As he stood there, he wondered. How does a man return home, to the place where he – toddler-boisterous – stumbled into walking; to the warm, coffee-stained kitchen where his mother fed him smoked whitefish for the first time; to the parking lot where, breathless, he encountered the mysteries of female undergarments – when home is no longer there? How does he know from which piece of land he sprung when all markers, all monuments to the life he felt in his blood, have been erased? The whole town gone, rubbed clean from the earth, leaving only grooves, broken bricks and the heartbreak of a rusted playground.
He had heard that the directive to abandon Hades Landing and relocate all residents to Bluff Point, further south in the Territories, was taken by the mining company. He checked online from his Toronto apartment whilst listening to his mother, weeping on her mobile phone, as she loaded her car and took the MacKenzie Highway south. Ma was right. Lead, once the town’s blue gold, had lost its lustre. Men had scratched the ore from the earth and, in the process, like the metal itself, were sculpted into new, spine-bent forms. But the biting white air that tarnished the miners into old age, and set his mother’s teeth chattering, had now calcified the empty mine as the company pulled the plug. “Come and see,” she’d said, roaring south in her little Civic. “But if you leave it too long, there won’t be anything left. Lance, they’re going to demolish everything.”
And they have, he thought, standing warily in the middle of what was once the main drag into town. Skittish from the eight hour lay-over in Edmonton, Lance felt like a naked mannequin waiting to be clothed. This town – no, this stain of a town – felt bodily familiar yet scalp-achingly alien. The shops were gone. The houses had been dismantled. The mining company had even removed the traffic signals and flattened the sidewalks. When their hot desire for malleable ore had waned, they had erased the town that cocooned their workers. What was now left was a shadow, a community ghosted onto the landscape.
The cold dry earth crunched beneath his boots. Debris was piled high on either side of a road no longer there. Frankie’s Diner was now a mash of broken timber and creased metal. Marlene’s, the hairdressers his mother frequented before his father left – obliterated. Uncle Jack’s Comic Shack, which had gleefully swallowed up the majority of his teenage allowance, had also disappeared into a billow of shredded paper and buckled signs. The punctuation of his childhood narrative was gone.
Blowing her nose in his apartment, Ma had warned him what it would be like. She liked to take her time clearing her nose and, even during this news, carefully inspected the contents of her tissue. He hadn’t minded this once, and listened instead. But being here, feeling the destruction for himself – he felt a shiver in his marrow, in that hardened core he had trained to withstand the crunching isolation of winters on the Great Slave Lake. Nothing Ma had said could have prepared him for this moment of seeing and the slow, pendulous swing of the stone hammock in his stomach.
Lance glanced back to his rented car, seeing reassuring modernity and life in its metallic gleam. He had driven way too fast to get here, urging the car along the empty roads. On the team he was known as a bit of a car nut, constantly changing his wheels. Back here, as a teenager, he had once been busted by Sergeant Pooley, soon after getting his licence, for ignoring a stop sign. The old-timer was long gone – retired or relocated – but the smart of his chastisement was undimmed. Strange, what one remembers at these times. Houses, shops, bastions of industry and commerce could be rendered from the earth but utterances, shouts of indignity or love-phrases whispered in the dark, pulsed with memory-life in the frigid Arctic air.
“Had to see for yourself did you?” A voice, high and clear in the morning light sang out behind him. Lance whirled quickly, his bandaged knee wincing in protest.
It was a woman, petite and, from what he could see under her hood, dark-haired. She pulled a scarf away from her mouth and smiled.
“Our hero of the ice returns.”
Now he could place her. Jenny. Tim’s younger sister. She was about three years younger than them. Sassy, quick witted. She used to be on the basketball team and sometimes Lance would pass her at the sports centre, long hair tied back into a high pony-tail, dampness at her throat. After he left for Toronto, distance brought realisation – funny how a desire to tug hair and cram snow into the face masked a deeper aching.
He walked hurriedly towards her, a small, ridiculous voice whispering in his ear that she might be in his memory too, like the shadow stores around him, and might therefore be…not real.
He touched her arm. “Jenny. It’s good to see you.”
Blue eyes scanned his face rapidly. “Hey Lance. Saw on the TV that you’d been injured. Hope you’ll be back for the Stanley Cup. But at least you’ve had the chance to come and see – this.”
White spirals spilled from her mouth as she spoke, dissipating languorously in the frigid air. Jenny swished her hand among them, gesturing to the rubble. Lance nodded, keeping his eyes on her face.
“Were you moved out too?” he asked.
“No. I’d had to go down to Bluff Point when I got married. But my folks were relocated. You remember Tim’s house, right? They’d lived there for thirty years and had to pack up and leave. Damn near crippled them.” She kicked at a stone.
