CC Humphreys "Where the Angels Wait"
Granada, Andalusia, Spain. August 1986
Sitting on the edge of the bed now, listening. A door opened, shut, someone has come and gone, that much is certain. They’ve hidden them, and he must find them. Unless they didn’t leave. “Hello?” No reply. He has to start. The drawers? Too obvious but he tries a couple. The cushions? He pulls them off the sofa, feels down the back and side, moves carefully because if they are there what state might they be in? He finds a crumb covered coin, nothing else. On the high shelves then, at the back of the cupboard, rolling in dust? Or in a jar in the bureau, pickled, floating like onions? With others? Alone? Alone, yes, has to be.
He starts to move quicker. Grapes on the table, that’s frightening. Eat one? Too risky. Time’s nearly up, pull back the sheets, grope under the pillows.
“Who’s there?” He lies back down. “There’s no one there,” he says, challenging the dark.
He sits up. He knows where they are. His father is in the doorway, making it look small, and he has them exactly where they should be.
“Looking for these?” Dad says, and starts to squeeze his eyeballs from his face.
Off the bed, groping for a light, blundering in an unfamiliar dark to a wall, a door, a switch, filling the room with yellow, running to the window, pulling back the thick curtains. He thrusts his head out into fierce sun and furnace air and the heat brings him back. He remembers where he is. It takes him longer to remember why. Six PM. Jet lag muzzles his head like a warm, wet towel and he can’t figure if home is ahead of Granada or behind. No, behind, it’s nine in Vancouver now. Gwen will be getting Sunday breakfast. French toast. Wearing her blue smock to protect her church clothes. If he was there they’d eat, then she’d take the smock off. “Coming?” she’d ask. “Nothing to confess,” he’d say. He’ll call, catch her before she goes, but after a shower. He wants to make sense when he speaks to her. Before the shower though…
Tom kneels by the bed. He always needs pictures to go with the words. But the only one that comes is his father, another doorway.
Eight years old, pajama-ed knees to floorboard. He’s been there a while. Got to get Dad’s face exact, then Mum, then Malk, then Dozy Dog, his white coat and velvet eyes. His father bursts in. Whiskey breath and showy love. “You don’t need all that nonsense, Tomboy. Only faith you need’s in yourself.” Nicotined fingers, pulling sheet to chin. “I pray for you, Daddy. And Mummy and Malk and Dozy Dog. All of us together.” “You pray then, makes you happy.” “Don’t go, Daddy.” “I’m right here, son. Not going anywhere.” Liar.
The shower dribbles on him, making him miss home all the more. Sweat instantly pricking his skin, he dials, and she’s there, concern disguised in tales of the last two days, the ordinary worked into comedy. He laughs, missing her. Ten minutes, then he’s just hanging on for her voice. Guilt for the waste of money. Guilt for being unable to tell her why he’s there. She knows it has to do with his father, needing to go to him dead, as he failed to go three years before when he was dying. Knows it has to do with the dreams; she’d held him often enough these last months, shushed his cries, talked him back to bed.
She doesn’t know about the eyes. He hangs up, dresses. He knows where he wants to be for the sunset, had watched it from there twice before. Twenty years ago the hitchhiker. Ten years, the honeymooner, sharing his wandering past with the woman he’d given up wandering for.
In the Albacin, the old Moorish quarter, he only loses his way once on a steep cobbled street among the children skipping rope, the piebald dogs and skinny cats. Soccer commentaries blare from hole-in-the-wall bars. Once, glimpsed behind an oak door half ajar, a pocket oasis lures him, blue tiled and cool, water dripping from pots of plants and flowers.
Beyond it though, at the summit, he sees the spire of San Nicholas.
There’s another invitation within its doors, candlelight flicker and incense laden air. But Tom walks on to El Mirador, the Place of Watching. He’s just in time. Across the ravine the last of the sun burns the walls of the Alhambra fire-red, then seeps through levels of pink, bleeds through the single cloud, bruising it from purple to grey.
Others watch, like shades from his past. A young couple in the moment and each other’s arms. A backpacker, scragglebearded, whip thin, nose to guide book, already seeking cheap lodgings. It’s when Tom turns to leave that he notices the old man crumpled on the patio’s parapet, eyes closed and face turned toward the departed sun, a white stick beside him.
Tom takes a step away, and the man’s eyelids slide up onto white. He gropes for his stick, swishes it down hard. “Dinero, por el amor de dios.”
Emptying his pocket into the man’s claw hand, Tom hurries away.
Half-sleep, dream-laden. Four-fifteen, hands behind his head, he waits for dawn.
He has what his father called a Spanish breakfast: a plate of churros; a Café Solo, thick and dark; a brandy. Feeling better, he sets out. Granada has changed in twenty years but not that much. Besides, he can see the bullring. According to his map, the hospital is the other side of it.
The bullring, he thinks, slowing.
Roars, rising and falling, conducted by a red cape and a stick. The matador is young, nervous, but local so the crowd ‘olé’ his every pass. The picadors have done their job, gouged their lances deep into the bull’s shoulder, his head lower with every run.
Blood, wine, and a searing sun. Dad always insists on the cheap sol tickets, unrelieved by shadows. Tom watches his father raise the wine skin, shooting a red arc into his mouth from near an arm’s length. Tom’s own ineptitude is clear in the stain on his T-shirt. The wine skin is offered again, refused. “Had enough?” “I’ll stay to the end.” “Oh, thanks. Olé!”
The matador completes his faena. A sharp turn jerks the bull around, twists its neck, drops it to its knees. The youth struts away to collect the killing sword, while his team goad the exhausted bull to its feet. Under his breath. “Please, oh Lord, a clean kill, a clean kill.” When it’s clean, when the sword drives into that coin-sized hole between the shoulder blades and slips in to the hilt, ending the fight and the bull in an instant, Tom understands. Can share the moment with his father, share Spain. But if it ends dirty, sword skittering down the flank, crowd booing, bull staggering, blood pouring from nose and neck – that way Tom won’t look – and those bluest of eyes will mock him again.
A hush. Red cloth moves under the bull’s nose. The sightless
eyes are static, filmed over. The bull won’t move, so the matador adjusts his stance. Front foot up, he sights along the curling blade. Tom sees the steel wavering, and knows what will happen.
The blade slips into muscle, enters an inch, springs out. The bull moves now and the man leaps beyond the horns as his team circle, to confuse the animal, to lower its head for another attempt. Soon the bull will be on its knees again and there will be nothing left but the short knife at the back of the neck, like pithing a frog in the school lab. “Dad, let’s go.” “It’s not over.” “You know it’s over. I’m going.” “Fucking go, then.” His father cups his hands, jeering with the crowd.
Rubbing his eyes, refocusing on a grey arch, Tom circles the bullring. Half way round white coats appear in a wide marble portico. He crosses over, enters the hospital.
It’s cool inside, dark. But it isn’t the contrast that makes him feel faint. Nor the smell of hospital, sterile tile and stone corridor. It’s the eyes. Behind the reception desk there’s a giant painting. Angels hover near a bearded man, who’s raising someone from a bed. But he isn’t looking at his patient. He’s staring straight out. His gaze tracks Tom across the marble floor. Brown, compassionate, forgiving, loving. The eyes of Christ.
“Digame? ” The voice is harsh. “What?” “Digame? ” A woman leans fleshy forearms on her desk, on the plan of the hospital under plastic, condensation where her skin touches. On the instant, his serviceable Spanish is forgotten. Why is he here? What does he want? “Habla ingles?” “No.” She shakes her head, her ears glittering gold. “Mi padre… muerto… ha muerte…” She raises a finger. “Momentito.” She picks up a phone, presses a number, speaks, death and other words lost in rapid Andaluz. “Momentito, Señor.” She gestures to a bench. He sits. White coats pass him, suits, a man on crutches. No other patients. Maybe this is an administration building only. Maybe … “Good morning, Señor. How may I be of service?” The man is about Tom’s age, thick black hair swept back and gleaming in oil. He has spectacles on the end of his nose and peers down them, head back, making him seem older.
Tom holds out his hand. The Doctor grips it, holds on longer than formality requires, as if taking his pulse. “My father died in this hospital, uh, three years ago … Cancer.” “Yes?” “There was no … he was lapsed … not a religious man.
There was no funeral.”
“This happens these days, Señor.” Under the thin nylon of the Doctor’s shirt Tom glimpses a gold cross. “He … gave his body for medical research.” “Yes?” There was coldness in the reply, suspicion. Tom hurries on. “I wondered… I need… no, I’d like to know… what became of it? Him? His body?”
Behind them, the clock is loud. Tom glances at it, meets Christ’s eyes, looks back. “Three years? A long time.” “Yes. I…” The Doctor lifts a hand. “Señor, we keep records, we are a teacher hospital. It is most likely that one of the students… you understand? The study, it is… not very nice to a… a not Doctor. Entiende? You understand?”
Tom nods. If he could lie down he could sleep now. He halfturns away. “Also, there are the transplants?” Tom feels something in his neck, like a knife pushed in an inch then withdrawn. “Transplants?”
“Si. Hearts, lungs, the kidneys, but… you said cancer? So maybe not transplants.” Tom swallows. “Eyes?” “Eyes?” A shrug. “It is possible, if they were good.” Someone says, “Twenty-twenty even at sixty.” Maybe he does.
