Authors: Helen Forrester
Hush-a-bye, baby, your milk’s in the tin;
Mother has got you a nice sitter-in;
Hush-a-bye, baby, now don’t get a twinge
While Mother and Father are out on a binge.
The ladies of Tollemarche, Alberta, were always wonderfully clever at disposing of their menfolk; so that these gentlemen, if not already in their graves, were encouraged by their wives to depart northwards in search of business, or, to escape from constant nagging, to conferences in Ontario or hunting trips in British Columbia. And it was surprising how frequently they found it necessary to motor down to Edmonton or Calgary.
The ladies’ sighs of relief, as the sound of their partners’ cars disappeared with distance, indicated that the gentlemen would certainly not be missed, as long as the flood of money engendered by the discovery of oil in Alberta continued to flow so gratifyingly into their joint bank accounts.
Unhampered by demanding males, the ladies were free to control the city’s social life, which burgeoned forth as a result of the suddenly acquired wealth of the inhabitants. The big oil strike near Tollemarche had been responsible for an upheaval in the existing order; and the fight for social status, before a fixed pecking order could be re-established, was a ruthless one, waged in every drawing-room, church hall and charitable institution.
In this war amongst the teacups, the worst sufferers were the children.
The ladies were not quite so successful in disposing of their offspring as they were of their husbands, though they did their best. It was difficult to do without children, because they were a necessary status symbol and a subject for conversation. The ladies, therefore, had four or five babies as quickly after marriage as nature would permit, and thus provided themselves with an indefinite number of conversational gambits.
The trouble was that after they were born, children had to wait for six years before they could be sent to school and forgotten for most of the day. The ladies had several methods of dealing
with this problem, or “making them independent and self-reliant”, as they called it. The easiest and most commonly used method was to ignore them as far as possible.
It is startling how quickly children discover that they are not wanted. Once a child could walk and had, through dire necessity, learned how to shed a wet pair of training pants and put on his snow suit, he would vanish into the street, not to be seen again until lunch time; once he was tall enough to reach the refrigerator door handle, the problem of lunch was also solved – he could get it himself.
Another method was called “having activities”. This consisted of enrolling one’s child in a private playschool, which sent a car to pick him up in the morning and deposit him back on his own doorstep in the late afternoon. After this, he could be hastily driven to a music lesson, followed by a painting or a dancing lesson. This type of day was guaranteed to exhaust even the most energetic youngster, and he would thankfully walk home, to watch television, eat his supper and put himself to bed.
Some people had baby-sitters of varying degrees of unreliability, mostly young girls in their teens, who were themselves expecting illegitimate babies and needed a temporary home, or elderly women lacking much strength to deal with children. All of them seemed to have in common a cold dislike of children and a determination to do as little as possible for their inadequate wages.
In these circumstances, a determined mother could be free to groom herself, hold office in this or that community activity, or find a job, in order to fulfil herself; though none of them seemed to be able to explain why acting as a bank teller or the secretary of a charity, for example, was more fulfilling than looking after their own children.
The perfectly kept living-rooms of Tollemarche homes were for visitors; the basements, despite their fire hazards, were good enough for the children; there they often slept and there, if the temperature went much below zero, they also played.
Conscientious parents, and there were some, viewed the situation with dismay. Public pressure was against them, and they often fought a bitter battle to maintain the kind of home life in which they believed.
It was into this world that Captain Peter Dawson, a Canadian army officer, brought his young Welsh wife, Isobel. She was the
daughter of an old friend of his, who had married a Welsh lady and settled in Caernarvon. Both Isobel’s parents had been killed in a motor accident, and Peter Dawson had obtained leave from his unit in France to attend their funeral in Wales. There he had met a distraught Isobel and her broken-hearted schoolgirl sister, Dorothy. He had helped Isobel sort out her father’s tangled financial affairs and had fallen in love with her quiet, fragile beauty. He had pressed her to marry him, though he was considerably older than she was, and she had accepted him at a time of great emotional exhaustion. Leaving Dorothy in the care of a great-aunt to finish her education, Peter had, at the first opportunity, brought Isobel back to his native city of Tollemarche. Isobel soon realized that she had not made, from her point of view, the wisest of marriages, but Peter was very kind to her and she did her best to make him happy.
She had been married only four years when her husband was murdered while serving as a member of the Canadian peacekeeping mission in Cyprus. He had had only one more year to serve before he could have retired into civilian life, and both he and Isobel had been looking forward to this. Her grief at his death was deep and sincere.
She had, as yet, no child to console her, and she had cabled her sister Dorothy to come from Wales to spend the winter with her. Captain Dawson’s parents, themselves stricken, had no idea how to deal with their weeping daughter-in-law, and were thankful to leave her to Dorothy.
Sociable Dorothy, although only seventeen years old, managed to infuse some sort of order into Isobel’s shattered life, hoping that soon Isobel would decide what she would do in the future, so that she herself could go back home to Wales, which, from the vantage point of Tollemarche, seemed infinitely cosy and desirable.
One cool September Saturday, as the first snowflakes drifted quietly across the picture window, a white-faced, rather exhausted Isobel sat sewing in her living-room. On the following Monday she proposed to go back to the job she had taken to make it financially possible for Peter and her to buy their little home. She had told Dorothy that she felt that the steady routine of her secretarial work would, for the moment, be most helpful to her. She found it impossible to admit, even to herself, the relief which flooded her
whole being at the idea that she was no longer bound to live out her life in Tollemarche.
