelling to somewhere with no identification on it and no one to meet it at the other end. She was counting on some cleaner finding it, putting it in the lost and found. I mean she hadn’t packed any household waste or anything that would rot. Ruth had headed home. Nobody ever noticed in her house whether she was in or out, maybe because of her father being sick. First she eats some cake a neighbour left in. Then she calls her sister down from the sickroom. Ruth knew how to sell a story so she doesn’t tell straight off who the woman was, just the bus and the suitcase, builds up the drama. Only after they get off the phone to the police, does she tell them who the woman was who didn’t get on the bus. You know my aunt could even have baked that cake because that’s the kind of thing people did then in our neighbourhood. At that stage the suitcase had reached the end of the line and the passengers were gone. They closed down the whole depot for an hour; they were bringing in a special team to detonate the suitcase. It was all over the news.’
‘What was in the suitcase?’
‘They showed the contents on TV, all laid out, and the newspaper listed the items.’
‘You’re holding out on me, hon. So spill.’
We had to turn the crinklie then, maybe a little late, but she was sleeping. ‘Hey, Sleeping Beauty.’ That’s what Frankie called her. When I was turning down the sheets my mind drifted back to the dream, to the sandpit in the yard. But like I said, it was Frankie’s show and she had to know. So I told her about the bits and pieces my aunt packed in a suitcase on a journey to nowhere.
‘There were some books, dress patterns. Some glass ornaments, mostly cats. Two bookends. There were some carvings made from coal, birds and horses.’
‘What is that? A speciality of your town, coal carving?’
‘Yeah, my uncle worked in the mine and they got them as Christmas presents every year from the company. He got a hard time for that. Also a candle I had made for her in school of a wizard killing a dragon. It had melted down one side before it ever got lit. She felt worst about that candle. For years she would still say sorry to me for putting it in the suitcase. She wasn’t going to put it in, hadn’t even been thinking about it but there was space left over and it just fitted. Last minute decision. An old sewing box filled with keys and locks. Jelly moulds. She had wrapped everything up with old underwear and socks. The suitcase itself was old and shabby. The case was the main thing she wanted to get rid of; the rest were mainly fillers.’
‘People have gone right off using jelly moulds these days, I noticed that myself. My own mother had a beauty, in the shape of a castle. So what happened your aunt?’
‘She had to go to the police station. She explained things. They fingerprinted her, for the record, but all they could get her on was littering. She went to court and paid a fine. Even the judge made fun of her, said she was lucky not to be packing her case for a week inside.’
‘Where I come from, we would have kicked the shit out of that Ruth kid,’ Frankie said with no particular feeling.
Frankie liked these little sponge cotton buds that had some lemon favour on them. We were supposed to use them for the patient’s mouth to keep it moist but Frankie would swab her own mouth, sweeping the sponge between her lower lip and gum and then do the same on her upper gums.
That’s when I started wondering what was in my aunt’s cup in the dream. Why would she drink soup from a cup? And fixing on that cup reminded me of the next bit of the dream.
When I looked at my aunt, I knew she was a dead person and it must have shown in my face because her eyes flickered for a moment, confused, before our heads turned to look at the kohl-eyes of Ruth seated beside me saying her line, ‘Your life is hanging by a thread.’ That was the bit I really couldn’t shake, feeling like I’d killed my aunt because I knew about her death before her in the dream. It felt as if I could see the cells mutating inside her body and Ruth could see them too.
‘Try one, Hon. You can go ahead and open the strawberry pack if you like; just leave the lemons for me.’
It was quiet except for both of us sucking and swabbing; Sleeping Beauty was snoring. My mouth tasted like fake strawberry when I went home that evening and I remembered why my aunt got rid of the jelly moulds; because they were a little rusty, the jellies would taste sweet and bitter at the one time and people said they might give you cancer.