“Ma too.” The cold shatter of the moment made Lance long for connection, for a shared experience, so he agreed. But his mother hadn’t been exactly…crippled – no, more bewildered by the whole event. It was as though the impact was yet to hit her. The company had given the workers and residents a year’s notice, and no one had taken them seriously. Time crept on until, rushing like a hungry bear, it ate up their appeals, their pleas, their threats. And then they had to leave.
“So why are you here?” he asked, though it was a question Lance already knew the answer to.
Jenny’s brow creased. “To see for myself, just like you.”
“And now we have,” said Lance, his voice desperate.
“Now we have.” White pointed teeth, but Jenny was smiling. “Fifteen weeks ago it was all still here, just empty. Empty houses and shops. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
She moved constantly as she spoke, scuffing the earth with her boots or marching softly up and down. From somewhere came a memory-bubble of Hades cheerleaders dancing exuberantly at the derby with Bluff Point; for one season, Jenny had been on the team. Yet she’d always been a little off beat, a bit out of step. She looked good in the uniform, though.
“So who did you marry?”
“What?” She looked up. “Oh, Benny MacIntyre. I know -” holding up a hand – “Benny and Jenny. Sounds like an icecream, doesn’t it? He used to chant it when we were – you know.”
She glanced over at Lance – and laughter burst from them both. Lance bent double at this absurd truth springing from nowhere. He remembered something else – Jenny had a mouth she couldn’t keep shut. She had a terrible (or satisfying) knack of saying exactly the right thing to embarrass Tim. He had once thrown her down the steps to school after she said – too loudly – that he had the hots for some girl.
“I found it romantic at first,” she was insisting as Lance bellowed, “but then it got a bit… creepy. I stayed on in Bluff after we divorced.” She looked at him curiously.
Lance stopped laughing and smiled wanly. “It isn’t all what you’re thinking. Don’t believe everything you read.”
Jenny blushed. “I wasn’t – I mean – ”
Lance shrugged. “A few girlfriends, but no one special. Not to settle down with. No kids.”
“Me neither. I wasn’t ready to let them be the centre of things, if you know what I mean. Benny wanted them, but not me.”
A small silence came between them, not exactly uncomfortable. They both turned to stare at the carnage around them. A recent dusting of snow had smoothed some of the edges of the mounds away, rounding the heaps of broken timber into benign, peaks of whipped cream. But it was cold enough to freeze the debris into tough, metamorphic lumps, the street-signs and twisted metal becoming streaks of quartz. And for all that hardening, Lance knew a mechanical arm of a mining company digger would tear the frozen piles of waste apart. They would come tomorrow and clear the last of Hades Landing away. Nothing is permanent, Lance told himself.
A tern, out of place but gamely flicking its grey wings in the cold, bobbed amongst the litter, red bill burrowing deep for food. He watched, intrigued and then heartened as it reappeared with some morsel before flying away.
“Attaboy,” Lance said softly.
“Well, I’m getting too cold,” Jenny said finally, stamping her feet. “I’ve parked my car just at the corner of Riley Street. Where it used to be. Want some coffee?”
It was odd how, now the buildings had been demolished, Lance was completely unsure of his way. Flannagan’s Bar, where he and Tim spent their high school vacations washing glasses and sneaking beer, had been on Riley Street. But Flannagan’s was now a faded photo in the memory. Limping on a swollen knee, Lance was bewildered as to where to go. He circled slowly, passing a troubled hand through his hair, and watched Jenny.
She smiled back at him, sensing his unease as they walked slowly back up what was once the high street. A jeep was parked a short distance away and she offered her shoulder as Lance struggled up into the passenger seat.
They shared lukewarm coffee, taking turns to sip from a plastic cup. Jenny fiddled with the radio for a while, automatically tuning into what had been the local station – only now, crackling white noise emanated from the speakers. Jenny tutted and turned it off.
She lit a cigarette and wound the window down a little. “Are you driving down to Bluff Point later?”
Lance drained the last of the coffee. “No. Back to Yellowknife. I’m catching the eight-ten to Edmonton.”
Jenny whistled quietly. “Short visit, then.”
“I have physio tomorrow, and the coach thinks I can start to train at the end of the week.”
“Oh. Well, that’s good.”
Lance was reminded of his mother blowing her nose. “What about you? Do you work in Bluff?”
Jenny blew smoke through the small gap. “Yeah. Admin, bits and pieces.” Glancing sideways, Lance could see her gnawing her lip.
“Do you remember Benny?” she asked suddenly.
Lance nodded slowly. “A bit.”
“He was ok. Earnest. He meant well though. He was in your year, wasn’t he? He followed you when you were picked in the draft. I think he liked you.”
Lance shrugged uneasily.
“We went to Baffin Island on honeymoon,” Jenny continued. “On a polar bear excursion of all things. I know,” she exclaimed as Lance snorted. “I wanted to go to Disneyland or something, but Benny was really keen.”
