Authors: Allan Donaldson
Copyright Â© Allan Donaldson 2005, 2014
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Nimbus Publishing Limited
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Design: Heather Bryan
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Donaldson, Allan, author
Maclean / Allan Donaldson.
Reprint of: 2005.
Issued in print and electronic formats.
ISBN 978-1-77108-257-0 (pbk.).âISBN 978-1-77108-259-4 (html)
PS8557.O51M33 2014 C813'.54 C2014-904394-5
Nimbus Publishing acknowledges the financial support for its publishing activities from the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) and the Canada Council for the Arts, and from the Province of Nova Scotia through Film & Creative Industries Nova Scotia. We are pleased to work in partnership with Film & Creative Industries Nova Scotia to develop and promote our creative industries for the benefit of all Nova Scotians.
HE FOUND HIMSELF
labouring along a narrow, mud road, deeply pitted and rutted by the passage of great columns of men and wagons. On both sides, the road was fenced in by thick entanglements of barbed wire twisted and nailed every which-way to cross frames of rotting wood. Beyond the wire, bare, treeless fields stretched away into the distance, their emptiness broken here and there by the ruins of a house or the scattered remains of other entanglements. Some of the fields had once been ploughed, and long pools of stagnant water lay in the furrows, their surface swimming with green slime and small lumps of brown-gray stuff like drowned mice. A stink rose from the ground and drifted in waves across the road, so strong sometimes that he had trouble catching his breath.
The road ran straight and flat to the horizon, and at first it seemed to him that he was alone. Then he became aware that other soldiers had taken shape and were marching along with him. In the raw cold of the winter day, they were wearing great coats with the collars turned up close under their helmets, and they walked bent forward, their chins tucked down against their chests. He had the sense that they were men whom he knew, but although he leaned down to look up under the helmets, he couldn't make out their faces. When he tried in an unreasoning terror of anxiety to speak to them, he found that he had lost his voice and could only make hoarse, inarticulate noises like those of a stricken animal.
Then abruptly the other soldiers were gone, and he was struggling through the mud as fast as he could because there was somewhere he had to get to before dark. Overhead, the sky was a uniform dirt-gray, and it began to rain, the kind of dead, straight rain that could go on all day and all night, relentless and unpitying, sometimes for weeks on end.
He began to run, but slowly, weighed down by his packs and the rifle which he now found himself to be carrying. After a few yards, he again became aware that he was not alone. A furlong behind, a man was following him, running, not fast but steadily, as if he could run forever. He had the sense that this too was someone whom he should recognize, but looking back over his shoulder, he could see the man's features only as a gray blur. Then the curtain of rain seemed to part, and he beheld, suddenly close up, the thin-lipped, skull-white face, the sunken, always searching, malevolent eyes.
His felt his bowels turning to water with fear.
It was Death. Sergeant Death.
Maclean awoke and stared up at the plaster ceiling. Like the sky in the dream which was sinking away from him even as he tried to recall it, the ceiling was dirt-gray except over the window, where a semi-circular, brown stain had been left behind by melt-water that had been dammed by ice on the eave of the house and had found its way back up under the shingles and down through the mouldering wood of the roof. This had happened over and over again, and the stain was crossed by a pattern of concentric lines, like contour lines on a map, each marking the limit of one of the water's successive advances. At the heart of the stain, over which all these advances had passed, the colour was as dark as the colour of encrusted blood. At the edge, it melted away into the gray nothingness of the unstained plaster.
He rolled over and looked at the room. The sun, still a summer sun, fell slantwise across the floor and part way up the wall opposite the bed. As the fall drew on, the band of light would narrow until it was hardly the width of a pencil; then, all through the dead of winter, it would grow again with the promise of spring. The wallpaper was decorated with alternating columns of red and yellow flowers, and he knew just where the light fell on those columns at every point in the cycle of the seasons. When he woke up and had got himself located, he could even tell to within a few minutes what time it was.
He had seen a sundial once, but it had been knocked over and the pedestal broken, lying in a yard littered with the wreckage of some rich family's life. Tiles, bricks, glass, mahogany sofas with the stuffing pouring out of the upholstery, splintered tables and chairs, smashed china, torn damask curtains, a shattered mirror in a gilded frame.