The Doctor smiles, sudden white in the brown face, a flash of gold. “Ah, I see. You wish to know if your father… benefitted, is this the word? Benefitted someone. ‘In death there is also life’? Yes? Entiendo! This is not so strange. We have families, boys in accidents, mothers who wish to know. The heart beats on, yes?” He nods and takes Tom’s arm. “Come, we will look to the records. Then you will be able to sleep, yes?”
Reluctant, eager, now clear, now muzzy, Tom follows. Down the passage lies an answer. He’ll leave this hospital, this city, this country. It would be enough. It would have to be enough.
In an office the Doctor rummages in a file cabinet. “Three years. Long time.”
He pulls out a folder, goes to the window light, holds the file to himself, head tilted back, peering down his nose, while Tom reads and re-reads his own last name scrawled across one corner. The doctor mutters, mouthing words, fingers shuffling papers. Finally he looks up, smiles, and closes the file.
“You can be happy, Señor. Your father’s eyes were excellent. Because of him a young man, blind for three years, again sees the wonders of God’s world.”
He is heading back to the file cabinet when Tom blocks him . “May I?”
The Doctor flinches, steps around him, replaces the file, slams the drawer shut, locks it, rattles it. “Regrets, Señor. Other information is… how do you say this? Secret. No, confidential. Exactly. Confidential.” He takes Tom’s arm again, not as gently,
holds it all the way back to the lobby. Christ beams, the clock ticks. The receptionist’s arms makes a sucking sound as she lifts them from the plastic. “And now…” “Thank you so much, Doctor. Muchas gracias.” The smile flashed gold. “Por nada, señor.” The heat makes Tom sway again. There is a cool place he remembers and he heads to it now. Pays the pesetas. Climbs the steps. At the entrance, he looks up at the inscription above. His Spanish may have all but deserted him but this he knows by heart.
‘Give him alms, woman. For there is nothing in life so painful, nothing, as the pain of being blind in Granada.’
He enters the Alhambra. It’s still early enough so tours haven’t yet reached the Generalife, the gardens of the palace. Only a few people stroll the grass paths.
He finds a secluded place, recently watered, drops falling from the leaves of the tree that shades the spot. He lies down. It’s over, he thinks, and closes his eyes. Blue, like his father’s. Thank God. “Señor! Señor!” Eyes above him, hazel, angry, pinhole pupils, a hand shaking him roughly by the shoulder. Harsh sunlight behind the figure, Tom shades his eyes, sees a grey work shirt, a lined, ochre face. The gardener has a hoe and he pokes Tom with the butt end. Jabbing him like a picador in the arena. As if he were an animal.
Why? He was doing nothing wrong. This is outrageous. Tom grabs the hoe, uses the man’s resistance to pull himself up. Then he jerks it away, raises it like an axe above his head. He hears someone say, “Leave me alone,” then, “I’m not going anywhere.”
“Liar!” Tom throws the hoe down at the little man’s feet, turns from him, from the voice, from other voices. As he walks away, he sees his hotel room, sees himself packing; the plane to Madrid, the one to Vancouver. Leave Granada, leave Spain, leave…
He goes back to the hotel, drinks two beers, sleeps a little, light and dreamless. Most of the time he lies with his hands behind his head, watching the ancient fan circle, tracing the plaster cracks on the ceiling. He doesn’t even try to pray.
Standing in the arch of the bullring again, he checks the time. Ten PM. Two hours he’s been there and though the flow of people from the hospital has slowed it hasn’t ceased. The Doctor came out an hour before with a colleague. He heard his laugh, saw gold flash under a street lamp.
No one comes for five minutes. Tom crosses the street. Through the glass door he sees the night porter lay out things on the desk: a thermos, a thick bread roll, a sports newspaper. Then the man gets up, and walks down a corridor. It’s opposite the one Tom wants.
He crosses the lobby, shoulders braced against a shout. But
only Christ watches him. He meets one man who hurries past without a word.
The door to the filing room is unlocked. There are no alarms, nothing hinders him until he comes to the cabinet itself. Pulling out the tire iron he’s bought, he jams the flat end into the gap. It slips, catches the second time, there’s a moment’s resistance, a crack, then the drawer is rushing toward him on nylon runners. He waits a moment, but no one comes, so he flicks his flashlight. He holds it in his mouth, and begins to rifle through the files.
There are very few ‘J’s. He pulls his father’s file out and lays it on the desk.
He does not open it straightaway, just stares at the name. Remembers how he heard the news of his father’s illness. How he told himself he was unable to go, how busy he was. How three months later he heard his name called in the hotel lobby in Portland and knew in that instant that it was over. He thinks about the relief he felt, and the guilt in feeling it. About the call to his mother. About how he called Gwen, tried to cry and failed, tried to pray and failed. How there was no funeral, no flowers to be placed, because there was no where to place them. He’d scarcely thought of any of this in three years. Until the dreams began and then he scarcely thought of anything else.
The file isn’t thick. His father’s illness was short, the cancer diagnosed late. Tom backlights the X-rays seeing the dark shadows covering the lungs. Some scrawled notes, both writing and
medical terms impenetrable. A photostat of a death certificate.
The final page is the one he is looking for. He bends to consider. In the end it is easy. There is the word ‘ojos’, followed by the word ‘azules’.
He laughs. Blue! His father’s eyes hadn’t been blue! They’d been metal, steel, refracting and reflecting the racing thoughts, only still when they fixed on you for the second before they were off again, seeking distraction, objects to focus his love and hate upon, his hunger boundless for both. Azules. Opposite the inadequate word is a name. Tom closes the file, replaces it in the broken cabinet, closes the drawer, stands for a moment with his fingertips on the cool metal. Like the Doctor, he now knows who looks at God’s world through his father’s eyes. And he knows where he lives. On the other side of the bullring, there’s a taxi stand. “La Cartuja? Cerrado, Señor. Is closed.” Tom drops into the back seat. The driver shrugs, starts the metre. Slipping his hand into the pocket of his coat, Tom grips the tire iron and watches the city slip into suburbs.
With another shrug the driver takes his money and drives off. Tom stares up at the gates of the monastery of La Cartuja. High, crenelated walls gleam in the moonlight and he walks along them, past them onto the street beyond, checking door numbers, then back the other side, ends up at the entrance again. The house number he wants is within the monastery. A sign gives the opening hours for what he remembers is a tourist attraction,
as well as the centre of the Carthusian order of monks.
The door is oak, iron studded, unbudging. There’s no bell. If he knocks, who would come? What would he say when they did?
Tom follows the wall down, comes to a tree, uses it to shimmy up the wall. When he drops down the other side, he lands heavily, his ankle twisting. He falls onto his side, chokes his cry, writhes on the soft earth of a flower bed. It is his ligaments, torn before at soccer, at skiing. He remembers this pain, and how the intensity would, eventually, fade. So he waits, biting his collar. Gets to his feet. The first step is agony. The next a little less.
He limps through a rose garden. It ends in a single storey structure, the bottom end of a larger building. He passes up the length of it, rattling windows. Finds one ajar, reaches in, slips the catch, hoists himself over the sill. Moonlight pools under the windows, there are dark rectangles on the walls. His flashlight’s beam finds a man’s face, his eyes on the heavenly host above, smiling despite the axe that evenly cleaves his tonsured head.
The rest of the paintings are similar. Monks in the very moment of their martyrdom, oblivious to the spears and
hatchets of the savages that surround them, their blood pooling under them like moonlight.
The last one depicts a monk just blinded. The savages celebrate, unaware of their real defeat–for above them a host of angels wait to escort the monk’s soul to eternal glory.
Tom sweeps the light up and down the canvas. But he cannot find the eyes. Back and forth, up and down. Not a trace. “Come.” The sound is almost beside him. He jumps, flicking off the light. But it isn’t a voice, it’s a bell. “Come,” it tolls, and Tom now sees figures against lights thvat spill briefly from opened doors, a man silhouetted for a moment then lost again to the dark. Shapes move past the windows where he crouches to the building ahead, into the chapel itself. “Come,” the bell asks him again. Through a door into a stone antechamber. Halfway down that room, another door slowly closing. He crosses to it, steps inside just in time. Before him a crowd of backs, brown swathed, cowls rolled over necks, a couple of suits. “Welcome,” the bell says in a longer and deeper knell that hangs above them like a cloud. The monks spread out, kneel. In an empty pew at the back, Tom kneels too.
The chapel sparkles, a thousand candles illuminating white stucco walls, Baroque plasterwork encrusted in silver, statues that seem alive, mother and child, angel and saint. The rich smell of incense makes him giddy. Then a single voice begins
to chant, as sonorous as the bell, flowing like rich cream over the company who, in their turn, pick up the single clear line, gently repeat it back. The liturgy calms him, eases his ankle, the struggle of his lungs. He leans forward, places his head onto his hands, and prays. Prayer as dream, a flow of images that come so easily. Gwen, his mother, the Christ from the hospital, he sees each one as they are summoned by a phrase from that clear voice, blessed by each choral reply. Finally, he comes, his father, and there are angels gathered about his head.
