Gridlocked in the churchyard of a small Irish town, the traffic frozen in place for a funeral, Frances Moon pauses long enough to make a confession to Ian, her partner of nearly twenty years. The next morning, she finds he has left her. Unsure what else to do, Frances sets out for Elliot, the small town in western Canada where she grew up.
As the perspective shifts backward, cruel students and unsympathetic teachers await a young Frances beyond the borders of her family’s quiet farm. Curious, imaginative, and lost, she finds comfort in two outsiders, the troubled local boy, Dooley Sullivan, and a decorated Native American World War Two veteran named Silas Chance. But ever present, splitting the narrative apart, is a small town that will close ranks, turning a blind eye when one of them is killed.
The crime, itself, and the denial that follows, takes both Silas and Dooley from Frances in different ways. By high school, she’s become the girl most likely to disappoint, and at eighteen is already headed toward a disastrous marriage. Even after she shakes off the dust of the town and flees her husband, even as she builds a new life, she buries her past so deeply that she believes she has lost it. Until one day in an Irish churchyard, it all comes sweeping back. And so begins an unforgettable novel of lost souls and second acts.
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From the Hardcover edition.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2016 Dianne Warren
1. My Cold, Cold Heart
We were firmly lodged in a traffic jam in a small Irish town. Gridlock. No way for our rental car to move forward or back. Several tour buses—which we encountered wher- ever we went, even though it was May and not yet high season—made matters worse. It was hard to imagine how the roads could handle any more of them. A policeman was manoeuvring on foot through the mess, trying to direct cars to an opening here and there, but it was impossible. Any opening inevitably led to another jam. A bicycle would have been hard-pressed to get through. People began to step out of their vehicles and walk away—surrendering, it seemed, to a hopeless situation.
I could see that we were stopped in front of a churchyard, and that many of the people leaving their cars were heading for the church. It began to make some sort of sense. A hearse was parked in front of the church, the coffin still inside. At- tendants in dark suits were staring at the traffic snarl-up.
“It’s a funeral,” I said. “That’s what has caused this.”
Ian rolled down his driver’s-side window and motioned to the policeman, who was now standing close to our car, no longer attempting to untangle the mess. He was staring, like us, at the churchyard.
“What’s going on?” Ian asked him. “It’s the funeral,” the policeman said.
“What I mean is, how long do you think we’ll have to sit here?”
“A young girl and her tiny baby,” the policeman said, ig- noring his question. “Just nineteen years, and the baby a few months. They’re in the coffin together. Terrible tragedy. The whole county’s come.”
“That’s so sad,” I said, still looking at the hearse, imagin- ing the mother and baby.
“It is, yes.” The policeman looked at his watch. “If you walk a quarter mile back the way you came, you’ll find a pub or two or three. Have a Guinness and wait it out.”
Then he left us and headed toward the church, and was soon lost among the others arriving from all directions.
“A girl and her baby,” I said. “I wonder what happened, but at the same time, I don’t want to know.”
“Can you believe it?” Ian said. “The only policeman in sight just gave up and went to the funeral.”
“Yes, and I like him for it. Never mind if we’re late. It can’t be helped.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off the scene unfolding in the churchyard. Just nineteen, I thought, and a baby too. The pallbearers were lifting the coffin from the hearse. There were so many flowers on top they spilled onto the ground and left a trail as the coffin was carried toward the church steps. I thought, I lost a baby when I was nineteen. I was surprised by how easily the memory had slipped into my consciousness. It was something I had not thought about for years.
“I lost a baby when I was nineteen,” I said. “And by ‘lost,’ I don’t mean misplaced. The baby died.”
I watched as the men carried the coffin up the steps and into the church, carefully, so as not to disturb its precious cargo, and the mourners began to follow and I realized what I had done—spoken the words aloud.
“It was a long time ago. Until now, I’ve never told a soul who wasn’t there. Even my mother and I barely spoke of it.”
“Let me understand,” Ian said. “You had a child? A baby?” “Yes, and it died,” I said. “Before that, I was married. But
not to the father of the baby. That’s a different story. I was married before the baby’s father, to someone else.”
He said nothing in response to this, stunned into silence, as would be anyone who’d lived with a person for over twenty years and had not been told such a thing.
An old man with a carved walking stick passed by, laying his free hand briefly on the hood of our car. He reminded me of a man we’d met in a pub in Dublin, who had told us he’d once been an actor. He’d used the term “player,” and had said that he’d been on stage many times at the famous Abbey The- atre, a claim Ian hadn’t believed. The man with the walking stick turned into the churchyard and fell into line with the people there while we sat without speaking, marooned in the car, the jumbled disorder of vehicles all around us, until a dog began to bark in a yard nearby. When another answered, and then another, and the barking grew into a frenzy, Ian opened his door and said, “I can’t stand this. We might as well find a pub. I don’t see what else we can do.”
We started back toward the town centre about the time three buses emptied out, the tour directors having come to the same conclusion we had—that there was no point in waiting. Over a hundred people were now walking along with us, many of them elderly. Good sports, I thought, with their arthritic knees and hearing aids. We were soon ahead of most of them, which turned out to be an advantage, since there were only three or four tiny pubs in the town.
