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Authors: Susan Swan

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BOOK: The Wives of Bath

Naturally, I didn’t want to go away and leave Morley. Maybe my father wasn’t everybody’s idea of Captain Courageous, but he came closer than anybody else to my all-time favourite hero, John F. Kennedy.

From what I’d read about Kennedy, I knew he’d never send his daughter, Caroline, to a girls’ boarding school. If Sal had tried that on him, why, he would have slammed the door of his bubble-top limousine and hurried up the steps in that way of his which kept people from noticing his sore, stooped back. Then he would have thrown himself across the entrance, barring the door with his body.

“Look he-ah, Sal,” he’d say. “It’s not natural to stick anybody in a girls’ school, cut off from her family. It’s not how the real world is, Sal, back where I come from.” And Sal would crumple up like a used Kleenex and throw her arms around my knees and beg my forgiveness.

The Trouble with Alice

Alice has always caused me problems. Children don’t like her because she’s a hump. I hold Victor Hugo responsible. And the actor Lon Chaney. Quasimodo had a hump in the back
the front. Plus protruding teeth and the zits that Victor Hugo politely referred to as “wens.”

I don’t look like Quasimodo, but when children notice me coming, that’s who they see—Lon Chaney in the film version of
The Hunchback of Notre Dame
. A double-humped, one-eyed creature with legs that touch at the knees, like sickles. Never mind how nice Quasimodo was in his heart. Children don’t think of that. They see a monster when they look at me, and then they behave in ways I’d still rather not talk about. When I was twelve they threw rotten oranges at me on my way home from school. That was when Sal first mentioned Bath Ladies College.

“Won’t the girls treat her worse there?” Morley asked.

“Don’t be silly,” Sal said. “They like misfits at those sorts of places.”

And Morley, the fool, replied: “Well, Sal, you’re a woman. I guess you know best.”

In the front seat, Morley answered Sal’s question. “Yes, Sal, it’s too late to change our minds now.”

“Good,” Sal said, and fiddled with her hat for the tenth time. “Because Mouse doesn’t want to go back to the Landing. What would Norman Vincent Peale think about a girl who gave up on a place before she even tried it?” Sal paused. “He’d think she was a quitter, wouldn’t he, Mouse?”

I had to hand it to Sal. Norman Vincent Peale and his persistence principle was an old favourite of mine. I used to read his column in
magazine with the same intensity that Sal read her
favourite feature in
The Ladies’ Home Journal
, “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Once I made the mistake of consulting Reverend Peale about Morley.

Dear Mr. Peale,

Sal and I have tried every way we know to perswade my father to take a full day off for Christmas. He hardly ever vacations. He is an elderly man and is not as young as he used to be. I am afraid he may dye from an attack of overwork,
give me some advise.

Hopefully yours,
Mary Beatrice

I didn’t get an answer for two whole years, and I knew I’d got the address right: 488 Madison Avenue, New York, New York. Then I found my letter in Sal’s corsage cupboard, and my big ears burned over the laugh she and Morley must have had about it. I didn’t say a word to her about the letter. I slipped it into my pocket, and later I corrected the spelling mistakes and sent it off. Soon enough, Reverend Peale wrote back.

Dear Miss Bradford,

Keep working on your father. Remember! Plugging away will win the day.


His answer should have made me feel better but I never wrote to him again.

Morley was doing a very Morley-like thing, revving the engine of the Olds. It wasn’t a good omen for me. Morley usually revved a car when he was uncomfortable.

Finally, between a long
, he said: “You’re a good old girl, aren’t you, Mouse?”

Morley only called me a good old girl when he wanted something from me. And for a tenth of a second, his big, sad eyes found mine in the mirror. I nodded without thinking. Relieved, he lumbered out of the Olds and walked around to open the door for Sal. It was embarrassing the way Morley forgot about my presence. He stood in front of the school, grinning down at Sal as she tottered out of the car on her spike heels. She caught her balance, and in perfect “A”-mood form, the little flirt smiled up at her great god Morley.

I prayed in the back seat that Morley would look over at me and say he’d reconsider. Oh, Morley, I muttered, if you take me back home, I’ll worship you like Sal. I’ll even rush over to you with the Madoc’s Landing
, the way the nurses do when you walk through the door of Lennox Street General. Yes, cross my heart and hope to die, I’m ready, like Sal and all the others, to serve the legendary Morley Bradford, the tallest doctor in Guilford Township—six feet seven inches in his stocking feet. A giant who stays up all night playing poker with the boys at the Grand and then operates next morning fresh as a daisy. Morley, please. If you do me this favour, I’ll be as devoted to you as I am to President Kennedy.

