Royal Holloway Creative Writing Anthology 2012

EMILY, by Mia Franzen

As I walk into the little pub about halfway down Avenue Savoir, I recognize Emily immediately. She is sitting in the back corner nursing a glass of red wine and staring at a picture hanging on the wall a little to the left of the old-fashioned windows of the place. Her hair is still the same thick brown mane. She has the same pensive look as she did when she was a child, though I imagine that as an adult, the same expression contains more significant thoughts than that of a ten year old.

‘Emily,’ I say as I approach her table. She stands up and puts her hand out to shake mine.

‘Mrs. Miller,’ she says politely, and it makes me feel old. I am only fourteen years older than her.

‘Oh please: Josephine. I used to babysit you remember?’

‘That was a very long time ago.’ It was indeed a long time ago. Emily had only just arrived to stay with the Campbells in foster care when Steven, who knew me through our parents, had asked me to babysit every once in a while.

‘Besides, Mrs. Miller, I’m only here as a favor to my dad. He asked me to speak to you.’

Emily has hardened as an adult. I suppose after everything that happened with her family, most people would have. My memories of her are all of a nine-year-old girl, full of innocence, basking in the adoration from her new parents and neighbors. At least she still seems fond of Steven. I hope I can use that to my advantage.

‘Well, Steven and I go way back.’

‘Yes. From what I understand you were the one he should have married.’

I laugh at this blunt approach of Emily’s. Even as a kid on the Campbell farm she was very straightforward. Apparently some things remain the same.

‘Oh, I’m not so sure about the “should”. Our parents certainly wanted us to, but you know how Newbury is.’ I pause to gauge her reaction. She knows only too well what Newbury is like, or more accurately what some people in Newbury are like. My dismissal of the whole rumored rivalry between Evelyn and me seems to relax her a little. The waiter comes by and I ask Emily what she is having and order a bottle of it. The time has barely passed six o’clock but if Emily is anything like either of her adoptive parents a little alcohol will loosen up her vocal chords. At least I hope it will. Once the waiter is out of earshot, Emily asks:

‘So why are you writing this story anyway?’

‘You know that thing in Toronto with the school teacher who sexually abused some students who were minors?’ Emily nods in acknowledgement. ‘Her trial coincides with the tenth anniversary of the whole business with your family, so the Middlesex Herald wanted me to write a story on that. Like an insider scoop since I have some history with your family.’

‘You didn’t know my mother,’ she retorts.

‘No,’ I say, ‘not well. But I know your dad, and I knew some of the kids who used to live with you.’

‘How is that relevant to what my mother did?’

‘Look, Emily,’ I say but I’m interrupted by the waiter returning with the wine and two glasses. I nod at him politely while Emily looks away out the window. The snow is floating by outside in large flakes, illuminated by a cone of yellow emanating from the lamppost that has just been lit. The waiter leaves us again and I look intently at Emily until she returns my gaze. We talk lightly for a while, reminiscing about places we both know in Newbury: the delicious pancakes at the Ward’s Station Diner, my mother’s circle of friends and the glory days of the Campbell Farm and Youth Shelter. As Emily is well into her third glass of wine by the time we touch on the farm, I see my chance to steer the conversation in the direction I need.

‘Look,’ I begin. ‘I’m not out to shame anyone or cause Steven any more pain. I just want to know what actually happened. Just the truth from the people who were there.’

‘Have you talked to Ms. Monroe or your mother?’ she asks. ‘They were there, and I’m sure they would be more than happy to indulge you with every disgusting detail they have heard.’

‘Of course I haven’t. I mean you guys who actually lived on the farm. No rumors or evil tongues.’ I can see that her defense is chipping a little at this.

‘We don’t have to jump straight into it. Why don’t we just start with something different? Like, what do you remember best from the farm?

