She sits by the window watching. Bright sunlight shadows her face, but no hint of recognition kindles in her eyes. Once they were brilliant green, and tiny flecks of brown lay scattered across them like bits of wood chipped off an axe. They’ve paled slightly, grown duller over time, as have mine.
Her hair, once waves of rich copper, is now a wispy mass of white balls clinging bravely to her scalp. I try not to judge. It’s not as though mine is much different. But oh, the pride she took in hers!
She wears wine-coloured pants, a faded flowered shirt, and a yellow sweater much too large for her small frame. The staff only does so much, and I can imagine what they must go through trying to dress her in the mornings. Perhaps it’s time for me to go through her clothes again and buy her something new. How odd to remember what a clotheshorse she used to be, fashionably dressed no matter how tight her budget. Now she doesn’t care a whit that her sweater’s too big and doesn’t match her pants.
Other residents sit around the common room, many alone, others in groups of two or three. A half-hearted card game is underway at one of the tables, and a television blares with no one watching.
As I walk through the room, I nod or say hello to the ones I know. She’s been living here for years, and every day I visit. I’m not driving anymore—finally had to give up my car—but it’s only a five-minute taxi ride, and it gives me a reason to go out.
Today I’ve brought a small bag of dried dates. They’re expensive, from California, but she loves them. I saw them at the grocery store and couldn’t resist bringing a treat for her. She won’t acknowledge it or thank me—she can’t even really remember what a date is. Her innocent delight will be my reward.
She is ninety-two, and we’ve known each other over seventy years. For the last ten or so, she hasn’t known who I am. It’s easier this way. It’s all been said long ago anyway, the accusations and recriminations, the anger and the tears. We are both spent from a lifetime of emotion, like lovers at dawn, exhausted, silently retreating to our private corners. I choose instead to remember the laughter and the love, the tender stories shared late into the night.
None of the other residents or staff know her story. When she was first admitted the senior administrator knew, but that position has changed hands countless times since then, and her background is long forgotten now. If anyone cared to look, it’s all in her file, but why would they? All they see now are two old women at the end of their lives. The poor old lady with Alzheimer’s and her faithful friend.
The doctor says she’s stopped eating and they simply can’t coax food into her anymore. “She’s given up,” he says. “If she keeps it up we’ll have to put her on an IV, or eventually she’ll just…” He trails off, assuming the obvious doesn’t need to be said.
“Perhaps she’s had enough,” I say.
“Perhaps,” he answers, but he looks cross and I don’t wish to make his job any harder.
I don’t mention the dates. Even though she doesn’t remember me, I still try to give her some joy. My beautiful ruined Nora.
I suspect even without her being able to remember much, she’s seen her future in the flickering flames. Truth be told, I too have had enough. When the time comes, at least it will finally be over, my sentence served.
Bringing her treats is one of the last things I can do for her. We are joined together as though by an invisible umbilical cord, her blood, her nutrients keeping me alive. Most of all, I just miss my friend.
I pull the chair up next to her, setting my cane over the arm and the grocery bag on my lap. She smiles shyly, looking sideways at me, a hint of the girl passing through the space between us.
“Hello, Nora. It’s me, your Kittie,” I say. “I’ve brought you something.”
The fact is I didn’t think I’d ever get married either.
Father was concerned that I wasn’t attractive enough to find a husband and decided I should have something to fall back on. No one ever asked, but I didn’t care for the idea of marriage anyway. As far as I could see there wasn’t much in it: cajoling egos, laundering shirts—a lot of work with little reward.
Options were scarce for a girl just out of high school during the Depression. Children made me nervous, so teaching was out, and I was too clever a girl to sit all day typing someone’s letters. When Father suggested nursing, it seemed like something for me to do. I liked the science of it. I mentioned medical school, but he dismissed the idea. In his view, university was an admission of failure for women.
One hot July morning I took the bus downtown to register at St. Michael’s, a large teaching hospital in Toronto. Filling out papers at the hospital, I saw the option of living in residence and ticked off the box requesting room and board. To my surprise, my parents were all for it.
