The house was many gabled, spacious, rambling and placed between two rises protecting it from the prevailing winds. Yet its southern windows opened onto a clear view of the sea. Some would call it ramshackle but this was inaccurate. It was a sound house with a sound foundation, a good roof keeping out the rain and no rot, no termites and no mould. It was, however, in need of caulking, desperately in need of a paint job and the gutter along the north side hung somewhat loosely upon the facia. The deck, a later addition to the much older main structure, sweeping across the full width of the front, slumped toward the driveway but it was essentially intact and needed only to be jacked and supported. From the moment she laid eyes upon it Marcia was entranced by its lonely eccentricity and its gentle air of seasoned companionship. She was careful, however, not to allow this enchantment to communicate itself to real estate agent - young, bushy tailed and ceaselessly babbling - who accompanied her on her tour through the rooms without, or at least it seemed so to Marcia, seeing a single thing, so keen was he to send forth a river of words and irrelevant comment. She knew houses. Her dead husband had been a renovating carpenter and unlike many women she was interested in what he did. While the agent babbled she looked very carefully at everything she should look at, stuck a small penknife into certain spots where it was necessary to stick a small penknife, and with a hammer she carried in the inside pocket of her coat tore a small hole in the exterior kitchen wall under the cabinets to examine the insulation. He hardly noticed but he was a bit surprised when she opened the cleanout door in the brick chimney and made him hold a flashlight shining upwards into the chimney hole while she climbed a rickety ladder onto the roof and looked down. Clear but requiring a good cleaning, although for the agent’s consumption she frowned and shook her head sadly while he saw moving off into the distance a sale which would pay three monthly payments on the second hand sports car waiting for them in the driveway.
In those days large, isolated houses in the rural areas were inexpensive. It was before the moneyed classes decided to imitate the English and abandon the city weekends and vacations for a country estate. Marcia, with her small pension and even smaller capital, felt a moment of pure joy when the agent told her the asking price and was even happier a few moments later when he told her if she bid one third less no doubt the owner would accept. The house had been on the market three years without attracting a single offer. Marcia, when young, had suffered considerable pain as a result of being vague about money and in middle age had transformed herself into a hard nosed negotiator. She offered one half the list price and, after two days of dithering, the owner accepted.
The house in the city was rented but without a lease. The legal requirement for notice was one month but the landlord, a lanky septuagenarian by the name of Mr. Toggle, had, in the five years of Marcia’s occupancy, been very kind and Marcia did not want to cause him injury. After talking on the phone they agreed to two months. Sylvia and Marcia then set to patching holes in the wallboard, giving away some of the pets, fixing the railing on the back porch and, with the assistance of Mr. Toggle, laying new linoleum on the kitchen floor, the old being worn and showing black patches.
Mr. Toggle was sad to see them go. A widower living alone in a house two doors down, he had been happy to have a place in the neighbourhood to drop in for coffee. Although not required under the rental contract he cleared the snow and cut the grass. Marcia was sure that he was a little sweet on Sylvia, a septuagenarian herself. At least when Sylvia was in the kitchen he lingered over his coffee a lot longer than when it was Marcia. “At my age,” said Sylvia, “I like talking to men but am not much interested in doing anything else with them.” At the time of their leaving whether Mr. Toggle was interested in doing anything else was left unsolved. He was such a gothic man that even if he were interested his Calvinism would have prevented him from any mention of it.
Two months after the purchase of the new house happened to be a Saturday. Marcia backed the eighteen seater school bus into the back yard. Two of the boys and Mr. Toggle, suffering under a series of irrelevant and impractical instructions from Sylvia, hooked up the big trailer to the hitch on the back of the bus. The bus had been stripped of the back seats for they only needed twelve. Into the space thus created, the girls, Hermione, Clare, Melody and Consuela, packed all the kitchen things still unpacked, and, thank heavens, still had enough room for the packing of the odds and ends inevitably forgotten until the end. The boys, Fred, John, Manuel, Peter and Alexander, under the supervision of Mr. Toggle, loaded four sofas, six armchairs, a dining room table, twelve dining room chairs, and three bed frames onto the roof racks atop the bus. This they tied on with an assortment of ropes, clothesline and electrical wires. Mr. Toggle returned to his own home coming back with long coil of thick rope which the two older boys lashed over the other lashings just to make sure. Then all the neighbours who were watching came to say goodbye. Mr. Toggle, to Marcia’s great surprise, kissed all the children as they entered the bus and, in return, was kissed on the cheek by Marcia before she climbed into the driver’s seat and drove off. When she turned the corner at the end of the street she tooted the bus’s tinny horn three times and they were gone.