‘The smell,’ she answers. ‘The whole farm was very pungent. Not in a bad way, it was just that there was so much smell that mingled. When you stood in the yard, you smelled everything at once, and it was so distinct. The stiff smell from the henhouse mixed with the fresh, green smell from my mother’s flowers. We always had the most beautiful flower decorations on the table at mealtimes. And the way I remember it, there was always a smell wafting out from the kitchen. I’m sure there wasn’t something cooking at all times, but I don’t know how it smelled in between. The smell of the farm is always saturated by food in my mind. A lot on the farm was about food; everyone had to help in the kitchen at some point. Obviously that was Jasper’s favorite chore…’ she trails off and leans back in her chair to cross her arms. The gesture does not seem aggressive or defiant, but rather like a hedgehog pulling into itself; sweet and scared, yet ready to prick should it be handled wrong.

‘Could you tell me a little about Jasper? What did you think of him?’

‘Well,’ she says and eyes my notepad. I put it down on the table and hold my pen gently over it, hoping it seems less aggressive.

‘When Jasper arrived, I thought he was odd. He was quiet, too quiet, and too polite to be a runaway. I know it’s stereotypical to think all youth who run away from home are loud or temperamental or badly behaved in some other way, but compared to my other temporary siblings he was conspicuously housebroken. When he spoke his sentences were riddled with words like “please”, “ma’am”, “Sir”, and “thank you” to such a degree that it seemed excessive even for a normal person.’

‘Ok,’ I say and scribble a couple of words on my notepad.

‘Besides, he looked odd,’ she continues. ‘He was striking, but only because he wasn’t quite right. His teeth were slightly too big for his mouth and his mouth was awkwardly flat. I suppose the best description would be to say he had a trout mouth.’ She laughs a little at her own description and I pour her some more wine.
‘He had pale green eyes that were also too large for his face and ginger hair bordering on auburn. When he arrived his skin was scorched into freckles rather than a tan, but as he recovered from his journey the freckles disappeared a little. He looked and acted like he didn’t belong. I remember being thankful that Aiden’s was the only boy’s room with a free bed because it was on the second floor at the opposite end of the house to mine. It meant I could avoid him a little if I wanted to. Patti was all over him though. She had been a boy chaser for as long as I had known her, and Jasper was fresh meat. He was also very much Patti’s type. Patti was very pretty and most of the guys in our school had at least a soft spot for her, but she rejected the easy targets.

‘”If stuff comes too easy, it won’t ever last,” was a mantra she seemed to live by. She explained it to me once when we were sitting on my bed talking about this guy named Franklin who had asked her out. I had a crush on Franklin at that point, so I was fairly jealous. I always tried to hide my less than favorable feelings from Patti though, just because she was Patti.

“And besides, where is the romance in it?” she would say, and I think to a certain extent she had a point. Did you ever hear that love story where boy likes girl, girl says yes and they rode off into the sunset? Patti would exclaim: “No! Because all great love stories have obstacles.”

“You’re an obstacle,” I mumbled on that night. I wasn’t always good at hiding my feelings, though I tried. I don’t know if she didn’t hear or just pretended not to, but the comment went ignored.
“Did you ever think maybe the only thing that stands between Franklin and perfect happiness is your stubbornness?” I asked her.

“No,” Patti replied immediately. “And the greatest love stories never end with happily ever after. The best stories are about people who can’t have each other. Like The Bridges of Madison County.” Patti was obsessed with that book. I remember her crying every time she watched the film, and her copy of the book was so tattered I don’t know how she still had all the pages. It was fairly worn even when she arrived on the farm and only got worse.

“They only have like a week together, and spend the rest of their life pining, and that’s what makes it so good. All great love ends in tragedy, or even better; death,” she said with a smile and motioned with her hands for me to turn around so I had my back to her. I turned and crossed my legs, perched like an adolescent Buddha staring out the window. Patti started running her fingers through my hair and divided sections to braid. We used to do that sort of thing all the time back then.

‘I never know whether to call Patti my sister of sorts or my friend or maybe even just a rival. There was certainly too much competition between us to call us just friends. Though we got along very well, we were constantly battling over the same boys or the best grades in school. We never spoke of it, and always pretended to be happy for the other, but I am sure Patti felt the same way I did. Very little was more satisfying than being better than Patti at something. A grade was never good unless it was en par or better than Patti’s, and kisses never tasted as sweet as those given by boys we both liked. The latter very rarely happened though. Patti definitely had the upper hand when it came to both looks and flirting.

