Marion Rowley is a preacher’s daughter. She was brought up to love God and do right by her family. It’s all she’s ever wanted out of life. Yet somehow, despite all her father’s care and devotion, the devil ensnared her. She saw fit to stray from the path of righteousness for four awful months, running off to Toronto to lead a sleazy, degraded life. She painted herself like a whore each day, frequented nightclubs and dances, sang sinful jazz music. Worst of all, she willingly consorted with loose women, scoundrels, even sexual deviants.
Though Marion made him suffer so terribly, her father rescued her from that awful place. Despite everything she’s done, he still loves her enough to help her rejoin the flock. Those months in the city were a dark period in her life, but the memories won’t bother her, now that she is back where she belongs.
Kate tries to keep busy. If she keeps herself occupied, she won’t think. It’s not difficult to wear herself out, with washing and cooking for her entire family, nursing Mother and spreading God’s word alongside her father and brothers. It never feels like enough, though. She wants to fall asleep before her head hits her pillow, but no matter how late the hour, her eyes snap open.
Her mind runs like a freight train, unstoppably towards the thoughts she spends all day trying to ward off. Towards memories, which are so much more dangerous than wishes. Wishes are, by definition, impossible. Memories, on the other hand, have already come to pass.
She remembers a different Kate, not the shadow version she is now, but one who was born the moment she pushed her father to the ground and took off running to the big city. That Kate tied her hair up under a blue turban and worked six days a week to help Canada and the Allies win this war. That Kate learned to smile open-mouthed and genuine, learned to stand tall. She found her voice and sang the blues. That Kate never stopped running, not for a moment.
The Kate she was a few weeks ago had lots of friends. She even had a best friend: Betty McRae, the most decent, upstanding woman at Victory Munitions. Everyone thought so, not just Kate. Betty didn’t stand for any guff from the floor boys, who were just the worst for making dirty remarks about the women. With men who respected her, like Marco Moretti, the factory’s materials controller, Betty could joke and banter without a trace of self-consciousness, never blushing or stuttering, never failing to think of something to say. She stood up for people who needed protection.She was a hero. She was Kate’s hero.
The Kate she was a few weeks ago can’t exist any more, and it’s all because of a kiss.
Kate did not go to church when she heard that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. She went to her singing lesson with her friend Leon, as though nothing had happened and nobody had died. Kate desperately needed to feel like nothing had happened, like there could still be quiet drinks with good friends in a world at war.
She had been horribly on edge all that day, since she had found her father waiting for her in her bedroom the previous night. It was so like one of her nightmares: Father blocking the door, showing no reaction when she begged him to let her leave, ignoring her when she swore she’d jump out of her window if he didn’t move aside. It was only when Betty strode into the room to rescue her that Kate knew for sure it was really happening. It was the way she always wished those bad dreams could end, with someone she cared about coming to her aid. Yet, after her father took his leave, Kate couldn’t get the metallic taste of fear out of her mouth, couldn’t stop her hands shaking and going numb at odd moments.
From the moment Father left, Betty tried her best to lift Kate’s spirits. Kate let her believe it was working. Sometimes it actually did, at least a little. Yet there are things inside Kate that she doesn’t think she’ll ever let anyone see, no matter how highly she thinks of them. Still, she loved Betty for trying. Kate was so grateful to Betty for being so sweet, so caring, so invested in her. Before she knew how bad the day would get, she asked Betty to go for a drink with her that afternoon, just the two of them.
During their shift, some live bomb casings smashed into Betty while they were working the stencil line. When people she cares for are in danger, it’s always been Kate’s instinct to hurl herself in front of them like a shield. She figures God was trying to tell her that she was wrong to abandon her family. To show her she’d done wrong, He refused to let Kate offer herself in her best friend’s place. Instead, she could only watch.
All those months that Kate was in Toronto, God tried to tell her that He would keep her special people safe if only she would do right by her family and return home. It took Kate such a long time to realise what God wanted of her. But even then, even as she saw her best friend in danger, Kate was selfish. When Betty cried out in pain, Kate’s entire being begged, Oh, please, God-! She has a feeling she might have even shouted it aloud, but she can’t remember. It was all a blur.
God granted Kate’s prayer. Betty was only bruised by the bomb casings. Kate should have walked straight out of the factory, then and there, praising God with all her heart and never looking back. But when she held Betty’s hands in hers, she faltered again. Fool that she was, Kate thought she could keep Betty safe by being with her. After all, if Kate hadn’t been there, who would have darted forward to steady the swinging projectiles? In her arrogance, Kate supposed God wanted her on the floor of a factory which worked to kill people’s children, all because she happened to care very much for someone on that floor.
When Betty and Kate arrived back at the rooming house, worn thin by their day and deeply shaken by the news of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Kate told Betty to stay home and rest her injured shoulder. She was very insistent about it, ordering Betty into bed and singing to her until she lay still. Kate can’t begin to explain why it was so crucial that Betty do as she said, but she honestly felt like she would scream if Betty didn’t heed her. Yet when Betty appeared at Tangiers an hour later, announcing herself with a sarcastic quip, swaying from too much drink, Kate couldn’t have been happier to see her friend. Betty joined her at the piano, and for a moment, all was right with the world.
Kate took a chance, then. She told Betty, “I used to sing to feel something. Now, it’s more like I feel something and I sing.”
Kate worried that maybe she sounded silly, that she wasn’t saying it right. Still, she had to let it out, had to tell someone about this part of herself she had just recently discovered. To be able to sing a happy song because she was already happy, and not because she needed to keep herself from despairing, was one of the biggest things that had ever happened to Kate. She could sing happy songs because she was happy, and love songs because she knew what it was to love somebody. Kate loves her mother and brothers, she reveres her father, and she – well, she felt a lot for Betty, before Betty betrayed her. Even singing a sad song when felt down was exhilarating, because at last, Kate could be purely honest with herself. For the first time in her life, she didn’t have to be frightened of her own feelings.
When Kate told her that, Betty looked at Kate like Kate was just exactly right. Just as Kate was thinking that she had made the right choice, the perfect choice, in telling Betty this thing she’d realised about herself, Betty brought Kate’s palm to her lips and gave it a gentle, reverent kiss.
It was strangely intimate, Betty kissing her hand like that, but Kate hadn’t known to be wary of it. She just assumed that Betty needed to comfort someone, in the wake of everything that happened, to feel useful, to feel in control. Kate could certainly understand that.
Somehow, Betty managed to emphasise every single word as she said,“I really like you, Kate.” Which was, again, rather odd – they were the best of friends. Of course Kate knew that Betty liked her. Perhaps Betty, in turn, needed reassurance that everything was going to be okay. Kate could understand that, too.
“I like you too, Betty,” Kate replied. They were such inadequate words for what Kate felt for her that she had a mad urge to giggle.
Perhaps it was tempting fate, to grin incredulously and wonder how much more precise she could be. Five words floated to the top of Kate’s mind, devastatingly clear and unambiguous. I want to kiss you. Not I want to hold you close, I want to be near you so badly, the niggling but soothingly vague impulses Kate has had around beautiful women since she was twelve or thirteen. There, sitting at the piano in the Tangiers Club, Kate’s mind left nothing up to interpretation. It said, plainly as anything, I want to kiss you.
Kate’s mind embroidered on the thought: I’ve never kissed anyone on the lips in my life, but I want to kiss you right now. Not a glancing cheek kiss, not even a lingering one. Her mind was frighteningly specific about wanting to press her mouth to Betty’s, like people – men and women – did in the movies.
I want to kiss you, Kate’s mind insisted. Her smile faded from her face as she hoped desperately that Betty would not read her thoughts.
Only it seemed Betty did. Her expression became euphoric and intent, all at once, as though she were about to do the most important thing of her life. Her eyes fluttered closed. Before Kate knew what was happening, Betty’s lips were on hers, dry from the chill winds outdoors but soft and warm.
It was so bizarre, Kate thinking this thing and Betty doing it a moment later, that Kate just sort of … let her keep doing it, for an instant. Just so she could be sure that it was really happening. Just so she could know how it felt.
She felt nice, against Kate. More than nice, actually. Sort of – wanting and giving, at the same time. It’s just a fact. Betty being nice to kiss doesn’t mean anything about Kate. Why else would men want to kiss women, if it didn’t feel good? If women felt dreadful to kiss, nobody would ever fall in love or get married.
As they kissed, Kate’s lips parted, and she could taste Betty, as well as feeling her. Betty’s mouth tasted like gin and tonic. Gin and tonic is Kate’s personal favourite drink, perhaps even more than champagne. She likes how sophisticated she feels, drinking it, how tart and cool it is. Betty is a devoted whiskey drinker, knocking it back neat with barely a reaction. What was she doing, tasting like Kate’s favourite drink? It was as if Betty had ordered herself Kate’s drink of choice so that Kate would enjoy it when they kissed.
Well, of course that’s what Betty did. Of course she knew. People don’t accidentally seduce each other. She probably planned it that way from the start. Isn’t that the way it always happens in stories?
The only reason anyone would ever want to be around you is so they could take advantage of you, says a mocking voice in Kate’s brain. Why fight it? It’s what you want, secretly. Given half a chance, you’d have your legs open to every man, every woman who looks your way. You act so innocent, but on the inside, you’re a harlot and a pervert.
… She liked it. Oh, God in Heaven, she liked it when Betty kissed her. It’s not fair. How is Kate supposed to know when something is loathsome if it feels good? It makes Kate want to sob, makes her want to break things. How could Betty declare that their entire friendship was a calculated ploy to get Kate to do God knows what with her – and have the audacity to make the declaration feel good? How is Kate ever meant to feel good again, after that?
Father has spent Kate’s entire life warning her that people outside their family only wanted to ruin her. She always thought he meant men. She supposes he did too. Father’s always told her to be careful, to be vigilant, not to lose her head. Kate lost her head over Betty, all right. She thought anyone would. Kate didn’t know that women aren’t supposed to notice those sorts of things about their friends. Women aren’t meant to practically swoon when their best friend chews out the male floor workers for making smutty remarks, or eagerly anticipate seeing their best friend in a newsreel because they’ll get to stare at her just as much as they want without looking funny. For everything that’s said about women being hysterical, illogical, slaves to their emotions, the fact is that women aren’t supposed to feel anything at all unless it’s about men.
You did this to me, Kate thinks furiously. She would punch her pillow if she didn’t know what a light sleeper her father is. The slightest suspicious noise wakes him, whether it comes from across the trailer or two towns over. You made me think that you were my friend, and all the while you were trying to make me like you. You told me all you wanted me for was my body, and I liked hearing it. What does that say about me?
Father has always said that women are base and lustful creatures, and that it is their responsibility to pray for the strength to overcome their natural licentiousness. That’s just what she’ll have to do. There’s no sense in wondering what could have been. It’s over. She has to be Marion again. And it should be easy. It should. She was Marion for twenty-four years. Kate recoils against what’s happened, against what she’s become, with everything she’s got. She doesn’t want to be a woman any more. She doesn’t want to have her own life. She tried, and it all went so wrong. She wants to be the dutiful daughter again, but … she fears she’s changed too much.
And so Kate spends her days trying to make herself so tired that she can’t think. She cleans and re-cleans the trailer until her hands are raw, and she prays to be forgiven. She doesn’t tell God about any of her real feelings. She knows He doesn’t want to hear them. Nobody would want to, if they knew the kind of person she really is.
