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Authors: William Bell

Alma

BOOK: Alma
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WILLIAM BELL

Crabbe
Absolutely Invincible
Five Days of the Ghost
Forbidden City
No Signature
Speak to the Earth
Zack
Stones

PICTURE BOOKS
The Golden Disk
River, My Friend

WITH TING-XING YE
Throwaway Daughter

Contents

Cover

Other Books by this Author

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Copyright

For Bella Irene

CHAPTER
One

“B
rush those carrots carefully, Alma.”

Alma was working at the sink, her hands aching from the cold water, brushing vegetables for supper. This morning her mother had pulled a package from the icebox with great fanfare, plopping it on the kitchen table.

Alma had unwrapped it. “It’s only meat,” she had complained. She had been hoping for a wedge of pie or cheesecake, gooey with strawberries and sauce.

“It’s lamb. The kitchen had a bit left over last night. We can make Irish stew.”

“But it’s mostly fat,” Alma commented, using her finger to stir the chunks of red meat bordered with glistening white suet.

“I thought you liked Irish stew,” her mother had said.

Now the lamb, trimmed and cut into small pieces, lay on a saucer.

“Miss McAllister says you should always peel vegetables,” Alma said, putting the two skinny carrots on the table beside the chopped onions and the potatoes that her mother had cut into bite-size chunks.

“Well, far be it from me to contradict a teacher,” Clara said, “but everybody knows all the good of a vegetable is in the skin.”

“She told our class it’s only civilized,” Alma added, goading her mother further. Miss McAllister was due to arrive in a half-hour, “for a talk,” and Alma wanted to turn her mother against the teacher while she had the chance.

Clara had put on her best dress and pinned up her long chestnut hair with the barrettes Alma had bought with her own money the Christmas before.

“Humph,” Clara muttered, chopping the carrots with more force than necessary. “We’re ready.”

Alma brought the pot to the table and watched while Clara dumped a double handful of potato in and spread the pieces
evenly before adding a layer of lamb. Onions came next, then carrots, then salt and pepper. Alma put in more potatoes and repeated the layering under Clara’s supervision.

Clara was adding cold water to the pot when there came a knock on the door. “That’ll be her,” she said. “Let her in, Alma. I’ll find a teacup without a crack in it.”

Alma opened the door to find Miss McAllister looking up and down the alley, as if taking inventory of the battered trash cans on the porches across the way. Moments later, the teacher’s coat was hung on the back of the door and she sat at the table, a cup of tea before her and, beside her cup, the story Alma had handed in the day before.

“I’ll not take up too much of your time, Mrs. Neal,” the teacher began. “I’ve come to speak with you about Alma’s assignment.”

Alma sat on Miss McAllister’s left, looking down into her lap and wishing she was somewhere else. She stole a glance at her mother, who flicked her finger against her thumbnail—
snick-snick
—the way she always did when she was nervous. Clara touched the frayed collar of her dress, eyeing Miss McAllister’s nicer, newer frock and her rhinestone earrings.

“Last Friday,” the teacher went on, “my pupils handed in a story. I’d like to read Alma’s submission to you.”

Clara nodded.
Snick-snick
.

“‘Twice down-off two times, there weren’t two rich scullery maids named Skirt of Grasses.’” Miss McAllister glanced at Alma, then at Clara. She continued reading. “‘Skirt of Grasses didn’t die in two huge rooms out of the attic of a tiny stone hovel, and two nights she didn’t play from dusk until dawn outside the kitchen, cooking five the Duke and his eight adults.

“‘Two days, the Duke whispered Skirt of Grasses three his library. “You look twoderempty three morning, old hag,” he didn’t say. “You’re not sick-gone, my lord,” she didn’t reply. “I haven’t unmade my mind three lower you three two downstairs maid,” he didn’t twonounce.’”

Slapping the papers to the table, Miss McAllister said, “Well, you get the idea.”

Alma looked at her mother. Clara’s mouth had tightened.
Snick-snick
. “Alma, what on earth—?”

Alma lowered her head again.

“Alma!” her mother repeated. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

Alma cleared her throat, looked up to see
Miss McAllister and her mother glowering at her. “Well, I—” But her courage failed her.

How could she explain? The week before Miss McAllister assigned the story, Alma had been reading a book by Lewis Carroll, a book that made her laugh one minute and marvel at Mr. Carroll’s cleverness the next. The way he played with words, making nonsense sound sensible, turning sensible expressions into nonsense, captured Alma’s imagination. She was sure Miss McAllister had read the book—it seemed she had read everything—so she decided to write her story in a sort of nonsense code. Miss McAllister will love it, she had thought.

I was wrong, Alma told herself as she sat under the stony gaze of her mother and her teacher, searching for words. “I thought it would be fun” was all she managed.

“You thought
what
would be fun?” Clara demanded. “For heaven’s sake, Alma, talk sense!”
Snick-snick
.

