by Graham Cotter
The Coming of the Minister
Brian was looking down at his sleeping brother. The bed was in total confusion, covers in a ball at one side, and Kevin, wearing only underpants during the warm night, in the fetal position, his head towards the foot of the bed, still clutching his mussed and tear-stained pillow. He looked so pitiful, Brian thought, this big brother who had always been so good to him and so protective. He didn’t now look like the commander of the brave little army which had set out yesterday to harass the enemy, and which had succeeded so well.
The loss of his sisters was coming through to Brian. He had been concerned the night before, but at second hand. He saw the distress around him, but was accustomed to keeping a cool distance, lest excitement aggravate his allergies. But the killing of the little dog up the road had pumped a dangerous hormone into Brian’s body and now he was angry. He was angry the way his brother and father had been, but it was a new and mind-blowing experience. Ever concerned with the little things, little live things, and the thought of those monstrous invaders killing the little dog not only angered him, but clarified his mind: anger and a clear mind do not usually go together, but they did this time.
He saw clearly that there was really nothing his parents could do about the girls, so coming back to the house, he avoided their room. But he was sure that Kevin, somehow, had a key to the girls’ whereabouts. Kevin had been their declared enemy for years, and he was upset now with a special guilt, as though he had done something to make them disappear. Also, Kevin had several times in the last day looked at Brian in a way he did not understand: as if they shared some secret. Only Brian did not know what that secret of a shared experience was. He was pleasantly surprised at his total relief from allergy of the past twenty-four hours, but made no connection between that and Kevin’s strange glances. What connection could there be? Anyway, Kevin was always a stranger, a slave of mood. Brian had always been a slave to his defective body system.
“Kevin! Wake up!” He whispered, shaking him gently. “We have to find the girls! Wake up!”
No one would ever really know why the girls slept so long. Fat Linda lay flat now, and her breathing was hardly noticeable. It was Debbie who stirred and Debbie who saw herself in that strange and changing world. Or was it an old world? These thoughts did not occur to her, for she was not thinking. Her bright, imaginative mind was matched by the bright visions she saw and felt.
For the first time in this experience, she and Linda were now up and moving. The mountain had come into view, larger than ever, and they were pushing their way through the strange trees and grasses which surrounded it. Were they trying to reach it? No, the mountain could wait. But they were as they pushed their way, dancing, even Linda ungainly and brainy as she was, was lightly stepping in some rhythm, in time with Debbie. Debbie still led, and they were going not to, but around, the mountain, tripping along with the gay fantasy which was Debbie’s mark.
High over them, the deep scoring of the mountain still resembled a face with only one feature and only one expression. It seemed to be urging Debbie to move faster, and for the first time she felt fear and urgency. What was it they should dance away to, or from? The face did not say, but whatever it was, they must move quickly. Reassurance flooded back for the little girl, as she took her older sister’s hand and they danced through the undergrowth.
Perhaps it would be a feast which lay around the mountain, for a burning smell was now just making itself known. Something spilled in the oven and burning up in the heat. Debbie tried to focus on food, and her mother’s kitchen, but no image would come.
There was only the mountain, and the tall grasses and funny trees rushing by as they danced and leaped. Sometimes an extra leap would raise them high, and they would float along, skimming over the ground without touching it, able somehow to postpone that moment of touching down: indeed, to fly low by some magic of dancing feet. Light and warmth flooded everything around them.
Thelma woke with a start, sitting up in a bedroom brightly lit by the sun. There was a sound of voices outside, and she narrowly remembered having heard a car in her sleep. It must be late – it was certainly warm. She and Albert were as bare of clothes as was the bed, and yet the chill of the wind that comes just after dawn had not wakened them.
“Quickly, Albert, get some clothes on. There are people outside.”
Albert dashed for his shirt and pants, and was halfway down the stairs, more or less clothed, before he remembered about the girls. So his expression was the more ghastly as he opened the door to his visitors, anxiety and guilt mixing with the shock of awakening. He saw first Skip Martin, his colleague from the County Office, and Skip advanced, holding out his hand, obviously concerned. He had driven up to join the search, and had heard a news flash that the girls’ bodies had been found beside the road in Warkworth.
“Bert, I can’t tell you how concerned I am about you and Thelma. I am just so sorry to hear the news.”
“Thanks, Skip. Yes, we’re very upset.”
At that moment the other man came forward. He was Sam Hagerman, the Provincial Member.
“I was coming up here anyway, to join the Minister, when I heard the news. Please accept my sincerest sympathy.”
“Thank you. But we haven’t given up hope. There may be some news this morning.”
The two men stared at him, unbelieving. He obviously hadn’t heard the news himself. Skip started to say something, then restrained himself. He did not know how to tell a father his two children were dead. Besides, news stories were sometimes wrong.