Very occasionally, Kate is overcome by a vivid memory of Betty’s kiss. The way she bit her lip before she closed the space between them, as though she was excited and nervous about kissing Kate. The way she melted into Kate so completely despite the kiss only lasting a matter of seconds. Kate is filled with warmth every time she relives it. It’s the kind of warmth that makes Kate stop in her tracks and close her eyes. When she thinks about how women aren’t supposed to do that together – when she remembers bold, brave, proud Betty choking back tears and fleeing the bar when Kate spat the word disgusting at her – it is like being doused in ice water.
Drifting into fitful sleep offers no reprieve. Kate dreams herself back onto the piano bench at Tangiers. Leon is gone, Roy and Frankie the bartenders are gone, but Betty is there. They kiss and kiss, murmuring sweet nothings, whispering secrets, making plans and promises. There is no ice water feeling there.
Trigger warning for abuse (particularly in this chapter) and internalised homophobia. Please let me know if I should add any more.
I love Kate and Leon’s friendship, and I don’t feel it gets explored nearly enough in fic. Here is my stab at exploring their dynamic. The songs Kate sings in this chapter are I’m a Fool to Want You by Billie Holiday, and One Song from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
All characters and environments belong to Michael Maclennan and Adrienne Mitchell/Shaw Media. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs belongs to Disney.
Marion doesn’t look at anyone any more. Not men, not women. The moment she found out women can be twisted enough to want each other as lovers, men’s hearts became that much more depraved by comparison. She has learned her lesson. She will mind what her father has always told her. She will never be so foolish as to think people don’t mean her any harm, not ever, ever again.
Kate sings to her mother, to soothe her as she gasps for breath. Mother has always loved Kate’s singing. They used to sing duets together when Kate was a child, while they cleaned house or walked to church. Kate sings all their special songs from long ago. It’s like she’s singing the story of their lives. Sometimes, tears prick at Kate’s eyes when she thinks about how she has to take both parts of the duet now, but she wipes them away like dust. It doesn’t matter how she feels. She has to think of someone else, for once.
Still, when she sings Lonesome Valley for Mother, she finds herself recalling a single, strident voice in the dark, joining with hers to assure her that she wasn’t as lonesome as she thought.
Father’s told Kate all her life that the only reason a man would want to be around her is so he could seduce her, but Leon Riley kept his distance. Kate was the one to pursue him. She liked that, liked setting her sights on someone and persisting until they gave her a chance.
(Kate did the same with Betty. Betty gave in much faster than Leon, which only goes to prove that women are just as dangerous as men. Maybe more so.)
When Leon finally agreed to teach her to sing the blues, Kate wondered if he was going to make a pass at her, and what she would do when he did. She felt like such an idiot when he behaved like a consummate professional, like a perfect gentleman.
What did you expect? Do you think you’re such a raving beauty that no man could keep his hands off you? Anyone would think you wanted it to happen, you slut, she reprimands herself. Normally Kate hates words like whore or harlot or slut, but she’s all right with thinking them about herself. Sometimes she feels like she’s the only woman in the world who deserves to have those words flung at her.
One afternoon, when Kate was waiting for Leon inside Tangiers, a man and woman started shouting and slapping at each other. Kate was trapped in a corner booth and could only watch helplessly as the fight escalated. When Leon arrived, he punched the man in the jaw and threw him bodily into the street. The woman ran out after her boyfriend, shrieking words Kate couldn’t bring herself to understand. Seeing that naked rage on Leon’s face made Kate black out for a few seconds. When she came back into herself, her face was wet, but she couldn’t remember crying.
Leon returned and slid into the booth beside her. Kate shrank from him, feeling more trapped than ever before, but Leon didn’t appear to notice.
“It’s pitiful, a man beatin’ up on a woman.” Face twisted from exertion and anger, Leon signalled for a drink. “I know it scared you to see me lay out that waste of space, but he got what he deserved, Church Mouse.”
Kate stared at the tabletop. “I’m sorry, but I don’t much feel like singing today, Leon. I’m sorry you’ve had a wasted journey. I’m sorry.” She kept blurting that she was sorry, so sorry.
Leon looked sideways at Kate’s shaking hands, her blank expression and her streaming eyes. He waited until Roy had put his Scotch down in front of him and moved away again before speaking. “Was it your boyfriend, Kate?” Leon asked quietly.
That was the one and only time Leon ever called her by her first name. Every other time, it was either Church Mouse or Miss Andrews. She didn’t mind it too much. Church Mouse was the only friendly nickname anyone had ever bestowed upon her, and it was nice to be addressed as Miss Andrews, like she was worthy of respect. She still wishes she could remember what it sounded like, him forming that one syllable.
Kate dabbed at her eyes with her hankie and said flatly, “No.” Kate’s only ever told a handful of people, but a handful is enough for her to know that she hates the way people change once they know. Leon already seemed to look on her as a little girl. She was so, so tired of never being equal to anyone.
After a quiet moment, Leon said, “My stepdad. Man by the name of Sidney Buck – though ‘man’ is far too good for him.” Kate didn’t understand right away, but when the penny dropped, she must have looked appalled, because Leon gave a hollow laugh. “And now you’re shocked.”
“It’s just – you always seem so happy.”
“The happy singin’ darky, without a care in the world. Yep, that’s me.”
“You know that’s not what I mean,” Kate replied, wounded.“I don’t care what colour a person is.”
Looking shrewdly at her, Leon shrugged. “I gotta be happy, Church Mouse. He already wrecked my childhood and my family. If I ain’t happy, that bastard gets to ruin me as a man, too. It means he wins.”
“What did he do to you?”
Leon shook his head. “He was a mean drunk, and that’s all I’m saying about it. Let’s not go into the gory details.”
Something about the phrase made it so Kate couldn’t help but picture Leon’s back marked with scars, a photographic negative of her own. She shivered, and it wasn’t in the way women were supposed to shiver around a good-looking man.
“But he’s not around any more,” said Kate. “It’s in the past?” Kate didn’t mean it to, but the first remark, intended as a question, came out as a statement of fact, and the second part, intended as words of comfort, emerged as a question.
“In a sense. My mama, my sister Abigail and I suffered under him for nine years. Abby’s married to a decent guy, and they’ve got two boys. I haven’t met either of my nephews. Abby and me, we don’t speak any more. She doesn’t want anything remindin’ her of those years … but if she’s happier that way, I can’t complain too much.”
“Where’s your stepfather now?”
“Last I heard, he was in prison. Not for beating my mama, for manslaughter. He punched out a white man, who fell and hit his head.” Leon chuckled mirthlessly. “If I’d have known that’d be what’d fix him, you can bet I would’ve been trying to get him into a fight with a white man since I was eight years old. Best moment of my life, seeing him get hauled off by the cops. I changed my name from Buck back to Riley, my dad’s name. Mama passed on three years later. She wouldn’t change her name. She died as Eudora Buck. Breast cancer. I read somewhere you can get it from being hit...”
Kate touched his shoulder. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly. “You couldn’t stop her from getting sick.” They were the kind of words Kate had always longed for someone to say to her, even though she knew she didn’t deserve them.
He allowed her to keep her hand there for one, two, three seconds, before gently pulling away. Not here, the gesture said. Not anywhere, not ever. “I couldn’t stop a lot of things.”
“Leon, at least you stayed. I … I walked out on my family. I’m here, just having the time of my life, while he’s probably taking it all out on them.” Her voice shook. She had as good as said that her father was the reason she had run away. She felt so disloyal, talking ill of her father … even if it was the truth.
He looked at her critically. “Escaping ain’t the same thing as walking out.”
“I ran away.” She managed, with every ounce of willpower she possessed, to hold his gaze. “If I were a man, you’d be calling me a coward for not staying to protect my mom and my brothers. You’d be right to.”
“I’ll bet you don’t regret it, though.”
Kate hates herself for it, but at that moment, Betty’s face popped into her mind. Like a fool, she smiled, thinking about how she loved Betty. She hadn’t known to feel bad about it, not then. “Good things have happened for me. I just wish I didn’t have to give up my family for them to happen.”
“Well, that’s a start.”
“Is that why you saved me from Donald?” she asked tentatively. “Because of your mother and Abby?”
“What else could I do? Would you have walked on by?”
Kate was taken aback. “I couldn’t hit anybody. I’m not strong. I’m just a woman.” She paused. “But … I’d do what I could, if somebody needed me, to keep them from being hurt. I’ve done it before.” Her scars stung so horribly at the memory that she was surprised they didn’t all open at once, staining the back of her pink flowered frock crimson.
Leon nodded gravely. “Then you’re better than your father, Miss Andrews. Remember that.”
They sat for a moment, listening to the clinks of glasses and the swish of rags as Roy and Frankie tidied behind the bar, two veterans of the same war.
Kate clasped her hands in her lap, holding one thumb tightly. The feeling gave her strength. Kate ventured, “Leon, I think … I think I could stand to sing a little something, if you don’t mind playing for me. You didn’t hurt your hand, hitting that man, did you?”
Leon gave a genuine smile. “I’m all right. Ain’t the first time I’ve thrown a punch, and it won’t be the last.”
“Good.” Kate blushed. “I mean, it’s good that you’re all right, not good that-”
“I know what you mean.” He got to his feet. “C’mon, we’d best get this under way. Club’ll be opening, before too long.”
Sitting at the piano, Leon led Kate through her warm-up exercises. He began to play the song he’d given her to practice that week. He played the introduction, but when it got to the part where Kate was meant to start singing, her voice failed her.
She cleared her throat. “Play it again,” Kate said. There was a certain tension in her voice that had nothing to do with the fact that he was a man, or handsome, or a Negro.
Leon replayed the introduction. Kate held onto her own thumb again. She didn’t feel strength this time, just a vague sort of sadness. Somehow, that sadness was what got her to sing. “I’m a fool to want you, I’m a fool to want you...”
Kate had borrowed the record from Moira after Leon mentioned he thought it might be a good song for her. The first time she heard it, Kate was so overcome that she had to lie down. Jeannie and Dolores teased her when she emerged from her room in a daze, asking what dreamboat had her playing Billie Holiday’s I’m a Fool to Want You seven times in a row. It wrong-footed Kate. She’d thought it was the saddest song she’d ever heard, and here the other girls seemed to think it was about a grand romance.
Still, they knew more about this sort of thing than her, so all the week leading up to her lesson with Leon, Kate practiced it as a love song, picturing herself singing it to some dark, handsome scoundrel. It hadn’t gone right, not once in all the dozens of times she practiced it in her bedroom. But as she sat at the piano with Leon, knowing they were the same on the inside, knowing they’d been through the same things and still had music inside them, it came out differently.
“Time and time again, I said I’d leave you. Time and time again, I went away. But then would come a time when I would need you, and once again, these words I had to say. I’m a fool to want you.” She abruptly ran out of breath there, and had to stop for a moment. Kate breathed in all the right places, and yet she found her lungs totally empty. Billie Holiday had a habit of doing that to her. “Pity me, I need you. I know it’s wrong, it must be wrong, but right or wrong I can’t get along without you. I can’t get along without you...”
It wasn’t the very first time that Kate felt something and then sang, but it was the first time it happened in front of other people. The feeling that made her sing wasn’t the feeling of fancying Leon; it was the regret she felt at walking out on her family. She sang the song to herself in the past, and to her father, wherever he was then.
Usually, Frankie and Roy liked to cheer and wolf-whistle whenever Kate sang at the piano, liked to yell, “Brava!” and “Encore!” But as she finished her song, they just clapped a few times, and went back to their work, like they didn’t want to intrude on something private. It was the way Kate felt when she listened to Billie singing that song.
