In this powerful, shocking and highly absorbing new work, Anne Cameron picks up a thread from her prize-winning novel Dreamspeaker, in which an eleven-year-old abuse survivor and runaway named Peter Baxter is taken from his adopted family - two reclusive Native elders - only to be destroyed by the child welfare system that supposedly exists to protect him. Cameron asks why more and more kids are at risk, in spite of official inquiries, public outcries and millions of taxpayer's dollars. She finds part of the answer in the "ordinary" nuclear family, presenting a technicolour nightmare of hand-me-down dysfunction spiked with the black humour reminiscent of her 1995 bestselling novel The Whole Fam Damily, and another part in the child welfare system that covers the butts of everyone except the kids.
Cousins Fran and Liz are children of parents who came from violent families, then grew up and started new violent families. By the time Fran has had a few children and a long procession of "difficult" fosters, she has begun to write down her family history and to realize just how deeply troubled her family is - back through who-knows-how-many generations. While Fran struggles to work out her past, Liz concentrates on her violin and music career and tries to forget her own traumatic childhood. But when Peter Baxter's tragic end hits the headlines, the story affects more people than just his family members and social workers. Everyone becomes involved, from his peers at the reform school to Fran and Liz and their families.
What's to be done? It's too late for Peter Baxter, but in the aftermath, one by one, people can stand up to the system and make a difference. Fran and Liz, who choose different ways to survive the horror of their childhoods, remain friends and allies as they repair the damage visited on their children and grandchildren. Anna Fleming, a social worker with an impossible case load, shows what caring really means. And Jackie, a kid who's never had a break, just keeps on running. Their story makes Aftermath both deeply moving and profoundly hopeful.close this panel
The new place wasn't bad, it was just so far from everyone Fran knew. Not just miles away, days away by bus. They lived within sight and sound of the rail line, and the little kids loved to run up the hill and stand waving like fury as the train thundered past, clickety-clack clickety-clack. The engineer aIways blew his whistle and the kids thought it was for them.
"He blows when you aren't there, too," Fran told them.
"That's to say hello, anyway," little Scotty insisted. He was so convinced Fran didn't have the heart to make him believe the truth.
There were two bedrooms, a small living room and a kitchen about big enough for you to sit at the table while frying bacon on the oil-burning stove. The bathroom was a partitioned-off section of what had been a big porch before it got closed in and called a spare room. "You can have that for your own," Jo-Beth said apologetically, but Fran shook her head. It was blistering hot in the summer and as cold as the Arctic in winter. Besides, who wants to have a washing machine and a dirty clothes basket in what's supposed to be your bedroom, and a back door without any kind of lock, where people can just saunter in if they want to and there's your bed, and no privacy at all? Might as well sleep in the middle of the highway, with the white line for a pillow.
She shared the bedroom with the little kids - probably a good decision, all things considered. There was a slide bolt on the inside, and even though Jo-Beth rambled on about What if there was a fire, how would I get in there to get you out, Fran slid that bolt shut at night. There were just too many yahoos she didn't know who wound up at the place after hours with a case of beer or two.
Jo-Beth was working as a dispatcher at the taxi office, and the best shift was the one where she left the house after supper and worked from eight at night until eight in the morning. After that shift she would come home, make breakfast for everyone, maybe even help Fran with the laundry or something, then go to bed and saw logs until suppertime. She'd get up, have a meal with them and be a mother until it was time to go to work. She supervised the bath, washed hair, laughed, smooched and let them watch while she put on her face and got ready for work. She was sober the whole time. But after the other shift, from eight in the morning to eight at night, she'd stop off at the pub for a couple of cold ones on her way home. And Jo-Beth was no more capable of having just a couple than she was capable of joining the Olympic snowshoe team. Fran knew it wasn't going to change, no matter how many promises Jo-Beth made. She just couldn't walk past a pub unless the door was locked.
And it seemed as if the rest of the world didn't want her to leave alone at closing time either. lf Jo-Beth came home with just one guy things weren't bad, and if that guy stayed two or three days things were all right, sometimes almost nice. It was when the whole damn troop arrived, and your life got invaded by people you didn't know from Adam's off-ox and didn't want to know either. Sometimes the mad hatter's beer party would go on for days. Fran hated Jo-Beth's days off. Either you didn't see her at all because she was at the pub or at someone else's place, or you saw too much of her and her noisy friends.
"Ah, don't be that way," Jo-Beth pleaded, "they just want to be friendly, that's all. God, Fran, the world isn't halfways near as bad as you seem to want to think it is."
"Wake up, Momma. Take a look at what it really is."
But not Jo-Beth, she wasn't going to look at anything ever again. "Put on his best clothes," she wept, "went off lookin' like some kind of movie star or something, and for all I know he stepped off the edge of the earth and fell up to the moon. Just gone."