But standing on the steps of Bath Ladies College, Morley looked like he always did: a big Morley balloon who’d float away if he weren’t anchored to the ground by a pair of huge oxblood wing tips. The rest of my father, starting with the wide cuffs of his baggy grey flannels, billowed upwards out of my reach. Morley was a human dirigible growing in volume through the vested midriff and ending far above me in a big distracted balloon head. His smoky blue eyes were fixed on a spot on the horizon I couldn’t see.

Then Sal pointed at me and Morley did a double take. He
mumbled, “Oh, there you are, Mouse,” as if I had deliberately disappeared from view when I fumbled with my door handle. I glanced down, as if I didn’t mind him overlooking me, and handed out my crutches. Then slowly, very slowly, I swung my feeble legs out of the car.


“To dig a hole, you must use a spade properly. Push with the ball of your instep—the ridge just behind your toes. See, Sergeant, how I hold the spade with one hand and kick it once into the ground?”

In a grove of elms, a large, white-haired woman was showing an odd little man how to dig a garden. She was twice his size and dressed in strange clothes for gardening—a tailored charcoal suit and high heels, although her snub-nosed pumps were the kind of shoes Sal calls “serviceable.” Not the fancy kind, with toes so pointed you could kick out the eye of a snake. The little man’s feet were hidden inside a child’s pair of rubber boots. His overalls were kid-size too and he wore a Glengarry tam, or what the curlers in Madoc’s Landing call a bonspiel hat. Every so often he bent down and patted a little corgi dog who sat at his feet. He was a dwarf.

Two figures stood nearby, a tall man, close to Morley’s height, whom I guessed was European because he had a long, wilted moustache, and the men who wore moustaches in Madoc’s Landing always came from Poland or someplace like that. He stood crouching over a wheelbarrow, handing chrysanthemums to a slender teenage boy in an old peaked hunting cap and khaki pants, who plopped the flowers into the freshly dug holes the older woman was digging. The boy looked gloriously wet and dirty.

The tall woman spied us and stopped digging. Smiling, she held
up one of her palms to the heavens and I realized it had stopped drizzling, although the sun was nowhere in sight and the sky was still oyster-coloured behind the school’s moisture-soaked lawns and stone buildings. Morley and Sal waited awkwardly, as if they, too, were new girls, while the woman lurched over to us, taking a short cut through one of the flower beds, so that the heels of her sensible pumps sunk halfway into the earth.

“Hello, cousin Morley.” She held out a large hand to Morley, who shook it shyly, shifting back and forth on the pavement from one wing tip to the other. “And this must be your new wife, Mrs. Bradford.” Her whispery voice sounded like the sulky voice of a girl. And yet the size of her made me think of a man. I looked at her curiously. Was she one of those creatures Sal calls a half-and-half? I’d never seen any man or woman quite like her. She was as big and round as a giant Toby jug, and I thought she looked the way Chaucer’s Wife of Bath might have looked if she had stepped into the twentieth century: broad in the behind and out for herself, and the rest of the world could go hang. I knew there was a special breed of women like this who lived outside the rules of men, and I guessed she was one of them, whether she loved women in private or not. She wore her white hair parted in the middle and held flat against her large head with a pair of child’s barrettes. In the back, it was twisted into a sausage roll that was kept in place by a black hairnet. Her suit was rumpled, the way my clothes look if I stay outdoors too long. Its jacket was cut too loosely around her large shoulders, and she hadn’t bothered to wipe off the chalk smudges I noticed on its cuffs. I could tell Sal didn’t know what to make of her, either, and I saw her move just a little closer to Morley.

“Hello, Miss Vaughan,” Sal said nervously.

“Call me Vera, Mrs. Bradford.” She saw Sal looking at her muddy heels and smiled. “If Sergeant would only use a spade properly, I wouldn’t have to ruin my Sunday shoes. But I can’t
have him getting one of his backaches.” She chuckled, and Morley and Sal and I all made chuckling sounds, too.

“Aye-aye! Only blisters.” The dwarf sauntered over to us, the corgi at his heels. The little dog capered twice round the tiny man, who made a funny, two-fingered salute at the headmistress behind her back, but she turned and scowled at him with her aggrieved, circle-ringed eyes. He stopped dead in his tracks and hung his head, and his little dog squatted down too, like Lady, our golden retriever, when Morley tells her to sit.

