Monday, 7 March 2011

Shane’s Garden by Nancy Snipper

ONE       The Family

  The thud was quick and hard, born from a rage as old and prolonged as hatred itself. Moira’s mother had just hit her over the head with a mirror. The first time it happened Moira was nine, and she cried. This time, six years later, there were no tears.  The mirror didn’t shatter as it had on that Sunday when pieces of glass flew every which way, cutting the left side of her temple. It required eight stitches - brave little trophies that Moira wore with defiance.   They left a scar. Moira hated it. Kerry explained it with curt optimism.
       “You were born with the mark. Wear it with pride.” 
        Though the mirror resisted breaking, something else did. Moira’s fragility tumbled into a strange void, instantly crushing any feeling that made her feel soft and loved. From that day on, Moira was unable to trust a single person. Tenderness disappeared, replaced by a comforting numbness that Moira called her abyss. This secret abyss became her ally, a friend with a dark featureless face that could never see into hers.
       Moira had her mother’s thin face, but her soft green eyes bore no resemblance to Kerry’s sparkling blue ones.  A multitude of freckles dotted her slender nose that could instantly smell scents at distances others couldn’t. She had inherited her father’s curly red hair, and that along with the scar, were the two features she most detested. People always commented that Moira could light up a pitch black night with her bushy, fiery hair. When friends reached out to touch it, Moira would instantly back off.  She associated a kind pat on the head to mirrors hitting it.
        When the mirror hit Moira’s head this time, her little brother Shane watched in silence. “Ouch” was all Moira said, and then giggled out of embarrassment, for her precious brother had caught her in a moment of weakness.
        “Mom is in a snit because I refuse to go upstairs and wash my hair,” Moira said, smirking bravely at her mom who was furiously knotting her apron strings. Moira got up and stridently marched upstairs to her room which she shared with Shane. She lay on her bed. A tear descended down her left cheek, making its way into the abyss.

       Kerry had given birth to Moira at the age of 18 in Lachine Quebec.  The labour lasted 23 hours, and it was unendurable. That was the word Kerry used every time she talked about Moira’s birth. And talk she did. No matter to whom or about what, she always ended up describing the birth. She took the unlucky listener through the first five hours of her labour within a few sentences. The rest of the description, however, spewed forth fifteen minutes of verbal anguish, and just as she reached her final sentence, she would dramatically draw in her breath, creating a pregnant pause followed by the shaking of her head and the utterance of her final and favourite word: “unendurable”.
      Her voice delivered the descriptions effectively, for it carried a melodic lilt, still clinging to its Irish intonation. Her thin, bony body added poignancy to the whole experience, for Kerry had the look of a sufferer. Her large blue eyes expressed resignation. Periodically, they flashed emotions that not even she understood. Her wiry hair was uncontrollable, so she always tucked it behind rather large ears. Now in her forty-fourth year Kerry was going grey.
“See these clumps of grey,” she would say to Moira, pointing to a particularly dense spot. “They’re from mothering the likes of you.” Not a day went by, when this oft repeated refrain echoed in Mira’s mind.
         When Kerry smiled, an event to which few were privy, her lips had a unique way of favouring the right side of her narrow face, earning her the nickname, ‘Sidewinder’. On the whole, people found her appearance rather appealing
           Undoubtedly, Kerry had a way about her. Perhaps it was her ability to attach importance to otherwise mundane matters that earned her a place in her new community. Her accent was refreshing, and its inflection compelled people to cling onto her words. Moreover, Kerry was a gifted cook. The church bazaar was always buzzing with words of praise for Kerry’s Irish soda bread, cakes, casseroles and cookies.
Kerry functioned best in public. She was accommodating and charming. Her odd smile proved endearing; in private, her smile revealed the true nature of a side winder.

         Never was there a shyer baby than Shane. He never looked anyone in the eye. His gaze always headed past one side of a person’s face. He had his own sidewinder tendency that Kerry understood without question, for Shane was Kerry’s love. He brought out a fierce protectiveness in his mother, and though Moira could have resented the obvious favouritism, she too felt the same about Shane.
        A priest who frequently called on the family, recommended the newborn baby be named Sean, but Moira liked the name Shane. Her first crush was on a handsome motion  picture cowboy  called Shane. It was close enough to gain Father Sean’s approval. He often came to visit the little babe, whom he adored.