“In fact, we were going to tell you soon anyway,” Father said when I got home. “Your mother and I are moving to Wallaceburg when I retire next year. Your brothers will be finishing university, and you’re settled now in training. Time to get out of the city, we think.”
He moved over to the couch where Mother sat, and the two of them smiled, as pleased with themselves as Cheshire cats.
Two months later I was living in a small room on the second floor of St. Mike’s Nursing School, waiting for my life to begin. It was a year before the war started. Father often argued with Gran after the radio broadcasts, convinced that all of Hitler’s bluster would come to nothing.
If I was excited, impatient, and a little nervous about starting this life, my new friend Nora was downright giddy. We met at a cafeteria as we waited in line one lunchtime after class. I knew her as one of the chatty ones in class. She was from a small town west of the city, and I thought it very brave of her to be there. Although she took great care with her appearance, I could tell at once that her clothes were of a cheaper quality. Discount, Mother would say. I imagined she was grateful for the uniform.
There was a sitting room off the main foyer of the nurses’ residence, with an old upright piano, two oak chairs, and a bookcase stacked with romances and mysteries. It was a lovely space that few people used. I often went there to read and be alone. A few days after I met Nora, I heard her playing the piano there.
She threw her whole body into it, hunched over and swaying side to side, as though the music might topple her right off the bench. It was beautiful, sad, and haunting.
“What is the name of that?” I asked when she finished.
“Hungarian Rhapsody No 2,” she answered without looking at me. “Liszt.”
I asked her where she’d learned to play like that.
She turned to face me. “I was sent to a convent to become a nun when I was young. Lucky for me it was also a piano conservatory. Lucky for them too. I don’t think I would’ve made a very good nun.”
She had taken off her shoes and carried them with her now to where I sat on the couch. As she bent to put them back on, her hair parted and I saw soft down tapering at the nape of her neck. It was so fine that I wanted to reach out and touch it.
She told me the convent was a long way from home and her aunt had paid her room and board. “I was afraid Aunt Ann would be disappointed in me for not taking my vows, but she was very excited when she heard me play. I don’t know what I did to deserve it.”
“What happened?” I asked.
She looked up at me. “I found that as long as I had music I would never be alone. I would always know beauty and joy.”
For a moment, it was completely quiet. Then she laughed. “The Sisters were tough on us and lots of girls couldn’t take it, but I loved it. I imagined a life filled with travel and the stage. We held recitals and concerts, and something just blossomed inside me. It sounds funny now, but I could see the life I would have ahead of me. As a concert pianist, I would always be loved.”
Her honesty startled me. She bent down to continue buckling her shoes. Her wrists were slight, her skin as pale as the inside of a seashell. By this time I already knew that I was attracted to women, but I had never acted on my feelings. Sitting beside her, I longed to lay my hand on the flat of her back, to feel the line of her spine, its warmth seeping through the dark wool uniform.
She jumped up from the couch to gather her music from the piano.
“So why aren’t you in New York or Paris becoming famous?” I asked.
“Well, she died, of course. Aunt Ann. A daughter boarding away from home in a private school wasn’t going to last long without her. Mum’s very practical.”
I thought then that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, but I had no idea where that thought would take us.
After our conversation, I made a point of sitting beside her in lab, finding a way to be near her as we moved through our classes. She moved easily among people—so free and honest in her opinion of things. Everyone noticed her. I’ve often wondered what she saw in me. I was flattered to have someone so popular as a friend. I tried hard to live up to it.
Although small in stature and frame, Nora had, as Granny would say, presence. She was well aware that her legs were her finest feature and dressed to show them off. Long and thin, they lent her the illusion of height. People were often surprised when they stood near her to discover that she wasn’t very tall. She wore her coppery-brown hair long and went to great lengths and expense to keep it wavy and thick. She knew she turned heads and wasn’t afraid to use her good looks to her advantage. I was thrilled and shocked by what my mother would have seen as Nora’s vanity, but I was eager too to know as much about her as I could.
