Warnings: Trigger warning for abuse
Disclaimer: All characters belong to Michael MacLennan and Adrienne Mitchell/Shaw Media.
Kate lingers at the top of the stairs, clutching her bag of groceries. She wishes she could sink into the threadbare carpet, fade into the wallpaper, dissipate into the clouds of laundry steam and cigarette smoke that hang in the air. Her new bedroom is near the end of the hallway, but it might as well be on the moon. More than anything, she doesn't want to pass the knot of women smoking cigarettes and laughing over a movie magazine. They are terrifying, and none more so than that blonde woman, wearing a rumpled wine-red shirt and a broad smirk. Just looking at her makes Kate feel so small and shy.
She will never fit in here. How did she ever think it was possible?
Kate arrived at the boarding house a few hours ago. A lifetime of travelling meant that although she was sore all over and filthy from the trip, she still diligently swept out her new room, made up the bed with clean sheets and unpacked her suitcase.
The next chore on her list was buying food. She found herself cheered by the prospect of stretching her legs without being simultaneously weighed down by her suitcase, excited at the thought of strolling freely through a big city like Toronto. Though she was dog-tired from the trip, Kate couldn't resist swiping on some lipstick and edging her feet into her only pair of high heels. It was the first time she had ever actually worn them. She hadn't risked wearing them on her journey, but had packed them in her suitcase, swaddling them reverently in tissue paper. Kate slung her purse over one arm and walked jauntily down two flights of stairs and out the front door. For a moment, she was radiant. Kate looked just like any other young, working woman, far from home and family but supremely unconcerned, walking to the corner store to buy provisions.
Kate managed to be very dignified for two blocks, until the nagging at the back of her brain got the better of her. Did you lock your bedroom door? her mind asked her innocently, mockingly. Is it locked? Are you sure? Did you hear it click?Are you sure?
Two and a half blocks from the rooming house, Kate couldn't stand not knowing any more. She turned back. She ran all the way, her purse swinging wildly from her elbow. Her feet took extra steps inside her new shoes, which are the first heeled pair she's ever worn and half a size too big to boot. It was all she could do, not to trip and skin her knee like a little girl. After a night and a day of travelling, of being too tired to think, she was suddenly gripped with panic.
It got a little easier to walk at a normal pace once she reached the third floor. Kate had to politely sidestep groups of chattering women, had to duck under the laundry lines that zigzag crazily up and down the corridor. Then, to her astonishment, a couple of women wandered down the hall in their bras and slips. They slowed Kate up even more. She had never seen any woman apart from her mother in a state of undress, and couldn't help staring at their smooth, unblemished skin. How could anyone be so bold among strangers?
All of it managed to distract her, to take her mind off that horrible feeling of having forgotten something (and how terrifying it was, to imagine she had forgotten something, when just last week, forgetting herself meant that Father would tell her own brothers to hold her down while he readied his belt). Kate brushed the wood of her bedroom door with her fingertips, willing it to stay firm and prove that it had just been her over-active imagination. Her mouth fell open when it swung blithely ajar, confirming her worst fears. What a spectacle she made of herself, frantically tugging at the door, rattling it in its frame, desperate to get it firmly closed. She was nearly in tears when the woman across the hall heard the commotion and came out to investigate.
"I need this to lock," she explained feebly.
The woman from across the hall stared disbelievingly at her. "What, you think we're all a bunch of crooks here?"
Kate didn't answer, couldn't answer.
"Let me," she said, waving Kate to one side. "You've just gotta pull up the knob." She locked Kate's door as easily as anything, sending her a disdainful look. "Piece of cake."
Kate was so ridiculously relieved that she found herself gushing. "Thank you! I'm a light sleeper. I'm Kate, Kate Andrews. Pleased to-"
The woman disappeared into her room. Didn't respond, didn't so much as look back. It was the first time she'd actually spoken to one of the rooming house women. It had gone about as well as Kate had hoped for, which was not very. Kate had found herself utterly unable to explain why a deadbolt on the front door simply didn't feel like enough. How could she explain, to a complete stranger, why it was so important to have her own door she could personally close? She needed to feel confident that no-one would go snooping through her things ... needed to feel safe, to know that she wouldn't come back from her shopping trip to find someone in her room waiting for her. She needed, so much, to feel confident and safe about something, in this vast and unfamiliar new world.
There is no option of confessing things like that to the women here. She can't draw attention to herself, can't let tears well up in her eyes when her door won't lock. These women move carelessly in and out of each other's rooms, as if the need for a locked door just doesn't make sense to them.
