Angus was married. The storekeeper showed me a clipping from the newspaper at the Strait: "Angus Robert MacIvor to Margaret Matheson." Her eight-year-old daughter was "Maid of Honor." The storekeeper told me she had been married to the Sobey's manager in the Mall, had an older son and this daughter, but started drinking and running with a rough crowd in the Strait.
They got roughs at the Strait make us look like Presbyterians.
The manager divorced her, and then she took up with Angus. She was sort of an Avon Lady, sold cosmetics and such. I had seen a shiny yellow car with "Beauty" painted on the door, parked at the end of Angus's lane. God pity her, I thought.
How Angus came to be what he was I cannot imagine. When I knew him he was in his early 50s with a retarded son about thirty. Shabbily dressed, filthy, he was the master of any situation, well spoken, courteous, witty, amusing. As I have said elsewhere, he was a consummate con man, talking his wary countrymen into one scam after another, year after year. I think he carried them off because he was extremely sensitive to his victim's moods and inclinations so he could anticipate what they were thinking, what they were going to say, and get there before them. I don't know - that's just a guess. He was a mystery. As it turned out, a much greater enigma than I knew.
He came by a few days later, walking across the fields from his place. Completely transformed, he proudly showed himself off, turning about in the kitchen to show his clean khakis, neatly pressed, with a belt instead of baling twine, and a bright flannel shirt.
How do you like the new model?
he joked as he settled down on his usual seat, the bench beside the stove. Of course, we exclaimed and complimented him before we settled to our tea, and then the talk ran on to their plans and prospects. I presumed they would live at the Strait. Yes, he said, but there was a hitch: Margaret (he called her Bunny, as I shall henceforth) didn't want The Boy living with her young daughter. We canvassed various alternatives. He refused to commit him to the asylum in Sydney, no, never that. There was a home for the retarded in Mabou, but it had a long waiting list, as I knew. We gave up and were sitting in silence when he said,
I wonder if you folks would take him in?
We were too stunned to answer. Angus got in a face-saving qualifier.
Just come over and take a look at him.
That got us out of an awkward situation; it didn't commit us to anything.
Early Sunday morning I set off across the fields. I had seen The Boy only at a distance, sitting in an abandoned car near the house, heavily bearded with long tangled hair. I was apprehensive of course; who wouldn't be? I was distracted from my worries by the sight of red curtains in the shining windows. Angus threw open the door and gave me a smiling welcome. The kitchen had been utterly changed. The walls had been painted, there were hooked rugs on the polished floor, sturdy straight chairs were set around a large kitchen table. Angus proudly pointed out the features, enjoying my admiration. When Bunny appeared I had another surprise. I suppose I had expected a slattern. But she was a handsome woman, tall with a fine figure and wide deeply blue eyes, very striking. Shaking my hand firmly, she welcomed me and I told her how impressed I was by the kitchen.
We did it together,
she said, looking fondly at Angus.
I'll get Colin,
It's time for his breakfast.
So that was The Boy's name; I had never heard it.
Bunny stirred a large pot of porridge on the stove. I went to sit at the table, but she told me that was where Colin sat, so I moved to a daybed against the wall, next to the door through which Angus had exited. I asked her about Colin's meals, listening to Angus's steps as he ascended the stairs. She set a big bowl on the table.
He likes his porridge,
she said. I heard a door open upstairs. Angus said something. At once there was a huge sound that I can only describe as ROAR! The hair stood up on the back of my neck. Bunny never showed any sign but went on talking about Colin's meals. I tried to think of something casual to say, but I could neither speak nor think. I was petrified. They were coming down the stairs, Angus speaking soothingly, Colin roaring and moaning. The noise grew louder. Bunny was filling the bowl from the pot. Now they were at the door right next to me, rattling and banging. The door opened and Angus came in, holding Colin's hand. All noise ceased. Colin, head turned away from me, sidled to his chair and sat. He opened his mouth and Bunny fed him with a large spoon. He was shaven and his hair was cut short. He just looked like a big boy, which indeed he was. All my tension drained away as I sat there, feeling weightless. I watched the scene, which I would always remember: Bunny concentrating on the spoon, Colin automatically opening and closing his mouth, Angus sitting across from him gazing benevolently at his wife and son.
Colin was soon done. He shuffled out with Angus, again averting his gaze. I left soon afterwards, saying nothing to Angus or Bunny. They said nothing either. The subject was never raised again between us.