We were an odd pair seen about the school—Nora with her slim legs and long wavy hair and me short and plump, in my own eyes an ordinary girl.
Both my parents were tall and lean, and sometimes I saw them look at me in puzzlement. Mother was fine-boned, with honey-blonde hair worn upturned just above her shoulders. In the evenings when they went out, she coiled her hair into a tight chignon with gold pins. She was always impeccably dressed, even at home when Father was working, and never tolerated sloppiness from my brothers or me. It stemmed from her severe British upbringing, Gran said.
I had Father’s ruddy reddish complexion and light blue eyes. He said I took after his grandmother, a sturdy, kind woman known to be the best baker in the county.
By contrast, Nora came from a very large family that struggled to make ends meet. I’m sure she loved them, but always a note of resentment entered her voice when speaking of them.
“I had it easy compared to the others,” she said once. We had arranged to room together in our second year and often sat up and talked late into the night, as she brushed her hair with a light coconut oil.
“Because my brothers had to help in Dad’s store and the older girls had to help with us. Being near the end of the line made it easier. More experienced hands to help with the chores.” Her brush cut again and again through the wall of her hair. “Of course, they didn’t have the hand-me-downs. And the shoes! My God, you can’t imagine how my feet hurt all the time. I don’t know what the boys thought, but my older sisters couldn’t wait to leave home. Babysitting, cleaning, cooking—they were just as much housekeepers as daughters. At least I got out of all that.”
To me, a houseful of sisters and all the goings-on that came with it sounded like something out of a book. There was a richness to her life very different from my own.
Nora had decided on nursing after the disappointment of returning from the convent. Her parents hoped she’d train closer to home, in Kitchener, where her older sister Peggy nursed. “But I had to get away,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get to the city. I wanted to stand at the centre and feel it beat around me—where everything was new and no one knew anything about me. I can be anyone I want to here.
“After the convent, Mum and I came to St. Michael’s. Sister Jean asked a few questions about what I wanted to do, and then she told Mum to take me home. ‘I’m sorry, she’s too young. She can come back when she’s eighteen,’ she said.
“Oh, I cried all the way home. First it was the piano, and now this. It felt as though someone was trying to tell me something. As though I’d never get away.”
She stopped brushing her hair and looked at me. “I’m sorry if I’m complaining too much,” she said. I think she knew then that I would always want her confiding in me.
“Of course not,” I said. “Who could blame you? Seventeen and two potential careers behind you.”
This was exactly what she wanted to hear.
“Mum let me cry for a day or two and then told me to pull up my socks. ‘Stop feeling sorry for yourself and make yourself useful until we go back next year,’ she said.” Nora laughed. “Then she gave me a hug and handed me the ironing.”
During this interval, one of the older sisters—Kay, I think it was—came home unexpectedly. She was working as a teacher out west and rarely visited. Her letters described a fast kind of life, very different from the one her family had pictured for her.
Nora’s house took on a kind of hush as Kay lay in bed, pale and nervous, while their mother fussed around her. Their father, normally ebullient and outspoken, grew quiet and stayed away from the house. Nora and her younger sisters puzzled over this strange hush and their sister’s sudden, quiet return.
“I could hear my parents arguing in the kitchen a few nights after Kay arrived,” Nora said. “They were trying to be quiet so we couldn’t hear them. My mother was crying. And then suddenly Kay was gone again. My parents drove her all the way to Toronto, where she stayed for about a year. When she returned, she was thinner than ever and talked too loud. No one ever said anything. But I knew people were talking about us. Gossips,” she said, frowning.
Years later Kay went back to adopt the daughter she’d had, but she was never able to conquer the shame that had followed her home. The embarrassment of this incident clung to Nora like a smell.
My father came to Canada armed with degrees in Geology and Engineering and an uncanny knack for finding minerals hidden underground. Copper, nickel, and iron ore simply gave themselves up to him. On paper he put his occupation as mining consultant, but I heard him called a magician for his ability to pull money from the earth.