His room was hardly bigger than a cell. (“It gives people who ain't too steady on their feet sumpin' to hang onto so's they don't fall down and break their bones,” Drusilla once said to him, giving him a heavy stare from under her brows.) It was also furnished hardly better than a cell. A dresser with a little mirror propped against the wall on top. A small table and two straight-backed chairs. A free-standing closet leaning against the wall on the uneven floor, doorless and crudely built out of some trashy wallboard that a man could have put his fist through without even skinning his knuckles. A slack-springed single bed.
None of this stuff belonged to him. In a quarter of an hour, he could have packed up everything he owned and departed the room, and the world, without a trace.
He picked up his watch from the table and held it up before his eyes. Twenty to seven. Saturday, August 21. It would be next Saturday at least before his cheque came, perhaps even the Monday or Tuesday after that. You could never tell with those people. Like most servants of the crown, they liked to let you know who was in charge by avoiding any unseemly show of haste. And it would be the Wednesday after that before any more of his liquor coupons came due. And tomorrow was his mother's birthday. 1870. 1943. Seventy-three. He had remembered it last Saturday, forgotten it, then remembered it again all of a sudden last night on the way home. He tried to calculate how much money he had brought back with him. Two dimes and a few pennies. And he still had a coupon left for a quart of wine. He would have to get some more money somehow.
He swung his legs down, sat on the edge of the bed, and became aware that although he hadn't drunk all that much the night before, his stomach felt queasy and there was a nasty taste at the back of his throat.
Outside, a slow, heavy tread went by his door and descended the stairs. It was followed almost at once by the quicker steps of two men coming along the hall together, talking about something to do with a motor car. Walter Haynes, the son of a whore, and the two MacDonald boys on their way to breakfast. From below, he heard the voice of Drusilla giving them orders about something or other.
He peeked out his door and saw that the bathroom was empty. Quickly, he put on an old plaid dressing gown, collected his shaving gear, and slipped across the hall.
He hadn't shaved yesterday, nor the day before, and the water from the tap wasn't any too hot, so he scraped away as cautiously as he could. When he had finished, he washed his face and hands and combed his hair. He was going to have to look like a man who could do some work, a man not on the booze, a man merely down on his luck a little through no fault of his own, a man deserving of a little consideration even in this inconsiderate world.
He studied himself in the mirror. Even shaved and combed, the man he saw was a creature he sometimes found it hard to identify with when he first confronted him in the morningâan angular scarecrow where once there had been a strong, not bad-looking man. At his peak, before the gas and the booze, he had weighed a hundred and eighty pounds, not an ounce of it fat. The last time he had weighed himself for a penny on a machine in Selrites, which also told his fortune (he was going on a long journey), he had weighed a hundred and forty-one. But Henry MacDade said that skinny people lived longer, and it was better to be a skinny pall-bearer than a fat corpse.
Back in his room, he got himself into his clothes. Wool socks, a heavy flannel shirt, heavy work trousers, work boots that weren't going to last much longer, an old suitcoat with leather patches on the elbows. When he had the coat on, he took a change purse out of the pocket and looked into it. There was only one dime, not two, and four pennies.
The hell with it. He would worry about it later. First, he needed some fresh air, then a good breakfast. Porridge, soft and bland, to soothe the stomach. With some brown sugar for energy. And a slice or two of bread and a couple of doughnuts.
He picked up his cap, went out, and carefully locked the door behind him. The big corner room next to his had been occupied for the last six months by Mrs. Fraser, an old woman, over eighty, who was dying slowly, getting whiter and thinner every week. She had been sent there to do her dying by two daughters who lived uptown and came down once or twice a month to see how it was going along. Sometimes as he went past her door, he spoke to her, but she was asleep now, lying on her back with her mouth open, tiny in the double bed like some scrimpy rag doll that God had made to stick pins into.
Quickly, quietly, he descended the stairs, met nobody, and went straight out into the morning sunlight pouring down over the hills on the far side of the river. Setting his cap on his head, giving it a final, resolute twist, he crossed the dirt road in front of the boarding house and made his way through a little field of sparse sword-grass and stunted weeds to the gravel shore above the rounded rocks of the riverbed.