But their problem remained, and they came over several times to talk it over with us. By late fall Angus had decided to build a one-room cabin back of Bunny's house where Colin could live separately. He would build it, and I could see he was working around to the idea that I would fell the trees and skid out the logs to go to the mill. Then snow fell, closing the lane, and we didn't see Angus again til spring. I wouldn't've done it anyway; our horses were too quick - you want slow, steady horses for skidding. I had enough trouble getting out my own logs.
I have told in another place why the local sawmill, run by the Kennedy brothers, would no longer saw my logs, so take it as a given. As a result, we had over 100 logs stacked behind the barn, intended for building a shop, being chewed up by bugs. We could actually hear them as we were milking twenty yards away. And as I listened to that relentless destruction, I realized that while the logs were no good to me, Angus could use them. I stuck a note in his mailbox, but he didn't come by for several days. It took time to set it up with the Kennedys, he said.
This is the deal. You haul your logs to the mill and Duncan'll saw them because he thinks you've given 'em to me. You bring the lumber home, I'll take what I want, and you can have the rest for the shop.
I didn't see how there'd be much left for the shop, but it was certainly better than nothing. So I began the three-mile haul to the mill. Sometimes I'd meet Angus and Bunny in her bright yellow car and we'd exchange a few words. Bunny couldn't thank me enough. But it was a little odd. They weren't really condescending, but it was that kind of situation: there they were dressed in casual clothes, a bottle on the seat between them, smiling, waving, while I was standing on a load of logs, going on to a day of work for them, rolling the logs on the carriage, stacking boards on the wagon, driving the load home, piling the boards.
One day when I arrived there was a pile of boards set aside marked "sold" with a crayon. To hell with that, I thought, and started loading the boards on my wagon. Just then the Kennedys arrived, and Duncan began snatching back the boards while Willie tried to calm things down by saying it was Angus's deal: he had sold them. I was blazing mad, but I saw that fighting over some boards with a couple of men in their 80s wasn't very smart. I put the boards back. The problem, of course, was the lie: I couldn't tell the truth. I was stuck. Meanwhile, I'd have to find out what Angus was up to.
A terrible storm blew up that night, wrecking the schedule. Willie sent me a note saying that part of their barn roof had blown away so it would be a few days until they could resume sawing. It was just as well because our barn roof had been damaged, too. That's where I was, re-nailing galvanized sheets, when I saw Angus walk up to the house. He wasn't there long, perhaps half of an hour, when he came out, and as he walked down the lane, he was slouching dejectedly. I was quite struck by it. Jo Ann must've given him hell over those boards. I asked her about it later.
He explained that someone saw the lumber and pestered him to sell him some. The Kennedys were there and he couldn't very well say it was yours, so he sold them. He promised it wouldn't happen again.
He looked to me as if you'd chewed him out.
No, nothing like that. He was quite apologetic about it, and we parted on the best of terms.
Two days later I got this note from Willie:
As you and Angus have had a falling out, the rest of the logs here are yours if you want them. I'll get Alex Gillis to saw them. Otherwise we'll buy them.
You can understand my bewilderment. Angus had made up some story for reasons I couldn't make out, but of course the whole thing was a deception. I couldn't very well tell Willie the truth. I would have to accept the situation and go on as before. So that's what I did. Willie said nothing, I said nothing, and since Alex was a good deal faster than Duncan, we got the sawing done in time to complete the shop - 35 feet long, 15 feet wide with a big woodshed on the end - just as the first snow fell.
I never saw Angus again. He just disappeared. But I wasn't done with him yet.
The next summer I was waiting at the station in town for the 1 a.m. train from the West, and the storekeeper was waiting, too. The train was late and we were sitting on the platform, our backs against the freight shed. I was telling him about the deal with Angus, and when I got to the end I said,
I couldn't figure it out. Why would he be so dejected? Jo Ann assured me he was quite happy when he left. I didn't think he was so sensitive -
The storekeeper had been shifting about as I told the story, and now he had his handkerchief to his face and he seemed to be struggling. Suddenly he burst out laughing, great whoops. I scratched a match on the platform. His face was red, tears were running down his face and he was shaking his head, still laughing. At last he subsided. He put his hand on my arm.