She put her needle and thread neatly away in her sewing box, brushed stray cotton threads from her skirt and went to the window to draw the curtains, before preparing supper.
Across the road, two little girls who frequently came in to visit Isobel, eat toffees and gossip, were teetering uncertainly on the edge of the sidewalk. They had apparently exhausted all the games that a four-year-old and a five-year-old could invent, and they were shivering in the wind as they considered exploring the world on the other side of the road.
“Sheila and Penny’s parents must still be out,” Isobel remarked. “I can’t see Mrs. Brent’s car yet – I suppose she is still at the Lady Queen Bees’ tea, and Mr. Brent must be still at his curling club.”
Dorothy stopped laying the table for supper and stared at her sister, her blue eyes wide with disbelief. “You mean those kids have been by themselves all the afternoon – just for the sake of a tea – or curling?”
“Certainly. Probably they couldn’t get a baby-sitter. Anyway, Sheila always has a latchkey tied round her neck, so they can get into the house.”
“There ought to be a law against it,” replied Dorothy emphatically, as she banged knives and forks down on to the table.
“There is – but it doesn’t seem to be enforced.” She sighed, remembering many an argument on child care which she had lost, being invariably defeated by the rejoinder that she had no children and, therefore, knew nothing about them. Her tone changed, and she said decisively: “I’m going to come home with you, as soon as Pete’s affairs are cleared up. Tollemarche was livable with Pete, but without him it will be intolerable. These empty women make me sick and their neglected kids break my heart.”
Dorothy tossed her head to clear her long black hair from her eyes, and grinned elfishly at Isobel. “We could live together and paint London pale pink,” she said hopefully. “Or Wales!”
Isobel smiled at the tall, rangy girl. “Pink it shall be,” she said.
Dorothy went on with her work for a minute and then asked: “Isobel, what happens to these kids, supposing they don’t drop themselves over the railway bridge in sheer despair?”
“Well, some of them are chronically in and out of the courts – they become pretty unscrupulous. Some, as you know, seek revenge
– they riot, they take drugs and generally make damned nuisances of themselves. Some nothing can spoil, and they grow up into the nicest young people you can imagine.”
“Like Hank Stych, who rents your garage?” asked Dorothy, a hint of mischief in her eyes. She had already met this young man, when he had last come to pay his rent, and had found him startlingly different from the Welsh boys of her acquaintance – a big, silent boy with disillusioned, almond-shaped eyes sunk above high cheek-bones, a boy who had stared unblinkingly at her until she had begun to blush with embarrassment, so that she had felt stripped, not only physicaly but mentally as well. Finally, he had held out a bunch of one-dollar bills to her, said “Rent,” and without another word had vaulted over the veranda balustrade and loped down the path to the garage. Very odd, she had decided, and yet nice. “Does he wear a latchkey round his neck?” she inquired.
“Hank?” Isobel looked thoughtful. “Yes, Hank’s all right – brought himself up like Sheila and Penny are doing.” She laughed. “He’s probably been promoted to a key ring by this time.”
“I like him,” said Dorothy, determined to show she could like the unusual.
Isobel’s eyes were still merry. “Better watch your step with him. Nobody ever told him where to draw the line, and he’s not as innocent as he looks – he’s got quite a reputation for wildness.”
Dorothy opened the oven to see how the dinner was coming along, and her voice was muffled as she tried to avoid the steam from the casserole she was peeking at. “You were saying that he has written a wonderful book – and that it’s going to be published?”
“Yes,” Isobel sounded anxious, “and I am really worried about it. You know, Pete and I encouraged him like anything in his writing. What we didn’t know for a long time was that this book is his revenge on his parents.
“Doll, you know that this province is known as the Bible Belt?”
Dorothy nodded as she closed the oven door.
“Well, by Bible Belt standards it’s the filthiest book imaginable, What this town is going to say when it reaches here isn’t hard to imagine. Olga and Boyd Stych are going to be blamed, because everyone will think they were agreeable to its publication. It will ruin Olga socially.”
Mrs. Stych and her arch-rival Mrs. Frizzell had both called to
express their condolences to Tollemarche’s most interesting widow. Dorothy had dealt with both of them, aided by Isobel’s giddy young sister-in-law, who had explained the social nuances of it all by saying: “That pair of grasping alley cats would tear the eyes out of anyone who managed to make the social pages of the
on a day when they should have been featured. They just want to be seen calling at the house.”
“I don’t think Hank realizes how devastating it may be to his mother when his book comes out,” Isobel went on.
“Do her good,” said Dorothy laconically.
“Well, I feel guilty,” Isobel responded.
“Maybe people will be more careful of their children after they’ve read it,” suggested Dorothy hopefully, and then added: “She’s nothing but a social climber, anyway.”
“She’s a coming lady in Tollemarche.”
“That ghastly, fat Humpty Dumpty of a woman?” exclaimed Dorothy scornfully.
Isobel nodded, her lips compressed, and then said: “Yes, that ghastly, fat Humpty Dumpty is heading for a great fall, poor thing. And it is partly my fault.”