From the bestselling author Anne Cameron comes a novel that puts the fun back in dysfunctional - a light-hearted look at the trials and tribulations of a family that defines disadvantage.
Arguing, nagging and fighting are the main pastimes in the Lancaster household - usually over the family businesses of
bootlegging and marijuana growing. The father of the Lancaster family once ran a moonshine operation in an abandoned coal mine and lived the romantic life of a boot-legger, providing cheap booze to the less fortunate. With the changing times, he turns from hooch to marijuana. When a family member returns home from a trip to the US with a gang of unsavoury characters, who begin producing more potent and lethal drugs in the abandoned coal mine - it is up to the disjointed Lancasters to unite and oust the mobsters who represent a threat to this one point of family solidarity.
About the author
Anne Cameron was born in Nanaimo, BC. She began writing at an early age, starting with theatre scripts and screenplays. In 1979, her film Dreamspeaker, directed by Claude Jutra, won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best script. After being published as a novel, Dreamspeaker went on to win the Gibson Award for Literature. She has published more than 30 books, including the underground classic Daughters of Copper Woman, its sequel, Dzelarhons, novels, stories, poems and legends - for adults and children. Her most recent novels are Family Resemblances, Hardscratch Row, and a new, revised edition of Daughters of Copper Woman. She lives in Tahsis, BC
Excerpt: Those Lancasters (by (author) Anne Cameron)
For two days they travelled up the coast, stopping in whichever small cove or bay took their fancy. They dove off the side of the boat into the cold water, swam back to the aluminum ladder, climbed up it to the deck, and got in line for another chilly plunge. They introduced the kids to face mask and snorkel. They fished for cod and cooked it on the barbecue the advertising said was portable but which had required several men to move from the pickup, down the ramp, through the marina, to the boat. The bottle of propane was easier; Colleen carried it, but, of course, she didn't have a whack of kids' stuff to help lug.
They teased each other, played cards in the evening, ate their faces off and slept quickly and well, and on the morning of the third day started home. Their first night home, with everyone else in bed and sleeping, Al sat on the porch with a pot of tea, a package of cigarettes, and both dogs for company. He watched the clouds move across the face of the enormous-seeming red-tinged late summer moon.
After a long while he got to his feet, stretched and took the dogs to their pen. He checked the water dish, slipped each of them a biscuit from the wooden box with the hinged lid, then slowly and thoughtfully he walked the skid trail, past Colleen's house, heading into the bush.
He could have made the trip in the dark blindfolded: his feet avoided the bumps, the rocks and the ruts without any help from his head. He turned and headed into the big black hole, found a flashlight and moved to the pavilion.
He ignored the grow lights, the humidity gauges, the expensive commercial greenhouse thermometers that controlled the temperatures. He even ignored the initials and names carved in the overhead beams. He spent a long time looking at the mementoes of their childhood "fort," then sighed deeply. He sat on the backside-smoothed block of wood, lit a new cigarette and smoked it slowly, then stood, rubbed his face with his hands, and moved to the entrance to what they had always called the hole- behind-the-hole.
He crawled on his belly, and as his feet left the pavilion, his arms were reaching down to the floor of the cubby. He pulled himself through, found and flipped the switch for the trouble light, then set to work.
There were eight heavy cardboard boxes, thirty-two inches long, twenty-six inches across and twenty-six inches high. There had been nine, but that was before they decided to go ahead with Lindy's house and the new motel. One by one he pushed the boxes through the short tunnel, shoving them ahead of him as he crawled his way back. He was amazed when he realized he was weeping. But dammit, he had his kids to think of, and not just Tom and Jess, there were all those other kids: Lucy's kids who now called Singe "Dad," and Lindy's kids who deserved better and more than Norm would ever be able to provide for them, and Dorrit, too sweet to be believed, and always Little Wil, who moved back and forth between the new house where her mom lived with Chuck to the old one, which she still called home.
Al knew what it was like to grow up one of "those Lancasters." He'd been one of "those" all his life. They'd been left with as good as nothing when the old fool decided to take the fast lane: an enormous chunk of bushland; a house they had no idea how to keep from falling down in the wind; back taxes chewing at their heels; the welfare snooping around looking for any excuse they could find to scoop the younger ones and put them in foster homes.