He was saved from making a decision by the roar of another car, racing around the curve of the drive. It was a battered car of about ten years vintage, and looked like one which was driven by someone sixteen. The engine sounded in top form, however, and the driver was a large blond woman about sixty, her face heavily lined in agreeable contours, heavily sunned and never a sign of makeup. Albert broke from the men and ran to her.
“Hullo Mother! It’s so good that you’re here!”
Mrs. Yuruchuk embraced her son-in-law, knocking him breathless.
“I haf driven all de vay tis mornink.”
Her accent was softer than it can be written, with a rather high pitch for such a large woman. You expected a bass.
“Vere is Telma?”
“Here Mother!” Thelma called from the verandah which she had just reached. “Why don’t you come in and have coffee.”
Skip hastily whispered to Hagerman, “Let’s go down to the village and find out what really happened before we say anything.”
“Yes, good idea. ”
“Mr. and Mrs. Scace, if you’ll excuse us, we’ll go down to Warkworth and see if we can be of any help.”
“I’ll ring you Bert, as soon as I know what’s what.”
The two men got into their cars, and the family group paused briefly to wave to them, then went into the house. The high spirits of their first greeting soon exhausted, as grim facts needed to be faced. Albert wondered about the look on Skip’s face, but supposed that it was the unusual attempt to compose a face which could express sympathy with a person in trouble, rather than curiosity.
The greater part of the Campbellford police detachment had been mounting their drag of the Percy Reach, with the help of volunteers with launches of various kind, when the false report from Constable Butler reached them. They then spent an hour undoing their work, when Constable Malarkey phoned in to say that the girls had not been found in Warkworth, it was all a misunderstanding. So they set out all over again to drag the river.
The village, meanwhile, was in turmoil. The pre-teenage boys, from both the visitors and the villagers, had made peace through friendly hostility while swimming around the dam. But the older boys of the village resented the city teenagers, particularly the boys, who were not content with making remarks about the city girls, but made worse about the village girls who walked modestly by hoping to be part of the action. So there were little knots of jeering youngsters both at the pond side, and above the bridge in the park.
One or two girls who had not heard of Women’s Lib stirred up both sides.
A slim little girl in glasses came down to the water’s edge by the park, and was soon surrounded by small children from both village and city. The onlooking boys thought she was a mere kid, and a seventeen year old he-man from Mississauga yelled out:
“Come on baby; take your clothes off before you go in the water like a good little girl.”
The girl, who was Cynthia Erkelens, twenty-one years old, and just graduated in Physical and Health Education, walked over to the boy parting the children before her gently, slapped his face, and while he put up his hands mockingly to protect himself, threw him over her shoulder.
She walked back and began her swimming class. The boy lay dazed, and had to put up with five minutes of jeering from his friends before they discovered tears were pouring down his face as he fought the pain of a dislocated shoulder.
As one of the boys went off to see about medical help, along came Bondworthy in his big car, his confidence restored by a call to Toronto. His trump was a loud hailer, and he addressed the scattered group of OOO Voyageurs.
“Welcome friends of the Triple O. I hope you have had a good journey up into our beautiful countryside this morning. Now you have seen this lovely village at its springtime freshest, I can tell you what we have in store for you on this lovely holiday. Later on the mummies and daddies will be able to look at some of the lovely land which we hope you soon will own, as you buy back Ontario from… from..” he couldn’t think who from, but “buy back” was a current popular phrase – “it ‘s present owners. But first you will hear from the Minister of Municipal Affairs, who has made a special journey just to address you, future inhabitants of our depopulated countryside.”
Jeers broke out from the few Warkworth people old enough to understand who were gathering at nearby outlets, the gas station and the Liquor Store.
“Unfortunately, friends we are not at the right place ”
“Your telling me you’re not!” shouted the gas station owner.
“And we shall have to move to another part of the town where picnic tables and other preparations have been made available for your entertainment. So I must ask you just to get into your buses again, and you will be driven across town. Please co-operate now, everybody back to the buses!”
His hearers were not satisfied at all. Many had settled down to a nice chat, some were already nipping at their booze unobtrusively. Many, especially the children, did not hear him at all, since they were accustomed to background noises especially on loudspeakers.
But a few obedient souls started to trudge along to the buses, and the drivers wearily strolled over to start up the motors. Remarkably, the motors had not been left running; and what anti-pollution fanatics had not been able to do, the threatened gas shortage and actual increase in the price had finally persuaded drivers of public transportation that a running motor was not necessary.
“Here, you there, young fellow, you get outa here!”
As the driver reached the first bus, a little figure ran out from under the back, and scrambled away into the park behind the privies.
“Cheeky kid,” the driver commented, then turned to check his tires.
The right tire was going flat, hissing steadily. An old ice pick was still in it, where the boy had been interrupted.