“And you must be Mary,” the headmistress said, turning her back on the dwarf. “It’s always a pleasure to meet a member of the family.” I felt my chest tighten. I didn’t know how to answer her.

“Mary Beatrice is very shy,” Sal said. “She won’t talk until she feels at home.”

“I understand. I’m shy, too.” The headmistress waved at the teenage boy planting mums with the tall gardener. “Mary Beatrice,” she said, “I want you to meet Lewis. I’ve put you in a room with his sister, Paulie.”

The boy strolled over, clenching and unclenching his fists. His hands were large for his size and muscular and he walked like the boys in Madoc’s Landing, who always shuffle their feet, as if the impulse to move starts with their big toes. Girls, where I come from, walk with a swaying pelvis and put their toes down last. “How do you do?” he said, and bowed. I couldn’t take my eyes off the back of his neck, where his hair below the cap was shaved as short and sparse as the hair in front of a kitten’s ears. I wished I could shave my hair like that.

“Having a good look, are yuh?” he hissed under his breath. He sounded spiteful, as if he wanted to hurt me. One of his front teeth was missing.

He’s uneducated, I thought. And he thinks I’m looking down on him. I turned my head away shyly and pretended I didn’t hear what he said.

Then he pointed to the Olds, where my steamer trunk sat in the back seat. “Can I carry in the new girl’s suitcase?” he asked. In my heart of hearts, I admit I felt pleased.

“Thank you, Lewis. This is a job for Sergeant,” Miss Vaughan said.

“That half-pint!” Lewis made a grab for the dwarf’s hat, and the corgi rushed at the boy and tried to bite his pantleg, but the headmistress grabbed the dog’s collar and pulled it back.

“Lewis—that’s enough! Now get a move on—both of you!” the headmistress snapped, and then she smiled hugely again, as if she’d come to her senses and remembered we were still listening, “When Sergeant has shown Mary Beatrice to her room, he’ll bring her to the tea party so she can join the other girls.”

Now the headmistress pointed toward another stretch of apple-green, and for the first time I dared to look at the group of girls and their parents I’d heard chatting to one another in high, excited voices under a dripping canopy. Not one girl had on a green tunic; they all wore long navy tea dresses. I looked down anxiously at my shiny black oxfords. What an overeager idiot they’d think I was, coming to school already in uniform.

Morley looked at his watch. “I’m afraid we must get on our way,” he sighed. “I’ve got surgery back in Madoc’s Landing.” He leaned over and patted me hard on the cheek with the back of his hand—Morley’s way of kissing good-bye.

“Good-bye, Daddy,” I whispered with my best fake smile.

I didn’t really need crutches. I used to pretend I did to make Morley take pity on me. Then Sal got it in her head that I should never go anywhere without them, and I was too proud to admit I’d been faking. Of course, sometimes my lower back did get tired. And my left side gave out a bit. I liked to go to bed when that happened, but Sal wouldn’t let me. “Pretend you’re a victim of a
skiing accident, or a hero who’s been wounded in the Second World War,” she told me.

That first morning at Bath Ladies College, the dwarf named Sergeant and I stood together in a huge stone reception foyer. The dwarf pointed out the niches in the wall where suits of armour had once stood. Another large reception area, to my left, had been cordoned off, as if to protect its shelves of library books, a slew of high-backed garden benches, and a dilapidated billiard table the size of a swimming pool—leftovers from Sir Jonathon. Meanwhile, all around us girls in navy dresses rushed at one another, shrieking and embracing. I clenched my teeth and pretended I didn’t hear when the dwarf told me to look at the parquet floor. Its herringbone pattern changed from shades of light to dark, depending on where you stood. As if I cared about its stupid design. It was bad enough to be wearing the wrong thing and carrying crutches, but to be paired up with a pint-sized man made me feel mortified.

I followed him silently down a long corridor whose polished blond floors felt slippery underfoot and smelled to high heaven of fresh paste wax. I tried not to look at our reflections in the shiny wood: his short torso rolling from side to side like the sailors on the government wharf in the Landing, and mine rolling with a slight forward teeter. On either side of us, the walls were festooned with pictures of old graduating classes and plaques listing scholarship winners in gold script. On one plaque I saw the words “The Ten Commandments of Friendship.” I just had time to read number five (“Be cordial—speak and act as if everything you do is a genuine pleasure”) and number six (“Be genuinely interested in people—you
like everybody if you try”).

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