Fran knew it was nothing of the sort. Fran knew what had happened. It was like watching a movie, a private movie in her head. There were only two possible versions, neither of them with a happy ending. Either big Scotty had lived or he had died. In either version, the cop was bear meat. The cop car hidden in a gully or a ravine or off the Malahat and down three hundred feet to the chuck, maybe with the cop and big Scott both still inside. She didn't know if Scotty had taken one of the handguns he'd lifted off a German he'd killed or if he'd used a violin string or a rolled-up magazine or any of the other things they'd taught him to use, but he'd done it, as sure as God made little green apples. Probably just waited in an alley until the cop came along the sidewalk playing his part, being the lawman, walking the beat. Then grab him by the elbow, swing him into the alley, the sharp outer edge of the hand on the end of the nose driving the nosebone up into the skull, then back into his own car, on the floor probably, and drive away as calm as calm could be. Or maybe wait in the parking lot outside the police station, the last place they'd think anyone would dare try it. For big Scotty it would be easy, he'd been trained by the best in the world. Thump, then drive away, obeying all the traffic laws. Maybe up Green Mountain, maybe along a logging road up Copper Canyon way, or maybe down the highway and off through Cowichan into Paldi or Youbou or any of two thousand places where a crumpled wreck would be raided by bears, ravens, wolves, mink and rats until only bones were left, then the salal, blackberry and you-name-it would cover the car completely, the alders would grow up and punch through the glass, and before long the thing would rot down so that even if someone did find it they would think it was just another ancient hunk of junk.
And either big Scotty was dead inside it with a bullet from. his own gun lodged in what was left of his skull, or he'd just as calm as anything caught the ferry to Vancouver and then a bus to Seattle or to Tampa, Florida. That one Fran didn't mind at all, Scotty working a charter fish boat out of Tampa, his hair bleached snow white by the same hot sun that had tanned his skin to the colour of arbutus bark. Barefoot, bare chested, in shorts or cutoff jeans, he ran his charter boat, catching bluefin and swordfish, drinking beer from. bottles kept cool in the fish hold where the crushed ice was loaded in by the half ton. Fran could almost smell him, see him standing at the wheel, his body layered in muscle, singing and ignoring the admiring looks of all those women. Scotty would never get married ever again, and he'd never have another family of kids, he wouldn't do that, he wouldn't betray or abandon them that way. He'd live on his boat, alone except for the people he took out on charters, and everyone would wonder what a good-lookin' man like him was doing on his ownsome.
If he wasn't dead he was on the run, and one way or the other they'd never see him again. Even if he wasn't her real dad, even if she'd been nearly a year old before he set eyes on her, she had thought he was her dad before she found out different. And maybe what you believe somehow becomes real. Maybe what seems to be, is. He'd have made three of any of these idiots, that's for sure. Even when she was drunk, Jo-Beth knew it. And cried, lots of times. "Oh, Fran, what am I going to do? I'm so scared."
Fran hated school. Nobody there said anything to her about Jo-Beth's parties, but she knew they knew, and she knew they talked about it to each other. They pretended to be friendly, but it was only pretend. Fran hated knowing the teachers sat in their coffee room and talked to each other about how sad it was, how awful, how difficult for the poor children. Poor, poor things. But she couldn't tell Jo-Beth how she felt because Jo-Beth would go into a fury and start slapping and hitting, with a kindling stick or a leather belt or the cord on the iron. Then not only did nothing change, but she had to go to school with welts on her arms and legs and even in wintertime with a long-sleeved sweater it was impossible to cover all of them. Then they had even more reason to say poor thing. Poor, poor little thing.
It was bad enough and scary enough when the men fought, but when the women started fighting it was horrible. Men - well, they do that, and you walk around always half expecting a fight to break out, especially if there's the smell of booze in the room. But when the women fight, you know things have gone as far as they can go before people go insane and start doing things like setting themselves on fire or carving their initials on their cheeks. The first time Fran saw women fighting all she could do was stand in the open doorway gaping. It wasn't like in some silly movie, with a lot of rolling around and hair-pulling and nobody's makeup getting smeared and the women looking as if they were practising to make love to the men. In real life, women fought just as mean and as hard and as awful as men, with grunts and punches and terrible scratching, like tigers, with long bleeding claw marks. You slimy cunt, I'll tear your fuckin' eyes out. You scabby twat, you'll be sorry.
And Jo-Beth watching, shaking her head and saying Good God, girls, try to be ladies, will you, and then laughing, as if some point had been proved. I mean, my God, girls, if you can't be ladies you're in trouble. Because whatever else she was, Jo-Beth was a lady. In her own mind, at least. She didn't roll on the floor grunting and cursing, nor stand there swinging away like a fool.
Even worse than that, the really awful one, the one Fran knew she would never get used to, was when some guy started hitting on his woman. And all the women would run to huddle together, calling out things like Oh, God, stop him, and Jesus, some of you guys do something, and Call the police, he'll kill her. The men sat there looking as if they wished they could put a stop to it, looking uneasy in the same way as if someone had suddenly decided to pee on a parking meter downtown. But they didn't interfere. So someone would get well and truly beaten to shit by someone who was bigger, heavier and way lots stronger, someone who would be ashamed to beat up a man half his size but thought it okay to teach the old lady a goddamn lesson, by God.
All through the good weather, all through the fall and into the start of the cold season, one party after another and nothing but noise going on so much of the time.
The weather was another shock to the system. This wasn't the Island, with lots of rain and fog but no real bitter cold, This was the Interior, and Jo-Beth was right when she said Don't let your nose drip or it'll freeze and you'll have an icicle going from your top lip right up into your sinuses. It was so cold that your nose would bleed from. it. You couldn't put enough blankets on the bed. Not even Christmas time and you had to have hot water bottles in the bed before you could bear to crawl in between the sheets.