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February is Lisa Moore’s heart-stopping follow-up to her debut novel, Alligator, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for the Caribbean and Canadian region. Propelled by a local tragedy, in which an oil rig sinks in a violent storm off the coast of Newfoundland, February follows the life of Helen O’Mara, widowed by the accident, as she continuously spirals from the present day back to that devastating and transformative winter.
After overcoming the hardships of raising four children as a single parent, Helen’s strength and calculated positivity fool everyone into believing that she’s pushed through the paralyzing grief of losing her spouse. But in private, Helen has obsessively maintained a powerful connection to her deceased husband. When Helen’s son unexpectedly returns home with life-changing news, her secret world is irrevocably shaken, and Helen is quickly forced to come to terms with her inability to lay the past to rest.
An unforgettable glimpse into the complex love and cauterizing grief that run through all of our lives, February tenderly investigates how memory knits together the past and present, and pinpoints the very human need to always imagine a future, no matter how fragile.
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About the Author
Lisa Moore is the acclaimed author of two Scotiabank Giller Prize-finalists, Open, a story collection, and the novel Alligator, which also won the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for the Caribbean and Canadian region. Moore lives in St. John's, Newfoundland.
Read an Excerpt
By LISA MOORE
BLACK CATCopyright © 2009 Lisa Moore
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSunrise or Sunset, November 2008
HELEN WATCHES as the man touches the skate blade to the sharpener. There is a stainless steel cone to catch the spray of orange sparks that fly up. A deep grinding noise grows shrill and she thinks: Johnny is coming home.
The sharpener vibrates the counter beneath her fingers; John had phoned last night from the Singapore airport. The roar of a plane landing in the background. She'd sat up on one elbow, grabbed the receiver.
Her grandson Timmy stands before the bubblegum dispenser, transfixed. There is a cardboard sign written in pen promising a free skate sharpening if you get a black jawbreaker.
I've got a quarter in here somewhere, Helen says. Unzipping the beaded coin purse. She is the mother of one son and three girls and there are two grandchildren.
My daughters complied, she thinks, digging for the quarter. She thinks of a slap, stinging and loud; she slapped Cathy's cheek once, the white print of her hand flooding red-this was years ago, a lifetime ago. Helen demanded of the girls that they give in, do what she said; but Johnny had been ungovernable.
A boy just like Cal, is what she thought when she discovered she was pregnant with Johnny. The nurse didn't tell her the sex of the fetus thatfirst time but she'd known it was a boy. The ultrasound was at five in the morning and she rode her bike. Lime street covered in an early October frost. There were still stars at that hour. Her hands cold on the handlebars. Having to walk the bike up Carter's Hill.
How desperately her son had wanted everything when he was a kid. He had wanted that puppy he'd found behind the supermarket sitting on a scrap of cardboard. She had said about the cost and fleas and the exercise a dog needs. but Johnny wanted the dog.
The grinding wheel revs and squeals when the blade touches it, and Helen pulls out a handful of change and lets Timmy take a quarter. His mother will be furious. Timmy doesn't eat his vegetables, lives on macaroni and cheese. They have rules; Helen's daughters all have bitter rules. The fate of the world can hang on a jawbreaker. If you say no, you mean it.
All profits, Helen reads, go to the Canadian mental Health Association. She watches the boy slide the quarter into the notch and turn the stiff handle and the jawbreakers slump against each other behind the glass. Timmy lifts the little gate with his finger. Black. A black jawbreaker rolls out into his hand. He turns to show it to Helen. His pale freckled skin, lit up. The blue vein in his temple. Orange hair. The spit of his mother. The very spit out of her mouth. It is joy, the colourless eyelashes, green eyes flecked with hazel. The sharpener on the second skate blade. The smell of burning metal. And the fan of orange sparks. Timmy holds up the black jawbreaker and the man behind the sharpener stops the machine and lifts his goggles and lets them rest on his forehead.
A free one, he says. He frowns, running a thumb down the blade.
Johnny called last night to say the sun was rising over Singapore. Rising or setting, he did not know.
I don't know what day it is, he said. He was coming from Tasmania and he'd slept on the plane, lost track of time. His cellphone kept cutting out, or there was a zooming in and out of his voice. He'd woken her up. A telephone at night scares the hell out of her.
It might be Monday, he said. Or it might be Sunday. A big red ball hanging over the palm trees at the edge of a landing strip.
Have you ever tried to figure out the difference between what you are, he said, and what you have to become? He said it softly and Helen sat up straighter. Sometimes his voice was perfectly clear.
Johnny was capable of grandiose philosophizing while encountering a sunset; that was all. Maybe there was nothing wrong, she'd thought. He was thirty-five. He was somewhere in Singapore.
She thought of him: a day at the beach when he was seven years old, his tanned chest, his shins caked with sand. Some bigger boys had been whipping him with strips of seaweed, forcing him farther out into the waves. She'd looked up from her book. Helen had been lost in a novel one minute, and the next she was knee deep in the water, striding, screaming her lungs out. The boys couldn't hear her because of the wind.