The road to the new house followed the seacoast and thus went up and down and snaked sinuously from side to side, sometimes traveling through channels with sheer, blasted cliffs on either side, sometimes through flower sprinkled meadow land sweeping its bright green to the edge of the shore. The children were delighted with the scenery and they shouted and sang, oohed and ahhed and were so filled with its beauty and newness that they forgot to fight. Sylvia fell asleep. Marcia, her hands at the ten o’clock position on the steering wheel, dealt with keeping the bus between the double lines and the shoulder of the road. After two hours (Marcia refused to go faster than 80 kilometers an hour, so for a normal driver it would have been a hour and a half) they arrived in the little village five kilometers from the new house. Here they stopped to stretch their legs and eat an ice cream cone. The few people about stared at them as if they were members of a traveling circus but when they stared back shyly turned away and moved off. Marcia introduced herself to Mr. O’Leary, the storekeeper, who besides ice cream, sold groceries, clothing, hardware and lawn decorations. The young gas station attendant, for Mr. O’Leary also sold gas, stared wonderingly at the trailer from which came a queer collection of animal sounds. The older girls made faces at him from the bus windows and the boys made fun of the girls for making faces. Fifteen minutes latter they pulled into the long driveway which led up to the house. The children dismounted, an accurate word, for they leaped from the bus like they might leap from the back of a horse. Marcia and Sylvia followed, Sylvia holding in her hand the list given her by Marcia.
Three older girls - third floor where there were three tiny bedrooms but privacy. The stair was a captain’s ladder with a trapdoor at the top, most useful for repulsing vulgar, raiding boys. Into the three tiny rooms the girls had to fit beds, bureaus, clothing, personal effects, school gear, four rabbits, three cats and a small, nervous dog. Fortunately there was a balcony and it was summer. Here, out in the fresh air, they put the rabbit cages where the droppings and urine would fall onto the roof and save them a lot of cleaning. The cats, of course, went wherever they liked, two immediately out onto the roof to examine the gables. There they sat, in the leaning way of cats on a slanted roof, gazing off suspiciously at the sea in the distance. The dog, confused after his confinement in close quarters with so many cats and rabbits, crawled under one of the beds and went to sleep. After things were reasonably set to rights, the girls made tea on an illegal gas stove (banned as a fire hazard by Sylvia, a ban which the girls agreed to verbally but ignored in reality) and sat down to do their nails. They all agreed they held a superior strategic position in the new house, being able to hurl things down the stairs at their enemies, the boys, and then quickly close the trapdoor and stand on it to avoid reprisals. They also agreed that this happy state of affairs was mostly due to two women running the house and how fortunate they were that it was so. They shuddered at the horrors which might have occurred if the boys had been given the top floor.
The second floor housed five bedrooms, one each for Fred, Peter, Alexander, John and Manuel. One was larger than the others and, surprisingly, they all agreed it should go to Alexander, the oldest. A smelly English sheep dog, a fat old tom cat, a French bulldog, a burrowing owl, a crow, an ant farm, three garter snakes in a glass aquarium, and three white rats nosed and beaked their way around the new quarters and found them satisfactory. When the boys had everything in order, an order which Sylvia had to insist on by threatening not to cook supper if it wasn’t achieved, they hung their upper bodies out the two large windows in Alexander’s room and smoked a joint. Despite their attempts to blow the smoke off into the sea smelling air the girls smelt it but said nothing, for they knew the boys could hear the hissing of their gas stove but said nothing. The old tomcat howled piteously as if he were being treated cruelly, which couldn’t be farther from the truth for a more pampered, scrap fed, patted and fussed over tomcat could not be found in the whole world. Peter picked him up and rubbed his ears and he went to sleep.
The bottom floor was mostly living room and dining room, happily opened up some years ago. There were two small bedrooms at the back, one for Sylvia and one for Marcia and Consuela. Consuela was only three. The kitchen was a huge country kitchen with a central working counter and forty running feet of cupboards and counters against the walls. There was a small pantry at the back. The deck acted as an entrance and overlooked the sea. Here Consuela played with her dolls , arranging them on a bench which ran the length of the railing.
Where did all these children come from and why were they living with Sylvia and Marcia, two women well past child bearing age? The answer is complicated. Hermione, Clare and Consuela were Marcia’s grandchildren, the mother, Marcia’s daughter, no longer in the picture, father came to visit once a month. Melody was the daughter of Sylvia’s second cousin, mother and father occasionally coming for visits. Peter and Alexander were Sylvia’s great grandchildren, mother visiting regularly. Fred was Marcia’s grand nephew, parents whereabouts not known. John was the grandson of Marcia’s childhood friend who often came to visit. Manuel was related to Sylvia in such a complicated way, involving so many removes and half this and half that, even Sylvia required five minutes of intense concentration to figure it out clearly. To dispense with such complications she called Manuel her grandson and he called her nanny.
