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“It is, I contend, no small achievement to survive the perfect family.” So Greg Malone says at the beginning of a graceful, generous and sometimes hilarious memoir of his childhood in the St. John’s of the 1950s and 60s.
A memoir from one of Canada’s comic geniuses that is as moving as it is funny, about a young boy who survives, among other things, a school run by the Christian Brothers, encounters with the bullies of New Gower Street and the perfect family.
We first meet Greg harnessed to a bush at a picnic wearing underpants on his head – a small boy squalling because he can’t take part in the goings-on. From here, Greg takes us on a wild ride through the streets of old St. John’s. We meet luminaries along the way, even Danny Williams, the future premier, sourly playing St. Bernadette in the all-boys’ play, with Greg hardly concealing his joy in performing as her “chatty sister.”
Humble, poignant, funny and authentic – this is a delightful first book from a natural storyteller.
I loved Barbara Lynn. Her sunny face was slightly freckled. She had blue eyes and her straight, caramel-blonde hair was pulled back and tied with a ribbon showing her high, smooth forehead. She had even, regular features and a smile that showed her perfect, white teeth. . . . We played house every day for endless summers and into the long winter nights, when she would take her big brother Basil’s long toboggan without asking, so the two of us could go sliding together down over the hill, under the pole light, across St. Clare Ave. and down into the Knights of Columbus field where the full moon glittered on the glazed snow, and the toboggan would fly along forever on the longest slide we’d ever had.
From the Hardcover edition.
; January 2010
384 pages; ISBN 9780307374110
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Title: You Better Watch Out
Author: Greg Malone
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The Sunset at the Beginning
I didn’t want to be tied to a bush, an easy prey for bugs and mosquitoes with only a pair of underpants on my head to protect me. It was hot, the leather straps of the harness were twisted, my tears were wet, my cries unheeded. What torment was this?
It was the Imperial Oil summer picnic. I wanted to go and play with Wayne. But Wayne wanted a break. He had been minding me, holding my harness, making sure I didn’t wander off, since we had arrived. Now he wanted to go with Gary Mooney around the picnic site and have fun. Mom let him go. I understood all this but I cried after him all the same and tried to follow.
The Imperial Oil picnic was a grand affair if only I could reach it. That summer they had booked a train to transport everyone, truck drivers, tank men, mechanics, dispatchers, secretaries, managers and families, along with tents, wooden cases of soda, insulated duffle bags full of hot dogs and ice cream, stoves, pots, kettles, dishes and flags, all to a rocky field on the Salmonier Line just past Holyrood.
In no time, poles were cut, tents pitched, refreshments prepared and games organized for prizes to be won. The field and tents were lined with red, white and blue triangular flags, which hung stupefied in the rare heat. From the centre of the field came the sound of metal clanging and a great cloud of dust rose up, followed by the roars and groans of the men playing horseshoes. Dad was in their midst, laughing, focused, pitching. Mom chatted with the other women and prepared our spot, then took me on a controlled tour of all the games and glories of the day.
That evening, as the little train, packed full again, crossed Holyrood Beach and turned northeast on its way back to Town, the swollen sun came to rest on the hills along Conception Bay. Suddenly everything, the Bay, the water, the hills, the train and everyone in it was drenched in a dazzling golden orange glow, and for a moment, the whole world and everything in it seemed to be made out of the same shining material.
The Bee Hive
Before we had our own television set, Mom would take Wayne and me down to Nanny and Pop’s house on Charlton Street to watch Disneyland on Saturday evenings. The shop on the ground floor was rented now to someone else. In the upstairs hall, under the archway leading into their sitting room, Nanny set up a card table and served us triangular sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cake, cookies and tea. She made us gingerbread men so perfect they looked like a picture in a book. Too good to eat, we thought, but she laughed at us and said she made them for us to eat. She would rouse Pop with pretend impatience.
“Get up and play something for the boys. You’re lying down too long. You won’t be able to sleep tonight. He’s deaf,” Nanny explained to us with a sudden girlish smile, “so I got to talk loud to him. The boys are here now,” she repeated in her clipped Bonavista Bay accent, dropping h’s and almost adding a syllable so that “here” became ’ere, but was pronounced ’ayere.
Pop steadied himself and focused on his small visitors.
“How are my girls today?” he inquired in his polite English accent.
“Don’t be so foolish, they’re not girls,” said Nanny with a frown. “Don’t mind him. That’s Ada’s boys, you know that,” her frown suddenly twisting again into a little smile.
“I know them,” he said, settling in to the old upright piano in the corner.
He enjoyed performing and still played every day, and after warming up his old hands with a few scales, he launched into a non- stop medley of show tunes, songs from the war, or Chopin and Mozart, rocking back and forth until he was tired or Disneyland came on.
Nanny, in her early sixties and almost twenty years younger than Pop, now held the whip hand, although lightly. Pop still continued his daily walks. If the weather was fair, he would walk the three miles out to Bowring Park and back. Sometimes Wayne and I would see him on his walks around town, but we did not go up to him. If he did recognize us, he would only call us “the girls” and laugh. But his calling us “the girls” had little to do with us, we felt. It was just another eccentricity of our remote English grandfather.