Bullies, she screamed. You big bullies. You should be ashamed of yourselves. Then she was upon them and they froze.
He started it, missus.
Look at the size of you. Just look. Pick on someone your own size. And the boys took off, plowing through the waves, glancing back, half saucy but scared.
Where had the girls been on that day? Cal must have given her a break. A day at the beach long ago, three decades or more, and now here was the dresser, her perfume bottle pierced by a street light, the brown liquid full of a still fire, the fringe of the rug, her housecoat on a hook; Johnny was a grown man. She was clutching the receiver. She was fifty-five; no, fifty-six.
What you have to become, she'd said.
Johnny was the kind of guy who phoned his mother infrequently, but when he did he was by turns pithy and incoherent and, inevitably, he had a bad connection. Or else something was wrong. He wanted to share the sunset with her; that was all, she'd thought. The sun was going down. or the sun was coming up. But no, it was more than a sunset. This time he had something to say.
The proprietor hooks bright red skate guards over the blades and knots the long laces so the skates can hang over Timmy's shoulder.
There you are, you're all set, he says. He gives Timmy a soft cuff on the ear. Timmy ducks shyly. Helen sees the jawbreaker move from one cheek to the other.
Going skating, are you, the man says.
We're going to give it a whirl, Helen says.
The ponds will be good soon, the man says. We've had a nice stretch of weather.
They all turn to look out the window. The street has been sanded away in a blast of wind and snow.
* * *
Basilica, February 1982
THE OCEAN RANGER began to sink on Valentine's Day, 1982, and was gone by dawn the next day. Every man on it died. Helen was thirty in 1982. Cal was thirty-one.
It took three days to be certain the men were all dead. People hoped for three days. Some people did. Not Helen. She knew they were gone, and it wasn't fair that she knew. She would have liked the three days. People talk about how hard it was, not knowing. Helen would have liked not to know.
She envied the people who knew that the winds were ninety knots and could still show up at the basilica in a kind of ecstasy of faith. Three denominations were at the altar for the Ocean Ranger mass and the whole city came out.
They didn't call it a memorial service. Helen doesn't remember what they called the mass or if they called it anything or how she came to be there. What she remembers is that no reference was made to the men being dead.
Helen was not church-inclined in 1982. But she remembers being drawn to the basilica. She needed to be around the other families.
She cannot remember getting ready for the service. She might have worn her jeans. She knows she walked to the basilica. She remembers getting around the snowbanks. The snow had been shaved by the plows. High white walls scraped smooth, soaking up the street light. There was nowhere to walk. The statue of the Virgin with snow in the eye sockets and over one cheek and the mouth like a robber's kerchief. she remembers that because already something was rising inside her: the injustice of being robbed.
And when she got up over the hill there were people out on the basilica steps. They couldn't all fit inside because of the crowd.
But Helen pushed her way through. She was supposed to meet her sister but she doesn't remember seeing Louise first or last. People pressing in on all sides and the organ and candles and incense. She remembers the candles and the lilies. more lilies than you could shake a stick at.
Helen's mother-in-law, Meg, was also at the church, but Helen didn't see her either. Meg must have been at the front. Cal's mother would have wanted to be close. Meg had a dream the night the rig went down. She dreamt a baby: I got up and looked out the kitchen window and there was a little baby in the tree branches all wrapped up in a white blanket. I said to Dave, I said, Go out and get that baby before something happens to it.
Everybody had some kind of dream the night the rig went down. Every soul in the whole province knows exactly where they were on that night. One of Helen's friends was coaching tennis at the boys and Girls Club in Buckmaster's Circle. Just Helen's friend and a child prodigy, a seven-year-old tennis star, alone in the gym, and the vicious smack of the ball, and they had no idea about the storm going on outside. They came out of the gym and the car was a blob under a drift, a single marshmallow in the empty parking lot. The whole city had shut down. Another friend was supposed to waitress for a Valentine's dinner that had been pre-sold. Every table with a candle burning and a rose in a miniature vase, and there was duck in blueberry sauce for the main course; but the restaurant had to close and the owner asked Helen's friend to join him in a meal before they went home. After they'd eaten, the owner went around to each table and blew out the candles.
There were men out on the rig who had said goodbye before they went out, that was the funny thing. Some men phoned their mothers. Men who were not in the habit of using the phone. A lot of the men weren't used to saying how they felt. They didn't think that way. They certainly did not say thank you. Not goodbye or I love you.
They were in the habit of turning those sentiments into actions. They chopped wood or they shovelled. A big pile of wood stacked under the blue tarp out by the shed. They brought over moose steaks. They put in an apartment for the mother-in-law. They got up on the roof with a bucket of tar. That was thank you. Some of them were so young that to say goodbye would never have occurred to them. They couldn't think that far ahead. But even some of those kids in their early twenties phoned home. Called girlfriends. Said they were heading out to the rig and just wanted to phone before they went.