We chose one and found ourselves a table in a corner. It was an old pub with mud walls and wooden beams and a fireplace burning peat. There were several signed photos of famous pop stars above the bar, and one of them was Sinéad O’Connor. The photo was hanging crookedly, as though no one had paid attention to it for years. The fact that it was hanging there at all was prophetic, I thought, since Sinéad’s famous tirade against the pope had been on television the night Ian and I first met.
I pointed at the photograph and said, “Remember when
Sinéad ripped up the photo of the pope? It’s a wonder they’ve kept her picture here. She’s always offending Catholics. She was in the news again recently.”
Ian didn’t reply.
Which could have meant a number of things.
Several noisy Englishmen were sitting at a table near us, they too having been stranded by the funeral. Two of them looked to be about my age, nearer sixty than fifty, and the others were younger. They all wore hiking boots, and I imag- ined that they were on a hill-walking expedition of some sort. A hill walk had been on my holiday wish list, but we’d soon figured out how easy it would be to get lost, especially here in the west, where the cliffs dropped to the sea and you never knew when the fog would descend. A few days earlier, we had tried to walk to a hillside that looked to be within easy reach, but in no time we’d found ourselves ankle-deep in a peat bog and had given up.
A waiter came to the table and asked us what we’d like. I ordered a Guinness, said to cure everything from gout to migraine headaches—at least by people my age. Ian ordered something else. I wasn’t paying attention.
“So tell me,” he said once the drinks had been placed on the table in front of us. The label on his read Oyster, which I thought was an odd name for a beer. “Were you still married when you met me?”
Well. There it was, the question, and it was my own fault that it was now being put to me.
I could have said no. It would have been easier, and maybe we would have been better off if I had. But it would not have been the truth, and although there was a part of my life I had never told Ian about, I was not in the habit of lying to him.
“I’m still married now,” I said. “Unless my husband has died, in which case I guess I’d be a widow. That’s highly prob- able. He was twenty-three years older than me.”
And then there I was, with my head between my knees
because the room had begun to spin. It was the word “hus- band” that did it—the fact I had spoken the word out loud. It was perhaps the first time I had ever referred to Joe Fletcher as my husband. When the room stilled, I lifted myself to upright, and I saw that Ian was looking at me with little sym- pathy for my vertiginous state.
He said, “You’re still married to the first one, or to the baby’s father?”
I picked up my glass of Guinness, drank from it, swal- lowed, and set it down on the table again.
Then I said, to finish what I’d started, “The baby’s father was just a boy and we were never married. The husband was a man old enough to be my father. The baby was born too early and died, which I’ve already told you. There, now you know everything. These are things I swore I would never tell anyone. I became a different person afterward. But I’ve told you now, haven’t I? And I hope I’m not that other person again. I don’t want to be.”
The waiter returned then and asked if we wanted any- thing to eat. I ordered a plate of chips, even though I wasn’t hungry. When he brought them to me a few minutes later, I pointed once again at the off-kilter photograph above the bar and said to him, “I think Sinéad went into a tailspin after that business with the pope.”
“Ah, Sinéad,” the waiter said. “Tempest in a teapot. Vin- egar? Red sauce?”
I shook my head. “Neither. Just salt.”
We sat in the pub for another hour, not talking, picking at the chips, and waiting for enough time to pass that we could return to the car. I was beginning to feel ill, wonder- ing what tempest I myself had unleashed, and whether it would fit into a teapot. I’d spoken of things that I could not explain because I had no explanation. They’d happened. I regretted that they had. I knew no more than that. My life had started over afterward, and then it had started over again when I met Ian. I began to fear that Joe Fletcher and
all that followed might once again be the cause of sorrow.
When we finally got back to the car, we found that the traffic had cleared out. The churchyard was deserted and there were no signs of the funeral save for the flowers that had fallen when the coffin was removed from the hearse. It was now possible to manoeuvre around the few remain- ing cars and tour buses, and we left, several hours behind schedule, concerned about the promise we’d made to a bed- and-breakfast owner named Mr. Burke, who’d asked us if we could manage an early arrival because his day was going to be complicated.
“Maybe we should have phoned from the pub,” I said. “He’s got no reason to give our room away,” Ian said. “It’s
“Still, just to be courteous.”
“We have a long drive ahead of us. Plenty of time for you to tell me quite a lot more than what you’ve told me so far.”
The highway, when we found it, was narrow and winding. Ian drove as though he was trying to make up time. I asked him to slow down, and when he did, I said, “You’re the one who gets annoyed when people expound on things they don’t know much about. Politics. The stock market. Genetically modified food. This is a bit the same. I can’t explain what happened a lifetime ago. I was barely out of high school.”
“What I’d really like to know,” he said, “is why you told me at all after twenty years.”
“I don’t know,” I said, “but I did.”
When we arrived at Mr. Burke’s West Country Inn, our host seemed to have forgotten all about his request that we come early. We still had a room for the night. All was well, at least in that regard.
By chance, the English climbers we’d seen in the pub— seven of them—were also staying that night at Mr. Burke’s. When the climbers acknowledged us in the parking lot, after
Ian and I had returned from a painfully quiet dinner in a village up the road, it seemed right to speak, and we shared stories about the traffic bottleneck. Before we all retired to our rooms, the climbers asked us if we’d like to accompany them on a hill walk the next day—a relatively easy walk, safe for beginners. I said yes and Ian said no at the same time. The man who appeared to be the group leader said, “Just meet us in the breakfast room at six o’clock if you decide to come. Bring a daypack. We’ll bring lunch. Wear layers and walking shoes. That’s it. Nothing complicated.”