“That’s more like it, Church Mouse,” Leon said quietly, and she knew for sure that he understood.
She remembers the way she used to dress up for their singing lessons: bright lipstick, carefully styled hair, earrings sparkling in her lobes. The longer she was around Leon, the more she knew their singing lessons were most emphatically not dates, but she liked looking pretty anyway. It’s hard to think she had the time and the inclination to take such pains with her appearance, considering how she looks now. Tidying the trailer, as quietly as she can so as not to disturb Mother, Kate catches sight of herself in the small mirror that Father and Richard use to shave. It’s a shock. She looks pale and exhausted, her hair is in need of a wash and comb and she realises, with a creeping shame, that she’s worn the same dress three days running. It’s like all the things that bad boys used to chant at her to make her cry as a child have come true.
Kate hates the smell of her own sweat, but it’s become all too familiar. She’s gotten used to hot showers six days a week, and baths in the evening too. Now, going back to washing fully clothed, with a china jug of water and a damp cloth … it used to be enough, but now it’s like her body can’t cope. She feels disgusting.
“To heck with it,” Kate mumbles. Her family can hardly begrudge her the opportunity to wash herself, like everyone else in the world. She’s doing this thing properly, or not at all.
Even with her newfound recklessness, Kate doesn’t quite have the nerve to strip completely, but she undresses enough to be able to wash. She attacks her head with powdered shampoo while a saucepan of water heats. Once her hair is clean, she begins to wash, slowly and methodically. When she was Marion, she used to wash herself guiltily in the corner, even when she was alone. Now she stands in the middle of the trailer, singing little snatches of hers and Mother’s songs as she washes herself.
She remembers a day a few years ago, when she and Mother went to see the film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They considered taking Kate’s youngest brother Walter with them, but knew he couldn’t be trusted not to tell Father. It didn’t matter, in the end. Father found out anyway. Father finds everything out, one way or another.
Despite how angry her father was afterwards, Kate still loved the film. She didn’t think she liked cartoons much. Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse have never really held her attention, but she was enchanted by the way Snow White looked like a fairy tale book come to life. She especially loved the songs. She would’ve felt silly buying the record album – a grown woman buying the music from a children’s film – but once she got her first pay check from Victory Munitions, the first silly thing she bought herself was the song book from the film. She accidentally took it along to one of her lessons at Tangiers once. Leon raised his eyebrows when he glimpsed it. Kate went scarlet and blurted something about buying it for her friend Edith’s little girl Daphne. He smiled, shook his head and said nothing more about it.
As she washes, she starts to sing one of the songs from the film. Kate doesn’t sing Whistle While You Work, or Someday My Prince Will Come. She sings One Song, the one the prince sings to Snow White when she’s trapped in the evil queen’s castle. Kate has no business singing a man’s song, but she does it anyway.
“One song, I have but one song. One song, only for you … one love that has possessed me, one love thrilling me through...” It’s wicked, but as she sings the words, standing half-naked and clean and bold as brass, she’s not thinking about Mother any more. She’s not thinking of Leon, either.
The door opens with a bang, and a cold breeze blasts through the trailer as Walter comes in, unwinding his woollen scarf and taking off his cap. Kate lets out a cry of surprise and scrambles to cover herself. Her shoulders hunch forward, her head ducks and her elbows clamp to her sides as though she’s anticipating a blow.
Mother moans softly from her bunk. It’s unbelievable to remember how strong she was for the first seventeen years of Kate’s life, before she started getting this trouble with her lungs. Even in those last weeks before Kate ran away, Mother was such a pillar of strength: obtaining fake documents, organising a place for Kate to live, putting away a little of the housekeeping money each week so that Kate could take enough to tide her over until her first pay check. Kate remembers their last afternoon together, when Mother tried to take their minds off what was about to happen by teaching Kate to put on makeup. Kate had always been expressly forbidden from painting herself, so when Mother handed her lipstick, rouge, an eyebrow pencil and a powder compact, it was like she was being set free.
Kate is Marion again. She can’t want to be free any more. She has to stay and watch her mother fade away.
“Marion, cover up,” Walt says automatically, closing the door behind him. He says it quietly, being mindful of Mother. She should be proud of how considerate he’s getting. Yet she can’t help but bristle at the abruptness of it. No greeting, no apology for barging in while Kate was washing, just an order to get dressed. A familiar ritual that makes it sink in, at long last, that Kate is home and never leaving again.
She holds her dress against herself, folding her arms to keep it in place. Walter looks expectantly at her, almost sneering. She’s always thought him an adorable child, but the sneer makes him look almost ugly … almost frightening.
Kate takes a deep breath. “I really wish you would think, Walt,” she says, almost irritably. “You’re thirteen years old, not a little boy any more. You knew I was in here and you came barrelling in anyway. A gentleman would knock before entering a lady’s room.” Even as she says it, Kate knows she sounds ridiculous. The trailer is not her bedroom; it’s their family’s home. Why on earth should he have to knock, coming into his own home?
Walter looks away, shamefaced. Kate is just about to apologise for biting his head off when he mutters, “With everything you did while you were away, nobody would call you a lady, Marion.”
Up until six months ago, Kate’s world comprised four people, none of whom could be allowed to see her anger. Her father was so terrifying, her mother so purely good, her brothers in need of care and protection. She turned all her anger in on herself. Now she has so much of it, burning millimetres below the surface. She’s almost splitting apart with all the anger she has. She is not good or sweet any more. She is just pretending, all the time.
Her second baby brother is looking at her with such contempt. It should make her want to crumple and weep. Instead, Kate throws her dress to the floor and stands openly, not trying to cover herself, staring her little brother down. Though she is facing him, she has enough scars peeking around her waist, enough marks on her ribs, to give an unpleasant hint at the state of her back. She took so many blows so he wouldn’t have to. It is written all over her skin.
“Walter Rowley, you apologise right this minute,” she hisses. It is the most harshly she’s ever spoken to him. She’s always thought she would grow up to be her mother, patient and good, cowed and dominated. Maybe she’s turning into her father, instead.
Walt’s bravado melts away. He stammers out, “I never saw them before, in the daytime.”
Kate thinks he means he never saw a woman before, in the harsh, revealing light of day. “Of course you have,” she snaps.
“I hurt you,” he says, backing away. It dawns on Kate that he’s talking about her scars. “I held you down, I helped him hurt you.”
“Oh, darling...” Her anger is stifled by compassion, and she opens her arms, meaning to hug him. “Walt, it wasn’t you, honey.”
He looks at her like she’s about to strike him, and bolts from the trailer. Walter’s not back when Father and Richard get back from their meeting. Feebly, Kate makes up a story about sending him out to buy groceries. This is fortuitous, because when Walt finally reappears, he’s bleary-eyed and his clothes are dirty. Kate’s lies become increasingly fluid as she claims that some bigger boys knocked him down and stole the grocery money.
“Poor Walter. Never mind, sweetheart,” she says, putting her arm around him and kissing the top of his head. “Nobody blames you.”
She showed anger in front of a male, and the world didn’t end. She deliberately thinks male, not man. Kate knows the only reason she was able to stand up to Walter is because he’s half her age, dependent on her for meals and haircuts and help with his homework. Kate can order him to show respect because she is an adult and he’s a child. In a few years, Walt will be taller and stronger than she is, and Kate won’t be a grown-up to him any more, she’ll be a woman. She’ll learn to fear her baby brother if she knows what’s good for her.
Kate always thought, looking at Leon, that she wanted him to see her as a woman. Perhaps that wasn’t it. Perhaps what she really wanted was to see him as a man and trust him anyway.
Trigger warning for abuse, internalised misogyny and internalised homophobia. Please let me know if I should add any more.
One of the things I love most about this show is how it represents female sexuality. What follows is my attempt to try and do that justice by exploring how Kate might conceive of her sexuality, before and after her kiss with Betty.
All characters and environments belong to Michael Maclennan and Adrienne Mitchell/Shaw Media.
Marion’s eyes always face forward, staring without seeing. She prays that God will make her blind, so that she can prove to Him that she has no need for earthly things any more. Her hands stay demurely clasped, never out of view, ready to pray at a moment’s notice.
When she was in Toronto, she got up to unspeakable things, trying to ensnare innocent and not-so-innocent people alike with her beauty. Marion knew she was doing wrong, but she carried on anyway. Her family would have wept for shame, if they had seen her then.
Nobody needs to worry about Marion now. Marion doesn’t even know what lust is. She’s pure, the way women are meant to be.
One bright spring morning, Kate’s father takes her mother to see a doctor. He seems to crackle with purpose, as though taking Mother to a doctor was something that hadn’t occurred to anyone before now. Walter and Richard are sent out to run errands. Kate is left home with a list of chores to accomplish. She puts her hand to the window pane as she watches Father supporting Mother down the street. It takes them an eternity to round the corner.
The breakfast dishes are done, the beds are made. Kate takes a seat at their folding table. She figures she can take a break before she starts on the mending and ironing. This is the first time Kate’s been left alone since Toronto. She must be doing well, if Father trusts her not to bolt the minute he’s gone.
It should cheer her more than it does, but now that she’s by herself, she has a weary, restless feeling. This is not a good sign, considering what she used to do when she was restless and alone. The bad thing she used to do is what led to her having to run away from home in the first place.
It started when Kate was quite young, about fourteen or fifteen. Late at night, in her bed, Kate would think about men and women together. She would give her players names: Joshua for a man, and Grace, Linda, Janet or Anita for the woman. She would tell herself stories about how Joshua met and courted these various women. Usually, she’d be so tired by the time she got to the wedding night that she wouldn’t have the energy to imagine anything more intimate than a tight embrace. She would lie in bed, squeezing her thighs together rhythmically, until she was too sleepy to continue the story. Kate never quite knew why she did it, only that it felt nice and it made her a little less sad.
Kate knew it was wrong, though. Somehow, she knew. She would only do it when she was so tired that she couldn’t stop herself. Kate would always promise God that she would hold off for a few weeks. She wasn’t aware just how wrong it was until a little over a year ago.
It was so very cold, that night when she got caught. Everyone else seemed to drop off to sleep immediately, but Kate couldn’t get warm in her cot, no matter how tightly she curled into a ball. She started it up, rubbing her thighs together to keep warm, to help herself relax. Her hands went up to her chest. She truly meant to just wrap her arms around herself, to try and keep her body warmth close, but somehow that turned into touching her breasts. It felt good but guilty, especially afterwards, when she couldn’t stop shaking.
She remembers how quiet the trailer was – too quiet, in retrospect. She should have realised something was wrong.
Kate let a sigh escape her as she finished. She was warm at last, and her stiff back muscles had relaxed as though she were lying on a feather bed instead of a lumpy cot. The next thing she knew, her father was hauling her out of bed by the arm. He punched her in the stomach. He had never punched her before. It was always shoving and slapping, crushing her hand or her shoulder, hitting her with his belt. Punching her with a fist, or striking her in the face, those were the things he’d held off on for twenty-three years. It was his unspoken promise, as a father, that he would never do those things. He’s done them both since, lots of times.
She can’t blame him, though. Kate was the one who went beyond the beyonds. He had no choice but to follow, to keep her safe.
Father had never been so angry with her in all her life. He didn’t even turn on the light, he just hit her over and over, shouting about how there were virgins in deed and virgins in intent. She didn’t want to understand what he was talking about. She didn’t want to take any of it in. Sometimes she’s been lucky enough to drift up to the ceiling and watch herself being beaten with a curious detachment. That time, God didn’t see fit to grant her that small mercy. She remembers every word Father said, remembers her brothers cowering in their bunks, remembers her mother crying.