It didn't help matters that the woman from across the hall is so very pretty. Talking to beautiful women has always been a struggle for Kate. It's funny, but she honestly finds them more intimidating than handsome men. Looking at a dashing man feels good, talking to them feels even better, but they rarely have the same effect on her that women do. It's peculiar, that Kate can be so sensible in one way and so silly in another.
It started when she was about twelve, when her father used to have her hand out religious tracts to passers-by on the street. She could talk quite easily to girls her own age or younger, but the second she found herself staring up at a lovely young woman, she would shrink under their gaze and start blushing all the way up to her temples. Every once in a while, a good-looking man would elicit the same reaction, but not often enough for Kate's liking. It had been downright embarrassing, going all the way through her teens unable to ask a pretty woman for the time without reddening and stammering. People expect a young girl to be bashful around boys, but how does one explain a girl's pulse racing at the sight of a tall, elegant woman?
It's worst of all with blonde women. Kate has always thought blonde women were the most beautiful in the world. She supposes it must be to do with her dislike of her own hair, which is red as sin and a perpetual annoyance to her father ("Distracting" is one of the kinder words he uses to describe it). Of course, the woman across the hall is a blonde. What else would she be, when Kate is feeling so awkward, when everything is so new and frightening?
During their short conversation - if it could be called a conversation, Kate looking like an absolute ninny in front of the first person in the rooming house to actually speak to her - the woman across the hall didn't act like any of the women who used to make Kate blush when she was younger. They were always kind, motherly even, nodding encouragingly at her as she bumbled her way through a preprepared spiel on Christ's love. The woman from across the hall has blonde hair, a heart-shaped face and a curving waist, like the vast majority of the women that tend to affect Kate most, but she had such a determined set to her shoulders, too. Such a direct stare, like she was daring Kate to show her something. Kate couldn't get it out of her head, as she ambled to the grocery store under the dying winter sun.
Kate could be someone different now, someone new. Someone who makes an impression upon others the way the woman across the hall did for her. She doesn't have to be Marion any more. She doesn't have to be Marion ever, ever again. She could impress the women in the boarding house … the woman in the room across the hall. She could wear lipstick and rouge every day, dance to raucous jazz music, inhale expertly at a cigarette. She could. What is the point of starting this new life if all she does is cloister herself in her room and glance fitfully over her shoulder? That's not living at all. That's not why Mother helped her on her way.
For all her determination, all the promises she makes to herself, Kate still can't make her feet move. The woman from across the hall must think her a complete idiot. For goodness' sake, she almost cried in front of her. She hasn't cried in front of anyone unrelated to her since she was seventeen. Her father took a swing at her, but for once he was too slow and she managed to duck under his arm and flee. It was far from the worst he'd ever dealt her, but she had been fragile at the time. Seventeen had been a hard year for Kate. It was the first year that her mother was really, truly sick, so sick that she had to stay in bed and Kate had to nurse her. The role reversal had been sudden and jarring. Father shouted and slapped at her, Richard and Walter clamoured for attention, and Mother had been struggling simply to breathe. It had gotten too much to bear. Kate – Marion, then – had flown down the steps of the family trailer and run for her life.
She had cried so hard that she couldn't see a thing, couldn't register the woman crossing the street to check on her until she had actually taken Kate's arm and asked her what the trouble was. Before Kate knew what she was doing, she had blurted, "He hit me." Her rescuer, an older, well-dressed lady with thick chestnut hair and smile lines at the corners of her mouth, sat Kate down on a park bench and offered her a hankie. Kate was so pathetically touched by the gesture that she had the most terrible urge to throw her arms around the woman's neck and kiss her face. The compulsion she felt was so strange that it stopped her crying, and she could only loll against the woman's shoulder, feeling numb and increasingly sick.
It was so confusing, that inexplicable urge she had felt, that she started to get a splitting headache, which only worsened when the woman started talking about taking Kate to a police station. Kate had thought it must be a sign from God that she had brought it on herself, with her inability to keep her family together, her insistence on vexing her father, and her overpowering need for a kind of closeness she was not allowed to have. When the woman got up to hail a taxicab for them, Kate had bolted.
The awfulness of that day stopped up all her tears. She hasn't cried in front of anyone since, not until today. Well. Almost until today. She didn't actually cry, but she was certainly close.
