Burden of Memoryby Vicki Delany
Former novelist Elaine Benson is helping an elderly spinster write a memoir of her years with the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters of WWII when she discovers that the writer hired before her died under suspicious circumstances. See more details below
Former novelist Elaine Benson is helping an elderly spinster write a memoir of her years with the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters of WWII when she discovers that the writer hired before her died under suspicious circumstances.
Shirley Stinson, Canadian Association for the History of Nursing Newsletter (Fall 2006)
- Blackstone Audio, Inc.
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Burden of Memory
By Vicki Delany
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2006 Vicki Delany
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA chipmunk dashed out from the shelter of the undergrowth directly into Elaine's path. From high above, an enormous dark bird swooped silently over the roadway on wide, serrated wings, and snatched the animal in its heavy talons. The pert little mouth stretched into a death scream. The hawk watched Elaine where she sat, shocked, in the illusionary safety of her red BMW. The hawk grinned at the prospect of the meal to come, and perhaps in enjoyment of the crushing of a life in its powerful claws.
In the days to come Elaine would replay the scene in her mind. Over and over.
The hawk and its prey disappeared behind a line of naked trees without a sound.
Unsure of where she was going, Elaine had been driving so cautiously that a gentle nudge of the pedal sufficed to slow the car down. She pulled over to the side of the dusty road and took a deep breath.
As her heartbeat returned to normal, she checked the scribbled directions one more time. After several false turns, at long last this looked as if it might actually be the place she wanted. A handcrafted sign had been nailed to an old pine tree on the other side of the road with the single word Madison written on it in flowery green script.
A narrow driveway ran under the tree, and beside it sat a hand-made wooden garbage bin freshly painted gray with a cheerful green trim—the sign and box that she had been told would be her signposts.
She switched the CD player off in mid-song—leaving Springsteen dancing in the dark no longer—shifted into gear and pulled into the lane. It was narrow, but paved and in good condition.
Once she left the main road the forest closed like a cape around her. Primitive, untamed northern forest that had never seen a chainsaw or shovel. Large boulders mottled ancient white and gray littered the landscape, some of them cut into pieces under the unrelenting, ruthless work of time, water and ice—nature showing off her power. Trees stretched high overhead where they tried to link arms. Branches reached out and scratched a warning on the sides of the car; long grasses stroked the undercarriage with a seductive whisper. Elaine cringed at the thought of her paint job, but the red car handled the steep hill and sharp curves with ease. It was much more car than she could afford, but in one all-out show of bravado she had sunk a good portion of her divorce settlement into the purchase. The car purred as it crested a sharp rise, and she patted the dash with affection.
The lane was long, very long. But at its end the driveway burst out of the shadows and returned to the warmth of the sun, widening to create enough space for a convoy of cars. A rusty old pick-up truck sat beside a shiny green van with handicap plates. A gust of wind blew a snowfall of brown and yellow leaves across the open yard. They swirled to a stop against the garage door, joining the season's residue already piled in the nooks and crannies of the outbuildings and against rocks and massive tree trunks.
Elaine stepped out of the car and breathed in both the air and the view. She pushed the image of tiny black rodent eyes open wide in shock to the back of her mind.
She only caught the briefest glimpse of a wide gray building the color of a northern lake on a cool, cloudy summer's day, trimmed with dark forest green, empty terracotta pots, abandoned for the season, and a flash of sunlight on blue water, before the door flew open and a short, stout woman bustled out.
"For heaven's sake, Mrs. Benson, don't stand there gaping. You're late enough as it is," Ruth Czarnecki scolded, her voice tinged with panic, truly felt. "Leave your bags. Someone will get them. I told you she doesn't like to be kept waiting. Didn't you listen?" She virtually shooed Elaine into the cottage.
"Miss Madison expects punctuality above all things," Ruth huffed, leading the way. The door led through what had no doubt been a mudroom in the years when the cottage overflowed with children and weekend guests. It had since been demoted to the storage of a collection of old coats, gumboots, and umbrellas.
