Family Life

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Chapter ONE

January 2005

Richard dreamed he was lying half-drowned on a beach while a group of women and children pointed and laughed at him. He heard faint music, but it wasn’t sweet. It was menacing. Water gurgled sporadically from his mouth, as though he were a damaged fountain gargoyle. Carol was there, dressed in rags, but he didn’t recognize anyone else. He was guilty of something, but what? Racked with guilt. Wracked. Wrack was seaweed washed up on shore. Washed up. His legs were covered with small, sharp things that pricked his skin and felt like needles entering his bones to their aching marrow. He tried to brush the tormentors away and a few small crabs fled, but the other blue-black things clung. The colour of barnacles, but not barnacles. Creatures with teeth and claws.

He woke with a cry of fear, and Carol reached out and stroked his forehead, saying, “It’s all right, Richard, you’re safe.”

Both his legs were in casts. His concussion had turned out to be mild, thanks to plaster rather than timbers or toilets striking his head. Carol, her left arm in a cast and her ribs taped, had been released from hospital. She was visiting Richard before she went to meet the parents of their boarder, Jenny, at a funeral parlour. They had flown in from Montreal to take her body home.

“Bad dream,” Richard said. “I’m all right.” What a hollow phrase, he thought. More often than not a lie, a glib social lie.

When his head cleared enough to understand Carol’s mission, he asked her if she’d bought a card of condolence, and when she said she hadn’t yet, he told her his requirements for the card, so particular that he could tell it was all Carol could do not to lose patience with him.

“Not one of those white lily things, you know — embossed. They’re so gloomy. Dire. Sorry, odd word. It is dire, after all. Not too much colour, of course, but maybe a little — a pale-yellow rose, maybe, although Jenny was such a red rose, if she were a flower, wasn’t she? And no verse; no soppy verse. I’ll write something. Oh God, what will I write?”

“Write that she was a wonderful girl and you were very fond of her and so glad to have known her — something like that,” Carol said.

“Very fond. It seems too lukewarm. It was more than that, but I can’t presume to say I loved her, can I? After knowing her such a short time? Not to her parents.”

“Say something conventional. Write a letter to them later, when you’ve had some time. You’ll think of the right things to say.”

“No, you write in the card, from both of us. Say I’ll write later. Or I’ll phone them. We can talk on the phone. I wish I could have been the one to tell them. I feel it was my duty. It shouldn’t have happened. We shouldn’t have let it happen.”

“Look at me, Richard. And listen. We didn’t let it happen. It was an accident. An accident.”

Richard said nothing, looked away.

Carol took his chin in her hand and turned his face toward her, as though he were a pouting child. “Say it.”

“An accident,” he said flatly.

It had happened less than forty-eight hours earlier. He had heard the roar first; an unearthly, apocalyptic sound. He’d thought absurdly of gods hurling boulders, thundering, throwing down lightning bolts. He should run, but which way? When the river of mud crashed through the living room ceiling, he was thrown to the floor. Something fell across his legs and he screamed in pain. Things were still falling, and he put his arms up to shield his head. When he dared to look, he saw all around him chairs, lamps, bureau drawers, clothes. Jesus! He lay perfectly still in the cold mud, most of which had rushed past him, smashing the French doors on the way out. He was held somewhere between panic and numbness, each vying for supremacy. After a while, a terrible stillness fell.

Carol. Where is she? He tried to call her but his voice broke, rasping like an animal’s. He tried again.

“Carol!” A croaking sound. Not loud enough. Try again. “Carol!”

“Here, Richard. I’m here. In the dining room.”

“Are you okay? Are you hurt? Christ, Carol, what the hell happened?” Panic was winning.

“I think I’m all right. Are you?” Her voice was weak, but he thought she was trying to sound brave.

Brave, Richard thought, and then the word floated away.

“I’m okay,” he said. With an effort he tried to push himself up, but his hands slipped and he fell down again. His back was wet and cold. The oak bookcase was across his shins and books lay everywhere in the swamp of mud. My books are drowning. Why that phrase?

Oh, yes. He’d been reading by the fireplace, which was gone now. Its tiles lay in shards. Bathroom sink from upstairs on the floor. Furniture upside down. Floorboards hanging. Chunks of plaster. The cliff above must have tried to bury them. Not tried. No. Pathetic fallacy. Act of God. No God. Act of nature. Fuck! Completely random fucking catastrophe.

Yes. By the fireplace. He had been reading The Tempest, because of Jenny, thinking of Jenny, beginnings of an erection. A pleasurable guilt. No. Shouldn’t.

“Richard. What are you doing?” Fear in Carol’s voice. “Can you come to me?”

His heart thumped. A moan escaped him. “No, I’m trapped. Can you move?”

“I’m squashed up against the wall. Our mattress fell on me.”

“Mattress? In the dining room?” Why not? The toilet is now in the living room.

“I thought it might smother me, but it’s leaning on something. A chair is pressing me into the corner.”

“Oh, Jesus. Carol, I’m going to try to get free, come to you.” He managed this time to sit up. It was awful now. Timbers creaked. The whoosh of heavy rain lashed the house. Plaster and dust and water fell in sudden flurries. Something more was going to come down. Maybe the whole upper floor would fall on him. On Carol.

And Jenny! Oh god. Was she here? “Jenny! Jenny! Answer me, please, Jenny!”


“I think Jenny’s gone to class,” Carol called.

He could hear she was suffering, but fear overcame his sympathy. “You think? You think? Shit. Has she or hasn’t she?”

“Richard, please calm down. Don’t panic. Please.”

“Don’t panic? The house has fallen on us and I don’t know where Jenny is. I’m trying to lift the bookcase off my legs.” He tightened his arm muscles, willed them to be steel-like, lifted the case an inch or two, but it dropped back down and he yelled.


He steadied his voice. “I’m all right.”

On his next try, he lifted the bookcase high enough and long enough to free his right leg. With his arms straight out and straining, it was going to require a terrible twist of his body to push the bookcase to the left and shift his left leg to the right. He couldn’t get any traction and his shoulders were giving out. He lost his grip and the bookcase dropped the last inch and thudded onto his leg again and he fell back and began to cry and then everything went dark.

He woke to see black rubber boots and yellow rubber pants. A man looking at him.

“Can you hear me, sir?”

Richard tried to sit up, but the man squatted, put his arms around Richard’s shoulders, and gently eased him down. “Don’t move now,” he said. “We’re bringing a stretcher in. You’re going to be all right.”

“I feel dizzy.”

“Probably a concussion. Some of the ceiling seems to have fallen on you.”

There were things he should remember. What were they? Carol, yes. “My wife?”

“She’s all right. She’s in the ambulance. You’ll see her soon.”

“Is she badly hurt?”

“No, a broken arm. Maybe a cracked rib.”

And then he remembered. “Jenny,” he said. “Where’s Jenny?” He called her name, once, twice, his voice rising to a wail.

“Sir, sir, please stay calm. Is there someone else in the house?”

“Yes, Jenny. She boards here. I don’t know if she left for class. She has an afternoon class.”

“Okay. Just a minute. I’ll check.” He went away. Came back after what seemed like a long time. “Yes, your wife told us about her. We’ve looked around already. But we’ll look again. Don’t worry.”

“Don’t worry! Who the fuck are you people? Can’t you do a proper search?” He began to whimper like a child and was crying uncontrollably as they loaded him into the ambulance.

They found Jenny’s body in her bedroom. The roof had fallen on her and she’d been crushed and buried under the debris. Richard, concussed and in shock, wasn’t told about her until the following day.

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