Authors: Mary Jane Maffini
of the Dead
Mary Jane Maffini
Text © 1999 by Mary Jane Maffini
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior consent of the publisher.
Cover art: Christopher Chuckry
We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program.
Napoleon Publishing/RendezVous Press
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Printed in Canada
05 04 03 02 01 00 99 5 4 3 2 1
Canadian Cataloguing in Publication Data
Maffini, Mary Jane, date
Speak ill of the dead
PS8576.A3385S63 1999 C813’.54 C99-931189-1
I am most grateful for the endless support and firm opinions of my writing group: Joan Boswell, Vicki Cameron, Audrey Jessup, Sue Pike and Linda Wiken. And also to Linda Berndt, Susanne Fletcher, Janet MacEachen, and Dr. Lorne Parent for their advice and to Georgia Ellis for the fictional use of her balcony. Many thanks to my publisher, Sylvia McConnell, for believing in me and in this book, and to Allister Thompson, the most courageous of editors. Any errors are my own.
Much of Ottawa is as it is portrayed, although it is only fair to mention that Justice for Victims and the Harmony Hotel are both figments of my fevered mind, as is St. Jim’s Parish. Don’t waste your time looking for them. Strangely enough, the one million tulips are real.
hat particular morning all I could think about was getting rid of Alvin.
It was the thirteenth of May. After the three feet of snow that came in November and stayed topped up all winter, I should have been paying attention to the signs of spring. I stomped along the bike path bordering the Ottawa River, not looking for groundhogs or robins and unaware of the fresh buds on the deciduous trees. Instead, black thoughts of Alvin clogged my mind.
All down Wellington Street and up on Parliament Hill thousands of tulips had popped out of the ground, on schedule for the annual tulip festival. I didn’t notice them.
My mind was focused primarily on liberating my office from Alvin’s presence, and secondarily on dealing with my large, meddlesome family, so Alvin or someone just like him never happened to me again.
By the time I picked up an extra large Colombian Supremo and honey oatmeal muffin across from my Elgin Street office, I was concentrating on the family part and my theory that I’d been switched at birth. That’s how I account for being short, stocky and dark-haired in a family where everyone is tall, slender and fair. My sisters are long-boned and ash-blonde, beautiful still in their late forties. The pleats in their good wool slacks always lie flat; there’s never a button missing on their silk shirts; their hair is just the way they want it to be.
I’m lucky if I can find my clothes on the chair in the morning, and my hair doesn’t even bear talking about. And if I don’t take the fifty-three minute walk to and from work every day, I go off the top end of the scale.
Even now, thirty-two years after my birth, my father still looks at me with surprise. It’s a look I remember well from my childhood. Surprise—when he found me hanging upside down from a tree, or when he discovered six frogs in the bathtub, or when he read a note from The Nun of the Year saying I had played hookey from First Communion Class.
My beautiful sisters would just laugh. They were perfect. So they could afford to think it was amusing when I got fished out of ponds, ejected from Sunday School, stranded on the school roof. And one of them, Edwina or Alexa or Donalda, would rescue me, take me by the hand and make sure that even my father could see the humour in the situation. I would stand there, looking way up at a tall, fair man, hoping he would recognize me.
Donalda was named for my father, Donald MacPhee, and like him she was cool, detached, correct. Alexa and Edwina were named for my mother’s brothers. Good Cape Breton names, although a bit out of place when we moved to Ottawa—a city of Barbaras and Beverlys and Susans. It’s a tribute to my sisters’ elegance as teenagers that they were never tormented about their names. Just floated through high school with their lovely long straight noses in the air, their blonde hair just so and lots of boys to carry their books. I suppose it didn’t hurt that my father was the principal of St. Jim’s.
All I got was the best name, Camilla, from my mother, who died when I was born.
My sisters returned to Nova Scotia to get good solid degrees in English at St. Francis Xavier or Mount St. Vincent or to train in nursing at St. Rita’s. They returned with tall, respectable husbands—a dentist, an accountant and in Alexa’s case, a doctor. Alexa’s a widow now, but she still retains all the points she got for snagging the doctor.
As for me, I went charging through the University of Ottawa and wound up with a Law degree and no man in my life but Paul, whose dead face still smiles down at me from his picture on the wall in my office, three years after the accident that changed my life.
When I was growing up my sisters used to look at me with affectionate amusement—“Oh Camilla, how could you do that to Daddy’s new car?” Now they pucker their perfect faces with worry and bite their Clinique-covered lower lips and try not to pester me about working seventy hours a week and forgetting to get my hair done.
My father still regards me with surprise.
