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Authors: Torey Hayden

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No doubt Leslie would have been happy to stay on the swing until dark, but I had a special ed. meeting at 4:45 in a nearby school, so my time wasn’t totally my own. Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes slipped by, and still no Dr. Taylor. By four o’clock, I decided things had gone on long enough. I let the swing come to a stop and took Leslie inside to the office, where I telephoned the Considynes’ home.

No answer. I wasn’t sure what to do. Could I leave Leslie down here? Should I take her to her house myself and trust someone would be there by then? Or should I just keep waiting? I dialed the Considynes’ number once more and let the phone ring and ring.

Upstairs in the classroom again, I got Leslie settled with some toys while I sat down at the table and looked over my notes for the meeting. As 4:20 approached, tension returned. The Considynes lived at the opposite end of town from where I was going; if I left with Leslie now, I wouldn’t get back in time for the start of the meeting. And what if no one was there? What then?

Where the hell had Dr. Taylor gotten to? I went out in the hallway and down to the end, where I could see the street in front of the building from the stairwell window. I searched up and down the tree-lined road for some sign of the Mercedes. This was definitely atypical of her. I had previously been impressed with her Colditz-style precision. Leslie appeared and disappeared each day at exactly the right moment. She was always clean, neat and supplied with all the necessary accoutrements, which was no mean feat, considering the number of disposable diapers, needles, syringes, blood-sugar tapes and such that Leslie required. Dr. Taylor never troubled me with any discussion over things. Leslie and her paraphernalia were brought and collected without my ever exchanging so much as a “hello” with Dr. Taylor. It was formal, but efficient. So this unexpected lateness concerned me.

Leslie trailed into the hallway after me.

“Come here, sweetheart,” I said, and extended an arm. “I’m not sure where your mama’s gotten to, but I know she’ll come. You’ll get home all right.” I hugged her against me.

In desperation, I took Leslie down to Carolyn’s room. She was due at the same meeting I was and so was just preparing to leave. I explained what was happening and asked if she’d pass on the information. I’d try to get over as soon as I could.

I was also worried about Leslie’s diabetes. She had a very strict regimen of snacks and meals, and I knew she was going to need to eat soon to keep her insulin level in line. Carolyn provided some crackers and milk left over from her pupil’s snack time.

“Are you coming to the spa tonight?”

I nodded.

“If you don’t make it to the meeting,” she said, “I’ll see you there. You can tell me all about this.” And she gave me a demonic grin.

Back I went to the office and tried the Considynes’ number. Still no answer. Was Mr. Considyne home and not answering? Or was no one there at all?

I returned to the classroom. Leaning against the radiator, I stared out the window. The door opened behind me, and my heart rose in anticipation. I turned to get Leslie’s coat. But before I could, the footsteps disappeared into the library. Two voices muttered quietly to one another, the sound filtering indistinctly out to Leslie and me. I looked at her; she looked at me. I think she was disappointed too.

Pulling a chair out from the table, I sat down. Leslie, standing beside me, moved to get onto my lap. I closed my arms around her.

“Don’t worry, lovey. Your mama wouldn’t forget about a lovely girl like you. I’m sure it’s probably just some little thing that’s held her up. We just need to be patient.”

Leslie relaxed against me. She was a snuggly child and burrowed in against my breasts. Her hair smelled of herbal shampoo. I rested my cheek against it.

The people using the library left, and all went quiet again. Five o’clock came and then 5:15. I decided I would wait until 5:30 and then ring Frank. I listened to each minute being ticked noisily away by the clock over the blackboard, and they all seemed to last forever. I gazed at the clouds in the sky beyond the window as they turned pink with the approaching sunset. Silent and motionless, Leslie remained in my lap.

Then, slam, bang went the classroom door and there was Dr. Taylor. I glanced at my watch. It was 5:25, nearly two hours since school had ended.

“I’m late,” she said and that was all the explanation she offered. She had stopped at the corner of the shelving units and came no closer. Holding out her hand toward Leslie, she gave a slight jerk of her head. Leslie responded immediately, sliding off my lap and running to her mother.

