Mother wrote a polite note to the address on the calling card. It was a tiny nudge to persuade Charlie to introduce us to his family. Three days later a most strange letter came back. Mother read it and then tossed it into the fire and howled as she ran upstairs, rushing into her bedroom, slamming the door, screaming that she was going to be damned for the sin of vanity. “I will never give up my mourning black again if only God will forgive me my sins!” she wailed.
Maeve ran downstairs clutching her lucky rabbit’s foot and crossing herself.
Mary and I slithered into the parlor and fortunately Mother was, as usual, conserving coal, which was why the house was always so amazingly damp and dank and dark. I took the coal tongs and snagged the letter out of the fire before it had burned very far. Then Mary and I read the letter. I will always remember what it said:
We are returning your calling card. This was a very cruel hoax to play on a grieving family. Charlie died in a horrible accident six months ago as you must surely know. He died in the industrial canal that ran behind his office at Brynes & Rose Importers & Exporters Ltd. How vicious of you to write so gayly of our dear departed brother and most beloved Charlie! What are you after? What is your scheme? Who do you hate us so? How could anyone be so very evil? Yours, Mrs Rose and Family.”
Mary and I stared at the letter for a long time. Then I marched out to the industrial canal as Mary ran after me. I retraced the route we took nearly every day to the park. The lovely park. Except instead of a park Mary and I only found a black wrought iron fence and chained gate. We wedge ourselves through the gate which was loose and stood before a fire gutted shipping building that fronted that end of the industrial canal. Most of the brick was blackened by the fire which had caved in a goodly part of it, collapsing the roof. But we could just read the once golden lettering of Brynes & Rose Importers & Exporters Ltd.
We walked around the charred ruins to the back where the industrial canal was. We stared at the ruins until a policeman came up and hurried us away.
“Children! This is not a safe place to play!”
“What happened?” I asked.
“Some six months ago there was a fire here. It broke out as one of the partners was working overtime. Rose. His office was the top floor. But he found the doors strangely locked. He was trapped. He ran up to the roof as the fire blazed. Why would it not? Byrnes, the senior partner, had dumped kerosene all around and locked the doors. Arson. For the insurance. No one knew if Byrnes knew Rose was working late or if he deliberately murdered his junior partner. Rose was on the roof. The firemen could not stop the fire or reach Rose. So as the fire erupt on the roof Rose gambled and jumped into the Industrial Canal. But the canal was not deep enough and Rose….. well…. Children! Children! It is not safe here! Go home!”
So we did. Mary and I went home. We stepped over pepper which Maeve had scattered to the fury of Mother. Pepper was not cheap. Mother flogged us bloody. I had never seen Mother so furious, so violent. It was almost as if her face was a mask being worn by someone else, someone who was not our mother. That night Willie suffered another dreadful nightmare. He could never remember what he dreamed that scared him so. He never had bad dreams before Father died. Charlie sucked his thumb as if a baby as he cowered under the covers. We all felt as if everything was unraveling. The house closed in on us as if as blight.
The next day the postman rang twice and Maeve delivered a letter to Mother. Mother screamed and ran upstairs howling. I retrieved the letter. It was from Charlie. It was full of love. How he gushed on about finding the family of his dreams! He boasted about his prospering business. He praised us. The dear children. He hinted most discreetly like any proper gentleman how impressed he was with everyone and when the time of mourning was over how eagerly he wished to formally court Mother and marry her and rescue all of us dear children.
The next day I stood by the industrial canal at the appointed hour. Charlie beamed. “But where is everyone else? I thought everyone was coming. Soon to be my own dear family! Ready to wear! Then no one would be lonely again!”
I did not say much as Charlie took me to the park, his park, his cosy park, and we played chess. I still felt perfectly safe with him. There was nothing frightening. And his picnic basket was full of food. Why not? We were both lonely. I needed a father. Charlie was lonely too.
The little ones soon whined, missing Charlie. Can you blame us? So soon we all were visiting the park just as before. Us boys that is. Willie was better. Alex was better. Charlie would not suck his thumb. At least he stopped the habit outside of the house. But Mary, trapped inside that moldy old house, pouted, peevish as a witch. She kept threatening to tell Mother. We would punch her. Why ruin it? What was wrong? We all missed Father and we all needed a father and Charlie was lonely too. What was so very wrong?