Once we were alone in our room, Ian said, “I’m not going. You do what you like.”
I set the alarm and opened a bottle of wine and poured myself a glass, which I drank sitting by the window and lis- tening to the ocean below while Ian had a shower. Then we went to bed.
We were lying in the darkness when he said to me, “Stop it. Whatever you’re doing, stop it.”
It took me a minute to realize he was referring to my fin- gers, which were tapping madly on the cotton duvet, an old habit. I rolled onto my side and shoved both hands under my pillow, the way I used to when I was a child.
When I fell asleep, I dreamed I was a child, wearing a dental retainer. I was with my mother in the grocery store in my old hometown, and when her back was turned, I removed the retainer and hid it under a head of lettuce in the produce section, thinking that if it were lost, I would never have to wear it again. But the store clerk, who had been watching me, retrieved it and held it out to me as though she were holding a dead cat, and I woke up with a start.
It was not a dream. It was a memory, because it had really happened, and this was unsettling—to be dreaming about memories. I remembered my embarrassment that the clerk had seen me put the retainer under the lettuce, and my mother saying, “It serves you right, Frances. That was disgusting.”
When I went back to sleep I dreamed that Mr. Burke’s inn was falling over the cliff into the sea below, and on the way down I was shouting over the sound of the waves, “Are we good now? Ian? We’re good?”
The alarm buzzed.
I quickly turned it off and slipped out of bed and got myself ready for the hill walk. Before I left the room, I sat down on the edge of the bed beside Ian and wondered if I should wake him and ask if he’d changed his mind. I didn’t suppose he had, but I bent and kissed his bare arm anyway. He twitched as though he were flicking away a bug, and he opened his eyes. I could see their colour, green, in the morn- ing light.
“I’m going now,” I said. “On the hill walk. I don’t think they said what time we’d be back. Are you sure you don’t want to come?”
When he didn’t answer I assumed he meant no and I
stood to leave, but he reached out and grabbed my hand. “I’m going back to Dublin today,” he said.
“Dublin? Why?” I didn’t understand. I thought he was telling me that he was going for the day. We were scheduled to fly home from Dublin in four days’ time. Driving there for the day made no sense.
“I’m going to see if I can get an early ticket home. You can come if you want. If not, I’ll take the car and you can catch the train.”
I pulled my hand away.
“You’re going home?” I said. “That’s crazy.” “Are you coming with me or not?” he asked.
I tried to think. He wasn’t serious; he was just lashing out with a childish threat, although that was not like him.
“No,” I said. “Of course I’m not.”
He rolled away from me and dragged a pillow over his head.
I took a last look at him lying there, completely covered by the duvet and the pillow, and then I left and went hill
walking, quite certain he would still be at the inn when I
A hired driver with a van took us to the trailhead, and the climber in charge—Philip, a man about my own age—re- corded the route of our walk in a notebook and then tore the page out and handed it to the driver. “In case we don’t show up when you come to collect us,” he said, and I wondered how often that happened. I noted the ropes and carabiners that were being secured to belts and backpacks—equipment I hadn’t thought would be needed for hill walking. When Philip saw me looking, he said that the equipment was pre- cautionary, and that he was an experienced climbing instruc- tor and had taken countless beginners on treks a lot more challenging than this one. We were standing beside the van in a gravel lot and I looked down at his feet. His boots were solid, and at the same time they were worn. He had no doubt owned them for years.
“Your boots look like veterans,” I said. “That’s reassuring.” He laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll have a good day. “
I did. The hill walk was exhilarating, and one of those things that just happens unexpectedly and was, therefore, a gift. Although most of the men were younger than me—a few of them young enough to be my sons—I didn’t give the age difference more than a thought. Nor did I think about the fact that I was the only woman in the group. There were times when we climbed single file and there wasn’t much talking, all of us keeping our eyes on the footing. At other times, when we crossed a more level, open area, there was friendly chatter, and I discovered that what the Englishmen had in common, besides a love of hill walking, was Christi- anity. Normally, faith was a concept not remotely interest- ing to me—I required proof to believe in something—but these men charmed me with their easy ways, and I wondered whether I’d be joining a cult by the end of the day.
We stopped for a quick lunch—quick, Philip told me, so we would retain our body heat, even though it was a warm day and I didn’t feel as though I was losing any. As we ate our bologna sandwiches and orange slices, I noticed that two of the men appeared to be together, a couple, and then I began to wonder whether, in addition to being Christians, all the men were gay, and I believed they might be. I had never been with a group of exclusively gay men before. I found myself wondering what religion they belonged to that was so accept- ing of their sexuality, and why they had accepted me so will- ingly into their fold, if only for a day.