Maybe he sleeps, dreamless. Only becomes aware when people are moving past him. But he does not raise his head and no one speaks to him. The door closes, returning the chapel to silence.
Until the voice comes. The same one that had led the chanting. Speaks above him, as near as a breath. Tom lifts his head to it – and looks into his father’s eyes.
Oh, he’d recalled them in dreams. In nightmares he’d seen them plucked from a head, dropped into a jar of formaldehyde. Seen them narrow in fury or enlarge in pain when Tom hurt him, as he’d hurt him in those later years, payment for all those years before. He thought he’d known them. But he’d forgotten their radiance, the lightning flash, Northern sky, Summer’s day wonder of them. All he’d seen in the years since their light went out was the structure, not the substance. And seeing them now his own fill, overflow. And as he stands, he lifts the tire iron high above his head, high up where the angels wait.
They take it from him, he lowers his hand, and it meets the
monk’s hand rising up. Blue mirrors reflect a thousand candles back and forth.
He cannot remember why he’s there. Until he does. “Forgive me, Father,” he whispers.
The monk smiles, just like Tom remembers. “Por nada, my son.”
It has been fascinating revisiting a piece of work I wrote some years ago, before I became a professional writer. I remember being very proud of ‘Where the Angels Wait’ at the time. It seemed to say exactly what I wanted to say at the time, explore what was concerning me. Now… well, it needed some work. I got back into the spirit of it. I also was very aware of all the ticks I had as a young writer. The energy was there but the execution was a little… slipshod?
One of the big lessons I’ve learned as a novelist is economy. Saying what you want to say in less. Leaving things unsaid. I’ve probably cut one third of the original and think its much better for it. I’ve also recast it in the present tense when the original was in my more customary past. The story called for it, that immediacy of experience. I wouldn’t have known how to do that at the time.
I have to say, I am delighted with the result—and want to thank my editors for this opportunity to go back in time. I wouldn’t want to live there now, as writer or person. But it was good to visit.
the toilet. Then the Director couldn’t prove Cheryl had ever had it. But, a thousand dollars! Down the toilet! Unthinkable. Stella drained the last drops from the mug, and the tea bag bumped her lightly on the nose. She still had not decided what to do with the money in her pocket, but she felt a hundred times better. A thousand.
Maybe, instead of flushing the money, she ought to figure out who else could have stolen the other bills — eighteen of them.
Eighteen thousand dollars was a strange sort of number — a large amount of money, but not so much that you would consider yourself rich if you had it. Happy to get it, maybe, but not exactly rich.
Stella sucked her upper lip. Of course! There had to be more money than just eighteen thousand. She remembered the album she’d toed open in the Effects Cupboard, the album with Alice Macandrew’s photo in it. What had it been doing in there? Perhaps somebody had found the quiet closet and emptied the album of the bills hidden between the pages. There might be other albums, too, with even more money hidden inside...
She touched her tongue to the smooth rim of the mug and murmured to herself, “Whodunit, whodunit, whodunit…?” All the evidence pointed to Cheryl having taken all those bills from the coin album, but Cheryl was honest. So, who was not? Ollie, perhaps? He was so often around, and could hide anything in that sunny yellow trolley of his. Or Bellamy, Mrs Macandrew’s only relation and hope for continuation of the clan name? Or maybe
the Director herself, Mrs Perdita Warren, who had searched the room for the antique coin and might easily have found the money? How terrible if the thief turned out to be any of these! Ideally, the perpetrator would be somebody from outside — a passing robber, who had spied through the window as the Dragon pawed her treasures, and awaited an opportunity to slip inside. It would be easy pickings—alice Macandrew was certain that she kept an unblinking eye on her family treasures, but she was in the washroom more often than her Swiss clock cuckooed.
With care not to dislodge the green plastic cover, Stella scooted carefully back out from underneath the table. She left the blue mug with its limp teabag behind in her secret hiding place as a sort of marker, the way astronauts left a flag on the moon. Then, fiddling thoughtfully with the bill in her pocket, she wandered down to the front entry to look out the window at the daffodils and think the case over.
She arrived just a moment too late. There before her, on the other side of the glass door, was a heart-rending sight. Cheryl, wearing her blue coat, was heading away from Fairmount Manor down the little walk with its striped awning, towards the driveway. In her arms she held a small box. Stella couldn’t make out the individual contents, but the box seemed to be filled with bits and pieces, including a pot with a hyacinth that had not yet begun to bloom.
A nasty feeling took Stella by the shoulders. She had wondered whether she should have taken the money from Cheryl’s pocket,
and now she knew the answer. Or rather, she could see the outcome of her act.
Despite accusations of theft, it was obvious that Cheryl had not been fired. Dismissals, with their reviews and reports and paperwork, took weeks or longer. There had not been time to discharge the care worker. No, when the honest Cheryl had been unable to return the money Stella had stolen from her, Cheryl had quit.
This hurried departure was Stella’s fault. Thus, it was up to Stella to put things right, and quickly too. Stella hauled on the door handle, but it didn’t open — could not, without the door key. Stella ran to the reception kiosk and peered through the window at the desk, but the little room was empty of anybody who could open the door. She looked both ways along the corridor, but saw nobody. She might have run along the corridors, searching for Ollie or Reliza or any resident with key code status, but a glance at the front door told her that she was too late.
For here along the driveway came the next in the series of unhappy outcomes: Cheryl’s husband driving that shining silver car. Cheryl’s husband and children would be inside the car, perhaps wondering why on earth she wanted a ride home so early in her workday.
Stella ran back to the front door and pounded on the glass. When Cheryl didn’t turn, Stella punched numbers into the key pad at random. But the door remained shut. Stella slumped against the glass, powerless to prevent the gleaming vehicle from pulling up in front of Cheryl. No sooner had the back car door slid
open than Cheryl’s three children, like small birds, fluttered out to alight about her. They attached themselves to her arms, to her legs. Children were weightless, Stella remembered. With their small bones and the lightness of their hope and love, you could pick them up as if they were made of feathers and set them on your hip. Cheryl did so now with the smallest of the three. This was a tousle-headed little girl…
Stella’s arm, acting of itself, rose from her side and curved about the remembered shape of Junie’s close embrace. “Shh,” Stella whispered to her daughter down the long corridors of life. “Don’t cry. We’ll find a way to set things right.” Stella found her own words of comfort impossible to believe.
Nor did Cheryl’s spendthrift husband, meanwhile, appear happy with his wife’s decision to leave her job. So abruptly did he hustle his offspring and then Cheryl herself into the car that Stella stared in disbelief. Did the husband not notice that when Cheryl climbed inside, her fingers were still resting on the top sill of the car door? Or might he deliberately have moved so quickly to slam it shut? Only an instant separated Cheryl from serious injury, but she’d released the door and her fingers were safe. Just in time.
But even a spendthrift could make a mistake slamming a car door. And even an idle man could truly love his wife.
Which only left a single question that Stella had to answer for the good of this little family, and for her own benefit as well.
How would it ever be possible to get Cheryl back to Fairmount Manor again?
Her mind still stewing with self-recriminations, Stella entered Corridor Park. She gave little attention to occupants in the chairs along the walls, and so she paid the price.
Something caught her ankle. The hallway tilted like a cartoon spaceship. There followed a long drawn-out moment where all thought was dashed from her mind—all except a grim blackout lined notice reading This is it! Your day to go out, Stella. And your final act in this world was to make Cheryl quit.
But just as she reached the tipping point, from which no falling body can return, Stella felt a pair of arms come around her. A body pressed against her back and she and her salvation tottered there for a moment until the hallway righted itself and Stella, breathing hard, looked up into a pair of watery, but very blue eyes. Theo. Of all the male residents of Fairmount Manor, Theo Long bourne had the finest head of hair.
She looked up at him and said thank you. “I thought I was a goner,” she admitted.
She became conscious that he was still holding her by her forearms. Suddenly his hands began to tremble, and he let go.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and as far as she could recall, this was the first time he’d addressed a word to her directly. “Stella, I’ve always wanted to ask you…”
She never found out what he’d always wanted to know, because just then Theo stepped on her foot and apologized.
Stella was hardly conscious of his misstep. All she could think was that, for first time in a number of years, she’d been touched by a man who was not a medical professional. To her surprise, this moment recalled the old days, when she would be dancing with some fresh-faced, red-eared boy who trod on her toe. As a woman, it was up to her to take control of the situation. So, she looked up at him and said what a woman was meant to say: “You’re very strong.” And it was true. He might tremble, but he had caught her and had not let her fall.
From behind them, somebody laughed. Somebody on the far side of the corridor. Somebody with a wicked, dry laugh: Thelma Hu. Thelma was sitting a little way down from the three women Stella had for excellent reason dubbed the Greek Chorus, and it was Thelma’s cane that had entangled itself with Stella’s ankles. But Stella knew that was not why the blind woman was laughing at her.
Stella felt the colour rise in her cheeks. Across the corridor, the three members of the Greek Chorus looked up from their needlework. Iolanthe and Lucille eyed Stella with unblinking serenity, but she caught a truly poisonous stare from the Nodder.
“It’s a sin how hard the linoleum is in this place.” Iolanthe set her crewelwork down in her lap.
