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Authors: Susan Swan

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BOOK: The Wives of Bath

Then we turned a corner, and before us, rising up over our heads, floor upon floor, was an old staircase whose railings seemed to spin skyward in endless circles that finished finally in a huge round skylight. It was like looking up into a scrawly drawing of a giant eye. I dreaded the climb on my thin legs, but we went up
slowly, the dwarf puffing and staggering under the weight of my old steamer trunk. It bumped loudly over each step, and I began to feel sorry for him.

At the first landing, he stopped to catch his breath. “Blasted bloody things,” he said. “They’re worse than hauling a coffin.” Then he took off his curling cap and gestured with it toward an oil painting. “The English headmistress,” he said. “Our first and last.” A robust woman dressed in Edwardian cycling clothes stared back at us. She appeared to be sitting on a large tricycle.

“Isn’t she a holy terror?” The dwarf genuflected in front of the picture. I didn’t know if he was mocking her. The fierce pop eyes under her dome-shaped forehead made her look as if she could see right through you. Startled, I read the words inscribed in stone beside the portrait.

My dear girls,

The work our maker has assigned for you on earth must be carried out to the best of your abilities until that great day when material symbols are replaced by the reality of life everlasting.

Yours in faith,
Viola Higgs

I wondered why she was riding such an odd-looking tricycle but I didn’t want to gratify my guide by asking questions. We began to climb again, going higher and higher into the strange tower. The dwarf had started to flip my trunk ass-over-teakettle, although I couldn’t see how that made the climb easier.

At the top of the fourth landing, I heard giggles. Young girls’ heads suddenly peeped out of doors that opened along a narrow corridor with a low ceiling.

“It’s only the grade sevens,” the dwarf said. He let my trunk
crash down in another flip. Immediately, a frightened-looking woman in a housecoat flew out one of the doors and ran toward us waving her arms. Her dyed red hair was in curlers, and both her cheeks looked abnormally swollen, as if she had stuffed them with cotton batting.

“You have no business disturbing the blue wing,” she said in a high, nervous voice. “The girls are having their nap. Please leave at once!”

The dwarf began to giggle and wave his arms back at her, and the laughter of the girls grew louder. He shook his big head at them and pursed his tiny mouth.
“Ssssh-ssssh-ssssh!” he
said. He was half the matron’s height, and hardly taller than her small charges, now standing boldly beside me in the corridor. Then, before she could say another word, the dwarf yanked my trunk toward the next flight of stairs and in an unexpected show of strength dragged it out of sight without stopping for a breath.

I dragged myself up the last flight of stairs into the tower. My lower back ached a little now, and I took one of the aspirins from the bottle I carried with me for these occasions. We stood facing a narrow circular corridor lined with tall doors. The dwarf said these rooms used to be the servants’ quarters, but the school had made them into music cubicles. Some of the doors bore little brass plaques with religious inscriptions by Anglicans like Frances Ridley Havergal, whose hymns we sometimes sang at the church in Madoc’s Landing. These inscriptions used military phrases, such as “standard bearers” and “chosen to be a soldier,” and their cheerful tone made me sad for no good reason.

The dwarf pushed open the last door and tugged me by the sleeve into a high, narrow room.

“Haven’t you got all the luck!” he said, and giggled. “You’re in the bedroom of the English headmistress—the best room in the house.” He lowered his voice and pointed at the ceiling, where I saw a dusty globe fastened to a metal hook. “That’s what she
hanged herself on.” Anxiously, I looked around. I wondered if he was teasing me. It might be the best room in the school, but I didn’t see much to be glad about except the view. The east window looked down on a parking lot and a two-car garage (where the dwarf told me he and the other janitor, a Czech named Willy, had a tiny room). Beyond lay the dark, leafy mass of the ravine, which crawled up the hill like a rash toward the manicured grounds of the school. The south window overlooked a very grand stone patio surrounded by the funny spindly trees whose name I found out later was camperdown elms. Off to the southwest I could see the silver towers of the city, which sat like the Land of Oz on a merry blue stripe of lake water.