A lot of the men who died on the Ocean Ranger had gone out of their way to say goodbye, and it was strange. That's the way it got remembered. That's what everyone remarked on years later. He called up just before he left.
On the night of the Ocean Ranger mass Helen walked up the steps to the basilica and said, Excuse me. She shouldered her way in and nudged forward and she was unapologetic.
She doesn't remember Louise and she didn't see Cal's mother or father anywhere in the church but they must have been there.
The organ thrummed a long, low note like a human moan. She felt that note in the soles of her feet; it vibrated between her legs, in her pubic bone and in her gut, turning her insides to water, and in her nose. It made her nose hurt and her eyes filled. The organ music went through her.
She was not church-inclined but some part of her must have been hoping for a hint about how to get through what was coming. She was numb and unbelieving, but she had three children and a kind of intuition about the pregnancy though she hadn't even skipped a period yet. Or if she had, she hadn't noticed.
Louise says, I was there. We said about the crowd and I gave you a tissue. I had a tissue in my sleeve. But Helen doesn't remember Louise.
The candles-there must have been hundreds on the altar, each in a little red glass, all slipping sideways in a blur when her eyes filled. She blinked and the candle flames became sharp stars and the stars threw out spears and her eyes filled and the flames became a wall of sluicing light.
This is a big cathedral, the basilica, with vaulted ceilings and usually a chill, and that night you could not move because of the crowd. And the organ music was loud. People probably heard it on Water street.
And the voices were just as loud. When people started to sing, the candles held their breath and then blasted brighter. Or the doors at the back blew open and the cold wind went all the way up the aisle and the candles flared.
Who came over to watch the kids? Helen didn't bring the kids to the church. She regrets that. Johnny was nine and Cathy was eight and lulu was seven. Bang, bang, bang, one right after the other.
Three youngsters on the floor in diapers, her mother-in-law Meg had said, as if that was a plan. She should have kept the children awake that night, got them into their snowsuits. she wishes she had.
The kids should have been with her at that mass, but she wasn't thinking that way at the time. She doesn't know what way she was thinking. She had an idea she could shield them. Ha.
The candlelight moved in time to the organ music. A bank of golden light behind the priests-or whatever they were; ministers, an archbishop for sure-in their white gowns with their arms raised. The singing began and she had to get out.
The wavering high-pitched voices of the old ladies in the front. Those voices are distinct, they don't blend, they're on key but reedy, and they just don't ever blend or harmonize or join in; they lead is what they do, old ladies who come to church every morning, walking up from Gower street or King's Road or Flavin street after putting out some food for the cat and a dishtowel over the tan bowl with bread rising in it. They come in rubber boots with zippers up the front, boots that slide over indoor shoes and used to belong to the husbands, who are dead, and the old ladies have plastic rain hats they tie under their chins and wool coats with big buttons and permed hair and rosary beads in their pockets beside balled-up tissues. Those old women couldn't believe they had to look at so much sorrow so late in their lives. That kind of thing should have been over for them. They sang and the reedy sound was resignation. it takes seventy or eighty years of practice to master resignation, but the old women know it is a necessary skill.
And there were male voices, deep and full of the texture of trying to think. The men were trying to think of how to get through the hymn and the mass and find the car afterwards and drive back to the church to pick up the wife and youngsters so they wouldn't have to walk in the weather-I'll come back to get you, no need for you to get wet, you just wait on the steps there, look out for me-and these men were thinking of the traffic, and whether their sons or brothers were dead. Knowing they were dead-they all knew-but wondering if. Holding the hymn books out at arm's length, these men, because they were far-sighted, and squinting and nodding as if they agreed with the words they were singing, or were just glad to be able to make them out.
The men holding the hymn books had their brows furrowed and their wives were standing next to them. The cathedral was full of the smell of wet wool and winter, cold stone, incense, and near the altar there was the smell of candle wax and lilies. In some of the pews were whole families, little girls with ringlets or braids and dresses that hung out over their snowpants, red-cheeked, yawning, swaying back and forth. Toddlers asleep on their mothers' laps.
Here's why Helen left the church in the middle of the mass: some of those people were full of hope. Insane with it, and the lore is that hope can bring lost sailors home. That's the lore. Hope can raise the dead if you have enough of it.
She was glad she hadn't brought the kids. What kind of people would bring their kids to this, she thought.
Helen knew, absolutely, that Cal was dead and she would be lucky to get his body back.
She wanted his body. She remembers that. She knew he was dead and how badly she wanted his body. Not that she could have put it into words then.
What she might have said then: She was outside. The best way to describe what she felt: She was banished. Banished from everyone, and from herself.
Excerpted from FEBRUARY by LISA MOORE Copyright © 2009 by Lisa Moore. Excerpted by permission.
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