To Iolanthe’s right, Lucille, the second member of the Greek Chorus, jabbed a large needle in Stella’s direction. “Fall on that floor, and it’s murder.”
“Murder by linoleum, in the first degree.” Iolanthe looked pleased. Lucille held up her needle and thread, and the Nodder —
the third and final member of the Greek Chorus—snipped off Iolanthe’s thread with a small pair of scissors. “Just think how much easier it would be for the staff to run things if we all broke our necks.”
“Some of us, certainly.” Theo looked obliquely down at Stella, who trapped her lips between her teeth so as not to laugh out loud.
A tone sounded from the direction of the dining room. Iolanthe added, “Lunchtime. Something indigestible, as usual.”
“Murder by cabbage,” Lucille agreed, although the smell in the hall was clearly, recognizably, that of macaroni. On Lucille’s left, the Nodder nodded. As if by a signal — and the tone that sounded lunch was, after all, just that — Theo turned away from Stella. He offered his arm to the Nodder. She looked up, and then rose, queen-like, to her feet. The Nodder took Theo’s arm and they walked away towards the dining room, while Iolanthe and Lucille tidied their needlework into quilted bags and followed after them. Stella found herself standing alone in Corridor Park. Or rather, not quite alone. Behind her there remained the author of the mocking laugh. She heard the tap of metal on linoleum and turned to see blind Thelma Hu still in her seat. As Stella faced her, Thelma screwed up her face.
“If you’re expecting me to say I’m sorry for tripping you, you’re in for a long, cold afternoon’s wait,” Thelma said. She set one hand on the other atop the end of her cane, as if to stop Stella from taking it away from her.
“You tripped me on purpose, Thelma?” Not for the first time in proximity to Thelma Hu, Stella felt her temper expand against its seams. “And all this time I thought you didn’t know what you were doing with that cane of yours.”
Thelma, blind eyes hooded, shrugged. Above her head a poster featuring a dead branch on an arid landscape was stapled to the burlap-covered bulletin board. Lettered large upon the poster was the sentiment Something lost brings something found. Something gained brings another loss. This oppositional bit of nonsense on top of Thelma’s laugh and shrug so irritated Stella that she turned her back to it and sat herself down in her usual chair next to Thelma.
“Thelma, I’m too old be falling on the linoleum. Watch where you put your cane.”
“I would, but I’m blind,” Thelma retorted. She turned her head sharply. “Who’s that coming?” Thelma’s hearing must be acute. Stella hadn’t heard a thing. But now light, youthful footsteps sounded, and here came Mrs Alice Macandrew’s granddaughter, arrived for her weekly visit with her aunt.
Young Bellamy was Mrs Macandrew’s only regular visitor. She advanced along the corridor, her good spirits supporting her in all the correct places. Her hair bouncing, her arms swinging… Bellamy was so young that Stella could no more resent her for
it than she could begrudge a kitten its youth.
From her seat beside Thelma, Stella smiled at Bellamy. Bellamy smiled back. Stella heard a stealthy hiss of metal on linoleum. She reached out in time to grip Thelma’s cane before she could trip the girl up.
With long, youthful strides, Bellamy walked by them, her large bag bumping against the back of her jacket. She would never know how close she’d come to taking a tumble.
Stella stared after her. That really was a very large handbag. A student’s handbag, of a capacity to handle textbooks and maybe even a binder… Or an album — coin album, photo album… She said slowly, “Thelma, if an elderly person is being robbed of all her money, who is the first person you suspect?”
Thelma smacked her cane once against the floor. “Her accountant.”
“I suppose so… But it would have to be somebody who was often inside her room here at Fairmount…”
“Don’t beat around the bush,” Thelma said. “I hear the rumours, just like everybody else. Are you asking whether Cheryl stole money from cranky old Alice Macandrew?”
Cranky! Look who’s talking! “But, if you leave Cheryl out?” Stella asked, “Who, then, is the most likely thief?” Stella already knew the answer, but she didn’t like it. Thelma grunted. “You mean, the thief is not the trusted care worker? Well, then, it’s a member of the family.”
Stella sat quite still as Ollie came around the corner towards them. For such a large man, he moved quickly, like a great liner speeding across the Atlantic sea.
Stopping before them, Ollie said, “Better hit the chow line, ladies, before all that good nosh is gone.” “I’m not hungry,” Thelma said. “Now, Thelma, denial is a river in Africa.” Ollie chuckled. “We all need to eat. Do you want me to help you down to the dining room?” “What, do you think I’m blind?” Thelma grumbled. “I’ll go with her,” Stella told him. “That’s the way, you pair of outlaws,” Ollie laughed. Heading back towards the dining room, he called over his shoulder, “Unholster your six-shooters and hold up the chow wagon together.”
Stella attempted to help Thelma to her feet, and got a bash from the cane for thanks.
“Of course it was the granddaughter who stole the money,” Thelma said. “Young people don’t have the same morality we do.”
Stella frowned. She thought, but did not say aloud, That’s just what a grouchy old girl like you would think. “Same to you,” Thelma said. “With knobs on.” “I didn’t say that out loud.” Stella shook her head as they walked along the corridor in the direction of the smell of wet pasta. “Did I?”
Thelma replied, “Ha! You’ll never know.”
Later that afternoon, while a nasty lunch of macaroni with grated egg was settling itself down for a long stay in her stomach, Stella sat in Corridor Park watching Bellamy, her visit to the Dragon apparently concluded, sashay past towards the foyer. Her enormous bag swung at her back below her long brown hair.
Stella made the clicking sound with her tongue that all teachers learned at teaching college.
If Cheryl hadn’t stolen the money, then what were the chances that the Dragon’s granddaughter Bellamy had? The problem was that jumping to conclusions such as the granddaughter stole the money was exactly what civilized legal systems were set up to avoid.
Furthermore, Stella liked Bellamy. While a careful observer might notice that her step dragged a little on the way to see the Dragon, and skipped when she left, the girl kept a pleasant face all the while. What was more, she never missed a visit. Stella appreciated that fact as only somebody with no visitors herself could.
Yet Occam’s Razor and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple were in agreement. If the wife was murdered, look first at the husband. If the husband, watch the wife. When money is stolen, and there exists a young relative with a large handbag…
No. She would not judge the girl based on Thelma Hu’s generalization.
She would, however, feel perfectly justified in proving her point. All she needed was a look inside Bellamy’s capacious bag.
An idea was coming to Stella. But she would need help. She murmured, “I need somebody to trip another person with her cane.”
Thelma batted her cane against the leg of her chair. She said, “You’ve found your woman.”
The fall that Stella had designed for Bellamy to take on her way back from her visit to her grandmother the following week was not a complete success. Or, rather, not at first.
Stella had expected that Bellamy would catch her ankle on Thelma’s cane, lose her balance and try to save herself while her bag flew down the corridor. The idea was that the bag’s contents would spread out along the floor in the sort of array in which brides used to lay out their wedding gifts for all to see. Instead, when Thelma tripped Bellamy, the girl went down flat while the handbag landed upright on the floor.
So erect did the bag stand, in fact, that Stella couldn’t help taking its upright posture as a personal affront. Nothing at all fell out. The leather flap even stayed closed, almost as if daring somebody to look inside.
Meanwhile, the Greek Chorus watched the proceedings with interest.
“Are you all right, dear?” Iolanthe asked Bellamy gently. “Of
course you are. Do young people have to be so noisy all the time?”
“They like to stir things up, that’s what,” Lucille answered. “Also, her skirt is too short.” The Nodder nodded. Meanwhile, Bellamy was pulling herself into a sitting position on the floor. She looked up at Stella, confusion in her eyes. “Are you hurt?” Stella asked. “I’m okay.” “Good.” Stella got to her feet. She took a deep breath. She picked up Bellamy’s bag.
Then Stella tripped over Thelma’s cane herself, just as Bellamy had, except that Bellamy hadn’t done it on purpose. Stella’s decision to trip herself was deliberate, but taken so swiftly that although she considered the consequences to the handbag, she overlooked the cost to herself.
Stella staggered forward. Her first action was to hold onto the bottom of Bellamy’s handbag so that its contents flung themselves onto the corridor floor. She herself followed it down, almost in slow motion. Although it was not what you could truthfully call an accidental tumble, the anxious expression she knew she was wearing as she went down was perfectly honest.
On her knees now, Bellamy turned. She gasped, “Are you all right?”
“I… don’t know.” She truly did not. Despite the new agility she was feeling — the agility that dated from her morning exploration with Mad Cassandra — Stella had long been dreading a fall. She
had thought any sort of full-body tumble might just finish her off, as a matter of fact, and had managed by taking extreme care to avoid wherever possible any uneven surface underfoot. Now, having taken such a fall on purpose (and it was a somewhat harder fall than she had planned on), she landed on the side of her hip with a feeling of doom. She checked her bones. She was astounded when they answered with a chipper, All present and accounted for, sir.
“I’m perfectly all right, thank you.” Stella looked around her. The contents of Bellamy’s bag had landed on the floor around Stella. A rosy makeup compact had slid as far along as the Greek Chorus’s chairs, and lay underneath the Nodder’s chair like some kind of small pink rodent running free in Fairmount Manor.