Beside him, minnows darted in the pools among the rocks, and a long-legged shore bird, foraging, kept its distance thirty feet ahead. In the grass, a band of rubbish marked the furthest reach of the high water in the spring. He had passed it a hundred times before, but out of habit he cast his eyes over it as he walked. Driftwood polished smooth by the river. A broken board with a line of rusted nails. Rusted cans. Rags that must once have been clothes. Bottles filled with sand. Nothing salvageable. Nothing saleable. In a shallow pool among the rocks, a dead sucker lay with its bloated, green-white belly turned up out of the water.
A furlong from the house, he turned into a little patch of woods. The nearer trees were riverbank trashâalders, chokecherries, popleâbut a little way back where the ground rose and became drier, there was a grove of maples and ancient oak and butternut trees that the squirrels liked.
One summer he had trained a gray squirrel to take food from his hand. He would sit on one end of a fallen trunk and click his tongue, and the squirrel would come down out of the tree where it had been waiting for him and sit on the other end of the trunk, upright, its paws held close together against its white chest. When he held out the peanut he had brought, it would come along the trunk in a succession of little rushes, stop, place one small, cool paw on his hand, pause to look up at him with its dark, impenetrable eyes, delicately take the peanut between its teeth, and scurry back to the other end of the trunk to eat it.
Then one morning, it didn't come, nor the next morning either, nor any morning again ever. Someone had shot it just for the hell of it, or a dog had killed it just for the hell of it, and he had never tried to tame another one to take its place. It crossed his mind that it might have been killed because he had wooed away too much of its instinctive distrust of mankind.
He walked up into the grove and slowed his pace. He liked the abrupt sense of seclusion, the broken, early-morning light slanting down through the trees, and the traffic of birds on their first rounds of the dayâsparrows, chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, robins, bluejays, sometimes a great pileated woodpecker like some exotic migrant from a tropical island, sometimes one of the few bluebirds that had not yet vanished. There had once, he remembered, been bluebirds in every field, and when he was a boy, he and his sister Alice used to put up houses for them on fence posts.
He walked for a quarter of an hour before turning back. At the edge of the grove, he stopped and looked across the river at the steep hills with their farmhouses and barns perched among fields that were already yellowing towards autumn. Along the face of the hills, a flock of crows was flying in a ragged line upriver, labouring heavily the way crows do, as if God had never meant them to fly at all. And high in the pure air, above the line of crows and the top of the hills, the hawk who always fished there in the morning was circling, floating, without so much as the flick of a wing.
Mrs. Drusilla Ellsworthy stood in the door between the kitchen and the boarders' dining room, her hands on her hips, her expression commanding.
“You gotta git them there new ration books today,” she repeated in slow, round tones as if addressing an assembly of half-wits. “You gotta fill out that there sheet at the back of the old book and you gotta leave it in the book and take the old book to them entire. You unnerstand? En-tire. This is the last day. You unnerstand? You gotta go to the town hall or the high school.”
Drusilla had been born in a God-forsaken little settlement on the Moose Lake Road, and she had come to town with a view to bettering herself. Mr. ElsworthyâMr. Elmer Elsworthyâwas a pinch-faced, little Englishman with a runny nose who talked all the time as if he had a mouthful of sticky candy and pronounced “come” as “cum,” “love” as “luv” and so on. He had come to Wakefield after the Great War with some money from somewhere, had caught the eye of the plump Drusilla, been taken to her ample bosom and permitted to make her his bride. With his money, they had bought this decaying house, fixed it up so it wouldn't, for another few years, fall down, and set up as boarding house keepers.
“The town hall or the high school,” Drusilla intoned. “You unnerstand, Pinky? You gotta do it today.”
“Yes,” Maclean said. “I'll manage to get my mind around it somehow.”
He was sitting in his accustomed place at the table in the boarders' dining room.
Walter Haynes, who worked at the pumping station, and the two MacDonald boys, who worked at a sawmill and who were expecting to be called up any day, had gone off to their jobs. Maclean was breakfasting as usual with Henry MacDade and Miss Audrey Sweet.
Henry, though only in his early fifties, was retired. After thirty years of unprofitable distress, he had decided that he didn't have whatever it took to be a successful farmer, so he had sold his farm, moved into town, and settled in Drusilla's boarding house. Miss Audrey Sweet, who did housework for the well-to-do, didn't go to work until nine when the well-to-do she worked for had finished breakfast.