Strange Heavenby Lynn Coady
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She's depressed, they say. Apathetic. Bridget Murphy, almost eighteen, has had it with her zany family. When she is transferred to the psych ward after giving birth and putting her baby up for adoption, it is a welcome relief â€” even with the manic ranting of a teen stripper and come-ons of another delusional inmate. But this oasis of relative calm is short-lived. Christmas is coming, and Uncle Albert arrives to whisk her back to the bedlam of home and the booze-soaked social life that got her into trouble in the first place. Her grandmother raves from her bed, banging the wall with a bedpan through a litany of profanities. Her father curses while her mother tries to keep the lid on developmentally delayed Uncle Rollie. The babyâ€™s father wants to sue her, and her friends donâ€™t get that sheâ€™s changed.
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It seemed as if things were happening without much reason or point. There were no warning bells going off anywhere to announce: This is going to happen. And once things did happen, there was no discernible aftermath. Her mother often phoned with lists of people who had died, or else had contracted an infestation of some kind and for whom death was imminent. Most of them were old, some related. Bridget’s mother went with the ladies to say rosaries for every soul.
“It’s a shame, you know,” she would say to Bridget, “the way everybody is dying.”
At the end of a not particularly hot or bright summer, Archie Shearer killed Jennifer MacDonnell. Bridget’s mother called her up and told her that. Bridget herself was now at the end of a sick, uncomfortable time and had no trouble imagining it. Everyone was saying it was terrible. School was just starting, the school from which both of them might have graduated, and so vans and cars from the CBC and other local stations were parked out front for the first couple of days, distracting everybody. Bridget supposed that if you managed to position yourself just so in the main hall or out front, you might have seen yourself on the news that evening. Or heard yourself on the radio saying that it was just terrible.
They talked about it for a minute, Bridget getting her mother to recount details already given, for she was too used to her mother’s obituaries and hadn’t been paying attention at first. But after she had expelled her feelings of surprise and her mother had remarked on how terrible it was, they moved on to other things such as Bridget’s bowel movements and what had she heard from the social workers. And by the time Bridget hung up, she recognized that she had forgotten all about Archie Shearer and Jennifer MacDonnell during the last part of the conversation even though they were her neighbours and close to her in age. It was still like a thing on a screen. Now that it happened and she knew of it, it didn’t concern her any more. That was what other people’s dying meant.
She stopped at the nurses’ station on the way back to her room and said to Gabby a nurse, supposedly, although she didn’t look like one, she was all beads and bangles with a ring through her great nose “I think this medication is doing something to me.”
Gabby’s eyebrows were, or maybe just looked, painted on. She raised them. “Still constipated, my ducky?”
“Yes, but I mean I think it’s doing something to my mind.”
For such a whimsically dressed woman who sometimes danced down the corridor on her way to ask everybody whether or not they’d had a bowel movement that day, Gabby could project quite an air of sternness when she wanted to. “No, Bridget,” she said. “The medication doesn’t do anything like that.”
Then what are you giving it to me for, Bridget thought, heading down the corridor and listening to the bones in her bare feet crack across the tile.
She asked to watch the news on the plastic-encased television in the common room and saw that Heidi had managed to get herself before the cameras. Heidi had sent Bridget a big get well card and got everyone in their graduating class to sign it. Bridget had felt sick, reading all the names, thinking of herself in every head, of people passing their time in discussion of her.
“Did you know the two people involved?”
“Oh, yah, everyone knew ’em. I just think it’s terrible, though. People shouldn’t get shot.”
That was all of Heidi. Then photographs of the two of them, a prom picture of them together, which was pretty good, emphasizing the irony of the fact that he had killed her. Then a picture of the donut shop and the empty field behind it gone yellow from a sudden early frost that he had chased her across.
Bridget was thinking she might have been there that day if not for being here it would have been easy for her to have been there with Heidi or with Chantal or with Mark and his friends, or just by herself. Probably everybody was thinking that. One person who was there, she later learned, was Jason MacPherson, who hung out there all the time and had irritated everybody by saying he hadn’t been paying attention, although with him it was no surprise.
