A Long Line
by Gwen Tuinman
There isn’t much to tell about me. I come from a long line of simple people and a broken condom, so Doris says. I know very little about my father. She won’t discuss him, which really is worse than saying something bad about him. All I know for sure is that he set off to Ontario looking for work, and he never came back. It’s left a hole in me, but I’ve filled it with people and places that I can know about.
I grew up in a small fishing cove in a part of Newfoundland called Avalon. There was a time when my people fished to sustain themselves, but I’ve never seen it. That way of life predates me; it started to fizzle out when Doris was a kid. By the time I swung into the cove, my people were fishing for tourists. We cast our nets far and wide to haul in middle age Yanks and Ontarians with a shit load of cash. They trickled through the cove, windows rolled down on their rental cars and their mouths hanging open, taking in the view. Crystal waters. Weathered docks. Red boathouses. Dilapidated shanties. Picket fences holding back an unexpected abundance of flowers grown from seeds found in a catalogue.
The first accommodation they’d see after rounding the bend was the Double-D Bed and Breakfast. My mother thought that was a big joke with her name being Doris Davies. Guests soon learned that the name was a misnomer. More than once, guests shared no-so-secret looks of mirth after accepting room keys from my mother. Thin as a rail and flat as a board, she was.
We could have never bought the Double-D outright. The old place fell to Doris after her mother, my Nan, passed away. When it became evident that my father had abandoned her, Doris gave up their small apartment on Gower Street in St. John’s and skipped out on the back rent. She returned to her childhood home in the cove with me in tow. It took three years before my mother quit starting at every strange car passing slowly through the cove. I coaxed this bit from Nan. I guess Doris held onto the hope that my father would come for her. He never did.
Doris worked at the fish processing plant, across the cove, until my Nan died. I often wondered where all the fish came from. Boats in the cove were mostly used to prop men up inside clouds of curse words and cigarette smoke while they theorized about where the fish had gone. I loathed the way she smelled at the end of a shift, and so did she. With no one to watch me during the day after Nan passed, Doris quit the plant. She was glad to do it too. “Maybe now I’ll get that goddamn cod smell out of my nose,” she said. “I’d like to smell something other than fish guts for a day. Goddammit!” She weighed out our options and decided that with all those empty rooms and no one sleeping in them, hopping aboard the tourism bandwagon might be the way to go.
When Doris got an idea in her head, she was a gale force wind. I often heard her say, “The longest road out is the shortest road home.” She paid a neighbour to drive us to St. John’s in his rusted pick up truck. With her savings, we bought four new mattresses, box springs and bed frames. Dime store cups, saucers, plates and cutlery were wrapped in newspaper, like the catch of the day, to survive the return trip. Doris picked up two sets of linens for each bed and ten sets of white towels and facecloths. We stocked up on items for the larder: three dozen eggs, six loaves of bread and two pounds of butter. Heads turned as we drove through the cove. People had never seen such a thing, all those mattresses stacked sky high. Doris paid them no mind. She sat tall in the salt-eaten Chevy, looking like the cat that just ate the canary.
“Raquel,” her nasal voice sang a chain of run together words, “you know the story of the princess and the pea?”
“Yes Doris, I know it.” I grabbed the armrest of the truck as we lurched through a pothole.
Doris toppled into the driver with uproarious laughter. “Well you’re a Newfie princess, Raquel. Don’t you forget that, my love.” When I looked up at her face, the sun stole past her, and left me blinded. In our part of the country, every second sentence is punctuated with a term of endearment, so I don’t get sentimental over it. Even so, when I think of my mother, I try to recapture her in this moment.
That night, I sat on the stairs watching Doris work on the kitchen table. She sat there in her nightgown, hair twisted up in curlers and held in place by a black chiffon scarf. A baby food jar of paint and a frayed paint brush lay on the table next to a length of skid plank she’d brought in from under the front porch. Doris knocked the ashes from a Lucky Strike and took a sip of Nan’s port from our new glassware before peering up at me. “Off to bed Newfie Princess,” she ordered. I scampered off to my room, vowing to listen for the scraping of her chair across the floor. The only sound I heard was her feet, shuffling past my door in the small hours of the morning.
The next day, I awoke to the sound of hammering. There Doris stood on the front porch, her chenille robe flapping behind her like a flag in a southwesterly wind. The nails dropped from her pursed lips into a rusted coffee can on the porch railing. Hands on hips, she stepped back to admire her work. Double-D Bed and Breakfast. Proprietor: Doris Davies. It was a rustic sign but it said what needed saying.
“Well,” Doris began, “the neighbours may not be so thrilled with this but…”
“They can just kiss my arse!” I proclaimed with the gusto of a ten year old hoping to impress.
“Raquel,” my mother smiled honey all over me, “my love, you are a chip off the old block, you are.” This is another moment I hold onto.
Parts of my life I cannot recall or I choose not to; I’ve hidden selected scenes in the dark folds of my memory. There are some aspects of my life I just don’t know about. Doris wouldn’t tell. In my youth, I simply hadn’t the skills or finesse to drag the stories out of her. My timeline is like a shelf of books with some key editions missing.