What I noticed was that Dr. Taylor looked wonderful. She always dressed casually, but in a very fashionable way, the way I would have liked to dress if I’d had the money and the fashion sense. This afternoon it was all wool and denim and leather boots. Her complexion was ruddy, as if she had been out a while in the brisk autumn air, and it suited her. She had very fair skin, and normally she looked unhealthy to me. Momentarily mesmerized by her appearance, I forgot my irritation. But as I rose and came abreast of her, while she was bent, doing up the buttons of Leslie’s coat, I realized abruptly that her ruddy glow was not due to health.

Dr. Taylor was drunk.

I was too shocked to react immediately. I just stood there, watching her fumble with the buttons, as the dark, oaky smell of whiskey wafted around us. The arrival of an inebriated parent wasn’t a wholly novel experience for me, but this had been so unexpected that I was speechless.

Without so much as an acknowledgment of my presence, she finished the buttons, stood, turned and ushered Leslie toward the door.

“Dr. Taylor?”

She was at the door but paused to look back at me.

I didn’t know quite what to say next, and the pause grew overlong. She turned away again and went on out.

“Dr. Taylor, are you alone?”

She was into the hallway.

“Wait,” I said and went after her. “Dr. Taylor? Wait a minute.”

No response.

She was a tall woman with a long stride, and I had to skip to get in front of her. “Dr. Taylor, stop.”

“What do you want?”

“Are you driving?”

She pushed around me.

I quickly reached for Leslie’s free hand. Both of them came to an abrupt halt. Leslie whimpered.

“I could drive you home,” I said.

“No. Thank you,” she replied and reached down, deftly disengaging my fingers from Leslie’s hand. The smell of whiskey as she leaned forward was strong enough to make me step back.

She shoved Leslie ahead of her and approached the stairwell.

“Dr. Taylor, please.”

No response.

I could negotiate the stairs faster. Stepping forward, I grabbed hold of the collar of Leslie’s coat.

This brought a ferocious glare from Dr. Taylor. She was still a step above me, so she towered over me physically. In fact, she felt about eight feet tall at that precise moment. I moved a little to the side.

“I don’t need your help, thank you,” she said through gritted teeth. Her tone left nothing to the imagination.

I kept hold of Leslie’s coat. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea for you to be driving.”

Her eyes widened into an expression of utter incredulity. It made me feel small, to be stared at like that, as if I’d said something so dumb as to beggar belief. But I kept my fingers around Leslie’s collar.

“Leslie is my responsibility at this point,” I said. “And I don’t think I’d feel comfortable if she went with you.”

Dr. Taylor said nothing but continued to fix me with that stare. She really was a remarkably beautiful woman. It was unsettling to me, because I couldn’t keep from noticing it, even at a moment like this, when she made obvious the old adage about beauty being only skin deep. But ignoring her appearance was like trying to ignore a drastic deformity.

And she wasn’t giving in. She had eyes like a reptile’s. They didn’t blink.

“Please, let’s be sensible about this,” I said.

“Let go.”

“Please? Come on now, Dr. Taylor. Be reasonable.”

“I said, let
go
.”

“Let me drive Leslie then. You go as you want, but let me take Leslie.”

“Can’t you hear me?” she asked.

“Come on now.”

“Let
go
,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

“Please?”

Her eyes narrowed, and in a very calculated manner, she reached her hand toward mine. Ruefully, I uncurled my fingers from Leslie’s coat collar and let go before Dr. Taylor’s hand touched me.

The moment I did, Dr. Taylor and her daughter disappeared down the stairwell and were gone.

Carolyn laughed. She threw back her head and really howled. We were the only two in the whirlpool, but I slid down into the water until it was up around my neck so that the people over by the swimming pool couldn’t see me.

“It’s not that funny, Carolyn.”