Directly below, on a knoll beside the patio, I saw the canopy where the parents were still having their tea party. The sun was now almost fully out, and I could hear the adults’ happy voices chattering like birds after a rainstorm. I walked around my room aimlessly. It was plainly furnished: three continental beds evenly spaced between three dressers. Lined white cards were stuck inside the mirror on each dresser. On one I read the name Victoria Quinn, and on the other, Pauline Sykes. A bulletin board hung over each bed. A grainy old poster for the movie
King Kong
was pinned to the first board. The second displayed a picture of the Calypso singer Harry Belafonte next to a scroll in embossed yellow script, which read:
“Woman is descended from Adam’s side to be his equal, near his arm to be protected and close to his heart to be loved.”
I guessed the poster belonged to Victoria Quinn. On her dresser sat a framed photograph of a blond boy in a brush cut. The photo was signed, “As always, Rick.” Next to it I saw a matted hairbrush, a bulging makeup case, a crockery pot spilling over with alpine flowers, and a package of Cameos. I smiled. I had something in common with one roommate.

“Aye, that’s the spirit,” the dwarf said in a friendlier tone. He handed me a black licorice in the shape of a pipe. “Would you have one of my sweets?”

I shook my head no, even though licorice candy was my fav, and he laid it down anyway on top of my trunk.

“Now, don’t mind if you’re homesick for a bit. It passes. And then one day—bingo! You wake up and, just like that, you’re an old girl.” He stood on tiptoe, looking up at the Cameos. “The matron will have Victoria’s head for that. She’s a careless girl.” Suddenly we both heard a noisy commotion outside the window, and the dwarf stood on one of the trunks to look. “What have we here!” He clapped his little hand to his forehead. “Trespassers! Don’t they know old Sergeant is king of the castle?”

Behind the tent, a row of male bodies was slithering over a tall wire fence, which I realized must encircle the full length of the grounds. I watched as, one by one, they dropped to the ground, some falling on their sides or backs. Their bodies looked toy-sized from my high window. Quickly they unfurled a banner and began to chant in unison at the startled tea-party guests.

Ripping folly!
Beastly jolly!
Bath Ladies College
is ours—rah!

On the lawn, some of the girls in navy tea dresses screamed as their parents stood looking at each other in confusion. Then the boys began to chant their verse again, even more loudly. A few of their members shook cowbells. In front of me, the dwarf banged the window with his fist. “Now where is that bloody Lewis when we need him? Wait! There he is! No, by God—it’s the Virgin!”

I looked down. The headmistress stood in the midst of the crowd. In her hands she held a garden hose. She stood with her legs squarely apart and pointed the hose at the intruders, who stared for a moment in shock at the iridescent spray of water falling on their heads. A moment later, they turned and scrambled back
up the wire fence. The water soaked their banner, changing the words “Bath Ladies College is ours” into a watery smear.

Then I noticed a turquoise convertible winding its way through the weeping willows. I made a little choking sound and looked around, in case Sergeant was listening. But he’d disappeared. I heard him cursing as he ran down the long hall, on his way to chase off the last of the intruders.


Mouse, you are grotesque, I told myself in the drafty bedroom. I stood staring into the mirror, hating the sly, wise face that stared solemnly back at me. The lips of its thin, lopsided mouth didn’t move. See, it agrees with you, I thought.

I lay down on my bed. I didn’t want to unpack or do anything else that felt like admitting I
there. I decided not to change my clothes. The moment I took off my blouse, some girl would walk in and see my twisted shoulder, Alice Hump.

Most of the time I hardly knew she was there. Of course, Alice aches a little when I’ve done something like climb five flights of stairs, and there are days when she wears me out entirely; she’s like a suitcase that gets heavier the longer you carry it. But she’s not really a nuisance. It’s only when I undress and notice my vertebrae sticking out like tractor treads on my left shoulder that I know for sure that Alice will always be with me.

Finally, I sat up and stuck my best photo of Morley in my dresser mirror. I also put up one of my real mother and a few of President Kennedy. Then I opened my trunk. On top of the neatly folded tunics, Sal had left the school’s list of outfits, each checked off with her messy blue ballpoint:

Navy winter coat
Green woollen tunics
Navy woollen knickers
Navy beret (for use with tunics)
Cotton bodices or brassieres (for older girls only)
Navy afternoon dress for teas and church
Purple Viyella long-sleeved blouses with collar (to wear with tunic)

Beside the list lay Sal’s going-away present to me—a new copy of
The Power of Positive Thinking
. I slammed the lid of the trunk back down and went off to find the washroom.