         Shane was the family’s holy human icon - save for James, his father. He was repelled by Kerry and Moira’s excessive doting on the frail boy.  Kerry hoped her boy would inherit the piety that comes with wearing the frock. She looked forward to Father Sean’s visits which were always marked with benedictions and compliments for his “junior”, as he put it. He would hoist Shane up into the air, catch him, count to three, and then fling the little fellow onto his lap. There, Shane would sit, but there was a hint of discomfort in his eyes which intensified when the priest began rubbing Shane’s arms and legs.
          Often, Kerry would leave Shane with the Father. He would become quite excited when she asked him to babysit for a minute or two while she hung the clothes outside on the line, or went down to Provost Street to pick up some groceries.  Upon returning, Kerry noticed her little boy was sullen which she took for disappointment in her departure.
       “He always seems sad when I get back. Perhaps he knows you’re leaving, or is it because I left?” Kerry rhetorically quipped.
Father Shane would then plant a kiss on the boy’s pale cheek, and run his fingers through his lovely blond hair.
        “It’s like silk,” said Father Shane. “And those eyes – so big, so blue. You’re blessed with this beautiful boy coming into your life,” he said, nodding to Kerry and smiling at Shane, just before leaving.
         Shane’s quietness began to trouble Kerry. On more than one occasion, people at Richelieu Food Store asked her if her child were sick or slow, for Shane’s gaze was notably blank, and he would cock his head to one side whenever he heard his name. Kerry would look indignant. “My boy was blessed by God; Father Sean at St. Mary’s of Miracles Church said so.” She would then march off, pushing her cart with such force that Shane, who was seated in it, would cry.
         Shane and Moira shared the same bedroom, for there was no other room for him. As the years passed, his cradle was replaced by a bed. He had grown used to sleeping near his sister, and though he enjoyed the feel of his comfy new bed, he felt his cradle was still with him… in the form of Moira.
         Often, Shane had night terrors, even though he was nine. Moira was three years his senior, and she felt it right to take him into her bed and comfort him. His sobbing would stop when she held him close, and stroked him tenderly.
         “It’s okay sweet dear; Moira’s here with you. Nothing can hurt you now.”
         The only thing that hurt Shane was life itself which the sensitive lad associated with his parents’ constant feuding. They were so loud, that he often blocked his ears. They frequently fought about money, but more often about Shane.
         “You coddle him so much; he’s sure to become a pansy.  He’s certainly pretty enough,” bellowed James.
         “Well, if you were here to show him some attention, other than spending five minutes with him on your lap, maybe he would be more adventuresome. You teach him nothing, and as for disciplining the kids, you’re hopeless,” Kerry hit back.
         At this point, James would stalk out of the small kitchen that connected to the side door, and go for a long walk. He usually made it home for supper, but when he was particularly angry, he didn’t come home until dark.
         Shane began to feel responsible for these fights, and soon he completely retreated from his dad. Like Mira, he found his own escape hatch. His world was not occupied by humans but by stuffed animals he had collected as hand-me downs and Christmas gifts. They were stored in the attic, since there was no room for creatures in the bedroom. Besides, Shane didn’t want Mira to know his secret friends.
       Shane loved each and every one of his twelve animals. He loved stroking them all over, and would tell them that everything was going to be fine, now that he was there with them. He would disappear for hours, but Kerry always knew where to find him.
        “Mama’s coming, quick, into the trunk!”
        When the door opened, Shane would give Kerry his sidewinding glance, his hands folded in his lap, imagining that Bear and Giraffe were with him – loyal pals that would never say a mean word to him or ask him lots of silly questions.
      “Shane, what have you been doing? You’re always up here. What do you do up here? Talk to me. Why won’t you talk?  You never want to go to school some days. What’s wrong? Father Shane and I are worried about you. You know, your father works hard and he doesn’t have time to talk with you, so I am. Do you want to tell me something? Is something wrong?  Talk to me,” Kerry said impatiently, her trademark temper beginning to rise.
       “I’m not doing anything wrong,” Shane replied feebly. It’s just that I wish I had my own place. I don’t even have a closet. I… I…” he began to stutter.