Stella peered at the bag’s detritus splayed out across the floor: makeup, tissues, wallet, a sweater, a few books. Bellamy’s phone had come to rest by Stella’s right hand. As Bellamy folded her cardigan and tucked her makeup bag in her bag, Stella pulled the books towards herself. These needed checking out. She picked up each book by its cover. No thousand-dollar bills fell out.
Ha! Stella thought. Although she still had one item left to investigate, she already felt the pleasure of being right. Of course, Bellamy’s innocence wouldn’t help Cheryl get her job back, but Stella felt a sense of satisfaction about eliminating Bellamy as a suspect. And about being right that Bellamy was honest.
One final item should prove her case for the honesty of Youth. Bellamy’s wallet — a small red leather affair — lay by Stella’s knee. As a decoy, Stella slid the phone along the floor in Bellamy’s
direction. The girl bent down to scoop it up. Stella picked up the red wallet.
She was about to open it—to prove the girl’s innocence— and look inside, when she saw a shadow fall across Bellamy’s wallet. A long pair of tan-coloured trousers appeared in front of her. She looked up to meet Theo’s gaze. His good hair fell over his forehead in a boyish manner, and in his eye she saw a question he was too polite to ask aloud: What are you doing with that girl’s wallet?
But she had a query of her own, and hers was also internal: with Theo watching, how could she possibly peek inside the girl’s wallet? For, if she was to be sure of the girl’s innocence, she must do so.
She dropped her gaze and hoped Theo would move on. But he didn’t budge from his spot, except to step out of Bellamy’s way as she skated by them on her hands and knees, scooping up her belongings and replacing them in her bag.
Thelma’s case against the girl could not be closed until Stella had checked the red wallet. She was beginning to think that Bellamy would never turn her back, and furthermore that she must by now have collected most of the contents of her bag. However, with a Sorry, excuse me! to the Greek Chorus, the girl was now peering under their chairs. Now if Theo would just turn away to help Bellamy… But Theo didn’t move from his spot. He held out his hand. Stella, heart sinking at the thought of having to figure out
another way to finish her search, passed the wallet to Theo. As it travelled from her hand to his, a small miracle occurred. She felt the wallet open slightly. She leaned forward for a quick look before it could close again.
She saw, inside it, the last thing she wanted to see: the corner of something pink. Damn. As Theo handed the wallet to Bellamy, Stella used her chair to get herself back onto her feet. She sat back down beside Thelma and watched Theo escort the girl from Corridor Park towards her grandmother’s room. The Greek Chorus stirred and looked at one another. “My, what a morning,” Iolanthe said. Lucille picked up her needlework. “That Stella! Pride goeth before a fall. But what about after the fall? That’s what I want to know.”
While the Nodder nodded, Thelma tapped her cane against the leg of Stella’s chair. “Did it work?” she asked sotto voce.
“Yes. For my sins.” Stella leaned back in her chair, feeling disappointed to her toes in Bellamy. And thoroughly annoyed that Thelma and the Greek Chorus had been right about the girl. “You were right. It was Bellamy who took the money. She is still taking it, apparently… and will continue to do so until Alice Macandrew’s stock of pink thousand dollar bills runs out.”
“Ha,” Thelma said. “I used to run a shop, you know. I know a thief when one walks into the room.”
Now what? Stella shook her head. “Of course, there’s nothing to be done about it. If I accuse Bellamy she will deny it. And denial…”
“…is a river in Africa. Don’t try to fool me! What are you cooking up?” Thelma demanded.
“Nothing,” Stella said tiredly. “I am out of ideas.” But without even trying, she found that a new plan was forming in her mind. This one was more complicated than the last, darn it all.
Thelma moved her red silk slippers impatiently. She snapped, “Tell me.”
What must it be like to be blind, sitting in Corridor Park every day of your life? Tapping your cane, waiting for a meal you hated the taste of? Stella sighed. “Actually,” she began, “I hope to engage in a little… illegality…” As she explained the plan, it became clearer in her mind. And a little more unethical, too. When she had finished, Stella thanked Thelma for listening. “Don’t thank me,” Thelma retorted. “I’m listening for purely selfish reasons.”
Stella nodded. “I feel the same way. The place is not the same without Cheryl.”
“I don’t care about Cheryl,” Thelma snapped. “They’ll hire another care worker in a second. What I like is that your plan is kinda interesting. It’s the least bored I’ve been for several years.”
Stella blinked. “Me, too.”
Stella had to wait two full days for her opportunity—if you could call her days at Fairmount Manor full. Once she’d found an envelope for the money she’d taken from Cheryl—and once she’d found the perfect wording for the note on the outside of the envelope, the hours dragged. She spent them trying unsuccessfully to make small talk with Thelma, disliking the food served up by the Fairmount Manor cooks, reviewing her plans and trying not to drift away into some kind of grey-coloured reverie. In this way she awaited the Bellamy” s return to Daffodil Corridor. All that sustained Stella throughout the forty-eight hours was the knowledge that time was ticking away for Cheryl’s job. For, with each hour that passed, her temporary replacement was settling deeper into her job.
As well, Stella had to remember that because of the tripping incident, one could no longer count on Bellamy taking her usual short-cut through Corridor Park to her grandmother’s room. The girl might very well desire to give Thelma and her cane a wide berth. Therefore, in order not to miss any opportunity, Stella had to walk back and forth from Daffodil Corridor, through the office area, and around by the Activity Hall. These were all areas of Fairmount Manor where she often got lost among the many choices and turnings. Luckily, it didn’t much matter whether she knew where she was going—the law of averages only suggested that she keep moving.
One embarrassing problem rose right away: as she walked about the place, she and Theo crossed paths now and then. Again, since Theo was famous for walking about Fairmount’s corridors for most of the day, the law of averages compelled it. But after their second meeting in a matter of fifteen minutes, she began to worry that he would think she was some kind of stalker. Which she was, but Bellamy’s stalker, not Theo’s. After their third meeting, however, she greeted him with the same relaxed nod that he gave her.
So it was that two days later, her wandering paid off. She caught sight of the girl Bellamy as she entered the building. Stella had a sudden urge to call a fellow detective on a walkie-talkie with the news—mad Cassandra, for choice. Instead, as Bellamy strode past Stella without sign of recognition, Stella silently broke from her previous trajectory. She tracked the girl past the stairwell and around the unnamed area leading to Daffodil Corridor, where Mrs Macandrew’s room faced Stella’s.
She walked as quickly as her slip-ons would take her. Even so, she would never have caught Bellamy up except that the girl always did move comparatively slowly on her way in to see her grandmother. So, this part of the plan, the part where she followed the girl, was easy. As well, Stella had every right to be in Daffodil Corridor, where her own Room 34 was located, and thus must appear completely innocent of guile and subterfuge, which was lucky because Ollie might overhear her. The big care worker was busy with his yellow trolley not far from Alice Macandrew’s door.
Stella inhaled deeply. She whispered to herself the count: “One… two… three…” Now. As she reached a point about twenty feet from Mrs. Macandrew’s door, Stella called out, “Bellamy, could you help me just for a minute?” She readied her prepared follow-up for the Sure thing, or Of course, that would follow.
But Bellamy turned and politely said, “I’m so sorry, but I’m late to see my grandmother, and she’s always in such a mood. Excuse me…?”
As the girl headed for the Dragon’s door, Stella scrambled for an opposing play. Before she could come up with a single idea, Ollie approached them and Bellamy gestured towards Stella and asked him, “Please, could you give this lady a hand?”
And then the girl ducked through the door into her grandmother’s room.
Stella stared at the door as it closed pneumatically. She felt thwarted to her core. Ollie said, “Sure, Stella, I’ll give you a hand,” and began to clap. “Never mind, Ollie. Thank you,” she said, trying to keep her annoyance under wraps. “I don’t need any help after all.”
“In that case, I think I’ll take a little smoke break.” He patted her shoulder and walked to the end of the corridor. Before disappearing through the fire door that led outside, Ollie flipped a switch too high up for most people to reach. He disappeared through it, patting his pockets in search of cigarettes or matches.
The switch must have disarmed the door alarm, because it didn’t sound. A crack of light down the length of the door showed that he had left it just fractionally open.
Alone now in the corridor, Stella examined the wreckage of her plan. How to resurrect it, when the girl would be gone in a flash once she’d seen her grandmother?
Without pleasure, Stella faced the fact that she would just have to summon the patience to wait a few more days until Bellamy visited again. And all the while, Cheryl’s substitute care worker—stella damned her as passable—was moving closer and closer to a permanent placement. Worse still, what if Cheryl took her Mona Lisa smile to another care home elsewhere in the city? No doubt that idle husband of hers would be itching for her paycheck.
No, if the thing were to be done, then best…stella bit her lip, but supplied the all too obvious quote: “…it were done quickly.”
She shuffled down to the end of the corridor by the fire door. There was a wall fire alarm there, the sort that was a red panel with a lever to pull that would break a glass rod and then sound an alarm throughout the building. She’d seen one of these set off before, at school. One afternoon a few decades back a student named Robbie Belkan, aged eight, had failed to take the elementary and vital precaution of checking over his shoulder and he had set off the fire alarm just as she was exiting the school library. So, Stella knew that the glass rod was not much of an obstacle to sounding the fire alarm. It was there just to let you know that
should you pull the alarm, the stakes would be raised.