“You can stop now,” Nanny yelled over the music. “That’s good, you can go on upstairs and I’ll bring you up your tea. Their show is coming on.”
She closed the venetian blinds for the main event.
Since we had no television of our own, to be able to watch our favourite show in undisturbed comfort every Saturday evening was a great luxury and the high point of our week. If the show on Disneyland that week came from Adventureland, it meant a Western like Davy Crockett, or even a dog story, which was good. And if it was from Tomorrowland, it meant science fiction, which was also good. But if it was from Fantasyland, it meant Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck or another magical cartoon, and that was the best of all.
Pop had bought a television set as soon as they came out for sale. He bought every new gadget for Nanny. They were among the first to have an electric kettle, a Mixmaster, an electric can opener and steam iron. While we watched our show, Pop went upstairs and sat in his easy chair on the next landing looking out over the felt roofscape of the hill below, past New Gower Street to the harbour. Nanny would bring him up his tea and he would read.
Mom returned for us later in the evening and sometimes stayed to watch Cameo Theatre. Dad did not usually come with us. He had been there many times before, of course, and was a great favourite with Nanny, although this had not always been the case. His visits were, at first, very definitely unwelcome even by his own account and he had required a focused plan to gain entry and more effort than he had imagined when he first stopped by to look at the candy.
Sometimes on warm summer evenings, Dad and his buddies would climb Springdale Street to Charlton Street and the Bee Hive Store, where the owner, an Englishman named Arthur B. Walker, made superb homemade ice cream and sold the best bonbons and Turkish delight. They were hungry for it all, but these sugar plums were not the visions that had brought them there. They had come for the unexpectedly perfect sight of Vera Walker, the owner’s daughter, with her fine features, her thick, dark blonde hair clipped back and her exotic hazel eyes that seemed always ready to laugh. She was tall and moved with an easy, lively manner. They watched her scoop out vanilla, chocolate and strawberry ice cream as she danced around the little shop of confections and entertained them with anecdotes about her customers. Vera, the Goddess of Goodies, laughing at them and ladling out Turkish delights.
Of course, Vera was entirely aware of her beauty and charms. She dressed in the latest fashion, posed for pictures like a movie star and laughed at the results. They were bedazzled, smitten by this English witch. Oh, those cool Protestant girls from Prince of Wales College. They were exactly the forbidden fruit that a tortured Catholic boy from St. Bon’s longed for. Dad and the boys were secretly converted. The Bee Hive became their shrine. Observances were frequent and well attended, but not always successful. Vera was not in regular attendance on the main altar of the shrine. Usually there was just the girl minding the shop, hired help without any of the secret charms that had drawn them. So dazzling was the goddess Vera that it was many moons before these savages were even aware of the younger sister.
Ada was barely fifteen and her full head of rich, caramel-coloured curls fell on her shoulders framing a gentle, smooth face with full cheeks and classical features. Like her older sister, she too was quick to laugh, but her hazel eyes, though full of humour like Vera’s, looked out on the world with more caution, and there was even a trace of sadness in the corners of those perfect, dreamy eyes. There was a vulnerability to her look that provoked in males between the ages of fifteen and fifty an overwhelming desire to protect and a passion to possess such mysterious and fragile treasures.
But this spell had not been cast at the Bee Hive, because Dad had not yet seen Ada there. In fact, the first time he saw her was on Bell Island in the middle of Conception Bay. It was only a short drive from Town and a crossing from Portugal Cove to Bell Island, where the Wabana Mines would soon be pressed to even greater production to meet the demands of World War II for iron ore. But even in 1937 they brought much-needed employment and prosperity to the Bay. It was also a popular destination for sailboats and picnics and other recreational events. Dad, a star athlete in track and field and on the basketball court, was there to compete in a track meet. It was a big event with games, races, prizes, food and drink concessions, and lots of people, both competitors and spectators.
Bell Island itself was like a fortress. It appeared in the middle of Conception Bay, a high plateau rising out of the sea, a rocky mesa in a liquid blue desert ringed with steep, red cliffs that plunged straight down onto a rocky shoreline. At only two places were there openings in the rock wall with a beach and coves, which allowed for a landing, and an incline gradual enough for a road, a steep and dangerous one, but a road nevertheless, to the plateau above. There the harsh rocks of the coast gave way to rolling, silky meadows, grassy roads, small woods, a deep, dark pond and small sheep farms.
The town of Wabana on Bell Island was booming with new shops on Main Street. It even boasted a large new drugstore with a soda fountain, comics and movie magazines. The broad boardwalk, which ran down both sides of the dirt road, gave the place a Western air and added character as well as convenience to the mining metropolis. It was on this stage that Bill first beheld Ada as he crossed the street with some friends.
