Australian politics, society & culture

The Prince of Darkness is a Gentleman

Janette Turner Hospital

Medium length read4000 words
 

On one night, the worst one, and the last one before Katie ran away, there were eighteen of those calls. They were not all the same. If our mother answered, there would be heavy breathing and silence. “Why are you doing this?” our mother would ask in a soft puzzled voice, as though she really expected an answer, as though it might explain the past months. “I don’t understand,” she would say. “Why are you doing this?”

Then Katie would come hurtling down from her bedroom – I would flinch at the drumming on the stairs – and she would kill the call with one finger.

“Why are you doing this?” she would ask our mother coldly. She would pull the phone jack from the wall. “Why do you keep plugging us back in?”

“The lawyer has to be able to reach me, Katie.”

“You can call him,” Katie said. “Or he can send you the stuff by Fedex.”

Our number was unlisted. We had changed it three times. We had an answering machine. Yet still our mother, with a hungry look on her face – the look of children in CARE posters – would pick up on the first ring.

“She’s waiting for the lawyer to tell her it was all a mistake,” Katie said, furious, as we hung out between the dumpsters at the back of the shopping mall. We’d pretty much given up on school by then. We’d taken up chain-smoking although neither of us was very good at it. Katie had invented a game. We would bite the burning tips off our cigarettes and see who could spit them the farthest, and then we would watch the sparks glow and die on the parking lot. “She acts like it’s going to be God every time,” Katie said. “She’s waiting for Him to give her an explanation. Or a miracle. She thinks He owes us.”

He does, I thought. But I knew whose call our mother was waiting for. That was the worst part. She missed our father. “You don’t understand,” she kept telling us. “You don’t understand how much we mean to him. You don’t understand what he went through.”

 

“What he went through.” Katie would roll her eyes. She would thump on the dumpster with her fist until her hand bled. “She’s in denial, you know. If she hadn’t been so deep in denial all these years, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Nobody knew,” I reminded her. “Nobody could ever have guessed.”

“I knew,” Katie said.

“No, you didn’t. You didn’t even guess about Duncan.”

“I didn’t realise I knew,” Katie said. “Not until afterwards. Then I realised I did know.”

Not until after Duncan’s suicide is what she meant.

Not until our father was arrested.

I said, in defence of our mother, “It’s hard not to answer when it rings.”

“That’s why we have to stay disconnected.” Katie relit the stub of her cigarette and inhaled. “For the rest of our lives, probably. The thing is, Marina, there’s nowhere to go from here. We’re fucked.”

Like Duncan, I thought. And the others. We didn’t know how many others. Not then. We didn’t know then about our father’s own childhood years. What he went through ¼ We didn’t know what our mother meant, not then. We learned the terrible details later, from newspapers and from television. It’s not enough, Katie said when we knew. Explains but does not excuse, the newspapers wrote. I don’t forgive him, Katie shouted at me. It’s not enough. But back then, when we smoked with our backs against the dumpsters, all I could think of was touch football. I remembered the games on our back lawn: Duncan, Katie, me, our father, all the kids in Dad’s theatre club. I remembered Duncan and Katie and our father in a tackle, everyone rolling around, tickling and laughing.

“I don’t believe you knew,” I said to Katie.

She turned her cigarette around and bit off the smoldering end. I waited for her to spit, but she chewed. She kept on chewing and then she swallowed. I stared at her. I could feel a knuckle of fire burning its way down my gullet. I could feel scorch lines on the inside of my gut.

“Katie,” I said, frightened. I put my hand on her arm.

“What?” she said. “What are you staring at?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m going to cut the wires outside,” she decided, and I thought yes with a surge of relief, because even when our mother was sedated, the answering machine was like a sniper in the house. It would cut in on the fourth ring and then there would be an interminable nothing until the two minutes for an incoming call had ticked by. I used to think two minutes was a very short time. It is not. The callers did not hang up and they did not leave a message. They waited. They listened to the way we stood there, hypnotised. We could feel them watching us. And so, when our mother was too deep in sleep to react, when we had watched the message eye blinking for the length of one call, and then for the duration of the second call and then for the duration of the third, when the house seemed wired with eyes and smoky with malevolent silence, either Katie or I would pick up the next time a call came in, though we never picked up on the first ring. We tried not to pick up on the second. Katie used to say in a hard voice: “The police are tracing this call,” until someone laughed and told her: “My father’s a cop. How d’you think I got your number, slut-house? The cops keep a list of pervs.”