Sylvia and Marcia were cousins. Both had brought up children, now adults and scattered all over the globe. The children they were now bringing up they had acquired by a process of osmosis. One day a daughter left town leaving the child behind. One day a cousin, whose child was staying the weekend at Sylvia’s, left for Alaska. And so on. When they had reached a certain critical mass they decided to rent a house together and pool their pension checks. Some of the parents sent money on a regular basis, some sporadically, and some not at all. One reason they had decided to move to the country was they were full up. Two years previous they had also decided they were full up and yet now had two additional children. The truth was they could not find it in their hearts to refuse a child and yet they knew if they took on more things would become impossible. The grim reality was that isolated as they were now it would be much more difficult for relatives to dump spare and unwanted children into their laps, or at least it seemed so. Money was always a problem yet somehow they managed.
The house and the ten acres upon which it sat, were in Milbourne County. Twenty kilometers southwest along the coast was the small town which acted as the county seat. The names of the five town councilors who met there one day a week were unknown to Sylvia and Marcia as they were unknown to anyone but people who had lived in the county for some time and thus had dealings with the council. The council dealt with bread and butter issues such as drainage, roads and building permits and, if you had no interest in these then you could spend an entire lifetime ignoring their existence and suffer no ill effects from it.
Bilford Zizard was the councilor who represented the area where the house was situated. He was forty-five, handsome, short and overweight. He resembled one of those roly poly clowns children used to have, weighted at the bottom so that no matter how often you knocked them down or pushed them over they quickly uprighted themselves still smiling their wide, friendly, clown smile. Thus the secretaries at the county office referred to him as poly, short for roly poly. Bilford had a sense of humour so conventional as to easily pass for no sense of humour at all. It most certainly did not extend to nicknames referring to his roundness of shape and the secretaries were careful not to use the nickname in his presence or in the presence of those likely to report back to him.
Bilford was a contractor. He owned earth moving equipment which he rented out complete with operators to those who wanted basements dug, ditches cleared, culverts installed, roads constructed. He was an unusual in that section of the world for normally contractors there were also operators of equipment and Bilford was not. He did the financing, estimates, ordering, collected the bills and paid his men. He had an accounting system set up by a CA and he maintained it. Ten years ago he had been elected to council and then reelected twice since. He was not particularly popular but not unpopular either. He knew how to read a balance sheet. He knew what a mill rate was. He was experienced when it came to constructing roads, ordering drainage ditches dug, etc, so as a councilor one would have to say he was competent. For what amounted over the year to two days a week the county paid him about the same as one of his operators would make working the same amount of hours. So he wasn’t in it for the money, or at least for the money the county paid him.
But Bilford did have ambition. His ambition was to become a rich and powerful man. This had not dawned on him until he was in his mid thirties. Before that he was happy with his contracting work, with his wife and three children, Sunday mornings at the local church, his male buddies, fishing and hunting. The catalyst for his new ambition was being stiffed by a weekender building a luxurious country home who hired him to do the excavation work. When everything was done the man claimed there were deficiencies in the work and would only pay him one half of the amount originally agreed upon. Talk of deficiencies was only a pretext for the man not to pay the full bill. They both knew this but especially Bilford who was so furious he almost loaded his shotgun and drove over to shoot the man. He soon gave this up as even worst than being cheated but there was really nothing else he could do. The man was a lawyer, exceedingly wealthy, with a mean streak. Bilford did not have the money to sue him. The man would have tied up the proceedings in court endlessly until what little money he could afford ran out. There was nothing he could do.
The next year he ran for council, won, and sat on a few unimportant committees as a junior member. When he was reelected, however, he became the assistant chair of the Works Committee and two years later, when the old chairman retired because of ill health, the chair. This was a good position from which to further his ambitions. The works committee oversaw building contracts, development contracts, as well as administrating the projects the county did with their own employees. Development, that is the gathering together of sections of land for large scale home and cottage building financed by businessmen from the city, was coming to the fore. The old chairman was blind to the possibilities, both private and public, but Bilford was not. The developers courted him and he was willing to be courted. He oversaw the sale of certain parcels of county land in such a way as to deliver them inexpensively to his new friends. His new friends saw to it that he was given excavation contracts at very generous rates. He, working with his associate, as he called the building inspector, allowed building requirements he saw as too onerous to be ignored but in such a way that no amount of searching the paper trail would disclose anything either against him or his new friends. His new friends were grateful. Over a period of four years ten cottages were transferred to the name of his nephew, a young man with Down Syndrome, for nominal amounts. The cottages were rented out. Mortgages were taken out on the properties by the young man and construction equipment bought. The equipment was then rented to Bilford’s company for very reasonable rates. Soon he became the largest excavating contractor in the county. He became involved in larger and larger projects. One late winter he went with one of his new friends for a week in the sun in Panama. While there he visited a bank where his fingerprint was taken. In return he deposited a large amount of money in cash.