“Did you see any?”
“What? Bears? No!” and Jenny gave a shout of laughter. “Plenty of inukshuk though.”
“Inukshuk? You mean the stone men?”
“Yes, the figures the Inuits build in the middle of nowhere.”
“Ah,” and again, remembrance took shape in the gloom. A rare trapping holiday with his father. Dad – already old – seemed to grey into deeper antiquity when they came across the inukshuk. Smoothed by Arctic winds, the stone man rose over seven feet, and stood solemn and steady against the tundra. They had seen it from miles away. When they eventually reached it, the old soldier had placed a calloused hand on the rock. A moment or two passed before he removed it, and even then he seemed to do it regretfully. Ridiculously Lance had been jealous – in over six years, since that day in the wood shed, his father never touched him, not even to hug.
“Maybe we should build one here,” he said softly.
“We all need a marker, don’t we?”
“What about a marker for the people who lived here?” Jenny asked, in that quick, needle-like way of hers. “I mean, not everyone was ready to leave. Not like you.”
Lance shrugged cautiously and thought again of his mother, shuffling from room to room in his Toronto apartment. She had taken to folding his towels in a particular, precise manner, smoothing and re-smoothing them for several minutes at a time. It was as though she held a blueprint in her mind, and the creases of the cloth had to match exactly.
Jenny said turned slightly in her seat to face him. “You left as soon as you graduated from High School, didn’t you? You couldn’t wait to get out of here.”
Lance reared a little, wary as to where this was going. “That was different. I had a sports scholarship.”
“Sure, sure,” and Jenny sounded impatient. “But you never came back, did you? You moved on. I bet that’s what the company did – moved on somewhere else. But they didn’t think about those left behind. I bet your mom missed you, especially after your dad left.”
“Take it easy,” and Lance rubbed his knee nervously.
“Sorry.” Jenny drew on her cigarette and gazed out of the windscreen.
Outside the temperature dropped and the sky darkened. Lance thought grimly of his cold car some distance away. He was beginning to wish he was back in Toronto, gliding effortlessly around a rink, his blades carving sense in the icy patterns and swirls.
And then Jenny tossed her cigarette outside and grabbed his hand.
“What are you doing?”
She hushed him and he watched, open mouthed as she opened her coat, unzipped her sweater, and pulled open her shirt, revealing a white bra.
“Your fingers are freezing, but that’s okay,” she said softly and placed his hand inside her bra.
Shock warmed him in turgid waves and Lance tried to withdraw. He couldn’t feel a breast.
Jenny released him and sat back, lips pursed. “Cancer, last year. I had a masectomy. I still have the right one.” She snorted. “Your face.”
“Well what do you expect?” and Lance’s shock was replaced with anger. “What did you do that for?”
Jenny stared at him. “Just a reminder. For me, really. Still here, aren’t I? Different, missing something but – oh, never mind.”
She started up the engine. “I’ll drop you back at your car.”
It only took a few seconds to swing the jeep away from the flattened sidewalk and pull up alongside Lance’s hired car. Jenny kept the engine running as she turned slightly in her seat. She held out her hand, a tight smile on her lips.
Lance shook her hand carefully. He was flooded by bewilderment and felt the need to say something – something poignant that Jenny could take away, back to Bluff Point. But he had nothing. “Jenny…”
“You take care, Lance,” she said abruptly. Her smile was fixed. “It’s been good to see you. I hope you make the Stanley Cup, I really do.”
And with that she motioned him out, leaning across him to open the door. Lance was out and she was gone.
Lance stood next to his car, the keys jangling reassuringly in his pocket. He ached to be away from this place. The mounds of debris seemed to be closing in and, for a brief moment, panic threatened to descend. His hands shook as he opened the car door and started the engine. He thought of his mother, folding towels in his apartment. And then of Jenny, a white dot in the distance. Lance gripped the steering wheel, the memory of her missing breast carried in fingers of his right hand.
Rebecca Burns is an award-winning writer of short stories, over thirty of which have been published online or in print. Her story collections – Catching the Barramundi (2012) and The Settling Earth (2014 – were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Short Story Award. She was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011, winner of the Fowey Festival of Words and Music Short Story Competition in 2013 (and runner-up in 2014), winner of the Black Pear Press Short Story Competition in 2014 and, in 2016, was been listed for competitions including the Evesham Festival of Words and Music, the Chipping Norton Festival, the Sunderland Short Story Award, and the Green Lady Press Short Story Award. She has also been profiled as part of the University of Leicester’s “Grassroutes Project”, a project that showcases the 50 best transcultural writers in the county. Her debut novel, The Bishop’s Girl, was published by Odyssey Books in September 2016.
© 2011, Rebecca Burns