Her father made her get down on her knees and pray for forgiveness, interjecting with insults whenever she faltered. When he outright called her a whore, Kate blurted, “But I’ve never even kissed a man!” That was a bad idea. It didn’t do her any favours, implying that she sometimes thought about kissing.
“Don’t tell me you learned to pollute yourself alone?” her father asked incredulously. Kate’s always been quick to catch on to the implications behind her father’s words. It’s the only way she was able to make it to twenty-three without him punching her. She worked out, then, that doing this thing alone was worse than being with a man. It meant that she had so much sin inside that she had managed to corrupt herself.
The next day, she had expected Father to resume punishing her, but he left the trailer early and stayed out late. Kate dared to hope that Father was keeping his distance in order to calm down, but when he came back, he wouldn’t speak to her. For days, Father wouldn’t look at her. If Kate asked him a question, Father ignored her until Richard or Walter repeated it, and then directed his answer to the boys. When Father began talking to her again, it was as though she were a visitor, staying with the family. He didn’t ask about her prayers any more. It was like he assumed she didn’t pray any more – or that if she did, God wouldn’t listen.
Three weeks, almost to the hour, after Kate’s sin was revealed to her entire family, Father tried to drown her in a bathtub, in a boarding house in Spruce Grove. It was the worst night of her life. Kate won’t let herself think about it during the daytime, but that doesn’t matter. She knows she’ll still be having bad dreams about it when she’s ninety.
Betty is the only person Kate ever told about that night. It was before the kiss, obviously, back when Kate thought she could trust her. Betty knows all Kate’s darkest secrets, everything except what it was that Kate did to make her father feel like there was no hope for her any more.
When she told Betty, Kate said flat out that she didn’t want to talk about what it was that made her father so angry with her. Betty told her that she didn’t deserve to be hurt, that there was nothing wrong with her, that nobody could ask for a better daughter. But even after the way Betty betrayed her, even with Betty being … being the way that she is, Kate knows there’s no way she would have been so understanding. It is bad enough when a woman is coerced into filth by someone else. Kate did it alone, so she has no-one to blame but herself. She’ll never tell anyone else about that night in Spruce Grove.
For the entire year up to her leaving her family, Kate didn’t do it again. She wishes she could say that was because she found the strength inside herself to give it up. Truth is, she did try it again, when she was feeling so low that praying or singing couldn’t lift her spirits. Kate tried, and nothing happened. It was like she was dead from the waist down.
Wicked as it was, coming to Toronto was like being born again. For the first time, she was surrounded by people who had no reason to believe she was anything other than a good, hardworking Christian woman. People liked her, and it made Kate like herself a little more each day.
Living at the rooming house, showering and changing with the other Blue Shift workers – it was almost frightening how normal everybody thought she was. Like she had a perfect right to prance around half-dressed, just like anyone else, because they were all girls together, after all. Nobody recoiled at the mere notion of Kate’s body, nobody barked at her to cover herself. She showered quicker than anyone and kept her back against her locker when she changed clothes, but that was because she wanted to, not because they thought she should.
Kate had privacy, for the first time in her life, when she changed in her own bedroom or bathed in the rooming house. It made her realise just how little she had seen of her own body. She’s never liked it much. It’s not just the scars. Kate stayed as straight up and down as an ironing board until she was sixteen. As soon as she started to think wistfully that it might be nice to have a little bit of a figure, she gained breasts and hips seemingly overnight. They made her so self-conscious that she was twenty-one before she could stand without her arms folded tightly across her front. She felt awkward enough fully clothed, but being naked, even to bathe, made her hideously uncomfortable.
As the weeks wore on, and she made friends, and got the hang of working the floor, and discovered the delights of drinking and dancing and cards and the blues, Kate started to take longer and longer in the bath. She made an uneasy peace with her body. It wasn’t such a bad body, just unruly sometimes. Just wilful. It didn’t mean her any harm. If her body didn’t bother her, she wouldn’t bother it.
Her bruises faded, and her cracked rib mended, and her back healed enough for her to lie comfortably against the enamel of the bath without chafing any of her wounds. Kate started to find things to appreciate about her body. Namely, the way it could feel when she was alone, with a locked door between herself and the world.
At the rooming house, provided she bathed late enough at night that there wasn’t a line of women waiting, Kate could lie in the water and daydream. She would sing her latest Billie song under her breath, think about her day at work, about something funny Betty had said at lunch. She would get happy and relaxed, and her hand would steal between her legs. She hasn’t got much idea what, if anything, women have down there, but even rubbing and stroking clumsily tended to produce a nice feeling.
It was easy, then. Easier than it had ever been before. She wasn’t Marion Rowley any more, she was Kate Andrews. She didn’t have to be furtive about it, didn’t have to make furious pacts with God in her head. Kate could deny it to herself when she was alone with her body and her thoughts, when her family wasn’t sleeping a few feet away.
For the first time in her life, Kate started to look forward to bathing. She told herself that maybe it was a necessary evil, evoking this feeling inside herself. She could hardly go without washing. After that terrible night in Spruce Grove, with her father and the bathtub, the only way she could go anywhere near a bath was by making it as different to that night as possible. Lights on, instead of pitch darkness. Completely naked, instead of in her nightgown. Rubbing between her thighs, instead of being shoved under the water by her neck. It was just so that she could relax and take a bath, like every single other woman in the rooming house. It didn’t have to be dirty. She always felt so clean and new, getting out of a late night bath.
That night before Pearl Harbor, almost the entire rooming house went out dancing or to the movies. Kate took advantage of this to stay in the bath for more than an hour. She felt more than she ever had before. It still wasn’t quite enough, somehow. She knew now that it was building towards something, something she was finding increasingly difficult to put out of her head when she was outside the bathroom. That elusive something was the reason she couldn’t stop, had never been able to really stop, no matter how many times she promised God it would be the last time.
At that moment, it dawned on Kate how silent the rooming house was, without anyone else in it. She was all alone.
She’s never really been frightened of the dark, but silence scares her to death. Silence always used to precede the worst fights between her parents, the worst beatings from her father. It’s why Kate would always sing when she was working in the store room, or walking down wintry streets at night. Whenever it gets too quiet, Kate always feels like something horrible is about to happen.
Her instincts, dulled somewhat by months of living as Kate Andrews, turned out to be absolutely correct. She towelled herself off, tiptoed down the shadowy hallway to her bedroom, and found Father waiting for her, Bible in hand. It was almost as if she had conjured him up by doing that awful thing in the bath, by making these discoveries about her body. If Kate were smarter, she would know not to do it any more, that it brings nothing but trouble. If Kate were stronger, she wouldn’t want to. She wouldn’t want anything at all.
Her whole family knows about what Betty did. Father insisted on telling them everything Kate got up to during her months in Toronto. He said that the only way Kate – Marion – could truly repent her sins is if she was totally honest about them with the people who love her. It’s clear that it has changed her brothers’ opinion of her, perhaps irrevocably. Though Mother was told everything, same as the boys, she gives no indication that she knows about her daughter singing in seedy nightclubs or smoking cigarettes, let alone being kissed by another woman. Kate isn’t sure whether this means Mother doesn’t mind, or that she minds all too much.
It feels like they’re watching her, all the time. Kate watches herself too. She knows she’s not (can’t be) like Betty, but the knowledge that women can think about other women that way has put Kate on her guard. It’s made her look at those stories she used to tell herself in bed at night with new, critical eyes.
It doesn’t mean anything, that her fantasies feature a rotating cast of women and only one man. In the few romantic movies she’s seen, the camera always concentrates on the woman’s reaction to being kissed. It’s so the men in the audience can imagine themselves with the woman, and the women can picture themselves up on the screen. Kate’s fantasies work the same way. She doesn’t think about breathy little sighs, soft hands and red lipstick because she’s a deviant. It’s because – well, Kate would like to wear red lipstick and have well-kept hands, and she’d like someone to make her sigh. Someday. After she’s married.
If she spent a long time constructing each of the women, well, it was only because there is so much more to the way women look. There’s hairstyles to pick out, and patterns for dresses, and nail polish and perfume. She would only spend a moment fleshing out Joshua, but that was because he was her special, private dream man. When someone is your ideal, you don’t have to spend ten minutes at a stretch picturing them. They just pop into your head unbidden. Kate’s not a total innocent. She knows enough about attraction to know that it’s not supposed to be an effort, fancying someone. It’s supposed to come naturally.
Only now it turns out that thinking about men and women together is a dangerous slippery slope to thinking about just women. The only woman who ought to be featuring in her fantasies is herself. It is a terrifying and intimidating prospect. Kate’s never been able to picture anyone saying nice things to her, let alone declaring their undying love. She decides to try anyway. She hopes God will understand. This is an emergency. She has to prove to herself that she’s normal.
When she tries thinking about what she wants, how she would want someone to romance her, to make love to her … it all gets so muddled, inside her head. She thinks about Leon, his powerful shoulders, his dashing smile and his strong, gentle hands dancing over piano keys. She starts to feel warm and wanting inside, which is encouraging, so she lets herself keep going.
The phantom lips crushing against hers are smaller than Leon’s, sweeter somehow, and she gives a jolt when she realises she’s started thinking about Betty. As much as she tries to keep thinking about Leon, Marco or even, God forgive her, Gladys’ fiancé James, whenever Kate starts to ache and throb between her legs, her mind wanders back to Betty.
The little calluses on Betty’s fingertips, her curvy waist, the mole on her neck, the way she rounds her lips when she exhales smoke. Kate committed it all to memory, during those months that they were together. She thought she noticed so much because she was envious of Betty’s looks. She figured anyone would be. She assumed everyone else must feel the same way that she did, when they looked at Betty.
But if that’s true, then why did she never feel pinched and mean when she was noticing, the way she usually does when she’s jealous? And why – oh, God – why did all her pretend women, Grace and Anita and the rest, slowly become blondes? Kate’s always thought blonde hair particularly enviable, but her pretend women used to all have different hair colours, before. Before Betty.
She knew, is the worst part. Kate was perfectly well aware that all her pretend women were starting to look like Betty, but somehow it didn’t click for her that that was completely inappropriate. She thought it was a compliment showing her high regard for her best friend, that her fantasy women started to take on little aspects of the way Betty looked at work, in her dancing frock, in a jacket and trousers, in Russell Joseph’s newsreel. Somehow, Kate had known this was the sort of compliment that ought to stay a deathly secret, but she hadn’t let herself think why … until now.
It’s so confronting that Kate ends up sobbing without tears, from fear and confusion and frustration. She can’t catch her breath. Her vision clouds. It feels like she’s dying, drowning in white. Can you die from a heart attack when you’re not yet twenty-five? She slumps forward and her head connects with the tabletop with a bang that shocks her back into herself.
She rises from the table and blunders to the door. Fresh air, Kate thinks numbly. Everything will be all right if only I can breathe some fresh air. When she discovers that her father has locked her inside the trailer, it’s all she can do to keep her heart beating, to try and keep the white at bay.
Trigger warning for abuse.
All characters and environments belong to Michael Maclennan and Adrienne Mitchell/Shaw Media.
Marion knows not to miss any of the women from Victory Munitions. You can’t have real friendship with sinners like them, they’d turn on you. Or they would use you for their own ends. She thought Betty was her best friend, but Betty forced her into posing for pornographic photos to feed her depraved urges.