I never liked math in school. Numbers didn’t fit into my head. They just fell off the tip of my number two pencil and lay there on the paper, begging to be organized, manipulated and resolved. But I could do none of these things. My fondest school day memories involved other people’s histories and my fifth grade teacher. Miss Rebecca Dolittle had a big impact on my life. She captivated my imagination like a character from one of the books she read aloud.
In a time when most tales focused on male heroes, she read about Joan of Arc and Amelia Earhart. Miss Rebecca Dolittle told us about a black man named Martin Luther King and the injustice he sought to change. She tugged at the strings of my imagination. Entire worlds existed somewhere beyond the cove. Beyond the porch of the Double-D, there were people who did not fold sheets and clean up after strangers.
Miss Rebecca Dolittle taught us that the best way to know where we were going, was to know where we’d been. Every word from her mouth landed like pearls on a cloud. I couldn’t get enough. King James, Lord Baltimore and Calbert. The plight of the ill-fated Beothuk. Buccaneers, privateers and pirates. Icy winters, starvation, and baskets teeming with cod.
“I want to be Lady Sarah Kirke when I grow up,” I told Doris. “Miss Rebecca Dolittle says an appreciation of history is a sure sign of a strongly cultured civilization.” I remember feeling quite pleased with myself for rattling off such a string of multi-syllabled words.
Doris stared at me flatly, without expression. Ashes dropped from the cigarette teetering in the corner of her mouth. She scratched at the white line of scalp between two curlers, then exhaled long and slow.
“Well, you tell miss high and mighty that a look in front is better than two behind,” came her sour reply. I remember wanting to ask what in the hell she was on about, but she’d been in some mood that morning, so I held back.
Doris flicked a look of annoyance my way. She grabbed the iron with one hand and with the other, she dropped her cigarette butt into an inch of cold coffee at the bottom of her favourite mug. The story she had told me many times was that the coffee mug had been my father’s. It was one of the few things he’d left behind – besides me of course. We worked as a team into the evenings, Doris and I did, on the linen ironing. For my part, I took pillowcases from the hamper and spread them flat on the pressing board. This night, Doris pushed the hot iron with lightning speed, narrowly missing my fingers in her haste. When I sucked in my breath and clutched my fingers, her eyes threw daggers at me. I knew another head of steam brewed behind that look of vexation; her jaw worked hard as she waited for me to fold the newly pressed case.
“Jesus H. Christ, Raquel!” Doris plunged her fist ahead of mine into the hamper. With two hands, she snapped the pillowcase and dropped it across the ironing board. I stood wide-eyed and open mouthed. Just as she was about to let loose on me, a guest stepped into the kitchen. He recognized immediately that he’d walked in on something.
“Yes my ducky?” Doris’ voice turned thick like molasses.
“Some tea for the missus, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all. It’ll only take a moment to boil the kettle.” My mother turned toward the stove, and the man took his opportunity to disappear back up the stairs. From the kitchen, we could hear his feet cross the upstairs landing. His door opened and closed. The latch clicked shut and my reprieve ended. Just as I’d feared, Doris’ temper was gathering momentum.
“You can just tell your fancy Miss Rebecca to stop riding the high horse and filling your head with ridiculous notions. Basics are what you need. She should be workin’ you at your numbers!” Doris slammed the tea tray on Poppy’s wooden tabletop. The sugar bowl jumped, and so did I.
“All this mumbo jumbo isn’t going to feed you, Raquel. It’s numbers that are going to keep the roof over your head and the wolf away from your door. I got big plans for this place. I’m counting on you to do the accounts when you’re older. You’ll need numbers for that.” Her finger jabbed through the air, mere inches from my face.
“Miss Rebecca be damned,” she sneered. “You need to learn about the things important to the cove, Raquel. You’re a cove girl through and through like me. Like Nan. That teacher woman is not one of us, Raquel. She’s one of them. Well, if she can’t teach what’s good for the cove, then her majesty should just march herself back to where ever it was she came from. You don’t need that nonsense.”
Doris glared through narrowed eyes, baiting me. I survived these moments by learning to swim in my mother’s waters. Silence became my best defense. If I said nothing, I could lose her in her murky depths. She would eventually be distracted, and her attentions would lock onto a new target. This time, it was the whistling kettle that drained the fight drained from Doris’ face.
“Fix that tea, will you? I’ll finish the ironing in the morning.” Dreary eyed, she drifted off to her room. “Oh, and Raquel,” she added as an after thought, “leave the tray on the floor outside the door. Knock, then just leave.”
I crossed the kitchen and turned off the burner beneath the kettle. By the time I’d steeped the tea, she was playing that song for the third time. Danny Boy. The little forty-five played over and over on her Silvertone, the portable record player that opened like a suitcase. It used to be in Nan’s room so she could play her Newfie music as she called it, good foot poundin’ fiddle tunes. Now with Nan gone, it had moved to Doris’ room.
I didn’t know what that song meant to Doris, but I would hear the melody floating on night air over and over again. It seeped out from the space under her door. When the tenor voice reached up high, promising to be there in sadness and in sorrow, it pierced me through and through, as I knew it must have done her too. It occurred to me then, that I come from a long line of people who intuitively know how to suffer.