Not long after lunch, we reached the height of the hill walk—a peak with a spectacular view of the sea far below— and prepared for the trip back. I had assumed we would return the way we’d come, but no, we were to begin the descent by traversing the backside of the sea cliff, a steep face of loose black shale. I felt close to panic when I looked down and saw what was expected of me, disbelieving that we could possibly descend this way. But when Philip told me it was my turn to go, I went, running back and forth, fol- lowing the directions he shouted at me, not stopping once I was moving because to stop would be to slip and send myself and a cascade of loose rocks straight down to the bottom. I did what I was told, my heart pounding, two of the younger men already at the bottom and cheering me on, and I saw myself the way they saw me—a middle-aged woman doing something she’d never imagined herself doing—and I didn’t care, and my worry was forgotten. For a moment, I was fear- less, the way my mother and I had once been, or thought we were, until we found out—first one and then the other— that we were not.
The rest of the day was spent walking, often single file, on a narrow, winding trail. Fog settled and there wasn’t much to see other than the few sheep that appeared out of the mist from time to time with splashes of red or blue on their coats to iden- tify their owners. Somewhere along the trail I joined up with
Philip and we chatted, exchanging pleasantries about where we lived and what we did. He said he was a secondary school teacher, which didn’t surprise me. I told him I was a microbi- ologist in the water department of a mid-sized city in western Canada. He thought that was impressive, but I assured him it really wasn’t, since my job was now mostly administrative and I barely understood modern water treatment systems. I said I’d come to realize I was slouching my way to retirement. I told him also that my parents had emigrated from England, and he asked me if I’d ever been there, and I said no, there were no family ties. I wasn’t even sure where in England they’d come from. The north, I thought, although they’d worked in London during the war. Philip thought it was unusual that I expressed no interest in knowing more. I agreed. “But they’re both gone now,” I said. “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
My hamstrings turned to jelly from hours of walking downhill, and I was never so glad as when I saw the van wait- ing for us at the pickup point. The men congratulated me on my stamina—they actually applauded as I climbed into the van—and they confessed that there had been an easier way down, which they would have taken had they not believed I could handle the shale slope. I was flattered and, now that I was safely in the van, elated. I was ceremoniously given the slip of paper with our route on it as a souvenir, and I folded it and put it in my pocket. I almost fell asleep on the winding drive to Mr. Burke’s inn. I didn’t wonder whether Ian would be there when we got back. In fact, I’d completely forgotten about Dublin and an early flight home.
When we arrived, the driver dropped us in the parking lot and two of the younger men transferred their gear from the van to the trunks of their cars. I found myself walking with Philip across the lot to the inn, and it wasn’t until then that I noticed our rental car—mine and Ian’s—was not where it should have been. I stopped walking. Philip stopped beside me. I stood staring, as though a crack had opened in the park- ing lot and swallowed our car.
“What is it?” Philip asked. “I’ve made a mistake,” I said. “Sorry?”
I felt myself somewhere between tears and anger, but I
managed to hold both at bay.
“I think Ian is gone,” I said. “It’s my fault. I haven’t been honest with him. I’m not a good partner. In fact, I’m not even a very good person.”
Philip looked at me as though he was thinking, and then he said, “I don’t know you well enough. I’m sorry.”
Of course he was right. What had I expected him to say? Did I think he would be comforting because he was a Chris- tian, or a man who liked a good confidence because he was gay? We walked on then, as though I had not spoken, and I tried to cover my embarrassment by babbling about how tired I was, and who would have thought walking downhill would be as tiring as walking up? We parted in the foyer of the inn and I returned to our room, where I found that Ian had indeed left.
I could have thought, Why would he do that? But instead I sat by the open window wrapped in a blanket, shivering, thinking about how I deserved to be left behind. I was the same person I’d always been, the silly girl who ignored every bit of advice and every warning she’d been given by people who cared about her. I’d revealed my true history to Ian when it was too late for him to make his own choice about things as important as marriage and children. He’d been duped by a charlatan in a black dress on the night we’d met, when he was still a handsome twenty-six-year-old, recently jilted and far too good for my cold heart—or at least that’s the way I saw it at that moment.
I went to bed without eating, my body tired and aching. I didn’t know whether it was self-pity that kept me awake or euphoria from the hill-walking adventure. The two vied for my attention, and I managed to snatch only a few minutes of sleep here and there.
My encounter with the Englishmen was not quite over. At breakfast the next morning they greeted me as though I were an old friend and told me they were all going to church, an Irish Sunday mass. I hadn’t been to church since the last wedding I’d attended, but I agreed to go—not because I wanted to go to mass, but because I wanted to be with them. I noticed Philip looking at the spot in the parking lot where our car should have been, but he didn’t mention Ian. We walked to the church in a group and sat in a long pew and the locals stared at us, especially the children. Some of the climbers knelt and genuflected during the mass, and they all prayed and sang joyously. One of the younger men had a beautiful voice, and I wondered if he might even be a profes- sional singer.
We exchanged fellowship greetings at the end of the ser- vice with the large family in the pew in front of us. Afterward, we went back to the bed and breakfast and collected our bags, but still we didn’t go our separate ways, because when I told them I would be taking the train to Dublin to arrange an early flight home, they said they were going there too. They’d travelled in two rental cars, and they made room for me in one. They even drove me to the airport. No one asked about Ian or why I was travelling alone now, so I assumed Philip had told them what I’d said to him. My eyes filled with tears as we said our goodbyes. They hugged me one by one, and I didn’t hold back but fell into them, each one, like a person desperate for comfort. Philip told me I was special and I didn’t know what to say, but I felt, briefly, as though it might be true.