“She really laid it on you, didn’t she? Well, it serves you right. It
does
, Torey,” she said and leaned forward. “You think because you’re new here, you’re classless. You think you can mess with small-town politics.”

“I wasn’t messing with politics. The woman was stone drunk.”

Carolyn closed her eyes and relaxed back against the side of the whirlpool. “You’re better off leaving her alone. They’re different from us.”

“Oh, that’s silly, Carolyn. What rubbish.” I pulled myself up out of the deeper water and sat back beside her on the bench.

Carolyn remained in her relaxed pose. “It’s not. They’re rich. They’ve got a different kind of lifestyle than the rest of us. Different kinds of friends.” She opened her eyes and looked over. “You know what happened to Carly Johnston, you know, the girl who runs the gallery on Rosten Street? She got invited out to one of Tom Considyne’s big bashes a couple of years ago. It was a Christmas party, I think. Anyway, you know what they gave for party favors?”

I shook my head.

“Coke. Cocaine. Half a gram of coke.”

I said nothing.

“I’m not kidding, Tor.”

“I didn’t think you were, but she wasn’t high, Carolyn. She was drunk. Plain old booze, like you buy over the counter in the supermarket. And I’m not thinking of busting into her jet-set lifestyle. I’m thinking of Leslie.” Carolyn didn’t respond. She closed her eyes again and stretched out to let the whirlpool jets run against her arms.

Brooding, I remained upright on the bench. I looked over. “Did Dr. Taylor come to the school drunk like this last year?”

“Yeah,” Carolyn said without opening her eyes. “I didn’t see much of her. My room was on the far side of the building, and Leslie was in Rita Ashworth’s room. But she was drunk quite a lot. She drove Rita bonkers more than a few times with it. She’d be sober for ages and then come in absolutely blotto two or three times a week for a while. Rita never knew what to expect. It was worst in midwinter. It got to be a joke among us. You know how you get about things like that.”

“Didn’t anybody do anything about it?” I asked.

“Like what, precisely?” Carolyn half-opened her eyes and looked over at me.

“I don’t know. But she’s got to be doing herself a fair amount of harm. She’s young. What age is she? Thirty? Thirty-five?”

“I mean really, Torey, who cares? She isn’t exactly the poor-and-dying of Calcutta, is she? She’s such an arrogant so-and-so. She couldn’t give a fuck about you or me, if you’ll forgive my French. So I’m not about to play Mother Teresa for her benefit. Nobody is.”

I didn’t respond.

Carolyn looked over. “Has she ever said more than two words to you?”

“No. Not really.”

“See what I mean? Besides, we’re schoolteachers, not social workers. Or psychiatrists, which is what I suspect the woman really needs.”

“I’m thinking of Leslie.”

“Leslie seems pretty unbothered. Lots of kids have alcoholic parents, Tor. I did myself. You survive.”

Sighing, I leaned back and stared up at the open girders supporting the ceiling.

“Don’t sound so defeated. She’s not going to cause any trouble. She’s one of those drunks who really doesn’t do much more than just get snockered. When I said she drove Rita wild, I didn’t mean to say she was trouble. She wasn’t. Half the time I didn’t even realize she was drunk. Just leave her alone. That was what Rita did in the end, and it worked out best all around. She wants no truck with us mortal folk anyhow. If you don’t talk to her, you can be plenty sure she’ll never talk to you.”

“Still seems to me like she should have help.”

Carolyn rose up out of the whirlpool. “To be honest with you, Tor, I really couldn’t care less. I mean, what has she got to drown her sorrows over anyway? She’s beautiful. She’s rich. She’s smart. She has a fantastic husband. She has the whole formula for happiness and look what she does with it. Parents of most of the kids in my room, what have they got? Welfare. Prison terms. No education. No money. No chance. No hope. Nothing. And she’s got it all and goes around making a real horse’s behind out of herself. No sirree. Don’t look here for sympathy.”