The callers were not always male. Sometimes they were young and sometimes their voices quavered with age and many of them said things so foul I was afraid I would never forget them. But on that last night, the night that Katie ran away, I lifted the receiver on the second ring and a woman spoke in a low rushing voice and her words had such clear edges that I knew she was one of our teachers. “So the prince of darkness is a gentleman,” she said. “We should have known, but we didn’t want to.”

I had no idea what to say.

“We were willfully blind,” she said. “Which doesn’t absolve us. Obliviousness is not a defence. You need to understand that, Katherine Goldsworthy.”

“This is Marina,” I said.

“We sold our souls for a mess of gold medals,” she said. “None of us is innocent. You’re not innocent either, Katherine. He used you as the lure.”

“I’m not Katie,” I said. “I’m Marina.”

“Oh my son, my son,” she moaned.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

There was silence. I should have hung up.

“He wanted to drop out, but he didn’t want to stop seeing you,” she said. “Do you understand? It’s hard to forgive that.” I don’t know why I didn’t hang up. “It’s even harder to forgive myself,” she said, “for not letting him quit.” I thought she was crying. “Look, I know things must be difficult,” she said. Her voice sounded swollen and damp. “I just wanted to let you know that I realise it must be difficult and I’m sorry. I’m sorry, Katherine, that there’s nothing I can do.”

“I’m not Katie, I’m ­– “

“No, I take that back. I’m lying. There’s nothing that I’m willing to do. And I’m sorry.” I heard the click, but I went on standing there with the receiver against my ear until I heard Katie on the stairs.

When I told her, she said immediately: “Duncan’s mother.”

That was what I thought too, but I asked her: “How do you know?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s go outside for a smoke.”

“Now? But it’s nearly midnight.”

“Now.”

So we sat at the bottom of our drive with our backs against the garbage cans. There was no moon. There were cats – not ours – who prowled and watched us with their burning witches’ eyes. Katie’s voice hung between the red tips of our cigarettes. “That was from King Lear, what she said. The prince of darkness is a gentleman.”

“What’s absolve?” I asked, but she wasn’t listening to me.

“Duncan tried to get out of the play. Do you understand?”

I didn’t say anything, because I knew our father had dropped Duncan from Lear. I thought this was what had broken Duncan’s heart. High school or community theatre, it was all the same. “There are people who would kill,” our mother joked, “to be cast in your father’s plays.” The CBC made a documentary which at least half of Canada had watched: Derek Goldsworthy, director of genius. A small-town miracle, critics wrote, who is Stratford-bound. And the year before there had been a photograph, front page of Weekend Arts, in the Globe & Mail: Winston High wins national prize. Derek Goldsworthy, theatre director, with students Duncan Taylor (Hamlet) and Katherine Goldsworthy (Ophelia) who also happens to call the director Dad. Katie looked so beautiful in the photograph, with flowers trailing through her long golden hair.

There were awards and citations and parties and more awards. “He is a genius,” our mother told people in the supermarket, “but he is also a loving husband and a wonderful dad.” All the most distinguished families invited him and he held court in their dining rooms. He was the shining centre of an energy field. When he left the room briefly – and he always did, the newspapers noted afterwards; he always absented himself from dinner parties for twenty or thirty minutes at a stretch – it was as though the lights dimmed. “I’ll just pop upstairs and see how Duncan is doing with his homework,” he might say at the Taylors.

And people would smile: “He’s so good with teenage boys,” they would say.

Later, stunned, they admitted this to the newspapers. We had no idea, they said. Above our heads in our own houses, they said.

For a while, there was a photograph of Duncan and our father and Katie – our Ophelia, our Beatrice, our lovely Cordelia – on the refrigerator door. Our father was in the middle. He had one arm around Duncan, the other around my beautiful sister. I have never known if Katie stole that photograph for herself, or if our father removed it after he banished Duncan from King Lear or if our mother hid it. Duncan got moody and silent after his dismissal from the play. He wouldn’t come to our house and he wouldn’t return Katie’s calls.