No, she must focus on the good part, or she'll never be able to get through this. The truth is, she didn't cry. She has to remember that, because Kate has no option but to show her face again now.
Passing by her new neighbours' open doors, Kate notices that they seem to have a lot more possessions than she does. She has no knick-knacks, no photos, not even a cheerful rug for her bed. Kate's hand flies to her mother's locket, and she tugs experimentally at the chain, to check it is secure. It doesn't give, but she is not hugely comforted. It could never be secure enough, in this place. She needs her mother so, but from now on, this is the closest she will get. She can never, ever lose her mother's locket.
As the woman from across the hall goes to take a drag on her cigarette, her eyes suddenly meet Kate's. Kate watches the cigarette lingering at the full lips, which are covered with a cursory coat of lipstick, like an afterthought. Kate wants to hold her gaze, to attempt a smile, to stop and make a joke about what happened with her bedroom door, but she simply doesn't have the nerve. She doesn't drop her gaze quickly enough to miss the blonde woman shaking her head ruefully as Kate passes by.
Still, at least she finally discovers the woman's name. A rangy brunette in a skimpy bathrobe juts her chin at Kate's retreating back and asks, "Hey, Betty, who's the new kid?"
"Her name's Kate," says the woman from across the hall. Betty. Lots of people are named Betty, little girls and grandmothers and everyone in between, but on her, it sounds brassy and rakish. It suits her, the way Kate desperately wants to suit her own new name. She heard me when I told her my name, she remembered me, thinks Kate. It cheers her a little. Perhaps Betty doesn't think she's completely crazed.
"Jumpy, ain't she?"
Betty smirks. "If you know what's good for you, you won't jimmy the lock on her door. She's what you'd call tetchy about her privacy."
"Probably entertaining a dozen sailors in there, the saucy little minx," says another one of the women. There is laughter. Kate doesn't look back. She doesn't want to know if Betty is laughing too. Kate slips inside her bedroom, dumps her grocery bags on the bed and, with one deft tug at the knob, locks the door the way Betty showed her.
It takes seconds to put away her groceries: tea leaves, a loaf of bread, plum jam and sugar. It's a few weeks until her first pay check, so Kate's plan is to fill herself up at lunchtime each day at the bomb factory, and keep herself going with bread and jam the rest of the time. Her mother wasn't able to give her much money, after everything she spent on Kate's transit papers and passport.
Kate suddenly feels such a powerful wave of longing for home that it makes her gasp. She wants to be with them, with the people that love her. She wants to chivvy Mother into a chair and give her a cup of strong sweet tea, to laugh and sing together while Mother puts her feet up and Kate cooks supper. She wants to josh Richard about the girl he's sweet on. She wants to sit and help Walter with his spelling and his sums. God help her, she even wants to walk the winter streets with her father, the way they used to when she was small. He would hold her hand then, a little too tightly, perhaps too insistently, but he didn't squeeze it until the bones crunched. Not back when she was a small girl, before she started presenting endless difficulties for her poor long-suffering father. Back then, when she sang in the street, pensioners would slow down to marvel at the beauty of her singing, at this silvery voice coming out of this sweet and serious child. Men didn't look at Kate then, and Kate didn't look back.
Only none of that ever happened, not the way it's happening in her mind's eye. She has to remember. She has to remember the time that Father found her and Mother laughing away as Kate sang Whistle While You Work, prancing around the trailer. Kate had thought it would be all right. After all, it wasn't that sinful jazz music or anything from the hit parade, just a song from an innocent little film for children. But when it came out that she and Mother had gone to the pictures to see it while they were waiting for Mother's shoes to be mended, Father had snatched away the tea Kate made for Mother and thrown the cup at the wall, where it shattered. He hit, and Kate hurt.
She has to remember why she left, or she'll never be able to stick it out and become a new person. Kate has to remind herself that she was never able to tease Richard about any girls. Richard didn't have the opportunity to have many crushes before they got buried under a thick layer of hatred. Like Kate, Richard goes bright red when he sees a beautiful girl, but he'll call her a whore a moment later, under his breath. Every time he did it, Kate wanted to reprimand him, to say sharply, "Richard Rowley, you wash your mouth out! That girl has a mother and father, just like you. How would you like it if some boy said that to me?"
The words could never leave her mouth, because she knew what he would say. Kate knew Richard would flash her an inscrutable sideways look and say meaningfully that any girl with a bad reputation must've done something to deserve it. Her first baby brother, who waved his fat fists at her from his crib as she smoothed his dandelion hair, so blond it was almost white – how could this have happened to him when she loves him so much?
