Earlier this Sunday, the day of the week I try to set aside to spend with David, we had our usual leisurely breakfast. David read the newspapers from cover to cover, starting with the national Globe and Mail and working down to the community weekly. My husband prides himself on reading between the lines and picking up snippets of information that might come in handy for me as a Member of the Legislative Assembly. As usual, “Another murder,” David grumbled, “And the victim’s fault.”
“She murdered herself?” I inquired innocently.
“Might as well have,” he said, “Sixty-four and walking alone at midnight on Waller Street.”
“And that means?”
“She was asking for trouble. I’m over six foot and I don’t walk on Waller at night.”
“You don’t walk anywhere at night. You have a car.”
“Well, I wouldn’t even if I had no car.”
“Shouldn’t people be able to walk in their own neighborhood? Even at midnight?”
“In theory, yes.”
“Shouldn’t theory work in practice?”
“Don’t start being a politician. It’s your day off, remember?”
It had been a blistering week, meeting upon meeting, internal party squabbling which all came down to whether to focus on getting reelected – and then do the things we wanted to – or to try to get folks to see that our controversial policies would benefit them and they should reelect us.
Yesterday, a late night call from a disgruntled constituent, irate that a homeless man had disturbed her tranquility by dragging his cart of empty bottles down her lane, further lowered my spirits. Our government has been unable to do anything about housing. Lots of folks end up on the street – on bone-chilling nights – and many more live in bug-infested rooming houses, paying rents they cannot afford to absentee landlords, afraid to complain about clogged toilets or broken windows in case they get kicked out.
I turn to my days off for respite. And every week the question “What difference does it make?” looms larger and larger like the ugly billboards that line what otherwise would be a beautiful drive into town.
David continued, “She had no car so she was heading for the last bus.”
I shrugged and continued peeling apples. No fancy chef, I was content to put my hands to making applesauce. I would have enjoyed the task more had I been on my own but a peaceful kitchen was not on offer. David was on a roll and nothing short of an earthquake, and one greater than seven points on the Richter scale, could shut him up.
“Maybe you know her. She’s from Rickberg and your age–sixty-four.
Doubt it. Rickberg was a long time ago and besides the wench is dead. Oops, tasteless quote from Christopher Marlowe.
“It doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Was Howie … Helen Howie.”
I looked down to blood. I’d nicked my finger.
Helen Howie? It couldn’t be.
Helen had been the ghostly female presence in the otherwise male Howie clan. When I knew of them, the brothers were a gang of hulking boys that the grade-nine teacher had valiantly struggled to keep in school until they reached 16. They had lived on the other side of the tracks, literally, and as poor as required a Christmas basket. Sad day that. The town was Rickberg, a small outpost that later was melded into the National Capital Region.
To me, now, the town is not only another time but also another country. Although David and I only live two constituencies away, I steer clear of my old stomping ground.
But back then, Helen and I went to the same high school – there was only one in the area – a square, bleak catchment institute for students bused in from local farms. We weren’t on any teams together – I played badminton and baseball – but I can vaguely picture Helen standing in the gym’s changing room in her unfashionable gray cotton underwear, so we were probably in the same class. My mind on loftier things, I hadn’t realized that her clothes weren’t old fashioned, they were just old. She never looked clean—I realize now that the family might not have had hot water.
Helen was taller than I at a time when tall was something a young girl avoided and she stooped to meld in. At school events, she was a wraithlike presence hovering apologetically in the background.
“Look at her photo,” David insisted, flapping it at me. I held the towel to my bleeding finger and reluctantly leaned forward to see. It was her all right, older, but still sadly hopeful.
The blurry image blew open the memory of the bow incident: one of those occurrences involving people you hardly know that lodge in your brain like shrapnel. Such were the moments that prodded me into politics.
That decision – to save the world and the Helens in it – hasn’t turned out as I’d planned. Although we no longer take baskets to poor folk at Christmas, despite the late nights and long speeches the gap between rich and the poor ever widens.
But back to Helen. That day, she and I were hanging out in the high school corridor, a long Kafka-like hall. We were near our lockers waiting for a bell to move us on when I noticed the bow on my sleeve was undone.
Except for this particular blouse and my too tight prom dress, the memory of my teenage apparel has been bleached from my mind. The blouse was a gift from my modish great-aunt who worked at Macy’s in New York. It was pale mauve and featured short puffed sleeves with slits that closed with strings.
That day, noticing the sleeve bow had come undone and finding no friend in sight, I asked Helen to tie it for me. It must have been before the Christmas when we Girl Guides took hampers to five poor Rickberg families because after that I could never look Helen in the eye.
Helen was standing inches away and although she seemed pleased to be asked for assistance she stood motionless staring at the white cords. “Just a bow,” I had instructed, imagining she was worried I wanted something fancy.
Still she remained transfixed as if the strings were snakes. I thought how my friend Nina and I would laugh about Helen’s reaction on our walk home. “What harm could a string do?” I planned to say.