That godforsaken factory attracted the worst kind of women. They lied, stole, whored, left their children alone while they worked. Like a naïve little fool, Marion thought God would want her to (accept) ignore their flawed characters and see the meagre goodness they had inside. She’s since realised that some people are beyond help. Her pathetic desire for friendship does not cancel out those women’s wickedness.
Marion doesn’t need friends any more. The best daughters, the best women, are the ones who have no need of anything at all.
Kate glimpses the front of a newspaper, whose headline screams that Carole Lombard has been killed in a plane crash. The death of the starlet makes her think of Gladys, who talks about movie stars as though they’re personal friends of hers.
Gladys was not a suitable friend for Kate. She needs to remember that. Kate knows she should be concentrating on the way Gladys used makeup to accentuate her God-given beauty into something artificial. She knows she should have been horrified when Gladys spoke so freely to her superiors, should have been appalled when Gladys fooled around with Lewis Pine when she was engaged to James. Kate is well aware she should have been disgusted when Gladys went all the way before marriage, flaunting her sleepovers at James’ apartment by turning up to work in the same dress two days running.
So many should-haves. The truth is, from the moment they met, Kate thought Gladys quite wonderful. She was impressed at Gladys’ daring, her poise, the way she made everything seem so effortless. Whenever Gladys was introduced to somebody new, she would always extend her hand as if she were expecting it to be kissed. Her handshake was the daintiest Kate’s ever seen, but her gaze was no less direct than Betty’s.
Sometimes, when Kate needed to navigate difficult situations, she would pretend to be Gladys for a few seconds. She couldn’t pretend to be Betty. The closer they got, the more wrong it felt, pretending to be Betty. Betty became a source of strength in a different way. But when Kate needed to ward off randy floor workers in the canteen line, or when she felt shy of the other rooming house girls, it helped to imagine that her bright red hair was dark and shiny like midnight oil, that her homemade dress had a French designer label, and that she was the type of person who assumed she had the right to everything she wanted.
Even when she wasn’t consciously mimicking her, Kate always secretly thought of Gladys as her twin. They started on the same day at Victory Munitions, Kate on the floor and Gladys in the office. Within a week, Gladys was a floor girl too, as though God wanted them next to each other, despite all their superficial differences. When Gladys turned up at Sandy Shores or the euchre party, everyone said she was slumming, mocking the working girls by pretending she was one of them. When Kate did the same things, a mean little voice in the back of her head kept whispering, Sinner, sinner, no matter how she tried to drown it out with jazz and drink. But if Kate and Gladys wanted to know what they were doing, all they had to do was find their own reflection in the other’s eyes. They were discovering their freedom at the same time, in the same way.
(At least, Kate thought it was freedom. Turns out her instincts were right, and it was sin all along.)
The nicest thing about Gladys was that, in spite of Kate being poor and awkward and sheltered, she seemed to believe there was something really special about her. Kate remembers how, one evening after work, Kate, Betty and Gladys stopped into Tangiers for a quick drink, which turned into quite a few increasingly slow drinks.
Kate called Leon over when the band was taking a break. She bought him a beer and sat chatting with him, getting him to write down song recommendations on a napkin. Betty grew quieter and quieter, and Gladys started talking twice as much, as if to try and deflect attention away from Betty. No amount of witty banter from Gladys could stop Kate noticing when Betty got up from the table and moved back a few steps. It stung Kate, that her best friend could be so uncomfortable around someone, just because of the colour of their skin.
Betty’s friend Carla happened by. She took in the scene and smirked broadly. “Kate, you ever hear the song Prove It On Me Blues?”
Kate shook her head. “I haven’t. Who’s it by?”
“Ma Rainey, one of the all-time greats. Perhaps not the best for your voice, but still a real classic. Betty should play it for you sometime. It’ll teach you what you need to know.”
“Carla, go soak your head,” Betty snapped.
Carla ignored her. “Here’s a tip from me to you, Red. If you wanna make it as a jazz singer, you should know all the greatest ladies of jazz have a certain something in common. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith … I’ve even heard the odd rumour about our Lady Day.” Carla looked at Leon. “What do you reckon, Riley? I think we should try and get Kate emulatin’ them in all respects.”
“Church Mouse don’t need to be anybody but herself,” said Leon slowly. “Whoever that happens to be.”
“Betty, back me up here. If you’re gonna sing the blues, you’ve gotta live the life.”
Betty shook her head, maintaining a vise-like grip on her drink. “I’m not a musician like you three. I am not gettin’ involved in this conversation.”
“You’ve got to,” Carla insisted, dragging Betty over by the arm. She grinned as she looked from Betty to Leon, almost as if she expected them to get into an argument.
Betty did not look to Kate or even Gladys. She met Leon’s eyes and said, “I didn’t think Kate could get any better, but she has. You must be one hell of a teacher.” Betty cleared her throat. “I was meaning to ask. You, uh, ever play the First Floor Club? I hear it’s a real swingin’ place, a good fit for you and your boys.”
Leon regarded her. “I’ve been there, but we haven’t managed to book it yet,” he said. “Folks are saying good things about the Melody Room. If you and Church Mouse ever go, you’ll have to tell me how it is.”
Kate watched delightedly as Betty stayed and kept talking to Leon, a little uncomfortably but civilly, with genuine involvement in the conversation, even after Carla got bored of her gambit and wandered off.
She turned to Gladys. “I can’t believe they’re actually talking!” she whispered.
“Wonders will never cease,” agreed Gladys, with a little smile.
Kate was so overjoyed that Betty was finally dealing with her prejudice that she tugged Gladys into the powder room, so they wouldn’t disturb Leon and Betty’s budding friendship.
“Mmm, it’s certainly rustic in here, isn’t it?” Gladys cast a critical eye over the rusted bathroom fixtures, the bare beams in the ceiling.
“I think it’s magic,” said Kate as uncapped her lipstick, reeling joyously from the combination of booze, music and the presence of her favourite people. “I think everything here is. I’m so pleased Leon and Betty are finally talking. Leon’s so handsome, isn’t he?” She felt so wonderfully normal, talking about a handsome man with her friend.
“I’m sure Leon’s wife agrees with you.”
Kate blinked. “His wife?”
“He’s wearing a wedding band, Kate. I think he’s spoken for.”
Kate was consumed by such a powerful wave of embarrassment that she had to lean against the cracked sink. Harlot, her mind jeered at her. “Oh, I feel like an idiot,” she said weakly.
“All that flirting was rather impressive. I can’t speak for the men in the joint, but I felt like a proud parent.”
“Gladys, this is serious! How am I supposed to be around him now? What if he thinks that all this time, I was making some sort of play for him?”
Gladys joined Kate at the sink. “Well, were you?”
Kate stared at her.
“There are no judgements here. You’re talking to the woman of a thousand fiancés, after all. I don’t think you would’ve so much as glanced at him if you’d known about his wife. But do you like Leon?”
“I just … I think he’s cute. I like listening to him sing. He’s kind to me, and not a lot of men have been.” Kate froze for a moment, realising what she was implying about her past. She knew some of her co-workers on Blue Shift whispered about her scars, speculating about whether they came from an ex-boyfriend. Gladys has probably heard the rumours by now, she thought gloomily. Kate struggled to regain her train of thought. “But I didn’t … oh, I don’t know. Leon’s my friend, and I think he’s handsome. That’s all.”
“He is gorgeous. You’ve got good taste.”
“No, I have the worst taste, because I’m too darned stupid to look for a ring before I get a crush on someone.”
Gladys put her arm lightly around Kate’s waist. “Don’t get yourself into a state. We all get wildly improper crushes sometimes. Once I’ve gotten a few more drinks down me, I’ll tell you about the year Carol and I were both besotted with our Latin teacher at boarding school. We bombarded the poor fellow with cards and favours, signed with our initials, as though he couldn’t work out who C.D. and G.W. were! I cringe just thinking about it!” Gently, she went on, “There’ll be other romances. You didn’t hear it from me, but one of the regulars here thinks you’re just divine. They’ll be beyond thrilled that there’s nothing between you and Leon.”
“Stop fooling, Gladys.”
“Would I joke about something as serious as romance?”
Despite herself, Kate felt a mounting excitement. “Who is it?”
“I’m afraid my lips are sealed.”
“Are they tall?”
“I should say they’re tall enough for you.”
“What colour hair?”
“Sorry, Kate, but I’ve sworn myself to secrecy. It’s a self-preservation thing. I’m not sure your admirer knows that I know, and I suspect they might actually throttle me if it got around the entire club before they’ve worked up the nerve to approach you.” She bumped her hip light-heartedly against Kate’s. “No need to thank me! Just glide back out there, knowing full well you’re irresistible, and my job will be done.”
Kate didn’t budge. “Maybe it’s best if they just keep their distance. I won’t mess it up, that way.” Kate stared dejectedly at the tiles, her vision blurring. “They wouldn’t look at me if they knew what I was really like.”
“Now, you stop that. Anyone would be lucky to have a girl like you on their arm. All you need is confidence in yourself. Well, just call me your fairy godmother, because I’ve got you covered.” Gladys delved into her purse. “I was cleaning out my jewellery box, and I saw these. I think they’ll look just darling on you.” Gladys held out a pair of delicate diamond earrings.
“How lovely,” said Kate politely. “That’s so thoughtful of you, to let me borrow your earrings.”
“Borrow?” Gladys laughed her silvery heiress’ laugh. “They’re a present, silly. To say thank you for giving this poor little rich girl a chance.”
Kate’s eyes widened. “But you already brought over champagne, that night we had the letter-writing party. That was the thank you.”
“The champers was me being a good party guest. These are just for you.” Gladys held them out expectantly.
Kate shook her head. “Gladys, I can’t take them from you. They’re too – nice.” Too expensive was what Kate really meant. She felt the difference between herself and Gladys like a widening gulf. She couldn’t imagine having so many earrings that her jewellery box required spring cleaning. In fact, Kate didn’t own enough jewellery to need a jewellery box.
“Of course they’re nice, that’s why I thought of you when I saw them. They’ll suit you much better than they ever did me.” Gladys scoffed. “Too nice, my foot.”
Kate hesitated. “I suppose … friends do give each other presents. Betty gave me a beautiful hairpin. She bought it for me as a surprise.”
“Of course she did. She’s a smart girl, that Betty McRae. You deserve it.” Brimming with satisfaction, Gladys watched Kate put on the earrings. “You and Betty both deserve to be happy, you know.”
“Even though she tried to leave you behind at the rooming house the first night we came here?” Kate teased her.
“I was pretty miffed, but I think Betty had her reasons.” Gladys beamed as Kate looked cautiously into the cloudy mirror, the earrings winking in the half-light. “Just as I thought, they look stunning. If I weren’t so patriotic, I’d run off and be a costume designer to the stars.”
“Well, keep being patriotic, then, because I like having you around.” Kate put her shoulders back, then, the better to show off Gladys’ gift. “Shall we dance, when we get back out there?”
Gladys turned to the mirror and began to touch up her own lipstick. “I’ll sit this one out. Go on ahead, I’ve gotta redo my face. But I think Betty would love a turn around the floor.” Gladys waved her out of the bathroom. “Now, shoo. Remember, confidence! You deserve nice things!”
That seems like a lifetime ago now: being given diamond earrings in the bathroom of her favourite nightspot, being told she deserved nice things … being happy, having friends. Now, Kate stands outside a far seedier bar than Tangiers, her voice lifted in godly song as her brothers offer pamphlets to the passersby. Their father is home, praying over their mother, so Richard is in charge. Richard has been given more responsibility since their mother grew ill, more responsibility than Kate was ever given, as the eldest.
