About the Author

John Bemrose

Books by this Author
The Island Walkers
Excerpt

One Saturday in the summer of 1965, Joe and Alf Walker climbed onto the roof and spent the better part of the morning stripping the old shingles. By eleven they were busy nailing down the new ones. Joe, who had turned eighteen that July, worked on the slope overlooking the backyard. He sat shirtless, on his duff, and hammered sullenly between his legs, aware of the sun-baked expanse of tarpaper stretching up the slope behind him. From beyond the peak, his father’s hammer thundered without rest. It seemed crazy to try to keep up.

He shifted his weight, placed the next shingle, and looked across the yard with its picnic table and apple tree, its narrow lawn and rows of vegetables -- beyond the flood­dyke blooming cheerfully with his mother’s flowers, to the Atta, flowing through the shadow of Lookout Hill. Under its far bank -- a dim cave of limestone and darkly rippling water -- it looked cool and inviting: another world. He was labouring under protest, under a sense of injustice that drove him on in angry spurts then dragged him into a sloth so deep it was like a spell. Why were they doing this today? Today -- as he’d mentioned to his father last Wednesday, he was sure -- he and Smiley were planning to go hunting with Smiley’s new .22. His friend had gone on without him. A few minutes ago he’d heard a shot echo down the valley.

He dipped into the bag beside him and the sharp nails bit his fingers. For weeks the shingles had sat beside the house in their paper wrappings, under a paint­spotted tarp. A dozen times at least his mother had said, “Alf, I am getting so tired of that heap out there. You’d think we were living in the Ozarks.” His mother’s idea of the Ozarks came from television, but she used the phrase to convey a sense of social embarrassment, of appearances that were not up to the mark. He always thought it sounded funny in her English accent. His mother was a war bride. Hearing the words as a young boy, he had imagined her striding off to battle in skirts and helmet. The vision had made him slightly wary of her, as if she could lay claim to secret, irresistible powers. Yet there had been nothing but weary exasperation in her complaints about the roof, the mechanical recitation of an old war cry that no longer frightened anybody: an act for tourists. She had grown up in a finer house than this: she’d told him many times about the books, the grand piano, the holidays in Normandy. “Your father’s uniform fooled me completely” -- this was another of her stories -- “For all I knew he was a millionaire’s son.” It had become a family joke, told at the right time at parties: her coming down in the world was a mistake, based on her inability to read his father’s status by his accent or his clothes. It was not until after she’d arrived in Attawan in the spring of 1946 that she realized what she’d done. She hadn’t given up, though: getting the roof shingled was only one in an endless series of assaults on their rough edges -- on their house that, by her standards, was too small and, despite their relentless improvements, still too shabby, not to mention situated in the wrong part of town. Joe looked back to the river. Such thoughts were troubling, leading to shadows, sadness. Better to hunker down like his father and pretend he wasn’t affected.

Yet his father wasn’t impervious. His wife’s complaints might seem to sink into him without a trace, snow into dark water, but they could achieve a critical mass. This morning he had roused Joe early and announced that today they were shingling the roof. But why today, Joe wondered, the hottest so far of the whole summer? At breakfast, over a trembling forkful of fried egg, he dared to question the decision -- maybe they should wait till it was cooler, he said, thinking the whole time of Smiley’s gun, of the wafer of silver light at the end of the scope and even of the word “scope” itself, so pleasing and final, like a bullet smacking into mud. “It’s gonna rain,” his father said, and when Joe said, “It’s rained before,” meaning and you never bothered then, his father had said quietly, looking at him with those ice­blue eyes the colour of Lake Erie in spring, “No arguments.”

He thought there was something fanatical in his father that came from a place of silence and brooding Joe couldn’t read: something extreme and overbearing and violent that thank God was not there all the time but that could leap up like a blade you hadn’t been careful with and nip you. Now it was his arbitrariness that bothered him most. What gave him the right to decide? Why did he have to obey? Why didn’t he just throw down his hammer and leave the roof? He suspected that if he did, he would have to leave the house as well. He had absorbed some old notion that work was something you did for everybody, without complaint. He had worked for as long as he could remember, washing floors, washing the car, digging gardens, stacking cans at the A&P; this summer he was at Bannerman’s. He expected to work, but this morning some remnant of an ancient grievance had surfaced: the need for unquestioning obedience was an injustice and so was the loss of his day. He felt, irrationally, as if his entire future had been torn from him.

The hammering from the other side had stopped. A moment later he heard his father’s heavy, braced steps come down the slope behind him. The pack of shingles slammed into the roof­boards like a body.

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The Last Woman

The Last Woman

edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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Excerpt

The sun suffers through a cloudless sky. Week after week, it pulses from shoreline rock, floods the lake with glare. New reefs have surfaced – sullen herds strewing the channels – while in remote bays, floating carpets of lily and arrowhead have given way to flats of dried mud.
 
To some cottagers, the drought seems proof of dire change – some critical shift in the climate, discussed over drinks or at the gas pumps in Carton Harbour, with that secret frisson of anticipation that so often accompanies rumours of catastrophe. But others tell stories of summers just as dry – a reassuring thought, finally, for no one wants life on the lake to change. Lake Nigushi is a place where people come to escape change, to enjoy the kind of summers they and their parents knew in their youth. The plunge from the raft. The Monopoly board or mystery novel on somnolent afternoons . . .
 
 
She stands at the window with the receiver pressed to her ear: a woman in cut- offs and a sleeveless blouse, hair mussed from dozing on the couch in the dim room behind her, where the ringing of the phone made its way into her dream. She had been swimming underwater with a book in her hand, and then she flew up, lifted by a crane, cables screeching. And now she is at the window, staring into the fierce daylight with scarcely any sense of how she has got here.
 
Beyond the screen, smooth, fissured rock pours away from the cottage toward the water. On the next island, pines stand in monumental stillness, their long, upswept branches pointing into a brilliant sky. The light has transfixed everything: a piece of driftwood, an empty deck chair, a little colony of dry grasses, all motionless in the heat. It seems to her that nothing can move, will ever move again, the afternoon caught in the paralysis of a spell.

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