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Fiction #486
(published May 13, 2010)
Tip-Toeing Through My Diary
by Gene Barry
I was disappointed that I had missed Marie-Agnès by a mere few seconds. When I turned the corner on to our avenue I knew that she had seen me as she hurriedly pull away from in front of our house. How impatient I thought. I had already explained to her on the phone that I would be four to five minutes late; that I had to pick up some groceries on my way. OK, she was nursing mama but the Houllevicque family were relatives of ours, we were family. It was her job and the agency paid her well for doing it.

I opened the door a few centimetres and listened for any movements or noise. It didn't matter if it was the sound of adult steps or the rush on all fours. All I wished for was silence; not a sound from upstairs or down. Our red front door hadn't eased itself shut when I caught sight of her lying asleep on the timber floor next to papa's red leather TV chair;

"My out of Bounds" he used to call it.

Someone had put a drink next to her for when she would wake. She was always thirsty after some shut-eye and would demand a drink. I had already quietly slipped off both of my shoes for fear of waking her – they were trainers, but you'd never know. They decorated mama's favourite rug now, lying on their sides like rejected old boats. I was tired; 7 hours of schooling and four at the call centre and I was in no form for feeding anyone. Only two weeks to summer recess.

Twelve months earlier mama had effortlessly carried it all the way from Turkey; the rug that is, said it was hand-made and her favourite memento from their European trip.

"The friendly man at the Bazaar told me that it was a Mughal Sultanabad. He said that it was a very fine weave of 256 knots per square inch and that only top quality worsted wool had been used by his mother who had woven it in their very own kitchen."

I figured that this was only because it wasn't French and she hoped that it would annoy my papa. For an unknown reason she had begun to regularly offend all things French.

Papa was so excited; it had been his first and only trip to Europe and to his parent's birthplace of Saint Remy-de-Provence. He brought my sister and me cloths from the Marché Provença and told us to remember that it was on only one day in the week, a Wednesday. He had a photo of the Porte du Trou that he'd taken enlarged and hung over the mantelpiece in the front room and told everyone who visited that it was near Rue Nostradamus where his mother was born; "just by the Nostradamus fountain" he would proudly announce with his chin slightly raised.

She hated it. Said that Montreal was a poor copy and should be Americanized. That it was stupid having a copy of Europe in North America. Me and Dominique are going there in 17 months when I am 18. Anyway we knew that she didn't mean it, but we couldn't quite figure out why she said those horrible things, it wasn't like her. She never visited her family in the States; it was they who loved to visit every summer.

We knew that she would come back laden with this new criticism of hers. She had recently become jealous of papa and had grown to hate anything French, everything French. I wondered why he stayed married to her at all, even if he did love her and she wasn't herself.

At Christmas Dominique, who was three years my senior had refused to speak to her in English. To annoy her she referred to the language as the Anglo tongue that the Yanks had merely borrowed. Following an argument with her some months later she wrote "Yanks go home" on the outside of her bedroom door in red marker encased in a skull and crossbones, refusing to remove it. Papa painted it over after she had returned to university in Quebec; a week before he died.


Not wanting to wake her I rubbed her head lightly as I tip-toed passed on my way to the kitchen. If she woke she would want attention and then to be fed and I wasn't in the humour to feed anyone but myself.

She missed papa too. This time last year she would have greeted me on the porch full of excitement and wanting to go for a walk. She had always loved this time of year and the opportunity to get out. Since papa's unexpected death thee months earlier she just hung around the house all day. No more walks or trips to the woods which had been her favourite. She was in mourning too but couldn't tell us.

In the corner of the kitchen near the back door I could see that the waste bin had been knocked over and its contents were scattered nearby; later I thought. I silently laid the packed paper grocery bag on the table next to the unopened mail. At least they made it this far. Last Thursday a blizzard of white shredded paper had decorated the hallway and half of the stairs. I sifted through the white mess and counted 5 stamps. All but one was for papa. Mama rarely got mail. I eventually found a piece of my much-needed pay check.

Mr. Chalfoun thought it funny when I told him that our dog had ripped up our mail. When I told him that she was 12 he thought it funnier and laughed out loud. I don't like him any more. He said that he would cancel it but that I would have to wait a week for a replacement cheque to be issued. I pretended that I didn't care, that I didn't need the money. I hated letters anyway and now I only open my pay check because I have to. Everything else I throw out, even my bank statements. I keep a record of all payslips and my spending in a notebook hidden in the garage.