Marcia’s house was bordered on the west by a large section of land owned by one of Bilford’s new friends and on the east by county land about to be sold at one of Bilford’s ‘preferential’ sales. He had been working on the owner who sold to Marcia to sell to his dear nephew but the old man was cantankerous and difficult and things had dragged on. Bilford was in the Bahamas when the property was sold. The building inspector was in Toronto for a convention and thus the sale was registered at Titles by one of the secretaries who did not know of Bilford’s interest and even if she did would not have cared. When he came back Bilford was furious. He spoke sharply to the secretary and she spoke sharply back. Then Bilford had to pull in his horns and apologize. Secretaries in county seats have clan connections which are dangerous to antagonize.
Bilford stayed late at the office one night and checked the tax bill on Marcia’s property. There had been arrears before the sale but they were paid at the time of purchase. In working deals which might rebound upon him as a politician, Bilford had a policy of using proxies. There was an old man who still practiced law although he was seventy-seven years of age. Despite his age he was a tall, strong man who lived on a small farm outside town and still did all his own farm work, cutting winter wood, driving a team of Clydesdales to cut his hay and doing the upkeep on the fences and buildings. He would have stopped lawyering years before if he hadn’t married a second time at the age of sixty-five. His new wife had three children now at the university and he needed money to pay their expenses. His name was Peter Flavin but everyone called him Lawyer Flavin. He did mostly property work and had, in the past, occasionally done work for Bilford. Bilford didn’t entirely trust the old man for he had about him an independence of spirit which he found distasteful. But he had just learned that the old man had taken out a mortgage on his property and the payments were relatively high. The old man was in need of money.
He sent Lawyer Flavin over to talk to Marcia. His instructions were to sound her out about selling. If she was interested he was to make a kind of preliminary inquiry on price. He was not to mention any sum himself but to conduct himself in such a way that she might respond with a price herself. Bilford has gathered all the rumour and gossip he could about the two old women and the gang of scruffy, ragamuffin children who now lived in the house and came to the conclusion that the two elderly ladies were a bit scrambled in their brains. Several times in the past he had found very good pickings in similar situations.
Lawyer Flavin arrived on a Saturday morning just before noon. He parked his rusty Toyota in the gravel drive, climbed the front stairs and knocked on the door. Although he could hear the sounds of people inside, some time passed by with out anyone answering the door. He knocked again. A moment later the door opened but he had to drop his eyes to see who had done it. It was Consuela, dressed in a blue, fluffy, fairy dress with a halo suspended above her head upon a section of coat hanger wire. She was looking up at him with round, curious eyes.
“My goodness,” said Lawyer Flavin, “you must be the Queen of the Fairies!”
That such a large, dignified man should recognize her position, pleased Consuela who smiled a wide, wide smile and wiggled her little body in delight. Lawyer Flavin stepped in and closed the door.
“Marcia’s in the kitchen,” Consuela informed him, reaching out her hand. Lawyer Flavin took her hand and she led him through the living room into the kitchen. Marcia was kneading bread on the center counter.
“You must be Marcia,” said Lawyer Flavin. “The Queen of the Fairies here told me you were in the kitchen.”
“Why thank you for answering the door, Consuela.” Said Marcia. “Or perhaps I should say Your Majesty.”
Consuela smiled another smile, then, suddenly shy, turned on her heels and ran out of the room and up the stairs to tell the girls on the third floor about the nice tall man, who, flying in the face of their scepticism, recognized her right away as The Queen of the Fairies.
“I can’t shake your hand right now,” said Marcia, holding up her floury hands, “but I’ll be finished with this in a few moments. Please sit at the table.”
The table was a long, pine affair, scratched with the scratches of many thousands of meals and scarred here and there with burns and carved initials. Lawyer Flavin pulled out a chair and sat down. When Marcia finished kneading, she divided the loaves, placed them in the pans and covered them with a damp tea towel. She washed her hands in the kitchen sink and came over to shake his hand.
“I’m Marcia Fullminster.”
“And I’m Peter Flavin, but everyone around here calls me Lawyer Flavin.”
