Writers' Circle
Burning Ambition

Nancy Marcotte writes about a fateful summer of 1959 in Keewatin


The fires started in July 1959. They weren’t forest fires, which we were used in summer; no, these were in town. The hotel had four floors, and the first fire was on the third floor. The room was destroyed; it was a one-day wonder, the grey shingle siding all blackened around the third-storey room, the window smashed. The next morning there was a crowd – if seventeen people make a crowd – between the lake and the hotel, but there was nothing to see so the crowd dispersed.

The next weekend there was a fire in the lumberyard. For a day there was soot in the air, and people started to say arson.

Keewatin is in the northwestern Ontario, in the western part of the Canadian Shield, before it levels off into the prairies of Manitoba. Keewatin made its living in three ways: from the area we had lumber, from Manitoba we had grain and so a flour mill, and from Toronto and Winnipeg and the United States we had the summer cottagers at Lake of the Woods.

My father worked at the flour mill. We had a house in the back street of Keewatin, without a view of the lake or the train or the flour mill, which was across an inlet from the town.

I was almost fifteen in the summer of 1959, too old to go to the town docks for a swim. The town boys still did it, but I was self-conscious in my one-piece bathing suit. The girls from the islands, on Lake of the Woods for the summer from Toronto or Winnipeg or the States, boated in with bikinis – suits that showed their belly-buttons, not nearly as daring as bikinis today – and shrugged on T-shirts and flip-flops and went to the post office. I was coming back from the library, and I followed them. Our family had to ask the girl behind the counter for our mail, but the cottagers had mail boxes. They screamed – or had mock fainting fits – when they got letters from boys back in Toronto or Winnipeg. I knew because I walked discreetly behind them, in my sleeveless blouse, plaid Bermuda shorts, and white canvas sneakers. Because we went to the post office, I had to check my family’s mail.

“But you’ve already checked it, Deirdre,” said the girl behind the counter.

I said in a low voice, “I thought there might be more.”

The bikini-clad girls each had a portable radio with ear-plugs. Of course I couldn’t hear, but I imagined they listened to “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeney Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “The Purple People Eater.” Then I followed them to the drugstore, where they bought more batteries for their radios. In a horizontal Coke cooler they bought – for seven cents – Orange Crush or Grape Crush or Lime Ricky – slid the bottles along the rack and out the exit. They had to drink it right there and return the bottles; otherwise it would cost two cents more. As if they couldn’t afford it! So while they drank their pop, they looked at magazines: Seventeen, movie rags, love comics, True Confessions. The boys read The Detective, seriously, like it was their future profession. Kids who lived in Keewatin had to buy the magazines before they could read them, but girls from the islands could read them without buying because their mothers bought Tan suntan lotion, Off! bug spray, Ponds lotion, Maybelline mascara, Noxema, aspirin, and goodness knows how many prescription medications.

Then the girls went back over the mowed lawn of the park to the public docks and disappeared in their boat back to their island. I thought at the time they hadn’t noticed me following them, but I realized after that they were almost pantomiming for my benefit.

At supper that night, my father had some news for me. “Deirdre, I’ve got a summer job for you.”

“A job? But the summer is half – a quarter – over.”

“I was in the drugstore, and there was a lady cottager from one of the islands – Mrs. Drummond. A grandmotherly sort. I’d seen her at church, so I said, ‘Hello, Mrs. Drummond.’” At this point my father started to be his comic self. “She said, ‘Hello, Mister Uh. I’m so sorry. I’m distracted. You see, my au pair has up and left me. I do my own cooking, of course, but it is nice to have someone to help.’ So I said, ‘I have an au pair that I am not using. I would be happy to loan you my au pair.’”

“What’s an au pair?”

“Slave, Deirdre-my-girl. But you finish the summer with $50.”

“But what do I have to do?”

“Cook her meals, wash her dishes, dust her living room, make her bed, et cetera.” My dad was on a high; I was going to be an au pair whether I liked it or not.

“What about – will there be – kids my age?”

“Mrs. Drummond has grandkids. Maybe you’ll fa-all in-n lo-o-o-ove.”
“Dad!”

But the next day, at nine a.m., I was waiting on the public docks, searching all the boats for grandmotherly Mrs. Drummond. By 9:30 I was ready to go home. I was sitting on the dock, my feet in the water, my bag with clothes and my sneakers on the dock beside me. Across the narrow channel of water was the train station, and beside it was the flour mill. Red Roses was the brand. My dad crossed the bridge most days to work in the flour mill. I wanted to cross the bridge to the train station and take the train to Winnipeg. Maybe I could be an au pair to someone in the city.