Ruth led the way down a long corridor, walking at a brisk clip. The passageway was dark, in the style of grand old hotels. The floors were hardwood, ancient and worn. A very old, very threadbare, and probably very expensive oriental rug ran down the center of the hallway. Elaine resisted the urge to drop to her knees and run her fingers across the fine wood and inspect the quality of the carpet. The walls were also wood, stained dark. In the middle of the day it was necessary to have lights lit in the wall sconces scattered along the hallway.
A collection of small oil paintings dotted the walls. The style of several of the paintings was familiar and she was sure that if she had a minute, and better light, she could identify them. Ruth stopped so abruptly that Elaine, entranced by the pictures, almost tripped over her. The housekeeper straightened her shoulders and tugged at the sides of her immaculate black dress. Taking a deep breath she raised one hand and knocked firmly. Without waiting for an answer, she pushed the heavy wooden door open and gestured to Elaine to precede her.
"You're late," the old woman seated in the wheelchair said. Her voice cracked with age but it was still deep and powerful. A voice that expected to be listened to.
"By," Elaine said as she examined her watch with great care, "ten minutes. Not bad considering that there was an accident on the 400 and the highway was closed for a good few hours."
Behind her she felt more than heard Ruth pull in her breath.
Miss Moira Madison laughed. "But late none the less. Not acceptable when I was young. My grandfather would have dismissed you out of hand. But things have changed, and most of them for the better, I believe. Come, sit over here and we can talk. Ruth, you can leave us. Ask Lizzie to have tea ready in half an hour."
"But Miss Madison...."
"Thank you, Ruth." Also a voice that tolerated no "buts."
The door shut firmly.
"I like you already, Mrs. Benson," the old lady said. "Sit down and tell me why I should let you into my life."
Elaine sat. Moira Madison was tiny. She couldn't be much over five feet, and probably weighed less than a supermodel after a bout of stomach flu. The hands that rested on the armrests of her wheelchair were gnarled with arthritis, resembling claws more than strong human hands, the fingers looking as if they would snap as easily as matchsticks. The proud face was deeply lined and dotted with liver spots and the gray hair was sparse, almost bald in patches. But her deep brown eyes blazed with intelligence, and Elaine told herself not to underestimate this woman simply because she was old. Incongruously Miss Madison was dressed in khaki cargo pants and a beige T-shirt that proclaimed the purchaser had planted a tree in Africa (or at least donated towards one).
"I have read your books," Miss Madison said, nodding to the little pile stacked on the desk in front of her. "And I enjoyed them a great deal."
Goldrush was on top with Into the Bush peeking out from underneath.
"But they are old, are they not? Not as old as I might be, but old for the publishing world?"
"Indeed," Elaine said, uncomfortable defending her work. "I haven't had anything published for a while. But they're still in print," she hurried to add. "And Goldrush is being considered for use as a high school history book. Or so I've been told."
"In Hollywood they say that you are only as good as your last picture. Is that true in publishing as well?"
"What do you want me to say, Miss Madison?" Elaine bristled. "Those two biographies were great successes, I'm proud of them. But I turned my attentions elsewhere and didn't receive similar recognition. That's all."
The old lady chuckled. "Fame is fleeting indeed. Tell me what you turned your attentions to then?"
"My husband is ... was ... a screenwriter. He ... we ... believed that there was a good deal more to be gained by writing popular movies than biographies of pioneer Canadian women. The last few years I concentrated on doing research and editing his screenplays."
"So why are you here, then? Without your husband? At my little cottage on Lake Muskoka, instead of delighting in the glamorous life in Hollywood?"
"Are you aware, Miss Madison, that it is against the law to enquire of a prospective employee any details of her personal life? We are veering close to that line. I've applied for the job of assisting you with your memoirs. You've seen my resume and read my work. If that isn't enough, then perhaps I should take my leave sooner rather than later, and save us both some time."