“Bastard!” said the driver.
Then looked at the left tire. It was flat.
“Hey! Catch the kid!”
He turned and then noticed that all the way down the line his fellow drivers were discovering all four tires flat, and cursing and waving at each other. Goose had been avenged, and Georgie Ruebottom danced a jig behind the privies, like Pierre Trudeau pirouetting behind the Queen.
“This Council is now in emergency session. Mayor Timothy Scace in the Chair.”
The clerk sat down and Timothy banged the gavel on the desk, as if to say “Amen”.
“Members of the Council, you have been called into special session today to consider emergency measures for the protection of the property and the lives in the township. A situation has been developing over the past year, and has now come to a head.”
“Farm land is being bought up by the Own your Own Ontario Development Corporation, and sold in small economic parcels to folks, who, while they mean no harm, know nothing of the needs of agriculture. Ugly messes have been made of orchards and pleasant meadows. At this moment the lives of two of our young children are in question, as is their whereabouts. Swarms of strangers are invading our village, not unwelcome by us, but undisciplined and without proper facilities. And now we have news that this corporation, which is a subsidiary of the Nautilus group in Toronto, had had the ill manners to invite the Minister of Municipal Affairs to address the strangers, with no reference to this Council nor to the inhabitants of this area, whose ancestors developed the land, and who lie in our cemeteries.”
“What I ask of this Council is a resolution to be presented to the Minister this noon, asking for controls on land use; a by-law of the township putting restrictions on large parties coming unannounced into local facilities. Moreover, I have invited the Secretary of the annual Donnybrook to confer informally with the Council to see whether the visitors may not be accommodated, by bringing on the Donnybrook a little earlier, and so adding to the proceeds of this annual public-spirited money raising event.
We shall, moreover, require that the Minister address this Council in open session, to which the visitors and our own people will be invited. Anything less would be most undignified.”
The members of the Council sat looking at him attentively. There was no doubt he meant business. Even Garth Katting, who had managed to find normal clothes to wear, was afraid to object, knowing the Mayor’s nieces were in danger, might be dead, and that blame might be laid at the door of the Triple O. The business proceeded without a hitch.
Back in the Park, pandemonium had narrowly been avoided. One quarter of the visitors had boarded the buses before the news had spread that they were immobilized by flat tires. The rest had not cared much, but hunger was beginning to assail the children, and adults wondered when they were to get the lunch which had been promised. Cynthia Erkelens had found too many interruptions for her swimming class, and had sent the local children home. (They hadn’t gone, but stayed to gaze.) Spotting Bondworthy flapping about around the buses, his loud hailer dangling at his side, she ran over to him.
“Are you responsible for this mess and all these people?”
“Run along, little girl, don’t bother me.”
“Don’t you dare to speak to me like that! I’m in charge of recreation for this community and you people have messed up our whole Saturday. Now, something has to be done!”
Once again Bondworthy was tongue-tied. This countryside seemed to sprout women with minds of their own, and this one looked like a kid in grade school. But she talked like his Grade Four teacher, whose memory he revered and dreaded.
The mouse had squeaked, and the elephant shied away.
“I’m sorry Miss..er – I didn’t realize. What do you think should be done?”
“Give me that loud hailer please!”
She took it from him.
“Attention everybody! The picnic will be on the other side of the village. To reach it we shall have to walk, since the buses are out of order. Will you please come together in groups of about twenty, and members of the Ontario For Youth recreation project will lead you through the village street. I’ll look after anyone who is left behind. Is that clear?”
Canada is not a military country, though Canadians have a mild and tolerant respect for their armed forces, and some degree of kindly, though suspicious, feeling towards such bodies as the R.C.M.P. — but the true disciplinarians of Canadian life are the Phys. Ed. teachers, men and women. They are usually a little on the small side, and their voices combine the legal authority of the social worker and the harsh vowels of the radio announcers. Behind every Phys.Ed. teacher looms the memory of the sturdy coureurs de bois, the optimism of the camp councillor, the golden clichés of Foster Hewitt, the hockey announcer, and the mystique of Prince Phillip , Duke of Edinburgh, telling us we are all too fat. Cynthia Erkelens’ commands were obeyed as under a spell.
Rebellious boys in swimming emerged dripping; tipplers hastily hid their bottles and staggered forward; teenagers gave up their gossip or their necking and rushed to be in on the march. Thus it was that when the Minister of Municipal Affairs and his cavalcade of deputies, aides and the press, in four cars with pennants, drove in from Highway 30, it was held up at the village main street, down which were marching 200 visitors, most of the village dogs and numerous village children, all singing, though not together,
“A place to live, a place to stand, Ontari-airi-ari-i-o!”
“What a marvelous reception,” he remarked, “These people must really like me!”