Chapter 4

W
hat a pair Shemona and Geraldine made. They were two halves of a whole, rather than two separate children. Shemona was truly mute, spending every day in total silence. She had one of the most closed, unreadable faces I had ever come across in a child. It was as if someone had stuck up one-way mirrors behind her eyes, because, while Shemona constantly watched me, I could never see anything in return. And she did watch me. Even when I turned to look directly at her, she never averted her eyes. She simply continued to study my face. At those moments it was hard to remember she was a five-year-old. There was no innocence about her.

Geraldine, however, was clingy, noisy and infantile. From the beginning, she insisted on being physically close to me whenever possible. If I sat down, there she was, climbing on my lap, hanging over my shoulder, fondling my hair and my face. If I was standing, she would come up and move very close to me. Everything I owned was a target for kisses and caresses: my hair, my hands, my belt, whatever she could reach. On one occasion, she actually kissed my shoe before I realized what she was doing. Being a physically oriented person myself, I was surprised to find how irritated I became with all this attention. I liked being touched, but Geraldine was another experience altogether. She treated my body as if it belonged to her.

On their own, their individual problems would have been enough to merit psychological intervention. However, it was the relationship between the two girls that made them both fascinating and maddening for me. Geraldine did everything but pee for Shemona. Whatever whim Shemona might have, be it for a pencil or a paper or a glass of water, Geraldine was off getting it for her without Shemona’s ever giving an indication that I could perceive. At recess, Geraldine did up Shemona’s coat with motherly care; she wrapped the muffler around her sister’s neck, pulled the hat down over her ears. At lunch, Geraldine cut her sister’s food, carefully leaving a bite on the fork when she’d finished. I seldom saw her more than three feet away from Shemona at any given time. She guarded Shemona; she attended Shemona; she spoke for Shemona. No one could have found a more effective bodyguard than Geraldine.

Shemona seemed fairly dispassionate about all these ministrations. She accepted them more than appealed for them, and I got the feeling that it was Shemona, not Geraldine, who was the dominant member of the team. Shemona behaved like a little queen. Geraldine was the toady.

The most noticeable problem, of course, was Shemona’s muteness. I puzzled over what to do about it. During the seventies, I’d done an extensive amount of research with children who refused to speak, a psychological disorder called elective mutism. If Shemona had been any one of the legion number of elective mutes I had encountered during those years, I probably would have leapt right in with both feet, the way I always had. But here, now, I hesitated. Without an aide, I was unable to work with her in the uninterrupted one-to-one mode I was accustomed to. More specifically, I couldn’t get her separated from Geraldine, and I knew full well that with the two girls together, I wouldn’t stand a chance of getting her to speak. So the first weeks slipped by, and I accomplished nothing.

After the girls had been with me about three weeks, I asked Mr. and Mrs. Lonrho to come in and see me after school. To work more effectively with the sisters, I felt I needed to know more about their lives at home.

Mrs. Lonrho seemed relieved at the chance to talk about Shemona and Geraldine. She and her husband had four children of their own as well, all near in age to the two sisters, so they had expected no trouble in taking these, her brother’s daughters.

“I’d met them in Belfast,” Mrs. Lonrho said. “I’ve tried to get back there every couple of years or so. Most of my family’s still there, and I want my kids to know their roots.”

“Did the girls seem okay to you when you last saw them in Belfast?” I asked.

She nodded. “They were just kids, like any kids.”

“Shemona was always the quieter,” Mr. Lonrho added. He spoke with a broad western drawl. His wife, I noticed, was incorporating his accent. She still had the burring lilt of Northern Ireland in her words, but the vowel sounds were growing broad and flat.

Again Mrs. Lonhro nodded. “Yes, she was. She was always a self-possessed little thing. Independent, you know? She must have been about three or three and a half when we last saw her. She’d made herself a little house out of a blanket over a chair. Spent hours in there on her own. You never had to entertain Shemona. I remember thinking what a good quality that was for a child to have, because our four were a bunch of hooligans. Forever whining, wanting to do something, getting into trouble doing it.”

“And Geraldine?” I asked.