He was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Lewis. He looked slighter in the shadowy cubicle, washing his face. He had the kind of insolent mouth fathers and ticket takers hate. A full mouth that spread like a hostile ripple across his bony face.

He wasn’t making a sound, although he was obviously enjoying his masculine ritual. He was lost in it, daydreaming, the way I’d seen Sal do as she sat for a perm, or he’d have noticed me by the door. First he pulled out a brush from a brown shaving pot and began to smear white foam over his cheeks and neck. Then he took out an old-fashioned long-handled razor and began to shave slowly. He used one hand to pull the skin up by his left eye as the other scraped the razor down his left cheek. He did the same thing with his throat, only here he used his hand to pull the skin down while the razor slowly shaved up his neck. Then he pulled his upper lip down over his front teeth so he could shave under his nostrils, careful not to cut his lip. He moved now to his right cheek, pursing his lips the way I’d seen Morley do when he didn’t know I was watching.

Now he stopped and wiped his hand on a towel, sucking on his cigarette so deeply that it pointed to the floor. After this virtuoso act, he took what was left of his fag and placed it on a window ledge, where it began to burn a black mark into the wood. I must have made a startled sound, because he looked up and saw me.

Before I could stop myself, I let out a little screech. Lewis quickly threw his butt out the window and sprayed the room with hair spray from a nearby shelf. Pushing past me, he hissed: “Say a word about this to anyone and you’ll be sorry.”

I listened for his footsteps, but the tower seemed to have swallowed Lewis up. The scent of hair spray lingered around me.

My screech attracted two matrons. I didn’t mention Lewis by name, but I said I’d seen a boy in the washroom. They set off in a panic, flinging open bedroom doors up and down the hall. Their peevish voices questioned the other new girls, who must have been unpacking. And then they came back and questioned me all over again. I began to feel uneasy about protecting Lewis, and the second matron misunderstood my evasive tone. With a snakelike flick of her tongue, she loosened her front teeth from her gums and then snapped them, clacking, back into place. I realized she was too angry to speak. Then she said: “We don’t appreciate practical jokes at Bath Ladies College. Any more complaints like this and I’ll give you a gating.”


That evening I was sitting on my bed with my hands over my ears when my roommates walked in. A bell as loud as a fire alarm was reverberating through the tower. Now it died away, and the school seemed weirdly quiet except for the sound of running tap water coming from the bathroom. Up and down the corridor, girls were getting ready for bed.

I didn’t know what to say to these two grade-eleven girls. I’d skipped two grades, so they looked years older and bigger than me. One was very tall, with dark, heavy-lidded eyes and a skinny, sneering mouth. She moved with the confidence of an acrobat and wore her oily black hair combed across her forehead, while a long braid hung like a tassel between her shoulder blades. She reminded me of somebody.

The beauty of the other old girl made me stop breathing. Her milk-blond hair and high, plump cheeks made me want to hum Morley’s favourite song about the girl that he marries having to be as soft and as pink as a nursery. I guessed she belonged to the gold-script poster and the alpine flowers—Victoria Quinn in the flesh. And her friend had to be Pauline Sykes, whose brother, Lewis, I’d caught shaving in the washroom.

“Are you goin’ to get your bath ticket?” Pauline Sykes asked, breaking our silence. I noticed she dropped her g’s the way people did in Dollartown, a village outside Madoc’s Landing. When I don’t eat my vegetables, Sal always asks if I’d like to move to
Dollartown, where all people have to eat are Dollartown steaks—i.e., slabs of fried baloney.

I didn’t answer. I felt a little frightened of Pauline Sykes without knowing why.

“Do I have to tell you again? Get your bath ticket.”

“I don’t want a bath,” I whispered finally.

“C’mon, Paulie. Drop it,” Victoria Quinn said.

“Spoilsport.” Pauline Sykes withdrew to her side of the room and sat down on a chair facing the wall. Then, slowly and loudly, she began to bang her head against the wall. Each thump made the wall quiver with a little ringing noise, and the mirrors above our dressers shook. Almost immediately our door opened, and the frightened-looking matron seemed to fall into the room. She’d taken out her rollers, and two springy kiss curls sprang out of her forehead like the coiled horns of a ram.

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