But that’s not the problem. The problem is he spends fifty percent of his time rescuing the children and grandchildren of old friends. People who, through no fault of their own, have fallen on hard times. Like Alvin.
“This particular boy,” my father had said, meaning Alvin, “this particular boy never had a chance. Not like you, dear, with every opportunity.”
I gave it my best defensive play.
“There’s no space in my office for another person, Daddy. You know I just have the one room, and it’s fifteen by fifteen, and it’s full of files and equipment. Where would he sit?”
“That’s just it, he could help with the files. Put them in the filing cabinets for you. He could answer your phone. Do the correspondence. Run the photocopier. You have a law degree, dear. Even if you insist on running this agency for victims, you don’t need to do everything yourself. Give Alvin a chance. You won’t even have to pay his salary. The government training program will pick up eighty per cent of it. At any rate this poor boy doesn’t even want a salary, just a chance to get some experience. Having some help in the office will give you time to think.”
Time to think? I definitely didn’t want time to think— about Paul, about the kind of life we might have had if he had lived.
“Sorry, Daddy. No deal.”
“Alcoholic father, God rest his soul, poor old Mike, and that brave little woman struggling to put all those children through university. Be a big weight off her mind. Mine, too.
You don’t seem to have any life at all, dear. Which reminds me, your sisters want to have a family dinner after Mass on Sunday. I don’t suppose you’d consider going to…”
By the time I had tucked my styrofoam cup and my muffin under my arm, fiddled with my key and kicked open the door of the Justice for Victims office, Alvin had started his third week on the job. He’d already told me he was looking forward to a career in the World of Art, and that office work was not his first love.
He was in fine form that morning, and the sunlight glinted off his nine visible earrings as he brushed the remains of his breakfast from my Globe and Mail and into the wastepaper basket. “The Bear”, a local rock station, blasted from the radio.
“Mitzi Brochu,” he said.
“Gesundheit,” I told him, as I moved a stack of research notes and put down my own breakfast. “I hope you’re not coming down with a cold. But if you are, please feel free to stay home until you feel completely better. Better yet, have you considered going home to your mother in Sydney?”
But this subtlety was wasted on Alvin.
“Robin Findlay called. She wants you to go with her to meet Mitzi Brochu.” The look on Alvin’s face indicated this was some kind of big deal.
“You’re kidding me, right?”
I wasn’t. I scooped a stack of envelopes from the chair and sat down.
“Wow,” he said. “You got to cut down on your working hours and get a life. Everyone in the country knows Mitzi Brochu. The Sultana of Style, the Queen of Cool, the High Priestess of…”
“Okay, I get the picture.”
I remembered Mitzi Brochu, a scrawny fashion writer and broadcaster, with a poison pen and a tongue like a switchblade.
The phone rang.
“Justice for Victims,” Alvin chirped. “No, I’m sorry, Mizzz MacPhee is in a staff meeting. No, no idea when. Sure, try later.”
He hung up before I could snatch the receiver from his hands.
“What meeting? What meeting am I in?”
“This is important. This woman can make or break you. Any chance you could skip home and put on your teal suit? And ditch those running shoes?”
“No, there is no chance I will skip anywhere. And, furthermore, this woman cannot make or break me. I am not trying to make a fashion statement, I am running an advocacy agency for victims of violent crime. I don’t give a shit about Mitchy Bitchy.”
“Mitzi Brochu,” said Alvin. “That’s too bad, because Robin said it was really important. Incredibly important. Let’s see, where did I put that message?”
He rummaged through the desk drawers one by one. Five minutes later, he located the message in the wastepaper basket and wiped a coffee spill from it.
“Harmony Hotel, this afternoon at 2:30. Suite…” he held the message up to the light, “it’s a bit washed out…but I think it’s Suite 815.”
“Come on. I’ve got to get ready for Ralph Benning’s parole hearing. And I’m way behind on the brief to the Department of Justice. Not to mention the membership drive…”
“Camilla, Camilla, Camilla. That’s what I’m here for, membership drives and that stuff. It’s called delegation, remember?”
“I do remember. I remember it was all here to do before you came and now you’ve been here for three weeks, it still is.”
“I’ll do it. I’ll do it. But first, why don’t I run over to the library and get you some background on Mitzi? You don’t want to put your foot in it.”
There was only one place where I wanted to put my foot. I thought about it. Sure would be easier to breathe in the minuscule office without Alvin. And easier to think without his radio. Really, that’s the way I had set it up. To work alone, long and hard. The three visitors’ chairs were just enough for the devastated crime victims and their relatives who found their shaky way to the office. The rest was all business. Phone, fax, photocopier and mile-high files. I loved my mingy little office—when Alvin wasn’t in it.