       “You what,” Kerry echoed. “Just tell me. You know I adore you, but you have to talk.”
      “Oh, nothing,” Shane responded in resignation.
      “Look, supper’s on the table, and your father will be home soon. Let’s see if we can all have a nice time together. Tell dad your baseball is going well, and that you’re the best on the team, which you are. He has hopes for you, you know.”
     Shane glanced back at the trunk hiding his friends, and when his mother’s back was turned, he offered a little goodbye wave to his mute buddies.

          James knew the minute he first saw Kerry his destiny was sealed. She was splayed out on the ground of Killiney Hill Park. Below its 200 acres of dense woodlands lay one Ireland’s bluest gems, an immense bay with a beach of honey sand “right well known” to Dubliners.  The park was a favourite retreat for James who loved the calm of Killiney. There was only one shop, one pub, and the immense park that offered a spectacular panorama of the sleepy surroundings. He had been coming here for years - his outings were always peaceful and undisturbed - until now.
He was standing on one of the escarpment’s highest and grittiest cliffs, a powerful wind howling in his ear as it mocked the beach below.   
       “It’s so impressive.” thought James, who believed nothing could match such haunting beauty. And then it came, a mysterious voice that seemed to shake the foundation upon which he was standing. It startled James.
         “I’ve sprained my ankle,” she whined, wincing in pain at James, a total stranger to her. It was this straight forward declaration and her intense eyes that stared directly into those of James that caught him off guard. She triggered a feeling in him he had never felt before.
       “I’ll get you down”, said James with authority.  And so that is how their romance began - on unsure footing.  Over the next five months, James picked up Kerry in Dublin, and they would train over to Killiney’s beautiful bay, then take a boat over to Dalkey Island famous for its countless pubs filled to the brim with beer from local breweries that the rest of Ireland had never heard of. But it was Dalkey’s peaceful woodland paths largely ignored by townsfolk and visitors that James loved. He enjoyed the seclusion they offered. The town’s medieval architecture was a mecca for foreigners always eager to sample as many historic pubs as possible, and this worked well for James, for it allowed him and his fiancée to be relatively alone as they strolled along one of the quiet back paths of the charming island. It also allowed him to consummate their relationship during the afternoon of July 25, 1964. 
       Before their walk at Mean O’Malley’s, James had quickly downed two pints while Kerry preferred a Lime Rickey juice. She liked the tart flavour and fizz.  James had never stepped inside one of the pubs before when he was out with Kerry, so this took her by surprise, particularly since he claimed to be a staunch and sober Catholic.  He had also emphasized to Kerry that he didn’t believe in premarital sex.
       The rape had been quick and quiet. James corporal being instantly seemed to land on her as he grabbed her from behind roughly pushing her to the ground. Throughout the ordeal, Kerry kept quiet, and even if she wanted to shout, James hand over her mouth muted any sound. After he had his way with her, he became the gentleman she knew him to be. He held out his hand to her to help her up, just as he did when she had fallen. He led her to the pub to wash up, and gently kissed her as she stumbled in confusion to the ladies room. From the moment she had been shoved to the ground to the moment of fixing her hair in the pub restroom, it was as if nothing untoward had happened, and so Kerry chose to keep it as such. Ten years into the marriage had done little to revive the sordid event. Kerry just couldn’t recall exactly what had happened that day. Like the mirror she had cracked over Mira’s head, the rape was history, and for Kerry that meant it didn’t happen, and even if it had, years were there for the purpose of favourable distortion.
        In 1959, James and Kerry left Ireland for Canada. James was tired of the influx of foreigners, and Protestants seemed to appear at every corner. He wanted to get out of Ireland at any cost. He had moved to Quebec because he had heard Quebec was very Catholic and that there were desk jobs. Many of his forefathers had moved to Lachine, and most ended up building the canal. In 1825, the canal was inaugurated with 15.5 kilometres of navigable water running right along Lachine, and James seemed to take credit for that.
          “It was the Irish who attacked the rock and earth with picks and shovels to forge that canal,” his father would say whenever people spoke about canals that were being built all over Europe at the time. Exceptional prosperity for others, particularly the English, was the result of their hard labour.
         “We Irish know how to build, but it isn’t us who reap the goods,” his father would bluntly blurt out.