I was not paying any attention to the boy in the putt-putt outboard until the boat brushed my legs.

“You going to work on the island?” I looked up at the cutest boy, in navy shorts and a white T-shirt, bare feet, tanned, about sixteen years old. I gawked.

“I’m Rupert Drummond. Didn’t my grandmother hire you to work on the island?” I didn’t respond. “Get in the boat. I’ll take you to the island.” I got in, then reached back for my bag and sneakers. The boat started back toward the island.

“So what’s your name?”

What was my name? “Uh – Deirdre.” I was in love, for the first time. Rupert gave me a lowdown of life on the island. I didn’t reply. I don’t even know if I nodded my head.

Rupert took the boat back to the island. I wanted to help him tie it up on the dock, but I was afraid I would have to touch his hands. Clumsily I got onto the dock, and Rupert handed me my bag and my sneakers.
“Go up to the cottage. They’ll have heard us come in.”

I climbed the bank and passed over the mowed lawn to the white cottage with the green trim. It was far bigger than our house. There were more cottages on the island, but they were out of sight beyond the trees. Mrs. Drummond met me inside the screened door.

“Oh! Uh – Your father …” I answered her unspoken question.

“My mother’s grandmother was a Cree.”

“Uh. That’s why a blue-eyed father has a brown-eyed daughter. Uh.
Glad to have you aboard, Uh.”

“Deirdre,” I said.

“Of course. Well, if you’d like to put your things in the bedroom behind the kitchen, I’ll start on lunch.”

I’m sure Mrs. Drummond was a lady who lunched in the winter in Winnipeg, but in summer on the island on Lake of the Woods, she cooked. I peeled, boiled water, set the table (according to her rules), greased pans, washed dishes. She wore loose-fitting yellow trousers, a navy blouse and navy high-heeled sandals. I learned over the next week that she had a red blouse and red high-heeled sandals, a black blouse and black high-heeled sandals, a white blouse and white high-heeled sandals, a yellow blouse and yellow high-heeled sandals, even a purple blouse and purple high-heeled sandals. She had her white hair done in a French roll, she always had red lipstick on, and her nose didn’t shine. I learned to “sift the flour, Uh” and to “grate the carrots, Uh”, but since we were informally at the cottage, I ate at the same table and glanced at Rupert while we ate.

Rupert had a job for the summer. He was the boat-boy for his grandparents. He drove the boats – a cabin cruiser, two outboards, and a canoe. He also mowed the lawns and weeded the flower beds and chopped wood for the stove and the fireplace. He had the bedroom over the boathouse.

The island had neither telephones nor television. The second day at the cottage, I was dusting the ornaments on the enclosed porch when I saw three girls approaching the cottage. They were wearing bikinis with white T-shirts over and flip-flops. They had seen me so I had to answer the door. They giggled.

“What are you doing here?”

“I work here.”

“Oh.” (Giggle, giggle.) “Is Sparky here?”

“Who?”

“Sparky.” (Giggle.) “Rupert Drummond.”

“I’m here.” Rupert approached behind me with a little grin.

“Wanna swim, Sparky?” asked one of the girls. I dusted the porch and watched Rupert throw the girls, one after the other, into the lake. How could I compete, with my one-piece bathing suit? I could walk to two miles into Kenora on my day off and buy a bikini, but it was almost the end of July. How to justify the bikini to my father?

One of the girls had an air mattress. She paddled out toward the Argyle, the tour boat that had about fifty tourists taking in the sights of Lake of the Woods. While she bobbed in the wake, laughing, the unseen tour guide was saying, “Over in the left, in the white cottage with the green trim, is the summer home of the Drummonds. Dr. Drummond is a prominent Winnipeg doctor.” The girl waved to the tourists aboard the Argyle, and the tourists waved back.

I was dusting the porch because the Drummonds were having a supper for the islanders. No, I didn’t have a dress with me. “Tutt, tutt,” said Mrs. Drummond. Eventually she found a skirt that one of their visitors had forgotten. It was semi-sheer, so I wore it over shorts with a white blouse. I’d learned to sit at the table and eat – casual, you know! – but ready to jump up when Mrs. Drummond was looking for something. There were twelve people at the table, and they were discussing the fires.

“It seems to be businesses, not residences,” said one man.

A woman said, “The forest-fire planes give me chills, dipping out of the sky to pick up water. I just think, what if I were swimming, and it came and picked up me? Or the kids?”

A man – he must have been her husband – said, “That has nothing to do with the fires that are in Keewatin. Forest fires are part of nature. The fires that Keewatin has are man-made. There is an arsonist.”