Men unfurled their maps on our dining-room table. They pointed with the ends of their pipes, talking excitedly about seams and veins, aquifers and water springs. Afterwards Father would pack his suitcase and go away to help search the depths for these hidden gems.
Mother retreated to her room until the house grew still. I often sat in the kitchen with our housekeeper, Mrs. Palmer, watching her peel apples and roll out pastry dough. Occasionally Mother came down to check on things and placed her hand on top of my head as if in blessing while she spoke about meals or laundry.
In wintertime, if he was home, Father drove my brothers around the city on Saturday mornings to play hockey. Mother took me to the Granite Club, where I learned to figure-skate. Smiling girls twirled and spun while Mother sat in the lounge, drinking coffee and smiling politely with the other mothers until we could safely retreat home.
Our house had a wide porch and was shaded in summertime by massive oaks and maple trees. My brothers spent their days in the ravine that ran behind our street, tormenting frogs and cooling off in the creek. I read in the cool of the basement, happily lost in my world of Snowbound in Camp, but wondering too about the world my brothers explored in the ravine.
My parents both grew up in Kingston, but they met when they were on a summer holiday in the West. Drawn to nature, they spent that summer hiking the Rockies and camping underneath a blanket of stars in the thin cool air. I like to think of that when I remember them now. It lends them a certain measure of romance.
“It’s an ill wind that blows on pairs,” Granny would snort, recalling my brothers’ birth. “Twins are an omen of bad times to come.” Quickly she would make the sign of the cross and kiss the rosary wrapped around her wrist. Father’s mother was devoutly Catholic and fiercely superstitious. She lived by the old wives’ tales and folklore of her beloved Scotland and never shied from launching one of these handy maxims. “Fortunately,” she’d remind herself, “they cried during the baptism. A sure sign that the devil inside was fleeing. It didn’t change their luck, but it gave them a leg up with God, and for that we can only pray it holds.”
“What about me?” I was about four or five then, and endlessly fascinated with the story of my birth.
“Well, now, I was very worried about your destiny at first,” Gran said. She came for dinner at least twice a week, and we were finishing our tea in the living room. “You were born during a lunar eclipse, a time of conflicting forces of good and evil. It’s said that those born during this chaos experience lives of struggle and confusion. Discord is their faithful companion.” She shook her head. “Luckily you weren’t deformed.”
“For heaven’s sake, Mother, she’s just a little girl,” Father said.
“On the bright side,” she went on, visibly pleased, “it was during the winter solstice, which cancels out the misfortune of the moon’s activity.” Just like that, the dark cloud of bad luck that had marked me was removed.
When I turned thirteen, Gran taught me to read tea leaves. It was a skill handed down from her mother and her mother before her. I was fascinated to start my turn. Gran taught me the art of patience, of never rushing the reading, and of freeing my imagination so that the leaves could tell me what they needed to say. It was ancient and mysterious, and through Gran I came to see significance in seemingly random patterns and shapes. Even now, their stories roil inside me like clouds.
My grandfather had died suddenly of a heart attack, soon after my parents married. Gran kept a trio of pictures of him in her room, and I often sat on her bed, tracing my fingers over his image. Gran could sometimes be coaxed into telling stories from their life together. I saw the sadness in her smile as she folded her hands and pressed the photos to her chest. It later filled me with wonder that I could be the product of so much love.
After our training, Nora and I signed up at the Central Registry, a service that matched nurses with private cases. We went wherever they sent us—to someone’s home or, if we were lucky, to one of the hospitals. No matter how boring or short-lived a case might be, we went. If you turned one down, your name went to the bottom of the list and you waited again. There was no telling how long it might be before they called again.
Nora and I shared an apartment on Linden Street with Irene—we called her Kate—a friend from training. We lived on saltine crackers with butter and sugar on top and waited for the phone to ring. We didn’t have much, but I was excited to be independent, out in the working world.