My post never followed me; mostly I didn’t have the next address or even the town before I left so I would never have got those letters. But my cousin called to say that he was getting married and to come back down if I liked. That cousin was nearly the equal of a brother and I was between jobs. Deciding to make that trip was the start of some thing. When I got off the bus for the overnight stop I went directly to the bar where I had worked before. I had cut out pretty quickly from that job one weekend and even though that was way back, Albert, the boss, was still pretty angry. But he got over himself and even cleaned out the spare room for me to stay. Philly, one of the regulars had moved into my old apartment at the top of the building. The next morning, I could hear him get up; the toilet flushing, then the shower, a kettle boiling. The sound carried like crazy in that building; tapping your feet in one room was like a drum roll two floors down.
There was a knock at my door. Philly with a bunch of envelopes, coupons, some cards from an optician or dentist and a couple of white envelopes all with the same stamp on the front.
‘I sorted your mail, threw away the junk and kept the good stuff. I treated it like my own, you know, the ones I myself would keep or not.’
‘What if I didn’t come back?’
‘It’s a philosophical thing with me, people’s mail comes in my door, and I take care of things. It doesn’t cost either of us if you don’t come back. So after the first few months there was nothing until now, this summer, these arrived.’ He still held the official looking letters. I could see he wanted me to open them up there and then. When I turned over the first one, I could see it was already opened and stuck back. Philly knew I knew, but what’s to say? I would’ve done the same.
The State Commission Established for the Investigation into Elder Abuse. First off I never thought of those people as elders so that threw me. An elder is a tree from a list you learned at school. Even the managers never said elder, just patients or clients; amongst ourselves we mostly called them crinklies.
Turns out the agency and a few named people in it were in some trouble.
The letters, when Philly and me got them in order, were inviting me to testify. I rang the number of the office and this woman explained what was going on. They were investigating a whole raft of agencies and nursing homes. No one had made a complaint against me but Frankie was in deep shit. I told the woman I hardly ever worked with Frankie; as for clients, Sleeping Beauty was the only client I could recall. I couldn’t even remember her real name but the woman on the phone was able to tell me because she had all the records of who worked with which crinklie and when. That got to me. All I had destroyed, gotten rid of: old pay slips, notices of termination, lease agreements, Christmas cards, letters, even x-rays of my lungs. I had no records of where I was or what I did in the past. But this woman on the phone had all these details, hours of employment and locations. I was pinned like a butterfly in a case. Once I started thinking about it, there were probably people in offices all over that could get me with a touch of their fingertips. So I stood still in a place way back in my mind and sure enough Frankie came into focus. For the four years between then and now, she was nothing to me. But these letters were going to make me someone to her.
Philly said he appreciated the fact I shared the letters with him, because now he could have a sense of closure. A sense of closure, those were his words.
How I came by those letters shows how things can come about, just an envelope sent to a place, no more than words of an address written down. There’s a lot of trust and belief in sending out a letter, putting it into a bag or a letterbox and believing it’ll pass down the line to end up in the right hands. All the mail in the world that has my name on it says more to me about hope than belief. In truth, I haven’t got too many letters in my life where the person who sent them even knows what I look like.
I remembered now something else that happened four years back. I had worked in Albert’s bar for a couple of months straight after I left the agency and I saw Frankie again, only once. She came into the bar with a guy, okay looking and quiet—maybe he was quiet or maybe he was acting that way to look smart. And when she recognised me, she was telling me about Sleeping Beauty and how she’d passed on and how they had to take out the bedroom window and winch her down because the turn on the stairwell was too tight.
‘It was always going to take more than a handsome prince to wake her up, right hon?’
She also talked about some others I had forgotten about and, even when she told me, I couldn’t fix on which one was Emily or Hannah-Louise or Robert. She kept on about this guy Robert.
‘You remember him, hon, he had the black patent-leather shoes? You even fitted them on yourself, doing a little Fred Astaire shoe shuffle to my Ginger. That’s right, hon.’
She was drunk and mixing me up with some other aide because I knew for sure I hadn’t danced with her or the shoes.
I could see I was disappointing Frankie. She had an audience: the quiet guy she brought in, Albert my boss, the regulars. But I wasn’t hitting the notes on the Frankie show.