She pulled the red lever. The glass rod broke and dropped to the floor. Then all hell broke loose.
The noise was earsplitting. It even seemed to ratchet up during the first few seconds after she’d pulled the alarm. Taking a tip from young Robbie Belkan, she moved down the corridor, away from the fire door. Then she fell back against the wall, feeling jangled to the bones.
But the trouble—she thought she could safely call it that — had just begun. The corridor was filling now with residents heading towards the fire door. Walkers clattered, and residents chattered. Meanwhile, behind her, Ollie had banged the fire door open from the outside and was passing by with a distracted grin for Stella. He dived through Mrs Macandrew’s door. Of course Mrs Macandrew, as the song went, would never walk alone, no further than her washroom anyway — not if it meant leaving the Macandrew treasures behind. But Stella judged that the Dragon would find Ollie’s help more than acceptable in a fire.
She was right. Here he came now, half-carrying the old woman. And here came Bellamy, following them. The girl appeared flustered, and was tucking her handbag over her shoulder.
Making haste, Stella stepped in front of Bellamy, cutting her off from her grandmother.
“Would you help me, dear?” Stella asked. “Please? Just let me take your arm…” Said the spider to the fly. “All right,” Bellamy answered. Stella caught hold of Bellamy’s elbow. “Walk a little slower, dear,” Stella said, as residents made their way around them. The wheelchairs were passing now, along with the slower walkers, as they headed for the fire door here and, no doubt, at other designated fire exits around Fairmount Manor. “But the fire…” Bellamy began. “No worries about that,” Stella assured her. “There is no fire. I pulled the alarm myself. I wanted to give you this envelope.”
Stella took the envelope out of her pocket and handed it to Bellamy, who stared from it to her. Meanwhile, the parade of residents continued past the two of them.
Stella explained. “On the outside of the envelope is a note that you received from Cheryl several days ago, thanking your grandmother for her generosity but refusing it once she knew she’d been given real money. I wrote the note. Inside the envelope — no, don’t open it — is a thousand dollar bill.” Bellamy opened her mouth to speak. But Stella, conscious of the swift movement of time, pushed on, speaking clearly so as to be heard over the clanging of the alarm. “You know about the thousand dollar bills, of course — I saw one
in your wallet the other day. They are quite a distinctive pink. I suppose you took the last one from the album…”
By now, Bellamy had come to a full stop in the rapidly emptying corridor. She dropped Stella’s arm and began, “I don’t…”
Stella shook her head. “We don’t have much time to work things out. Take the letter. I want Cheryl to come back. You don’t want your grandmother to leave the rest of her wealth to the cat’s home…”
Bellamy burst out, “I wish she would! Do you think that I want to spend my life looking after those things like she does?”
The alarm stopped short. Stella and the girl glared at each other in the sudden, oppressive silence.
Stella was even more disappointed in Bellamy after the girl’s outburst. “I supposed you’d sell them once you’d inherited them.”
“Of course I won’t sell them.” Bellamy looked ready to cry. “But I’m in first year university. I don’t have any money…” “That doesn’t give you the right to…” Now Bellamy was doing the interrupting. “Let me finish. I’m a Macandrew. I know my duty. I’ll keep the Chippendales and the Stubbs. I even love the prisms—i used to make rainbows with them when I was little. But I live in a student residence. You can’t fit a quarter of the Macandrew things in there, and they wouldn’t be safe anyhow with everybody in and out all the time. I have to get a condo, but she’d never understand they don’t give out houses for free just because you’re a Macandrew.”
Light dawned. “You’ve been stealing a down-payment?” She
recalled the photograph album she’d first found in the Effects closet, when all of this had begun. So, Bellamy had indeed snaffled more than one album full of money. “A downpayment for a place to live and store the Macandrew treasures?” “Of course. Do you think I’m a thief?” Stella shot her a sharp look. “So you figured that the money would soon be yours anyway…? It’s not, you know. But you’re not the first person to bend the timeline for an inheritance. And now it’s up to you to make things right.” She took a breath. “Take the envelope. Give it to your grandmother. Be sure she straightens things out with the Director. Make sure you convince her that Cheryl is innocent.” “How?” Bellamy frowned. But she took the envelope. Stella was running short on ideas. Still, one covert action should have been obvious to even the most reluctant and inexperienced thief. “For one thing, use the brain God gave you and move the other bits of money you haven’t stolen yet around from the other albums so that your grandmother can be convinced she was mistaken about the theft of the other many thousands.” Bellamy slowed her pace. “Gosh, you’re clever.” Stella sped up. “As for the Director, you’ll think of a way. Use your youthful charm.” “But I don’t…” The girl looked ready to cry. Stella sighed. “Look, Bellamy, you made this mess, and I’ve done enough already. Take my arm and lead me out the front entry. We’ve been too long as it is, and I really am feeling quite tottery.”
In silence the pair made their way through Corridor Park. As they neared the front door, Ollie, clearly on a mission to collect outstanding residents, spotted them. While he hurried towards them from the front door, Stella thought of one more thing.
She hissed, “Listen! Bellamy, you make sure your grandmother still thinks you love her.”
Bellamy stared. She let go Stella’s arm. Fiercely she said, “I do love her.” Wiping eyes with her sleeve, she stalked away. She was a Macandrew, all right.
As the girl passed him, Ollie took Stella’s arm. He gave her an oblique, amused look. “Stella, best sella, you were standing near the alarm when it went off. Would you possibly know something about how that fire alarm happened to be pulled?”
Stella got a taste of how Bellamy must have felt a few minutes earlier. She decided that the young fire-alarm-puller Robbie Belkan had got it right: if caught, you had to play it cool. “How crazy do you think I am?” she asked primly.
“I don’t think you’re crazy,” Ollie said. “I think you enjoy making things happen around this place. Don’t worry. I won’t tell.” “Thanks,” Stella said, as he opened the door. “Us outlaws got to stick together.” Ollie laughed. They stepped out under the awning to be checked off a master list only a few moments before the all clear sounded. To her disappointment, she got no more than a nose-full or two of spring air inside her before he led her back inside again.
The following morning, Stella woke to the pleasant certainty that she had solved the Bonnie Prince Charlie Mystery. The brouhaha was over and done with, as long as Bellamy made good on her promise to clear Cheryl’s name. Two days later Stella knew for certain that this had been accomplished because Bellamy had stopped by to tell her so. The girl had been unable to meet Stella’s eyes through much of the conversation, but Stella was satisfied that everything was cleared up regarding Cheryl’s honesty with Bellamy’s dragonish grandmother as well as with Mrs Warren, the Director of Fairmount Manor.
But if everything was really going to be all right, then why was there such a heavy feeling in the air? Something was still wrong. Three days after Bellamy had cleared Cheryl’s name with the Warden, the care worker was still not back at Fairmount Manor. Stella shook her head. She left Room 34 and walked down Daffodil Corridor. With every step her uneasy feeling grew stronger.
So it was that as she made her way past the Staffroom, she was unsurprised to see Reliza standing hunched over in the middle of the room, wiping her eyes with the bottom hem of her yellow nylon smock. As ever, Stella wished Reliza would get something new for herself.
Stella looked both ways. Then she stepped out of the corridor, where she was supposed to be, and into the Staffroom, where she was not. Guiltily she remembered making a cup of tea in here.
Reliza looked up as Stella entered the room. “Oh, Stella….” Her expression was tragic. “I said all along that Cheryl wouldn’t steal.”
“You did say that,” Stella agreed. “And so did I… Now, when is Cheryl coming back?”
Reliza’s eyes filled again. “It’s so unfair.” Her face turned pink, so that she looked prettier than ever, despite that old yellow smock. “They wouldn’t treat a doctor so, or even a nurse. Just us care workers…”
Stella nodded. She had been hearing that complaint most of her life: Unfair! When you spent your life teaching in an elementary school, you heard it almost every day. It’s not fair, Mrs Ryman, the whole class has to stay in because of one spitball. It’s so unfair, Stella, the administration took my Grade Two class and gave it to the new teacher.
But she tried to think of a single decision handed down in school, in life or even in the law that was fair for everybody — not impartial, but fair, so that all parties were content with the outcome. Stella could not. Decisions everywhere were met with generous acceptance, guilty greed, victorious joy, silent resignation—but never happiness all around. In fact, if Cheryl finally did get her job back, the new girl they’d brought in to take her place, who had her own living to make, would lose out…
As Stella contemplated fairness, Reliza sat down at the Staffroom table. Stella watched her do it. The young care worker didn’t set her hands on the table to ease the sitting down the way Stella did, and nothing went crack when Reliza bent her knees. Nor did
she let out a deep breath to mark the end of the sitting procedure. With youthful ease, Reliza simply sat. Behind her, the sun shone through the window and struck lights from the girl’s dark hair. No, the world was not fair.
Stella said, “You ought to talk to the Director. Make her see that Cheryl must be rehired.”
Reliza’s hands were shaking. “I would like to. I would. But, Stella, what if Mrs Warren takes against me? She could find a way to fire, me, too. And without a job, how do I stay in the country?”
“Cheryl wasn’t fired, she quit, Reliza. And your union…” Stella began, but trailed off, sensing the futility of this line of argument with this particular young woman.