Afterward, when they were gone and I was inside the Dublin airport, I remembered that the business of believ- ing anyone could be special was what had made me, like my mother before me, suspicious of Christians, or at least the ones who insisted on telling you they were Christians. As though anything at all—goodness, intelligence, least of all faith—made you special. I was glad to have that straight
again, even though I appreciated the kindness of the men and believed it had been genuine.
Because the flight to Toronto was full, I had to wait to find out if there would be a seat for me, but eventually I heard my name on the intercom—Frances Moon, please report to the Air Canada counter—and I was told that, yes, I could change my ticket, and I was given a boarding pass. I wondered if Ian would be on the same flight, but I didn’t see him anywhere and assumed he had flown home the previous day.
As I got in the boarding lineup, I noticed an enormously obese man in front of me. I followed him onto the plane, and he made his way through business class and past the plus- size seats, which were all taken, to an ordinary aisle seat in row 23, where he sat after lifting the armrest between it and the next seat.
Row 23. I glanced at my own boarding pass, and sure enough, I also was seated in row 23, right next to the man. I slipped out of the line of passengers, ducking my head be- neath the overhead bins, and tried to decide what to do. I could see that there was only half a seat remaining next to him. I wasn’t a big person, but I would be in for an uncom- fortable flight home if that was the only seat available to me. Could I ask a flight attendant to find me another one? Could I do so without making a scene or humiliating the man? It seemed like some kind of ethical dilemma.
I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Ms. Moon?” a voice said. I turned around to a flight at- tendant, who asked to see my boarding pass. Then she quiet- ly told me they were upgrading me to business class because there were no other free seats in economy. She was speaking almost in a whisper. No mention was made of the reason for the move from my assigned seat. I followed her back through the line of people and their carry-on luggage, dodging the traffic by popping in and out of the rows until we arrived at the front of the plane, where I was directed to my own little pod. I wondered briefly whether I should have offered the
upgrade to the obese man, who was bound to be uncomfort- able even in two economy seats, but instead I accepted my own good fortune and settled in to take full advantage of it. I ordered a Scotch.
“Or make that a double,” I said. “Save you a trip.”
I could see the flight attendant wondering if she’d made a mistake in rescuing me, but she brought me my drinks.
Once we were in the air, I began to consider the rental property I owned in the small town of Elliot, left to me by my mother. It made sense for me to think of the house now, since it was the full repository of what remained of my family’s history. In other words, my former life was in its basement.
The house had been built by my uncle Vince, although he never lived in it. When he died, it went to my parents. My mother claimed it as her backup plan, and she had in fact lived in it for a time after she sold our dairy farm. She probably should have moved instead to a place that appealed to her, although at that point in her life, I don’t know where that place would have been. After she died in the care home in Yellowhead, I moved her possessions to the basement of the house and stored them there, alongside the furniture and old clothing and boxes of knick-knacks and dishes from the farm—all the remnants of my childhood. I found long- term renters for the house, a responsible retired couple who didn’t mind doing caretaking duty for the remains of the Moon household, and they lived there for fifteen years, nev- er missing a rent payment. They did all the necessary home repairs, except for a new roof, which I happily paid for. I’d not had to worry about a thing until one of them—I couldn’t remember which—developed a need for dialysis twice a week and they moved to Yellowhead. I would have sold the house then, but a real estate agent named Mavis had ap- peared on the scene with a young couple looking for a place to rent. Mavis had offered to manage the rental herself, and once again the arrangements became easy and had remained so for several years.
Now, under the weight of my confession to Ian, I saw the house and its possessions as an unresolved burden. They would have to go. There were no renters at the moment, although a pair of first-year teachers had arranged to move in later in the summer. Maybe Mavis could convince them to buy the house instead. I could direct her to take whatever she could get for it—practically give it away, just to be rid of it. I could tell her to hire someone to haul everything in the basement to the dump—every box, every bag of clothing— something I should have done years ago.
Immediately, I saw a problem. I knew Elliot well enough to know that anyone Mavis hired would be appalled at the idea of throwing good things in the dump, and I’d have some Tom, Dick, or Harry in the basement with his girlfriend or his moth- er or perhaps his whole family, salvaging my family’s things. And could I even trust Mavis, whom I had never actually met, to do as I asked? Maybe she herself would be rifling through my possessions. She’d already asked me if she could bring some of the furniture upstairs, since the young teachers had requested a furnished house—“We could do a vintage look,” she’d said; “there’s that cute fifties dinette”—and I had agreed.
Our flight attendant was on her way up the aisle again, this time with boxed meals. Instead of a meal, I asked for another double Scotch, because I was now considering a re- turn to Elliot to take care of the family archive myself. A man across the aisle was clearly assessing whether I was on my way to causing trouble. The attendant rummaged through her trolley and handed me two little bottles with a look that said they were the last. I tried to seem good-natured. I wondered whether the easiest solution to the house and its contents was to ask Mavis to start a fire in the kitchen and burn it down.
After the meals were cleared away, I tried to settle under a blanket. I slept fitfully, and then, what seemed like min- utes later, the attendants were serving coffee and handing us Canadian newspapers as though they had just arrived, hot off the press. I tucked a paper in my carry-on bag for later and
tried to dilute the Scotch in my system. When the plane was almost ready to land in Toronto I fell asleep in earnest, and then woke up again to an attendant trying to check my seat belt, and for a brief moment I thought she was my mother.