Everybody was talking about it, her mother had said. And there was a piece on the local news about violence in our schools, even though it happened outside of a donut shop. And a national news magazine included the incident and the prom picture in a story called “Killer Kids” and tried to understand it. Which Bridget’s father would find foolish because, he said, kids were killing each other back and forth up there in Toronto all the time, and there was no need to come down here and set us up to look like a bunch of backwoods freaks just like the Golers down there in Newfieland. Nobody within hearing distance ever corrected him about where the Golers were from.
What was happening to the young people? This, according to the news, was what people of the area were asking themselves. It was because of television, and music, and videos. It was getting as bad as the city. This is what people said. Parents fretted. Albert, Bridget’s uncle, who was now living in the city himself, came to visit Bridget a few days after she had heard about it, and said, “Horseshit. I remember when I was living up in Tatamagouche working at one of the sawmills up in the friggin hills there, all of sixteen years old, and Baxter Forsythe comes back from the war, what does he do? He knocks the goddamn bandstand down, that’s what he does. No place for Kisslepaugh’s brass friggin band to play, which is fine, because they was no damn good anyway. Oh, they say, so big deal, he knocked the bandstand down. You mark my words, I said, mark my words. That fella’s gone queer over there. Back then queer didn’t mean homosexual. Well, it did, but it also meant other things. Queer in the head. That’s what he was, and there I am, sixteen years old, the only one with any sense in that town. I’m the only one who knows it. Oh, get out, they say. You mark my words, I tell them, that fella’s a bomb waiting to go off. Oh, no, they say. Well to Hell with yas, I’m going back to the Island, that’s what I told them. And Frank Jollimore was sad, you know, because he needed me at the mill. Well Frank, I says, I’m sorry, but I can’t live in a town full of damn twits who don’t know when the Armageddon is on its way. So there I am back down at the Forks where I belong all snug as a pig in the old s-h-i-t working for John Campbell. I think it was John. He lost one of his arms. Anyway, there I am and doesn’t a letter arrive from old Frank Jollimore. By God, Albert, you were right. Last night old Forsythe burned the town to the ground. The whole goddamn town, gone, poof.”
“The whole town?”
“Well, the main friggin street anyway. Gone, poof. Burnt down by a crazy man. And then he shot himself. So there you go, it doesn’t just happen in the city, that there kind of thing. Happens all the time, everywhere you go. I’ve seen a lot, you know. I’m just like that song, ‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man.’”
It was true. Albert would come to visit her regularly and talk all about his travels. He had worked in mills all across the Maritimes and then moved on through Ontario, completely eschewing Quebec. “Held my nose the whole goddamn way, going through on the train,” he said. He had even spent some time out West. For all his travels, he seemed to have enjoyed practically none of it. Ontario constituted “a pack of a-holes,” and westerners were a “pack of g.d. shit-kicking yahoos.” Only in Newfoundland was there to be found “any fucking civility,” although he had never gone out there to work, only to visit Newfoundland friends who he’d made working in the mills, and who, he said, could never stick it out for very long and always ended up fleeing the mainland in fear and consternation.
Only recently had she begun to notice that when Albert spoke to the likes of Bridget or her mother, his language was a pastiche of curses modified into their less offensive versions alongside other curses that he either forgot to modify or considered too commonplace to bother with. Every now and then he’d forget himself in his excitement and come to their house after a hunting trip in the Margarees exclaiming that he had shot a bird or a deer to fuck and back, and then he would look around quickly and blush and hurry to the bathroom.
Meet the Author
Lynn Coady's Strange Heaven was nominated for the Governor General's Award for Fiction and the Books in Canada First Novel Award, and won the Dartmouth Book Award and the Atlantic Booksellers' Choice Award. She has since written three books of fiction, Play the Monster Blind, Saints of Big Harbour, and Mean Boy, all national bestsellers. Her work has appeared in Saturday Night, This Magazine, and Chatelaine. She also writes a column on relationships for The Globe and Mail.
Marina Endicott was born in British Columbia and worked as an actor and director before going to London, England, where she began to write fiction. Her novel Open Arms was nominated for the Amazon/Books in Canada First Novel Award and her second won the Commonwealth Writers Prize for the Canada and Caribbean region.
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