“She was dressed up like a movie star when I saw her,” said Dad, “in a fancy satin outfit with a jacket and bows and gloves and a fancy hat. And then she had the face and the figure to match it. You couldn’t miss her. It was like she just appeared in front of me. I still can hardly describe it today.”
Ada was five years younger than he was, but they spent the day together. Dad won all his events. He had to. He was not going to lose in front of this exotic creature that had suddenly appeared to him like a mermaid out of the middle of Conception Bay. Bill simply could not leave her. He would have accompanied her to hell, and certainly back to St. John’s, but Ada was not returning to Town that day. She was staying over on Bell Island, there to sink back into the apricot ocean whence she had come, after he had sailed away on the little ferry. Her father, Neptune, was there on business. They were very comfortably situated in a boarding house, where Mr. Walker always stayed when he came over to Wabana. The landlady, who had two small children of her own, was particularly attentive to Mr. Walker’s pretty daughter. It would be some time before Bill saw her again.
While Bill floated back to Town, Ada returned to Mrs. Buckley’s boarding house to have dinner with her father. At this point, the story is not complete and exactly what happened and what it meant is still surrounded by some mystery. The day was so long and sunny and Ada had been so engaged that it had been easy to forget the time, and when she got back the meal was over and the table had been cleared. Her own dinner was covered on the kitchen table.
There was no one in the dining room or the kitchen but there were voices in the pantry. She looked in through the partly opened door. Mrs. Buckley was facing away from her, working at the counter, and Ada’s father was behind her with his arms around her waist.
“I can’t put the jelly on it if you’re going to keep on doing that, Arthur,” she scolded.
Ada’s father mumbled something into Mrs. Buckley’s ear, which made Mrs. Buckley laugh and turn around into her father’s arms. Ada pulled back from the door before Mrs. Buckley could see her. She knew they were kissing now, although she could not see them. She knew because they grew very quiet except for the rustling of their clothes and then the shocking sound of lips. She remained motionless until jolted by the mention of her own name.
“Come on now, Ada will be back soon,” said Mrs. Buckley.
Ada carefully backed out into the hall without a sound and went out the door straight into the meadow where she lay in the tall grass and looked back at the deadly house. Did her mother know? Maybe that’s why she was sometimes so unhappy and why she and Pop sometimes fought. But her mother could not know what Ada knew. But what did she know? Who was this Mrs. Buckley? She was very familiar with Ada’s father and now Ada could see why. Pop had been coming to Bell Island for years now. And who were these little children of hers? Were these children Pop’s? Her half-brother and half-sister? Would Pop come here to live one day, leave her mother and her and Vera and her brothers on Charlton Street? What would she do? What could she do?
She felt more danger to herself than to her father from revealing what she now knew. He might be irritated and just continue on with Mrs. Buckley. If she told her mother, it would certainly make her mother unhappy, perhaps even angry with her for knowing what her mother only guessed. And there would be fights, and, who knows, her father might really leave them, not for one of his many trips, but for good. Perhaps her mother would leave too. No, she could not confront him or tell her mother. She could tell no one about this threat they were all living under, which might any day destroy their own family.
Mrs. Buckley was kinder than ever and at a loss to understand the sudden shift in Ada’s mood. She had certainly been in high enough spirits the day before. Perhaps she had overexerted herself. Did she feel well? No, not really. Nor did she have much of an appetite for food or going out. And her glamorous satin suit and hat with the shiny bows would not come out of the closet again this trip.
Ada’s mood did not improve. She was sick after all and continued to deteriorate until she was hospitalized with a complete nervous and physical breakdown. What the cause of such extreme stress was could only be guessed at. Nanny had no clue, and if Pop did, he was not forthcoming. Ada herself did not enlighten them. The breakdown was attributed to an excess of physical activity. Too much bicycling was the final conclusion, with a prescription for complete rest, but there was no other reason for it ever found, according to Dad.
Dad’s shock was complete when he discovered the address of his Mermaid was actually the Bee Hive Store, the Temple of All Earthly Pleasures. How could he not have noticed her on one of his many visitations? He no longer resented Ron McGrath, the brooding policeman from St. Mary’s Bay who had become Vera’s fiancé. Vera was smashing and dynamic and a lot of fun, but Vera could take care of Vera. She didn’t need Dad, but Ada, he had felt from the very first, did need him. Hearing that she was up at St. Clare’s Hospital only confirmed this instinct and occasioned the final transfer of all his feelings from the older sister to the younger. The Mermaid lay ill in a hospital bed, for God’s sake, of course she needed him, and so, with every ounce of energy, passion and dedication that raging hormones and a hungry heart can generate, it was Dad to the rescue, then and ever after.
He threw himself into Mom’s recovery as only a true-believing Boy Scout could, and her improvement was rapid under his continuous infusion of compliments, solicitations, gossip, jokes and outright ecstatic proclamations, and she was soon home again on Charlton Street. Deeper and deeper he fell into the seductions of the Bee Hive. Vera had been the honey. Now he had discovered the Queen. Getting into the shop was nothing, but access to the living quarters upstairs would not come so easily.
From the Hardcover edition.