Once we’d landed, I collected my carry-on and stumbled from the plane. I swayed on my feet while I went through customs, fell asleep while I was waiting for my connecting flight west, almost missing it, and finally ended up on a small and noisy turboprop with an excruciating headache and a fear of what was waiting for me. The husband and baby finding their way to the surface of my consciousness meant something. Ian leaving me in Ireland meant something. The house in Elliot was plaguing me for a reason. They were all part of the same quagmire, and I had no idea how to keep myself from sinking.
The plane hummed like it might fall apart. I pulled the newspaper from my bag and read through the headlines. One on the second page caught my eye: “Saskatchewan Home- less Man Dies After Waiting Full Day in Hospital ER for Treatment.” I read the article. The incident had happened in my local hospital, in my home city. The man died of a cata- strophic head injury that could have been treated had he not been ignored—allegedly ignored, as they are always careful to say—because he was known by the staff and was unpredict- able, according to an unnamed hospital source. I wanted to weep because someone had died for being unpredictable. I folded the newspaper and stuck it in the seat-back pocket in front of me. By the time we began our descent it was mid- night and I watched the city lights rise toward me from the surrounding blackness.
We landed. I collected my bag and caught a cab.
The centrepiece of our living room was a poppy-red couch with lime-green piping. Ian and I had chosen it together. In months of searching, it was the only one we’d looked at
that we both loved. We’d sat on it side by side in the store, nodding our heads in agreement that this was the one. Now we sat at opposite ends, eating the fried-egg sandwiches I’d made and watching the news, my suitcase still by the door where I’d left it. The story of the homeless man was on ev- ery network. The family was threatening to sue. A hospital spokesperson was trying his best to prevent this by being apologetic without admitting liability, or really anything at all. He described the incident as unfortunate. The camera cut to a memorial that was growing in the hospital parking lot: flowers, cards, messages, prayer flags, stuffed animals. The homeless man’s sister spoke on behalf of the family. A reporter asked her if she was angry. She didn’t answer his question.
“He didn’t deserve to die,” she said.
After we’d eaten, Ian did the dishes, as usual. We both read for a while, or pretended to, and then went to bed. We slept in the same bed, an invisible line drawn up the middle, my confession in the room with us like a smothering fog. In the morning, Ian got ready for work even though he wasn’t scheduled to return until later in the week. As he went out the door, he told me he was flying to Vancouver the next day for meetings. He’d be home the day after.
All morning I sat on the couch and thought about El- liot, the place I’d grown up, a place that had not been my home for a long time. Then I thought about how little I really knew of the city I did call home, and where I’d lived most of my adult life. I knew the neighbourhood I lived in with Ian, which was not the kind of neighbourhood where people held block parties and community picnics. I had known the neigh- bourhood where I’d lived as a student, but I did not know it now. I knew the pathway I walked between home and work each day—unless it was too cold, in which case I took the bus, my small contribution to environmental responsibility. I knew the malls where I shopped and banked and went to a movie once in a while. But there were many areas of the city
that I didn’t know at all, neighbourhoods I had never visited, streets I had never been down.
I chose a part of the city that was unfamiliar to me, and I drove there and parked and walked along the street. It was as though I were in a different city. It was mid-afternoon and the street was busy with a stream of women with baby strollers and preschool children, many of them Aboriginal, many of them new immigrants from African countries or the Philippines. I saw one woman wearing a burka. Besides the mothers and children, there were a number of teenage boys wearing baggy jeans and walking, I thought, with that rolling gait of gang kids, although they didn’t look especially danger- ous and none of them paid any attention to me. In fact, I felt invisible.
I saw an old-style Safeway sign up ahead, and as I got closer I heard hip-hop music coming from an outdoor sound system, and I saw that there was a massive garage sale going on in the parking lot. I recalled a time when my mother and I had come to the city, and we’d been robbed and carjacked and forced to drive to a Safeway store. I wondered whether this was the store, but I had no idea. Even at the time we’d hadn’t known where we were and had been unable to tell the police anything of use. A few years later, when I was refusing to go to university for the good education my mother so badly wanted for me, she asked me if I was afraid to go. I knew what she was getting at. I lied and said no. I didn’t want to admit to being afraid of anything. “You were the one who was a complete coward,” I’d said. “Like a mouse in the corner.” It was mean and I knew it. As though my own mother was the cause of the damage done, instead of a blonde-haired woman in cowboy boots and her silent partner.
As I joined the festivities in the Safeway parking lot, I saw a vendor selling hot dogs from a cart for a dollar, so I stopped and bought one. I stood eating my hot dog, listening to the music, and watching people wander from stall to stall looking through the used clothing and furniture. Then I went
among the strangers loading their carts with diapers and gro- ceries and kitty litter, so I left. On my way out, I heard one woman call to another, “Sister, it’s good to see you. I heard you’ve been sick.” I wondered how you could not know that about your sister, and then I realized they weren’t really sis- ters, and I was envious of a neighbourhood where you could run into someone who might call you sister.
