How it Was in the Winter

By her seventh birthday, Tanya Beardsley had more dolls, of more sizes, that did more things, than all the other dolls of all the other girls on the block together.  For those who would visit, she would display them-a parade of tiny mannequins in costumes of every description. Visitors, however, were rare.

When Tanya sat on her pink satin bedspread and looked in the dresser mirror, she saw a pudgy face, a round pink pudgy face, stuck on a round pudgy body.  No matter how she stood, how she stretched her neck, how she contorted her body, she was still a fat, pudgy little shape with a round pink face on top.  She sighed, wandering from corner to corner, touching her dolls, staring out the window, straightening her bedspread.

And finally she would go to the bedside table and get the chocolates her brother had bought her, and the Movie Star magazine her mother had forbidden her to read, and escape to another country.

One birthday, Tanya’s mother bought her an autograph book.  Tanya had particularly asked for one.  That year everyone wanted one.  Everyone.  By the time Tanya had hers half the class had a book of one sort or another, some fancy, some the bare rudiments of paper and cardboard cover.

Tanya’s book was of red leather, with the words “Autograph Book” printed in gold across the cover and a page with a flowered border in which you filled in all particulars including weight. Tanya ripped out the page and went in search of autographs.

A couple of the kids didn’t put anything bad.  The Italian boy put “May you slip into heaven,” and the girl who never spoke in class put “Yours ’til the USA drinks Canada Dry,” but all the other comments were at her expense.  At noon Tanya sneaked up to her bedroom and hid the book under her mattress.

And then Tanya’s luck changed. On June 16, 1978, after the regular tedium of a day in his sterile office and a large supper of roast beef, Mr. Beardsley went to bed complaining of indigestion.

Mrs. Beardsley finished the dishes, cleaned up the living room, climbed the stairs. When she spoke to her husband, he did not reply. She went to him lying there on the bed, shook him, and knew. Mrs. Beardsley sunk onto the bed and pulled her arms to her body.  She sat there for an hour, for a minute, for an eternity rocking back and forth on the bed.  Finally, she went downstairs and phoned the doctor and her brother in Winnipeg.

She called the children. They came into the living room, surprised to be called down when they should be in bed.

“Your father,” she began, “Come here, come here,” and she took them by the hand and pulled them down on the sofa. “Daddy is gone,” she whispered, “He’s gone. He died and the doctor is going to come and take him away.”

Peter pulled away from his mother in horror. He ran to the stairs. “Daddy,” he cried, bounding up the stairs, fumbling over his legs. “Peter, Peter, don’t go in.”

But he did and immediately came out again; ran to his room, slammed the door shut and a minute later they could hear the muffled sound of his sobbing.

Tanya sat there and listened. She had been called down like an adult, like Peter.  Daddy was dead.  It was for sure because she could hear Peter crying and mother was talking on the phone to her friend Mrs. Cramer and she was crying as she talked.  It was like a story.

She should be crying too.  She would cry, of course.  She would wear black and stay off school. Yes, there had been a girl in the grade ahead whose brother had died and she had stayed off school for months.  They said she suffered terribly, that she had loved her brother more than life.

I loved Daddy, she thought, loved him and now he’s gone.  Everyone will be sorry now; she shivered at the picture of her father dead in his bed.

It was a long night.  Tanya was sent to bed more than once but didn’t go and no one, in the end, seemed to notice. She saw them take the body out, although she had been most definitely told to

stay in the kitchen.  Later she couldn’t remember if she’d really seen an arm fall off the stretcher as if it were grabbing or if she had just imagined it.  That first night or maybe it was the next day, the talk seemed to go on forever.

Her mother and Mrs. Cramer sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and her mother kept saying they would have to go out West to stay with her brother. They couldn’t last out in Ottawa, her mother had said.

When Tanya started along the road to school the first day back her classmates from the street came up to her and asked if they could walk with her.  It was the first time, the very first time, they had.  Soon all the children on the street were clustered around her, all calling her “Tanya” and saying they were sorry and how did it happen.  And that morning the teacher announced in a solemn voice that “we must all be nice, especially nice, to Tanya today as her father died on the weekend and Tanya feels very unhappy.”

Tanya told all the stories at school.  About the body, and how her father had eaten supper that fatal night just as if nothing would happen.  She told what the doctor said, and about her mother crying.  Told it all to a hushed audience in the girl’s washroom, at recess, that first day back.

Later, when Tanya was first out in the spelling bee, nobody groaned, or made jokes behind their fingers; instead there was a hush and everyone nodded as if it were to be expected.

It was exciting for everyone in the class that week. They felt part of a tragedy.  A drama.  Life. For what could be more grown up, more part of life than to know about death.  To know about a man who they had actually seen who was now dead.  Dead in bed after eating roast beef.  That was something.

Of all the stories about the death, the most popular, the most poignant, was the story of the new suit.  For it turned out that Mr. Beardsley had had a new suit made especially.  Made to order by a tailor.  The first in his life.  A very expensive suit in a brown material. And this suit was only delivered to the house the day after Mr. Beardsley died. Imagine Tanya’s mother, they would sigh, going to the door. “Suit for Mr. Beardsley,” the man would have said.  It was terrible.  “Isn’t it awful,” the girls shivered and tsked when they heard the story again.  “And it’s still sitting in the hall cupboard,” Tanya concluded her eyes wide, “Mommy didn’t even take it upstairs because well why…”

And they all nodded wisely in agreement.

When every detail of the death and every speculation had been discussed until it became stale in the mouth, Tanya noticed her followers were beginning to drift away.  As it was almost Easter

break, her mother agreed to let Tanya stay home from school until they moved.  So Tanya left in glory, still a story to tell and rumours that the family was moving west.  To Winnipeg, Manitoba, a place that not one of her classmates had ever been.  Her mother would be a model probably, a serious one.  Peter might play hockey or something athletic and Tanya would go to a special school.  On her last day the whole class agreed to write her a goodbye letter after Easter.

As it turned out, other things came up after the holiday.  The letter was never written.  The house in Winnipeg, which Tanya had said would have a swimming pool, turned out to be a small apartment in an older building on a noisy street.  Mrs. Beardsley found work with her brother’s company as a clerk and Peter dropped out of school.

By summer Tanya began to understand that her father was gone.  Really gone.  Nothing glamourous, just empty.  All the dolls and all the stories didn’t erase the sad feeling.  In the fall, her mother painted a desk for her room, and made her a seat with a quilted pillow.  Tanya sat there by the hour staring out the window.  She began to write stories about princes and princesses and death by torture and then finally about Winnipeg.  How it was in the winter, still and pastel, and the clean line of the snow on a sunny day.

~ Melodie Corrigall

1990

Originally published in:  Women and Words – The Anthology

Imagining, 2nd Edition

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