If I believed in fate as an intelligent force, I would see my relationship with Jay as predestined. From the very beginning Ma Kirton, his grandmother, wanted us to be friends. Not sure if to this extent, but she’s dead so I can’t ask her. My earliest memory of her goes back to when I was around four. Grama Emma had taken me to her store, and I had pointed to the sweet jar on the counter and asked her to buy me one. She shook her head, and I began to cry, and she raised her arm to hit me, and Ma Kirton told her not to, that it was wrong to hit children or scream at them, and she said, “Sonny, I will give you something better.” She bent down and opened the glass case under the counter, took out a chocolate bar, and gave it to me. “Unwrap it, eat it,” she said, and her eyes shone like pieces of beige glass. I’ll never forget the taste of that chocolate bar. None I’ve eaten since tasted as good.
After that Grama Emma never took me back to the store, but one day Grama Emma was holding my hand and we were walking down to the beach to collect seaweed and to let me bathe in the sea (she was convinced that it would improve my frail health. In the interim I’d spent a long time in hospital recovering from typhus), and on the way we passed a house with a beautiful flower garden.
“Grama you see how them flowers pretty?” I said.
“Yes, they is pretty for true. They belongs to Ma Kirton.”
The next time I saw Ma Kirton was at Grama Emma’s funeral when I was around seven.
I started going back to the store: Kirton’s Enterprise, when I was around eight, on errands for my mother. Ma Kirton remembered me. “You’re the little boy who loves sweets,” she told me, but didn’t give me one. “Are you as sweet yourself?” I held my head down. Couldn’t look into her eyes. She asked me what class I was in, my teacher’s name, if I liked school, what my favourite subject was, and told me to raise my head so she could “look into that beautiful face you have.” I raised my head then and saw that she was smiling. I told her that I loved her flowers. The next time I went back to the store she gave me two envelopes, one with zinnia seeds and one with sunflower seeds, and said that I should choose a spot where there was lots of sun and plough the soil and wet the ground. “Give me your hand.” I did, and she pointed off on my index finger how deep I should plant the seeds. I had trouble softening the tough soil and Daddy wanted to know what I was planting. I showed him the seeds and told him the story. He took the hoe from me and ploughed the ground, and sent me to sweep up the goat droppings and bring them. He mixed them into the soil. The zinnias and sunflowers grew and blossomed abundantly. There was something magical, fascinating about it all. The neighbours thought it was Mem who’d done it. I told Ma Kirton how beautiful my flowers were and she promised she would come up the hill one day to look at them. I don’t know if she ever did. I expanded the plot and added other flowers.
Thus began my love for flowers and gardening in general, a love that got me into the deepest trouble I ever had with my father. It began with my discreetly stealing cuttings and seeds from people’s gardens until I stole from Miss Collins’s garden. She had a lovely bed of gerberas: salmon, peach, yellow, magenta. I breathed deeply every time I passed by them. One night, when there was a full moon—said to be the best time to plant anything—I went there intending to pull out a few slips, but the gerberas were more firmly rooted than I’d suspected. Handfuls of leaves came but no roots. If I had been thinking clearly I would have left off then, but my objective was to grow a bed of gerberas beginning with a few slips. So with both hands I grabbed another root of gerberas. This time a few slips with roots came but mostly leaves. I took the slips and left the leaves. All of it undetected.
The next morning I planted them before I took the goats over to our land. I didn’t have school that day. It was probably around the first of August, Emancipation Day. As I was returning from our land and coming down the hill toward our house, I heard Miss Collins’ voice begging God to rain down fire and brimstone “on the wicked, bad-minded, devil” who had pulled up her gerberas. “I know most of all you hate me for my righteousness, but I didn’ know all you hate me so much. But look at this wickedness! I call upon God to smite the criminal.” Just as I entered our yard she passed by on her way down to the centre of Havre, still calling upon God to avenge her.
On her way back uphill she passed in to preach to my mother and saw the gerbera slips. She pointed them out to my mother and shouted out to all the community around that she had caught the scamp. “I want satisfaction. I demand satisfaction. When Edward come I expect him to cut this boy backside good and proper, right here”—she pointed to a spot just inside our gate—“where everyone going see. Edward have to give me satisfaction. You will bu’n in hellfire. Take my word for it. As God is above you will bu’n.” She wagged her finger at me. I was standing on our balcony. She was standing just inside our gate, about five metres below. Our yard sloped gently and our house was built into the slope about six metres above the road. She was wearing an ash-grey long-sleeve jersey that was a few sizes too big for her sticklike body and a dungaree skirt that reached down to her ankles. Her niece in Toronto sent her packages of second-hand clothes regularly. This, Miss Collins told the neighbours, was God’s reward for her righteousness. She quoted a passage that she said was from Deuteronomy to back her up. The neighbours, when they wanted to chide one another, even some who were themselves born-again fundamentalists, would say, “Aye-aye, like you getting more righteous than Miss Collins.” And everyone would laugh.