I got back in my car, but my one foray into an unknown part of the city didn’t seem to be enough. I drove south on the expressway and then west and parked in the new Walmart lot, then I walked all afternoon in a brand-new subdivision, one with monster houses with double or even triple garages and bare dirt waiting for landscaping. Sometimes I had to walk on the newly paved road because there was not yet a sidewalk. House after house I saw, with people obviously liv- ing in them but no signs of life on the streets. I came across one child, a boy who was simply inert in front of a house, sit- ting on his bicycle in a Spider-Man suit, going nowhere. I had no idea how to speak to children, but I gave it a try anyway.
“Hello there,” I said, but he looked away from me and at his house, as though checking to see if his mother—or a babysitter, perhaps—was watching. An orange cat wandered down the dirt driveway toward the boy.
“Is this your cat?” I asked. “He looks like his name should be Marmalade.”
No answer. His parents had wisely taught him not to speak to people he didn’t know.
The cat meowed at me and brushed up against my legs. The front door of the house opened and a woman poked her head out.
“So long, then, Spider-Man,” I said and walked on. The boy followed me for a ways on his bicycle, and I heard the woman calling for him to come back.
I made my way to the Walmart where I’d left my car, and
I went inside and bought a houseplant, which I placed in the
kitchen window when I got home. I listened to the phone messages and learned that Ian was not coming home for din- ner. I didn’t bother cooking anything. I didn’t feel hungry.
At dusk, I got in my car once more and drove up the block where I’d lived with a Greek family when I first came to university, and then several blocks over to the street where I had lived with a boy named Rudy. The house was gone, torn down and replaced. The owners had tried to make the new one fit into the neighbourhood, but it stood out with its faux brick facing and its ostentatious columns on either side of the front door. The house across the street, where an evolving stream of art students had lived, was still there, but it was rundown and I supposed that in no time, the whole block would be developed with infill houses. Student housing in these neighbourhoods was no longer needed. The university now had many residence buildings on campus.
As the city settled into darkness, I found myself on a street near the hospital where the homeless man had died. I pulled into the parking lot by the emergency entrance and there it was, the makeshift memorial, up against a fence. A bored-looking security guard stood nearby with his hands in his pockets. A few candles in glass containers had been placed in front of a framed picture of the dead man. Perhaps the security guard was there to prevent a fire. There seemed to be no other reason for his presence, since there were no mourners or spectators that I could see.
As I stopped my car to look, he came to my window and motioned for me to lower it.
“Have a look and move along,” he said. “This is still the emergency entrance.”
“It’s touching,” I said to him. “The memorial.”
“They’re tearing it down tomorrow. Have a look and move along.”
And so I did. I drove slowly by the fence and saw the dead man’s face flickering in the candlelight. He had a pleas- ant face, at least in that photo.
me through downtown and to an area known as the ware- house district, where the clubs were. I had never been in one, and I had no desire to go in now because I could hear the pounding techno dance music even as I passed by in the car.
I came upon a junkyard, well lit to prevent theft, although I wasn’t sure who would want to break into a junkyard. I could see the outline of rusty piles of scrap metal through the chain-link fence. Another pile of nothing but bathtubs. Two German shepherd dogs on patrol sniffed the periphery of the fence, bored by the lack of action. What was the real busi- ness of a junkyard with dogs? I wondered. A front for drugs, one of my colleagues at work would always say whenever a questionable licence application came to the attention of city hall. I did a U-turn so I was on the same side of the street as the dogs, and I pulled up to the curb and rolled down my window. The dogs stopped and looked at me, alert now, and went back to sniffing their way along the fenceline only when I put the car in gear and moved off down the street.
As I turned back toward the city centre, I checked the time. It was almost midnight. I’d had nothing to eat since the hot dog in the Safeway parking lot, and I was now hungry. I wondered if Ian would be home yet. I could see the lights of city hall up ahead, and I drove there and parked the car in front of the building, and I imagined a cocktail party tak- ing place beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows of the main floor, the gentle tinkle of champagne flutes, myself in a black dress, snow blowing into impossible drifts in the courtyard.
My office was on the tenth floor. I looked up and saw the lights on in the office below mine, as though someone was working late, which would not be unusual. I often worked late, one spreadsheet or another on the computer screen in front of me. I could leave the car right now if I chose, use my access fob to open the front door and enter the elevator, step onto the tenth floor, and turn the light on in my office and go to work. On the other hand, I could just quit. It seemed like
such a good idea, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it be- fore. I started the car and drove to a Tim Hortons and picked up a sandwich and a coffee, and then I went home.
The bedroom door was closed and I assumed Ian was be- hind it, asleep, so I lay down on the couch rather than disturb him. Half an hour later, I heard a key in the front door and he came in, drunk and stumbling, dishevelled in a way that I had never before seen him.
“Go to hell, Frances,” he said when he saw me on the couch, and then he went to the bedroom. But half an hour later, he came back and sat down on the couch by my feet and stared out into the dark room. He said, in a drunken voice, “Do you remember that I once asked you to marry me? No, that’s not right. I didn’t quite ask, because I was hedging my bets. I suggested we get married, and you did just what I thought you would—you blew it off like dust, as though it wasn’t worth discussing.”
Before I could speak, he got up, stumbled back to the bedroom, and closed the door.
I knew the time he was talking about. People he worked with had been getting married, having babies. People his age. He was right that I hadn’t taken his suggestion seriously. I was over forty. And I was already married, which he now knew, but he hadn’t then.