Two of the third floor girls appeared in the doorway. They looked with great curiosity at Lawyer Flavin, who they thought, with his bright shock of white hair and well pressed dark blue suit, to be enormously distinguished. Perhaps he might be a great, kindly rich man, a stand in for the benevolent heavenly Father they had learned about in Sunday School. For once, Consuela was not telling fibs or wandering off into the land of make believe. They smiled shyly and Marcia introduced them.
“This is Melody and Clare. Girls, this is Peter Flavin but he says the people around here call him Lawyer Flavin.”
“Hello,” the girls replied. Then they turned and ran up to the second floor to tell the boys.
When Marcia put a cup of coffee before him and sat down on the other side of the table, Lawyer Flavin said, “I represent a third party, whose name, I am afraid, my instructions do not allow me to disclose at this time. This third party is interested in buying your house.”
“Well, Peter Flavin, the third party better get interested in buying another house. I just finished buying this one and I don’t want to go through all that again. However, if your third party is tremendously rich and wants to pay me, say, three times what I paid for it, well then I might consider it. I have eight children to bring up and I could use the money.”
Lawyer Flavin laughed. “If you knew my third party you wouldn’t suggest such a thing.”
“Well, that would be the end of that then.”
Sylvia then entered the kitchen. She was a short, thin woman, dressed in a threadbare dress covered with fading roses and wearing a pair of rimless glasses. When Marcia started to speak she put up her hand in a traffic cop gesture and said, “Don’t bother, Mar. My spies have told me everything.” Then, coming over to Lawyer Flavin she put out her hand. The old man put out his and they shook. “I’m Sylvia,” she said. “You’ll be staying for lunch, of course.”
Lawyer Flavin was about to protest but the women ignored him.
“Stay right in that chair, Peter Flavin,” said Marcia. “Then you’ll be on side of Consuela. She is smitten with you and will refuse to have it any other way.”
So he stayed where he was while around him the women set the table and children came in and took their places. They asked him to say grace. He hadn’t said grace in fifty years and was surprised he remembered the old one from his childhood table. Grace finished, Consuela crawled up on his lap. Marcia was about to order her back to her place but the old man said. “Please. It’s no trouble at all.” Marcia relented. So Consuela ate lunch from Lawyer Flavin’s lap. He buttered bread for her and, when she was finished her dessert, gave her half of his own. Marcia watched this with some suspicion but then decided that it wouldn’t hurt Consuela to be spoilt a bit by this graceful old stranger.
“I don’t live in town. I have a farm not far from here,” said Lawyer Flavin in response to Alexander’s very correct and well dictioned question.
“And do you have Horses there, sir?” Alexander was mad about horses and considered much of the world an evil plot to keep him away from them.
“As a matter of fact I do.”
This answer sent a jolt of lightening through Alexander’s body which took the exercise of all his will power to at least partially disguise.
“And what kind of horses would they be, sir?” he asked, doing his best to make this question appear casual. It was obvious, however, that his entire being was focused intensely to hear the answer.
“Several kinds. Two Clydesdales, an old thoroughbred, a pony and three quarter horses.”
“And how far away would your farm be, sir?
“Five kilometers or so. But I would ask you, young man, not to call me sir. It makes me feel like I were my father, very dignified and stiff and about to be enshrined in the family vault. Please call me Peter.”
Lunch finished, the children washed and put away the dishes while the adults had tea in the dining room. “Where do they all come from?” asked Lawyer Flavin. Sylvia and Marcia, going back and forth between them, told him.
“Do you have legal custody?” he asked.
“For some.” Replied Marcia.
“It can be useful. If you want I would do it for you for free. You would just have to pay for the actual costs, document registration and so on. It’s not too much.”
“Thank you. We will probably take you up on that,” said Sylvia.
Then Lawyer Flavin rose to leave. As he was going out the front door he turned and saw Alexander watching him.
“If they let you, young man, you could come back with me to look at the horses. Have you ridden before?”
“Only at the fair, “said Alexander.
Marcia and Sylvia had no objections so Alexander accompanied the old man back to his farm. They put his mountain bike in the back of the pick up so he could ride back on his own. Marcia came out to see them off. As the old man was about to release the clutch and back out of the driveway, he said.
“Make sure you pay your taxes on time. Don’t ask me why. Pay them the day before the deadline at the latest. If you have problems doing that let me know. Under no circumstance let it go beyond the deadline. And make sure you keep the receipt. Do you understand me?”
“Yes, I think so.”
Lawyer Flavin backed out of the driveway, Alexander proudly riding shotgun.
When Lawyer Flavin told him about his meeting with Marcia, Bilford was suspicious. Perhaps the old fool was working his own angle. But after talking with him a while, he decided he was telling the truth. The old lady didn’t want to sell? Well, there were ways.