None of the people walking into or out of the bar look over at the Rowleys. Some of them jeered, earlier in the evening, shouting words that made Kate want to clap her hands over Walter’s ears. Now it’s late, and everyone is too drunk to pay them any mind. Kate doesn’t look at single men, or lone women, but she figures it’s all right to watch the couples wandering along the street.
One couple in particular catches her eye, not least because the man is not in uniform. He’s a funny-looking fellow. He’s rather weedy, and fey with it, all pouting lips and pointed chin. His haircut, a short back and sides, looks odd on him, emphasising his slightly overlarge ears. His neck is thin and stalky, and his hands are absolutely tiny for a man. Yet the girl on his arm snuggles up to him like he’s her protector, her lord knight, her everything. The two of them basking in each other’s adoration makes him look almost handsome, so much that Kate smiles foolishly when his gaze lands on her. Kate is a hopeless romantic. Though it seems more unlikely than ever, she can’t help wanting someone to care for her. She wonders where that admirer Gladys knew about is now.
The girl on his arm notices him eyeing Kate, and hustles him along jealously. “Eyes front, Romeo. You’re out with me tonight, remember?” She’s ever so slightly taller than her boyfriend, with thick white skin and auburn hair.
“Louise, I was just listening to the song,” says her beau, giving Kate one last glance before turning back to his girl. “C’mon, baby, don’t be sore at me. This is our special night.” He leans in to give Louise a kiss.
Louise primly turns her head so that the kiss lands on her cheek. “Ed, people are looking.”
“I’m out with the prettiest girl in Canada tonight, is it any wonder they’re looking? They’re all just jealous that I get to have you and they don’t.”
“Don’t you get fresh with me, Edna Mae Whittaker,” laughs Louise. They kiss rapturously, and it makes Kate feel like she’s been kicked.
Edna Mae doesn’t look anything like Betty. She’s quite a bit younger, practically a teenager, and dark, not blonde. She’s dressed more flamboyantly than Betty ever dared, wearing a fedora and a plum-coloured suit jacket, looking every bit the dapper young gent taking his girl to paint the town red.
Only they’re both women. Sick, sinning women, flaunting their perversion for everyone to see, behaving as though they have a perfect right to stroll arm in arm like any other couple. There’s a lump in Kate’s throat that won’t go away no matter how much she tries to clear it, because Betty must have thought the two of them could be like that. How could she have thought that? It’s not what Kate wants for herself. It’s not.
Richard is shouting abuse after them, calling them perverts, encouraging Walter to shout too. Kate feels like her father’s fist is sinking itself into her stomach. Somehow, Louise and Edna Mae’s happiness is even more upsetting than the fact that they’re deviants.
It’s not forever, she tells herself. It’s not going to be forever. They will go away, these feelings she still has about Betty. Feelings can fade, they can change. The way Kate feels about Gladys is living proof of that. Kate’s breath caught a little, the first time she saw Gladys walking through the gates of the factory. Her first few days at Vic Mu, she noticed Gladys almost as much as Betty. By the time they were working alongside each other on the floor, Gladys’ beauty seemed to mellow. Gladys didn’t become less pretty; it was just that Kate stopped noticing so much. Or she stopped noticing in the same way. Whenever Gladys would show up to a bar or a dance, dressed to the nines, looking at her made Kate feel proud and cosy. She felt like a benevolent older sister, looking at Gladys, rather than drinking in every little thing about her, like she did with-
“We should go,” she says loudly, heart rattling against her ribs. “I didn’t realise how late it was. I don’t like this neighbourhood. Richard, let’s go. Let’s go.” Kate grabs his arm when he won’t move, and starts to tug him along. “Come on!”
“You can’t order me about,” he snaps, and looks at her with real hatred. It makes her want to yell, “I am your sister, and I love you!” right into his face, as though she’s cursing him.
Kate tries to placate him. “It’s all right for you, you’re a grown man. But it’s not safe for Walter, or for me. Think of us, please.”
“They’re sick,” he says, gesturing to the disappearing forms of Louise and Edna Mae, and looks almost frightened. She is suddenly reminded of holding his hand on darker, more wintry streets than this one, years ago, muttering, “There’s nothing to be afraid of” in his ear when she was meant to be praying, because her baby brother was frightened by yelling drunks or barking dogs. “I didn’t realise. I wouldn’t have brought you two here, if I’d known.”
“It’s all right, Richard. Everyone makes mistakes. Let’s just go home, where it’s warm.”
Richard nods, and puts his arm around her, like he’s trying to shield her from all the evil in the world. Kate reaches out and takes Walter’s hand, and for once Walter doesn’t squirm and wriggle away. Kate walks home, held by one brother, holding another. It’s been such ages since either of them volunteered affection or allowed her to.
Father is out when they get back to the trailer. Mother lies in her bunk, coughing in her sleep. Kate, Walter and Richard are all too tired and shaken to ask where Father has got to. Kate chivvies Walt into bed, wraps herself in a shawl and sits down to do some knitting. Richard sits down across from her, opening a book. He has the decency to wait until Walter is snoring before he speaks.
“That woman at Victory Munitions, the one who tried to turn you. Did she dress like that woman we saw?”
Kate makes herself look at him. “She wore trousers, if that’s what you mean.”
“How did you not know what she was the minute you saw her?” Richard demands.
Irritation flares up inside Kate. Why must the onus always be on her? She doubts Richard would be able to identify male deviants on the spot. But Kate is Marion now, Marion again, Marion forever, so she shrugs demurely and replies, “She was a very good worker. She dressed for work.”
“I don’t understand how you could stay in that place, with those godless people. We love you, Marion.” He says it gruffly, but with feeling.
Somehow, no matter how much Kate feels it back, she can’t say it. Not now, when she’s being interrogated. “I did meet some very nice people at Victory Munitions.” She trails off, realising that Richard wouldn’t find any of her friends from Vic Mu remotely appropriate. Marco is an Italian, and a Catholic. Leon is a jazz musician, and a Negro to boot. Hazel and Vera were both promiscuous. Even Edith left her Skip and Daphne with a babysitter to go and dance with soldiers, right up until she got the news about her husband. Finally, she says lamely, “The heiress to Witham Foods worked on the floor with me. We were good friends.”
Richard looks almost impressed for a moment, before coming to his senses. “No heiress would work on the floor at a bomb factory!”
“It’s true,” insists Kate.
“Liar,” he says shortly, rising to his feet and taking a seat at the other end of the trailer. The trailer is so small that the action would appear comical if Kate didn’t feel the way she does.
Kate has just had a thought. Saying Gladys’ surname out loud makes Kate remember that Gladys must be a Dunn by now. Kate completely forgot about Gladys’ plans to elope with James, in light of Vera’s panic attack on the stencil line, Gladys being fired for getting pregnant, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the kiss that ruined everything and those last moments with Betty.
Now she remembers saying goodbye to Gladys, at the end of their last shift. She had been annoyed with Gladys that day. All day, Gladys had talked of casting her family off, as if they were a mere inconvenience. It set Kate’s teeth on edge. Walking away from her family was the hardest thing she’s ever done, and Gladys talked of doing the same as if it were nothing. Katenever resented Gladys’ wealth like the other girls did, firmly believing that people were all the same inside. Yet on that last day, when Gladys came out with ludicrous statements like, “If they want to be involved in my life, they’ll have to do it on my terms,” Kate had to fight not to roll her eyes. When Gladys got Vera to sub in, causing Betty to hurt her shoulder, Kate was more furious than she can ever remember being. It was such an effort not to slap Gladys right across her pretty face.
Kate relented when she saw how cast down and ashamed Gladys looked, there in the locker room. Fired from the job she loved, her reputation in tatters, Gladys was a fallen woman, and the only reason more people weren’t whispering about her was because of the attacks on Pearl Harbor. They would remember in time, though, and Gladys wouldn’t even be around to defend herself. It was a miserable prospect.
“You’ll need something borrowed, won’t you?” Kate asked. She hasn’t been to many weddings in her life, since the Rowleys cut themselves off from their extended family. However, she was familiar with the custom of a bride wearing something old, something new, something borrowed and something blue.
“What?” A sure sign of how stressed Gladys was. She never said “what,” only “pardon” or “excuse me.”
“For your wedding,” Kate elaborated. “Brides wear borrowed things. You could borrow this, if you like.” She unpinned the dark green flower brooch from her trench coat and offered it.
Gladys looked at her with an unreadable expression, and Kate flushed. She’d had the brooch since she was eleven, and couldn’t remember what it cost, but perhaps it was too cheap or gaudy for someone like Gladys to wear, especially at her wedding.
“You don’t have to wear it, you could just – carry it, maybe, in your purse?” Do brides carry purses? Kate remembers thinking.
Gladys’ answer was to hug Kate. “Carry it in my purse? What an idea! Of course I’ll wear it.” She held it against herself. The brooch did look slightly odd against Gladys’ expensive blouse, but she stood as though it were made of emeralds. “It’s perfect. I know exactly what dress I’ll wear to the ceremony, now that I’ve got this.”
It’s just a silly brooch. It’s just my silly brooch, Kate thought. She had the sense not to voice those thoughts. Instead, she just said, “I’m glad I could help.”
Gladys seemed to regain a little of her old sparkle. She snapped her fingers. “I’ve just had a thought. Why don’t you present it to me tomorrow night? We’ll go out for a drink, to mark my last night as a single girl.” At Kate’s incredulous laugh, Gladys grinned. “Well, why not? Boys have buck’s nights, don’t they? I’m the bride, I’m pulling rank. We’ll all go. You and me, Carol, Betty, Vera and Edith too.”
“Sure.” Kate took the brooch back. “We’ll have a whole ceremony. The passing of my old brooch.”
“You can keep it, if you want,” said Kate, growing bold. Confidence, she thought. It was the greatest lesson her friendship with Gladys had taught her. “As a wedding present. Maybe it can be the something old, instead of the something borrowed. I’m – I’m really going to miss working on the floor with you, but we’ll still see each other. No matter what.”
“Of course we will,” said Gladys. “I’ll be damned if I’m falling out of touch with you, Miss Kate Andrews.”
Kate wishes that lovely exchange had been their last, but they had started talking about other, completely inconsequential things – their sore feet, the need for Gladys to scrub off the smell of cordite before she went to the registry office with James – and then Betty arrived. Betty offered her arm to Kate and said, simply, “Let’s go home.” Kate had jumped to leave with her. She has no idea what her last words to Gladys were. Maybe she didn’t even say goodbye.
For the first time, Kate allows herself to regret leaving the way she did. She hopes she didn’t cast a dark shadow over Gladys’ wedding day. Gladys is the proof that Kate was able to make one true female friend in her time at Vic Mu. She is the proof that maybe Kate Andrews was something other – something more – than what she turned out to be.
Trigger warning for abuse.
The song Kate sings in this chapter is Stormy Weather by Lena Horne.
In a review of Chapter 2, dollsome said that, “... Kate Andrews just can’t be erased.” She inadvertently provided a rather dazzlingly succinct and perfect summary of what I’ve been trying to achieve with this fic – its central theme, as it were – so I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks for that, because it helped me to focus and improved my writing significantly.
All characters and environments belong to Michael Maclennan and Adrienne Mitchell/Shaw Media.