Gran sometimes pestered me to move in with her, to save some money and eat properly. “Willful waste makes woeful want,” she said, when I asked why she wanted to spoil my perfect living arrangement. “You’re spending hard-earned money on what’s not necessary, with none left over for what is,”
She’d grown lonely since my parents had moved. I visited as often as I could. She’d give me a glass of good whiskey followed by roast chicken and potatoes with gravy, and I’d return to the apartment, guilty from the pleasure of eating.
A different kind of energy throbbed in the city now that the war had started. It had been a year now. I was surprised that my brothers had enlisted in the Navy, but Granny told me they’d been turned down by the Air Force. “By chance a cripple may catch a hare,” she said with a wink. “Your Father is as dumfounded as the rest of this country seems to be. They’re all sitting back watching disaster unfold as though it’ll blow over by Christmas. Fools the lot. Just like Chamberlain.”
As the situation grew worse in Britain, Nora’s sister Peggy joined an army unit and was one of the first sent overseas. Peggy had often come to Toronto on her days off, to take Nora to the movies or out for dinner. She had Nora’s slim legs and full breasts—I guess all the sisters did—but her face wasn’t nearly as pretty.
I couldn’t warm up to her. She always seemed a bit on edge, hardened, as though life had dealt her a bad hand. She certainly didn’t have Nora’s looks or outgoing nature, but still there was always a man or two sniffing around. I thought she was coarse in a cheap kind of way and didn’t trust her. It was hard to believe she was Nora’s sister.
When Nora returned from the station after seeing Peggy off, I could see she’d been crying, but I didn’t try to comfort her. Nora knew I didn’t care for Peggy and always rushed to her defense. I didn’t think she deserved such loyalty, and I thought, if she wanted respect, she shouldn’t go around throwing herself at men. If they hadn’t treated her well, as Nora claimed, maybe she needed to take a closer look in the mirror.
How could we have known then how little Peggy valued Nora’s loyalty?
As the Allied Forces begin to make headway in Europe, thousands of captured merchant marines and navy personnel are sent to Canadian prisoner-of-war camps, where they sit out the war in relative comfort. Escape in the northern bush is a form of suicide.
Set in the last half of World War II, My Beautiful Mistake follows two women who leave Toronto to work as nurses in the Canadian Army and are posted to a large German POW camp in Northern Ontario. Kittie and Nora share a complex friendship that hinges on mutual insecurity. Nora pins her hopes on a romantic relationship with a young Tank Corps soldier overseas, while Kittie’s obsessive love for Nora is complicated further when she attempts to protect her from the risk of exposure in a possible spy ring.
The plot deepens as a web of lies and secrets surround the camp and the nearby town. The discovery of encrypted German codes in secret letters smuggled out of the camp implicates Nora’s brother, and Kittie is left questioning her friend’s involvement. The story traces the turbulent emotional journeys of both women, their colleagues, and those living through the horrors of war overseas.
After Germany’s defeat, the camps are closed and Nora and Kittie are transferred back to Toronto, where they work at a rehabilitation hospital for returning soldiers. Nora is desperate to recapture the love of her returned boyfriend, who is struggling in the aftermath of war, while Kittie works to keep secret the deepening involvement of Nora’s family in the spy ring and to protect Nora from an escalating web of deceit. As their families, lovers, and society adjust to life after the war, Kittie’s obsessions ultimately lead to a fatal conclusion that changes both her life and Nora’s and binds the two women together forever.
When I discovered a true account of a young nurse in wartime Canada, I became fascinated by this lesser-known facet of history. I used her story to explore themes of guilt, betrayal, loss, and deceit. I hope that readers of psychological thrillers will enjoy this novel’s carefully assembled plot, complex characters, and twist ending.
Joni MacFarlane lives in the southern Canadian Rocky Mountains, where she is at work on her second novel. She previously wrote for newspapers and now writes historical fiction. When she’s not writing she’s cooking, and is currently working on her third cookbook. You can find out more about her at www.jonimacfarlane.com.
Embark, Issue 10, October 2019