“How many kids do those two have over there?” He asked Flavin.
“I’m not sure. Quite a few.”
Lawyer Flavin didn’t like the look in Bilford’s eye. When Bilford handed him his cash payment he was just about to beg off any further work, pleading his workload on the farm but then his mind suddenly changed track. If he bowed out the women could be blindsided. He decided to stay. He put the cash in his inside pocket. They were having coffee in the café. It was early afternoon and, other than themselves and the middle aged owner behind the counter, the place was empty. He could literally smell the evil content of Bilford’s mind.
“You wouldn’t think two old women like that would be competent to look after all those children, would you? Perhaps Child and Family should be told about a situation like that. Two half witted old ladies and a firetrap house full of young children.”
Bilford smiled an oily smile and Lawyer Flavin made himself smile back in a conspiratorial way. He forced his eyes to light up with comprehension and shook his head slowly in wondrous contemplation at Bilford’s cleverness.
“You understand what I mean , then?”
“Oh yes,” the Lawyer said appreciatively. “But I would be careful if I were you. The older one, Sylvia, goes to the Lutheran church. She teaches in the Sunday School there. Apparently she has degrees and qualifications in that sort of thing. The other woman who helps out in the Sunday School is the Chair of Child and Family. A complaint to Child and Family could backfire on whoever made it.”
“I wouldn’t be so stupid as to make it myself, Lawyer Flavin.”
“No, of course not. You are too experienced for that. But a complaint immediately discounted can be dangerous. Someone may be able to figure out that someone other than the actual complainant was behind it. Even if they can’t prove it, people begin to talk. Then someone drinks a little too much one night and a name is mentioned. Then others start asking why such a bogus complaint was made in the first place. Then people start to speculate. Like I say, it could be dangerous.”
“My God, I didn’t think you were so sly, Lawyer Flavin.”
The old man smiled. ”I’ve been around a long time, Bilford. I’ve seen just about everything.”
“Well, perhaps you are right. Maybe the best thing would be to send you back with a reasonable offer. Somewhat above what they paid.”
They ordered more coffee and spoke for another half hour.
The next Saturday morning the boys were working on an old sailboat Marcia bought at a garage sale. Hermione, who even among the boys, was accepted as the master of technology, had convinced them that the best way to seal the old wooden hull was to fiberglass it. They paddled it with two canoe paddles around the point from where they bought it and turned it over on the sandy beach below the house. The boys had already tore off any rotted boards on one side and replaced them with plywood they rescued from the landfill. Hermione and Peter were beginning to apply the fiberglass.
When Lawyer Flavin drove up the driveway Alexander was sitting on the deck. He stood up as the old man began climbing the stairs. When he reached the top Lawyer Flavin sat in one of the deck chairs to rest. He looked at Alexander and said “Being an old man is not so bad, Alexander. In the past ten years I’ve had some of the most enjoyable times in my life. Old age gets bad press from the poor fools who think death a great evil. If death is a great evil, then the closer you come to it the more miserable you are, right? Well, wrong. If you do a few things right the closer you come the more you can enter into a freedom of the mind, and this freedom of the mind is the only really great joy available to a human being. Like all the other things it too passes, but it has a great depth in it’s passing not available in the others. My wife says to me this morning, “Where is that young boy, Alexander?” “How should I know, Gilly?” I reply. She says you can come every day if you like. The pony misses you and so do the others. They get bored being in the pasture by themselves all day.”
Alexander face lit up. “O sir, that’s wonderful! O that’s truly wonderful!”
“After you ask Marcia or Sylvia you can go over on your own on the bike right now, if you like. Or you can wait for me.”
But Alexander had received permission from Sylvia three hours ago and had paced the deck ever since, moving through alternate states of hope and despair. He ran down the stairs hitting perhaps every third one, hopped onto his bike and drove down the driveway. Lawyer Flavin waited till he was out of earshot and laughed so loudly that Sylvia came and opened the door to see what was going on.
“So the horse maniac is off, is he, Lawyer Flavin?”
“Like the wind, Sylvia, like the wind.” The old man rose and followed her inside to the kitchen.
Bilford came out to see Lawyer Flavin on Sunday afternoon. He came into the barn and started talking as soon as he saw the old man brushing down one of the big Clydesdales. But Lawyer Flavin put up his hand to stop him. Alexander was on the other side of the horse. The two men walked out of the barn and across the yard to lean on the pasture fence.
“Well?” said Bilford. Sometimes Flavin’s old style manner which dictated that the point of a conversation be delayed for some time after its beginning annoyed him to no end. He was a busy man. He didn’t have all day to trade genteel inanities with the old fool.