“If you like Franklin so much why don’t you just ask him out? I can’t be that much of an obstacle,” Patti giggled.

“Well, it wouldn’t be a very good love story if you weren’t,” I smiled and she burst out laughing. Patti had one of those laughs that are always more hilarious than the joke itself and I would laugh too.

‘It was the miserable kind of philosophy on love that made Patti interested in Aiden when he arrived with his sister, Gail. He was seemingly uninterested in flirting and girls therefore so unobtainable that Patti had to conquer. Jasper’s aloofness had the same effect on her I think. He kept mostly to himself or sat in silence with Tommy on the ramp of the barn, and it drove Patti insane with wanting. She declared him enigmatic and then put all her efforts into unraveling his mystique. Once, when he had been staying with us for about two weeks, she burst into my room at 1am and declared herself to have the juiciest story I would ever hear.

“Apparently he shot his mother!” she exclaimed. I had been fast asleep at that point and was confounded by what on earth she was talking about, so I groaned “who?” and braced myself. As I expected, Patti turned on my light and jumped on my bed so she nearly landed her knee in my stomach.

“Jasper!” she exclaimed. Then she told me about how Gail had overheard Jasper talking to my dad and heard him talk about shooting his mum.

“What if he killed her?” she said. “She must have done something really horrible for him to kill his own mum.”

“Dad wouldn’t let him stay if he had killed someone,” I said, but Patti argued that he could easily lie about that part. I was stunned.

‘Because of that, though Patti made several attempts at engaging him in conversation, I didn’t speak to him much in the first month he was with us. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to be rude, but like I said, he hung out with Tommy a lot and didn’t really say much to anyone else. The thought of what he had potentially done made me a little scared of him too. Mum and Dad hadn’t yet ventured into getting him to enroll in school again. They rarely tried in the first month of new arrivals. Dad always said the first month was about getting someone comfortable and getting them to stay with us. It was also the time with the highest risk of relatives or guardians claiming them back. If no one did, the important thing was to find out if it was possible for the kid to stay with us, and if it was, making them feel welcome and at home was crucial. If there was nowhere for a runaway to return, the chances were that they would end up on the street if they did not like it on the farm, so that was Mum and Dad’s primary goal; getting them to stay. Pushing someone back into school where they might have had bad experiences in the past was not a good start of a relationship.

‘I was of course in school, and since Jasper was such a recluse and I had no intention of changing that, I pretty much only saw him at dinnertime. Mum made a point of everyone at the farm having dinner together every day. She explained to me that it was the best way to make sure everyone got along ok. When you put a bunch of hungry teenagers around a table and ask them to behave and share, the chaos of it makes tensions between people easy to spot.
‘In retrospect I think she might have been kind of lonely. Of course she had Dad and there was always someone around like a runaway or two, but I don’t remember her ever going to town to meet friends for a coffee or something like that. She wasn’t part of any sewing circle or book club like so many of the other mums from school and her only job was managing the farm with my dad. When she wasn’t tending animals or working in the fields, she spent most her time in the greenhouse out back with her flowers. Maybe she wanted dinner to feel like a proper family affair, surrounding herself with all her “children” no matter how transient they were.

‘Jasper seemed ill at ease in those situations to begin with. He never came to the table without Tommy and never sat next to any of the girls staying. When he arrived we had a fairly big group of teenagers staying with us. There was Aiden and Gail who had been there the longest, Aaron, Paul and Ellen. Little Ellen was only twelve years old, but her so-called mother had never even filed a missing persons report for her. She was the only girl Jasper would sit close to in the beginning.’

‘So you’re saying Jasper really wasn’t much of a ladies’ man?’ I ask. Emily stares into her glass.
‘I guess not,’ she answers. Then, after a pause in which she realized what she had implied: ‘that’s not to say that he wasn’t complicit. He became much more confident. I’m just saying that in the beginning he was very reserved around girls.’

‘Ok,’ I said and waited for her to continue.