The old lady laughed a deep rich belly laugh that had her shaking in her chair. Her chest heaved and she patted it rapidly with one frail, vein-lined hand.
Elaine rose to her feet, wondering if she should rush for help. She didn't want Miss Madison to collapse right in the midst of dismissing her. But she waved a thin hand in the air, indicating that Elaine should sit, and gradually collected her composure.
"Oh, my dear. That is so good. Of course you are right to remind me of my legal obligations. Sit down, sit down."
"I went for a job interview once, when I was first looking for a position as a nurse, and the hospital administrator, a male of course, actually asked me if I had ever had intimate relations with a man. I was young then, so young, and times were so different. When I was a child I had to help feed my brother, I told him, when his arm was in a cast. The result of falling out of the apple tree."
"Oh, you can laugh, young woman," Miss Madison said, smiling. "But I had no idea what the lecherous old fool was asking. And that is why I want to get it all on paper, before it's too late. You may find it funny, but I honestly didn't understand why that man wanted me to take off my blouse in order to continue with the interview. Although I did know quite enough to decide that it was time to leave. I had plenty of money, of course, and all the arrogance that came with it, but I have wondered since what a frightened young woman, with few prospects and desperate for a job, would have found herself coerced into doing.
"Anyway, my dear, I obtained another position and then at the start of the war joined the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters and I learned soon enough what intimate relations are. And thus I would like you to help me write it all down."
Elaine smiled at her. "Do you mean that I have the job, Miss Madison?"
"Indeed, you do. But only if you refuse to call me Miss Madison. I do wish that everyone who lives here would call me Moira. It is my name, after all. You may not believe it, but there are still people who remain firmly stuck in the old social structure, and not all of them are the employers."
"Moira, it is, then."
A subtle knock and the door opened to admit Ruth pushing a small trolley bearing an enormous silver tray, complete with matching teapot and milk and sugar bowls. They were accompanied by three sets of antique cups and saucers, painted the most delicate blue with a rim of soft yellow flowers. Small sandwiches, tiny pastries, and what appeared to be real homemade scones with clotted cream occupied a matching three-tiered cake tray.
Elaine struggled to contain her excitement. The traditional English ritual of afternoon tea was her idea of heaven.
Ruth placed the tray on the table beside Moira and arranged the food on the antique desk closer to Elaine. She backed up to a chair, tucked her dress under her ample bottom, and lowered herself as if to sit.
Moira coughed. "We are not quite finished with this interview, Ruth. Perhaps today you can take tea with Lizzie."
Ruth flushed to the roots of her over-dyed black hair and stumbled awkwardly to her feet. Mumbling hideously contrived apologies, she hurried from the room.
Moira smiled at Elaine. "Would you please pour, dear? I am afraid that my hands find it to be a bit of a chore these days."
A trembling Elaine poured the tea into the delicate cups. She had an extensive collection of teacups herself, and she was knowledgeable enough to recognize the quality that she held in her hands. At a nod from her hostess she added a splash of milk. Moira declined sandwiches, scones, or cakes.
Elaine served herself and sighed happily. She lifted her teacup up to admire it. "This is a beautiful set."
"My grandmother on my mother's side brought the service over from Ireland when she came to Canada to be married."
Elaine almost dropped her cup in terror. Then she gripped it so tightly it was in danger of shattering.
Moira swallowed a secret grin. "If you appreciate the history of my family things, my dear, I have a feeling that you will appreciate the history of my family and me. I trust you can stay." It was not a question.
"I would be delighted to."
"Good. We'll begin tomorrow. Ruth will discuss terms of payment with you and you can sign a bit of a contract. If you're uncomfortable living here, you are certainly welcome to seek accommodation elsewhere, but there isn't anything close at hand."
"I am sure I'll be happy here." Elaine helped herself to a scone and topped it with a dab of cream.