I heard sounds coming from the bedroom and realized that Ian was crying. I had never seen him cry. I was five years old the only other time I’d seen a man cry, when my mother briefly left my father and me, and I heard my father cry- ing in the night. I’d woken up alone in my parents’ bed and heard a strange, muffled noise coming from the living room, and when I figured out it was my father crying, I thought my mother must have died. In the morning I’d fished for information by saying, “I wonder what Mom is having for breakfast,” and my father had said, “I suppose she’s having Cheerios, as usual,” and then everything seemed to be okay again, even though my mother was still not home.
I heard another sob coming from Ian in the bedroom, and then it was quiet.
If he hadn’t told me to go to hell—if he hadn’t left me on the couch the way he had—I might have gone to him, but I did not believe he wanted me to.
I lay down again. All night, pictures of the city kept com- ing back to me—not familiar places where Ian and I had been together, but mysterious places and dark streets filled with strangers I would never know, or never remember if we did meet in a brief exchange. I felt as though my entire adult life here had been a series of brief exchanges. Even the people I worked with every day would remember me for only a short while if I left. “Remember Frances?” someone might say six months later. “She was difficult, aloof, not much interested in the rest of us.” I was surprised that had come to me so easily, that I would be remembered for being difficult, and so, I thought, it must be true. I could only hope that someone might jump in and say, in my defence, that I was smart, or right, or at least cared about public health and safe drinking water.
In the morning, early, I got up, wrote a letter of resigna- tion, and sealed it in an envelope along with my access fob. A short time later I heard the shower running, and then Ian came from the bedroom with his carry-on, wearing a crisp and fashionable suit. I asked him if he wanted a ride to the airport and he said no, he would drive himself and leave his car there. I found it hard to believe that he had been such a mess the night before.
He picked up my empty takeout coffee cup from the floor where I’d left it and threw it in the paper recycle bin. When he was on his way out the door, he turned and said, or rather asked, “You know that you are a person who resists happiness, right?”
“That’s not true,” I said.
“It is true. You don’t trust it.” Then he closed the door and left.
I didn’t want to think about what he’d said. I did not believe it. I retrieved my suitcase from the front hall, and emptied out the dirty clothes and packed clean ones. I took only what I thought I would need for a brief stay at a time of year that could be either hot or cold: jeans, shorts, T-shirts, walking shoes, sandals. A rain jacket. A book and my laptop. Toiletries. I put the dirty clothes in the laundry, collected my suitcase, and left the house. On my way out of town, I stopped at city hall and dropped off the envelope containing my letter of resignation.
I hit only green lights as I drove out of the city. Once the lights were behind me, I called Ian’s voicemail and left a message saying that I was on my way to Elliot to take care of some business regarding the rental house, and I would call again when I’d arrived. As I dropped the phone on the seat beside me, I realized that it should have been included in the package I’d left at city hall, and that it would be disabled when my account was cancelled, and then I’d be without one.
As I looked at the city skyline in the rear-view mirror, I began to wish that I hadn’t left Ian the message I had. There was an assumption built into it—that is, that he would be relieved to know where I had gone. Perhaps it wasn’t true. Perhaps I was a stranger to him now. I thought back to the moment when the marriage and the baby had slipped from their hiding places. I was like one of those women who com- mits a bank robbery and then goes into hiding as someone else, marries a doctor, becomes a soccer mom, and does vol- unteer work with the Girl Guides or the Humane Society, until it all comes tumbling apart when she is recognized from an old newspaper photograph by a neighbour in the suburbs.
Only I hadn’t been recognized by anyone. I had done this to myself.
When a number of semi-trailers passed me in the left- hand lane, I realized I was driving too slow. I stepped on the gas and turned my attention to the road ahead, to where I was going, or rather from where I had come.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Liberty Street by Dianne Warren is a recommended novel about a woman confronting her past. Frances Moon, a woman "nearer 60 than 50," is on a vacation in Ireland with her partner of 20 years, Ian, when she blurts out two secrets she has been keeping from him since they met: She had a child who died when she was 19 and she is still married to another man, if he is still living, although he wasn't the father of the baby. Understandably, Ian is upset and heads home to Canada. Frances follows him back to Canada. After a few tense days, Ian tells her that she is a person who resists happiness before he leaves on what may or may not be a business trip. Frances decides to quit her job and head to Elliot, the small town in northern Saskatchewan where she grew up. The story then shifts back in time to when Frances was a child in the 1960's growing up on a dairy farm with her parents. Liberty Street is extremely well written. Warren deftly establishes the time periods and settings with skill. You will feel what life in a small rural town in Saskatchewan was like for Frances and others. The characters are well developed, including secondary characters. However, Frances's past story unfolds with great restraint and none of the characters are highly emotional. While Frances is a well developed character, she is also an unlikable character who seems to go through life sabotaging herself, lacking any ambition beyond rebelling, denial, and escapism. After making mistakes, (which we all do, especially when young) she didn't seem to learn or grow as a person from them. Perhaps the disconnect I felt toward to her character is because Warren doesn't allow Frances to share her motivations for many of her acts. It's okay to have an unlikable character, but for most readers to connect with these broken people, we need a glimpse of some kernel of truth, some admission of her motives, her mistakes. Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher for review purposes.