‘Anyway, Patti, who was in school same as me, was mortified at her lack of opportunity to get close to Jasper. She was so surprised when she found out he had spoken to me. I was in the greenhouse one evening while Mum was cleaning up after dinner. She hadn’t had time to tidy up after making the flower arrangement for the Sullivan anniversary and I promised I would do it. While I was putting away some copper wire I heard the door of the greenhouse slam and Jasper’s deep, bassoon voice said:

“Emily? Are you here?”

“I’m over here by the workbench,” I said. In my head, a little voice sniggered at how jealous Patti would be. Like I said, there was a rivalry between us and for her prize stag to spend time alone with me, even just to clean the greenhouse, was equivalent to swimming in for the win three seconds ahead of Patti. I’m thankful in a way for our rivalry at that point, because if it hadn’t been for my glee I would probably have been terrified to be alone in the greenhouse after sunset with a guy who might have shot his own mother. As it were I simply kept at an awkward distance.

“Evelyn asked if I could come and help you,” he said as he walked up the aisle closest to me. His hair clashed garishly with the pink carnations he was walking past. When he reached the arranging bench he looked at all the wires and tools with something I thought must be terror.

“Should I just get the broom?” he asked and grabbed it before I had time to reply. We cleaned in silence for a while, him sweeping while I put the utensils away. I remember being very conscious to not turn my back on him, or to at least have him in my line of sight at all times. After what seemed like too much silence, I was no longer comfortable with the pressing quiet of the room.

“Do you like it here?” I asked.

“Evelyn and Steven are very nice,” he replied. “And Tommy is teaching me how to draw.”

“I didn’t know Tommy could draw.”

“Maybe you didn’t ask to see,” he said and turned over into the next aisle. He did have a fair point. Tommy creeped me out, so I had never spent more time with him than needed. With his long, greasy hair and sullen look he reminded me of a school shooter or something. Mum said he was just a harmless, confused kid, and considering how much time he had spent with her in the kitchen and greenhouse before Jasper came along she was probably in a position to judge better than me. I still didn’t particularly like him though.

“He’s very good you know,” Jasper said from across the room. “Tommy. I’m sure you could swap a couple of swimming classes for some drawing tips.” I was surprised he knew I swam competitively, and even more that he apparently knew I was quite good at it too.

“How do you know I swim?” I asked, probably sounding a little suspicious.

“Evelyn told me.” He shrugged and continued sweeping in silence. After even more silence (he really didn’t say much in the beginning) my curiosity got the best of me.

“Did you kill your mother?” I burst out. He looked at me like deer caught in headlights, shock transforming his face.

“What? No!” He said, quicker than the lash of a whip.

“I’m sorry, it’s just Patti said –“ I begun, but he interrupted me. With some very forceful words that I would rather not repeat he just stormed out and I was left to clean up by myself.

‘When I told Patti about it later I left the part about his mother out. She wasn’t nearly as jealous as I hoped she would be though. Instead she just asked if he had said anything about her. Patti was very aware of her good looks, and it gave her the confidence to chase after the boys the way she did. She assumed that even if a boy was not interested he would still have noticed her at least and give comment to her faithful sidekick; me. I told her that the only person we had talked about was Tommy.

“He’s been talking to Mum a lot as well apparently,” I said. “He mentioned her a couple of times.” Patti completely ignored this and went straight back to her own agenda.

“Did you at least mention me to him?” she asked.

“No, I didn’t think of it,” I said. “I was too shocked that he could speak!” This sent us both into hysterics for a while, and though I could tell she was a little annoyed at my poor match making skills – and she probably thought she would have made much better use of an hour alone in the greenhouse with him – she dropped the subject.’

‘So you and Patti were competing over Jasper?’ I ask while Emily takes another sip of her wine. It seems she is using the drink to control herself in what she tells while it simultaneously is what makes her tell it at all. She is regularly sipping at it to steady the pace of what she is saying to me. At the moment I think she is buying time to think about how to answer my question because she is taking a second and a third gulp of it.