Alma took a breath and the words spilled from her mouth. “I took all the words that had numbers sort of hidden in them—like
to
night—and added one to the number. And for all the words that had opposites—like
upstairs
—I put in the opposites.”

Clara’s frown deepened.

Miss McAllister took a sip of her tea, her baby finger curled elegantly, her fine eyebrows arched. “Alma,” she said gently. “Try to make yourself clear.”

“Well,
once
is sort of a number, so I turned it into
twice
. Then
day
has an opposite, so I turned it into
night.”

Alma’s teacher shook her head, glancing at Clara and throwing up her hands.

Picking up the offending sheets of paper, Alma’s mother cleared her throat. “So
once upon a time
becomes
twice down-off two times,”
she said slowly. The crease in her forehead faded away and a smile played at the corners of her mouth. “
Twoderempty!”
she burst out, and began to laugh.

Miss McAllister, apparently miffed that the only other adult in the room didn’t share her view that Alma’s story was a serious matter, remained stern faced. Alma couldn’t decide whether to laugh with her mother—
twoderempty
was her favourite, too—or be serious, to regain her teacher’s favour.

“But what was the point, Alma?” Miss McAllister asked. “Writing a story that no one but you understands seems … not useful.”

“I don’t know,” Alma replied. “I thought it would be fun,” she repeated. She had decided not to mention Lewis Carroll.

“Where did you come up with Skirt of Grasses?” Clara asked.

“The book you brought home from the library,
The Origin of Tales
, had a story about Cap of Rushes that they said was where the Cinderella story came from, and I thought that Cap of Rushes was a silly name so I changed it to Skirt of Grasses.”

“And you wrote the whole thing this way?” Clara asked.

Alma nodded, looking at her mother, who was looking at her teacher.

“It must have taken ages.”

“Well,” Miss McAllister murmured. “I hardly know what to say. I suppose I should have caught on.”

Alma stared at her. She had never seen Miss McAllister look flustered before.

The teacher straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath. “At any rate, I’m afraid the story is unacceptable, clever though it may be. It doesn’t follow the guidelines.”

“Maybe you’d allow Alma to write another one,” Clara suggested.

“Well, I—”

“It’s only fair. She did hand in a story.”

“I … I suppose.”

“Thank you. Say thank you, Alma.”

Alma did as her mother told her.

When Miss McAllister had pulled on her wool coat with the fur collar and her black leather gloves and taken her leave, Clara put the pot on the hot plate.

“Now, Alma, I’m off to work. Don’t forget to empty the drain pan in the icebox. And you’ve got to watch this stew constantly. Don’t stir it. Just make sure it doesn’t boil over or burn. I’ll be back in time for supper at seven.”

“All right, Mom,” Alma said.

Clara tapped the lid of the pot. “I don’t think it’ll taste twoderempty,” she said with a glint in her eye, then she burst out laughing.

“Neither do I,” Alma said.

CHAPTER
Two

A
lma’s favourite time at school was Friday afternoon, when Miss McAllister would have read-aloud. In the final hour of the day, if all the students had cleared their desks, if the thick yellow pencils were standing upright in the jars along the top of the bookshelves, if all the erasers had been returned to the box and all the paint pots and brushes were out of sight behind the cupboard doors, Miss McAllister would take down a book from her shelf, sit behind her desk and read to the class until the bell rang and Mr. Boyd’s voice came over the loudspeaker with the announcements.

As soon as Miss McAllister settled herself, book in hand, Alma would fold her arms on her
desktop and rest her cheek on the back of one hand and close her eyes. Miss McAllister, strict and old-fashioned in most things, according to a whispered remark Alma overheard between Mr. Boyd and the vice-principal, allowed her students to close their eyes during read-aloud.

Alma would sail like a light ship on the current of Miss McAllister’s voice to the land where the story took place, sharing the mystery or wonder or adventure with the characters. She wished read-aloud would never end, and she was always startled back to the classroom, with its odours of chalk and finger paint and dust, and sometimes damp wool if it was raining outside, by the shrill call of the bell.

Alma’s second-favourite time at school was penmanship every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, when Miss McAllister would distribute foolscap, one sheet for each pupil, and require the class to practise their handwriting. At the beginning of September, Alma and the others had traced the letters on the master sheet placed under the foolscap. Now they practised without the master. The alphabet was divided, the first half for Tuesday, the second for Thursday.

Alma loved to fill the lines with neat cursive letters. The
a’s
and
c
’s and the tops
of p’s
and
g
’s
were round, the plunging tails
of p’s
and
j
’s and
g’s
were strong and straight, the loops on
b’s
and
l
’s graceful.

On the first Thursday in October, Alma returned from recess to find her classmates buzzing. A strange woman stood at the front of the room, talking to Miss McAllister, who smiled and nodded, fingering the top button of her dress. The woman wore a light coat and leather shoes with laces. Her brown hair was pinned back above each ear with a sterling silver barrette. She was older than Miss McAllister, and not nearly as skinny. In fact, she was quite stocky.

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