Just then a rattle of buckets and wheels sounded outside the Staffroom door, and Ollie stepped inside the Staffroom. As he made his way to the sink she noticed, as always, how lightly he moved for such a big man.
He took a mug down from the cupboard over the sink and gave Stella a quizzical look.
Stella grimaced. “Of course, I know that a Staffroom is meant to be private, but…”
Ollie interrupted. “Oh, what the hell! It’s good for you and it doesn’t hurt us, does it, Reliza? It’s nice to have company in here now and then…” He paused as Reliza buried her face in her hands. Stella turned to Ollie. “Cheryl didn’t steal anything. It’s been proven.”
I proved it, she thought, first with satisfaction and then with an expanding resentment at the unchanged outcome of the case. She’d set out to prove Cheryl innocent so that the poor woman, wracked with debt and up to her ears in young children and a spendthrift husband, would be rehired. And Cheryl was not rehired.
Stella stared fiercely past Ollie at the row of coat hooks at the back of the Staffroom near the washroom, where Cheryl’s blue trench coat ought to be hanging right now. It had been quite a struggle, proving Cheryl innocent. And struggles have nothing to do with fairness. They are about getting what you struggle for: the reward at the end of the fray. So, it came down to this. Stella had won. Therefore, she should get Cheryl back as her favourite care worker.
“I tell you what,” Stella said. “I’m going to see the Director about this myself.” Ollie chuckled. “You go, Stella my bella,” he said. Stella looked sharply at him. Ollie was jovial, apparently by nature as well as physiology. And joviality was only a hop skip and jump from making fun of a person.
Ollie raised his mug of water to her. “Stella to the rescue,” he said. Was he making fun? She decided that she didn’t care. She turned her back on the two care workers — Reliza, so loving and absolutely no help whatsoever,
and Ollie, happy with things as they were. Stella headed down the corridor towards the Office.
Often, over the months since she’d moved to Fairmount Manor, Stella had been critical of the rambling nature of the institution’s design. It seemed to her that an eight-year-old with a ruler and a box of crayons could have planned a more sensible route of corridors for the convenience of residents and staff. The layout was particularly distressing if you were the sort of person who, like Stella, often found yourself standing halfway along a corridor, uncertain which was the way to your own room, and feeling like a child lost in Sears. But just now she was glad it was a long way to the office, because she had to think what exactly she was going to say to the Director of Fairmount Manor.
All along the way, however, she could think about nothing except the shuffling sounds her slip-on shoes made on the corridor linoleum, and how the air was even heavier than it had been earlier. She filled her lungs with it and nodded to herself. No wonder. Lunchtime loomed, and with it something involving cooked celery.
By the time she reached the office, she had developed no plan at all. Less certain of herself now than when she had set out from the Staffroom, she rested for a moment in front of the Director’s secretary’s empty desk.
How many weeks had it been since the Director’s secretary had retired at the end of what Stella believed must have been a long and gratingly efficient career? For whatever reason, the secretary had not been replaced. Perhaps it was a budget issue — or maybe
somebody had finally invented a phone system that did filing.
But it meant that nobody barred the way to the Director’s door. And the door stood ajar. In the circumstances, there was only one thing to do. Soldier on, Stella.
Pulling her back as straight as she could make it, Stella walked inside Mrs Perdita Warren’s private office. Without knocking. Stella was certain that, even if nothing and nobody else was behind her, surprise was on her side.
The office was empty. That was fine. Metaphorically speaking, Stella would lie in wait.
Where was she? Stella closed her eyes, trying to get a sense of place. After an unsuccessful moment, she opened them again. Gazing from wall to door to window to wall, she gained a sense of… office.
Her own office? She’d always had a small office of her own, behind the school library circulation desk. This office didn’t look like hers, but from time to time she would return from the summer holidays to find that workmen from the School Board had redecorated her space. She didn’t think much of these colours — she preferred a warm white to this spleen-like deep apricot. But if she was to tack book jackets up on the walls, they would hide the worst of it.
And, my goodness! Stella thought, folding her hands on the desk before her. This was the first time they had given her a new desk! It was a little too large for the space, mind you. And somebody had done a job on her usually tidy stacks of class lists and titles to reorder. These were strewn around and even had coffee mug rings on them. She supposed the custodians must have been watching hockey games in here again, courtesy of the school cable television. Ah, well.
She listened for the morning bell, and for the rising rhubarb of students’ voices out in the hall that meant it was almost time for class to begin.
But there was nothing. All was quiet. Was it after school, then? A foolish question, Stella! As if she didn’t know the time… She would take a few moments to straighten her desk. Sliding backwards on her rollered chair, Stella opened the top drawer. She touched the contents. “These are not mine,” she said, irritated with the custodians, who must have switched the drawers without checking them. “I have never seen these things in my life.”
A shadow fell across the desk, and Stella looked up into the face of a woman she knew only slightly. For the moment, she couldn’t recall the woman’s name.
But the woman knew hers. “Stella, please close that drawer and come around to this side of my desk.”
My desk? Stella was taken aback, but her eye fell on a black nameplate lying knocked over among the papers. If this was her
desk, it ought to read Mrs S. Ryman. She did her best to focus on it, but the letters shifted and interwove alarmingly. Summoning just that touch of dignity that had always seen her through the type of embarrassing situations that couldn’t be shrugged off by laughing at herself, she touched the nameplate and looked up at the other woman. “Is this you?”
The woman sighed. “That’s right. I am Mrs Perdita Warren, Stella. I am the Director of Fairmount Manor.” Stella nodded. “Glad to meet you, Perdita.” There followed that sort of pause that tells you something is amiss.
At last the director said, not unkindly, “I’d be more comfortable if you called me Mrs Warren.”
Oh, my, Stella thought with a rush of relief. Now we know where we are. Fairmount Manor bloomed up around her. “Of course,” she said, rising. “And I, too, would prefer to be called Mrs Ryman.”
“As you like.” Mrs Warren frowned. “It’s up to you to make your preferences known, Mrs Ryman.”
With gentle hands the Director propelled Stella out from behind the desk. Mrs Warren added, “We’re not mind readers, you know.”
With a desk drawer full of things like that, you must be getting close, Stella wished to say. Manners, plus a sense of walking a fine invisible line, prevented her from doing so.
The Director followed Stella’s gaze and snapped the drawer shut
on at least a dozen — perhaps more — puzzle magazines. Sudoku, Anagrams, Crosswords. Cryptic crosswords! The woman must be sharp as one of Iolanthe’s needles.
Stella turned to leave the office. She was in the doorway when the sight of the empty receptionist’s desk recalled her errand to her at last. Cheryl needed Stella’s support if she was to return to Fairmount Manor.
So close had she come to forgetting what she was there to do that it was almost like having the great glowing finger of God write her a reminder note on the wall: Stella, be not vague. Be compos. Be sharp! Stella turned and shuffled back across the office to the Director’s desk. There, she waited a long moment and then another, longer still.
At last, Mrs Warren looked up. “Do you want help finding your way, Stella?” Stella pinned her with a look. The Director corrected herself. “…Mrs Ryman?” “Mrs Warren, I would like to know how soon we may expect to see Cheryl back working among us?”
Mrs Warren took a moment, apparently deciding how — and, perhaps, whether—to answer her. “I can’t say, not at this point in time. Her replacement has been quite satisfactory, I think you’ll agree…”
Anger washed through Stella. She forced herself to show only calm. “Her substitute,” Stella corrected her.
Mrs Warren wrote a few words on the top sheet of paper. She
frowned at them. Then erased them and moved the top sheet to the bottom. Soldier on. Stella continued, “Of course, I’m thinking of the union base and the trouble it may bring you.”
Mrs Warren looked up sharply. “Union base? What do you mean?”
Ah. Stella shook her head. “I worked for decades in a school system, not in a care home like Fairmount Manor, but these union bases are all the same, I believe? All they have to do to cause trouble for you is to spread about a story regarding Cheryl quitting because of mental torment due to unfounded charges of theft…” “But…” Mrs Warren began. Stella ploughed a straight line through the interruption. “… A story of a single mother recently abandoned by her husband. A mother of two young children. And on top of that, they will produce her unblemished record of selfless service, followed by unjust accusations… the union is just like a dog with a bone! And of course, they’re all in tight with the left-wing press, aren’t they?”
Mrs Warren sat back in her chair. She gazed at Stella without expression. She said nothing. Stella’s instinct told her to carry on. “What my school district would do in such a case,” Stella went on, “was to put together a little package…”
Here instinct instructed Stella to pause a moment, so she did.
She was a teacher and a school librarian. She knew how to wait, that was certain.
At last Mrs Warren asked, “What kind of package do you mean, Mrs Ryman?”