‘No,’ she says at last. ‘Maybe later, but not at that time. Not about him in particular anyway, I just liked getting some attention from someone that didn’t pick her first, you know? Compared to her, I was plain. I mean, my hair was thick like now, and could have been pretty, but since my mum cut it for me, it had been the same straight-cut shape since I was six years old. My nose was maybe a little too small and my boobs were small compared to my hips. I really hadn’t filled out yet. People who didn’t know I was adopted used to say I got my mother’s hips and my dad’s chest. Not really much of a compliment, but I wasn’t ugly. I just wasn’t particularly beautiful either.

‘Patti on the other hand had peroxide hair in a cute bob and wore red lipstick like Marilyn Monroe. Even in a t-shirt and jeans she stood out in Newbury, and she twirled and smiled in a way that endeared her even to Ms. Monroe and Mrs. Sullivan who disliked our runaways almost as much as they disliked my mother. They loved me and my dad though, said we were sturdy Newbury people, and therefore put up with the rest of the people on the farm. Besides, Mum was the best florist around, so they had no qualms about commissioning her. I never knew why they were so disapproving of her. When I was little I thought it was because she was very different from everyone else.

‘Though she wore flannel and my dad’s old jeans when she was doing farm work, most of my memories of her since they took me in to foster me are impeccably groomed. When she went to town she wore silk blouses with unorthodox cuts and fashionable trousers. Sometimes she wore waistcoats, sometimes she wore dresses, but they were all remnants of the girl she had been growing up. She had long, slender fingers and though her nails were cut short they were always clean and with a coat of nail polish. When I was little I used to sit in the greenhouse and watch her work for hours, mesmerized by the way her hands moved. Her difference in appearance can’t have been the reason the older women disliked her though because Patti was different but they still liked her.

‘Now I think they liked one but not the other because Patti had an obsessive need to be liked, but my mum never compromised. I was so jealous of all the attention Patti got; never realizing she desperately needed it. Patti would bend over backwards to make everybody adore her. She could change her personality almost like a chameleon, sometimes sides of her scared me, but my mum wouldn’t change for anyone. She was like a really old tree with a thick trunk; smaller branches could be rustles, but she stood firm.’

* * *

As I sit down to write out my notes from my conversation with Emily in the evening I wonder how Patti, this girl who has received little mention from anyone but Emily is connected to the events at Campbell farm. Something Emily said when we were leaving is churning in my memory. She agreed to meet with me again later in the week, and in an attempt to tease something out of our first conversation that I can compact enough to use in my article I asked her why she thought Patti was important. Not in the sense that they had been friends, but why she wanted me to know about her and Patti. To the best of my knowledge, Patti had not had any major impact on Evelyn or Steven. When I spoke to them they mentioned her only in passing as the lively girl Emily had been close to at the time.

‘Patti is important,’ Emily replied, ‘because she was important to me.’ Then she excused herself and hurried out.

The snow drifts past my window in large sleets as I contemplate the importance of peripheral characters and events in the scheme of things. A jet flying over a mountain can unleash an avalanche without ever touching the snow. I wonder if such a connection exists between Patti and the Campbell family. Perhaps the connection is so obscure even Emily does not know exactly why she is making it.

The story is taking me nowhere at the moment. When the Herald asked me to write it, I only accepted because I did not want to give anyone else the chance to put a slanderous spin on it that would hurt Emily or Steven.

I call Ryan to check in for the night so I can focus on my work. Being away from him for as long as I am scheduled to be in Montréal is a rare occurrence and it keeps him constantly in my mind, distracting me, even if it is just a little. He is my peripheral presence when I go anywhere without him. Rather than procrastinating by thinking about calling I pick up the phone. Unprepared for the power his voice has in stirring up my feelings I suddenly find myself crying down the line to him.

‘I don’t think I can do it, Ryan,’ I say snuffling a little. ‘I don’t want to stir things up for them again.’

‘Well, it’s your job,’ Ryan said, trying to soothe me. ‘And you are so close to finishing now. You want the promotion right?’

‘Yes.’

‘And this job is what you need to do to be in a better position for it.’ It wasn’t really a question, but I still answer with a ‘Yes.’