Dr. Drummond gave a half-laugh. “They’d better not burn down the garage in town. That’s where my new Chrysler New Yorker is parked.” I noticed that Rupert also laughed.

“Oh, it’s probably …”

“Hush!” Mrs. Drummond was implying, not before the help. And for just a moment, they all looked at me.

I sat up straight but looked down at my plate. Deep inside I was simmering.

The next day, at breakfast, Dr. Drummond was listening to the radio news when he stopped, his coffee half way to his mouth. “Listen here! Keewatin is in the news! It says here that the garage burnt last night.”

Mrs. Drummond gasped. “Rupert, is it true?”

Rupert shrugged. “It said so on the news.”

“But – our car!”

Rupert shrugged again. “Insurance, insurance.”

But his grandmother was strangely disturbed. She got up and left the table. Dr. Drummond said, “Well, I guess we’d better go into town. Deirdre, go into the bedroom and ask Mrs. Drummond if she wants to come.”

I went into the bedroom. Mrs. Drummond was looking out the window, the boathouse in her view. “No, no, we need no groceries. I don’t think. No.”

Dr. Drummond and his grandson Rupert went into Keewatin to see the burned-out wreck of their car. I got to work on the breakfast dishes. I was just doing the cast-iron frying pan when there came a knock on the front door. I was going to answer it but Mrs. Drummond, in the bedroom by the front door, was closer. It was my father, come to the island in a borrowed boat.

“Hello, Mrs. Drummond.” My father reached up and pulled his cap off his head.

“Uh – hello, Mister Uh.” She was clearly distracted. “I’m sorry. We have just heard that our car was burned last night.”

“Oh, Ma’am, that was what I came to tell you.” Ma’am? My father never called anybody Ma’am. “I passed by the garage. There were about ten cars. Your New Yorker was on the side near the street, so I had a good view of it.” I was surprised that he knew what kind of car the Drummond’s had. This was the first intimation I had that my father had respect – or was envious – of their money.

“I’m sure that I don’t need you to describe it.”

“Well, Ma’am, it was burned so that you didn’t what colour it was, inside and out. The roof is still on, but there’s only springs left in the seats. There’s the framework of an umbrella in the back window, but the material is all burnt.”

Mrs. Drummond stared, stone-faced. “Thank you, Mister Uh.”

My father realized he had gone too far; he would never be invited to the island for supper, or even to fix their docks. “Well, Ma’am, I’d better get back. The flour mill’s waiting.” He backed out the door, his cap in his hand. I was his daughter, but he ignored me.

After my father was gone, I stopped thinking about the fires and started thinking about my father. He worked long hours in the flour mill, but he would never have a cottage on the island. “Maybe you’ll fa-all in-n lo-o-ove.” Was that why he let me come over to the island? Was he eyeing my future?

Dr. Drummond and Rupert came back in time for lunch. Rupert was strangely animated, talking about the wreck of the car. Not all of the cars, just the Drummond’s New Yorker. Dr. Drummond just shrugged and said, “Insurance.”

Long after I was in bed, in the room behind the kitchen, I still was confused. Finally I got up, put on my shorts and sweater, and in the dark went out the kitchen door. The gravel path was sharp; I should have put on my sneakers. I went to the boathouse, to the bedroom over. I ran up the stairs, not bothering to be quiet. There wasn’t a door at the top, so I went into Rupert’s bedroom, and he wasn’t there. I turned on the light just long enough to see the clock; it was twenty after two. I turned out the light and sat down on a wicker chair and thought.

Suddenly Rupert was there. “Hi, Rupert,” I said, trying to be sultry, the first time I had addressed him directly.

Startled, Rupert turned towards the chair. “I-I just got back – from town.” There was quiet. Then Sparky Rupert Drummond whispered, “I went in the canoe. That’s why you didn’t hear me come in. But guess what? The flour mill’s on fire.”

I stood up and started going down the stairs. Whatever I was planning on, it wasn’t going to happen now.
I knew who did it. So did Dr. and Mrs. Drummond, but they wouldn’t tell. They would use their money to try to cure Rupert, to make everything better.

The three bikini-clad girls also knew, but Sparky was so cute that they wouldn’t tell.

And I knew, but I wouldn’t tell and be forced to admit that I went to Rupert’s room in the middle of the night.
My father’s job in the flour mill was finished. My life in Keewatin was over. I wondered if we would go to Winnipeg.

That was the night I decided to become a police officer, who knew people didn’t even need to have a very good reason for not telling the truth.


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