I was around ten then and at no point had I ever been beaten by my parents; at school for sure, but never at home. I was deeply ashamed. I saw Mem standing just outside the kitchen door wiping her eyes as she apologized to Miss Collins. I was close to my mother and was always on her side whenever she quarrelled with my father. I waited, tense, for her to get a pigeon pea switch—it was what the women used when beating their children—and “wale (welt) [my] backside good and proper.” Instead she stared at me with the silent question: How could you subject me to so much humiliation from this God-awful woman? For the rest of that morning Miss Collins continued to hurl hell fire and damnation at us and to recount the story to everyone who came up or down the hill, on the way to or from their farm or to or from Esperance, the village in the valley over the hill. We stood there and took it silently as people passed up and down the road and stopped to hear her retell the story. A few of the listeners smiled at the story and winked at my mother.
One time I witnessed a cuss-out between Miss Collins—it was after she “got saved” too— and Sister Murray. Half-way through the cussing, Sister Murray went into her house and brought out a broom and offered it to Miss Collins.
The onlookers clapped.
“You calling me a witch? Is that you doing? Gie me the broom. Bring it. Come. See if I don’ beat your backside with it.”
Around 2 p.m. Miss Collins eventually left us, most likely from hunger and exhaustion. I hid myself away in my bedroom and wondered what my father would do to me. I came out around four to bring the goats home, and returned to my bedroom as soon as I’d tethered them. I had seen fathers beat their children in ways that frightened me. Twine, who lived downhill facing us, had beaten André so badly one time, he had to be hospitalized. (I’m now sure that many were damaged psychically. Evident later in the widespread theft, drug use, gun battles, and disrespect for the rights of others, I witnessed when I returned to Havre four years ago.) I wondered if Daddy would do the same thing to me. It was what Miss Collins was demanding.
Miss Collins knew what time my father would return from work. He was working on a construction project in Richmond Vale. She was at our gate waiting for him. She accosted him: “Edward, before you go in I have a complaint to make and I want satisfaction.” Her back was to our gate and her body blocked Daddy’s entry. “Yo’ t’iefing son come to my place last night and pull up my flowers. Take what he want and leave the rest there ‘pon the ground.”
I was observing the scene from my bedroom window. Daddy turned around, glanced about our yard and up at the side of the house and saw me. With his thumb, he beckoned me to come to the gate. I went.
“Edward, I expect you to cut this boy arse good and proper so he going never do it again.” Her arms were akimbo and her head aslant. No doubt about it: it was an order.
Daddy said nothing. He glared at me.
“Take off your belt,” Miss Collins demanded, “and cut his arse. . . . What you waiting for? Cut his arse.”
By now a small crowd had gathered and dusk was descending. Daddy looked down at his belt. It was leather, at least five centimetres wide and more than a centimetre thick. He unbuckled it. I held my breath. He pulled it out of the loops and swung it lightly. He stared at me, bit his lower lip, and grimaced.
Miss Collins saw his hesitation. “Edward, ‘Spare not the rod and spoil this child.’ . . . Edward, ‘He that knoweth the will and doeth it not shall be beaten with many stripes.’” She stopped talking and folded her arms.
Daddy turned to face her. “Can I pay you for the flowers?”
The crowd mumbled its objection.
Miss Collins did not answer. Daddy repeated the question, this time louder.
“But all you seeing my crosses?” She asked and pivoted to take in the reactions of the crowd. She turned again to face Daddy. “Since you playing rich, I want five thousand dollars and not a penny less,” she said.
The crowd guffawed. Some commented indecipherably.
“I don’ have five thousand dollars.”
“You don’ have five cents. Cut his arse; that will satisfy me. That is all I ask.”
“I not beating him,” Daddy said firmly and began putting back on his belt.
The murmuring in the crowd grew, some saying that that wasn’t right, that it was no way to bring up a child.
“How you going pay me? Tell me that. You don’ have two copper pennies to rub together,” Miss Collins said.
“You have any repair work to do on your house?”
“Yes, the jalousies have to change and some o’ the doors rotten.”
“Ok. Get the wood and I will do it.”
“And rebuild the balcony too.”
“That you going have to pay me for. Full rate.” With that he walked past Miss Collins and entered our yard. I turned then and saw my mother standing on our balcony. She had been there all along observing the scene. I entered our living room, one of the four rooms in our board house. Daddy was already there. He turned to face me. “Millington, you see how you make me hang my head in shame? Don’ do this to me again. Promise me, you will never make me go through this again.” That was all he said. He sounded weary. Mem came into the living room then. I began to cry, and through my hiccups I promised him I never would, and I never did. Whatever my age-mates did: stealing fruit, stoning coupling dogs, dissing teachers, I never joined in. Whatever could result in a complaint against me I instinctively avoided. I deliberately shunned my peers to avoid getting into trouble and without realizing it for a long time, I became a loner.
Now, when I look back on the gerbera incident, I know my parents were exceptional. I’m pretty certain that they and Ma Kirton were the only parents in Havre who didn’t flog children.