I had recently taken to using paper bags; one rustle from a plastic one could wake her and break the silence that I needed. My head was always full when I got in from work and sometimes without invitation it could rewind some of the hundreds of calls that I had answered earlier and continued the conversations. I hated when that happened, especially if they arrived as I was going to sleep. I had taken to carrying a half dozen of these used bags in the car because the nearest Supermarché on Ave André-Grasset issued plastic ones.

There were 7 envelopes and three glossy mail-shots. The two brown ones with the windows and 3 of the white were addressed to papa. The other two had just the address so I would throw them in the waste bin later with the glossies.

I wished mama would contact these people and let them know about Papa. I was a minor they said and asked me to have my mother call them. Of course she was in denial and couldn't cope; couldn't deny the veneer of guilt that shrouded her.

After I had put away the groceries I poured some cold juice from the refrigerator and stared dreamlike at the back yard as I stood at the sink sipping it. Papa use to laugh when I did this, said that there was a forest ranger lost in me. I hate our back yard now and anyway if I wanted to I couldn't get out there as mama had thrown out the keys for the back doors.

For weeks I had planned on removing the two overfilled bags of leaves that uncle Bob had propped up like drunks at the entrance to the raised decking area; next to the tree that papa had hung from. I tried to remember the last time I was out there but failed. I thought of the bags under mama's eyes that drooped like dark sagging nipple-less breasts. They got worse by the week and when I was angry with her three weeks earlier I thought of puncturing them with a sowing needle when she was sleeping; of the bitterness that would ooze out and make her happy again. She had green eyes, ours were dark brown.

I closed the door to the TV room and in the microwave I heated half of the pate Chinois that I had made the previous evening, leaving the other half for mama who would most likely just pick at it as if she were going to eat it all. Sometimes I questioned why I bothered cooking for her at all. I had made the same meal a week earlier and was disappointed and hungry when I came home and discovered that Marie-Agnès and Mama had shared it. I know she didn't like the note that I had left for her and that night I dreamt that when I was at school she injected poison into all of the food in our kitchen.

Before the bleeper could announce that my dinner was ready I opened the oven door gently and left it that way. I ate standing, thinking of how the tumour had really changed mama's personality and I felt guilty. I was ashamed and wanted to make it up to her so I promised to tell her that later when she'd be having her dinner. I would bring it to her on a tray together with a glass of milk and ask her how her day went. I would lean papa's letters against the cold glass and she would thank me and say that I was very thoughtful; tell her that I loved her and that everything would be OK. Reassure her that Dominique loved her too and that it was a "teen phase" and nothing more.

Sometimes when the somnolence kicked in it was a welcome relief because she was hard work; too difficult for me. That was when I would brush her hair and tie her buttons. A few weeks back I gave her a full facial make-up as she slept and cleaned it off before she woke. I have a photo of it in my mobile phone.

I remember the beginning of it all when our neighbour Gilles Larocque called papa at work, said that he found mama sitting in his back yard in her dressing gown. He told him that at first she did not know where or who she was, that she was aggressive. When papa and me arrived to collect her she was in their bathroom with her friend Marianne, crying. Dr. Antoine Leduc said that it was most likely a side effect of the menopause, but for safety he would arrange a brain scan for her the following week.

That night I overheard papa tell my uncle on the phone that she frequently complained of headaches the last few weeks and that he was worried so I decided to Google her symptoms. When I heard her vomit the next morning I knew for sure but I told myself that she was pregnant; it was easier to digest and besides I hated being the youngest.

After the operation she was different; I used to pretend that she was her once lost and found twin sister. Initially there were only subtle changes, nothing dramatic just a little forgetfulness now and then; enough to frighten you sometimes. Papa thought that taking her to Europe for a month would do her some good; I think that this is what killed him.

As the sun shook hands with the horizon at the bottom of the garden I remembered the happy times we had spent there. The barbeques and the snow fights. Our back yard was the avenue's playground. They kids loved her and papa too. During the summer months when they would call round she would spend hours playing with them on the grass and on the patio. After enough requests she would make them homemade lemonade; we took her for granted. My best friend in 4th grade Madeleine-Louise told me once that they all wished that their mothers were like mama.