So I went down to the other end of the bar to rinse some glasses and then over the jukebox I heard her voice telling the story. When I went back up, she was acting like a reporter on the TV news, reciting the list of things my aunt packed in the suitcase. Albert kept shaking his head ‘I knew you must have been brought up by loons. Now I got the proof.’ Once they got a story like that they could keep it going for months. No profit saying anything, I went up to the storeroom to check something and when I came back someone had turned up the TV for the end of the game. Frankie and her guy left about then, wasted; she was leaning on him like he was a crutch.
I had been thinking to maybe leave that job anyway so I quit on a Friday afternoon, Labour Weekend.
After I got the letters, I decided to make what’s called a public deposition, even though I could have chosen a private one. I took a job back in Albert’s bar and stayed in the room upstairs. Philly, he was Canadian and he knew all about that stuff because he had been through something the same he said. He was brought up in a home run by the Christian Brothers and had gone back up some years previous to testify at a tribunal there. The Brothers had sent Philly’s younger brother to work up north on a farm near Fort Providence and he never saw him again. They beat up on Philly all the time. Albert told me they even raped him.
The Brothers swapped all that, twenty-seven years later, for a ball of money and Philly was laying it out note by note in the bar. Albert didn’t charge him rent for the room upstairs; instead he got him to help out with paper work. We liked him because he was an easy drunk, money in his pocket, methodical, no messiness, and same combo of drinks, same time, day in, day out. He mostly talked to Michael, the bar’s resident fag. Mike liked only Chinese men but not kids. One night after the TV news ran a feature about a local paedo ring, Philly told him what happened with the Brothers and Michael passed the story on to Albert who told me.
I was going to stick broadly to the truth and what I knew. Frankie was sitting at the opposite side of the room near the front. One of the days a guy came in and I’m pretty sure he was the quiet guy she was with in the bar. They didn’t talk together much; she was busy with her lawyer. If she was still with the same guy, at least that seemed to have worked out okay for her. Frankie tried to look like one of the crowd but there was a space in the seats to the right of her and the row behind her was always left empty.
Most of what I said happened and the judge or whatever, she was pretty well-disposed. I felt good up there like I had done a great job interview. And the families at the back of the room, the lawyer must have told them who was on their side or not because they were friendly to me outside, even before I had to go on the stand, getting me a coke from the vending machine and sharing food. They all brought their own food as there was no restaurant in the building; it wasn’t the regular courthouse. During the breaks it was a picnic. A good number of those women could bake so there was always a couple of different cakes and sandwiches. The smell when they opened up their baskets and bags you don’t get much any more. I ended up waiting around a couple of days before I was called so I had to listen to their stories about parents and grandparents, even though all I could remember was the smell of old skin and powder and bedpans.
Philly said he’d come down one day to keep me company but when he sat in the big room the atmosphere got to him. He told me that going to his tribunal was maybe worse than being in that school as a kid. Because as a kid he kept telling himself when he got out he’d catch up with his brother again and it would turn out alright. But when he went back to testify he realised all of what he lost, even after he left that school, how he never did shake it off and get things together. And that made him think that his brother probably ended up the same in some other city. Anyway I was glad he didn’t stay. He stuck out, even in clean clothes. The families were not the kind of people I usually hung out with and I knew we wouldn’t last as friends so I wanted to spend my time with them.
A lot of stuff came up about financial irregularities which were not so interesting to hear, too hard to follow, but the testimony by the ex-employees and some of the relatives made the TV news. The morning I was due to testify I woke up in the room over the bar. After I worked out where I was I couldn’t remember why I was there. Why I even stayed around to testify, who knows? Not for Sleeping Beauty or the other crinklies or even for the families, maybe for my aunt, the way Frankie made fun of her in the bar, though she was long dead then. Philly put the case to me that even if a bad thing has happened to you it can be okay, once you don’t have other people pick it apart, unravel it like an old sweater, turning the patterns into twisted wool. And I could see how that made a kind of sense for him and maybe for me too. Things had unravelled but there was something I could do. So it was the truth about the pills Frankie stole and it was the truth about the bedsores and not turning people and lying in their own mess and all that. But it was my work, my own design, the story about Frankie making the old guy Robert strip to his underpants and put on the black patent-leather shoes and dance a Fred Astaire to her Ginger Rogers.