I'm sorry. I couldn't help it. When you said he was so "sensitive" I couldn't hold it in any more . . . Listen: Angus was lying to everyone - to you, to Bunny, to the Kennedys. It was a hoax from beginning to end. Everything from start to finish was a lie. He didn't want you to take in The Boy, he didn't want your lumber, he had no intention of building a place for The Boy at the Strait. What he wanted was for things to stay as they were, with Bunny coming on the weekend with plenty of booze, and the week for him to do as he pleased, to "frolic" as he liked to say. Can you picture Angus living in a house at the Strait? He wanted his own way and he got it.
So he was pretending to be disconsolate that day?
You still can't take it in, can you?
He pushed against the wall and stood up.
I'm getting stiff. Let's take a walk.
As we passed the station the agent looked out the window and called,
Maybe 20 minutes or a half hour, boys.
We walked on the gravel beside the tracks as far as the bridge, and there we leaned against the parapet.
It's hard to understand,
I said. The storekeeper grunted, and then I said,
Let me ask you something. You've known him for years. Do you think he loved Colin?
When he cleared for the mainland he stuck him in the asylum in Sydney.
A barred owl hooted down by the Point and we watched the headlights of a car on the Point road.
What else could he do if he was going?
The storekeeper said nothing for a moment and then he asked,
How much do you know about love?
What a question! Well, I've been married for 28 years to the only woman I've ever loved.
Then I added,
Thinking about it, I just don't know. I mean, it's an experience; you don't think about it.
We stood silent, hearing the owl again, father off. Then we heard the train whistle far down the line.
That's the West Bay Road crossing,
he said. We started back for the station. As we stepped onto the platform the storekeeper said,
I bought those boards from Angus. I'll send you some money in the morning.
I said nothing, and the storekeeper asked if I were surprised.
I'm all surprised out.
A couple of weeks later Bunny appeared in her yellow car with an older man, not very prepossessing. They had been drinking, and her speech was a little slurred. She wanted bacon and butter and eggs, and while I was slicing the bacon she asked if I had seen Angus.
No, and I don't want to. That business about building a place for Colin was a fraud. He was just stalling you off so he could stick to his old ways during the week.
I can't believe that.
Suit yourself. But it's the truth.
She kept shaking her head, muttering
No, no, that's not the way it was.
Come on, honey,
the man said patting her bottom. I carried the stuff out to the car and put it on the back seat.
You're making it up,
she said as she got in the car, but I could hear a lack of conviction.
He lied to you, he lied to me, he lied to the Kennedys. Face it.
Angus wouldn't lie to me,
she said, shaking her head.
But I wasn't done with Bunny. On a hot afternoon in August I was in the shop with the big double doors open, shoeing the mare, when she drove in alone. She walked a little unsteadily across the grass to the doorway. She watched me for a time. I had a front hoof between my knees, rasping it flat.
I was at the house just now.
You walked in that lane in high heels?
I said amazed.
I took 'em off. Remember how it was with those nice red curtains? When I came in Friday evenings Angus'd have the lamps lit, and those curtains looked so nice . . . All gone now, the place a mess.
I put that hoof down and stepped over to pick up the other one. Up to that point I hadn't really thought about the whole affair from her viewpoint at all. Now I realized that she had been the one, besides Colin, to suffer. After all, I built the shop, didn't I? Suddenly I felt very sorry for her, but I couldn't look at her. I kept working on the hoof.
I can't believe he didn't love me.
I let the hoof drop and stood up with my hand on Jenny's back. I looked at her, at those beautiful eyes in that ravaged face, and I was angry. I spoke harshly.
He never loved anyone, Bunny. Not you, not even Colin. He only loved himself.
How much do you know about love?
Her voice was quiet. What the hell is this, I thought, everyone asking me about love.
I said, thinking loving one woman was enough for any sane man.
I loved Angus,
she said simply, as a matter of fact, and I watched the tears well in her eyes and trickle down her cheeks. She turned, walked back to the car and drove away.
Years have passed, and I suppose everyone else who was involved has been gathered to Abraham's bosom. Sometimes when I work in the shop and notice the worm-holes in the boards, I remember. By this time, of course some of the details have faded, but some scenes and words come back to me: Angus's benign gaze on his son as Bunny fed him, the storekeeper laughing at my innocent account, all that talk about love. One thing I know I will never forget: Bunny's brimming blue eyes on that memorable August afternoon. *