(Perhaps Father thinks the same thing about her. How did it feel, watching his sweet and serious only daughter grow into someone who tempts men by her very presence, who wants so much to be part of the world he has tried to protect her from that her pulse quickens at the sight of a woman with a boisterous laugh and long silk-clad legs?)
Walter will go the same way as Richard, before too long. He used to giggle nervously when Father and Richard said those terrible things, like he didn't know how else to react, but now he just looks elsewhere. Oh, he is so young. His cheek is smooth, his voice is high as a girl's, and after all these years, he still cries like a baby when he's made to watch Kate being whipped. But Kate's second baby brother is taking those ugly words into himself, like breathing noxious fumes. She felt so awful leaving him, when he's not yet thirteen. But at least this way, Kate doesn't have to be there the first time he looks a girl up and down and calls her a whore. It would break her heart.
It makes her almost angry (something like anger anyway, she has never been allowed to be angry in her life), to think about all the years she stayed, taking Father's blows and his cruel words, as if it could somehow shield the boys. As if Richard and Walter could somehow still grow up normal, if only she tried hard enough. But Kate can't feel that way. It would be wicked to resent them, to feel like they failed her by responding to Father's ways and not her own. And anyway, if she's honest with herself, the boys and Mother weren't the only reason she stayed. She is not that noble. She was afraid to be on her own.
Kate is still afraid to be on her own. It seems like a ridiculous thing to think, hundreds of miles from her family and more alone than she's ever been in her life, but it doesn't change the fact that it's true.
Count your blessings, Kate tells herself, desperately. She is here. She is safe. Her door locks and there is food in the cupboard. Tomorrow, she starts her new job, her first real job. Kate knows at least one of her neighbours by name. Betty, the woman across the hall. Betty remembered who she was. Betty even told the others, in a roundabout sort of way, to give Kate the privacy she needs. And if there's one thing that will cure her of being awestruck by pretty women, it's living in an all-female rooming house. Life will improve. If she feels hopeless, it's only because she is tired and overwhelmed.
She decides to go to bed. The sooner Kate falls asleep, the sooner it will be tomorrow, and there will be new challenges to occupy her mind. She knows that she can take a proper bath here, the way she was never able to, travelling on the road with her family, but it frightens her too much. What if the lock on the bathroom doesn't work either, and someone bursts in and sees the ugly welts and bruises, the raised scars Father cut into the skin of her back? She can't risk it. Kate strips to the waist, wets a wash cloth and washes off the day at the little sink in the corner of her bedroom. Trying, as she always has, not to look at her own body, Kate pulls on her winter nightgown, says her prayers at the side of her bed, and switches out the light.
Finding a comfortable position to sleep in takes time, but finally she settles for lying on her stomach. It is the lesser of two evils. One of Kate's ribs gives an uncomfortable twinge if she breathes in too sharply, but her back is still so sore. Someone on the train bumped their valise against her when they took it down from the luggage rack, and Kate nearly screamed. Lying on her back is out of the question.
She remembers talking with other children, long ago, and hearing that they were whipped too, or even given the belt like she was. It comforted her a little, knowing she wasn't the only one. But even then, she had known that the way her father hit her was different to the way other children were hit. Other children got hit less and less as they got older, but Kate only got beaten more and more. She couldn't pretend any more once she got into her twenties. It was impossible, pretending that all women her age were belted by their fathers for looking too long at a man in the street.
Her shoulder will have the opportunity to heal now. Maybe that sharp pain in her ribs will go away for good, and Kate will be able to sleep on her left side again.
Try as she might, she can't fall asleep. Sleeping in this strange room is not like being in the trailer with her family. Kate's used to complete darkness while she sleeps; here, a vivid line of bright yellow light is visible under her bedroom door. She can see it behind her eyelids when she closes them, she can see it hovering in the shadows before her when she turns her face away. It's making her feel sick. Kate feels her throat constricting and her lashes becoming damp. She is too exhausted to admonish herself for crying now. And anyway, she can trust that no-one will come in. Betty showed her how to lock the door.
After more than an hour lying awake and trying not to cry too hard or too loudly, someone switches out the hallway light. The searing light coming from under the door disappears, and Kate has the darkness she needs. She slips her mother's locket from around her neck, winds the chain through her fingers, brings the cool metal to her lips. Kate shuts her eyes, but she keeps finding that they have drifted open and she must close them again. The hours slink by like a hundred years. Sleep will not take her.