Marion throws away everything that reminds her of those months in Toronto. She was foolish enough to pack it all, the night Father took her away from that place. Now, with several months of hindsight, she is ruthless, filling a good-sized cardboard box to the brim with mementos. In go her lipsticks, her blue turban, her high heels, her Snow White songbook, and the silk stockings Gladys threw at her in a fit of pique the first night they went dancing. She adds her modest collection of records and the well-thumbed copies of Muse and Lamplight Gladys passed on to her so she could learn about the lives of the stars. She adds letters from Trevor and Brian, the two young soldiers she used to write to, and lyrics to songs recommended to her by Leon, painstakingly copied out so that she could learn them by heart. At the bottom of her purse, she finds a matchbook from Tangiers and her dance card from Sandy Shores. From the lining of her suitcase, Marion plucks faded ticket stubs, from trips to the movies with the other girls from the rooming house. She used to think these silly things were precious, but she knows better now.
Mother winces as she watches Marion throw four months of her life out with their kitchen scraps and household rubbish. When Marion asks after her, all she will say is, “I’m tired, Marion. I’m so very tired.” She sounds frustrated, almost angry.
The little girl part of Marion wants to crawl into bed with Mother and beg forgiveness for whatever she’s done. The Kate side of Marion, the side she’s trying desperately to quell, to forget, wants to shake her poor mother and shout, “I’m trying so hard and it’s not made any better by you looking so disappointed in me. If running away from all this is so easy, why didn’t you ever do it? Why didn’t you walk out and take the boys and me with you? Why did you put all this on my shoulders? I can’t stand you looking like I’ve let you down, when you’re the one who’s going to leave me here all alone.”
She holds it all in. She can hold it all in until the day she dies. She is Marion now, Marion again. Marion forever.
On a gusty February morning, Kate wanders out of the trailer like she’s groping her way out of a forest. Her mother is awake and reasonably comfortable, her father and brothers are out, and yet Kate still mumbled something about needing air. What she meant was that she needed to be by herself.
Father doesn’t lock her indoors any more. He is confident that Kate has been done away with, and only Marion remains. He was overjoyed when he came home to find that she’d thrown out all those worthless keepsakes. It was the first time he had smiled in weeks.
She remembers how disapproving he was at how long she took to pack, the night he took her away from Toronto. Kate honestly doesn’t know why she packed all those useless things. She knew full well that once she became Marion again, she would have to throw them all away. She knew it so very well that she left Gladys’ diamond earrings on her nightstand. She wouldn’t have been able to bear to throw out those earrings. It wasn’t because of how expensive they were. It was because whenever she looked at them, she would think Confidence or Irresistible or You deserve nice things. She’s pretty sure she would have kept thinking that even if it had come out that they were actually made of glass, because they came from her dear friend who believed in her so much.
She knows the rooming house women are honest, but she suspects the diamond earrings would be too much of a temptation for most people. She hopes that Moira or Phyllis or Aggie has given them a good home. Her only wish is that Gladys’ earrings are being worn out on dates and dances, that they’re not sitting in a dingy pawn shop in Cabbagetown right now.
It seems like years ago that Mother was trying to talk Kate into leaving. In the wake of that night in Spruce Grove, all Kate wanted was to be held and comforted, to sing their old songs and be assured that Father would eventually forgive her, that there could still be a place for her in their family. But every time they were left alone, every time Mother enfolded Kate into her arms, she would start talking about how there was no life for Kate there, any more.
For months, Kate protested bitterly whenever her mother brought up the possibility of her leaving. The last time they discussed it before Kate relented was more of an argument than a discussion. She had never quarrelled with her mother before, but that day they argued for hours, even as they performed housework.
“I’ll make him see I’m not perverted. I’ll be good, Mom, you’ll see. A couple of years from now, we’ll think of today, and what a horrid mistake we almost made, and we’ll be so grateful that we came to our senses and didn’t do anything s-stupid.”Kate’s hands were shaking too badly to continue mending the rip in Walter’s shirt, and she had to put it aside.“You won’t be able to believe you nearly sent me away. Please don’t let’s talk about it any more.”
Mother looked long and hard at her, saying more with her silence than she could with her words. Finally, she said, “You know full well I’m not going to be here a couple of years from now. The last thing I want to do on this earth is to make sure my children are safe. You wouldn’t deny me my last wish, would you?”
“How can you ask me to do this? I won’t leave you while you’re ill. I won’t. What kind of daughter does that? I’d never be able to forgive myself if I left you and you-” She couldn’t force out the dreaded word. Kate stared pleadingly at her mother. “Is that what you think I am?”
“Marion, death can’t stop me loving you, but it can stop me protecting you.” Mother took both Kate’s hands. “If you don’t leave, your father is going to kill you. Before I die, I need to make sure that’s not going to happen.”
When Kate finally agreed to Mother’s plan, it was on the condition that she wouldn’t leave her family while Mother was ill. Mother seemed to ward off further deterioration through sheer force of will. It’s not a miracle that she can repeat. Ingrid Rowley is going to die. She’ll hang on for a few more months, but before summer is here, she will die. There’s nothing Kate can do to stop it.
Kate wonders if she’ll be able to cry when it finally happens. Kate loves her mother more than anyone else in the world, there is no question about that, but she hasn’t cried – really, consciously just sat and howled, totally present for every single tear, every whimper, every sob – since she was a teenager. What would be the point? She’s come close plenty of times, especially in the past six months, but she’s always pulled herself back at the last second. Or if she couldn’t, she would just sit or lie totally still, letting the tears drip passively down her face. Or she would black out momentarily and come back into herself to find her eyes and cheeks wet.
(She managed to properly cry a few weeks ago, but it was over something stupid, something she can’t ever tell anyone about. Trust Kate to cry over something stupid, something wrong, when the world is crumbling all around her.)
Crying doesn’t solve anything. Wishing doesn’t solve anything. She shouldn’t want anything about her life to be solved, anyhow. She has a good life. Her father managed, in the nick of time, to rescue her from a life of sin. Her immortal soul is safe. Who could ask for anything more?
(A little voice inside her answers, Freedom. It is not a cruel voice, a sad voice or even a hopeful voice. It is an honest voice, and so Kate hates it more than all the others.)
The fact of Mother’s mortality has been hanging over Kate’s head for years now. She should have made peace with it, but all she can feel now is blind panic. What on earth am I going to do? Kate thinks wretchedly. There is no song ever written that can describe how she feels right now. Who will love me, if you’re gone?
Somebody did. Maybe they still do.
That’s the worst thing about Kate, compared to Marion. Kate is always remembering the wrong things. She holds onto those moments in her short life that whispered that she might have the chance – the right – to be like anyone else. She doesn’t heed the truths coming loud and clear from God, through her father, which state in no uncertain terms that she is not like other people, and doesn’t deserve to be happy.
Kate remembers things that Marion desperately wants to forget, because they are too wicked, too sinful … too painful. Not painful like your own father trying to drown you. Painful like the knowledge that somewhere deep inside, Kate has it in her to climb onstage at a nightclub, in red lipstick and bared arms, and sing everything that’s in her heart. Kate always thought if anyone heard what was inside her, they would rear back in disgust, or shout in anger. She never knew that showing what she had inside could make people smile, make them want to dance with their lovers, make them applaud and cheer … make them stare at Kate as if she was wonderful.
Betty looked touched when Kate sang the last line of the song to her, to her, only to her. The more Kate lets herself think it, the more she means it. Betty looked exactly that, touched, like Kate had reached inside Betty and brushed her fingers across some secret inner part of her heart or perhaps even her soul. It was precisely the reaction Kate was aiming for. She wanted to touch Betty’s heart, because Betty had done the same to her so many times, just by being herself. It was nothing more or less than the most triumphant moment of Kate’s life.
When Kate left the stage that night, people bought her so many drinks that Betty had to practically carry her up the stairs when they left. The street car had stopped running, and neither of them had enough money for a taxi, so they resigned themselves to walking home. They’d done it lots of times, walked home after a night out, but Kate had never been so drunk before.
(People always say there’s nothing worse than a woman drunk. Kate can think of quite a few worse things.)
If Kate had been alone, she would have been terrified walking home reeling drunk, but somehow she felt perfectly safe. They wandered down the night street like they owned it, with Kate belting like she was in a musical.
“Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy wea-ther,” Kate sang. She was hamming it up, not trying seriously, but even then, it was joyously apparent how much her singing had improved since she started singing from her chest. “Since my love and I ain’t together, keeps raining all the time...”
“It’ll be just my luck if God thinks you’re praying and sends us a downpour,” Betty teased her.
“It doesn’t work like that,” Kate said haughtily. She faltered, unsure as to whether Betty was trying to tell her to stop. “D’you mind me singing?”
“‘Course not. I never do.”
Betty knew a bit about music, but nowhere near as much as Leon or even Carla. Yet somehow, the fact that she liked Kate’s voice meant so much. Shamelessly, Kate angled for more compliments, saying, “If I were Gladys, you’d be telling me to stop showing off.”
“Well, you’re not Gladys, are you?” Betty grinned. They’d both overheard Gladys singing in the shower after work. “Nice girl, but she’s the only person I’ve ever met who’s almost as tone-deaf as me. You, on the other hand, can show off just as much as you want.”
Kate beamed at her. “This has been the best night of my whole life.”
“Better than the night we had the champagne and then went to Tangiers for the first time?”
Kate hesitated. “Um...”
Betty burst out laughing. “Kate, you’re allowed to have a new favourite night. It’d be pretty damn depressing if you knew you couldn’t ever top this one night you spent out drinking when you were twenty-four.”
“Well, they’re both in my top three.”
“What’s the number one spot?”
“I’m saving it for the best best night of my life. Don’t worry, I’ll tell you when we’re old, and you’ll tell me yours.” Kate giggled. “Wouldn’t it be funny if it turned out to be the same night?”
Betty glanced sideways at her. “I know everyone’s said so already, but you were really good up there. I mean, your singing always sounds great, but … I bet a few people in the crowd fell in love with you tonight.”
Remembering that makes Kate’s heart hurt, so much that she can’t even feel embarrassed about her saucy reply of, “Flattery will get you everywhere, Betty.”
Betty smiled. “All in all, a good night out.”
“Definitely. The dancing afterwards was aces. I honestly don’t know why you don’t dance more.”
Betty shrugged. “Dancing with you is okay.”
“It can’t be that great for you. I always end up stepping on your feet in the slow numbers, and crashing into you in the fast ones. And the less that’s said about me trying to twirl you, the better.”
“I love dancing with you,” Kate said indignantly. “I’m not that great either, but I think it’s fun anyway. I like the two of us learning together. I wish you’d dance with me every time we go out.”
“Well, if you’re sure.” There was a pause, and Betty said in a rush, “No-one ever asked me to dance, before you.”
“I find that very hard to believe.” Kate always thought that Betty must be terribly, terribly choosy about her dance partners. It never struck her as arrogant. It seemed utterly reasonable to her, that Betty should spurn every man in every place they’d ever been; even the ones Kate or Gladys thought were cute. Betty was Kate’s hero. Only the best could possibly do for her.
It always confused Kate so much, that Betty didn’t seem to agree with her. Like then, when Betty said lightly, “People generally ain’t lining up to dance with somebody who dresses like a farmer.”
“You mean your trousers and things?” I wish I could slap whatever boy made Betty feel so lousy about her clothes, Kate thought mutinously. I’ll bet she turned him down flat, and that’s why he got nasty. “I think you look mysterious, like Garbo.”
“I see you’ve been boning up on your movie stars.”
There was a time when Kate would have faltered at having her lack of knowledge pointed out to her. That night, she barrelled on relentlessly, so sure that all her thoughts were worthy of being heard. “Garbo always seems so grouchy to me, though. I wonder if she ever laughs? I like people who are a bit happier, like you.”