He and Singeon had managed, somehow, and when their unskilled labourer paycheques weren't enough, they became what Al now considered to be ankle-biters. They peddled off the old man's store of moonshine, and they raided two other juice-makers' storage sheds and sold their stuff, too. They set up the first grow lights and sold nickel-and-dime bags; they headed off before dawn in the autumn and scrabbled on hands and knees in farmers' fields, picking magic mushrooms; they did what they could and managed to stay together. They didn't lose the property to taxes; they stayed one teeny-weeny bunny-hop ahead of the law, more by good luck than good management, and all in all he figured they'd managed to do okay by themselves and each other. There wasn't really anything much in the past that he would change: most of it had been beyond his control, beyond Singe's control, probably beyond the control of any and all a body would care to name. He harboured deep resentment for the old fool; he could have at least paid off the tax bill before he went ahead and left a mess for others to clean. All he'd done for the six months prior to his explosive end was plop himself in his big chair and sulk. All that shine! He could have sold it and paid off the debts. Things might have been different if he had.
Well, he hadn't, the old bugger, and he didn't have to take the old woman with him, either. All she'd done was work like hell all her life; a person shouldn't get a death sentence for that. She hadn't been perfect-hell, Norm was proof of that. But everyone needs a bit of fun once in a while, a whirl around the dance floor, a sip of store-bought, some laughter and soft feelings. The old bugger had left enough of his own unacknowledged offspring, it was only fair he wind up feeding someone else's since plenty of others were feeding his.
And it hadn't been the obvious, the on-the-surface grinding hardship. It was that other thing, the beast that for years didn't get named, the placid expectation on the part of just about anybody he could name that "those" Lancasters would have been rangytangs no matter what: they had been born of hooligans, to be just another generation of the same, rough and tough and my god what will that family think of next, the messes they get into, make a body wonder what else they've got planned.
Singe had ignored it, and god knows how he managed. Al dove into it, although Singe had warned him often enough. When they finally caught him, it was like the fulfillment of something he'd been expecting. Singe offered to get him a lawyer, but Al said no, he'd take his lumps. And they had been lumps! School of hard knocks, they called it. But, by god, he got an education. When he got out after three years he was one helluva lot smarter than he'd been when he went behind the walls. No more ankle-biting for Al.
And here he was, here they all were, and it felt too much like it had felt just before he got busted that first time. One shoe had fallen, and if he paid attention he might never hear the other; if he ignored the feeling, he might not hear anything at all ever again. And it had to be something those fish-eyed friends of Brady's couldn't dispute.
He was scared of them. There wasn't much in life had scared him to the point he felt as if he was about to pee down his leg. The first week in the slammer that first time: his body bruised, his face marked, his backside throbbing and sending hot flashes of agonizing pain up inside him that had scared him. Scared him about half as much as the fear he now felt. They probably wouldn't be satisfied with just offing him. He'd heard stories about how they would systematically slice at every member of the family and make you watch before they slit your throat. He believed the stories.
The thing with the bust and what he and Tony had hauled off the bottom was straightened out: they accepted what they were told whether they fully believed it or not. It helped that not one rock had been taken, everything was tickety-boo down to the last fraction of a fraction of weight. But it had been too close. Get caught handling that stuff, and everything you had would wind up confiscated, proceeds of criminal activity, and law'd take it all, the land, the houses, even the damned dogs, because they'd been thwarted in the past, because they were worse than the legendary elephants, never forgetting, never relaxing. They'd uproot lily beds till the cows came home, no longer caring if they actually found proof of anything, doing it for spite. Al was sure the biggest difference between them and Brady's friends was the Yank contingent was into free enterprise and those other lugans expected the taxpayers to pay for the bullets.
One by one he got the boxes through the hidey-hole in the ceiling, and one by one he packed them to the box-car-sized rusted tank that had been his own special hiding place, the one he had never shared with anyone, not even Singe. He wondered where Singe's special place was. Everyone had one, a place all their own, where sobs went unheard and a person could curl up in misery and just let the eyes leak until the pressure was gone from the chest.
He rolled the rock out of the way, remembering the story his mother had tried to teach them, about rolling away the rock at the mouth of the tomb or finding it rolled away or something. He pushed the boxes through the rusty gap one at a time, and then, grunting, got the rock shoved back in place. Good enough as a temporary measure, but he'd have to figure out something better.
Maybe something as simple as renting one of those storage lockers. Who'd know? What kind of records did they keep?
He walked away from the drum, wondering what in hell it had ever been used for in the first place. The old bugger used to joke that one of these frosty Fridays he was going to clean it out and use it in his shine business. Hold a lake of it, he'd said; instead of bothering with the BS of jugs and stoppers we just take their money and let them swim in it, haul 'em back out when they start to float face down. They'd all joked about how if the heart wasn't beating very well they could always just hook 'em up to the jumper cables, like old what's-'is-name, and rev the truck a bit. Send 'em home glowing in the dark with their hair standing on end and sparks coming from their eyeballs.