        And so it was with pride and some bitterness that James settled the family into a two-bedroom cottage in a middle class neighborhood in one of Lachine’s small houses near an enormous field saddled by Lake St. Louis.  He took a desk job at as an underwriter for Salute Insurance Company, but he loathed it. Still, with Moira on the way, the opportunity for upward mobility within the company looked promising.  His father may have been illiterate, but he made sure to have given James an education at Dublin College. They were Irish; they were Catholic and they were as sturdy as the men that had built the seven locks of the Lachine Canal


Birthday Ritual
          Time.  It hooked its invisible tentacles into each member of the family in different ways.  For James, time was defined by bills: electricity bills, phone bills, heating bills and tax bills.
         “Really, to pay $300 every year for a piece of grass that the government calls our property is hogwash.” James said in the same tone of voice he used when arguing with Kerry which was at least twice a day.
        Kerry took stock of time by counting her grey hairs every other week. The number seemed to by multiplying with increasing rapidity.
       “It’s him and the kids that are the cause of this. It used to be just Mira, but now it’s Shane and James. If I lose my looks completely by next Christmas, I’ll have them to blame for it.”
        Moira felt time in a glorious way. Her breasts were round and prominent. Boys were drawn to her, and her mysterious quiet way seemed to enthral them even more than her ample cleavage which she flaunted on hot summer days.
         “Peter at the Humpty Dumpty Chip Factory always stares at me on the assembly line,” Moira said laughing to her friend, Tina. “He can set up bags faster than the machine pops the chips in.  Wait till I get enough money to leave Lachine. I’ll take him with me,” she said giggling to Tina who stood beside her on the bag closing line.
         For Shane, time didn’t move. Everything stood still. His animals were ageless. They would live forever. He was now twelve.
          “Death is coming for me today,” Shane would say to Enow, his stuffed donkey. “We’ll ride off into the sunset from the bedroom window. We’ll fly over my garden. We’ll ride over the roses, the lilies, the begonias and pansies. We’ll go away where every piece of ground is covered in tall flowers, scented with thousands of different perfumes, some smelling like Mira’s hair does. Looking down from the sky, we’ll see the earth covered in trillions of different colours; and there will be no people, just you and me, Enow.”
       For the family, as a living entity, time was marked by meals. Dinner was greeted with a host of aromas that swarmed around a table of silence that in the beginning, seemed noticeable. But as the years passed, this silence became a comfort, a mute bell signalling that all was normal and well with the O’Teale family. There was a lack of any questions or spontaneous news, other than a few words about the weather. The  masticating of meat and potatoes was the only other sound. There was never any salad, and vegetables were a rare sight on any plate, for the O’Teale family was carnivorous to the bone. The odd tomato or cucumber was sometimes placed as an appetizer, but only on those occasions when Kerry was running behind time which usually happened every day.
       Kerry couldn’t tear herself away from ‘
Coronation Street
’, the one TV soap opera that made her feel superior. She gloated in the problems of all the working class characters on TV.
       Though the Manchester of ‘
Coronation Street
’ wasn’t the Dublin of ‘The Little Land’, Kerry saw resemblances. She was glad to be out of it all. In her new country, houses weren’t stacked up in a line of treeless sidewalks. Here, houses came with grass and big backyards. Here, you could move up in life.  
        Watching the soap opera gave Kerry added gusto for the task at hand: cook fast and have the meal ready. James didn’t like to be kept waiting, especially when it came to food. He got particularly angry when Sean arrived late at supper, returning from his walk along the canal. He would walk the length of the canal all the way from
thirty-fourth Avenue
to First.
         The Lachine Canal rolled along interminably, enclosed in an enclave of locks and water trapped in walls of cement. When Shane went down the street to walk along
Lake   St.
Louis, he felt a freedom to behold such a vast body of moving waters whose waves rippled against the 10-kilometer shoreline of rocks, pebbles and scruff. But when he  finally reached the first lock of the canal with the great stone Convent of St Anne’s looking over it, he felt suffocated, caught in a concrete world where the only escape was water. But Shane couldn’t swim. In fact, there was only one thing Shane could do, and he did it exceptionally well.