“He didn’t want to go on the retreat,” Katie told me as we leaned against the garbage cans and watched the cats watching us. “He told me he wouldn’t go, but I talked him into it. I didn’t know that’s what the retreat was all about. But Duncan did. Duncan knew. Do you understand?”

I didn’t, though I already understood far more than I wanted to. Katie and I had been hiding the papers from our mother but we read them ourselves. For a while we read them, and then we stopped. We tried to stop. We didn’t want to know any more. We didn’t want other people to know things that we didn’t know. The Winston Standard, the Globe & Mail, each morning we scanned them, we torched them with our cigarettes, we tossed them into the dumpsters, we let them burn.

I remember all this as though I once watched it on a version of the late show that was beamed in from a dying star. I was only twelve at the time. Katie was sixteen and in high school and Duncan was her boyfriend and she had Duncan’s mother for English and she and Duncan had both gone on the school trip to see Lear at Stratford a few weeks before Duncan died, and then they went with our father and the rest of the cast to a camp at Lake Simcoe for rehearsals.

After the retreat at Lake Simcoe, Duncan was dropped from the play.

Later that night, the night Duncan’s mother called, Katie ran away. I remember the chill concrete drive against my butt and the garbage cans and the cats’ eyes that blinked on and blinked off and blinked on. I remember that I could no longer keep my own eyes open. “You go to bed,” Katie said. I remember that. “I’ll talk to the cats for a while and then I’ll cut the phone lines.”

Next morning, our mother was frantic. I can’t remember how I felt. There’s a blank space from that night that has stretched across many years. Katie did not even leave me a note. All that day, I sat beside the dumpsters, smoking and biting the end off my cigarette and spitting. It was, I remember, a Wednesday. On Friday, Katie left a message on the answering machine. “Marina, it’s me. I’m in Toronto and I’m OK. Pick up on the next call.” But the next call was one of those other calls, and so was the one after that. Katie had not cut the wires before she left, so I did, and then our mother did what she did and I was sent to Toronto too, to a boarding school.

That was years ago. That was so long ago and took place in a galaxy so far away that the light from that year – I think of it as the tornado year – has not reached me yet.

The first time I heard Katie’s voice again, I was in college. She said: “Is that Marina?” and I knew instantly who it was but I couldn’t speak. I was afraid she’d hang up before my voice could cross the vast space from my planet to hers. “Hey,” she said, jokey, “if that’s you, Marina, you should know that I’m very allergic to silence on a telephone line.”

“Katie,” I whispered.

“Are you crying?” she asked. “There is nothing worth crying over, Marina darling. Nothing.”

“Seven years,” I said. “I didn’t know if you were even ¼ Where are you, Katie?”

“I’m in Vancouver.”

“Vancouver.”

“I’ve been here for years. Toronto got too small.”

“It’s a lot bigger than Vancouver,” I said.

“And a lot closer to Winston. Way way way too close to Winston. I don’t know how you can bear to stay so close.”

But I don’t, I thought. I live light-years away from all that. “Katie, can I see you?” I couldn’t tell if I was laughing or crying.

“Marina,” she said. “Look ¼”

Something fluttered hard inside my chest. I could hardly breathe. “I’ve got a part-time job,” I said, very fast. “I’ve got some money, Katie, I could get a cheap flight, I’ve got to see you.”

“I’m in a pay-phone calling on a pre-paid card and we’ve got six minutes. Do you know why I’m calling, Marina? You must know.”

“Don’t you miss me?”

“I miss you every minute of every day.”

“Katie, please. Please can I see you?”

“We’ve got five minutes left.”

“Give me your number. Give me your address.”

“I don’t have an address, Marina.”

“What do you mean? How did you get my number?”

“You know he’s getting out of jail next week. It’s probably front page there. It’s page two here.”

I crawled under the bed, the coiled cord following me like a fuse. “How did you find me?”

“I called the main office at U of T. They said they couldn’t give out and yours was unlisted, etcetera. So I said I was your sister. I said it was a family emergency, which it is.”