Before he answered Lawyer Flavin moved along the fence until he came to a bench. He sat down at one end of the bench and Bilford sat at the other, as far away as possible. The old man had figured he would do that. Bilford had almost a phobia of physical closeness.
“Well, let’s have it.” Bilford was one of those men with money who, when they engage a person’s services, assume a kind of bullying intimacy with them. Lawyer Flavin paid no attention to his tone. He had survived several dozen of this kind.
“I made the offer but she refused.”
“Well, she’ll regret that, by God.”
Flavin said nothing. He looked off toward the farmhouse where Bilford’s Beamer sat in the driveway under the trees. Bilford got to his feet and started pacing back and forth. Lawyer Flavin kept his place and eventually, after he had walked of some off his frustration, Bilford returned to his seat on the bench.
“I’ll have to do a tax thing on those bitches. Come back tomorrow dear. And then put through the papers for the sale the next morning. I’ve done it with others and I’ll do it with them. Fucking big city bitches. Think they can come out here and get in the way of progress. Do they like you, Flavin?”
“I would say so, yes.”
“Maybe you can convince them to let you handle some of their affairs. Get a cheque for the tax bill and then forget to pay it. What do you think?”
“That might be possible.”
“Well, it better be possible. Otherwise, what in the hell am I paying you for, Flavin? I don’t run a charity for old geezer lawyers.”
Lawyer Flavin wheezed out a manufactured laugh but Bilford was so unobservant that he accepted it as a complement to his wit. He crossed and then recrossed his legs. He furrowed his brow and rubbed his hands together as if he were washing them in the sink. It was a warm day. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and he wiped them away with his handkerchief.
“And if that doesn’t work there are other ways. Old firetraps like that have been known to burn down in the middle of the night. I know a guy who helps them along. And if those old bitches burn along with it then so be it. Buy the land for taxes and put a dozer on it to clear away the debris. Fuck, it’s easy as pie. Those old bitches don’t know who they are up against. They think they are dealing with some country clodhopper, some hayseed. Well they are going to find out different. I’ll hire someone to put weed killer in their well. That’ll fix those old cunts and those snotty little brats of theirs too.” Bilford had worked himself up to a fever pitch. His face had become dangerously red and he punctuated these comments by punching the empty air as if the women had suddenly appeared in front of him and he was smashing their images with his meaty fists.
You would think all this would distress Lawyer Flavin but, on the contrary, he was delighted and had to exert himself not to show it. This was not too difficult because Bilford was so wrapped up in his anger he hardly noticed the old man’s reaction. When he figured Bilford had calmed down enough he said,
“Maybe you should offer them a little more. They seemed quite interested in the last offer. A little sweetening might just do it.”
Bilford was suspicious. Maybe the old man was climbing into bed with those two old hags. “How much sweetening?”
Bilford thought about this for a while. The other methods always carried with them a danger. People talked. Somebody you hadn’t expected to suddenly comes up with a brother in law who’s a lawyer. Someone screws up and gets caught and it costs a whole lot of hush money to cover it up. Ten percent on the original offer wasn’t much. Compared to what he would make out of the whole deal, it was peanuts.
“OK.Ten percent. But that’s all, not a penny more.” Having said this he whisked himself off to his car and drove away. Lawyer Flavin watched him go. How can a man make himself believe he’s moving himself toward a wonderful heaven when, in reality, he is creating for himself the most painful kind of hell? He thought about this for a moment and then rose and walked across the yard and into the barn.
“Yes, Mr. Flavin.” In the city Alex had spent two years in the air cadets. It was impossible for him to call Lawyer Flavin by his first name. But at least Mr. Flavin was better than sir.
Three months later Lawyer Flavin was seated in a lawn chair on Marcia’s deck looking out to sea. Hermione, Clare and Melody were sailing the boat around the point. The hull was painted a nail gloss red with old enamels the boys had found at the landfill. The sail was bright yellow, made from nylon Gilly had bought years ago at a closing out sale. Sylvia had made them a pennant from some old bunting found in the corner of the church basement. If the wind was right, Saturday mornings the girls sailed to town and brought back groceries. The boys took over in the afternoon, sometimes sailing twenty kilometers down the coast to an island where they tied up the boat and cooked hotdogs for supper. They were not supposed to go that far but they did anyway.