The key to the powder shed hung around his neck, and the moonlight was bright enough that he could see to get the key in the padlock without fumbling. Out in the bush, behind Singe's place probably, a big owl hooted four times, paused, then hooted five more times. Small creatures stopped moving, the background rustling in the brush halted, the night became still, almost eerie.
By the time the eastern sky was starting to lighten, At was almost ready. He was on his way back to the shaft mouth when something began to nag at him. He turned on his heel, headed back to the huge rusty drum and rolled the rock aside roughly. Quickly, almost running, he pulled out the cardboard boxes and took them to the van. The nagging slowed, eased, then stopped. He supposed he could spend the rest of his life moving it from place to place, like a feral cat changing her den every couple of days.
He ran back to the shaft, feeling lighter than he'd felt in weeks, maybe even lighter than he'd felt in years. No, by god, his kid wasn't going to wind up raw-end receiver on the stammer football team! No bloody expectation of that or of anything except maybe one day geting a package in the mail and opening it to find the first CD of Tom and Jess Lancaster, guitar and vocals.
He knew some part of him had been planning this a long time. He even had two brand new Big Ben alarm clocks still in their boxes, the warranty papers folded between the plastic face and the cardboard box.
They awoke to the smell of bacon and sausage and the sound of At singing as he whipped the eggs. "See them tumblin' down, pledging their love to the ground."
"Shut Up!" Darlene yelled. "Jesus aitch, Al, gimme a break here."
"Coffee's ready," he called. "Up and at 'em, daylight in the swamp. Wakey wakey, tea and cakey."
"I'll kill the bugger."
"Haul on your jeans and go over to Auntie Colly's place, tell her it's loggers' breakfast happening over here. Jess, you phone Uncle Singe and Aunt Lucy, tell 'em to get over here or I'll go over there and sing 'em awake."
"Anybody ever punch you out and lay you flat for stuff like this?" Tony asked, coming into the kitchen barefoot and sleepy-eyed. "For cryin' in the night, man, it isn't but maybe eight o'clock. What did you do, pee the bed and had to get up?"
Lottie arrived in time to take over at the toaster. If she was puzzled she did a good job of hiding it. The house was full, kids sitting on the front porch with plates of food, kids sitting on the steps, jaws moving. As fast as she buttered the slices they disappeared, and they could easily have used another three or four pounds of bacon. You'd think nobody'd had a bite to eat in a week! It did her heart good to see them all, so easy with each other, tossing casual insults that weren't really any such things but verbal expressions of trust and love. She'd told her daughter just last night that it was a shame Mr. At didn't have a good woman to brighten his life. Of course, she had her own reasons for saying that: her daughter's husband was just about as much use as tits on a teapot and a mean-minded bugger at that. Don't tell her little Fred had got that bruise on his arm from tangling himself in the swing rope. The rain might have fallen last week but Lottie hadn't fallen with it; she'd seen those marks before in her life. Glenda had eaten just about enough of the shit sandwich, too, you could tell by the way she talked. just last night she'd asked if Lottie knew anybody who was doing after-school babysitting. Glenda was thinking about looking for a job.
Lottie figured, number one, she could do the babysitting herself: Glennie could just drop the kids off here or have 'em ride out after school on the same school bus as the tribe. Number two, the way things were going they'd need someone else out here soon to help do. Glennie was good at that. Lottie was pretty sure Mr. Al would be like every other man who looked at Glennie; after all, that bright yellow hair, straight as straight can be, hanging down her back in a thick braid, shining in the sun, and that face, although it hadn't been smiling much lately, well, they'd be good for each other and no doubt about that. As for the kids, well, what's three more in a crowd like the one hung around here.
Colleen finished her breakfast, took her plate to the sink, tapped Lottie on the arm to get her attention. "I'll do toast," Colly said. "You get some breakfast before you fade away to a shadow of your former self."
"Right, be a shame if I was to wither to the size of the average mountain, I suppose. There was a time people said I had 'big bones' . . . well, they don't say that anymore."
"Lottle," Al said, laughing, "there's something you should learn before you get any older. What you got is enough for two men, so the man you start courting is sure to be twice as lucky as most."
"Listen to you," she laughed. "Old Silvertongue. If you like what you see so much, wait until you see my daughter Glenda. You want to talk about enough for two men? My Glennie's about a third the bulk of me but what's there is prime."
"She's married to that . . ."