Stella inclined her head. “It would include a card of appreciation.” Beyond perusing the bimonthly teachers’ union newspaper, Stella’s knowledge of the inner workings of management and unions was limited, and she was inventing freely now. “And certainly a raise — smallish, if it came early. Uncomfortably large, if the union people became involved. Well, it’s something to think about, when you make that call to Cheryl.” Mrs Warren glanced at the phone. Stella added, “…before you get a phone call yourself. From the union, the press…” She thought hard. “…and your Board of Directors. How nice to be able to say it’s all handled.” Mrs Warren blinked. Stella said, “And it would be a good thing to spread the news of Cheryl’s return around the staff, as well, wouldn’t you say? Put a stop to any unrest?” Mrs Warren stood. “I’ll show you out, Mrs Ryman.” But Stella was on a roll. Great things were in the air, and something more was needed. It was rather like the time she’d taken over the school Spring Concert from a faltering administrator. She said, “And by the way, could you please write down for me the number code for the front door? I’m feeling much better these days, as you see. I would like to be able to take
myself outside for a walk from time to time.” Mrs Warren frowned. One thing Stella knew, in negotiations the impetus of gain must not be lost. “I know that when I was brought here…” Stella could not remember who had brought her in to Fairmount Manor — A doctor? A neighbour? —so she hurried past that part. “…I was not myself. I was ill, you know, with all the difficulties in orientation that illness brings…” Here, a chuckle. “… to an old lady. But, I’m feeling quite myself, now…” She trailed off. Mrs Warren was shaking her head. She said, “Mrs Ryman, five minutes ago you were sitting at my desk as if you believed it to be your own.”
Stella thought hard, but before she could come up with any sort of reasonable reply, Mrs Warren went on.
“And, Mrs Ryman, you checked yourself in. You begged to be admitted, as a matter of fact. Let me tell you, Mrs Ryman, exactly what you told me. “Let us start with the incident where you set your house on fire.” Stella’s only thought made a circle in her mind: Oh.
Walking back from the office, Stella realized gloomily that she felt the approaching dinner hour not in her belly, but in a sort of rhythm she must have picked up unconsciously during the last
three months at Fairmount. This rhythm prompted her to think, “Now it’s time for something.” And the day had been dragging on long enough to know that something must be supper.
Burning with embarrassment and shame at learning what state she’d been in upon her arrival here at Fairmount, Stella shuffled along the hallway. She tried not to think about the things Mrs Warren had told her—how Stella had left a box of tissues on her kitchen stovetop to burst into flame, and how she had wept while she pled with Mrs Warren for admittance to Fairmount Manor.
Stella rounded the corner into Corridor Park. In the row of chairs to her left, the Greek Chorus sewed as hard as Odysseus’s wife Penelope in the daylight hours, before she ripped her tapestry to pieces at night in order to avoid remarrying. Smart girl, that Penelope. Smarter than Stella with her former lodger, all those years ago.
Stella grimaced. There was another thing she hated to think about: her long-ago lodger.
Iolanthe looked up from her fancywork. “Stella, dear, you make everybody nervous, running around like a teenager all the time.” “Sit down and give us all a rest,” Lucille added. The Nodder nodded. She pulled her small scissors from the pocket of her fleece vest and snipped Iolanthe’s threads for her.
“Won’t you sit down with us?” Iolanthe said, and nobody could have phrased the invitation more pleasantly than she. Her face was pleasant and her tone was sweet, so why was it that every time
Iolanthe addressed her, Stella always felt she’d been pinged in the behind by Iolanthe’s crewelwork needle?
“No, thank you.” She walked by the Greek Chorus. She thought about walking on, out of Corridor Park, never to return. But what then? The Activities Hall? Bridge foursomes? Healthy Movement? Never. So it was this, or her room.
She sat herself down in her own chair under the skylight. Beside her Thelma slumped, as she so often did, with the tip of her cane between her Chinese silk slippers, her feet flat on the floor.
Stella asked, “Do you mind if I invade your privacy?” She meant to sound jokey and even friendly, but the words hung in the air between her chair and Thelma’s. “Why should I mind?” Thelma asked. “You smell all right, so far.” Stella rolled her eyes and tried not to laugh out loud. Needles darting away on one side of the corridor, personal remarks on the other. Stella sighed as Thelma’s cane moved over and somehow got in a tangle with Stella’s ankles. Stella got the cane sorted out just as the tone sounded for dinner.
The dinner tone! Stella had come to understand that it signaled the Nodder’s great moment of the day. For now, round the corner closest to Iolanthe and farthest from Stella he walked: Theo, with his upright posture and excellent hair. He was wearing a sweater in a shade of pale lemon that told Stella that a woman had picked it out for him. Knowing how women shopped, she thought he probably owned a second one as well, of identical styling but in sky blue or mint green. The yellow suited him, though.
As Theo walked slowly towards Greek Chorus, the Nodder tucked her little scissors into her pocket and sat up in a posture of calm anticipation. Stella nodded to herself.
Dignity. Consideration. Theo represented both these virtues in a place where Stella was not even allowed to bathe herself without supervision.
In a moment he would offer the Nodder his arm and take her down to lunch.
That lemon yellow sweater of his brought to mind her high school years, and a clique of handsome boys from the rugby team who wore shirts and sweaters in Easter Egg tones — aqua and lemon, mint green and sky blue. She had liked the look of the boy who wore aqua. She couldn’t recall his name, but she did remember the way he walked right past her in the school corridor, heading for another girl, just as Theo was approaching the Nodder now.
And that was fine with Stella. There came a time when you no longer cared whether you were the chosen girl, and maybe that was how you knew you had grown up to be a self-sufficient woman. Or maybe not. Maybe you just got used to not being chosen and convinced yourself, through steady repetition, that you didn’t care.
Stella didn’t care. At eighty-two she was so evolved that she would once again simply admire the composure with which Theo offered the Nodder his arm. And although it was impossible to like the Nodder, Stella always got a kick from the pleasure with which the Nodder took Theo’s arm. It might well be the closest that the woman got to happiness these days. Stella had to admit, despite
her aversion to the Nodder, that she appreciated the modest way in which the Nodder cast down her gaze each time she accepted Theo’s arm. And every time she watched the exchange of courtesies, Stella liked Theo a little bit more.
Iolanthe and Lucille tucked their sewing away under their seats. The Nodder sat up straight and ready.
“I’m blind, you know,” Thelma muttered. “You’d think that once he’d offer to take me to dinner.”
“Ollie or another care worker always comes by for you,” Stella said. She shifted uncomfortably. “But I’ll take you to dinner if you like.”
“Don’t bother yourself,” Thelma answered, batting about with her cane and catching Stella between the ankles.
But, now Theo walked past the Greek Chorus — past the Nodder! —and stopped in front of Stella. She looked up into his watery blue gaze and felt suddenly foolish and very elderly. Theo offered Stella his arm. “No, really,” Stella said awkwardly. “I’m perfectly all right.” As if she hadn’t spoken, he stood, gazing down at her. His calm told her that he had all the time in the world. Stella hesitated, untangled herself from Thelma’s cane and stood. She took his arm. Together they walked towards the far end of Corridor Park.
But before they’d taken five steps in the direction of the dining room, it seemed to Stella that a black cloud was descending from the ceiling. It drifted along the corridor and settled over the Nodder.
Stella gave a mental shrug. She was enjoying the feel of her arm looped through Theo’s. The Nodder, for once, could do without — the experience might even improve her. Stella looked up at Theo. “This is very kind of you,” she said. Theo didn’t answer. They shuffled down few steps further along the corridor. But, along with the pleasant, almost-forgotten sensation of receiving special attention from the most attractive man around, no matter how taciturn and watery-eyed, Stella felt a sudden spiritual discomfort. She tried to ignore it, but Guilt will have its little say. Shut up, she told Guilt. Still, she couldn’t help looking back along Corridor Park between the next two steps. The Nodder’s gaze met hers, and Stella was reminded again of the girl she’d been in high school, standing with her back against her locker, watching the boy in the aqua cardigan go by, holding a prettier girl’s hand.
She looked back again. The Nodder stared after them, her eyes dark in her closed-up face.
Am I a high school girl? Stella wondered. Or, more realistically, is there still a high school girl inside me somewhere?
Placing her free hand on his lemon-coloured sleeve, Stella stopped Theo before they rounded the corner. “You have to go back for her, Theo…” When he looped her arm back through his, Stella turned them both around. She led him all the way back into Corridor Park. There, she handed him over to the Nodder.
The two of them walked off. Stella sat down suddenly. Such an
expenditure of goodwill had apparently exhausted her.
“I guess you think you’re some kind of hero now,” Thelma said, tapping her cane on the floor.
Stella sat down beside her. “I don’t know why I keep thinking you’re blind, Thelma.”
“Would they make me carry this damned cane everywhere I go if I wasn’t?”
Stella’s stomach rumbled. She and Thelma were alone in the corridor now, and the smell of wet pasta drifted down upon them from the dining room. Somebody must have gotten a deal on fusilli, Stella thought. This was the second day in a row. Or maybe the third.
“The Chinese invented pasta,” Stella said. “I think it came to Europe via Venice.” Thelma said, “We should have left well enough alone.” One beat later, Stella said, “If anybody ever listened to us, they would think we’re just a couple of old grouches.”
“Everybody’s grouchy at Fairmount Manor,” Thelma said. “Tell whoever’s listening, you’d be cranky, too.”
“We’re all cranky because nothing ever changes,” Stella said. But this statement turned out to be untrue. For, once on her feet, she astonished herself by offering her arm to Thelma.
And, flabbergastingly, Thelma took it. Together, the two women shuffled and clattered out of Corridor Park. They were already late for lunch.