The burrowing owl was sitting on the back of his chair. The owl, predictably, was called Who. Flavin had tried to convince the boys to rename him Diogenes but classical culture was no longer a part of the school curriculum and they failed to see the point. Who was swaying very slightly from side to side. His eyes were closed. Consuela had fallen asleep in the shade and the French bulldog was asleep beside her. Here Flavin had achieved some success. By telling the boys horrible, gory stories of the Terror during the French Revolution, out of earshot of Marcia and Sylvia, of course, he had convinced the boys to change the bulldog’s name from Gob to Danton. Two cats were sitting on the railing in the sunshine and the crow was preening his feathers on the roof. As with Who, the crow was named predictably - Caw. Flavin was speaking to Sylvia.
“My oldest stepson is into electronic gadgets. There is a lab at his university and he borrowed the equipment from there. He wired me, I believe they call it, with a battery operated mike. The camera was at the end of the drinking trough, the body of it hidden in a little mound of dirt. Beforehand we set the angle by me sitting on the end of the bench where we hoped to get Bilford to sit. The camera was connected to a switch operated by my stepson and the wire to the switch in a trough we dug into the ground. My stepson turned it on from where he was hiding behind the south wall of the barn.”
“And here I thought you were an innocent old country gentleman.”
Lawyer Flavin laughed. “O but I am Sylvia. My behavior on that day was merely a lapse you see. Anyway, it worked out quite well. He sat exactly where we needed him to sit and said, more or less, exactly what we need him to say. He was very indiscreet. Wonderfully indiscreet. Usually people like him, in such situations speak a kind of ambiguous, metaphorical language. Even if you record him exactly what is being said is not clear. It is open to interpretation. But what he said that day was clear, horribly clear.”
“The Post Mistress is an old friend. She put a copy of the video in his box for me. He came out to see me the next day. He was angry of course, but I expected that. I spoke with him on the bench we recorded him on. Two of my stepsons were very visible nearby but out of hearing range. It is best to take precautions in such cases. After all I’m an old man and not really up to the rough stuff anymore. My stepson’s are quite large. They play football.” Flavin paused to take a drink of his lemonade.
“So are you recording me now you old bastard?” he asked me.
“No, no, Bilford, I already have a very good recording and I only need one. Many copies of course, but only one recording.”
He seemed to be resigned. He had probably watched that video a dozen times. Even to the most optimistic mind the jig was up. You would have to be very stupid to think you could wiggle out of it, and he may be on the sleazy side but he is very far from stupid. Anyway we talked for some time and got it all settled. The original copy of the video is in the safe of an old friend of mine in Montreal. That’s where I went to law school. And there it stays as a kind of guarantee. He tried mightily to get it out of me but, although I was flexible on other points, on that one I was unmovable. While I possess the video he will perform his side of the agreement. Without the video I can’t trust him. I agreed to destroy the copies and I did so. He knows very well that if he keeps his word the video will never come out of the safe and when I die my friend has instructions to destroy it.”
“So what did he have to do?”
“Ah! You are asking me to reveal secrets.”
“I won’t tell.”
Flavin gave her a very serious look. “Promise?”
“Yes. I won’t tell a soul. I promise.”
He looked at her again and then resumed his watching the boat fast approaching the point.
“He had to abandon the project which included this property. I thought this essential because otherwise you would always be in his way and the potential victims of his skullduggery. He has done this. He and his friends resold the land and bought more further down the coast. I also made him promise me he would never use on anybody the kind of tactics he had spoken about in the video. He promised and I genuinely think he will keep the promise, not out of any sense of morality, for he has none, but out of a sense of self protection. After all he has reached a point in his acquisitions where he no longer needs to even consider doing such things. He can make lots of money by a combination of acting legitimately and using his political position to procure favours for himself and his friends. As far as the procurement of favours go, I am afraid I am not much of a moralistic reformer. Since time immemorial people like Bilford have spun their webs and made their deals. It is not my cup of tea but then again I don’t provide employment and economic opportunity for anyone as he does, warts and all, for many hundreds. He’s not really that terrible a man you know. There are many far worst. I also think that much of what he said in the video was talking through his hat. I really don’t think he would have done those things. I think he was frustrated and blowing out his tubes. One can never be sure, of course. And the hat, for him, turned out to be a very expensive one.”
“They tell me there were losses involved in moving the project and his friends insisted he pay them. If you don’t mind a little vulgarity, I suppose they told him it’s your ass we are removing from the sling, not ours.”
“I have heard rumors.”
“O, that. Well that’s not even a secret. Or it won’t be for long. He will be announcing a scholarship fund, named after himself, of course. A sizable sum for promising young students from the county. More than likely my stepsons, who are jocks mind you but at the same time A students, will receive one. Tuition, books and living. Very generous. I and two of my old geezer friends will be sitting on the board. Maybe when Alex finishes High School he could apply. And your other ones as well.”
By this time the boat was around the point and the bright yellow sail an afterimage, a chromatic memory.