“You’re probably the first person who would ever describe me as happy.”
“Aren’t you happy, Betty?”
Betty looked at her for a long time. “Yeah,” she said finally. “I’m happy, Kate.”
It was at that moment that Kate tripped in her high heels and went stumbling over the kerb. A little part of her was embarrassed at falling in front of Betty, but she found herself spluttering with laughter.
“Kate!” Betty stepped off the pavement and took Kate’s arm. “Did you hurt yourself?”
“Gracious, who put that there?”
“For Christ’s sakes,” said Betty, but it sounded more relieved than exasperated or angry.
“Don’t swear,” Kate chided her, wagging a finger haphazardly in the air. “I’m not that drunk.”
“I’m truly relieved to hear you’re not so drunk that you’ll stand for anyone taking the Lord’s name in vain.”
Kate made a face at her. “Don’t poke fun at me.”
“I’m not making fun. I’m thinking of you, here. You’re gonna do yourself an injury, and you can hardly work the floor on crutches.” Betty cast around for a bench, but seeing none, indicated the pavement. “We’ll sit you down for a spell, so you can sober up.”
Obediently, Kate sat down on the edge of the pavement. She could feel the cold right through her dress. It made her cry out in shock. The whole world, all the stars above, swooped giddily overhead. “Thank God you’re here,” she babbled. “Everything is spinning.”
She suddenly imagined what Father would say, what he would do if he ever saw her drunk. Her face screwed up. For a second, she managed to hate him, really, truly hate him, for coming into her head on the most magical evening of her life and making her feel like Marion again. She hated herself a little, too.
Betty stood over her. “Put your head between your legs,” she said, rubbing Kate’s back.
Kate giggled, distracted from her unpleasant memories. “My head where?”
“Between your knees.” Betty sighed. “I keep telling you, you’ve gotta line your stomach before you drink, Kate. That way, it won’t go to your head so quick.”
“You don’t always eat a proper meal before you go out,” Kate muttered rebelliously, resting her forehead on her knees. “Why shouldn’t I be like you?”
“I’ve been drinking like a fish since I was thirteen. What I’ve got running through my veins is about forty per cent booze. A few more drinks on top is basically a blood transfusion, where I’m concerned.”
Kate snickered. “You’re so funny, Betty. See, that’s another thing I like about you, that you’re funny.”
“Yeah, that’s me, Wayne and Shuster all rolled into one. C’mon, up you get.” She held out both hands. Kate took them, and Betty pulled her to her feet.
Immediately, Kate stumbled. “I don’t know where anything is. How the heck am I gonna get home?” Though she felt rather alarmed on the inside, she doubled over with laughter, and almost went pitching forward onto her hands and knees.
“I’ve got you.” Betty’s arms went around Kate as easily as could be, holding Kate upright, keeping her safe. “You’re all right. I’ll get you home.”
They stood there, holding each other under the winter moon. It’s like we’re dancing, Kate remembers thinking. Suddenly she didn’t want to laugh any more. It wasn’t that she felt sad or scared, just very, very serious. “Serious as cancer,” is something people at Victory Munitions used to say, something Kate said once or twice, before she found out about Leon’s mother.
Betty cleared her throat. “Okay, I think you can let go now.”
“Some people don’t like being hugged all close like this.”
Betty hesitated. “I was thinkin’ more like you, actually.”
“No, don’t worry. I like it.” Touched at Betty’s concern for her boundaries, Kate propped her chin on Betty’s shoulder. Gradually, her head stopped whirling. It only made her hold Betty tighter. She started stroking Betty’s hair. “Were you always blonde?” she asked.
“Before the factory, the cordite. Were you born a blonde?”
“Yeah. I think the cordite’s made me blonder, though.”
“You’re my very best friend,” Kate said. Somehow, in her mind, it made perfect sense to go from asking Betty what her natural hair colour was to affirming their friendship.
“Same here,” said Betty, and laughed nervously. “I mean, you too.”
“That’s not all. I meant what I sang. I did. I’m so lucky.” Kate swayed a little against her. “Oh, goodness, I don’t even know what I’m saying, but I’m so lucky you’re here. I hope you understand, because I sure don’t.”
They were suddenly lit up by a car’s headlights. Betty leapt away and dragged Kate onto the pavement as though the car were nearly upon them, though it was all the way at the other end of the street.
Kate supposes that if she were smarter, that would’ve been when she would have started to get an inkling of what Betty was planning. Why else would Betty be so frightened of being seen in a woman’s arms?
… Maybe Betty was as frightened as Kate is now. She’s assumed, all this time, that all the warmth and tenderness Betty showed her was part of a coldly calculated ruse to get Kate into her bed. It was soothingly easy for Kate to get fixated on the sex part, after a lifetime of being told that other people only wanted her for her body. What exactly was it that Betty wanted with her? What is it that her father is so afraid of – that she is so afraid of? She hasn’t the slightest idea about how two women would go together. Is it even possible?
Did she feel lust for Betty? Honestly, she’s not sure. She always wanted to hug Betty, hold her hand, link their arms, dance together. She did those things with Gladys too, but it didn’t feel the same. Kate always assumed that was just the difference between a best friend and a second-best friend. She assumed that second-best friends made people feel breathless and hyper-aware of themselves for a few days before they settled comfortably into a purely sisterly relationship. Best friends, on the other hand, just grew more and more courageous, admirable and heart-achingly beautiful until the mere thought of them made people hug themselves and smile little secret smiles.
That moment before the kiss that ruined everything was the first time Kate’s ever allowed herself to unambiguously want anything physical, anything intimate, anything remotely sexual with another person. Every time prior to that, her mind would shriek dirty and wrong until she had to fight not to clap her hands over her ears.
In the two months since she walked out of the rooming house, she hasn’t let herself think about Betty saying, “Don’t leave, I love you.” That is the least baffling bit. Though it’s terrifying, it is becoming less confusing all the time. Kate hates that. She wants it to stay confusing. She wants it to seem like the worst thing in the world. It needs to stay in Toronto and be part of Kate’s sordid past, but Betty’s words have taken up residence inside her and refuse to leave.
Kate wants to be happy. She knows that Mother’s last wish is for Kate to be happy. She even thinks God wants her to be happy. How could He offer her a kind of happiness which isn’t part of His plan for her? Is He trying to make her terrified of any future joy?
That’s the thing of it, though. That’s why Kate can’t put it out of her head, even as her mother lies dying. Because even though the Bible and her father and the law all say it’s wrong, even though she was attracted to Leon, and even though she had a little crush on Gladys once, until her feelings changed … even with all of that, Kate knows that she loved Betty, and that before she realised it was wrong, loving Betty was the happiest she’s ever been.
It was the first time she had been loved by (ever loved) anyone outside of her family. Love for her family was the only thing she ever allowed herself to feel freely. Love comes from God, and she can let herself feel that. Or Kate thought she could. Now it turns out that some kinds of love are wrong, and shouldn’t be felt by anyone.
She felt it anyway, though. Kate knew how she felt about Betty. She dreamed of finding a way to say it out loud. It was the most exciting thing she had ever experienced, realising that she loves Betty. Loved. Past tense. She’s not allowed to love her any more.
Why, oh why did Betty have to say it in the hallway, with Father standing right behind Kate, with all the rooming house gossips eavesdropping shamelessly from their bedrooms? Why couldn’t Betty have said it before that terrible day? Why couldn’t Kate?
She dares to imagine Betty saying it under some other circumstances, any other circumstances. She pictures them relaxing in Betty’s room, Betty smoking or playing Solitaire or perusing the newspaper, Kate knitting or singing along with a record. She pictures them walking to their street car at the end of a shift, or waiting out a rainstorm under a shop awning, or swaying to a romantic song at Sandy Shores. In the end, it doesn’t matter where they are, in Kate’s fantasy. Betty’s face always softens (the way it did in the hallway, only she’s not trying to hold back anguished tears). She always looks at Kate like Kate is just exactly right (the way she did on the piano bench at Tangiers). She doesn’t have to plead with Kate not to leave her, because in Kate’s fantasy, Kate’s not going anywhere. In her fantasy, Kate doesn’t have a sick mother, a terrifying, righteous father and brothers who need to be taken care of. In a world where women can say and do anything they want, anything they feel, Betty looks at her and says, “I love you, Kate Andrews.”
Kate gives a little gasp. She has to brace herself against the side of the trailer. Before this moment, she has never in her life been able to picture anyone saying something nice to her.
Almost immediately, the doubts creep in. What is the matter with her? No good daughter – no worthwhile human being – stands around moping and sighing about wanting to be loved romantically while her mother is dying. The fact that what Kate wants is not real love, but perversion, only makes it worse.
She deserves to be sad all the time, she ought to be sad all the time, but she’s not. She’s just not. She is terrified of what will happen after her mother is gone, terrified of her feelings and her father, but Kate loves someone too. She can’t stop thinking about what she would do and how she would let herself feel if only – if only there were no other people in the world.
It has to end. Kate has to just – just stop, and be Marion again. It ought to be easy. If there’s one person in the world it should have been easy to kill, it is Kate Andrews. She was nobody. Kate Andrews’ life was the very definition of short and ignominious. She didn’t have any parents, she didn’t come from anywhere. She was born in a back alley this past September and died, for all intents and purposes, in the third floor hallway of a ladies’ rooming house in Toronto, a mere four months later. All she had in the world was a job working the floor at Victory Munitions, a little bedroom of her own, a decent enough singing voice, a body she was learning not to hate, an unwavering belief in a just and loving God and a handful of good friends. That’s not enough to make a whole person.
But Kate Andrews isn’t dead. She didn’t die when she had to (lie) tell Betty she didn’t want her. She didn’t die when her father took her away from the only place she had ever been happy. She didn’t even die three days ago, when Marion tried to finish her off once and for all, by throwing out everything she loved, as though Kate were nothing. Through all of it, a tiny piece of Kate clings obstinately to life. It’s like she’s been waiting in the shadows all this time, watching and waiting as Marion was beaten and shouted at and kept from the world. After a lifetime of silently bearing witness, Kate won’t be banished. She keeps hanging on. But for what?
When I’ve thrown it all away, what’s left is me. I’m still here. I’ll always be here, thinks Kate. Nothing is going to get rid of me now. It is not a cheering thought, but it makes Kate feel – hungry, angry, longing and on fire, all at the same time.
But perhaps that’s not true. There is one thing she couldn’t bring herself to get rid of. If she really wanted to see how indestructible Kate Andrews is, she would have thrown it away … but she will never be able to bring herself to, so it seems she’ll never really know.
Kate watched from outside herself as Marion, the woman she’s supposed to be, threw out every possession that Kate had accumulated in her four months of life. The little piece of Kate that’s left hangs onto the hair pin Betty gave her, secreting it in the pages of a book she won as a Sunday school prize when she was six. She figures it’s a step up from carrying it around in her pocket, the way she did for the first few weeks that she was home. She tells herself that the hair pin has spent the last fortnight nestled inside the pages of Bible Stories for Girls because she’s weaning herself off it, bit by bit. Any day now, God will give her the strength to toss it into the gutter without another thought.
In truth, she hid the hair pin inside the book after a sickening five seconds when her dress pocket felt oddly light. She turned it out and found it empty. Forever, she remembers thinking miserably, and she couldn’t even feel guilty about the tears welling up in her eyes. Forever is such a long, long time.
When Kate felt something digging into her ankle and discovered that the hairpin was caught in her sock, far from calming down, she felt the tears finally start to fall.