"You got it, Mr. Al. Tbat. And you 'n' me's too polite to say that wbat, right? Jeez, the mistakes some people make when they're young and foolish."
The big old clock on the living room wall sounded nine. Al picked up his coffee mug and sipped, but he looked as if he was either listening for something or deep in thought.
"Goose on your grave?" Lucy asked him.
"Just thinking about something, Luce, that's all." He smiled and ignored the muted whump, ignored even the way the knives and forks began to clatter on the new kitchen table.
"Kids!" Colleen yelled, racing across the trembling floor toward the startled tribe.
"Momma!" Dorrit hollered.
"Coming." Darlene was up and following Colleen.
The new brick chimney came apart as if it had been put on the roof without any mortar; the dogs, who had been waiting patiently for scraps, raced into the kitchen, terrified, to cower under the table.
"She's a big one," Singe shouted. "C'mon, Lucy, move your sweet self."
Somewhere in the maze of abandoned shafts, rock struck rock and the resultant spark set off a large pocket of gas. The explosion heaved the earth and cracked the windows in Colleen's house. The roof of the big house sagged, and the noise was like nothing any of them had ever heard.
"Out!" Al shouted. He dropped to the floor, reached under the table, grabbed the dogs and followed the others out into the yard. Trees whipped back and forth, the tops of some snapping off; others leaned, leaned, leaned, then fell, their roots coming up out of the dirt in bus-sized balls. More gas pockets exploded, the earth heaved, the big old rusty tank that had dominated the backyard for longer than any of them had been alive vanished. One moment it was there, the next moment it was sagging and twisting, and the one after that it was just damn well gone. A three-foot-wide-at-least crack in the earth appeared, running a jagged diagonal line that barely missed the henhouse, cut through the middle of Colleen's garden and separated her place from the big house. It continued across the front yard, splitting the highway and entering the bush on the other side.
Colleen was so scared she wanted to run, but if the earth was going to drop into the old mine shafts like that she wouldn't be any safer moving at top speed than she was standing where she was. The powder shed was gone, the tool shed looked as if someone had just pulled the walls out and dropped the roof into the middle of it, and the whump of exploding gas pockets continued. Hydro poles snapped, trees fell, rocks bounced and rolled as if they had a life of their own, and the old house collapsed on itself.
"There goes the new kitchen table, I bet," Lottie mourned.
"Buy you a new one, Lottie, I promise." At put his arm around her shoulders. "We're okay," he told her, "we're fine." But really he felt some foolish: he hadn't even thought of the gas pockets, hadn't even thought of the stories of sudden violent explosions, lives lost, bodies never recovered. He wanted to tell them all he was sorry, he hadn't intended anything as big as this; all he wanted to do was get rid of the pavilion and the parts of the shaft those snake-eyed desert dwellers had seen.
The rumbling slowed, almost ceased, but the muffled whumps continued in the parts of the shafts out back. Nothing looked anything like it had.
"My porch is wrecked." Colleen's voice was thin and high with fear. "And the old house is ... toast. "
"Don't think the toaster will work," Brady tried to joke, "the electricity seems to be off right now."
The kids clung to their parents and shook. Dorrit wept quietly and Little Wit howled loudly. "My bike!" she waited. "And my bed! "
"Don't worry, Babe," Singeon managed. "We'll clean up the mess."
"Singe," Big Wilma touched his arm, spoke quietly to him so the others wouldn't hear her words. "There's a helluva lot of water in that big crack between here and Colly's place. I mean ... one helluva lot of water. "
"My grandad said the old shafts used to flood. They hadda keep the pumps running all the time, and even so, the guys worked in water to their arses. Must'a been an underground spring or river or something. "
"You think this place might flood out?"
"No way of knowing, Willy. Maybe we'll just wind up with our own creek or river or something. How do you like the sound of Big Willy Falls or maybe. . .
"Sudden River," she said, leaning against him briefly. "You okay, Singe? "
"Scared shitless but otherwise okay."
"Fuck, Singe." At came over, his face ashen, his eyes huge. "I rnean, like, what now?"
"Now? Well, you know what the old woman used to say, 'When in puzzle or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout'. What else can we do? Start picking away at the mess with the equipment, I suppose, and pray to god whatever's going on, it stops."
"I don't even recognize the place." At lit a cigarette, his hands shaking.
"Anybody hurt?" Wilma asked.
"Chuck's managed to twist 'is ankle is all. A few bruises but nobody got brained by a brick or anything serious. Of course, I'll have to burn my underwear because it's never going to come clean."
"I just hope I can get some of the load outta my damn boot," Singe said.