Sleep will not come, until it does. Kate closes her eyes in a darkened room, and opens them to find light trickling through the window, too much of it for it to be coming from the streetlight. It is morning. She managed to fall asleep. She survived her first night away from home and family.
"I made it," she says aloud. Almost immediately, the doubts start to pile on top of one another (she didn't do anything, sleeping through the night is hardly an achievement for a grown woman of twenty-four, and as a matter of fact she's never done anything in her life that could be called an achievement), but she pushes them away and repeats, "I made it."
Kate is washed, dressed, fed and on her way to catch her street car within twenty-five minutes. A smattering of women from the rooming house are on Blue Shift, same as Kate, so she manages to lose herself among them. She is infinitely grateful for this, because when she is settled on the street car, Kate notices a flash of gold in the corner of her eye. She turns her head and sees Betty, the woman from across the hall, dressed for work in pants, boots and a collared shirt, offering her seat to an elderly gentleman before absorbing herself in a newspaper.
Kate hopes against hope that Betty will disembark at some other factory, because she can't stop watching her. If they end up on the same shift at Victory Munitions, it could prove very awkward. Betty stubbornly stays on the street car, for stop after stop. She reads her newspaper all the way through before folding it haphazardly and leaving it on the elderly gentleman's vacated seat. She crosses her arms, furrows her brow in thought. Her toes point proudly outward in her black work boots. Not a ladylike pose, but on Betty, it looks good. Kate tries to work out how Betty does it. Knees held tightly together, Kate primly angles her toes outwards, lifts her chin and puts her shoulders back…
Suddenly, Betty shrugs her shoulders deeper into her jacket. She stretches a little, yawning unselfconsciously. Kate's left foot jerks as if someone has tapped the space under her knee. She looks at it in surprise and wiggles it again, trying to recall the feeling, but it has passed. It felt like electricity.
What if it gets worse, this weird hopeless feeling she gets around good-looking women? What if living across the hall from Betty, working with her at the factory, means that her body starts twitching and moving of its own accord? She thought the blushing was enough of a bodily betrayal, but if her limbs won't obey her any more, she may as well quit her job before she's through the front gate. She could end up causing some sort of accident.
Betty is first off the street car when it arrives at the Vic Mu stop. Kate makes sure she is last. As she presents her ID to the guard and is waved through the gate, she eyes the back of Betty's head and waits for her to become distracted so that she can double around. She loses sight of Betty for a minute and suddenly realises just how many workers there are. Kate had barely noticed, she was so embarrassingly fixated on watching Betty.
There she is, with two other women: one older, with dark hair and laughing eyes, and the other pert and pretty and knowing. They walk together, rummaging in purses for crumpled packs of cigarettes, making their way to the smoking station. They don't seem to be talking much, because it's early on a winter morning, but even so, Kate can see they're Betty's particular friends at work. They walk together like friends do. Not that Kate would know. She's never had real friends.
Something wells up inside Kate, making her timid hands curl into fists. It is not anger, not even close, and so she lets herself continue feeling irritation that one person can make her feel so hopeless. Are all her days going to be repetitions of that miserable moment in the hallway, when one look at Betty made Kate's courage leave her? Will she be cowed forever because of a bad first impression? It doesn't have to be that way. She is not that twelve-year-old girl who nearly swooned when a woman leaned close enough for Kate to smell the perfume on her neck, not the seventeen-year-old so completely helpless that she wanted to kiss a perfect stranger full on the mouth. Kate is not Marion any more. She doesn't need to feel inferior.
Because that's what it is. She wouldn't feel this way around beautiful women if she could just stop thinking of herself as inferior. There is nobody around to make her feel inferior if she doesn't want to. Nobody but Kate herself.
She steps away from herself for a moment. For a moment, she is Kate talking to Marion, not an uneasy amalgamation of the two.
Don't try to be brave, she tells Marion. Don't pretend to be brave. Really be brave. You never thought you'd get this far. You'd never have dreamed it. But you're here, hundreds of miles from your family, about to start work. That proves something about you. Now it's time to prove it to everyone else. Be brave. Pick yourself up, make a fresh start, and go talk to Betty.
She steps back into herself. For the first time, she becomes wholly Kate Andrews, a factory girl the same as any other. Kate smiles in welcome at Betty and her two friends, as if locks on doors have never been a problem for her. "I thought that was you on the street car! So, I guess we're on the same shift..."