“She was at school during the day, so we didn’t see as much of her. But she enjoyed playing with our lot in the evenings.”

“I don’t remember much about her, to be honest,” Mr. Lonrho said. “She was the sort of kid to blend in with the wallpaper.”

“That was the thing,” his wife said, “they were just ordinary kids. When all this other happened and we found the girls were on their own, it seemed only natural to take them. We didn’t think two thoughts about it. You expect there to be some upset, but we assumed they’d adjust. Get them here, give them plenty of love, and they’d come out of it. We never expected it to be like this.”

“Are they getting any outside help? Any psychological help?” I asked.

Mrs. Lonrho frowned. “They were. We had Shemona to see a guy over at the clinic. But she wouldn’t talk. Eight weeks and she did nothing but sit there. And for their prices, well, I’m afraid she’s going to have to do her sitting at home.”

“Has Shemona been mute all this time?”

“Not a single word,” Mr. Lonrho replied.

“I don’t know when she started this,” his wife added. “It’s been going on a while now. The girls were with my sister Cath before coming here and Shemona wasn’t talking there. And that was about a year ago. We didn’t think anything much about it when Cath mentioned it. We just thought it was a kid’s thing and she’d stop being so silly once she and Geraldine got settled.”

“Does Shemona talk to Geraldine?”

Mrs. Lonrho shrugged. “I think she has to, but I’ve never heard her.”

“We’ve tried everything we can think of,” Mr. Lonrho said. “We’ve tried the psychologist. We’ve tried his ideas. We’ve tried the other school’s ideas. We’ve talked to our priest. We’ve talked with Bet’s sisters. I thought separating the girls would make a difference. Bet didn’t agree with me. She thinks they need each other. Anyway, one weekend I took Geraldine down to see my mother, and it was hell. She screamed the entire time. And Shemona still never talked.”

“How is it you decided to take Geraldine and Shemona?” I asked. “Surely you still have quite a lot of family in Belfast.”

“My sister Cath’s the only one who could take them. And most of hers are already grown and gone. And she’s got a job to think of and everything. Things just weren’t working out. And we didn’t want them in a foster home. They’d been in a foster home part of the time as it was. We just wanted to give them a fighting chance.”

A small silence sprang up unexpectedly. Both of them had grown thoughtful. I was jotting notes, and when I looked up and saw them, I was unwilling to intrude on their thinking.

Then Mrs. Lonrho raised her head. “Shemona cries at night,” she said softly. “It’s the only time I hear her. Usually she does it after Geraldine is asleep, but if I go in to her, she falls silent. I put the light on and I see her lying there, her face all red and puffed up. I change the pillowcase. Sometimes I even have to change the pillow, it’s so wet, but if I try to touch her, she moves away. She hates to be touched. She pulls away and faces the wall. You know, I ache to hold her then. She’s so little. But I don’t dare. You can tell by looking at her face that you’d better keep your distance.”

The following morning when we were outside on the playground at recess, Geraldine and Shemona came to stand next to me, as was their custom. I was leaning back against the brick wall, hands sunk deep into the pockets of my jacket. Geraldine leaned too, her arm linked through mine, while Shemona was hunkered down fingering through the dirt at our feet.

“Do you miss Northern Ireland?” I asked.

Geraldine did not respond immediately; however, Shemona looked up from where she was squatted. She had a collection of tiny twigs in her hand. I studied her face and wondered if, at five, she knew what Northern Ireland was.

“Shemona misses it,” Geraldine said.

“Do you?” I asked her.

Another pause and then she nodded slowly. “Yes, Miss.”

She pressed close to me. She’d had only one arm linked through mine but now brought up the other. I extracted my hand from my pocket and put my arm around her shoulders, drawing her against me.

“Would you like to go back?”

She nodded without hesitation. “I
am
going back. Shemona and me both. When we’re bigger. We’re here because we’re just wee girls.”