"Good." Moira smiled. Her teeth were badly stained and fitted poorly in her large mouth. A surprise, considering the kind of money this family had. "The first thing you'll want to do is to have a look at the boxes in the old guesthouse. Alan will show you where they are. I have saved practically every letter I ever received. You will doubtless even find a few dressmakers' bills, as well. And a great many letters that I wrote but never sent. I was a terrible one for writing all my feelings down in a frenzy of emotion. But come the cold light of day, I would recover my wits and could never get around to posting the silly things."
She sipped her tea and smiled at the memory of her younger self.
Elaine shivered with biographer's delight and selected a salmon sandwich, the bread cut so thin it was almost transparent.
Tea finished, Ruth was summoned by a press of a bell to show Elaine to her room.
"Just one more thing," Moira said as Elaine got to her feet. "Can you swim?"
"Can I swim?" What an extraordinary question. "Quite well, actually. I was on the swim team at University. Breaststroke mainly. I won some medals. Why do you ask?"
"No reason. I'll see you at dinner."
"When I originally applied for this position, I was rejected," Elaine said, as a tight-lipped Ruth showed her to her room at the end of the second floor corridor. "You wrote and told me that someone else had been hired. What happened to her?"
Ruth shrugged. "Does it matter?"
"It matters if she quit because she felt that she couldn't do the job expected of her."
"That wasn't the case. She died."
"Drowned in the lake her first week on the job. Dinner is at seven. Be on time."
* * *
Elaine was given an enormous bedroom at the front of the cottage, overlooking the expanse of lake and the fiery display of the gentle, rolling hills beyond. The room had been decorated in typical Canadian cottage rustic: good wooden furniture, colorful area rugs, a bright handmade quilt on the huge bed, a bookcase bulging with well-handled old classics and crisp modern biographies. Television, VCR, phone, and a computer complete with printer and permanent high-speed Internet connection seemed quite out of place, but welcome nonetheless.
Excerpted from Burden of Memory by Vicki Delany Copyright © 2006 by Vicki Delany. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Having taken early retirement from her job as a systems analyst in the high-pressure financial world, Vicki Delany is settling down to the rural life in bucolic, Prince Edward County, Ontario where she rarely wears a watch.
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I loved this author's first novel SCARE THE LIGHT AWAY and ordered her second as soon as I heard a publilcation date. BURDEN OF MEMORY is another wonderful novel. The story has been synopsized in other reviews so there's no point in my reiterating. I know some readers are put off by prologues and or flashbacks and you will find both of those here. I hope you won't cheat yourself out of enjoying a way above average novel because of them. Delany's use of both is deft and light handed ALWAYS moving the story along effectively. I give this author my highest reccomendation.
Elaine Benson wrote two highly regarded biographies of pioneer Canadian women when she fell in love and married. Her husband persuaded her that the money is in screenplays so they teamed up with Elaine doing the research. However, Elaine obtained a divorce and left Hollywood for Toronto and applied for the job of writing the true story of wealthy elderly Miss Moira Madison. She obtains the position, but learns that Donna Smithton had the job for one week before accidentally drowning in nearby Lake Muskoka. --- Moira, as she prefers to be called, fears that the talented Elaine will uncover family secrets from the war days that she does not want revealed. Instead Moira prefers most of the bio to be concentrated on her work with the Canadian Army Nursing Sisters of World War II. However, Elaine, who moves into a nearby cottage, begins to uncover questions that link the so called accidental drowning by Donna to events during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Someone will kill to insure that certain secrets remain buried. She wonders if the man she recently met in Moira¿s home and is half in love with, Alan Manners, is behind the attempts to keep secrets hidden. --- This is an interesting Canadian amateur sleuth thriller that works because Elaine is believable as she has the skills to analyze documents and uncover secrets. Her inquiries start off innocently but as she begins to comprehend what she is digging up, danger mounts and she ponders who to trust including those she cares about like her client and Alan. BURDEN OF MEMORY uses some flashbacks to tell the backdrop WWII story, but whether it is past or present Vicki Delaney provides a wonderful cozy. --- Harriet Klausner