‘You’ve never had qualms about difficult interviews before.’

‘No,’ I say in a thin voice.

‘So why is this any different?’

‘Because I have history with them,’ I say. ‘It’s personal.’

‘Don’t let it be,’ he says, and I know he is right. We talk a little longer about nothing in particular. His work has been mundane as usual and we are both tired, so it is not long before we say goodnight. It is difficult to push the feeling that it is personal away though. Everything happened in my hometown, and though our history is ancient I once loved both Steven and Emily. I had never gotten to know Evelyn closely, but she had always seemed sweet and was very nice to me, despite my history with Steven. Besides, she adored Emily wholeheartedly when I knew them.

Of course other people I had interviewed about other cases had probably also had lives similar to the Campbells. Surrounded in scandal they could have been equally shattered. The families I speak to about traffic safety after they’ve lost a son or daughter in a car accident are no less hurt. Yet it is easy to distance oneself from the emotions when stories are only told in retrospect. Interviewing a stranger after the fact has never been a problem because I only know their present. It is difficult to relive someone’s past when it is not part of your own. When there is no shared past to draw intimate comparisons with, all a journalist is left with is the aftermath, and a fallout is easier to handle when it is all you have known of the person.

Hopeful that some repetition might loosen the joints of the writer within me I walk over to my bag and get out my Dictaphone and a tattered pack of red Kents. Instead of listening to my conversation with Emily, I go back to an older recording and place the recorder on the desk, ready to press play.

I crack the window slightly and light a cigarette. The bitter winter air blows into my room so I drag my chair to the side of the window to avoid the worst of it. The chair is a disgusting pale green colored thing, upholstered in velvet, but it is comfortable enough. It is now perfectly placed within reaching distance of the desk and close enough to the window for me to rest the hand holding the cigarette on the windowsill. The cheap hotel air has made my skin feel clammy, and I twist my hair up with my free hand and fasten it to my head with a big clasp. Then I press the button on the Dictaphone and Evelyn’s voice floats out as I lean my head back to rest it against the wall.

‘I love my parents, and still I find they are to blame. Sometimes I wonder if they have regrets about me. I imagine them seated in the dark wooden chairs at the Italian restaurant on I Street with glasses of red wine, musing over where they went wrong with their daughter. I can see my father resting his elbows on the table while talking, never taking his eyes off my mother. She sits back in her chair, stirring her wine with the slow, steady movement of her glass while she inspect the other diners, affecting a sophistication she does not naturally possess. A few of my mother’s political contacts in campaigns and lobbying stop by to give their regards through the meal, but despite the interruptions the conversation about me does not go on for long. They seem to be in agreement for once. I imagine them reaching the conclusion before the unpronounceable shellfish dish in front of my father has even been touched. It was no fault of theirs that I turned out the way I did. Then they eat their dinner, guilt free.

‘We used to have dinner at that restaurant, Piccolo, whenever there was a “special occasion.” Special occasions were not necessarily important occasions and mostly they were simply euphemisms for ‘we need to talk.’ It was at that same table I now imagine them sitting without me. The first time we went there it was to celebrate that my mother had just started a job for one of the smaller political newspapers on Capitol Hill.’

Evelyn talks about her family and their restaurant for quite some time, but I must have dozed off once I finished my cigarette, because the next thing I am aware of is the recorder’s subtle click as it turns off. Groggy, I rise from the chair and stretch. My neck is stiff from craning in the sitting position and it is painfully clear that I will get very little writing done tonight, if any at all.

I settle for finishing the typing up of notes from my talk with Emily and go to the bathroom to prepare myself for bed. After splashing some water on my face I let out an exasperated moan into the towel. The whole affair is difficult to grasp, not on a human level, but as something newsworthy. There is something to it, but nothing overtly new or dramatic. Though it is a case that is frowned upon and was widely scandalized, no laws were broken, unlike the Toronto case. I give up for the night and crawl into bed. For now I can only hope that Emily’s story will shed enough light for the pieces to come together to a point where I will at least have a story.

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