As if mesmerized, Helen and I studied the cords hanging white against my summer tan. After an uncomfortably long time, during which anyone could have come by and wondered what we were doing, Helen hesitantly lifted the two laces. It was then I noticed that her hands, which she usually tucked to her sides, were awkwardly large, the skin as calloused as my grandmother’s.
Grimacing, Helen cautiously lifted the ties as if they might rip and began to curl them into small circles.
“It’s tricky being on the sleeve,” I said. “I’d have to use one hand.”
Focusing on the trouble spot, Helen ground the white strings until they looked grey, and then dropped them, “I don’t know about bows,” she whispered. “I don’t know how to do bows.”
Neither of us seemed able to move our gaze from my arm where the limp strings lay.
“Who does,” I shrugged. The bell rang and we escaped to class.
Nearly fifty years later, caught unawares at the memory and my inability to rise to the occasion, with tears coursing down my face, I fled the kitchen. On the back porch, the chilly breeze pricked my wet cheeks as I struggled to block out David’s shouted warning that I had left the burner on.
Maybe I should go to her funeral, I thought. I owed her. I went inside and asked David for details.
“Nothing here about a service but it says she’s resting at Hopes Funeral Home.”
I knew where that was, an old part of town. “Hope” had always struck me as an odd name for a funeral parlor.
“I think I’ll drop by this afternoon if there’s a viewing.”
“Weren’t we going to buy a hall carpet?”
“And that’s more important?”
“No, but you haven’t seen this woman in years and attending a constituent’s funeral might set a precedent. You no longer have to show the colors.”
“I’d like to acknowledge Helen. I’m sure she’s had a hard life.”
“Everyone you try to save has had a hard life.”
“With Helen it’s personal.”
“You haven’t seen her since high school and it’s personal? Oh, never mind, I’ll watch the game.”
I headed off, uncertain what I would find at the funeral home. Helen came from a large family. I expected the place to be busy, but hoped I could sneak in without notice. To my surprise when I drove up, there was only one dilapidated car in the lot. I checked on-line, confirmed I had the right time and place, entered the building and followed the sign to Helen Trimples, Room 4.
The room held what looked like a cardboard casket, center stage, with a few worn chairs along the sidewalls. I assumed Helen had decided, as David and I had, to be cremated and didn’t want to waste money on a box that would be burned.
As I approached a sign-in table, a ragged man rose from a chair tucked in the corner. “Hello,” he said grabbing me with a gnarled hand that had seen better days.
Not off the street, I concluded, probably one of the many brothers. “Thanks for coming, Helen would have appreciated your visit.”
“Are you Helen’s brother?” I asked, attempting to free myself from his barbed wire clutch.
“Oh no. I’m younger than them,” he laughed heartily. “I was hoping one might get back but we couldn’t trace them.”
“They left town?”
“Years ago, looking for work I guess. Helen never tried to contact them. Said she didn’t want to play on their sympathies.”
He cupped his hand under my arm and moved me towards the open coffin. I would have been content just to sign the book and leave but I realized by his firm grip that that would not have satisfied my host.
“Are you a worker or friend?” he asked.
“I was a friend in high school, well a fellow student, Emily Tucker then.”
“She never mentioned you although she did talk about someone she knew in high school who was in Parliament.”
“That’s me,” I confessed. “Married name Emily Holmes. Are you a cousin?”
“No, a worker from The Cave – the women’s hostel. Ted Higgins’s the name. We try to send someone along for indigents. Sad when someone puts in 60 years to not have anyone there at the end.”
“Who’s looking after the funeral?”
“I doubt there’ll be one. Who’d come? The old couple who own this place put her up here for free. They don’t make two cents out of this sort of business.”
“You mean cases of violence?”
“No, homeless people who die on the street.”
With Ted standing respectfully behind me, I was compelled to look down. At the sight of Helen’s body, I jerked back. Although only a few years older than I am – Helen had been held back because she had trouble reading – she looked at least ten years my senior. I didn’t recognize the thin grey face but I had seen the red felt hat only the week before. It was a one-off with several gaudy brooches stuck haphazardly on the brim.
I carry coins with me wherever I go to offer to street people. A woman in a red hat had been one of those forlorn creatures. I had often passed her – rain, snow or shine – wandering up and down First Street or sitting at the corner in front of Starbucks. She carried a small toy dog with her, which I assume she thought added a cheerful note. When I dropped a coin in her plastic dish, she’d mutter, “Thanks.”
“So she did know an MP after all,” my guide cried, swinging me towards him “We thought she was pulling our leg.”
“She did,” I confessed. “Why didn’t she contact me?”
“She wouldn’t know how. “
“You should have helped her.”
“We asked her if she’d like to try to get in touch with whoever it was to help her, but she said her school friend had more important work.”
Driving home, I questioned how important my work was that would leave Helen living on the street.
When I walked in the door, David had that ‘‘want to talk” look but I needed time.
“I have a migraine’ I said, sorry that my problem wasn’t a headache. With the medication I take, a migraine passes. This, I suspect, won’t.