At the funeral I heard three mourners say that he was greedy. "How could he do this to her" they said and Jeanne Lorgeleux who had been in school with Dominique said that this would push her over the edge.

I am the only person who knows that mama is in mourning, that there are no side-effects from the tumour removal. That she misses her husband of 24 years and her best friend of 29, and that's all. It's all a game and there'll be no winner; I told her this on more than one occasion. She could pretend all she wanted; lying next to papa's chair as if he was going to suddenly reappear and going around the house on all fours. I was the only one alright.

Tearing up the post was a new one and Dominique said that she was "only looking for attention." She added that she was afraid to act normal in case we'd confront her about papa's death. They were both wrong.

As mama's health improved the people who visited her began to comment on how poorly papa looked. On his weight loss and how tired he was. Some nights he could manage only 2 hours sleep. She was too happy on her road to recovery to notice. To high on the prospects of living to an old age and she was right. It was his lack of appetite that came to my attention first. Papa always ate, even when he had flu or had drunk too much wine.

A week before he left us I had returned from school as I had left my reading glasses on the breakfast table. Not wanting to wake mama, and hopefully papa I tip-toed in through the back door. I heard him on the phone and crying in our downstairs toilet. He mentioned a letter that he had received earlier in the post.

Sounding confused he whispered into his mobile phone, "are you positive." Before asking a second question he cried a little, a kind of helpless whimper. "Just tell me this Antoine, how long do I have." When the muffled voice in the tiny speaker quietened he followed with "six months, only six months. How sure are you Antoine?" After a brief pause he finished with the word "positive" before hanging up; no good bye or thank you from this polite and gentle man.

After he had hung up he cried some more and kept repeating "this will kill her." I hid behind the cloakroom door and watched him climb the stairs as awkward and as slow as a wounded soldier. Before he had reached the landing he sat on the last step, dried his eyes and wiped his runny nose with his pyjamas sleeve. I watched for the letter but I couldn't see one so I peeped inside the toilet after he had returned to mama and found the closed envelope on the cold tiled floor where he had thrown it. I opened it like a poker player and confirmed that I was right; it was cancer.

I returned to the cloakroom and crawled, as mama now so frequently does these days to the lowest end that tapered under the first few steps of our stairs and cried for hours beneath the coats that I had pulled on top of me.


I checked the clock on the cooker and was surprised that it was almost 9 pm. After a brief ponder I turned on the stereo before coming to realise that the only thing that changed in this house was the name of the day. Before I set out her tray I opened the door to the TV room and left the microwave bleep for ages after it had heated mama's dinner. I poured the milk and didn't bother with the letters; it was too late in the evening to be reading mail so I put them with the growing stash in the packed drawer of papa's writing bureau for safe-keeping.

In the TV room I placed the tray on the "out of bounds" before pulling the curtains tight and turning on the light. I hummed her favourite song as I moved around the room in search of the remote and tuned the Sony flat-screen to her favourite show when I located it. Before I approached her I took my cell phone from my pocket and looked at her made-up face; it never failed to induce a ray of hope and always made me smile.

As usual she hadn't reacted to the introduction of the variety of noises so I pulled her hair back to reveal her beautiful face and kissed her on the forehead. Placing my cheek against hers I inhaled the whiff that was my mother and held it for as long as I could before I lifted her left eyelid and confirmed that she was indeed awake. I wiped the slug trail that had decorated the side of her jaw where she had been dribbling and cleaned the stain on the timber floor beneath her cheek,

"Mama, wake up mama its time for your dinner."

Gene Barry lives in Cork, Ireland, but has "been to Montreal a good few times." His poetry has been published by the University of Chicago and The Ranfurly Review in Scotland—he even offers readers the following bonus poem:

"Picture This"

Four generations of carpenters
Laying floors of history's shavings
And not a handyman in sight;
Chop, chop and silent chop,
Excuses in the making.

Ah the foreman, another one
Of the Sisyphus lads
And a man handy alright,
Useless with the tools
And always dead right.

Indexes at the ready and
Pencils off the ears ye drew
Nothing but conclusions
Working on our family ballast,
Umbilical knots your hardest.

I chisel my way through
Registered vellum, knees deep
In ruthless stats; only now its
Plane to see how you drove the
Dowels of bitterness fully home.

My father was a carpenter
We have no family tree.

"Tip-Toeing Through My Diary" is dedicated to the Douglas Writers "with Love and Thanks."

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