“It must be very hard for you and Shemona to have lost your mother and your father and have had to come so far from home. Any one of those things would have been very upsetting to cope with, but to cope with all of them at once must be extra hard.”

“Our brother Matthew died too, not just our mam and dad,” Geraldine added.

“Yes. That must have been very hard. You’ve lost a lot. It must make you feel very sad sometimes.”

Silence fell between us. Mariana had a ball and was bouncing it enthusiastically against the brick wall not far from where Geraldine and I were standing. The rhythmic thuds from wall to pavement and back again filled up the silence.

“Now Shemona is youngest,” Geraldine said. “Used to be me, then Shemona, then our Matthew. Now she’s youngest. And I’m the oldest. I’ll always be oldest.” A small pause. “Unless I get killed too. Then Shemona will be an only child.”

The other parents I wanted to see were Mr. Considyne and Dr. Taylor. Leslie was making no noticeable progress whatsoever. Like Shemona, she suffered from my lack of auxiliary help. By the time I had finished diapering her, checking her sugar levels and injecting her with insulin, there was hardly any time left to work with her. What work I did do seemed to have negligible effect.

I wanted to know more about Leslie’s behavior at home. Watching her interactions with her mother in the brief moments I saw them together, I got the impression that Leslie was more responsive to her mother than to me. Did Leslie interact more in general at home? Was she less withdrawn?

The other issue I felt I could no longer live with was Dr. Taylor’s drinking. Just as Carolyn had predicted, Dr. Taylor went through a spell of arriving to pick Leslie up stone drunk more often than not. I was appalled both by the severity of her drinking problem and by everyone else’s complete acceptance of it. I’d encountered alcoholic parents and some pretty spectacular displays of drunkenness over the course of my career, but nothing to equal the grueling, day-in, day-out consistency of Dr. Taylor’s problem. And I had certainly never experienced anything equivalent to the attitudes of the people around me, when I expressed concern. I was treated as if I had the problem, not her.

It became clear to me that Dr. Taylor was the person everyone loved to hate. Her legendary aloofness went beyond the point of rudeness; her hostile arrogance was all the more bitter for its silence. More than a few people openly felt she deserved such a comeuppance. More to the point, however, she gave the impression of being a very dangerous woman. Rich, powerful and antagonistic, no one interfered with her because I suspect no one dared.

I didn’t dare either. I thought about it a lot. I had fantasies about standing up to Dr. Taylor, but when it came right down to looking her straight in the eye and hanging onto Leslie, I never quite managed. On the other hand, I hadn’t given up. Despite failing time and again to keep Leslie from going with her intoxicated mother, I was still prepared each afternoon to try again. I was still taking hold of Leslie’s coat collar. Dr. Taylor and I were still having our daily battle of glares. I think even she knew by that point that, while I might not have the courage of a tiger, I had the tenacity of a terrier.

The meeting was arranged for very late on Friday afternoon, a time I chose because I knew the building would be relatively empty. When Dr. Taylor came to pick Leslie up after school, I reminded her of the meeting. With relief, I noticed that she was sober. But when the time arrived for the meeting, no one came. I sat, waiting, at the table. Neat piles of Leslie’s work and my records lay beside me. I fiddled with them, stacking them and then restacking them, lining them up straight. The clock ticked noisily, and I couldn’t avoid listening to it.

At last the door opened and closed beyond the shelves and, shortly, Tom Considyne’s huge frame appeared around the corner. I rose and extended my hand to him and asked him to sit down. We exchanged a few brief pleasantries before he pulled out one of the child-sized chairs next to me and lowered himself into it in a surprisingly graceful manner.

“I’m afraid my wife isn’t going to be able to make it,” he said. “She isn’t feeling well.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. I’d just talked with her when she came to fetch Leslie at 3:30.”

“It’s her stomach. Incredible problems with it.”

“Oh. I see.” I opened Leslie’s folder and began to take out examples of her work. I laid out other things, charts and graphs mainly, that I’d used to keep track of her progress. I explained my concern, because, as he could see, the progress had been minimal.

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