I could feel my dorm room tilting, getting steeper and steeper. I was sliding back to that terrible night. “No!” I cried, hanging on to the under-rails of the box spring, and then we were floating: me, the bed, the whole room. I could see Toronto below me and the Milky Way off to the right and the bright haze of Vancouver on the western rim of the land.

I thought of something to say. “How did you know about U of T?”

She laughed. “You make the papers from time to time, Marina. We all do, though in Mom’s case, it’s Accidental overdose or deliberate? and in my own there’s always that other question: Alive or dead? Don’t you read newspapers?”

“Yes,” I said. “But not when I see anything about – ”

“I can’t believe you haven’t even changed your name.”

“You’ve changed yours?”

“Multiple times.”

“Oh,” I said. “So ¼ who are you? Now, I mean.”

“That’s a good question,” she laughed. “I’m working my way through the alphabet.”

“What do you do about ID?”

“I don’t have ID. There’s nothing legal about my life, Marina. I don’t leave traces. But you ¼ You’re a lightning rod. Any reporter so inclined can track you down.”

“I never talk to them. I’ve got an unlisted number.”

“Oh, right,” Katie said. “We know how well that works. Do you know what’s going to happen, Marina? He’s going to get out of jail, and then he’s going to call you, and then he’s going to knock on your door. And then what will you do?”

“He’s our father,” I said. “Don’t you miss him sometimes, Katie?”

“You have ten seconds left,” an operator said. “Please insert a new card.”

“I miss him,” I said to the dead line. “I miss Mom. I miss you, Katie, most of all.”

I lay under the bed in my dorm room, flat on my back, and stared up at the box spring. Its underside of cheap cotton ticking was blooming with stains. They were mostly the color of weak tea and they swirled fantastically, but there were blotches of something dark here and there. I knew that these were secret messages for me. I could see Ophelia, drifting between marsh grasses in Lake Simcoe. I saw Duncan, tornado-battered, floundering about on the heath. They are not supposed to come this far north, his mother said to our mother. Tornadoes are not supposed to strike here. And our mother said: Derek’s a tornado-survivor too. You don’t know what he went through.

At the lower end of the box spring, just where the mattress sagged, I saw the Last Supper. There was my mother setting the roast on the table, my father taking up the carving knife. Katie and I sat on opposite sides, but we had company too. I was amazed at the faces in the stains, unmistakable: the Drehers were there, and the Rivers, though not their sons.

My father seemed radioactive that night. He was incandescent. He laughed and told stories and charmed us right up until the doorbell rang. But what I remember most intensely is not that moment when my mother went to the door and let the tornado in, nor the moment when she came back, bewildered, and told us: “It’s the police. They say they need to speak to you, Derek.”

It was something else, something that happened ten minutes earlier, that the stain-paintings made visible on the underside of my bed. I could trace the image with my fingertip. There was my father telling a madcap story: about Lear in repertory, about traipsing through backwoods Ontario towns in deep mid-winter, about costumes and sets that were lost or mislaid and retrieved. He took on each accent, each voice, he switched roles, he jumped up to shovel snow from the makeshift stage.

“And then Lear came down with the ’flu,” he said, “and the Fool was too drunk to play, and Cordelia was so fed up that she quit on the spot and drove off and left us. Two hours later she came back behind a tow-truck – they’d had to pull her out of a drift – but by then I’d put on the Fool’s cap and bells and was doing a one-man show. The town hall was packed. I ran out of stories and jokes at the same time my voice gave out, but then they gave me an encore, and I managed to pull one more anecdote out of the Fool’s pointed hat.”

“You are a man for all seasons, Derek,” Mr Dreher said.

“He is the perfect gentleman,” our mother insisted, full of happiness, smiling down the table at my dad. And our father stood and went to her and kissed her on the forehead and brushed a wisp of hair from her eyes. “I am a man,” he said, “who’s had more luck than any man deserves.”

Janette Turner Hospital

Janette Turner Hospital is a Visiting Writer-in-Residence at Columbia University. Her books include Orpheus Lost, Oyster and Forecast: Turbulence, which was published in November 2011.
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