          Since the age of sixteen, he had been mowing grass for Kerry’s friends who lived on nearby streets. He also started a garden at his next door neighbour’s, Mrs. Phipps.  It all happened over a birthday cake.
          The garden grew out of a single pansy seed, planted by Mira in a pot which she had given gave to Shane on his birthday.
         “Happy twelfth!” Moira shouted that eventful day.  She also gave Shane a book on Canadian perennial flowers, and when the cake came out topped with 15 burning candles, Shane felt he had found his purpose.  What to wish for?
         “How did she know about my garden dream? Does she know about Enow too?” He was amazed. “Moira always seems to know what I’m feeling. She’s the only one who does.”
       He would keep his sister in flowers for the rest of her life, cut a bouquet every day and place it by her bed. He would grow a world full of colour in Mrs. Phipps backyard and in her front one, too; his lawn-loving father would never allow the family’s grass to be torn up for a garden.
         Regardless of the age of his children, James always insisted both celebrate their birthdays together. Since Shane and Mira were both born in May, James thought it pennywise to purchase one cake to mark their birthdays. Indeed, it was always fun to watch his children blow out the candles together. Then, after their few presents were opened, and their voices found an excuse to be heard in birthday song, Moira would whisper something in her sibling’s ear; then, seal it with a lip kiss. This birthday ritual was re-enacted every year. It was one of several rituals that, at best, defined the fact they were a family.

         Kerry was in the kitchen making egg sandwiches. The smell was always detected by James.  He detested the things. It was an egg sandwich that had killed his father, Sean, back in the coal mine in Killiney. It happened during lunch. Sean, along with his two buddies, decided to eat their lunch inside the mine that day to earn extra wages by saving time.
        An explosion cut into the men, burning them alive. They never knew what hit them, but James believed his father did, because his charred body was found four meters away from the other unlucky souls. He had obviously been running in panic, a step ahead of the others as the flames bit into his body.
       James felt Kerry made the sandwiches just to taunt him, so whenever he spotted her putting the mayonnaise on the bread, a fight would always take place – not about eggs – but about money, the other thing that drove his father to his death.
       “Perish those damn eggs you keep getting from Mr. Mackie.”
John Mackie ran a chicken farm in St. Eustache, and claimed his were the best in Quebec. “They’re more expensive than store eggs. We need every penny, Kerry, if Mira’s to go to University. And Shane, God knows what he’ll end up going to, other than some nut house.”
        “I won’t have you talk that way about our son,” Kerry shouted back. And if anything happens to him, it’s your fault. Sticking him in the same bedroom as Mira was fine when he was a baby, but he needs his own room now. We need a larger house.
        “You’ve got to be joking. I don’t have that kind of money. Anyway, Mira’s a good influence on the boy. She’s nice to him, and he seems to open up when he’s around her.”
        “Well, if you won’t come to your senses, you’re forcing me to accept a babysitting job at Mrs. Phipp’s. She’s taken a job at the Wells Lamp Shade Manufacturing Company, and needs a babysitter for her Mike and Lara. I’ll use the money to at least get us new windows.”
       “You’ll do no such thing! I forbid you to work. Your place is with the children. You’re an upstart, Kerry. Know your place. I’m warning you: if you so much as go near that house to baby-sit, you won’t see hide or hair of me. I won’t be sitting at the dinner table, and I won’t be eating any more of your cooking, which by the way, is becoming boring. Always the same stuff: roast potatoes, beef and peas. You ought to learn to cook some poutine, shepherd’s pie and Canadian stew, like our neighbours do. You’re not better than them, and babysitting isn’t going to change that one bit,” James said angrily, strategically taking his exit, for he believed he had won that battle.
         “I make the money in this house,” he shouted to Kerry from the living room.
“And don’t you forget that, woman!”
       “It’s not enough,” Kerry shouted back, peeling the potatoes harshly.
 For Mira and Shane, eggs became the forbidden food, and when they saw their mother preparing them, they rushed upstairs into their bedroom, slamming the door behind them. They knew what was about to follow.
         It seemed the fights never stopped - always about money, babysitting, the house and Shane. The arguing continued long after the sandwiches were eaten. However, a smell of rotten eggs seemed to infiltrate the entire house. It became a permanent odour with or without the sandwiches.